The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty-four

They buried him in the prim cemetery which had somehow taken upon itself the likeness of Seabourne, holding as it did so many of the late occupants of Seabourne’s bath chairs and shelters. Everyone attended the funeral. Admiral Bourne, General Brooke wearing a top hat, the despised bank manager, Ralph Rodney, in fact all the members of the club, and most of the local tradespeople. Sir Robert and Lady Loo sent a handsome wreath, but Mr. and Mrs. Benson came in person.

Colonel Ogden had never been really liked in his lifetime; an ignorant and over-bearing man at best. But now that he was a corpse he had for the time being attained a new importance, almost a popularity, in the eyes of Seabourne. His death had provided an excitement, something to do, something to talk about. The four days of his final illness had been more interesting than usual, in consequence of the possibility of tragedy. People would not have admitted it even to themselves, but had he recovered they would have felt flat; it would have been an anticlimax.

It was not until the funeral had been over for a week that Mrs. Ogden could be persuaded to think of ways and means. At first she had given way to a grief so uncontrollable that no one had dared to mention the family solicitor. But now there were bills to be paid and plans to be made for the future, and at last Joan persuaded her mother to write to the firm in London who had attended to Colonel Ogden’s affairs.

When the quiet man in a frock coat came down to Leaside, Joan was present at the interview, which was short and to the point. The point being that there was very little left of the three hundred a year that should have been hers and Milly’s. The quiet man made a deprecating gesture, explaining that, against his firm’s advice, the colonel had persisted in changing the trust investments. The firm had refused to act for him in this, it seemed, whereupon he had flown into a rage and acted without them. They had inquired at the bank, on Mrs. Ogden’s authority, and had discovered that the bulk of the trust moneys had been put into a mine which was paying nothing at present and seemed unlikely ever to pay again. But Mrs. Ogden must surely be aware of this, as she was the cotrustee? Had she not had papers to sign for the sale of securities and so on? Ah, yes, of course, she naturally did not like to question her husband’s judgment — just signed whatever he told her to; still — she should have been more cautious, she should have insisted upon knowing what was being done. But then ladies were proverbially ignorant of such things. Well, well, it was very sad, very distressing; there would be her pension, of course, and about fifty pounds a year left of the trust moneys — No, not more, unfortunately, but that fifty pounds came from a sound investment, thank goodness. The two young ladies would have twenty-five pounds a year each; that was better than nothing, still  —

They thanked him, and when he had gone sat looking at each other helplessly.

Joan said: ‘This is the end for Milly and me, now we shall never get away.’

Her own words astonished her, they were so cruel; she had not meant to think aloud. Mrs. Ogden burst into tears. ‘Oh, James, James!’ she sobbed hysterically; ‘listen to her, she wants to get away! Oh, what shall I do, now that you’ve left me; what shall I do, what shall I do?’

‘Stop crying, Mother, I’m sorry I said that, only you see — but don’t let’s talk now, by this evening we shall both feel more able to decide things.’

She left the room, closing the door quietly, and snatching up a hat went out of the house. A black anger was slowly surging up in her, anger and a feeling of desperation. What had they done to her and her sister, the over-bearing, self-willed father and this weak, inadequate mother with her exaggerated grief? For now that the colonel was dead Mrs. Ogden elected to mourn him as though he had been the love of her life; she gave herself up to an orgy of sorrow that permitted of no interruption. It had puzzled Joan, remembering as she did the things her mother had told her. Through it all her mother could not bear to have her out of her sight for an instant, it was as though she craved her as an audience. She thought of all this as she strode along, the fine drizzle soaking her shoulders.

It was not so much for herself that she cared as for Milly, and above all for Elizabeth; how could she ever tell Elizabeth the truth, that now there would be no money for Cambridge or for their little flat in London? But, yes, it was for herself that she cared too. Oh, horribly, desperately she cared for herself. She clenched her hands in her pockets, a pain almost physical possessed her; she could not give it up like this, all in a moment. She realized as never before how much that future with Elizabeth had meant to her, and now it had been snatched away. What would she do, what could she do? Nothing, if her mother would not help her to get free — and of course she would not; she could not even if she would; she was poor, poor, poor, they all were, poorer than they had ever been. What would Milly do now? What would Elizabeth do? Milly would rage, she would metaphorically stamp on their father’s grave. And Elizabeth?

2

Elizabeth was alone in the schoolroom when Joan got back. As she came in, pale and drenched with rain, Elizabeth held out her hand. ‘I’ve been waiting for you; come here, Joan.’

Joan took the proffered hand and pressed it.

‘Joan, I know what it is you want to tell me, I’ve known for some time.’

‘You know — but how?’

‘My dear, all Seabourne knows that your father had been speculating before he died. Do you think there’s ever anything that all Seabourne doesn’t know? I heard something about it from Ralph; he told me.’

Joan snatched her hand away, she spoke bitterly: ‘All Seabourne knew and you knew, it seems; I see — only Milly and I were kept in the dark!’

‘Don’t be angry. What was the good of making — you unhappy before it was absolutely necessary; surely you know soon enough as it is?’

‘But I don’t understand, Elizabeth; do you realize what this means to you and me?’

‘You mean that now you have no money you can’t go to Cambridge?’

‘Yes, Cambridge, but above all the flat. I was thinking of our plans for our life together.’

‘Go up and change and then we’ll talk’, said Elizabeth quietly. ‘You’re wet through.’

Joan obeyed.

3

‘And now’, Elizabeth began, when Joan, wrapped in a dressing-gown, had sunk into a chair. ‘Let’s thrash this thing out from clue to earring. How much has he left you?’

‘Twenty-five pounds a year each.’

Elizabeth considered. ‘It might be done’, she said. ‘With care and scraping, I think it might be done, providing of course you take a scholarship, which you can do. You remember I told you that I could get a job in London? Well, I’m more sure of that now than I was when I wrote, I’m practically certain it can be managed. Don’t interrupt, please. This is my plan: you will go to Cambridge when you’re twenty-one and I shall take the flat. If it’s available sooner we’ll let it. While you’re at Cambridge I shall find a P.G. That oughtn’t to be difficult, and the little money that I’ve saved will go to help with Cambridge. Oh, don’t argue, you can pay me back when you get into harness. And there’s another thing I never told you; I have a relation from whom I must inherit something, a most disagreeable relation of my father’s who can’t help leaving me his little all, because it’s entailed. Well, I propose to raise a loan on my expectations, “borrowing on reversion” is what they call it, I think, and with that loan we’re going to make a doctor of you, so you see it’s all arranged.’

Joan stared at her, bewildered. ‘But, Elizabeth, I could never pay you back, perhaps.’

‘Oh, well,’ said Elizabeth laughing; ‘then you’ll have to work for me, you may even have to keep me in my old age.’

Joan began to cry, with the suddenness of a child; she cried openly, not troubling to hide her face.

‘Oh, for God’s sake, Joan, don’t do that!’

‘It’s you’, sobbed Joan, choking. ‘It’s you — just you.’

Elizabeth got up, she hesitated and then went to the door, she did not look at Joan.

‘Think it over’, she said.

4

Mrs. Ogden’s hands fluttered helplessly over the litter of papers that lay among the plates on the half-cleared supper table; the eyes that she raised to Joan were vague.

‘Can you make all this out?’ she said drearily. ‘I shall never be able to understand legal terms.’

Joan picked up a letter and read it through. ‘There’s your small life interest under grandpapa Ogden’s will, and then there’ll be your pension, Mother, but it’s very little, I’m afraid; we shall obviously have to leave this house.’

Mrs. Ogden shook her head. ‘I can’t do that’, she said, with an unexpected note of firmness in her voice. ‘Where could I go and pay less rent than I do here? Only thirty-five pounds a year.’

‘But you see, dear, there are other expenses, servants and light and coal.’ Joan spoke patiently. ‘And then the rates and taxes; a tiny flat in London would cost so much less to run.’

‘How can you suggest London to me now, after all I went through there with my James’s illness?’ Her lips began to tremble. ‘I should never be able to face the noise and the dirt and the fearful climate, with my heart as it is. You’re cruel, Joan.’

‘But, Mother, we have to face things as they are.’

‘I can’t’, said Mrs. Ogden faintly. ‘I’m too ill.’

Joan sighed. ‘You must, darling; you can’t stay here, you haven’t got the money, we none of us have now. It’ll be all right, truly it will, if you’ll let me help to straighten things out.’

A sly, stubborn expression came over Mrs. Ogden’s face; she wiped the tears from her eyes and tucked away her handkerchief. ‘Tell me exactly what I have got’, she asked quietly.

Joan told her.

‘And then there’s the fifty pounds a year, dearest, that your poor father saved from the wreck; surely with that as well we can get on here quite comfortably.’

Joan dropped the letter, something seemed to turn very cold inside her. Even that, then! She meant to take even that from them. ‘But, Mother, there’s Milly’s future and — and mine’, she finished lamely.

Mrs. Ogden flushed. ‘I don’t understand you’, she said.

‘Oh, Mother, don’t make it all so terribly difficult, you know what I mean; you know quite well that Milly and I want to work for our living. We shall need the little he’s left us if we’re ever to make good; it’s bad enough, God knows, but we might manage somehow. Oh, Mother, dear! won’t you be reasonable?’

Mrs. Ogden’s mouth tightened. ‘I see,’ she said; ‘you and Milly wish to leave home, to leave me now that I have no one else to care for me. You want to hide me away in a tenement house, while you two lead the life that seems amusing to you. This home is to be broken up and I am to go to London — my health doesn’t matter. Well, I suppose I’d be better dead and then you’d be rid of the trouble of me. Your father must be turning in his grave, I should think, feeling as he did about your ridiculous notions. And what a father he was, devoted to you both; he killed himself working and striving to make money for you, and this is the gratitude he gets.’ She began to sob convulsively. ‘Oh, James!’ she wailed. ‘James, James, why did you ever leave me!’

Joan got up. ‘Stop it!’ she said harshly. ‘Stop it at once, Mother. You know you’re unjust and that you’re not telling the truth, and as for my father, he had — Oh, never mind, I won’t say it, but stop crying and listen to me. Milly and I are young, we’ve got all our lives before us and we’re unhappy here, don’t you understand? We are not happy, we want to go out into the world and do something; we must, I tell you, we can’t stay here and rot. It’s our right to go and no one has any business to stop us; you least of all, who brought us into the world. Did we ask to be born? No, you and Father had us for your own pleasure. Very well, then, now you must let us go for ours; it’s your duty to help us because you are our mother and we need your help. If you won’t help us we shall go just the same, because we must, because this thing is stronger than we are, but —’

Mrs. Ogden clutched at Joan’s hand, she dragged her to her, kissing her again and again. ‘You fool!’ she said passionately. ‘Can’t you understand that it’s not Milly I care about, or the money, but you; will you never see that I love you more than anything else in the world?’

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