After the drear of the last post (horses starving, mothers starving, patriotic bears liquidating kulaks) we thought we might bring you something more befitting the holiday season. Herewith an excerpt from Rebecca West's novel The Fountain Overflows, as sweetly Christmasy a passage as you could read without rushing to the dentist immediately after. (If you like you Rebecca West more bracing, we highly recommend reading her Paris Review interview.)
We went upstairs to our room and collected the presents we had made for Papa and Mamma and waited there till we were called. Then we stood outside the dining room until Mamma began to play a piano arrangement of Bach’s “Shepherd’s Christmas Music,” and then we marched in in single file, followed by Kate, and stood round the Christmas tree with our backs to it and sang a carol. That year it was “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Then we handed over our presents to Papa and Mamma. I know what they were, for Mary and I wrote them down in a little book, which somehow never got lost. Cordelia had knitted Papa a silk necktie and had made Mamma a set of muslin collars and cuffs. She was the best needle-woman of the three of us. Mary had practised considerable deception over the money given her for milk and buns at eleven, and had gone to a junk shop we passed on our way to school and bought Papa a little eighteenth-century book about the sights of Paris with pretty coloured pictures and Mamma a watercolour of Capri, where she had spent a wonderful holiday when she was young. I had painted a wooden box to hold big matches for Papa to keep in his study and had made a shopping bag for Mamma out of plaited straw. Richard Quin had given the matches to put in my match-box and to Mamma a bright pink cake of scented soap which he had chosen himself. We were hampered because we had almost no pocket-money, but really these presents were not quite rubbish. All except the necktie and the soap were still in the house when, many years later, we left it, and I do not think they had been preserved simply because Mamma loved us, I believe they survived because of their usefulness and prettiness. We were not specially accomplished or sensible children, but, with Papa and Mamma and Kate in the house, we were propelled along the groove of a competent tradition.
When Papa and Mamma had had their presents we had ours. They were lovely. I really cannot think, looking back over a lifetime in which I have known many quite opulent Christmases, that any children have ever had much lovelier Christmas presents. We had known that Papa was making us new furniture and inhabitants for our dolls’ houses, but he had done better than that. He had given Cordelia’s Tudor palace a maze and a sunken garden and a pleached walk, like the one in Much Ado About Nothing; he had given Mary’s Queen Anne mansion a walled garden with espaliered trees all around it and a vinery outside built against the south wall; and he had given my Victorian Gothic abbey a small park with a looking-glass lake with a rocky island in it surmounted by a mock hermitage. Out of her old dresses Mother had made a pale green Mary Queen of Scots dress for Cordelia, an eighteenth-century white dress for Mary, a rose-coloured crinoline dress for me, and a Three Musketeers uniform with a cardboard sword for Richard Quin. Like everything else that Mamma did each was unique, we had never seen anything like them before, any one of them was something only she would have imagined. So enchanted were we with these big presents that we had hardly time to look at the presents Constance had sent us before we had to dress for church, except to see that for us girls she had pretty little pinafores, each with a hair-ribbon to match, and for Richard Quin a little shirt. There was an air of cool composure about the needlework which made these garments as distinctive as my mother’s wilder work.
It had been decided beforehand that Richard Quin was to go to church with us for the first time on Christmas morning. But he was bemused with his toys. He had not even begun to empty his stocking, but was dragging it about with him. If anybody tried to relieve him of it, he said, “Not yet, not yet in a minute,” but he could not bring himself to take his eyes off the fortress Papa had made for him, a proper fortress with casemates and redoubts and glacis and a garrison numbering twenty, all in silver-foil armour. He could not bear to touch it, he liked it so much. So Mamma took pity on him and said that he need not go, perhaps he was too little, it would wait till next Christmas. But he said that if Papa was going he would like to go too. So we started out through a crisp morning, Mamma going to the steps to see us off. “Gloves?” she said sternly to us three, for all over England little girls were starting a revolt against gloves, which was to succeed before very long, but was then discouraged by all adults. “I wish I could come with you.” She sighed. “I would enjoy the service.”