The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Book four

Chapter Twenty-five

The two years that elapsed after Colonel Ogden’s death were years of monotonous uncertainty. There was no charm about this uncertainty, no spirit of possible high adventure raised it from the level of Seabourne; like everything else that came under the spell of the place, it was dull. Mrs. Ogden had sunk into a deep depression, which expressed itself in the wearing of melodramatic widow’s weeds; when she roused herself now it was usually to be irritable. There was a servant less in the house, for they could no longer afford to keep a house-parlourmaid, and things had already begun to look dingy and ill cared for. The overworked generals provided a certain periodical variety by leaving at a moment’s notice, for Mrs. Ogden was fast developing the nagging habit, and spent hours every day in examining the work that had been left undone. And then there was the money. Always a difficult problem, it had now become acute. Released from the domestic tyranny of her husband, Mrs. Ogden lapsed into partial invalidism. She scarcely did more than worry along somehow. The books went unchecked and sometimes unpaid, and in consequence the tradespeople were less respectful in their manner, or so she imagined.

Elizabeth still crammed Joan, but for this she received no payment, and they studied at Ralph Rodney’s house during his office hours. In his plush-hung study, beneath the portrait of Uncle John grown old, they sat and worked and made plans; sometimes they were happy and sometimes inexplicably sad. Elizabeth knew that Mrs. Ogden hated her, had always hated her with the stubborn hatred of a weak nature. In the old days she had not cared, except inasmuch as it might separate her from Joan, but now she had become acutely sensitive to the atmosphere of antagonism that she met at Leaside. It had begun to depress her, while at the same time her will rose up to meet the emergency; it was ‘pull Devil, pull baker’ more than ever before. Between these two passionately determined women stood Joan, miserable and young, longing for things to come to a head, for something that she felt ought to happen; she didn’t know what. She was conscious of a sense of emptiness, of unfulfilment; she was sleeping badly again, tormented by dreams that were only half remembered, the shadow of which haunted her throughout the day. She longed for peace; when she was away from Elizabeth she was restless until they met again, yet when they were together now their companionship was spoilt by Joan’s consciousness of her mother’s disapproval. Elizabeth had swift gusts of anger now that came up suddenly like a thunderstorm; she, too, was changing, breaking a little under the strain. These two had begun to act as an irritant on each other, and the hours of study would be interrupted by quarrels that had no particular beginning or end, and reconciliations that were only partial because so much seemed to be left unsaid.

Joan became scrupulously neat; she found relief in grooming herself. Her hair no longer tumbled over her forehead, but was parted and brushed till it shone, and she took an unconscionable time over her ties and the polishing of her brown shoes. If she had had the money, she would certainly have bought silk stockings to match her ties, a pair for every new tie. The more unhappy she felt the more care did she lavish on her appearance; it was a kind of bravado, a subtle revenge for some nameless injustice that fate had inflicted on her. Elizabeth secretly approved the change, but was silent; in vain did Joan wait for words of approbation; they never came. She longed for praise, with a childish desire that Elizabeth should admire her. Elizabeth did admire her, but a new perverseness that had sprung up in her lately made her refrain from saying so.

Events were moving slowly, but all the more surely for that, perhaps. Less than a year now and Joan would be of age, and then what? The unspoken question looked out of Elizabeth’s eyes. Joan saw it there; it seemed to materialize and stand between them. They could not evade the hungry, restless thing; it made them feel self-conscious and afraid of each other.

It was summer now and still Mrs. Ogden wore her heavy mourning; she looked frailer than ever in the long crêpe veil, and her pathetic eyes seemed to have grown dim with too much weeping. Seabourne elected to pity her, and looked askance at Joan. Not that Mrs. Ogden ever accused her daughter of heartlessness; she only implied it, together with her own maternal devotion. People thought her a helpless little woman, worthy of better treatment at the hands of that queer, cranky girl of hers. They began to talk at Joan rather than to her.

2

The loss of her money had had an entirely unexpected effect on Milly, who had not raged after all, but had just smiled disagreeably. ‘I knew he’d do something devilish,’ she said, ‘and how like him to die and leave us to bear the brunt.’

If she fretted she did so silently, taking no one into her confidence; it was curiously unlike the old Milly. At eighteen she was beautiful, with the doll-like beauty that would some day become distressing, the beauty that would never weather pleasantly.

Her little violin master had wrung his hands at the news of her misfortune; to him the disaster meant the end of his hopes, the end of a life-long ambition. Tears had stood in his eyes when Milly told him what had happened; he had put his arm around her, thinking that she must be in need of consolation, but she had flung away from him with a laugh.

Mrs. Ogden behaved as though her younger daughter were nonexistent, and Elizabeth, though she saw that all was very far from well, had become absorbed in her own troubles and held her peace. Joan on the other hand, watched her sister with increasing apprehension; she felt that this unnatural calm could not go on.

In the circumstances, it was too foreign to Milly’s nature, an alien and unwholesome thing that might some day give place to a whirlwind. Milly still played her violin, but lately there was something defiant, almost cruel, in her playing; she played now because she must and not because she wanted to. She appeared to have grown calmly frivolous, but there was no joy in her frivolity, or so it seemed to Joan; it was premeditated. The society of Seabourne welcomed her advent with enthusiasm; it found her bright and amusing. Her principal pleasure was now lawn tennis, which absorbed her during the summer months; she was bidding fair to become a star player, and she and Mr. Thompson of the circulating library vied with each other in amiable competition.

Mr. Thompson was sleeker than ever, and slightly impertinent in his manner, Joan thought; his hair shone and his flannels were immaculate. ‘No, reely now, Miss Milly, reely now!’ he protested, failing to take her service after an exaggerated effort. It became quite usual for him to see her home in the evenings, carrying her racket confidentially under his arm.

Joan said: ‘I can’t understand you, Milly; why on earth do you treat that bounder as if he were one of us?’

But Milly only smiled and held her peace.

She seemed to spend hours every Saturday afternoon at Mr. Dodds’. ‘He’s teaching me some new German music’, she told Joan, when questioned.

Milly had become a great letter writer; she was always writing letters these days, and always receiving them. She made a practice of collecting her post before the family came down to breakfast, slipping out of the bedroom on any transparent pretext.

But gradually a subtle change began to come over Milly; some of the bravado left her, its place being taken by a queer resentful desire to please; it was almost as though she were frightened. She offered to run errands for Joan, but was quick to take offence if her offer was refused. She was no longer so secretive either, and seemed to welcome occasions for confidential talks. When they were in bed at nights she tossed and complained of sleeplessness; she was constantly hinting at some secret that she would gladly divulge if pressed. But Joan did not press her; she was growing sick of Milly.

One morning it happened that Joan herself went early to the letterbox; Milly had overslept, and was in her bath. Among some circulars and a few bills, there was a letter addressed to ‘Miss Ogden’ in a neat clerical hand. She opened it and read, turning white with anger as she did so.

The letter was fulsome in its details, leaving nothing to the imagination. So this was how Milly spent her Saturday afternoons! Not in learning new music with innocent little Mr. Dodds, but hiding guiltily in an old sand-pit on the downs, with Mr. Thompson of the circulating library. Indulging herself in vulgar sensuality like any kitchen-maid courting disaster. Here then was the explanation of the man’s impertinence, of her sister’s new-found desire to propitiate; this then was Milly’s revenge for her wrong, this low intrigue with a common tradesman in their own town. She tore upstairs with the letter in her hand. Milly was only half dressed and looked round in surprise as the door burst open.

Joan held the letter out towards her. ‘This!’ she panted. ‘This beastly thing!’

Milly saw the handwriting and turned pale. ‘How dare you open my letters, Joan?’

I open your letters? Look at the envelope; he forgot to put your Christian name; it came addressed to me.’

Milly snatched the letter away. ‘You beast!’ she said furiously, ‘you cad! you needn’t have read it all through.’

‘I didn’t read it all through, but I read enough to know what you’ve been doing. Good God! You — you common little brute!’

Milly turned and faced her; her eyes were wild but resolute, like an animal’s at bay. ‘Go on!’ she said, ‘go on, Joan, call me anything you like, but at the same time suppose you try to realize that I’m also a human being. Do you imagine that I really mind your knowing about Jack and me? I don’t care! I’ve wanted to tell you scores of times. Yes, we do meet each other in the sand-pit every Saturday, and he makes love to me and I like it; do you hear? I enjoy it; I like being kissed and all the rest. I love Jack because he gives me what I want; if he’s common I don’t care, he’s all I’ve got or am ever likely to get. You stand there calling me names and putting on your high and mighty air as though I were some low creature that had defiled you; and why? Only because I’m natural and you’re not. You’re a freak and I’m just a normal woman. I like men; they mean a lot to me, and there aren’t so many men in Seabourne that a girl can afford to pick and choose. How am I going to find the sort of man you would approve of in Seabourne; tell me that? And where’s the harm? Lots of other girls like men too, but they go to dances and things and meet what you, I suppose, would call gentlemen. But it’s all one; they do very much what Jack and I have done, only you don’t know it, you with your books and your doctoring and your Elizabeth! Well, if I’d had a chance given me to meet your precious gentlemen, perhaps I’d be engaged to be married by now, instead of having to be satisfied with Jack in a sand-pit.’ She began to laugh hysterically. ‘Jack in a sand-pit, how funny it sounds; Jack in a sand-pit!’ She stopped suddenly and stared into Joan’s eyes. ‘Listen,’ she said seriously, ‘listen, you queer creature; haven’t you learnt anything from all your medical books? Don’t you know that some people’s natures are like mine, and that they can’t help giving way sometimes to their impulses; and after all, Joan, where’s the harm; tell me that? Where’s the harm to anyone in what Jack and I have done? Perhaps I’ll marry him — he wants me to — but meanwhile where’s the harm in our being happy, even if it is in a sand-pit on Saturday afternoons?’

Joan looked at her in amazement. This was Milly, beside whom she had slept for years; this was her sister, talking like some abandoned woman, quite without shame, glorying in her lapse. This was the real Milly; all the others had been unreal, this was the natural Milly. Something in her own thoughts made her pause. Natural, yes, natural. This was Milly upholding the nature she had inherited, fighting for its pleasures, its gratifications; Milly was only being natural, being herself: Were other people like that when they were themselves? Was that why a housemaid they had had years ago had left, because she was going to have a baby? Had she, too, been just natural? And what was being natural? Was it being like Milly, or like the housemaid with her sin great and heavy within her? What gave people these impulses which they would not or could not resist? Was it nature working on them for her own ends? Milly and the housemaid, she coupled them together in her mind. They were both human beings and what they had done was very human, too; very pitiful and sordid, like most human happenings.

She looked at her sister where she stood half dressed, her head drooping a little now, her cheeks flushed. She was so thin. It was touching the way her thin arms hung down from the short sleeves of her vest; they were like young twigs waiting to complete their growth. Seen like this there was so little of Milly to upbraid, she looked so childish. Yet she was not childish; she was wiser than Joan, she had probed into some secret. How funny!

‘Come here,’ Joan said unsteadily; ‘come here to me, Milly.’

Milly went to her, hiding her head on her shoulder. She began to cry. ‘Joan listen, I didn’t mean half I said just now, all the beastly, coarse things, I didn’t mean any of them. I know it’s wrong, it’s awful — and I’ve been so horribly ashamed — only I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t help it!’

Joan thought quickly; she knew instinctively that her moment had come. It was now or never with Milly.

‘Do you want to marry him?’ she asked quietly.

Milly looked up, a little smile trembling over her tear-stained face. ‘Of course not’, she said. ‘Would you want to marry Jack?’

‘Well, then, look here; do you still want to go to the Royal College or have you lost all interest in your fiddle?’

‘Lost interest? Why, I want it more than anything on earth; you know I do.’

‘Right!’ said Joan; ‘then you shall go. I’ll speak to Mother tomorrow.’

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