The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter eight

A new family had come to Conway House under Cone Head. The place had stood vacant for years; now, at length, it was sold, and Elizabeth knew who the new people were. When Elizabeth, meaning to be amiable, had remarked one afternoon that the Bensons had been old friends of her cousin in London, and that she herself had known them all her life, Mrs. Ogden had drawn in her lips, very slightly raised an eyebrow and remarked: ‘Oh, really!’ in what Joan had grown to recognize as ‘the Routledge voice’. It was true that Mrs. Ogden was annoyed; there was no valid reason to produce against Elizabeth having known the Bensons, yet she felt aggrieved. Elizabeth appeared to Mrs. Ogden to be-not quite ‘governessy’ enough. She had been thinking this for the last few months. You did not expect your governess to be an old friend of people who had just bought one of the largest places in your neighbourhood, it was almost unseemly. Elizabeth, when closely questioned, had said that the family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Benson, a son of twenty-two, another of seventeen, and one little girl of fourteen. And just at the very end, mark you at the end, and then only after a pressing cross-examination as to who they were, Elizabeth had said quite vaguely that Mr. Benson was a banker, but that his mother had been Lady Sarah Totteridge before her marriage, and that the present Mrs. Benson was a daughter of Lord Down.

Mrs. Ogden had made it clear that she could not quite understand how Elizabeth’s cousin had come to know the Bensons, and Elizabeth had said in a casual voice that her cousin and Mrs. Benson had had a great mutual interest; and when Mrs. Ogden had inquired what this interest had been, Elizabeth had replied, ‘Prostitutes’, and had laughed! Of course the children had not been in the room — still, ‘Prostitutes’. Such a coarse way to put it. Mrs. Ogden had spoken to Colonel Ogden about it afterwards and had found him unsympathetic. All he had said was, ‘Well, what else would you have her call them? Tarts? Don’t be such a damn fool, Mary!’

However, there it was; Elizabeth did know the Bensons and would, Mrs. Ogden supposed, contrive to continue knowing them now that they had come to Conway House. She could not understand Elizabeth; it was ‘Elizabeth’ now at Elizabeth’s own request; she had said that Rodney sounded so like Ralph and not at all like her. Did anyone ever hear such nonsense! However, the children had hailed the change with delight and so far it did not appear to have undermined discipline, so that Mrs. Ogden supposed it must be all right. She had to confess that it was a most unexpected advantage for Milly and Joan to have such a woman to teach them. Cambridge women did not grow on gooseberry bushes in Seabourne.

2

Her criticisms of Elizabeth afforded Mrs. Ogden a rather tepid satisfaction for a time, but they never quite convinced her, and one day her thoughts stopped short in the very middle of them. She had a moment of clear inward vision; and in that moment she realized the exact and precise reason why, in the last few months, she had grown irritated with Elizabeth. So irritated in fact that nothing that Elizabeth said or did could possibly be right. It was not Elizabeth’s familiarity, not the fact that Elizabeth knew the Bensons, not Elizabeth’s rather frank English, it was none of these things — it was Joan.

Joan was fourteen now, she was growing — growing mentally out of Mrs. Ogden. There was so much these days that they could not discuss together. Joan was a student, a tremendously hard worker; Mrs. Ogden had never been that sort of girl. Even James could help Joan better than she could — James was rather well up in history, for example. But she was not well up in anything; this fact had never struck her before. ‘Don’t be such a damn fool, Mary!’ James had said that for so many years that it had ceased to mean anything to her, but now it seemed fraught with dreadful, new possibilities. Would Joan ever come to think her a fool? Would she ever come to think Elizabeth a fool? No, not Elizabeth — wait — there was the menace. Elizabeth had goods for sale that Joan could buy; how was she buying them, that was the question? Was she paying in the copper coin of mere hard work, content if she did Elizabeth credit? Or would she, being Joan, slip in a golden coin of love and admiration, a coin stolen from her almost bankrupt mother?

Elizabeth, that happy, clever young creature, with her self-assurance and her interest in Joan, what was she doing with Joan — what did she mean to do with Joan’s mother? How much did she want Joan — the real Joan? And if she wanted her, could she get her? Mean, oh, mean! When Elizabeth had everything on her side — when she had youth so obviously on her side — surely she had enough without Joan, surely she need not grow fond of Joan?

She had fancied lately that Elizabeth had become ever so slightly possessive, that she took it for granted that she would have a say in Joan’s future, would be consulted. Then there was the question of a university — who had put that idea into Joan’s head? Who, but Elizabeth! Where would it end if Joan went to Cambridge — certainly not in Seabourne. But James would never consent, he was certain to draw the line at that; besides, there was no money — but there were scholarships; suppose Elizabeth was secretly working to enable Joan to win a scholarship? How dare she! How dare either of them have any secrets from Joan’s mother! She would speak to Elizabeth — she would assert herself at once. Joan should never be allowed to waste her youth on dry bones. Elizabeth might think that women could fill men’s posts, but she knew better. Yet, after all, Joan was so like a boy — one felt that she was a son sometimes. Hopeless, hopeless, she was afraid of Elizabeth! She would never be able to speak her mind to her; she was too calm, too difficult to arouse, too thick-skinned. And Joan, Joan was moving away, not very far, only a little away. Joan was becoming a spectator, and Joan as an audience might be dangerous.

Mrs. Ogden trembled; she strove desperately to scourge her mentality into some semblance of adequacy. She tried, sincerely tried, to face the situation calmly and wisely and with understanding. But her efforts failed pathetically; through the maze of her struggling thoughts nothing took shape but the desperate longing, the desperate need that was Joan. She thought wildly: ‘I’ll tell her how I want her, I’ll tell her what my life has been. I’ll tell her the truth that I can’t; simply can’t live without her, and then I shall keep her, because I can make her pity me.’ Then she thought: ‘I must be mad — a child of fourteen — I must be quite mad!’ But she knew that in her tormenting jealousy she might lose Joan altogether. Joan loved the little mother, the miserable, put upon, bullied mother, the mother of headaches and secret tears; she would not love the self-assertive, unjust mother — she never had. No, she must appeal to Joan, that was the only way. Joan was as responsive as ever; then of what was she afraid? Oh, Joan, Joan, so young and awkward and adorable! Did she find her mother too old? After all, she was only forty-two, not too old surely to keep Joan’s love. She would try to enter into things more, she would go for walks, she would bathe, anything, anything — where should she begin? But supposing Joan suspected, supposing she saw through her, supposing she laughed at her — she must be careful, dreadfully careful. Joan was excited because Conway House was sold, and had implored her to go and call on Mrs. Benson; very well then, she would go, and take Elizabeth with her — yes, that would be gracious, that would please Joan. And she would try not to hate Elizabeth, she would try with all the will-power she had in her to see Elizabeth justly, to be grateful for the interest she took in the child. She would try not to fear Elizabeth.

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