Pointz Hall is not one of the great English houses mentioned in the guidebooks, but it is old and comfortable and pleasantly situated in a tree-fringed meadow. The house is older than the name of its owners in the county. Although they hang the portrait of an ancestor in brocade and pearls beside the staircase and keep, under glass, a watch that stopped a bullet at Waterloo, the Olivers lived only a little more than a century in a district where the names of the villagers go back to the Domesday Book. The countryside still shows traces of the ancient Britons, the Roman road, the Elizabethan manor house, and the marks of the plow on a hill sown in wheat during Napoleon’s time.
The owner of the house is Bartholomew Oliver, retired from the Indian Civil Service. With him lives his son Giles, his daughter-in-law Isa, two small grandchildren, and his widowed sister, Mrs. Lucy Swithin. Bartholomew, a disgruntled old man who lives more and more in the past, is constantly snubbing his sister, as he did when they were children. Mrs. Swithin is a woman of careless dress, good manners, quiet faith, and great intelligence. Her favorite book is an Outline of History; she dreams of a time when Piccadilly was a rhododendron forest in which the mastodon roamed. Giles is a London stockbroker who wanted to be a farmer until circumstances decided otherwise. A misunderstanding lately developed between him and his wife Isa, who writes poetry in secret. She suspects that Giles is unfaithful and fancies herself in love with Rupert Haines, a married gentleman farmer of the neighborhood. Isa thinks that Mrs. Haines has the eyes of a gobbling goose.
On a June morning in 1939, Pointz Hall awakens. Mrs. Swithin, aroused by the birds, reads again in the Outline of History until the maid brings her tea. She wonders if the afternoon will be rainy or fine, for this is the day of the pageant to raise funds for installing electric lights in the village church. Later, she goes to early service. Old Bartholomew walks with his Afghan hound on the terrace where his grandson George is bent over a cluster of flowers. When the old man folds his newspaper into a cone to cover his nose and jumps suddenly at the boy, George begins to cry. Bartholomew grumbles that his grandson is a crybaby and goes back to his paper. From her window, Isa looks out at her son and the baby, Caro, in her perambulator that a nurse is pushing. Then she goes off to order the fish for lunch. She reads in Bartholomew’s discarded newspaper the story of an attempted assault on a girl in the barracks at Whitehall. Returning from church, Mrs. Swithin tacks another placard on the barn where the pageant will be given if the day turns out rainy; regardless of the weather, tea will also be served there during the intermission. Mocked again by her brother, she goes off to make sandwiches for the young men and women who are decorating the barn.
Giles is expected back from London in time for the pageant. The family decides not to wait lunch for him when Mrs. Manresa and a young man named William Dodge arrive unexpectedly and uninvited. They intended, Mrs. Manresa explains, to picnic in the country, but when she saw the Olivers’ name on the signpost, she suddenly decided to visit her old friends. Mrs. Manresa, loud, cheerful, and vulgar, is a woman of uncertain...
(The entire section is 1366 words.)