The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-three

The Ogdens took their annual holiday in May, in order to avoid the high prices of the summer season. For a full month prior to their departure, a feeling of unrest always possessed them. The numbers of things, real and imaginary, that had to be settled before they could leave for Lynton, in North Devon, augmented year by year, until they had arrived at dimensions that only a prolonged visit to Kamchatka or Zanzibar could possibly excuse. Joan found that as the years went on she was beginning to subscribe more and more to her mother’s fussiness; even beginning to acquire certain fussinesses of her own. Sometimes the realization of this made her pause. ‘I never used to care so much about trifles’, she would think. But she found it almost impossible to stop caring. She would lie awake at night going over in her mind the obstacles to be overcome before they could leave Seabourne, and would go to sleep finally with a weight on her brain. In the morning she would wake wondering what unpleasant thing it was that hung over the household.

This brief visit to Lynton generally caused much worry regarding clothes. Everything seemed to be worn out at once, and the necessity for replenishing scanty wardrobes was added to the financial strain of the holiday. Mrs. Ogden had decided that rooms were both objectionable and expensive, and that unless she could go to an hotel she would rather stay at home. In some respects Joan was thankful for this decision; constant quarrels with outspoken landladies had made her dread anything in the nature of apartments. But the expense was considerable, for the Bristol Hotel was not cheap, even though they took the smallest bedrooms available, or, worse still, shared a tiny double room at the back of the house. They pinched and screwed for this longed-for holiday during all the rest of the year, and at times Joan wondered whether the respite of three weeks at an hotel away from Seabourne was worth the anxiety that it entailed; whether, when she was finally there, she was not too tired to enjoy it.

As the month of departure drew near Mrs. Ogden was wont to develop an abnormal activity of mind. All the things that might so easily have been spread out over the preceding months seemed only to be remembered a few weeks prior to going away, and what did not exist to be remembered she invented. It would also have been more natural and orderly had wreaths been taken to the cemetery on the anniversaries of her husband’s and Milly’s deaths, but this was never done, and their graves were always visited shortly before leaving for Lynton.

‘I can’t go away without seeing for myself that those cemetery people are looking after things properly’, was the explanation she gave.

A purely hypothetical army of moths was another cause of anxiety. Mrs. Ogden never visualized anything less than a Biblical scourge of these pests. ‘We shall have the carpets and blankets eaten to shreds if we’re not careful’, she would prophesy. Bitter apple, naphthaline, even pepper, was showered all over the house, and every article that could by the wildest stretch of the imagination be supposed to tempt a moth’s appetite was wrapped in newspaper and put away weeks before the house was left. It was not unusual for some muffler or golf-coat that might be required at Lynton to go the way of all the rest, and when this happened an irritating search would have to be made.

About this time a species of spring cleaning always took place. ‘You can’t put the china and glass away without washing it, Joan; unless the place is left clean we shall be overrun with mice and black-beetles. I will have things done properly!’ Every picture was draped in newspaper, every chair in dust sheets; curtains were taken down, rugs rolled up, photographs and knick-knacks were put away in boxes. During this process the servant occasionally gave notice at a date which would make her departure fall due shortly after the Ogdens had left for their holiday. When this happened the confusion was augmented by the necessity of finding a caretaker, or at least someone who would see that the house had been properly locked up.

2

It was towards the end of April that Mrs. Ogden chose to visit her dead. The day was kept as a kind of doleful festival, full of gloomy excitement. Joan would unearth decent black for herself, and repair her mother’s widow’s weeds, which were always resumed for the pilgrimage. Little food would be eaten; there was scant time for meals, and, besides, Mrs. Ogden had ordained a self-imposed fast. Usually the wreaths would not arrive to the minute, and would have to be fetched from the florist’s. The fly was invariably late, and the servant would be sent to make inquiries at the livery stable. Perhaps it would rain, in which case waterproofs, goloshes and umbrellas were an additional burden. And to cap all this, it was obviously unseemly to display impatience at such a time, so that immense self-control was added to the strain of already taut nerves.

This April everything seemed to have gone wrong. The florist had arbitrarily raised his prices, and the wreaths were to cost half as much again as they had in previous years. Mrs. Ogden considered his excuses positively impertinent; she had not noticed the late frosts, the abnormally dry weather, or, indeed, any of the disasters to which he attributed the high price of flowers. In the end she had been obliged to give in, but the incident had very much upset her, and she blamed this upset for the cold on her chest which now kept her in bed when she should have visited the cemetery. With the infantile stubbornness of the old she had refused to abandon the idea of going until the last moment; and had even got half through her dressing before Joan could persuade her to go back to bed. This wilfulness of her mother’s had delayed everything, and the meals were not ordered or the canary cleaned and fed by the time the fly arrived.

There had been a sharp shower, and Joan found to her dismay that the wreaths, all wet and dripping, had been stood against the wallpaper in the front hall. A little stain of dampness was making its appearance on the carpet as well. She went to fetch a cloth from the scullery. As usual, the window had been left open and on the sill sat a neighbour’s cat.

She spoke irritably. ‘How many times have I told you to shut this window, Rose? That cat comes here after the canary.’

She shut the window herself with a bang, and going back to the hall dabbed at the wallpaper, but it was all too evident that the wet marks meant to leave a stain. Sighing, she picked up the wreaths. The damp moss soaked through her gloves. ‘Oh, damn!’ she muttered under her breath, forgetting in her irritation the solemnity of the occasion. She took off her gloves, thrust them into her pocket, and putting the wreaths into the cab got in after them.

‘Where to, miss?’ inquired the unimaginative driver.

‘Cemetery!’ snapped Joan.

What a fool the man must be. Did he think she was going to the skating-rink or the pier, with a large grave wreath over each arm?

The cemetery lay a little beyond Shingle Park, and as they bumped along through old Seabourne and out on to the unfinished road Joan glanced casually out of the window. Her head felt heavy and her eyes ached. ‘Ugly, very ugly!’ she murmured absent-mindedly. The roughcast shanties grinned back defiance. Their walls were so thin that people who had watched their erection declared that daylight had showed through the bricks before the rough cast was applied. Their foundations were non-existent, the woodwork of their front doors shamelessly unseasoned and warping already in the damp sea air. They stood for everything that was dishonest and unsound, and yet not one of them was empty.

The purchasers had begun to develop their front gardens, and several of these were already making quite a good show of spring flowers. On either side of the gritty ash paths jonquils and wall-flowers were growing courageously. A sense of the pathetic stirred Joan’s heart; everyone was trying so hard to be happy, to make a place of enjoyment for themselves. People had taken their savings to buy these homes; in the evenings they worked in their tiny gardens, and in the mornings they looked out of their windows with pride on the fruits of their labours. And all the while these mean little houses were grinning in impish derision. They knew the secrets of their shoddy construction, of their faulty walls and shallow foundations; presently their owners would know them too. But in the meantime the houses grinned.

A sudden anger roused Joan from her lethargy and she shook her fist at them as she passed. ‘You hideous, untruthful monstrosities,’ she said aloud, ‘I hate you!’

The fly drew up at the cemetery and she got out, a wreath in either hand. She made her way to her father’s grave and on it laid the wreath of palm leaves with its meagre spray of lilies. Colonel Ogden’s tombstone was quite impressive. His wife had chosen it before she realized the state of her future finances; a broken column in fine Scottish granite and a flower-bed with granite kerb. Joan peered down at this flower-bed suspiciously. Yes, just as she had expected, there were weeds among the forget-me-nots; she must speak to the gardener. One had to be after everyone these days, they were all so slack and dishonest. She made a mental note of her complaint and turned to her sister’s grave.

Milly’s resting-place testified to the fact that by the time she died the state of the family fortunes had been all too well understood; a small white cross and a plain grass mound marked the place where Milly’s fight had ended. Joan propped the wreath of narcissi against the foot of the cross, and stood staring at the inscription.

MILDRED MARY OGDEN. Died November 25th, 1900. Aged 21 years.

How long ago it seemed; Milly had been dead for twenty years. If she were alive now she would be forty-one. What would she be doing if she were alive now? Assuredly not standing near her father’s grave in Seabourne; and yet who could tell? Perhaps she, too, would have failed. It was difficult to picture a Milly of forty-one. Would she have been fat or thin? Would her hair have gone grey like her sister’s? Joan lingered over her imaginings, but failed to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps Milly would have kept her looks better than she had; a life such as her sister would have led might well have kept her young. She tried to conjure up a clear vision of Milly as she had been. Brown eyes, very soft golden hair that was inclined to curl naturally, rather a sulky mouth at times and a short straight nose — no, not quite straight. Hadn’t Milly’s nose been a little tip-tilted? They had no photograph of her when she was twenty-one; that was a pity. But what had she looked like exactly? Joan went over her features one by one; it was like sorting out bits of a jig-saw puzzle; when she began to put them together there was always a slight misfit. Twenty years! it was a long time. The memory of Milly had been gradually fading, and now she could no longer be quite sure of her face, could no longer be perfectly certain what her voice had sounded like.

She turned away from the grave with a sigh. Things might have been different if her sister had lived: they might have helped each other; but would they have done so? Perhaps, after all, Milly had chosen the wiser part in dying young. Suppose she had failed to make a career? In that case there might well have been three of them at Leaside instead of two, and two people were enough to get on each other’s nerves, surely. She pulled herself up. ‘What’s the good of going back?’ she thought. ‘If, if, if — it’s all so futile! I’m not going to be morbid, in addition to everything else.’

She got into the cab. ‘Home!’ she ordered peremptorily.

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