The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter six

Elizabeth sat alone in her brother’s study. Books lined the walls from floor to ceiling; Ralph’s books and some of her own that she had brought with her from Cambridge.

This was Sunday. Ralph had gone to church. ‘Such a good little man’, thought Elizabeth to herself; but she had not gone to church, she had pleaded a fictitious cold. Ralph Rodney was still youngish, not more than forty-five, and doing fairly well in the practice which he had inherited from his uncle. But there was nothing beyond Seabourne — just Seabourne, nothing beyond. Ralph would probably live and die neither richer nor poorer than he was at present; it was a drab outlook. Yet it was Ralph’s own fault, he might have done better, there had been a time when people thought him clever; he might have started his career in London. But no, he had thought it his duty to keep on the business at Seabourne. Elizabeth mused that it must either be that Ralph was very stupid or very good, she wondered if the terms were synonymous.

Their life history was quite simple. They had been left orphans when she was a year old and he was twenty. She had been too young to know anything about it, and Ralph had never lived much with his parents in any case. He had been adopted by their father’s elder brother when he was still only a child. After the death of her parents, Elizabeth had been carried off by a cousin of their mother’s, a kind, pleasant woman who divided her time between Elizabeth and Rescue Work.

They had been very happy together, and when Elizabeth was twenty and her cousin had died suddenly, she had felt real regret. Her cousin’s death left her with enough money to go up to Cambridge, and very little to spare, for the bulk of Miss Wharton’s fortune had gone to found Recreation Homes for Prostitutes, and not having qualified to benefit by the charity, Elizabeth was obliged to study to earn her living.

Her brother Ralph she had scarcely seen, he had gone so completely away. This was only natural; and the arrangement must have suited their parents very well, for their father had not been an earner and their mother had never been strong.

Elizabeth was now twenty-six. The uncle had died eighteen months ago, leaving Ralph his small fortune and the business. Ralph was a confirmed bachelor; he had felt lonely after the old man’s death, had thought of his sister and had besought her to take pity on him; there it had begun and there so far, it had ended.

Yet it need not have ended as it had done for Ralph, but Ralph was a sentimentalist. He had loved the old uncle like a son, and had always made excuses for not cutting adrift from Seabourne. Uncle John was growing old and needed him in the business; Uncle John was failing — he had been failing for years, thought Elizabeth bitterly, a selfish, cranky old man — Uncle John begged Ralph not to leave him, he had a presentiment that he would not last much longer. Ralph must keep an eye on the poor old chap. After all, he’d been very decent to him. Ralph wanted to know where he’d have been without Uncle John.

Always the same excuses. Had Ralph never wanted a change; had he never known ambition? Perhaps, but such longings die, they cannot live on a law practice in Seabourne and an ailing Uncle John; they may prick and stab for a little while, may even constitute a real torment, but withstand them long enough and you will have peace, the peace of the book whose leaves are never turned; the peace of dust and cobwebs. Ralph was like that now, a book that no one cared to open; he was covered with dust and cobwebs.

At forty-five he was old and contented, or if not exactly contented, then resigned. And he had grown timid, perhaps Uncle John had made him timid. Uncle John was said to have had a will of his own — no, Elizabeth was not sure that it was all Uncle John, though he might have contributed. It was Seabourne that had made Ralph timid; Seabourne that had nothing beyond. Seabourne was so secure, how could it be otherwise when it had nothing beyond; whence could any danger menace it? Ralph clung to Seabourne; he was afraid to go too far lest he should step off into space, for he too must feel that Seabourne had nothing beyond. Seabourne had him and Uncle John had him. It was all of a piece with Uncle John to leave a letter behind him, begging Ralph to keep the old firm together after he was dead. Sentiment, selfish sentiment. Who cared what happened to Rodney and Rodney! Even Seabourne wouldn’t care much, there were other solicitors. But Ralph had thought otherwise; the old man had begged him to stick by the firm, Ralph couldn’t go back on him now. Ralph was humbly grateful; Ralph felt bound. Ralph was resigned too, that was the worst of it. And yet he had been clever, Elizabeth had heard it at Cambridge; but Cambridge that should have emancipated him had only been an episode. Back he had come to Seabourne and Uncle John, Uncle John much aged by then, and needing him more than ever.

When they had met at Seabourne, her brother had been a shock to her. His hair had greyed and so had his skin, and his mind — that had greyed too. Then why had she stayed? She didn’t know. There was something about the comfortable house that chained you, held you fast. They were velvet chains, they were plush chains, but they held.

Then there was Uncle John. Uncle John’s portrait looked down from the dining-room wall — Uncle John young, with white stock and keen eyes. That Uncle John seemed to point to himself and say: ‘I was young too, and yet I never strayed; what was good enough for my father was good enough for me and ought to be good enough for my nephew and for you, Elizabeth.’ Then there was Uncle John’s later portrait on the wall of the study — Uncle John, old, wearing a corded black tie, his eyes rather dim and appealing, like the eyes of a good old dog. That Uncle John was the worse of the two; you felt that you could throw a plate at the youthful, smug, self-assertive Uncle John in the dining-room, but you couldn’t hurt this Uncle John because he seemed to expect you to hurt him. This Uncle John didn’t point to himself, he had nothing to say, but you knew what he wanted. He wanted to see you living in the old house among the old things; he wanted to see Ralph at the old desk in the old office. He needed you; he depended on you, he clung to you softly, persistently; you couldn’t shake him off. He had clung to Ralph like that, softly, persistently; for latterly the strong will had broken and he had become very gentle. And now Ralph clung to Elizabeth, and Uncle John clung too, through Ralph.

Elizabeth got up. She flung open the window — let the air come in, let the sea come in! Oh! If a tidal wave would come and wash it all away, sweep it away; the house, Uncle John and Elizabeth to whom he clung through Ralph! Tradition! She clenched her hands; damn their tradition; another name for slavery, and excuse for keeping slaves! What was she doing with her life? Nothing. Uncle John saw to that. Yes, she was doing something, she was allowing it to be slowly and surely strangled to death, soon it would be gone, like a drop squeezed into the reservoir of Eternity; soon it would be lost for ever and she would still be alive — and she was so young! A lump rose in her throat; her hopes had been high — not brilliant, perhaps — still she had done well at Cambridge, there were posts open to her.

She might have written, but not at Seabourne. People didn’t write at Seabourne, they borrowed the books that other people had written, from Mr. Besant of the Circulating Library, and talked foolishly about them at their afternoon teas, wagging their heads and getting the foreign names all wrong, if there were any. Oh! She had heard them! And Ralph would get like that. Get? He was like that already; Ralph had prejudices, timid ones, but there was strength in their numbers. Ralph approved and disapproved. Ralph shook his head over Elizabeth’s smoking and nodded it over her needlework. Ralph liked womanly women; well, Elizabeth liked manly men. If she wasn’t a womanly woman, Ralph wasn’t a manly man. Oh, poor little Ralph, what a beast she was!

What did she want? She had the Ogden children, they were an interest and they represented her pocket money — if only Joan were older! After all, better a home with a kind brother at Seabourne than life on a pittance in London. But something in her strove and rent: ‘Not better, not better!’ it shouted. ‘I want to get out, it’s I, I, I! I want to live, I want to get out, let me out I tell you, I want to come out!’

‘Elizabeth, dear, how are you?’ Her brother had come in quietly behind her.

‘Better, thank you. You’re not wet, are you, Ralph? It’s been raining.’

‘No, not a bit. I wish you’d been there, Elizabeth. Such a fine sermon.’

‘What was the text’, she inquired. One always inquired what the text had been; the question sprang to her lips mechanically.

‘“Cast thy bread upon the waters for thou shalt find it after many days!” A beautiful text, I think.’

‘Yes, very beautiful’, Elizabeth agreed. ‘Curious that being the text today.’

‘Why?’ he asked her, but his voice lacked interest; he didn’t really want to know.

She thought: ‘I suppose I’ve cast my bread upon the waters, it must be a long way out at sea by now.’ Then she began to visualize the bread and that made her want to laugh. A crust of bread? A fat slice? A thin slice? Or had she cast away a loaf? Perhaps there were shoals of sprats standing upright on their tails in the water under the loaf and nibbling at it, or darting round and round in a circle, snatching and quarrelling while the loaf bobbed up and down — there were plenty of sprats just off the coast. Anyhow, her bread must be dreadfully soggy if it had been in the water for more than two years. ‘For thou shalt find it after many days!’ Yes, but how many days? And if you did find it, if the sprats left even a crumb to be washed up on the beach, how would it taste, she wondered. How many days, how many days, how many Seabourne days, how many Ralph and Uncle John days; so secure, so decent, so colourless! The text said, ‘Many days’; it warned you not to grow impatient, it was like young Uncle John in the dining-room taking it for granted that time didn’t count — Uncle John had never been in a hurry. And yet they were beautiful words; she knew quite well what they meant, she was only pretending to misunderstand, it was her misplaced sense of humour.

Ralph had cast his bread upon the waters, and no doubt he expected to retrieve it on the shores of a better land; if he went hungry meanwhile, she supposed that was his affair. But perhaps he was expecting a more speedy return, perhaps when Ralph looked like old Uncle John his bread would be washed back to him; perhaps that was how it was done. She paused to consider. Perhaps your bread was returned to you in kind; you gave of your spirit and body, and you got back spirit and body in your turn. Not yours, but someone else’s. When Ralph was sixty she would be forty-one; there was still a little sustenance left in you when you were forty-one, she supposed, though not much. Perhaps she was going to be Ralph’s return for the loaf that had floated away.

It was all so pigeon-holed and so tidy. She was tidy, she had a tidy mind, but the mind that had thought out this bread scheme was even more tidy than hers. The scheme worked in grooves like a cogwheel, clip, clip, clip, each cog in its appointed place and round and round, always in a circle. Uncle John and his forebears before him had cast away their loaves turn by turn; it was the obvious thing to do; it was the Seabourne thing to do, Father to son, uncle to nephew, brother to sister; a slight difference in consanguinity but none in spirit. Uncle John’s bread had gone for his father and the firm; Ralph’s bread had gone for Uncle John and the firm, and she supposed that her bread had gone for Ralph and the firm. But where was her return to come from? In what manner would she find it, ‘after many days’? Would the spell be broken with her? She wondered.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55