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The Three-Cornered Halo
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1957 Christianna Brand
All rights reserved.
"All the same," admitted Miss Cockrill, "this Juanita was a remarkable gel." She paused impressively, looking at them over her coffee cup with elderly, sharp brown eyes. "She lived on a table."
"On a table?"
"She carried a table from somewhere to somewhere and lived on it for the rest of her life."
"How long was the rest of her life?" said the youngest cousin: Miss Cockrill was Cousin Hat to most of those present.
"She started when she was seventeen. She died when she was about fifty."
"Presumably from lack of exercise?" suggested her hostess.
There was a lively discussion of the occupational hazards consequent upon living on a table, on the part of the younger cousins frankly indelicate, for the gentlemen had not yet come into the drawing-room. "But how big was the table, Cousin Hat?"
"A large, round, tea-table sort of a table. The top is in a glass shrine in the Cathedral of San Juan, still with some crumbs on it from Juanita's last meal. It is very highly thought of."
"It sounds crumby to me," said the youngest cousin.
Cousin Hat was not amused. "We should not make mock of other people's devotions. Besides, the table's the least part of it. She has a much greater claim to respect on the island than that." She put down the coffee cup and looked round her once again. "She lived and died a virgin," she said reverently.
There was a slight hush. Cousin Hat was confidently believed to have lived a virgin, having, according to the younger members anyway, had little alternative; and, at the age of fifty-eight might be supposed likely to die in that condition. "Is there anything extraordinary," said the hostess at last, "in a girl's remaining a virgin?"
"Especially on a table," said the youngest cousin.
"There is if she lives in San Juan," said Cousin Hat.
Mr Cecil, standing in the doorway, was quite beside himself with excitement. He had, as he did in all matters of gender, delicately compromised, taking one glass of wine with the gentlemen and leaving them to their second while he joined the ladies—thus maintaining his own position somewhere between the two (if the men stayed on for a third, the adjustment was perfect). For a moment he had been mystified, for Miss Cockrill's pronunciation of the Spanish 'J' was resolutely British, but mention of the table confirmed his first impression. "I do believe you're talking about my San Hoowarne," exclaimed Mr Cecil, giving the aspirate all he had. "My San Hoowame el Pirata! And my Hoowarnita!"
"Do you know San Jewan?" said Miss Cockrill, undismayed.
"But me? But, my dear—one is Cecil: Mr Cecil, you know, of Christophe et Cie." He threw back an ormolu forelock with a famous long white hand. "The Hoowarnese Hipline!" It was self-explanatory.
"Mr Cecil is our great couturier," said the hostess hurriedly.
"Oh, I see," said Cousin Hat. She glanced down with undisturbed complacency at her own confection of non-dating black georgette. "I'm afraid I don't go in very much for hiplines."
"But you must have heard of ...? Duckies!—" implored Mr Cecil, appealing to the ladies, as one who wonders who among all those about him will rid him of this turbulent priest, "Do something!"
The younger guests, delighted, rose in a body and paraded the drawing-room. "Knees bent, you do see?—and bottoms tucked in; skirts slit so that they can just walk—since walk you must, you inconsiderate things!" cried Mr Cecil, playfully self-deprecatory. "There should be frills, of course, but one had to simplify; so we used flat tucks, from the tail down, just symbolical, as it were, of frills...." He paused, exhausted by the wonder of it all. "You really never heard of the Hoowarnese Hip—"
"Or Jewanese Jip—"
"—or J-line?" said the youngest cousin, sitting down with difficulty upon the symbolical frills.
Mr Cecil affected to be vastly amused; but inwardly he was disturbed. Had it come to this, that young persons could be witty at the expense of his Hipline? And if so, might it not be that the time had arrived for a New Idea? Grave portendings: for the young woman who for many years had had Mr Cecil's new ideas, had parted brass rags at last and gone off in a huff. He would have to go back to San Juan this summer and prospect all on his own. Those touching policemen, perhaps, with their calf-length cloaks? "Do I seem to see you, duckies, in cloaks and flat hats?"
Miss Cockrill for her part disclaimed. But she too would be going to the island in September: they would doubtless meet there ...?
The fun of it, said Mr Cecil civilly.
With a niece of hers; well, a cousin, really. The cousin had 'discovered' this Juanita and was making a cult of her. "And a good thing too. All unmarried women should have a Cause."
"You're unmarried, Cousin Hat," said the youngest cousin, "and you haven't got a Cause."
"Your Cousin Winsome is my cause," said Cousin Hat. She sighed. "Such a tiresome gel. Really," she said, looking round at the rest with irascible affection, "the most tiresome of the lot."
The cousins broke into a chorus of acquiescence. 'She makes us call her Winsome....' 'When her name's plain Winifred....' 'She calls her car Busy Bee....' 'And talks about her Bootsis Library Book....' 'And she wears beige lace blouses ...' 'And mauve beads, she always has ...' 'Not that it matters any more, now; she's thirty-eight....'
"An orphan," said Miss Cockrill, explaining to a Cecil already half dead with boredom but socially defenceless from the impact on his sensitive nerves of mauve beads with beige lace. "Had her since she was eighteen. Three or four hundred of her own, that's all, and not the brains of a hare. What could one do? I'd promised her mother—and so I took her on; and which to be the more sorry for, I've never yet decided: her or me."
"You've done all you could to keep her happy, Harriet."
"I've done all I could not to keep her at all," said Cousin Hat. "There isn't a bachelor in Kent I haven't told fibs to about her money; but if a gel will wear lace jabots before her time ..."
"Jabots?" faltered Mr Cecil.
"A sloper," said Miss Cockrill. She shrugged her own meagre shoulders. "Well, she can't help that, poor thing. But why add lace?"
"Oh, but she can help it. I mean ... Well, no body slopes these days. There are—arrangements," said Mr Cecil, colouring, for it was not his favourite subject. He found strength to add, however, that they kept a quite madly good corsetière actually on the premises of Christophe et Cie. If Miss Cockrill would persuade the niece, or was it cousin ...?
"Too late," said Miss Cockrill, in a voice of doom. And besides, none of it mattered any more: for on the island of San Juan el Pirata, Winsome Foley had found her Cause.CHAPTER 2
If San Juan el Pirata has done much for the house of Christophe et Cie, it must also be acknowledged that the Juanese Hipline has contributed to the present prosperity of San Juan; though to claim, as Mr Cecil does, that he 'put San Juan on the map,' is to exaggerate grossly. San Juan was already on the map when he found it: both literally and figuratively—lying off the north-west coast of Italy and having a prominent place on the tourist itineraries of all the more enterprising travel bureaux. In an earlier novel, recounting the events that befell Inspector Cockrill there, several summers before the present narrative (Inspector Cockrill being Cousin Hat's brother) it has been described as follows:
"The island of San Juan el Pirata lies some twenty kilometres off the coast of Tuscany, about level with the topmost tip of Corsica, in the Ligurian Sea. It is perhaps seven or eight miles across and largely composed of volcanic upheavals of rock: a republic, self-contained, self-controlled, self-supporting, with a tiny parliament and a tiny police force and a quite remarkably tiny conscience in regard to its obligations to the rest of society: but with a traditionally enormous Hereditary Grand Duke. Juan the Pirate appropriated his foothold there two hundred years ago. Busily plying between Italy and his native Spain, he fell foul of both, established himself on the island, built his rock fortress there, defended it against all comers and, in 1762, retired there, gold-glutted, to die at last in the odour of sanctity, loudly declaring repentance for his abominable sins and in the same breath his right and intention to hang on to the proceeds. Succeeding governments in both Italy and Spain have turned a blind eye, according to temperament or expedience, and to this day San Juan remains—on Italian territory, in Italian seas—Spanish in thought and flavour: still using in highly bastardised form its founder's mother tongue and strictly upholding and maintaining his deplorable standards. The charming Puerto de Barrequitas, Port of the Little Boats, sends forth its fishing fleet night after moonless night, and in the grey dawn welcomes it back again with its contraband cargo; all hands, including such members of the international anti-smuggling police as have not been out to sea with it, turning-to to help with the unloading. But even so it has proved, since the war, impossible to feed the insatiable maw of the contraband-hungry tourist trade, without recourse to the mainland; and San Juan reluctantly smuggles in, instead of through, the Swiss watches, American nylons, French liqueurs, and Scotch whisky, especially manufactured in Madrid, Naples, and Cairo respectively, for this purpose. These are exhibited in the local shops with 'Smuggled' in large letters on printed cards in various languages: and such is their attraction that, in 1950, under the direct auspices of El Exaltida, the Hereditary Grand Duke, himself, San Juan began work on the Bellomare Hotel."
It will be seen, therefore, that San Juan stood in no urgent need of Mr Cecil's advertisement. Miss Cockrill, determined to go there despite her brother's forebodings—for Inspector Cockrill has a low opinion of all things foreign, and rather especially of all things Juanese—had nevertheless been obliged to use his name, on their visit in the previous summer, to obtain accommodation at the Bellomare Hotel. She had succeeded, however; and it was on this, their first holiday together, that she and Winsome, wandering dutifully round the huge, chill and perfectly hideous cathedral, had met a plump, smiling Juanese lady, clad largely in tight black satin and calling herself simply Innocenta—and for the first time heard all about Juanita.
For this was Innocenta di Perliti—last surviving novice of the order of the Perliti, or Little Pearls, the religious order founded by Juanita and over which she had reigned as abbess until her death, some twenty years earlier.
Juanita has a chapel to herself, of course, in the Cathedral, two demoted saints having been turfed out at the time of her death to make room for her and for her patron, Santa Fina; whose own chapel, over opposite, has been made gay with highly colourful reproductions of the faded Ghirlandaio murals in San Gimignano, of which enchanting, many-towered town, she is patron saint. Innocenta was lighting candles in the chapel when first the three ladies met; bobbing her sketchy genuflexions before Santa Fina—but not, alas! before Juanita. Juanita was not yet entitled to such honours, she regretfully explained: Juanita had no official halo. Candles, yes—at one's own peril, her manner seemed to suggest, Mother Church accepting no responsibility; but there were subtle limits to the respect to be paid to the as yet uncanonised. The table-top, however, hung with its complement of crumbs, upon the great blank, dank red brick wall; and beneath it, clad in a mauve satin dress, her shrunken skull crowned with a tiara of decidedly semi-precious stones, her terrible hands crossed on her mauve satin breast, Juanita herself lay in mummified state in a coffin of glass.
Whatever she may have been in her youth—and the girls of San Juan can hardly help but be lovely, with their clear, olive skins and great, melting, dark brown eyes—Juanita had been, by English standards at least, no beauty by the time she died; small and swarthy, with a considerable moustache and the too short thighs sadly characteristic of the Juanese. Life on a table, moreover, is not conducive to sveltness in the female form, and of her fifty-two years, she had spent thirty-five on her table. A niece of the then Grand Duke, explained Innocenta to the fascinated ladies, she had been brought up by her widowed mother in almost seraglio seclusion in the Palatio; until, in her seventeenth year, she had suddenly developed a pious devotion to Santa Fina, patron saint of San Gimignano, not far from Siena; and, in a vision, had been directed to make a pilgrimage there. Refusing all companionship save that of an aged nurse, she had set off on foot: to return a year later, exhausted and emaciated, staggering beneath the weight of the famous tea-table, which, in obedience to a further vision, she had acquired in San Gimignano and carried all the way back.
"But why?" said Miss Cockrill.
"Senora, this was in honour of Santa Fina."
"Why should it do Santa Fina any good, to spend one's life on a table?"
Innocenta was astonished. She gestured with a dimpled hand at the pseudo-Ghirlandaio murals. "Senora—Santa Fina spent her life on a table too."
"Good God!" said Cousin Hat. She went off into a fit of highly unedifying laughter. "How did she take a rival pole-squatter?"
Winsome assumed her most exasperating expression, one of gentle patience. "You haven't been listening, dear. Santa Fina is a mediæval saint, she lived two hundred years ago."
Oh, well, said Cousin Hat, that accounted for it: and one had heard that in those days, the sanitation ...
" ... and died when she was thirteen," said Winsome, hastily.
"Lack of exercise. A most unhealthy life for a gel," said Cousin Hat. A year later her hostess was to say the same of Juanita.
But Juanita had not died in what Innocenta called her childcap. Juanita had lived and flourished, had founded an order of nuns, had written many books, many wonderful, wonderful books—she, Innocenta, was struggling even now to translate them into English: very few people on the island knew English, she herself would never have learned it but for the gentlemans: the gentlemans from the Bellomare Hotel, she amplified, though why he or they—it was difficult to decide—should have promoted her English lessons she did not go on to explain. But the books had been translated into Spanish and into Italian, all of them—the Diaries, the slim vols. of pious exhortation, of aspiration, of reflection, of warning, of prayer.... If one lived on a table there was much time for writing, of course, and space too, that was a consideration. She mused over it, shaking her charming head. But the Senoras, she said, suddenly, apologetically, would not be interested in all this, the Senoras, of course, were not of Mother Church, one understood well that in Inghilterra, no one was Catholica....
Winsome Foley could not let that pass. It all depended. For, after all, she cried, clasping her narrow hands on the beige lace slopes, after all—what did the word 'catholic' mean? It meant, did it not?—'universal.' And perhaps even they, poor benighted heathen from Inghilterra, suggested Winsome, delicately teasing, tenderly ironic with the poor little bigoted creature, perhaps even they might claim to be members of the one great 'universal' Christian church?—with varying ideas and observances, perhaps, but all happy children together in the same family....
Excerpted from The Three-Cornered Halo by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1957 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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