The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter two

Seabourne-on-Sea was small and select. The Ogdens’ house in Seabourne was small but not particularly select, for it had once been let out in apartments. The landlord now accepted a reduced rent for the sake of getting the colonel and his family as tenants. He was old-fashioned and clung to the gentry.

In 1880 the Ogdens had left India hurriedly on account of Colonel Ogden’s health. When Milly was a baby and Joan three years old, the family had turned their backs on the pleasant luxury of Indian life. Home they had come to England and a pension, Colonel Ogden morose and chafing at the useless years ahead; Mrs. Ogden a pretty woman, wide-eyed and melancholy after all the partings, especially after one parting which her virtue would have rendered inevitable in any case.

They had gone to rooms somewhere in Bayswater; the cooking was execrable, the house dirty. Mrs. Ogden, used to the easy Indian service and her own comfortable bungalow, found it well-nigh impossible to make the best of things; she fretted. That winter there had been bad fogs which resulted in a severe heart attack for Colonel Ogden. The doctor advised a house by the sea, and mentioned Seabourne as having a suitable climate. The result was: Leaside, The Crescent, Seabourne. There they had been for nearly nine years and there they were likely to remain, in spite of Colonel Ogden’s grumbling and Mrs. Ogden’s nerves. For Leaside was cheap and the air suited Colonel Ogden’s heart; anyhow there was no money to move, and nowhere in particular to go if they could move.

Of course there was Blumfield. Mrs. Ogden’s sister Ann had married the now Bishop of Blumfield, but the Blanes were, or so the Ogdens thought, never quite sincere when they urged them to move nearer to them. They decided not to try crumb-gathering at the rich man’s table in Blumfield.

It was her children’s education that now worried Mrs. Ogden most. Not that she cared very much what they learnt; her fetish was how and where they learnt it. She had been a Routledge before her marriage, a fact which haunted her day and night. ‘Poor as rats, and silly proud as peacocks’, someone had once described them. We Routledges’—‘The Routledges never do that’—‘The Routledges never do this’!

Round and round like squirrels in a cage, treading the wheel of their useless tradition, living beyond their limited means, occasionally stooping to accept a Government job, but usually finding all work infra dig. Living on their friends, which somehow was not infra dig., soothing their pride by recounting among themselves and to all who would listen the deeds of valour of one Admiral Sir William Routledge said to have been Nelson’s darling — hanging their admiral’s picture with laurel wreaths on the anniversary of some bygone battle and never failing to ask their friends to tea on that occasion — such were the Routledges of Chesham, and such, in spite of many reverses, had Mary Ogden remained.

True, Chesham had been sold up, and the admiral’s portrait by Romney bought by the docile Bishop of Blumfield at the request of his wife Ann. True, Ann and Mary had been left penniless when their father, Captain Routledge, died of lung haemorrhage in India. True, Ann had been glad enough to marry her bishop, then a humble chaplain, while Mary followed suit with Major Ogden of The Buffs. True, their brother Henry had failed to distinguish himself in any way and had bequeathed nothing to his family but heavy liabilities when his haemorrhage removed him in the nick of time — true, all true, and more than true, but they were still Routledges! And Admiral Sir William still got his laurel wreaths on the anniversary of the battle. He had moved from the decaying walls of Chesham to the substantial walls of the bishop’s palace, and perhaps he secretly liked the change — Ann his descendant did. In the humbler drawing-room at Leaside he received like homage; for there, in a conspicuous position, hung a print of the famous portrait, and every year when the great day came round, Mary, his other descendant, dutifully placed her smaller laurel wreath round the frame, and asked her friends to tea as tradition demanded.

‘Once a Routledge always a Routledge’, Mrs. Ogden was fond of saying on such occasions. And if the colonel happened to feel in a good temper he would murmur, ‘Fine old chap, Sir William; looks well in his laurels, Mary. Who did you say was coming in this afternoon?’ But if on the other hand his heart had been troubling him, he might turn away with a scornful grunt. Then, Mary, the ever tactless, would query, ‘Doesn’t it look nice then, dear?’ And once, only once, the colonel had said, ‘Oh, hell!’

The school at Seabourne was not for the Routledge clan, for to it went the offspring of the local tradespeople. Colonel Ogden was inclined to think that beggars couldn’t be choosers, but Mary was firm. Weak in all else, she was a flint when her family pride was involved, a knight-errant bearing on high the somewhat tattered banner of Routledge. The colonel gave way; he would always have given way before a direct attack, but his wife had never guessed this. Even while she raised her spiritual battle-cry she thought of his weak heart and her conscience smote her, yet she risked even the colonel’s heart on that occasion; Joan and Milly must be educated at home. The Routledges never sent their girls to school!

2

In the end, it was Colonel Ogden who solved the difficulty. He frequented the stiff little club house on the esplanade, and in this most unlikely place he heard of a governess.

Every weekday morning you could see him in the window. The Times held in front of him like a shield, his teeth clenched on his favourite pipe; a truculent figure, an imperial figure, bristling with an authority that there were now none to dispute.

Into the club would presently saunter old Admiral Bourne who lived at Glory Point, a lonely man with a passion for breeding fancy mice. He had a trick of pulling up short in the middle of the room, and peering over his spectacles with his pleasant blue eyes as if in search of someone. He was in search of someone, of some tolerant fellow-member who would not be too obviously bored at the domestic vagaries of the mice, who constantly disappointed their owner by coming into the world the wrong colour. If Admiral Bourne could be said to have an ambition, then that ambition was to breed a mouse that should eclipse all previous records.

Other members would begin to collect, Sir Robert Loo of Moor Park, whose shooting provided the only alternative to golf for the male population of Seabourne. There was Major Boyle, languid and malarial, with a doleful mind, especially in politics; and Mr. Pearson, the bank manager, who had found his way into the club when its funds were alarmingly low, and had been bitterly resented ever since. Then there was Mr. Rodney the solicitor, and last but not least, General Brooke, Colonel Ogden’s hated rival.

General Brooke looked like Colonel Ogden, that was the trouble; they were often mistaken for each other in the street. They were both under middle height, stout, with grey hair and small blue eyes, they both wore their moustaches clipped very short, and they both had auxiliary whiskers in their ears. Added to this they both wore red neckties and loose, light home-spuns, and they both had wives who knitted their waistcoats from wool bought at the local shop. They both wore brown boots with rubber studded soles, and worst of all, they both wore brown Homburg hats, so that their backs looked exactly alike when they were out walking. The situation was aggravated by the fact that neither could accuse the other of imitation. To be sure General Brooke had lived in Seabourne eighteen months longer than Colonel Ogden and had never been seen in any other type of garments; but then, when Colonel Ogden had arrived in his startling replicas, his clothes had been obviously old and had certainly been worn quite as long as the general’s.

It was Mr. Rodney, the solicitor, who offered Colonel Ogden a solution to his wife’s educational difficulties. Mr. Rodney, it seemed, had a sister just down from Cambridge. She had come to Seabourne to keep house for him, but she wanted to get some work, and he thought she would probably be glad to teach the Ogdens’ little girls for a few hours every day. The colonel engaged Elizabeth Rodney forthwith.

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