The Cullens, an Irish couple, seeking to escape the unpleasant consequences of their involvement with Irish revolutionaries, are stopping over in Paris during their automobile trip to Hungary, where they have rented a property. They take advantage of their stopover to visit their American friend, Alexandra Henry, who has a house in the village, a short distance from Paris. They bring along their Irish chauffeur and a pilgrim hawk named Lucy, an unexpected “guest” that Mrs. Cullen is training to hunt.
Alexandra Henry’s house. Chancellet home of the American expatriate Alexandra Henry. Located directly on the village street, the house combines two small dwellings and a large horse stable, rebuilt and furnished in a modern style. Alwyn Tower, Alex’s houseguest who narrates the story from a vantage point ten years in the future, points out the architect’s mistake in placing the dining room and chief guestroom on the street, where all the noise of the highway traffic and frequent close brushes with heavy trucks interfere with dinner conversation and nightly rest.
The house’s living room is a converted stable with the hayloft removed, so that the old chestnut rafters stretching thirty feet to the roof give a Gothic feeling to the otherwise modern room. Painted white, with darkened woodwork, the room features a picture window that takes up a third of the wall. The window frames a broad view of the garden and the hunting park that joins it. The house, garden, and park form a triangular setting for the love-hate triangle among Mr. and Mrs. Cullen and the pilgrim hawk. To the hawk, the huge glass window offers an enticing vista of freedom that she cannot explore. To keep the frustrated bird calm, Mrs. Cullen confines it to her leather wriststrap and blinds it with a hood, a device commonly used for hunting birds. She also denies the bird any freedom in the same manner during a stroll in the park.
Mrs. Cullen talks of nothing but hawks the entire afternoon, comparing them to people in the “great madhouse in Dublin.” Hawks, she says, whether in the wild or in captivity, become weak and blind as they grow old and eventually give up and die of discouragement at their loss of hunting ability. Mr. Cullen compares his own declining vigor with that of his rival, the hawk, and grows increasingly resentful of his wife’s preoccupation with the hawk. He releases the hawk from its perch in the garden, where Mrs. Cullen leaves it while resting. Mrs. Cullen succeeds in recapturing the bird, but the episode is so stressful that the Cullens depart early, without staying for the dinner that Alexandra’s servants are preparing for them.
The house’s spacious English-style garden features trees, strolling paths, and a water pond but has no formal flowerbeds. In late May, the surface of the pond reflects a muffled blue sky with foamy white clouds. The garden is the setting for another love-hate relationship–that of Jean and Eva, Alexandra’s Moroccan servants, who spend their days quarreling and their evening hours in a corner of the garden where plane trees provide a romantic hideaway. The visiting Irish chauffeur flirts with Eva, evoking a jealous tirade from Jean. The garden is filled with peace or turmoil, as it forms the setting for jealous rages or peaceful romantic interludes.
With the departure of the Cullens, their hawk, and chauffeur, the house and garden settle back into an uncertain harmony. The narrator fears that after observing so much turmoil in others’ relationships, Alex will never risk marriage herself. However, he later reveals that upon her return to America, Alex meets and marries his brother. Thus, Glenway Wescott makes his point in this brief novel: Though house, garden, and park take on the aura of tension, frustration, and turmoil emanating from the interaction of the occupants, the setting remains an inanimate reservoir for human passions, not a determining force in the inhabitants’ behavior.