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Matilda was difficult and quarrelsome ... haughty and self-centred, disinclined to control the swift temper of her family ...
—The Saxon and Norman Kings CHRISTOPHER BROOKE
Matilda's throne had been usurped by her cousin Stephen of Blois.... For as long as young Henry, her son, could remember, civil war had been raging there between partisans of the rivals.
—King John, W. L. WARREN
I was ten years old when I first saw the Inheritance and twenty years old when I first saw Janna Roslyn, but my reaction to both was identical. I wanted them.
I wanted the Inheritance because the Gothic style of that architectural nightmare of a house captivated my child's imagination, because my mother's fight to secure the place for me seemed to my child's eyes not shabby and degrading but shining with nobility and courage, because the estate had been denied me and there is nothing a child wants so much as something he cannot have. And I wanted Janna Roslyn because I was twenty years old and fancied women, particularly beautiful women, and particularly women who were beautiful yet had no place among the class into which I had been born.
We met by chance. I had no good reason for being in Zillan churchyard at two o'clock on that hot July afternoon in 1890; I had no good reason even for being in Zillan. I was a stranger in that part of Cornwall, for I had been born and bred near the Helford River, and the gentle mildness of South Cornwall with its trees and estuaries and rolling hills is a world away from the stark mining coast of the North with its windswept moors, precipitous cliffs and treacherous surf.
Zillan was a moorland parish of the North.
I had walked there that afternoon after quarreling with my father at his temporary residence in the nearby parish, and, being greatly upset at the time, I paid no attention to my surroundings until I found myself wandering up the village street toward the church. Zillan was a prettier village than the usual austere huddle of cottages that passes for a village in North Cornwall. The gardens of the graystone cottages were filled with flowers, the pub called The Tinners' Luck had been freshly painted, and even the local stray dog looked well fed. Evidently the poverty that was following the steady decline of the Cornish mining industry had so far left this corner of the Duchy untouched. With a glance at the smoke belching from the cluster of mines on the horizon, I opened the lych-gate into the churchyard and strolled aimlessly beneath the shadow of the Norman tower toward the main door.
In the porch I paused, uncertain what to do next. I was trying not to think of my recent quarrel with my father, trying not to think of my interminable battles with my mother, trying not to think of the Inheritance which I had wanted so much for so long. I dimly realized that I was more alone than I had ever been in my life, but I was too lost and confused to be fully aware of the extent of my unhappiness. I simply remained in the porch of Zillan church as if I were taking sanctuary from some oppressive pursuing force, and as I stood there a breeze blew across the moors and the afternoon sun shone on that moorland parish from that cloudless summer sky. It was peaceful in the churchyard. I was aware of the tranquillity suddenly, of an overwhelming calmness. Everywhere was so still. The very landscape seemed poised as if it were mysteriously waiting, and as I remained motionless, mesmerized by that air of expectancy, I looked through the lych-gate to the end of the village street and saw the solitary figure of a woman walking slowly toward me across the moors.
She wore black and carried a spray of red roses.
I went on watching her from the shadow of the porch, and somewhere far above me in the church tower a bell began to toll the hour.
She passed the first cottage, on the outskirts of the village, and so smooth and effortless were her movements that she seemed to glide noiselessly down the narrow street. She looked neither to right nor to left. The light breeze from the moors lifted the veil of her hat for a second, and she raised a black-gloved hand to touch the veil back into place.
She reached the lych-gate. The flowers were only simple wild roses such as the ones that grew on the walls of the cottages nearby, and yet their very simplicity made the hothouse roses of London seem vulgar and ostentatious. She walked through the churchyard toward the porch, and I was on the point of moving out of the shadows into the light when she saw me.
She must have been surprised to see a stranger in that remote moorland village, but not even a nuance of her surprise showed itself in her face. She went on walking as if I did not exist, and I saw she intended to walk past the porch and down the path to the other side of the churchyard.
I moved involuntarily. I was hatless, but my hand moved upward before I remembered I was bareheaded.
"Good afternoon," I said.
She allowed herself to look at me. Her eyes were blue, wide-set, black-lashed behind her veil. The next moment she had inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment of my greeting and walked past me without a word.
I stared after her. Presently I strolled to the churchyard wall and stole a glance at the graves behind the church. She was there. The red roses were laid beside a new tombstone and she was standing motionless beside it, her head bent forward, her hands clasped before her. She did not see me.
I decided to sit on the wall and survey the architecture of a nearby house which I assumed to be the rectory. I inspected it for some time. I was just deciding that it was a most unprepossessing building when I heard the click of the lych-gate and saw her walk away down the street. At the end of the village she took the path again across the moors and I went on watching her until she had vanished from sight.
As soon as she was gone my mind was made up; I was no longer so dejected that I knew not where to turn next. Soon afterward I was hurrying back to my father's house to seek permission to stay longer with him in that part of Cornwall, and throughout the entire journey across the moors to Morvah I could think of nothing but red roses glowing in a quiet country churchyard and a black veil blowing in the wind.
Until that moment I suppose—reluctantly—that my mother had been the most important woman in my life. This may seem a very obvious statement since most mothers are expected to hold a special place in their sons' affections, but my mother was not like other mothers and my affection for her was so distorted by dislike and resentment that our relationship could hardly be considered typical.
"The first thing you must understand," said my mother when I renewed my acquaintance with her at the age of ten after a separation that had lasted six years, "is that in regard to Our Inheritance I consider it a matter of Honor that Justice should be done."
My mother, I discovered, always spoke of honor and justice as if the initial letters were written in capitals.
"You see," she added in explanation, "Penmarric should have been mine." We were sitting in the large and dreary drawing room of that townhouse in London, I a small boy in a stiff black suit and stiffer collar, she very handsome in violet silk, black lace and an ugly string of pearls. "The entire estate and all the Penmar fortune would have been mine if my father—like the majority of men—had not possessed this ingrained prejudice against women. He was fond of me in his own way, but it was my brother Arthur who was the apple of his eye. It made no difference to him that Arthur was feckless, foolish and irresponsible while I was intelligent, able and devoted to every brick of Penmarric and every inch of the estate. As far as my father was concerned, Arthur was the boy, the son and heir, and I was a mere daughter, little better than a vegetable, someone who must be married off as well and as early as possible.... Even after Arthur was drowned in the sailing accident my father's attitude toward me never wavered. For a time I did hope that he might change his views and realize I was deserving of all he might wish to bestow upon me, but then ..." She paused. Her mouth narrowed into a hard line; her black eyes were colder than a midwinter sea. "Then," said my mother, "Giles came."
"Do not under any circumstances mention the name of Giles Penmar to your mother," her devoted slave and first cousin Robert Yorke had begged me when we had met for the first time earlier that afternoon. He had been ordered by my mother to meet me at the station and escort me to the townhouse, and throughout the journey he had regaled me with so many worried warnings and anxious instructions that I had nearly run away in sheer fright. But he had not meant to frighten me, of course; he was merely eager that my confrontation with my mother should be as painless as possible. He was a small, mild, kindly man with an air that reminded me of my father's cocker spaniel. The townhouse in Park Lane where my mother lived belonged to him; so subjugated was he by the force of her personality, so enthralled by a nature so different from his own, that he gave her whatever she wanted, did whatever he was told, expected—and received—nothing but a peremptory affection in return.
"Dear Robert," said my mother to me later. "He would have married me if I had been free to become his wife, but fortunately my marital ties with your father have prevented him from making such a foolish mistake. Really, men are extraordinarily foolish sometimes! Even my father, who was exceptionally intelligent, made a complete fool of himself where Giles was concerned ..."
"Do not speak to your mother of Giles," Cousin Robert Yorke had begged me in the carriage on the way from the station. "Maud is very sensitive on the subject of Giles Penmar."
"... of course his name wasn't really Giles Penmar at all," my mother was saying. I can see her now, pouring tea from a silver teapot, rings flashing on her fingers, arrogance coruscating from the straight line of her back, the carriage of her head and the tilt of her elbow. "It was Giles Baker. Baker was the family name, you know, before my grandfather won Penmarric from the Prince Regent in a game of dice and then proceeded to change his name to suit his change of fortune. Giles was a distant cousin. An adventurer, of course. All the Penmars were adventurers with an eye for making money. My father, for instance, more than doubled the family fortune when he was in India as a young man.... So it was not unnatural that Giles, the poor relation, should have had an eye for family fortunes. My brother Arthur's death was his golden chance. He arrived at Penmarric, inveigled himself into my ailing father's affections, changed his name to Penmar, even made himself agreeable to me—oh yes, he knew how to be charming! All successful adventurers do, no doubt, and Giles was certainly successful. By a combination of trickery, knavery and malign influence he arranged matters so that when my father finally died ..."
"The entire family estate was left to Giles," Cousin Robert Yorke had whispered to me while I had been receiving my frenzied briefing for the meeting with my mother. "It was monstrously unjust and the most crushing blow to poor Maud. Her father at least had the decency to leave her a moderate annuity, but Penmarric and the rest of the Penmar fortune fell into that blackguard's hands. However, if Giles thought that Maud would accept the situation and let the matter rest he was very gravely mistaken ..."
"... so naturally," said my mother, setting down the teapot with a bang, "I considered it my moral duty to take the matter to court. It was a point of Honor. Justice had to be done. I trust, child, that your father has brought you up with a proper respect for Honorable Conduct, if for nothing else ..."
"... Under no circumstances mention your father to Maud," Cousin Robert Yorke had pleaded with me earlier. "Maud is very sensitive on the subject of her unfortunate marriage to your father."
"... Your father told you nothing about the Inheritance, I presume," said my mother in contempt as she reached for a hot buttered crumpet. "How typical! He told you nothing, I suppose, about the legal battles I've been fighting—and am continuing to fight—since I left his roof six years ago? Nothing about my ceaseless quest for Justice—nothing about my continuing efforts to ensure that the Inheritance will one day be yours? Well, perhaps I should hardly be surprised. No doubt he's been poisoning your mind with untruths about me during the past six years!"
I managed to speak. I opened my mouth and heard a quavering treble that sounded most unlike my voice say: "He never speaks of you, ma'am."
"You may call me Mama. There's no need to address me as if I were the Queen. So Laurence never speaks of me! How remarkable! And do you and Nigel never speak of me to him?"
"No, Mama. Nanny said we weren't to."
"Dear me, what a disagreeable woman! Well, since I am considered so unspeakable, why did your father permit you to visit me for a week in this fashion?"
And suddenly I was back in Cornwall, back at my home in Gweek by the Helford River, back in that mellow beautiful manor house where my father's family had lived for hundreds of years before an upstart named Baker had gambled his way into a fortune and changed his name to Penmar. I was in my father's study and my father was holding my mother's letter in his hands and saying in that quiet voice I loved so much: "But of course you must go, Mark. You have a filial obligation to visit her if she wishes it."
And all I could say was a mutinous "But why does she want to see me? She's never wanted to see me before! And why doesn't she want to see Nigel? He's her son, too!"
"Perhaps Nigel will see her later."
And later in the nursery Nigel had said placidly to me, "I don't mind her not wishing to see me. I don't suppose she's nearly so nice as Nanny." Nigel was Nanny's favorite. He had golden curls, blue eyes and the virtuous expression of an insufferable cherub. "In fact the more I think about it," said Nigel, "the nicer I think it would be if Mama preferred you to me. Sometimes I don't think it's very fair that everyone prefers me to you."
He seemed surprised when I started fighting him, although he should have known by that time that I always seized every excuse he gave me to use my fists. Some children are incorrigibly slow learners.
"Mark," my father was always saying to me wearily, "you must make more effort to control your unfortunate temper."
My mother had possessed an unfortunate temper. Even though she had left Gweekellis Manor more than six years ago, the memory of her temper lingered on among the servants.
"You take after your mama," Nanny was in the habit of saying to me, and each time she would add darkly to the nursemaid, "More's the pity."
"Well!" said my mother, pouring herself a second cup of tea in the gloomy drawing room of Cousin Robert Yorke's house in Park Lane and pausing to regard me with a critical eye. "You're a little short, a trifle stout and undeniably plain, but you'll do. I recognize that look in your eyes. You're tough. You're like me. Don't look so horrified! That's a compliment. I need a tough strong son. Now help yourself to another crumpet and listen to what I propose to do. I have a feeling you and I are going to get on exceedingly well together."
She was wrong. We did not get on well at all. Looking back, I can see that she wrongly estimated her own needs and wrongly assumed she required a tough strong son. She did not. She wanted a son who would echo her, a weak shadow, a masculine complement to her dominant personality. When I was a child not yet eleven years old she subjugated me as she subjugated Robert Yorke—by sheer force of character—but once I was no longer a child I was no longer so easily held in subjugation. But a relationship had sprung into existence between us that day at the townhouse, and throughout the ten years that followed before I finally broke her will and reversed our roles, we were never indifferent to each other.
"You are ten years old," said my mother to me during that first confrontation in London, "and you have never seen your Inheritance. I intend to remedy that immediately. We leave for Penzance tomorrow."
Evidently this was the sole reason for her request to see me. Ten was judged to be an age when I could clap my hands in delight when I saw my Inheritance for the first time.
Excerpted from Penmarric by Susan Howatch. Copyright © 1971 Susan Howatch. 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 August 23, 2005
I originally read this book many years ago. Came across it again in a box of stored books and read it again. Now I know why I couldn't part with it! This story will keep you up late - interesting characters, good plot, and every chapter ends with a new twist or a surprise. I think this is the best book by the author I've ever read and would highly recommend it.
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Posted June 9, 2012
Posted February 11, 2009
A page-turner at best. Classic cheap novel featuring melodramatic plots, cheesy dialogue, poorly delineated characters and the requisite (gratuitous) scenes of sex and violence. In accordance with her belief that, "nothing in this world is black and white and you cannot divide people neatly into two categories" Ms. Howatch presents us with "realistic" characters who are intended to be sympathetic to the reader even when they do appalling things. So she gives us a melodramatic plot worthy of the latest episode of General Hospital and a cast of seedy characters with whom we are supposed to sympathize while they are engaged in adultery, bigamy, rape, various other forms of misogyny, child abuse, and murder. What the author in con-artistic fashion fails to acknowledge is that while human nature is intrinsically evil and the best of people are capable of doing evil things, there ARE qualitative differences in character among people. There ARE certain acts that only an evil person would be capable of, acts that define and label a person's character forever. A good writer has to start by acknowledging human evil and grappling with it, not dismissing it with half-truths and platitudes. There is a difference, too, between exposing human evil and glorifying it for the purposes of cheap sensation and a cheap buck. Don't waste your time on this novel.
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Posted March 1, 2009
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Posted May 8, 2011
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Posted December 11, 2008
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