The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter four

The five months between March and August passed uneventfully, as they always did at Seabourne. Joan was a little taller, Milly a little fatter, Mrs. Ogden a little more nervous and Colonel Ogden a little more breathless; nearly everything that happened at Leaside happened ‘little’, so Joan thought.

But on this particular August morning, the usual order was, or should have been, reversed. One was expecting confusion, hurry and triumph, for today was sacred to the memory of Admiral Sir William Routledge, gallant officer and Nelson’s darling. To-day was the day of days; it was Mrs. Ogden’s day; it was Joan’s and Milly’s day — a little of it might be said to be Colonel Ogden’s day, but very little. For upon this glorious Anniversary Mrs. Ogden rose as a phoenix from its ashes. She rose, she grew, she asserted herself, she dictated; she was Routledge. The colonel might grunt, might sneer, might even swear; the overworked servants might give notice, Mrs. Ogden accepted it all with the calm indifference befitting one whose ancestor had fought under Nelson. Oh, it was a wonderful day!

But this year a cloud, at first no larger than a man’s hand, had floated towards Mrs. Ogden before she got up. She woke with the feeling of elation that properly belonged to the occasion, yet the elation was not quite perfect. What was it that oppressed her; that somehow took the edge off the delight? She sat up in bed and thought. Ah! She had it! Assuredly this was the longed-for Anniversary, but — it was also Book Day, Wednesday and Book Day! Could anything be more unjust, more unbearable? Here she had waited a whole year for this, her one moment of triumph, and it had come on Book Day. Ruined — spoilt — utterly spoilt and ruined — the thing she dreaded most was upon her; the household books would be waiting on her desk to be tackled directly after breakfast, to be gone over and added up, and then met somehow out of an almost vanished allowance; it was scandalous! We Routledges! She leapt out of bed.

‘What the devil is it?’ asked Colonel Ogden irritably.

Mrs. Ogden began to hurry. She pattered round the room like a terrier on a scent; garments fell from her nerveless fingers, the hairbrush clattered on to the floor. She eyed her husband in a scared way; her conscience smote her, she had felt too tired to use proper economy last week. The books, the books, the books, what would they come to? She began cleaning her teeth. Colonel Ogden watched her languidly from the bed. His red, puffy face looked ridiculous against the pillow; a little smile lifted his moustache. She turned and saw him, and stopped with the tooth-brush half-way to her mouth. She felt suddenly disgusted and outraged and shy. In a flash her mind took in the room. There on the chair lay his loose, shabby garments, some of them natural coloured Jaeger. And then his cholera belt! It hung limply suspended over the arm of the chair, like the wraith of a concertina. On the table by his side of the bed lay a half-smoked pipe. His bath sponge was elbowing her as she washed; his masculine personality pervaded everything; the room reeked of it.

She went on cleaning her teeth mechanically, taking great care to do as her dentist bade her — up and down and then across and get the brush well back in your mouth; that was the way to preserve your teeth. Up and down and then across — disgusting! What she was doing was ugly and detestable. Why should he lie in the bed and smile? Why should he be in the bed at all — why should he be in the room at all? Why hadn’t they taken a house with an extra bedroom, or at least with a room large enough for two beds? What was he doing there now? He ought not to be there now; that sort of thing was all very well for the young — but for people of their age! The repellent familiarities!

She gathered her dressing-gown more tightly around her; she felt like a virgin whose privacy had suffered a rude intrusion. Turning, she made to leave the room.

‘Where are you going, Mary?’ Colonel Ogden sat up.

‘To have my bath.’

‘But I haven’t shaved yet.’

‘You can wait until I have had my bath.’

She heard herself and marvelled. Would the heavens fall? Would the ground open and swallow her up? She hurried away before her courage failed.

In the bath-room she slipped the bolt and turned the key, and sighed a sigh of relief. Alone — she was alone. She turned on the water. A reckless daring seized her; let the hot water run, let it run until the bath was full to the brim; for once she would have an injuriously hot bath; she would wallow in it, stay in it, take her time. She never got enough hot water; now she would take it all— let his bath be tepid for once, let him wait on her convenience, let him come thumping at the door, coarse, overbearing, foolish creature!

What a life — and this was marriage! She thought of Colonel Ogden, of his stertorous breathing, his habits; he had a way of lunging over on to her side of the bed in his sleep, and when he woke in the morning his face was a mass of grey stubble. Why had she never thought of all these things before? She had thought of them, but somehow she had never let the thoughts come out; now that she had ceased to sit on them they sprang up like so many jacks-inthe-box.

And yet, after all, her James was no worse than other men; better, she supposed, in many respects. She believed he had been faithful to her; there was something in that. Certainly he had loved her once — if that sort of thing was love — but that was a long time ago. As she lay luxuriously in the brimming bath her thoughts went back. Things had been different in India. Joan had been born in India. Joan was thirteen now; she would soon be growing up — there were signs already. Joan so quiet, so reserved — Joan married, a year, five years of happiness perhaps and then this, or something very like it. Never! Joan should never marry. Milly, yes, but she could not tolerate the thought of it for Joan. Joan would just go on loving her; it would be the perfect relationship, Mother and Child.

‘Mary!’

‘What is it?’

‘Are you going to stay there all day?’ The handle of the door was; rattled violently.

‘Please don’t do that, James; I’m still in my bath.’

‘The devil you are!’ Colonel Ogden whistled softly. Then he remembered the date and smiled. ‘Poor old Mary, such a damned snob poor dear — oh well! We Routledges!’

2

Breakfast was late. How could it be otherwise? Had not Mrs. Ogden sat in the bath for at least half an hour? There had been no hot water when at last Colonel Ogden got into the bath-room, and a kettle had had to be boiled. All this had taken time. Milly and Joan watched their mother apprehensively. Joan scented a breakdown in the near offing, for Mrs. Ogden’s hands were trembling.

‘Your father’s breakfast, Joan; for heaven’s sake ring the bell!’ Joan rang it. ‘The master’s breakfast, Alice?’

‘The kidneys aren’t done.’

‘Why not, Alice?’

‘There ‘asn’t been time!’

‘Nonsense, make haste. The colonel will be down in a minute.’

Alice banged the door, and Mrs. Ogden’s eyes filled. Her courage had all run away with the bath water. She had been through hell, she told herself melodramatically; she had at last seen things as they were. Thump — thump and then thump — thump — that was James putting on his boots! Oh, where was the breakfast! Where were James’s special dishes, the kidneys and the curried eggs; what was Alice doing? Thump — thump — there it was again! She clasped her hands in an agony.

‘Joan, Joan, do go and see about breakfast.’

‘It’s all right, Mother, here it is.’

‘Put it on the hot plate quickly — now the toast. Children make your father’s toast — don’t burn it whatever you do!’ Thump — thump — thump — that was three thumps and there ought to be four; would James never make the fourth thump? She thought she would go mad if he left off at three. Ah! There it was, that was the fourth thump; now surely he must be coming. The toast was made; it would get cold and flabby. James hated it flabby. If they put it in the grate it would get hard; James hated it hard. Where was James?

‘Children, put the toast in the grate; no, don’t — wait a minute.’

Now there was another sound; that was James blowing his nose. He must be coming down, then, for he always blew his nose on his soiled pocket handkerchief with just that sound, before he took his clean one. What was that — something broken!

‘Joan, go and see what Alice has smashed. Oh! I hope it’s not the new breakfast dish, the fire-proof one!’

Thump, thump, on the stairs this time; James was coming down at last. ‘Joan, never mind about going to the kitchen; stay here and see to your father’s breakfast.’

The door opened and Colonel Ogden came in. He was very quiet, a bad sign; there was blood from a scratch on his chin to which a pellet of cotton wool adhered.

‘Coffee, dear?’

‘Naturally. By the way, Mary, you’ll oblige me by leaving a teacupful of hot water for me to shave with another time.’ He felt his scratch carefully.

‘Joan, get your father the kidneys. Will you begin with kidneys or curried eggs?’

‘Kidneys. By the way, Mary, I don’t pay a servant to smear my brown boots with pea soup; I pay her to clean them — to clean them, do you hear? To clean them properly.’ The calm with which he had entered the room was fast disappearing; his voice rose.

‘James, dear, don’t excite yourself.’

The colonel cut a kidney viciously; as he did so, tell-tale stains appeared on the plate.

‘Damn it all Mary! Do you think I’m a cannibal?’

‘Oh, James!’

‘Oh, James, oh, James! It’s sickening, Mary. No hot water, not even to shave with, and now raw kidneys; disgusting! You know how I hate my food underdone. Damn it all Mary, I don’t run a household for this sort of thing! Give me the eggs!’

‘Joan, fetch your father the eggs!’

‘What’s the matter with the toast, Mary? It’s stone cold!’

‘You came down so late, dear.’

‘I didn’t get into the bath-room until twenty minutes past eight. I can’t eat this toast.’

‘Joan, make your father some fresh toast; be quick, dear, and Milly, take the kidneys to Ellen and ask her to grill them a little more. Now James here’s some nice hot coffee.’

‘Sit down!’ thundered the colonel.

Joan and Milly sat down hastily. ‘Keep quiet; you get on my nerves, darting about all round the table. Upon my word, Mary, the children haven’t touched their breakfast!’

‘But, James —’

‘That’s enough I say; eat your bacon, Milly. Joan, stop shuffling your feet.’

Milly, her face blotched with nervousness, attempted to spear the cold and stiffening bacon; it jumped off her fork on to the cloth as though possessed of a malicious life energy. Colonel Ogden’s eyes bulged with irritation, and he thumped the table.

‘Upon my word, Mary, the children have the table manners of Hottentots.’

Now by all the laws of the Medes and Persians, Mrs. Ogden, on this Day of Days, should have remained calm and disdainful. But today had begun badly. There had been that little cloud which had grown and grown until it became the household books; it was over her now, enveloping her. She could not see through it, she could not collect her forces. ‘We Routledges!’ It didn’t ring true, it was like a blast blown on a cracked trumpet. She prayed fervently for self-control, but she knew that she prayed in vain. Her throat ached, she was going fast, slipping through her own fingers with surprising rapidity.

Colonel Ogden began again: ‘Well, upon my —’

‘Don’t, don’t!’ shrieked Mrs. Ogden hysterically. ‘Don’t say it again, James. I can’t bear it!’

‘Well upon my word.’

‘There! You’ve said it! Oh, Oh, Oh!’ She suddenly covered her face with her table napkin and burst into loud sobs.

Colonel Ogden was speechless. Then he turned a little pale, his heart thumped.

‘Mary, for heaven’s sake!’

‘I can’t help it, James! I can’t, I can’t!’

‘But, Mary, my dear!’

‘Don’t touch me, leave me alone!’

‘Oh, all right; but I say, Mary, don’t do this.’

‘I wish I were dead!’

‘Mary!’

‘Yes I do, I wish I were dead and out of it all!’

‘Nonsense — rubbish!’

‘You’ll be sorry when I am dead!’

He stretched out a plump hand and laid it on her shoulder. ‘Go away, James!’

‘Oh, all right! Joan, look after your mother, she don’t seem well.’

He left the room, and they heard the front door bang after him. Mrs. Ogden looked over the table napkin. ‘Has he gone, Joan?’

‘Yes, Mother. Oh, you poor darling!’ They clung together.

Mrs. Ogden dried her eyes; then she poured out some coffee and drank it.

‘I’m better now, dear.’ She smiled cheerfully.

And she was better. As she rose from the table the dark cloud lifted, she saw clearly once more; saw the Routledge banner streaming in the breeze.

‘And now for those tiresome books’, she said almost gaily.

She went away to the drawing-room and Joan collapsed; she felt sick, scenes always upset her.

She thought: ‘I wish I could hide my head in a table napkin and cry like Mother did.’ Then she thought: ‘I wonder how Mother manages it. I wouldn’t have cried, I’d have hit him!’

She could not eat. In the drawing-room she heard her mother humming, yes, actually humming over the books!

‘That’s all right’, thought Joan, ‘they must be nice and cheap this week, that’s a comfort anyhow.’

Presently Mrs. Ogden looked into the dining-room.

‘Joan!’

‘Yes, Mother?’

‘No lessons today, dear.’

‘No, Mother.’

‘Come and help me to place the wreath.’

They fetched it, carrying it between them; a laurel wreath large enough to cover the frame of the admiral’s picture.

‘Tell Alice to bring the steps, Joan. Now, dear, you hold them while I get up. How does it look?’

‘Lovely, Mother.’

‘Joan, never forget that half of you is Routledge. Never forget, my dear, that the best blood in your veins comes from my side of the family. Never forget who you are, Joan; it helps one a great deal in life to have something like that to cling to, something to hold on to when the dark days come.’

3

All day long the house hummed like a beehive. There was no luncheon; the children snatched some bread and butter in the kitchen, and if Mrs. Ogden ate at all, she was not observed to do so. Colonel Ogden, wise man, had remained at the club. Alice, her mouth surreptitiously full, hastened here and there with dust-brushes and buckets; Milly begged to do the flowers, and cut her finger; Joan manfully polished the plate, while Mrs. Ogden, authoritative and dignified, reviewed her household as the colonel had once reviewed his regiment.

Presently Alice was ordered to hasten away and dress. ‘And’, said Mrs. Ogden, ‘let me find your cap and apron spotless, if you please, Alice.’

At last Joan and Milly went upstairs to put on their white cashmere smocks, and Mrs. Ogden, left to herself, took stock of the preparations. Yes, it was all in order, the trestle table hired from Binnings’, together with the stout waiter, had both arrived, so had the coffee and tea urns and the extra cups and saucers. On the sideboard stood an array of silver. Cups won at polo by Colonel Ogden, a silver tray bearing the arms of Routledge, salvage this from the family wreck, and numerous articles in Indian silver, embossed with Buddhas and elephants’ heads. The table groaned with viands, the centre piece being a large sugar cake crowned with a frigate in full sail. This speciality Binnings was able to produce every year; the cake was fresh, of course, but not the frigate.

But the drawing-room — that was what counted most. The drawing-room on what Mrs. Ogden called ‘Anniversary Day’ was, in every sense of the word, a shrine. Within its precincts dwelt the image of the god, the trophies of his earthly career set out about him, and Mary, his handmaiden, in attendance to wreathe his effigy with garlands.

Poor old Admiral Sir William, a good fellow by all accounts, an honest sailor and a loyal friend in his day. Possibly less Routledge than his descendants, certainly, according to his biographer, a man of a retiring disposition; one wonders what he would have thought of the Ancestor Worship of which he had all unwittingly become the object.

But Mary was satisfied. The drawing-room, which always appeared to her to be a very charming room, was of a good size. The colour scheme was pink and white, broken by just a splash of yellow here and there where the white chrysanthemums had run out and had been supplemented by yellow ones. The wall-paper was white with clusters of pink roses; the curtains were pink, the furniture was upholstered in pink. The hearth, which was tiled in turquoise blue, was lavish in brass. Mrs. Ogden drew the curtains a little more closely together over the windows in order to subdue the light; then she touched up the flowers, shook out the cushions for the fifth time and stood in the door to gauge the effect.

‘Now’, said Mrs. Ogden mentally, ‘I am Lady Loo, I am entering the drawing-room, how does it strike me?’

The first thing that naturally riveted the attention was the laurel-wreathed print of Admiral Sir William. What a pity James had been too poor to buy the painting — for a moment she felt dashed, but this phase passed quickly, the room looked so nice. The colour, so clean and dainty, just sufficiently relieved by the blue tiled grate and the Oriental piano cover; this latter and the Benares vases certainly seemed to stamp the room as belonging to people who had been in the Service. On the whole she was glad she had married James and not the bishop. The flowers too — really Milly had arranged them quite nicely. But what a pity that it would be too light to light the lamp; still, the shade certainly caught the eye, she was glad she had taken the plunge and bought it at that sale. It was very effective, pleated silk with bunches of artificial iris. Still, she was not sure that a plain shade would not have looked better after all. When one has so unusually fine a stuffed python for a standard lamp, one did not wish to detract from it in any way. She considered the photographs next; there was a goodly assortment of these in silver frames; she had carefully selected them with a view to effect. The panel of herself in court dress, that showed up well; then James in his full regimentals — James looked a trifle stout in his tunic, still, it all showed that she had not married a nobody. Then that nice picture of her brother Henry taken with his polo team — poor Henry! Oh, yes, and the large photograph of the bishop — really rather imposing. And Chesham — the prints of Chesham on the walls; how dignified the dear old place looked, very much a gentleman’s estate.

But there was more to come; Mrs. Ogden had purposely left the best to the last. She drew in her breath. There on an occasional table, lay the relics of Admiral Sir William Routledge, gallant officer and Nelson’s darling. In the middle of the table lay his coat and his gloves, across the coat, his sword. To right and left hung the admiral’s decorations mounted on velvet plaques. In front of the coat lay the oak-framed remnants of Nelson’s letter to the admiral, and in front of this again the treasured Nelson snuff-box bearing the inscription ‘From Nelson to Routledge’.

She paused beside the table, touching the relics one by one with reverent fingers, smiling as she did so. Then she crossed the room to where a shabby leather-covered arm-chair looked startlingly incongruous amid its surroundings. Very carefully she lowered herself into the chair; a small brass plate had been screwed on to the back, bearing the inscription ‘Admiral Viscount Nelson of Trafalgar sat in this chair when staying at Chesham Court with Admiral Sir William Routledge’. Mrs. Ogden spread her thin hands along the slippery arms, and allowed her head to rest for a moment where supposedly Nelson’s head had once rested. The chair was her special pride and care; perhaps because its antecedents were doubtful. Colonel Ogden had once reminded her that there never had been any proof worth mentioning that Nelson had stayed at Chesham, much less that he had sat in that infernally uncomfortable old chair, and Mrs. Ogden had retorted hotly that Routledge tradition was good enough for her. Nevertheless, from that moment the Nelson chair had, she felt, a special claim upon her. She was like a mother defending the doubtful legitimacy of a well-loved son; the Nelson chair had been threatened with a bar sinister.

She gave the arms a farewell stroke, and rising slowly left the room to dress. She trod the stairs with dignity, the aloof dignity that belonged to the occasion, which she would maintain during the rest of the day. Her lapse from Routledge in the morning but added to her calm as tea-time approached.

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