The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Book two

Chapter ten

The summer in which Joan’s fifteenth birthday occurred was particularly anxious and depressing because of Colonel Ogden’s health.

One morning in July he had woken up with a headache and a cough; bronchitis followed, and the strain on his already flagging heart made the doctor uneasy. Undoubtedly Colonel Ogden was very ill. Joan, working hard for her Junior Local, was put to it to know what to do; whether to throw up the examination for the sake of helping her mother or to continue to cram for the sake of not disappointing Elizabeth. In the end the doctor solved this difficulty by sending in an experienced nurse.

Just about this time a deep depression settled on Joan, a kind of heavy melancholy. She wondered what the origin of this might be; she was too honest to pretend to herself that it was caused by anxiety about her father. She wanted to grieve over him. She thought: ‘Poor thing, he can’t breathe; he’s lying in a kind of lump of pillows upstairs in bed; his face looks dreadfully ugly and he can’t help it.’ But the picture that she drew left her cold. Then a hundred little repulsive details of the illness crowded in on her imagination; when she was with her father she would watch for them with apprehension. She forced herself to show him an exaggerated tenderness, which he, poor man, did not want; it was Milly he was always asking for — but Milly was frightened of illness.

Mrs. Ogden, who was sharing the duties of the nurse, looked worn out, an added anxiety to Joan. They would meet at meals, kiss silently and part again, Mrs. Ogden to relieve the nurse, Joan to go back to her books. She thought: ‘How can I sit here grinding away while she does all the beastly things upstairs? But I can’t go up and help her, I simply can’t!’ And one day, almost imperceptibly, a new misery reared its head; she began to analyse her feelings for her mother.

She tried to be logical; she argued that because she wanted to work for an exam there was no reason to suppose that she loved her mother less; she thought that she looked the thing squarely in the eyes, turned it round and surveyed it from all sides and then dismissed it. But a few moments later the thought would come again, this time a little more insistent, requiring a somewhat longer effort of reasoning to argue it away.

2

One evening during this period, Joan heard her own Doubt voiced by her mother. They had been sitting side by side on the little veranda at the back of the house; the night was warm and from a neighbouring garden something was smelling sweet. Neither of them had spoken for a long time; Mrs. Ogden was the first to break the silence. Quite suddenly she turned her face to Joan; the movement was almost lover-like.

‘Joan, do you love me, dearest?’ It had come. This was the thing Joan had been dreading for weeks, perhaps it was all her life that she had been dreading it. She felt that time had ceased to exist, there were no clear demarcations; past, present and future were all one, welded together in the furnace of her horrible doubt. Did she love her mother, did she — did she? Her mother was waiting; she had always been waiting just like this, and she always would wait, a little breathlessly, a little afraid. She stared out desperately into the darkness — the answer; it must be found quickly, but where — how?

‘Joan, do you love me, dearest?’ The answer must be somewhere, only it was not in her tired brain — it was somewhere else, then. In her mother’s brain? Was that why her mother was a little breathless, a little afraid? She pressed her cold cheek against Mrs. Ogden’s, rubbing it gently up and down, then suddenly she folded her in her arms, kissing her lips, seeking desperately to awaken her dulled emotions to the response that she knew was so painfully desired.

When at last they released each other, they sat for a long time hand in hand. To Joan there was an actual physical distaste for the handclasp, yet she dared not, could not let go. She was conscious in a vague way that her mother’s hand felt different. Mechanically she began to finger it, slipping a ring up and down; the ring came off unexpectedly, it was loose, for the hand had grown thinner. Her mind seized on this with avidity; here was the motive she needed for love: her mother’s hand, small and white, was thinner than it had been before, it was now terribly thin. There was pathos in this, there was something in this to make her feel sorry; she stooped and fondled the hand. But did she love her? No, assuredly not, for this was not love, this was a stupendous and exhausting effort of the will. When you loved you just loved, and all the rest followed as a matter of course — and yet, if she did not love her, why did she trouble to exert this effort of will at all, why did she feel so strongly the necessity for protecting her mother from the hurt of discovery? Deception; was it ever justifiable to deceive, was it justifiable now? And yet, even if she were sure that she did not love her, could she find the courage to push her away? To say: ‘I don’t love you, I don’t want to touch you, I dislike the feel of you — I dislike above all else the feel of you!’ How terrible to say such a thing to any living creature, and how more than terrible to say it to her mother! The hydra had grown another head; what would her mother do if she knew that Joan loved her less?

Away out in the darkness a bell chimed ten o’clock; Mrs. Ogden got up wearily. ‘I must see to nurse’s supper.’ Inside Joan’s brain a voice said: ‘Go and help her, she’s tired; go and get the supper yourself.’ But another and more insistent voice arose to drown it: ‘Do I love her, do I, do I?’ Mrs. Ogden went into the house, but Joan remained sitting on the veranda.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:02