The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-nine

Elizabeth’s attitude towards the new decision to leave Seabourne made Joan uneasy. Elizabeth said nothing at all, merely nodding her head. Joan thought that she was worried and unhappy about something, but tried in vain to find out the reason.

They worked on steadily together; but she began to miss the old enthusiasm that had made of Elizabeth the perfect teacher. Now she was dull and dispirited, even a little abstracted at times. It was clear that her mind was not in their work. Was it because she doubted their going to London in August? If Elizabeth began to weaken seriously, Joan felt that all must indeed be lost. She needed support and encouragement, as never before, now that she had taken the plunge and told her mother definitely for the last time that she meant to break away. She felt that with Elizabeth’s whole-hearted support she could manage somehow to stand out against the odds, but if she was not to be believed in, if Elizabeth lost faith in her, then she doubted her own strength to carry things through.

‘Elizabeth,’ she said, with a note of fear in her voice, ‘you feel quite certain that we shall go?’

Elizabeth looked up from the book she was reading. ‘I don’t know, Joan.’

‘But I’ve told Mother definitely that I intend to go in August.’

‘Yes, I know you have.’

‘But you’re doubtful? You think I shall go back on you again?’

‘You won’t mean to do that, but so many things happen don’t they? I think I’m getting superstitious.’

‘Nothing is going to happen this time’, said Joan, in a voice which she tried vainly to make firm. ‘I’m not the weak sort of thing that you seem to think me, and in August I go to London!’

Elizabeth took her hand and held it. ‘I could weep over you!’ she said.

2

The days were slipping by. It was now June and Mrs. Ogden still persisted in her refusal to leave Seabourne. On this point Joan found herself up against an opposition stronger than any she had had to meet before. Gently but firmly, her mother stuck to her decision.

‘You go, my dear’, she said constantly now. ‘You go, and God bless you and take care of you, my Joan.’ She seemed to be all gentleness and resignation. ‘After all, I’m not as young as I was, and I’m dull and tiresome, I know.’

She had grown thinner in the past few weeks, and her stoop was more pronounced. Joan knew that she must be sleeping badly, for she could hear her moving about her room well into the small hours. Her appetite, always poor, appeared to fail completely.

‘Oh! Mother, do try to eat something. Are you ill?’

‘No, no, my dear, of course not, but I don’t feel very hungry.’

‘Mother, I must know; is your head worrying you again?’

‘I didn’t say it was; what makes you ask?’

‘Because you sit pressing it with your hand so often. Does it ache?’

‘A little, but it’s nothing at all; don’t worry, darling; go on with your studying.’

Joan often discovered her now crying quietly by herself, but as she came in her mother would make as though to whisk the tears away. ‘Mother, you’re crying!’

‘No, I’m not, dearest; my eyes are a little weak, that’s all.’

Towards Elizabeth she appeared to have changed even more completely. Now she was always urging her to come to meals. ‘You’ll want to talk things over with Joan’, she would say. ‘Please stop to lunch today, Elizabeth; you two must have a thousand plans to discuss.’

She spoke quite openly to Elizabeth about Joan’s chances of taking a scholarship at Cambridge, and what their life together would be in London. She sighed very often, it is true, and sometimes her eyes would fill with tears, but when this happened she would smile bravely. ‘Don’t take any notice of me, Elizabeth; I’m just a foolish old woman.’

Joan’s heart ached with misery. This new, submissive, gentle mother was like a pathetic figure of her childhood; a creature difficult to resist, and still more difficult to coerce. Something so utterly helpless that it called up all the chivalry and protectiveness of which her nature was capable.

She found a little parcel on her dressing-table one evening containing six knitted ties and a note, which said: ‘For my Joan to wear at Cambridge. I knitted them when I couldn’t sleep.’ Joan laid down her head and cried bitterly.

In so many little ways her mother was showing thought for her. She found her going through her clothes one day. ‘Mother, what on earth are you doing?’

‘Just looking over your things, dearest. I see you’ll need new stockings and a new hat or two. Oh! and, Joan, do you really think these vests are warm enough? I believe Cambridge is very damp.’

She began to seek out Elizabeth, and whereas, before, she had contented herself more or less with generalities regarding Cambridge and Joan’s life with her friend, she now appeared to want a detailed description of everything.

‘Elizabeth,’ she said one day, ‘come and sit here by me. I want you to tell me all about your flat. Describe it to me, tell me what it looks like, and then I can picture you two to myself after Joan’s gone. Is it sunny? Where is the flat? Isn’t it somewhere near the Edgware Road?’

‘In Bloomsbury’, said Elizabeth rather shortly; then she saw that Joan was listening, and added hastily: ‘Let me see, is it sunny? Yes, I think it is, rather; it’s a very tiny affair, you know.’

‘Oh, but big enough for you two, I expect; I wonder if I shall ever see it.’

‘Of course you will, Mother’, said Joan eagerly. ‘Why we expect you to come up and stay with us; don’t we, Elizabeth?’

Elizabeth assented, but Mrs. Ogden shook her head. ‘No, not that, my dear, you won’t want to be bothered with me; but it’s a darling thought of yours all the same. And now, Elizabeth, tell me all about Cambridge. When I’m alone here in the evenings I shall want to be able to make pictures of the place where my Joan is working.’

Elizabeth felt uncomfortable and suspicious; was Mrs. Ogden making a fool of her, of them both? She tried to describe the town and then the colleges, with the Backs running down to the river, but even to herself her voice sounded hard and unsympathetic.

‘Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve bored you’, said Mrs. Ogden apologetically. And Elizabeth, looking across at Joan, saw an angry light in her eyes.

3

Mrs. Ogden gave the maidservant notice, without consulting her daughter, who knew nothing about it until the girl came to her to protest. ‘The mistress has given me a month’s notice, and I’m sure I do’no what I’ve done. It’s a hard place and she’s awful to please, but I’ve done my best. I have indeed!’

Joan went in search of her mother. ‘Why on earth have you givenEllen notice?’ she demanded. ‘She’s the best girl we’ve ever had.’

‘I know she is’, said Mrs. Ogden, who was studying her bank book.

‘Then why —?’

‘Well, you see, darling, I shan’t be able to afford a servant when you’ve gone, so I thought it better to give her notice at once. Of course I couldn’t very well tell her why I was sending her away, could I?’

Joan collapsed into a chair. ‘But, good heavens, Mother! You can’t do the housework. Surely with a little management you might have kept her on; she only gets nineteen pounds a year!’

‘Ah! but there’s her food and washing’, said Mrs. Ogden patiently.

‘But what do you propose to do? You can’t sweep floors and that sort of thing; this is awful!’

‘Now don’t begin to worry, Joan. I shall be perfectly all right; I can have a charwoman twice a week.’

‘But what about the cooking, Mother?’

‘Oh, that will be easy, darling; you know how little I eat.’

Joan began walking about the room, a trick she had acquired lately when worried. ‘It’s impossible!’ she protested. ‘You’ll end by making yourself very ill.’

Mrs. Ogden got up and kissed her. ‘Do you think,’ she said softly, ‘that I can’t make sacrifices for my girl, when she demands them of me?’

‘Oh, Mother, I do beg of you to come to London! I know I could make you comfortable there.’

Mrs. Ogden drew herself away. ‘No, I can’t do that’, she said. ‘I’ve lived here since you and Milly were little children, my husband died here and so did your sister; you mustn’t ask me to leave my memories, Joan.’

In July the servant left. ‘No, darling, don’t do the housework for me; I must learn to do things for myself’, said her mother, as Joan was going into the kitchen as a matter of course.

A period of chaos ensued. Mrs. Ogden struggled with brooms and slop-pails as a mosquito might struggle with Cleopatra’s Needle. The food she prepared came out of tins, for the most part, and what was fresh was spoilt before it reached the table. Their meals were tragedies, and when on one occasion Joan’s endurance gave out over a particularly nasty stew, Mrs. Ogden burst into tears.

‘Oh! and I did try so hard!’ she sobbed.

Joan put her arms round her. ‘You poor darling,’ she comforted, ‘don’t cry; it’s not so bad, really; only I don’t see how I’m ever to leave you.’

Mrs. Ogden dried her eyes. ‘But you must leave me’, she said steadily. ‘I want you to go, since you’ve set your heart on it.’

‘Well, I do believe you’ll starve!’ said Joan, between laughter and tears.

Every evening Mrs. Ogden was worn out. She could not read, she could not sew; whenever she tried her eyelids drooped and she had to give it up. In the end she was forced to sit quietly with closed eyes. Joan, watching her apprehensively from the other side of the lamp, would feel her heart tighten.

‘Mother, go to bed; you’re tired to death.’

‘Oh, no, darling, I’ll sit up with you; I shall have plenty of evenings to go to bed early when you’ve gone.’

Not content, apparently, with moderate hours of work, Mrs. Ogden bought an alarm clock. The first that Joan knew of this instrument of torture was when it woke her with a fearful start at six-thirty one morning. She could not exactly locate whence the sound came, but rushed instinctively into her mother’s room.

‘What is it? Are you ill? What was that bell?’ she panted.

Mrs. Ogden, already out of bed, pointed triumphantly to the alarm. ‘I had to get it to wake me up’, she explained.

‘But, my dear mother, it’s only half-past six; you can’t get up at this hour!’

‘There’s the kitchen fire to light, darling, and I want you to have a really hot bath by half-past seven.’

Joan groaned. ‘Go back to bed at once’, she ordered, giving her a gentle push. ‘I’ll light the kitchen fire; this is ridiculous!’

4

It was the middle of July; only a few weeks more and then freedom. ‘Freedom, freedom, freedom!’ repeated Joan to herself in a kind of desperation. ‘I’m going to be free at last.’ But something in her shrank and weakened. ‘No, no’, she thought in terror. ‘I will leave her; I must.’

She sought Elizabeth out for comfort. ‘Only a few weeks now Elizabeth.’

‘Yes, only a few weeks now’, repeated Elizabeth flatly. They went on with their plans with quiet stubbornness. They spent a day in London buying their furniture on the hire system; the selection was not very varied, but they could not afford to go elsewhere. They chose fume oak for the most part, and blue-grey curtains with art carpets to mate them. Their greatest extravagance was a large roomy bookcase.

Joan said: ‘Think of it; this is for our books, yours and mine.’

Elizabeth smiled and pressed her hand. ‘Are you happy, my dear? she asked doubtfully.

Joan flared up. ‘What a ridiculous question to ask; but perhaps you’re not happy?’

‘Oh, don’t!’ said Elizabeth, turning away.

They had tea in the restaurant of the ‘Furniture Emporium’, tepid Indian tea and stale pound cake.

‘Ugh!’ said Joan disgustedly, as she tried to drink the mixture.

‘Yes, it’s undrinkable’, Elizabeth agreed.

They paid for the meal which they had left untouched, and catching a bus, went to the station.

On their way home in the train they sat silent. They were very tired, but it was not that which made speech difficult, but rather the sense of deep disappointment oppressing them both. No, it had not been at all like they had expected, this choosing of the furniture for their home together; something, intangible had spoilt it all. ‘It was my fault’, Joan thought miserably. ‘It was all my fault. I meant to be happy, I wanted to be, but I wasn’t a bit — and Elizabeth saw it.’

When they said ‘Good night’ at the Rodneys’ house they clung to each other for a moment in silence.

‘Go. Oh, do go!’ said Elizabeth brokenly, and Joan went with drooping head.

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