The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Sixteen

Surely the last place in the world where anyone would have expected to meet a tragedy was in the High Street of Seabourne. There never was a street so genteel and so lacking in emotion; it was almost an indecency to associate emotion with it, and yet it was in the High Street that a thing happened which was to make a lasting impression on Joan. She was out with Elizabeth and Milly early one afternoon; they were feeling dull, and conversation flagged; their minds were concentrated on innumerable small commissions for Mrs. Ogden. It was a bright and rather windy day, having in the keen air the first suggestion of coming winter. The High Street was very empty at that hour, and stretched in front of them ugly and shabby and painfully unimportant. Hidden from sight just round the corner, a little bell went clanging and tinkling; it was the little bell attached to the cart of the man who ground knives and scissors every Thursday. A tradesman’s boy clattered down the street on a stout unclipped cob, a basket over his arm, and somewhere in a house near by a phonograph was shouting loudly.

Then someone screamed, not once but many times. It was an ungainly sound, crude with terror. The screams appeared to be coming from Mrs. Jenkin’s, the draper’s shop, whither Elizabeth was bent; and then before any of them realized what was happening, a woman had rushed out into the street covered in flames. The spectacle she made, horrible in itself, was still more horrible because this was the sort of thing that one heard of or read of but never expected to see. Through the fire which seemed to engulf her, her arms were waving and flapping in the air. Joan noticed that her hair, which had come down, streamed out in the wind, a mass of flame. The woman, still screaming, turned and ran towards them, and as she ran the wind fanned the flames. Then Elizabeth did a very brave thing. She tore off the long tweed coat she was wearing, and running forward managed somehow to wrap it round the terrified creature. It seemed to Joan as though she caught the woman and pressed her against herself, but it was all too sudden and too terrible for the girl to know with any certainty what happened; she was conscious only of an overwhelming fear for Elizabeth, and found herself tearing at her back, trying to pull her away; and then suddenly something, a mass of something, was lying on the pavement with Elizabeth bending over it.

Elizabeth looked over her shoulder. ‘Are you there Joan?’ The voice sounded very matter of fact.

Joan sprang to her side. ‘Oh, Elizabeth!’

‘I want you to run to the chemist and tell him what’s happened. Get him to come back with you at once; he’ll know what to bring, and send his assistant to fetch the doctor, while I see to getting this poor soul into the house.’

Joan turned to obey. A few moments ago the street had been practically empty, but now quite a throng of people were pressing forward towards Elizabeth. Joan shouldered her way through them; half unconsciously she noticed their eager eyes, and the tense, greedy look on their faces. There were faces there that she had known nearly all her life, respectable middle-class faces, the faces of Seabourne tradespeople, but now somehow they looked different; it was as though a curtain had been drawn aside and something primitive and unfamiliar revealed. She felt bewildered, but nothing seemed to matter except obeying Elizabeth. As she ran down the street she saw Milly crying in a doorway; she felt sorry for her, she looked so sick and faint, but she did not stop to speak to her.

2

When she returned with the chemist the crowd was denser than ever, but all traces of the accident had disappeared. She supposed that Elizabeth must have had the woman carried into the shop.

Inside, all was confusion; somewhere from the back premises a child wailed dismally. A mass of unrolled material was spread in disorder upon the counter, behind which stood an assistant in tears. She recognized Joan and pointed with a shaking finger to a door at the back of the shop. The door opened on to a narrow staircase, and Joan paused to look about her; the old chemist was hard on her heels, peering over her shoulders, his arms full of packages. A sound reached them from above, low moaning through which, sharp and clear, came Elizabeth’s voice:

‘Is that you, Joan? Hurry up, please.’

They mounted the stairs and entered a little bedroom; on the bed lay the servant who had been burnt. Elizabeth was sitting beside her, and in a corner of the room stood Mrs. Jenkins, looking utterly helpless. Elizabeth looked critically at Joan; what she saw appeared to satisfy her; for she beckoned the girl to come close.

‘We must try and get the burnt clothes off her’, she said. ‘Have you brought plenty of oil, Mr. Ridgway?’

The chemist came forward, and together the three of them did what they could, pending the doctor’s arrival. As they worked the smell of burnt flesh pervaded the air, and Mrs. Jenkins swayed slightly where she stood. Elizabeth saw it and sent her downstairs; then she looked at Joan, but Joan met her glance fearlessly.

‘Are you equal to this?’

Joan nodded.

‘Then do exactly what we tell you.’

Joan nodded again. They worked quickly and silently, almost like people in a dream, Joan thought. There was something awful in what they did, something new and awful in the spectacle of a mutilated fellow-creature, helpless in their hands. Into Joan’s shocked consciousness there began to creep a wondering realization of her own inadequacy. Yet she was not failing; on the contrary, her nerve had steadied itself to meet the shock. After a little while she found that her repulsion was giving way to a keen and merciful interest, but she knew that all three of them, so willing and so eager to help, were hampered by a lack of experience. Even Mr. Ridgway’s medical knowledge was inadequate to this emergency. Apparently Elizabeth realized this too, for she glanced at the window from time to time and paused to listen; Joan knew that she was waiting in a fever of impatience for the doctor to arrive. The woman stirred and moaned again.

‘Will she die?’ Joan asked.

Elizabeth looked at the chemist; he was silent. At last he said: ‘I’m afraid she’s burnt in the third degree.’

Joan thought: ‘I ought to know what that means, but I don’t.’

Then she thought: ‘The poor thing’s suffering horribly, she’s probably going to die before the doctor comes, and not one of us really knows how to help her; how humiliating.’

At that moment they heard someone hurrying upstairs. As the doctor came into the room they stood aside. He examined the patient, touching her gently, then he took dressings from his bag. He went to work with great care and deftness, and Joan was filled with admiration as she watched him. She had no idea who he was; he was not the Ogden’s doctor, this was a younger man altogether. Then into her mind flashed the thought of Richard Benson. She wondered why she had laughed at Richard when he had talked of becoming a doctor. Was it because he was so conceited? But surely it was better to be conceited than inadequate!

The doctor was unconscious of her scrutiny; from time to time he spoke to Elizabeth, issuing short, peremptory orders. Elizabeth stood beside him, capable and quiet, and Joan felt proud of her because even in this extremity she managed somehow to look tidy.

‘I think I’ve done all that I can, for the moment’, he said. ‘I’ll come again later on.’

Elizabeth nodded, her mouth was drawn down at the corners and her arms hung limply at her sides. Something in her face attracted the doctor’s attention and his glance fell to her hands.

‘Let me look at your hands’, he said.

‘It’s nothing’, Elizabeth assured him, but her voice sounded far away.

‘I’m afraid I disagree with you; your hands are badly burnt, you must let me dress them.’ He turned to the dressings on the table.

She held out her hands obediently, and Joan noticed for the first time that they were injured. The realization that Elizabeth was hurt overwhelmed her; she forgot the woman on the bed, forgot everything but the burnt hands. With a great effort she pulled herself together, forcing herself to hold the dressings, watching with barely concealed apprehension, lest the doctor should inflict pain. She had thought him so deft a few minutes ago, yet now he seemed indescribably clumsy. But if he did hurt it was not reflected on Elizabeth’s face; her lips tightened a little, that was all.

‘Anywhere else?’ the doctor demanded.

‘Nowhere else’, Elizabeth assured him. ‘I think my hands must have got burnt when I wrapped my coat round her.’

The doctor stared. ‘It’s a mystery to me’, he said, ‘how you managed to do all you did with a pair of hands like that.’

‘I didn’t feel them so much at first’, she told him.

The doctor called Mrs. Jenkins and gave her a few instructions; then he hurried Elizabeth downstairs into the little shop, leaving her there while he went to find a cab.

Joan stood silently beside her; neither of them spoke until the fly arrived, then Joan said: ‘I shall come home with you, Elizabeth.’

‘I’ll send in two nurses’, said the doctor. ‘Your friend here will want help too.’

Joan gave him Elizabeth’s address.

3

During the drive they were silent again, there didn’t appear to be anything to say. Joan felt lonely; something in what had happened seemed to have put Elizabeth very far away from her; perhaps it was because she could not share her pain. The fly drew up at the door; she felt in Elizabeth’s coat pocket for her purse and paid the man; then she rang. There was no one in the house but the young general servant, who looked frightened when she saw the bandaged hands. Joan realized that whatever there was to do must be done by her; that Elizabeth the dominating, the practical, was now as helpless as a baby. The thought thrilled her.

They went slowly upstairs to the bedroom. Joan had been in the house before but never in that room; she paused instinctively at the door, feeling shy. Something told her that by entering this bedroom she was marking an epoch in her relations with Elizabeth, so personal must that room be; she turned the handle and they went in. As she ministered to Elizabeth she noticed the room, and a feeling of disappointment crept over her. Plain white-painted furniture, white walls and a small white bed. A rack of books and on the dressing-table a few ivory brushes and boxes. The room was very austere in its cold whiteness; it was like Elizabeth and yet it was not like Elizabeth; like the outward Elizabeth perhaps, but was it like the real Elizabeth? Then her eyes fell upon a great tangle of autumn flowers, standing in a bright blue jar on the chest of drawers; something in the strength and virility of their colouring seemed to gibe and taunt the prim little room; they were there as a protest, or so the girl felt. She wondered what it was in Elizabeth that had prompted her to choose these particular flowers and the bright blue jar that they stood in. Perhaps Elizabeth divined her thoughts, for she smiled as she followed the direction of Joan’s eyes.

‘A part of me loves them, needs them’, she said.

Very gently Joan helped her to undress; it was a painful and tedious business. Joan noticed with surprise that Elizabeth’s clothes were finer than Mrs. Ogden’s; it gave her a pleasure to touch them. Her nightgown was of fine lawn, simple in design but very individual. Strange, oh! strange, how little she really knew Elizabeth. She looked entirely different with her hair down. Joan felt that in this new-found intimacy something was lost and something gained. Never again could Elizabeth represent authority in her pupil’s eyes; that aspect of their relationship was lost for ever, and with it a prop, a staff that she had grown to lean on. But in its place there was something else, something infinitely more intimate and interesting. As she helped her into bed, she was conscious of a curious embarrassment. Elizabeth glanced at the clock; it was long past tea-time.

‘Good Heavens, Joan, you simply must go! And do see your mother at once, and tell her what’s happened. Do go; the nurse will be here any moment.’

Joan stood awkwardly beside the bed; she wanted to do something, to say something; a lump rose in her throat, but her eyes remained dry. She moved towards the door. Elizabeth watched her go, but at that moment she was conscious of nothing but pain and was thankful that Joan went when she did.

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