In the following February, Milly was sent home. They wrote from Alexandra House to say that for the present, at all events, she was too ill to continue her studies. She had had a touch of pneumonia shortly after her return, with the result that her lungs were weak. The matron wrote what was meant to be a kind and tactful letter. It was full of veiled sentences; the sort of letter that distracted Joan by reason of its merciful vagueness. The letter said that Milly was not strong, that she was losing weight and was apt to run a little temperature night and morning; according to the doctor, her lungs required care and she must be given time to recover, and plenty of open air.
Joan looked across at Mrs. Ogden as she finished reading.
‘It’s tubercle’, she said briefly.
Her voice sounded calm and cold. ‘I might be saying “It’s Monday today,”’ she thought. She felt stupid with pity for Milly and for herself.
Mrs. Ogden tightened her lips; she assumed her stubborn expression. ‘What nonsense, Joan! We’ve never had such a thing in our family.’
‘But, good heavens, Mother! — your father and your brother died of galloping consumption.’
‘Nothing of the kind. Henry died of bronchial pneumonia; you don’t know what you’re talking about, my dear.’
Joan thought. ‘She’s going to refuse to face it, she’s going to play ostrich; what on earth am I to do!’ Aloud she said: ‘Well, I’d better go up and fetch her; we can’t let her travel alone.’
‘Ah! there I agree with you; certainly go up and bring her home. But whatever you do, don’t frighten the life out of the poor child with any ridiculous talk about consumption.’
Joan left her gently embroidering a handkerchief. ‘I must see Elizabeth at once’, she told herself.
It was already half-past nine in the evening, but Joan rushed round to the Rodneys’ house, to find that Elizabeth had gone to bed with a headache.
‘I expect she’s asleep’, said Ralph doubtfully.
He was wearing an old Norfolk jacket and carpet slippers; his grey hair was ruffled, and an end-of-the-day grey stubble clung like mould to his chin. His eyes looked heavy and a little pink; he had probably been asleep himself, or dozing in the arm-chair, under the picture of old Uncle John. He was certainly too sleepy to be polite, and looked reproachfully at Joan, as though she had done him some wrong.
Oh! the gloom of it all! Of this seaside house with its plush study, of old Uncle John and his ageing descendant, of the lowered gas-jet in its hideous globe, that was yet not dim enough to hide the shabby stair-carpet and the bloodthirsty Landseer engraving on the landing.
It was misty outside, and some of the mist had followed Joan into the house; it made a slight, melancholy blur over everything, including herself and Ralph. She left him abruptly, climbing the stairs two at a time.
She opened the bedroom door without knocking. The gas had been turned down to the merest speck, but by its light Joan could see that Elizabeth was asleep. She turned the gas up full, but still Elizabeth did not stir. She was lying on her side with her cheek pressed hard into the pillow; her hair was loosely plaited, thick, beautiful hair that shone as the light fell across it. One of her scarred hands lay on the white bedspread, pathetically unconscious of its blemish.
Joan stood and looked at her, looked at Elizabeth as she was now, off her guard. What she saw made her look away and then back again, as if drawn by some miserable attraction. Elizabeth’s lips were closed, gently enough, but from their drooping corners a few fine lines ran down into the chin; and the closed eyelids were ever so slightly puckered. Joan bent nearer. Yes, those were grey hairs close to the forehead; Elizabeth had a good many grey hairs. Strange that she had never noticed them before. She flushed with a kind of shame. She was discovering secret things about Elizabeth; things that hid themselves by day to look up grimacing out of the night-time and Elizabeth’s sleep. Elizabeth would hate it if she knew! And there lay her beautiful hand, all scarred and spoilt; a brave hand, but spoilt none the less. Was it only the scars, or had the texture of the skin changed a little too, grown a little less firm and smooth? She stared at it hopelessly.
She found that she was whispering to herself: ‘Elizabeth’s not so young any more. Oh, God! Elizabeth is almost growing old.’
She felt that her sorrow must choke her; pity, sorrow, and still more, shame. Elizabeth’s youth was slipping, slipping; it would soon have slipped out of sight. Joan stooped on a sudden impulse and kissed the scarred hand.
‘Joan! Are you here? You woke me; you were kissing my hand!’
‘Yes, I was kissing the scars.’
Elizabeth twitched her hand away. ‘Don’t be a fool!’ she said roughly.
Joan looked at her, and something, perhaps the pity in her eyes made Elizabeth recover herself.
‘Tell me what’s the matter’, she said quietly. ‘Has anything new happened?’
Joan sat down beside her on the bed. ‘Come here’, she said.
Elizabeth moved nearer, and Joan’s arm went round her with a quiet, strong movement. She kissed her on the forehead where the grey hairs showed, and then on the eyelids, one after the other. Elizabeth lay very still.
Joan said: ‘They’re sending Milly home; I’m afraid she’s in consumption.’
Elizabeth freed herself with a quick twist of her body. ‘What?’
‘Read this letter.’
Elizabeth blinked at the gas-jet. ‘It’s my eyes’, she complained almost fretfully. ‘Light the candle, will you, Joan? Then we can put the gas out.’
Joan did as she wished, and returning to the bed leant over the foot-rail, watching Elizabeth as she read. Elizabeth had gone white to the lips; she laid down the letter and they stared at each other in silence.
At last Elizabeth spoke. ‘She’s coming home soon’, she said in a flat voice.
‘Yes; I must go and fetch her the day after tomorrow.’
‘She’ll need — nursing — if she lives.’
‘Yes — if she lives —’
‘It’s February already, Joan.’
‘Yes, next month is March. We called it our March, didn’t we, Elizabeth?’
‘There are places — sanatoriums, but they cost money.’
‘We haven’t got the money, Elizabeth. And in any case, Mother’s decided that Milly can’t be seriously ill.’
‘I have some money, as you know, Joan, but I was saving it for you; still —’ Her voice shook.
Joan sat down on the bed again and took Elizabeth’s hand. ‘It’s no good’, she said gently.
And then Elizabeth cried. She did it with disconcerting suddenness and complete lack of restraint. It was terrible to Joan to see her thrown right off her guard like this; to feel her shoulders shake with sobs while the tears dripped through her fingers on to the bedspread.
She said: ‘Don’t, oh, don’t!’
But Elizabeth took no notice, she was launched on a veritable torrent of self-indulgence which she had no will to stem. The pent-up unhappiness of years gushed out at this moment. All the ambitions, the longings, the tenderness sternly repressed, the maternal instinct, the lover instinct, all the frustrations, they were all there, finding despairing expression as she sobbed. She rocked herself from side to side and backwards and forwards. She lost her breath with little gasps, but found it again immediately, and went on crying. She murmured in a kind of ecstatic anguish: ‘Oh! oh! — Oh! oh!’ And then, ‘Joan, Joan, Joan!’ But not for an instant did her tears cease.
Ralph heard the sound of sobbing as he passed on his way to bed, and a quiet, unhappy voice speaking very low, breaking off and then speaking again. He hesitated a moment, wondering if he should go in, but shook his head, and sighing, went on to his own room, closing the door noiselessly after him.
Two days later Joan was waiting in the matron’s sitting-room at Alexandra House. Someone had told her that Miss Jackson wished to speak to her before she went up to her sister. She remembered that Miss Jackson was Milly’s ‘Old Scout’, and smiled in spite of herself.
The door opened and Miss Jackson came in. She held out her hand with an exaggeratedly bright smile. ‘Miss Ogden?’
Joan thought: ‘She’s terribly nervous of what she has to tell me.’
‘Do sit down, Miss Ogden, please. I hope you had a good journey?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
The matron looked at her watch. ‘Your train must have been unusually punctual; I always think the trains are so very bad on that line. However you’ve been fortunate.’
‘Yes, we were only five minutes late.’
‘You don’t find it stuffy in here, do you? I cannot persuade the maids to leave the window open.’
‘No, I don’t feel hot — I think you wanted to speak to me about Milly.’
‘Milly; oh, yes-I thought — the doctor wanted me to tell you —’
‘That my sister is in consumption? I was afraid it was so, from your letter.’
Miss Jackson moistened her lips. ‘Oh, my dear, I hope my letter was not too abrupt! You mustn’t run ahead of trouble; our doctor is nervous about future possibilities if great care is not used — but your sister’s lungs are sound so far, he thinks.’
‘Then I disagree with him’, said Joan.
Miss Jackson felt a little shocked. Evidently this was a very sensible young woman, not to say almost heartless; still it was better than if she had broken down. ‘We all hope, we all believe, that Milly will soon be quite well again,’ she said, ‘but, as you know, I expect, she’s rather frail. I should think that she must always have been delicate; and yet what a student! A wonderful student; they’re all heart-broken at the College.’ There was real feeling in her voice as she continued: ‘I can’t tell you what an admiration I have for your sister; her pluck is phenomenal; she’s worked steadily, overworked in fact, up to the last.’ Joan got up; she felt a little giddy and put her hand on the back of the chair to steady herself.
‘My dear, wait, I must get you some sal-volatile!’
‘Oh, no, no, please not; I really don’t feel ill. I should like to go to Milly now and help her to collect her luggage, if I may.’
‘Of course; come with me.’
They mounted interminable stairs to the rooms that Milly shared with Harriet. A sound of laughing reached them through the half-open door. It was Milly’s laugh.
‘She’s very brave and cheerful, poor child’, Miss Jackson whispered. Joan followed her into the study.
‘Here’s your sister, Milly dear.’
Milly looked up from the strap of her violin case. ‘Hullo, Joan! This is jolly, isn’t it?’
Joan kissed her and shook hands with Harriet.
I’ll leave you now’, said Miss Jackson, obviously anxious to get away. Harriet raised her eyebrows. ‘Vieille grue!’ she remarked, scarcely below her breath.
Milly laughed again, she seemed easily amused, and Joan scrutinized her closely. She was painfully thin and the laugh was a little husky; otherwise she looked much as usual at that moment. Joan’s heart beat more freely; supposing it were a false alarm after all? Suppose it should be only a matter of a month or two, at most, before Milly would be quite well again and she herself free?
‘How do you feel?’ she inquired with ill-concealed anxiety.
‘Oh, pretty fit, thank you. I think it’s all rot myself. I suppose Old Scout informed you that I was going into a decline, but I beg to differ. A few weeks at Seabourne will cure me all right. Good Lord! I should just think so!’ and she made a grimace.
Harriet began humming a sort of vocal five-finger exercise; Joan glared at her. Damn the woman! Couldn’t she keep quiet?
Harriet laughed. ‘Don’t slay me with a glance, my dear!’
Joan forced herself to smile. ‘I was thinking we’d be late for the train.’
‘Oh, no, you weren’t; but never mind. You amuse me, Joan. May I call you Joan? Well, in any case, you amuse me. Oh! But you are too funny and young and gauche, a regular boor, and your grey-green coloured eyes go quite black when you’re angry. I should never be able to resist making you angry just for the pleasure of seeing your eyes change colour; do you think you could manage to get really angry with me some day?’
Joan felt hot with embarrassment. What was the matter with this woman; didn’t she know that she was in the room with a perfectly awful tragedy, didn’t she realize that here was something that would probably ruin three people’s lives? She wondered if this was Harriet’s way of keeping the situation in hand, of trying to carry the thing off lightly. Perhaps, after all, she was only making an effort to fall in with Milly’s mood; that must be it, of course.
Harriet’s decided voice went on persistently. ‘Come up and see me sometimes; don’t stop away because Milly isn’t here, though I expect she’ll be back soon. But in the meantime come up and see me; I shall like to see you quite often, if you’ll come.’
‘Thank you,’ said Joan, ‘but I’m never in London.’
Harriet smiled complacently. ‘We’ll see’, she murmured.
Joan turned to Milly. ‘Come on, Milly, we ought to go; it’s getting late.’
In the train Milly talked incessantly; she was flushed now, and the hand that she laid on Joan’s from time to time felt unnaturally hot and dry. She assured Joan eagerly that the doctor was a fool and an alarmist; that he had sent a girl home only last year for what he called ‘pernicious anaemia’, whereas she had been back at College in less than four months as well as ever. Milly said that if they supposed she was going to waste much time, they were mistaken; a few weeks perhaps, just to get over that infernal pneumonia, but no longer at Leaside — no, thank you! If she stayed at Leaside she was sure she would die, but not of consumption, of boredom! Her lungs were all right, she never spat blood, and you always spat blood if your lungs were going. It was quite bad enough as it was though; jolly hard lines having a set-back at this critical time in her training. Never mind, she would have to work all the harder later on to make up for it.
She talked and coughed and coughed and talked all the way from London to Seabourne. She was like a thing wound up, a mechanical toy. Joan’s heart sank.
Elizabeth was at the station and so was Mrs. Ogden. They had come quite independently of each other. As a rule Elizabeth kept away if she knew that Mrs. Ogden was meeting one of the girls, anxious these days not to feed the flame of the older woman’s jealousy; but today her anxiety had outweighed her discretion.
Mrs. Ogden kissed Milly affectionately. ‘Why, she looks splendid!’ she remarked to the world in general.
Elizabeth assumed an air of gaiety that she was very far from feeling. It seemed to her that Milly looked like death, and her eyes sought Joan’s with a frightened, questioning glance. For answer, Joan shook her head ever so slightly.
They all went home to Leaside together. Elizabeth had offered to help with the unpacking. She was not going to torment herself with any unnecessary suspense, and she cared less than nothing whether Mrs. Ogden wanted her or not. She had got beyond that sort of nonsense now, she told herself. She pressed Joan’s hand quite openly in the fly. Why not? Mrs. Ogden was jealous of any demonstrations of affection towards Joan other than her own; Elizabeth knew this, but pressed the hand again.
She and Joan had no opportunity of being alone together that evening. They longed to talk the situation over. They were taut with nervous anxiety; even a quarrel would have been a relief. But Mrs. Ogden was in a hovering mood, they could not get rid of her; even after Milly had gone to bed she continued to haunt them. Frail, unobtrusive, but always there. She seemed to be feeling affable, for she had pressed Elizabeth to stop to supper and had even thanked her for helping with the unpacking. It was remarkable; one would have expected tears or at least depression or irritability over this fresh disaster, for disaster it was, even though Mrs. Ogden chose to take a cheerful view of Milly’s condition. It was impossible that she should contemplate with equanimity more doctor’s bills, and the mounting tradesmen’s accounts for luxuries. Whatever the outcome, Milly would require milk, beef-tea and other expensive things; and there was little or no money, as even Mrs. Ogden must know. And yet she was cheerful; it made Elizabeth feel afraid.
She became a prey to a horrible idea that Mrs. Ogden was happy, yes, positively happy over Milly’s illness, because she saw in it a new fetter wherewith to bind Joan. Perhaps she had suspected all along that Joan had determined to break away soon. Perhaps she had begun to realize that her influence over her daughter was waning. And now came Milly’s collapse, with all that it entailed of responsibility, of diminished finances, of appeal to every generous and unselfish instinct. Elizabeth shuddered. She did not accuse Mrs. Ogden of consciously visualizing the cause of her satisfaction; but she knew that no greater self-deceiver had ever lived, and that although she was probably telling herself that she was being cheerful and brave in the face of sorrow, and acting with unselfish courage, she was subconsciously rejoicing in the misfortune that must bind Joan closer to her than ever.
They could hear Milly coughing fitfully upstairs; a melancholy sound, for it was a young cough. Mrs. Ogden remarked that they must get some syrup of camphor, which in her experience never failed to clear up a chest cold. She told Joan to write to London for it next day.
Elizabeth got up; she felt that she must walk and walk, no matter where. Her legs and feet seemed terribly alive, they tormented her with their twitching.
‘I must go’, she said suddenly.
Joan followed her into the hall. Their eyes met for an instant in a look of sympathy and dismay; but Mrs. Ogden was standing in the open doorway of the drawing-room, watching them, and they parted with a brief good night.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:02