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Authors: Rebecca West

Sunflower

BOOK: Sunflower
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Sunflower

Rebecca West

To my friend
G.B. Stern

Contents

I

II

III

IV

V

I

SHE never could understand machinery. So when the chauffeur tried to explain what was so seriously the matter with the automobile that it would take a whole two hours to repair, she cut him short and said, ‘Never mind, Harrowby. Accidents will happen, and anyway it’s much nicer than travelling by train.’ She noticed a look of real perturbation round his nice eyes, and was puzzled till a flash of comprehension came to her, and she hastily explained, ‘Oh, it’s all right about my being late. I’m not expecting—anyone.’ But she did wish Essington would not get so angry when she was late that the servants noticed. It wasn’t her dignity she was thinking of; she was too tired to think of that. But it dug away her defences. For if nobody else knew how he behaved, then when she woke in the middle of the night and felt like a trapped rat she could pretend that things weren’t so bad, she could say to herself, ‘I expect I imagine most of it. For he’s awfully fond of me, really. He can’t get on without me. Look how he always wants me to go away with him for his holidays. Yes, I’m silly, that’s what I am.’ But if other people knew about it she couldn’t fool herself, and had to go on feeling like a trapped rat.

She shivered, and said, ‘Well, I suppose I can’t go on sitting here if you’re going to do all that to her. I’ll go for a walk,’ and stepped out of the automobile. The garage yard was full of the clear light of May, and it was a pleasanter place than most of its kind, for it had evidently been an old livery-stable and its walks were of mellow red brick, patterned with streaks of moss and golden patches like freckles where time and sunshine had toasted away the surface. In the end wall was an archway barred by an iron gate, through which one could see a green country garden that was as much orchard as garden, with fruit trees standing in grass too long and strong for a lawn, and rows of rhubarb. It made her think of the orchards round Chiswick when she was a little girl. They had been so pretty; and she had had time to look at them, for then her days had been too empty as now they were too full. She was glad that this breakdown which gave her an hour to herself had happened in this little market town, where there were orchards.

‘Harrowby,’ she asked, ‘didn’t we pass a pretty place with water, just before we came into the town?’

‘Yes, Miss, a kind of big pond it was, with lily pools. A gentleman’s estate left to the district for a park, I should say it was. There were seats. About three quarters of a mile back, it was.’

‘Oh, dear! That’s too far. I’d have to walk a mile and a half in all. I suppose I won’t have time. And it was so pretty. It seems as if one never could do anything one wanted, doesn’t it?’ She felt like crying. Nowadays she was all to pieces.

‘But you said, Miss, that you hadn’t got to hurry. And I could run you back to town in an hour and a half from here. This is Packbury, you know. I should go if I were you, Miss. It’ll do you good.’

It was all right. There was really no reason at all why she should not go. It was simply that she was so unused to liberty, so seldom free from the leash that jerked her back to heel whenever she was doing anything she enjoyed, that she felt at a loss when she was on her own. She pulled herself together and said gaily, ‘All right. I’ll come back here. Don’t try to fetch me, for I’ll take a footpath if I can.’ She hadn’t been on a footpath for years. He tuned up his engine and took the car, calling over his shoulder, ‘Never known you have an hour to yourself before, Miss!’ She smiled and waved her hand, and turned towards the street. She meant to buy some fruit and chocolate, and eat it sitting by the pond.

But a young man in overalls, the man Harrowby had been talking to about the car, stopped her. ‘I’m proud to have your car in my garage, Miss Fassendyll.’

She did so want to buy that fruit and get away by herself to the pretty place. But she had to pause and look pleased, since he meant to be kind. ‘Oh, that’s very nice of you. Fancy your knowing me!’

‘Well, who wouldn’t? My wife—’ he gave a broad, shy smile, ‘she’ll be real sorry she isn’t down to see you, she’s laid up just now. Some people say she could pass herself off as you any day. Quite a joke it is among our friends.’

‘Isn’t that interesting! I do wish I’d seen her. But I expect she’s far nicer than me really. Tell her I’m ever so sorry I didn’t see her, won’t you?’

‘I will, Miss. I can’t tell you how disappointed she’ll be, for you’re her favourite actress. When we were passing through London last year on our honeymoon we went and saw you. She wouldn’t hear of going and seeing anybody else. “I want to see Miss Sybil Fassendyll,” she said, and that was that. Rosalind you were.’

‘Oh, was I!’ She sighed. ‘The papers said I was awful.’

‘We thought it was lovely. Never enjoyed an evening at the theatre more, particularly considering it was Shakespeare. I suppose there’s a lot of jealousy and that to account for what they write in the papers.’

‘No, I don’t think it’s that. They’re kind, most people. I didn’t know anybody when I started, and look how they’ve let me get on. But sometimes it’s hard to understand what they want you to do …’ Her eyes wandered vacantly round the yard. She became absorbed in contemplation of this mystery which nowadays was constantly vexing her, as to what the art of living could possibly be. One went on to the stage properly dressed and made up as the character and said the words as they would be said in real life. How could there be anything more to it? Yet it seemed, from the way that people went on, as if there was. She wished this man would not go on forever standing between her and oranges, and the pretty place with water, and rest. Apart from making her think of uncomfortable things he was horrid with his flat, smug, deliberate voice, his characterless, genteel phrases, and his peculiarly wide smile, which showed a gold-crowned tooth in his lower jaw. But there he stood in her path, quite undislodgeable, slowly turning a spanner in his hand, and smiling fixedly and over-broadly. She looked away again, and a spike of white lilac, thrusting above the tortoiseshell reds and golds of the wall, caught her wandering eye. Absently she said, ‘You’ve got a nice place here. It looks old, too.’

‘As old as you can think, Miss,’ he said, still turning the spanner, still smiling. ‘This was the stable yard of the White-Faced Stag Inn before it was burned down, and nobody knows how old that was. Queen Elizabeth slept there, anyway.’ It seemed that he must be about to stop, for the pause was long, but he did not. ‘We had an awful job to get the place right. Had to take up all the old cobblestones, for one thing.’

‘Isn’t that a shame! I always think they look so pretty.’

His smile grew broader. ‘That’s just what my wife says. But you wouldn’t like to drive into a garage all bumpitty-bumpitty, would you?’ He laughed tenderly, as if something in that feeling about the cobblestones struck him as very comic and lovable; labouring the point ridiculously. Then he began to tell her interminably how much it had cost to set the place in order, how he had spent every penny of his gratuity on it, to which she said wearily, remembering the cloud-marbled surface of that pond, ‘Well, I hope you’re doing well now.’

In a moment during which she nearly groaned aloud, he did not reply. Then he muttered, ‘Well, we were able to get married on it a year ago,’ and looked at her with shining eyes and a smile that was not fixed at all but trembled on the tide of a deep feeling. He opened his mouth, and closed it. He had ceased to turn the spanner in his hand, and was holding it away from him stiffly, exhibitingly, like a priest holding a reliquary; it might have been the symbol of something sacred that he possessed and wanted to tell her about and could not because he was overcome by reverence. It came to her suddenly, for she was clever about people though she could get the hang of nothing else, that he had been telling her all these dreary things about the cost of removing cobblestones and the price of petrol-pumps because they were part of a story that he knew to be wonderful; and from a kind of glow of love about him, that was as real and perceptible as might have been the flush of rage or the pallor of despair, she knew that he was right and that the story was really wonderful. This man and this woman were in love, and it was lasting though they had got each other; they were living a marvellous life. This aroused in her feelings not only of happy sympathy but of partisanship, for she had been accustomed though not resigned to a world where everything—politics, business, the arts and sciences—were esteemed above life. ‘Why do they make such a fuss about Shakespeare because of “Romeo and Juliet”? It’s more wonderful to
be
“Romeo and Juliet”, like these people, than just to write it down,’ she thought contentiously while she smiled into the man’s blindish, radiant gaze, and cried, ‘Isn’t that lovely! Isn’t that lovely!’ She felt a little guilty, because she used what they had taught her about modulating her voice to help herself to sound really glad. It seemed to her—and the thought was painful, as if dwelling upon it would force her to the realisation of some immense loss—that had they both been inarticulate they might have found it easier to understand each other. For it was not as if she were wholly articulate. That would have been all right. But though they had taught her to say a lot of things, these were chiefly passwords that made possible entrance into restricted circles, like saying ‘gehl’ instead of ‘gurl’, so that rather than widen her power of communicating with her fellow-beings they had narrowed it. ‘I’ve been muckered about,’ she thought resentfully. It was a sign of the general incalculable queerness of things that her clear, rounded sentences and definite gestures should proceed from a condition that was not at all satisfying, while the completion of this man who was happy with his wife expressed itself in these broken, inadequate, stockish mutterings. ‘You see,’ he was saying, ‘I had to have enough and a bit more, for she came from a good home, a very good home. Much better people than me she comes from …’

‘Yes, yes, I know what you mean,’ she nodded sagely.

He began again to turn the spanner in his hand, looking down at it. ‘It’s a queer thing you should have come like this. It’s always been something remarkable like, you being so like my wife. We’ve often talked about it.’ He spoke with great gravity, and she understood why. She could not have found it out for herself, it was a little too difficult for her. But it had been explained to her by Essington, in one of those rare moments when he stood back and looked at her and thought about her, instead of just crying out for her with closed eyes, utterly dependent and quite uninterested in how she might be, like a very young baby with its mother. One night after dinner he had been very kind and happy, she could not at first think why, till she remembered that it was from no more substantial cause than a walk along the Row, tender and melancholy and achingly contenting, with the pale coin of dead leaves spinning down the aisles of dark wet earth, under trees that were but bare tracery, as if the year, crazed with her losses, were playing pitch and toss with her last wealth in a ruined church, and the blue mist above the Serpentine making it look like the place where the dead of London might go the night they die and linger, wistful but too drowsy to be afraid; while the warm lights came out in the houses overlooking the park and one remembered that one was not dead, and that at home there would be toast. They had hurried home, skipping when there was nobody about because the cold air was working on them like wine, and had muffins for tea, and she had played Farnaby and Purcell to him on the pianola all evening, and there had been a perfect little dinner with a pheasant that was just right. It showed how really good he was, and how sweet, that it was only simple things like that which made him happy. His successes did not; it was part of his tryingness that he would come back from all his big political meetings in an itching fury of self-loathing, as if he had looked down into the abyss of vanity and hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty that engulfs those who believe the people when it praises them. But that night he had been very happy. He had made her sit on the little stool at his feet in front of the wood fire, and had actually asked her about her work, which as a rule he resentfully ignored in the same spirit that an old-fashioned housewife ignores the follower who prevents her servant from giving all her time and energy to her domestic duties. She went to her desk and brought out some photographs that she had been wanting to show him for some days, but had not dared to because he had been going through one of his bad times. Two girls, one a mill-girl in Oldham, the other the manageress of a sweet-shop in Huddersfield, had spent what must have been a lot of money to them on being photographed in the poses of her own best-known portraits, and they had sent her their own photographs and the ones they had copied with long letters exultantly pointing out the closeness of the resemblance, and asked her to sign her own, so that they could put them together in the same frame for their sweethearts. ‘Isn’t it funny,’ she had wondered, ‘that anybody should be proud of being like somebody else? Wouldn’t you think everyone would want to be just like themselves? It’s so modest of the poor things.’

BOOK: Sunflower
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