A Country House Visit

They went to Cornwall for Easter, to stay with the Edward Havelocks.

People who didn't know Mrs. Miniver very well, and even some of those who did, would have found it difficult to believe what a feeling of leaden oppression always came over her during the last few miles of the approach to a strange country house visit. If they were arriving in their own car she could comment on it half-jokingly to Clem, which helped to dispel it: but if, as now, they had come by train and been met at the station, she could only watch the back of the chauffeur's neck in dumb dismay, or at the most make some cryptic reference to her state of mind.

"These modem tumbrils are so fast," she said in an agonized murmur to Clem as the car swept them all too rapidly towards Penzarron.

"Look!" said Clem. "More standing stones. This place must have been stiff with Druids." He was not unfeeling, but he thought, quite rightly, that she ought to have grown out of this by now. Also he knew that her panic would disappear the moment she set foot in the house, and that she would most likely end by enjoying herself. Mrs. Miniver knew all this, too, in her mind, but she could never quite succeed in transferring the knowledge to the pit of her stomach.

It wasn't shyness: she had never experienced that. She got on easily with strangers, and there were few things she enjoyed more than that first tentative groping among wave-lengths, followed -- if you were unlucky -- by a Talk on Accountancy, but far more often, thank heaven, by a burst of music. No, it wasn't shyness. It was more like a form of claustrophobia -- a dread of exchanging the freedom of her own self-imposed routine for the inescapable burden of somebody else's. She must be prepared to adjust herself all day to an alien tempo: to go out, to come in, to go to bed, to sit, to stride, to potter (oh! worst of all, to potter), whenever her hostess gave the hint. There was always a chance, of course, that the Havelocks' tempo might turn out to be the same as her own: that they might hate sitting long over meals; walk quickly or not at all; enjoy arguments, jokes, and silences, but detest making conversation; and realize that a day without a chunk or two of solitude in it is like a cocktail without ice.

There was certainly a chance: but at moments like this it seemed a very remote one. They had come out on to the coast road now, and Cornwall was out-postering itself, as usual, with rocky headlands and sandy coves and fishing villages that spilled themselves down the cliff face like cascades of mesembryanthemum. The year was older here: the oak-woods were rounded, cushiony and mustard-gold, the grass under the fruit trees was already scattered with petals, the cottage gardens were little glowing squares of rich embroidery. It was being a lavishly lovely spring, almost frightening in its perfection, as though for some reason it was meant to be a final performance. "Positively the last appearance on any stage ...." She suggested this to Clem, wondering whether by any chance it had struck him, too.

"But that's what I feel every spring," said Clem unexpectedly. And I've known him through seventeen of them, thought Mrs. Miniver, without knowing that. But it was quite natural really: she had long ago discovered that whereas words, for her, clarified feelings, for Clem, on the whole, they obscured them. This was perhaps just as well. For if they had both been equally explicit they might have been in danger of understanding each other completely; and a certain degree of un-understanding (not mis-, but un-) is the only possible sanctuary which one human being can offer to another in the midst of the devastating intimacy of a happy marriage.

She saw every relationship as a pair of intersecting circles. The more they intersected, it would seem at first glance, the better the relationship; but this is not so. Beyond a certain point the law of diminishing returns sets in, and there aren't enough private resources left on either side to enrich the life that is shared. Probably perfection is reached when the area of the two outer crescents, added together, is exactly equal to that of the leaf-shaped piece in the middle. On paper there must be some neat mathematical formula for arriving at this: in life, none. She breathed surreptitiously on the window of the car and drew two circles with her finger; but they hardly intersected at all -- a mere moonlight infatuation which would soon peter out -- so she added ears and whiskers and turned them into Siamese-twin cats. (But would that count, she wondered, as being Siamese cats ?) Then she met the chauffeur's eye in the driving-mirror and hurriedly rubbed the whole thing out, pretending to peer at the view.

"But it's all right," said Clem, pursuing his own train of thought. "She always decides to stage another come-back."

"Who? Oh -- spring. Yes." But she could not respond with much gaiety, for they were actually turning in at the gates of Penzarron. This was the worst moment of all. There was no escape now. In four days' time, she told herself, they would be on their way back to London, having probably made several new friends: but somehow this was no comfort to her at all. At any rate, she thought, clinging to a straw, she had just bought herself a really grand dressing-gown, the kind one always caught glimpses of, exquisitely laid out, through other women's bedroom doors. The vision of it sustained her all the way up the drive between the mountainous rhododendron combers which never quite broke on top of the car.

And all of a sudden the ordeal was over, and they had arrived, and Leila Havelock was introducing them to their fellow-guests; and the tuning-knobs were turning, turning, in broad preliminary arcs, ready for more delicate adjustment as soon as the first faint throbbing of music should beat upon the ear.


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