The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty-eight

Where’s Elizabeth?’ asked Mrs. Ogden curiously. ‘Have you two quarrelled at last?’ Joan did not answer; she went on dusting the drawing-room mechanically; the servant had left and she and her mother were alone.

‘I must go and put the meat in the oven’, she said, leaving the room.

She put the joint in the oven and, turning to the sink, began peeling potatoes; then she rinsed them and put them to boil. The breakfast things were waiting to be washed up; an incredible lot of them for two people to have used, Joan thought. She hated the feeling of cold grease on her fingers; she could not find the mop and the scummed water crept up her bare wrists. But much as she detested this washing-up process, she prolonged it intentionally — it was something to do.

The potatoes boiled over; she moved the saucepan to a cooler spot and, finding a broom, swept the kitchen. Where was Elizabeth? She had left Seabourne for London; so much she had learnt from the porter at the station, but where was she now? It was a week since they had quarrelled, but it seemed like years. And Elizabeth did not write; she must be too angry, too bitterly disillusioned! She fetched the dustpan and took up the dust; it lay in great unsightly flakes where she had swept it from corners neglected by the discontented maid. Elizabeth had sacrificed all the best years of her life for this, to be deserted, left in the end; she had offered all that she had to give, and she, Joan, had spurned it, hurled it back in her face — in Elizabeth’s face!

The bell clanged. ‘Milk!’

Joan fetched a jug.

‘How much will you have today, miss?’

‘I don’t know’, said Joan vaguely.

With a look of surprise the man filled the jug. ‘Fine weather, miss, after the rain.’

‘Yes — oh, yes, very fine.’

She would write to her, go to her, anything but this; she would humble herself, implore forgiveness. If only she knew where she was; she would ask Ralph. No, what was the good? Elizabeth would not have her now, she did not want a weak-kneed creature who didn’t know her own mind; she liked dependable, strong people like herself.

‘Joan!’ came a voice.

‘Yes, Mother?’

‘Bring me my nerve tonic, dear.’

‘Yes, Mother.’

‘Oh, and bring me my shawl, I feel cold; you’ll find it in my top right-hand drawer.’

She obeyed, fetching the shawl, measuring out the tonic in a medicine glass.

‘I don’t feel it’s doing me much good’, Mrs. Ogden complained. ‘I slept very badly again last night.’

‘You must give it time’, said Joan comfortingly. ‘This is only your third dose.’

Where was Elizabeth? Had she found a new friend to share the flat? ‘You might go and buy me that trimming, some time today, darling; it may be all sold out if we wait.’

‘All right, I’ll go when I’ve tidied the house, Mother; they had plenty of it yesterday.’

But Mrs. Ogden persisted: ‘I have a feeling that it will all be sold out and I’m short by just half a yard. Can’t you finish the house when you come back?’

‘I’d rather get on and finish it now, Mother; I’m quite sure it’ll be all right.’

Mrs. Ogden reverted to the subject of the trimming again during lunch, and several times before tea. ‘We shall never get it’, she complained querulously. ‘I feel sure it’ll all be sold out!’

She allowed herself to be a little monotonous these days, clinging to an idea with wearying persistence. In her husband’s lifetime she would have been more careful not to irritate, but the restraint of his temper being removed, she no longer felt the necessity for keeping herself in hand.

Joan bought the trimming just before the shop closed, and this done, they settled down to their high tea. Joan cleared the table wearily, answered two advertisements of general servants, and finally took her book to the lamp. It was a new book that Richard had just sent her. Richard did not yet suspect what she had done; he probably thought she was busily making plans for her departure; how furious he would he when he knew. But Richard didn’t count; he could think what he liked, for all she cared.

She could not read, the book seemed beyond her comprehension, or was it all nonsense?

Mrs. Ogden’s voice broke the silence: ‘Joan, it’s ten o’clock!’

‘Is it, dear?’

‘Yes, shall we go to bed?’

‘You go, I’ll come presently.’

‘Well, don’t stay up too late; it makes me nervous, I can’t sleep properly till I know you’re in bed.’

‘I shan’t wake you coming upstairs.’

‘I never go to sleep at all until I hear your door close. Have you written about those servants?’

‘Yes, I’m going out now to post the letters.’

‘Then I’ll wait up until you get back, darling.’

‘No, please not, Mother; I have a key.’

‘But it makes me nervous when I know you’re out. Run along, dear; I shall wait for you.’

‘Very well,’ said Joan, ‘I shan’t be long.’

2

Mrs. Benson called and talked about Richard, and she looked at Joan as she spoke. She would have liked her Richard to have this girl, if, as she had begun to suspect, he had set his heart on her.

‘You and Richard have so much in common, Joan; he’s always writing to me about you.’

Mrs. Ogden said nothing.

‘When are you going to Cambridge?’ Mrs. Benson continued hurriedly, bridging an awkward pause.

Joan looked at her mother, but she was still silent.

‘Aren’t you going?’ Mrs. Benson persisted.

Joan hesitated. ‘Well, you see, it’s rather difficult just now —’

‘She doesn’t want to leave me’, said Mrs. Ogden with a little smile. ‘She thinks I’m such a helpless creature!’

‘But, surely —’ Mrs. Benson began, and then stopped.

The atmosphere of this house was beginning to depress her, and in a sudden flash she realized the cause of her depression. There was something shabby about everything here, both physical and ‘mental. Inanimate things, and people were letting themselves go, sliding; Mrs. Ogden was sliding very fast — and Joan? She let her eyes dwell on the girl attentively. No, Joan had only begun to slip a little as yet, but there were signs; her mouth drooped too much at the corners, her lips were too pale and her strong hands fidgeted restlessly, but otherwise she was intact so far, and how spruce she looked! Mrs. Benson envied this talent for tidiness, which had never been hers. Yes, on the whole, Joan’s clothes suited her, it would be difficult to conceive of her dressed otherwise; still the short hair was rather exaggerated. She wondered if Richard would make her let it grow when they were married, for, of course, she would marry him in the end.

‘So Elizabeth has gone to London’, she said after a silence, feeling that she had made a bad slip the moment the words were out. ‘Yes, she went more than a week ago’, Joan replied.

Mrs. Ogden looked up with interest. ‘But surely not for long? How queer of you not to have told me, dear.’

‘I thought I had’, said Joan untruthfully.

‘I heard from her this morning’, Mrs. Benson plunged on, feeling that she might as well be killed for a sheep as a lamb. ‘She’s got a very good post as librarian to some society.’

Then Elizabeth was in London!

‘Well, of all the extraordinary things!’ said Mrs. Ogden, genuinely surprised. ‘Joan, you never told me a word!’

‘I didn’t know about the post of librarian, Mother.’

‘No, but you knew that Elizabeth had left Seabourne for good.’

‘Yes, I knew that —’

‘Well then, fancy your not telling me; fancy her not coming here to say good-bye — extraordinary!’ Her voice was shaking a little with excitement now. ‘What made her go off suddenly, like that? Surely you and she haven’t quarrelled, Joan?’

Joan looked at Mrs. Benson; did she know? Probably, as Elizabeth had written to her. Mrs. Benson smiled and nodded sympathetically, her motherly eyes said plainly: ‘Never mind, dear, it’s not so bad as you think; you’ve got my Richard.’ But Joan ignored the comfort. What could Mrs. Benson know of all this, what could anyone know but Elizabeth and herself.

She said: ‘I think she was tired of Seabourne, Mother. Elizabeth was always very clever, and there’s nothing to be clever about here.’

Mrs. Ogden smiled quietly. ‘Elizabeth was certainly very clever; but what about her interest in you?’

‘Yes, she took a great interest in me; she believed in me, I think, but — oh, well, she couldn’t wait for ever, could she?’

She thought: ‘If they go on like this I shall scream!’

‘Well, I must be going’, said Mrs. Benson uncomfortably. ‘Come up tomorrow and lunch with me, Joan; half-past one, and I hope you’ll come too, Mrs. Ogden.’

Mrs. Ogden sighed. ‘I never go anywhere since James’s death. It may be morbid of me, but I feel I can’t bear to, somehow.’

‘Oh, but do come, please. We shall be quite alone and it’ll do you good.’

The smile that played round Mrs. Ogden’s lips was apologetic and sad; it seemed to repudiate gently the suggestion that anything, however kindly meant, could do her good, now.

‘I think not’, she said pressing Mrs. Benson’s hand. ‘But thank you all the same for wanting such a dull guest.’

Mrs. Benson thought: ‘A tiresome woman; she’s overdoing her bereavement, poor thing.’

The door had scarcely closed on the departing guest when Mrs. Ogden turned to her daughter. ‘Is this true?’ she demanded, holding out her hands.

‘Is what true?’

‘About Elizabeth.’

‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ exclaimed Joan gruffly, ‘don’t let’s go into all that. Elizabeth has gone away, isn’t that enough? Aren’t you satisfied?’

‘Yes’, said Mrs. Ogden, and her voice was wonderfully firm and self-possessed. ‘I am quite satisfied, Joan.’

3

At Christmas, Milly came home, a little taller, a little thinner, but prettier than ever. Joan was glad enough of her sister’s brief visit, for it broke the monotony of the house.

Milly was happy, self-satisfied and friendly. She seemed to look upon the episode of Mr. Thompson as an escapade of her foolish youth; she had become very grown-up and experienced. She had a great deal to tell of her life in London; she shared rooms with a girl called Harriet Nelson, a singer. Harriet was clever and fat. You had to be fat if you wanted to be an operatic singer, and Harriet had a marvellous soprano voice. She had taken the principal part in the College opera last year, but unfortunately she couldn’t act, she just lumbered about and sang divinely.

Milly said that Harriet was not a bad sort, but rather irritating and inclined to show off her French. She did speak French pretty well, having had a French nurse before her family had lost their money. Her father had been a manager in some big works up north, they had been quite well off during his lifetime; Harriet was always bragging about their big house and the fact that she used to hunt. Milly didn’t believe a word of it. Still, Harriet always seemed to have plenty to spend, even now. Milly complained of shortness of money, one felt it when it came to providing teas and things.

Then there was Cassy Ryan, another singer who also had a wonderful voice and was a born actress as well. She was a great darling. Milly would have liked to chum up with her, her diggings were just above Milly’s and Harriet’s. They had high jinks up there occasionally, judging by the row they made after hours; they had nearly been caught by ‘Old Scout’, the matron, one night, and had only just had time to empty the coffee down the lavatory and jump into bed with the cakes. Milly wished that she had been one of that party, but she didn’t know Cassy very well; Harriet did, but was rather jealous and liked keeping her friends to herself. Cassy’s father had been a butcher; Cassy said that he used to get drunk and beat her mother; and one day he had got into a frenzy and had thrown all the carcasses about the shop. One of them had hit Cassy and her lip had been cut open by a piece of bone; she still had the scar of it. But it didn’t matter about Cassy’s father having been a butcher; Cassy belonged to the aristocracy of brains, that was the only thing that really counted.

The violin students were rather a dull lot with the exception of Renee Fabre, who was beautiful. She was Andros’s favourite pupil. Milly thought that he pushed her rather to the detriment of the others; but it really didn’t matter, because Renee would be well off his hands when Milly wished to take the field.

Andros was a great dear; he wore a pig-skin belt instead of braces, and when he played his waistcoat hitched up and you saw the belt and buckle; it was very attractive. He had a blue-black beard, which he combed and brushed, and really beautiful black eyes. He was very Spanish indeed; they said that he had cried like a baby over his first London fog, he missed the sunshine so much.

You were allowed to go and see people, and Milly had gone once or twice to Sunday luncheon with Harriet’s family in Brondesbury. Her mother was a brick; nothing was good enough for Harriet, special dishes were cooked when it was known that she was bringing friends home.

Milly babbled on day after day; when she wasn’t talking about her new life she was making fun of the old one. Seabourne provided great scope for her wit; she enjoyed walking up and down the esplanade, ridiculing the inhabitants.

‘What a queer crew, Joan, just look at them! They think they’re alive, too, and that’s the funniest thing about them.’

Joan tried to enter in and to appear amused and interested, but she was very heavy of heart. And in addition to this a certain new commonness about her sister jarred her; Milly had grown second-rate and her sense of humour was second-rate too. Still, she was happy and, so far as Joan knew, good, and the other thing mattered so little after all. Mr. Thompson had left Seabourne, so there was really nothing to worry about so far as Milly was concerned; she was launched, and if she came to shipwreck later on it would not be Joan’s fault, she had done everything she could for Milly.

There was no mutual understanding between them; Joan felt no temptation to take her sister into her confidence. Milly had received the news of Elizabeth’s departure much as she always took things that did not concern her personally — listening with half an ear, while apparently thinking of something else. She had sympathized perfunctorily: ‘Poor old Joan, what a beastly shame!’ But her voice had lacked conviction. After all, it was not so bad for Joan, who had no talent in particular, it was when you had the artistic temperament that things went deep with you. Joan had retired into her shell at this obvious lack of interest, and the subject was not discussed any more.

Milly seemed to take it for granted that Joan had given up all idea of Cambridge. ‘All I ask,’ she said laughing, ‘is that you don’t grow to look like them.’

‘Like whom?’ Joan asked sharply, nettled by Milly’s manner.

‘Like the rest of the Seabourne freaks.’

‘Oh, don’t get anxious about me; I may change my mind and go up next year, after all.’

‘Not you!’ said Milly with disturbing conviction.

On the whole, however, the holidays passed peaceably enough. They avoided having rows, which was always to the good, and when at last Milly’s trunks were packed and on the fly, Joan felt regretful that her sister was really going; Milly was rather amusing after all.

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