Not a word to my girls, he had said on the way home from the hospital.
My girls, as if they also weren't hers. She was used to it; he always said that, and in a way they were more his. I'm not hearing this, she said.
You're going to have major surgery and your grown-up children aren't to be told.
Major surgery, he said. You sound like Staff Nurse Samantha in a hospital sitcom. I wont have Sarah and Hope worried. I wont give them a day of hell while they await the result.
You flatter yourself, she thought, but that was just spite. He didn't. They would have a day of hell; they would have anguish, while she had a little mild trepidation.
He made her promise. It wasn't difficult. She wouldn't have cared for the task of telling them.
The girls came down as usual. In the summer they came down every weekend, and in the winter, too, unless the roads were impassable. They had forgotten the Romney's were coming to lunch, and Hope made a face, what her father called a square mouth, a snarl, pushing her head forward and curling back her lips.
Be thankful its only lunch, said Gerald. When I first met the guy, I asked him for the weekend.
? Sarah said it as if she were talking of someone turning down a free round-the-world cruise.
No, he didn't refuse. I wrote to him, asked him for lunch, and said he could stay at the hotel.
Everyone laughed except Ursula.
He's got a wife he's bringing.
Oh, God, Daddy, is there more? He hasn't got kids, has he?
If he has, they're not invited. Gerald smiled sweetly at his daughters. He said thoughtfully, We might play the Game.
With them? Oh, do lets, said Hope, We haven't played the Game for ages.
Titus and Julia Romney were much honored by an invitation from Gerald Candless, and if they had expected to be put up in the house and not have to pay for a room at the Dunes, they hadn't said so, not even to each other. Julia had anticipated eccentricity from someone so distinguished, even rudeness, and she was pleasantly surprised to encounter a genial host, a gracious, if rather silent, hostess, and two good-looking young women who turned out to be the daughters.
Titus, who had his naive side, as she well knew, was hoping for a look at the room where the work was done. And perhaps a present. Not a first edition, that would be expecting too much, but any book signed by the author. Conversation on literary matters, how he wrote, when he wrote, and even, now the daughters had appeared, what it was like to be his child.
It was a hot, sunny day in July, a few days before the start of the high season at the hotel, or they wouldn't have gotten a room. Lunch was in a darkish, cool dining room with no view of the sea. Far from discussing books, the Candless's talked about the weather, summer visitors, the beach, and Miss Batty, who was coming to clear the table and wash up. Gerald said Miss Batty wasn't much of a cleaner but that they kept her because her name made him laugh. There was another Miss Batty and a Mrs. Batty, and they all lived together in a cottage in Croyde. Sounds like a new card game, Unhappy Families, he said, and then he laughed and the daughters laughed.
In the drawing room -- so he called it -- the French windows were open onto the garden, the pink and blue hydrangea, the cliff edge, the long bow-shaped beach and the sea. Julia asked what the island was and Sarah said Lundy, but she said it in such a way as to imply only a total ignoramus would ask. Coffee was brought by someone who must have been Miss Batty and drinks were poured by Hope. Gerald and Titus drank port, Julia had a refill of the Meursault, and Sarah and Hope both had brandy. Sarah's brandy was neat, but Hope's had ice in it.
Then Gerald made the sort of announcement Julia hated, really hated. She didn't think people actually did this anymore, not in this day and age, not grown-ups. Not intellectuals.
And now we'll play the Game, Gerald had said. Let's see how clever you are.
Would it be wonderful to find someone who caught on at once, Daddy? said Hope. Or would we hate it?
We'd hate it, said Sarah, and she planted on Gerald's cheek on of those kisses that the Romney's found mildly embarrassing to witness.
He caught at her hand briefly. It never happens though, does it?
Julia met Ursula's eye and must have put inquiry into her glance. Or simply fear.
Oh, I shan't play, Ursula said. I shall go out for my walk.
In this heat?
I like it. I always walk along the beach in the afternoons.
Titus, who also disliked parlor games, asked what this one was called. Not this Unhappy Families you were talking about?
Its called I Pass the Scissors, said Sarah.
What do we have to do?
You have to do it right. That's all.
You mean we all have to do something and there's a right way and a wrong way of doing it?
How will we know?
The scissors were produced by Hope from a drawer in the tallboy. Once kitchen scissors had been used for the Game, or Ursula's sewing scissors or nail scissors, whatever came to hand. But the Game and the ascendancy it gave then afforded so much pleasure that, while his daughters still lived at home, Gerald had bought a pair of Victorian scissors with handles like a silver bird in flight and sharp pointed blades. It was these that Hope now handed to her father for him to begin.
Leaning forward in his armchair, his feet planted far apart, his back to the light, Gerald opened the scissors so that they formed a cross. He smiled. He was a big man, with a head journalists called leonine, though the lion was old now, with a grizzled, curly mane the color of iron filings. His hands were big and his fingers very long. He handed the scissors to Julia Romney and said, I pass the scissors uncrossed.
No, you don't. Hope closed the scissors, turned them over, and put them into the outstretched fingers of Titus Romney. I pass the scissors uncrossed.
Titus did the same and handed them to Sarah, saying with a glance at Gerald that he passed the scissors crossed.
Wrong. Sarah opened the scissors, held them by one blade, and passed them to her father. I pass the scissors crossed, Dad.
He closed them, turned them over twice clockwise, and passed them to Julia. I pass the scissors uncrossed.
Dawning comprehension, or what she thought was dawning comprehension, broke on Julia's face. She sat upright and turned the scissors over twice counterclockwise, handed them to Hope, and said she passed the scissors crossed.
Well, well, said Hope. But do you know why?
Julia didn't. She had guessed. But they're crossed when they're closed, aren't they?
Are they? You have to pass them crossed and know why, and everyone has to see. Look, when you know, its as clear as glass. I promise you. Hope opened the scissors. I pass the scissors crossed.
So they continued for half an hour. Titus Romney asked if anyone ever got it, and Gerald said yes, of course, it was just that no one ever got it at once. Jonathan Arthur had gotten it the second time. Impressed by the name of the winner of both the John Llewelyn Rhys and the Somerset Maugham prizes, Titus said he was really going to concentrate from now on. Sarah said she wanted another brandy and what about everyone else.
Another port, Dad?
I don't think so, darling. It gives me a headache. But you can give Titus one.
Sarah replenished the drinks, then sat down again this time on the arm of her fathers chair. I pass the scissors uncrossed.
But why? Julia Romney was beginning to sound irritated. She had gone rather red. Signs of participants beginning to lose their tempers always amused the Candless's who now looked gleeful and expectant. I mean, how can it be? The scissors are just the same as when you passed them crossed just now.
I told you it was unlikely you'd get it the first time, said Hope, and she yawned. I pass the scissors crossed.
You always pass them crossed!
Do I? Right, I'll pass them uncrossed next time.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Chimney Sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine. . Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.