In the two years that elapsed before Joan’s seventeenth birthday nothing occurred in the nature of a change. Looking back over that time she was surprised to find how little had happened; she had grown accustomed to monotony, but the past two years seemed to have been more monotonous than usual. The only outstanding event had been when she and Milly joined the tennis club. Mrs. Ogden did not encourage her daughters to take part in the more public local festivities, which were to a great extent shared with people whom she considered undesirable, but in this case she had been forced to yield to combined entreaties.
The tennis club meant less after all to Joan than she had anticipated, though she played regularly for the sake of exercise. The members were certainly not inspiring, nor was their game challenging to effort. They were divided into two classes; those who played for the sake of their livers and those who played for the sake of white flannels and flirtation. To the former class belonged General Brooke, a boisterous player, very choleric and invariably sending his balls into neighbouring gardens. His weight had increased perceptibly since the colonel’s illness; perhaps because there was now no one to cause him nervous irritation. When he played tennis, his paunch shook visibly under his flannel shirt. The latter class was made up principally of youths and maidens from adjacent villas. To nearly every member of this younger generation was supposed to belong some particular stroke which formed an ever fruitful topic for discussion and admiration. Mr. Thompson, the new assistant at the circulating library, sprang quickly into fame through volleying at the net. He was a mean player and had an odious trick of just tipping the ball over, and apologizing ostentatiously when he had done it. There was usually a great deal of noise, for not only was there much applause and many encouraging remarks, but the players never failed to call each score. Joan played a fairly good game, but contrary to all expectation she never became really proficient. Milly, on the other hand, developed a distinct talent for tennis, and she and young Mr. Thompson, who was considered a star player, struck up a friendship, which, however, never penetrated beyond the front door of Leaside.
At fifteen Milly was acutely conscious of her femininity. She was in all respects a very normal girl, adoring personal adornments and distinctly vain. The contrast between the two sisters was never more marked than at this period; they made an incongruous couple, the younger in her soft summer dresses, the elder in the stiff collars and ties which she affected. In spite of all Mrs. Ogden’s entreaties Joan still kept her hair short. Of course it was considered utterly preposterous, and the effect in evening dress was a little grotesque, but she seemed completely to lack personal vanity. At seventeen she suggested a well set-up stripling who had borrowed his sister’s clothes.
The life of the schoolroom continued much as usual. Mrs. Ogden, now two years older and with an extra two years of the colonel’s heart and her own nervous headaches behind her, had almost given up trying to interfere with Joan’s studies. She went in for her examinations as a matter of course, and as a matter of course was congratulated when she did well, but the subject of her career was never mentioned; it appeared to have been thrust into the background by common consent. Elizabeth looked older; at times a few new lines showed on her forehead, and the curious placidity of her mouth was disturbed. Something very like discontent had gathered about the firmly modelled lips.
But if Joan was given more freedom to study, she was to some extent expected to pay for that freedom. Seabourne could be quite gay according to its own standards; there were tennis and croquet parties in the summer and a never-ending chain of whist drives in the winter, to say nothing of tea parties all the year round. To these festivities Joan, now seventeen, was expected to go, and it was not always possible to evade them, for, as Mrs. Ogden said, it was a little hard that she should have to go everywhere alone when she had a daughter who was nearly grown up.
The Loos gave a garden party at Moor Park. Poor Joan! She felt horribly out of place, dressed for the occasion in a muslin frock, her cropped head, crowned by a Leghorn hat, rising incongruously from the collarless bodice. Sir Robert thought her a most unattractive young woman, but his wife still disagreed with him. She had always admired Joan, and now the fact that there was something distinctly unfeminine about the girl was an added interest in her hostess’s eyes. For Lady Loo, once the best woman to hounds in a hard riding hunt, had begun to find life too restful at Moor Park. She had awakened one day filled with the consciousness of a kind of Indian summer into which she had drifted. Some stray gleam of youth had shot through her, filling her with a spurious vitality that would not for the moment be denied. And since the old physical activity was no longer available, she turned in self-defence to mental interests, and took up the Feminist Movement with all the courage, vigour and disregard of consequences that had characterized her in the hunting-field. It was a nine-days’ wonder to see Lady Loo pushing her bicycle through the High Street of Seabourne, clad in bloomers and a Norfolk jacket, a boat-shaped hat set jauntily on her grey head. It is doubtful whether Lady Loo had any definite ideas regarding what it was that she hoped to attain for her sex; it certainly cannot have been equality, for in spite of her bloomers, Sir Robert, poor man, was never allowed to smoke his cigar in the drawing-room to the day of his death.
Lady Loo’s shrewd eyes studied Joan with amusement; she took in at a glance the short hair and the wide, flat shoulders.
‘Will you ever let it grow?’ she asked abruptly.
‘Never’, said Joan. ‘It’s so little trouble as it is.’
‘Quite right’, said her hostess. ‘Now why on earth shouldn’t women be comfortable! It’s high time men realized that they ain’t got the sole prerogative where comfort is concerned.’ She chuckled. ‘I suppose’, she remarked reflectively, ‘that people think it’s rather odd for a young woman of your age to have short hair. I suppose they think it’s rather odd for an old woman like me to bicycle in bloomers; but the odd thing about it is that they, the women I mean, should think it odd at all. It must be that all the centuries of oppression have atrophied their brains a little, poor dears. When they get equal rights with men, it’ll make all the difference to their outlook; they’ll be able to stretch themselves.’
‘Do you think so, Lady Loo?’ said Mrs. Ogden. ‘I should never know what to do with that sort of liberty if I had it, and I’m sure Joan wouldn’t.’
Lady Loo was not so sure, but she said: ‘Well, then, she must learn.’
‘I think there are many other things she had better learn first’, rejoined Mrs. Ogden tartly.
Lady Loo smiled. ‘What for instance? How to get married?’
Mrs. Ogden winced. ‘Well, after all,’ she said, ‘there are worse things for a girl than marriage, but fortunately Joan need not think of that unless she wants to; she’s got her —’ she paused —‘her home.’
Lady Loo thought. ‘You mean she’s got you, you selfish woman.’ Aloud she said: ‘Well, times are changing and mothers will have to change too, I suppose. I hear Joan’s clever; isn’t she going to do something?’
Joan flushed. ‘I want to’, she broke in eagerly.
Mrs. Ogden drew her away and Lady Loo laughed to herself complacently.
‘Oh! the new generation’, she murmured. ‘They’re as unlike us as chalk from cheese. That girl don’t look capable of doing a quiet little job like keeping a house or having a baby; she’s not built for it mentally or physically.’
At that moment a young man came across the lawn. ‘Joan!’ he called. It was Richard Benson.
Joan turned with outstretched hands in her pleasure. ‘I didn’t know you were in England’, she said.
‘I got back from Germany last week. It’s ripping your being here today.’
He shook hands politely with Mrs. Ogden and then, as if she did not exist, turned and drew Joan after him.
‘Now then,’ he began; ‘I want to hear all about it.’
‘All about what? There’s nothing to tell.’
‘Then there ought to be. Joan, what have you been doing with yourself?’
‘Nothing’, she answered dully, and then, quite suddenly, she proceeded to tell him everything. She was surprised at herself, but still she went on talking; she talked as though floodgates had been loosed, as though she had been on a desert island for the past two years and he were the man who had come to rescue her. He did not interrupt until she fell silent, and then: ‘It’s all wrong’, he said.
She stood still and faced him. ‘I don’t know why I told you; it can’t be helped, so there’s no use in talking.’
His keen grey eyes searched her face. ‘My dear, it’s got to be helped; you can’t be a kind of burnt sacrifice!’
She said: ‘I sometimes think we’re all sacrifices one to the other, that’s what Elizabeth says when she’s unhappy.’
‘Then Elizabeth’s growing morbid’, he remarked decidedly. ‘It’s the result of being bottled.’
At the old familiar phrase she laughed, but her eyes filled with tears.
‘Richard’, she said, ‘it’s utterly, utterly hopeless; they don’t mean it, poor dears, but they can’t help being there, and I can’t help belonging to them or they to me. If I worry Mother, she gets a batch of nervous headaches that would move a stone to compassion. And her cough takes several turns for the worse. But if I worry Father, and make him really angry, the doctor says he’ll die of heart disease, and I know perfectly well that he would, he’s just that kind of man. What do you suggest, that I should be a parricide?’ She smiled ruefully. ‘I ought to go up to Cambridge next year, if I’m to be any good, and then to the hospitals in London, but can you see what would happen if I were to suggest it, especially the latter part of the programme? I don’t think I’d have to carry it out to kill my father, I think he’d die of fury at the mere idea.’
‘He’ll die anyhow quite soon’, said Richard quietly. ‘No man can go on indefinitely with a heart like his.’
‘That may be’, she agreed, ‘but I can’t be a contributory cause. There’s one side of me that rages at the injustice of it all and just wants to grab at everything for itself; but there’s another side, Richard, that simply can’t inflict pain, that can’t bear to hurt anything, not even a fly, because it hurts itself so much in doing it. I’m made like that; I can’t bear to hurt things, especially things that seem to lean on me.’
‘I understand’, he said. ‘Most of us have that side somewhere; maybe it’s the better side and maybe it’s only the weaker.’
‘Tell me about yourself, said Joan, changing the subject.
‘Well, this is my last year at Cambridge, you know, and then the real work begins — Joan, life’s perfectly glorious!’
She looked at him with interest; he had not changed much; he was taller and broader and blunter than ever, but the keenness in his grey eyes reminded her still of the bright inquiring look of a young animal.
‘Look here’, he said impetuously, ‘I’ll send you some medical books; study as well as you can until you come of age, and then — cut loose! Ask Elizabeth to help you, she’s clever enough for anything; and anyhow I won’t send things that are too difficult at first, I’ll just send something simple.’
Her eyes brightened. ‘Oh, will you, Richard?’
‘You bet I will. And, Joan, do come over more often, now I’m home, then we can talk.’
‘I will’, she promised, and she meant it.
They had scarcely met for two years, for Richard had spent most of his vacations abroad; there was little in common between him and his father. His decision to take up medicine had shocked Mr. Benson, but he was a just man in spite of the fact that he completely failed to understand his younger son. He and Richard had thrashed things out, and it had been decided that Richard’s allowance should continue until he had taken his medical degree, after which his father would make him a present of a lump sum of money to do as he liked with, but this was to be final, and Richard was well content. His self-confidence never failed.
He talked Joan over with his mother that evening.
‘She’s an awfully jolly girl’, he said.
Mrs. Benson demurred at the adjective. ‘Jolly is hardly the way I should express her’, she replied. ‘I think she’s a solemn young creature.’
‘No wonder’, he said hotly. ‘Her life must be too awful; a mother who’s an hysteric, and a father —’ He paused, finding no words adequate to describe Colonel Ogden.
Mrs. Benson laughed. ‘Oh, Richard! You never change. Don Quixote tilting at windmills — and yet you’re probably right; the girl’s life must be rather hard, poor child. But there are thousands like her, my son.’
‘Millions’, he corrected bitterly. ‘Millions all over England! They begin by being so young and fine, like Joan perhaps; and, Mother, how do they end?’
‘But Richard dear, I’m afraid it’s the lot of women. A woman is only complete when she finds a good husband, and those that don’t find one are never really happy. I don’t believe work fulfils them; it takes children to do that, my dear; that’s nature, and you can’t get beyond nature.’
‘No’, he said. ‘You’re mostly right, and yet they can’t all find husbands — and some of them don’t want to’, he added reflectively.
‘Joan will marry’, said Mrs. Benson. ‘She ought to let her hair grow.’
He burst out laughing. ‘Bless you, you old darling’, he exclaimed. ‘It’s what’s inside the head that decides those things, not what’s outside it!’
She took his hand and stroked it. ‘I’m glad I had you’, she said. He stooped and kissed her cheek.
‘So am I’, he told her.
They wandered into the garden, arm in arm.
‘It’s lovely here’, he said. ‘But it’s not for me, Mother; I don’t think lovely things were meant for me, so I must make the ugly ones beautiful somehow.’
‘My dear, you’ve chosen an ugly profession; and yet the healing of the sick is beautiful.’
‘I think so’, he said simply.
Presently she said: ‘I want to talk to you about Lawrence.’
‘Fire away! You don’t mean to tell me that Lawrence has been sowing anything like wild oats? Your voice sounds so serious.’
No, of course not, you goose; can you see Lawrence knee-deep in a field of anything but — well — the very best Patna rice?’ They laughed. ‘No, it’s very far from wild oats — I think he’s fallen in love with Elizabeth.’
‘With Elizabeth? But, good Lord! Lawrence hates clever women!’
‘I know; he always said he did, and that’s what makes it so astounding; and yet I’m sure I’m right, I can see it in his eye.’
Richard whistled. ‘Will she have him, do you think?’
‘I don’t know. Elizabeth is not an ordinary woman; sometimes I think she’s rather strange. I love her, but I don’t understand her — she’s not very happy, I think.’
‘Will Lawrence make her happy, Mother?’
She paused. ‘Well — he’ll make her comfortable’, she compromised. They laughed again.
‘Poor old Lawrence’, he said. ‘He’s the best fellow in the world, but quite the very dullest; I can’t think how you produced him, darling.’
‘I can’t think how I produced you!’ she retorted.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55