If you fly over the town of Shufflecester at an altitude of ten thousand feet you see the town below you like a dirty grey splash on the variegated patterns of brown, purple and green which mark the level landscape of the great Shuffleshire plateau. Through the middle of the town run the gentle sinuosities of the River Shuff like a white ribbon. Seen from a lower altitude Shufflecester has a most fantastic and irregular appearance, reminding you of a lot of grey and yellow bricks thrown at random upon a carpet by some heedless child. The builders of the town seem to have been sobered or restrained by the wide levels of the country; their houses are flat, uniform, depressed, with hardly a tall building among them. Only the towers of the cathedral suggest a vertical idea, and even these are square and heavy. Outside the town are purple masses of timber, green or dun streaks of arable land, flowing towards the misty line of the Wyveldon Hills, above the sea.
Even this aeroplane view gives the impression of a placid, agricultural place, resisting innovation, unmoved by the hustling spirit of the age. On the outskirts of the town, it is true, smudges of amber smoke hang above the brickyards; but these brickyards are few and isolated, nor do they indicate a prosperous industry. As for the breweries of Malworth, they hardly come within the Shufflecester scene.
It may be said, without much fear of denial, that Shufflecester is one of the most English of English towns. If the archaeologist is not mistaken, it was a fortified place in Roman times—the Tasciodunum of the Antonine Itinerary. Its fine alms-house is one of the oldest in the kingdom. All the inconvenience, though not the charm of antiquity, is preserved in its narrow streets, where even the moderate crowd of a market-day wanders perilously in the main thoroughfare because there is no room on the pavement. There is no plan or regularity. The market has an open space, and there is a little green square near the cathedral which is called (heaven knows why) the Queen’s Bower. No single street runs for any distance without reaching a curve or corner. Even the main road, which comes level and straight over the plateau, a Roman military way, has to bend and wriggle in a series of bewildering contortions before it gets out of the town.
The same absence of intelligent planning gives a perverse and unhappy appearance to those parts of the town which are termed “residential”. Blocks, curves and angles of grey and yellow brick, with roofs of lilac slate, produce an effect of morose, impregnable respectability. Here you have streets no longer; you have roads, avenues and crescents. The more pretentious houses arrogantly stand in twos, or even singly, with handsome gardens; the humbler dwellings cling together, distinguishable only by numbers. It may be doubted whether you can see in any other town so many perfect, unaltered examples of 1860 design, or so many areas which faithfully preserve the high Victorian standard.
We are particularly concerned in this drama with a house in one of the less fashionable quarters—Number Six, Wellington Avenue. It is like all the other houses in the Avenue, small, with a slate roof, a grim bit of grass between the front and the pavement, and a scrubby garden at the back. In this house lived Mr. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, his wife, his young son, and his venerable father.
Poor Mr. Kewdingham had not been lucky. He came of a good middle-class family, of the sort which is capable of producing anything from a bishop to a broker—his father had been estate agent to the Duke of Tiddleswade. Mr. Kewdingham was (or had been) an engineer, employed by the great firm of Hayle, Trevors and Ockersley. He had served in the firm for twenty-one years without reaching a very high position. Yet he was competent in his way, and was considered reliable. The firm came down heavily in the post-war slump, and in 1925 two hundred members of the engineering staff were reluctantly dismissed. Mr. Kewdingham was among the two hundred. He was then forty-five years of age, a man who believed himself to be afflicted by a series of subtle though deadly disorders, which caused him to administer to himself a series of subtle though deadly drugs.
Mr. Kewdingham was tall and solid. His face had an expression of baffled, vague tenacity, such as you may often see on the face of the Nordic man who feels that he ought to have done better—feels, rather, that he would have done very well if it had not been for the unaccountable hostility of circumstances. It is like the face of a bulldog who wants to bite something, but has nothing to bite. He could be extremely amiable, he could be extremely rude. When people asked him what he intended to do (in view of his obvious poverty), he said that something would be sure to turn up. But he had not, so far, gone to the length of looking for a job.
And yet it must not be supposed that Mr. Kewdingham was idle. To begin with, he was a famous collector. “I am a born collector,” he said with a touch of pride.
He did not limit himself, as a man of narrow vision might have done, to any particular class of objects. Other collections might be more valuable, but few were so comprehensive. Since his father had occupied the spare rooms, this collection overflowed in the most undesirable and unlikely places. Great cabinets thrust out their angles from the corners of the drawing-room. On the tops of these cabinets wobbled immense, precarious piles of cardboard boxes. More boxes, tins, trays and paper parcels were standing on each side of the fire-place and on various parts of the floor. Inside these receptacles there was an astounding medley of junk: bits of coral, broken pots, beetles and butterflies impaled on pieces of cork or stuck on cards, odd fossils, bones, brasses, dried flowers, birds’ eggs, little figures in soapstone and ivory, ushabtis from the tombs of Egypt, fragments of uncertain things, weird scraps of metal, badges, buttons, mouldy coins and innumerable varieties of suchlike trash. But everything was arranged with meticulous care, and indeed with a certain dexterity. Even the most unrecognisable rusty bit of iron was mounted on a card, with the date and place of discovery—“Field H. Probably Roman.” Mr. Kewdingham also had a vast library of occult books and magazines, which he was constantly reading.
In a huge cupboard in the bathroom there was a collection of a less harmless kind—Mr. Kewdingham’s medical department. On the shelves of this cupboard were hundreds of bottles, lotions, washes, drugs, tabloids, mixtures, glasses, tubes, bulbs of india-rubber, jars, tins, brushes; and again bottles, bottles, whole companies of bottles—plain or fluted, big and little, green, blue, white, amber, flat, round, polyhedral, full, empty; with creams, liquids, powders, crystals, juices, distillations and goodness knows what.
In these collections there was enough to keep Mr. Kewdingham busy, or at least to occupy his leisure. He prided himself, not unjustly, upon his knowledge as a collector and upon his wide experience of medicine. But there were other things which took up a good deal of his time.
Like many engineers, Mr. Kewdingham was a mystic. He knew the occult meaning of the Pyramids, he had a private revelation of things long concealed, through a long series of transmigrations he was aware of life—his own life, presumably—in the lovely regions of Atlantis.
Then again, he was political. He was a local leader in that interesting though reviled organisation, the Rule Britannia League. He believed in the divine mission of arms, the rights of the conqueror, dominion of the azure main. To him, pacifism was a poor wishy-washy stuff, the shirking of ordained responsibility. After all, he had been concerned in the production of guns and high explosives, he had taken his part in the shaping of those monsters which fought (we are told) for the noble ideals of civilisation. His views, if archaic, were perfectly sincere.
Unemployed as he was, in the vulgar sense, Mr. Kewdingham had a lot to think about: science, politics, mysticism. Perhaps it was for this reason that he thought so little about his wife and his family.
Mrs. Bertha Kewdingham was a plump though very handsome woman with reddish hair and large languorous eyes. She was the daughter of a village schoolmaster. Her father, Josiah Stiles, the son of a Wesleyan minister in Quebec, had come to England when a young man in the eighteen-sixties and set up a school for farmers’ children at Pen Dillyn in North Wales. Here, in middle life, he fell in love with, and married, a young French governess, employed to teach the daughters of Sir Walter Wilkins of Dillyn Castle.
Stiles was a gentle, dim creature. He was intensely serious, loved Ruskin and had a complete set of the Waverley Novels. His young wife, a gay, alert and very intelligent woman, helped him to make the school a success. But she was unpopular in the village, not so much on account of her smartness and vivacity but because she was a foreigner. They had two daughters, Rachel, the elder by seven years, and then Bertha. In 1912 Stiles’s wife died, and he, sorrowfully giving up the school, bought a little house in the village and settled down to end his days in peace.
Bertha and Rachel had shared their mother’s unpopularity. They had learnt French in their childhood, and they had the misfortune of speaking with a definite foreign accent. There was no place for them in the society of Pen Dillyn. They were too good for the farmers’ families and not good enough for the gentlefolk. Of the two girls, Bertha was the more attractive. The neighbours thought her absurdly proud; and while the women were jealous of her beauty, the men were afraid of her wit, for she had cruelly snubbed not a few of them.
Richard Kewdingham, Robert’s uncle, had bought a small property at Pen Dillyn. In the spring of 1914 Robert Kewdingham came to spend a fortnight’s holiday with his uncle. On the day after his arrival, as he was tramping over the moors with a gun, he met Bertha Stiles. He met her again, and yet again, and before he left Pen Dillyn he announced his engagement.
The Kewdingham family did not welcome the news. The daughter of a Wesleyan schoolmaster was not good enough for Robert Arthur Kewdingham—or for any Kewdingham, if it came to that. But Uncle Richard, who knew and liked old Stiles, and who had often talked to his daughters, observed in his bluff way that his nephew might have done a damned sight worse for himself. Bertha, said Uncle Richard, was a devilish fine girl; and what was more, she had brains and knew how to use ’em.
Old Stiles died in the winter of 1915, and Rachel went to live with her father’s people in Quebec.
The situation of Mrs. Kewdingham in Shufflecester was not by any means a pleasant one. After losing his job, her husband had chosen Shufflecester for his residence, because it was a stronghold of the family: there had been Kewdinghams in Shufflecester for nearly forty years.
To Kewdingham, therefore, Shufflecester was a thoroughly congenial place. In times of trouble he could shelter himself in the family as in a warm and comfortable recess, an impregnable refuge. He could shelter in tranquil obscurity, avoiding unpleasant encounters or unfair criticism. Whatever the world might say, the family knew his worth. The family patted him on the back, telling him that he was a brave, good man. If he was unlucky in some ways, if he found it extremely hard to live on his reduced income, that was due to no fault of his own; it was all in the wonderful and merciful design of Providence. But Providence only plagues the Kewdinghams—that chosen family—in a playful sort of way, and it would be all right in the end.
So in moments of perplexity Mr. Kewdingham gladly turned for reassurance to his aunt and cousin, Mrs. and Miss Poundle-Quainton. To them he brought his doubts and grievances, and those doubts and grievances were quickly dissolved in the warm flow of their affection, quickly dispelled by the gentle murmur of their friendly voices.
Perhaps he was not quite so sure of his other aunt, Mrs. Pyke, a sturdy old widow; or of his venerable uncle, Richard Kewdingham, who had now been established in the town for several years. But of course he was strongly supported in his own house by his even more venerable father.
Robert Henry Kewdingham, the ancient father, was neat, springy and vigorous for his age, which was about eighty-one at the time of our story. His lean, clean-shaven face was raw, cruel and rather stupid, the face of a man who had always been a bully. And yet there was something unguarded and credulous about it: you could baffle the bully easily enough, if you knew the trick. He had two rooms on the top floor of his son’s house. He did not thrust himself upon the others. If it was fine he pottered about in the tiny garden; and if it was cold or wet he sat upstairs reading the innumerable volumes of Victorian magazines which he had brought with him. When he retired from the employment of the Duke of Tiddleswade in 1907 he had a respectable income, but as he was misled by an imaginary knowledge of the stock market his capital was quickly frittered away. For some years he had lived in comfort upon his wife’s money; and then his wife had died, revengefully leaving the greater part of her fortune to her young daughter, Phoebe Kewdingham. The ancient father had still the meagre residue of an income, and he made a reasonable contribution towards his maintenance, as, indeed, was only proper.
Phoebe Kewdingham, who was unmarried, lived in London, where she had a spacious flat in Dodsley Park Avenue.
The family was also represented in London by a young man of whom we shall see a good deal presently—John Harrigall, the son of old Kewdingham’s sister, and so the cousin of Robert Arthur.
It will be time enough to speak of these interesting people when they make their first appearance on our scene. Let us only observe here that Mr. Harrigall, a literary young man, was a welcome visitor at Mr. Kewdingham’s house. Mr. Kewdingham and his wife both liked him, though for very different reasons. John was one of the few people who really did seem to appreciate the collection, and he was also one of the few people who went out of their way to be agreeable to poor Mrs. Kewdingham.
Shufflecester is only seventy miles from London, and London visitors can easily run over for the day.
Michael, the only child of Robert Arthur, had been sent away to school at Barford. Michael was a problem.
And thus the situation of Bertha Kewdingham was in every way unfortunate. Robert Arthur had not been a success. He was now in middle age, without a profession, impecunious, full of absurd notions, a wretched hypochondriac, irritable, silly and resourceless. So, at least, he appeared to his wife. There were horrible quarrels and reproaches, futile arguments, incessant bickering. Poor Bertha, with her French impetuosity, her intolerance, her snappy wit, did not know how to manage this dreadful man, this lamentable situation. There was not enough money, there were no hopes of inheritance—though it was understood that Uncle Richard intended to help them in the education of Michael. Everything was wrong, everything was going from bad to worse.
Bertha knew well how much the family disliked her; she knew they considered her partly responsible for Robert Arthur’s collapse. A woman who understood her job as a wife, a woman who could sympathise and make allowances, they said, would soon have got him on his feet again: never mind how—she would have done it. But of course Bertha was a failure. She was of no use at all. Instead of gently raising the prostrate Robert Arthur, instead of guarding his dignity and warming his diminished hopes, she had added to his vexations—poor fellow!—by wickedly indulging a spiteful and rebellious temper.
The family as a whole disapproved of Bertha. Mrs. Pyke detested her; the Poundle-Quaintons were grudgingly tolerant; the venerable Kewdingham was openly hostile; only Uncle Richard was really amiable, and she seldom saw him. She had no relations in England. She was half foreign—and she looked it. People thought her rude, farouche and melancholy, and so she had few friends.
Nor did Kewdingham encourage visitors. The family was enough. His collection, his Britannia League, kept him busy. The shortage of money, the difficulty of providing for Michael’s future, did not seem to worry him at all. Providence would never desert the Kewdinghams. They had only to wait, and something would be sure to turn up—it always did. As for his wife—well! He would say, sighing noisily, women are funny creatures, they never understand the problems of life.
It needed no subtle observer to perceive at Number Six Wellington Avenue a state of affairs bordering upon tragedy. No one cared for the Robert Kewdinghams. No one cares for a failure; and then Robert was such an odd man, such a peculiarly irritating bore, with his innumerable disorders, his mysticism, his red-hot politics. And few people can tolerate the angry jangling of husband and wife or the tart allusions to family matters which are so provocative.
Apart from the members of the family in Shufflecester the only visitors at Number Six were Dr. Wilson Bagge, a frequent caller; John Harrigall, who occasionally ran over from London to see the family; and Mr. and Mrs. Chaddlewick, two kindly people who lived at Sykeham-le-Barrow, about five miles outside the town.