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In The Fountain Overflows,Papa Aubrey’s wife and twin daughters, Mary and Rose, are piano prodigies, his young son, Richard Quin, is a lively boy, and his eldest daughter, Cordelia, is a beautiful and driven young woman with musical aspirations. But the talented and eccentric Aubrey family rarely enjoys a moment of harmony, as its members ...
In The Fountain Overflows,Papa Aubrey’s wife and twin daughters, Mary and Rose, are piano prodigies, his young son, Richard Quin, is a lively boy, and his eldest daughter, Cordelia, is a beautiful and driven young woman with musical aspirations. But the talented and eccentric Aubrey family rarely enjoys a moment of harmony, as its members struggle to overcome the effects of their patriarch’s spendthrift ways. Now they must move so that their father can find stable employment. Despite the daunting odds, the Aubreys hope that art will save them from the cacophony of a life sliding toward poverty.
In The Real Night, a talented musician and her kin ponder what being young women on their own will entail. Abandoned by their feckless father, Rose and her family must move beyond their comfortable drawing room to discover a world of kind patrons, music teachers, and concert hall acclaim, but also domestic strife, anti-Semitism, and social pressure to marry. Set before World War I, Rebecca West’s intimate, eloquent family portrait brings to life a time when women recognized their own voices and the joys of living off one’s own talents.
In Cousin Rosamund, Mary and Rose Aubrey have found success as accomplished pianists in the years after the war. But despite their travels and material rewards, they remain apart from society. When their cherished cousin Rosamund surprises them by marrying a man they feel is beneath her, the sisters must reconsider what love means to them and how they can find a sense of spiritual wellbeing on their own, without the guidance of their family.
THERE WAS such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to each other again. Not that I feared they had quarrelled, only we children had quarrels, but they had each fallen into a dream. Then Papa said hesitantly, "You know, I am very sorry about all this, my dear."
Mamma answered almost before he had finished, "It will not matter at all, provided that everything goes right this time. And it will go all right, won't it?"
"Yes, yes, I am sure it will," said Papa. A sneer came into his voice. "I should be able to do all that is asked of me. I should be able to edit a small suburban newspaper."
"Oh, my dear Piers, I know the work is not worthy of you," said Mamma warmly. "Yet what a godsend it is, how lucky it is that Mr. Morpurgo should happen to own such a paper, and how good it is of him to want to help you—" She faltered before she came to the end of her sentence.
"Again," said Papa absently, simply supplying the word. "Yes, it is odd that such a rich man as Morpurgo should bother himself with a thing like the Lovegrove Gazette. It brings in a fair profit for what it is, so they tell me, but it is very small beer for a man with those enormous interests. But I suppose if one accumulates a great fortune all sorts of rags and bones get mixed with the diamonds and the nuggets." He retired once more into his dream. His grey eyes, bright under his straight black brows, pierced the walls of the farmhouse parlour. Even though I was a very little girl I knew that he was imagining what it was like to be a millionaire.
Mamma lifted the brown teapot and refilled his cup and hers, and sighed, and his eyes went back to her. "You hate being left here in this lonely place?"
"No, no, I am happy anywhere," she said. "And I have always wanted the children to have a holiday on the Pentland Hills as I did when I was their age. And there is nothing better for children than life on a farm; at least people always say so, I can't imagine why. But letting the flat furnished, that I do not like. Such a thing to have to do."
"I know, I know," said Papa, sadly but impatiently.
All this happened more than fifty years ago, and my parents were not making a fuss about nothing. In those days few respectable people were willing to let their homes furnished, and no respectable people ever wanted to take them.
"I know these people have a good reason for wanting somewhere to stay for the summer, coming over from Australia to see this daughter of theirs in Doctor Philip's sanatorium," Mamma murmured, "but such a risk, leaving strangers in the flat with all that good furniture."
"I suppose it is valuable," said Papa thoughtfully.
"Well, of course, it is only Empire," said Mamma, "but for what it is, it is the best. Aunt Clara bought it all in France and Italy when she was married to the French violinist, and it is all solid and comfortable, and, though I know it is not Chippendale, the chairs with the swans and the others with the dolphins' heads are really very pretty, and the silks with the bees and the stars are quite handsome. We shall be thankful to have all that furniture when we start afresh at Lovegrove."
"At Lovegrove," said Papa. "Really, it is very strange that I should be going back to Lovegrove. Isn't it strange, Rose," he said, giving me a lump of sugar from the bowl, "that I should be taking you back to a place where I used to stay when I was little like you?"
"Was Uncle Richard Quin there too?" I asked. Papa's brother had died in India of fever when he was twenty-one. He had been christened Richard Quinbury to distinguish him from another Richard in the family, and Papa had loved him so much that he had called our little brother by his name, and we regarded our little brother as much the nicest of us four children, so we thought of our dead uncle as a joy stolen from us and were always trying to recover him in our father's stories.
"Richard Quin was there too," said Papa, "or I should not remember it so well. The places I visited without him are never so distinct."
"Try to find us a house near the house where you stayed," said Mamma. "It will be an interest for the children."
"What was the name, I wonder. Oh, yes, Caroline Lodge. But of course it will have been pulled down long ago. It was quite a small house but very charming."
Suddenly Mamma laughed. "Why should it have been pulled down? You are so gloomy about everything except the future of copper mines."
"Copper will come right in the long run," said Papa, cold with sudden anger.
"My dear, you must not mind what I say!" she protested. She and I looked at him anxiously, and after a minute he smiled. All the same, he then glanced at the clock, and said that it was time he was getting back to the station, if he were to catch the six-o'clock train to Edinburgh; and the light had gone out of him, he had that shabby, beggar look that even we children sometimes had to remark in him. Tenderly Mamma told him, "Very well, we don't want you to miss your train and have to hang about that draughty little station for hours, though heaven knows we want to keep you with us till the last moment. Oh, it is good of you, indeed it is, when you have so much on your mind, to help me bring the children down here."
"It is the least I could do," he answered heavily.
While the trap was being brought round we went out and stood on the holystoned steps of the farm-house. The paddock in front of us stretched down to the shores of the loch, which was a dark shining circle, perfectly round, under the grey-green walls of the valley. Midway to the water we could see two white scraps that were my elder sister Cordelia and my twin sister Mary, a blue scrap that was my little brother, Richard Quin. He was just old enough now to run about very fast and fall down, always without hurting himself, and to babble and laugh and tease us; we played with him all day and never grew tired of him.
My mother threw back her head and called to them, her voice going straight out like the cry of a bird, "Children, come and say good-bye to your father!"
My sisters were for one moment frozen where they stood. In this new lovely place they had forgotten what overhung us. Then Cordelia picked up Richard Quin and hurried as fast as was safe; and then the four of us stood and looked up at Papa, looking hard so that we would remember him perfectly while he was away these dreadful six weeks. It was perhaps a mistake to look so hard at him, he was so wonderful. This was no childish delusion; we were objective enough about certain things. We all knew that Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face. Also we were so poor that she never had new clothes. But we were conscious that our Papa was far handsomer than anybody else's. He was not tall, but he was slender and graceful, he stood like a fencer in a picture, and he was romantically dark; his hair and his moustache were true black, and his skin was tanned, with a faint rose under the tan on his cheeks; and he had high cheekbones, which made his face sharp like the muzzle of a cat—it was the least stupid face one could imagine. Also he knew everything, he had been all over the world, even to China, he could draw and could carve wood and make little figures and dolls' houses. Sometimes he would play games with us and tell stories, and it was almost impossible to bear it, every moment brought forth such an intense delight, quite unpredictable, so that one could not prepare for it. It was true that sometimes he would take no notice of us for days, and that too was almost unbearable. But it was part of our grief that we were not going to suffer that woe either for six weeks.
"Children, children, we will soon be together again," said Papa, "and you will like being here!" He pointed to the hills beyond the loch. "Before the holidays are over they will all turn purple. You will like that."
"Purple?" We could not think what he meant. All four of us had been born in South Africa and had left it less than a year before.
When he had described the flowering of the heather Cordelia, who was older than Mary and me by nearly two years and made the most of it, sighed noisily and said, "Oh, dear! This is going to be a dreadful holiday for me. The children will be wandering off all the time to look at it, and getting lost on the hills, and I will always have to be running after them and bringing them back. And the loch, they are sure to fall into that too."
"Idiot, we can both swim as well as you can," muttered Mary, and indeed all of us girls had learned when we were babies on the South African beaches. Mamma heard her and said, "Oh, do not quarrel with Cordelia now, Mary," and Mary said, teasing her, "Then when?" and Cordelia made an exaggerated grimace of despair, as of one who cannot succeed in drawing the world's attention to the huge burden she is bearing, and I murmured to Mary, "We will box her ears afterwards." But then we were distracted by what Mamma was saying.
"I have got it clear, then, you travel to London tomorrow, and at once go, I suppose, to see Mr. Morpurgo."
"No," said Papa. "No, I go straight to the office at Lovegrove."
"Not to see Mr. Morpurgo? Not to thank him? Oh, but surely he will expect you to do that first of all."
"No," said Papa. "He says he does not want to see me." As Mamma's stare hardened on him he gave a little sneering laugh. "He was always a timid little fellow. Something has put him out for the moment, and he says he is glad that I should edit his paper for him, but he thinks it better that I should only deal with one of his directors who sees to that sort of minor thing, and that we should not meet. Let him have his way, though I cannot see the point of it."
Mamma perhaps could. She drew a shuddering breath and said, "Oh, well. You go straight to the office at Lovegrove and settle all about your work, and look for a house for us, and then you go to Ireland and see your uncle, and then I come down with the children and the furniture in good time to have all ready for the children to go to school at the beginning of the term and you to start work on the first of October. That is how it is to be, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes, my dear," he said, "that is how it is to be." He kissed us all, beginning with Cordelia and ending with Richard Quin, an order he always observed, for he was a just man. This had at one time distressed Mary and me, for we were all against primogeniture, until it occurred to Mary that we always ate the dullest food on our plates and kept what we liked to the last. Then he dropped his moustachioed mouth to Mamma's cheek and as he raised his head again asked lightly, "How long can you stay here?"
Mamma's face became convulsed. "But I have told you. I took the money the Australians gave me for the flat, I paid the landlord our arrears of rent and settled all the tradesmen's books, and with what I have left we can stay here till the third week in September. But no longer. No longer. But why do you ask? Are your plans not settled? Is it not to be as we have just arranged?"
"Yes, yes," said my father.
"Tell me if it is not to be so," she begged him fiercely. "I can face anything. But I must know."
We watched them with curiosity that referred to much more than this moment. Why were we leaving Edinburgh so soon? Mamma had told us when we left South Africa, where we had lived calmly enough on the outskirts of a war, that because Papa was to be assistant editor of The Caledonian we would live in Edinburgh till we were nearly grown-up and had to go to London to study at one of the great schools of music, as she had done. And in South Africa, why had we left Cape Town so suddenly for Durban? And why was Mamma always so distressed when these calls to movement came, while Papa remained calm but spoke absently, as if all this were happening to someone else, and often laughed to himself quietly and contemptuously. That was what he was doing as he walked towards the trap. "There is nothing to know, my dear Clare," he said and jumped up to his seat beside the driver.
"Good-bye," Mamma cried to him. "And write! Write! Only a postcard, if you are too busy for a letter. But write!"
We watched the trap take off and cover the stretch of road that ran to the end of the valley, and go over the pass and vanish. That did not take long. The boy who drove was getting the best out of his horse; people always showed off in front of Papa. Then Richard Quin pulled at Mamma's skirts and told her in his babble that she was not to cry and that he wanted a drink. We all went back to the parlour and adored him while he sat on Mamma's lap and gulped down some milk, shaking all over with the effort and pleasure of gulping, like a puppy at a saucer.
"Who is Mr. Morpurgo?" asked Mary. "It is a funny name. It sounds like a conjurer. 'The Great Morpurgo.'" She realized quite well that Mamma had been disturbed by something this unknown man had done, but she was not simply being tactless. We were quite little but we were already cunning as foxes. We had to be. We had to sniff the wind and decide from which quarter the next misfortune was coming, and make our own provisions against it, which were often not quite what our parents would have approved. When the trouble began in The Caledonian, whatever it might be, Mary and I thought it prudent to tell the children of the people in the next flat that Papa had had an offer to go to a better post somewhere else. Thus we secured that at a time when Mamma was unhappy she was not treated by her neighbours with less respect but with more; and anyway, as we pointed out to each other, it turned out to be true, for here he was going to the Lovegrove Gazette. We had found out a sensible way of behaving, and we were not going to drop it because of adult fussiness.
"Mr. Morpurgo," said Mamma, "is someone we should bless all our lives. He is a very rich man, a banker, I think, and ever since he met your Papa, on a ship somewhere, he has done everything he could for him. He gave your Papa his position in Durban after the proprietors of his paper in Cape Town behaved so strangely. They made no allowances whatsoever. And now that The Caledonian has proved such a disappointment to your Papa, Mr. Morpurgo has made him editor of this paper he owns in South London. I do not know what would have happened to us all if he had not come forward. Though I should not say that. You must never think that your Papa would not find some way of providing for us all. He will never," she said, tilting the cup so that Richard Quin would get the last drop, "fail us."
"What does Mr. Morpurgo look like?" I asked.
"I don't know," said Mamma. "I don't think I ever met him. But your Papa has known him for a long time. He admires your Papa very much. Everybody does except people who are envious of him."
Cordelia asked, "Why should anybody envy him? We have so little money."
"Oh, they envy him his brains, his appearance, everything about him," sighed Mamma, "and then, he is always right when everybody else is wrong. A situation," she said sternly, fixing her blazing black eyes on each of us in turn, "in which none of you are likely to find yourselves." Then she grew soft again, and looked down on Richard Quin as he held the cup almost upside down in an effort to get the last drops. "No, my lamb. When you make a great noise eating you must stop, you are doing it the wrong way, unless you stop and do it without making a noise you will turn into a little pig, and then you will have to go and live in a sty, and though you might like that your poor sisters would be distracted. They would want to be with you, but there would be no room for them and you must consider them, they are so good to you. Oh, my little lamb, I wonder what instrument you are going to play. It is irritating not to know."
For of course we all played something. Just as all the people in Papa's family in Ireland were soldiers or soldiers' wives, so everybody in Mamma's West Highland family was a musician, and always had been, for at least five generations back. They had left no great names in music, perhaps because they had always died quite young; but Mamma's grandfather had gone to Austria and played in the orchestra of the Viennese Opera, and had spoken to Beethoven and Schubert, and her father had been Kapellmeister at a small German ducal court, her dead brother had been quite a well-known conductor and composer, and she would have been a famous pianist, indeed she was already well known by her middle twenties, when one night, just as she was going on the platform at a concert in Geneva, she had been handed a telegram which told her that her favourite brother had died of sunstroke in India. She had played the programme out and then had gone back to her hotel and fallen into a sort of fever, which had lasted for weeks and left her so melancholy that she had gone on a journey round the world to recover, as companion to an elderly woman who had admired her playing. In Ceylon she had met Papa, who was just then leaving a good position he had held on a tea-plantation. They married and went to South Africa to another good position that some relative of his found him. But he was unfortunate there too, Mamma had never told us exactly how. It did not matter, however. He had been writing for some time, and had discovered a talent for it, and he very easily got a post as leader-writer on a Cape Town newspaper. And Mamma had had all of us, and had been very worried, and now she was past forty, and her fingers were getting stiff, and her nerves were bad, and she would never go back to playing again. But she was teaching us to play, and though Cordelia was no good and she had given her up as hopeless when she was seven, Mary and I were, she thought, all right. And somehow we knew Richard Quin was going to be all right too. He managed the triangle, on which we all were started, quite well.
Excerpted from The Saga of the Century Trilogy by Rebecca West. Copyright © 1985 estate of Rebecca West. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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