Excerpt: 'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyff Hall
From Two Women Embracing, Egon Schiele, 1915
From Chapter 56:
Valérie stared at Stephen in amazement: “But…it’s such an extraordinary thing you’re asking! Are you sure you’re right to take such a step? For myself I care nothing; why should I care: If you want to pretend that you’re my lover, well, my dear, to be quite frank, I wish it were true–I feel certain you’d make a most charming lover. All the same,” and now her voice sounded anxious, “this is not a thing to be done lightly, Stephen. Aren’t you being absurdly self-sacrificing? You can give the girl a very great deal.”
Stephen shook her head: “I can’t give her protection or happiness, and yet she won’t leave me. There’s only one way…”
Then Valérie Seymour, who had always shunned tragedy like the plague, flared out in something very like temper: “Protection! Protection! I’m sick of the word. Let her do without it; aren’t you enough for her? Good heavens, you’re worth twenty Mary Llewellyns! Stephen, think it over before you decide–it seems mad to me. For God’s sake keep the girl, and get what happiness you can out of life.”
“No, I can’t do that,” said Stephen dully.
Valérie got up: “Being what you are, I suppose you can’t–you were made for a martyr! Very well, I agree”; she finished abruptly, “though of all the curious situations that I’ve ever been in, this one beats the lot!”
That night Stephen wrote to Martin Hallam.
Two days later as she crossed the street to her house, Stephen saw Martin in the shadow of the archway. He stepped out and they faced each other on the pavement. He had kept his word; it was just ten o’clock.
He said: “I’ve come. Why did you send for me, Stephen?”
She answered heavily: “Because of Mary.”
And something in her face made him catch his breath, so that the questions died on his lips: “I’ll do whatever you want,” he murmured.
“It’s so simple,” she told him, “it’s all perfectly simple. I want you to wait just under this arch just here where you can’t be seen from the house. I want you to wait until Mary needs you, as I think she will…it may not be long…Can I count on your being here if she needs you?”
He nodded: “Yes–yes!”
He was utterly bewildered, scared too by the curious look in her eyes; but he allowed her to pass him and enter the courtyard.
She let herself into the house with her latchkey. The place seemed full of articulate silence that leapt out shouting from every corner–a jibing, grimacing, vindictive silence. She brushed it aside with a sweep of her hand, as though it were some sort of physical presence.
But who was it who brushed that silence aside? Not Stephen Gordon…oh, no, surely not…Stephen Gordon was dead; she had died last night: ‘A l’heure de notre mort…’ Many people had spoken those prophetic words quite a short time ago–perhaps they had been thinking of Stephen Gordon.
Yet now someone was slowly climbing the stairs, then pausing upon the landing to listen, then opening the door of Mary’s bedroom, then standing quite still and staring at Mary. It was someone whom David knew and loved well; he sprang forward with a sharp little bark of welcome. But Mary shrank back as though she had been struck–Mary pale and red-eyed from sleeplessness–or was it because of excessive weeping?
When she spoke her voice sounded unfamiliar: “Where were you last night?”
“With Valérie Seymour. I thought you’d know somehow…It’s better to be frank…we both hate lies…”
Came that queer voice again: “Good God–and I’ve tried so hard not to believe it! Tell me you’re lying to me now; say it, Stephen!”
Stephen–then she wasn’t dead after all; or was she? But now Mary was clinging–clinging.
“Stephen, I can’t believe this thing–Valérie! Is that why you always repulse me…why you never want to conic near me these days? Stephen, answer me; are you her lover? Say something, for Christ’s sake! Don’t stand there dumb…”
A mist dosing down, a thick black mist. Someone pushing the girl away, without speaking. Mary’s queer voice coming out of the gloom, muffled by the folds of that thick black mist, only a word here and there getting through: “All my life I’ve given…you’ve killed…I loved you…Cruel, oh, cruel! You’re unspeakably cruel…” Then the sound of rough and pitiful sobbing.
No, assuredly this was not Stephen Gordon who stood there unmoved by such pitiful sobbing. But what was the figure doing in the mist? It was moving about, distractedly, wildly. All the while it sobbed as it was moving about: “I’m going…”
Going? But where could it go Somewhere out of the mist, somewhere into the light? Who was it that had said…wait, what were the words? “To give light to them that sit in darkness…”
No one was moving about any more–there was only a dog, a dog called David. Something had to be done. Go into the bedroom, Stephen Gordon’s bedroom that faced on the courtyard…just a few short steps and then the window. A girl hatless, with the sun falling full on her hair… she was almost running… she stumbled a little. But now there were two people down in the courtyard–a man had his hands on the girl’s bowed shoulders. He questioned her, yes, that was it, he questioned; and the girl was telling him why she was there, why she had fled from that thick, awful darkness. He was looking at the house, incredulous, amazed; hesitating as though he were coming in; but the girl went on and the man turned to follow… They were side by side, he was gripping her arm… They were gone; they had passed out under the archway.
Then all in a moment the stillness was shattered: “Mary, come back! Come back to me, Mary!”
David crouched and trembled. He had crawled to the bed, and he lay there watching with his eyes of amber; trembling because such an anguish as this struck across him like the lash of a whip, and what could he do, the poor beast, in his dumbness?
She turned and saw him, but only for a moment, for now the room seemed to be thronging with people. Who were they, these strangers with the miserable eyes? And yet, were they all strangers? Surely that was Wanda? And someone with a neat little hole in her side–Jamie clasping Barbara by the hand; Barbara with the white flowers of death on her bosom. Oh, but they were many, these unbidden guests, and they called very softly at first and then louder. They were calling her by name, saying: “Stephen, Stephen!” The quick, the dead, and the yet unborn–all calling her, softly at first and then louder. Aye, and those lost and terrible brothers from Alec’s, they were here, and they also were calling: “Stephen, Stephen, speak with your God and ask Him why He has left us forsaken!” She could see their marred and reproachful faces with the haunted, melancholy eyes of the invert–eyes that had looked too long on a world that lacked all pity and all understanding: “Stephen, Stephen, speak with your God and ask Him why He has left us forsaken!” And these terrible ones started pointing at her with their shaking, white-skinned, effeminate fingers: “You and your kind have stolen our birthright; you have taken our strength and have given us your weakness!”
They were pointing at her with white shaking fingers. Rockets of pain, burning rockets of pain–their pain, her pain, all welded together into one great consuming agony. Rockets of pain that shot up and burst, dropping scorching tears of fire on the spirit–her pain, their pain…all the misery at Alec’s. And the press and the clamour of those countless others–they fought, they trampled, they were getting her under. In their madness to become articulate through her, they were tearing her to pieces, getting her under. They were everywhere now, cutting off her retreat; neither bolts nor bars would avail to save her. The walls fell down and crumbled before them; at the cry of their suffering the walls fell and crumbled: “We are coming, Stephen–we are still coming on, and our name is legion–you dare not disown us!” She raised her arms, trying to ward them off, but they closed in and in: “You dare not disown us!”
They possessed her. Her barren womb became fruitful–it ached with its fearful and sterile burden. It ached with the fierce yet helpless children who would clamour in vain for their right to salvation. They would turn first to God, and then to the world, and then to her. They would cry out accusing: “We have asked for bread; will you give us a stone? Answer us: will you give us a stone? You, God, in Whom we, the outcast, believe; you, world, into which we are pitilessly born; you, Stephen, who have drained our cup to the dregs–we have asked for bread; will you give us a stone?”
And now there was only one voice, one demand; her own voice into which those millions had entered. A voice like the awful, deep rolling of thunder; a demand like the gathering together of great waters. A terrifying voice that made her ears throb, that made her brain throb, that shook her very entrails, until she must stagger and all but fall beneath this appalling burden of sound that strangled her in its will to be uttered.
“God,” she gasped, “we believe; we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”
Excerpted from The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyff Hall, first published 1928.
About the Author:
Radclyffe Hall (12 August 1880 – 7 October 1943) was an English poet and author.