Tears mingle with domestic upheavals in this delightful reunion of Thirkell’s Barsetshire characters as they cavort through the early days of World War II. Highlights include Rose Birkett's wedding, Geraldine Birkett's infatuation with Fritz Gissing, and a romance between Octavia Crawley and Tommy Needham. Noel Merton's marriage to Lydia Keith takes place just before he leaves for the war, and at the end he may be missing after Dunkirk. When it is learned that a London school is to be evacuated, the villagers rally round to offer their support, and the local characters are seen in their true colors. Meanwhile, East European refugees bring a new spirit and energy to the peaceful countryside.
Release date: May 5, 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 332
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Cheerfulness Breaks In
Since the fateful summer when Rose had first got engaged and then got unengaged, to use her own description, to Philip Winter, she had plighted her troth to at least six admirers and with equal fervour unplighted it. Her parents, who had not the faintest control over their wayward child, began to fear that she would live with them for ever, when Lieutenant John Fairweather, R.N., who had made her the object of his attentions for several years whenever he was on leave, came into a very nice fortune and was appointed Naval Attaché to the South American capital of Las Palombas. Immediately on the receipt of these pieces of news he proposed to Rose, was at once accepted, for such was her artless custom when wooed, and told her parents he was very sorry but he must marry her at once.
Mr. and Mrs. Birkett, who had known Lieutenant Fairweather ever since he and his brother were in the junior school, made a faint protest for form’s sake and then arranged with joy to have the wedding in the school chapel two days after school broke up for the summer holidays, a date which only gave Mrs. Birkett a fortnight to get her daughter’s trousseau and send out invitations. In this her husband would, she well knew, be little or no help, partly because he wouldn’t in any case, partly because end of term occupied his every moment, but in the joy of getting rid of her daughter she would willingly have undertaken a far more onerous task. It was difficult to believe that in two weeks Rose would be safely married and no longer drive everyone mad by coming down late, combing her hair and making up her face all over the house, bringing young men in for drinks at all hours and being very rude to her parents, or having equally exhausting fits of remorse accompanied by loud crying and yelling, but if any effort of hers could help towards this long-desired end, Mrs. Birkett was ready to make it. In all her preparations she was loyally seconded by her younger daughter, Geraldine, who while not envying her elder sister her beauty or her admirers (for she was an intellectual), very much looked forward to having the old nursery, which Rose had in vain attempted to rechristen a sitting-room, for her sole use and to receiving there such old girls of the Barchester High School as she happened to favour.
Under normal conditions it would have been perfectly easy to Rose to get unengaged within a fortnight and even get engaged to someone else, but two things contributed to make her love burn with a steadfast glow. The first was that her mother firmly took her up to town for such an orgy of dress-buying that even Rose’s delicate frame, proof against a twenty-four hour day of cinemas, driving in fast cars, dancing at nightclubs and listening to the wireless at full blast while she talked to all her friends, was slightly affected; the second that she had nearly learnt to play the ocarina and did not wish to lose any moment in which she might be perfecting herself on that uninteresting instrument.
There had been moments when Mr. and Mrs. Birkett had suffered from compunction, wondering whether they had done right in delivering an Old Boy into the hands of their lovely Rose, and Mr. Birkett had gone so far as deciding to enlighten his old pupil as to the character of his daughter. For this sacrificial act he had chosen a Sunday evening after dinner. Lieutenant Fairweather had been spending the week-end at the school and had filled his future parents-in-law with admiration by telling Rose that if she couldn’t be down and dressed by ten o’clock on Sunday morning he wasn’t going to wait for her, as he had promised to meet Everard Carter on the Southbridge Golf Links at half-past. Rose, sauntering down at five minutes to ten, her golden locks tied up in a scarlet fish-net, her exquisite figure draped in a yellow short-sleeved shirt and grey flannel slacks, her feet with their gleaming red toenails thrust into blue beach shoes with soles two inches thick, carrying her ocarina under one arm and a large, dirty, white vanity bag under the other, found her betrothed sitting on the front doorstep of the Headmaster’s house in the sun.
‘You can’t come like that, my girl,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather, looking with affectionate disgust at his Rose.
‘Don’t be so dispiriting, darling,’ said Rose.
‘Four minutes and a half to put on some decent clothes,’ said the Lieutenant, turning his back on his beloved, going down the steps to his car and looking with great interest at the bonnet. He then took a neatly folded piece of wash-leather out of a pocket in the car and began to polish some chromium work. When he had finished he folded the wash-leather neatly up again, put it away and got into the driving seat. As he did so Rose in a becoming light woollen coat and skirt (for the day, though near the end of July, was not very hot), her hair confined by a neat bandeau, her beautiful legs and feet in silk stockings and brogues, ran down the steps and round the car and took her place beside him, remarking as she did so that he was foully dispiriting.
‘Not half so dispiriting as that pumpkin of yours, my girl,’ said the gallant Lieutenant, and taking the ocarina from Rose he stretched out his long arm and put it in one of the stone flower-pots at the bottom of the steps.
Rose said that was too dispiriting and foul.
‘That’s all right,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather, starting his high-powered sports car with a jump and roar that would have shaken the teeth out of anyone less toughly made and insensitive than the exquisite Rose. ‘It’ll do nicely in the flower-pot. Grow into an ocarina tree. Isn’t there a book called that by some fellow?’
Rose said it sounded a pretty dispiriting sort of book and she dare said it was one of those foul books Mummy got from the libery.
‘Fellow called something or other,’ said the Lieutenant, swinging the car out of the school gates into the main road on one wheel while he lighted a cigarette. ‘Morn, or Morm, or something. The Torpedo Lieutenant of the Anteater lent it me and I lost it.’
The rest of this intellectual conversation was lost in the joys of overtaking every car on the road and the happy pair were not seen again till dinner-time. Sunday dinner, for the loathsome meal called Sunday supper Mrs. Birkett had always managed to avoid, was the usual mixture of family, three masters, and a couple of rather spotty senior boys, upon all of whom Rose lavished her charms with great impartiality and but little success, for the masters talked shop with the Headmaster as a relaxation from talking shop with him all the week, and the boys regarded her much as Hop o’ My Thumb regarded the Ogre’s daughter, finding her sister Geraldine a much better sort of fellow. Lieutenant Fairweather talked very happily with Mrs. Birkett about old days in the junior school and his elder brother in the Barsetshire Regiment, and when Rose sauntered out of the room no one missed her in the least.
When the guests had gone Mr. Birkett looked at his wife and in an offhand way invited Lieutenant Fair-weather to come into his study and smoke a pipe. As the Headmaster and most of his guests had been smoking pipes ever since supper the invitation might have struck an unprejudiced observer as quite unnecessary, but the Lieutenant, who took everything as he found it unless he wanted to alter it, at once got up.
‘Good night,’ said Mrs. Birkett, ‘I suppose I ought to call you John, but I always think of you as Fair-weather Junior.’
‘Well, I always think of you as Old Ma Birky,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘Jove, those were the days, Mrs. Birky. Do you remember the boxing competition when I was in the Lower Fourth?’
‘Of course I do,’ said Mrs. Birkett. ‘You and Swift-Hetherington were in the under four stone class.’
‘And Mrs. Watson went out of the hall till the fighting was over because she was afraid young Watson might bleed,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather. ‘He was a glutton for a fight.’
‘Now Bill is waiting for you,’ said Mrs. Birkett, always a good Headmaster’s wife.
Lieutenant Fairweather knocked his pipe out against the revolting tiles of the drawing-room fireplace, put in at vast expense by the Governing Body under the influence of one of their members who had been to the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and followed his old Headmaster to the study. The long summer evening was drawing to its close and from the study window lights could be seen in the various Houses across the school quad. Mr. Birkett turned on the light at his writing-table.
‘Sit down, Fairweather,’ he said.
‘Makes me feel quite young again,’ said the Lieutenant, taking a chair within the little pool of light. ‘Those were the days, sir. One used to get the wind up like anything when you sent for us. I remember you giving me six of the best for cheeking Mr. Ferris in the Upper Dor., when I was in the Lower School.’
‘Did I?’ said Mr. Birkett, feeling more and more how awkward it was to have to warn an Old Boy against Rose, especially an Old Boy whom he had beaten for cheeking that dreadful Ferris who had since become one of H.M. Inspectors of Secondary Schools and the right place for him too.
‘I don’t suppose you’d remember, sir,’ said the Lieutenant, warming to his memories. ‘Rose was yelling like anything that day because Mrs. Birky wouldn’t let her bang her toy drum in the hall.’
‘Yes; Rose,’ said the Headmaster absently. ‘Yes. Fairweather, I feel I ought to speak to you seriously about Rose.’
He paused. Much as he disliked his exquisite daughter he must be loyal to her and between this feeling and his deep loyalty to all Old Boys he must decide.
‘Sounds a bit like the Chaplain’s jaws before we were confirmed, sir,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather cheerfully. ‘Of course we knew all about facts of life but we used to give him his head.’
He laughed cheerfully.
‘It’s not that,’ said Mr. Birkett in great discomfort. ‘Rose is a very good girl, but I don’t think you quite understand what you’re undertaking. I’m afraid my wife and I have spoilt her rather.’
‘Take it from me, sir, you have,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘But this is where the Navy puts its foot down. Do you mind if I smoke, sir?’
He filled his pipe again and began lighting it. From the far corner of the room where by now it was quite dark came a low sound as of a melancholy and not very musical owl hooting in syncopated time.
‘Hi! Rose!’ said Lieutenant Fairweather, quite unperturbed. ‘Come out of that.’
At his loving words Rose with her ocarina came slowly and gracefully towards the table, remarking that it was quite dispiriting if one couldn’t practise because people would talk so much, and she had nearly got “Hebe’s got the jeebies but they’re not so bad as Phoebe’s” right.
‘Right, my girl? You wouldn’t get it right if you tried for a fortnight,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘And listen; that thing of yours is not coming on my honeymoon.’
‘Don’t be so foul, John,’ said Rose. ‘Daddy, I think it’s too dispiriting to be told one’s spoilt.’
Mr. Birkett, though he knew that he was in the right and his lovely daughter an intruder, an eavesdropper and a nuisance, felt more embarrassed than ever and was quite delighted when his younger daughter Geraldine came into the room with an avenging expression and went up to Rose.
‘You’ve taken my stockings again,’ said she.
‘I couldn’t find mine, and anyway they’re a foul pair,’ said Rose languidly.
‘They aren’t,’ said Geraldine coldly. ‘They are my good new pair that Mrs. Morland sent me for my birthday. Rose, you are a mean beast. You always take my things and you know I wanted specially to keep this pair for your wedding.’
Rose played a few uninterested notes on her ocarina. Mr. Birkett’s heart sank. This was a judgment on him for trying to warn Fairweather against Rose. Now he had seen Rose in this very unfavourable light he would break off the engagement and Rose would go on living at home, probably for ever. At this thought the Headmaster almost groaned aloud.
‘Come, come, my girl, that’s not cricket,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather getting up. ‘Give Geraldine her stockings. No, not now,’ he added, as Rose began pulling up her skirt and showing apparently yards of a very elegant silk-clad leg. ‘Go along now, and give them to Geraldine when you get upstairs.’
Rose dropped her skirt again and went towards the door.
‘And don’t forget to say good night,’ said the ardent lover. ‘Your father first, my girl.’
To her own great surprise Rose kissed her father good night, an attention to which he was little accustomed, and then put her face up for her betrothed to salute her, which he did with great affection, at the same time taking the ocarina from her, saying that she would keep everyone awake all night.
‘Darling John, I do love you,’ said Rose, clinging heavily about his neck.
‘Of course you do,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather, ‘you’re not a bad sort when one comes to know you, Rose. Good night, Gerry. Let me know if Rose tries to put it over you about those stockings.’
Geraldine, who as a rule resented any shortening of her name, kissed her future brother-in-law with almost as much affection as Rose had done and the two girls went off together, perfectly reconciled.
‘You know I’m awfully fond of Rose,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather, sitting down again, ‘and you needn’t be anxious about her, sir.’
‘No, I don’t think I am,’ said the Headmaster.
‘Nor about me, sir, if it comes to that,’ said the Lieutenant, looking his future father-in-law straight in the face with an immovable countenance.
Mr. Birkett came as near blushing as a middle-aged Headmaster can do and was silent for a moment.
‘It’s a queer world, Fairweather,’ he said at length. ‘We can’t tell what’s going to happen and none of us feels very safe. My wife and I rely on you implicitly.’
Lieutenant Fairweather again looked steadily at the Headmaster with his sailor’s concentrated gaze.
‘I think I get you, sir,’ he said. ‘If there is any trouble about and I have to join my ship instead of going to South America, I shall get a special licence and marry Rose out of hand. I’ve known her ever since she was a little girl, and I know she’s been engaged to lots of fellows, but this time she’s for it, so don’t worry, sir.’
Mr. Birkett’s first impulse on hearing that he need not fear that his lovely daughter would be left on his hands was to say, ‘Thank God,’ but as Headmasters have to keep up a pretence of being slightly more than human he merely said that he hoped things wouldn’t be as bad as that and inquired after the Lieutenant’s elder brother, Captain Geoffrey Fairweather, who was at the moment doing a staff course at Camberley and was going to be best man.
The last few weeks of the term sped away, the prize-giving and breaking-up took place, boys were whisked away to Devonshire, or the South of France, or walking tours in Scandinavia, or Public Schools camps at the South Pole, while masters prepared to pretend they were ordinary people for six or seven weeks. The matrons of the various Houses had left everything sheeted and tidied and gone to join their married sisters at Bournemouth or Scarborough, and an unwonted hush lay on the school quad, only broken by the occasional roar of a car as the guests who were coming for the night before the wedding arrived.
Everard Carter, the senior Housemaster, and his wife were among the few members of the staff who were still in residence. Mrs. Carter’s brother, Robert Keith, had married Lieutenant Fairweather’s elder sister Edith, which made Mrs. Carter almost a relation, and under the Carters’ roof Lieutenant Fairweather was to spend his last bachelor night. There had been talk of dining in town that evening, but London is not at its best at the end of July, most of Lieutenant Fairweather’s friends were away and his brother reported that Camberley seemed a bit sticky about giving leave, so the idea was abandoned. Rose had then suggested that they should all go to a cinema at Barchester, but this her mother vetoed, with firm support from the bridegroom, who told his Rose it was simply not done and she would see quite enough of him when they were married. Rose had shed a few very becoming tears and then forgot all about it in the excitement of unpacking a large china pig with pink roses on its back, the gift of the matron of Mr. Carter’s House.
The party at the Carters’ was not large. Everard Carter was tired at the end of term, Lieutenant Fair-weather was quite happy to smoke with his host and talk with his hostess, and there were only three other guests at dinner. One was the Senior Classical master, Philip Winter, who had been engaged to Rose for a few months of the hot summer three years before, an engagement which he had bitterly repented and from which he had only been saved by the fit of temper in which Rose had thrown him over, since which time he had almost loved her for not marrying him.
The two ladies, if one may use the expression, were Geraldine Birkett and Lydia Keith, Mrs. Carter’s younger sister, who had been at the Barchester High School together and were to be bridesmaids next day.
Miss Lydia Keith at about twenty-one had toned down a little from her schoolgirl days, though not so much as her mother might have wished. Her family had thought that when she left school she might wish to train for some sort of work in which swashbuckling is a desirable quality, though they could hardly think of any form of employment, short of Parliament, that would give Lydia’s powers sufficient scope. But to everyone’s surprise she had preferred to stay at home, where she wrested the housekeeping reins from her mother and ran the house with a ferocious yet tolerant competency that made her mother prophesy dolefully that Lydia would never get married, though on what grounds she based this opinion, or indeed any other, no one quite knew. To all such young men as were prepared to accept her as an equal Lydia extended a crushing handshake and the privilege of listening to her views on all subjects. As for any more tender form of feeling no one had ever dared to approach the subject with her and Lydia’s general idea of matrimony appeared to be that it was an amiable eccentricity suitable for parents in general who were of course born too long ago to have any sense, her sister Kate, and really silly people like Rose Birkett. In these matters her sentiments were echoed by Geraldine Birkett who had been her admiring follower ever since she used to do Lydia’s maths, at school and Lydia did Geraldine’s Latin. In fact, except that Lydia was tall, dark-haired and good-looking while Geraldine could only be described as a girl with a rather clever face, they were twin souls and had often toyed with the idea of breeding Cocker spaniels together. But Mr. Birkett wouldn’t hear of it and as Lydia’s mother had developed a heart Lydia couldn’t be spared. Most of Lydia’s contemporaries would have regarded an invalid mother as an additional and cogent reason for leaving home and breeding dogs, but Lydia, in spite of her swashbuckling, had too good a heart and, though she would have died sooner than admit it, too firm a sense of duty to desert her mother and led on the whole a very contented life.
‘Who are the other bridesmaids?’ asked Philip Winter, who had not taken much interest in the wedding.
‘Delia Brandon,’ said Lydia, ‘you know, the one that her mother’s Mrs. Brandon at Pomfret Madrigal and one of the Dean of Barchester’s girls that is called Octavia.’
‘And how,’ said Geraldine, who had a passion, her only trait in common with her sister Rose, for American gangster films.
‘How?’ asked Philip, amused.
Before Geraldine could reply Lydia, fully armed, leapt lightly to the breach, as she nearly always did when it was an affair of answering a question, whether addressed to her or to someone else, preferably someone else.
‘Anyway,’ she said scornfully, ‘if I had a lot of daughters I wouldn’t call one of them Octavia, even if she was the eighth. It seems invidious, if you know what I mean,’ she added, glaring belligerently at the company.
Her sister Kate Carter who was so good and sweet-tempered that one would hesitate to apply the word dull to her if there were any more suitable description said that after all it showed she was the eighth.
‘As a matter of fact she isn’t,’ said Geraldine, seizing her chance where mathematics were in question, ‘because two of them were boys and one died quite young, really before he was born I think.’
Kate quietly and anxiously changed the subject by saying that the delphiniums in the School Chapel looked quite lovely and a blue wedding would be so nice and bridesmaids always looked nice in blue. But her sister Lydia, who despised such palterings with stern facts, said even if the brother hadn’t really been born someone must have known about him or they wouldn’t have known, and it might have seemed unkind to give him a miss when they were counting up the family.
‘And anyway,’ she continued, slightly raising her powerful voice, ‘being called Octavia doesn’t really show. I mean Octavian, the one who was Augustus you know, Philip,’ she said to the Senior Classical master, ‘there’s nothing to say that he was the eighth, whether anyone was born or not. At least if there is I haven’t read it and it’s not in Shakespeare,’ she added with the air of one making a handsome concession.
Kate with an effort wrenched the talk round to the wedding guests and the preparations for refreshments afterwards, which quite distracted Lydia and Geraldine from the problem of the Dean’s daughters, and the talk became more general.
Lieutenant Fairweather, who had said nothing because his pipe was drawing well and he did not know the Dean or any of his daughters, asked Mr. Carter about various Old Boys and school notorieties.
‘Did you know Harwood was dead?’ said Everard Carter.
‘No, sir. By Jove!’ said Lieutenant Fairweather, rather weakening his interjection by adding, ‘Who was he?’
‘Of course I forgot, you wouldn’t know him. He only took the Senior boys,’ said Everard.
‘He was the cricket coach,’ said Kate, coming to the Lieutenant’s rescue.
‘By Jove, yes,’ said Lieutenant Fairweather. ‘He had that ripping cottage in Wiple Terrace. Who lives there now?’
‘People called Warbury,’ said Kate. ‘He is something in the films, I think, and she is an artist; at least she paints. And they have a son who I am sure is very nice.’
‘Out with it, Kate,’ said Philip Winter. ‘Your understatements are worth their weight in gold.’
‘Well, I dare say he is quite nice,’ said Kate, defending herself and modifying her statement simultaneously. ‘Often it is only shyness that makes people seem conceited.’
‘Then he must be uncommon shy,’ said Philip dryly. ‘And if shyness makes him so confoundedly rude and patronising in the Red Lion bar, I wish he would get over it.’
Kate then invited anyone who liked to come and see Bobbie Carter aged nearly one in bed. Lydia and Geraldine accepted the invitation and the men were left alone.
‘You were engaged to Rose, weren’t you?’ said Lieutenant Fairweather to the Senior Classical Master.
‘Yes,’ said Philip, rather wondering if the bridegroom proposed to fight a duel, or keelhaul him. ‘But it was some years ago—not for long.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘That girl has a genius for thinking she is in love. I thought she might get tied up before I could cut in. One doesn’t get much chance with a sailor’s life, you know. But that’s the end of it. I hope she didn’t give you much trouble.’
Philip politely said none at all. Everard Carter said that his wife was not the only person with a genius for understatement and that Rose had nearly wrecked the peace of his House during her brief engagement to Philip.
‘She only needs handling,’ said Lieutenant Fair-weather. ‘I’ve got her pretty well where I want her and she knows it, and it’s the best day’s work I ever did in my life. The Dagoes will go quite mad about her, bless her heart.’
Everard asked when he was leaving for South America.
‘Day after the wedding,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘I had a sort of idea I might be recalled to my ship, but it doesn’t look like a scrap now. I shan’t be sorry to get a couple of years ashore. What are you and Mr. Winter doing, sir?’
Philip said he was going into camp with the Territorials after the wedding and then to Constantinople to do some work, unless of course there were a scrap and then he supposed Senior Classics would know him no longer.
‘I thought you were a Communist, sir,’ s. . .
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