The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-seven

Richard stayed on from day to day. He had come to Lynton meaning to remain a week, but now almost a fortnight had passed, and still he stayed.

He planned endless walks and motor drives, excursions to all parts of the country. There were many of these in which Mrs. Ogden could not join, and a situation arose not unlike that which had arisen years ago, owing to Elizabeth. But now the antagonists fought in grim silence, playing with carefully concealed cards, outwardly polite and affable.

While treating Mrs. Ogden quite respectfully, Richard never allowed Joan to evade him, dragging her out by sheer force of will, and keeping her out until such time as he thought she had had enough open air and exercise. He managed with no little skill to combine the authority of the doctor with the solicitude of an old friend, and Joan found herself submitting in spite of her mother’s aggrieved attitude.

She began to feel better in health but sick in mind; Richard awoke so much in her that she had hoped was over and done with. He joked over the old days at Seabourne, in the hopeful, exuberant manner of a. man who looks forward to the future. And all the while her heart ached intolerably for those days, the days that had held Elizabeth and her own youth. He seemed to be trying to make her talk too. Do you remember all the medical books I used to send you, Joan?’ or, ‘That was when you and Elizabeth were going to live together, wasn’t it?’ He discussed Elizabeth as a matter of course, and because of this Joan found it difficult to speak of her at all. She began to be obsessed with a craving to see her again, to talk to her and hear her voice; the thought of the miles that would always lie between them grew intolerable. This woman who had known her since she was a little child, who had fashioned her, loved her and then cast her out, lived again in her thoughts with all the old vitality. ‘I shall die without seeing her,’ was a phrase that ran constantly in her brain; ‘I shall die without ever seeing Elizabeth again.’

Richard observed the sunburn on her cheeks and felt happier. He believed that his method was the right one, and dug assiduously among Joan’s memories. He was convinced that she had been very near a nervous breakdown when he had found her, and congratulated himself on what he thought was a change for the better. Her reticence when Elizabeth was mentioned only served to make him speak of her the more. ‘No good letting the thing remain submerged,’ he thought; ‘she must be made to talk about it.’

In spite of the mental unrest that possessed her, or perhaps because of it, Joan looked forward to the long days spent on the moors, the long drives in the car through the narrow, twisting lanes. Richard was an excellent companion, always amusing and sympathetic, and there was a painful fascination in talking over the old days. His eyes were kind when he looked at her, and his hand felt strong and protective as he helped her in and out of the car. She thought, as she had done a long time ago, what an adorable brother he would have made.

Sometimes he would tell her about his work, going into technical details as though she too were a doctor. When he spoke of a case which particularly interested him, he gesticulated, like the Richard of twenty years ago.

‘How little you’ve changed’, she said one day.

He replied: ‘We none of us really change, Joan, except on the surface.’

‘I’ve changed, Richard; the whole of me has.’

‘Oh, no, you haven’t; you’re all of you there, only you’ve pushed some of it away out of sight.’

She wondered if he were right. Was it possible that all that had once made Joan Ogden, was lurking somewhere in her still? She shuddered. ‘I don’t want to go back!’ she said fiercely. ‘Oh, Richard, I don’t want ever to go back!’

‘Not back, but forward’, he corrected. ‘Just go forward with your whole self.’

2

The time that Richard could afford to take from his work had come to an end, it was his last day at Lynton. ‘Let’s walk to Watersmeet this afternoon, Joan’, he suggested. ‘It’s such a perfect day.’

‘I oughtn’t to leave Mother’, she said doubtfully. ‘She doesn’t seem very well.’

‘Oh, she’s all right, my dear; I’ve been up to see her and she’s only a little over-tired. After all, at her age, she’s bound to feel tired sometimes.’

Joan weakened. ‘Well, wait a minute, then, while I go and say good-bye.’

They made their way down the steep hill and over the bridge to the far side of the river. The water was rushing in a noisy torrent between the rocks and boulders.

‘Oh! How I love the noise of it’, he exclaimed. ‘It’s life, just life!’

She looked at his lined and ageing face and marvelled at his enthusiasms. He was so full of them still and of a great self-courage that nothing had ever had the power to break. They strolled along the narrow path under the fresh spring green, keeping the river that Richard loved beside them all the way. He took her hand and held it and she did not resist; she was feeling very grateful towards this friend who had come from the world and found her. Presently she grew tired, it was hot down there by the river.

He noticed her lagging steps: ‘Rest, my dear, we’ve walked too far.’ They sat down under the trees and for a long time neither spoke. He was the first to break the silence:

‘Joan, will you marry me?’ he said abruptly.

It was the same old familiar phrase that she had heard so often before, and she found it hard to believe that they were two middle-aged people instead of the boy and girl of twenty years ago, but in another moment she had flushed with annoyance.

‘Is that joke in very good taste, Richard?’

He stared at her. ‘Joke? But I mean it!’ he stammered.

She sprang up and he followed her. ‘Richard, have you gone quite mad?’

‘I was never more sane in my life; I ask you: Will you marry me?’

She looked at him incredulously, but something in the expression of his eyes told her that he did mean it. ‘Oh, Richard,’ she said with a catch in her voice, ‘I can’t! I never could, you know.’

He said: ‘Joan, if I weren’t so ridiculously middle-aged, I’d go down on my knees, here in the grass, and beg you to take me. I want you more than anything else in the world.’

She said: ‘You’ve made some awful mistake. There’s nothing of me to want; I’m empty, just a husk.’

‘That’s not true, Joan’, he protested. ‘You’re the only woman I’ve ever cared for. I want you in my life, in my home; I want your companionship, your help in my work.’

‘In your work?’ she asked in genuine surprise.

‘Yes, in my work, why not? Wouldn’t it interest you to help me in the laboratory, sometimes? I’m rather keen on certain experiments, you know, Joan, and if you’ll only come, we could work together. Oh, it would all be so utterly splendid! Just what I planned for us years ago. Don’t you think you can marry me, Joan?’

She laid a firm hand on his shoulder. ‘Listen,’ she said gently, ‘while I try to make you understand. The woman you’re thinking of is not Joan Ogden at all; she’s a purely fictitious person, conceived in your own brain. Joan Ogden is forty-three, and old for her age; she’s old in body, her skin is old, and she’ll soon be white-haired. Her mind has been shrivelling away for years; it’s not able to grasp big things as it was once, it’s grown small and petty and easily tired. Give it a piece of serious work and it flags immediately, there’s no spring left in it.

‘Her body’s a mass of small ailments; real or imaginary, they count just the same. She goes to bed feeling tired out and gets up feeling more tired, so that every little futile thing is enough to make her irritable. She exaggerates small worries and makes mountains out of molehills. Her nerves are unreliable and she dwells too much on her health. If she remembers what she used to be like, she tries to forget it, because she’s afraid; long ago she was a coward and she’s remained one to this day, only now she’s a tamer coward and gives in without a struggle.

It’s different with you, Richard, you’ve got a right to marry. You want to marry, because you’re successful and because at your age a man settles down. But haven’t you thought that you probably want children, a son? Do you think the woman I’ve described would be a desirable mother, even if she could have a child at all? Would you choose to make posterity through an old, unhealthy body; to give children to the world by a woman who is utterly unfit to bear them, who never has loved you and never could?’

He covered his face with his hands. ‘Don’t, I can’t bear it, Joan!’

‘But it’s the truth and you know it’, she went on quietly. ‘I’m past your saving, Richard; there’s nothing left to save.’

‘Oh, Joan!’ he said desperately. ‘It can’t be as bad as that! Give me a chance; if anyone can save you, I can.’

She turned her face away from him. ‘No!’ she said. ‘Only one creature could ever have saved me and I let her go while I was still young.’

‘Do you mean Elizabeth?’ he asked sharply.

She nodded. ‘Yes, she could have saved me, but I let her go.’

‘God!’ he exclaimed almost angrily. ‘I ought to be jealous of her; I am jealous of her, I suppose! But why, oh, why, if you cared for her so much, didn’t you break away and go with her to London? Why did you let even that go by you? I could bear anything better than to see you as you are.’

She was silent. Presently she said: ‘There was Mother, Richard. I loved her too, and she needed me; she didn’t seem able to do without me.’

His face went white with passion; he shook his clenched fists in the air. ‘How long is it to go on,’ he cried, ‘this preying of the weak on the strong, the old on the young; this hideous, unnatural injustice that one sees all around one, this incredibly wicked thing that tradition sanctifies? You were so splendid. How fine you were! You had everything in you that was needed to put life within your grasp, and you had a right to life, to a life of your own; everyone has. You might have been a brilliant woman, a woman that counted for a great deal, and yet what are you now? I can’t bear to think of it!

‘If you are a mass of ills, as you say, if your splendid brain is atrophied, and you feel empty and unfulfilled, whose fault is that? Not yours, who had too much heart to save yourself. I tell you, Joan, the sin of it lies at the door of that old woman up there in Lynton; that mild, always ailing, cruelly gentle creature who’s taken everything and given nothing and battened on you year by year. She’s like an octopus who’s drained you dry. You struggled to get free, you nearly succeeded, but as quickly as you cut through one tentacle, another shot out and fixed on to you.

‘Good God! How clearly one sees it all! In your family it was your father who began it, by preying first on her, and in a kind of horrid retaliation she turned and preyed on you. Milly escaped, but only for a time; she came home in the end; then she preyed in her turn. She gripped you through her physical weakness, and then there were two of them! Two of them? Why, the whole world’s full of them! Not a Seabourne anywhere but has its army of octopi; they thrive and grow fat in such places. Look at Ralph Rodney: I believe he was brilliant at college, but Uncle John devoured him, and you know what Ralph was when he died. Look at Elizabeth: do you think she’s really happy? Well, I’m going to tell you now what I kept from you the other day. Elizabeth got free, but not quite soon enough; she’s never been able to make up for the blood she lost in all those years at Seabourne. She’s just had enough vitality left to patch her life together somehow, and make my brother think that all is very well with her. But she couldn’t deceive me, and she knew it; I saw the ache in her for the thing she might have been. Elizabeth’s grasped the spar; that’s what she’s done, and she’s just, only just managed to save herself from going under. She’s rich and popular and ageing with dignity, but she’s not, and never can be now, the woman she once dreamt of. She’s killed her dream by being busy and hard and quite unlike her real self; by taking an interest in all the things that the soul of her laughs at. And that’s what life with Ralph in Seabourne has done for her. That, and you, Joan. I suppose I ought to hate Elizabeth, but I can’t help knowing that when she broke away there was one tentacle more tenacious than all the rest; it clung to her until she cut it through, and that was you, who were trying unconsciously to make her a victim of your own circumstances.

‘Joan, the thing is infectious, I tell you; it’s a pestilence that infects people one after another. Even you, who were the most generous creature that I’ve ever known; the disease nearly got you unawares. If Elizabeth hadn’t gone away when she did, if she had stayed in Seabourne for your sake, then you would have been one of them. Thank God she went! It’s horrible to know that they’ve victimized the thing I love, but I’d rather you were the victim than that you should have grown to be like the rest of them, a thing that preys on the finest instincts of others, and sucks the very soul out of them.’ His voice broke suddenly, and he let his arms drop to his sides. ‘And I know now that I’ve been loving you for all these years’, he said. ‘I’ve just been loving and loving you.’

She stood speechless before his anger and misery, unable to defend herself or her mother, conscious that he had spoken the bitter and brutal truth.

At last she said: ‘Don’t be too hard on Mother; Richard; she’s a very old woman now.’

‘I know’, he answered dully. ‘I know she’s very old; perhaps I’ve been too violent. If I have you must forgive me.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘you were right in everything, only one can’t always crush people because one has right on one’s side.’

He stroked her arm with his strong, hard fingers. ‘Can’t you marry me?’ he reiterated stubbornly.

She said: ‘I shall never marry anyone. I’m not a woman who could ever have married. I’ve never been what you’d call in love with a man in my life; but I think if I’d been different, Richard, I should have wanted to marry you.’

3

The next morning Richard Benson left Lynton, and in the course of a few days the Ogdens returned to Leaside.

‘I don’t think we’ll go to Lynton again’, said Mrs. Ogden fretfully. ‘It’s not done me any good at all, this year.’

Joan acquiesced; she felt that she never again wanted to see the place in which so many unwelcome memories had been aroused. She sat staring out of the window as the train neared Seabourne, and wished that Richard had never crossed her path; all she wanted was to be left in peace. She dreaded remembering and he had made her remember; she was afraid of unhappiness and he had made her unhappy.

As the familiar landmarks sped past one by one, little forgotten incidents of her youth surged through her mind in rhythm to the glide and jolt of the train. She pictured the Seabourne station as it used to be before they had enlarged it, and the flower-beds and cockle-shells that Milly had once jeered at. On the short platform stood a little army of ghosts: the red-haired porter who had limped, and had always called her Miss Hogden. He had been gone these ten years past, where, she did not know. Richard, freckled and gawky, reminding you somehow of a pleasant puppy; rather uncouth he had been in those days. Milly, small and fragile, her yellow curls always bobbing, and Elizabeth, slim as a larch tree, very upright and neat and quiet; her intent eyes scanning the incoming train for a sight of Joan’s face at the window. And then herself, Joan Ogden, black-haired, grey-eyed, young; with a body all suppleness and vigour, and a mind that could grasp and hold. She would be leaning far out of the carriage, waving an ungloved hand. ‘Here I am!’ And then the meeting; the firm clasp of friendship, respect and love; the feel of Elizabeth’s signet ring cold against your fingers, and the goodly warmth of her palm as it met your own. Ghosts, all ghosts; ghosts of the living and the dead. Her eyelids felt hot and tingling; she brushed the tears away angrily. Ghosts, all ghosts, every one of them dead, to her, at all events; and she, how utterly dead she was to herself.

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