06 September 2016

from High Rising (Angela Thirkell)

When the party got to Low Rising, they found George Knox at work in the garden.  George, whose dramatic sense was not one of the least factors in the success of his biographies, liked to dress his part, and at the moment was actively featuring Popular Writer Enjoys Hard Work in Garden of his Sixteenth-Century Manor House.  He had perhaps a little overdone the idea, being dressed in bright brown plus-fours, a gigantic pair of what looked like decayed football boots, a very dirty and worn high-necked sweater, and a tweed shooting coast with its buttons and pockets flapping.  Large as George Knox was at any time, this wilful collection of odd clothes made him loom incredibly.  From his seven-league boots the eye travelled upwards to the vast width of his plus-fours, to the huge girth of thick jacket over thick sweater, only to find, with a start of surprise, that his large face, with its knobbly forehead and domed and rather bald scalp, completely dwarfed the rest of him.  He had decided to devote that afternoon to heavy digging, and was excavating, unscientifically and laboriously, a piece of the kitchen garden.  The sky was coldly pink in the west where the winter sun was setting behind mists, George Knox's bare-branched trees made a delicate pattern against the sunset flush, George Knox's smoke from the chimneys of his Lovely Sixteenth-Century Manor House was going straight up into the air, a light or two shone golden in George Knox's windows, his feet were clogged with damp earth, his hands were very dirty, and a robin was watching him dig.

'It couldn't have been better arranged, George,' said Laura as she approached.  'Perfect setting for author, down to the robin.  I shall have to write a book about the lovely vendeuse who marries the strong, noble son of the soil, and use you as a model.'

On hearing this, the robin flew away.

George Knox stuck his spade into the earth, straightened up painfully, in the manner of one who has been devoted to life-long toil in the agricultural line, and mopped his brow with a large red handkerchief with white spots.

'That's the worst of the country,' he remarked.  'Lady authors coming round unasked, frightening away one's little feathered friends.  Who frightened Cock Robin?  I, said the Laura, with my feminine aura.  Laura, dear, I cannot offer you my hand as it is all earth, but you are as welcome as ever.'

'This is Mr Knox, Amy,' said Laura, exhibiting George to her friends with some pride.  'And this, George, if you will stop rubbing mould into your eyes with that preposterous handkerchief, is Mrs Birkett, whose husband keeps Dotheboys Hall and breaks Tony's spirit.'

'If I am to take your statement as one and indivisible, Laura, it is a lie, because no power on earth, nor indeed any demons under the sea, could ever dissever Tony from his profound self-satisfaction.  But if I may separate your sentence into its component parts, I am more than willing to believe that this is Mrs Birkett, whose acquaintance I am honoured and delighted to make, and who, or whom, I look forward to shaking hands with when I have cleaned up a bit.'

'I'm so glad you get mixed about that "who", George.  It is the death of me.  That, and commas, are the bane of my life.  The only way one can really express what one wants to say is by underlining every other word four times, like Queen Victoria, and that appears to be bad taste now.  What are you digging, George?'


'Yes, but I mean what?  Potatoes, or bulbs, or asparagus beds?' asked Laura, who cared little about gardening and knew less.

George Knox looked guiltily round.

'The gardener has gone over to Stoke Dry to fetch a parcel from the station, so I thought I would dig for exercise while his back was turned.  He doesn't like me in his garden when he is here.  I dug up a lot of things that smelled like onions.  Come into the house and we'll find Sibyl.'

'Probably it was onions,' said Laura, as they went into the sitting-room, 'or else leeks.  You can send me some on St David's Day, and I'll wear them in my bonnet.'

'Are you Welsh, then?' asked Amy Birkett.

'Oh, no, but its's nice to wear things on the right day.  Only the right day - yes, Tony, take Sylvia and go and find Sibyl, only keep Sylvia on the lead in case Sibyl's dogs jump at her.'

'Oh, Mother, Sibyl's dogs wouldn't jump at Sylvia.  Dogs always know a friendly dog, Mother.  They are marvellous.  It's a kind of instinct.  Mrs Birkett, did you know about instinct?  Mr Ferris told us about it in maths, one day.'

'But why in maths, Tony?  Is instinct a kind of algebra?'

'No, no, but Mr Ferris is very sensible and tells us all sorts of things in the maths period.  His father used to be a doctor in the country, and when the sheep were all buried in snow in the winter, the dogs had an instinct to find them and they leaped on their backs and licked the snow off them.'

'But where does Mr Ferris's father come in?' asked George Knox, slightly bewildered.

'He doesn't come in, sir, it was the dogs,' said Tony pityingly.  'They have a marvellous instinct -'

His mother gently pushed him and Sylvia out of the room, and returned to her seat, remarking placidly:

'As I was saying,  and I am going to say it, because it is too interesting to lose, the right day and the right flower never seem to come together.  One can't possibly expect roses to be out on St George's Day, at least not if St George's Day comes on the twenty-third of April.  Unless, of course, in Shakespeare's time April was much later on account of Old Style, or people had hothouses, which we never hear of.'

'Where does Shakespeare come in?' asked Amy, as bewildered by the introduction of the bard as George had previously been by Mr Ferris's father.

'Well, Shakespeare's birthday was St George's Day, so it all somehow goes together.  And as for St Patrick's Day, shamrock may be in season then, I don't know, not in Ulster, I suppose, but anyway in the Irish Free State, but one can't tell, because what they sell in the streets looks like compressed mustard and cress.  Luckily one doesn't have to wear thistles for St Andrew, and as for St David -'

But here George Knox, who had been simmering with a desire to talk for some time past, took the floor, drowing Laura's gentle voice entirely.

'St David, dear Mrs Birkett,' he began, 'had no nonsense about him, and knew that a leek was about all his countrymen were fit for.  I do not offend you, I trust, in saying this.  I would quarrel with no one for being Welsh, as I, thank God, am French and Irish by descent, and am far removed from petty racial feelings, but for a nation who are, or who is - damn those pronouns, Laura - time-serving, sycophantic, art nouveau, horticultural and despicable enough to try to change the leek to a daffodil, words fail me to express my contempt.  You were alluding just now to Shakespeare's birthday, my dear Laura.  What would Shakespeare have thought if Burbage had proposed to substitute a daffodil for a leek in Henry the Fifth?  Where, Mrs Birkett, would be Fluellen and Pistol?  The whole point of that scene would be lost - lost, I say,' he repeated, glaring affectionately at Sibyl who came in with Tony.  'As well might you have substituted the leek for the daffodil in the Winter's Tale.  Imagine Shakespeare writing that leeks come before the swallow comes - except, of course, when you are eating them - or take the winds of March; for though doubtless they may by the calendar, though on that point I profess no special knowledge, poetically it is impossible.  No, dear ladies, the Welsh are utterly and eternally damned for this denial, worse than whoever's it was in Dante, of their national emblem.'


Saturday morning dawned fair and bright.  The sun shone, the cuckoo bellowed from a copse hard by, other birds less easy to recognise made suitable bird noises.  In the little wood primroses grew in vulgar profusion, a drift of blue mist showed that bluebells were on the way, glades were still white with wind-flowers.  All the trees that come out early were brilliant green, while those that come out later were, not unnaturally, still brown, thus forming an agreeable contrast.  A stream bordered with kingcups made a gentle bubbling noise like sausages in a frying-pan.  Nature, in fact, was as it; and when she chooses, Nature can do it.

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