The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twelve

Colonel Ogden was convalescent. Every morning now when it was fine he went out in a bath chair, dragged by a very old man. The dreadful bend of the old man’s shoulders as he tugged weakly with his hands behind him, struck Joan as an outrage. The old man shuffled too, he never seemed able to quite lift his feet; she wondered how many pairs of cheap boots he wore out in the year. It was the starting of the bath chair that was particularly horrible, the first strain; after that it went more easily. Muffled to the eyes and swathed in rugs, his feet planted firmly on the footstool, his hat jammed on vindictively, Colonel Ogden sat like a statue of outraged dignity, the ridiculous leather apron buttoned over his knees. Above his muffler his small blue eyes tried hard to glare in the old way, but the fire had gone out of them, and his voice coming weakly through the folds of his scarf, had already acquired the irritable whine of the invalid. Mrs. Ogden would stand, fussy and solicitous, on the steps to see him off, sometimes she would accompany him up and down the esplanade, adjusting his cushion, tucking in his rug, inquiring with forced solicitude whether he felt the wind cold, whether his chest ached, whether his heart was troublesome. The colonel endured, puffing out his cheeks from time to time as though an explosion were imminent, but it never came, or at least if it did come it was such a melancholy ghost of its former self as to be almost unrecognizable. And very deaf, a little rheumy in the eyes, and terribly bent in the back, the old bath-chair man tugged and tugged with his head shot forward at a tortoise-like angle, the dirty seams standing out on the back of his neck.

But though Colonel Ogden required a great deal of attention now that the nurse was gone, his wife’s immediate anxiety regarding him was relieved, which gave her the time to brood constantly over Joan. The girl was seldom from her thoughts, she began to loom even larger than she had done before in her mother’s life, to appear ten times more valuable and more desirable, now that Mrs. Ogden felt that a serious rival had declared herself. Elizabeth’s words burnt and rankled; she rehearsed the scene with the governess many times a day in her mind and went to sleep with it at nights. She felt Elizabeth’s personality to be well-nigh unendurable; she could never look at her now without remembering the grudge which she must always bear her, though a veneer of civility was absolutely necessary, for she did not intend to lose her just yet. She told herself that she kept her because she was still too tired to look for a successor, who must be found as soon as she recovered from the strain of the colonel’s illness; but in her heart of hearts she knew that this was not her reason — she knew that she kept her because she was afraid of the stimulus of Joan’s affection for Elizabeth that might result from an unconsidered action on her part. She was afraid to let Elizabeth go and afraid to let her stay, afraid of Elizabeth and mortally afraid of Joan.

She watched the girl with ever increasing suspicion, and what she saw convinced her that she was less responsive than she used to be. Joan had grown more silent and more difficult to understand. Now, the mother and daughter found very little to say to each other; when they were together their endearments were strained like those of people with a guilty secret. Yet even now there were moments when the mother thought that she recognized the old Joan in the almost exasperated flood of affection that would be poured out upon her. But she was not satisfied; these moments were of fleeting duration, spoilt by uncertainty, by lack of comprehension. There was something almost tragic about these two at this time, bound together as they were by a subtle and unrecognized tie, struggling to find each for herself and for the other some compensation, some fulfilment. But if Mrs. Ogden was deceived, even for a moment, her daughter was not. Joan knew that they never found what they sought and never would find it now, any more. She could not reason it out, she had nothing wherewith to reason, she was too young to rely on anything but instinct, but that told her the truth.

The Horror was still with her; she wanted to love Mrs. Ogden, she felt empty and disconsolate without that love. She longed to feel the old quick response when her mother bent towards her, the old perpetual romance of her vicinity. She was like a drug-taker from whom all stimulant has been suddenly removed; the craving was unendurable, dangerous alike to body and mind.

2

Now began a period of petty irritations, petty tyrannies and miseries. Mrs. Ogden watched! She was gentle and overtired and pathetic, but oh! so terribly watchful. Joan could feel her watching, watching her, watching Elizabeth. Things happened, only the merest trifles, yet they counted. One day it was a hat, another a pair of shoes or a pattern of knitting wool. Perhaps Elizabeth would say:

‘Put your black hat on this afternoon, Joan; it suits you.’ Then Joan would look up and see Mrs. Ogden standing inside the dining-room door.

‘Joan!’

‘Yes, dearest?’

‘I dislike you in that hat, put the blue one on, darling.’

A thousand little unexpected things were always cropping up to give rise to these thinly veiled quarrels. Even Milly began to feel uncomfortable and ill at ease, but with characteristic decision she solved the problem for herself.

‘I shan’t stay here when I’m bigger, Joan; I shall go away’, she announced one day.

Joan was startled; the words made her uneasy, they reopened the eternal question, presenting a new facet. She began to ask herself whether she too did not long to go away, whether she would want to stay at Seabourne when she was older, and above all whether she loved her mother enough to stay for ever in Seabourne. They were sitting in the schoolroom, and Joan’s eyes sought Elizabeth, who answered the unspoken thought. She turned to Joan with a quick, unusual gesture.

‘Joan, you mustn’t stay here always either.’

‘Not stay here, Elizabeth? Where should I go?’

‘Oh, I don’t know; to Cambridge perhaps, and then — oh, well, then you must work, do things with your life.’

‘But, Mother —’

Elizabeth was silent. Joan pressed her.

‘Elizabeth, do you think Mother would ever consent?’

‘I don’t know; you have the brain to do it if you choose.’

‘But suppose it made her unhappy?’

‘Why should it? She’ll probably be very proud of you if you make good — in any case you’ll have to leave her if you marry.’

‘But it might — oh! can’t you see that it might make her unhappy, dreadfully unhappy?’

‘What do you feel about it yourself, Joan; are you ambitious, I mean?’ Joan was silent for a moment, then she said: ‘I don’t think I am really ambitious. I mean I don’t think that I could ever push everything aside for the sake of some big idea; I hate being hurt and hurting, and I think you’ve got to do that if you’re really ambitious; but I want to go on working, frightfully.’

‘Well, you’ll probably get through your exam all right.’

‘And if I do, what then?’

‘Then your Oxford local, I suppose.’

‘Yes but, then?’

‘Well, then we shall have to consider. I should think Cambridge for you, Joan — though I don’t know; perhaps Oxford is better in some respects.’ She paused and appeared to reflect.

Joan looked at her fixedly. She thought: ‘This is said to me in direct opposition to Mother; it’s being said on purpose. Elizabeth hates her and I ought to hate Elizabeth, but I don’t!’

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