The tragic deaths of Barbara and Jamie cast a gloom over everyone who had known them, but especially over Mary and Stephen. Again and again Stephen blamed herself for having left Jamie on that fatal evening; if she had only insisted upon staying, the tragedy might never have happened, she might somehow have been able to impart to the girl the courage and strength to go on living. But great as the shock undoubtedly was to Stephen, to Mary it was even greater, for together with her very natural grief, was a new and quite unexpected emotion, the emotion of fear. She was suddenly afraid, and now this fear looked out of her eyes and crept into her voice when she spoke of Jamie.
‘To end in that way, to have killed herself; Stephen, it’s so awful that such things can happen — they were like you and me.’ And then she would go over every sorrowful detail of Barbara’s last illness, every detail of their finding of Jamie’s body.
‘Did it hurt, do you think, when she shot herself? When you shot that wounded horse at the front, he twitched such a lot, I shall never forget it — and Jamie was all alone that night, there was no one there to help in her pain. It’s all so ghastly; supposing it hurt her!’
Useless for Stephen to quote the doctor who had said that death had been instantaneous; Mary was obsessed by the horror of the thing, and not only its physical horror either, but by the mental and spiritual suffering that must have strengthened the will to destruction.
Such despair,’ she would say, ‘such utter despair . . . and that was the end of all their loving. I can’t bear it!’ And then she would hide her face against Stephen’s strong and protective shoulder.
Oh, yes, there was now little room for doubt, the whole business was preying badly on Mary.
Sometimes strange, amorous moods would seize her, in which she must kiss Stephen rather wildly: ‘Don’t let go of me, darling — never let go. I’m afraid; I think it’s because of what’s happened.’
Her kisses would awaken a swift response, and so in these days that were shadowed by death, they dung very desperately to life with the passion they had felt when first they were lovers, as though only by constantly feeding the flame could they hope to ward off some unseen disaster.
At this time of shock, anxiety and strain, Stephen turned to Valérie Seymour as many another had done before her. This woman’s great calm in the midst of storm was not only soothing but helpful to Stephen, so that now she often went to the flat on the Quai Voltaire; often went there alone, since Mary would seldom accompany her — for some reason she resented Valérie Seymour. But in spite of this resentment Stephen must go, for now an insistent urge was upon her, the urge to unburden her weary mind of the many problems surrounding inversion. Like most inverts she found a passing relief in discussing the intolerable situation; in dissecting it ruthlessly bit by bit, even though she arrived at no solution; but since Jamie’s death it did not seem wise to dwell too much on this subject with Mary. On the other hand, Valérie was now quite free, having suddenly tired of Jeanne Maurel, and moreover she was always ready to listen. Thus it was that between them a real friendship sprang up — a friendship founded on mutual respect, if not always on mututal understanding.
Stephen would again and again go over those last heart-rending days with Barbara and Jamie, railing against the outrageous injustice that had led to their tragic and miserable ending. She would clench her hands in a kind of fury. How long was this persecution to continue? How long would God sit still and endure this insult offered to His creation? How long tolerate the preposterous statement that inversion was not a part of nature? For since it existed what else could it be? All things that existed were a part of nature!
But with equal bitterness she would speak of the wasted lives of such creatures as Wanda, who, beaten down into the depths of the world, gave the world the very excuse it was seeking for pointing at them an accusing finger. Pretty bad examples they were, many of them, and yet — but for an unforeseen accident of birth, Wanda might even now have been a great painter.
And then she would discuss very different people whom she had been led to believe existed; hard-working, honourable men and women, but a few of them possessed of fine brains, yet lacking the courage to admit their inversion. Honourable, it seemed, in all things save this that the world had forced on them — this dishonourable lie whereby alone they could hope to find peace, could hope to stake out a claim on existence. And always these people must carry that lie like a poisonous asp pressed against their bosoms; must unworthily hide and deny their love, which might well be the finest thing about them.
And what of the women who had worked in the war — those quiet, gaunt women she had seen about London? England had called them and they had come; for once, unabashed, they had faced the daylight. And now because they were not prepared to slink back and hide in their holes and corners, the very public whom they had served was the first to turn round and spit upon them; to cry: ‘Away with this canker in our midst, this nest of unrighteousness and corruption!’ That was the gratitude they had received for the work they had done out of love for England!
And what of that curious craving for religion which so often went hand in hand with inversion? Many such people were deeply religious, and this surely was one of their bitterest problems. They believed, and believing they craved a blessing on what to some of them seemed very sacred — a faithful and deeply devoted union. But the Church’s blessing was not for them. Faithful they might be, leading orderly lives, harming no one, and yet the Church turned away; her blessings were strictly reserved for the normal.
Then Stephen would come to the thing of all others that to her was the most agonizing question. Youth, what of youth? Where could it turn for its natural and harmless recreations? There was Dickie West and many more like her, vigorous, courageous and kind-hearted youngsters; yet shut away from so many of the pleasures that belonged by right to every young creature — and more pitiful still was the lot of a girl who, herself being normal, gave her love to an invert. The young had a right to their innocent pleasures, a right to social companionship; had a right, indeed, to resent isolation. But here, as in all the great cities of the world, they were isolated until they went under; until, in their ignorance and resentment, they turned to the only communal life that a world bent upon their destruction had left them; turned to the worst elements of their kind, to those who haunted the bars of Paris. Their lovers were helpless, for what could they do? Empty-handed they were, having nothing to offer. And even the tolerant normal were helpless — those who went to Valérie’s parties, for instance. If they had sons and daughters, they left them at home; and considering all things, who could blame them While as for themselves, they were far too old — only tolerant, no doubt because they were ageing. They could not provide the frivolities for which youth had a perfectly natural craving.
In spite of herself, Stephen’s voice would tremble, and Valérie would know that she was thinking of Mary.
Valérie would genuinely want to be helpful, but would find very little to say that was consoling. It was hard on the young, she had thought so herself, but some came through all right, though a few might go under. Nature was trying to do her bit; inverts were being born in increasing numbers, and after a while their numbers would tell, even with the fools who still ignored Nature. They must just bide their time — recognition was coming. But meanwhile they should all cultivate more pride, should learn to be proud of their isolation. She found little excuse for poor fools like Pat, and even less for drunkards like Wanda.
As for those who were ashamed to declare themselves, lying low for the sake of a peaceful existence, she utterly despised such of them as had brains; they were traitors to themselves and their fellows, she insisted. For the sooner the world came to realize that fine brains very frequently went with inversion, the sooner it would have to withdraw its ban, and the sooner would cease this persecution. Persecution was always a hideous thing, breeding hideous thoughts — and such thoughts were dangerous.
As for the women who had worked in the war, they had set an example to the next generation, and that in itself should be a reward. She had heard that in England many such women had taken to breeding dogs in the country. Well, why not? Dogs were very nice people to breed. ‘Plus je commis les hommes, plus j’aime les chiens.’ There were worse things than breeding dogs in the country.
It was quite true that inverts were often religious, but churchgoing in them was a form of weakness; they must be a religion unto themselves if they felt that they really needed religion. As for blessings, they profited the churches no doubt, apart from which they were just superstition. But then of course she herself was a pagan, acknowledging only the god of beauty; and since the whole world was so ugly these days, she was only too thankful to let it ignore her. Perhaps that was lazy — she was rather lazy. She had never achieved all she might have with her writing. But humanity was divided into two separate classes, those who did things and those who looked on at their doings. Stephen was one of the kind that did things — under different conditions of environment and birth she might very well have become a reformer.
They would argue for hours, these two curious friends whose points of view were so widely divergent, and although they seldom if ever agreed, they managed to remain both courteous and friendly.
Valérie seemed wellnigh inhuman at times, completely detached from all personal interest. But one day she remarked to Stephen abruptly: ‘I really know very little about you, but this I do know — you’re a bird of passage, you don’t belong to the life here in Paris.’ Then as Stephen was silent, she went on more gravely: ‘You’re rather a terrible combination; you’ve the nerves of the abnormal with all that they stand for — you’re appallingly over-sensitive, Stephen — well, and then we get le revers de la médaille; you’ve all the respectable county instincts of the man who cultivates children and acres — any gaps in your fences would always disturb you; one side of your mind is so aggressively tidy. I can’t see your future, but I feel you’ll succeed; though I must say, of all the improbable people . . . But supposing you could bring the two sides of your nature into some sort of friendly amalgamation and compel them to serve you and through you your work — well then I really don’t see what’s to stop you. The question is can you ever bring them together?’ She smiled. ‘If you climb to the highest peak, Valérie Seymour won’t be there to see you. It’s a charming friendship that we two have found, but it’s passing, like so many charming things; however, my dear, let’s enjoy it while it lasts, and . . . remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Stephen said: ‘When we first met I almost disliked you. I thought your interest was purely scientific or purely morbid. I said so to Puddle — you remember Puddle, I think you once met her. I want to apologize to you now; to tell you how grateful I am for your kindness. You’re so patient when I come here and talk for hours, and it’s such a relief: you’ll never know the relief it is to have someone to talk to.’ She hesitated. You see it’s not fair to make Mary listen to all my worries — she’s still pretty young, and the road’s damned hard . . . then there’s been that horrible business of Jamie.’
‘Come as often as you feel like it,’ Valérie told her; ‘and if ever you should want my help or advice, here I am. But do try to remember this: even the world’s not so black as it’s painted.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55