The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Book five

Chapter Forty-one

The new town band played every Thursday afternoon in the new skating-rink in the High Street. The band was not really new and neither was the skating-rink, both having come into existence about twelve months after Milly Ogden’s death, which made them almost nineteen years old. But by those who remembered the days when these and similar innovations had not existed, they were always spoken of as ‘New’.

The old residents of Seabourne, those that were left of them, mourned openly the time when the town had been really select. They looked askance at the dancing couples who gyrated round the rink with strange clingings and undulatings. But in spite of being shocked, as they genuinely were, they occasionally showed their disapproving faces at the rink on Thursday afternoons; it was a warm place to sit in and have tea during the winter and early spring months, and in addition to this they derived a sense of superiority from criticizing the unseemly behaviour of the new generation.

‘Well!’ exclaimed Mrs. Ogden, as a couple more blatant than usual performed a sort of Nautch dance under her nose, ‘all I can say is, I’m glad I’m old!’

Joan smiled. ‘Yes, we’re not so young as we were’, she said.

Her mother protested irritably. ‘I do wish you would stop talking as though you were a hundred, Joan, it’s so ridiculous; I sometimes think you do it to aggravate me, you don’t look a day over thirty.’

‘Well, never mind, darling, look at that girl over there, she’s dancing rather prettily.’

‘I’m glad you think so; personally, I can’t see anything pretty about it. Of course, if you like to tell everyone your age I suppose you must; only the other day I heard you expatiating on the subject to Major Boyle. But, considering you know I particularly dislike it, I think you might stop.’

Joan sighed. ‘Here comes the tea, Mother.’

‘Yes, I see it. Oh, don’t put the milk in first, darling! Well, never mind, as you’ve done it. Major Boyle doesn’t go about telling his age, vain old man, but he’s sure not to miss an opportunity now of telling everyone yours.’

‘Have you got your Saxin, Mother?’

‘Yes, here it is, in my bag; no, it’s not. Oh dear, I do hope I haven’t lost my silver box, just see if you can find it.’

Joan took the bag and thrust in her hand. ‘Here it is’, she said.

‘Good gracious!’ sighed Mrs. Ogden. ‘I’m growing as blind as a bat; it’s an awful thing to lose your eyesight. No, but seriously, darling, do stop telling people your age.’

‘I will if you mind so much, Mother. But everyone we know doesn’t need to be told, if they think it out, and the new people aren’t interested in us or our ages, so what can it matter?’

‘It matters very much to me, as I’ve told you.’

‘All right, then, I’ll try and remember. How old do you want me to be?’

Mrs. Ogden took offence at the levity in her daughter’s tone and the rest of the meal passed in comparative silence. At last Joan paid for the tea and they got up to go. She helped her mother with her wrap.

‘My fur’s gone under the table’, said Mrs. Ogden, looking vague.

Joan dived and retrieved the worn mink collar. ‘Your gloves, Mother!’ she reminded.

Mrs. Ogden glanced first at the table and then at the chair, with a worried eye. ‘What have I done with my gloves?’ she said unhappily, ‘I really believe there’s a demon who hides my things.’ She screwed up her eyes and peered about; her hand strayed casually into the pocket of her wrap. ‘Ah! here they are!’ she cried, ‘I knew I’d put them somewhere.’

Immediate problems being satisfactorily solved, Joan jerked herself into her own coat; a green freize ulster with astrakhan cloth at the neck and sleeves. As she did so her soft felt hat tilted itself a little back on her head. It was the sort of hat that continually begs forgiveness for its wearer, by saying in so many words: ‘I’m not really odd or unusual, observe my feminine touches!’ If the hat had been crushed down in the middle it might have looked more daring and been passably becoming, but Joan lacked the courage for this, and wore the crown extended to its full height. If it had been brown or black or grey it might have looked like its male prototype, and been less at variance with its wearer’s no longer fresh complexion and angular face, but instead it was pastel blue. Above all, if it had not had the absurd bunch of jaunty feathers, shaped like an interrogation mark, thrust into its band, it might have presented a less abject appearance, and been less of a shouted apology for the short grey hair beneath it.

They were ready at last. Mrs. Ogden had her bag, her umbrella, her fur and two parcels, all safely disposed about her person. She took her daughter’s arm for guidance as they threaded through the labyrinth of tea-tables; if she would have put on her glasses this would not have been necessary, but in one respect she refused to submit to the tyranny of old age; she would never wear spectacles in public, except for reading.

A cold March wind swept round the corners of the High Street. ‘Put your fur over your mouth, Mother, this wind is deadly’, Joan cautioned.

Mrs. Ogden obeyed, and the homeward walk was continued in silence. Joan opened the door with a latch-key and turned up the gas in the hall.

‘Oh, dear!’ she exclaimed anxiously, ‘Who left that landing window open?’

Mrs. Ogden disengaged her mouth. ‘Helen!’ she called loudly, ‘Helen!’ She waited and then called again, this time at the kitchen door, but there was no reply. ‘She’s gone out without permission again, Joan; I suppose it’s that cinema!’

‘Never mind, dearest, you go and sit down, I’ll shut the window myself. It seems to me that one’s got to put up with all their ways since the war; if you don’t, they just walk out.’

She shut the window, bolted it, and returning to the hall collected her mother’s coat and hat, then she went upstairs.

2

Her head ached badly, as it did pretty often these days. She put away Mrs. Ogden’s things and passed on to her own room. Taking off her heavy coat, she hung it up neatly, being careful not to shut the door of the cupboard until she was sure that the coat could not be crushed; she then took off her hat, brushed it, and put it in a box under the bed.

The room had changed very little since the time when she and Milly had shared it. There was the same white furniture, only more chipped and yellower, the same Brussels carpet, only more patternless and threadbare. The walls had been repapered once and the paint touched up, after Milly’s death, but beyond this, all had remained as it was. Joan went to the dressing-table and combed her thick grey hair; she had given up parting it on one side now and wore it brushed straight back from her face.

She looked at her reflection in the glass and laughed quietly. ‘Poor Mother’, she said under her breath. ‘Does she really think I don’t look my age?’

To the casual observer she looked about forty-eight, in reality she was forty-three. Her grey eyes still seemed young at times, but their colour had faded and so had their expression of intelligent curiosity. The eyes that had once asked so many questions of life, now looked dull and uninterested. Her cheeks had grown somewhat angular, and the clear pallor of her skin had thickened a little; it no longer suggested good health. In all her face only the mouth remained as a memory of what Joan had been. Her mouth had neither hardened nor weakened, the lips still retained their youthful texture and remained beautiful in their modelling. And because this mouth was so startlingly young and fresh, with its strong, white teeth, it served all the more to bring into relief the deterioration of the rest of her face. Her figure was as slim as it had been at twenty-four, but now she stooped a little at times, because her back hurt her; she thought it must be rheumatism, and worried about it disproportionately.

She had taken to thinking a great deal about her health lately, not because she wanted to, but rather because she was constantly assailed by small, annoying symptoms, all different and all equally unpleasant. Her legs ached at night after she got to bed, and feeling them one evening she discovered that the veins were swollen; at times they became acutely painful. She seldom got up now refreshed by sound sleep, there was no joy in waking in the mornings; on the contrary, she had grown to dread the pulling up of the blind, because her eyes felt sensitive, especially after the night.

Her mentality was gradually changing too, and her brain was littered with little things. Trifles annoyed her, small cares preoccupied her, the getting beyond them was too much of an effort. She could no longer force her unwilling brain to action, any mental exertion tired her. She had long since ceased to care for study in any form, even serious books wearied her; if she read now it was novels of the lightest kind, and she really preferred magazines.

Her mind, when not occupied with her own health or her mother’s, was beginning to find relaxation in things that she would have once utterly despised; Seabourne gossip, not always kind; local excitements, such as the opening of a new hotel or the coming of a London touring company to the theatre. Her interests were narrowing down into a small circle, she was beginning to find herself incapable of feeling much excitement over anything that took place even as far away as the next town. At moments she was startled when she remembered herself as she had once been, startled and ashamed and horribly sad; but a headache or a threatened cold, or the feeling of general unfitness that so often beset her, was enough to turn her mind from introspection and send her flying to her medicine cupboard.

Mrs. Ogden was her principal preoccupation. They quarrelled often and seldom thought alike; but the patience that had characterized Joan’s youth remained with her still; she was good to her mother in spite of everything. For the first few years of their life alone together, Joan had rebelled at times like a mad thing. Those had been terrible years and she had set herself to forget them, with a fair amount of success. Mrs. Ogden had become a habit now, and quite automatically Joan fetched and carried, and rubbed her chest and gave her her medicine; it was all in the day’s work, one did it, like everything else in Seabourne, because it seemed the right thing and there was nothing else to do.

If there had been people who could have formed a link with her youth, she might more easily have retained a part of her old self; but there was only her mother, who had always been the opposing force; nearly everyone else who belonged to that by-gone period had either left Seabourne or died. She seldom met a familiar face in the street, a face wherewith to conjure up some vivid memory, or even regret. Admiral Bourne had been dead for fifteen years, and Glory Point had fallen into decay; it stood empty and neglected, a prey to the winds and waves that it had once so gallantly defied. No one wanted the admiral’s ship-house, neither the distant cousin who had inherited it, nor the prospective tenants who came down from London to view. It was too fanciful, too queer, and proved on closer inspection to be very inconvenient, or so people said.

General Brooke had gone to meet his old antagonist Colonel Ogden, and Ralph Rodney had died of pleurisy, during the war. The Bensons had sold Conway House to a profiteer grocer, and had moved to London. Richard, who had written at intervals for one or two years after Elizabeth’s marriage, had long since ceased to write altogether. His last letter had been unhappy and resentful, and now Joan did not know where he was. Sir Robert and Lady Loo spent most of their time out of England, on account of her health, and were seldom if ever, seen by the Ogdens.

Seabourne was changing; changing, yet always the same. The war had touched it in passing, as the Memorial Cross in the market-place testified; but in spite of world-wide convulsions, dreadful deeds in Belgium and France, air raids in London and bombardments on the coast, Seabourne had remained placid and had never lost its head. Immune from bombs and shells by reason of its smug position, it had known little more of the war than it gathered from its daily papers and the advent of food tickets. Even the grip of the speculative post-war builder seemed powerless to make it gasp. He came, he went, leaving in his wake a trail of horrid toadstool growths which were known as the new suburb of ‘Shingle Park’. But few strangers came to live in these blatant little houses; they were bought up at once by the local tradespeople, who moved from inconvenient rooms over their shops to more inconvenient villas outside the town.

Yes, any change that there was in Seabourne was more apparent than real; and yet for Joan there remained very little to remind her of her youth, beyond the same dull streets, the same dull shops and the same monotony, which she now dreaded to break. In her bedroom was one drawer which she always kept locked, it contained the books that she and Elizabeth had pored over together. She had put them away eighteen years ago, and had never had the courage to look at them since, but she wore the key of that drawer on a chain round her neck; it was the only token of her past that she permitted to intrude itself.

There was no one to be intimate with, for people like the Ogdens; Mrs. Ogden refused to admit the upstarts to her friendship. Stiff-necked and Routledge as ever, she repulsed their advances and Joan cared too little to oppose her. Father Cuthbert and a few oldish women, members of the congregation, were practically the only visitors at Leaside. Mrs. Ogden liked to talk over parish affairs with them, the more so as she was treated with deep respect, almost amounting to reverence, by the faithful Father Cuthbert, who never forgot that she had been one of his first supporters.

With time, Joan, his old antagonist, had begun to weaken, and now she too took a hand in the church work. She consented to join the Altar Society, and developed quite a talent for arranging the flowers in their stiff brass vases. The flowers in themselves gave her pleasure, appealing to what was left of her sense of the beautiful. Someone had to take Mrs. Ogden to church, she was too feeble to go alone; so the task fell to Joan, as a matter of course. She would push her mother in a light wicker bath chair which they had bought second-hand, or on very special occasions drive with her in a fly. Also as a matter of course she now took part in the services, neither impressed nor the reverse, but remaining purely neutral. She followed the easiest path these days, and did most things rather than make the necessary effort to resist. After all, what did it matter, one church was as good as another, she supposed. She was not quite dishonest in her attitude towards Ritualism, neither was she strictly honest; it was only that the combative instincts of youth had battered themselves to death in her; now she felt no very strong emotions, and did not want to.

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