The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-two

The transition from Seabourne to London had been accomplished so quietly and easily that the first morning Joan woke up on the divan in the sitting-room of Elizabeth’s flat she could hardly believe that she was there. She thumped the mattress to reassure herself, and then looked round the study which, by its very strangeness testified to the glorious truth.

The idea had originated with Elizabeth. ‘Let’s run up to London for a fortnight’, she had said, and Joan had acquiesced as though such a thing were an everyday occurrence. And, strangest of all, Mrs. Ogden had taken it resignedly. Perhaps there had been a certain new quality in Joan’s voice when she announced her intention. Perhaps somewhere at the back of her mind Mrs. Ogden was beginning to realize that her daughter was now of an age when maternal commands could be disregarded. Be that as it may, she consented to Joan’s cashing a tiny cheque, and beyond engineering a severe migraine on the morning of their departure, offered no greater obstacle to the jaunt than an injured expression and a rather faint voice.

Elizabeth had arranged it all. She had persuaded her tenant to take them in as ‘paying guests’, and had overcome Joan’s pride with regard to finances. ‘You can pay me back in time’, she had remarked, and Joan had given in.

The little flat was all that Elizabeth had said, and more. Miss Lesway had put in a small quantity of furniture to tide her over; she was only there until March, when she would move into a flat of her own. But the things that she had brought with her were good, quiet and unobtrusive relics of a bygone country house; they suggested a grandfather, even a great-grandfather for that matter. From the windows of the flat you saw the romantic chimney-pots and roofs that Elizabeth loved, and to your right the topmost branches of the larger trees of the Bloomsbury square. Yes, it was all there and adorable. Miss Lesway had welcomed them as old friends. Tea had been ready on their arrival and flowers on Elizabeth’s dressing-table.

2

Beatrice Lesway was a Cambridge woman. She was a pleasant, somewhat squat, practical creature; contented enough, it seemed, with her lot, which was that of a teacher in a High School. Her father had been a hunting Devonshire squire, a rough-and-tumble sort of man having more in common with his beasts than with his family. A kindly man but a mighty spendthrift, a paralysing kind of spendthrift; one who, having no vices on which you could lay your hand, was well-nigh impossible to check. But that was a long time ago, and beyond the dignified Sheraton bookcase and a few similar reminders of the past, Miss Lesway allowed her origin to go unnoticed. Her eyes were so observant and her sense of humour so keen, that she managed to extract a good deal of fun from her drab existence. The pupils interested her; their foibles, their follies, their rather splendid qualities and their less admirable meannesses. She attributed these latter to their upbringing, blaming home environment for most of the more serious faults in her girls. She liked talking about her work, and had an old-fashioned trick of dropping her ‘g’s’ when speaking emphatically, especially when referring to sport. Possibly Squire Lesway had said: ‘Huntin’, racin’, fishin’, shootin”; in any case his daughter did so very markedly on those rare occasions when she gave rein to her inherited instincts.

‘Some of the girls would be all the better for a good day’s huntin’ on Exmoor, gettin’ wet to the skin and havin’ their arms tugged out by a half-mouthed Devonshire cob; that’s the stuff to make men of ’em, that’s the life that knocks the affectation and side out of young females.’

Once she said quite seriously: ‘The trouble is I can’t give that girl a sound lickin’; I told her mother it was the only way to cure a liar; but of course she’s a liar herself, so she didn’t agree with me.’

She liked Elizabeth, hence her acceptance of this invasion, and she liked Joan too, after she got used to her, though she looked askance at her hair.

‘No good dotting the “i’s”, my dear,’ had been her comment.

Miss Lesway herself wore Liberty serges of a most unpleasing green, and a string of turgid beads which clinked unhappily on her flat bosom. Her sandy hair was chronically untidy, and what holding together it submitted to was done by celluloid pins that more or less matched her dresses. Her hands and wrists were small and elegant, but although she manicured her shapely nails with immense care, and would soak them in the soap dish while she talked to friends in the evenings, she disdained all stain or polish. On the third finger of her left hand she wore a heavy signet ring that had once belonged to her father. Her feet matched her hands in slimness and breeding, but these she ignored, dooming them perpetually to woollen stockings and wide square-toed shoes, heelless at that.

‘Can’t afford pneumonia’, she had said once when remonstrated with.

The thick-soled, flat shoes permitted full play to the clumping stride which was her natural walk. Her whole appearance left you bewildered; it was a mixed metaphor, a contradiction in style, certainly a little grotesque, and yet you did not laugh.

It was impossible to know what Beatrice Lesway thought of herself, much less to discover what cravings, if any, tore her unfeminine bosom. She managed to give the impression of great frankness, while rarely betraying her private emotions. At times she spoke and acted very much like a man, but at others became the quintessence of old maidishness. If she did not long for the privileges denied to her sex, she took them none the less; you gathered that she thought these privileges should be hers by right of some hidden virtue in her own make-up, but that her opinion of women as a whole was low. The feminist movement was going through a period of rest, having temporarily subsided since the days, not so very long ago, when Lady Loo had donned her knickerbockers. But the lull was only the forerunner of a storm which was to break with great violence less than twenty years later. Even now there were debates, discussions, threats, but at these Miss Lesway laughed rudely.

‘Bless their little hearts,’ she chuckled, ‘they must learn to stop squabbling about their frocks before they sit in Parliament.’

‘But surely,’ Elizabeth protested, putting down the evening paper, ‘a woman’s brain is as good as a man’s? I cannot see why women should be debarred from a degree, or why they should get lower salaries when they work, for the same hours, and I don’t see why they should be expected to do nothing more intellectual than darn socks and have babies.’

Miss Lesway made a sound of impatience. ‘And who’s to do it if they don’t, pray?’

Elizabeth was silent, and Joan, who had not joined in this discussion, was suddenly impressed with what she felt might be the truth about Miss Lesway. Miss Lesway had the brain of a masterful man and the soul of a mother. Probably that untidy, art-serged body of hers was a perpetual battleground; no wonder it looked so dishevelled, trampled under as it must be by these two violent rival forces.

‘Well, I shall never marry!’ Joan announced suddenly.

Miss Lesway looked at her. Joan had expected an outburst, or at least a severe reproof, but, instead, the eyes that met hers were tired, compassionate, and almost tender.

Miss Lesway said: ‘No, I don’t think you ever will. God help you!’

3

Everything was new and interesting and altogether delightful to Joan and Elizabeth during this visit. They played with the zest of truant schoolboys. No weather, however diabolical, could daunt them; they put on their mackintoshes and sallied forth in rain, sleet and mud. They got lost in a fog and found themselves in Kensington instead of Bloomsbury. They struggled furiously for overcrowded buses, or filled their lungs with sulphur in the Underground. They stood for hours at the pit doors of theatres, and walked in the British Museum until their feet ached. Joan developed a love of pictures, which she found she shared with Elizabeth, and the mornings that they spent in the galleries were some of their happiest. To Joan, beauty as portrayed by fine art came as a heavenly revelation; she knew for the first time the thrill of looking at someone else’s inspired thoughts.

‘After all, everything is just thought’, she said wisely. ‘They think, and then they clothe what they’ve thought in something; this happens to be paint and canvas, but it’s all the same thing; thought must be clothed in something so that we can see it.’

Elizabeth watched her delightedly. She told herself that it was like putting a geranium cutting in the window; at first it was just all green, then came the little coloured buds and then the bloom. She felt that Joan was growing more in this fortnight than she had done in all her years at Seabourne; growing, expanding, coming nearer to her kingdom, day by day.

4

The fortnight passed all too quickly; it was going and then it was gone. They sat side by side in an empty third-class compartment, rushing back to Seabourne. Everything had changed suddenly for the worse. Their clothes struck them as shabby, now that it no longer mattered. In London, where it really had mattered, they had been quite contented with their appearance. Their bags, on the luggage rack opposite them, looked very worn and battered. How had they ever dared to go to London at all? They and their possessions belonged so obviously to Seabourne.

Joan took Elizabeth’s hand. ‘Rotten, it’s being over!’

‘Yes, it’s been a good time, but we’ll have lots more, Joan.’

‘Yes — oh, yes!’ Why was she so doubtful? Of course they would have lots more, they were going to live together.

She realized now how necessary, how vitally necessary it was that they should live together. Their two weeks in London had emphasized that fact, if it needed emphasizing. In the past she had known two Elizabeths, but now she knew a third; there had been Elizabeth the teacher and Elizabeth the friend. But now there was Elizabeth the perfect companion. There was the Elizabeth who knew so much and was able to make things so clear to you, and so interesting. The Elizabeth who thought only of you, of how to please you and make you happy; the Elizabeth who entered in, who liked what you liked, enjoying all sorts of little things, finding fun at the identical moment when you were wanting to laugh; in fact who thought your own thoughts. This was a wonderful person who could descend with grace to your level or unobtrusively drag you up to hers; an altogether darling, humorous and understanding creature.

The train slowed down. Joan said: ‘Oh, not already?’

They shared the fly as far as the Rodneys’ house, and then Joan drove on alone.

Mrs. Ogden opened the front door herself.

‘She’s gone!’ were her words of greeting.

‘Who has? You don’t mean Ethel?’

Mrs. Ogden sank on to the rim of the elephant pad umbrella stand. ‘She walked out this morning after the greatest impertinence. Of course I refused to pay her. I’m worn out by all I’ve been through since you left; I nearly telegraphed for you to come back.’

‘Wait a minute, Mother dear; I must get my trunk in. Yes, please, cabby — upstairs, if you don’t mind; the back room.’

‘She kept the kitchen filthy; I’ve been down there since she left and the sink made me feel quite sick! I’ve thought for some time she was dishonest and brought men in in the evenings, and now I’m sure of it; there’s hardly a grain of coffee left and I can’t find the pound of bacon I bought only the day before yesterday.’

‘Oh! I do wish we hadn’t lost her!’ said Joan inconsequently. ‘Have you been to the registry office?’

No, of course not; what time have I had? You’ll have to do that tomorrow.’

Joan went upstairs and began unstrapping her trunk. She did not attempt to analyse her feelings; they were too confused and she was very tired. She wanted to sit down and gloat over the past two weeks, to recapture some of their fun and freedom and companionship; above all she did not want to think of registry offices.

Mrs. Ogden came into her room. ‘You haven’t kissed me yet, darling.’

Joan longed to say: ‘You didn’t give me a chance, did you?’ But something in the small, thin figure that stood rather wistfully before her, as if uncertain of its welcome, made her kiss her mother in silence.

‘Have you had any tea?’ she asked, patting Mrs. Ogden’s arm.

‘No, I felt too tired to get it, but it might do my head good if you could make some really strong tea, darling.’

Joan left her trunk untouched, and turned to the door. ‘All right, I’ll have it ready in a quarter of an hour’, she said.

Mrs. Ogden looked at her with love in her eyes. ‘Oh, Joan, it’s so good to have you home again; I’ve missed you terribly.’

Joan was silent.

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