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The Embroidered Sunset

Joan Aiken


  Joan Aiken

















  Also by Joan Aiken

  and available from Bello

  The Embroidered Sunset

  The Butterfly Picnic

  Voices in an Empty House

  Castle Barebane

  The Five-Minute Marriage

  Last Movement

  Foul Matter




  Jane Austen Novels

  Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed

  The Youngest Miss Ward

  Paget Family Series

  The Smile of the Stranger

  The Weeping Ash

  The Girl from Paris


  This light romance is for Isabelle Taylor


  If it had not been a pleasure it would have been a duty to hate Uncle Wilbie Culpepper. He sat blandly smiling upon his household, impervious to Lucy’s malignant appraisal, rotund, tight-skinned, infinitely self-satisfied. There was not an atom out of place in Uncle Wilbie’s universe; sometimes Lucy doubted if he could be a genuine member of the human race; he seemed too pink-cheeked and unwrinkled to be subject to regular human ailments and difficulties. It was more probable that he was constructed from plastic—unfadable, unmeltable, unshrinkable—and would last forever. A dismaying prospect.

  “You mean there’s no money left at all?” Lucy repeated, steadily encountering Uncle Wilbie’s beaming regard. His eyes were opaque, like onyx-coloured marbles.

  The charged quality in Lucy’s voice caused Aunt Rose to come out of the fashion pages, and Corale to lay down a catalogue of Caribbean cruise wear.

  Uncle Wilbie measured with his eye the dimensions of a large segment of chocolate layer cake, carefully bit off a third part, and masticated it.

  “Yep,” he replied concisely, when he had half consumed the mouthful. “I’m afraid that’s about the size of it, Your Highness.” It was one of Uncle Wilbie’s pleasantries to address Lucy as Princess. “Your schooling at Cadwallader used up every red cent. And a bit over, if we must go into it,” he added apologetically.

  “It didn’t occur to you,” said Lucy with tight, cold control, “that it might be better to send me to a cheaper school, so there would be a bit of money left to train me for a career afterwards?”

  “And have people say we sent Corale to a better school than you?” Aunt Rose began.

  “Why, Princess!” Uncle Wilbie silenced his wife with a look. “Why, Princess, I’m surprised at you. It was the least I could do for your poor father’s memory to see that you had a decent education.” He took another large, squashy bite of chocolate cake, and passed his cup to Aunt Rose. “More coffee, please, Rosie-Posie.”

  “I doubt if father would have considered it needful to send me to one of the most snobbish schools in the world,” said Lucy, grimly recalling her sufferings over the last six years; remarkably high-priced sufferings, it now appeared.

  “Your father, my dearest Princess, was not the wisest of men when it came to practical matters. I think we are all agreed about that,” said Uncle Wilbie with relish. He received his cup back from Aunt Rose and took a long, meditative swallow. My goodness, he is enjoying this, thought Lucy. “Not to put too fine a point on it,” Wilbie added, replacing cup on saucer, “your father, Princess dear, was completely and utterly hopeless where money was concerned. He was a spendthrift. Unreliable. In fact a bum. A—a—wait”—he checked with uplifted hand the beginning of her indignant rebuttal—“I’m sure he seemed a hero to you, Highness, and that’s very proper; we haven’t wanted to do anything all these years to spoil his image for you.” No, not until now, thought Lucy, her perceptions bright with rage, not until you could get the maximum satisfaction out of it. “But when you come down to brass tacks, that’s all he was. A guy who could leave his wife and baby living on National Assistance in Liverpool while he went off to Canada on some crack-brained scheme.”

  “He wouldn’t have left us if he could help it! It was because of my heart trouble, mother didn’t think I ought to travel.”

  “You can’t really know that,” Corale pointed out with silky accuracy. “You were only two.” She’s loving this, Lucy thought, pointedly ignoring her blonde cousin. Only Aunt Rose looked distressed.

  “No, you really don’t know about it, dearie! A man who could leave his wife to die of pneumonia—”

  “He didn’t hear till it was too late.”

  “Now what makes you think that?” asked Uncle Wilbie, smiling. “Ah, I suppose little Minnie said so. Your mother’s sister always thought the sun rose and set in him. Yes, with all his faults, Paul was a dear, lovable fellow—at least the girls loved him!”

  Lucy ground her knuckles together. “Since Aunt Minnie’s dead too—” she began. But then she changed her mind. She took a long, steadying look round Uncle Wilbie’s famous kitchen; the quarter-deck, he loved to call it, in deprecating reference to his long-ago naval career. Everything was shipshape and shiny: steel, brass, mahogany, and dark-blue paint made an austere, masculine setting for Uncle Wilbie’s famous tipsy-cakes, his clambakes and charcoal-broiled steaks. Aunt Rose, it was understood, operated in there only on sufferance and with extreme diffidence.

  Let’s not lose our temper, Lucy thought. That’s what he wants. That’s what he enjoys more than anything. That’s what he’s trying for now. I wonder why?

  Raising dark-pupilled light grey eyes—her only good feature—she carefully surveyed her uncle. He twinkled back at her.

  “So I’m afraid the princess will have to be a hard-working little princess from now on—unlike her lazy, no-good, layabout cousin there,” he added, with a loving wink at his daughter.

  “Dad! I work hard!” expostulated Corale, who donated her days to a charitable organisation, in whose offices she ate candy, read the glossy magazines, and used the telephone to arrange her dates.

  “I haven’t the slightest objection to hard work,” said Lucy coldly. “Being a concert pianist must be one of the hardest jobs there is.”

  “Princess dear, we’ve been all over this once already. There just isn’t the dough right now for such highfalutin notions—let alone going to London to train with some fancy-pants Roumanian maestro—”

  “He is a Czech.”

  “Czech, Roumanian, what’s the difference?” said Uncle Wilbie, who had put Europe behind him once and for all—except as a market—when he crossed the Atlantic from Liverpool to Boston twenty years ago. “Now, look, why don’t you be a good little princess and find some nice sensible job—get one here in Boston, easy as falling off a brick—then in a couple of years you’ll have saved enough, I daresay, to train with Comrade Pullover, or whatever he calls himself. After all, it’s what most kids do—work to put themselves through college. It’s what Corabella would have done if she’d wanted to go to college, isn’t it, Bella?”

  If she had been bright enough to go, Lucy thought.

  “And,” Uncle Wilbie went on in gentle remonstrance, “I don’t like to labour the point, Princess dear, but it is just a little bit ungrateful of you to act this way; after all, if we hadn’t sent you to Cadwallader, where, as well as having family connections through Aunt Rose an
d Corabella, you got the chance of a first-class musical education, you wouldn’t even have known about your gift for piano, would you? Just remember that before you blast off at your poor old well-meaning uncle for not making a few thousand dollars stretch twice round the world! After all, two years isn’t so long to wait, dearie, not at your age.”

  He smiled forgivingly at his niece. Her pale freckled face remained unresponsive.

  “Two years will be just a bit too long in this case, I’m afraid, Uncle Wilbie. Max Benovek is dying of leukemia; he has only a couple of years to live. If that.”

  “Bit of a crazy choice for a teacher, then, isn’t he,” Uncle Wilbie said genially. “Better think again, Princess, and pick out some guy who’s likelier to last your time out; no point sinking your savings in a fellow who’s going to die on you! Besides, if he’s as sick as that, the chances are a thousand to one against his taking on new pupils.”

  “Mrs. Bergstrom thought there was a chance he’d take me on.”

  Wilbie heaved a martyred sigh and looked at his wife with ruefully raised eyebrows. “Sometimes, Rosie, I almost wish your great-aunt hadn’t been the founder of Cadwallader! If our little princess hadn’t gone there and been jacked up on all these high-flown hopes by Madame Bergstrom, just think how much easier our life would be now!”

  Aunt Rose looked apologetic and alarmed, her usual reaction to Uncle Wilbie’s fun.

  “I—I’m sure I never—If I’d ever thought—after all, Corale’s perfectly—”

  “That Mrs. Bergstrom’s nuts, anyway,” put in Corale. “She couldn’t ever see anything wrong with her favourites. Nobody who had sense took her seriously.”

  Lucy and Corale exchanged measured, inimical looks.

  “So, Princess, I’m afraid you’ll have to put Commissar Thingovitch out of your mind. Heck, this country must be crawling with exiled Czechs and Hunks and Polaks, anyway, if you really must have a foreigner!” Wilbie glanced at the watch on the table in front of him which, according to habit, he had unbuckled from his wrist so as to be more relaxed while eating. “Well, well, time the old breadwinner was on his way, or there’ll be tight belts in the harem soon!” He jumped up, wiping a stray chocolate-cake crumb from his smiling little mouth, walked round the table, and kissed his daughter. Corale never lifted her eyes from the catalogue. “So long then, harem, be good girls. What’s my long-stemmed American beauty doing today?”

  “Doing over the attic,” said Aunt Rose wanly. “The Korean girl just called up to say she’s not coming any more.”

  “Oh, too bad. Maybe our highness here could help you—if her heart permits. Well, have fun!” He kissed his wife, who, being some eight inches taller, had to incline her handsome, haggard head towards his husbandly peck; this she did with an anxious air, as if continually afraid that Wilbie might take her extra height for a piece of presumption. And he, as usual, with a malicious grin, made much of the disparity; grasping his wife’s shoulder with a heavy hand he stood on tiptoe in his thick-soled shoes to salute her cheek.

  “’Bye, Princess dear. Forgive?”

  Lucy neatly bypassed her uncle’s kiss. Aunt Rose, wincingly noting this piece of rashness, wondered on whom the subsequent retribution would fall. Wilbie never let a debt go unpaid.

  “Adios, girls!”

  He was gone, a plump, smiling little man, bustling away from Belmont in his big car, in to Boston where the money rattled and the wheels of commerce went round. Uncle Wilbie, like another hero before him, had made a fortune from marketing a small domestic article, and since fondness for cash grows with its acquisition, he was now busy increasing his pile.

  Corale languidly dumped the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher and then went off to her charitable work.

  “I’ll help you with the attic, Aunt Rose, of course,” Lucy said.

  “Oh, thank you, dear. I’m sure—your uncle didn’t mean—that is—well you know how he—”

  Despite the fact that they had lived together for six years, Rose was nervous of her niece and placatory when they were alone together; almost as placatory of Lucy, indeed, as she was of her husband. In spite of her small size and pallor there was a kind of indomitability, a stoic quality about Lucy which had this effect on some people.

  “Yes, I know how he is,” echoed Lucy, absently watching Aunt Rose don a pink-flowered smock, above which her beautiful, characterless, defeated face looked more natural than with her more usual matinee or cocktail rig. Uncle Wilbie saw to it that his wife engaged in an active social round; there is no point in possessing a trophy if you keep it shut away in a closet where nobody can see it.

  “I’ll take those,” said Lucy, and grasped the duster and vacuum cleaner that her aunt was clumsily trying to manoeuvre up the polished pine stairs.

  “But—Lucy dear—is it all right? What about your heart?”

  “Oh shucks.”

  “Dr. Woodstock—”

  “Dr. Woodstock’s an old fusser. If I hadn’t any other reason to be glad I’d quit that school, I’d be thankful to be rid of him.”

  “Lucy, why didn’t you like Cadwallader?” Aunt Rose asked, following with a cobweb broom and can of moth spray. “It seems so queer. Coralie just adored it all the time she was there.”

  “Corale and I are just different,” Lucy said, pausing in the large, airy second-floor hallway to give her troubled aunt a look that was half sardonic, half tolerant. “You hadn’t noticed? Besides, they didn’t go for my Liverpudlian accent at Cadwallader; thought it was common. Ee, they reckoned I was joost a gootersnipe!”

  “Oh, what nonsense, dear! You don’t have any accent. Besides, Coralie’s cousin—” Aunt Rose began flusteredly.

  “Being Corale’s young cousin didn’t help a bit. She’s big and beautiful and outgoing and good at athletics and crazy about boys and dancing; oh, just naturally one of the gang! Whereas, look at me!”

  On the third-floor hall where they were now, the girls had their rooms and bath; there was also a sewing room with a long mirror set in its open door. Lucy paused in front of this and nodded ironically at her undersized reflection. “No, I can tell you, they were quite as glad to see the back of me as I was to get out of there. Only, I’m just sorry to discover that my education there used up every last penny of Father’s money.”

  “Lucy—if I can—” began Aunt Rose. Then she stopped and bit her lip. “I believe I can hear the phone ringing,” she said. “Excuse me a minute. I’ll just put these here and be right back. Oh, here’s the attic key; you know how your uncle is about keeping the door locked.”

  Lucy did know. During the last six years she had not set foot in the attic more than three times, and she now went up the last flight, opened the door, and gazed about her with frank curiosity. The room was large, stretching the whole length of the big, old-fashioned house, and it was crammed with the accretions of nearly twenty years. Trunks, tennis rackets, old porch furniture, stacks of newspapers, discarded games, bundles of curtains, bicycles, were all jammed together in grimy confusion. Yellow curled-up photographs spilled out from dusty albums. A tangle of sports equipment, surfboards, scuba gear, fishing-rods, guns of various calibres, bore witness to Uncle Wilbie’s various phases of activity; any sport, for Uncle Wilbie, represented a means to an end and was therefore pursued for a set period with single-minded devotion; the end, of course, being a useful enlargement of his social circle.

  Plugging in the cleaner, Lucy set to work with a brisk efficiency that—though she would have rejected the thought—was inherited from her uncle. Starting at one end of the long cluttered room she moved and restacked everything, cleaning as she went, folding clothes, piling furniture and boxes more neatly, shaking and shuffling papers into tidy piles.

  Aunt Rose, reappearing apologetically after twenty minutes, gave a gasp and exclaimed, “Mercy, what a lot you’ve done already. Do take care, dearie, don’t overtire yourself.�

  “Oh, I’m fine,” Lucy said absently. “Don’t you worry about me, I’m enjoying myself. Aunt Rose, who in the world did these marvellous things?”

  “Which, dear?” Rose replied in a vague tone, glancing at her watch.

  “These pictures over here.”

  Five small dormer windows gave light to the attic. Lucy had dragged an old wicker couch in front of the middle window and propped three canvases against it.

  “Honestly, Aunt Rose, they are the most amazing things I ever saw!”

  The three pictures all represented biblical subjects; in one a top-heavy ark was on the point of sliding into the flood as two giraffes leapt hastily aboard, last of a procession of animals disappearing over the deck; in another Absalom hung by his hair from an ilex tree while his horse galloped into a background where a wild battle raged, and overhead a portentous thunderstorm darkened the sky; in the third, tiny Samuel in a white nightgown stood riveted, listening, in the bottom righthand corner while the immense, rich, dusk-filled temple loomed around him.

  “That one!” said Lucy. “Look at the way he’s listening!”

  As she considered the infant Samuel her too-thin, closed, wary face softened into a tender and amused expression which, insensitive though life had obliged Rose Culpepper to become, yet struck her with an obscure pang. I’ve never seen Lucy look like that before, she thought.

  “Who did them, Aunt Rose? Do look at that colour—the lightning flashing on Absalom’s hair, and the white horses galloping against those dark-green hills. And the ark—all that red and prune and ochre and charcoal. Oh, I know they’re primitives, but they’re astonishingly subtle too—whoever did them knew exactly what he meant, and had a sense of humour into the bargain. Look at Mrs. Noah coping with the cobra. And Samuel’s feet!”

  Aunt Rose was quite bewildered. “But Lucy—art isn’t your subject—”

  Lucy’s ironic expression returned. “You mean, what right have I to be so enthusiastic? Can’t I even be allowed to recognise a work of genius when I see one?”