The Dower House
I was quite young when I realized that there was something mysterious about me, and a sense of not belonging came to me and stayed with me. I was different from everyone else at the Dower House.
It became a habit of mine to go down to the stream which ran between the Dower House and Oakland Hall, and gaze into its clear waters as though I hoped to find the answer there. That I chose that particular spot was somehow significant. Maddy, who was a general servant and a sort of nurse to me, found me there once and I shall never forget the look of horror in her eyes.
"Now why do you want to come here, Miss Jessica?" she demanded. "If Miss Miriam knew, she'd forbid it."
Mystery again! What was wrong with the pleasant stream and pretty bridge which crossed it? It was especially attractive to me because on the other side of it loomed the magnificent gray walls of Oakland Hall.
"I like it here," I retorted stubbornly; and as forbidden fruit could never have tasted sweeter to anyone than it did to me, having discovered that there was some reason why I should not go to the stream, I went there all the more.
"It's not right for you to go there so much," insisted Maddy.
I wanted to know why. This was characteristic of me and resulted in Maddy's calling me "Miss Why, Where, and What."
"It's morbid, that's what it is," she declared. "I've heard Mr. Xavier and Miss Miriam say so. Morbid!"
"There we go!" said Maddy. "It is. That's why, and don't keep going there."
"Is it haunted?" I asked.
"It might well be that."
So thereafter I went often to the stream and sat on its banks and thought of its rising in the hills and meandering through the country, widening as it went into Old Father Thames and, with that mighty companion, finally flowing into the sea.
What danger could there be? I asked myself. Shallow except when there were heavy rains, it was pellucid, and looking down, I could see the pebbles on its brownish bed. A weeping willow drooped on the opposite bank. Weeping for something? I pondered. Something morbid?
So in those early days I would come to the stream and dream mainly about myself, and always the theme of my wonderings was: You don't really belong to the Dower House.
Not that the thought disturbed me. I was different and wanted to be. My name for one thing was different. It was in fact Opal-Opal Jessica-and I often wondered how my mother had come to give me such a frivolous name, because she was a far from frivolous woman. As for my poor, sad father, he would surely have had no say in the matter; a cloud hung over him as sometimes I fancied it hung over me.
I was never called Opal, so when I talked to myself I sometimes used it, and I talked to myself a good deal. This was no doubt due to the fact that I was so much alone; and thus I became conscious of the mystery about me which was like a mist through which I could not see. Maddy occasionally shone a little light through that mist, but it was only the faintest glimmer and often had the effect of making everything more obscure.
In the first place I had this name which nobody used. Why give it to me if they didn't intend to use it? My mother seemed very old; she must have been in her forties when I was born, and my sister Miriam was fifteen years older than I and my brother Xavier nearly twenty; they never seemed like brother and sister to me. Miriam served as my governess, for we were too poor to engage one. In fact our poverty was the remorseless theme of our household. I had heard countless times of what we had had in the past and now had no longer, for we had come sliding down in the world from the utmost luxury to what my mother called penury.
My poor father used to cringe when she talked of "Better Days," that time when they had been surrounded by myriads of servants and there had been brilliant balls and elegant banquets. But there was always enough to eat at the Dower House, and we had poor Jarman to do the garden and Mrs. Cobb to cook and Maddy as maid of all work, so we weren't exactly penniless. As my mother always exaggerated about our poverty, it occurred to me that she did the same about past riches, and I doubted that the balls and banquets had been as grand as she implied.
I was about ten years old when I made a portentous discovery. There was a house party at Oakland Hall, and the grounds on the other side of the stream were noisy with the hearty voices of people. From my window I had seen them riding out to hounds.
I wished they would invite me to call, for I longed to see the inside of the big house. True, I could catch glimpses of it from my side of the stream in winter when the denuded oaks no longer shielded it, but I could see no more than its distant gray stone walls, and they fascinated me. There was a winding drive of about half a mile, so it was impossible to see the house from the road either, but I had promised myself that one day I would cross the stream and, with great daring, approach.
I was in the schoolroom with Miriam, who was not the most inspiring of teachers and was frequently impatient with me. She was a tall, pale woman, and as I was ten years old she must have been twenty-five. She was discontented-they all were because they could never forget those Better Days-and sometimes she looked at me with cold dislike. I could never think of her as my sister.
On this day when the hunting party-guests from Oakland Hall-came riding past I got up and ran to the window.
"Jessica," cried Miriam, "what are you doing?"
"I only wanted to see the riders," I replied.
She gripped my arm, none too gently, and dragged me from the window. "They might see you," she hissed, as though that would be the depth of degradation.
"What if they did?" I demanded. "They did see me yesterday. Some of them waved and others said hello."
"Don't dare to speak to them again," she said fiercely.
"Because Mama would be angry."
"You talk about them as though they're savages. I can't see what harm there is in saying hello to them."
"You don't understand, Jessica."
"How can I, when nobody tells me?"
She hesitated for a moment and then, as though she was considering that a little indiscretion was creditable if it saved me from the mortal sin of being friendly towards the guests from Oakland Hall, she said: "Once Oakland Hall was ours. That can never be forgotten."
"Why isn't it ours now?"
"Because they took it from us."
"Took it from us? How?" I immediately visualized a siege, Mama militant and dominating, commanding the family to pour down boiling oil from the battlements upon the wicked enemy who were coming to take our castle, Miriam and Xavier obeying without question and my father trying to understand the other side of the case.
"They bought Oakland Hall."
"Why did we sell it then?"
Her mouth hardened. "Because we could no longer afford to live there."
"Oh," I said, "penury. So it was there that we had our better days."
"You never had them. It all happened before you were born. I lived my childhood at Oakland Hall. I know what it means to come down in the world."
"As I've never had Better Days, I don't. But why did we become so poor?"
She would not answer that. All she said was: "So we had to sell to those...barbarians. We did, however, keep the Dower House. It was all that was left to us. So now you see why we do not want you so much as to notice those people who have taken our house."
"Are they really barbarians...savages?"
"Not much better."
"They look like ordinary people."
"Oh, Jessica, you are such a child! You don't understand these things and therefore you would be wise to leave them to your elders, but now at least you know that we once lived in Oakland Hall and perhaps you will understand why we do not want you to go about staring like a peasant at the people you see coming from there. Now, it's time for our algebra lessons, and if you are going to have the slightest education you must pay more attention to your books."
But how could one be interested in x plus y squared after such a discovery, and now I was desperately anxious to know something of the barbarians who had taken our house.
That was the beginning of discovery, and in my energetic-and as I thought, subtle-way, I began to probe.
It seemed to me that I might have more success with the servants than the family so I tried Poor Jarman, who came for long days in the summer and short ones in the winter and kept the Dower House garden in good order under Mama's supervision. Poor Jarman! He was kept poor, he told me, by Nature, who presented his wife with a new baby every year.
"It's Nature what keeps me poor," was a favorite saying of his, which I thought very unfair to Nature. "Nature is the great provider," I used to write out in best copperplate under Miriam's guidance. She had evidently been too beneficent to Poor Jarman. It had made him very humble and he touched his forelock to almost everyone except me with great reverence. To me it would be: "Keep off those dratted flowerbeds, Miss Jessica. If the mistress sees them trod down she'll blame me."
I followed him round for a week hoping to prize information from him. I collected flowerpots, stacked them in the greenhouse, watched him prune and weed. He said: "You're getting interested in orty-culture all of a sudden, Miss Jessica."
I smiled artfully, not telling him that it was the past I was probing.
"You used to work at Oakland Hall," I said.
"Aye. Them was the days."
"Better days, of course," I commented.
"Them lawns!" he said ecstatically. "All that grass. Best turf in the country. Just look at this St.-John's-wort. You only have to turn your back and it's all over the place. It grows while you're watching it."
"Nature's bounty," I said. "She's as generous with St.-John's-wort as she is with you."
He looked at me suspiciously, wondering what I was talking about.
"Why did you leave Oakland Hall?" I wanted to know.
"I came here with your mother. It seemed the faithful sort of thing like." He was looking back to the old days before Nature's bounty had made him Poor Jarman. He leaned on his spade and his eyes were dreamy. "Them was good days. Funny thing. Never thought they'd end. Then suddenly..."
"Yes," I prompted, "suddenly?"
"Mistress sent for me. ‘Jarman,' she said, ‘we've sold the Hall. We're going to the Dower House.' You could have knocked me down with a dove's feather, though some had said they'd seen it coming. I was took back though. She said: ‘If you come with us you could have the cottage on the bit of land we're keeping. You could then marry.' That was the beginning. Before the year was out I was a father."
"You said there was talk..."
"Yes, talk. Them that knew it all was coming after it had happened...they was talking. Gambling was in the family. Old Mr. Clavering had been very fond of it, and they said he'd lost quite a tidy sum. There was mortgages for this and that-and that's not good for a house, and what's not good for a house ain't good for them that works there."
"So they sensed the gathering storm."
"Well, we all knew there was money trouble, 'cos sometimes wages wasn't paid for two months. There's some families as makes a habit of this, but Claverings wasn't never that sort. Then this man came. He took the Hall. Miner he'd been. Made a fortune out of something. Came from abroad."
"Why didn't you stay and work for him?"
"I'd always been with gentry, Miss. Besides, there was this cottage."
He had eleven children so it must have been about twelve years ago. One could calculate the years by Jarman's children, and people were never quite sure which was which so that it was like trying to remember which year something had happened.
"It all took place before I was born," I went on, keeping his thoughts flowing in the right direction.
"Yes. 'Tis so. Must have been two years before that."
So it was twelve years ago-a lifetime-mine anyway.
All I had learned from Jarman was that my father's gambling had been responsible. No wonder Mama treated him with contempt. Now I understood the meaning behind her bitter remarks. Poor Father, he stayed in his room and spent a lot of time playing patience-a solitary game in which he could not lose to an opponent who would have to be paid, yet at the same time preserving contact with the cards he still loved, although they had apparently been the cause of his family's expulsion from the world of opulence.
Mrs. Cobb could tell me little. Like my family she had been accustomed to Better Days. She had come to us when we went to the Dower House and was never tired of telling any who would listen that she had been used to parlormaids, kitchenmaids, a butler, and two footmen.
It was, therefore, something of a come-down to work in a household like ours; but at least the family, like herself, had known Better Days, and it was not like working for people who had "never been used to nothing."
My father, of course, playing his patience, reading, going for solitary walks, with the heavy weight of guilt on his shoulders, was definitely not the one to approach. He seemed scarcely aware of me in any case. When he did notice me, something of the same expression came into his face as that which I saw when my mother was reminding him that it was his weakness which had brought the family low. To me he was a sort of non-person, which was an odd way to feel about one's own father, but as he expressed no interest in me, I found it hard to feel anything for him-except pity when they reminded him, which they contrived to do on every occasion.
As for Mama, she was even more unapproachable. When I was very young and we sang in church:
"Can a mother's tender care
Cease towards the child she bear?"
I had thought of a little female bear cub beloved by its mother bear, but when I had mentioned this to Miriam she had been very shocked and explained the real meaning. I then commented that my mother's tender care towards me had never really ceased because it had never existed. At this Miriam had grown very pink and told me that I was a most ungrateful child and should be thankful for the good home I had. I wondered then why for me it was a "good home," though clearl despised by the others, but I put this down to the fact that they had seen those Better Days which I had missed.
My brother Xavier was a remote and romantic figure of whom I saw very little. He looked after the land we had been able to salvage from the Oakland estate and this contained one farm and several acres of pasture land. When I did see him he was kind to me in a vague sort of way, as though he recognized my right to be in the house but wasn't quite sure how I'd got there and was too polite to ask. I had heard that he was in love with Lady Clara Donningham who lived some twenty miles away, but because he couldn't offer her the luxury to which she was accustomed, he wouldn't ask her to marry him. She apparently was very rich and we were living in what I had heard Mama so often call penury. The fact was that he and Lady Clara remained apart although, according to Mrs. Cobb who had a link through the cook at the Manor, which was Lady Clara's home, her ladyship would not have said no if Mr. Xavier had asked her. But as Xavier was too proud, and convention forbade Lady Clara to ask him, they remained apart. This gave Xavier a very romantic aura in my eyes. He was a chivalrous knight who went through life nursing a secret passion because decorum forbade him to speak. He certainly would tell me nothing.
Miriam might be lured into betraying something, but she was not one for confidences. There was an "understanding" between her and the Rev. Jasper Crey's curate, but they couldn't marry until the curate became a vicar, and in view of his retiring nature that seemed unlikely for years to come.
Maddy told me that if we'd still been at Oakland Hall there would have been coming-out dances, people would have been visiting and it wouldn't have been a curate for Miss Miriam. Oh dear no. There would have been Squire This or Sir That-and maybe a lord. They had been the grand days.
So it all came back to the same thing; and as Mrs. Cobb could never be kept from telling of her own Better Days, I couldn't hope to get her interested in those of my family.
As I might have known, Maddy was the only one who could really help. She had actually lived at Oakland Hall. Another point in her favor was that she loved to talk and as long as I could be sworn to secrecy-and I readily promised that-she would at times let out little scraps of information.
Maddy was thirty-five-five years older than Xavier-and she had come to Oakland Hall when she was only eleven years old to work in the nursery.
"It was all very grand then. Lovely nurseries they was."
"Xavier must have been a good baby," I commented.
"He was. He wasn't the one to get up to mischief."
"Who then? Miriam?"
"No, not her either."
"Well, why did you say one of them was?"
"I said no such thing. You're like one of them magistrates, you are. What's this? What's that?" She was huffy now, shutting her lips tightly together as though to punish me for asking a question which had disturbed her. It was only later that I realized why it had.
Once I said to Miriam: "Fancy, you were born in Oakland Hall and I was born in the Dower House."
Miriam hesitated and said: "No, you weren't born in the Dower House. Actually...it was abroad."
"How interesting! Where?"
Miriam looked embarrassed as though wondering how I could have lured her into this further indiscretion.
"Mama was traveling in Italy when you were born."
My eyes widened with excitement. Venice, I thought. Gondolas. Pisa with its leaning tower. Florence, where Beatrice and Dante had met and loved so chastely-or so Miriam had said.
"Where?" I demanded.
"It was...in Rome."
I was ecstatic. "Julius Caesar," I said. "‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.' But why?"
Miriam looked exasperated. "Because you happened to appear when they were there."
"Father was with her then?" I cried. "Wasn't it costly? Penury and all that?"
She looked pained in the special way Miriam could. She said primly: "Suffice it that they were there."
"It's as though they didn't know I was about to be born. I mean they wouldn't have gone there, would they, if..."
"These things happen sometimes. Now we have chattered enough."
She could be very severe, my sister Miriam. Sometimes I was sorry for the curate, or should be if she ever married him-and for the sad children they would have.
So there was more to brood on. What strange things seemed to happen to me! Perhaps it was because they were in Rome that they had called me Opal. I had tried to discover information about opals. After looking up the dictionary I had mixed feelings about my name. It was not very flattering to be called after "a mineral consisting chiefly of hydrous silica," whatever that was, but it did not sound in the least romantic. I discovered however that it had varying hues of red, green, and blue...in fact all the colors of the spectrum and was of a changing iridescence, and that sounded better. How difficult it was though to imagine Mama, in a moment of frivolity inspired by the Italian skies, naming her child Opal, even though the more serviceable Jessica had been added and used.
Soon after that occasion when I had seen the guests riding out from Oakland, I heard the owner had gone away for a while. Only the servants remained, and there were no longer sounds of revelry across the stream, for visitors never came-only those, of course, connected with servants and they were quite different.
Life went on for a while in the old way-my father solitary with his patience and his walks and the ability to shut himself away from his complaining family; my mother dominating the household, busying herself with Church matters, looking after the poor, of which community she was constantly reminding us we had become a part. However, we were at least still sufficiently of the gentry to dispense benefits rather than receive them; Xavier went his quiet way dreaming no doubt of the unattainable Lady Clara (my sympathy was tinged with impatience because had I been Lady Clara, I should have said it was all nonsense to make a barrier of her money, and if I were Xavier, I should have said the same); and Miriam and her curate too. Of course she might be like Poor Jarman and bring a lot of children into the world. Curates did seem to breed rather freely, and the poorer they were the more fecund they seemed to be.
So as the years began to pass the mystery remained, but my curiosity did not diminish. I became more and more certain that there was a reason why the family gave me the impression that I was an intruder.
Prayers were said each morning at the start of the day and every member of the household had to be present for them-even my father was expected to attend. These were said in the drawing room, "since," my mother often commented coldly, "we have no chapel now!" And she would throw a venomous glance towards my father and then turn to Oakland Hall, where for so many years she had knelt in what was meant to be humility. Poor Jarman, Mrs. Cobb, and Maddy would be present. "All the staff," my mother would say bitterly. "At Oakland there were so many that one did not know all their names, only those of the ones in higher positions."
It was a solemn ceremony conducted by my mother when she exhorted us all to be humble, grateful, and conduct ourselves with virtue in the station into which God had called us-which always seemed incongruous to me, since she was far from contented with hers. She was inclined to be a little hectoring towards God, I thought. It was: "Look down on this..." and "Don't do that..." as though she were talking to one of the superior servants she must have had at Oakland Hall.
I always found morning prayers irksome, but I did enjoy the church services, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. The church was a fine one and the stained glass windows, with their beautiful colors, a joy to study. Opal colors, I called them with satisfaction. I loved the singing of the choir and most of all I liked to sing myself. I always thought of the times of the year through hymns. "Christian dost thou see them," used to thrill me; and I would look over my shoulder almost expecting to see the troops of Midian prowling around. Harvest time was lovely. "We plow the fields and scatter..." and "Hark the Herald Angels" at Christmas; but best of all I loved Easter, "Hallelujah. Christ the Lord is risen today." Easter was a lovely time, when the flowers were all delicate colors-whites and yellows, and the spring had come and the summer was on the way. Miriam used to go and decorate the church. I wondered whether the curate helped her and whether they sadly talked of their inability to marry because they were so poor. I always wanted to point out that the people in the cottages had far less and yet seemed happy enough. But at least the church was beautiful, and particularly at Easter time.
We still had the Clavering pew in the church. This consisted of the two front rows with a little door, which had a lock and key, and when we walked in behind my father and mother, I believe she felt that the good old days were back. Perhaps that was the reason why she enjoyed going to church.
After luncheon on Easter Sunday we always went to the churchyard, taking flowers, and these we put on the graves of the more recently family dead. Here again, prestige was restored, for the Clavering section was in the most favorable position and the headstones were the most elaborate in the churchyard. I know my mother was constantly irritated by the fact that when she died her memorial would be far less splendid than it would have been if the money to provide a worthy one had not been gambled away.
I was sixteen years old on that particular Easter Sunday. Growing up, I thought, and I should soon no longer be a child. I wondered what the future held for me. I didn't fancy growing old in the Dower House like Miriam, who was now thirty-one years of age and as far from marriage with her curate as ever.
The service was beautiful and the theme interesting. "Be content and thankful with what the Lord has given you." A very good homily for the Claverings, I thought, and I wondered whether the Rev. Jasper Crey had had them in mind when delivering it. Was he reminding them that the Dower House was a comfortable residence and quite grand by standards other than those of Oakland Hall; Miriam and her curate should be thankful and marry; Xavier and Lady Clara should do the same; my father should be allowed to forget that he had brought us to our present state; and my mother should rejoice in what she had? As for myself I was happy enough and if only I could find the answers to certain questions which plagued me I should be quite content. Perhaps somewhere inside me I yearned to be loved, for I had never really enjoyed that blessing. I wanted someone's eyes to light up when I came by. I wanted someone to be a little anxious if I was late coming home-not because unpunctuality was undesirable and ill-mannered but because they were fearful that some ill fortune had come to me.
"Oh God," I prayed, "let someone love me."
Then I laughed at myself, because I was telling Him what to do just as my mother did.
When the time came to visit the graves I took a basket of daffodils and walked with Miriam and Mama from the Dower House to the church. There was a pump in the Clavering section from which we filled the jars which were kept there, and then put the flowers on the graves. There was Grandfather, who had begun to fritter away the family fortunes, and there was Grandmother and the Greats, and my father's brother and sister. We could not, of course, deck out the graves of all the dead. I liked to wander round and look at the shrubs and open books in stone and read the engraved words. There were memorials to John Clavering, who had died at the battle of Preston for his King in 1648. James who had died at Malplaquet. There was another for Harold, who had been killed at Trafalgar. We were a fighting family.
"Do come away, Jessica," said Mama. "I do declare you have a morbid streak."
Called from the guns of Trafalgar, I walked solemnly back to the Dower House, and it was later that afternoon when I wandered out through the gardens to the edge of the stream. I was still thinking of long dead Claverings who had died so valiantly for their country and how John had fought the Roundheads in an unsuccessful attempt to keep his King on the throne, a struggle which had cost the King not only his throne but his head, and James fighting with Marlborough and Harold with Nelson. We Claverings had taken our part in the making of history, I told myself proudly.
Following the stream I came to the end of the Dower House gardens. There was a stretch of meadow-about an acre in which the grass grew long and unkempt. By the hedge grew archangel or white dead-nettle with its flowers just coming out. They would be there until December, and later the bees would be so busy on them that it wouldn't be possible to get near them. Very few people ever came here and it was called the Waste Land.
As I walked across it I noticed a bunch of dog violets tied up with white cotton, which was wound around their stems. I stooped to pick them up, and as I divided the grass I saw that the spot on which they had been lying was slightly raised. It was a plot of about six feet long.
Like a grave, I thought.
How could it be a grave? Because I had been to the churchyard that afternoon with Easter flowers, my mind was on graves. I knelt down and pushed aside the grass. I felt round the earth. Yes, it was a mound. It must be a grave, and today someone had put a bunch of violets on it.
Who could possibly be buried on the Waste Land? I went and sat thoughtfully by the stream and asked myself what it meant.
The first person I encountered when I went back to the house was Maddy, who, now that I no longer needed a nurse, had become maid of all work. She was at the linen cupboard sorting out sheets.
"Maddy," I said, "I saw a grave today."
"It's Easter Sunday so I reckon you did," she retorted.
"Oh, not in the graveyard. In the Waste Land. I'm sure it was a grave."
She turned away, but not before I had seen that her expression was one of shocked horror. She knew there was a grave in the Waste Land.
"Whose was it?" I insisted.
"Now why ask me?"
"Because you know."
"Miss Jessica, it's time you stopped putting people in the witness box. You're too inquisitive by half."
"It's only a natural thirst for knowledge."
"It's what I call having your nose into everything. There's a word for that. Plain nosiness."
"I don't see why I shouldn't know who's buried in the Waste Land."
"Buried in the Waste Land," she mimicked; but she had betrayed herself. She was uneasy.
"There was a little bunch of violets there-as though someone had remembered it was Easter Sunday."
"Oh," she said blankly.
"I thought someone might have buried a pet dog there."
"That's as like as not," she said with some relief.
"But it was too big for a dog's grave. No, I think it was some person there...someone buried long ago but still remembered. They must have been remembered, mustn't they, for someone to lay flowers there so carefully."
"Miss Jessica, will you get from under my feet."
She was bustling away with a pile of linen sheets, but her heightened color betrayed her. She knew who was buried in the Waste Land, but, alas, she wasn't telling.
For several days I worried her but could get nothing out of her.
"Oh give over, do," she cried at length in exasperation. "One of these days you might find out something you'd rather not know."
That cryptic remark lingered in my mind and did nothing to curb my curiosity. All that year I brooded on the matter of the secret grave.
When there was activity across the stream at Oakland Hall, I ceased to think about the grave. I was aware that something was happening because suddenly tradesmen called constantly at the house, and from my seat by the stream I could hear the servants shouting to each other. There were regular thwacks as carpets were brought out of the house and beaten. The shrill feminine tones mingled with those of the dignified butler. I had seen him several times, and he always behaved as though he were the owner of Oakland Hall. I was sure he was not haunted by the specter of Better Days.
Then the day came when I saw a carriage arriving and I slipped out of the Dower House to see it turn into Oakland's drive. Then I hurried back, darted across the stream, crept close to the house, and hidden by bushes I was just in time to see a man lifted from the carriage and placed into a wheelchair. He had a very red face, and he shouted in a loud voice to the people around him in a manner to which I was sure the rafters of Oakland Hall had been unaccustomed during the Better Days.
"Get me in," he shouted. "Come on, Wilmot. Come out and help Banker."
I wished that I could see better, but I had to be careful. I wondered what the red-faced man would say if he saw me. He was clearly a very forceful personality and it was, I felt, very necessary indeed for me to remain hidden.
"Get me up the steps," he said. "Then I can manage. Show 'em, Banker."
The little procession went into the house at last, and as I made my cautious way to the bridge I had a fancy that I was being followed, perhaps because I felt so guilty to be on the wrong side of the stream. I did not look round but ran as fast as I could, and it was only when I had sped across the bridge that I paused to look back. I was sure I saw a movement among the trees, but whether it was a man or woman there I was unsure. I did have the curious sensation that I had been observed. I began to feel uneasy, wondering whether whoever had seen me would complain to Mama. There would certainly be trouble if he-or she-did. That I had stepped onto forbidden territory would be bad enough but to have been seen doing it would bring forth storms of contempt upon my head.
On my way to my room I met Miriam. "The owner of Oakland Hall is back," I told her.
"May God preserve us!" she cried. "Now I suppose there'll be entertaining, eating, and drinking and all kinds of depravity."
I laughed gleefully. "It'll be exciting," I began.
"It'll be disgusting," she retorted.
"I think he's had some sort of accident," I ventured.
"The er...the one who took Oakland from us."
"I've no doubt he deserved it," she said with satisfaction.
She turned away. The very thought of them was obnoxious to her; but I was enormously interested.
I asked Maddy about them because she always gave me the impression that she could tell me a good deal if only I could make her break some vow she had made not to, and often, in fact, she did seem secretly as though she wanted to talk.
I said: "Maddy, a man in a Bath chair was taken into Oakland Hall yesterday."
She nodded. "That's him," she said.
"The one who bought it from us?"
"He made a fortune. Never been used to such a place before. He's what you call one of them new rich."
"Nouveau riche," I informed her grandly.
"Have it your own way," she said, "but that's what he is."
"He's an invalid?"
"Accident," she said. "That's what happens to his sort."
"His sort? What sort?"
"Made a great fortune, he did, and so he buys Oakland Hall and them that has lived in it for generations untold has to give it up."
"The Claverings gambled while he worked," I said. "It's like the ant and the grasshopper. It's no use blaming him. They both got their desserts."
"What's insects got to do with it? You're what I call a hopper yourself, Miss Jessica. You're no sooner on to one thing before you're after another."
"This is all part of the same subject," I protested. "I'd like to get into the Hall. Is he going to stay here?"
"You can't get about all that easy when you've had one of your legs off. Still, he got the fortune, though it did cost him a leg." Maddy shook her head. "It only goes to show that money's not everything...though in this house you'd sometimes think it was. Mrs. Bucket says she reckons he's home to stay."
"Who's Mrs. Bucket?"
"She's cook over there."
"What a perfectly glorious name. Bucket! Though that ought to have been the housemaid. The cook should be Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Stewer. So you know Mrs. Bucket, do you, Maddy?"
"Considering that she was at Oakland when I was there it seems natural that I should know her."
"And you see her now and then?"
Maddy pursed her lips. I knew that she was visiting Mrs. Bucket and I was glad. A little careful prodding and I might learn something.
"Well, it ain't for me to stick my nose up in the air when I pass someone I've known for twenty years, just because..."
"It certainly is not. You're an example..."
"It couldn't be laid to Mrs. Bucket's door, nor Mr. Wilmot's neither. It wasn't as though there was a place for them here. To expect them to throw themselves out just because..."
"I understand perfectly. So he lost a leg, did he?"
"You're on your cross-questioning again, Miss. I can see through that sure as eggs is eggs. It's one thing for me to have a word with Mrs. Bucket now and then and it would be another for you to. So you make certain you keep on the right side of the stream and don't go asking so many questions about things that don't concern you."
So in spite of the fact that Maddy had visited Mrs. Bucket I was not going to prize any more information out of her.
It was a sultry July day and I was sitting by the stream looking over Oakland territory when it happened. A chair, with a man sitting in it, came into view. I started up because as the chair came towards me I realized that the occupant was the man I had seen arriving in the carriage. There was a tartan rug over his knees, so I couldn't make out whether or not he had one leg. I watched while the chair seemed to gather speed as it came towards me. Then I realized what had happened. It was because the chair was out of control that it moved so fast and it was gathering momentum as it came down the slight incline towards the stream. In a few moments it would be there and would surely overturn.
I wasted no time. I ran down the slope and waded through the stream. Fortunately we had had a drought and there was not a great deal of water, but willingly I splashed through what there was and ran up the slope on the other side just in time to catch the chair before it went down into the stream.
The man in the chair had been yelling: "Banker! Banker! Where in God's name are you, Banker?" until he caught sight of me. I was clinging to the chair and it took all my strength to hang onto it and at one moment I thought it was going to carry me down with it.
The man was grinning at me; his face was redder than ever.
"Goodo!" he shouted. "You've done it. A little shaver like you and you've done it."
There was a kind of steering bar in front of him; he guided this, and the chair started to move along parallel with the stream.
"There," he said. "That's better. I'm not used to the perishing thing yet. Well, now I've got to say my piece, haven't I? Do you know I'd have turned over but for you."
"Yes," I said, coming round to the side of the chair. "You would."
"Where were you then?"
"On the other side of the stream...our side."
He nodded. "Lucky for me you were just at the right spot at that time."
"I'm often at that spot. I like it."
"Never seen you before. Do you live over there?"
"In the Dower House."
"You're not a Clavering?"
"Yes, I am. What are you?"
"You must be the one who bought Oakland from them."
"The very same."
I started to laugh. "What's funny?" he said; he had a rather sharp way of talking.
"Meeting like this after all these years," I said.
He started to laugh too. I don't know why it should have seemed so funny to us both, but it did.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Clavering."
"How do you do, Mr. Henniker?"
"Quite well, thank you, Miss Clavering. I'm going to drive my chair up a bit. It's uncomfortable here. Up under the trees there...in the shade. Let's come and get acquainted."
"Don't you want...Banker?"
"You were shouting for him."
"That was before I saw you."
I walked beside the chair, thinking what a marvelous adventure this was, and I heartily applauded his suggestion, for I had no wish for us to be seen. He brought the chair to rest in the shade and I sat down on the grass. We studied each other.
"Are you a miner?" I asked.
"Gold, I suppose."
He shook his head.
A sudden shiver of excitement ran through me. "Opals!" I cried. "My name is Opal."
"Well, now is it? Opal Clavering. It sounds very grand to me."
"They never call me by it. I'm always Jessica. That's rather ordinary after Opal, don't you think? I often wonder why they gave me the name if they didn't want to call me by it."
"You couldn't have a prettier name," he said. The reddish tinge in his cheeks deepened, and his eyes were a very bright blue. "There's nothing more beautiful than an opal. Don't start talking to me about diamonds or rubies..."
"I wasn't going to."
"I can see you know better than to do that to an old gouger."
"An opal miner."
"What do you do? Tell me about it."
"You smell out the land and you hope and you dream. Every miner dreams he's going to find the most beautiful stones in the world."
"Where do you find them?"
"Well, there's South Australia-Coober Pedy and Mooka Country, and there's New South Wales and Queensland."
"You're from Australia," I said.
"That's where I found opal, but I started out from the Old Country. Australia's rich in opal. We haven't scratched the surface of the land yet. Who'd have thought there was opal in Australia? You can picture the excitement when they found it was. Can you picture it? Some brumbies scratching the land with their hooves and...there's opal. By God, what a find! In those days we thought they had to come from Hungary...never thought to look elsewhere. They'd mined them there for hundreds of years. That milky kind. Very pretty...but give me the black opals of Australia."
He paused and looked up at the sky. He was scarcely aware of me, I was sure. He was back in time, in space, miles away on the other side of the world, gouging-or whatever he called it-for his black opals.
"Diamonds...pah!" he went on. "What's a diamond? Cold fire, that's what. White! Look at an opal..."
How I should have loved to, but the next best thing was to listen to him.
"Australian opals are the best," he went on. "They're harder. They don't splinter as easily as some. They're lucky stones. Long ago people used to believe opals brought good fortune. Do you know emperors and nabobs used to wear them because they were said to protect them against attack? It used to be said that an opal could prevent your being poisoned by your enemies. Another story was that they cured blindness. What more can you ask than that?"
"Nothing," I agreed heartily.
"Oculus Mundi. That's what they're called. Do you know what that means?"
I confessed that my education did not carry me so far.
"The Eye of the World," he told me. "Wear it and you'll never commit suicide."
"I've never had one, but I've never wanted to commit suicide."
"You're too young. And you say Opal's your name? And Jessica too. Do you know, I like that. Jessie. It's friendly."
"At least it doesn't make you think of a cure for blindness and a protection against the poison cup?"
"Exactly," he said, and we both burst into laughter.
"Opals bring the gift of prophecy," he went on. "So they used to say-prophecy and foresight."
He took a ring from his little finger and showed it to me. It was a beautiful stone set in gold. I slipped it on my thumb, but even that was too small for it. I watched the light play on the stone. It was deep blue shot with red, yellow, and green lights. He held out his hand for the ring as though he were impatient that it should be too long out of his possession so I gave it back to him.
"It's beautiful," I said.
"New South Wales...that's where it comes from. I tell you this, Miss Jessie, there are going to be some big finds there one day...even bigger than we've had already. I won't be in on it though." He tapped the tartan rug. "Hazards of the business. Got to accept them, you know. Think of the rewards. I'll never forget the day this happened. I thought it was the end of me. I was collecting nobbies. Clinging to the roof, they were, like oysters...yes, just like oysters. I couldn't believe my luck. Picture me...gouging away. It was in a cave and I was deep in, and there they were in this gritty, reddish seam...lovely nobbies. Suddenly there was a rumble and down came the roof of this cave. It was three hours before they could get me out. I'd got my opals though, and one of them-well, it was a real beaut, worth losing a leg for, or so I told myself. But between you and me your own limbs shouldn't be bartered for anything...not even this little beauty of mine. By God, she's a prize. For a moment I thought I'd found the Green Flash again. Not quite, though...still there's a wonderful green in this one...a magic sort of green. She was the first thing I saw when I came around...because I was in a hospital for a long time while they cut my leg off. Had to. Gangrene and all that. It was a long time before they could get me down to Sydney, and by that time the leg was a goner. And the first thing I said was: ‘Show me that green opal.' And there she was, lying in the palm of my hand, and though I knew there was nothing there where my leg used to be, I felt such pride as you wouldn't understand just to look at the lovely thing lying there in my hand."
"It ought to have brought you protection against the falling rock," I commented.
"Well, you see, it wasn't mine until the rock started to crack. I look at it like this: It was the price I had to pay for my nobbies."
"It would have been awful to lose your leg for nothing."
"I knew it was the end of my mining days. Who ever heard of a one-legged gouger? But perhaps I'll get out again when I get used to hobbling around. But first I'll have to educate myself in the way of my wooden leg. I've got to have a long rest, they tell me, so I thought the best place to come to was Oakland. And here I am trying to get used to a crutch and a wooden leg and relying on this old chair to carry me around, and you see what nearly happened to me but for a certain young lady."
"I'm so glad I saw you, not only because..."
"Yes, because what?"
"So that we could meet and I could hear about opals."
"There's been a sort of feud between our families." He laughed aloud, and I laughed with him. It was a certain bond between us, which kept us laughing for not much reason, for it wasn't so much the laughter provoked by amusement as that of sheer pleasure and the unusual nature of our meeting. I thought then-and I became sure of it later-that he liked the idea of snapping his fingers at my family.
"I bought their home, you see," he said, "and it had been in their family for ages. They've got the Clavering arms over the hall fireplace...all drawn out on the wall and very pretty too. This one married that one and there'd been Claverings at Oakland Hall since 1507, until this rough Henniker came along and took it from them-not with fire and sword, not with gunpowder and battering rams-but with money!"
"The Claverings should never have let it go if they wanted to keep it so much. As for you, Mr. Henniker, you risked your life to get it and you've got it...and I'm glad."
"Strange words from a Clavering," he said. "Ah, but this one's an Opal."
"I could never think why they gave me such a name-except that I was born in Italy. I think my mother must have been very different then."
"People change," said Mr. Henniker. "What happens to them can often bring a turnabout. I've got a man calling to see me at half-past four, so I shall have to go now, but listen. We're going to meet again."
"Oh yes, please, Mr. Henniker."
"What about here...at this spot...tomorrow at this time?"
"I'd love it."
"I reckon we'd have a lot to say to each other. Same time tomorrow then."
I watched him guide his chair towards the house and then, in high spirits, I ran down to the bridge. I stood on it looking back. The trees hid the house-his house now-but I was picturing him in it, shouting for Banker, laughing because one of the Claverings had become his friend.
"He's an adventurer," I thought, "and so am I."
I tried to hide my exuberance, but Maddy noticed it and commented that she couldn't make up her mind what I resembled most-a dog with two tails to wag or a cat who's stolen the cream.
"Very pleased with ourself, I'd say," she added suspiciously.
"It's a lovely day," I answered blithely.
"Thunder in the air," she grumbled.
That made me laugh. Yes indeed, the atmosphere would be decidedly stormy if it was discovered that I had actually spoken to the enemy and arranged another meeting.
I could scarcely wait to see him again.
He was there when I arrived. He talked-how he talked and how I loved to listen! He told me about his life when he had been very poor in his early days in London.
"London!" he cried. "What a city! I never could forget it, no matter wherever I was. But there were some hard memories too. We were poor-not as poor as some others, there being only one child...me. My mother couldn't have more, which in some ways was a blessing. I went to a dame school, where I learned my letters, and after that to a ragged school, where I learned the ways of the world, and when I'd done with education at the age of twelve, I was ready to fight my battles. By that time my father had dropped dead. He was a drinker so it wasn't much of a loss, and I started to keep my mother in a degree of comfort to which she had not been accustomed."
I wondered why he was telling me all this. He was an actor of a kind, for when he talked of people his voice and his expression would change. When he told me of the baked-potato seller, his face would be grizzled and he'd shout: "Come, me beauties, all hot and floury. Two a penny hot spuds. Fill your bellies and warm your hands."
"There, Miss Jessie," he would go on becoming himself. "I'm being a bit vulgar now, you'll be thinking, but that was the streets of London when I was a nipper. Life! I never saw such life...no, never. There it was all over the streets of London. It's something you don't take much notice of when you're there, but you never forget it. It gets in your blood. You get away from it, but you'll always love it and it'll always draw you back."
Then he would tell me of the orange woman and the sellers of pins and needles. "Five sheets a penny, pins," he sang out, "all neat and middlings"; then there were the vendors of what he called "green stuff," which was mainly watercress gathered in the fields onto which, in those days, the city had not encroached. Why there were fields just beyond Portland Place-meadows and woods; and there were market gardens too, so there was plenty of green stuff about. "Woorter creases," he shouted. "All fresh and green."
"Funny, when I talk of it, it all comes back fresh to me. Most clear in my memory is Eastertime. Good Friday was what I thought of as the Day of the Buns. It was the first thing I thought of when I got up on Good Friday morning. It was the day of the buns."
He began to sing:
"One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns
If your daughters won't eat them, give them to your sons.
If you ain't got any of those pretty little elves
Then you can't do better than to eat them up yourselves."
"We used to go round singing that with our trays of buns on our heads."
I was fascinated. I had never met anyone like him. He talked all the time about himself. That didn't worry me, because I wanted to hear and I was getting a glimpse into a world hitherto unknown to me.
"I was born to make money," he said. "The Midas Touch, that's what I've got. Ever heard of that, Miss Jessie? Everything he touched turned to gold. That was how it was with old Ben Henniker. If I tossed with a pieman, I'd be the winner. You know what was done, don't you? There was the pieman with his tray of pies. You tossed your penny. ‘Heads,' he'd say, for the pieman always called heads. And sure enough if it was old Ben's penny, it would come up tails. So I kept the penny and the pie. Other people-they'd lose every time. Never me. A proper gambler I was then and have been ever since. I found selling things was the answer. You find something people want and they can't do without and you bring it out much better and, if you can, cheaper than the next man. You get the idea? Even when I was only fourteen I knew how best to sell things. I knew where to get the cheapest and give the best value-sheep's trotters, pigs' trotters, whelks, sherbet, ginger beer, and lemonade. I had a coffee stall once, and when I got the idea of making gingerbread it seemed I was set fair to make my fortune. I hit on the idea of making it in fancy shapes-horses, dogs, harps, girls, boys...the Queen herself with her crown on her head. My mother made 'em and I sold 'em. It got so big we had a little shop right there on the Ratcliffe Highway, and a fine shop it was. The business grew and we were more comfortably off. Then one day my mother died. Right as rain one day and the next gone. She just dropped dead on the floor when she was making her gingerbread fancies."
"What did you do then?"
"I got me a lady friend. She hadn't got the touch though. Pretty as paint but a fiery temper, and she couldn't make the shapes and the cake wasn't right either. Business fell off and she left me. I was seventeen years old then, and I took a job in a gentleman's home looking after the horses. One day they went visiting friends in the country. It was my job to ride there at the back of the carriage, and when we stopped I'd jump out and open the door and see the ladies didn't muddy their skirts. Oh, I was very handsome in those days. You should have seen my livery. Dark blue with silver braid. All the girls would look twice at me, I can tell you. Well, one day we went out visiting in the country, and where do you think we came to-the little village of Hartingmond. And the house we called on was named Oakland Hall."
"You were calling on the Claverings!"
"Quite right, but calling in a humble capacity, you might say. I'd never seen a house like that. I thought it was just about the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. I went round to the stables with the coachman, and we looked after the horses and then got ourselves refreshed while we talked to the stable men of Oakland Hall, and they were very superior, I can tell you."
"How interesting!" I cried. "That must have been years ago."
"Long before you were born, Miss Jessie. When I was seventeen or eighteen, and that's a good many years ago. How old do you think I am?"
"Older than Xavier...lots older, but somehow you seem younger."
The answer seemed to please him. "You're just as old as you feel. That's the answer. It's not how many years you've lived, it's how they've left you. Now I reckon I've lived mine pretty well. It was more than forty years ago that I first set eyes on this place, and do you know, I never forgot it. I remember standing there in those stables and feeling the age of it. That's what I liked-all those stone walls and the feeling that people had been living there hundreds of years, and I said to myself: One of these days I'm going to have a house like Oakland Hall and no one's going to stop me. In six months' time I was on my way to Australia."
"To look for opals," I cried.
"No. I hadn't thought of opals then. I was after what everyone else was after-gold. I said to myself: I'll find gold and I won't rest until I've made my little pile and when I've got it I'll come home and buy myself such a house. And that's why I went to Australia. What a journey! I worked my passage. I'll never forget that trip. I thought it would be the end of me. Such storms we had, and the ship-she nearly turned turtle, she did, and I thought it would be all hands to the pump and save the women and children first. I couldn't believe it when I stepped ashore. That sun! Those flies! Never seen neither like it before. But something told me it was the place for me, and I swore there and then that I wouldn't come home till I was ready to buy me a house like Oakland Hall."
"And you did, Mr. Henniker."
"Call me Ben," he said. "Mr. Henniker makes me sound like someone else."
"Ought I to? You're very old."
"Not when I'm with you, Miss Jessie. I feel young and gay. I feel seventeen again."
"Just as you did when you stepped ashore at Sydney."
"Just like that. Well, I was certain I was going to be rich. So I worked my way across New South Wales to Ballarat and there I panned for gold."
"And you found it and made your fortune."
He turned his hands over and stared down at them. "Look at them," he said. "A bit gnarled, eh? Not the hands of a gentleman of leisure, you'd say. Those hands don't fit Oakland Hall. Nor does anything else, as far as you can see. But something inside me fits." He tapped his chest. "There's something in here that loves the old place as it couldn't have been loved more by all the grand ladies and gentlemen who lived here. They took it for granted. I won it, and I love it because of that. Never take anything for granted, Miss Jessie. If you do you might lose it. If it's worth cherishing, cherish it. Think how I snapped up Oakland Hall."
"I am thinking," I said. "So you made your fortune."
"It wasn't done in a night. Years it took. Disappointments, frustrations...that was my lot. Shifting from place to place...living in the fields, staking my claim...I remember the trek out of Melbourne. There they were-a ragged army, you might say-a crowd of us all marching off to the promised land. We knew that some of us were going to strike it rich and others were going to die disappointed men, but which of us? Hope marched with us on that journey, and we all thought we'd be the chosen ones. Some of us had wheelbarrows carrying our load, some took what they had on their backs...across the Keilor Plains, through forests where the fires had blazed, making you shiver, for the first time realizing something of what these fires meant, never being sure whether some bushranger was going to spring out on us and murder us for our bit of tucker. We'd camp at night. Oh, it was something-singing round the campfires...all the old songs from Home we used to sing and I'm not going to say that there weren't some of us glad of the darkness so no one could see the tears in our eyes. And then on to Bendigo then...living in a little calico tent. I sweltered there one summer and longed for the cool weather, but when it came with the driving rain and the mud I was longing for the sun again. Hard days-and there was no luck for me at Bendigo. It was Castlemaine where I had my first big find-not enough to make me rich but an encouragement. I banked it in Melbourne right away. I wasn't spending it on drink and women like so many did and then be surprised at the short time it lasted. I knew all about that. It wasn't bought women for me. It had to be love, not money. That's a wise way and you don't squander your hard-earned gold. But I'm talking out of turn. You can see why the Claverings didn't want to know me."
"This Clavering does," I assured him.
"Well, I'm beginning to discover she's a most unusual young lady. Now where was I?"
"Your women...for love not money."
"We'll skip them. It was Heathcote and after that to Ballarat I wasn't a poor man any more-nor yet a rich one. I had time to look about and ask myself which way now. It's a funny thing-there's something about mining-finding something the earth has to offer. It gets in your blood. You've got to know what's under that hard crust of earth. It's not only for the money. When men talked of money out there they thought of gold. Gold! It's another name for money, you might say. But there's other things besides gold, as I was to find."
"Opals!" I said.
"Yes, opals. At first it was just a bit of fossicking. There I was with a nice little bit in the Melbourne bank and I thought I'd go on a trek into New South Wales...just to take a look at the country, you might say. I was in the Bush...camping at nights...when I fell in with a party who were looking for opal. Oh, not like proper gougers, oh no. Just a bit of fun. Weekend fossickers, you'd call them, just going out to see what beginner's luck would bring them. ‘What you looking for, mates?' I asked and they answered ‘Opal.' ‘Opal,' I said, and I thought: Not for me! I was always a man to look for my market whether it was saveloys and pigs' trotters or gold and sapphires. Well, to cut a long story short, as they say, I went along with them for a bit of fossicking. All I had was a couple of picks-one was a driving pick, the other a sinking pick. Then I had my shovel and a rope and what we call a spider, which is a sort of candlestick-for you may have to work in the dark. You want a snip too...that's a sort of pincers for snipping off the potch. Oh, I can see I'm getting a bit too technical for you, but with a name like yours you'll want to know."
"And you found opals?"
"Nothing to speak of...fossicking. That just gave me the taste for it. But I knew I had to go on, and within a month I was a proper gouger. Then I started to get my first real finds. I just knew as soon as I held it in my hands and it winked and twinkled at me that it was opals I was going after. Funny, you know. They say there's a story in each stone...Nature's pictures. I could show you something..." He looked at me and laughed. "I'm going to show you. You're going to come and see my collection. We're not going to go on meeting out here, are we?"
"It seems the best way," I said, visualizing what would happen if I introduced him to my parents or Miriam and Xavier.
He winked. "We'll find a way. Leave it to me." He was laughing again. "I do talk, don't I? And all about myself. What do you think of me, eh?"
"I think you're the most exciting person I ever met."
"Here!" he cried. "It's time I went in. Next time you come to the house, eh? I'll show you some of my most precious opals. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, I would, but if they knew..."
"Who's to know?"
"You can be sure they do. Well, let 'em, I say."
"I should be forbidden."
He winked again. "What do people like us care for a bit of forbidding eh? We're not going to let them stop us, are we?"
"They could forbid me to see you."
"Leave it to me," he said.
"When shall I see you again?"
"Tomorrow I have visitors, so it won't be then. Business, you see-and they'll be with me for a while. Say next Wednesday. You come and walk boldly up the drive to the front porch. They'll be expecting you, and they'll bring you straight to me and I'll entertain you in a fashion worthy of one of the Claverings."
I was so excited I could scarcely thank him.
Later I thought it would be the end, for we couldn't possibly keep my visits a secret. But I had a whole week to anticipate it.