The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter seven

It was a blazing July, nearly a year later. Seabourne, finding at first a new topic for conversation in the heat wave, very soon wearied of this rare phenomenon, abandoning itself to exhaustion.

Colonel Ogden wilted perceptibly but Mrs. Ogden throve. The heat agreed with her, it made her expand. She looked younger and she felt younger and said so constantly, and her family tried to feel pleased. Lessons were a torment in the airless schoolroom; Joan flagged, Milly wept, and Elizabeth grew desperate. There was nowhere to walk except in the glare. The turf on the cliffs was as slippery as glass; on the sea-front the asphalt stuck to your shoes, and the beach was a wilderness peopled by wilting parents and irritable, mosquito-bitten children. Then, when things were at their worst at Leaside, there came from out the blue a very pleasant happening; old Admiral Bourne met the Ogden children out walking and asked them to tea.

2

The admiral’s house was unique. He had built it after his wife’s death; it had been a hobby and a distraction. Glory Point lay back from the road that led up to Cone Head, out beyond the town. To the casual observer the house said little. From the front it looked much as other houses, a little stronger, a little whiter perhaps, but on the whole not at all distinctive except for its round windows; and as only the upper windows could be seen from the road they might easily have been mistaken for an imitation of the Georgian period. It was not until the house was skirted to the left and the shrubbery passed that the character of Glory Point became apparent.

A narrow path with tall bushes on either side wound zigzag for a little distance. With every step the sound of the sea came nearer and nearer, until, at an abrupt angle, the path ceased, and shot you out on to a cobbled court-yard, and the wide Atlantic lay before you. The path had been contrived to appear longer than it was in reality, the twists and turns assisting the illusion; the last thing you expected to find at the end was what you found; it was very ingenious.

To the left and in front this court-yard appeared to end in space, and between you and the void stood apparently nothing but some white painted posts and chains. But even as you wondered what really lay below, a sharp spray would come hurtling over the chains and land with a splash almost at your feet, trickling in and out of the cobbles. Then you realized that the court-yard was built on a rock that ran sheer down to the sea.

At the side of this court-yard stood a fully rigged flagstaff with an old figure-head nailed to its base. The figure-head gazed out across the Atlantic, it looked wistful and rather lonely; there was something pathetic about the thing. It had a grotesque kind of dignity in spite of its faded and weather-stained paint. The ample female bosoms bulged beneath the stiff drapery, the painted eyes seemed to be straining to see some distant object; where the figure ended below the waist was a roughly carved scroll showing traces of gilt, on which could be deciphered the word ‘Glory’.

From this side the house looked bigger, and one saw that all the windows were round and that a veranda ran the length of the ground floor. This veranda was the admiral’s particular pride, it was boarded with narrow planks scrubbed white and caulked like the deck of a ship; the admiral called it his ‘quarter-deck’, and here, in fine weather or foul, he would pace up and down, his hands in his pockets, his cigar set firmly between his teeth, his rakish white beard pointing out in front.

Inside the house the walls of the passages were boarded and enamelled white, the rooms white panelled, and the steep narrow stairs covered with corrugated rubber, bound with brass treads. Instead of banisters a piece of pipe-clayed rope ran through brass stanchions on either side; and over the whole place there brooded a spirit of the most intense cleanliness. Never off a man-of-war did brass shine and twinkle like the brass at Glory Point; never was white paint as white and glossy, never was there such a fascinating smell of paint and tar and brass polish. It was an astonishing house; you expected it to roll and could hardly believe your good fortune when it kept still. Everyone in Seabourne made fun of Glory Point; the admiral knew this but cared not at all, it suited him and that was enough. If they thought him odd, he thought most of them incredibly foolish. Glory Point was his darling and his pride; he and his mice lived there in perfect contentment. The brass shone, the decks were as the driven snow, the white walls smelt of fresh paint, and away beyond the posts and chains of the cobbled court-yard stretched the Atlantic, as big and deep and wholesome as the admiral’s kind heart.

3

Through the blazing sunshine of the afternoon, Joan and Milly toiled up the hill that led to Glory Point. Now, however, they did not wilt, their eyes were bright with expectation, and they quickened their steps as the gate came in sight. They pushed it open and walked down the pebbled path.

‘It’s all white!’ Joan exclaimed. She looked at the round white stones with the white posts on either side and then at the white door. They rang; the fierce sun was producing little sham flames on the brass bell-pull and knocker. The door was opened by a manservant in white drill and beyond him the walls of the hall showed white. ‘More white’, thought Joan. ‘It’s like — it looks — is honest the word? No, truthful.’

They were shown into a very happy room, all bright chintz and mahogany. In one of the little round windows a Hartz Mountain Roller ruffled the feathers on his throat as he trilled. The admiral came forward to meet them, shaking hands gravely as if they were grown up. He, too, was in white, and his eyes looked absurdly blue. Joan thought he matched the Delft plates on the mantelpiece at his back.

‘This is capital; I’m so glad you could come.’ He seemed to be genuinely pleased to see them. They waited for him to speak again, their eyes astray for objects of interest.

‘This is my after-cabin’, said the admiral, smiling. ‘What do you think of it?’

‘It’s the drawing-room’, said Milly promptly. Joan kicked her. ‘We call it a cabin on a ship’, corrected the admiral.

‘Oh, I see’, said Milly. ‘But this isn’t a ship!’

‘It’s the only ship I’ve got now’, he laughed.

Joan thought: ‘I wish she wouldn’t behave like this, what can it matter what he calls the room? I wish Milly were shy!’

But Milly, quite unconscious of having transgressed, went up and nestled beside him. He put his arm round her and patted her shoulder. ‘It’s a very nice ship’, she conceded.

Above the mantelpiece hung an oval portrait of a girl. Joan liked her pleasant, honest eyes, blue like the admiral’s, only larger; her face looked wide open like a hedge rose.

Joan had to ask. She thought, ‘It’s cheek, I suppose, but I do want to know.’ Aloud she said: ‘Please, who is that?’

The admiral followed the direction of her gaze. ‘Olivia’, he answered, in a voice that took it for granted that he had no need to say more. ‘Olivia?’

‘My wife.’

‘Oh!’ breathed Joan, feeling horribly embarrassed. She wished that she had not asked. Poor admiral, people said that he had loved her a great deal!

‘Where is she?’ inquired Milly.

Joan thought: ‘Of all the idiotic questions! Has she forgotten that he’s a widower?’ She was on tenterhooks.

The admiral gave a little sigh. ‘She died a long time ago’, he said, and stared fixedly at the portrait.

Joan pulled Milly round. ‘Oh, look, what a pet of a canary!’ she said foolishly. She and Milly went over to the cage; the bird hopped twice and put his head on one side. He examined them out of one black bead.

The admiral came up behind them. ‘That’s Julius Caesar’, he volunteered.

Joan turned with relief; he was smiling. He opened the door of the cage and thrust in a finger, whistling softly; the canary bobbed, then it jumped on to the back of his hand, ignoring the finger. Very slowly and gently he withdrew his hand and lifted the bird up to his face. It put its beak between his lips and kissed him, then its mood changed and it nipped his thumb. He laughed, and replaced it in the cage.

‘Shall we go over the ship?’ he inquired.

The children agreed eagerly. He stalked along in front of them, hands in jacket pockets. He took them into the neat dining-room, opening and shutting the port-holes to show how they worked, then into the smoking-room, large, long, and book-lined with the volumes of his naval library. Then up the rubber-covered stairs and along the narrow white passage with small doors in a row on either side. A man in more white drill was polishing the brass handles, there was the clean acrid smell of brass polish; Joan wondered if they polished brass all day at Glory Point, this was such a queer time to be doing it, at four in the afternoon. The admiral threw open one of the doors while the children peered over his shoulder.

‘This is my sleeping cabin’, he said contentedly.

The little room was neat as a new pin; through the open port-holes came the sound and smell of the sea — thud, splash, thud, splash, and the mournful tolling of a bell buoy. The admiral’s bunk was narrow and white, Joan thought that it looked too small for a man, like the bed of a little child, with its high polished mahogany side. Above it the port-hole stood wide open — thud, splash, there was the sea again; the sound came with rythmical precision at short intervals. Milly had found the washstand, it was an entrancing washstand! There was a stationary basin cased in mahogany with fascinating buttons that you pressed against to make the water flow; Milly had never seen buttons like this before, all the taps at Leaside turned on in a most uninteresting way. Above the washstand was a rack for the water bottle and glass, and the bottle and glass had each its own hole into which it fitted with the neatest precision. The walls of the cabin were white like all the others in this house of surprises, white and glossy. Thud, splash, thud, splash, and a sudden whiff of seaweed that came in with a breath of air.

Joan thought, ‘Oh it is a truthful house, it would never deceive you!’ Aloud she said, ‘I like it!’

The admiral beamed. ‘So do I’, he agreed.

‘I like it all’, said Joan, ‘the noises and the smell and the whiteness. I wish we lived in a ship-house like this, it’s so reassuring.’

‘Reassuring?’ he queried; he didn’t understand what she meant, he thought her a queer old-fashioned child, but his heart went out to her.

‘Yes, reassuring; safe you know; you could trust it; I mean, it wouldn’t be untruthful.’

‘Oh, I see’, he laughed. ‘I built it’, he told her with a touch of pride; ‘it was entirely my own idea. The people round here think I’m a little mad, I believe; they call me “Commodore Trunnion”; but then, dear me, everyone’s a little mad on one subject or another — I’m mad on the sea. Listen, Miss Joan! Isn’t that fine music? I lie here and listen to it every night, it’s almost as good as being on it!’

Milly interrupted. ‘Tell us about your battles!’ she pleaded. ‘My what?’ said the admiral, taken aback.

‘The ones you fought in’, said Milly coaxingly.

‘Bless the child! I’ve never been in a battle in my life; what battles. have there been in my time, I’d like to know!’

Milly looked crestfallen. ‘But you were on a battleship’, she protested.

The admiral opened his mouth and guffawed. ‘God bless my soul, what’s that got to do with it?’

They had made their way downstairs again now and were walking towards the garden door. Milly clung to her point.

‘It ought to have something to do with it, I should suppose’, she said rather pompously.

The admiral looked suddenly grave. ‘It will, some day’, he said. ‘When will it be?’ asked Joan; she felt interested.

‘When the great war comes’, he replied; ‘though God grant it won’t be in your time.’

No one spoke for a minute; the children felt subdued, a little cloud seemed to have descended among them. Then the admiral cheered up, and quickened his steps. ‘Tea!’ he remarked briskly.

4

Over the immaculate lawn that stretched to the right of the house, came the white-clad manservant carrying a tray; the tea-table was laid under a big walnut tree. This was the sheltered side of the house, where, as the admiral would say, you could grow something besides seaweed. The old clipped yews were trim and cared for; peacocks and roosters and stately spirals. Between them the borders were bright with homely flowers. The admiral had found this garden when he bought the place; he had pulled down the old house to build his ship, but the garden he had taken upon himself as a sacred trust. In it he worked to kill the green fly and the caterpillar, and dreamed to keep memory alive. They sat down to tea; from the other side of a battlemented hedge came the whirring, sleepy sound of a mowing machine, someone was mowing the bowling green. They grew silent. A wasp tumbled into the milk jug; with great care the admiral pulled it out and let it crawl up his hand.

‘Silly’, he said reprovingly, ‘silly creature!’

It paused in its painful milk-logged walk to stroke its bedraggled wings with its back legs, then it washed its face, ducking its jointed head. The old man watched it placidly, presently it flew away.

‘It never said “Thank you”, did it?’ he laughed.

‘No, but it didn’t sting’, said Joan.

‘They never sting when you do them a good turn, and that’s more than you can say of some people, Miss Joan.’

Tea over, they strolled through the garden; at the far end was a small low building designed to correspond with the house. ‘What’s that?’ they asked him.

‘We’re coming to that’, he answered. ‘That’s where the mice live.’

‘Oh, may we see them, please let us see them all!’ Joan implored.

‘Of course you shall see them, that’s what I brought you here for; there are dozens and dozens’, he said proudly.

Inside the Mousery the smell was overpowering, but it is doubtful if any of the three noticed it. Down the centre of the single long room ran a brick path on either side of which were shelves three deep, divided into roomy sections.

The admiral stopped before one of them, ‘Golden Agouti’, he remarked.

He took hold of a rectangular box, the front of which was wired; very slyly he lifted a lid set into the top panel, and lowered the cage so that the children might look in. Inside, midway between floor and lid was a smaller box five inches long; a little hole at one end of this inner box gave access to the interior of the cage, and from it a miniature ladder slanted down to the sawdust strewn floor. In this box were a number of little heaving pink lumps, by the side of which crouched a brownish mouse. Her beady eyes peered up anxiously, while the whiskers on her muzzle trembled.

The admiral touched her gently with the tip of his little finger. ‘She’s a splendid doe’, he said affectionately; ‘a remarkably careful mother and not at all fussy!’ He shut the door and replaced the cage. ‘There’s a fine pair here’, he remarked, passing to a new section; ‘what about that for colour!’

He put his hand into another cage and caught one of the occupants deftly by the tail. Holding the tail between his finger and thumb he let the mouse sprawl across the back of his other hand, slightly jerking the feet into position.

The children gazed. ‘What colour is that?’ they inquired.

‘Chocolate’, replied the admiral. ‘I rather fancy the Self varieties, there’s something so well-bred looking about them; for my part I don’t think a mouse can show his figure if he’s got a pied pelt on him, it detracts. Now this buck for instance, look at his great size, graceful too, very gracefully built, legs a little coarse perhaps, but an excellent tail, a perfect whipcord, no knots, no kinks, a lovely taper to the point!’

The mouse began to scramble. ‘Gently, gently!’ murmured the admiral, shaking it back into position.

He eyed it with approbation, then dropped it back into its cage, where it scurried up the ladder and vanished into its bedroom. They passed from cage to cage; into some he would only let them peep lest the does with young should get irritable; from others he withdrew the inmates, displaying them on his hand.

‘Now this’, he told them, catching a grey-blue mouse. ‘This is worth your looking at carefully. Here we have a champion, Champion Blue Pippin. I won the Colour Cup with this fellow last year. Of course I grant you he’s a good colour; very pure and rich, good deep tone too, and even, perfectly even, you notice.’ He turned the mouse over deftly for a moment so that they might see for themselves that its stomach matched its back. ‘But so clumsy’, he continued. ‘Did you ever see such a clumsy fellow? Then his ears are too small, though their texture is all right; and I always said he lacked boldness of eye; I never really cared for his eyes, there’s something timid about them, not to be compared with Cocoa Nibs, that first buck you saw. But there it is, this fellow won his championship; of course I always say that Cary can’t judge a mouse!’

Champion Blue Pippin was replaced in his cage; the admiral shook his finger at him where he sat grooming his whiskers against the bars.

‘A good mouse’, he told Joan confidentially. ‘Very tame and affectionate as you see, but a champion, no never! As I told them at the National Mouse Club.’

They turned to the shelves on the other side. Here were the Pied and Dutch varieties.

‘I don’t care for them, as you know’, said Admiral Bourne. ‘Still I keep a few for luck, and they are rather pretty.’

He showed them the queer Dutch mice, half white, half coloured. Then the Variegated mice, their pelts white with minute streaks or dots of colour evenly distributed over body and head. There were black and tan mice and a bewildering assortment of the Pied variety which the admiral declared he disliked. Last of all, in a little cubicle by itself, was a larger cage than any of the others, a kind of Mouse Palace. This cage contained a number of neat boxes, each with its ladder, and in addition to the ordinary outer compartment was a big bright wheel. Up and down the ladders ran the common little red-eyed white mice; while they watched them a couple sprang into the wheel and began turning it.

‘Oh! The white mice that you buy at the Army and Navy!’ said Milly in a disappointed voice.

‘That’s all’, the admiral admitted. ‘I just have this cage of them, you know, nice little chaps.’ And then, as the children remained silent, ‘You see, Olivia liked them; she used to say they were such friendly people.’

He spoke as though they had known Olivia intimately, as though he expected the children to say: ‘Yes, of course, Olivia was so fond of animals!’

Reluctantly they left the Mousery and strolled towards the gates; three tired children, one of eleven, one of thirteen and one of sixty-eight. The sun was setting over the sea, it was very cool in the garden after the Mousery.

The admiral turned to Joan. ‘Come again’, he said simply. ‘Come very often, there may be some more young ones to show you soon.’

And so they parted on the road outside the gates. The children turned once to look back as they walked down the hill; Admiral Bourne was still standing in the road, looking after them.

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