On the hottest day of the summer of 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching ...(more)
PARTLY BECAUSE of her youth and the glory of the day, partly because of her blossoming need for a cigarette, Cecilia Tallis half ran with her flowers along the path that went by the river, by the old diving pool with its mossy brick wall, before curving away through the oak woods. The accumulated inactivity of the summer weeks since finals also hurried her along; since coming home, her life had stood still and a fine day like this made her impatient, almost desperate. The cool high shade of the woods was a relief, the sculpted intricacies of the tree trunks enchanting. Once through the iron kissing gate, and past the rhododendrons beneath the ha-ha, she crossed the open parkland--sold off to a local farmer to graze his cows on--and came up behind the fountain and its retaining wall and the half-scale reproduction of Bernini's Triton in the Piazza Barberini in Rome. The muscular figure, squatting so comfortably on his shell, could blow through his conch a jet only two inches high, the pressure was so feeble, and water fell back over his head, down his stone locks and along the groove of his powerful spine, leaving a glistening dark green stain. In an alien northern climate he was a long way from home, but he was beautiful in morning sunlight, and so were the four dolphins that supported the wavy-edged shell on which he sat. She looked at the improbable scales on the dolphins and on the Triton's thighs, and then toward the house. Her quickest way into the drawing room was across the lawn and terrace and through the French windows. But her childhood friend and university acquaintance, Robbie Turner, was on his knees, weeding along a rugosa hedge, and she did not feel like getting into conversation with him. Or at least, not now. Since coming down, landscape gardening had become his last craze but one. Now there was talk of medical college, which after a literature degree seemed rather pretentious. And presumptuous too, since it was her father who would have to pay. She refreshed the flowers by plunging them into the fountain's basin, which was full-scale, deep and cold, and avoided Robbie by hurrying round to the front of the house--it was an excuse, she thought, to stay outside another few minutes. Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home--barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a younger writer of the modern school as "charmless to a fault." An Adam-style house had stood here until destroyed by fire in the late 1880s. What remained was the artificial lake and island with its two stone bridges supporting the driveway, and, by the water's edge, a crumbling stuccoed temple. Cecilia's grandfather, who grew up over an ironmonger's shop and made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps, had imposed on the new house his taste for all things solid, secure and functional. Still, if one turned one's back to the front entrance and glanced down the drive, ignoring the Friesians already congregating in the shade of widely spaced trees, the view was fine enough, giving an impression of timeless, unchanging calm which made her more certain than ever that she must soon be moving on. She went indoors, quickly crossed the black and white tiled hall--how familiar her echoing steps, how annoying--and paused to catch her breath in the doorway of the drawing room. Dripping coolly onto her sandaled feet, the untidy bunch of rosebay willow herb and irises brought her to a better state of mind. The vase she was looking for was on an American cherry-wood table by the French windows which were slightly ajar. Their southeast aspect had permitted parallelograms of morning sunlight to advance across the powder-blue carpet. Her breathing slowed and her desire for a cigarette deepened, but still she hesitated by the door, momentarily held by the perfection of the scene--by the three faded Chesterfields grouped around the almost new Gothic fireplace in which stood a display of wintry sedge, by the unplayed, untuned harpsichord and the unused rosewood music stands, by the heavy velvet curtains, loosely restrained by an orange and blue tasseled rope, framing a partial view of cloudless sky and the yellow and gray mottled terrace where chamomile and feverfew grew between the paving cracks. A set of steps led down to the lawn on whose border Robbie still worked, and which extended to the Triton fountain fifty yards away. All this--the river and flowers, running, which was something she rarely did these days, the fine ribbing of the oak trunks, the high-ceilinged room, the geometry of light, the pulse in her ears subsiding in the stillness--all this pleased her as the familiar was transformed into a delicious strangeness. But she also felt reproved for her homebound boredom. She had returned from Cambridge with a vague notion that her family was owed an uninterrupted stretch of her company. But her father remained in town, and her mother, when she wasn't nurturing her migraines, seemed distant, even unfriendly. Cecilia had carried up trays of tea to her mother's room--as spectacularly squalid as her own--thinking some intimate conversations might develop. However, Emily Tallis wanted to share only tiny frets about the household, or she lay back against the pillows, her expression unreadable in the gloom, emptying her cup in wan silence. Briony was lost to her writing fantasies--what had seemed a passing fad was now an enveloping obsession. Cecilia had seen them on the stairs that morning, her younger sister leading the cousins, poor things, who had arrived only yesterday, up to the nursery to rehearse the play Briony wanted to put on that evening, when Leon and his friend were expected. There was so little time, and already one of the twins had been detained by Betty in the scullery for some wrongdoing or other. Cecilia was not inclined to help--it was too hot, and whatever she did, the project would end in calamity, with Briony expecting too much, and no one, especially the cousins, able to measure up to her frenetic vision. Cecilia knew she could not go on wasting her days in the stews of her untidied room, lying on her bed in a haze of smoke, chin propped on her hand, pins and needles spreading up through her arm as she read her way through Richardson's Clarissa. She had made a halfhearted start on a family tree, but on the paternal side, at least until her great-grandfather opened his humble hardware shop, the ancestors were irretrievably sunk in a bog of farm laboring, with suspicious and confusing changes of surnames among the men, and common-law marriages unrecorded in the parish registers. She could not remain here, she knew she should make plans, but she did nothing. There were various possibilities, all equally unpressing. She had a little money in her account, enough to keep her modestly for a year or so. Leon repeatedly invited her to spend time with him in London. University friends were offering to help her find a job--a dull one certainly, but she would have her independence. She had interesting uncles and aunts on her mother's side who were always happy to see her, including wild Hermione, mother of Lola and the boys, who even now was over in Paris with a lover who worked in the wireless. No one was holding Cecilia back, no one would care particularly if she left. It wasn't torpor that kept her--she was often restless to the point of irritability. She simply liked to feel that she was prevented from leaving, that she was needed.
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