The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter three

The schoolroom at Leaside was dreary. You came through the front door into a narrow passage covered with brown linoleum and decorated with trophies from Indian bazaars. On one side stood a black carved wood table bearing a Benares tray used for visiting cards, beside the table stood an elephant’s foot, adapted to take umbrellas. To your right was the drawing-room, to your left the dining-room, facing you were the stairs carpeted in faded green Brussels. If you continued down the passage and passed the kitchen door, you came to the schoolroom. Leaside was a sunny house, so that the schoolroom took you by surprise; it was an unpleasant room, always a little damp, as the walls testified.

It was spring and the gloom of the room was somewhat dispelled by the bright bunch of daffodils which Elizabeth had brought with her for the table. At this table she sat with her two pupils; there was silence except for the scratching of pens. Elizabeth Rodney leant back in her chair; what light there was from the window slanted on to her strong brown hair that waved persistently around her ears. Her eyes looked inattentive, or rather as if their attention were riveted on something a long way away; her fine, long hands were idly folded in her lap; she had a trick of folding her hands in her lap. She was so neat that it made you uncomfortable, so spotless that it made you feel dirty, yet there was something in the set of her calm mouth that made you doubtful. Calm it certainly was, and yet . . . one could not help wondering . . .

Just now she looked discouraged; she sighed.

‘Finished!’ said Joan, passing over her copy-book.

Elizabeth examined it. ‘That’s all right.’

Milly toiled, the pen blotted, tears filled her eyes, one fell and made the blot run.

‘Four and ten and fifteen and seven, that makes —’

‘Thirty-six’, said Elizabeth. ‘Now we’ll go out.’

They got up and put away the books. Outside, the March wind blew briskly, the sea glared so that it hurt your eyes, and around the coast the white cliffs curved low and distinct.

‘Let’s go up there’, said Elizabeth, pointing to the cliffs.

‘Joan, Joan!’ called Mrs. Ogden from the drawing-room window, ‘where is your hat?’

‘Oh, not today, Mother. I like the feel of the wind in my hair.’

‘Nonsense, come in and get your hat.’

Joan sighed. ‘I suppose I must’, she said. ‘You two go on, I’ll catch you up.’ She ran in and snatched a tam-o’-shanter from the hall table. ‘Don’t forget my knitting wool, dear.’

‘No, Mother, but we were going on to the downs.’

‘The downs today? Why, you’ll be blown away.’

‘Oh, no, Miss Rodney and I love wind.’

‘Well, as you come home, then.’

‘All right. Good-bye, Mother.’

‘Good-bye, darling.’

2

Joan ran after the retreating figures. ‘Here I am’, she said breathlessly. ‘Is it Cone Head or the Golf Course?’

‘Cone Head today’, replied Elizabeth.

There was something in her voice that attracted Joan’s attention, a decision, a kind of defiance that seemed out of place. It was as if she had said: ‘I will go to Cone Head, I want to get out of this beastly place, to get up above it and forget it.’ Joan eyed her curiously. To Milly she was just the governess who gave you sums and always, except when in such a mood as today, saw that you did them; but to Joan she was a human being. To Milly she was ‘Miss Rodney’, to Joan, privately at all events, ‘Elizabeth’.

They walked on in silence.

Milly began to lag. ‘I’m tired today, let’s go into the arcade.’

‘Why?’ demanded Joan.

‘Because I like the shops.’

‘We don’t’, said Joan. Milly lagged more obviously.

‘Come, Milly, walk properly, please’, said Elizabeth.

They had passed the High Street by now and were trudging up the long white road to Cone Head. Over the point the wind raged furiously, it snatched at their skirts and undid Milly’s curls.

‘Oh! oh!’ she gasped.

Elizabeth laughed, but her laughter was caught up and blown away before it could reach the children; Joan only knew that she was laughing by her open mouth.

‘It’s glorious!’ shouted Joan. ‘I want to hit it back!’

Elizabeth battled her way towards an overhanging rock. ‘Sit here’, she motioned; the rock sheltered them, and now they could hear themselves speak.

‘This is hateful’, said Milly. ‘When I’m famous I shall never do this sort of thing.’

‘Oh, Miss Rodney’, exclaimed Joan, ‘look at that sail!’

‘I have been looking at it ever since we sat down — I think I should like to be under it.’

‘Yes, going, going, going, you don’t know and you don’t care where — just anywhere, so long as it isn’t here.’

‘Already?’ Elizabeth murmured.

‘Already what?’

‘Nothing. Did I say already?’

‘Then I was thinking aloud.’

She looked at the child curiously; she had taught the girls now for about two years, yet she was not even beginning to understand Joan. Milly was reading made easy. Delicate, spoilt by her father and entirely self-centred; yet she was a good enough child as children go, easier far to manage than the elder girl. Milly was not stupid either. She played the violin astonishingly well for a girl of ten. Elizabeth knew that the little man who taught her thought that she had genius. Milly was easy enough, she knew exactly what she wanted, and Elizabeth suspected that she’d always get it. Milly wanted music and more music. When she played her face ceased to look fretful, it became attentive, animated, almost beautiful. This then was Milly’s problem, solved already; music, applause, admiration, Elizabeth could see it all, but Joan? — Joan intrigued her.

Joan was so quiet, so reserved, so strong. Strong, yes, that was the right word, strong and protective. She loved stray cats and starving dogs and fledgelings that had tumbled out of their nests, such things made her cry; stray cats, starving dogs, fledgelings and Mrs. Ogden. Elizabeth laughed inwardly. Mrs. Ogden was so exactly like a lost fledgeling, with her hopeless look and her big eyes; she was also rather like a starving dog. Elizabeth paused just here to consider. Starving, what for? She shuddered. Had Mrs. Ogden always been so hungry? She was positively ravenous, you could feel it about her, her hunger came at you and made you feel embarrassed. Poor woman, poor woman, poor Joan — why poor Joan? She was brilliant; Elizabeth sighed; she herself had never been brilliant, only a very capable turner of sods. Joan was quietly, persistently brilliant; no flash, no sparks, just a steady, glowing light. Joan at twelve was a splendid pupil; she thought too. When you could make her talk she said things that arrested. Joan would go — where would she go? To Oxford or Cambridge probably; no matter where she went she would make her mark — Elizabeth was proud of Joan. She glanced at her pupil sideways and sighed again. Joan worried her, Mrs. Ogden worried her, they worried her separately and collectively. They were so different, so antagonistic, these two, and yet so curiously drawn together.

Elizabeth roused Joan sharply: ‘Come on, it’s late! It’s nearly tea time.’ They hurried down the hill.

‘I must get that wool at Spink’s’, said Joan.

‘What wool?’

‘Mother’s — for her knitting.’

Won’t tomorrow do?’

‘No.’

‘But it’s at the other end of the town.’

‘Never mind, you and Milly go home. I’ll just go on and fetch it.’ They parted at the front door.

‘Don’t be long’, Elizabeth called after her.

Joan waved her hand. Half an hour later she was back with the wool. In the hall Mrs. Ogden met her.

‘My darling!’

‘Here it is, Mother.’

‘But, my darling, it’s not the same thickness!’

‘Not the same —’ Joan was tired.

‘It won’t do at all, dearest, you must ask for double Berlin.’

‘But I did!’

‘Then they must change it. Oh, dear; and I wanted to get that waistcoat finished and put away tonight; it only requires such a little wee bit of wool!’ Mrs. Ogden sighed.

Her face became suddenly very sad. Joan did not think that it could be the wool that had saddened her.

‘What is it, Mother?’

‘Nothing, Joan —’

‘Oh, yes, you’re unhappy, darling; I’ll go and change the wool before lessons tomorrow.’

‘It’s not the wool, dear, it’s — Never mind, run and get your tea.’ They kissed.

In the schoolroom Joan relapsed into silence; she looked almost morose. Her short, thick hair fell angrily over her eyes — Elizabeth watched her covertly.

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