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The Waif and the Flight
I first saw Kitty Carslake from the schoolroom window at Willerton House. She was walking across the lawn in the company of several young men and women. They were all laughing merrily together. It was a scene similar to others I had witnessed from the window, but this was different. Kitty was there, and she stood out among them all because she herself was different in some subtle way, which at that time I could not define. She fascinated me from that first moment, though I did not know then what an effect she was going to have on my life.
I had often looked from that window down on a world which was very different from my own. To me it was like a peep show, a glimpse into a way of life that was colorful and glamorous, a way of life of which I should never be part, so I had to be grateful to Maria Willerton for making glimpses of it possible.
I had been born on the Wiltshire estate of Sir Henry Willerton, by whom my father was employed as managing agent, on the thirtieth day of January in the year 1649, that very day when the King's triumphant enemies had cut off his head outside the Palace in Whitehall, in the sight of those who had gathered to watch. A new way of life had begun then, for the nation discarded its frivolous ways and was subject to the rule of the Puritans.
My mother approved of this; my father less so, but he was not a man to assert himself: in any case, we had to follow the law laid down by our rulers. So, no more frivolity, no more riotous living, no more flaunting ourselves in silks and velvets. Clothes were usually a somber black, with perhaps a white collar here and there; one must be humble, sober and God-fearing. As for children, they must speak only when spoken to. In those days I was led to believe that all the angels in Heaven carried notebooks that they might record each single sin committed by the unwary. Sin lurked everywhere and it was not always easy to recognize. That was the Devil's way of luring people to commit it and thus condemn themselves to burn in Hell forever more.
It was a dismal prospect, but that was the atmosphere in which I spent my early years.
We had a comfortable house on the estate. There was always good, if plain, food on the table, for which we gave lengthy thanks to the Almighty before partaking of it. We had prayers in the morning on rising, and in the evening before retiring, which my father conducted.
I was an only child and that could have meant a lonely existence in a Puritan household; but I was always interested in people and had made some friends on the estate.
Sir Henry and Lady Willerton, to whom everyone referred as "The Family," were good to us. They did not behave as though we were their servants. This may have been due to their kind hearts or to the fact that this was an age of simplicity. In any case, many of the nobility had supported the King against the Parliament, and The Family must have felt grateful to have come through the conflict with their estates and dignity intact, and had no wish to call attention to their previous importance.
My father was often at the house, discussing estate matters, but he always went as a guest and my mother sometimes accompanied him.
There was a daughter of the house, Maria; and I was invited to share her governess, which pleased my parents, as it gave me an opportunity to acquire a better education than they could otherwise have given me. Frequently I was called upon to thank God for this blessing.
It was more than lessons I learned at Willerton House. Maria was a lively companion and she liked to impress me with her wisdom, and as I was only too ready to listen, we became good friends.
Through her I learned a good deal of the world beyond Wiltshire: and the years were passing.
Oliver Cromwell had died and his son Richard had become Protector. Change showed itself in a hundred little ways. Rules became less rigid; there was a certain absence of solemnity. One heard people laugh more often. It was said that Richard was not like his father, which meant that he was not the same stern disciplinarian: he was kindly and well-meaning, but he lacked his father's strength, and a very strong man was needed to keep a race like the English in somber submission.
Maria, who was two years older than I, and never failed to remind me of that fact, said: "Something is happening. People are getting excited. There will be change."
"What change?" I asked.
"Just change. Everywhere. That is what people are saying. They would never have got it without war while Oliver Cromwell was there. But he has gone, has he not? Do you know there is talk of bringing back the King?"
I listened round-eyed. "He would not come here ... to this house," I said.
"He might. Kings go round visiting. They stay in people's houses. We should go to court, and my brother ..."
She was smiling, thinking of her brother. I had heard of him. His name was Rufus, and he was on the Continent with the exiled King. Rufus's story was very romantic. He was six years older than Maria, and she was very proud of him. When he was a boy, he had wanted to join the King's army, and at the age of sixteen he had left home and gone to France to be with the King.
Maria often talked of him.
"I remember he was always talking about the King, how he was hoping to fight to bring him back. He was so disappointed because he was too young to join the King's army. He really believed that if he had been old enough, he would never have allowed the Roundheads to win and King Charles would still be on the throne."
"And what is he doing now?" I asked her.
"I do not know. We do not talk of him. It would not be wise for people to be reminded that one of the family is now in France with the King."
It was small wonder that she was excited. I sensed Lady Willerton was too at the prospect of her son's returning in the train of the King.
"We shall go to London, you see," went on Maria. "After all, Rufus will surely be in favor after all his loyal service. Everything will be different."
"How different?" I wanted to know.
"Nanny Tilling likes to talk about the old days. She has no love for Oliver Cromwell, nor his son. She is all for the King. She says what right have they to say, 'Go to church every day and twice on Sundays, and never have a bit of fun.' She says this to me, of course. She is careful of the others. You never know who's listening. She says we're not free like we used to be. You have to think before you open your mouth."
She was right about change coming. It was more apparent every day.
Tired of Puritan rule, no longer held in check by the mighty Oliver, and taking advantage of the slacker rule of his son, the people had their way.
King Charles was invited to return, and on one glorious day in May of the year 1660, King Charles II landed at Dover, come to claim a kingdom which was readily given to him by a people weary of Puritan rule.
England was determined to be merry again, and without delay enthusiastically set about it.
At that time I was eleven years old.
There was a great deal of entertaining at Willerton. The family were naturally delighted by the change. So were a great many people.
We heard about the welcome which had been given to the King in London. The people had gone wild with joy, singing and dancing, drinking his health, expressing in every possible way their rejection of the old ways and rejoicing in the new ones they expected now would come.
My mother shook her head gravely. They would pay for this, if not on earth, in the life to come. Disaster had come to England. The Devil and his minions were rejoicing while God and the angels wept.
I commented that, if God was all-powerful, He would soon send the King back to France.
My mother looked reproachfully at my father, reminding him that she had always questioned the wisdom of letting me go to the House.
"We thought it was a heaven-sent opportunity," my father mildly reminded her.
I knew that was true, and for once my mother could not deny it.
"They're going right back to the old ways," she said. "It seems the war did nothing at all."
"That is the way with most wars," said my father sadly.
My mother ignored that.
"The King was executed," she said. "That was meant to be an example, and the Lord Protector brought the country to God. And now it is going back, back to what it was before ... and by the look of it, it's even worse. They say the new King does not lead a good life."
"He is very popular," my father reminded her, "and the people without doubt want him back."
"The people do not know what is good for them. They do not understand."
What my father understood all too well was that it was not only unwise but useless to carry on such an argument with my mother, so he said nothing more.
As for me, I liked the change. It exhilarated me, gave me a feeling of expectation. I thought it was wonderful to see people happy and not afraid to laugh. As for The Family, they certainly lost no time in reverting to the old ways before the coming of the Protectorate.
Sir Henry and Lady Willerton went to London. Their son Rufus had returned with the King, and came back to the parental home for a brief visit. He was a very grand gentleman in long wide breeches trimmed with lace. His hat was adorned with magnificent feathers, and he wore a wig, the curls of which hung about his shoulders. I imagined he was with the court, for he did not stay long at Willerton.
Maria was very excited and loved to tell me all about it.
"Rufus is with the King," she said. "He is having the most wonderful time. He will find a place for me at court, he promises."
It was two years after the King had returned when we heard that he was to be married. His bride came from Portugal. She was Catherine of Braganza, and my mother thought it was not a good match, for the bride was a Catholic. It should not have been allowed, she said. She was really uneasy about the King.
"He is very popular," insisted my father.
"Popular! If all accounts are right, he seems to be ...profligate."
"You cannot rely on gossip," said my father.
Maria had already told me that the gossip about the King's life was based on a firm foundation. He made little attempt to hide the fact that Lady Castlemaine was his mistress, and that lady made certain that there was no doubt of it.
"The poor little Queen is very sad about it," Maria told me, "and although the King tries to be kind to her, he is so bemused by my Lady Castlemaine that he insists on her being one of those ladies close to the Queen, which of course means that he is never far from the lady."
"That does not seem to me to be very kind," I commented.
"No, but everyone likes him and is on his side. People make excuses for him. He is so charming. Lady Castlemaine is very beautiful, and the Queen ...well, no one could call her attractive. It's natural, they say, and Oliver Cromwell is no longer here to make us feel we must not enjoy life."
When Maria was seventeen, the governess left and there was no longer an excuse for my going to Willerton as I had in the past, but Maria and I remained friends and, like her parents, she paid little attention to the difference in our station, and I was always welcome there. She liked to talk to me about the life which would be hers when she went to court, and of the people who now visited the house. I used to slip into the schoolroom and wait for her, and if she did not come I would go home. No members of the household took any notice of me when they saw me going up and down the stairs which led to the schoolroom. Thus I had a window on to another world, and watching those people became one of the great pleasures of my life at that time. I was, in fact, rather pleased when Maria was not there and I could observe alone.
It was due to this state of affairs that I had my first encounter with Kitty Carslake.
I knew there were guests at the house, and that the early afternoon was a time when many of them would be resting. I would slip into the house, up the stairs to the schoolroom and my vantage point at the window, and watch any who came into the garden. Perhaps Maria would join me, but now that she was seventeen she was often with the guests and was finding less and less time for me.
In the shrubbery there was a spot which I called the Dell. I had been attracted to it from the first. It was a little square shut in by the bushes. A gap in them made an entrance and was not very noticeable unless one knew where it was. There was an aura of privacy which appealed to me. I often sat there, for there was a convenient overturned treetrunk which served well as a seat.
One day, when I was speeding past the Dell, to my surprise I heard someone there speaking. I could not hear what was said, so I paused. It must, I supposed, be some of the guests. I did not want to be seen, for I had a notion that if my presence was commented on I might be prevented from coming. I listened.
To my surprise, it seemed that there was only one voice ... a very musical one. I could not hear exactly what was being said, but it sounded as though this voice was reciting poetry. I crept closer. I was very near to the entrance of the Dell.
It was one of the softest and most mellow voices that I had ever heard.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet ...
The voice stopped suddenly.
"Who's there?" it asked.
I stood very still. My impulse was to run, to hide if I could, but the owner of the voice would see me sprinting across the lawn and there was no place to hide.
She came out of the Dell and saw me. I looked at her in amazement. She was the woman I had gazed at from the house. She looked more beautiful than when I had first seen her. Her hair fell loose about her shoulders, and her face was flushed.
She said: "Who are you? You are not the daughter ..."
"No," I said. "I am Sarah Standish. I was coming to see Maria."
She started to laugh. She said accusingly: "You were listening."
"It was lovely," I told her. "I knew it. We did Romeo and Juliet the year before Miss Grey went. It did not sound quite like that when we read it ...though the words were the same."
That made her laugh again. She was very friendly and not in the least upset because I had eavesdropped.
"I was perusing my lines," she said. "I am an actress, Kitty Carslake. I shall be on the stage in three days' time."
"How very exciting that must be."
"Do you think so?"
"I think it must be one of the most wonderful things in the world to be an actress."
"Stagestruck, are you?"
I looked at her in puzzlement.
She went on: "You'd be surprised how many people are, especially now that the theaters are flourishing again and for the first time women are allowed to appear on the stage. It is not always easy, you know. But one has one's moments. I tell you, I'm in a state of panic already, and it will be worse when the time comes nearer."
"You mean about playing the part? You seemed to be doing it beautifully."
"Others might not be as kind as you are."
"I wasn't thinking of being kind. I was only saying what I thought."
She smiled at me, then she laughed again.
"You must have wondered what sort of person you would find talking to herself and hiding herself away to do it."
"I thought there was someone with you, and that I should have to be careful lest I was seen."
"Should you not have been seen?"
"Well, I suppose it does not matter very much, but I always wonder whether I should be here. I am not one of them, you know. My father manages the estate."
"I see. And you are a friend of Maria's?"
"Yes. We did share a governess, but now that Maria is seventeen the governess has gone. But we are still friends."
"Is she expecting you now?"
"No. I just go to the schoolroom when I like. And if she is there we talk, and if not I watch the people from the schoolroom window."
I found I was telling her a great deal about myself. It was so easy to talk to her. I explained how I liked to see the people and how it had all changed.
She listened gravely, then she said: "Have you ever been to the theater?"
"No. I should love to go ...more than anything."
"Perhaps you will come and see me one day."
"How I should love to see you as Juliet!"
"I believe you fancy yourself as an actress."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"I'll tell you what we will do. I should be practicing my lines. It is not easy without your fellow actors." She took a paper from her pocket. "Can you read well?" she asked.
"Oh yes, I am better than Maria really. So Miss Grey said."
"I have no doubt Miss Grey was right. Now listen. Here is the scene." She waved the paper. "You are Romeo, understand?"
"You see where he comes in. We'll do it together. You read your part and I'll come in with mine. Do you see what I mean?"
"Oh, yes ... yes," I cried excitedly as I took the paper.
It was a magical experience. She looked so beautiful and she spoke the words as I had never heard them spoken before. I was caught up in the scene. For me she was Juliet in her balcony and I was Romeo looking up at her from below.
Excerpted from Daughters of England by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1995 Mark Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted June 4, 2004
A great page turner and a thick plot with exciting details. It always keeps you guessing what's next.I've never seen anything make another person's life seem so interesting.
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