The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-nine

Joan sat alone in the dismantled drawing-room. All around her lay the wreckage and driftwood of years. The drawers of her mother’s bureau stood open and in disorder; an incredible mass of discoloured letters, old bills, clippings from bygone periodicals, and little hidden treasures put away for safety and forgotten.

On the floor, with its face to the wall, stood the engraving of Admiral Sir William Routledge, with the dust thick on its back.

‘And we had a thorough spring clean last April’, Joan thought inconsequently.

The admiral’s coat and other trophies lay in a neat heap on the Nelson chair, ready for Aunt Ann to take away with her. The poor little everyday tragedy of denuded walls enclosed Joan on all four sides; faded paper, bent nails, dirty streaks where pictures had hung. Even the curtains had gone, and no longer hid the chipped and yellowing paint of the window-frames and skirting.

All over Leaside the same thing was happening. Upstairs in the bedrooms stood half-packed trunks, the kitchen was blocked with wooden cases. The suggestive smell of the Furniture Depository hung in the atmosphere, pervading everything, creeping up from the packing-cases with their dusty straw and the canvas covers that strewed the passages. Muddy boots had left their marks on the linoleum in the hall, and the globe on the gas-bracket by the front door had had a hole knocked in it by a carelessly carried case.

Joan looked at the relics of Admiral Sir William and wondered how Aunt Ann meant to pack them; would they all go in her trunk? The engraving would certainly be too large; would she insist on taking it into the railway carriage with her? She got up and touched the sleeve of the discoloured old coat and found to her surprise that a tear had fallen on her hand. What was she crying about? Surely not at parting with these ridiculous things! Then what was she crying about? She did not know.

Perhaps the house was infecting her with its own sadness, even a Leaside might be capable of sadness. This meagre little house had known them for so long; known their quarrels, their reconciliations, their ambitions, their failures. It had known her father, her mother, her sister and herself, and once, long ago, it had known Elizabeth. And now Joan was the only one left, and she was going, she had to go. Nearly everything would shortly be taken to a sale-room; that was settled, Aunt Ann had advised it.

‘We must keep only those things that are of family interest’, she had said firmly, and Joan had agreed in view of the debts.

Perhaps the little house was mourning the changed order, mourning the family that it had sheltered so long, the ugly furniture from which it was parting. The chairs and tables, now all in disarray, seemed to be looking at Joan with reproach. After all, these things had served faithfully for many years; she was conscious of a sense of regret as she looked at them. ‘I hope they’ll find good homes and be kindly treated’, she thought.

The Bishop of Blumfield and his wife had come to Seabourne for the funeral, and had stayed on for nearly three weeks at the new hotel. The bishop was incredibly old; his skin had taken on a yellowish polish like an antique ivory netsuke. Aunt Ann had disapproved of his taking so long a journey, but he had insisted on coming; he was often inclined to be wilful these days. Aunt Ann herself bore her years aggressively. A tall, majestic old lady, with fierce eyes, she faced the world, her backbone very straight. Her sister’s death, while it had come as a shock, had done little to soften the attitude of disdain with which she now regarded her fellow beings. Mary Ogden had always been rather despicable in her eyes, and why think her less so merely because she was dead? But a sense of duty had kept her at Seabourne for the past three weeks. After all, Joan was a Routledge, or half of her was, and her future must be provided for in some way.

Joan looked at her wrist watch, it was nearly half-past eight. Aunt Ann had announced that she would dine at seven and come in afterwards for a long talk. Joan guessed what this talk would be about; namely, her own plans. What were her plans? She asked herself this for the hundredth time since her mother’s death. She must inevitably work for her living, but what kind of work? That was the difficulty.

All this thinking was a terrible effort — if only she had had enough money to keep Leaside, she felt that she would never have left it. She would gladly have lived on there alone, just she and Bobbie; yes, she was actually regretting Leaside. After all, Seabourne was comfortably familiar, and in consequence easy. She shrank with nervous apprehension from any change. New places, new people, a new manner of life, noise, hurry, confusion; she pressed her hand to her head and took up the Morning Post as she had already done many times that day.

The situations vacant were few indeed, compared with those wanted. And how much seemed to be expected of everyone nowadays! Governesses, for instance, must have a degree, and nearly all must play the piano and teach modern languages. Private secretaries, typists, book-keepers, farmers, chauffeurs; their accomplishments seemed endless.

‘Typist. Used to all the well-known makes of typewriter; good speed, fair knowledge of foreign languages, shorthand.’

‘Book-keeper seeks situation in hotel or business house; long experience.’

‘University woman, as secretary-companion; speaks French, German, Italian, used to travelling, can drive car.’

‘Young woman requires situation in country. Experience with remounts during war, assist small farm or dairy, entire charge of kennels, sporting or other breeds, or work under stud groom in hunting stables.’

‘Lady chauffeur-mechanic, disengaged now, excellent personal references, clean licence. Three years’ war service driving motor ambulance France and Belgium; undertake all running repairs, any make car.’

Joan laid down the paper. No, she was utterly incapable of doing any of these things; incapable, it seemed, of filling any position of trust. She had been brilliant once, but it had led to nothing; people would not be interested in what she might have become. She supposed she could go into a shop, but what shop? They liked young, sprack women to stand behind counters, not grey-haired novices of forty-five; and besides, there were her varicose veins.

2

The door-bell rang and Aunt Ann walked in. Behind her, leaning on an ebony stick, came the little old Bishop of Blumfield. Aunt Ann sat down with an air of determination and motioned the bishop to a chair.

‘No, thank you; I prefer to stand up’, he said stubbornly. His wife shrugged her shoulders and turned to Joan.

‘It’s time we had a serious talk’, she said. ‘The first thing, my dear, is how much have you got to live on?’

‘Rather less than fifty pounds a year. You see we had to sell out some capital and mother’s pension died with her.’

Aunt Ann sniffed disapprovingly. ‘It’s never wise to tamper with capital, but I suppose it was inevitable; in any case what’s done is done. You can’t live on fifty pounds a year, I hope you realize.’

‘No, of course not’, Joan agreed. ‘I shall have to find work of some kind, but there seem to be more applicants than posts, as far as I can see; and then I’m not up to the modern standard, people want a lot for their money these days.’

‘I cannot imagine,’ piped the bishop in his thin, old voice, ‘I cannot imagine, Ann, why Joan should not live with us; she could make herself useful to you about the house, and besides, I should like to have her.’ His wife frowned at him. ‘Good gracious, Oswald, what an unpractical suggestion! I’m sure Joan wouldn’t like it at all; she’d feel that she was living on charity. I should, in her place; the Routledges have always been very independent, high-spirited people.’

Joan flushed. ‘Thank you awfully, Uncle Oswald, for wanting me, but I don’t think it would do’, she said hastily.

‘Of course not’, Aunt Ann agreed. ‘Now, the point is, Joan, have you got anything in view?’

During the pause that ensued Joan racked her brain for some dignified and convincing reply. It seemed incredible to her that she had not got anything in view, that out of all the innumerable advertisements she had been unable to find one that seemed really suitable. Her aunt’s eyes were scanning her face with curiosity.

‘I thought you were always considered the clever one’, she remarked. Joan laughed rather bitterly. ‘That was centuries ago, Aunt Ann. The world has progressed since then.’

‘Do you mean to say that you feel unfitted for any of the careers now open to women?’ inquired her aunt incredulously.

‘That’s precisely what I do feel. You see one needs experience or a business education for most things, and if you’re going to teach, of course you must have a degree. I’ve neither the time nor the money to begin all over again at forty-five.’

Mrs. Blanc settled herself more comfortably in her chair. ‘This requires thought’, she murmured.

‘There’s just a faint chance that I might get taken on at a shop’, Joan told her. ‘But I’m rather old for that too, and there’s the standing.’

‘A shop?’ gasped her aunt, with real horror in her voice. ‘You think of going into a shop, Joan?’

‘Well, one must do something, Aunt Ann; beggars can’t be choosers.’

‘But, my dear — a Routledge — a shop? Oh, no, it’s impossible; besides it’s out of the question for us that you should do such a thing. What would it look like, for a man in your uncle’s position to have a niece serving in a shop! What would people say? You must consider other people’s feelings a little Joan.’

But at this point Joan’s temper deserted her. ‘I don’t care a damn about other people’s feelings!’ she said rudely. ‘It’s my varicose veins I’m thinking of.’

The bishop gave a low, hoarse chuckle. ‘Bravo! she’s quite right’, he said delightedly. ‘Her veins are much more important to her than we are; and why shouldn’t they be, I’d like to know! Even a Routledge is occasionally heir to the common ills of mankind, my dear.’

His eyes sparkled with suppressed amusement and malice. ‘In your place, Joan, I’d do whatever I thought best for myself. Being a Routledge won’t put butter on your bread, whatever your aunt may say.’

His wife waved him aside. ‘I’ve been thinking of something, Joan’, she said. ‘Your future has been very much on my mind lately, and in case you had nothing in view, I took steps on your behalf the other day that I think may prove to be useful. Did your mother ever mention our cousin Rupert Routledge to you?’ Joan nodded. ‘Well, then, you know, I suppose, that he’s an invalid. He’s unmarried and quite well off, and what is more to the point, his companion, that is, the lady who looked after him, has just left to take care of her father, who’s ill. Rupert’s doctor wrote to me to know if I could find someone to take her place, and of course I thought of you at once, but I didn’t mention this before in case you had anything in your own mind. You’re used to illness, and the salary is really excellent; a hundred a year.’

‘He’s not an invalid’, piped the bishop eagerly. ‘He’s as strong as a horse and as mad as a hatter! Don’t you go, Joan!’

‘Oswald!’ admonished Mrs. Blanc.

But the bishop would not be silenced. ‘He’s mad, you know he’s mad; he’s sixty-five, and he thinks he’s six. He showed me his toys the last time I saw him, and cried because he wasn’t allowed to float his boat in the bath!’

Mrs. Blanc flushed darkly. ‘There is not and never was any insanity in our family, Oswald. Rupert’s a little eccentric, perhaps, but good gracious me, most people are nowadays!’

The bishop stuck his hands in his pockets and gave a very good imitation of a schoolboy whistle.

Mrs. Blanc turned to Joan: ‘He was dropped on his head when he was a baby, I believe, and undoubtedly that stopped his development, poor fellow. But to say that he’s mad is perfectly ridiculous; he’s a little childish, that’s all. I can’t myself see that he’s very much odder than many other people are since the war. In any case, my dear, it would be a very comfortable home; you would have the entire management of everything. There are excellent old servants and the house is large and very convenient. If I remember rightly there’s a charming garden. Not to put too fine a point on it, Joan, it seems to me that you have no alternative to accepting some post of this kind as you don’t feel fitted to undertake more skilled work. And of course I should feel much happier about you if I knew that you were living with a member of the family.’

Joan looked into the fire. ‘Where does he live?’ she inquired.

Mrs. Blanc fished in her bag. ‘Ah, here it is. I’ve written the address down for you, in case you should need it.’

Joan took the slip of paper. ‘The Pines, Seaview Avenue, Blintcombe, Sussex’, she read.

‘I’ve already written to Doctor Campbell about you’, said Mrs. Blanc, with a slight note of nervousness in her voice. She paused, but as Joan made no reply she went on hastily: ‘I got his answer only this morning, and it was most satisfactory; he says he’ll keep the post open for you for a fortnight.’

Joan looked up. ‘Yes, I see; thank you, Aunt Ann, it’s very good of you. I may think it over for a fortnight, you say?’

‘Yes, Joan, but don’t lose it. A hundred a year is not picked up under gooseberry bushes, remember.’

‘He’s mad, mad, mad!’ murmured the bishop in a monotonous undertone, ‘and occasionally he’s very unmanageable.’

Mrs. Blanc raised her eyebrows and shook her head slightly at Joan. ‘Don’t pay any attention to your uncle’, she whispered. ‘He’s over-tired and he gets confused.’

3

When they had gone Joan took the paper from her pocket and studied the address again. ‘The Pines, Seaview Avenue, Blintcombe, Sussex.’ Blintcombe! She felt that she already knew every street, and every house in the place. There would certainly be ‘The Laurels’, ‘The Nook’ and ‘Hiawatha’ in addition to ‘The Pines’. There would be ‘Marine Parade’, ‘Belview Terrace’, and probably ‘Alexandra Road’ in addition to ‘Seaview Avenue’. There would be a pier, a cinema, a skating-rink, a band and a swimming-bath. There would be the usual seats surrounded by glass along the esplanade, in which the usual invalids incubated their germs or sunned themselves like sickly plants in greenhouses, and of course very many bath chairs drawn by as many old men. In fact, it would be just Seabourne under a new name, with Cousin Rupert to take care of instead of her mother.

She sprang up. ‘I won’t go!’ she exclaimed aloud. ‘I won’t, I won’t!’

But even as she said it she sighed, because her legs ached. She stood still in the middle of the room, and stooping down, touched the swollen veins gingerly. The feel of them alarmed her as it always did, and her flare of resolution died out.

A great sense of self-pity came over her, bringing with it a crowd of regrets. She looked about at all the familiar objects and began remembering. How desolate the room was. It had not always been like this. Her mind travelled back over the years to the last Anniversary Day that Leaside had known. Candles and flowers had lent charm to the room, yes, charm; she actually thought now that the drawing-room had looked charming then by comparison. That was the occasion, she remembered, when her mother had worn a dove-grey dress, and Elizabeth, all in green, had reminded her of a larch tree. Elizabeth, all in green! She always remembered her like that. Why always in that particular dress? Elizabeth had looked so young and vital in that dress. Perhaps it had been symbolical of growth, of fulfilment; but if so it had been a lying symbol, for the fulfilment had not come. And yet Elizabeth had believed in her up to the very last. It was a blessed thing to have someone to believe in you; it helped you to believe in yourself. She knew that now — but Elizabeth was married, she was leagues away in Cape Town; she had forgotten Joan Ogden, who had failed her so utterly in the end. Oh, well —’

She sat down at her mother’s desk and began to write:

‘DEAR DOCTOR CAMPBELL,

‘My aunt, Mrs. Blanc, tells me —’

Then she tore up the letter. ‘I can’t decide to-night’, she thought, ‘I’m too dead tired to think.’

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