The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Eighteen

The usual time elapsed and then Joan knew she had passed her examination with honours. There was a grudging pride in Mrs. Ogden’s heart in spite of herself, and even the colonel revived from his deep depression to congratulate his elder daughter. Joan was happy, with that assured and peaceful happiness that comes only to those who have attained through personal effort; she felt now very confident about the future, capable of almost anything. It was a red-letter day with a vengeance, for Elizabeth was coming back to Leaside that same afternoon to take up her work again. She would not have heard the news, and Joan rejoiced silently at the prospect of telling her. She pictured Elizabeth’s face; surely the calm of it must break up just this once, and if it did, how would she look? There were flowers on the schoolroom table; that was good. Mrs. Ogden had put them there to celebrate Joan’s triumph, she had said. Joan wished that they had been put there to welcome Elizabeth back. The antagonism between these two had never ceased to worry and distress her, not so much on their behalf as because she herself wanted them both. At all times, the dearest wish of her heart was that they should be reconciled, lest at any time she should be asked to choose between them. But on this splendid and fulfilling morning no clouds could affect her seriously.

The hours dragged; she could not swallow her lunch; at three o’clock Elizabeth would arrive. Now it was two o’clock, now a quarter past, then half past. Joan, pale with excitement, sat in the schoolroom and waited. Upstairs, Milly was practising her violin; she was playing a queer little tune, rather melancholy, very restrained, as unlike the child who played it as a tune could well be; this struck Joan as she listened and made her speculate. How strange people were; they were always lonely and always strange; perhaps they knew themselves, but certainly no one else ever knew them. There was her mother, did she really know her? And Elizabeth — she had begun to realize that there were unexpected things about her that took you by storm and left you feeling awkward; you could never be quite certain of her these days. Was it only the shock of the illness, she wondered, or was it that she was just beginning to realize that there was an Elizabeth very different from that of the schoolroom; a creature of moods, like herself?

Somewhere in the house a clock chimed the hour, and as it did so the door-bell rang. Joan jumped up, she laughed aloud; how like Elizabeth to ring just as the clock was striking, exactly like her. The schoolroom door opened and she came in. She was a little thinner perhaps, but otherwise the great experience seemed to have made no impression on her outward appearance.

‘Elizabeth, I’ve passed with honours!’

Elizabeth was midway between the door and the table; she opened her lips as if to speak, but paused.

‘I knew you would, Joan’, was all she said.

Somewhere deep down in herself, Joan smiled. ‘That’s not what you wanted to say’, she thought. ‘You wanted to say something very different.’

But she fell in with Elizabeth’s mood and tried to check her own enthusiasm. What did it matter if Elizabeth chose to play a part, she knew what this news meant to her; she could have laughed in her face. ‘But what really matters is that you’ve come back’, she said.

‘Yes, I suppose that is what really matters’, replied Elizabeth, her calm eyes meeting Joan’s for an instant.

‘Oh, Elizabeth, it’s been too awful without you, dull and awful!’

‘I know’, she answered quietly.

‘And suppose I’d failed you, Elizabeth, suppose I’d failed in the examination’, Joan’s voice trembled. ‘Suppose I had had to tell you that!’

‘I should still have been coming back.’

‘Yes, I know, and that’s all that really matters; only it’s better as it is, isn’t it?’

‘You would never fail me, Joan. I think it’s not in you to fail, somehow; in any case I don’t think you’ll fail me.’ She hesitated — then, ‘I don’t feel that we ought to fail each other, you and I.’

She took off her hat and coat and drew off her gloves with her back turned; when she came back to the table her hands were behind her. She sat down quickly and folded them in her lap. In the excitement of the good news and the reunion, Joan had forgotten to ask to see her hands. ‘Where’s Milly?’ said Elizabeth.

Joan smiled. ‘Can’t you hear? She’s at her fiddle.’

Elizabeth looked relieved. ‘Don’t call her’, she said, ‘let me see your examination report.’ Joan fetched it and put it on the table in front of her. For a moment or two Elizabeth studied it in silence, then she looked up.

‘It’s perfectly excellent’, she remarked.

In her enthusiasm, she picked up the paper to study it more closely, and at that moment the sun came out and fell on her hands. Joan gasped, a little cry of horror escaped her in spite of herself. Elizabeth looked up, she blanched and hid her hands in her lap, but Joan had seen them; they were hideously seamed and puckered with large, discoloured scars.

‘Oh, Elizabeth — your hands! Your beautiful hands! You were so proud of them —’

Joan laid her head down on the table and wept.

2

After supper that night Joan took the plunge. She had not intended doing it so quickly, but waiting seemed useless, and, besides, she was filled with a wild energy that rendered any action a relief. Colonel Ogden was dozing over the evening paper; from time to time he jumped awake with a stifled snort; as always the dining-room smelt of his pipe smoke and stale food. At Joan’s quick movement he opened his eyes very wide; he looked like an old baby.

She began abruptly, ‘Mother, I want to tell you that I’m going to study to be a doctor.’

It was characteristic of her to get it all out at once without any prelude. Mrs. Ogden laid down her knitting, and contrary to all expectations did not faint; she did not even press her head, but she smiled unpleasantly.

She said: ‘Why? Because Elizabeth has burnt her hands?’

It was the wrong thing to say — a thoroughly stupid and heartless remark, and she knew it. She would have given much for a little of the tact which she felt instinctively to be her only weapon, but for the life of her she could not subdue the smouldering anger that took hold of her at the moment. She never for an instant doubted that Elizabeth was in some way connected with this mad idea; it pleased her to think this, even while it tormented her. The mother and daughter confronted each other; their eyes were cold and hard.

‘What’s that?’ said Colonel Ogden, leaning a little forward.

Joan turned to him. ‘I was telling Mother that I’ve decided on a career. I’m going in for medicine.’

‘For what?’

‘For medicine. Other girls have done it.’

Her father rose unsteadily to his feet; he helped himself up by the arms of his chair. Very slowly he pointed a fat, shaking finger at his wife.

‘Mary, what did I tell you, what did I tell you, Mary? This is what comes of Henrietta’s iniquitous will. My God! Did I ever think to hear a girl child of fifteen calmly stating what she intends to do? Does she ask my permission? No, she states that she intends to be a doctor. A doctor, my daughter! Good God! What next?’ He turned on Joan: ‘You must be mad’, he told her. ‘It’s positively indecent — an unsexing, indecent profession for any woman, and any woman who takes it up is indecent and unsexed. I say it without hesitation — indecent, positively immodest!’

‘Indecent, Father?’

‘Yes, and immodest; it’s an outrageous suggestion!’

Mrs. Ogden took up her knitting again; the needles clicked irritatingly. Once or twice she closed her eyes, but her hands moved incessantly.

‘Joan!’

She swallowed and spoke as if under a great restraint. ‘Yes, Mother?’

‘If you were a boy I would say this to you, and since you seem to have chosen to assume an altogether ridiculous masculine role, listen to me. There are things that a gentleman can do and things he cannot; no gentleman can enter the medical profession, no Routledge has ever been known to do such a thing. Our men have served their country; they have served it gloriously, but a Routledge does not enter a middle-class profession. I wish to keep quite calm, Joan. I can understand your having acquired these strange ideas, for you have naturally been thrown very much with Elizabeth and Elizabeth is — well, not quite one of us; but you will please remember who you are, and that I for one will never tolerate your behaving other than as a member of my family. I—’

The colonel interrupted her. ‘Listen to me’, he thundered. In his anger he seemed to have regained some of his old vitality. ‘You listen to me, young woman; I’ll have none of this nonsense under my roof. You think, I suppose, that your aunt has made you independent, but let me tell you that for the next six years you’re nothing of the kind. Not one penny will I spend on any education that is likely to unsex a daughter of mine. I’ll have none of these new-fangled woman’s rights ideas in my house; you will stay at home like any other girl until such time as you get married. You will marry; do you hear me? That’s a woman’s profession! A sawbones indeed! Do you think you’re a boy? Have you gone stark, staring mad?’

‘No, I’m not mad,’ Joan said quietly, ‘but I don’t think I shall marry, Father.’

‘Not marry, and why not, pray?’

She did not attempt to explain, for she herself did not know what had prompted her.

‘I can wait’, she told him. ‘It wouldn’t be too late to begin when I’m twenty-one.’

He opened his mouth to roar at her, but the words did not come; instead he fell back limply in his chair. Mrs. Ogden rushed to him. Joan stood very still; she had no impulse to help him; she felt cold and numb with anger.

‘I think you’ve killed your father’, said Mrs. Ogden unsteadily. Joan roused herself. She looked into her mother’s working face; they stared at each other across the prostrate man.

‘No,’ she said gravely, ‘it’s you, both of you, who are trying to kill me.’ She went and fetched brandy, and together they forced some between the pallid lips. After a little he stirred.

‘You see, he’s not dead’, said Joan mechanically. ‘I’ll go for the doctor.’

When the doctor came he shook his head.

‘How did this happen?’ he inquired.

‘He got angry’, Mrs. Ogden told him.

‘But I warned you that he mustn’t be excited, that you ought not to excite him under any circumstances. Really, Mrs. Ogden, if you do, I won’t answer for the consequences.’

‘It was not I who excited him’, she said, and she looked at Joan.

Joan said: ‘Will he die, Doctor Thomas?’ She could hear herself that her voice was unnaturally indifferent.

The doctor looked at her in surprise. ‘Not this time, perhaps; in fact, I’m pretty sure he’ll pull round this time, but it mustn’t happen again.’

‘No,’ said Joan, ‘I understand; it mustn’t happen again.’

‘Quite so’, said the doctor dryly.

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