The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty-three

Mrs. Ogden wrote yet again: ‘I brought your father home yesterday; the doctor thought he would be better in his own house. God knows if the cure has helped him at all, I do not think so; but, Joan, my dearest, come back to me at once, for I am so longing to see you.’

Joan looked into the fire, she did not care whether her father was better or worse, and now she did not care whether she cared or not. From Seabourne to Blumfield, from Blumfield to Seabourne! And that was just life; not a tragedy at all, only life, a simple and monotonous business.

As their train drew in to the familiar station the tall figure of Elizabeth was waiting on the platform. She was standing very still, like a statue of Fate; a porter, pushing a truck of luggage towards her, called out: ‘By your leave, Miss!’ and seemed to expect her to move; but the tall, impassive figure appeared not to notice him and he pulled up abruptly, skirting it as best he could.

Milly said; ‘Hallo, Elizabeth!’ and then: ‘What a beastly station this is. I hate the bare flower-beds and the cockle-shells!’

They collected the luggage, Elizabeth unusually silent. It was not until they drove off in the fly that she began to talk.

‘Joan, your father is very ill; Mrs. Ogden told me to meet you, she couldn’t leave him today. He’s no better for the cure — they say he’s worse; but you’ll judge for yourself when you see him.’

They bumped down the High Street and on to the esplanade. A weak, watery sunshine played over the sea and the asphalt. Walking stiffly, with his hands behind his back, General Brooke was taking the air. A smell of seaweed and dried fish came in through the open windows and mingled with the pungent, musty smell of the fly. The cliffs that circled the bay looked white and spectral, and far away they could just discern the chimneys of Glory Point, sticking up in a fold of green. Joan roused herself from a deadly lethargy that had been creeping over her.

‘How is Mother?’ she asked.

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. ‘Just the same’, she said. ‘Very worried about your father, of course, but just the same as usual.’ She was staring at Joan with hard, anxious eyes, her lips a little compressed.

‘I’m glad you’ve come back, Joan, because —’ She did not finish her sentence, and the cab drew up at Leaside.

They got out, tugging at their bags. Milly rang the bell impatiently. Elizabeth pulled Joan back.

‘Look here,’ she said in a low voice, ‘I’m not coming in, but, Joan — remember your promise to me.’ And before Joan could answer she had turned and walked quickly away.

2

Mrs. Ogden met them in the hall; her eyes were red. She flung her arms around Joan’s neck and began to cry again.

‘Your poor father, he’s very ill. Oh, Joan, it’s been so terrible all alone in London without a soul to speak to or to appeal to! You don’t know what I’ve been through; don’t leave me again, I couldn’t bear it!’

Joan pushed her gently into the dining-room; it was all in confusion, with the remnants of luncheon still on the table. ‘Don’t cry, dear’, she said. ‘Try to tell me what has happened.’

Mrs. Ogden dried her eyes, clinging to Joan’s hand the while. Her soft greyish hair was untidy, escaping from the net. ‘The cure was too severe for him; he ought never to have gone to London; he didn’t want to go and they forced him, the brutes! He got worse and they sent him home two days ago; they said he was quite fit to travel and had better get home, but he wasn’t fit to travel — that’s the way they get rid of their responsibilities. And the nurses at that home were inhuman devils. I told them so; he hated them all. He seemed better yesterday, but this morning he fainted, and when the doctor came he put him to bed. He’s there now, and oh, Joan, he’s groaning! They say he’s not in pain, but of course he must be, and sometimes he knows me, and sometimes he’s delirious and thinks he’s back in India.’

‘Come upstairs’, said Joan drearily. ‘I want to see him.’

The familiar bedroom was not familiar any longer; it looked strange and austere as Joan entered. The blinds were down, flapping in the draught from the windows. A large fire blazing in the grate added to the sense of something important and portentous that hung about the place. On the bed lay a strange figure; someone whom Joan felt she had never seen before. Its face was unnaturally pale and shrunken and so were the wandering hands extended on the coverlet. This stranger moaned incessantly, and turned his head from side to side, his eyes were open and blank.

Joan took one of the wandering hands in hers: ‘Father!’ she said softly.

He looked through her and beyond, breathing with an effort.

A quiet tap came on the door and the nurse, hastily summoned from the Cottage Hospital, came in. She was a pink-faced, competent-looking girl, and wore her cloak and bonnet. She took in the situation at a glance.

‘I’ll just take off my things,’ she said, ‘and be back in a minute.’

Presently the doctor came again. He said very little, and pressing Mrs. Ogden’s limp hand, departed. The nurse, now in charge, had rendered the bedroom still more unfamiliar, with her temperature chart, and a table covered with a clean white towel, upon which she had set out strange little appliances that they did not know the use of. When she spoke she did so in a loud whisper, glancing ever and anon towards the figure on the bed. Her cuffs creaked and so did her shoes. A smell of disinfectant was everywhere; they wondered what it was, it was unfriendly, but no one dared to question this empress ruling over the kingdom of Death.

The colonel belonged to her now; they all felt it, and submitted without a protest. He was hers to do as she pleased with, to turn in the bed or to leave in discomfort, to raise up or lay down. She it was who moistened his lips with cotton wool, soaked in a solution of her own making. Sometimes she opened his mouth and moistened his tongue as well. He lay there utterly helpless and unable to protest, while she subjected him to countless necessary indignities. Her trained hands, hard and deft, permitted of no resistance, doing their work quietly and without emotion. It seemed horrible to Joan to see him brought so low, but she, like the rest of household, stood back respectfully, bowing to the realization that only three beings had any control over her father now: the doctor, the nurse — and Death.

Just before he died, on the afternoon of the fifth day, he knew his wife and called her: ‘Mary!’ His voice was unexpectedly loud. She went and put her arms round him.

‘Mary!’

‘Yes, James?’

‘I’m going to die — it’s funny my going to die — wish I knew more about it.’

‘Hush, dearest, don’t talk.’

‘Mary.’

‘Yes, James?’

‘Sorry — if I’ve been hard on you — but you see —’

‘Hush, my dear, you mustn’t try to talk.’

But the colonel had ceased to try to do anything any more in this world.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hall/radclyffe/unlit-lamp/chapter23.html

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