The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-seven

That August Joan’s worst fears were justified, for Milly began to spit blood. Trying to play her violin one morning she was overtaken by a fit of coughing; she pressed her handkerchief to her mouth.

‘Oh! Look, look, Joan, what is it? Oh, I’m frightened!’

They sent for Doctor Thomas, who ordered Milly to bed and examined her. His face was grey when he looked up at Joan, and they left the room together and went downstairs to Mrs. Ogden.

‘It’s terribly sudden and quite unexpected’, Doctor Thomas said.

‘But I simply can’t believe it’, wailed Mrs. Ogden. ‘She comes of such healthy stock, I simply can’t believe it!’

‘I’m afraid there is very little doubt, Mrs. Ogden; I myself have no doubt. Still, we had better have a consultation.’

Mrs. Ogden protested: ‘But blood may come from all sorts of places; her stomach, her throat. She may even have bitten her tongue, poor child, when she was coughing.’

The doctor shook his head. ‘No,’ he said; ‘I’m afraid not; but I should like to have a consultation at once, if you don’t mind.’

‘I will not have a specialist in my house again’, Mrs. Ogden repeated for about the fiftieth time in the last few months. ‘It was your specialist who killed my poor James!’

The doctor looked helplessly at Joan, and she saw fear in his old eyes. She felt certain that he was conscious of having made a terrible mistake, and was asking her dumbly to forgive, and to help him. His mouth worked a little as he took off his dimmed glasses to polish them.

‘No one knows how this grieves me’, he said unsteadily. ‘Why I’ve known her since she was a baby.’

From the depths of her heart Joan pitied him. ‘The lungs may have gone very suddenly’, she said.

He looked at her gratefully. ‘And what about a consultation’? he asked with more confidence.

Joan turned to her mother. ‘There must be one’, she told her.

‘But not a specialist. Oh, please, not a specialist’, implored Mrs. Ogden. ‘You don’t know what a horror I have of them!’

‘There’s a colleague of mine down here, Doctor Jennings. I’d like to call him in, Mrs. Ogden, if you won’t get a London man; but I’m afraid he can’t say any more than I have.’

‘Is he a specialist?’ inquired Mrs. Ogden suspiciously.

‘No, oh no, just a general practitioner, but a very able young man.’

Joan nodded. ‘Bring him this afternoon’, she said.

The doctors arrived together about three o’clock. Joan, sitting in the dining-room, heard their peremptory ring and ran to open the door. She felt as though she were in a kind of dream; only half conscious of what was going on around her. In the dream she found herself shaking hands with Doctor Jennings, and then following him and Doctor Thomas upstairs. Doctor Jennings was young and clean and smelt a little of some disinfectant; it was not an unpleasant smell, rather the reverse, she thought. Milly looked up with wide, frightened eyes, from her pillow as they entered; Joan took her hand and kissed it. Doctor Jennings, who seemed very kind, smiled reassuringly at the patient while making his exhaustive examination, but once outside the bedroom his smile died away.

‘I should like a few minutes alone with Doctor Thomas’, he said. Joan took them into the dining-room and left them. She began pacing up and down outside in the hall, listening vaguely to the murmur of their lowered voices. Presently Doctor Thomas looked out. ‘Will you and your mother please come in now.’

She went slowly into the drawing-room and fetched her mother; Mrs. Ogden looked up with a frightened face and clung to her arm. ‘What do they say?’ she demanded in a loud whisper.

The two doctors were standing by the window. ‘Please sit down, Mrs. Ogden’, said Doctor Jennings, pushing forward a chair.

It was all over very soon and the doctors had left. They were completely agreed, it seemed; Milly’s lungs were already far gone and there was practically no hope. Doctor Jennings would have liked to send her to Davos Platz, but she was not strong enough to take the journey, and in any case he seemed doubtful as to whether it was not too late.

2

So Milly was dying. Joan’s eyes were dry while her mother sobbed quietly in her chair. Milly was dying, going away, going away from Seabourne for ever and ever. Milly was dying, Milly might very soon be dead. Her brain cleared; she began to remember little incidents in their childhood, little quarrels, little escapades. Milly had broken a breakfast cup one day and had not owned up; Milly had cried over her sums and had sometimes been cheeky to Elizabeth. Milly was dying. Where was Elizabeth, why wasn’t she here? She must find her at once and tell her that Milly was going to die, that Milly was as good as dead already. Elizabeth would be sorry; she had never really liked Milly, still, she would begin to like her now out of pity — people did that when someone was dying.

She got up. ‘I’m going to the Rodneys’, she said.

‘Oh! don’t leave me, don’t leave me now, Joan’, wailed Mrs. Ogden.

‘I must for a little while; try to stop crying, dearest, and go up to Milly. But bathe your eyes first, though; she oughtn’t to see them looking red.’

Mrs. Ogden walked feebly to the door; she looked old and pinched, she looked more than her age.

‘Don’t be long’, ‘she implored.

3

In the street, Joan saw one or two people she knew, and crossed over, in order to avoid them. It was hot and the sea glared fearfully; she could feel the sun beating down on her head, and putting up her hand found that she was hatless. She quickened her steps.

Elizabeth was upstairs sorting clothes, they lay in little heaps on the bed and chairs; she looked up as Joan came in.

‘I’m thinking of having a jumble sale’, she said, and then stopped.

Joan sat down on a pile of nightgowns. ‘It’s Milly — they say she’s dying.’

Elizabeth caught her breath. ‘What do you mean, Joan?’

Joan told her all there was to tell, from the blood on the handkerchief that morning to the consultation in the afternoon. Elizabeth listened in shocked silence.

At last she said: ‘It’s awful, simply awful — and you were right all along.’

‘Yes, I knew it; I don’t know how.’

‘Joan, make your mother let me help to do the nursing; I’m not a bad nurse, at least I don’t think I am, and after all I’d be better than a stranger, for the child knows me.’

‘They say she may live for some little time yet, but they can’t be sure, she may die very soon. Are you quite certain you want to help, Elizabeth?’

Elizabeth stared at her. So it had come to this: Joan was not sure that she would want to help in the extremity, was capable of supposing that she could stand aside while Joan took the whole burden on her own shoulders. Good God! how far apart they had drifted.

‘I shall come to Leaside and begin tomorrow’, was all she said.

4

Seabourne was genuinely shocked at the news. Of course they had all been saying for months past that Milly was consumptive, but somehow this was different, entirely different. People vied with each other in kindness to the Ogdens, touched by Milly’s youth and Mrs. Ogden’s new grief. Friends, and even mere acquaintances, inquired daily, at first; their perpetual bell-ringing jangled through the house, tearing at the nerves of the overstrained inmates. Still, all these people meant so well, one had to remember that.

The Bishop of Blumfield wrote a long letter of sympathy and encouragement, and Aunt Ann sent three woolly bed jackets that she had knitted herself. Richard wrote his usual brief epistle to Joan, but it was very kind; and Lawrence came to Leaside once a week, loaded like a pack mule with practical gifts from Mrs. Benson.

Milly, thin and flushed in her bed upstairs, was pleased at the attention she was receiving. She knew now that she was very ill and at times spoke about dying, but Joan doubted whether she ever realized how near death she was, for on her good days she would begin making elaborate plans for the future, and scheming to get back to the College as soon as possible.

She died in November after a violent haemorrhage that came on suddenly in the middle of the night. Beyond the terror of that haemorrhage there was nothing fearful in Milly’s passing; she slept herself into the next world with her cheek against the pillow, and even after she was dead they still thought that she was sleeping.

She was buried in the local cemetery, near her father. There were countless wreaths and crosses and a big chrysanthemum cushion with ‘Rest in Peace’ straggling across it in violets, from the students of Alexandra House. A good many people cried over Milly’s death, principally because she had been so pretty and had died so young. Seabourne was shocked and depressed over it all; it seemed like a reproach to the place, the going out of this bright young creature. They remembered how talented she had been, how much they had admired her playing, and began telling each other anecdotes that they had heard about her childhood. But Joan could not cry; her heart was full of bitterness and resentment.

She broke away’, she thought. ‘Milly broke away, but only for a time; Seabourne got her in the end, as it gets us all!’

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