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By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Rumer Godden
All rights reserved.
Nox praecéssit, dies autem appropinquavit ...
THE NIGHT IS FAR ON ITS COURSE; DAY DRAWS NEAR.
LITTLE CHAPTER FOR LAUDS FROM MRS QUIN'S Day Hours
The Visitation The scene takes place in a walled garden. The Virgin holds the half-kneeling Elizabeth in her arms and raises her to her feet. Zacharias stands by with bowed head. On the right-hand side is part of the house with the door open giving the spectator a glimpse of a charming interior. A woman is watching the scene through an open upper window.
Full border of flowers, harebells, and strawberries and ivy leaves, painted in colours and heightened with gold. Figure of a monkey making a long nose with both hands at the woman watching the scene from the window.
MINIATURE FACING THE OPENING OF LAUDS IN THE HORAE BEATAE VIRGINIS MARIAE, FROM THE HOURS OF ROBERT BONNEFOY
Old Mrs Quin died in her sleep in the early hours of an August morning.
The sound of the bell came into the house, but did not disturb it; it was quite used to death, and birth, and life.
The usual house sounds went on, but muted: footsteps, upstairs, Dr Taft's, though he did not stay long – 'Cause of death, stopped living,' wrote Dr Taft on the certificate and said he would call in at Mrs Abel's on his way home; then Mrs Abel's steps as, quietly, she did what she had to do and, downstairs, Cecily's as she carried in the coal and made up the kitchen fire, hers and Bumble's, the old spaniel's, padding as he followed her backward and forward, forward and backward; Bumble was uneasy, while August, the young poodle, rushed to the front door, back door, upstairs and down, barking, anguished by he knew not what. The fire made a warm fanning sound; a tap ran; the post-van came and the postman dropped letters into the letter box. Trill, the canary, sang. Moses, the cat, meowed for his morning milk and rabbit as, in their turn, Toby, the tabby, Minerva, the stately white cat, and the naughty small one like a sprite, Cuckoo, meowed too. Groundsel had come at eight o'clock as usual and left his pasty on the kitchen windowsill for Cecily to take in and warm for his lunch. Now the sound of his shears as he clipped a box hedge came in from outside, with the calls of blackbirds and robins and the throbbing of an engine from the farm where they were threshing. With all these other sounds, mingling with them, came the bell: 'In the midst of life we are in death' was the message of the bell; the house seemed to answer, 'In the midst of death we are in life.'
'Shouldn' us pull the blinds down?' asked Mrs Abel.
'She wouldn't like it,' said Cecily. 'She always says, "Don't shut out the garden." That's why Groundsel thought he ought to work, even today.'
'There now!' said Mrs Abel, vexed with herself. 'I purty near forgot! Didn' I promise to bring her a root o' me rose piony.'
Neither Cecily nor Mrs Abel whispered, nor did they speak of Mrs Quin as if she were not there, but all the same, things were muted; there was no early-morning firing of explosives from the quarry, which had stopped work when the news was heard and the men had been sent home as a mark of respect, 'But the news will be in the village before the men,' said Cecily.
Of course; Dr Taft's car would have been seen, then Mrs Abel coming down, and Cecily knew the vicar would be here at any moment. 'No one goes in or out of China Court who isn't seen,' complained Cecily often, 'seen and talked about.' The village was not kind: proudly inbred, it kept for strangers the spirit of its wrecker forebears, though where it respected it was staunch and for Mrs Quin there would be genuine feeling. 'Mrs Quin gone!' It would be a blank that would leave St Probus for once dumb and the whole village would listen, Cecily knew, with respectful silence to the bell. 'Eighty-one strokes,' said Cecily as she bent down to push in the damper of the range. 'You have enough hot water, haven't you?' she called to Mrs Abel. 'I must get the oven hot.'
It is an Eagle range, black leaded, with shining steel hinges and handles. 'Everything in this house is hopelessly old-fashioned,' Mrs Quin's eldest daughter, Bella, always cries when she has to come to stay; when Mrs Quin breaks her ankle, for instance, and when Cecily has influenza so badly that it turns to bronchitis. The Eagle has flues that Bella cannot wrestle with but Cecily understands it: 'I ought to, I have known it for nearly fifty years,' ever since, at fourteen years old, she comes – 'as kitchen maid then,' says Cecily – from Wales. It is the same great old range and now it burned red. 'I shall have to bake,' said Cecily. 'Eighty-one strokes,' and as she straightened herself a tear sizzled across the iron plate.
'It seems so dreadful, on'y the two on us,' said Mrs Abel but, if Mrs Quin could have been asked, this was as she would have preferred it. Cecily was her long familiar and neither of them could remember the time when they had not known Mrs Abel, who was the unofficial nurse of the village and its layer-out of the dead. If there had to be someone to touch her so intimately, Mrs Quin would have said, let it be Mrs Abel with her capable work-rough hands. Mrs Abel's ways were simple: clean linen and bandages, camphor and carbolic, soap and hot water; the eyes closed, the feet laid decently together, hands folded on the breast, chin firmly tied up; simple ways but decent, dignified, 'and time-honoured,' Mrs Quin would have said. In the village Mrs Abel would have had certain other duties, even rights: to help with the funeral tea; to arrange the family wreaths; if there were thirteen mourners to walk or drive in the funeral procession and make a fourteenth, but this was China Court and when the time came Mrs Abel would keep in the background.
She and Cecily conferred together. 'The best linen sheets?'
'Certainly,' said Cecily.
'She always had one.'
Cecily helped to make the bed and when they moved the pillow they found a book tucked under it. 'Her prayer book,' said Mrs Abel approvingly, then, as she looked more closely at it, 'It id'n' a prayer book.'
'It is,' said Cecily and had to resist an impulse to snatch it out of Mrs Abel's hand.
All these last years the book had been kept by Mrs Quin's bed, on the table with 'Mother's old clutter,' as Bella calls it. There is certainly a clutter on the table and most of Mrs Quin's possessions are old: her clock has a battered silver case and loses ten minutes a day; there is a bottle of pills prescribed three years ago and letters, turned yellow. Though books nowadays are sold with their pages cut, she still keeps a paper knife in the shape of a sword on the table, the hilt damascened in black and gold; John Henry, her husband, gives it to her, long ago in Toledo. There is another knife, a silver penknife – 'Stace's,' says Bella, always jealous of her brother – and a miniature tea set, held in a painted apple that Tracy leaves behind. 'Mother doesn't like photographs, she likes relics,' says Bella.
There are, too, always flowers, not often a vaseful but a bouquet of the smallest wild ones in a miniature Venetian glass, sharp at one side where it has been dropped and chipped; or else there is a rose or a single flower in a specimen glass. A candlestick, matches, another bottle of heart-shaped indigestion pills, are part of the clutter with, usually, a paper-bound detective novel and the two books that never change, the one in Mrs Abel's hand, shabby now and bound in black leather, the other, to Cecily its companion because for so long she has seen them together, a very old and dumpy book, almost clumsy, bound in rubbed pink velvet with a silver clasp, and always carefully wrapped in a silk handkerchief, itself so old that it is nearly rotten.
'The Day Hours,' said Mrs Abel, reading the title of the black book, 'Day Hours, whatever be they?'
'Prayers for the hours of the day,' said Cecily.
'I didn' knaw Mrs Quin was religious.'
'She wasn't,' said Cecily, but when the bed was made and Mrs Abel had carried her basins out of the room, Cecily put the book back under Mrs Quin's pillow; the pillow lay unevenly and to level it Cecily tucked the handkerchief-wrapped book under the other side. Then she smoothed the bed and began to clean the room.
'I always know when Cecily has cleaned a room,' Mrs Quin says often. 'It smells of well-being.' Cecily cleaned with her usual thoroughness now, polishing the floor and rubbing up the furniture. When she had finished, she carried in a vase of the small pink Damascus roses Mrs Quin had loved the best and, clearing a space, put them on the bedside table; she set the window a little open and came out and, as gently as if Mrs Quin could have heard it, closed the door.
'Shouldn' us watch?' asked Mrs Abel. 'Some of the women 'ud be glad to come.'
Cecily shook her head. 'She always liked to be alone,' but in an old house, a family house, one is never alone.
The motes of dust that Cecily had disturbed glittered and spun in the sun that came through the window. A tiny fly whirred in the roses. As they grew warm, their scent filled the room, mingling with Mrs Abel's camphor and carbolic. The bell had stopped but, as if like the dust they had been disturbed, the house voices seemed to rise: 'You can have my egg collection.'
'Hester will show you the different rooms.'
'Oh, not those sickly sweet-pea colours, Mother! I want scarlet or amber.'
'I thought Latin was battles, Roman wars.'
'Tracy, if you poke that fire again I swear I shall hit you.'
'You will be grown up. Then you can come back.'
'That whacking great allowance ...'
'We have no asparagus tongs.'
'I could use a gin.'
'It is Papa's place, my dear,' and, like a cry, a single name:
Tracy, Mrs Quin's grandchild, immediately fixes on that name. Perhaps it is its oddness; 'but so many are odd,' says Tracy. She loves to go back from herself through the family tree that Eustace, the first Quin at China Court, starts long ago for his children. It is written in india ink and gold at the beginning of the big Bible that has a table to itself in the hall and, 'Funny names,' says Tracy, creasing her forehead as she tries to spell them out, 'Eustace; Adza; Jared; Borowis. I have never heard of them.'
'You have heard of Eustace,' says Mrs Quin.
Tracy has heard of Eustace because his name is like her father's, Stace, and her own, Tracy. Eustace's name is the first on the family tree, hers is the last. Some of the names are ordinary, names everybody knows: Eliza, Anne, John Henry, Mary, but there is a Lady Mary. 'Why Lady Mary?' asks Tracy.
'She wasn't called that. She was always called Lady Patrick.'
This is more confusing still. 'Patrick is a boy's name.'
'She was called Lady Patrick because she came from Ireland. Irish people are sometimes called Patricks,' and, 'Poor tragic exaggerated silly Lady Patrick,' says Mrs Quin.
Tragic and exaggerated are too difficult for Tracy but, 'Why was she silly?' she asks. She likes Mrs Quin to tell these stories over and over again and Mrs Quin is willing, 'as far as I know them,' says Mrs Quin. Stories, she knows, can never be really told, so much of them is hidden and she often says that when they are told they sound like fairy tales, as if, with time, truth leaks out of them; only the house and the hours spent in it – 'and the garden of course,' says Mrs Quin – seem real to her now, but the people are very real to Tracy. 'Damaris is another funny name,' she says.
'Quite a number of girls were called Damaris then,' says Mrs Quin.
'But they are funny names,' argues Tracy.
'Not when you get to know them,' says Mrs Quin. 'You will get to know them.' She closes the book up but Borowis's name stays in Tracy's mind and she asks, perhaps for the twentieth time, 'Who was Borowis?'
It is odd how Tracy asks that question again and again. Perhaps it is a difference in her grandmother's voice when she answers that arrests her; it is not what Mrs Quin says because she always gives the same answer: 'Borowis? He was a boy.'
'A Quin boy?'
'You knew him?'
'Yes.' There is sharpness in that, then Mrs Quin's voice quiets and Tracy immediately grows still, for she knows her grandmother is remembering. 'I came up the valley path,' says Mrs Quin, 'and looked over the wall and he was there. They were there,' she corrects herself.
'Borowis and John Henry?'
'That was when you were Ripsie?'
'When I was Ripsie,' that thin neglected shabby little girl.
'Was Ripsie long before me?' asks Tracy. It is not really a question because she knows the answer perfectly well. 'Before me?'
'Long before you.'
The valley path is the children's path; it comes from Penbarrow by way of the river and woods to a gap in the China Court boundary wall which is built, as most Cornish walls are, of loose stones, big-sized, covered with moss. It and the clapper stones of the footbridge over the river have been here 'for hundreds of years,' says Tracy. By the wall two great beech trees stand in a dell where the wood flowers have seeded over the wall and, in spring, make drifts of snowdrops, then violets and anemones. From the dell, through a wicket gate, a path leads across a sloping field to the kitchen garden, bounded by another lower granite wall; in summer a hedge of sweet peas separates the kitchen garden from the flower beds and terraces of the garden proper. The garden is of little account when Ripsie first sees it – 'hideous,' says Mrs Quin – but it has a flagpole which impresses her very much; the creepers up the house front are there and the two elms at the side. The house faces west, and as the time is sunset, every window has such a brilliance of light that the house seems lit with gold.
As she watches, a maid comes out on the terrace and begins to put away the garden chairs. Ripsie has not seen a parlourmaid before and she leans on the wall entranced; the maid is Pringle, who is often to shoo her away from the front hall, and even at this distance Ripsie can see how importantly be frilled Pringle is in black with a large white apron, pinafore-frilled over the shoulders. Her sleeves are puffed at the top, she has white cuffs, and her cap is shaped like a Scots soldier's, but with white streamers behind. Ripsie watches fascinated, until a sound makes her turn. Near her, in the dell, is a boy.
'Your John Henry?' asks Tracy's mother, Barbara, who is unfailingly romantic – even after all those affairs, thinks Mrs Quin unkindly. 'Your John Henry?'
'No, it was Borowis,' but Mrs Quin does not say that aloud, not to Barbara. 'He invited me in,' she says slowly. Barbara thinks she is speaking of John Henry, but Tracy knows better. Her grandmother is speaking of Borowis; a different look has come into her harsh old face. 'He invited me in,' says Mrs Quin. 'I never went away again.'
Hers is a long span, stretching from Tracy back to Eustace, 'for I can remember him,' says Mrs Quin. Eustace, the boys' grandfather, is paralysed after a stroke so that he cannot move out of the Yellow Room which he insists on taking as his bedroom when his son, Jared, marries Lady Patrick and brings her home. Though the Yellow Room is sunny the old man always sits by the fire, a rug over his knees. 'We used to go in to him,' says Mrs Quin. 'His beard was most beautifully combed and he had a complexion like an Ophelia rose.'
'Ophelia rose?' asks Tracy.
'Those roses by the sundial, pink with brownish cream. They are old-fashioned now. It's not easy to get them. On Sundays – and he always knew it was Sunday – he used to spread a silk handkerchief on his lap and cut our nails, yes, even Boro's. Mine were often dirty and bitten and he used to say, "Those are not nails for a little lady." He was the only person who ever called me a little lady and I loved him for it,' says Mrs Quin, 'but I think he was confusing us with the Brood.'
'That's what he called his own children. There were so many of them.'
Tracy to Eustace, or Eustace to Tracy: It is a long span, and toward its end for Mrs Quin as for Eustace, names and times often became one but the people and their stories are distinct. 'Of course. They are each themselves, and I am not yet an imbecile,' says Mrs Quin. It is only that the edges as it were, the differences, no longer matter. Like the dust motes Cecily disturbed, they rise and settle, 'anywhere,' says Mrs Quin.
When Barbara, the daughter-in-law, takes Tracy back to America and Mrs Quin and Cecily are left alone, the girls do their best to make her leave China Court: Bella and her husband Walter, and Mrs Quin's three other daughters and their Toms, Dicks, and Harrys, as she calls their husbands for she cannot keep up with them any more than with Barbara's, they all try to make her give up the house. 'It has had its day,' says Walter. 'It's time it went.'
Excerpted from China Court by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1979 Rumer Godden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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