The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-two

The poor of Seabourne were really non-existent; but since certain types of religiously minded people are not happy unless they find some class beneath them on whom to lavish unwelcome care, the churches of each denomination, and of these there were at least four, invented deserving poor for themselves and visited them strenuously. Of all the pastors in the little town, Father Cuthbert was the most energetic.

Mrs. Ogden was particularly interested in this branch of church work. District visiting had come to her as second nature; she had found immense satisfaction and a salve to her pride in patronizing people who could not retaliate. But lately her failing health made the long walks impossible, so that she was reduced to sitting at home and thinking out schemes whereby the humbler members of the congregation might be coerced into doing something that they did not want to.

She looked up from the paper one morning with triumph in her eye. ‘I knew it would come!’ she remarked complacently.

‘What would come?’ Joan inquired.

She did not feel that she cared very much just then if the Day of Judgment itself were at hand; but long experience had taught her that silence was apt to make her mother more loquacious than an assumption of interest.

‘The influenza; I knew it would come! There are three cases in Seabourne.’

‘Well, what of it?’ said Joan, yawning. ‘The world’s very much overpopulated; I’m sure Seabourne is.’

‘My dear, don’t be callous, and it’s the pneumonic kind; I believe those Germans are still spreading microbes.’

‘Oh, nonsense!’ said Joan irritably.

Mrs. Ogden went over to her bureau and began rummaging in a drawer; at last she found what she was looking for. ‘These worsted vests must go to the Robinsons today’, she declared. ‘That eldest girl of theirs must put one on at once; with her tendency to bronchitis, she’s an absolute candidate for influenza.’

Joan made a sound of impatience. ‘But, Mother, you know the girl hates having wool next her skin; she says it makes her itch; she’ll never wear them.’

‘Oh, but she must; you’ll have to see her mother and tell her I sent you; it’s nonsense about wool making the skin irritate.’

‘I don’t agree with you; lots of people can’t wear it. I can’t myself, and, besides, the Robinsons don’t want our charity.’

‘The poor always need charity, my dear.’

‘But they’re not poor; they’re probably better off’ than we are, or they ought to be, considering what that family earned during the war.’

‘I can’t help what they earned in war-time, Joan; they’re poor enough now; everyone is, with all the unemployment.’

‘I daresay, only they don’t happen to be unemployed.’

‘I expect they will be soon’, said Mrs. Ogden with ghoulish optimism.

Joan sighed; this task of thrusting herself on people who did not want her was one of the trials of life. For many years she had refused to be a district visitor, but lately this too had been one of the duties that her mother’s increasing age imposed upon her. Mrs. Ogden worried herself ill if she thought that her share in this all-important work was being neglected, so Joan had given in.

She stretched out her hand for the vests. ‘How they must hate us’, she said thoughtfully.

Mrs. Ogden took off her spectacles. ‘They? Who?’

‘Only the poor Poor.’

‘You are a strange girl, Joan. I don’t understand half the time what you’re talking about, and I don’t think you do yourself.’

‘Perhaps not!’ Joan’s voice was rather sharp; she wished her mother would not speak of her as a ‘girl’, it was ridiculous and embarrassing. At times this and equally trifling irritations made her feel as though she could scream. ‘Give me the idiotic things!’ she said angrily, snatching up the vests; ‘I’ll take them, if you make me, but they’ll only throw them away.’

Mrs. Ogden appeared not to hear her; she had become slightly deaf in one ear lately, a fact which she had quickly discovered could be used to her own advantage.

‘Bring in some muffins for tea, darling’, she called after Joan’s retreating figure.

2

Joan strode along the esplanade on her way to the Robinsons’ cottage. Anger lent vigour to her every movement; she felt almost young again under its stimulus. This useless errand on which she had been sent! Just as though the Robinsons didn’t know how to dress themselves. The eldest girl, about whom her mother was so anxious, wore far smarter clothes at church than Joan could afford, and, in any case why should the poor thing be doomed to a perpetual rash because Mrs. Ogden wanted a peg on which to hang her charity?

She walked with head bent to the wind; it looked like rain and she had forgotten her umbrella. Suppose that storm-cloud over there should break, she’d be drenched to the skin, and that would be bad for her rheumatism. At the thought of her rheumatism her back began to ache a little. All this trouble and risk of getting wet through was being taken for people who would probably laugh at her the moment she was safely out of their house. Of course the knitted vests would either be given to the dustman or thrown away immediately. Now the gale began to absorb all her attention; it was increasing every minute. She had some ado to hold her hat on. Her anger gave place to feelings of misery and discomfort, physical discomfort which filled her whole horizon. She forgot for the moment the irritation she had felt with her mother; almost forgot the errand on which she was bent, and was conscious only that the wind was bitter and that she felt terribly tired.

She came at last to the ugly little street where the Robinson family lived. She always dreaded this street; it was so full of children. Their impudent eyes followed her as she walked, and they tittered audibly. She rang the bell. She had not meant to pull it so hard, and was appalled at the clanging that followed. After a pause she could hear steps coming down the passage.

‘No need to pull the ’ouse down when you ring, I should ‘ope’, said a loud voice.

The door was flung open. ‘Now then —’ Mrs. Robinson was beginning truculently, when she saw who it was and stopped.

Joan felt that she could not face it. Mrs. Robinson was composing her countenance into the sly Sunday expression.

‘Some vests; they’re from my mother!’ she said hurriedly, and thrusting the parcel into the woman’s hands, she fled down the steps.

3

There was no rain after all, and that was a great relief. Going home with the wind behind her she had time to remember again that she was angry. She would tell Father Cuthbert once and for all that he must find another district visitor. She was not going to trudge about all over Seabourne, ministering to people who disliked her, helping Father Cuthbert to make them more hypocritical than they were already.

By the time she arrived at Leaside, however, apathy was uppermost again; what was the good of having a row? What did it matter after all? What really mattered most at the moment was that she wanted a cup of strong tea and a fire to get warm by. She would have to invent a suitable interview with Mrs. Robinson; anything for peace!

‘Did you get the muffins, darling?’ came Mrs. Ogden’s voice from the dining-room.

Joan stood still in the hall and pressed her hand to her head with a gesture almost tragic. She had forgotten the muffins!

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