The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-eight

That winter Mrs. Ogden’s prophecy came true, and influenza laid hold of Seabourne with unexpected virulence. Mrs. Ogden was almost the first victim. She was very ill indeed. Joan was bound to her hand and foot, for the doctor warned her that her mother’s condition was likely to be critical for some time. ‘It’s her heart I’m afraid of’, he said.

Curiously enough the old lady fiercely resented her invalidism. She, who for so many years had nursed her slightest symptom, now that at last she was really ill, showed the rebellious spirit of a young athlete deprived of his normal activities, and Joan’s task in nursing her grew daily more arduous. She flagged under the constant strain of trying to pacify her turbulent patient, to whom any excitement might be dangerous. All household worries must be kept from her mother; incredibly difficult when a house was as badly constructed as Leaside. The front door could not open without Mrs. Ogden hearing it and inquiring the cause, and very little could go on in the kitchen that she was not somehow aware of.

At this most inappropriate moment Joan herself got influenza, but the attack seemed so mild that she refused to go to bed. The consequences of keeping about were disastrous, and she found herself weak to the verge of tears. The veins in her legs began to trouble her seriously; she could no longer go up and down stairs without pain. This terrified her, and in a chastened mood she consulted the doctor. He examined the veins, and with all the light-hearted inconsequence of his kind prescribed long and constant periods of rest. Joan must lie down for two hours after luncheon and again after dinner; must avoid stairs and, above all, must never stand about.

One of the most pressing problems was Mrs. Ogden’s digestion; always erratic, it was now submerged in a variety of gastric disturbances brought on by the influenza. There was so little that she could eat with impunity that catering became increasingly difficult, the more so as for the first time in her life she evinced a great interest in food. If the servant made her Benger’s she refused to drink it, complaining of its consistency, which she described as ‘Billstickers’ paste’. In the end Joan found herself preparing everything her mother ate.

She grew dully methodical, keeping little time-sheets: ‘Minced chicken 1 p.m. Medicine 3 p.m. Hot milk and biscuits 5 p.m. Benger’s 9 p.m.’ Her days were divided into washing, dressing, feeding, undressing and generally ministering to the patient.

About this time she read in the paper the announcement of Richard Benson’s engagement, and a few days later saw a picture of him in the Bystander, together with his future bride. The girl Richard was to marry was scarcely more than a child; a wide-eyed, pretty creature with a mass of soft hair, and the meaningless smile which the young assume in obedience to the fashionable photographer. Joan gazed at the picture in astonishment, and then at her own reflection in the glass. Richard had not waited long to find a mate, after his final proposal at Lynton. It was so characteristic of him to have waited twenty years, and then to have made up his mind in a few months. She felt no resentment, no tinge of hurt vanity; she was glad he was going to marry, her sense of justice told her that it was fitting and right. With this marriage of his the last link with her own past life would be snapped, and she was content to let it be so.

She wondered if she should write and congratulate him, but decided that she had better not. Her intuition told her that he, too, might want to wipe out the past, and that even her humble letter of friendship would probably come as an unwelcome reminder. She thought of him a great deal, analyzing her own feelings, but although she recognized that her thoughts were kindly, tender even, she could not trace in them the slightest shadow of regret. Richard was a fine man, a successful man; he had made good where others had failed; but to her he was just Richard, as he had always been.

She was astonished at the scant show of interest which Mrs. Ogden evinced in the event. She had expected that nothing else would be talked about for at least a week, and had been prepared for a considerable amount of sarcasm; but her mother scarcely spoke of the engagement beyond remarking on the disparity of age between the bride and bridegroom. Joan felt surprised, but failed to attach much importance to the incident, until it was repeated with regard to other things. It began to be borne in on her that a change was coming over her mother, that she was growing less fussy, less exacting, less interested in what went on around her, and as the weeks went by she was perplexed to find that a household disturbance, which would formerly most certainly have agitated Mrs. Ogden almost past endurance, now aroused no anxiety, not even much curiosity.

She would sit idle for hours, with her hands in her lap; she seemed at last to be growing resigned to her life of restricted activity. Joan thought that this was nothing more than a natural consequence of old age imposing itself on her mother’s brain, as it had long been doing on her body. In many ways she found this new phase a relief, lessening as it did the strain that had gone near to breaking her.

The canary grew tamer with the old lady, perching on her shoulder and taking food from her lips. These marks of Bobbie’s esteem delighted Mrs. Ogden; in fact he seemed to be the only creature now who could rouse her to much show of interest; she played happily with him while Joan cleaned his cage, and at night insisted on having it on a chair by her bed so that she could be the one to uncover him in the morning.

The days grew very peaceful at Leaside. Joan seldom went beyond the front door, except to buy food; walking made her legs ache, and in any case she didn’t care to leave her mother for long. Father Cuthbert came and went as he had done for years past, but now Mrs. Ogden showed no pleasure at his visits. While he was there she listened quietly to what he said, or appeared to do so, but when he left she no longer expatiated on his merits to Joan, but just sat on with folded hands and apparently forgot him.

The doctor’s bill came in; it was very high and likely to get higher. Joan felt that some of it must be paid off at once, so she sold the Indian silver. Major Boyle, who loved a depressing errand, volunteered to take it to a firm in London, and was able to shake his head mournfully over the small amount it realized.

‘He’s missed his vocation,’ thought Joan irritably, ‘he ought to have been a mute at funerals.’

She dreaded the moment when her mother would miss the silver from the sideboard, and begin to ask questions; but three days elapsed before Mrs. Ogden noticed the empty spaces. When she did so, and Joan told her the truth, she only sighed, and nodded slowly. ‘Oh, well!’ was all she said.

The sale of the silver did not realize nearly enough to meet the bills which had been accumulating. Everything cost so much these days, even simple necessities, and when to these were added all the extras in food and fires that her mother’s health required, Joan awoke to the fact that they were living beyond their meagre income. She considered the advisability of dismissing the servant, as her mother had once done; but at the thought of all that this would entail, her heart utterly failed her. The girl’s wages were at least double what they would have been prior to the war, and she expected to eat meat three times a day; but she was a pleasant, willing creature to have about the house, and Joan decided that she must stay.

A kind of recklessness seized her; it seemed so useless to try and make ends meet, with reduced dividends and abnormal taxes, and then she was so terribly tired. Her tiredness had become like physical pain, it enveloped her and prevented sleep. She did the simplest things with a feeling of reluctance, dragging her body after her like a corpse to which she was attached. If there was not enough money for immediate necessities, why then they must sell out a little capital. She feared opposition from her mother, but decided that the time had arrived when desperate straits required desperate remedies, so broached the subject without preliminaries.

‘Mother, we’re behindhand with the bills, and we can’t very well overdraw again at the bank.’

Mrs. Ogden looked up with dim, brown eyes. ‘Are we, dear?’ she said indifferently.

‘Yes, the doctor’s bill cripples us most, and then there are others, but his is the worst.’

‘It would be’, sighed Mrs. Ogden.

‘Listen, Mother, I’m afraid we must sell a little of Milly’s and my capital; not much, you know, but just enough to get us straight. Perhaps when things get cheaper, later on, we may be able to put it back.’

‘My pension used to be enough, with the other money; why isn’t it now, do you think?’

Joan sighed impatiently. ‘Because it’s worth about half what it was. Have you forgotten the war?’

‘NO, that terrible war! Still, to sell capital — isn’t that very wrong, Joan?’

‘It may be wrong, but we’ve got to do it; things may be easier next year.’

Mrs. Ogden offered no further opposition and the stocks and shares were sold. Like the Indian silver, they realized much less than Joan expected. But poor as were the results of the sacrifice, when the gilt-edged securities were translated into cash, Joan felt that the sum she deposited at the bank gave a moment’s respite to her tired brain. She refused to consider the future.

2

In June Mrs. Ogden died quietly in her sleep. Joan found her dead one morning, when she went in to call her as usual. She stood and stared incredulously at the pale, calm face on the pillow; a face that seemed to belong to a much younger woman. She turned away and lowered the blind gently, then went downstairs in search of the servant. A great hush enveloped the house, and the queer sense of awe that accompanies death had stolen in during the night and now lay over everything. Joan pushed open the kitchen door; here, at all events, some of the old familiarity remained. The sun was streaming in at the uncurtained window and the sound of hissing came from the stove, where the maid was frying sausages.

Joan said: ‘Go for the doctor at once, will you? My mother died in the night.’

The girl dropped her fork into the frying-pan and swung round with frightened eyes. ‘Oh, Lor’!’ she gasped, beginning to whimper. But for the first time in her life, Joan had fainted.

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