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The Crooked Wreath
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1946 Mary Christina Lewis
All rights reserved.
Edward Treviss sat in a darkened room blissfully pouring out his soul to the latest new psycho-analyst–dramatically escaped (some fifteen years ago) from enemy-occupied Austria. "Yes, I'm nearly eighteen, doctor. I've come to see you quite secretly because usually my grandmother will insist on coming with me and she goes and tells a lot of stupid details which aren't in the least interesting.... My grandmother? Oh, she's Lady March, my grandfather's Sir Richard March, only she's his second wife, you see, and actually their daughter, that's my mother, was an illegit. Of course my mother and father were quite properly married and all that...."
"Nevertheless, this stain of illegitimacy you haf broooooooded over, my poor boy?"
"Oh, good Lord, yes, I suppose I have," said Edward, who had hardly ever thought of it as affecting himself. "And then, you see, the frightful thing was that my parents were drowned in a boating accident, and I saw it happen."
This was not strictly true, for he had been busily occupied with a sand castle at the time; but later in the day a nursemaid had kindly given him a graphic description of the disaster, adding that reely it was enough to make the pore kid turn queer in the head. The next time he was due for a spanking, therefore, he had put his little hand to his forehead and declared that it felt queer, and, to his delighted astonishment, punishment had been deferred and it was apparent that he was an object of interest and discussion. He had been taken to see a succession of grave-faced men who had let fall–usually in thickly guttural accents–some such comfortable phrases as "not to be overworked," "allowed to go his own way," "better not to thwart the child"; and since Grandmama had regularly employed these catchwords from then on, he had come to cling to them as a species of nursery lifebelt whenever a storm blew up. They had seen him through odd terms at different preparatory schools and later a series of headmasters had written tactful letters suggesting that their various establishments were perhaps too rough and rude for so delicate a plant. In time, banishment from home had become an impossibility for the darling little psychopath, and even Edward himself could no longer distinguish between his real and his self-induced manifestations of abnormality. A minor accident a couple of years ago had greatly aggravated at least the imaginary side of his condition; and now from this new alienist came the joyful tidings that he might be liable to lapses into unconsciousness, fugues, automatism, heaven only knew what.... "You mean I could sort of walk about and do things and not know what I was doing, doctor?"
"Thiss iss possible, my boy."
"Good Lord!" said Edward, enormously impressed.
"Also you shall not looking up too quick! Thiss iss dangerous to you and may bring on the fugue. Perhaps you are dropping somesings that you haf in your hand. Carefully, therefore, not to look up too quick!"
It was extraordinary how often one was tempted to looking up too quickly, when one got out of the dim room and into the street. Edward marched along cautiously, his eyes glued to the ground, and when he came to a telephone booth could hardly persuade himself to raise them sufficiently to enable him to insert his tuppence and dial his cousin Philip's number. The adventure was finally accomplished, however, without mishap. "Hallo? Ellen? It's me, Edward. Are you and Philip coming down to Swanswater today all right? Because if you are, I'm in London, and I wondered if you could find room for me in the car?"
At the other end of the line, Ellen stood considering, receiver in hand. "Well, there's me and Philip and the baby–and all the baby's things, Edward, that's the trouble; and we're taking down Peta and Claire." However, the more people there were, the less tension there would be for herself and Philip and Claire. She said at last: "I don't know about finding room, Teddy, but I daresay we can make it."
"Could you? Thanks awfully. Are the others there yet?"
"Claire's here," said Ellen.
"Oh, well, I expect Peta's on her way. See you in half an hour, then...." He rang off and collected his hat, a slim, dark, nervous boy with his rather charming smile, picking his way along the street–not looking up!
Peta, however, was not only not on her way, but still hopping with impatience while Matron, with maddening deliberation and obviously just to spite her, counted over pillow cases. "Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twentynine–where's thirty?"
"Under Sergeant Roberts' knees, Matron, in number four bed...."
Sergeant Roberts, with Peta's imploring eye upon him, hunched up his knees to look as much as possible as though there were a pillow there. "Good. Thirty, then," said Matron, completing the heap with a satisfied little thump. "I hope that will satisfy the Quartermaster; he'll be round tomorrow." She bowed majestically to Sister, ignored a mere V.A.D., and marched away with her little retinue. Outside the door, however, she said to the lady commonly known as Ass. Mat.: "Who is that tall pretty child with the fair hair and too much of it showing?"
"Nurse March, Matron; quite a good nurse. Her grandfather," added Ass. Mat. reverently, as though that explained everything, "is a Sir."
"Her uniform is not regulation," said Matron. "It fits too well. She's had it made privately, the little minx."
Peta took formal farewell of Sister, sent Sergeant Roberts' temperature soaring with the warmth of her gratitude, waved a goodbye to the rest of the patients, smiling indulgently from their beds, and sped off along the corridor, tearing off her cap and apron as she went, a thing she was strictly forbidden to do. "Soon, soon, soon, I shall see Stephen!" Scrambling out of her uniform, feverishly buttoning up her frock, perching her foolish straw hat on her shining head, all the time she thought: "Soon I shall see Stephen!" And all the way to St. John's Wood, jogging along in the dear red London bus, she prayed: "Dear God, this time don't let me go all silly and wave my hands and make Stephen despise me for ever." From the days of their childhood together, Stephen had teased her about her fluttering hands.
And in the little house in St. John's Wood, Ellen adjured the solitary maidservant to keep the brass plate polished, and if anyone rang up be sure to tell them that the doctor would be back a week from today, and meanwhile would they telephone Doctor Blair. She said as her husband came slowly down the stairs: "Oh, Philip–Edward's rung up and says can we take him down; I suppose we can?"
Philip was not unlike his younger cousin; dark too, and with the same air of nervous breeding, the same rather humourous charm; but he was irritable now and did not disguise it. "It'll be a hell of a squash; and it'll look bad if we're stopped on the way."
"You've got a perfectly good excuse; you're a doctor going down to see a case."
"Well, thank goodness for Grandfather's dickey heart." There was an uncomfortable pause. He said: "Did you put my medical bag in the car?"
"You put it in yourself," said Ellen.
Philip knew quite well that he had put it in himself. He knew quite well that he was playing for time, that both of them were playing for time, that neither of them wanted to go back to the drawing-room where Claire was supposed to be "keeping the baby out of the way" while they got on with the packing. Claire had got away early from her newspaper office because she thought they all ought to "have a talk" before this holiday together. "There's no use shutting our eyes to the inevitable, Ellen. We may as well be honest, Philip." She would sit there nervously twisting her hands, her head bent, staring down at her little feet; that glorious corn-coloured head, with its great twisted bun of hair, low down on the nape of her neck. Philip would think how expressive her mouth was, Ellen would think that she spoilt herself, making such faces when she talked. Earnest, passionate, nervous, uncertainly seeking, she would plunge them all into drama. "You must know, you must have known for months, Ellen, that Philip and I were in love ..."
Ellen lifted one dark, eloquent eyebrow. "My dear Claire–sheer Home Chat."
Philip, standing with his back to the mantelpiece, shifted wretchedly from his toes to his heels. Life had been very dull in the past six years. He had come home from America, picked up his English degrees and settled down into a promising practice; and all in five minutes, war had come upon them, and he, kept back from the Army from the sheer necessity of one doctor remaining in a practice that had carried four, had slaved ten and twelve hours a day; dull, routine, unprofitable work among the panel patients who for much of the time were the only ones who remained in London. Paying back the cost of the partnership, keeping up the shares due to his partners, hard up, overworked, bored, irritable, and consequently increasingly disagreeable to his wife. Ellen–small, dark, plump, vivacious–had not played up. She had not petted and sympathized, she had maintained intact that standard of insouciant laughter which once had carried so much of her charm for him; but a man needed more than laughter, and now it was often too quick, too relentless, too unkind. By contrast, Claire had seemed understanding and tender. It was typical of Ellen that she should meet this very real crisis in their lives by calling it sheer Home Chat.
"This is something you can't meet by just laughing at it, Ellen," said Claire, resentfully.
"Well, what do you want me to do?" said Ellen.
"We must all try and think of some way out."
"There is no way out," said Ellen, reasonably. "If Philip's in love with someone else, I can assure you I haven't the slightest desire to go on being his wife: but there's no money for a divorce and meanwhile the baby and I have got to live. Incidentally, Philip, I must say I think you might have told me why you were making all this fuss about sleeping in the spare room, instead of just letting me think I was losing my sex appeal. I was getting quite worried!"
Claire cast Philip a look of appreciation and gratitude, Philip looked self-conscious and miserable. He said, reverting to Ellen's casual bombshell as to a divorce: "I couldn't possibly have a 'scandal'; it would absolutely do me in. I've got a chance now of specializing, and that sort of thing's fatal, especially in gynae work."
"Well, it's all very depressing, Philip. I mean who is your wife? I who live with you and don't live with you, as it were, or Claire who lives with you but doesn't live with you? If you see what I mean," said Ellen, with her head on one side.
Claire made indignant denials. Ellen, who was evidently only too ready to part with her husband, asked with her usual practicality: "Couldn't you borrow on your expectations from your grandfather? Both of you have got something coming to you."
"No, we couldn't," said Philip, firmly. "Grandfather changes his will at least twice a year, and neither of us can possibly be sure what we'll get. He always changes it back again, but his heart's so dickey that he may pop off at any minute in the meantime, and then we'd be properly in the soup."
"Anyway, I shouldn't think we'd get more than about ten thousand between us, Philip."
"About that," said Philip.
"I must say I think it's very unfair," said Claire. "You're the only male in the family and yet the property and all the money go to Peta, who's a girl."
"Her father was the eldest son, and she's his heir. It's perfectly reasonable. I've always known things were fixed that way."
"Not when you first came home from America. Grandfather was all for making you his heir then, only Stephen Garde went and interfered."
"I feel that Home Chat is degenerating into the Fat Stock Prices," said Ellen, ironically amused. "However, here are the others coming up the path, so this delightful discussion must now cease or be continued in the car." She went out into the hall to meet them. "Hallo, Edward. Hallo, Peta–you got off all right from your frightful hospital?"
Peta enlarged plaintively upon the iniquities of Matron which culminated in always starting off stock-taking the minute anybody wanted to go off on their seven days' leave. Edward embarked upon his experiences with the new psycho-analyst. "He's most frightfully good; he knits all the time, and he says I may have fugues–you know, sort of wander about and do things and then quite forget what I've done ..."
"What does he knit for?" asked Ellen, practically, bundling Antonia, the baby, into a state of helplessness in woolly coats and shawls.
"Well, it's most frightfully soothing to the nerves and encourages people to talk about themselves."
"Then for heaven's sake, Ellen, don't bring any wool down to Swanswater with you. We don't want to spend the whole week hearing about Edward's fugues." As they all went down the steps together, Peta said, putting her hand on Ellen's arm: "Your first real holiday in years, Nell; you must be quite excited."
"Deliriously," said Ellen, dryly. "Bella will drive me crazy the entire time telling me how to manage the baby, and your grandfather will spend the rare intervals telling me that I ought to have lots more–babies, I mean. Which, anyway, I can't, because Philip and Claire have fallen madly in love, and Philip has moved into the spare room out of loyalty to her."
They climbed into the car; three cousins–Philip and Peta and Claire March–and Ellen, Philip's wife; and Edward Treviss, their half-cousin, whose grandmother Bella had, in the naughty nineties, been Sir Richard March's mistress and was now his wife. Philip sat gloomily at the wheel, in the shamefaced despair of a man over whom two women are quarrelling; Claire beside him regretted the exposure of their love to Ellen's earthy mockery; Peta, her own long legs wound round the packed legs of the baby's cot, prayed earnestly for strength not to appear silly and affected in front of darling Stephen, and Edward practised not looking up, with complete success. Ellen, pointing out trees and moo-cows to her daughter, fought with all her hardy spirit against the pain and humiliation of henceforward depending for her everyday bread and butter upon a man who no longer wanted her. "All the same, Ellen," said Peta, attracted for a moment out of her self-absorbtion, "I do believe you're crying!"
"Antonia hit me on the nose with her wicked fist," said Ellen. The baby, a helpless cocoon of woolly shawls, looked up at her mother with what well might be reproach.CHAPTER 2
Grandmama Serafita had kept her husband's love for twenty-five years, by the simple expedient of being everything to him that she fancied his mistress was not. "Tsimple? But of course," she would insist in her charming broken English when her sons protested, laughing, against this qualification. "What is this Bella, after all? Not so very preeety. Not at all weeety. And, enfin, an intellectual! To be a woman and to be an intellectual, my dear boys–this is not compatible. Le bon Dieu did not intend men to fly; and he did not intend women to think. Nobody could call me an intellectual," Serafita would declare proudly and with profound truth, "and it is a comfort to your poor father to come home to me from time to time and listen to a little feminine nonsense. She is very well, this poor Bella, but she is a bore. Let her remain peacefully at Yarmouth, and I, Serafita, shall remain here at Swanswater; and when I die, she will marry your father and console him for my loss. And then we shall see who will win!"
"Perhaps you may outlive her, Maman," the sons would suggest, laughing again.
"No, no, I am too tactful to grow old," Serafita would say complacently. "You shall see. I shall die, still young and beautiful" (she was at this time well over forty), "and your father will never forgive himself. He will bring her here, this Yarmouth Bella, with her illegitimate brat, and she shall live in my home and listen to nothing but 'Serafita,' 'Serafita,' 'Serafita,' till she is sick of the very sound of my name."
Excerpted from The Crooked Wreath by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1946 Mary Christina Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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