Stephen’s book, which made its appearance that May, met with a very sensational success in England and in the United States, an even more marked success than The Furrow. Its sales were unexpectedly large considering its outstanding literary merit; the critics of two countries were loud in their praises, and old photographs of Stephen could be seen in the papers, together with very flattering captions. In a word, she woke up in Paris one morning to find herself, for the moment, quite famous.
Valérie, Brockett, indeed all her friends were whole-hearted in their congratulations; and David’s tail kept up a great wagging. He knew well that something pleasant had happened: the whole atmosphere of the house was enough to inform a sagacious person like David. Even Mary’s little bright-coloured birds seemed to take a firmer hold on existence; while out in the garden there was much ado on the part of the proudly parental pigeons — fledglings with huge heads and bleary eyes had arrived to contribute to the general celebration. Adèle went singing about her work, for Jean had recently been promised promotion, which meant that his savings, perhaps in a year, might have grown large enough for them to marry.
Pierre bragged to his friend, the neighbouring baker, anent Stephen’s great eminence as a writer, and even Pauline cheered up a little.
When Mary impressively ordered the meals, ordered this or that delicacy for Stephen, Pauline would actually say with a smile: ‘Mail oui, un grand genie doit nourrir le cerveau!’
Mademoiselle Duphot gained a passing importance in the eyes of her pupils through having taught Stephen. She would nod her head and remark very wisely: ‘I always declare she become a great author.’ Then because she was truthful she would hastily add: ‘I mean that I knowed she was someone unusual.’
Buisson admitted that perhaps, after all, it was well that Stephen had stuck to her writing. The book had been bought for translation into French, a fact which had deeply impressed Monsieur Buisson.
From Puddle came a long and triumphant letter: ‘What did I tell you? I knew you’d do it! . . .
Anna also wrote at some length to her daughter. And wonder of wonders, from Violet Peacock there arrived an embarrassingly gushing epistle. She would look Stephen up when next she was in Paris; she was longing, so she said, to renew their old friendship — after all, they two had been children together.
Gazing at Mary with very bright eyes, Stephen’s thoughts must rush forward into the future. Puddle had been right, it was work that counted — clever, hard-headed, understanding old Puddle!
Then putting an arm round Mary’s shoulder: ‘Nothing shall ever hurt you,’ she would promise, feeling wonderfully self-sufficient and strong, wonderfully capable of protecting.
That summer they drove into Italy with David sitting up proudly beside Burton. David barked at the peasants and challenged the dogs and generally assumed a grand air of importance. They decided to spend two months on Lake Como, and went to the Hotel Florence at Bellagio. The hotel gardens ran down to the lake — it was all very sunny and soothing and peaceful. Their days were passed in making excursions, their evenings in drifting about on the water in a little boat with a gaily striped awning, which latter seemed a strange form of pleasure to David. Many of the guests at the Florence were English, and not a few scraped an acquaintance with Stephen, since nothing appears to succeed like success in a world that is principally made up of failure. The sight of her book left about in the lounge, or being devoured by some engrossed reader, would make Stephen feel almost childishly happy; she would point the phenomenon out to Mary.
‘Look,’ she would whisper, ‘that man’s reading my book!’ For the child is never far to seek in the author.
Some of their acquaintances were country folk and she found that she was in sympathy with them. Their quiet and painstaking outlook on life, their love of the soil, their care for their homes, their traditions were after all a part of herself, bequeathed to her by the founders of Morton. It gave her a very deep sense of pleasure to see Mary accepted and made to feel welcome by these grey-haired women and gentlemanly men; very seemly and fitting it appeared to Stephen.
And now, since to each of us come moments of respite when the mind refuses to face its problems, she resolutely thrust aside her misgivings, those misgivings that whispered: ‘Supposing they knew — do you think they’d be so friendly to Mary?’
Of all those who sought them out that summer, the most cordial were Lady Massey and her daughter. Lady Massey was a delicate elderly woman who, in spite of poor health and encroaching years, was untiring in her search for amusement — it amused her to make friends with celebrated people. She was restless, self-indulgent and not over sincere, a creature of whims and ephemeral fancies; yet for Stephen and Mary she appeared to evince a liking which was more than just on the surface. She would ask them up to her sitting-room, would want them to sit with her in the garden, and would sometimes insist upon communal meals, inviting them to dine at her table. Agnes, the daughter, a jolly, red-haired girl, had taken an immediate fancy to Mary, and their friendship ripened with celerity, as is often the way during idle summers. As for Lady Massey she petted Mary, and mothered her as though she were a child, and soon she was mothering Stephen also.
She would say: ‘I seem to have found two new children,’ and Stephen, who was in the mood to feel touched, grew quite attached to this ageing woman. Agnes was engaged to a Colonel Fitzmaurice who would probably join them that autumn in Paris. If he did so they must all forgather at once, she insisted — he greatly admired Stephen’s book and had written that he was longing to meet her. But Lady Massey went further than this in her enthusiastic proffers of friendship — Stephen and Mary must stay with her in Cheshire; she was going to give a house party at Branscombe Court for Christmas; they must certainly come to her for Christmas.
Mary, who seemed elated at the prospect, was for ever discussing this visit with Stephen: ‘What sort of clothes shall I need, do you think? Agnes says it’s going to be quite a big party. I suppose I’ll want a few new evening dresses?’ And one day she inquired: ‘Stephen, when you were younger, did you ever go to Ascot or Goodwood?’
Ascot and Goodwood, just names to Stephen; names that she had despised in her youth, yet which now seemed not devoid of importance since they stood for something beyond themselves — something that ought to belong to Mary. She would pick up a copy of The Taller or The Sketch, which Lady Massey received from England, and turning the pages would stare at the pictures of securely established, self-satisfied people — Miss this or that sitting on a shooting-stick, and beside her the man she would shortly marry; Lady so-and-so with her latest offspring; or perhaps some group at a country house. And quite suddenly Stephen would feel less assured because in her heart she must envy these people. Must envy these commonplace men and women with their rather ridiculous shooting-sticks; their smiling fiances; their husbands; their wives; their estates, and their well-cared-for, placid children.
Mary would sometimes look over her shoulder with a new and perhaps rather wistful interest. Then Stephen would close the paper abruptly: ‘Let’s go for a row on the lake,’ she might say, ‘it’s no good wasting this glorious evening.’
But then she would remember the invitation to spend Christmas with Lady Massey in Cheshire, and would suddenly start to build castles in the air; supposing that she herself bought a small place near Branscombe Court — near these kind new friends who seemed to have grown so fond of Mary? Mary would also have her thoughts, would be thinking of girls like Agnes Massey for whom life was tranquil, easy and secure; girls to whom the world must seem blessedly friendly. And then, with a little stab of pain, she would suddenly remember her own exile from Morton. After such thoughts as these she must hold Stephen’s hand, must always sit very close to Stephen.
That autumn they saw a good deal of the Masseys, who had taken their usual suite at the Ritz, and who often asked Mary and Stephen to luncheon. Lady Massey, Agnes and Colonel Fitzmaurice, a pleasant enough man, came and dined several times at the quiet old house in the Rue Jacob, and those evenings were always exceedingly friendly, Stephen talking of books with Colonel Fitzmaurice, while Lady Massey enlarged upon Branscombe and her plans for the coming Christmas party. Sometimes Stephen and Mary sent flowers to the Ritz, hot-house plants or a large box of special roses — Lady Massey liked to have her rooms full of flowers sent by friends, it increased her sense of importance. By return would come loving letters of thanks; she would write: ‘I do thank my two very dear children.’
In November she and Agnes returned to England, but the friendship was kept up by correspondence, for Lady Massey was prolific with her pen, indeed she was never more happy than when writing. And now Mary bought the new evening dresses, and she dragged Stephen off to choose some new ties. As the visit to Branscombe Court drew near it was seldom out of their thoughts for a moment — to Stephen it appeared like the first fruits of toil; to Mary like the gateway into an existence that must be very safe and reassuring.
Stephen never knew what enemy had prepared the blow that was struck by Lady Massey. Perhaps it had been Colonel Fitzmaurice who might all the time have been hiding his suspicions; he must certainly have known a good deal about Stephen — he had friends who lived in the vicinity of Morton. Perhaps it had merely been unkind gossip connected with Brockett or Valérie Seymour, with the people whom Mary and Stephen knew, although, as it happened, Lady Massey had not met them. But after all, it mattered so little; what did it matter how the thing had come about? By comparison with the insult itself, its origin seemed very unimportant.
It was in December that the letter arrived, just a week before they were leaving for England. A long, rambling, pitifully tactless letter, full of awkward and deeply wounding excuses:
‘If I hadn’t grown so fond of you both,’ wrote Lady Massey, ‘this would be much less painful — as it is the whole thing has made me quite ill, but I must consider my position in the county. You see, the county looks to me for a lead — above all I must consider my daughter. The rumours that have reached me about you and Mary — certain things that I don’t want to enter into — have simply forced me to break off our friendship and to say that I must ask you not to come here for Christmas. Of course a woman of my position with all eyes upon her has to be extra careful. It’s too terribly upsetting and sad for me; if I hadn’t been so fond of you both — but you know how attached I had grown to Mary . . . ’ and so it went on; a kind of wail full of self-importance combined with self-pity.
As Stephen read she went white to the lips, and Mary sprang up. What’s that letter you’re reading?’
‘It’s from Lady Massey. It’s about . . . it’s about . . . ’ Her voice failed.
Show it to me,’ persisted Mary.
Stephen shook her head: No — I’d rather not.’
Then Mary asked: ‘Is it about our visit?’
Stephen nodded: ‘We’re not going to spend Christmas at Branscombe. Darling, it’s all right — don’t look like that . . .
‘But I want to know why we’re not going to Branscombe.’ And Mary reached out and snatched the letter.
She read it through to the very last word, then she sat down abruptly and burst out crying. She cried with the long, doleful sobs of a child whom someone has struck without rhyme or reason: Oh . . . and I thought they were fond of us . . . ’ she sobbed, ‘I thought that perhaps . . . they understood, Stephen.’
Then it seemed to Stephen that all the pain that had so far been thrust upon her by existence, was as nothing to the unendurable pain which she must now bear to hear that sobbing, to see Mary thus wounded and utterly crushed, thus shamed and humbled for the sake of her love, thus bereft of all dignity and protection.
She felt strangely helpless: ‘Don’t — don’t,’ she implored; while tears of pity blurred her own eyes and went trickling slowly down her scarred face. She had lost for the moment all sense of proportion, of perspective, seeing in a vain, tactless woman a kind of gigantic destroying angel; a kind of scourge laid upon her and Mary. Surely never before had Lady Massey loomed so large as she did in that hour to Stephen.
Mary’s sobs gradually died away. She lay back in her chair, a small, desolate figure, catching her breath from time to time, until Stephen went to her and found her hand which she stroked with cold and trembling fingers — but she could not find words of consolation.
That night Stephen took the girl roughly in her arms.
‘I love you — I love you so much . . . ’ she stammered; and she kissed Mary many times on the mouth, but cruelly so that her kisses were pain — the pain in her heart leapt out through her lips: ‘God! It’s too terrible to love like this — it’s hell — there are times when I can’t endure it!’
She was in the grip of strong nervous excitation; nothing seemed able any more to appease her. She seemed to be striving to obliterate, not only herself, but the whole hostile world through some strange and agonized merging with Mary. It was terrible indeed, very like unto death, and it left them both completely exhausted.
The world had achieved its first real victory.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55