The author’s last novel, written during the early years of World War II, was completed just before her death. The action takes place on a single summer’s day at a country house, Pointz Hall, in the heart of England. In the garden the villagers are presenting their annual pageant - on this occasion scenes from English history up to and including ‘ourselves,’ the audience, in June 1939. During the interludes the inhabitants of Pointz Hall, the Olivers, their guests, and the villagers have tea, stroll, and talk. There is an intense interplay among the unhappy Isa Oliver, her handsome husband, Giles, whom she loves and hates, and a guest, Mrs. Manresa, who is pursuing him. A storm interrupts the final tableau, and the pageant comes to an end. The performers and the audience depart to resume their ordinary lives and Isa and Giles to confront each other.
181 pages, with a reading time of ~2.75 hours (45,322 words), and first published in 1941. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2014.
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It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool. The county council had promised to bring water to the village, but they hadn’t.
Mrs. Haines, the wife of the gentleman farmer, a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter, said affectedly: “What a subject to talk about on a night like this!”
Then there was silence; and a cow coughed; and that led her to say how odd it was, as a child, she had never feared cows, only horses. But, then, as a small child in a perambulator, a great cart-horse had brushed within an inch of her face. Her family, she told the old man in the arm-chair, had lived near Liskeard for many centuries. There were the graves in the churchyard to prove it.
A bird chuckled outside. “A nightingale?” asked Mrs. Haines. No, nightingales didn’t come so far north. It was a daylight bird, chuckling over the substance and succulence of the day, over worms, snails, grit, even in sleep.
The old man in the arm-chair–Mr. Oliver, of the Indian Civil Service, retired–said that the site they had chosen for the cesspool was, if he had heard aright, on the Roman road. From an aeroplane, he said, you could still see, plainly marked, the scars made by the Britons; by the Romans; by the Elizabethan manor house; and by the plough, when they ploughed the hill to grow wheat in the Napoleonic wars.
“But you don’t remember … “ Mrs. Haines began. No, not that. Still he did remember–and he was about to tell them what, when there was a sound outside, and Isa, his son’s wife, came in with her hair in pigtails; she was wearing a dressing-gown with faded peacocks on it. She came in like a swan swimming its way; then was checked and stopped; was surprised to find people there; and lights burning. She had been sitting with her little boy who wasn’t well, she apologized. What had they been saying?
“Discussing the cesspool,” said Mr. Oliver.
“What a subject to talk about on a night like this!” Mrs. Haines exclaimed again.
What had HE said about the cesspool; or indeed about anything? Isa wondered, inclining her head towards the gentleman farmer, Rupert Haines. She had met him at a Bazaar; and at a tennis party. He had handed her a cup and a racquet–that was all. But in his ravaged face she always felt mystery; and in his silence, passion. At the tennis party she had felt this, and at the Bazaar. Now a third time, if anything more strongly, she felt it again.
“I remember,” the old man interrupted, “my mother….” Of his mother he remembered that she was very stout; kept her tea-caddy locked; yet had given him in that very room a copy of Byron. It was over sixty years ago, he told them, that his mother had given him the works of Byron in that very room. He paused.
“She walks in beauty like the night,” he quoted.
“So we’ll go no more a-roving by the light of the moon.”
Isa raised her head. The words made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down stream. But his snow-white breast was circled with a tangle of dirty duckweed; and she too, in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband, the stockbroker. Sitting on her three-cornered chair she swayed, with her dark pigtails hanging, and her body like a bolster in its faded dressing-gown.
Mrs. Haines was aware of the emotion circling them, excluding her. She waited, as one waits for the strain of an organ to die out before leaving church. In the car going home to the red villa in the cornfields, she would destroy it, as a thrush pecks the wings off a butterfly. Allowing ten seconds to intervene, she rose; paused; and then, as if she had heard the last strain die out, offered Mrs. Giles Oliver her hand.
But Isa, though she should have risen at the same moment that Mrs. Haines rose, sat on. Mrs. Haines glared at her out of goose-like eyes, gobbling, “Please, Mrs. Giles Oliver, do me the kindness to recognize my existence….” which she was forced to do, rising at last from her chair, in her faded dressing-gown, with the pigtails falling over each shoulder.
Pointz Hall was seen in the light of an early summer morning to be a middle-sized house. It did not rank among the houses that are mentioned in guide books. It was too homely. But this whitish house with the grey roof, and the wing thrown out at right angles, lying unfortunately low on the meadow with a fringe of trees on the bank above it so that smoke curled up to the nests of the rooks, was a desirable house to live in. Driving past, people said to each other: “I wonder if that’ll ever come into the market?” And to the chauffeur: “Who lives there?”