The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-six

Milly’s illness was discussed at every tea-table in Seabourne, and proved a grateful topic in the stiff little club as well. If the Ogdens did nothing else, they certainly provided food for comment. Joan’s Short Hair, the Colonel’s Death, Mrs. Ogden’s Popish Tendencies and now Milly’s Consumption were hailed in turn with discreet enthusiasm.

Major Boyle, the doleful politician, killed Milly off at least a dozen times that spring.

‘Family’s riddled with it!’ he remarked lugubriously. ‘I happen to know for a fact that three of the mother’s brothers died of it.’

General Brooke laughed asthmatically. ‘That’s queer’, he chuckled, ‘for she only had one!’

Major Boyle sighed as though this in itself were a tragedy. ‘Oh, really, only one? Then it must have been a brother and two cousins — yes, that was it, two cousins — riddled with it!’

The little bank manager fidgeted in his chair, his mouth opened and shut impatiently; if only they would let him get a word in edgeways. At last he could contain himself no longer.

‘Miss Joan told me —’ he began.

But Sir Robert Loo interrupted with intentional insolence. ‘You were saying, Boyle, that two of the cousins died of consumption; which were they, I wonder? I was at Christ Church with Peter Routledge, a cousin of the mother’s, awfully nice chap he was, but a bit of a wildster.’

They began tossing the ball of conversation backwards and forwards and around between themselves, keeping it the while well above the head of the bank manager. Eton, Christ Church, old days in India, the Buffs, the Guards, crack shots, shooting parties, phenomenal exploits with the rod and line, lovely women. They nodded their heads, chewing the ends of their cigars and murmured ‘By Gad!’ and ‘My dear fellow!’ the while they exaggerated and romanced about the past.

They emptied their glasses and sucked in their moustaches. They lolled back in the arm-chairs or straddled in front of the smoky fire. Their eyes glowed with the enthusiasms of thirty or forty years ago. They forgot that they were grey or white or bald, or mottled about the jowls, that their stomachs protruded and their legs gave a little at the knees. They forgot that their sons defied them and their wives thought them bores, that their incomes were for the most part insufficient, and that nearly all their careers had been ignominiously cut short by the age limit. They lived again in their dashing youth, in the glorious days when they had been heroes, at least in their own estimation; when a scrap with savages had taken on the dimensions of Waterloo. When fine girls and blood fillies met with about equal respect and admiration, when moonlight nights on long verandas meant something other than an attack of lumbago; and when, above all, they had classified their fellow-men as being ‘One of us’ or ‘An outsider’.

There sat Mr. Pearson the bank manager, with the golden ball flying around and above him, but never, oh! never within his grasp. He sighed, he cleared his throat, he smoked a really good cigar that he could ill afford; he envied. No, assuredly his youth provided no splendours. He thought distastefully of the Grammar School, he spat mentally when he remembered the Business College. He felt like a worm who is discovered in a ducal salad, and he cringed a little and respected.

He, too, was bald these days, and his waistcoats gaped sometimes where they buttoned; in seniority he was the equal of most of them, but in family, opportunity, knowledge of life and love of fair women, judging by their reminiscences, he was hopelessly their inferior.

He knew that they resented him as a blot on their club, and that time would never soften this resentment. He knew all about their almost invisible incomes, he even accorded financial accommodation to one or another from time to time. He saw their bank books and treated with as much tact as possible their minute overdrafts. Sometimes he was allowed to offer advice regarding a change of investments or the best method whereby to soften the heart of the Inland Revenue. But all this was at the bank, in his own little office. Behind his roll-top desk he was a power; in the little office it was they who hummed and hawed and found it difficult to approach the subject, while he, urbane and smiling, conscious of his strength, lent a patronizing ear to their doubts and worries.

But positions were reversed in the smoking-room of the club. Securely entrenched in their worn leather chairs, they became ungrateful, they forgot, they ignored: ‘Eton, Christ Church, the Buffs, the Guards!’ And yet he would not resign. He clung to the club like a bastard clings to the memory of an aristocratic father — desperately, resentfully, with a shamefaced sense of pride.

‘My sister tells me’, said Ralph Rodney, gently dragging the conversation back to its original topic. ‘My sister tells me that Milly’s lungs are absolutely sound.’

General Brooke snorted and Major Boyle shook his head mournfully. ‘Can’t be, can’t be,’ he murmured; ‘the family’s riddled with it!’

‘I’m sorry to hear about poor old Peter Routledge’, remarked Sir Robert, pouring himself out another whisky. ‘I’d lost sight of him of late years. Damned hard luck popping off like that, must have been fairly young too; he was one of the best chaps on earth, you know, sound through and through, if he was a bit of a wildster.’

Over in a dark corner someone stirred. It was Admiral Bourne, whom they had thought asleep; now he spoke for the first time. He sat up and, taking off his glasses, wiped them.

‘She was such a pretty little girl’, he said tremulously. ‘Such a dear little girl.’ And he dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief.

They pretended not to notice; he was a very old man now and almost childish, with him tears and laughter had grown to be very near the surface.

‘How goes it with the mice, Admiral?’ inquired someone kindly, to change the subject.

He smiled through his tears and cheered up immediately. ‘Capital, capital! Yes, indeed. And I think I’ve bred a real wonder at last, I’ve never seen such a colour before, it’s not roan and it’s not mauve and it’s not blue; it’s a sort of — a sort of —’ He hesitated, and forgot what he was going to say.

They handed him an evening paper. ‘Thanks, thanks’, he said gratefully. ‘Thank you very much indeed’, and subsided into his corner again.

2

In spite of gloomy prognostications Milly’s health did nothing melodramatic or startling as the months dragged on, though her cough continued and she grew still thinner. At times she was overcome by prolonged fits of weakness, but any change there was came quietly and gradually, so that even Elizabeth was deceived. She watched Joan’s anxious face with growing impatience.

‘Don’t let yourself get hipped over Milly’, she cautioned.

Joan protested. ‘I’m not a bit hipped, but I’m terribly afraid.’

Elizabeth flared up. ‘You really are overdoing it a bit, Joan; it’s almost hysterical! Even Doctor Thomas must know his trade well enough to suspect tubercle if there were any.’

‘I know, but I can’t believe in him. Surely you think Milly’s looking terribly ill?’

‘I think she looks very fagged, but I’m not prepared to know better than the doctor.’

They argued for an hour. Elizabeth was exasperated. Why would Joan persist in taking the most gloomy view of everything?

‘It’s a good excuse for your staying on here’, she said bitterly.

Joan looked at her.

‘Yes, I mean that’, said Elizabeth. ‘You find Milly’s illness a ready-made excuse.’

‘I ought to get angry with you, Elizabeth, but I won’t let myself. Do you seriously think I can leave her? What about Mother?’

‘Yes, what about your mother? Why can’t she keep Milly company for a while; can’t they look after each other? Will you never consider yourself or me?’

‘Oh, what’s the good; you don’t understand. You know how helpless Mother is, and then there’s Milly. I’ve promised her not to leave her.’

‘Oh, yes, I do understand; I understand only too well, Joan. You’re twenty-three already; and we’re no nearer Cambridge than we were; what I want to know is how long is this going on?’

Joan was silent.

‘Oh, my dear!’ said Elizabeth, stretching out her hand. ‘Won’t you come now?’

Joan shook her head. ‘I can’t, I can’t.’

A coldness grew up between them, a coldness unrelieved now by even so much as bad temper. They met less often and hardly ever worked together. At times they tried to avoid each other, so painful was this estrangement to them both. The lines deepened on Elizabeth’s face and her mouth grew hard. She darned Ralph’s socks with a shrinking dislike of the texture and feel of them, and ordered his meals with a sickening distaste for food. She felt that the daily round of life was growing more and more unendurable. Breakfast was the worst ordeal, heralding as it did the advent of another useless day. Ralph liked eggs and bacon, which he would have repeated ad nauseam. She could remember the time when she had shared this liking, but now the smell of the frying bacon disgusted her. Ralph did not always trouble to eat quite tidily, and he chewed with a slightly open mouth; when he wiped his lips he invariably left yellow egg-stains on his napkin. She began to watch for those stains and to listen for his noisy chewing. His face got on her nerves, too; it was growing daily more like Uncle John’s, and not young Uncle John’s either — old Uncle John’s. His eyes were acquiring the ‘Don’t hurt me’ look of the portrait in the study. Something in the way his legs moved lately suggested approaching old age, and yet he was not so old; it must be Seabourne.

‘Oh, do let’s get away from here!’ she burst out one morning. ‘Let’s go to America, Australia, the Antipodes, anywhere!’

Ralph dropped his paper to stare at her, and then he laughed. He thought she was trying to be funny.

3

At Leaside things were little better. A dreariness more tangible than usual pervaded the house. Milly alternated between moods of exuberant hopefulness and fits of deep depression, when she would cling to Joan like a sickly child. ‘Don’t leave me! Oh, Joan, you mustn’t leave me’, was her almost daily entreaty. She was difficult to manage, and insisted on practising in spite of all they could say; but these bursts of defiance generally ended in tears, for after a short half hour or so the music would begin to go tragically wrong, as her weak hand faltered on the bow.

‘Oh!’ she sobbed miserably, whenever this happened; ‘it’s all gone; I shall never, never play again. I wish I were dead!’

Any emotion brought on a violent fit of coughing, which exhausted her to the verge of faintness, so that in the end she would have to be put to bed, where Joan would try to distract her by reading aloud. But Milly’s attention was wont to wander, and looking up from the book Joan would find her sister’s eyes turned longingly to the open window, and would think unhappily: ‘She’s just like a thrush in a cage, poor Milly!’

Mrs. Ogden grew much more affectionate to her younger daughter, and caressed her frequently; but these caresses irritated rather than soothed, and sometimes Milly shrank perceptibly. When this happened Mrs. Ogden eyes would fill with tears, and her working face would instinctively turn in Joan’s direction for sympathy. ‘Oh, my God!’ Joan once caught herself thinking, ‘will neither of them ever stop crying!’ But this thought brought a swift retribution, for she was tormented for the rest of the day over what she felt to have been her heartlessness.

The maidservant left, as maids always did in moments of stress at Leaside; and once again Joan found herself submerged in housework. After her, as she swept and dusted, dragged Milly; always close at her heels, too ill to help, too unhappy to stay alone.

It took a long time to find a new servant, for Mrs. Ogden’s nagging proclivities were becoming fairly well known, but at last a victim was secured and Joan breathed a sigh of relief. They scraped together enough money to hire a bath chair for Milly; it was the same bath chair that Colonel Ogden had used, only now a younger man tugged at the handle. This man was cheerful and familiar, possibly because Milly was so light a passenger and looked so young and ineffectual. He joked and spat at frequent intervals — the latter with an astounding dexterity of aim — and Milly hated him.

‘I can’t bear his spitting’, she complained irritably to Joan. ‘It’s simply disgusting!’

It was history repeating itself, for Mrs. Ogden accompanied the bath chair but seldom, and when she did so she managed to get on the patient’s nerves. The daily task fell, therefore, to Joan, as it had to a great extent in her father’s lifetime.

4

At this period Joan’s hardest cross lay in the fact that she was never alone. She had grown accustomed to having her bedroom to herself during term time, but now there was no term time for Milly, and, moreover, Joan had moved into her mother’s room. Milly complained that if Joan was there she lay awake trying not to cough, and that this choked her. She said, truthfully enough, that she had had a room to herself at Alexandra House for so long now that anyone in the next bed made her nervous, because she couldn’t help listening to their breathing.

This change was not for the better as far so Joan was concerned, for Mrs. Ogden had become abnormally pervading in her bedroom since her husband’s death. During his lifetime he had been the one to dominate this apartment as he had dominated the rest of the house; but now James was corporeally absent there remained only his memory, which took up very little room; all the rest of the space was purely Mrs. Ogden, and she filled it to overflowing.

Joan did not realize to what an extent her mother had spread until they came to share a room. There was literally not an available inch for her things anywhere. The drawers were full, the cupboards were full; on the washstand was a fearsome array of medicine bottles which, together with a quantity of unneeded trifles, overflowed on to the dressing-table. And what was so disheartening was that Mrs. Ogden seemed incapable of making the necessary adjustments. She was far from resenting Joan’s invasion; on the contrary, she liked having her daughter to sleep with her, and yet each new suggestion that necessitated the scrapping or the putting away of some of the odds and ends was met with resistance. ‘Oh! not that, darling; that was given to me when I was a girl in India’; or, ‘Joan, please don’t move that lacquer box; I thought you knew that it came from the drawing-room at Chesham.’

Her years of widowhood had developed the acquisitive instinct in Mrs. Ogden, who was fast becoming that terrible problem, the hoarder in the small house. With no husband to ridicule her or protest, she was able to indulge her mania for treasuring useless things. Joan discovered that the shelves were full of them. Little empty bottles, boxes of various size and shape, worn out hair-brushes, discarded garments, and even threadbare bedroom slippers, all neatly wrapped up and put away against some mythical day when they might be wanted, and all taking up an incredible amount of space. In the end she decided that she would have to let her own possessions remain where they were, in Milly’s room.

Far more oppressive than lack of room, however, was the consciousness of a continual presence. It seemed to Joan that her mother had begun to haunt their bedroom. It was not only the exasperating performance of communal dressing and undressing, but she was never able to have the room to herself, even during the day; if she went upstairs for a few minutes’ solitude, her mother was sure to follow her, on some pretext or another.

In spite of the hoarding instinct Mrs. Ogden was exaggeratedly tidy and spent a great deal of time in straightening up after her daughter, with the result that the most necessary articles had a maddening way of disappearing. Mrs. Ogden had the acute kind of eye to which a crooked line is a torture; a picture a little out of the straight or a brush askew on the table was all that was required to set her off: Once launched, she fidgeted about the room, touching first this and then that, drawing the curtains an inch more forward, fiddling with the obdurate roller until the blind just skimmed the division in the sash window, putting a mat straight with the toe of her slipper, or running her fingers across the mantelpiece, which never failed to yield the expected harvest of dust. Sharing a bedroom, Joan found herself doing a hundred little odd jobs for her mother that she had never done before. It was not dot Mrs. Ogden asked to be waited on in so many words, but she stood about and looked the request. Rather than endure this plaintive, wandering glance, Joan sewed on the skirt braid or found the lost handkerchief, or whatever else it happened to be at the moment.

But the long nights were the worst of all. Side by side, in a small double bed, lay the mother and daughter in dreadful proximity. Their bodies, tired and nervous after the day, were yet unable to avoid each other. Mrs. Ogden’s circulation being very bad she could never sleep with less than four blankets and two hot-water bottles. The hot, rubbery smell of these bottles and the misery of the small double bed, became for Joan a symbol of all that Leaside stood for. She took to lying on the extreme edge of the bed, more out than in, in order to escape from the touch of her mother’s flannel nightgown. But this precaution did not always save her, for Mrs. Ogden, who got a sense of comfort from another body beside her at night, would creep up close to her daughter.

‘Hold my hand, darling; it’s so cold.’ And Joan would take the groping hand and warm it between her own until her mother dropped asleep; but even then she dared not leave go, lest Mrs. Ogden should wake and begin to talk.

Lying there uncomfortably in the thick darkness, with her mother’s hand held limply in her own, she would stare out in front of her with aching eyes and think. During those wakeful hours her brain worked furiously, her vision became appallingly clear and all-embracing. She reviewed her short past and her probably long future; she seemed to stand outside herself, a sympathetic spectator of Joan Ogden. When she slept she did so fitfully and the sleep was not refreshing. She must hire a camp bed she told herself over and over again, but where to put it when it came? There was not a foot of unused space in the bedroom. She thought seriously of flinging herself on Milly’s mercy, and begging to be taken back into their old room, but a sense of self-preservation stopped her. She was certain, whatever the doctor said, that Milly’s lungs were diseased, and she did not want to catch consumption and probably die of it. Queer that, for there was not much to live for in all conscience, and yet she was quite sure that she did not want to die.

With the morning would usually come a gleam of hope; perhaps on that day she would see Elizabeth, perhaps they would be as they had been, the dreadful barrier of coldness having somehow disappeared in the night. Sometimes she did see Elizabeth, it is true, but the barrier was still there, and these meetings were empty and unfruitful.

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