The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty-six

It’s no good, Mother’, said Joan firmly. ‘Things like this can I happen, they do happen; it’s human nature, I suppose.’

‘It’s not my idea of human nature’, Mrs. Ogden replied in a trembling voice.

‘Well, in any case it seems to have been Milly’s nature, and the point is now that she ought to be sent to London.’

‘To think,’ Mrs. Ogden burst out suddenly, ‘to think that a daughter of mine could stoop to a vulgar intrigue with a common young man in a shop! Could — oh! I simply can’t bring myself to say it — but could — well, go to such lengths that he ought to marry her. It’s too horrible! It’s on a par with our servant Rose, years ago; that was the milkman, and now it’s my own flesh and blood — a Routledge!’

Joan sighed impatiently. ‘Good Lord! Mother, what does it matter who it is, a Routledge or a Rose Smith, it’s all the same impulse.’

Mrs. Ogden winced. ‘Please, please; surely there’s no need to be so coarse, Joan?’

‘I’m not coarse, Mother. Life may be, but I’m not; I’m just looking things squarely in the face. It seems to me that people have different temperaments. Some are pure because they can’t help it, and some are impure because they can’t help it. Milly likes men too much, and I like them too little, but here we are, we’re your daughters, Routledges if you like, and all you can do is to make the best of it. It’s horribly hard on you, Mother, but the only way that I see out of it for Milly is for her to go to the College. She’ll probably forget this miserable business when she has her music again.’ She paused.

Mrs. Ogden voiced a sudden, fearful thought. ‘Joan,’ she said faintly, ‘will there — is there going to be a child?’

‘No’, said Joan. ‘I don’t think you need fear that, from what Milly tells me.’

Mrs. Ogden fell back in her chair, ‘I think I’m going to faint’, she whispered, wiping her lips with trembling fingers. Joan went to her and, lifting her bodily, sat down with her mother on her knee. ‘You can’t faint’, she told her with the ghost of a smile. ‘We’ve no time for fainting, dear; we must go into the accounts and see where the money’s to come from.’

2

Milly took her scholarship and went to London. As the train moved slowly from the platform, Joan had an overwhelming sense of something that mattered. Was it Milly’s departure? Perhaps. Milly’s face had looked very small and young peering from the window of the third-class carriage, it had stirred Joan’s protective instinct; yet her sister had smiled and waved happily, filled with joy at her new-found independence. But something had happened that did really matter, there was a change at last; change for Milly, it must be that Milly had got out of the cage. Why was Milly free while she, Joan, remained a prisoner? Was it because Milly was heartless, a callous egoist? Milly did not submit, she took the bit between her teeth and went at her own pace no matter who pulled on the reins. And her own pace had led her not to destruction, as by all the laws of morality it should have done, but to the actual goal of her heart’s desire; surely this was immoral, somehow?

Milly’s letters were full of enthusiasm. She wrote:

‘I can’t begin to tell you, Joan, how ripping it all is up here. I like Alexandra House; some of the others kick at the rules, but I don’t mind them. Good Lord! After Leaside it seems Paradise to me. And I’m going ahead with my playing; I’m in the College orchestra, which is jolly good, I think; of course it’s only a students’ orchestra, but it’s splendid practice. The students are quite good sorts, I’ve made one or two friends already. I never tell a soul about Jack; you said not to and I’m being cautious, for once. He keeps on writing, but I don’t answer; what’s the good? I hope he’ll soon leave Seabourne, as it will be so awkward to have him there when the holidays come. By the way, he says he’s going to try to get work in London, but don’t worry, I shan’t see him if he does; that’s all over and I’m very busy.’

It had worked better than Joan had dared to hope. Milly, absorbed in her music, had apparently submerged the other side of her nature, at all events for the time being. Joan could not help thinking of herself as a benefactress, a very present help in trouble. She had saved the situation, and perhaps her sister, and yet she felt discontented. No clouds of glory trailed for her, there was no spiritual uplift; she was conscious of nothing but a great restlessness that swept over her like a wind.

She would soon be of age; Elizabeth never let her forget this, for Elizabeth was restless too. She urged and drove to work; once she had held Joan back, but now she thrust her on and on. They slaved like two creatures possessed, working well on into the evenings. If Ralph turned them out of his study they went upstairs to Elizabeth’s bedroom; work, always work and more work. On Saturday afternoons they tore themselves away from their books, and tired and dispirited walked slowly up to the Downs and sat there, looking out to sea.

Elizabeth said once: ‘You were little when I first knew you, Joan.’ And Joan answered: ‘Yes, I was little then.’

It seemed as though they had uttered a momentous statement, they quailed at the solemnity of their own words. It was like that now; their overstrained nerves tanged sharply to every commonplace.

‘Next year’, said Elizabeth thoughtfully.

‘Next year’, Joan repeated with a sinking heart.

‘I’m growing old, Joan, but you’ll make me young again.’

And Joan’s eyes filled with tears. ‘You’re not old; don’t say things like that, Elizabeth!’

‘Oh, yes, I shall be old quite soon, and so we mustn’t wait too long. Joan, I can’t wait much longer.’

She turned her tired eyes on Joan. ‘Good God!’ she said passionately, ‘I’ve waited long enough.’

And Mrs. Ogden complained. She always complained now; about her health, her house, the servant, her daughters. She was indefinitely ill, never quite normal, yet the doctor came and pronounced her to be sound. She complained of feeling lonely because Joan left her so much, pointing out that even their evenings together were broken into by the prolonged hours of study. She cried a good deal, and when she cried the evidences of it remained with her for hours; her eyes were becoming permanently red-rimmed. She said that she cried nearly every night in bed.

Elizabeth, far beyond being able to control her feelings, now expressed open dislike of her. ‘A selfish, hysterical woman’, she called her; Joan winced, but remained silent, and alone with her mother was forced in turn to listen to elaborate tirades against Elizabeth. That was the way they spent their short evenings now, in bickering about Elizabeth. Mrs. Ogden said that she was a thief, a thief who had stolen her child from her, and occasionally Joan’s self-control would go with alarming suddenness and a scene would follow, deplorably undignified and all quite futile. It would end by Mrs. Ogden going slowly upstairs, clinging to the banister, probably to cry herself to sleep, while Joan, her head buried in her hands, sat on far into the night.

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