Sylvia Townsend Warner’s A View of Exmoor was published in The New Yorker in 1948. It is reprinted in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, and I found it to be an interesting read!
A View of Exmoor is set in 1936, at a time “weddings could be garish.” The Finches are returning home from the wedding of Mrs. Finch’s niece, Arminella Blount. They are still clad in their wedding attires – “Mrs. Finch in green moiré, Cordelia and Clara in their bridesmaids’ dresses copied from the Gainsborough portrait of an earlier Arminella Blount in the Character of Flora, Mr. Finch in, as his wife said, his black-and-grey. Arden Finch in an Eton suit would have looked like any normal twelve-year-old boy in an Eton suit if measles had not left him preternaturally thin, pale, and owl-eyed,” and in the car with them is Arminella’s piping bullfinch and the music box used to train it. So to other travelers on the road the Finches’ car and its contents must have been quite the sight! Aware of this attention, Mr. Finch decides to change the route to save his family from any embarrassment. Without the help of a road map, they soon get lost but discover a beautiful view of Exmoor on the way. So they decide to make the most of it and have a picnic there.
While having lunch, Mrs. Finch recounts the tale of her Aunt Harriet’s inexplicable boots. When her Aunt Harriet was young, she and her brother had witnessed a couple having a dispute near the Exmoor. On the ground close to the couple, there had been a pair of boots. The couple had been wearing boots, so it could not have been theirs, and at the end of the quarrel the crying hatless (important because in those days no self-respecting woman ever went out without a hat) woman had snatched up the boots on the ground and run for a cab! Strange now, isn’t it?
The Finches try to speculate the story behind the boots. Some of their explanations are funny and far-fetched! But this fun gets interrupted when the bullfinch escapes its cage. While Mr. Finch takes the music box out of the car and plays it hoping lure back the bird, Mrs. Finch and the children go searching for it. But they soon have company! A young man on a walking tour sees them; “two replicas, in rather bad condition, of Gainsborough’s well-known portrait of Arminella Blount in the character of Flora, a cadaverous small boy draped in a bloodstained Indian shawl, and a middle-aged lady dressed in the height of fashion who carried a bird cage.” Mr. Finch is horrified that his family has yet again made themselves conspicuous. So he asks his wife why she did not explain the situation to the young man, and to that his wife replies, “He looked so hot and careworn, and I expect he only gets a fortnight’s holiday all the year through. Why should I spoil it for him? Why shouldn’t he have something to look back on in his old age?”
I believe that was a perfect ending! Just like the Finches tried to make sense of the inexplicable boots, this young man’s future generations – should he decide to tell the tale, might try to imagine what could have possibly happened on that day near Exmoor!