The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty-nine

The winter dragged on into spring, a late spring, but wonderfully rewarding when it came. Everything connected with the earth seemed to burst out into fulfilment all in a night; there was a feeling of exuberance and intense colour everywhere, which reflected itself in people’s spirits, making them jolly. The milkman whistled loudly and clanked his cans for the sheer joy of making a noise. They had a servant again at Leaside, so that Joan no longer exchanged the time of day with him at the back door, but she stood at the dining-room window and watched him swinging down the street, pushing his little chariot in front of him; a red-haired and rosy man, very well contented with life.

‘He’s contented and I’m miserable’, she thought. ‘Perhaps I should be happier if I were a milkman, and had nothing to long for because there was nothing in me to long with.’

2

Far away, in London, Elizabeth strode through Kensington Gardens on her way to work; her head was a little bent, her nostrils dilated, sniffing the air. A chorus of birds hailed her with apparent delight. She noticed several thrushes and at least one blackbird among them. The Albert Memorial came into sight, it glowed like flame in the sun; a pompous and a foolish thing made beautiful.

‘I suppose it’s spring in Seabourne too’, she was thinking, and then: ‘I wonder if Joan is very unhappy.’

She quickened her steps. ‘Go on, go on, go on!’ sang the spring insistently, and then: ‘Go back, go back, go back! There is something sweeter than ambition.’ Elizabeth trembled but went on.

To Joan the very glory of it all was an added heart-break. Grief is never so unendurable in suitable company, it finds quite a deal of consolation in the sorrow of others; it feels understood and at home. But on this spring morning in Seabourne Joan’s grief found no one to welcome it. Even the servant at Leaside was shouting hymns as she laid the breakfast; she belonged to the Salvation Army and every now and then would pause to clap her hands in rhythm to the jaunty tune.

’My sins they were as scarlet! They are now as white as snow!‘

She carolled, and clapped triumphantly. Joan could hear her from her bedroom upstairs.

Mrs. Ogden heard her too. ‘Ethel!’ she called irritably; ‘not so much noise, please.’ She closed her door sharply and kneeling down in front of a newly acquired picture of The Holy Family, began to read a long Matinal Devotion — for Mrs. Ogden was becoming religious. The presence of spring in her room coloured her prayers, giving them an impish vitality. She entreated God with a new note of sincerity and conviction to cast all evil spirits into Hell and keep them there for ever and ever. She made an elaborate private confession, striking her breast considerably more often than the prescribed number of times. ‘Through my fault, through my fault —’ she murmured ecstatically.

3

An amazingly High Church clergyman had been appointed to a living two miles away, and something in the incense and candles he affected had stirred a new emotional excitement in Mrs. Ogden. Her bedside table was strewn with little purple and white booklets: ‘Steps towards Eternal Life’, ‘Guide to Holy Mass’, ‘The Real Catholic Church’. They found their way downstairs at times, and got themselves mixed up with Joan’s medical literature.

There appeared to be countless services at ‘Holy Martyrs’, all of which began at inconvenient hours, for Mrs. Ogden was for ever having the times of the meals altered so that she might attend. It was wonderful how she found the strength for these excursions. Two miles there and two back and early service every Sunday morning, for she had become a regular Communicant now, and wet or fine went forth fasting.

Joan understood that the new ‘priest’, as Mrs. Ogden insisted that he should be called, was ascetic, celibate and delicate. His name was Cuthbert Jackson, and he was known to his flock as ‘Father Cuthbert’.

It was not at all unusual for Mrs. Ogden to feel faint on her return from Mass — the congregation called it Mass to annoy the bishop — and once she had actually fainted in the church. Joan had been with her on that occasion and had helped to carry her mother into the vestry; it had been very embarrassing. When, after a severe application of smelling salts, Mrs. Ogden had opened her eyes, there had been much sympathy expressed, and she had insisted on leaving the church via the nave, clinging to her daughter’s arm.

She remonstrated with her mother about these early services, but to no effect.

‘Oh, Joan! If only you could find Him too!’

‘Who?’ Joan inquired flippantly; ‘Father Cuthbert?’

‘No, my darling. I didn’t mean Father Cuthbert — but then you don’t understand!’

Joan was silent, she felt that she was getting hard. It worried her at times, but something in the smug contentment of her mother’s new-found faith irritated her beyond endurance. Mrs. Ogden had become so familiar with the Almighty; so soppily sentimental over her Redeemer. Joan could not feel Christianity like this or recognize Christ in this guise. She suspected that Mrs. Ogden put Him only a very little above Father Cuthbert: Father Cuthbert to whom she went every few days to confess the sins that she might have committed but had not. Joan had formed her own picture of Christ, and in it He did not appear as the Redeemer especially reserved for elderly women and anaemic parsons, but as a Being immensely vast and fierce and tender. Hers was a militant, intellectual Christ; the Leader of great armies, the Ruler over the nations of the earth, the Companion of wise men and kings, the Friend of little children and simple people. She felt ashamed and indignant for Him whenever her mother touched on religion, she was so terrifyingly patronizing.

Mrs. Ogden had quickly become a slave of small pious practices. She went so far as to keep a notebook lest she should forget any of them. They affected the household adversely, they made a lot more work for other people to do. No meat was permitted on Fridays; in fact, they had very little to eat of any kind. It was all absurd and tiresome and pathetic, and obviously bad for the health. The only result of it, so far as Joan could see, was that Mrs. Ogden evinced even less interest than before in domestic concerns, only descending from her vantage ground to find fault. She seemed to be living in another world, while still keeping a watchful eye on her daughter.

She found an excellent new grievance in the fact that Joan resisted all efforts to make her attend church regularly; there was no longer Elizabeth to worry about, so she worried about Joan’s soul. Joan was patiently stubborn, she refused to confess to Father Cuthbert or to interest herself in any way in his numerous activities. He came to tea at Mrs. Ogden’s request and tried his best, poor man, to wear down what he felt to be Joan’s prejudice against him. But he was melodramatic looking and doubtfully clean, and wore a large amethyst cross on his emaciated stomach, and Joan remained unimpressed.

‘If you want to be a Catholic,’ she told her mother afterwards, ‘why not be a real one and be done with it.’

‘I am a real one’, said Mrs. Ogden.

‘Oh no, Mother, you’re not, you’re only pretending to be. You take the plums out of other people’s religion and disregard the rest. I think it’s rather mean.’

‘If you mean the Pope! ——’ began Mrs. Ogden indignantly. ‘Oh, I mean the whole thing; anyhow, it wouldn’t suit me.’

Mrs. Ogden was offended. ‘I must ask you not to speak disrespectfully of my religion’, she said. ‘I don’t like it.’

‘Then don’t keep on pushing it down my throat.’

They started bickering again. Bickering, always bickering; Joan knew that it was intolerable, undignified, that she ought to control herself, but the power of self-control was weakening in her. She was sorry for her mother, for the past that was so largely responsible for Mrs. Ogden’s present, but the fact that she felt sorry only irritated her the more. She told herself that if this new religious zeal had been productive of peace she could have been tolerant, but it was not; on the contrary the domestic chaos grew. If Mrs. Ogden had tried her servants before, she did so now ten times more; she nagged with new-found spiritual vigour; it was becoming increasingly difficult to please her.

‘It’s them meal times, miss’, blubbered the latest acquisition to Joan, one morning. ‘It’s the chopping and the changing that’s so wearying; I can’t stand it, no I can’t, I feel quite worn out.’

‘Don’t say you want to leave, Ethel?’ Joan implored with a note of despair in her voice.

‘But I do! She’s never satisfied, miss; she’s at me all the time.’

‘She’s at me, too,’ thought Joan, ‘and yet I don’t seem able to give month’s notice.’

4

It was summer again. How monotonously the seasons came round it was always spring, summer, autumn, or winter; it could never be anything else, that made a year. How many years made a lifetime?

Joan began playing tennis again; one always played tennis every summer at Seabourne, but now she disliked the game. Since Milly’s affair with Mr. Thompson, the tennis club and its members had become intolerable to her. The members found her dull and probably disliked her; she was so sure of this that she grew self-conscious and abashed in their midst. She wondered sometimes if that was why she found fault with them, because they made her feel shy. She had never made friends, she had been too much wrapped up in Elizabeth. No one was interested in her, no one wanted her. Richard wrote angry letters; she never answered them, but he went on writing just the same. He seemed to take a pleasure in bullying her.

‘I shan’t come home this summer’, he wrote. ‘I can’t see you withering on your stalk. You can marry me if you like; why not, since nothing better offers? But what’s the good of talking to you? It’s hopeless! I don’t know why I waste time in writing; I suppose it’s because I’m in love with you. You’ve disappointed me horribly; I could have stood aside for your work, but you don’t want to work, and you make your duty to your mother the excuse. Oh Joan! I did think you were made of better stuff. I thought you were a real person and not just a bit of flabby toast like the rest of the things at Seabourne.’

She had said that she cared less than nothing for his approval or disapproval, but she found she did care after all; not because she loved Richard, but because it was being brought home to her that she, like the rest of mankind, needed approbation. No one approved of her, not even the mother for whose sake she was sacrificing herself. Self-sacrifice was unpopular, it seemed, or was it in some way her own fault? She must be different from other people, a kind of unprepossessing freak. She sat brooding over this at the schoolroom table, with Richard’s last epistle crushed in her hand. Her eyes were bent unseeing on the ink-stained mahogany, but something, perhaps it was a faint sound, made her look up. Elizabeth was standing in the doorway gazing at her.

Joan sprang forward with a cry.

‘Hallo, Joan’, said Elizabeth calmly, and sat down in the arm-chair. Joan’s voice failed her. She stood and stared, afraid to believe her eyes.

Elizabeth waited; then: ‘Well?’ she queried.

Joan found her voice. ‘You’ve come back for the holidays? Thank you for coming to see me.’

Elizabeth said: ‘There’s no need to thank me; I came because I wanted to; don’t be ridiculous, Joan!’

‘But I thought — I understood that you’d had enough of me. I thought my failing you had made you hate me.’

‘No, I don’t hate you, or I shouldn’t be here.’

‘Then I don’t understand’, said Joan desperately. ‘Oh! I don’t understand!’

Elizabeth said: ‘No, I know you don’t. I don’t understand myself, but here I am.’

They were silent for a while, eyeing each other like duellists waiting for an opening. Elizabeth leant back in the rickety chair, her enigmatical eyes on the girl’s agitated face. She was smiling a little.

‘What have you come for?’ said Joan, flushing with sudden anger. ‘If you don’t mean to stay, why have you come back to Seabourne? Perhaps you’ve come to jeer at me. Even Richard hasn’t done that!’

Elizabeth stretched her long legs and made as if to stifle a yawn. ‘I’ve given up my job’, she said.

‘You’ve given up your job in London?’

‘But why?’

‘Because of you.’

‘Because of me? You’ve thrown over your post because of me?’

‘Yes; it’s queer, isn’t it? But I’ve come back to wait with you a little while longer.’

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