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Strolling Players at Congrève
Although I did not realize it at the time, the day Harriet Main came into our household was one of the most significant of my life. That Harriet was a woman to be reckoned with, that she had an outstanding and very forceful personality, was obvious from the first, and that she should take on the post of governess—though briefly—was altogether incongruous, for governesses are usually subdued in manner, eager to please and so much aware of the precarious nature of their employment that they suffer acute apprehension, which they cannot help betraying to those who are in a position to take advantage of it.
Of course the times were extraordinary and since the Great Rebellion had brought about such change in England, everything, as people about us constantly said, was topsy-turvy. Here we were, exiles from our native land, living on the hospitality of any foreign friends who would help us; and although it was a comfort to remember that the King of England shared our exile, that did not help us materially.
Being seventeen in this year 1658 and having fled with my parents when I was ten years old, I should be accustomed to the life by this time—and I suppose I was; but vivid memories lingered with me and I liked to talk to my brothers and sister of the old days, which made me appear wise and knowledgeable in their eyes.
There was so much talk of that past and so much speculation as to when it would return that it was constantly in our minds, and as no one ever expressed a doubt that it would, even the little ones were ready to hear the same stories of past splendours in the Old Country over and over again, for in recording them one was not only talking of the past but of the future.
Bersaba Tolworthy, my mother, was a woman of strong character. She was in her late thirties but looked like a much younger woman. She was not exactly beautiful but she had a vitality which attracted people. My father adored her. She represented something to him and so did I, for of all the children I was his favourite.
My mother kept a journal. She told me that her mother, whom I remembered, for we had stayed with her in Cornwall before we fled from England, had presented her and her sister Angelet with journals on their seventeenth birthdays and told them that it was a tradition in the family that the women should keep account of what happened to them and that these were preserved together in a locked box. She hoped I would carry on the custom, and the idea appealed to me. Particularly as there were journals going right back to my great-great-great-grandmother Damask Farland who had lived at the time of Henry VIII.
"These journals cover not only the lives of your ancestors but tell you something about the events which were of importance to our country," said my mother. "They will make you understand why your ancestors acted in the way they did."
Because there was something rather odd about my birth and she thought I should understand the position better if I knew exactly how it happened, she gave me her journals to read when I was sixteen.
She said: "You are like me, Arabella. You have grown up quickly. You know that you have not the same father as Lucas, but share him with the little ones. That could be puzzling and I would not have you think that you did not belong to your father. Read the journals and you will understand how it came about."
So I read of my maternal ancestors, of gentle Dulce, Linnet and Tamsyn, of wild Catharine and my mother Bersaba, and as I progressed I realized why my mother had given me these diaries. It was because she thought there was something of Catharine and herself in me. Had I been like the others and her own sister, my Aunt Angelet who was now dead and whose life was so entwined with that of my mother, she might have hesitated.
So I learned of the stormy love of my mother and father, which they secretly consummated while he was married to Angelet, and of how because I was about to be born, my mother had married Luke Longridge and from that marriage came my half brother, Lucas, who was less than two years my junior. Luke Longridge had been killed at Marston Moor, and Angelet had died when her baby was born, but it was years after when my father and mother found each other. By that time the Royalist cause for which my soldier father had been fighting was lost, Charles I beheaded and Charles II had made a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to gain the throne. He had escaped from England, and my father and mother with Lucas and me joined the exiles in France.
Since then they had had three children, Richard named after my father, so always called Dick to distinguish them; Angelique, named with my mother's twin sister in mind although she had been Angelet, and Fenn—Fennimore—after my mother's father and brother.
That was our family living the strange lives of exiles in a strange land, every day waiting to hear from England that the people were tired of Puritan rule and wanted the King back; when he went, we as staunch Royalists would go with him.
My mother used to say: "A plague on these wars. I could be for the side which would let the other live in peace." I knew from her diary that she had been married to a Roundhead as well as a Cavalier, and that Lucas must remind her sometimes of his father. But the love of her life was my father—and she was his—and I knew she would be on his side whichever that was. When they were together in our company—and that was not often, for he was a great general and must follow the King to be ready if ever it was decided to make a bid for the throne—their feeling for each other was obvious.
I said to Lucas: "When I marry I want my husband to be like our father is with our mother."
Lucas did not answer. He did not know that we had not the same father. He couldn't remember his own, and he was called Lucas Tolworthy, though he had been born Longridge as I suppose I had. He hated the thought of my marrying, and when he was a little boy he used to say he was going to marry me. I had bullied him, for I was of a dominating nature. Lucas used to say that the little ones were more afraid of me than of our parents.
I liked everything to be orderly and that meant done the way I wanted it, and because we were left a good deal alone—for when my father went away my mother accompanied him whenever possible—it did mean that I fancied myself as the head of the family. Being the eldest I slipped naturally into the role, for although I was less than two years older than Lucas, there was a big gap between Lucas and me and the little ones.
I could remember so well the time when we had left for France ... and before it too, for I was after all ten years old. I have vague pictures of Far Flamstead and the terror I sensed in the house when we were waiting for the soldiers to come. I can remember hiding from them and catching the fear of the grown-ups, which I only half believed was real; then I remember a new baby and my Aunt Angelet going to Heaven (as I was told) and how we went traveling interminably it seemed to Trystan Priory, which is clear in my memory even though it was seven years since I left it. My cozy grandmother, my kindly grandfather, my Uncle Fenn ... it is there forever in my memory. I can remember second cousin Bastian riding over from Castle Paling and always trying to be alone with my mother. Then suddenly it all changed. My father came. I had never seen him before. He was tall and grand and could have been frightening, but he did not frighten me. My mother has said: "When you're frightened just stand and look right in the face of what frightens you and you will very likely find there is nothing to fear after all."
So I looked this man straight in the face and what my mother said was true, for I discovered that he had a very special love for me and that my existence made him very happy.
I did not want to leave Trystan and my grandparents and they were very sad to see us go, I knew, although they tried to hide it. Then we were at sea on a little boat and that was not very pleasant.
But at last we arrived in France and there were people to meet us. I remember being wrapped in a cloak and riding with someone on a horse through the darkness to Château Congrève ... and there I had been ever since.
Château Congrève! It sounds rather grand, but in fact is scarcely worthy of the name of Château. It is more like a large rambling farmhouse than a castle. It does have pepper-pot-shaped towers at the four corners of the building and there is a flat roof and ramparts. The rooms are lofty, the walls thick stone, and it is very cold in winter. There are pasturelands surrounding it, worked by the Lambard family who live in a hutlike dwelling nearby and supply us with our meat, bread, butter, milk and vegetables.
Château Congrève was lent to us by a friend of my father with two women servants and one man to look after us. It was refuge for our family until, as we said, England returned to sanity. We had to be grateful for it, my mother told Lucas and me, for beggars cannot be choosers, and in view of the fact that we were exiles from our country and had only been able to bring with us very few of our worldly possessions, beggars were exactly what we were.
It was not a bad place to grow up in. Lucas and I became very interested in the pigs in their styes, and the goats tethered in the field and the chickens who claimed the courtyards as their territory. The Lambards—father, mother, three stalwart sons and a daughter—were kind to us. They loved the little ones and made much of them.
Our mother stayed at the château when her children were born and those had been good times, but I knew that she was constantly uneasy because she was wondering what was happening to our father. He was in the King's entourage, and where that might be none could be sure, for Charles wandered about the continent seeking hospitality where he could find it, always hoping that he would receive the necessary help which would enable him to regain his throne. As one of his greatest generals, our father could not be far away; and as soon as she could safely leave a new baby, our mother left us to be with him.
She had explained it to me who must in turn explain it to the others. "Here in Château Congrève you are safe and well. But your father must be near the King, and who knows where the King will be from one day to another? Arabella, your father needs me, but because you are here I can feel happy to leave the children in your care."
Of course that delighted me. She knew my nature well because it was like her own must have been when she had been my age. I liked to feel that they were dependent on me. I would take care of everything, I promised her, until that happy day when the King regained his throne and we all went back to England.
So we lived our quiet lives in Château Congrève, where we had an English governess who had come to France before the Great Rebellion to teach a French family. She was very glad to come to us, and although we could not pay her well at the time, on that great day, which none of us ever believed would fail to come, she was to have her reward. Miss Black was middle-aged, tall, thin and learned, the daughter of a clergyman who told us often how glad she was to have left England before its shame, and she used to vow that she would never go back until the Monarchy was restored. She suited us well. She taught us reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin and Greek. French we spoke easily. She also taught us deportment, good manners and English country dancing.
My mother was delighted with her and said that we could count ourselves fortunate to be blessed with Miss Black. Lucas and I used to call her the "Blessing" behind her back. We wouldn't have dared do so to her face, for we were extremely in awe of her.
There were long, dreamy summer days. Whenever I hear the cackle of a hen or sniff the pungent odour of goats and pigs, I am transported right back to those days at Congrève which I now realize were some of the most peaceful I was ever to know. I used to think sometimes that they would go on forever and ever and we should all grow old waiting for the King to regain his throne.
The sun seemed always to shine and the days never seemed long enough and I was always supreme. I led the games, which were usually playacting because that was what I preferred. I was Cleopatra, Boadicea and Queen Elizabeth, nor was I averse to changing my sex if the leading character did not belong to my own. Poor Lucas protested now and then, but as I was always the one who decided what games we should play, I demanded the major role. I can remember Dick and Angie wailing: "Oh, I am tired of being a slave." Poor little things—they were so much younger than Lucas and I were that we considered it was a privilege for them to be allowed to enter our games at all.
The great adventure was evading the earnest Miss Black, who had a trick of turning any adventure into a lesson, which did not please any of us. Our existence was one long attempt to avoid her. Yet we were fond of her in a way; she was part of our lives; she constantly told us that everything that was unpleasant was for our own good, and I could imitate her precise manner in such a way that sent the others nearly hysterical with laughter.
It was really due to Miss Black that I began to fancy myself as an actress. That must have been particularly hard for my family to endure, for I would learn passages from Shakespeare by heart and inflict my histrionics on my longsuffering brothers and sister.
We forgot during the long summer days that we were exiles. We were pirates, courtiers, soldiers, participating in glorious adventures, and I, delighting in my superior years, ordered their lives.
"You should sometimes stand aside and let Lucas take the lead," Miss Black used to say, but I never took her advice.
So the years passed; now and then my parents would be with us. They were times of rejoicing. But then they would go away, very often out of France, for the King was in Cologne most of the time and where he was they must be.
Sometimes during their brief stays at Congrève I used to listen to their talk over the dinner table when Lucas and I were allowed to join them. There would always be some scheme for taking the King back to his rightful place. The people were tiring of Puritan rule. They were remembering the old days of the Monarchy. "Soon now ..." they used to say. But still it failed to happen, and life at Château Congrève pursued its pleasant way. We would all be melancholy after our parents had left, then some new game would absorb us and we would forget them and forget about going home. The days of exile were sweet enough, and we were soon back to the old game of outwitting that lovable bogey, Miss Black.
One morning Miss Black did not appear. She was found dead in her bed. She had died during the night of a stroke. And instantly, it was said, so she suffered no pain. She had died as discreetly as she had lived, and she was buried in the cemetery close to the château, and every Sunday we would take flowers to her grave. We could not inform her relatives even if she had any, for all we knew was that they were in England and naturally we could do nothing about that.
We talked about her a great deal; we missed her sadly. Not to have to escape from her, not to poke gentle fun at her made a great gap in our lives. Once I caught Lucas crying because she wasn't there anymore, and after accusing him of being a crybaby I found myself weeping with him.
When my parents came to the château and heard of the death of Miss Black, they were horrified.
"The little ones must not miss their lessons," said my mother. "We cannot have them growing up ignorant. My dearest Arabella, it is up to you to make sure that this does not happen. You must teach them as Miss Black would have done until we can find another governess, which I fear will not be easy."
I enjoyed my new role, and I was soon flattering myself that the children's education had not suffered as much as my parents feared. I was playing a part and I believed I did it very well.
It was a dark winter's afternoon when the strolling players arrived. The wind had started to howl in from the north, and when it did that it buffeted the walls of the château and seemed to creep in through every aperture and discover those which we had not known were there before. In the centre of the hall we had an open fire. The château was very primitive and couldn't have changed much since the days when the Normans settled in these parts and built their stone-walled fortresses, of which this was one. I used to imagine the tall blond Vikings clanking into the hall and sitting round this fire telling stories of their wild adventures.
It was afternoon, but so dark because of the snow clouds, when we were startled by a clatter in the courtyard and the sound of horses.
As the châtelaine of the castle, very much aware of her position, I summoned Jacques, our only manservant, to discover what was happening.
He looked a little uneasy, and memories far back in my childhood were stirred. I was reminded of the terror at Far Flamstead when we feared the Roundhead soldiers might pay us a call, and if they did we knew they would take our food, our horses, and if our homes were grand they would destroy them because they did not believe that anyone should have fine clothes or luxurious surroundings. The believed that people could only be good if they were uncomfortable.
Excerpted from Lament for a Lost Lover by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1977 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 17, 2013