The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty-one

Richard was faithful to his promise. Large brown paper parcels of books began to arrive from Cambridge; Joan and Elizabeth studied them together. The weariness of the days was gone for Joan; with the advent of her medical books she grew confident once more, she felt her foot already on the first rung of the ladder.

At this time Elizabeth strove for Joan as she had never striven before. Joan did not guess how often her friend sat up into the small hours of the morning struggling to master some knotty point in their new studies. How she wrestled with anatomy, with bones and muscles and circulatory systems, with lobes and hemispheres and convolutions, until she began to wonder how it could be possible that anyone retained health and sanity, considering the delicate and complicated nature of the instrument upon which they depended. A good many of the books dealt with diseases of the nerves and brain, and Joan found them more fascinating and interesting than she had imagined possible. Poor Elizabeth had some ado to keep pace with her pupil’s enthusiasm. She strained every nerve to understand and be helpful; she joined a library in London and started a line of private study, the better to fit her for the task in hand. She gloried in the difficulties to be surmounted, and felt that this work was invested with a peculiar significance, almost a sanctity. It was as though she were helping Joan towards the Holy Grail of freedom.

At the end of six months Elizabeth paused for breath, and together the two students reviewed their efforts. They were very well pleased with themselves and congratulated each other. But in spite of all this Elizabeth was dissatisfied and apprehensive at moments. She told herself that she was growing fanciful, nervy, that she was hipped about life and particularly about Joan, that she needed a change, that she had been overworking recklessly; she even consulted their text books with a view to personal application, only to throw them aside with a scornful exclamation. Theories, all theories! Those theories might conceivably apply to other people, to Mrs. Ogden for instance, but not to Elizabeth Rodney! She was not of the stuff in which neurosis thrives; she was just a plain, practical woman taking a plain, practical interest in, and having a plain, practical affection for, a brilliant pupil. But her state of mental unrest increased until it became almost physical — at last she broke —

‘Joan!’ she exclaimed irritably one day, flinging a text book on to a chair, ‘what, in Heaven’s name, are we doing this for?’

Joan looked up in bewilderment. ‘Out of scientific interest I suppose’, she ventured.

‘Interest!’ Elizabeth’s eyes gleamed angrily. ‘Interest! Scientific interest — yes, that’s it! I’m sitting up half the night out of mere scientific interest in a subject that I personally don’t care a button about, except inasmuch as it affects your future. I’m trying to take a scientific interest in the disgusting organs of our disgusting bodies, to learn how and why they act, or rather how and why they don’t act, to read patiently and sympathetically about a lot of abnormal freaks, who as far as I can see ought all to be shut up in a lunatic asylum, to understand and condone the physical and mental impulses of hysterics, and I’m doing all this out of scientific interest! Scientific interest! That’s why I’m slaving as I never slaved at Cambridge — out of pure scientific interest! Well, I tell you, you’re wrong! I don’t like medical books and I particularly dislike neurotic people, but it’s been enough for me that you do like all this, that you feel that you want to be a doctor and make good in that way. It’s not out of scientific interest that I’ve done it, Joan; it’s because of you and your career, it’s because I’m mad for you to have a future — I’ve been so from the first, I think — I don’t care what you do if only you do something and do it well, if only you’re not thrown on the ash-heap —’ She paused.

Joan felt afraid. Through all the turbulent nonsense of Elizabeth’s tirade she discerned an undercurrent of serious import. It was disconcerting to find that Elizabeth could rage, but it was not that which frightened her, but rather a sudden new feeling of responsibility towards Elizabeth, different in quality from anything that had gone before. She became suddenly aware that she could make or mar not only herself but Elizabeth, that Elizabeth had taken root in her and would blossom or fade according to the sustenance she could provide.

‘It’s you, you, Joan!’ she was saying. ‘Are you serious, are you going to break away in the end, or is it — am I— going to be all wasted?’

‘You mean, am I going to leave Seabourne?’

‘Yes, that is what I mean; are you going to make good?’

‘Good God!’ Joan exclaimed bitterly. ‘How can I?’

‘You can and you must. Haven’t you any character? Have you no personality worthy to express itself apart from Seabourne. No will to help yourself with? Are you going to remain in this rut all the rest of your life, or at least until you’re too old to care, simply because you’ve not got the courage to break through a few threads of ridiculous sentiment? Why it’s not even sentiment, it’s sentimentality!’ Her voice died down and faltered: ‘Joan, for my sake —’

They stared at each other, wide-eyed at their own emotions. They realized that all in a moment they had turned a sharp corner and come face to face with a crisis, that there was now no going back, that they must go forward together or each one alone. For a long time neither spoke, then Joan said quietly:

‘You think that I’m able to do as you wish, that I’m able to break through what you call “the threads of sentimentality”, and you despise me in your heart for hesitating; but if you knew how these threads eat into my flesh you might despise me less for enduring them.’

Elizabeth stretched out a scarred hand and touched Joan timidly; her anger had left her as suddenly as it had come, she felt humble and lonely.

‘You see,’ she said, ‘I’m a woman who has made nothing of life myself and I know the bitterness that comes over one at times, the awful emptiness; but if I can see you happy it won’t matter ever again. I don’t want any triumphs myself; not now; I only want them for you. I want to sit in the sun and warmth of your success like a lizard on an Italian wall; I want positively to bask. It’s not a very energetic programme, perhaps, and I never thought I’d live to feel that way about anything; but that’s what it’s come to, you see, my dear, and you can’t have it in you to leave me shivering in the cold!’

Joan clung to the firm, marred hand like a drowning man to a spar; she felt at that moment that she could never let it go. In her terror lest the hand should some day not be there, she grew pale and trembled. She looked into Elizabeth’s troubled eyes.

‘What do you want of me?’ she asked.

‘If I told you, would you be afraid?’

‘No, I’m only afraid of your taking your hand away.’

‘Then listen. I want you to work as we are doing until you come of age, then I want you to go to Cambridge, as I’ve often told you, but after that — I want you to make a home with me.’

‘Elizabeth!’

‘Yes. I have a little money put by, not very much, but enough, and I want you to come to London and live there with me. We could jog along somehow; I’d get a job while you studied at the hospital; we’d have a little flat together, and be free and very happy. I’ve wanted to say this to you for some time and today somehow it’s all come out; it had to get said sooner or later. Joan, I can’t stand Seabourne for many years, and yet as long as you’re here I can’t get away. I tell you there are times when I could dash myself to bits on the respectable mud-coloured wall of our house, when I could lay a trail of gunpowder down the middle of the High Street and set light to the fuse, when I could hurl Ralph’s woollen socks in his face and pull down the plush curtains and stamp on them, when I could throw all the things out of the study window, one by one, at the heads of the people on the parade, when I could — oh, Joan! — when I could swim a long way out to sea and never come back; I nearly did that once, and then I thought of you and I came back, and here I am. But how long will you make me stay here, Joan? How long shall I have to endure the sight of you growing weaker instead of stronger, as you mature, and some day perhaps the sight of you growing old and empty and utterly meaningless, with all the life and blood sucked out of you by this detestable place, when we might get free and hustle along with life, when we might be purposeful and tired and happy because we mean something.’

Joan got up.

‘Listen’, she said. ‘When I’m twenty-one I will go to Cambridge and after that I shall come to you in London; we’ll find a little flat and be very happy, Elizabeth.’

Elizabeth looked straight into her eyes with a cold, searching scrutiny. ‘Is that a promise, Joan?’

‘Yes, it’s a promise.’

2

Joan’s medical studies went almost unnoticed by Mrs. Ogden, whose mind was occupied with more pressing worries. Milly had suddenly announced her intention of going to the Royal College of Music, and her master had backed her up; there had been a scene, recriminations. The colonel had put his foot down and had not on this occasion had a heart attack, so that the scene had been painfully prolonged. In the end he had said quite bluntly that there was no money for anything of the kind. This had surprised Mrs. Ogden and had made her feel vaguely uncomfortable; she began to remember certain documents that James had asked her to sign lately; he had told her that they concerned the investment of the children’s money. And then, to her who knew him so well, it was all too evident that something was preying on his mind; she fancied that recently there had been more in his morose silences than could be accounted for by ill-health. He had grown very old, she thought.

Milly had not stormed, nor did she appear to have gone through much mental perturbation; in fact she had smiled pleasantly in her father’s face. It never occurred to her for one moment that she would not get her own way in the end; it hardly seemed worth worrying about. She did not believe that there was no money to send her to the College; she told Joan afterwards that this sort of remark was on a par with all the rest of the lies their father told when he did not wish to be opposed.

‘After all,’ she said, ‘there is my hundred and fifty a year, and of course, I should take a scholarship. It’s only Father’s usual tactics, and it’s all on a par with him to like the feeling of holding on to my money as long as he can; he thinks it gives him the whip hand. But I’m going up to the College, and I’m not going to wait until I’m twenty-one. I shall manage it, you’ll see; I’m not in the least worried about it really; if necessary I shall run away.’

But Mrs. Ogden was not so confident; she questioned her husband timidly.

‘James, dear — of course I understand your not wishing Milly to go to the College at her age; she’s only a child, that in itself is a reason against it; but to say there’s no money! Surely, dear —’

He cut her short. ‘At the moment there is not’, he said gruffly.

‘James!’

‘Oh, what is it, Mary?’

‘I ought to understand. Am I spending too much on the household? Surely I haven’t bought Milly too many new clothes, have I, dear? I thought perhaps that hundred and fifty a year of hers would have gone a long way towards helping her expenses in London; they say she’d certainly take a scholarship, and there’s no doubt she has very real talent. With Joan it’s different. I don’t consider that she has very marked talent in any particular direction; she’s an all round good student and that’s all; but Milly is certainly rather remarkable in her playing, don’t you think so?’

The colonel did not answer for a full minute, and when he spoke a pleading note had come into his voice, a note so unusual that his wife glanced quickly at him.

‘Mary, it’s these doctors and things, this damned long illness of mine has been the very deuce. If it hadn’t been for that money of Henrietta’s I don’t know where we’d have been, but I’m not the man to spend my children’s money on myself.’ He drew himself up painfully and his face flushed. ‘No, Mary, if Henrietta wished to make me feel that I’d no right to it, I wouldn’t touch a penny that I couldn’t pay back. If the damned unsisterly old devil is able to understand anything at all in the next world, I hope she understands that!’

‘But, James, have we borrowed some of the children’s money?’

‘A little’, he admitted. ‘We’ve had to. After all, the children would be in a bad way without their father. I consider it my duty to keep myself alive for their sakes. Where would you all be without me?’ he concluded with some return of his old manner.

Mrs. Ogden looked at him; he was a very broken man. A faint pity stirred in her, a faint sense of shock as though there were something indecent in what she was now permitted to see. She had been little better than this man’s slave for over twenty years, the victim of his lusts, his whims, his tempers and his delicate heart, the peg on which to hang his disappointments, the doormat for him to kick out of the way in his rages. She had lost youth and hope and love in his ungrateful service; at times she almost hated him, and yet, now that the hand was weakening on the reins, now that she realized that she could, if she would, take the bit between her teeth, she jibbed like a frightened mare; it was too late. There had been something in his almost humble half-explanation that brought his illness home to her as no fits of irritability or silence could have done.

‘Never mind, my dear,’ she said gently; ‘you’ve done everything for the best.’

He looked at her with frightened eyes and edged nearer.

‘I’ve done what I hope was for the best’, he said uncertainly. ‘Some of their money we had to take to keep going. I didn’t want to tell you that funds were pretty low. I suppose I ought to have told you not to spend so much on clothes, but — oh, well, damn it all! A man has his pride, and I hated to have to touch a penny of Henrietta’s money after the way she treated me; God knows I hated it! It must come all right, though. I’ve changed some of the investments and put the money into an excellent concern that I heard about quite by chance through Jack Hicks — a mine out in Rhodesia — they say there’s a fortune in it. Mary, listen and do try to understand; it’s a new mine and it’s not paying yet, that’s why we’re short at the moment, but it ought to begin paying next year, and by the time the children come of age it’ll be in full swing. It paid for a bit, jolly well, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have put the money into it, but I hear they’re sinking a new shaft or something, and can’t afford any dividends just at present. It’s only a matter of time, a few months perhaps. There can’t be a question about it’s being all right; I realize that from what Jack told me. And then, as you know, Mary, I always fancy myself as a bit of an expert in mineralogy. From what I can see the children ought to get a fortune out of it; don’t suppose they’ll be grateful to me though, not likely, these days. Of course you understand, Mary, that I didn’t depend entirely upon my own opinion. If it had been our own money I shouldn’t have hesitated, for I’ve never found anyone whose opinion I’d rather take than my own on financial matters; but being the children’s money I went into it thoroughly with Hicks, and between us we came to the conclusion that as an investment it’s as safe as the Bank of England.’

‘I see’, said Mrs. Ogden, trying to keep all traces of doubt from her voice. She did not see in the least and, moreover, gold mines in Rhodesia reminded her unpleasantly of some of her poor brother Henry’s ventures, but her head felt suddenly too tired to argue. ‘Shall I economize?’ she asked him.

He hesitated. ‘Well, perhaps —’ His voice shook a little, then he pulled himself together. ‘No, certainly not’, he said loudly. ‘Go on just as you are, there’s no reason whatever to economize in reasonable expenditure. Of course this crack-brained scheme of Milly’s is quite another matter; there’s no money for that sort of thing and never will be, as I told Joan pretty plainly when she began expounding her theories of a career. But in all reasonable matters go on just the same.’

He reached out his hand and took hers, patting it affectionately. ‘I think I’ll go to bed’, he said. ‘I feel rather tired.’

3

Milly had hit upon a course of action diametrically opposed to her real feelings, which were placid and a little amused. She intended to go to London, and it occurred to her that the best way to achieve this might be to make herself dispensable; at all events it was worth trying. She therefore sulked and wept to an abnormal extent, and took care that these fits of weeping should nor go unobserved. Whenever possible she shut herself up with her violin, ignoring the hours of meals. Her family became alarmed and put a tray outside her door, which she mostly left untouched, having provided herself with a surreptitious supply of rolls and potted meat. Her father looked at her glumly, but through his angry eyes shone an uneasy, almost wistful expression, when forced to meet his favourite daughter face to face. At the end of a fortnight he could bear it no longer and began to make tentative efforts at reconciliation.

‘That’s a pretty dress you have on, Milly; going out to give the neighbours a treat?’

Milly turned away. ‘No’, she said shortly.

‘Coming out with your old father this morning, when he goes for a drive in his perambulator? It’s devilish dull with no one to talk to.’

She stared at him coldly. ‘I have my violin to practise; I’m sorry I can’t come.’

The colonel winced; she was more than a match for him now, this impudent daughter of his, perhaps because he loved her as deeply as he was capable of loving. Once, when she had been unusually rude, snubbing his advances with the sharp cruelty of youth, Joan had seen his bulgy eyes fill with tears. She waited until they were alone together and then she turned on her sister.

‘Beast!’ she said emphatically.

‘I don’t know what you mean’, retorted Milly.

‘I think you’re a perfect beast to treat Father the way you do lately. Anyone can see he’s terribly ill and you speak to him as though he were a dog.’

‘Well, he’s treated me as though I were a dog no — worse; he’d give a dog a sweet biscuit any day, but he denies me the only thing I long for, that I’m ready to work for — my music. It’s my whole life!’ she added melodramatically.

‘Rot!’ said Joan. ‘That’s no reason for speaking to him as you do; I can’t stand it, it makes me feel sick and cold; his eyes were full of tears today.’

‘Well, my eyes are almost blind from crying — I cry all night long.’

‘That’s a whopper, you snored all last night.’

‘Oh!’ exclaimed Milly, angrily. ‘How I do hate sharing a room with you, there’s no privacy!’

Joan laughed rudely. ‘You are an ass, Milly, you try so hard to be grown up and you’re nothing but a silly kid.’

‘Perhaps if you knew all,’ Milly hinted darkly, ‘you’d realize that some people think me grown up.’

‘Do they?’

‘Yes, Mr. Thompson does, if you must know.’

‘I didn’t say I wanted to know.’

‘Well, Mr. Thompson doesn’t treat me as though I were a little girl; he’s very attentive.’

‘Do you mean the young man at the library, who smells of hair oil?’

‘I mean Mr. Thompson, the tennis player.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Joan vaguely, ‘I remember now, he does play tennis.’

‘Considering he’s the best player we’ve got,’ said Milly flushing, ‘it’s not at all likely that you didn’t know who I meant.’

‘Oh, shut up!’ Joan exclaimed, growing suddenly impatient. ‘I don’t care what Mr. Thompson thinks of you. I think you’re a beast!’

Joan tried clumsily to make it up to her father; she tore herself away from her books to walk beside his bath chair, but all to no avail, he was silent and depressed. He wanted Milly, with her fair curls and doll’s eyes, not this gawky elder daughter with her shorn black locks. He fretted for Milly; they all saw how it was with him. Milly saw too, but continued to treat him with open dislike. In the midst of this welter of illness and misery Mrs. Ogden flapped like a bird with a broken wing; she reproached Milly, but not as one having authority. All day long the sounds of a violin could be heard all over the house; it was almost as though Milly played loudest when the colonel went upstairs to rest; he would doze, and start up suddenly, wide awake.

‘What’s that? What’s that?’ And then, ‘Oh, it’s Milly; will the child never think of anyone but herself!’

The doctor came more often. ‘I’m not satisfied’, he told Mrs. Ogden. ‘I think you must take him to London for the Nauheim cure. It’s too late to go to the place itself, but he can do the cure in a nursing home.’

Mrs. Ogden looked worried. ‘He’ll never go’, she said.

‘He must, I’m afraid’, the doctor replied firmly. ‘But before moving him we must have Sir Thomas Robinson down in consultation.’

They told the colonel together. ‘I absolutely refuse!’ he began. ‘There’s no money for that sort of nonsense. Good God, man, do you think I’m a millionaire!’

The doctor said soothingly: ‘I’ll speak to Sir Thomas and ask him to reduce his fee, he’s a charming fellow.’

‘I won’t have him!’ thundered the colonel. ‘I refuse to be ordered about like a child.’

Doctor Thomas motioned Mrs. Ogden to leave the room; presently he called her in again.

‘He’s promised to be good’, he told her with an assumption of playfulness.

The colonel was sitting very upright in his chair, his face was paler than usual but his little moustache bristled angrily above his parted lips.

‘Well, I must be off’, said the doctor, hastily picking up his hat.

4

Mary Ogden laid her hand on her husband’s arm. ‘I’m sorry if this annoys you’, she said.

For a moment he did not speak, then he cleared his throat and swallowed. ‘He tells me, Mary, that it’s my one chance of life, always providing that the specialist man consents to my being moved.’ She was silent, finding nothing to say. He had died so many times already in all but the final act, that now, if Death had moved one step nearer, she scarcely perceived that it was so. Her mind was busy with a thousand pressing problems, the money difficulty, how to manage about her girls, whom to leave in charge of the house if she went to London, and where she herself would stay; it would all costs very great deal. She thought aloud. ‘It will cost a lot —’ she murmured.

He turned towards her. ‘They say it’s my only chance’, he repeated, and there was something pathetic in his eyes.

She pulled herself up. ‘Of course, my dear, we must go, no matter what it costs. And as it’s certain to cure you the money will be well spent.’

He looked at her doubtfully. ‘Not certain; there’s just a chance, Thomas said. And after all, Mary, I suppose a man has a right to take his last chance? I’m not so very old, you know.’

He seemed to expect her to say something; she felt his need but could not fill it.

‘Not so very old,’ he repeated, ‘and I come of a good sound stock; my father lived to be eighty-five. Not that I aspire to that, my dear, but still, a few years more, just to look after you and the children? What?’

His lips were shaking. ‘Mary!’ he broke out suddenly; ‘damn it all, Mary, I’ve got to go if my time has come, but do for God’s sake show a little feeling, say something; it’s positively unnatural the way you take it!’

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