The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Seventeen

Mrs. Ogden had been waiting at the dining-room window and ran to open the front door as Joan came down the street. The girl looked worn out and dispirited; she walked slowly and her head was slightly bowed as she pushed open the gate.

Mrs. Ogden, who had heard from Milly of the accident, had not intended to remonstrate at Joan’s prolonged absence. On the contrary, while she had been waiting anxiously for her daughter’s return, she had been planning the manner in which she would welcome her, fold her in her arms; poor child, it was such a dreadful thing for her to have seen! As the time dragged on and Joan did not come a thousand fears had beset her. Had Joan perhaps been burnt too? Had she fainted? What had happened, and why had Elizabeth not let her know?

Milly’s account had been vague and unsatisfactory; she had rushed home in a panic of fear and was now in bed. Her sudden and dramatic appearance had upset the colonel, and he too had by now retired to his room, so that Mrs. Ogden, who had longed to go and ascertain for herself the true state of affairs, had been compelled to remain in the house, a prey to anxiety.

At the sight of her daughter safe and sound, however, she temporarily lapsed from tenderness. The reaction was irresistible; she felt angry with Joan, she could have shaken her.

‘Well, really!’ she began irritably, ‘this is a nice time to come home; I must say you might have let me know where you were.’

Joan sighed and pushed past her gently.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, ‘but you see there was so much to do. Oh, I forgot, you haven’t heard.’ She paused.

‘Milly has told me; at least, she has told me something; the child’s been terrified. I do think Elizabeth must be quite mad to have allowed either of you to see such a horrible thing.’

‘Elizabeth put out the fire’, said Joan dully.

‘Elizabeth put out the fire? What do you mean?’

‘She wrapped the woman in her coat and her hands got burnt.’

‘Her hands got burnt? Where is she now, then?’

‘At home in bed; I’ve just come from her.’

‘Is that where you’ve been all these hours? I see, you’ve been home with Elizabeth, and you never let me know!’

‘I couldn’t, Mother, there was no one to send.’

‘Then why didn’t you come yourself? You must have known that I’d be crazy with anxiety!’

Joan collapsed on a chair and dropped her head on her hand. She felt utterly incapable of continuing the quarrel, it seemed too futile and ridiculous. How could her mother have expected her to leave Elizabeth; she felt that she should not have come home even now, she should have stayed by her friend and refused to be driven away. She looked up, and something in her tired young eyes smote her mother’s heart; she knelt down beside her and folded her in her arms.

‘Oh, my Joan, my darling’, she whispered, pressing the girl’s head down on her shoulder. ‘It’s only because I was so anxious, my dearest — I love you too much, Joan.’

Joan submitted to the embrace quietly with her eyes closed; neither of them spoke for some minutes. Mrs. Ogden stretched out her hand and stroked the short, black hair with tremulous fingers. Her heart beat very fast, she could feel it in her throat. Joan stirred; the gripping arm was pressing her painfully.

Mrs. Ogden controlled herself with an effort; there was so much that she felt she must say to Joan at that moment; the words tingled through her, longing to become articulate. She wanted to cry out like a primitive creature; to scream words of entreaty, of reproach, of tenderness. She longed to humble herself to this child, beseeching her to love her and her only, and above all not to let Elizabeth come between them. But even as the words formed themselves in her brain she crushed them down, ashamed of her folly.

‘I hope Elizabeth was not much burnt’, she forced herself to say. Joan sat up. ‘It’s her hands’, she answered unsteadily.

Mrs. Ogden kissed her. ‘You must lie down for a little; this thing has been a great shock, of course, and I think you’ve been very brave.’

Joan submitted readily enough; she was thankful to get away; she wanted to lie on her bed in a darkened room and think, and think and think.

2

The days that followed were colourless and flat. Joan took to wandering about the house, fidgeting obviously until the hour arrived when she could get away to Elizabeth.

On the whole Elizabeth seemed glad of her visits, Joan thought. No doubt she was dull, lying there alone with her hands on a pillow in front of her. The nurse went out every afternoon, and Joan was careful to time her visits accordingly. But it seemed to the girl that Elizabeth had changed towards her, that far from opening up new fields of intimacy Elizabeth’s condition had set up a barrier. She was acutely conscious of this when they were alone together. She felt that whatever they talked about now was forced and trivial, that they might have said quite different things to each other; then whose fault was it, hers or Elizabeth’s? She decided that it was Elizabeth’s. Her hurried visits left her with a feeling of emptiness, of dissatisfaction; she came away without having said any of the clever and amusing things that she had so carefully prepared, with a sense of having been terribly dull, of having bored Elizabeth.

Elizabeth assured her that the burns were healing, but she still looked very ill, which the nurse attributed to shock. Joan began to dislike the nurse intensely, without any adequate reason. Once Joan had taken some flowers; she had chosen them carefully, remembering that one part of Elizabeth loved bright flowers. It had not been very easy to find what she wanted, and the purchase had exhausted her small stock of money. But when she had laid them shyly on the bed Elizabeth had not looked as radiantly pleased as she had expected; she had thanked her, of course, and admired the flowers, but something had been lacking in her reception of the offering; it was all very puzzling.

Mrs. Ogden said nothing; she bided her time and secretly recorded another grudge against Elizabeth. She was pleased with a new scheme which she had evolved, of appearing to ignore her. Acting upon this inspiration, she carefully forbore to ask after her when Joan came home, and if, as was usually the case, information was volunteered, Mrs. Ogden would change the subject. Colonel Ogden was not so well, and this fact gave her an excuse for making the daily visit to Elizabeth difficult if not impossible. The colonel needed constant attention, and a thousand little duties were easily created for Joan. Joan was not deceived, she saw through the subterfuge, but could not for the life of her find any adequate excuse for shirking the very obvious duty of helping with the invalid.

When she was not kept busy with her father, her mother would advise her to study. She had been in the habit of discouraging what she called ‘Elizabeth’s cramming system’, yet now she seemed anxious that Joan should work hard, reminding her that the examination was only two weeks distant, and expressing anxiety as to the result. Colonel Ogden made no secret of his preference for his younger daughter. It was Milly’s company that he wanted, and because she managed cleverly to avoid the boredom of these daily tasks, the colonel’s disappointment was vented on Joan. He sulked and would not be comforted. At this time Mrs. Ogden’s headaches increased in frequency and intensity, and she would constantly summon Joan to stroke her head, which latter proceeding was supposed to dispel the pain. Joan felt no active resentment at what she recognized as a carefully laid plot. Something of nobility in her was touched and sorry. Sometimes, as she sat in her mother’s darkened bedroom stroking the thin temples in silent obedience, she would be conscious of a sense of shame and pity because of the transparency of the deception practised.

In spite of Mrs. Ogden, she managed to see Elizabeth, who was getting better fast; she was down in the study now, and Joan noticed that her hands were only lightly bandaged. She asked to be allowed to see for herself how they were progressing, but Elizabeth always found some trifling excuse. However, it was cheering to know that she would soon be back at Leaside, and Joan’s spirits rose. Elizabeth seemed more natural too when they were able to meet, and Joan decided that the queer restraint which she had noticed in the early days of her illness had been the outcome of the shock from which the nurse said she was suffering. She argued that this in itself would account for what she had observed as unusual in Elizabeth’s manner. She had told her why the daily visits had ceased to be possible, explaining the hundred little duties that had now fallen to her share, and Elizabeth had said nothing at all. She had just looked at Joan and then looked away, and when she did speak it had been about something else. Joan would have liked to discuss the situation, but Elizabeth’s manner was not encouraging.

Elizabeth had told her that the servant had died of her burns; according to the doctor it had been a hopeless case from the first, and Joan realized that, after all, Elizabeth’s courage had been in a sense wasted. She looked at her lying so quietly on the sofa with her helpless hands on their supporting pillow, and wondered what it was in Elizabeth that had prompted her to do what she had done; what it was in anyone that occasionally found expression in such sudden acts of self-sacrifice. Elizabeth had tried to save a life at the possible loss of her own, and yet she was not so unusual a creature so far as Joan could judge, and the very fact that she was just an everyday person made her action all the more interesting. She herself appeared to set no store by what she had done; she took it for granted, as though she had seen no other alternative, and this seemed to Joan to be in keeping with the rest of her. Elizabeth would refuse to recognize melodrama; it did not go with her, it was a ridiculous thing to associate with her at all. There had been a long article in the local paper, extolling her behaviour, but when Joan, full of pride and gratification, had shown it to her, she had only laughed and remarked: ‘What nonsense!’

But Joan had her own ideas on the subject; she neither exaggerated nor minimized what Elizabeth had done. She saw the thing just as it was; a brave thing, obviously the right thing to do, and she was glad that Elizabeth should have been the person to do it. But quite apart from this, the accident had been responsible for starting a train of thought in the girl’s mind. She had long ago decided that she wanted to make a career, and now she knew exactly what that career should be. She wanted to be a doctor. She knew that it was not easy and not very usual; but that made it seem all the more desirable in her eyes. She thought very often of Richard Benson, and was conscious of wishing that he were at home so that she could talk the matter over with him. She was not quite sure how Elizabeth would take her decision, and she expected opposition from her mother and father, but she felt that Richard could and would help her. She felt that something in his sublime confidence, in his sublime disregard for everything and everybody, would be useful to her in what she knew to be a crisis in her life. She scarcely glanced at her books; the examination was imminent, but she knew that she would not fail.

3

When at length the great moment arrived it found Joan calm and self-possessed; she breakfasted early and took the train for a neighbouring town in which the examination was to be held. The weather was oppressive, the atmosphere of the crowded room stifling, seeming to exude the tension and nervousness of her fellow competitors; yet, while recognizing these things, she felt that they were powerless to affect her. She glanced calmly over the examination paper that lay upon her desk; it did not seem very formidable, and she began to write her answers with complete assurance.

On her return home that evening she went in to see Elizabeth for a few moments. She found her more perturbed and nervous than she could have conceived possible. Joan reassured her as best she could and hastened on to Leaside. Her mother also seemed anxious; something of the gravity of the occasion appeared to have affected even Mrs. Ogden, for she questioned her closely. Joan wondered why they lacked confidence in her, why they seemed to take it for granted that she would have found the examination difficult; she felt irritated that Elizabeth should have entertained doubts. She had always expressed herself as being certain that Joan would pass, yet now at the last moment she was childishly nervous; perhaps her illness had something to do with it. Joan wished for their sakes that the examination could have been completed in one day and the result made known that first evening, but for herself she felt indifferent. What lay ahead of her was unlikely to be much more formidable than what she had coped with already, so why fear? She smiled a little, thinking of Richard Benson — was she, too, growing conceited — was she growing rather like him?

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