The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-four

Joan stared into her half-packed trunk with a worried expression.

If only she could know what the weather would be! Should she take her flannel coat and skirt? Should she take any light suits at all, or would it be enough if she only had warm things?

‘Joan, I can’t find my new bedroom slippers; I’ve looked everywhere. Where have you put them?’ came Mrs. Ogden’s voice from across the landing.

‘Oh, do wait a minute, Mother! I’m trying to think out what to take; I can’t find your slippers for a minute or two.’

There ensued an offended silence. Joan straightened her aching back and sat down to consider. It might be hot at Lynton in May. It had been very hot last year, but that was in the middle of a heat wave, whereas now — still, on the whole, she had better take her grey flannel, it wasn’t a bulky thing to pack. She took a piece of paper from her pocket and began to study a list. ‘Travel in brown tweed, old coat and skirt, brown shoes and stockings and grey overcoat.’ What hat should she leave out? Perhaps the old blue one; anything was good enough, it was always a dirty journey. She referred to the list again. ‘Pack six pairs stockings, three pairs gloves, four vests, three nightgowns, blue serge suit, two pairs shoes, one pair slippers.’ She ticked the articles off on her fingers one by one. Her mauve dinner dress was rather shabby, she remembered, but that couldn’t be helped; she must make out with a black skirt and low-necked blouses, for a change.

‘Joan, I can’t lift my bag down from the top of the wardrobe; I do wish you’d come here.’

‘Oh, all right’, sighed Joan, getting up.

They had been packing for several days and yet nothing was finished; the next morning they were to start at seven in order to catch the express in London.

‘Where’s the medicine bag?’ Joan asked anxiously.

Mrs. Ogden shook her head. ‘I don’t know; hasn’t it been got out? I suppose it’s in the cupboard under the stairs’.

They routed out the bag from its dusty lair and began to sort bottles. ‘Joan, you must not go on taking that bromo-seltzer after what Major Boyle told us.’

‘Of course I shall go on taking it; it’s perfectly harmless.’

‘It’s very far from harmless. Major Boyle says that he knows for a fact —’

‘I don’t care a rap what Major Boyle thinks he knows,’ Joan interrupted impatiently. ‘It’s the only thing that does my head the least good, and I’m going to take it.’

‘Well, I do wish you wouldn’t; I’m sure it’s very dangerous.’

‘Oh, Mother, do leave me alone; I’m not a child, I can quite well look after myself.’

They squabbled for a little while over the bromo-seltzer, while the bag grew gradually full to bursting. At last it was closed, but not without an effort.

‘Good gracious, here’s the bird-seed left out!’ Mrs. Ogden exclaimed, producing a good-sized cocoa tin from the washstand cupboard. ‘And now what’s to be done?’

‘It must go in a trunk’, said Joan firmly.

‘But suppose it upsets?’

‘Oh, it won’t.’

‘Well, I don’t know; it might.’

‘Then put it in the hold-all; it will be all right there.’

‘I can’t understand why it can’t go in the medicine bag; it always has at other times’, said Mrs. Ogden discontentedly. ‘And it’s Bobbie’s special mixture; I can only get it at one place.’

‘Bobbie won’t die, Mother, if he has to live for three weeks on Hyde’s or Spratt’s or something; there’s lots of seed at the grocer’s at Lynton, I’ve often seen it.’

But Mrs. Ogden persisted, ‘We must find room in the bag for it, my dear.’

‘I will not unpack the whole of that bag for any bird,’ said Joan untruthfully; if there had been the least necessity she would not only have unpacked the bag but the entire luggage for Bobbie’s sake.

2

They got off at last, and were actually in the Barnstaple train; bags, wraps, bird-cage and all.

Mrs. Ogden sighed contentedly. ‘The worst of the journey’s over’, she declared. ‘It’s that change in London I always dread.’

Joan leant back in her corner and tried to sleep, but a flutter from the cage at her side roused her. She bent down and half uncovered Bobbie, who hopped to the bars and nibbled her finger.

‘There, there, my pet’, she murmured softly.

Bobbie burst into a loud song. ‘He likes the noise of the train’, smiled Mrs. Ogden, nodding her head.

They began to pet the bird. ‘Pretty Bob, pretty fellow!’

The canary loved them both, but Joan was his favourite; for her he would do almost anything. He bathed while she held his bath in her hands, and would dry himself on her short grey hair. At times Mrs. Ogden felt jealous of these marks of esteem. ‘I’m a perfect slave to that bird’, she often complained, ‘and yet he won’t come to me like that.’

But her jealousy never got beyond an occasional grumble, the little canary managed to avoid being a bone of contention; Bobbie was a mutual tie, a veritable link of love between them.

At Barnstaple they changed again, and got into the small toy train that wanders over the moors to Lynton. The sun was setting across the wide, misty landscape, turning pools that the rain had left into molten gold, sending streams of glory earthward from behind the banked-up storm-clouds. Joan sat with Bobbie’s cage on her knee; she might easily have put it down beside her, there was room on the seat, but she liked the nearness of the bird. She wished that he were big enough to take out and hug.

A great peace possessed her, one of those mysterious waves of wellbeing that came over her at times. ‘Feeling other-worldly’, she described it to herself. Mrs. Ogden was dozing, so there was no one to talk; the small puffings and rumblings of the train alone broke the silence. She closed her eyes in sensuous enjoyment. The little bird shook out his feathers and cracked a seed, while the twilight deepened and the lamp flashed out in the carriage. Joan sat on in a kind of blissful quiescence. ‘All is as it should be,’ she thought dreamily, ‘and I know exactly why it is so, only I can’t quite find the words. Somewhere at the back of my mind I know the why of everything.’

3

On the second afternoon after their arrival, Joan sat alone in the hall of the hotel. Mrs. Ogden had gone to lie down; she had scarcely got over the fatigue of the journey. Joan picked up a paper idly; she had no wish to read the news, but since the paper was there she might as well glance through it. Two young girls with bobbed hair and well-tailored clothes had come on to the veranda from the garden.

One of them was in riding-breeches. They sat down with their backs to the open window, through which their voices drifted. ‘Have you seen that funny old thing with the short grey hair?’

‘Yes, you mean the one at lunch? Wasn’t she killing? Why moire ribbon instead of a proper necktie?’

‘And why a pearl brooch across her stiff collar?’

‘I believe she’s what they used to call a “New woman”,’ said the girl in breeches, with a low laugh. ‘Honey, she’s a forerunner, that’s what she is, a kind of pioneer that’s got left behind. I believe she’s the beginning of things like me. Oh! hang it all, I’ve left my gloves in the garden; come on, we must look for them.’ And they went down the steps again.

Joan laid down the newspaper and stared after them. Of course they had not known that she was there. ‘A forerunner, a kind of pioneer that’s got left behind.’ She shoved the hair back from her forehead. Yes, they were right, that was what she had been, a kind of pioneer, and now she had got left behind. She saw the truth of this all round her, in women of the type that she had once been, that in a way she still was. Active, aggressively intelligent women, not at all self-conscious in their tailor-made clothes, not ashamed of their cropped hair; women who did things well, important things; women who counted and who would go on counting; smart, neatly put together women, looking like well-bred young men. They might still be in the minority and yet they sprang up everywhere; one saw them now even at Seabourne during the summer season. They were particular about their clothes, in their own way; the boots they wore were thick but well cut, their collars immaculate, their ties carefully chosen. But she, Joan Ogden, was the forerunner who had failed, the pioneer who had got left behind, the prophet who had feared his own prophecies. These others had gone forward, some of them released by the war, others who had always been free-lances, and if the world was not quite ready for them yet, if they had to meet criticism and ridicule and opposition, if they were not all as happy as they might be, still they were at least brave, whereas she had been a coward, conquered by circumstances. A funny old thing with grey hair, who wore moire ribbon instead of a necktie and a brooch in the wrong place; yes, that was what she had come to in twenty years.

She sprang up and hurried out of the hotel. On her way to the town she unfastened the pearl brooch and hurled it into the bushes. It was twenty minutes to six. She arrived at the shop she wanted just as they were putting up the shutters.

‘I’m not too late, am I?’ she inquired breathlessly.

The clerk behind the counter reassured her. ‘You’ve just ten minutes, madam.’

‘Then show me some stiff collars, the newest pattern.’ She chose half a dozen hastily. ‘And now some neckties, please.’

She made the best selection she could from the limited stock at her disposal, and left the shop with her parcel under her arm. Half-way up the drive to the hotel, she stood still and stared incredulously at her purchases; she had spent considerably over thirty shillings — she must have gone mad! She walked on slowly with bent head. A pioneer that had got left behind; what an impulsive fool she was! Pioneers that got left behind didn’t count; they were lost, utterly lost in the desert. How could the young turn back for the old? In any case they didn’t do it, and one could not catch up with the young when one was forty-three.

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