The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter five

Admiral Bourne was the first to arrive. He liked the children, and Milly sidled up and stood between his knees, certain of her welcome.

‘Pretty hair!’ he remarked thoughtfully, stroking her curls, ‘and how is Miss Joan getting on? You haven’t let your hair grow yet, Miss Joan.’

Joan laughed. ‘It’s more comfortable short’, she said. ‘So it is’, agreed the admiral. ‘Capital, capital!’

‘You must come and see my cream mice, dozens of them —’ he began. But at that moment Elizabeth and her brother were announced and Joan hurried to meet them. She examined Mr. Rodney with a new interest, for now he was not just father’s friend at the club, but he was Elizabeth Rodney’s brother. She thought: ‘He looks old, old, old, and yet I don’t believe he is very old. His eyes are greenish like Elizabeth’s, only somehow his eyes look timid like Mother’s, and Elizabeth’s remind me of the sea. I wonder what makes his back so humped, his coat goes all in ridges —’ Then she suddenly felt very sorry for him, he looked so dreadfully humble.

Elizabeth, tall and erect, was dressed in some soft green material; she appeared a little unnatural to the children, who had grown accustomed to her tailor-made blouses and skirts. Her strong brown hair was carefully dressed as usual, but as usual a curl or two sprang away from the hair-pins, straying over her ears and in the nape of her neck. Elizabeth was always pale, but today she looked very vital; she was conscious of looking her best, of creating an effect. Then she suddenly wondered whether Joan liked her dress, but even as she wondered she remembered that Joan was only thirteen.

Joan was thinking: ‘She looks like a tree. Why haven’t I noticed before how exactly like a tree she is; it must be the green dress. But her eyes are like water, all greeny and shadowy and deep looking — a tree near a pool, that’s what she’s like, a tall tree. A beech tree? No, that’s too spready — a larch tree, that’s Elizabeth; a larch tree just greening over.’

The rooms began to fill, and people wandered in and out; it was really quite like a reception. There was a pleasant babble of conversation. James had come in; he had said to himself: ‘Must look in and share the Mem–Sahib’s little triumph — poor Mary!’ He really looked quite distinguished in his grey frock coat and black satin tie. Here were General and Mrs. Brooke. By common consent the two old war horses buried their feud on ‘Anniversary Day’. It was: ‘How are you, Ogden?’

‘Glad to see you, General!’

They would beam at each other across their black satin ties; after all — the Service, you know!

Sir Robert and Lady Loo were shown in; good, that they had arrived when the rooms were at their fullest. Lady Loo came forward with her vague toothy smile. She looked like a very old hunter, long in the face, long in the leg and knobbly, distinctly knobbly. Her dress hung on her like badly fitting horse-clothing. To her spare bosom a diamond and sapphire crescent clung with a kind of desperation as if to an insufficient foothold; you felt that somehow there was not enough to pin it to, that there never would be enough to pin anything to on Lady Loo. But for all this there was something nice about her; the kind of niceness that belongs to old dogs and old horses, and that had never been entirely absent from Lady Loo.

As she sat down by Mrs. Ogden, her bright brown eyes looked inquisitively round the room, resting for an instant on the admiral’s portrait, and then on the relics upon the occasional table. Mrs. Ogden watched her, secretly triumphant.

‘Dear Lady Loo. How good of you to come to our little gathering. My Day I call it — very foolish of me — but after all — Oh, yes, how very kind of you — But then, why rob your hothouses for poor little me? You forgot to bring them? Oh, never mind, it’s the thought that counts, is it not? Your speaking of peaches makes me feel quite homesick for Chesham — we had such acres of glass at Chesham! — Yes, that is Joan — come here, Joan dear! Naughty child, she will insist on keeping her hair short. You think it suits her? Really? Clever? Well — run away, Joan darling — yes, frankly, very clever, so Miss Rodney thinks. Attractive? You think so? Now fancy, my husband always thinks Milly is the pretty one. Shall I ask Joan to recite or shall Milly play first? What do you think? Joan first, oh, all right — Joan, dear!’

The dreaded moment had arrived; Joan, shy and awkward, floundered through her recitation.

‘Capital, capital!’ cried Admiral Bourne, who had taken a fancy to her.

Elizabeth felt hot; why in heaven’s name make a fool of Joan like that? Joan couldn’t recite and never would be able to. And then the child’s dress — what possessed Mrs. Ogden to make her wear white? Joan looked too awful in white, it made her skin look yellow. Then the dress was too short; Joan’s dresses always were; and yet she was her mother’s favourite. Curious — perhaps Mrs. Ogden wanted to make her look young; well, she couldn’t keep her a baby for ever. When would Joan begin to assert her individuality? When she was fifteen, seventeen, perhaps? Elizabeth felt that she could dress Joan; she ought to wear dark colours, she knew exactly what she ought to wear. At that moment Joan came over to her, she was flushed and still looked shy.

‘Beastly rot, that poem!’

Elizabeth surveyed her: ‘Oh, Joan, you’re so like a colt.’ And she laughed.

Joan wanted to say: ‘You’re like a larch tree that’s just greening over, a tree by the side of a pool.’ But she was silent.

The noise of conversation broke out afresh. Milly, longing to be asked to play, was pretending to adjust the clasp of her violin case. Elizabeth looked from one child to the other and could not help smiling. Then she said: ‘Joan, do you like my dress?’

‘Like it?’ Joan stammered; ‘I think it’s beautiful.’

Elizabeth wanted to say, ‘Do you think me at all beautiful, Joan?’ But something inside her began to laugh at this absurdity, while she said: ‘I’m so glad you like it, it was new for today.’

‘Now, Milly, play for us’, came Mrs. Ogden’s voice. ‘Miss Rodney will accompany you, I’m sure.’

Milly did not blush, she remained cool and pale — small and cool and pale she stood there in her white cashmere smock, making lovely sounds with as much ease and confidence as if she had been playing by herself in an empty room.

Extraordinary child. She looked almost inspired, coldly inspired — it was queer. When she had finished playing, her little violin master came out of the corner in which he had been hidden.

‘Very good — excellent!’ he said, patting her shoulder; and Milly smiled quite placidly. Then she grew excited all of a sudden and skipped around the room for praise.

Joan sat beside her mother; very gently she squeezed her hand, looking up into Mrs. Ogden’s face. She saw that it was animated and young, and the change thrilled her with pleasure. Mrs. Ogden looked down into her daughter’s eyes. She whispered: ‘Do you like my dress, darling; am I looking nice?’

‘Lovely, Mother — so awfully pretty!’ But Joan thought: ‘The same thing, they both wanted to know if I liked their dresses, how funny! But Mother doesn’t look like a tree just greening over — what does Mother look like? She could not find a simile and this annoyed her. Mrs. Ogden’s dress was grey, it suited her admirably, falling about her still girlish figure in long, soft folds. No one could say that Mary Ogden never looked pretty these days, that was quite certain; for she looked pretty this afternoon, with the delicate somewhat faded prettiness of a flower that has been pressed between the pages of a book. Suddenly Joan thought: ‘I know — I’ve got it, Elizabeth is like a tree and Mother’s like a dove, a dove that lights on a tree. No, that won’t do, I don’t believe somehow that Mother would like to light on Elizabeth, and I don’t think Elizabeth would like to be lit on. What is she like then?’

People began to go. ‘Good-bye, such a charming party.’

‘So glad you could come.’

‘Good-bye — don’t forget that you and Colonel Ogden are lunching with us next Saturday.’

‘No, of course not, so many thanks.’

‘Good-bye —’

‘Over at last!’ Mrs. Ogden leant back in her chair with a sigh that bespoke complete satisfaction. She beamed on her husband.

He smiled. ‘Went off jolly well, Mary!’ He was anxious to make up for the morning.

‘Yes, it was a great success, I think. Don’t you think it went off very well, James?’

The colonel twitched; he longed to say: ‘Damn it all, Mary, haven’t I just told you that I think it went off well!’ But he restrained himself.

Mary continued: ‘Well, dear, the Routledges always did have a talent for entertaining. I can remember at Chesham when I was Joan’s age —’

2

Sir Robert and Lady Loo were driving swiftly towards Moor Park behind their grey cobs. ‘Talent that youngster has for fiddle playing, Emma!’

‘Yes, I suppose so. The mother’s a silly fool of a woman, no more brains than a chicken, and what a snob!’

‘Ugly monkey, the elder daughter.’

‘Joan? Oh, do you think so?’

‘Awful!’

‘Wait and see!’ said Lady Loo with a thoughtful smile.

Elizabeth walked home between her brother and the little violin master; she was depressed without exactly knowing why. The little violin master waved his hands.

‘Milly is a genius; I have got a real pupil at last, at last! You wait and see, she will go far. What tone, what composure for so young a child?’

‘Joan is like a young colt!’ said Elizabeth to herself. ‘Like a young colt that somehow isn’t playful — Joan is a solemn young colt, a thoughtful colt, a colt wise beyond its months.’ And she sighed.

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