The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-six

The next morning Joan awoke with a feeling of excitement; the moment she opened her eyes she knew that something unusual had happened. She got up and dressed, more carefully than she had done for many years past. She parted her hair on one side again. Why not? It certainly looked neater parted. She was glad now that she had bought those new collars and ties. She took an incredibly long time to knot the tie satisfactorily and this dashed her a little. ‘My hand’s out,’ she thought, ‘and I used to tie a tie so well.’ She put on her grey flannel suit, thinking as she did so that it was less frumpish in cut than the others; then she crushed her soft felt hat into the shape affected by the young women with bobbed hair, and was pleased with the result.

Her mother was awake when she went into her room.

‘My darling!’ she exclaimed in a protesting voice, ‘what is the matter with your hat! You’ve done something queer to the crown. And I don’t like that collar and tie, it’s so mannish looking.’

Joan ignored the criticism. ‘I’m going for a walk with Richard, Mother, I’ll be back in time to help you to dress at twelve o’clock.’

Mrs. Ogden looked surprised. ‘Is he staying long?’ she inquired.

‘I don’t know, I haven’t asked him; but it’ll be all right if I’m back at twelve, won’t it?’

‘Well, yes, I suppose so. I was going to get up a little earlier this morning, so as to get as much benefit from the air as possible; still, never mind.’

Joan hesitated; the long years of habit tugged at her, but suddenly her mind was made up.

‘I’ll be back at twelve, darling, you’d better stay quiet until then.’ She hurried over her breakfast. Richard was waiting for her in the hall and came forward as she left the dining-room.

‘Ah! That’s better’, he said.

She looked at him questioningly. ‘What’s better?’

‘Why, you are. You look more like yourself this morning.’

‘Do I? It’s only the clothes, I always look odd in the evening.’

He looked amused. ‘Well, perhaps you do, a little’, he admitted.

They strolled down the drive and through the gates into the little town. The air was full of West Country softness, it smelt of brine and earth and growing things. ‘If we keep straight on,’ she said, ‘we shall come to the Valley of the Rocks.’

‘I don’t care where we come to, my dear, as long as we get to a place where we can talk in peace. I’ve a great deal to hear, you know.’

She turned to study him. He was so familiar and yet such a complete stranger. His voice was the same rather eager, imperative thing that she remembered, and she thought that his eyes had not changed at all. But for the rest he was bigger, astonishingly so; his shoulders, his face, the whole of him, seemed overpoweringly large this morning. And he looked old. In the bright light she could see that his face was deeply lined, and that little pouches had formed under his eyes. But it struck her that she had never seen a more utterly kind expression; it was a charming age that had come upon Richard, an age full of sympathy and tolerance. They passed the Convent of the Poor Clares with its white walls inset with Della Robbia plaques of the Innocents in their swaddling clothes. Richard glanced at them and smiled.

‘I rather love them, don’t you, Joan? They’re a kind of symbol of the childhood of the world.’

She followed the direction of his eyes, but the plaques did not strike her as being very interesting. Perhaps he missed some response in her, for he fell silent.

When they reached the Valley of the Rocks he stood still and looked about him. ‘I had no idea there was anything as beautiful as this in England’, he said.

She nodded. She too had always thought this valley very lovely, but because of its loveliness it depressed her, filling her with strange regrets. They sat down on a wide boulder. Somewhere to their right the sea was talking to itself on the pebbles; on a high pinnacle of grey rock some white goats leapt and gambolled. Joan looked at the deep blue of the sky showing between the crags, and then at Richard.

His chin was resting on his hands, which were clasped over his stick, and she noticed the hard strong line of his jaw, and the roughened texture of his neck.

Presently he turned to her. ‘Well, aren’t you going to tell me?’ he asked.

‘There’s nothing to tell’, she said uneasily.

He laughed. ‘What, in twenty years, has nothing happened?’

‘Nothing at all, except what you see in me.’

He said gravely: ‘I see Joan; older certainly, and grey-haired like myself, but still Joan. What else could I see?’

She was silent, plucking at some moss with nervous fingers. It was kind of Richard to pretend that the change in her had not shocked him, as, of course, it must have done. She knew instinctively that he was kind, a man one could trust, should the need arise. But she was not interested in Richard or herself, she cared very little for the impression they were making on each other. One question, and one only, burnt to get asked, yet her diffidence was keeping her silent. At last she took courage.

‘How is Elizabeth? It’s a long time since I last saw her.’

He looked at her quickly. ‘Yes, it must be a long time, now I come to think of it,’ he said, ‘I saw her last year, you know, when I was in Cape Town.’

She longed to shake the information out of him, his voice sounded so dull and non-committal. ‘Is she happy?’ she asked.

‘Happy? Oh! that’s a large order, Joan. Those goats over there are probably happy, at least they have a good chance of being so; but when you come to the higher animals like men and women, it’s a very different thing. We poor human beings with our divine heritage, we think too much; we know too much and too little to be really happy, I fancy.’

‘Yes, I expect you’re right’, she agreed, but she did not want to hear about the psychological problems of the race in general, according to Richard; she wanted to hear about Elizabeth.

Possibly he divined her thoughts, for he went on quickly, ‘But you don’t care at this moment for the Worries and troubles of mankind, do you? You just want to know all about Elizabeth.’

She touched his sleeve almost timidly. ‘Will it bore you to tell me, Richard?’

He smiled. ‘Good Lord, no, of course not; only she asked me not to.’

‘She asked you not to?’

‘Yes, she asked me not to talk about her, if I ever met you again.’

‘But why? I don’t understand.’

‘No, neither do I. I told her it was rot and I refused to promise. You want to know if Elizabeth’s happy. Well, yes, I suppose that in her own way she is. My brother’s a most devoted husband and seems to be as much in love with her as he ever was; he stands from under and fetches and carries, and Elizabeth likes that sort of thing.’

Joan frowned. ‘I see you’re still unjust to her, Richard; you always were a little bit, you know.’

‘My dear, I’m not unjust; you asked me to tell you about her, and I’m telling you the impression I received when I stayed in her house last year.’

‘Go on’, said Joan.

‘Well, then, she has a truly magnificent mansion in Cape Town. It’s white and square and rather hideous, that’s the outside; inside it’s full of very expensive, supposedly antique furniture, all shipped out from England. They entertain a great deal; my brother’s managed to grow indecently rich; helped by the war, I’m afraid. And he’s generous, positively lavish. Did you know that Lawrence got a baronetcy a little while ago? Well, he did, so Elizabeth’s now Lady Benson! Funny, ain’t it? I’m sorry there are no children; Lawrence would have loved to found a family, poor old fellow. He deserved that baronetcy all right, though, he was extremely useful to the Government during the war. Elizabeth was pretty useful too in a humbler way. I believe she organized more charities and hospital units and whatnots than any woman in South Africa; they tell me her tact and energy were phenomenal, in fact she’s a kind of social leader in Cape Town. People go out with introductions to her, and if she takes them up they’re made for ever, and if she don’t they sink into oblivion; you know, that sort of thing.’ He paused.

Joan said: ‘So that’s Elizabeth.’

He looked at her with sudden pity in his eyes. ‘She’s changed since you knew her, Joan.’

‘Never mind that’, she interrupted. ‘Tell me what she looks like.’

He considered. ‘Rather placid, I should say — yes, decidedly placid, but you feel that’s not quite a true impression when you look at her mouth; her mouth is mystifying.’

‘How mystifying?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Full of possibilities — it always was. She’s rather ample these days; not fat you know, but Junoesque, you can imagine that she would be when she began to put on flesh. Oh! And her hair’s quite white, the nice silvery kind, and always wonderfully dressed. She’s a fine looking woman but she’s cranky in some ways; for instance, she won’t come to England. She’s never set foot on British soil since she left for South Africa, except to skim across it en route for the Continent. When she comes to Europe, she goes to Paris or Rome or some other place abroad. She says that she hates England. As a matter of fact I think she dislikes leaving South Africa at all, she says she’s grown roots in the bigness of things out there. Lawrence tells me that when she feels bored with the gaieties of Cape Town, she goes right away to the veldt; he thinks it’s original and fine of her to need so much space to stretch in and so much oxygen to expand her lungs. Perhaps it is, I don’t know. In any case she was awfully kind to me when I stayed with them; I was there for three months, you know, having a rest.’

‘Did she ever speak about me?’ Joan asked, with an eagerness she could not hide.

‘Only once; let me think. It was one night after dinner. I remember we were sitting alone on the terrace, and she asked me suddenly if I ever heard from you. I told her that I hadn’t done so for years, that it was partly my fault, because I’d stopped writing. Then she said: “I don’t really want to discuss Joan Ogden, she belongs to the past, and I belong to all this, to my life here. I’ve given up being sentimental, and I find nothing either interesting or pathetic in failures. And I want you to promise me that if you should ever meet Joan, you won’t talk about me; don’t discuss me with her, she has no right to know.”’ He paused. ‘I think those were her words, my dear, at all events they were very like that.’

His voice was calm and even, and he turned to look at the pale face beside him. ‘I think she’s succeeded in forgetting her disappointment over you’, he said. ‘And if she hasn’t quite got over it, she’s managed to console herself pretty well. She’s not the sort of woman to cry long over spilt milk.’

He knew that he was being brutal. ‘But it’s necessary,’ he thought; ‘it’s vitally necessary. And if it rouses her even to a feeling of regret, better that than this lethargy of body and mind.’

Joan stared out in front of her. All the expression seemed to have been wiped out of her face and eyes. ‘Shall we go?’ she said presently. ‘I think it’s getting late.’

He assented at once, and they turned towards Lynton; he watched her covertly as she walked beside him. All his knowledge, all his experience, were braced to their utmost to meet the necessity that he felt was hers. But while his mind worked furiously, he talked of other things. He told her about his work during the war; he had gone to France to operate, and incidentally to study shell-shock, and the effects produced thereon by hypnotic treatment. He saw that she was scarcely listening, but he talked on just the same.

‘That shell-shock work would have interested you, Joan, you’d have been awfully useful out there; they wanted women of your type. The average trained nurses sometimes hindered rather than helped, they didn’t seem to catch on to the new ideas.’ He stood still and faced her. ‘By the way, what did you do during the war?’ he asked suddenly.

She gave a hard little laugh. ‘What did I do? Well, you see, I couldn’t leave Mother. I wanted to go with a unit to Serbia, but she got ill just then, I think the mere idea made her ill; so I made swabs at the Town Hall at Seabourne; I must have made thousands I should think. I had a Sister Dora arrangement on my head; we all had, it made us look important. Some of the women wore aprons with large red crosses on their bibs, it was very effective! And we gossiped, we did it persistently; that Town Hall grew to be a veritable “School for Scandal”; we took away a character with every swab we made. We quarrelled too, I assure you it was most exciting at times; why, life-long friendships went to pieces over those swabs of ours. You see we were jealous of each other, we couldn’t bear to think that some of our friends were more expert than we were, the competition was terrific! Oh, yes, and I was so good at my job that they couldn’t in decency avoid making me the head of our room for a short time; I wore a wide blue sash over one shoulder. I shall never forget the sense of power that I felt when I first put on that sash. I became hectoring and dictatorial at once; it was a moment worth living for, I can tell you!’

He was silent, the bitterness in her voice hurt him intensely. ‘Good-bye’, she said as they reached the hotel. ‘And thank you for telling me about Elizabeth.’

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