The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Fourteen

It is strange in this world how events of momentous importance happen without any warning, and do not, as is commonly stated, ‘Cast their shadows before’. Moreover, they reach us from the most unexpected quarters and at a time when we are least prepared, and such an event dropped out of space upon the Ogden household a few days later.

The concrete form which it took was simple enough — a small business envelope on Colonel Ogden’s breakfast tray; he opened it, and as he read his face became suffused with excitement. He tried to get up, but the tea spilt in his efforts to remove the heavy tray from his lap.

‘Mary!’ he shouted, ‘Mary!’

Mrs. Ogden, who was presiding at the breakfast table, heard him call, and also the loud thumping of the stick which he now kept beside the bed. He used it freely to attract his family’s attention to his innumerable needs. She rose hastily.

Joan and Milly heard the quick patter of her steps as she hurried upstairs, followed, in what seemed an incredibly short time, by her tread on the bedroom floor, and then the murmur of excited conversation.

Joan sighed. ‘Is it the butter or the bacon?’ queried Milly. Milly had come to the conclusion that her parents were unusually foolish; had she been capable of enough concentration upon members of her family, she would have cordially disliked them both; as it was they only amused her. At thirteen Milly never worried; she had a wonderful simplicity and clarity of outlook. She realized herself very completely, and did not trouble to realize anything else, except as it affected her monoideism. She was quite conscious of the strained atmosphere of her home, conscious that her father was intolerable, her mother nervous arid irritating, and Joan, she thought, very queer. But these facts, while being in themselves disagreeable, in no way affected the primary issues of her life. Her music, her own personality, these were the things that would matter in the future so far as she was concerned. She had what is often known as a happy disposition; strangers admired her, for she was a bright and pretty child, and even friends occasionally deplored the fact that Joan was not more like her sister.

Upstairs in the bedroom the colonel, tousled and unshaven, was sitting very bolt upright in bed.

‘It’s Henrietta!’ he said, extending the solicitor’s letter in a hand which shook perceptibly.

‘Your sister Henrietta?’ inquired Mrs. Ogden.

‘Naturally. Who else do you think it would be? — Well, she’s dead!’

‘Dead? Oh, my dear! I am sorry; why, you haven’t heard from her for ages.’

Colonel Ogden swallowed angrily. ‘Why the deuce can’t you read the letter, Mary? Read the letter and you’ll know all about it.’

Mrs. Ogden took it obediently. It was quite brief and came from a firm of solicitors in London. It stated that Mrs. Henrietta Peabody, widow of the late Henry Clay Peabody, of Philadelphia, had died suddenly, leaving her estate, which would bring in about three hundred a year, to be equally divided between her two nieces, Joan and Mildred Ogden. The letter went on to say that Colonel and Mrs. Ogden were to act as trustees until such time as their children reached the age of twenty-one years or married, but that the will expressly stated that the income was not to be accumulated or diverted in any way from the beneficiaries, it being the late Mrs. Peabody’s wish that it should be spent upon the two children equally for the purpose of securing for them extra advantages. The terms of the letter were polite and tactful, but as Mrs. Ogden read she had an inkling that her sister-inlaw Henrietta had probably made rather a disagreeable will. She glanced at her husband apprehensively.

‘It means —’ she faltered, ‘it means —’

‘It means’, shouted the colonel, ‘that Henrietta must have been mad to make such a will; it means that from now on my own children can snap their fingers under my nose; it means that I have ceased to have any control over members of my own family. A more outrageous state of affairs I never heard of! What have I ever done, I should like to know, to be insulted like this? Why should this money be left over my head? One would think Henrietta imagined I was the sort of man to neglect the interests of my own children; she hasn’t even left the income to me for life! Did the woman wish to insult me? Upon my word, a pretty state of affairs! Think of it, I ask you; Milly thirteen and Joan fifteen, and a hundred and fifty a year to be spent at once on each of ’em. It’s bedlam! And mark you, I am under orders to see that the money is spent entirely upon them; I, the father that bred them, I have no right to touch a penny of it!’ He paused and leant back on his pillows exhausted.

Through the myriads of ideas that surged into her brain, Mrs. Ogden was conscious of one dominating thought that beat down all the others like a sledge-hammer: ‘Joan — how would this affect Joan?’

She tried to calculate hastily how much she could claim for the children in her housekeeping; she supposed vaguely that Elizabeth’s salary would come out of the three hundred a year; that would certainly be a relief. Then there were doctors and dentists, clothes and washing. Somewhere at the back of her mind she was conscious of a faint rejoicing that never again would she have to shed so many tears over current expenses, and a faint sense of pride in the knowledge that her daughters were now independent. But, though these thoughts should have been consoling, they could not push their way to the foreground of her consciousness, which was entirely occupied at that moment by an immense fear; the fear of independence for Joan. Colonel Ogden was looking at her; clearly he expected her to sympathize. She pulled herself together.

‘After all, James’, she ventured, ‘it’s a great thing for Joan and Milly, and it will make a difference in our expenses.’

He glared. ‘Oh, naturally, Mary, I could hardly expect you to see the situation in its true light; I could hardly expect you to realize the insult that my own sister has seen fit to put on me.’

‘Really, James’, said Mrs. Ogden angrily, stung into retort by this childish injustice, ‘I understand perfectly all you’re saying, but I do think you ought to be grateful to Henrietta. I certainly am, and even if you don’t approve of her will, I don’t see that there’s anything to do but to look on the bright side of things.’

‘Bright side, indeed!’ taunted the colonel. ‘A pretty bright side you’ll find developing before long. Not that I begrudge my own children any advantages; I should think Henrietta ought to have known that. No, what I resent, and quite rightly too, is the public lack of confidence in me that she has been at such pains to show; that’s the point.’

‘The point is’, thought Mrs Ogden, ‘whether Joan will now be in a position to go to Cambridge. This business will play directly into Elizabeth’s hands.’ Aloud she said: ‘Am I to tell the children, James?’

‘You can tell them any damn thing you please. If you don’t tell them they’ll hear about it from somebody else, I suppose; but I warn you fairly that when you do tell them, you can add that I intend to preserve absolute discipline in my household, I’ll have no one living under the roof with me who don’t realize that I’m the master.’

‘But, my dear James’, his wife protested, ‘they’re nothing but children still; I don’t suppose for a moment they’ll understand what it means. I don’t suppose it would ever enter their heads to want to defy you.’

2

She turned and left the room, going slowly downstairs. The children were still at breakfast when she reached the dining-room. As they looked up, something in their mother’s expression told them of an unusual occurrence; it was an expression in which pride, apprehension and excitement were oddly mingled. Mrs. Ogden sat down at the head of the table and cleared her throat.

‘I have very serious news for you, children’, she began. ‘Your Aunt Henrietta is dead.’

The children evinced no emotion; they had heard of their Aunt Henrietta in America, but she had never been more than a name. Mrs. Ogden glanced from one to the other of her daughters; she did not quite know how to explain to them the full significance of the news, and yet she did not wish to keep it back. Her maternal pride and generosity struggled with her outraged dignity. She felt the situation to be quite preposterous, and in a way she sympathized with her husband’s indignation; she was of his own generation, after all. Yet knowing him as she did, she felt a guilty and secret understanding of Henrietta Peabody’s motive. She told herself that if only she were perfectly certain of Joan, she could find it in her to be grateful to the departed Henrietta. She began to speak again.

‘I have something very important to tell you. It’s something that affects both of you. It seems that your Aunt Henrietta, apart from her pension, had an income of three hundred pounds a year, and this three-hundred a year she has left equally divided between you. That means that you will have one hundred and fifty pounds a year each from now on.’

Her eyes were eagerly scanning Joan’s face. Joan saw their appeal, though she did not understand it; she left her place slowly and put her arm round her mother.

Milly clapped her hands. ‘A hundred and fifty a year and all my own!’ she cried delightedly.

‘Shut up!’ ordered Joan. ‘Who cares whether you’ve got a hundred and fifty a year or not? Besides, anyhow, you’re only a kid; you won’t be allowed to spend it now.’

‘It isn’t now’, said Milly thoughtfully. ‘It’s afterwards that I care about.’

Mrs. Ogden ignored her younger daughter. What did it matter what Milly felt or thought? She groped for Joan’s hand and squeezed it.

‘I think I ought to tell you’, she said gravely, ‘that your father is very much upset at this news; he’s very much hurt by what your aunt has done. I can understand and sympathize with his feelings. You see he knows that he has always been a good father to you, and it would have been more seemly had this money been left to him, though, of course, your father and I have control of it until you each become twenty-one years old or get married.’

Something prompted her to make the situation quite clear to her children. She had another motive for telling them, or at all events for telling Joan, exactly how things stood; she wanted to know the worst at once. She knew anything would be more endurable than uncertainty as to how this legacy would affect Joan.

The children were silent; something awkward in the situation impressed them; they longed to be alone to talk it over. Mrs. Ogden left the room to interview the cook; she had had her say, and she felt now that she could only await results.

3

As the door closed behind her they stared at each other incredulously.

Joan was the first to speak. ‘What an extraordinary thing!’ she said.

Milly frowned, ‘You are queer; I don’t believe you’re really pleased. I believe you’re almost sorry.’

‘I don’t know quite what I am’, Joan admitted. ‘It seems to worry Mother, though I don’t see why it should; but I have a feeling that that’s going to spoil it.’

‘Oh, you always find something to spoil everything. Why should it worry Mother? It doesn’t worry me; I think we’re jolly lucky. I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to talk to Doddsie this very day about going to the Royal College of Music.’

Joan scented trouble. Would Milly’s little violin master side with her when he knew of his pupil’s future independence?

‘You’d better look out’, she warned. ‘You talk as though you had the money now. Father won’t agree to your going up to London, and anyhow you’re much too young. For goodness’ sake go slow; one gets so sick of rows!’

Milly smiled quietly; she felt that it was no good arguing with Joan; Joan was always apprehensive and on the look-out for trouble. Milly knew what she wanted to do and she intended to do it; after all, she reckoned, she wouldn’t remain thirteen years old for ever, and when the time came for her to go to London to London she meant to go, so there was no good fussing. A glow of satisfaction and gratitude began to creep over her; she thought almost tenderly of Aunt Henrietta.

‘Poor Aunt Henrietta!’ she remarked in a sympathetic voice. ‘I hope it didn’t hurt her — the dying, I mean.’

Joan looked across at her sister; she thought: ‘A lot you really care whether it hurt her or not!’

The front door bell rang; they knew that decided ring for Elizabeth’s, and leaving the table they hurried to the schoolroom. Elizabeth was unpinning her hat; she paused with her arms raised to her head, divining some unusual excitement. She looked at Joan, waiting for her to speak. Joan read the unvoiced question in her eyes. But before she could answer, words burst from Milly’s lips in a flood; Elizabeth had heard all about it in less than a minute, including all Milly’s plans for the future. During this recital Elizabeth smiled a little but her eyes were always on Joan’s face. Presently she said:

‘This will help you too, Joan.’

Joan was silent; she understood quite well what was meant. Elizabeth had put into words a feeling against which she had been fighting ever since her mother had told her the news — a triumphant, possessive kind of feeling, the feeling that now there was no valid reason why she should not go to Cambridge or anywhere else for that matter. She looked at Elizabeth guiltily, but there was no guilt in Elizabeth’s answering smile; on the contrary, there was much happiness, a triumphant happiness that made Joan feel afraid.

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