The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty

It was extraordinary how Elizabeth’s return changed the complexion of things for Joan; strange that one human being, not really beautiful, only a little more than average clever and no longer very young, could by her mere presence, make others seem so much less trying.

Now that she had Elizabeth again the people at the tennis club, for instance, were miraculously changed. She began to think that she had misjudged them; after all, they were very good sorts and kindly enough, nor did they really seem to be bored with her; she must have imagined it. She found herself more tolerant towards Mrs. Ogden’s religiosity. Why shouldn’t her mother enjoy herself in her own way! Surely everyone must find their rare pleasures how and where they could. And, oh! the joy of using her brain again! The exhilaration of renewed mental effort, of pitting her mind against Elizabeth’s.

‘We must work a bit to keep you from getting rusty, Joan, but I can’t do much more for you now; you’re getting beyond me, and Cambridge must do the rest’, Elizabeth said.

Ralph was pleased at his sister’s return and welcomed Joan cordially as the chief cause thereof. The atmosphere at his house had become restful, because now it contained three happy people. Joan had never known anything quite like this before; she wondered whether the dead felt as she did when they met those they loved on the other side of the grave. A deep sense of peace enveloped her; Elizabeth felt it too, and they sat very often with clasped hands without speaking, for now their silence drew them closer together than words would have done.

As if by mutual consent they avoided discussing the future. At this time they thought of neither past nor future, but only of their present. And they no longer worked very hard; what was the use? Joan was ready, and, as Elizabeth had said, it was now only a matter of not letting her get rusty, so they slackened the gallop to a walk and began to look about them.

They ransacked Seabourne and the neighbouring towns for diversion, visiting such theatres as there were, making excursions to places of interest that they had lived close to for years yet never seen. They discovered the joys of sailing, setting out of mornings before it was quite light, becoming acquainted together for the first time with the mystery and wonder that is Nature while she still smells drowsy and sweet after sleep.

And they walked. They would go off now for a whole day, lunching wherever they happened to find themselves. Sometimes it would be at a little inn by the roadside and sometimes on the summit of a hill, or in woods, eating biscuits they had stuffed into their pockets before starting.

When Milly came home for her holidays she did not seem surprised to find Elizabeth back in Seabourne. They were relieved at this, for they had both been secretly dreading her questions, which, however, did not come. Milly was not wanted, but they found room for her in their days, nevertheless; she joined them whenever their programme seemed amusing, and because they themselves were so happy they made her welcome.

At this time Elizabeth did her best to placate Mrs. Ogden; she did it entirely for Joan’s sake, and although her efforts were rebuffed with coldness, she knew that Joan was the happier for them. Mrs. Ogden was aggrieved and rude; she could not find it in her, poor soul, to compromise over Joan. If she had only met Elizabeth half-way, had made even a slight effort to accept things as they were, she would almost certainly have won from her daughter a lifelong gratitude. But she let the moment slip, and so for the time being she found herself ignored.

Contentment agreed with Joan; she grew handsomer that summer, and people noticed it. Now they would turn sometimes and look after the Ogden girls when they passed them in the street, struck by the curious contrast they made. Joan was burnt to the colour of a gipsy; her constant excursions in the open air had brightened her eyes and reddened her lips and given her slim body a supple strength which showed in all her movements. Milly’s beauty was a little marred by an ever-present suggestion of delicacy. Her skin was too pink and white for perfect health, and of late dark shadows had appeared under her eyes. However, she seemed in excellent spirits, and never complained, in spite of the fact that she coughed a good deal.

‘It’s the dry weather’, she explained. ‘The dust irritates my throat.’

Her shoulders had taken a slight stoop from the long hours of practice, which contracted her chest, but her playing had improved enormously; she was beginning to acquire real finish and style.

‘I shall be earning soon!’ she announced triumphantly.

Elizabeth could not resist looking at Joan, but she held her tongue and the dangerous moment passed.

Joan began to find it in her to bless Father Cuthbert and Holy Martyrs, for between them they took up a good deal of Mrs. Ogden’s time. To be sure, her eyes were red with secret weeping, and she lost even the remnant of appetite that her religious scruples permitted her; but Joan was happy and selfish to the verge of recklessness. She was like a man reprieved when the noose is already round his throat; for the moment nothing mattered except just being alive. She felt balanced and calm, with the power to see through and beyond the frets and rubs of this everyday life, from which she herself had somehow become exempt.

She and Elizabeth went to tea with Admiral Bourne. It was like the old days, out there in the garden, under the big tree. The admiral eyed them kindly. ‘Capital, capital!’ was all he said. After tea they asked to see the mice, because they knew that it would give him pleasure, and he responded with alacrity, leading the way to the Mousery. But although they had gone there to please Admiral Bourne, they stayed on to please themselves; playing with the tame, soft creatures, feeling a sense of contentment as they watched their swift, symmetrical movements and their round bright eyes.

2

They walked home arm in arm through the twilight.

Joan said: ‘Our life seems new, somehow, Elizabeth, and yet it isn’t new. Perhaps it’s because you went away. We aren’t doing anything very different, only working rather less; but it all seems so new; I feel new myself.’

Elizabeth pressed her arm very slightly. ‘It’s as old as the hills’, she said.

‘What is?’ asked Joan.

‘Nothing — everything. Did you change those library books?’

‘Yes. But listen to me, Elizabeth. I will tell you how your going away and coming back has changed things. I’m changed; I feel softer and harder, more sympathetic and less so. I feel — oh, how shall I put it? I feel like a tiny speck of God that can’t help seeing all round and through everything. I seem to know the reason for things, somewhere inside of me, only it won’t get right into my brain. I don’t think I love Mother any less than I did, and I don’t think I really hate Seabourne any less; but I can’t worry about her or it, and that’s where I’ve changed. I’ve got a feeling that Mother had to be and Seabourne had to be and that you and I had to be, too; that it’s all just a necessary part of the whole. And after all, Elizabeth, if you hadn’t gone away and I hadn’t been frightfully unhappy there wouldn’t have been your coming back and my happiness over that. I think it was worth the unhappiness.’

They stood still, staring at the sunset. A sweet, damp smell was coming up from the ground; there had been a little shower. The sea lay very quiet and vast, flecked here and there with afterglow. Down below them the lights of Seabourne sprang into being, one by one; they looked small and unnaturally bright. The ugly homes from which they shone were mercifully hidden in the dusk. Only their lights appeared, elusive, beckoning, never quite still. Around them little hidden specks of life were making indefinable noises; a blur of rustlings, chirpings, buzzings. They were very busy, these hidden people, with their secret activities. Presently it would be night; already the moon was showing palely opposite the sunset.

Elizabeth turned her gaze away from the sky and looked at Joan. The girl was standing upright with her head a little back. She had taken off her hat, and the queer light fell slantwise across her broad forehead, and dipped into her wide open eyes that held in their depths a look of fear. Her lips were parted as if to speak, but no words came. She stretched out a hand, without looking at Elizabeth, as though groping for protection. Elizabeth took the hand and held it firmly in her own.

‘Are you frightened, Joan?’ she asked softly.

‘A little; how did you know?’

‘Your eyes looked scared. Why are you frightened? I thought you were so confident just now.’

‘I don’t know, but it’s all so strange, somehow. I think it’s the newness I told you about that frightens me, now I come to think of it. You seem new. Do you feel new, Elizabeth?’

Elizabeth dropped the hand and turned away.

‘Not particularly’, she said; ‘I’m getting rather old for that sort of thing; if I let myself feel new I might forget how old I’m getting. No, I don’t think I’d better feel too new, or you might get more frightened still; you told me you were frightened of me once, do you remember?’

‘Oh, rot! I could never be frightened of you, Elizabeth; you’re just a bit of me.’

‘Am I? Well, come on or we’ll be late, and I think I’m catching cold.’

‘Let’s walk arm in arm again’, Joan pleaded, like a schoolgirl begging a favour, and Elizabeth acquiesced with a short laugh.

3

Milly was obviously not well; she coughed perpetually, and Joan sent for the doctor. He came and sounded her chest and lungs, but found no alarming symptoms. Mrs. Ogden protested fretfully that Joan was always over-fussy when there was nothing to fuss about, and quite unusually indifferent when there was real cause for anxiety. She either could not or would not see that her younger daughter looked other than robust.

Joan had a long talk with her sister about the life at the College. They were pretty well fed, it seemed, but of course no luxuries. Oh, yes, Milly usually went to bed early; she felt too dead tired to want to sit up late. She practised a good many hours a day, whenever she could, in fact; but then that was what she was there for, and she loved that part of it. Couldn’t she slack a bit? Good Lord, no! Rather not; she wanted to make some money, and that as soon as possible; you didn’t get on by stamping your practising. Joan mustn’t fuss, it bored Milly to have her fussing like an old hen. The cough was nothing at all, the doctor had said so. How long had it been going on? Oh, about two months, perhaps a little longer; but, good Lord! it was just a cough! She did wish Joan would shut up.

Elizabeth was anxious too; she felt an inexplicable apprehension about this cough of Milly’s. She was glad when the holidays came to an end and Milly and her cough had removed themselves to London.

With her sister’s departure, Joan seemed to forget her anxiety. She had fallen into a strangely elated frame of mind and threw off troubles as though they were thistledown.

‘Mother seems very busy with her religion’, she remarked one day. Elizabeth agreed.

They fell silent, and then; ‘Perhaps we can go soon now, Elizabeth; I was thinking that perhaps after Christmas —’

Elizabeth bit her lip. Something in her wanted to cry out in triumph, but she choked it down.

‘The flat’s let until March’, she said quietly.

‘Well then, March. Oh! Elizabeth, think of it!’

Elizabeth said: ‘I never think of anything else — I thought you knew that.’

‘But you seem so dull about it, aren’t you pleased?’

‘Yes, but I’m afraid!’

‘Of what?’

‘Of something happening to prevent it. Don’t let’s make plans too long ahead.’

Joan flushed. ‘You don’t trust me any more’, she said, and her voice sounded as though she wanted to cry.

‘Trust you? Of course I trust you. Joan, I don’t think you know how I feel about all this; it’s too much, almost. I feel — oh, well, I can’t explain, only it’s desperately serious to me.’

‘And what do you think it is to me?’ demanded Joan passionately. ‘It’s more than serious to me!’

‘Joan, you’ve known me for years now. I was your teacher when you were quite little. I used to think you looked like a young colt then, I remember — never mind that — only you’ve known me too long really to know me; that can happen I think. I often wish I could get inside you and know just how I look to you, what sort of woman I am as you see me, because I don’t believe it’s the real me. I believe you see your old teacher, and later on your very good and devoted friend. Well, that’s all right so far as it goes; that’s part of me, but only a part. There’s another big bit that’s quite different; you saw the edge of it when I left you to go to London. It’s not neat and calm and self-possessed at all, and above all it’s outrageously discontented and adventurous; it longs for all sorts of things and hates being crossed. This part of me loves life, real life, and beautiful things and brilliant, careless people. It feels young, absurdly so for its age, and it demands the pleasures of youth, cries out for them. I think it cries out all the more because it’s been so long denied. This me could be reckless of consequences, greedy of happiness and jealous of competition. It is jealous already of you, Joan, of any interests that seem to take your attention off me, of any affection that might rob me of even a hair’s-breadth of you. It wants to keep you all to itself, to have all your love and gratitude, all that makes you you; and it wouldn’t be contented with less. Well, my dear, this side of me and the side that you know are one and indivisible, they’re the two halves of the whole that is Elizabeth Rodney; what do you think of her? Aren’t you a little afraid after this revelation?’

Joan laughed quietly. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m not a bit afraid. Because, you see, I think I’ve known the real Elizabeth for a long time now.’

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