The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-eight

Milly’s death had aged Mrs. Ogden; she did not speak of it on every occasion as she had of her widowhood, but seemed rather to shrink from any mention of the subject, even by Joan. The sudden, awful climax of an illness which she had persisted in regarding lightly; the emergence of the horrid family skeleton of disease in one of her own children, the fact that Milly had died so young and that she had never been able to love her as she loved Joan, all combined to make an indelible impression which she bore plainly on her face. People said with that uncompromising truthfulness which is apt to accompany sympathy: ‘Poor thing, she does look old, and she used to be such a pretty woman; she’s got no trace of that now, poor soul.’ And it was true; her soft hair had lost its gloss and begun to thin; her eyes, once so charmingly brown and pathetic, were paler in colour and smaller by reason of the puffiness beneath them. She stooped a little and her figure was no longer so girlish; there was a vague spread about it, although she was still thin.

Her religion gripped her more firmly than ever, and Father Cuthbert was now a constant visitor at Leaside. He and his ‘daughter’, as he called Mrs. Ogden, were often closeted together for a long time, and perhaps he was able to console her, for she seemed less unhappy after these visits. Joan watched this religious fervour with even greater misgivings than she had had before; the fasting and praying increased alarmingly, but she could not now find it in her heart to interfere. She wished that her mother would talk about Milly; about her illness and death, or even bring herself to take an interest in the selection of the tombstone. She felt that anything would be better than this stony silence. But the selection of the tombstone was left to Joan, for Mrs. Ogden cried bitterly when it was mentioned.

Joan could not pretend that Milly had formed an essential part of her life; in their childhood there had been no love lost between them, and although there had been a certain amount of affection later on, it had never been very strong. Yet for all this, she mourned her sister; the instinct of protection that had chained her to Milly in her last illness was badly shocked and outraged. That Milly’s poor little fight for self-expression should have ended as it had done, in failure and death, seemed to her both cruel and unjust. She could not shake off a sense of indignation against the Power that so ruthlessly allowed these things to happen; she felt as though something had given her a rude mental shove, from which she found it difficult to regain her balance.

Prayer with Joan had always been extemporary, indulged in at irregular intervals, as the spirit moved her. But in the past she had been capable of praying fervently at times, with a childlike confidence that Someone was listening; now she did not pray at all, because she had nothing to say.

She missed Milly’s presence about the house disproportionately, considering how little that presence had meant when it was there. The place felt empty when she remembered that her sister would never come home again for holidays, would never lie chattering far into the night about the foolish trifles that had interested her. She had often been frankly bored with Milly in the past, but now she wished with all her heart that Milly were back again to bore her; back again to litter up their room with the rubbish that always collected around her, and above all back again to play so wonderfully on her inferior violin.

2

Their joint nursing of Milly in her last illness had gone far to draw Joan and Elizabeth closer once more. Elizabeth had been splendidly devoted, splendidly capable, as she always was; she seemed to have softened. For three months after Milly’s death they forbore to discuss their plans, and when, in the end, Elizabeth broached the subject, she was gentle and reasonable, and seemed anxious not to hurry Joan.

But Joan ached to get away; to leave the house and never set foot inside it again, to leave Seabourne and try to forget that such a place existed, to blot out the memory of Milly’s tragedy, in action and hard work. She began to read furiously for Cambridge. A terror possessed her that she had let herself get too rusty, and she tormented Elizabeth with nervous doubts and fears. She lost all self-confidence and worked badly in consequence, but persisted with dogged determination.

Elizabeth laughed at her. She knew that she was worrying herself needlessly, and told her so; and as they gradually resumed their hours of study Joan’s panic subsided.

At the end of another three months Joan spoke to her mother. ‘Dearest I want to talk about the future.’

Mrs. Ogden looked up as though she did not understand. ‘What future?’ she asked.

‘My future, your future. I want you to let me find you a tiny flat in London. I know we’ve discussed this before, but we never came to any conclusion, and now I think we must.’

Mrs. Ogden shook her head. ‘Oh! no’, she said. ‘I shall never leave here now.’

‘Why not? This house will be much too big for you when you’re alone’.

‘Alone?’

‘Yes; when I go to Cambridge, as I want to do in the autumn.’ There was a long silence. Mrs. Ogden dropped her sewing and looked at her daughter steadily; and then:

‘You really mean this, about Cambridge, Joan?’

Joan hesitated uncomfortably; she wished her mother would not adopt this quiet tone, which was belied by the expression in her eyes.

‘Well, if I don’t go now, I shall never go at all. I’m nearly twenty-four already’, she temporized.

‘So you are, nearly twenty-four. How time flies, dear.’

‘We’re hedging’, thought Joan. ‘I must get to the point.’

‘Look here, Mother’, she said firmly. ‘I want to talk this out with you and tell you all my plans; you have a right to know, and, besides, I shall need your help. I want to take a scholarship at Cambridge in the autumn if I can. I shall only have my twenty-five pounds a year, I know, because Milly’s share you’ll need for yourself, but Elizabeth has some money put by, and she’d offered to let me borrow from her until I can earn something. I’m hoping that if it’s not too late, I might manage to hang out for a medical degree, but even if that’s impossible I ought to find some sort of work if I do well at college. And then there’s another thing.’ She hesitated for a moment but plunged on. ‘If you had a tiny place of your own it would cost much less, as I’ve always told you. Say just two or three comfortable rooms, for, of course, there wouldn’t be money enough for you to keep up a flat for the two of us; but that wouldn’t matter, because Elizabeth’s got a flat of her own in London, and could always put me up when I was there. If you were in London I should feel so much happier about it all; I could look after you better, don’t you see? We could see so much more of each other; and then if you were ill, or anything — and another thing is that you’d have a little more money to spend. You could go and stay with people; you might even be able to go abroad in the winter sometimes. Dearest, you do understand, don’t you?’

Mrs. Ogden was silent. She had turned rather pale, but when she spoke her voice was quite gentle.

‘I’m trying to understand, my dear’, she said. ‘Let’s see if I’ve got it right. You say you mean to take your own money and go up to Cambridge in the autumn. I suppose you’ll stay there the usual time, and then continue your studies at a hospital or some place; that’s what they do, don’t they? Some day you hope to become a doctor, or if that fails to find some other paid work in order to be free to live away from me. You mean to break up our home, if you can, and to take me to London as a peace offering to your conscience, and when I’m there you hope to have the time to run in and see me occasionally. I’m right, aren’t I; it would be only occasionally? For between your work and Elizabeth your time would be pretty well taken up.’

Joan made a sound of protest.

‘No, don’t interrupt me’, said her mother quietly; ‘I’m trying to show you that I understand. Well, now, what does it all mean? It seems to me that it means just this: I’ve lost your father, I’ve lost your sister, and now I’m to lose you. Well, Joan, I’m not an old woman yet, so I can’t plead age as an excuse for my timidity, and what would be my awful loneliness; but Milly’s death has shaken me very much, and I’m afraid, yes, afraid to live in a strange place by myself. You may think I’m a coward; well, perhaps I am, but the fact remains that what friends I have are in Seabourne, and I don’t feel that I can begin all over again now. Then there’s the money; if you take your money out of the home, little as it is, I shall find it difficult to make ends meet. I’m not a good manager — I never have been — and without you’— her voice trembled —‘without you, my dear, I don’t see how I should get on at all. But what’s the good of talking; your mind’s made up. Joan,’ she said with sudden violence, ‘do you know how much you are to me? What parting from you will mean?’

‘Oh, my dear!’ exclaimed Joan desperately, ‘you won’t be parting from me really; you’d have to let me go if I were a son, or if I married — well, that’s all I’m asking, just to be treated like that.’

Mrs. Ogden smiled. ‘Yes, but you’re Joan and not a son, and you’re not married yet, you see, and that makes all the difference.’

‘Then you won’t come to London?’

‘No, Joan, I won’t leave this house. I have very sacred memories here and I won’t leave them.’

‘Oh, Mother, please try to see my side! I can’t give up what’s all the world to me; I can’t go on living in Seabourne and never doing anything worth while all the rest of my life; you’ve no right to ask it of me!’

‘I don’t ask it of you; I’ve some pride. Take your money and go whenever you like; go to Elizabeth. I shall stay on here alone.’

‘Mother, I can’t go while you feel like this about it, and if I take my money and I’m not here to manage you can’t stay on in this house; it’s impossible, when every penny counts, as it does with us. Won’t you think it over, for my sake? Won’t you promise to think it over for, say, three months? I needn’t go to London until some time in August. Mother, please! Mother, you must know that I love you, that I’ve always loved you dearly ever since I was a little girl, only now I want my own life; I want work, I want —’

‘You want Elizabeth’, said Mrs. Ogden gently. ‘You want to live with Elizabeth.’

Joan was silent. It was true, she did want to live with Elizabeth; she wanted her companionship, her understanding, her help in work and play; all that she stood for of freedom and endeavour. Only with Elizabeth could she hope to make good, to break once and for all the chains that bound her to the old life. If she lived with her mother she would never get free; it was good-bye to a career, even a humble one.

She knew that in her vacations she would want leisure for reading but she could visualize what would happen when Mrs. Ogden had had time, during her absence, to store up a million trifling duties against her return. She could picture the hundred and one small impediments that would be thrown, consciously or unconsciously, in her way, if she did succeed in getting work. And above all she had a clear vision of the everlasting silent protest that would be so much more unendurable than words; the aggrieved atmosphere that would surround her.

‘Mother,’ she said firmly, ‘it’s true, I must live with Elizabeth if I’m ever to make good. If you won’t consent to coming to London I shall have to go somehow, just the same, but I shan’t go until the middle of August, and I want you to think it over in the meantime.’

Mrs. Ogden got up. ‘I think we’ve talked long enough’, she said. ‘In any case, I have; I feel very tired.’ And going slowly to the door she left the room.

3

Joan sat and stared at the floor. It had been quite fruitless, as it had been in the past; she and her mother could never meet on the ground of mutual understanding and tolerance. Then why did they love each other? Why that added fetter?

The discussion that evening had held some new features. Her mother’s calmness, for one thing; she had been nonplussed by it, not expecting it. Her mother had told her to take her money and go whenever she pleased; yes, but go how? What her mother gave with one hand she took away with the other. If she left her now it would be with the haunting knowledge of having left a woman who either would not or could not adapt herself to the changed circumstances; who would harbour a grievance to the end of her days. Her mother’s very devotion was a weapon turned ruthlessly against her daughter, capable of robbing her of all peace of mind. This would be a bad beginning for strenuous work; and yet her mother had undoubtedly some right on her side. She had lost her husband, and she had lost Milly, and even supposing that neither of them had represented to her what Joan did, still death, when it came, was always terrible. And the talk, the gossip there would be! Everyone in Seabourne would pity her for having such an unnatural daughter; they would lift their eyebrows and purse their lips. ‘Very strange, a most peculiar young woman.’ Oh, yes, all Seabourne would be scandalized if she left home, especially at such a time. She would be thought utterly callous and odd; a kind of heartless freak.

Then there had been the subterfuge about her staying occasionally with Elizabeth. She had said, in a voice that she had tried to make casual: ‘Elizabeth has a flat of her own in London, and she could always put me up when I was there.’ That had been a lie, pure and simple, because she was a coward when it came to hurting people. She had tried to cloak her real purpose, and her mother had seen through her with humiliating ease. It was true enough that Mrs. Ogden would have to economize, and would find herself in a better position to cope with the changed circumstances if she took a flat just big enough for herself; but was that her only motive for not wanting her mother to have a spare bedroom? She knew that it was not. She despised herself for having descended to lies. Was she becoming a liar? The answer was not far to seek; she had lied not only to save her mother pain, but because she had not had the courage to say straight out that she intended leaving her mother’s home for that of another woman. She had realized that in doing such a thing she was embarking upon the unusual; this she had felt the moment she came to putting her intention into words, and she had funked the confession.

She stopped to consider this aspect carefully. It was unusual, and because it was unusual she had been embarrassed; a hitherto unsuspected respect for convention had assailed her. She had never heard of any girl of her acquaintance taking such a step, now that she came to think of it. It was quite a common thing for men to share rooms with a friend, and, of course, girls left home when they married. When they married. Ah! that was the point, that was what made all the difference, as her mother had pointed out. If she had been able to say: ‘I’m going to marry Richard in August’, even although the separation would still have been there, she doubted whether, in the end, her mother would really have offered any strenuous opposition. Pain she would have felt; she remembered the scene with her mother that day long ago, when Richard had proposed to her, but it would have been quite a different sort of pain; there would have been less bitterness in the thought, because marriage had the weight of centuries of custom behind it.

Centuries of custom, centuries of precedent! They pressed, they crushed, they suffocated. If you gave in to them you might venture to hope to live somehow, but if you opposed them you broke yourself to pieces against their iron flanks. She saw it all; it was not her fault, it was not her mother’s fault They were just two poor straws being asked to swim against the current of that monster tyrant: ‘the usual thing’!

She got up and walked feverishly about the room. They must swim against the current; it was ridiculous, preposterous that because she did not marry she should be forced to live a crippled existence. What real difference could it possibly make to her mother’s loneliness if her daughter shared a flat with Elizabeth instead of with a husband? No difference at all, except in precedent. Then it was only by submitting to precedent that you could be free? What she was proposing seemed cruel now, even to herself; and why? Because it was not softened and toned down by precedent, not wreathed in romance as the world understood romance. ‘Good God!’ she thought bitterly, ‘can there be no development of individuality in this world without hurting oneself or someone else?’ She clenched her fists. ‘I don’t care, I don’t care! I’ve a right to my life, and I shall go in August. I defy precedent. I’m Joan Ogden, a law unto myself; and I mean to prove it.’

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