The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Eleven

THE weeks dragged on; Colonel Ogden might recover, but his illness would of necessity be a long one, for his heart, already weak, was now disposed to stop beating on the least provocation. Joan worked with furious energy. Elizabeth, confident of her pupil, protested that this cramming was unnecessary, but Joan, stubborn as always, took her own line. She felt that work was her only refuge, the only drug that, temporarily at all events, brought relief.

It was now the veriest torture to her to be in her mother’s presence, to be forced to see the tired body going on its daily rounds, to hear the repeated appeals for sympathy, to see the reproach in the watchful eyes.

But if the days were unendurable, how much worse were the nights, the nights when she would wake with a sudden start in a cold sweat of terror. Why was she terrified? She was terrified because she feared that she did not love her mother, and one night she knew that she was terrified because, if she could not love her mother, she might grow to love someone else instead — Elizabeth for instance. The hydra grew another head that night.

Elizabeth, the ever watchful, became alarmed at her condition. Joan, haggard and pale, distressed her; she could not get at the bottom of the thing, for now Joan seemed to avoid her. Yet she felt instinctively that this avoidance did not ring true; there was something very like dumb appeal in the girl’s eyes as they followed her about. What was it she wanted? There was something unnatural about Joan these days — when she talked now, she always seemed to have a motive for what she said, she seemed to hope for something from Elizabeth, from Milly even; to hang on their words. Elizabeth got the impression that she was for ever skirting some subject of which she never came to the point. She felt that something was being demanded of her, she did not know what.

There were good days sometimes, when Joan would get up in the morning feeling restored after a peaceful night. Her troubles would seem vague like a ship on a far horizon. Then the reaction would be exaggerated. Elizabeth was not reassured by a boisterously happy Joan, and was never surprised when a few hours would exhaust this blissful condition. Something, usually a mere trifle, would crop up to suggest the old Horror. Very quietly, as a rule, Joan’s torments would begin, a thought — flimsy as a bit of thistledown, would light for an instant in her brain to be quickly brushed aside, but like thistledown it would alight again and cling. Gradually it would become more concrete; now it was not thistledown, it was a little stone, very cold and hard, that pressed and was not so easy to brush aside. And the stone would grow until it seemed to Joan to become a physical burden, crushing her under an unendurable load, more horrible than ever now because of those hours of respite.

Elizabeth coaxed and cajoled; she wanted at all hazards to stop Joan from working. She let down the barrier of her calm aloofness and showed a new aspect of herself to her pupil. She entreated, she begged, for it seemed to her that things were becoming desperate. At last she played her trump card, she played it suddenly without warning and without tact, in a way that was characteristic of her in moments of deep feeling. One day she closed her book, folded her hands and said:

‘Joan! If you loved me you couldn’t make me unhappy about you as you do. Joan, don’t you love me?’

For answer Joan fled from the room as if pursued by a fiend.

‘Do I love her? Do I? Do I?’ There it was again — this time for Elizabeth. Did she love Elizabeth and was that why she did not love her mother? Here was a new and fruitful source of self-analysis; if she loved Elizabeth she could not love her mother, for one could not really love more than one person at a time, at least Joan was sure that she could not.

2

Alone in the schoolroom Elizabeth clasped her slim hands on her lap; she sat very upright in her chair. Suddenly she rose to her feet; she knew what was the matter with her pupil, she had had an illuminating thought and meant to lose no time in acting upon it. She went upstairs and knocked softly on the door of Colonel Ogden’s bedroom. Mrs. Ogden opened it; she looked surprised.

‘May I speak to you for a moment, Mrs. Ogden?’

Mrs. Ogden glanced at the bed to make certain that this intrusion had not wakened the sleeping patient, then she closed the door noiselessly behind her and the two faced each other on the landing. Something in Elizabeth’s eyes startled her.

‘Is anything wrong?’ she faltered.

‘I think we had better talk in the dining-room’, was all that Elizabeth would say.

They went into the dining-room and shut the door; neither of them sat down.

‘It’s about Joan’, Elizabeth began, ‘I’m worried about her.’

‘Why, is anything the matter?’

‘I think’, said Elizabeth, ‘that a great deal is going to be the matter unless something is done very soon.’

‘You frighten me, Elizabeth; for goodness’ sake explain yourself.’

‘I don’t want to frighten you, but I’m beginning to be frightened myself about Joan; she’s been very queer for weeks, she looks terribly ill, and I think something is preying on her mind.’

‘Preying on her mind?’

‘I think so — she seems unnatural — she isn’t like Joan, somehow.’

‘But, I haven’t noticed all this!’ Mrs. Ogden’s voice was cold. ‘Are you sure that you’re not over-anxious, Elizabeth?’

‘I’m sure I’m right. If you haven’t noticed that Joan’s ill, it must be because you have been so worried about Colonel Ogden.’

‘Really, Elizabeth, I cannot think it possible that I, the child’s mother, should not have noticed what you say, were it true.’

‘Still, you haven’t noticed it’, said Elizabeth stubbornly.

‘No, I have not noticed it, but I’m glad to have an opportunity of telling you what I have noticed; and that is that you systematically encourage the child to overwork.’

Elizabeth stiffened. ‘She does overwork, though I have begged her not to, but I don’t think it’s that, entirely.’

‘Then what do you think it is?’

‘Do you really want me to tell you?’

‘Certainly — why not?’

‘Because, when I do tell you, you’ll get angry. Because it is a presumption on my part, I suppose, to say what I am going to say; because oh! because after all I’m only the governess and you are her mother, but for all that I ought to tell you what I think.’

‘You bewilder me, Elizabeth, I can’t imagine what all this means; didn’t know, you see, that Joan made you her confidante.’

‘She doesn’t, and possibly that’s a pity; I’ve never encouraged her to confide in me, and now I’m beginning to wonder whether I haven’t been a fool.’

‘I think that I, and not you, Elizabeth, would be the person in whom Joan would confide.’

‘Yes, of course’, said Elizabeth, but her voice lacked conviction.

‘Elizabeth! I don’t like all this; I should be sorry if we couldn’t get on together; it would, I frankly admit, be a disadvantage for the children to lose you, but you must understand at once that I cannot, will not, allow you to usurp my prerogatives.’

‘I’ve never done so, knowingly, Mrs. Ogden.’

‘But you are doing it now. You appear to want to call me to book, at least your manner suggests it. I cannot understand what it is you are driving at; I wish you would speak out, I detest veiled hints.’

‘You don’t like me, Mrs. Ogden; if I speak out you will like me even less —’ Elizabeth’s mind was working quickly; this might mean losing Joan — still, she must speak.

She continued: ‘Well, then, I think it’s a mistake to play on the child’s emotions as you do; Joan’s not so staid and quiet as she seems. You may not realize how deeply she feels things, but she feels them horribly deeply — when you do them. I’ve watched you together and I know. You’ve done it for years, Mrs. Ogden, perhaps unconsciously, I don’t know, but for years Joan has had a constant strain on her emotions. She loves you in the only way that Joan knows how to love, that is with every ounce of herself; there aren’t any half tones about Joan, she sees things black or white but never grey, and I think, I feel, that she loves you too much. Oh, I know that what I’m saying must seem inexcusable, perhaps even ridiculous, but that’s just it: I think Joan loves you too much. I think that underneath her quiet outside there is something very big and rather dangerous; an almost abnormally developed capacity for affection, and I think that it is this on which you play without cease, day in and day out. I feel as if you were always poking the fire, feeding it, blowing it until it’s red hot, and I can’t think it’s right, Mrs. Ogden, that’s all; I think it will be Joan’s ruin.’

Elizabeth!

‘Wait, I must speak. Joan is brilliant, you know that she’s brilliant, and that she ought to do something with her life. You must surely feel that she can’t stay here in Seabourne for ever? She must — oh! if I could only find the right words — she must fulfil herself in some way — either marriage or work, at all events some interest outside of and beyond you. She’s consuming herself even now, and what will she do later on? Yet, how can she come to fruition if she’s drained dry before she begins to live at all? I don’t know how I dare to speak to you like this, but I want your help. Joan is such splendid material; don’t let her worry about you as she does, don’t let her see that you are not a happy woman, don’t let her spend herself on you!’

She paused, her knees shook a little, she felt that in another moment she would begin to cry, and emotions with her came hard.

Mrs. Ogden blanched. So it had come at last! This was what she had always known would happen; Elizabeth had dared to criticize her handling of Joan. She felt a blind rage towards her, a sudden longing to strike her. The barriers went down with a crash, primitive invectives sprang to her lips and she barely checked them in time. She choked.

‘You dare to say this, Elizabeth?’

‘I love Joan.’

What!

‘I love Joan, and I must save her, Mrs. Ogden.’

You? How dare you suggest that the child is more to you than she is to me; do you realize what Joan means to me?’

‘Yes, it’s because I do realize it —’

‘Then be silent.’

‘I dare not.’

Mrs. Ogden stamped her foot. ‘You shall be silent. And understand, please, that you will leave us when your notice expires; but in the meantime you will not interfere again between Joan and me, I will not tolerate it! I refuse to tolerate it!’ She burst into a violent fit of weeping.

Elizabeth grew calm at the sight of her tears. ‘I am going to ask you to reconsider your decision to dismiss me’, she said. ‘I want to go on teaching Joan, I shall not accept my notice to leave unless you give it me again, which I hope for my sake you will not do; what I have said, I have said from a conviction that it was my duty to speak plainly.’ Then she played skilfully in self-defence. ‘You see, Joan simply adores you.’

Mrs. Ogden sobbed more quietly and became attentive. Elizabeth pressed her advantage home; she could not endure to lose Joan, and she didn’t intend to lose her.

‘Can’t you see that Joan’s love for you is no ordinary thing, that it’s the biggest thing about her, that it is her, and that’s why everything you do or say, however unintentional, plays on her feelings to an abnormal extent?’

Mrs. Ogden drew herself up. ‘I hope’, she said stiffly, ‘that I’m quite capable of judging the depth of my child’s affection. But I shall have to think over your request to remain with us, Elizabeth. I hardly think —’ she paused.

‘I am anxious to stay’, said Elizabeth simply.

‘Whether you stay or go, I consider that you owe me an apology.’

‘I’ll give it very gladly, for a great deal that I’ve said must have seemed to you unwarrantable’, Elizabeth replied.

Mrs. Ogden was silent. She longed to tell Elizabeth to go now at once, but her rage was subsiding. Colonel Ogden was still ill and governesses were not to be found easily or cheaply in Seabourne, at least not with Elizabeth’s qualifications. There were many things to consider, so many that they rushed in upon her, submerging her mind in a tide of difficulties — perhaps, after all, she would accept the apology for the moment, and bide her time, but forgive Elizabeth? Never!

Elizabeth left the room. ‘She won’t dismiss me’, she thought, ‘I’m cheap, and she won’t find anyone else to take my post at my salary; but I shall have to be more careful in future, it won’t do to play with cards on the table. I behaved like an impetuous fool this afternoon. What is it about Joan that makes a fool of one? I shall stop on here until Joan breaks free — I must help her to break free when the time comes.’

3

That night when the doctor called to see the colonel, Mrs. Ogden asked him to examine Joan.

‘My governess is rather inclined to overwork the child’, she told him, ‘but I don’t think you will find much wrong with her.’

Joan, dutifully stripping to the waist, was sounded and pronounced by the doctor to be in practically normal health. Too thin and a little anaemic, perhaps, and the heart action just a little nervous, but Mrs. Ogden was assured that she had no grounds for anxiety. The doctor advised less study and more open air; he patted Joan’s shoulder and remarked comfortingly that he only wished all his patients were such healthy specimens. Then he gave her a mild nerve tonic, told her to eat well and go to bed early, shook hands cordially with Mrs. Ogden and departed.

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