The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-five

Two weeks elapsed before Mrs. Ogden would consent to any further examination of Milly’s lungs. At first she refused on the ground that Milly was only in need of rest, and when Joan persisted, made other excuses, all equally futile. She seemed determined to prevent Doctor Thomas’s visit, and it struck Joan that her mother was secretly afraid.

Doctor Thomas was getting old. He had attended the Ogdens as long as Joan could remember. He attended most of the residents of Seabourne, though it was said that the summer visitors preferred a younger man, who had recently made his appearance. Joan herself would have preferred the younger man, but on this point Mrs. Ogden was obdurate; she would not hear of a stranger being called in, protesting that Doctor Thomas would be deeply hurt.

Doctor Thomas came, and rubbed his cold hands briskly together; he smiled at the assembled family as he smiled on all serious occasions throughout his career. A wooden stethoscope protruded from his tail-pocket; he took it out and balanced it playfully between finger and thumb.

‘Let me explain’, said Joan peremptorily, as Mrs. Ogden opened her lips to speak.

She had to raise her voice somewhat, for the doctor was a little hard of hearing.

‘Eh, what? What was that?’ he inquired from time to time.

Milly’s lip curled. She shrugged her shoulders and complied with an ill grace when told to remove her blouse.

‘Take a deep breath.’

Doctor Thomas pressed his stethoscope to her chest and back; he pressed so hard with his large, purplish ear that the stethoscope dug into her bones.

‘Ow! That hurts’, she protested peevishly.

‘Say “ninety-nine”!’

‘Ninety-nine.’

‘Again, please.’

‘Ninety-nine.’

‘Again.’

‘Oh! Ninety-nine, ninety-nine, ninety-nine!’

For a young woman about to be twenty-one years old, Milly was behaving in an extraordinarily childish manner. The doctor looked at her reproachfully and began tapping on her back and chest with his notched and bony fingers. Tap, tap, tap, tap: Milly glanced down at his hand distastefully.

‘And now say “ninety-nine” again’, he suggested.

Milly flushed with irritation and coughed. ‘Ninety-nine!’ she exclaimed in an exasperated voice.

The old doctor straightened himself and looked round complacently. ‘Just as I thought, there’s nothing seriously wrong here.’

‘Then you don’t think —?’ began Joan, but her mother interrupted. ‘That’s just what I thought you’d say, Doctor Thomas; I felt sure there could be nothing radically wrong with Milly’s lungs. Thank God, she comes from very healthy stock! I suppose a good long rest is all that she needs?’

‘Exactly, Mrs. Ogden. A good rest, good food, and plenty of air; and no more practising for a bit, Miss Milly. You must keep your shoulders back and your chest well out, and just take things easy.’

‘But for how long?’ Milly asked, with a catch in her voice.

‘How long? Oh, for a few months at least.’

Milly looked despairingly at Joan, but, try as she would, Joan could not answer that look with the reassuring smile that it was obviously asking for. She turned away and began straightening some music on the piano.

‘I must be off’, said the doctor, shaking hands. ‘I shall come in from time to time, just to see that Miss Milly is obeying orders; oh, and I think cod liver oil would prove beneficial.’

‘No; that I will not!’ said Milly firmly.

‘Nonsense! You’ll do as the doctor tells you’, Mrs. Ogden retorted.

‘I will not take cod liver oil; it makes me sick!’

Joan left them arguing, and followed Doctor Thomas to the front door. ‘Look here,’ she said in a low voice, ‘surely you’ll examine for tubercle?’

He looked at her whimsically through his spectacles. ‘My dear young lady, you’ve been stuffing your head up with a lot of half-digested medical knowledge’, and he patted her shoulder as though to soften his words. ‘Be assured,’ he told her, ‘that I shall do everything I think necessary for your sister, and nothing that I think unnecessary.’

2

Joan went back to the drawing-room. The argument about the cod liver oil had ceased, and Milly was crying quietly, all by herself, in the window. She looked up with tearful eyes as her sister took her hand and pressed it.

‘Cheer up, old girl!’ Joan whispered, her own heart heavy with forebodings.

Mrs. Ogden said nothing; her face seemed expressionless when Joan glanced at her. Ethel’s successor brought in the tea and Milly dried her eyes. It was a silent meal; from time to time Milly’s gaze dwelt despairingly on her violin case where it lay on the sofa, and Joan knew that she was grieving as a lover for a lost beloved.

‘It’s only for so short a time’, she said, answering the unspoken thought.

Milly shook her head and her eyes overflowed again, the tears dripped into the tea-cup that she held tremulously to her lips.

Mrs. Ogden pretended not to notice. ‘More tea, Joan?’ she inquired.

Joan looked at her and hated her; and before the hate had time to root, began to love her again, for the weak thing that she was. There she sat, quiet and soft and utterly incapable. She was not facing this situation, not even trying to realize what it meant to her two daughters.

‘But I could crush her to pulp!’ Joan thought angrily. ‘I could make her scream with pain if I chose, if I told her that I saw through her, despised her, hated her; if I told her that I was going to leave her and that she would never see me again. I could make her cry like Milly’s crying, only worse; oh, how I could make her cry!’ But her own thought hurt her somewhere very deep down, and at that moment Mrs. Ogden looked up and their eyes met.

Joan stared at her coldly. ‘Milly is fretting’, she said.

Mrs. Ogden’s glance wavered. ‘She mustn’t do that, after what the doctor has told us. Milly, dearest, there’s nothing to cry about.’ Milly hid her face.

‘It’s all my life, Mother’, she sobbed.

‘What is, my dear?’

‘My fiddle!’

‘But, my dear child, you’re not giving up your violin; he only wants you to rest for a time.’

Milly sobbed more loudly, she was growing hysterical. ‘I want to go back to College,’ she wailed. ‘I hate, hate, hate being here! I hate Seabourne and all the people in it, and I hate this house! It stifles me, and I’m not ill and I shan’t stop practising and I shan’t take cod liver oil!’ She wrenched herself free from Joan’s restraining arm. ‘Let me go upstairs’, she spluttered. ‘I want to go upstairs!’

Joan released her. Alone together, the mother and daughter looked at each other defiantly.

‘She ought to see a specialist’, Joan said; ‘Doctor Thomas is an old fool!’

Mrs. Ogden’s soft eyes grew bright with rising temper. ‘Never!’ she exclaimed, raising her voice. ‘I hate the whole brood; it was a specialist who killed your father. James would be alive now if it hadn’t been for a so-called specialist!’

Joan made a sound of impatience. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mother; you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re taking a terrible responsibility in refusing to have a first-class opinion.’

‘I consider Doctor Thomas first-class.’

‘He is not; he’s antediluvian and deaf into the bargain! I tell you, Milly is very ill.’

Mrs. Ogden’s remaining calm deserted her. ‘You tell me, you tell me! And what do you know about it? It seems that you pretend to know more than the doctor himself. You and your ridiculous medical books! You’ll be asking me to consult your fellow-student Elizabeth next.’

‘I wish to God you would!’

‘Ah! I thought so; well then, send for your clever friend, your unsexed blue-stocking, and put her opinion above that of your own mother. How many children has she borne, I’d like to know? What knowledge can she have that I as a mother haven’t got by natural instinct, about my own child? How dare you put Elizabeth Rodney above me!’

Joan lost her temper suddenly and violently. ‘Because she is above you, because she’s everything that you’re not.’

Mrs. Ogden gave a stifled cry and sank back in her chair. ‘Oh! my head, it’s swimming, I feel sinking, I feel as if I were dying. Oh! oh! my head!’

‘Sit up!’ commanded Joan. ‘You’re not dying, but I think Milly is.’ Mrs. Ogden began to cry weakly as Joan turned away.

‘Cruel, cruel!’ she murmured.

Joan went up to her and shook her slightly. ‘Behave yourself, Mother; I’ve no time for this sort of thing.’

‘To tell me that a child of mine is dying! You say that to frighten me; I shall tell the doctor.’

Joan shrugged her shoulders. ‘You may tell him what you please. I’m going up to Milly, now.’

3

Richard had been gone for some weeks and Mr. and Mrs. Benson had moved back to London when Milly came home. Joan would have given much to have had Richard to talk to just now, but she could only write and tell him her fears, which his brief answers did little to dispel: He advised an immediate consultation and mentioned a first-class specialist; at the same time he managed to drop a word here and there anent Joan’s own prospects, which he pointed out were becoming more gloomy with every month of delay. No, Richard was not in a consoling mood these days.

Lawrence, on the other hand, was full of kindness. He had taken to coming down to Conway House for the weekends, and he seldom came without a jar of turtle soup or some other expensive luxury for the invalid. His constant visits to Leaside might have suggested an interest in one of its inmates; in fact Mrs. Ogden began to wonder whether Lawrence was falling out of love with Elizabeth and into love with Milly. But Joan was not deceived; she felt certain that he only came there in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Elizabeth if, as sometimes happened, he found her out when he called at her brother’s house; she was amused and yet vaguely annoyed.

‘Your admirer’s in the drawing-room, Elizabeth.’

Elizabeth smiled. ‘Well, let him stay there with your mother; we’ll sneak out by the back door, for a walk.’

But Lawrence invariably saw them escaping; it was uncanny how he always seemed to be standing at the window on such occasions. On a blustery day in March he hurried after them and caught them at the corner of the street, as he had already done several times. He always said the same thing:

‘Ripping afternoon for a walk, you two; may I join you?’

He threw out his chest and took off his hat.

‘Jolly good for the hair, Elizabeth!’

Elizabeth’s own hat, blown slightly askew, was causing her agony by reason of the straining hat-pins; and in any case she always suffered from neuralgia when the wind was in the east. She managed to turn her head slightly in his direction, but before she had time to snub him, a gust removed her hat altogether and blew her hair down into her eyes. The hat bowled happily along the esplanade, and after it went Joan, with Lawrence at her heels. She could hear him pattering persistently behind her. For some reason the sound of his awkward running infuriated her; his steps were short for a man’s, as though he were wearing tight boots. She felt suddenly that she must reach the hat first or die; must be the one to restore it to its owner. She strained her lanky legs to their limit; her skirts flew, her breath came fast, she was flushed with temper and endeavour. Now she had almost reached it. No, there it went again, carried along by a fresh and more spiteful gust. Several people stood still to laugh.

‘Two to one on Miss Joan!’ cried General Brooke, halting in his strut.

Ah! At last! Her hand flew out to capture the hat, which was poised, rocking slightly for a moment, like a seagull on a wave. She stooped forward, grabbed the air, tripped and fell flat. Lawrence, who was close behind her, nearly fell over her, but saved himself just in time. He pursued the hat a few steps farther, seized it and then returned to help Joan up; but she had already sprung to her feet with an exclamation of annoyance.

‘I’ve won!’ laughed Lawrence provokingly. ‘You’re not hurt, are you?’

She was, having slightly twisted her ankle, but she lied sulkily. ‘No, of course not.’

It seemed to her that he was smiling all over, not only with his mouth, but with his eyes and his glasses and the little brass buttons on his knitted waistcoat. His very shoes twinkled with amusement all over their highly polished toecaps. Instinctively she stretched out her hand to take the hat from him.

‘Oh, no!’ he taunted. ‘No, you don’t; that’s not fair!’

Elizabeth was standing still watching them, with her hands pressed against her hair. ‘Thank you’, she said, as Lawrence restored her hat to her; but she looked at Joan and smiled.

Joan turned her face away to hide a sudden rush of tears. How ridiculous and childish she was! Fancy a woman of twenty-three wanting to cry over losing the game! They walked on in silence, Joan trying not to limp too obviously, but Elizabeth was observant.

‘You’re hurt’, she said, and stood still. Joan denied it.

‘It’s nothing at all; I just twisted my ankle a bit.’ And she limped on.

‘Hadn’t you better turn back?’ suggested Lawrence a little too hopefully. ‘Look here, Joan, I’ll get you a fly.’

‘I don’t want a fly, thank you; I’m all right.’

‘No, you’re not; do let me call that cab for you; it’s awfully unwise to walk on a strained ankle.’

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ snapped Joan, ‘do let me know for myself whether I’m hurt or not!’

She realized that she was behaving badly; she could hear the irritation in her own voice. Moreover, she knew that she was spoiling the walk by limping along and refusing to go home; but some spirit of perverseness was dominating her. She felt that she disliked Lawrence quite enormously, and at that moment she almost disliked Elizabeth. Why had Elizabeth accepted her hat from Lawrence’s hand? She should have said something like this: ‘Give it to Joan, please; I would rather Joan gave me my hat.’ Ridiculous! She laughed aloud.

‘What are you laughing at?’ inquired Lawrence.

‘Oh, nothing, only my thoughts.’

‘Can’t we share the joke?’

‘No, it wouldn’t amuse you.’

‘Oh, do go back, Joan’, said Elizabeth irritably. ‘You’re hardly able to walk.’

‘Do you want me to go back, then?’

‘Yes, of course I do; and put on a cold-water bandage as soon as you get home.’

Joan looked at her with darkening eyes, and left them abruptly.

4

‘What on earth’s upset her?’ asked Lawrence, genuinely concerned. Nothing — why? She’s not upset.’

‘She seemed angry about something.’

‘Oh, I don’t think so. Probably her ankle was hurting her rather badly, only she didn’t want to admit it.’

‘Well, I thought she was angry. But never mind, let’s talk about you.’ And he edged a little nearer.

Elizabeth evaded the hand that hovered in the vicinity of her arm. ‘I’m so dull to talk about’, she parried. ‘Let’s talk about metaphysics!’

He gripped her arm now in a grasp that there was no evading. ‘Why will you always make fun of me, Elizabeth?’

She was silent, her head drooped, and he, misunderstanding the movement, tightened his fingers.

‘I love you!’ he said rather loudly in her ear, raising his voice to be heard through the wind. ‘When will you marry me, dearest?’

‘Oh, Lawrence, don’t’, she protested. ‘Some day, perhaps, or never. I don’t know!’

‘But you do love me a little, Elizabeth, don’t you?’

‘No, not a bit; I don’t love you at all.’

‘But you would. I’d make you.’

‘How would you make me?’

He considered. ‘I don’t know,’ he admitted lamely; ‘but I’d find a way, try me and see; it’s not possible that I shouldn’t find a way.’

He was very sincere, that was the worst of it. His eyes glowed fondly at her behind his glasses.

‘And, my dear, I could give you all you want,’ he added.

‘All I want, Lawrence?’

‘Yes, I mean we’d be rich.’

She stopped to consider him thoughtfully. A good-looking man, too well dressed; a dull man, too conscious of worldly success; a shy man, shy not to be over bold at times. A youngish man still, too pompous to be youthful.

‘Would you like to marry a woman who doesn’t love you?’ she asked him curiously.

‘I’d like to marry you, Elizabeth.’

‘But why? I can’t imagine why anyone should want to marry me.’

‘I want to marry you because you’re everything I love. My dear Elizabeth, if you were seventy I should still love you.’

‘You think so now, because I’m not seventy.’

‘Look here’, he said suddenly. ‘Is it still Joan that’s stopping you?’

She stiffened. ‘I said I didn’t love you, isn’t that enough?’

He continued in his train of thought. ‘Because if it is Joan, you know, just think how we could help her, in her career, I mean. She’ll need money and I have at least got that. If you’ll marry me, Elizabeth, I swear I’ll do more for that girl than I’d do for my own sister. Say you’ll marry me, Elizabeth —’

She pushed his hand away from her arm rather roughly. ‘If I married you’, she said, ‘I should have to stop thinking of Joan’s career; it would be your career then, not hers; and in any case money will never help Joan.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because she’s Joan, I suppose; she’s not like anyone else in the world.’

He was silent, his rejected hand hanging limply at his side. Presently he said: ‘You do love that child. I suppose it’s because you’ve had the making of her.’

‘I suppose so; she’s a very lovable creature.’

‘I know. Well, think it over.’

‘You’re a patient man, Lawrence.’

‘There’s no help for it.’

‘I wish you’d marry someone else, that is if you want to marry at all; it may take me such a long time to think it over.’

He looked at her stubbornly. ‘I’ll wait’, he said. ‘I’m the waiting kind when I want a thing badly enough.’

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