On Joan’s twenty-first birthday it poured with rain. She woke early, conscious of a sound that she could not place for a moment, the sound of a gutter overflowing on to the leads outside her window. She got up and looked out through the streaming panes. The view was almost completely hidden by mist, and her room felt cold with the first approach of autumn. She dressed and went down to breakfast, to find Mrs. Ogden already behind the coffee-pot.
Her mother looked up, smiling. ‘Many happy returns of the day’, she said.
There were two parcels and two letters on Joan’s plate. She opened the parcels first; one contained a writing-case, from her mother, the other a book, from Milly. Her letters were from Richard and Elizabeth. She recognized Elizabeth’s writing on the unusually large envelope, and something prompted her to open Richard’s letter first.
‘This is to congratulate you on coming of age, that is if there be cause for congratulation, which, my dear, rests entirely with you. I hope, I believe, that now at last you have made up your mind to strike out for yourself; this is your moment, and I entreat you to seize it.’
The letter ended:
‘Joan, for the fourth time, please marry me!’
Joan laughed quietly as she folded this epistle and opened the long envelope addressed in Elizabeth’s hand. It contained no letter of any kind, only a legal document; the lease of the flat in Bloomsbury.
She found Elizabeth in Ralph’s study, writing letters. As she came in Elizabeth got up and took both her hands. ‘My dear’, she said, and kissed her.
Joan sat down. ‘So you’ve done it!’ was all she found to say.
‘You mean the flat? Yes, it’s my birthday present to you — aren’t you pleased, Joan?’
‘Elizabeth,’ Joan tried to speak quietly, ‘you shouldn’t have done this until we’d talked things over again; when did you sign the lease?’
Elizabeth stiffened. ‘That’s not the point’, she said quickly. ‘The point is what do you mean about talking things over again? Our plans were decided long ago.’
Joan faltered. ‘Don’t get angry, Elizabeth, only listen; I don’t know how to say it, you paralyse me, I’m afraid of you!’
‘Afraid of me?’
‘Yes, of you; terribly, horribly afraid of you and of myself Elizabeth, it’s my mother; I don’t see how I can leave her, now that Milly’s gone. Wait; you’ve no idea how helpless she is. She seems ill and we never keep a servant, these days — what would she do all alone in the house? She depends so much on me; why, since Father’s death she can’t even keep the tradesmen’s books in order, and with no one to look after her I think she’d ruin herself, she seems to have lost all idea about money. We must wait just a little longer in any case, say a year. Elizabeth, don’t look like that! Perhaps she’ll pull herself together, I don’t know; all I know is that I can’t come now —’ She paused, catching her breath.
Elizabeth had come close and was standing over her, looking down with inscrutable eyes. ‘Her eyes look like the sea in a mist’, Joan thought helplessly, reverting to the old habit of drawing comparisons. But Elizabeth was speaking in a calm, cold voice.
‘I see’, she was saying. ‘You’ve changed your mind. You don’t want to come and live with me, after all; perhaps the idea is distasteful to you? Of course we should be dirt poor.’
Joan sprang up, shaking with anger. ‘You know you’re lying!’ she said.
Elizabeth smiled. ‘Am I? Oh no, I don’t think so, Joan. It’s all quite clear, surely. I’ve been a fool, that’s all; only I think it would have been better, worthier, to have been frank with me from the first. I will not wait a year, or a month, for that matter; either you come now or I shall go.’
‘Anywhere, so long as it’s away from Seabourne and you. I’ve had enough of this existence; even you, Joan, are not worth it. I’m going before it’s too late to go, before I get so deeply rooted that I can’t free myself.’
Joan said dully: ‘If you leave me, I think — I don’t think I can bear it.’
‘Then come with me.’
‘No, I can’t’
‘You can. You’re quite free except in your own imagination, and your mother is not ill except in hers. You’d find that she’d get on all right once she hadn’t got you as an audience; naturally she’ll depend on you as long as you let her. But I say to you, don’t let her, she’s little short of a vampire! Well, let her vampire herself for a change, she shall certainly not vampire me; if you choose to be drained dry, I do not. Good God! You and she between you are enough to drive anyone insane!’
Joan faced her with bright, desperate eyes. ‘Elizabeth, you can’t go away, I need you too much.’
‘I must go away.’
‘But I tell you I can’t let you go!’
‘Oh, yes, you can, Joan; you need your self-esteem much more than you need me; you’ll be able to look upon yourself as a martyr, you see, and that’ll console you.’
‘You’ll be able to wallow in a bog of sentimentality and to pat yourself on the head because you’re not as other men. You have a sense of duty, whereas I— You’ll feel that you are offering yourself as a sacrifice. Oh, I know it all, and it makes me sick, sick, do you hear? Positively sick. And you actually expect me to sympathize. Perhaps you expect me to praise you, to tell you what a really fine fellow I think you, and that I feel honoured to follow in your trail and be permitted to offer you a cup of cold water from time to time. Is that what you want? Well, then, you won’t get it from me; you’ve had too much from me already, Joan, and what are you giving me in return?’
Joan said: ‘Not much, but all I have.’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘All you have! Well, it’s not enough, not nearly enough; if this is all you have, then you’re too poor a thing for me. You see, I too have my ideals, and you don’t fulfil them. You’re the veriest self-deceiver, Joan! You think you’re staying on here because you can’t bring yourself to hurt your mother. It’s not that at all; it’s because you can’t bear to hurt yourself in the process. It’s yourself you love. Well, I’ve had enough; it’s no good our trying to understand each other, it’s better to make the break here and now.’
Joan held out her hand. ‘Good-bye, Elizabeth.’
Elizabeth ignored the hand. ‘Good-bye’, she said, and turned away.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55