The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirteen

Richard Benson came home towards the end of August after a visit to friends in Ireland. To Elizabeth’s disappointment, Joan showed no pleasure at his return. However, it appeared that Richard had not forgotten her, for Mrs. Benson wrote insisting that she and Elizabeth should come to luncheon, as he had been asking after them.

They went to Conway House on the appointed day. Joan was acquiescent, she never offered much opposition to anything at this time unless it were interference with her self-imposed and ridiculous cramming. After all it was a pleasant luncheon, and Elizabeth, at all events, enjoyed it.

Joan thought: ‘I’m glad she looks happy and pleased, but I wish they’d asked Mother; I wonder why they didn’t ask Mother?’ Her mother’s absence weighed upon her. Not that Mrs. Ogden had withheld a ready consent, she was glad that her girls had such nice neighbours, but Joan knew instinctively that she had felt hurt; she was beginning to know so much about her mother by instinct. She divined her every mood; it seemed to her to be like looking through a window-pane to look at Mrs. Ogden, and the view you saw beyond was usually deeply depressing. Mrs. Ogden had smiled when she kissed her good-bye, but the smile had been a little rueful, a little tremulous; it had seemed to say: ‘I know I’m not as young as I used to be, I expect they find me dull.’ Joan wondered if they did find her dull, and her heart ached.

She was thinking of her now, as she tried to eat. Richard, more freckled and blunt-faced than ever, talked and joked in a kind of desperation; it seemed to him that something must be seriously wrong with Joan. Mrs. Benson’s keen eyes watched the girl attentively, and what she saw mystified her. She took Elizabeth into the drawing-room after lunch, having first ordered Richard and Joan into the garden. When she and Elizabeth were alone together she began at once.

‘What on earth’s the matter with Joan, Elizabeth?’

‘I don’t know — why? Do you think she looks ill?’

‘Don’t you?’

‘Yes.’

‘I was quite shocked today. I always feel interested in that child, and I should be dreadfully anxious if she belonged to me.’

‘Well, she’s at a difficult age, you know.’

‘Oh, my dear, it’s more than that; have you been letting her work too hard?’

‘Oh!’ said Elizabeth violently, ‘I’m sick to death of being asked that; of course she works too hard, but it isn’t that, it’s —’

‘Yes?’ queried Mrs. Benson.

‘It’s — oh! I don’t know, Mrs. Benson, I can’t put it into words, but it’s an awful responsibility, somehow; I can’t tell how it worries me.’ Her voice shook.

Mrs. Benson patted her hand reassuringly. ‘Whatever it is, it’s got on your nerves too, Elizabeth.’

Elizabeth looked at her a little startled. Yes, it had got on her nerves, it was horribly on her nerves and had been for weeks. She longed to talk frankly and explain to this kind, commonplace woman the complicated situation as she saw it, to ask her advice. She began: ‘Joan’s got something on her mind —’ Then stopped.

‘But of course she has’, said Mrs. Benson.

‘And she’s growing — mentally, I mean. Oh, and physically too —’

‘They all do that, Elizabeth.’

‘Yes, but — I don’t understand it; at least, yes, I do understand it, only I can’t see my way.’

‘Your way?’

‘Yes, my way with Joan.’

‘Can’t you try to rouse her? She seems to me to be getting very morbid.’

‘No, she’s not — at least not in the way you mean. Don’t think I’m mad, but Joan gives me such a queer feeling. I feel as though she’d been fighting, fighting, fighting to get out, to be herself, and that now she’s not fighting any more, she’s too tired.’

‘But, my dear child, what is it all about?’

‘I think I know, in fact I’m sure I do, and yet I can’t help her. I want her to go away from here some day, I want her to have a life of her own. Can’t you see how it is? She’s so much her mother’s favourite — they adore each other.’

Mrs. Benson did not speak for a little while, then she said: ‘I don’t know Mrs. Ogden very well, but I think she might be a very selfish mother; but then, poor soul, she hasn’t had much of a life, has she?’

Then Elizabeth let herself go, she heard her voice growing louder, but could not control it.

‘I don’t care, she has no right to make it up to herself with Joan. Joan’s young and clever, and sensitive and dreadfully worth while. Surely she has a right to something in life beyond Seabourne and Mrs. Ogden? Joan has a right to love whom she likes, and to go where she likes and to work and be independent and happy, and if she can’t be happy then she has a right to make her own unhappiness; it’s a thousand times better to be unhappy in your own way than to be happy in someone else’s. Joan wants something and I don’t know what it is, but if it’s Mrs. Ogden then it ought not to be, that’s all. The child’s eating her heart out and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong! She dare not be herself because it might not be the self that Mrs. Ogden needs. She wants to go to Cambridge, but will she ever go? Why she’s even afraid to be fond of me because Mrs. Ogden is jealous of me.’ She paused, breathless.

Mrs. Benson looked grave. ‘My dear’, she said very quietly, ‘I sympathize, and I think I understand; but be careful.’

Elizabeth thought: ‘No, you don’t understand; you’re a kind, good woman, but you don’t understand in the least.’

Aloud she said: ‘I’m afraid I seem violent, but I’m personally interested in Joan’s possibilities, she’s very clever and lovable.’

Mrs. Benson assented. ‘Why not encourage her to come here more often’, she suggested. ‘She and Violet are about the same age, and Violet’s nearly always here in the holidays. Richard and Joan seemed to get on very well last year. Oh, talking of Richard; you know, I suppose, that he insists upon being a doctor?’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘Well, as long as he’s a good doctor I suppose he won’t kill anyone!’ They both smiled now as they thought of Richard. ‘His father’s furious’, Mrs. Benson told her, ‘but it’s no good being furious with Richard; you might as well get angry with an oak tree and slap it.’

‘Does he work well?’

‘Oh, I believe so; you wouldn’t think it to look at him, would you? but I hear that he’s rather clever. Anyhow, he’s a perfect darling, and what does it matter whether he’s a doctor or a cabinet minister, so long as he’s respectable!’

‘Will he specialize eventually, do you think?’

‘He wants to, if he can get his father to back him.’

‘Oh, but he will do that, of course. Does Richard say what he wants to specialize in?’

Mrs. Benson smiled again. ‘He does’, she remarked with mock grimness. ‘He says he means to specialize in medical psychology — nerves, I believe is what it boils down to. Can you see Richard as a nerve specialist, Elizabeth?’

‘Well, if having no nerves oneself goes to the making of a good nerve doctor, I should think he would succeed.’

‘He tells me he’s certain to succeed, my dear; he takes it as a matter of course. If you could see the books he leaves about the house! Do you know, Elizabeth, I’m almost afraid for my Richard sometimes; it would be so awfully hard for him if he failed to make good, he’s so sure of himself; you know. And it’s not conceit; I don’t know what it is — it’s a kind of matter-of-fact self-confidence — it’s almost impressive!’

2

Richard and Joan were walking up and down the path by the tennis lawn; they looked very young and lanky and pathetic, the one in his eagerness, the other in her resignation. Joan, as she listened to the enthusiastic sentences, wondered how anyone could care so much about anything.

He was saying: ‘It’s ripping the feeling it gives you to know that you can do a thing, and to feel that you’re going to do it well.’

‘But how can you be certain that you will do it well?’ Joan inquired.

‘I don’t know, but one is certain — at least, I am.’

‘Will you live in Seabourne when you’ve taken your degree?’

‘Good Lord, no, of course not! No one who wants to get on could do anything in a place like this!’

‘It’s not such a bad place’, she protested. She felt an urgent need to uphold Seabourne just then.

‘It’s not a bad place for old people and mental deficients; no, I suppose it’s not.’

‘But your mother isn’t old and she isn’t mentally deficient.’

‘Of course not; but she doesn’t stick here. She goes up to London for months on end sometimes; besides, she’s different!’

‘I don’t see how she’s different. How is she different from my mother for instance? And my mother never gets away from Seabourne.’

It was on the tip of his tongue to say: ‘Oh! but she is different!’ but he checked himself and said: ‘Well, perhaps some people can stick here and remain human; only I know I couldn’t, that’s all.’

She longed to ask him about Cambridge, but she felt shy; his self-confidence was so overpowering, though she liked him in spite of it. It struck her that he had grown more self-confident since last Christmas; she remembered that then he had been dreadfully afraid of being ‘bottled’; now he didn’t seem afraid of anything, of Seabourne least of all. She wondered what he would say if she told him her own trouble; it was difficult to imagine what effect her confidences would have on him; he would probably think them ridiculous and dismiss them with an abrupt comment.

‘I suppose’, she said drearily, ‘some people have to stick to Seabourne.’

‘There’s no “have to”’, he replied.

‘Oh, yes, there is; that’s where you don’t know. Look at Elizabeth!’

‘Elizabeth doesn’t have to stay here; she’s lazy, that’s all that’s the matter with her.’

Joan flared at once: ‘If you think Elizabeth’s lazy you can’t know much about her; she’s staying on here because of her brother. He’s delicate, and he can’t live alone, and he needs her; I think she’s splendid!’

‘Rot! He isn’t a baby to need dry nursing. If Elizabeth had the will, I expect she’d find the way. If Elizabeth stops here it’s because she’s taken root, it’s because she likes it; I’m disappointed in Elizabeth!’

‘She hates it!’ said Joan with conviction.

He turned and stared at her. ‘Then why in heaven’s name —’ he began.

‘Because everyone doesn’t think only of themselves!’ She was angry now; she had not been angry for so long that she quite enjoyed the excitement. ‘Because Elizabeth thinks of other people and wants to be decent to them, and doesn’t talk and think only of her own career and of the things that she wants to do. She sacrifices herself, that’s why she stays here, and if you can’t understand that it’s because you’re not able to understand the kind of people that really count!’

They stopped and faced each other in the path; her eyes glowered, but his were twinkling though his mouth was grave. ‘If you’re talking at me, Joan’, he said solemnly, ‘then you may spare your breath, because you see I know I’m right; I know that even if Elizabeth is splendid and self-sacrificing and all the rest of it, she’s dead wrong to waste it on that little dried-up brother of hers. She ought to get out and do something for the world at large, or if she can’t rise to that then she ought to do something for herself. I think it’s a sin to let yourself get drained dry by anyone, I don’t care who it is; that wasn’t the sort of thing God gave us our brains for; it wasn’t why He made us individuals.’

Joan interrupted him: ‘But Elizabeth isn’t drained dry; she’s the cleverest woman I know.’

‘Yes, now, perhaps.’

‘She always will be’, said Joan coldly.

He felt that he had gone too far; he didn’t want to quarrel with her.

‘I’m sorry’, he said humbly. ‘It’s my fault, I suppose. I mean I daresay I’m selfish and self-opinionated, and perhaps I’m not such great shakes, after all. Anyhow, you know I’m awfully fond of Elizabeth.’

Joan was pacified. ‘One does get fond of her’, she told him. ‘She’s so calm and neat and masterful, so certain of herself and yet so awfully kind.’

He changed the subject. ‘I’m swatting at Cambridge’, he announced.

‘Are you?’

He heard the interest in her voice and wondered why his casual remark had aroused it.

‘Yes; when I’ve taken my science degree I shall go up to London for hospital work — and then’— he gave a sigh of contentment —’I shall get my Medical — and then Germany. You ought to go to Cambridge, Joan.’

‘Is it expensive? Does it cost much?’ she asked him.

‘Well, that depends. Why, are you really going?’

She hesitated. ‘Elizabeth would like me to.’

‘Oh, yes, she was there, wasn’t she? Well, you won’t be there when I am, I’m afraid; we’ll just miss it by a year.’

‘I don’t suppose I shall go at all.’

‘Why not?’

‘Oh, lots of reasons. We’re poor, you know.’

‘Then try for a scholarship.’

‘I’d probably fail if I did.’

‘Why on earth should you fail; you’re very clever, aren’t you?’

She began to laugh. ‘I don’t know if I’m what you would call clever; you see you think yourself clever, and I’m not a bit like you. I like working, though, so perhaps I’d get through.’

Elizabeth, coming towards them across the lawn, heard the laugh and blessed Richard.

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