The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty

During the weeks that followed, Joan managed to visit the Bensons on every available opportunity, or so it seemed to her mother. Mrs. Benson, lavish in invitations, encouraged the intimacy between Joan and Richard, and watched with amusement the rather pathetic and clumsy efforts of her elder son to win Elizabeth. Mrs. Ogden searched her heart and found no consolation. She had very little doubt that Joan and Richard were falling in love; they were very young of course, especially Joan, but she felt that Joan had never really been young, that she was a creature with whom age did not count and could not be relied upon to minimize or intensify a situation. She became retrospective, looking back into her own dim past, recalling her own courtship and mating. The burning days of Indian sunshine, the deep, sweet-smelling Indian nights with their melodramatic stars, the garden parties, the balls, the picnics, and the thin young Englishmen who had thought her beautiful; she remembered their tanned faces, serious with new responsibilities.

She remembered the other English girls and her own sister Ann, with their constant whispers of love and lovers, their vanities, their jealousies, their triumphs and their heartbreaks. She, too, had been like that, whispering of love and lovers, dreaming queer, uneasy dreams, a little guilty, but very alluring. And then into the picture came striding James Ogden, a square young man with a red moustache and cold twinkling blue eyes. They had danced together, and almost any man looked his best in the full dress uniform of the Buffs. They had ridden in the early mornings, and James was all of a piece with his Barb, a goodly thing to behold. He had never troubled to court her properly, she knew that now. Even then he had just been James, always James, James for all their lives; James going to bed, James getting up, James thinking of James all day long. No, he had not wasted much time on courtship; he had decided very quickly that he wanted to marry her and had done so. She remembered her wedding night; it had not been at all like her slightly guilty dreams; it had been — she shuddered. Thinking back now she knew that she herself, that part of her that was composed of spirit, had been rudely shaken free, leaving behind but a part of the whole. It had not been her night, but all James’s, a blurred and horrible experience filled with astonished repugnance.

Then their married life in the comfortable bungalow; after all, that had had compensations, for Joan had come as a healer, as a reason, an explanation. She had found herself promoted to a new dignity as a young married woman and mother, the equal of the other married women, the recipient of their confidences. Ann had married her chaplain, now a bishop, but Ann neither gave nor received confidences, she had become too religious. By the death of their father the two sisters had found themselves very much alone; they were stranded in a strange, new continent with strange, new husbands, and Mary Ogden would have given much at that time could she have taken her secret troubles to her sister. But Ann had discouraged her coldly, and had recommended prayer as the only fitting preliminary to marital relations.

Then another man had come into her life, quite different from James; a tall man with white hair and a young face. Unlike James, he took nothing for granted; on the contrary, he was strangely humble, considering his brilliant career. He was James’s very good friend, but he fell in love with James’s wife; she knew it, and wondered whether, after all, what men called love was as gross and stupid and distasteful as James made it. She let him kiss her one night in the garden, but that kiss had broken the spell for them both; they had sprung apart filled with a sense of guilt; they were good, conventional creatures, both of them. They were not of the stuff that guilty lovers are made of. But in their way they were almost splendid, almost heroic, for having at one time bidden fair to throw their prejudices to the wind, they had made of them instead a coat of mail.

Mrs. Ogden searched her heart; it ached, but she went on prodding. What would happen to Joan if she married — did she love Richard? Did she know what it meant? What was her duty towards the girl, how much should she tell her, how much did she know? She had been afraid of Joan going to Cambridge. She laughed bitterly; what was Cambridge in comparison to this? What was anything in comparison to the utter desolation of Joan in love, Joan giving herself utterly to another creature! She felt weak and powerless to stop this thing, and yet she told herself she was not quite powerless; one thing remained to her, she could and would tell Joan the facts of her own married life, she would keep back nothing. Yet she would be careful to be just, she would point out that all men were not like James, and at the same time make it clear that James was, as men go, a good man. Was it not almost her duty to warn Joan of the sort of thing that might happen, and to implore her to think well before she took an irrevocable step? Yes, she told herself, it was a duty too long delayed, a duty that must be fulfilled at once, before it was too late.

2

As Mrs. Ogden came to her momentous decision, Richard was actually proposing to Joan. They stood together in the paddock beyond the orchard, some colts gambolled near by. He went at it with his head down, so to speak, in the way he had of charging at things.

He said, seizing her astonished hand: ‘Joan, I know you only come here to pick my brain about medicine and things, but I’ve fallen in love with you; will you marry me?’

She left her hand in his, because she was so fond of him and because his eyes looked a little frightened in spite of his usual self-confidence, but she said:

‘No, I can’t marry you, Richard.’

He dropped her hand. ‘Why can’t you?’ he demanded.

‘Because I don’t feel like that’, she told him. ‘I don’t feel like that about you.’

‘But, Joan,’ his voice was eager, ‘we could do such splendid things together; if you won’t have me for myself will you have me because of the work? I can help you to get away; I can help you to make a career. Oh, Joan, do listen! I know I could do it; I’ll be a doctor and you’ll be a doctor, we’ll be partners — Joan, do say “Yes”.’

She almost laughed, it struck her that it was like a nursery game of make-believe. ‘I’ll be a doctor and you’ll be a doctor!’ It sounded so funny; she visualized the double plate on their door front: ‘Doctor Richard Benson’, and underneath: ‘Doctor Joan Benson’. But she reached again for his hand and stroked it gently as if she were soothing a little brother whose house of bricks she had inadvertently knocked down.

‘I’m not the marrying sort’, she said.

‘God knows what you are, then!’ he burst out rudely. Then his eyes filled with tears.

‘Oh, Richard!’ she implored, ‘don’t stop being my friend, don’t refuse to help me just because I can’t give you what you want.’

Now it was his turn to laugh ruefully. ‘You may not be the marrying sort,’ he said, ‘but you’re a real woman for all that; you look at things from a purely feminine point of view.’

‘Perhaps I do’, she acquiesced. ‘And that means that I’m being utterly selfish, I suppose; but I need your friendship — can I have it?’

‘Oh, I suppose so’, he said with some bitterness. ‘But you won’t really need it, you know, for you never mean to break away.’

She flushed. ‘Don’t say it!’ she exclaimed. ‘I forbid you to say it!’

‘Well,’ he told her, ‘if you mean to, it’s time you began to get a move on. If you won’t take me, then for God’s sake take something, anything, only don’t let Seabourne take you.’

3

On the way home Joan told Elizabeth. They stopped and faced each other in the road.

‘And you said —?’ Elizabeth asked.

‘I said “No”.’ replied Joan. ‘What did you think I’d say?’

‘No!’ said Elizabeth, and she smiled. Then, ‘I wonder if you’ll be surprised to hear that I had a proposal too, last week?’

Joan opened her lips but did not speak. Elizabeth watched her.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘I had a proposal from Lawrence. It seems to run in the family, but mine was very impressive. I felt it carried the weight of the whole Bank of England behind it. It sounded very safe and comfortable and rich, I was almost tempted —’ She paused.

‘And what did you say, Elizabeth.’

Elizabeth came a step nearer. ‘I said I was too busy just now to get married; I said I was too busy thinking of someone I cared for very much and of how they could get free and make a life of their own.’

‘You said that, Elizabeth?’

‘Yes. Does it surprise you? That’s what I said — so you see, Joan, you mustn’t fail me.’

Joan looked at her. She stood there, tall and neat, in the road; the dust on her shoes seemed an impertinence, as though it had no right to blemish the carefully polished leather. Her eyes were full of an inscrutable expression, her lips parted a little as though about to ask a question.

If it’s devotion you want,’ said Joan gruffly, ‘then you’ve got all I’ve got to give.’

There was a little silence, and when Elizabeth spoke it was in her matter-of-fact voice. She said, ‘I not only want your devotion but I need it, and I want more than that; I want your work, your independence, your success. I want to take them so that I can give them back to you, so that I can look at you and say, “I did this thing, I found Joan and I gave her the best I had to give, freedom and —”’ she paused, ‘“and happiness.”’

They turned and clasped hands, walking silently home towards Seabourne.

4

Mrs. Ogden was watching from the dining-room window as she often watched for Joan. Her pale face, peering between the lace curtains, had grown to fill the girl with a combined sense of irritation and pity. She called Joan into the room and closed the door. Joan knew from her mother’s manner that something was about to happen, it was full of a suppressed excitement. Without a word she led Joan to the sofa and made her sit beside her; she took the girl’s face between her two cold hands and gazed into her eyes.

Then she began. ‘Joan, darling, I want to talk to you. I’ve wanted to have a serious talk with you for some time. You’re not a child any longer, you’re nearly a woman now, it seems so strange to me, for somehow I always think of you as my little Joan. That’s the way of mothers, I suppose; they find it difficult to realize that their children can ever grow up, but you have grown up and it’s likely that you’ll fall in love some day — perhaps want to marry, and there are things that I think it my duty to tell you —’ She paused. ‘Facts about life’, she concluded awkwardly.

Her conscience stirred uneasily, she felt almost afraid of what she was about to do, but she thrust the feeling down. ‘It is my duty, I’m doing it for Joan’s sake’, she told herself. I’m doing it for her sake and not for my own.’

Joan sat very still, she wondered what was coming; her mother’s eyes looked eager and shy and she was a little flushed. Mrs. Ogden began to speak again in quick jerks, she turned her face slightly aside showing the delicate line of her profile, her hands moved incessantly, plaiting and unplaiting the fringed trimming on her dress.

‘When I was not very much older than you, in India,’ she went on, ‘I was like you, little more than a child. I was not clever as you are.I never have been clever, my dear, but I was beautiful, Joan, really beautiful. Do you remember, you used to think me beautiful?’ The voice grew wistful and paused, then went on without waiting for a reply. ‘I had no mother to tell me anything, and what I learnt about things I learnt from other girls of my own age; we speculated together and came to many wrong conclusions.’ Another pause. ‘About the facts of life, I mean — about men and marriage and — what it all meant. Men made love to me, dearest, they admired your mother in those days, but their lovemaking was restrained and respectful, as the lovemaking of a man should be to a young unmarried girl, and —’ she hesitated, ‘it told me nothing — nothing, Joan, of what was to come. Then I met your father. I met James, and he proposed to me and I married him. He was good looking then, in a way — at least I thought so — and a wonderful horseman, and that appealed to me, as you may guess, for we Routledges have always been fond of horses. Well, dear, that’s what I want to tell you about — not the horses, my married life, I mean.’

She went on quickly now, the words tumbled over each other, her voice gathered volume, growing sharp and resentful. As she spoke she felt overwhelmed with the relief that came with this crude recital of long hidden miseries. Joan watched her, astonished; watched the refined worn face, the delicate, peevish lips that were uttering such incongruous things. Something of her mother’s sense of outrage entered into her as she listened, filling her with resentment and pity for this handicapped and utterly self-centred creature, for whom the natural laws had worked so unpropitiously. She thought bitterly of her father, breathing heavily on his pillows upstairs, of his lack of imagination, his legally sanctified self-indulgence, his masterful yet stupid mind, but she only said:

‘Why have you told me all this, dearest?’

Mrs. Ogden took her hand. ‘Why have I told you? Oh, Joan, because of Richard Benson, because I think you’re falling in love for the first time.’

Joan looked at her in amazement. ‘You think that?’ she asked.

‘Well, isn’t it so? Joan, tell me quickly, isn’t it so?’

‘No,’ said Joan emphatically, ‘it isn’t. Richard asked me to marry him today and I refused.’

Mrs. Ogden burst into tears; her weeping was loud and unrestrained; she hid her head on the girl’s shoulder. ‘Oh, Joan — my Joan —’ she sobbed. ‘Oh, Joan, I am so glad!’

Now she did not care what she said, the years of unwilling restraint melted away; she clung to the girl fiercely, possessively, murmuring words of endearment. Joan took her in her arms and rocked her like a child. ‘There, there!’ she whispered.

Presently Mrs. Ogden dried her eyes, her face was ugly from weeping. ‘It’s the thought of losing you’, she gasped. ‘I can’t face the thought of that — and other things; you know what I mean, the thought of your being maltreated by a man, the thought that it might happen to you as it happened to me. You see, you’ve always seemed to make up for it all, what I missed in James I more than found in you. I know I’m tiresome, my darling, I know I’m not strong and that I often worry you, but, oh Joan, if you only knew how much I love you. I’ve wanted to tell you so, often, but it didn’t seem right somehow, but you do understand, don’t you, my darling? Joan, say you understand, say you love me.’

Somewhere in the back of Joan’s mind came a faint echo: did she love her? But it died almost immediately.

‘You poor, poor darling,’ she said, ‘of course I understand, and love you.’

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