The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter nine

The windows of Conway House glowed, and the winter twilight was creeping in and out among the elms in the avenue. The air was cold and dry, the clanking of the skates that Joan and Elizabeth were carrying made a pleasant, musical sound as they walked. A boy joined them; he was tall and lanky and his blunt freckled face was flushed.

‘Here I am. I’ve caught you up!’ he said.

They turned; he was a jolly boy and they liked him. Richard Benson, the younger son of the Bensons now of Conway House, was enjoying his Christmas holidays immensely; for one thing he had been delighted to find Elizabeth established at Seabourne; they were old friends, and now there was the nice Ogden girl. Then the skating was the greatest luck, so rare as to be positively exciting. Elizabeth and Joan were very good sorts: Elizabeth skated very well, and Joan was learning — he hoped the ice would hold. He was the most friendly of creatures, rather like a lolloping puppy; you expected him to jump up and put his paws on your shoulders. They walked on together towards the house, where tea would be waiting, they all felt happily tired — it was good to be young.

The house had been thoroughly restored, and was now a perfect specimen of its period. The drawing-room was long and lofty, and panelled in pale grey, the curtains of orange brocade, the furniture Chippendale — a gracious room. Beside the fire a group of people sat round the tea-table, over which their hostess presided. Mrs. Benson was an ample woman; her pleasant face, blunt and honest like that of her younger son, made you feel welcome even before she spoke; and when she spoke her voice was loud but agreeable. Joan thought: ‘She has the happiest voice I’ve ever heard.’ The three skaters having discarded their wraps had entered the drawing-room together. Mrs. Benson looked up.

‘Elizabeth dear!’ Elizabeth went to her impulsively and kissed her. Joan wondered; Elizabeth was not given to kissing, she felt that she too would rather like to know Mrs. Benson well enough to kiss her. As they shook hands Mrs. Benson smiled.

‘How did the skating go today, Joan?’

‘Oh, not badly, only one tumble.’

‘She got on splendidly!’ said Richard with enthusiasm.

‘Elizabeth should be a good teacher’, his mother replied. ‘She used to skate like an angel. Elizabeth, do you remember that hard winter we had when the Serpentine froze?’

Mrs. Benson laughed as though the memory amused her; she and Elizabeth exchanged a comprehending glance.

‘They know each other very well’, thought Joan. ‘They have secrets together.’

She felt suddenly jealous, and wondered whether she was jealous because of Mrs. Benson or because of Elizabeth; she decided that it was because of Elizabeth; she did not want anyone to know Elizabeth better than she did. This discovery startled her. The impulse came to her to creep up to Elizabeth and take her hand, but she could visualize almost exactly what would probably happen. Very gently, oh, very gently indeed, Elizabeth would disengage her hand, she would look slightly surprised, a little amused perhaps, and would then move away on some pretext or another. Joan could see it all. No, assuredly one did not go clinging to Elizabeth’s hand, she never encouraged clinging.

The group round the tea-table chattered and ate. Mrs. Ogden was among them, but Joan had not noticed her, for she was sitting in the shadow.

‘Joan!’

‘Oh, Mother, I didn’t see you.’ She moved across and sat by her mother’s side, but her eyes followed Elizabeth.

Mrs. Ogden watched her. She wanted to say something appropriate, something jolly, but she felt tongue-tied. There was the skating, why not discuss Joan’s tumble — but Elizabeth skated ‘like an angel’. Joan would naturally not expect her mother to be interested in skating, since she must know that she had never skated in her life. Lawrence, the eldest Benson boy, came towards them. He looked like his father, dark and romantic, and like his father he was the dullest of dull good men. He liked Mrs. Ogden, she had managed to impress him somehow and to make him feel sorry for her. He thought she looked lonely in spite of her overgrown daughter.

He pulled up a chair and made conversation. ‘It’s ripping finding you all down here, Mrs. Ogden. I never thought that Elizabeth would settle at Seabourne.’

Elizabeth, always Elizabeth! Mrs. Ogden forced herself to speak cordially. ‘It was the greatest good fortune for us that she did.’

‘Yes — I suppose so. Elizabeth’s too clever for me; I always tell her so, I always chaff her.’

‘Do you? Do you know, I never feel that I dare chaff Elizabeth, no — I should never dare.’

‘Not dare — why not? I used to tease the life out of her.’

‘Well, you are different perhaps; you knew her before she was well — so clever. You see I’m not clever, not in that way. I’m very ignorant really.’

‘I don’t believe it; anyhow, I like that kind of ignorance. I mean I hate clever women. No, I don’t mean I hate Elizabeth, she’s a dear, but I’d like her even more if she knew less. Oh, you know what I mean!’

‘But Elizabeth is so splendid, isn’t she? Cambridge, and I don’t know what not; still, perhaps —’

‘But surely a woman doesn’t need to go to Cambridge to be charming? Personally I think it’s a great mistake, this education craze; I don’t believe men really care for such things in women; do you, Mrs. Ogden?’ Mrs. Ogden smiled. ‘That depends on the man, I suppose. Perhaps a really manly man prefers the purely feminine woman —’

He was very young. At twenty-two it is gratifying to be thought a manly man; yes, decidedly he liked Mrs. Ogden.

‘Oh, I don’t think that —’ It was Richard who spoke, he had strolled up unperceived. His brother looked annoyed.

‘Don’t you?’ queried Mrs. Ogden. She caught Lawrence’s eye and smiled.

Richard blushed to his ears, but he went on doggedly: ‘No, I don’t, because I think it’s a shame that women should be shut out of things, bottled up, cramped. Oh, I can’t explain, only I think if they’ve got the brains to go to college, we ought not to mind their going.’

‘Perhaps when you’re older you’ll feel quite differently, most men do.’ Mrs. Ogden’s voice was provoking.

Richard felt hot and subsided suddenly, but before he did so his eyes turned to Joan where she sat silent at her mother’s side. She wondered whether he thought that the conversation could have any possible bearing on her personally, whether perhaps it had such a bearing. She glanced shyly at her mother; Mrs. Ogden looked decidedly cross.

‘I hope’, she said emphatically, ‘that neither of my girls will want to go to a university, they would never do so with my approval.’

‘Oh, but —’ Richard began, then stopped, for he had caught the warning in Joan’s eye. ‘I came to say’, he stammered, ‘that if you’ll come into the library, Joan, I’ll show you those prints of Father’s, the sporting ones I told you about.’ He stood looking awkward for a moment, then turned as if expecting her to follow him.

‘May I go, Mother?’

But Joan was already on her feet, what was the good of saying ‘No’ since she so obviously wanted to go? Mrs. Ogden sighed, she looked at Lawrence appealingly. ‘They are so much in advance of me’, she said as Joan hurried away.

Sympathy welled up in him; he let it appear in his eyes, together with a look of admiration; as he did so he was thinking that the touch of grey in her hair became Mrs. Ogden.

She thought: ‘How funny, the boy’s getting sentimental!’ A little flutter of pleasure stirred her for a moment. After all she was not so immensely old and not so passée either, and it was not unpleasant to have a young male creature sympathizing with you and looking at you as though he admired and pitied you — in fact it was rather soothing. Then she thought: ‘I wonder where Joan is’, and suddenly she felt tired of Lawrence Benson; she wished that he would go away so that she might have an excuse for moving; she felt restless.

2

In the library Joan was listening to Richard. He stood before her with his hair ruffled, his face flushed and eager.

‘Joan! I don’t know you awfully well, and of course you’re only a kid as yet, but Elizabeth says you’re clever — and don’t you let yourself be bottled.’

‘Bottled?’ she queried.

‘Don’t you get all cramped up and fuggy, like one does when one sits over a fire all day. I know what I mean, it sounds all rot, only it isn’t rot. You look out! I have a presentiment that they mean to bottle you.’

Joan laughed.

‘It’s no laughing matter’, he said in an impressive voice. ‘It’s no laughing matter to be bottled; they want to bottle me, only I don’t mean to let them.’

‘Why, what do you want to do that makes them want to bottle you?’

‘I’m going in for medicine — Father hates it; he hopes I’ll get sick of it, but it’s my line, I know it; I’m studying to be a doctor.’

‘Well, why not? It’s rather jolly to be a doctor, I should think; someone’s got to look after people when they’re ill.’

‘That’s just it. I’m keen as mustard on it, and I shan’t let anyone stop me.’

‘But what’s that got to do with me?’

‘Nothing, not the doctor part, but the other part has; if you’re clever, you ought to do something.’

‘But I’m not a boy!’

‘That doesn’t matter a straw. Look at Elizabeth; she’s not a boy, but she didn’t let her brain get fuggy; though’, he added reflectively, ‘I’m not so sure of her now as I was before she came here.’

‘Why not?’ said Joan; she liked talking about Elizabeth.

‘Oh, just Seabourne, it’s a bottling place. If Elizabeth doesn’t look out she’ll be bottled next!’

At that moment Elizabeth came in. ‘We were talking about you’, said Joan, but Elizabeth was dreadfully incurious.

‘Your mother is waiting, it’s time to go’, was all she said.

3

In the fly on the way home the silence was oppressive. Mrs. Ogden seemed to be suffering, she looked wilted. ‘What is it, darling?’ Joan inquired. She had enjoyed herself, and now somehow it was spoilt. She had hoped that her mother was enjoying herself too.

Mrs. Ogden leant towards her and took her hand. ‘My dear little girl’, she murmured, ‘have you been happy, Joan?’

‘Yes, very; haven’t you, Mother?’

There was a pause. ‘I’m not as young as you are, dearest.’

Elizabeth, sitting beside Mrs. Ogden, smiled bitterly in the dark. ‘Wait a while’, she said to herself. ‘Wait a while!’ Her own emotions surprised her, she was conscious of a feeling of acute anger. As if by a simultaneous impulse the two women suddenly drew as far apart as the narrow confines of the cab permitted. To Elizabeth it seemed as something so intense as to be almost tangible leapt out between them — a naked sword.

Sitting with her back to the driver, Joan was lost in thought; she was thinking of the utter hopelessness of making her mother really happy. But with another part of her mind she was pondering Richard’s sudden outburst in the library. She liked him, she thought what a satisfactory brother he would be. Why was he so afraid of being caught and bottled? Lawrence, she felt, must be bottled already; he liked it, she was sure that Lawrence would think it the right thing to be. She wondered how Richard would manage to escape — if he did escape. A picture of him rose before her eyes; he made her laugh, he was so emphatic. She resolved to talk him over with Elizabeth. Of course it was all nonsense — still, he seemed dreadfully afraid. What was it really that he was afraid of, and why was he so afraid for her?

The cab jolted abruptly, Joan’s thoughts jolting with it. The driver had pulled up to drop Elizabeth at her brother’s house.

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