The Autumn Flit

"Where on earth is Vin?" asked Mrs. Miniver. The car was standing at the door of Starlings, ready to take them all back to London. The luggage-boot was filled to overflowing with the well-known paraphernalia of a nursery flit: even Clem's genius for stacking had been unable to make it look like anything but a cubist cornucopia. Clem was in the driving seat; Nannie was at the back, with Toby on her knee and Judy sitting close up beside her to make room for Vin. But Vin himself was nowhere to be seen.

"Wretched boy," said Clem amiably. "I told him what time we were starting."

"He went off on his bike directly after breakfast," said Judy, "to fetch his knife. He left it over at Pound Mill yesterday when he was fishing."

"He may have come in through the garden door," said his mother. "Mrs. Downce, you might go and see if he's in the kitchen, and I'll try the nursery."

She went back into the house. It had already begun to acquire that out-at-grass, off-duty look which houses get as soon as their owners go away; it was quite obviously preparing to take off its stays and slip into something loose.

The day nursery was empty, but around it, like a line of salt wrack, lay unmistakable traces of the children. As they grew older the flotsam of the holidays, without diminishing in quantity, changed a little in character. There were fewer stones and pieces of wood, though Toby still collected flints with holes through them and sticks which had been spirally grooved by honeysuckle. On the other hand there were now things like empty cartridge-cases (spent by Vin on rabbits and retrieved by Toby for use in a vast chess-like game which he played, by himself, on the squares of the nursery linoleum) ; and on the edge of the windowsill lay some bright shreds of wool, silk, and tinsel, some broken feathers, and the clamp-marks of a small vice. Vin, the evening before, had been tying flies; having run out of proper materials, he had had to fall back on the contents of the toy-cupboard, and with great ingenuity he had produced something which looked at first sight like an Alexandra, but which was really, he admitted, a Red-Indian-and-Gollywog.

Of Judy the traces were less conspicuous: her activities were mostly personal and required little gear. But just occasionally she too was bitten with the boys' mania for making things, and when that happened she got it badly. A few days ago, someone had described in the "Children's Hour " how to make a reed-pipe out of a jointed wheat-stalk, or, failing that, out of a drinking straw with a blob of sealing wax at one end. The farms immediately round Starlings were all pasture and hops: so she begged a packet of straws from Mrs. Downce and used up every one of them. To make the vibrating tongue was fairly easy, but to space the six finger-holes so as to get a sol-fa scale proved to be a matter of trial and error, exasperating to herself and excruciating to her hearers.

She cut her left hand and burnt her right one. The floor became littered with small square chips of straw: there was one now, lurking under the table. Every half-hour or so there would be heard a tentative tweedling cadence, full of quarter-tones and other exotic intervals; then a sigh as she snipped off the unsuccessful part of the pipe and threw it away. (The top half she thoughtfully preserved as a squeaker for Toby.) Just before bed-time the next day she managed to produce a pipe on which, by overblowing a little on the la, she could give a recognizable rendering of "Drink to Me Only."

As it happened, that day had been for the grown-ups one of great tension and anxiety, with the threat of war hanging like a leaden nimbus in the air. And Mrs. Miniver had drawn a curious comfort from watching Judy’s small intent face, bent hour after hour over her delicate and absorbing task. International tempers might flame or cool; the turning kaleidoscope of time might throw mankind's little coloured scraps of belief into new patterns, new ideologies; but the length of the vibrating column of air which, in a tube of a given calibre, would produce C natural -- that was one of the fixed things. And it wasn't the fault of the scientists, was it, if the people for whom they made the pipes chose to play dangerous tunes?

She went back to the car, and at the same moment Vin appeared from the direction of the bicycle-shed, very much out of breath.

"Sorry," he said shortly, and scrambled into place beside Judy. Mrs. Miniver got in too. The car moved off through winding lanes towards the arterial road. It was certainly a heart-breaking day on which to leave the country. It was warm and yet fresh; blindfold, one could have mistaken it for a morning in early May: but this kind of day, she reflected, had a more poignant loveliness in autumn than in spring, because it was a receding footfall, a waning moon. The woods were just beginning to turn, the different trees springing into individuality again, demobilized from the uniform green of summer. There had been a heavy dew. From the row of fires in front of the hop-pickers' huts the smoke rose blue and pungent. The hops were nearly all in, the stripped bines lay tumbled and tangled on the ground. One campaign at least was over without bloodshed.

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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther