|Publisher:||Owen, Peter Limited|
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A Charmed Circle
By Anna Kavan
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1994 The Estate of Anna Kavan
All rights reserved.
For fifty years the Vicarage of Hannington stood uneventfully among its elm trees and flat fields. It faced the ugly grey church, but was hidden from it by high walls and a row of trees. Round about was open country, level, cultivated, uninteresting; dotted here and there with labourers' cottages.
In time builders came. They set up houses of a different kind; neat, ugly little boxes strung together in rows. The rows, too, strung together. Surprisingly, they extended and met, forming mean streets that devoured the unresisting land. Fields were eaten away almost in a night. People went for their yearly holidays and returned four short weeks later to find the landscape strangely altered. Everywhere was an alien and unwelcome activity. Steam-rollers crawled over the endless new roads; workmen swarmed everywhere, combining with the inhabitants of the new houses to overwhelm the natives of the place. The ancient population dwindled and vanished. A new people took possession of Hannington; a people which teemed in the poor streets, demanding numberless shops, public-houses and chapels.
Only a few fields were left now round the church. Even here were alterations. A new and hideous lych-gate was built, and a new vicar, finding the vicarage too large, moved into a smaller, meaner house of the now prevailing type. Rather surprisingly the vicarage – now known as the Old Vicarage – was not pulled down. A family, strange to the neighbourhood, bought it and settled there, making expensive improvements, living a secret, unguessed-at life behind its screening walls.
The fields dwindled, endured a long sickly survival as a kind of spurious village green, then vanished altogether. The streets crept closer, the tide of squalid little houses swept on till it surged round the very boundaries of the Old Vicarage; and the Old Vicarage heightened its garden walls, thickened its screen of trees and stood obstinately firm, like a sullen rock that refuses to be submerged by the tide.CHAPTER 2
At half-past nine on a fine June evening there was plenty of activity in Hannington. Children were shouting over the last game of the day, a buzz of gossiping voices filled the streets, and a more staid hum rose from the tiny garden-strips of the better houses. All the noises of the town merged together in a heavy, senseless murmur, accentuated every few minutes by the hum and clatter of a tram or the grind of a motor 'bus. Trees and walls could not shut out the murmur which welled in through the open windows of the Old Vicarage and clung impalpably about the rooms. Every now and then some trick of the wind carried the sound of a tram thudding up the Freetown Rise with peculiar distinctness, so that even Beryl Deane, who was so accustomed to it that she might have been expected not to notice, remarked upon it.
'How clearly we can hear the trams to-night,' she said.
Her mother nodded without looking up.
The two women were sitting in a room which for some reason was called the breakfast-room, though breakfast was never eaten there. Like all the rooms in the house, it was bright and pretty, with a slightly faded prettiness. It was easy to see that a good deal of money had been spent on it in the past, but now there was a general air, scarcely more than a hint, of very faint deterioration, as though the owners had lost interest in the place, which was in its turn growing discouraged, like a living creature. In spite of this suggestion (which, after all, was barely noticeable) the room was really quite charming with its clean chintzes and light blue carpet. A tall standard lamp threw a pool of light over mother and daughter. Several bowls of flowers, some bright water-colours and a gay cushion or two made splashes of pleasant colour. It was quite a small room and inclined to be overcrowded, but this only intensified the effect which the whole house gave of being compact and self-sufficing. It was like a nest, a little ark, a tiny island, self-contained and isolated. It remained there, shut within the circle of its walls and trees, in the middle of the teeming life of Hannington. The mean streets surrounded it, the rows of squalid houses pressed against it, yet it was hidden from them, utterly separated from them, cut off as effectually as if its walls and trees had been leagues of land and water. The inhabitants of those streets of houses knew nothing of the family at the Old Vicarage. They were neither curious nor interested. Very few people had given even a casual thought to these lives, so close to their own, yet so fantastically remote. The Old Vicarage walled them in seclusion; they were immured in the safe, profound secrecy of those in whom no one is interested.CHAPTER 3
Beryl was working at a piece of embroidery. She sat close under the lamp, so that the light fell full on the tiny stitches and soft-coloured silks. It lighted up one side of her face and left the other in shadow, so that it was difficult for anyone looking at her to describe her appearance. Curiously, that was always the case. At the moment, the freak of lighting obscured her, but even a person who had had opportunities of watching her in clear daylight would not easily have been able to describe her.
She was young, perhaps twenty-one or twenty-two, dark, rather tall, with a pale skin and a flat, strong body. So much was obvious, but her face was difficult. When her eyes were down there was nothing but a blank, wide V under the two waves of her hair, which flowed smoothly from a centre parting. The eyes were large and dark and revealed nothing; they were quite without the wistfulness associated with large eyes, but held an obscure expression, sullen and elusive as the face itself.
Part of her mind was occupied with the intricate pattern of her embroidery, but numbers of other thoughts passed through it in a rapid, restless chase. She wished that it were ten o'clock, but the hands of the enamelled French clock still pointed to a quarter to. She moved restlessly, glanced up at her mother, who appeared to be absorbed in her book, sighed, and resumed her needlework with obvious boredom.
Mrs. Deane read steadily with the air of one who reads with a set purpose and not merely for amusement. On a small table beside her chair was a pile of three or four heavy volumes, and she occasionally took up one of these and looked up some reference or made a note in the margin. There was something important in the way she did this which was amusing, because in spite of the determined, business-like way in which she was reading, she was such a dainty little thing. Her wavy hair was like a silver wig over her pink, fresh face, and she was altogether pleasantly plump and rosy, and far more girlish-looking than her daughter. A pair of horn-rimmed spectacles gave her the air almost of a child 'dressing-up.'
She, too, wished that it were ten o'clock, but she would not have admitted it. So intent was she on presenting the picture of a lady thoroughly absorbed in her reading, that she really thought she was absorbed. In the same way she had convinced herself that she was really interested in the big books beside her. If anyone had dared to suggest that her reading and the book she was writing on English Folk-Lore were merely an impressive pose, she would have been offended and genuinely indignant.CHAPTER 4
At five minutes to ten the door opened and Dr. Deane came in, followed by his elder daughter Olive. He was always referred to as 'the doctor,' though he had not practised for many years. His children could not remember a time when he did so. All their lives he had occupied the same peculiar position in the household. He was at the same time the centre of the family and a person of no importance in it. He never interfered in any way with their domestic plans or arrangements. He submitted to their decisions without criticism, argument or complaint. His opinion was rarely asked, even on important matters, as it was known that he would probably refuse to give it. For days at a time he scarcely spoke, and yet he exerted a strong mental influence in the household. His health was not good, and his pale face and tall, thin, stooping figure gave him rather the appearance of an invalid. He came in now, glanced at the clock, sat down without speaking, and began at once to read a small brown book which he had brought with him.
Mrs. Deane also looked at the clock over the top of her spectacles, but in a deliberately inquiring manner. She then turned her questioning look towards Olive, who said explanatorily:
'It's ten o'clock by my watch.'
She held out her wrist with a challenging movement.
'You're five minutes fast,' her mother retorted, and taking up her book again, she went on reading. Her pose showed resentment at being interrupted five minutes too soon in her important task.
'The church clock hasn't struck yet,' remarked Beryl.
Mrs. Deane frowned slightly without looking up. A disagreeable silence settled on the room.
Olive, who was still standing in a rather defiant attitude, suddenly relaxed and sat down beside her sister. There was not much likeness between them beyond the fact that both were dark, and in a general way resembled their father more than their mother. Olive, particularly, inherited his stern profile, softened and blurred by her youth, but obvious none the less behind the warm-tinted flesh. She was five years older than Beryl: maturer, softer, and no more definite. Her hair was drawn back into an unbecoming twist. She had almost the air of someone who deliberately makes the worst of her appearance; but this uncompromising, even aggressive attitude was contradicted in the strangest way by an expression which she habitually wore of discomfort, anxiety and diffidence. Her eyebrows had a barely perceptible lift, as though she were constantly bewildered.
She took up a handful, now, of Beryl's silks, smoothing and arranging the delicate colours. With an impatient movement her sister snatched them away.
The four occupants of the room sat in hostile silence while the faint murmur of Hannington came in through the open windows. The French clock began to strike the hour in quick, thin strokes, and as it reached the fifth stroke the harsh, melancholy chime of the church clock joined in. On the last stroke of the breakfast-room clock, and while the one outside was still laboriously striking, the door opened and the parlour-maid came in with a tray. She put it on the table beside Mrs. Deane and stood quietly to attention.
'Will there be anything else, ma'am?'
'No thank you, Doris,' said Mrs. Deane without looking up. She did not move for some moments after the girl had left the room.
The sisters sat motionless, awaiting her pleasure. The doctor seemed not to have noticed the appearance of the tray. Finally, she closed her book and laid it on the table; then with deliberation took off her spectacles, folded them into their brocade case and laid them on the top of the book. With an air of satisfaction she smiled at her family and turned her attention to the tray. On it were two cups of Ovaltine and a plate of sweet biscuits.
'Take this cup to your father, Beryl,' she said.
Beryl looked up sulkily, her dark eyes scowling.
'All right, I'm nearer, I'll take it,' Olive said hastily, anxious to keep the peace, and she carried the cup to the doctor, who received it with a nod.
Mrs. Deane lifted the other cup herself. She felt that she needed this stimulant on the evenings when she worked. With care she selected two biscuits, one coated in pink sugar, the other in white, then handed the plate to Olive, who took it to her sister. The two girls munched. Olive greedily, choosing each biscuit with discrimination; Beryl carelessly, taking the one nearest to her hand. Their mother sipped her Ovaltine daintily, holding the cup in her right hand and the saucer in her left. After each sip she replaced the cup on its saucer and looked at it with the air of a connoisseur considering some rare vintage. The doctor gulped his down hastily and set the empty cup on the floor.
No one seemed inclined to speak, but Mrs. Deane, having laid aside her reading, was graciously prepared for a little relaxation. She was ready for some talk and expected to be entertained.
'Well, girls?' she began expectantly.
'What, mamma?' said Olive.
She knew quite well what was expected of them, and also that Beryl was in a bad mood and would not help her out. She felt aggrieved. Why should Beryl always shirk her share of the conversation? The two girls had long ago established a sort of silent agreement in regard to their parents, under the terms of which each was to give them the requisite amount of daily attention. The doctor fell more particularly to Olive's share, while Mrs. Deane was chiefly Beryl's responsibility. In point of fact, Olive devoted more than her share of time to both of them, and this was a perpetual grievance to her and a cause of quarrelling between the sisters.
Mrs. Deane moved impatiently in her chair.
'Well,' she insisted, 'haven't either of you anything to talk about? Any news to tell me?'
She sat there glancing brightly from one to another of her daughters. On her face was the falsely cheerful expression of one who, out of the generosity and goodness of her own nature, hopes to receive the response she merits, but anticipates disappointment.
'There's nothing special that I know of,' Olive replied.
Beryl remained obstinately silent, her eyes fixed on her embroidery.
'What a mean creature she is,' her sister thought, glancing sideways at her averted face.
'You were in the town this afternoon, weren't you?' Mrs. Deane pursued, with growing impatience.
Beryl suddenly stabbed her needle viciously into the work and threw it aside.
'You know nothing interesting ever happens in that wretched old town, mamma,' she cried irritably.
Mrs. Deane was hurt.
'I don't understand you two girls,' she said with dignified restraint. 'You never seem to have a word to say for yourselves. I should have thought that after scarcely speaking to me all day, you might have been ready for a little chat in the evenings.'
'But, mamma, you know the reason we don't bother you more is because you're working and don't want to be disturbed.' Olive was distressed and anxious to avert unpleasantness. An unpleasant atmosphere always seemed to arise so suddenly and easily, and once there was so difficult to disperse.
Beryl did not mind these hostilities, but they always made Olive unhappy.
'Oh, I'm not complaining,' replied her mother with determined cheerfulness.
At this moment the doctor rose and went to the door. When the conversation reached this point he usually left the room.
Beryl sprang up eagerly.
'I think I'll go to bed too,' she exclaimed in a voice made cheerful by the prospect of escape. She went over and kissed her mother lightly on the cheek. Olive followed her and did the same. The nightly ritual of kisses could not be disregarded.
As they kissed her, Mrs. Deane was thinking how disappointed she was, how misunderstood and how much to be pitied. She could not imagine why her daughters were so hostile and aloof. Other girls were cheerful and affectionate and amusing: full of chatter and gaiety. She thought how much she wanted to be intimate with them, and how completely they shut her out of their lives. She was really very sorry for herself.
'Well, I think I'll stay here and work a little longer,' she said as they left her, bravely hiding her disappointment.
The doctor was still in the hall when his daughters emerged.
'Another day over,' he remarked as they went upstairs together. It was the first time he had spoken that evening.CHAPTER 5
Beryl went into her bedroom, and the door closed behind her with its peculiar muffled click that was different from the sound of any other door in the house. Her room had been the nursery, and still contained some childish white furniture, painted with birds and animals. The chest of drawers had a parrot painted in vivid colours in the middle and on each drawer between the handles.
Excerpted from A Charmed Circle by Anna Kavan. Copyright © 1994 The Estate of Anna Kavan. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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