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The Black Swan
The Daughters of England
By Philippa Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Philippa Carr
All rights reserved.
Murder in the Street
We were at breakfast—my stepmother and I—when the letter came. Briggs, the butler, brought it in with the usual ceremony. It lay on the shining silver tray in which Belinda and I used to watch our grotesquely distorted faces leering back at us, while we grew hysterical with laughter.
My stepmother looked at the letter nervously. She was a very nervous woman. It was due I always thought to living with my father who was rather a terrifying man to some people. I could understand her feelings, although his relationship with me was quite different from that which he had with anyone else.
For a few seconds the letter lay on the table unopened while I waited expectantly.
Celeste, my stepmother, looked at me fearfully. She said, "It's from Australia."
I had realized that.
"It looks like Leah's writing."
I could see that, too.
"I wonder what ..."
I was very fond of Celeste. She had been a good, kind stepmother to me, but she did exasperate me sometimes.
"Why don't you open it and see?" I suggested.
She picked it up gingerly. Celeste was one of those people who spend their lives in fear that something awful is going to happen. It had on occasions, but that was no reason for living in perpetual fear. She started to read, and as she did so, her face grew pink.
"Tom Marner is dead," she said.
Tom Marner! The big hearty Australian who years ago had taken over the gold mine from my father, who had come to this very house and carried off Leah, our nurse, and Belinda with her, making it necessary to uncover long-buried secrets which could have remained hidden forever, and so changed the entire course of our lives. And now Tom Marner was dead.
"What else?" I asked.
"Leah herself is ailing. She is clearly worried about Belinda. If anything should happen to her ..."
"You mean if she died. Is she going to die, too?"
"She hints that it's possible. There's clearly something wrong with her health. The gold mine has been failing for some years. Tom lost a lot of money bolstering it up. I can see what she wants. She reminds me that I am Belinda's aunt."
"She wants Belinda to come back here then?"
"I shall have to speak to your father. Tom Marner had an attack. It was sudden. She is a widow now. She thinks the attack was brought on by anxiety."
"How sad! She was so happy when she married him. I had never seen Leah happy before. And at the same time she was very worried about Belinda ... and all that. But once it was settled, she was quite different, wasn't she? And now he's dead. Poor Leah!"
"And she is ill."
Celeste picked up the letter and read it out to me:
"'What will happen to Belinda? If I could get her back to England, I'd be so relieved. You see, here ... there are no relations. You, Mrs. Lansdon, are her nearest, I suppose. There is her father, of course ... but I don't know about him. But you ... you were always so kind to her ... to both of the children ... even before you knew the truth. Belinda is impulsive....'" Celeste stopped reading and looked at me helplessly.
"She will have to come back," I said.
I felt excited, but I was not sure whether I was pleased or dismayed. Belinda had been so much a part of my childhood and she had had a great influence on my life. She had tormented me persistently, but when she had gone I had missed her very much. But that was more than six years ago ... nearer seven, I supposed.
"I will speak to your father when he comes home," said Celeste.
"It was a late sitting last night," I said. "He would have stayed at the Greenhams."
She nodded. "Perhaps you could mention it," she said.
She passed the letter to me and I read it.
What memories it brought back! I could clearly recall dear patient Leah, our good nurse, who had been kind and gentle to me, the outsider, as everyone—except Leah—had thought then, though it had always been obvious that I came second to Belinda with Leah. She could not help her feelings for her own child; and when the truth was revealed, that all became clear.
And now there was a possibility that Belinda would return. What was she like now, I wondered? I knew exactly how old she would be because we had been born on the same day. We were now nearly seventeen years old. I had changed a lot since our last meeting. What of Belinda after those years in an Australian mining township? Something told me that, whatever way of life had been hers, nothing would change the old Belinda.
During the morning I kept thinking of all that had happened.
Ours was a strange story and difficult to believe unless one knew all the people concerned in it.
Right at the center of it was the scheming Cornish midwife, who had brought both Belinda and me into the world. Mrs. Polhenny, self-righteous and fanatically religious, had had a daughter Leah, and Leah, while working for the family of French émigrés to which Celeste and her brother Jean Pascal belonged, had become pregnant ... as it turned out later by Jean Pascal. Mrs. Polhenny was understandably horrified that, after all her preaching in the neighborhood, this should happen to her own daughter. So she made a devious plan. There was in the neighborhood a crazy woman named Jenny Stubbs who had once had a child who had died, and ever after Jenny suffered from the delusion of thinking she was about to have another. Mrs. Polhenny planned to take Jenny into her home at the time of Leah's confinement and, when Leah's child was born, pretend that it was Jenny's.
She was greatly aided in this by circumstances. Indeed she would not have been able to carry it out, nor would it have occurred to her to do so, if the scene had not been set for her.
Meanwhile my mother was about to give birth to me at Cador, the big house of the neighborhood, and Mrs. Polhenny was to act as midwife.
My mother died and, as I was not expected to live, it then occurred to Mrs. Polhenny that it would be sensible to put me with Jenny and have Leah's child take my place at Cador, thus giving Leah's daughter opportunities which she would not otherwise have.
This she managed successfully to achieve; and Leah, wanting to be with her child, became nurse to Belinda, while I spent my first years in Jenny Stubbs's cottage.
My sister Rebecca came into the story here. Rebecca always had a strong feeling for me. She used to say that it was our dead mother guiding her. I do not know about that but I was aware that, from the beginning, there was a strong bond of affection between us, and it was almost as though some strange influence was watching over me, for when Jenny died, Rebecca insisted on bringing me into the Cador nurseries to be brought up there. The circumstances of Jenny's death and the insistence of Rebecca, and the indulgence of her family, made this possible.
Rebecca keeps a diary as the women of our family often do. It is a tradition. Rebecca says when I am older she will let me read it and I shall understand more fully how this all came about.
What I already knew was that Tom Marner wanted to marry Leah and take her to Australia and, as she could not be parted from her daughter, Belinda, she confessed to what had happened.
What a turmoil that made! Especially to my father and to me. From that time the relationship between us had changed. I had a feeling that he wanted to make up for all the years that he had been unaware that he was my father.
We seemed to have become indispensable to each other. Celeste never showed any resentment toward me and, with a rather sad resignation, she accepted his devotion to me which far exceeded his feelings for her. He had loved my mother singlemindedly and obsessively even though she was long since dead—for she had died giving birth to me—and he had never recovered from the loss. No one could replace her. Over the years I had come closer than anyone to doing that. I suppose because I was part of her—her daughter and his.
His feelings toward my half sister Rebecca had mellowed in time, but I was sure that he always remembered that, though she was my mother's daughter, she was not his; and he could not bear the thought of my mother's first marriage. So I was the one he turned to.
He was a forceful man, distinguished in appearance; his entire being emanated power. Ambition had been the driving force of his life. There was a ruthless streak in his nature and a recklessness which at times had led him into dangerous situations. Such men rarely pass through life untouched by scandal. I sometimes wondered whether my mother, if she had lived, would have managed to subdue that side of his nature.
She had been his second wife and he her second husband. Although they had known each other from childhood, circumstances had separated them and then brought them together, idyllically but briefly. He was always deeply regretful for the years they had wasted and that when they found each other there should have been so little time together.
He had married his first wife for a gold mine; he had married my mother for love; and Celeste? I think he had been vainly trying to find consolation, someone to care for him and soothe that aching longing for my mother. Poor Celeste! She had failed to do this. I supposed it would have been small consolation to her to know that nobody could.
But because he had found a daughter, because he had always felt drawn toward her—as he told me afterward—even when she had appeared to be a waif brought into the house by an eccentric whim of Rebecca's, he had decided that I could become a substitute for my mother; and because I was attracted and fascinated by this powerful man with the unhappy eyes, and because the fact he was my father never ceased to fill me with wonder, I was only too ready to play my part; and so the strong bond between us was forged.
Once my father said to me, "I am glad it was you. I could never accept Belinda as mine. I told myself that it was because in the beginning I had believed her coming had been responsible for her mother's death, but it was not that, for I feel very differently toward you. It seems to me that your mother has given you to me ... to comfort me."
I missed Belinda very much after she had gone. She had been part of my life, and although she had not always been easy to get along with, I felt a craving for her presence. There was, of course, my dear Rebecca; but soon after those startling revelations, she went off to live in Cornwall as Mrs. Pedrek Cartwright. I visited her often and it was always wonderful to be with her. She was only eleven years older than I, but she had been as a mother to me ever since she had brought me into the house.
I was not sent away to school. My father did not wish me to go. I had a governess and when I needed higher education, Miss Jarrett came. She was a middle-aged, very erudite woman, a little stern, but we worked well together, and I do believe that she gave me as good an education as I could have received in any school.
I spent a good deal of time with my father in the London house and in Manorleigh where he had his constituency. Celeste always accompanied us wherever we went, as did Miss Jarrett.
Rebecca was delighted with the way everything had worked out, and but for this feeling between my father and me, she would have taken me to Cornwall to be with her. She often told me how she had promised my mother before I was born that she would always look after me.
"It was almost as though she had a foreknowledge of what was to come," she said. "I feel sure she did. Strange things can happen. I told her I would look after you, and I did ... even when we did not know who you really were. At any time you want me, you must come to Cornwall. Just arrive ... at any moment. But I think your father needs you. I am glad of this love between you two. He is a very sad man at times."
It was comforting to think that Rebecca would always be there if I needed her.
I had built up new interests. As the daughter of the house I had found greater confidence, something until that time I had lacked. It was probably because of Belinda, who had reminded me so often of my status in the house. No one else ever did—but Belinda had been a force in my life. I often thought nostalgically of her disturbing presence. Perhaps it was because we had grown up together, because we had been bound together by the dark secret of our births, and we had become a part of each other before we had had any say in the matter.
But I had quickly become absorbed in the new relationship with my father. Before, he had been a godlike presence in the house. I had thought he was scarcely aware of us children, although it was true that at times I had caught his eyes on me, and I fancied that if he ever spoke to me—which he did not very often do at that time—his voice was gentle and kind.
Belinda used to say she hated him. "It is because he hates me," she explained. "I killed my mother by getting born. He thinks it's my fault. I don't remember anything about it."
Right from the beginning of our new relationship my father used to talk to me about politics. I found it hard to understand at first but gradually I began to get an inkling. I became familiar with names like William Ewart Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain. Because I wanted to please him, I used to ask Miss Jarrett questions and I learned a good deal from her; and she, being in a political household, as she said, found her interest aroused by what was happening in parliamentary circles.
As I grew older my father used to discuss his work with me; he even read his speeches to me and watched their effect on me. Sometimes I would applaud them, and I even dared to make suggestions. He encouraged this and always listened.
As I emerged into my teens I was able to talk with a certain knowledge and his pleasure in my company was intensified. He would open his heart to me. The man he most looked up to was William Ewart Gladstone, who, according to my father, should have been in power.
The Liberal Party had not been the government since 1886—which at that time was some four years previously—and then only for a brief spell.
My father had explained this to me then. He said, "It is the Old Man's obsession with Home Rule for Ireland which is the greatest obstacle. It is not popular in the country. It's splitting the party right down the middle. Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Hartingdon are breaking away. So is John Bright. It is the worst thing for a party when prominent men decide to break away."
I listened avidly. I had a glimmer of understanding and I remember that night some years ago when he came home dispirited.
"The voting went against the Bill," he said. "Three hundred and thirteen for and three hundred and forty-three against; and ninety-three Liberals went into the lobby against the Bill."
"What does it mean?" I asked him.
"Resignation! Parliament will be dissolved. This will be a defeat for the party."
And it was, of course; and Mr. Gladstone was no longer Prime Minister. Lord Salisbury had taken his place. That had happened in 1886 when I was beginning to know something of the ways of politicians.
I realize how disappointed my father was because he had never achieved Cabinet rank. There were whispers about him, concerning past scandals, but I could not get anyone to tell me what they were about. Rebecca would tell me one day, I was sure, with more details of my mysterious childhood.
My father was not a man to give up easily. He was no longer young, but in politics shrewdness and experience were greater assets than youth.
Mrs. Emery, the housekeeper at Manorleigh, once said: "You're the apple of his eye, Miss Lucie, that's what you are, and what a good thing it is that he is so pleased with you. I feel sorry for Madam though."
Poor Celeste! I am afraid I did not think very much about her in those days, and it did not occur to me that I might be usurping the place which she should occupy. She should have been the one he liked to return to, the one he talked to.
Now I knew that she was aware that he would not be pleased at the prospect of Belinda's return and she wanted me to broach the matter to him.
It was the least I could do.
On those evenings when he was late home from the House, I made a habit of waiting up for him and, with the connivance of the cook, had had a little supper waiting for him in his study. There might be some soup which I would heat up on a little stove, and a leg of chicken or something like that. I had heard that Benjamin Dirsaeli's wife used to do this for her husband, and I had always thought what a loving gesture it was.
It amused my father very much. He had scolded me at first and said I should not be allowed to stay up so late, but I could see how pleased he was; and I knew how much he looked forward to talking to me about the events of the evening, and we would chat together while he ate.
There was an understanding between us that if he did not arrive by eleven thirty it meant he would be staying the night at the house of a colleague, Sir John Greenham, who lived in Westminster, not far from the Houses of Parliament.
On the evening of the day when the letter arrived, he was late, so I made the usual arrangements to wait in his study for him. He came home about ten o'clock to find me there with his supper.
"I know these are busy days," I said, "but I guessed you'd be here sometime."
"There's a lot going on just now."
Excerpted from The Black Swan by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1990 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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