The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty

It had come. Joan lay awake and realized that this was her last night in Seabourne. She got up and lit the gas. Her eyes roved round the familiar bedroom; there was Milly’s bed — they had not had it moved after her death, and there was the old white wardrobe and the dressing-table, and the crazy arm-chair off which she and Milly had torn the caster when they were children. The caster had never been replaced. ‘How like Seabourne’, she thought, smiling ruefully. ‘Casters never get themselves replaced here; nothing does.’

She looked at her new trunk, already locked and strapped; it had been a present from her mother, and her name, ‘Joan Ogden’, was painted across its top in white block letters. ‘I thought it safer to put the full name’, her mother had said.

The blind flapped and the gas flame blew sideways; it was windy, and the thud of the sea on shingles came in and seemed to fill the room. ‘I am happy!’ she told herself; ‘I’m very happy.’

How brave her mother had been that evening; she had smiled and talked just as though nothing unusual were about to happen, but oh! how miserably tired she had looked, and ill. Was she going to be ill? Joan’s heart seemed to stop beating; suppose her mother should get ill all alone in the house! She had never thought of that before, but of course she would be alone every night, now that she had sent away the servant. What was to be done? It was dangerous, terribly dangerous for a woman of that age to sleep alone in the house. She pulled herself up sharply; oh, well, she would speak to her in the morning and tell her that she must have a maid. Of course it was all nonsense; she must afford one: But what about tomorrow night? She couldn’t get a servant by that time. Never mind; nothing was likely to happen in one or two nights. No, but it might be weeks before she found a maid; what was to be done?

If her mother got ill, would she telegraph for her? Yes, of course; and yet how could she if she were alone in the house? ‘Oh, stop, stop!’ cried Joan aloud to herself. ‘Stop all this, I tell you!’ She had an overwhelming desire to rush into her mother’s room on the instant, and wake her up, just to see that she was alive, but she controlled herself. ‘Perhaps she’s crying’, she thought, and started towards the door. ‘No,’ she said resolutely, ‘I will not go in and see her!’

She began to think of Elizabeth too; of her face when they had said good-bye that afternoon. ‘Don’t be late in calling for me’, she had cautioned, and Elizabeth had answered: ‘I shan’t be late, Joan.’ What was it that she fancied she had seen in Elizabeth’s eyes and heard in her voice? Not anger, certainly, and not actually tears; but something new, something rather dreadful, a sort of entreaty. She shuddered. Oh, why could there never be any real happiness for Joan Ogden, never any real fulfilment, never any joy that was quite without blemish? She felt that her unlucky star shed its beams over everyone with whom she came in contact, everyone she loved; those beams had touched Elizabeth and scorched her. Yet how much she loved Elizabeth; she would have laid down her life to save her pain. But she loved her mother too, not quite in the same way, but deeply, very deeply. She knew this, now that she was about to leave her; she had always known it, of course, but now that their parting was near at hand the fact seemed to blaze forth with renewed force. She began thinking about love in the abstract. Love was jealous of being divided; it did not admit of your really loving more than one creature at a time. She remembered vaguely having thought this before, years ago. Yet in her case this could not be true, for she loved them both, terribly, desperately, and yet could not serve them both. No, she could not serve them both, but she had chosen.

She lay down on her bed again and buried her face in the pillow. ‘Oh, Elizabeth,’ she whispered, ‘I will come, I will be faithful, I swear I will.’

2

They breakfasted at Leaside at eight o’clock, for Joan’s train left at ten-thirty. At ten o’clock Elizabeth would arrive with the fly. Joan could not swallow.

‘Eat something, my darling’, said Mrs. Ogden tenderly.

She looked as though she had been crying all night, her eyes were red and swollen, but she smiled bravely whenever she saw her daughter’s glance turned in her direction.

She refused to give in about not sleeping alone. ‘Nonsense,’ she said brusquely, when Joan implored, ‘I shall be all right; don’t be silly, darling.’

But she did not look as though she would be all right, and Joan searched her brain desperately for some new scheme, but found none. What was she to do? And in less than two hours now she would be gone. Throwing her arms round her mother’s neck she dropped her head on her shoulder.

‘I can’t leave you like this’, she said desperately.

Mrs. Ogden’s tears began to fall. ‘But you must leave me, Joan; I want you to go.’

They clung together, forlorn and miserable.

‘You will write, Mother, very often?’

‘Very often, my Joan, and you must too.’

‘Every day’, Joan promised. ‘Every day.’

She went up to her room and began to pack her bag, but, contrary to custom Mrs. Ogden did not follow her. At a quarter to ten she came downstairs; her mother was nowhere to be seen.

‘Mother’! she called anxiously, ‘where are you?’

‘In my room, darling’, came the answer from behind a closed door. ‘I’ll be down in a minute; you wait where you are.’

Joan wandered about the drawing-room. It had changed very little in all these years; the wallpaper was the same, though faded now, there were the same pink curtains and chairs, all shabby and reflecting the fallen family fortunes. The turquoise blue tiles in the grate alone remained startlingly bright and aggressive. The engraving of Admiral Sir William Routledge looked down on her as if with interest; she wondered if he were pleased or angry at the step his descendant was about to take; perhaps, as he had been a man of action, he was pleased. ‘“Nelson’s Darling” ought at least to admire my courage!’ she thought ruefully, and turned her back on him. She sat down in the Nelson arm-chair.

Nelson’s chair, how her mother had treasured it, how she did still; her poor little mother. Joan patted the extended arms with tender hands, and rested her head wearily where Nelson’s head was said to have rested. ‘Good-bye’, she murmured, with a lump in her throat.

3

She began to feel anxious about her mother. It was five minutes to ten; what on earth was she doing? In another five minutes Elizabeth would come with the fly. Her mother had told her to wait in the drawing-room, but she could not wait much longer, she must go and find her. At that moment the door opened quietly and Mrs. Ogden came in. She was all in grey; a soft, pearly grey, the colour of doves’ feathers. Her hair was carefully piled, high on her head, and blended in softness and shine with the grey of her dress; she must have bathed her eyes, for they looked bright again and almost young. She cam forward, stretching out her arms.

Joan sprang up. ‘Mother! It’s — why it’s the old dress, the same dress you wore years ago on our last Anniversary Day. Oh! I remember it so well; that’s the dress that made you look like a grey dove, I remember thinking that.’ The outstretched arms folded round her. ‘What made you put it on today?’ she faltered, ‘it makes you look so pretty!’

Mrs. Ogden stroked her cheek. ‘I wanted you to remember me like this’, she whispered. ‘And, Joan, this is Anniversary Day.’

Joan started. ‘So it is,’ she stammered, ‘and I had forgotten’.

The door-bell clanged loudly. ‘Let the charwoman answer it,’ said Mrs. Ogden, ‘she’s here this morning.’

They heard the front door open and close.

‘Joan!’ came Elizabeth’s voice from the hall. ‘Joan!’

No one answered, and in a moment or two Elizabeth had come into the room. Joan and her mother were standing hand in hand, like two children.

Elizabeth said sharply: ‘Joan, we shall miss the train, are you ready?

Joan let go of Mrs. Ogden’s hand and stepped forward; she was deadly pale and her eyes shone feverishly. When she spoke her voice sounded dry. like autumn leaves crushed under foot.

‘I’m not coming, Elizabeth; I can’t leave her.’

Elizabeth made a little inarticulate sound in her throat: ‘Joan!’

‘I’m not coming, Elizabeth, I can’t leave her.’

‘Joan, for the last time I ask you: Will you come with me?’

‘No!’ said Joan breathlessly. ‘No, I can’t.’

Elizabeth turned without another word and left the room and the house. Joan heard the door clang dully after her, and the sound of wheels that grew fainter and fainter as the fly lumbered away.

4

The queer days succeeded each other like phantoms. Looking back on the week which elapsed between Elizabeth’s going and her last letter, Joan found that she could remember very little of that time, or of the days that followed. She moved about, ate her food, got up and went to bed in a kind of stupor, broken by moments of dreadful lucidity.

On the sixth day came the letter in the familiar handwriting. The paper bore no address, only the date, ‘August, 1901’; a London postmark was on the envelope.

Elizabeth wrote:

‘JOAN,

‘I knew that you would never come to me, I think I have known it in my heart for a long time. But I must have been a proud and stubborn woman, for I would not admit my failure until the very last. I had a hundred things to keep hope alive in me; your splendid brain, your longing to free yourself from Seabourne and what it stands for, the strength of all the youth in you, and then the love I thought you had for me. Yes, I counted a great deal on that, perhaps because I judged it by my love for you. I was wrong, you see, your love did not hold, it was not strong enough to give you your liberty; or was it that you were too strong to take it? I don’t know.

‘Joan, I shall never come back, I cannot come back. I must go away from you, tear you out of me, forget you. You have had too much of me already. Oh! far too much! But now I have taken it back, all, all; for I will not go into my new life incomplete.

‘I wonder if you have ever realized what my life at Seabourne has been? So unendurable at times that but for you I think I should have ended it. The long, long days with their dreadful monotony, three hundred and sixty-five of them in every year; and then the long long years!

‘I used to go home from Leaside in the evening, and sit in the study with Ralph and Uncle John’s portrait, and feel as if tight fingers were squeezing my throat; as if I were being suffocated under the awful plush folds of the curtains. I used to have the horrible idea that Seabourne had somehow become a living, embodied entity, of which Ralph and Old Uncle John and the plush curtains and the smell of mildew that always hung about Ralph’s books, all formed a terrifying part. Then I used to look at myself in the glass when I got up every morning, and count the lines on my face one by one, and realize that my youth was slipping past me; with every one of those three hundred and sixty-five days a little less of it remained, a little more went into the toothless jaws of Seabourne.

‘Joan, I too have had my ambition, I too once meant to make good. When I first came to take care of Ralph’s house, I never intended to stay for more than a year at most. I meant to go to London and be a journalist if they’d have me; in any case I meant to work, out in the real world, the world that has passed Seabourne by, long ago.

‘Then I saw you, an overgrown colt of a child, all legs and arms. I began to teach you, and gradually, very gradually, you became Seabourne’s ally. You never knew it, but at moments I did; you were helping the place to hold me. My interest in you, in your personality, your unusual ability; the joy it was to teach you, and later the deep love I felt for you, all chained me to Leaside. My very desire to uproot you and drag you away was only another snare that held me to the life I detested. Do you remember how I tried to break free, that time, and failed? It was you who pulled me back, through my love for you. Yes, even my love for you was used by Seabourne to secure its victim.

‘I grew older year by year, and saw my chances slipping from me; and I often felt older than I was, life at Seabourne made me feel old. I realized that I was only half a being, that there were experiences I had never had, fulfilments I had never known, joys and sorrows which many a poor devil of a charwoman could have taught me about. I felt stunted and coerced, checked at the very roots of me, hungry for my birthright.

‘But as time went on I managed to dam up the torrent, till it flowed away from its natural course; it flowed out to you, Joan. Then it was that my desire to help forward a brilliant pupil, grew, little by little, into an absorbing passion. I became a monoïdeist, with you as the idea. I lived for you, for your work, your success; I lived in you, in your present, in your future, which I told myself would be my future too. Oh! my dear, how I built on you; and I thought I had dug the foundations so deep that no waves or tempests could destroy them.

‘Then, five days ago, the house fell down; it crashed about my ears, it stunned me. All I knew then was that I must escape from the ruin or let myself be crushed to death; all I know now is that I must never see that ruin again.

‘Joan, I will not even go near enough to our disaster to ask you what you are going to do. Why should I ask? I already know the answer. You must forget me, as I must forget you. I don’t understand the way of things; they seem to me to be cruelly badly managed at the source; but perhaps Someone or Something is wise, after all, as they would have us believe; No, I don’t mean that, I can’t feel like that — resigned; not yet.

‘By the time this letter reaches you I shall be married to Lawrence Benson. Do I love him? No, not at all; I like him and I suppose I respect him, but he is the last person on earth that I could love. I have told him all this and he still wants to marry me. We shall leave very soon for South Africa, where his bank is opening new branches. Oh! Joan, and you will be in Seabourne; the injustice of it! You see I am hovering still in the vicinity of my ruin, but I shall get clear, never doubt it.

‘Do not try to see me before I go, I have purposely given no address, and Ralph has been asked not to give it either; and do not write to me. I want to forget.

ELIZABETH.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hall/radclyffe/unlit-lamp/chapter40.html

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