Red Sky at Morning

by Margaret Kennedy. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1927. 12mo. x+331 pp. $2.50.
THOUGH the courts acquitted Norman Crowne, the question whether he did or did not murder his evil genius and familiar friend was sufficiently unresolved to force him into exile, where he shortly died, leaving a little brilliant verse, a really first-class scandal, and twin children. William and Emily, with whom Miss Kennedy’s story deals. Saved from full consciousness of their situation by their own youth and their elders’ vigilance, they spend an uneventful childhood in dreamy submissiveness to the tutelage of their cousins Trevor and Charlotte Frobisher.
At twenty-one the emancipated twins take their very handsome fortune to London, where their brilliance and their father’s unforgotten name bring them most of the pleasures that the world is considered to offer. Their fundamental absorption in each other keeps quick the Ariel lightness of their childhood, and enables them to combine a passionate enjoyment of their surroundings with the airy detachment of the soap bubbles to which Trevor compares them. ‘They keep making incredible, miraculous escapes, but . . . sooner or later they come into contact. . . . with the solid ugly things around . . . and then they’ll just disappear.’
And it is the wise youth Trevor who effects this tragic contact. By making use of William’s compassion to get the baggage Tilli Van Tuyl taken off his hands at a party, he paves the way for the lamentable abortion of William’s first play. The greedy welcome which the Crownes’ acquaintance extends to this disaster and to the opportunities it offers for reminiscences of the first ‘Crowne show’ awakens Emily to the burden of notoriety she must carry. She takes refuge in Philip Luttrell, a country neighbor of the Frobishers’, who consents — though reluctantly, because he loves her—to help her turn into Mrs. Luttrell, the Rector’s wife. So Emily Crowne disappears.
William can take the Crowne scandal and the shock of his failure fairly elastically; but Emily’s defection shatters his sinking bubble, and the small soapy drop remaining falls into Tilli Van Tuyl’s plump, unscrupulous hand. She does n’t want William; but she does very much want a husband, she would like to punish Trevor’s elusiveness, and she desires to be mistress of just such a solid, comfortable country house as Monk’s Hall, which William has lately bought.
Tilli, meaning to use William as the instrument of her vengeance upon Trevor, feels herself defeated by William’s complete spiritual remoteness. She cannot realize what Trevor half suspects — that with Emily’s renouncement of her Crowne existence William’s slender hold on everyday life has loosened dangerously. Unfortunately Trevor fails to see that William’s growing indifference to his companions and to social sanctions generally does not necessarily imply emotional apathy; and surprise must have been faintly mixed with his terror and pain on the wet spring night when William, finding him in Tilli’s room, shot and killed him after a confused pursuit through the fields.
There the story ends, while Philip, waiting in the cold red dawn for Emily to wake and hear of the Crowne show ‘ William must face alone this time,’wishes that day might never come.
‘11 n’y a qu’une manière de refuser demain: c’est de mourir.’ The effort to deny the morrow is not commonly made by minds wholly resolute and sound. As charming children or as lovely semi-conventionalized rhythmic patterns, it is possible to feel both sympathy and admiration for the Crownes; but the more one considers them in relation to their surroundings, the more puzzling does the book become. If Miss Kennedy is really anxious to have us believe that the Crownes share with mediæval rock crystal the power of exposing the black corruption of whatever poison they may touch, why is it that the poison persists in looking so wholesome? Not its subtlety, certainly. If, on the other hand, the Crownes are only stunted victims of maladjustment, why do Frobishers and Londoners both vary their aspects with the grotesque rapidity of figures seen in a convex mirror? Do we know them only through the distorting lens of the Crownes’ bubble? In The Constant Nymph the balance between absolute and relative was implicit on every page; here it is a problem continually renewed, just disturbing enough to take the edge from one’s pleasure in Trevor’s model community, or the Crownes’ Hampstead ‘nursery,’ or Philip’s vision of Emily in her April meadow, or any other of the delightful pieces of writing animated by Miss Kennedy’s powerful sense of the tragic.