The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-five

At the end of the pleasant hotel dining-room sat a big, florid man, alone at a table. His reddish hair was sprinkled with grey and so were the small side-whiskers he affected. His large hands held a wine-card delicately, as though used to some work that necessitated extreme fineness of touch. His jaw was perhaps a trifle too massive, his mouth a trifle too aggressive in expression, but his eyes were eager and limpid, and his smile was frank and very kind.

He put down the wine-card and looked about him. His fellow guests interested him, people always did. These people were like their prototypes in every English hotel that he had ever been to; dull men with duller wives, dreary examples of matrimonial stagnation. Dull sons with dull fathers, dull daughters with dull mothers. The two girls with bobbed hair sat together and chattered incessantly, but even they looked commonplace in their evening dresses, which did not suit them or their weather-stained necks and hands.

From his vantage-point, facing the swing-doors, he could see the full length of the room. Even the way people walked had a significance for him; he was wont to say that you could read a person’s whole life history in the way they moved. As he looked towards the entrance, two women came in; an old and very feeble lady wearing a white lace cap, and a middle-aged woman with short, grey hair, who supported her companion on her arm. In her disengaged hand she carried a white, fleecy shawl and a bottle of medicine, while tucked away under her elbow was a box-shaped thing that looked like a minute foot-warmer. The two women seated themselves at a window table quite neat the man.

‘Open the window, dear,’ he heard the old lady say; ‘this room is stuffy.’

The younger woman did as she was asked, and he noticed that the window seemed too heavy for her. They drank their soup in silence, but presently the old lady shivered. ‘It’s colder than I thought’, she said plaintively. ‘I think we’ll have it shut, after all.’

Her companion rose obediently and closed the window, then she put the small box-shaped object under the other’s feet.

‘So it was a foot-warmer!’ thought the man with some amusement. He bent a little forward, the better to hear what they would say. ‘I’m eavesdropping,’ he thought, ‘but they interest me.’

‘Won’t you have your shawl on, Mother?’

‘Well, perhaps I will. It’s much colder here than it was last year.’ The younger woman got up once more, this time to fold the shawl around her mother’s shoulders.

‘Oh, Lord!’ muttered the man impatiently, ‘will she never sit still?’

He looked attentively at the pair. ‘Gentle, tyrant mother,’ he told himself, ‘and virgin daughter withering on her stem.’ But as he looked, something in the short-haired woman’s appearance arrested him. ‘It’s a fine face, even now,’ he thought, ‘and the mouth is positively beautiful. I wonder why — I wonder how it happened. Who is it she reminds me of?’

The woman turned her head and their eyes met; he thought she started and looked more intently; at all events she turned to her mother and said something in a low voice. In a second or two the old lady glanced at him.

The man felt his heart tighten. Something in the face of this short-haired woman and a certain gruff quality in her voice were strangely familiar. Just then his attention was distracted, and when he looked again the women’s faces were turned away and they were speaking in an undertone. The pair finished their dinner and left the room, while he sat on stupidly, letting the years slip backwards.

2

Presently he got up and walked to the door. He went out into the hall, meaning to look at the hotel register. The hall was empty except for the short-haired woman who had apparently anticipated him, for she was turning over the pages of the book. He came up quietly and looked over her shoulder. Her finger was hovering near his own entry: ‘Sir Richard Benson, Harley Street, London.’

She saw him out of the corner of her eye. ‘I was looking you up’, she explained simply.

‘So I see’, he said and smiled. ‘May I look you up, too?’

She nodded and he turned back a page. ‘Mrs. and Miss Ogden, Seabourne,’ he read aloud.

They stared at each other in silence for a moment, and then: ‘Oh, Joan!’

‘Richard!’

They clasped hands and laughed, then they clasped hands all over again and laughed again too, but with tears in their eyes.

Presently he said: ‘After all these years, Joan, and to meet in a place like this!’

‘Yes, it’s a long time, isn’t it!’

‘It’s a lifetime’, he replied gravely.

They went out on to the veranda. ‘Mother’s going to bed’, she told him. ‘I can stay out here for twenty minutes.’

‘Why only twenty minutes, Joan?’

‘Because I must go and read to her when she’s undressed; she’s still rather sleepless after the journey.’

He was silent. Then he said: ‘Well, tell me all about it, please; I want to hear everything.’

She smiled at the familiar words. ‘That won’t take twenty minutes; I can say it in less than two.’

‘Then say it’, he commanded.

‘I was bottled, after all’, she told him with mock solemnity, but her voice shook a little.

He took her hand and pressed it very gently. ‘I know that, my dear.’ She said: ‘You stopped writing rather suddenly, I thought. Why was that?’

He hesitated. ‘Well, you know, after Elizabeth’s marriage and your decision to throw up the sponge — you remember you wrote to the of your decision, don’t you? — Well, after that I did write occasionally, for a year or two, but then it all seemed so hopeless, and I realized that you didn’t mean to marry me, so I thought it best to let you go. I had my work, Joan, and I tried to wipe you out; you were a disturbing element.’

She nodded. She could understand his not having wanted a distraction in the days when he was making his career, she could even understand his having dropped her; what interest could he have had in so disappointing a life as hers? ‘And you, on the other hand, have made good?’ she queried, continuing her own train of thought.

He sighed. ‘Oh, yes, I suppose so; I’m considered a very successful man, I believe.’

It came to her as a shock that she ought to know something about this very successful man, and that the mere fact that she knew nothing showed how completely she had dropped away from all her old interests.

‘Don’t be angry, Richard’, she said apologetically. ‘But please tell me what you do. Did you specialize in nerves after all?’

He shook his head. ‘No, Joan, I specialized in brain; I’m a surgeon, my dear.’

‘A great one, Richard?’

‘Oh, I don’t know; I’m fairly useful, I think.’

His words roused a vague echo in her, something stirred feebly; the ghost of by-gone enthusiasm, called from the grave by the mere proximity of this man, so redolent of self-confidence and success. She moved uneasily, conscious that her thoughts were straying backwards. ‘Elizabeth —’ she began, but checked herself, and at that moment a porter came up.

‘Please, miss, the lady in twenty-four says will you come up at once, she’s in bed.’

‘I must go; good night, Richard.’

‘Wait a minute!’ he said eagerly. ‘When shall I see you again?

She hesitated. ‘I think I can get off for a walk at nine o’clock tomorrow morning; Mother won’t be getting up until about twelve.’

‘I shall be waiting here in the hall’, he said.

When she was gone, he lit a cigar and went out into the night to think.

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