“A Love Match” by Sylvia Townsend Warner is the story of brother-sister incest.
No, I haven’t spoiled it—the fact of the incest and the circumstances leading to it are revealed early on. The tale is not about something unnatural and shameful but about something lovely—a marriage. We observe it—live within it, really—through incident, conversation, interior monologue, and the comments of the unsuspecting inhabitants of the citizens of Hallowby. In that English village, Celia and Justin live openly as sister and brother, secretly as wife and husband. They endure whist, a stuffy church, bad fish, the cold east wind, even a flirtation.…
“Have you been carrying on with Mary Semple?” Celia inquires of Justin.
“No, I wouldn’t say that. She has white eyelashes.” In four words Townsend Warner informs us that a prettier girl might have taken his brief fancy. A few lines later she reassures us that, to Celia, “It was Justin’s constancy that mattered, not his fidelity.” Were we all so sensible!
The marriage is happy. “Returning from their sober junketings Justin and Celia, safe within their brick wall, cast off their weeds of middle age, laughed, chattered and kissed with an intensified delight in their scandalous immunity from blame. They were a model couple, the most respectable couple in Hallowby, treading hand in hand the thornless path to fogydom.”
I would not change a word of that vivid action, that delighted summing up. I would not change a word in the whole uncautionary tale. Townsend Warner reminds us that love comes in many forms and its banners bear strange devices; and all it needs is two people who can “pluck up heart enough to….be happy.” Or three people, maybe. Or perhaps a person and some other mammal. For she ranged far geographically and temporally and imaginatively—in her book The Kingdom of Elfin, for instance, most of the characters are fairies, as grumpy and sly and lovelorn as the rest of us. She looked at everything and shuddered at nothing—she was too busy fitting words into her compact and brilliant sentences.
She is almost forgotten now. I shudder at that.
A Love Match by Sylvia Townsend Warner
It was Mr Pilkington who brought the Tizards to Hallowby. He met them, a quiet couple, at Carnac, where he had gone for a schoolmasterly Easter holiday to look at the monoliths. After two or three meetings at a café, they invited him to their rented chalet. It was a cold, wet afternoon and a fire of pine cones crackled on the hearth. ‘We collect them on our walks,’ said Miss Tizard. ‘It’s an economy. And it gives us an object.’ The words, and the formal composure of her manner, made her seem like a Frenchwoman. Afterwards, he learned that the Tizards were a Channel Island family and had spent their childhood in Jersey. The ancestry that surfaced in Miss Tizard’s brisk gait and erect carriage, brown skin and compact sentences, did not show in her brother. His fair hair, his red face, his indecisive remarks, his diffident movements—as though with the rest of his body he were apologizing for his stiff leg—were entirely English. He ought not, thought Mr Pilkington, to be hanging about in France. He’d done more than enough for France already. For this was in 1923 and Mr Pilkington, with every intention of preserving a historian’s impartiality, was nevertheless infected by the current mood of disliking the French.
The weather continued cold and wet; there was a sameness about the granite avenues. Mr Pilkington’s mind became increasing engaged with the possibility, the desirability, the positive duty of saving that nice fellow Tizard from wasting his days in exile. He plied him with hints, with suggestions, with tactful inquiries. Beyond discovering that money was not the obstacle to return, he got no further. Tizard, poor fellow, must be under his sister’s thumb. Yet it was from the sister that he got his first plain answer. ‘Justin would mope if he had nothing to do.’ Mr Pilkington stopped himself from commenting on the collection of pine cones as an adequate lifework. As though she had read his thought, she went on, ‘There is a difference between idling in a foreign country and being an idler in your own.’ At that moment Tizard limped into the room with crayfish bristling from his shopping basket. ‘It’s begun,’ he said ruefully. ‘La Jeune France has arrived. I’ve just seen two young men in pink trousers with daisy chains round their necks, riding through the town on donkeys.’ Mr Pilkington asked if this was a circus. Miss Tizard explained that it was the new generation, and would make Carnac a bedlam till the summer’s end. ‘Of course, there’s a certain amount of that sort of thing in England, too,’ observed Mr Pilkington. ‘But only in the South. It doesn’t trouble us at Hallowby.’ As he spoke, he was conscious of playing a good card; then the immensity of the trump he held broke upon him. He was too excited to speak. Inviting them to dine at his hotel on the following night, he went away.
By next evening, more of La Jeune France had arrived, and was mustered outside the hotel extemporising a bullfight ballet in honour of St Cornléy, patron saint of cattle and of the parish church. Watching Tizard’s look of stoically endured embarrassment Mr Pilkington announced that he had had a blow; the man who had almost promised to become curator of the Beelby Military Museum had written to say he couldn’t take up the post. ‘He didn’t say why. But I know why. Hallowby is too quiet for him.’
‘But I thought Hallowby had blast furnaces and strikes and all that sort of thing,’ said Tizard.
‘That is Hallowby juxta Mare,’ replied Mr Pilkington. ‘We are Old Hallowby. Very quiet; quite old, too. The school was founded in 1623. We shall be having our modest tercentenary this summer. That is why I am so put out by Dalsover’s not taking up the curatorship. I hoped to have the museum all in order. It would have been something to visit, if it rains during the Celebrations.’ He allowed a pause.
Tizard, staring at the toothpicks, inquired, ‘Is it a wet climate?’
But Mr Pilkington was the headmaster of a minor public school, a position of command. As if the pause had not taken place, raising his voice above the bullfight he told how fifty years earlier Davenport Beelby, a rich man’s sickly son, during a lesson on the Battle of Minden awoke to military glory and began to collect regimental buttons. Buttons, badges, pikes, muskets and bayonets, shakos and helmets, despatches, newspaper cuttings, stones from European battlefields, sand from desert campaigns—his foolish collection grew into the lifework of a devoted eccentric and, as such collections sometimes do, became valuable and authoritative, though never properly catalogued. Two years ago he had died, bequeathing the collection to his old school, with a fund sufficient for upkeep and the salary of a curator.
‘I wish you’d consider coming as our curator,’ said Mr Pilkington. ‘I’m sure you would find it congenial. Beelby wanted an Army man. Three mornings a week would be quite enough.’
Tizard shifted his glaze from the toothpicks to the mustard jar. ‘I am not an Army man,’ he said. ‘I just fought. Not the same thing, you know.’
Miss Tizard exclaimed, ‘No! Not at all,’ and changed the subject.
But later that evening she said to her brother, ‘Once we were there, we shouldn’t see much of him. It’s a possibility.’
‘Do you want to go home, Celia?’
‘I think it’s time we did. We were both of us born for a sober, conventional, taxpaying life, and if—‘
‘Voici Noël!’ sang the passing voices. ‘Voici Noël! Voici Noël, petits enfants!’
She composed her twitching hands and folded them on her lap. ‘We were young rowdies once,’ he said placatingly.
A fortnight later, they were Mr Pilkington’s guests at Hallowby. A list of empty houses had been compiled by Miss Robson, the secretary. All were variously suitable; each in turn was inspected by Miss Tizard and rejected. Mr Pilkington felt piqued that his offer of a post should dance attendance on the aspect of a larder or the presence of decorative tiles. Miss Tizard was a disappointment to him; he had relied on her support. Now it was the half-hearted Tizard who seemed inclined to root, while she flitted from one eligible residence to another, appearing, as he remarked to the secretary, to expect impossibilities. Yet when she settled as categorically as a queen been the house she chose had really nothing to be said for it. A square, squat mid-Victorian box, Newton Lodge was one of the ugliest houses in Hallowby; though a high surrounding wall with a green door in it hid the totality of is ugliness from passers-by, its hulking chimneys proclaimed what was below. It was not even well situated. It stood in a deteriorating part of the town, and was at some distance from the school buildings and the former gymnasium—Victorian also—which had been assigned to the Beelby Collection. But the house having been chosen, the curatorship was bestowed and the move made. Justin Tizard, rescued from wasting his days in exile—though too late for the tercentenary celebrations—began his duties as curator by destroying a quantity of cobwebs and sending for a window-cleaner.
All through the summer holidays he worked on, sorting things into heaps, subdividing the heaps into lesser heaps. Beelby’s executors must have given carte-blanche to the packers, who had acted on the principle of filling up with anything that came handy, and the unpackers had done little more than tumble things out and scatter them with notices saying ‘DO NOT DISTURB’. The largest heap consisted of objects he could not account for, but unaccountably it lessened, till the day came when he could look round on tidiness. Ambition seized him. Tidiness is not enough; no one looks twice at tidiness. There must also be parade and ostentation. He bought stands, display cases, dummies for the best uniforms. Noticing a decayed wooden horse in the saddler’s shop, he bought that, too; trapped, with its worser side to the wall and with a cavalry dummy astride, it made a splendid appearance. He combed plumes, shook out bearskins, polished holsters and gunstocks, oiled the demi-culverin, sieved the desert sand. At this stage, his sister came and polished with him, mended, refurbished, sewed on loose buttons. Of the two, she had more feeling for the exhibits themselves, for the discolouring glory and bloodshed they represented. It was the housewife’s side that appealed to him. Sometimes, hearing him break into the whistle of a contented mind, she would look up from her work and stare at him with the unbelief of thankfulness.
Early in the autumn term, Mr Pilkington made time to visit the museum. He did not expect much and came prepared with speeches of congratulation and encouragement. They died on his lips when he saw the transformation. Instead, he asked how much the display cases had cost, and the dummies, and the horse, and how much of the upkeep fund remained after all this expenditure. He could not find fault; there was no reason to do so. He was pleased to see Tizard so well established as master in his own house. Perhaps he was also pleased that there was no reason to find fault. Though outwardly unchanged, the Tizard of Carnac appeared to have been charged with new contents—with something obstinately reckless beneath the easy-going manner, with watchfulness beneath the diffidence. But this, reflected Mr Pilkington, might well be accounted for by the startling innovations in the museum. He stayed longer than he meant, and only after leaving remember that he had omitted to say how glad he was that Tizard had accepted the curatorship. This must be put right; he did not want to discourage the young man who had worked so hard and so efficiently, and also he must get into the way of remembering that Tizard was in fact a young man—under thirty. Somehow, one did not think of him as a young man.
Justin Tizard, newly a captain in an infantry regiment, came on leave after the battle of the Somme. His sister met the train at Victoria. There were some pigeons strutting on the platform and he was watching them when a strange woman in black came up to him, touched his shoulder, and said, ‘Justin!’ It was as though Celia were claiming a piece of lost luggage, he though. She had a taxi waiting, and they drove to her flat. She asked about his health, about his journey; then she congratulated him on his captaincy. ‘Practical reasons,’ he said. ‘My habit of not getting killed. They were bound to notice it sooner or later.’ After this, they fell silent. He looked out of the window at the streets so clean and the people so busy with their own affairs. ‘That’s a new Bovril poster, isn’t it?’ he inquired. Her answer was so slow in coming that he didn’t really take in whether it was yes or no.
Her flat was new, anyway. She had only been in it since their mother’s remarriage. It was up great many flights of stairs, and she spoke of moving to somewhere with a lift, now that Tim’s legacy had made a rich woman of her. The room smelled of polish and flowers. There was a light-coloured rug on the floor and above this was the blackness of Celia’s skirts. She was wearing black for her fiancé. The news of his death had come to her in this same room, while she was still sorting books and hanging pictures. Looking round the room, still not looking at Celia, he saw Tim’s photograph on her desk. She saw his glance, and hers followed it. ‘Poor Tim!’ they said, both speaking at once, the timbre of their voice relating them. ‘They say he was killed instantaneously,’ she went on. ‘I hope it’s true—though I suppose they always say that.’
‘I’m sure it is,’ he replied. He knew that Tim had been blown to pieces. Compassion made it possible to look at her. Dressed in black, processing these new surroundings, she seemed mature and dignified beyond her actual three years’ seniority. For the first time in his life he saw her not as a sister but as an individual. But he could not see her steadily for long. There was a blur on his sight, a broth of mud and flame and frantic unknown faces and writhing entrails. When she showed him to his bedroom she stepped over mud that heaved with the bodies of men submerged in it. She had drawn the curtains. There was a bed with sheets turned back, and a bedside lamp shed a serene, unblinking light on the pillow. ‘Bed!’ he exclaimed, and heard the spontaneity die in his voice. ‘Wonderful to see a bed!’
‘And this is the bathroom. I’ve got everything planned. First of all, you must have a bath, lie and soak in it. And then put on these pyjamas and the dressing gown, and we will have supper.’
Left to himself, he was violently sick. Shaking with fatigue, he sat in a hot scented bath and cleaned his knees with scrupulous care, like a child. Outside was the noise of London.
The pyjamas were silk, the dressing gown was quilted and wrapped him round like a caress. In the sitting room was Celia, still a stranger, though now a stranger without a hat. There was a table sparkling with silver and crystal, smoked salmon, a bottle of champagne. It was all as she had planned it for Tim—Oh, poor Celia!
They discussed their mother’s remarriage. It had been decided on with great suddenness, and appeared inexplicable. Though they refrained from saying much, their comments implied that her only reason for marrying a meat king from the Argentine was to get away from England and the war. ‘There he was, at eleven in the morning, with a carnation—a foot shorter than she,’ said Celia, describing the return from the registry office.
‘In that case, he must be four foot three.’
‘He is exactly four foot three. I stole up and measure him.’
Spoken in her imperturbable voice, this declaration struck him as immensely funny, as funny as a nursery joke. They laughed hilariously, and after this their evening went almost naturally.
Turning back after his unadorned, brotherly ‘Good night, Celia,’ he exclaimed, ‘But where are you sleeping?’
‘In here.’ Before he could demur she went on, ‘The sofa fits me. It would be far too short for you.’
He told her how balmily he had slept, one night behind the lines, with his head on a bag of nails.
‘Exactly! That is why tonight you are going to sleep properly. In a bed.’
She heard him get into bed, heard the lamp switched off. Almost immediately she heard his breathing lengthen into slumber. Then, a few minutes later, he began to talk in his sleep.
Perhaps a scruple—the dishonourableness of being an eavesdropper, a Peeping Tom—perhaps mere craven terror, made her try not to listen. She began to read, and when she found that impossible she repeated poems she had learned at school, and when that failed she polished the silver cigarette box. But Justin’s voice was raised, and the partition wall was thin, and the ghastly confidences went on and on. She could not escape them. She was dragged, a raw recruit, into battle.
In the morning she thought she would not be able to look him in the face. But he was cheerful, and so was she. She had got off from the canteen, she explained, while he was on leave; they had nothing to do but enjoy themselves. They decided to have some new experiences, so they went up the Monument. If he wants to throw himself off, she thought, I won’t stop him. They looked down on London; on the curve of the Thames, the shipping, the busy lighters. They essayed how many City churches they could identify by their spires. They talked about Pepys. She would be surprised, Justin said, how many chaps carried a copy of the Diary, and she asked if bullets also glance off Pepys carried in a breast pocket. So they made conversation quite successfully. And afterwards, when they had decided to go for a walk down Whitechapel High Street, and lunch off winkles at a stall, many people glanced at them with kindness and sentimentality, and an old woman patted Celia’s back saying, ‘God bless you, dearie! Isn’t it lovely to have him home?’
Whitechapel was a good idea. The throng of people carried some of the weight of self-consciousness for them; the wind blowing up-river and the hooting of ships’ sirens made them feel they were in some foreign port of call, taking a stroll till it was time to re-embark. He was less aware that she had grown strange to him, and she was momentarily able to forget the appalling stranger who had raved in her bed all night.
They dined at a restaurant, and went on to a music hall. That night he took longer to fall asleep. She had allowed herself a thread of hope, when he began to talk again. Three Justins competed, thrusting each other aside: a cold, attentive observer, a debased child, a devil bragging in hell. At intervals they were banished by a recognisable Justin interminably muttering to himself, ‘Here’s a sword for Toad, here’s a sword for Rat, here’s a sword for Mole, here’s a sword for Badger.’ The reiteration from that bible of their childhood would stick on the word, ‘Rat’. ‘Got you!’ And he was off again.
The next day they went to the Zoo. The Zoo was not so efficacious as Whitechapel. It was feeling the pinch, the animals looked shabby and dejected, many cages were empty. Two sleepless nights had made Celia’s feet swell. It was pain to walk, pain to stand. She wondered how much longer she could keep it up, this ‘God bless you, dearie’ pretence of a lovely leave. The day accumulated its hours like a windlass. The load grew heavier; the windlass baulked under it, but wound on. He went to bed with the usual ‘Good night, Celia’. As usual, she undressed and put on that derision of a nightdress, and wrapped herself in an eiderdown and lay down to wait under the smiling gaze of Tim’s photograph. She felt herself growing icy cold, couldn’t remember if she had wound her watch, couldn’t remember what diversion she had planned for the morrow, was walking over Richmond Bridge in a snowstorm, when she noticed he had begun again. She noticed. It had come to that. Two nights of a vicarious endurance of what was being endured, had been endured, would continue to be endured by a cancelled generation, had so exhausted her that now she felt neither horror nor despair, merely a bitter acquiescence. Justin went on with his Hail Devil Rosary, and in France the guns went on and on, and the mud dried into dust and slumped back into mud again. People went down to Kent to listen to the noise of the guns: the people in Kent said that they had grown used to it, didn’t hear it any longer. The icy cold sensation bored into her midriff, nailed her down in sleep.
Some outcry, some exclamation (she could not afterwards remember what it was), woke her. Before she knew what she was doing she was in the next room, trying to waken the man who lay so rigidly in her bed, who, if she could awaken him, would be Justin, her brother Justin. ‘Oh, poor Justin, my poor Justin!’ Throwing herself on the bed, she clasped him in her arms, lifted his head to lie against her breast, kissed his chattering lips. ‘There, there!’ She felt him relax, waken, drag her towards him. They rushed into the escape of love like winter-starved cattle rushing into a spring pasture.
When light came into the room, they drew a little apart and looked at each other.
‘Now we’ve done it,’ he said; and hearing the new note in his voice she replied, ‘A good thing, don’t you think?’
Their release left them no option. After a few hours they were not even astonished. They were mated for life, that was all—for a matter of days, so they made the most of it. At the end of his leave they parted in exaltation, he convinced that he was going off to be killed, she that she would bear his child, to which she would devote the remainder of her existence.
A little later she knew she was not pregnant.
Early in the new year Justin, still panoplied in this legendary and by now rather ludicrous charmed life, was made a major. In April, he was wounded in the leg. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ he wrote; ‘just a few splinters. I am in bed, as peaceful as a pincushion.’ Later, she heard that he had been moved to a hospital on the outskirts of London. One of the splinters had escaped notice, and gas gangrene had developed in the wound.
I shall be a peg leg, he thought. It’s not decent for a peg leg to make love; even to his sister. He was ravaged with fret and behaving with perfect decorum when Celia was shown in—dressed all in leaf green, walking like an empress, smelling delicious. For a moment the leaf-green Celia was almost as much a stranger as the Celia all in black had been. When she kissed him, he discovered that she was shaking from head to foot. ‘There, there,’ he said, patting her. Still holding his hand, she addressed herself to charming Nurse Painter. Nurse Painter was in favour of sisters. They weren’t so much trouble, didn’t upset a patient, as sweethearts or wives did—and you didn’t have to be hanging round all the time, ready to shoo them off. When Celia came next day, Nurse Painter congratulated her on having done the Major no end of good. There had been a lot of pus; she liked to see a lot of pus.
They continued to give satisfaction; when Justin left hospital with a knee that would always be stiff and from time to time cause him pain, Nurse Painter’s approval went with them. A sister was just what he wanted—there would be no silly excitement; and as Miss Tizard was a trifle older than the Major, there would be a restraining hand if called for. If Nurse Painter had known what lay beneath this satisfactory arrangement, it is probable that her approval would not have been seriously withdrawn. The war looked like going on for ever; the best you could hope for was a stalemate. Potatoes were unobtainable, honesty was no more, it was hate and muddle wherever you looked. If a gentleman and lady could pluck up heart enough to love and be happy—well, good luck to them!
Justin and Celia went to Oxfordshire, where they compared the dragonflies on the Windrush with the dragonflies on the Evenlode. Later, they went to France.
Beauty cannot be suborned. Never again did Justin see Celia quivering with beauty as she had done on the day she came to him in hospital. But he went on thinking she had a charming face and the most entertaining eyebrows in the world. Loving each other criminally and sincerely, they took pains to live together happily and to safeguard their happiness from injuries of their own infliction or from outside. It would have been difficult for them to be anything but inconspicuous, or to be taken for anything but a brother and sister—the kind of brother and sister of whom one says, ‘It will be rather hard for her when he marries’. Their relationship, so conveniently obvious to the public eye, was equally convenient in private life, for it made them unusually intuitive about each other’s feelings. Brought up to the same standard of behaviour, using the same vocabulary, they felt no need to impress each other and were not likely to be taken aback by each other’s likes and dislikes. Even the fact of remembering the same foxed copy of The Swiss Family Robinson with the tear across the picture of the boa constrictor was a reassuring bond. During the first years in France they felt they would like to have a child—or for the sake of the other’s happiness ought to have a child—and discussed the possibilities of a child put out to nurse, learning French as its native speech, and then being adopted as a postwar orphan, since it was now too late for it to be a war orphan. But however the child was dated, it would be almost certain to declare its inheritance of Grandfather Tizard’s nose, and as a fruitful incest is thought even worse of than a barren one, they sensibly gave up the idea; though regretting it.
Oddly enough, after settling in Hallowby they regretted it no longer. They had a home in England, a standing and things to do. Justin had the Beelby Museum; Celia had a household. In Hallowby it was not possible to stroll out to a restaurant or to bring home puddings from the pastry cook, fillets of veal netted into bolsters by the butcher. Celia had to cook seriously, and soon found that if she was to cook meals worth eating she must go shopping too. This was just what was need for their peace and quiet, since to be seen daily shopping saved a great deal of repetitious explanation that she and Justin could not afford to keep a servant in the house but must be content with Mrs Mugthwaite coming in three afternoons a week, and a jobbing gardener on Fridays. True, it exposed her to a certain amount of condolence and amazement from the school wives, but as they, like Mrs Mugthwaite, came only in the afternoons, she could bear with it. Soon they came more sparingly; for, as Justin pointed out, poverty is the sturdiest of all shelters, since people feel it to be rather sad and soon don’t think about it, whereas her first intention of explaining that ever since her Aunt Dinah had wakened in the middle of the night to see an angered cook standing over her with a meat hatchet she had been nervous of servants sleeping under the same roof would only provoke gossip, surmise and insistent recommendations of cooks without passions. Justin was more long-sighted than Celia. She always knew what to do or say at the moment. He could look ahead, foresee dangers, and take steps to dodge them.
They did not see as much of Mr Pilkington as they had apprehended, and members of the staff were in no hurry to take up with another of Pilkington’s Pets. Celia grew alarmed; if you make no friends, you become odd. She decided that they must occasionally go to church, though not too often or too enthusiastically, as it would then become odd that they did not take the Sacrament. No doubt a great many vicious church attenders took the Sacrament, and the rubric only forbids it to ‘open and notorious evil-livers’, which they had every intention of not being; but she could see a scruple of honour at work in Justin, so she did not labour this argument. There was a nice, stuffy pitch-pine St Cuthbert’s near by, and at judicious intervals they went there for evensong—thereby renewing another bond of childhood: the pleasure of hurrying home on a cold evening to eat baked potatoes hot from the oven. How old Mr Gillespie divined from Justin’s church demeanour that he was a whist player was a mystery never solved. But he divined it. He had barely saved Celia’s umbrella from being blown inside out, remarking, ‘You’re newcomers, aren’t you? You don’t know the east wind at this corner,’ before he was saying to Justin, ‘You don’t play whist, by any chance?’ But probably he would have asked this of anyone not demonstrably a raving maniac, for since Colin Colbeck’s death he, Miss Colbeck and Canon Pendarves were desperate for a fourth player. Canon Pendarves gave dinner parties, with a little music afterwards. Celia, driven into performance and remembering how Becky Sharp had wooed Lady Steyne by singing the religious songs of Mozart, sat down at the piano and played ‘The Carmen’s Whistle’, one of the few things she reliably knew by heart. This audacious antiquarianism delighted the Canon, who kept her at his side for the rest of the evening, relating how he had once tried to get up a performance of Tallis’s forty-part motet.
The Tizards were no longer odd. Their new friends were all considerably older than they; the middle-aged had more conscience about the war and were readier to make friends with a disabled major and his devoted maiden sister. In time, members of the staff overlooked their prejudice against Pilkington Pets and found the Tizard couple agreeable, if slightly boring.
Returning from their sober junketings Justin and Celia, safe within their brick wall, cast off their weeds of middle age, laughed, chattered and kissed with an intensified delight in their scandalous immunity from blame. They were a model couple, the most respectable couple in Hallowby, treading hand in hand the thornless path to fogydom. They began to give small dinner parties themselves. They set up a pug and a white cat. During their fifth summer in Hallowby they gave an evening party in the Beelby Museum. This dashing event almost carried them too far. It was such a success that they were begged to make an annual thing of it; and Celia was so gay, and her dress so fashionable, that she was within an inch of being thought a dangerous woman. Another party being expected of them, another had to be given. But this was a very different set-out: a children-and-parents party with a puppet show, held in St Cuthbert’s Church Room, with Canon Pendarves speaking on behalf of the Save the Children Fund and a collection taken at the door. The collection was a masterly stroke. It put the Tizards back in their place as junior fogies—where Justin, for his part, was thankful to be. He had got there a trifle prematurely, perhaps, being in his mid-thirties, but it was where he intended to end his days.
He was fond of gardening, and had taken to gardening seriously, having an analysis made of the Newton Lodge soil—too acid, as he suspected—buying phosphates and potash and lime and kainite, treating different plots with different mixtures and noting the results in a book. He could not dig, but he limpingly mowed and rolled the lawn, trained climbing roses and staked delphiniums. Within the shelter of the wall, delphiniums did magnificently. Every year he added new varieties and when the original border could be lengthened no further a parallel bed was dug, with grass walk in between. Every summer evening he walked there, watching the various blues file off, some to darkness, some to pallor, as the growing dusk took possession of them, while the white cat flittered about his step like a moth. Because one must not be wholly selfish, from time to time he would invite a pair of chosen children to tea, cut each of them a long delphinium lance (cutting only those which were going over, however) and set them to play jousting matches on the lawn. Most of them did no more than thwack, but the two little Semples, the children of the school chaplain, fought with system, husbanding their strokes and aiming at each other’s faces. Even when they had outgrown jousting they still came to Newton Lodge, hunting snails, borrowing books, helping him weigh out basic slag, addressing him as ‘Justin’.
‘Mary is just the age our child would have been,’ remarked Celia after one of these visits. Seeing him start at the words, she went on, ‘When you went back to be killed, and I was quite sure I would have a baby.’
‘I wouldn’t stand being called Justin—if she were.’
‘You might have to. They’re Bright Young Things from the cradle on, nowadays.’
By now the vogue for being a Bright Young Thing had reached even to Hallowby, its ankles growing rather muddied and muscular on the way. It was not like Celia to prefer an inferior article, and Justin wondered to see her tolerance of this anglicisation of the Jeune France when the original movement had so exasperated her. He hoped she wasn’t mellowing; mellowness is not the food of love. A quite contrary process, however, was at work in Celia. At Carnac, even when accepting Pilkington as a way out of it, the exaltation of living in defiance of social prohibitions and the absorbing manoeuvres of seeming to live in compliance with them had been stimulus enough; she had had no mercy for less serious rebels. But during the last few years the sense of sinking month by month into the acquiescence of Hallowby, eating its wholesome lotus like cabbage, conforming with the inattentiveness of habit—and aware that if she overlooked a conformity the omission would be redressed by the general conviction that Justin Tizard, though in no way exciting, was always so nice and had a sister who devoted her life to him, so nice for them both, etc. etc.—had begun to pall, and the sight of any rebellion, however puerile, however clumsy, roused up her partisanship. Since she could not shock Hallowby to its foundations, she liked to see these young creatures trying to, and wished them luck. From time to time she even made approaches to them, solicited their trust, indicated that she was ranged on their side. They accepted, confided, condescended—and dropped her.
When one is thus put back in one’s place, one finds one has grown out of it, and is a misfit. Celia became conscious how greatly she disliked Hallowby society. The school people nauseated her with their cautious culture and breezy heartiness. The indigenous inhabitants were more bearable, because they were less pretentious; but they bored her. The Church, from visiting bishops down to Salvation Army cornet players, she loathed for its hypocrisy. Only in Hallowby’s shabbiest quarter—in Edna Road, Gladstone Terrace and Gas Lane—could she find anyone to love. Mr Newby the fishmonger in his malodorous den; old Mrs Foe among her sallowing cabbages and bruised apples; Mr Raby, the grocer, who couldn’t afford to buy new stock because he hadn’t the heart to call in the money his poorer customers owed him, and he had none but the poorest customers—these people were good. Probably it was only by their goodness that they survived and had not cut their throats in despair long ago. Celia began to shop in Gas Lane. It was not a success. Much as she might love Mr Newby she loved Justin better, and when a dried haddock gave him food poisoning she had to remove her custom—since the cat wouldn’t touch Newby’s fish anyhow. These disheartening experiences made her dislike respectable Hallowby even more. She wanted to cast it off, as someone tossing in fever wants to cast off a blanket.
The depression began. The increase of Mr Raby’s customers drove him out business: he went bankrupt and closed the shop. Groups of unemployed men from Hallowby juxta Mare appeared in Gas Land and Edna Road and sang at street corners—for misfortune always resorts to poor neighbourhoods for succor. People began to worry about their investments and to cut down subscriptions to such examples of conspicuous waste as the Chamber Music Society. Experts on nutrition wrote to the daily papers, pointing out the wastefulness of frying, and explained how, by buying cheaper cuts of meat and cooking them much longer, the mothers of families on the dole would be able to provide wholesome adequate meals. Celia’s uneasy goodwill and smouldering resentment found their outlet. As impetuously as she had flung herself into Justin’s bed, she flung herself into relief work at Hallowby juxta Mare. Being totally inexperienced in relief work she exploded there like a nova. Her schemes were so outrageous that people in authority didn’t think them worth contesting even; she was left to learn by experience, and made the most of this valuable permission. One of her early outrages was to put on a revue composed and performed by local talent. Local talent ran to the impromptu, and when it became known what scarification of local reputations could be expected, everyone wanted to hear what might be said of everyone else and Celia was able to raise the price of admission, which had been sixpence, to as much as half a guinea for the best seats. Her doings became a joke; you never knew what that woman wouldn’t be up to next. Hadn’t she persuaded Wilson & Beck to take on men they had turned off, because now, when half the factory stood idle, was the moment to give it a spring cleaning? Celia worked herself to the bone, and probably did a considerable amount of good, but her great service to Hallowby juxta Mare was that she made the unemployed interested in their plight instead of dulled by it, so that helpers came to her from the unemployed themselves. If she was not so deeply impressed by their goodness as she had been by the idealised goodness of Mr Newby and Mrs Foe, she was impressed by their arguments; she became political, and by 1936 she was marching in Communist demonstrations, singing:
Twenty-five years of hunger and war
And they call it a glorious Jubilee.
Inland Hallowby was also looking forward to the Jubilee. The school was rehearsing a curtailed version of Purcell’s King Arthur, with Mary Semple, now home from her finishing school, coming on in a chariot to sing ‘Fairest Isle’. There was to be folk dancing by Scouts and Guides, a tea for the old people, a fancy-dress procession; and to mark the occasion Mr Harvey, J.P., one of the school governors, had presented the Beelby Museum with a pair of buckskin breeches worn by the Duke of Wellington on the field of Talavera. ‘I shall be expected to make a speech about them,’ groaned Justin. ‘I think I shall hire a deputy and go away for the day.’
Celia jumped at this. ‘We’ll both go away. Not just for the day but for a fortnight. We’ll go to Jersey, because you must attend the Jubilee celebrations on your native island—a family obligation. Representative of one of the oldest families. And if we find the same sort of fuss going on there, we can nip over to France in the Escudiers’ boat and be quit of the whole thing. It’s foolproof, it’s perfect. The only thing needed to make it perfectly perfect is to make it a month. Justin, it’s the answer.’ She felt indeed that it was the answer. For some time now, Justin had seemed distrait and out of humour. Afraid he was unwell, she told herself he was stale and knew that he had been neglected. An escapade would put all right. Talavera had not been fought in vain. But she couldn’t get him to consent. She was still persuading when the first letter arrived. It was typed and had been posted in Hallowby. It was unsigned, and began, ‘Hag.’
Reading what followed, Celia tried to hold on to her first impression that the writer was some person in Hallowby juxta Mare. ‘You think you’re sitting pretty, don’t you? You think no one has found you out.’ She had made many enemies there; this must come from one of them. Several times she had been accused of misappropriating funds. Yes, that was it: ‘…and keep such a tight hold on him.’ But why him? It was as though two letters lay on the flimsy page—the letter she was bent on reading and the letter that lay beneath and glared through it. It was a letter about her relations with Justin that she tore into bits and dropped in the wastepaper basket as he came down to breakfast.
She could hardly contain her impatience to get the bits out again, stick them on a backing sheet, make sure. Nothing is ever quite what it first was; the letter was viler, but it was also feebler. It struck her as amateurish.
The letter that came two days later was equally vile but better composed; the writer must be getting his or her hand in. A third was positively elegant. Vexatiously, there was no hint of a demand for hush money. Had there been, Celia could have called in the police, who would have set those ritual springes into which blackmailers—at any rate, blackmailers one reads of in newspapers—walk so artlessly. But the letters did not blackmail, did not even threaten. They stated that what the writer knew was common knowledge. After two letters, one on the heels of the other, which taunted Celia with being ugly, ageing and sexually ridiculous—letters that ripped through her self-control and made her cry with mortification—the writer returned to the theme of common knowledge and concluded with an ‘It may interest you to hear that the following know all about your loathsome performances’ and a list of half a dozen Hallowby names. Further letters laconically listed more names. From the outset, Celia had decided to keep all this to herself, and still held to the decision; but she hoped she wouldn’t begin to talk in her sleep. There was less chance of this, as by now she was sleeping scarcely at all.
It was a Sunday morning and she and Justin were spraying for greenfly when Justin said, ‘Puss, what are you concealing?’ She syringed Mme Alfred Carrière so violently that the jet bowed the rose, went beyond it, and deluged a robin. Justin took the syringe out of her hand and repeated the question.
Looking at him, she saw his face was drawn with woe. ‘No, no, it’s nothing like that,’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m perfectly well. It’s just that some poisen-pen imbecile…’
When he had read through the letters, he said thoughtfully, ‘I’d like to wring that little bitch’s neck.’
‘Yes, it is some woman or other, isn’t it? I felt sure of that.’
‘Some woman or other? It’s Mary Semple.’
‘That pretty little Mary Semple?’
‘That pretty little Mary Semple. Give me the letters I’ll soon settle her.’ He looked at his watch. ‘No, I can’t settle her yet. She’ll still be in church.’
‘But I don’t understand why.’
‘You do, really.’
‘Justin! Have you been carrying on with Mary Semple?’
‘No, I wouldn’t say that. She’s got white eyelashes. But ever since she came home Mary Semple has been doing all she could to carry on with me. There I was in the Beelby, you see, like a bull at the stake. No one comes near the place now; I was at her mercy. And in she tripped, and talked about the old days, telling me her little troubles, sowing me poems, pitying me for my hard lot. I tried to cool her down, I tried to taper it off. But she was bent on rape, and one morning I lost all patience, told her she bored me and that if she came again I’d empty the fire bucket over her. She wept and wailed, and I paid no attention, and when there was silence I looked cautiously round and she was gone. And a day or so after’—he looked at the mended letter—‘yes, a couple of days after, she sat her down to take it out on you.’
‘But Justin—how did she know about us?’
‘No fire without smoke, I suppose. I dare say she overheard her parents cheering each other along the way with Christian surmises. Anyhow, children nowadays are brought up on that sort of useful knowledge.’
‘No fire without smoke,’ she repeated. ‘And what about those lists?’
‘Put in to make your flesh creep, most likely. Even if they do know, they weren’t informed at a public meeting. Respectable individuals are too wary about libel and slander to raise their respectable voices individually. It’s like that motet Pendarves used to talk about, when he could never manage to get them all there at once. Extraordinary ambitions people have! Fancy wanting to hear forty singers simultaneously yelling different tunes.’
‘It can be done. There was a performance at Newcastle—he was dead by then. But, Justin—’
‘That will do, Celia. I am now going off to settle Mary Semple.’
‘How will you manage to see her alone?’
‘I shall enter her father’s dwelling. Mary will manage the rest.’
The savagery of these last words frightened her. She had not heard that note in his voice since he cried out in his sleep. She watched him limp from the room as though she were watching an incalculable stranger. A moment later he reappeared, took her hand, and kissed it. ‘Don’t worry, Puss. If need be, we’ll fly the country.’
Whatever danger might lie ahead, it was the thought of the danger escaped that made her tremble. If she had gone on concealing those letters—and she had considered it her right and duty to do so—a wedge would have been driven between her and Justin, bruising the tissue of their love, invisibly fissuring them, as a wedge of ice does in the living tree. And thus a scandal about their incest would have found them without any spontaneity of reaction and distracted by the discovery of how long she had been arrogating to herself a thing that concerned them both. ‘Here and now,’ she exclaimed, ‘I give up being an elder sister who knows best.’ Justin, on his way to the Semples’, was muttering to himself, ‘Damn and blast it, why couldn’t she have told me sooner? If she had it would all be over by now.’ It did not occur to him to blame himself for a lack of openness. This did not occur to Celia, either. It was Justin’s constancy that mattered, not his fidelity—which was his own business.
When he reappeared, washed and brushed and ready for lunch, and told her there would be no more billets-doux from Mary, it was with merely tactical curiosity that she asked, ‘Did you have to bribe her?’ And as he did not answer at once, she went on to ask, ‘Would you like potted shrimps or mulligatawny? There’s both.’
They did not have to fly the country. Mary Semple disposed of the rest of her feelings by quarrelling with everyone in the cast of King Arthur and singing ‘Fairest Isle’ with such venom that her hearers felt their blood run cold, and afterwards remarked that stage fright had made her sing out of tune. The people listed by Mary as cognisant showed no more interest in the Tizards than before. The tradesmen continued to deliver. Not a cold shoulder was turned. But on that Sunday morning the balance between Justin and Celia had shifted, and never returned to its former adjustment. Both of them were aware of this, so neither of them referred to it, though at first Celia’s abdication made her rather insistent that Justin should know best, make decision, assert his authority. Justin asserted his authority by knowing what decision could be postponed till the moment when there was no need to make them at all. Though he did not dislike responsibility, he was not going to be a slave to it. Celia’s abdication also released elements in her character which till then had been penned back by her habit of common sense and efficiency. She became slightly frivolous, forgetful and timid. She read novels before lunch, abandoned all social conscience about bores, mislaid bills, took second helpings of risotto and mashed potatoes and began to put on weight. She lost her aplomb as a driver and had one or two small accidents. She discovered the delights of needing to be taken away for pick-me-up holidays. Mrs Mugthwaite, observing all this, knew it was the Change, and felt sorry for poor Mr Tizard; the Change wasn’t a thing a brother should be expected to deal with. From time to time, Justin and Celia discussed leaving Hallowby and going to live somewhere away from the east-coast climate and the east wind at the corner by St Cuthbert’s, but they put off moving, because the two animals had grown old, were set in their ways, and would be happier dying in their own home. The pug died just before the Munich crisis, the cat lived on into the war.
So did Mr Pilkington, who died from overwork two months before the first air raid on Hallowby juxta Mare justified his insistence on constructing an air-raid shelter under the school playing fields. This first raid was concentrated on the ironworks, and did considerable damage. All next day, inland Hallowby heard the growl of demolition explosives. In the second raid, the defenses were better organised. The enemy bombers were driven off their target before they could finish their mission. Two were brought down out to sea. A third, twisting inland, jettisoned its remaining bombs on and around Hallowby. One dropped in Gas Lane, another just across the road from Newton Lodge. The blast brought down the roof and dislodged a chimney stack. The rescue workers, turning the light of their torches here and there, noting the usual disparities between the havocked and the unharmed, the fireplace blown out, the portrait smiling above it, followed the trail of bricks and rubble upstairs and into a bedroom whose door slanted from its hinges. A cold air met them; looking up, they saw the sky. The floor was deep in rubble; bits of broken masonry, clots of brickwork, stood up from it like rocks on a beach. A dark bulk crouched on the hearth, and was part of the chimney stack, and a torrent of slates had fallen on the bed, crushing the two bodies that lay there.
The wavering torchlights wandered over the spectacle. There was a silence. They young Foe spoke out. ‘He must have come in to comfort her. That’s my opinion.’ The others concurred. Silently, they disentangled Justin and Celia, and wrapped them in separate tarpaulin sheets. No word of what they had found got out. Foe’s hypothesis was accepted by the coroner and became truth.
“A Love Match” from A Stranger With a Bag: And Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Copyright © the Estate of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Sylvia Townsend Warner.