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Visitors from the Past
Yesterday, the twelfth day of June in the year sixteen hundred and thirty-nine, was our seventeenth birthday—mine and Bersaba's. It was fitting that we should be born in June, the birth sign of which is Gemini, for we are twins. In our family birthdays are always celebrated as joyous occasions. Our mother is responsible for that. There are certain women in our family who are born to be mothers and she is one of them. I don't think I am; I'm certain Bersaba isn't. But perhaps I am mistaken, because it can be a quality which is only discovered when one reaches the state of motherhood, and one thing I have learned is that one can be mistaken about a great deal, which is one of the less gratifying experiences of growing up. I once remarked to Bersaba that every birthday our mother thanked God for giving us to her and Bersaba answered that she did it every day. My mother, Tamsyn Landor, was married five years before our brother Fennimore was born and then another seven years elapsed before she gave birth to us—her twins. I believe she had wanted a large family, but now she would say she had just what she wanted, for she is a woman who can adjust existing conditions to her dreams of contentment which I am old enough to know is a rare gift.
We had the usual birthday celebrations. June is a lovely month for a birthday because so much of it can be celebrated out of doors. On our birthday it became a ritual that if the day was fine we rode out into the meadows and there we would feast off cold poultry and what we called West Country Tarts, pastry cases with the fruit of the season—strawberries for our birthday—in them and custard or clouted cream on the top, which were a very special delicacy. Of course there had been rainy birthdays and on these occasions the friends and neighbours who joined us would come to the house, where we would play games such as blindman's buff or hunt the slipper and then we would dress up and act charades or produce the plays which we had seen the mummers do at Christmas time. Whatever the weather, birthdays were days to be looked forward to and I had said every year to Bersaba that as ours was two in one it should be extra special.
On this particular birthday the weather had been fine and we had been out into the meadows and the young people from Kroll Manor and Trent Park had joined us. We had played ball games and kayles—which consisted of knocking down pins with a stick or a ball—and after that hide-and-seek, during which Bersaba had not been found and caused a certain anxiety because our mother was always afraid that something terrible would happen to us. We were an hour searching for Bersaba and finally she gave herself up. She looked hurt when she saw how worried our mother had been, but I who knew her so well guessed that she was gratified to be so worried about. Bersaba often seemed as though she wanted to assure herself that she was important to us.
We all went back to Trystan Priory, our home, and there were more games and feasting, and just before dark servants came from Kroll Manor and Trent Park to take our friends home and that was the end of another birthday we thought. But it was not so.
Our mother came to our room. We had always shared a room and sometimes I thought that now we were growing up we should have separate apartments—there were plenty of rooms in the Priory—but I waited for Bersaba to suggest it and I think perhaps she was waiting for me to do so, and as neither of us did we went on in the old way.
Our mother looked rather solemn.
She sat down on the big carved chair which Bersaba and I used to fight over when we were young. It was a wonderful chair with griffins at the end of the arms and I always felt I had the advantage when I sat in that chair, and as Bersaba felt the same there was competition to get there first. Now our mother sat there and looked at us with that benign affection which I took for granted then and remembered with nostalgia later on.
'Seventeen,' she said. 'It's a turning point. You're no longer children, you know.'
Bersaba sat quietly, her hands in her lap. Bersaba was a quiet person. I was scarcely that. I often wondered why people said they couldn't tell us apart. Although we looked identical, our natures were so different that that should have been an indication.
'Next year,' went on our mother, 'you'll be eighteen. There'll be a different birthday party for you. It will be more grown up and there won't be games such as you've been playing today.'
'I suppose we shall have a ball,' I said, and I could not keep the excitement out of my voice, for I loved dancing and I excelled at it.
'Yes, and you will be meeting more people. I was talking to your father about it last time he was home, and he agreed with me.'
I wondered idly if they had ever disagreed about anything. I couldn't believe they ever had.
'But that is a year ahead,' she went on, as though she were pleased that it could be postponed. 'There is something else. It's a tradition in our family that the women of the household keep journals. It's a strange one, because it has been carried on in an unbroken line since your great-great-grandmother Damask Farland began it. It is possible to follow our family history in these journals. Now that you are growing up you may read that of Damask and of your great-grandmother Catherine. You will find it of the utmost interest.'
'And Grandmother Linnet's and yours?' asked Bersaba.
'They are not yet for reading.'
'Oh, what a pity,' I cried, but Bersaba was looking thoughtful, and she said gravely, 'If people knew that what they wrote would be read by those living round them they wouldn't tell the truth ... not the whole truth.'
Our mother nodded, slowly smiling at Bersaba. Bersaba had a certain wisdom which I lacked. I said whatever came into my head, just allowing it to flow out without thinking very much about it. Bersaba often thought carefully before she spoke.
'Why should they not?' I demanded. 'What is the point of keeping a diary if you don't tell the truth?'
'Some people see the truth as they want to,' said Bersaba.
'Then how can it be the truth?'
'It's truth to them because that's what they believe, and if they are writing for people to read who might have been there when whatever they are writing about was happening they would tell their version of it.'
'There's some truth in that,' said my mother. 'So, your journal is your own secret. It must be so. It is only years later that it becomes the property of the family.'
'When we are dead,' I said with a shiver, but I was fascinated by it. I thought of the generations to come reading all about my life. I hoped it would be worth reading.
My mother went on: 'So now that you are growing up I am going to suggest that you keep your journals. I am giving you one each tomorrow and a desk in which you can lock them up when you have written in them. They will be your very own private property.'
'Do you still write in yours, Mother?' asked Bersaba.
She smiled gently. 'I still write now and then. Once I wrote a good deal. That was in the days before I married your father. I had a great deal to write about then.' Her expression clouded. I knew she was thinking of the dreadful mystery of her mother's death. 'Now,' she said, 'I hardly ever write. There is nothing dramatic to record. Life has been happy and peaceful for these last years, and happiness and a peaceful existence have one failing only—they give little to write about. I hope, my darlings, that you will find only happy events to record in your books. But write all the same ... write of the ordinary happy things of life.'
I cried: 'I'm longing to begin. I shall start tomorrow. I shall tell about today ... our seventeenth birthday.'
'And what of you, Bersaba?' asked my mother.
'I shall write when I have something interesting to write about,' answered my sister.
My mother nodded. 'Oh, and by the way, I think it is time we visited your grandfather. We shall leave next week. You'll have plenty of time to prepare.'
Then she kissed us and left us.
And then next day we received our desks and journals, and I started mine by writing the above.
There was nothing unusual about visiting our grandfather in Castle Paling. We did it several times a year. The Castle is not far from us—a few miles along the coast only, but going there always excited me. Castle Paling was in itself a ghostly place; terrible things had happened there not so very long ago. My mother had hinted at them and she should know, for she had spent her childhood there. Her mother—our grandmother Linnet Casvellyn—had died there in a mysterious fashion (she had, I believed, been murdered, although this had never been admitted) and now our grandfather Colum Casvellyn lived a strange and solitary life in the Seaward Tower, a trial to all around him and especially to himself. My Uncle Connell and Aunt Melanie lived in another part of the castle with their four children; they were a very normal family, but extreme contrasts like the placidity of my Aunt Melanie and the wildness of my grandfather create an atmosphere which is more sinister because of this very contrast.
As Trystan Priory was five miles from the sea, one of the attractions of the castle was its closeness to it, for even within its thick walls one was aware of its murmur, especially when it was rough. In comparison our house seemed very peaceful, and to a girl of seventeen who was longing for adventure peace could appear dull.
Ours was a fine house really, though I never realized this until I left it. The old priory had been destroyed when the monasteries were dissolved and the house had been built on the site with many of the original stones. As it had been constructed in the days of Elizabeth it was built in the shape of an E out of compliment to the Queen, as so many houses were at that time. It was full of exciting nooks and crannies, and it had its butteries, pantries and fine old kitchen. The grounds were beautiful. There were rose, pond, kitchen and herb gardens and some in the Italian style but mostly English; our mother took a great interest in them as she did about anything in the house, because it was the home which sheltered her precious family. This impressed itself on me after visiting Castle Paling, where in spite of Melanie—who was not dissimilar to my mother—one had the impression of something forbidding and menacing.
Bersaba felt it as I did and it was indicative of our characters that it affected us differently.
The day after our seventeenth birthday I asked Bersaba whether she was pleased we were going to Castle Paling the following week. We were in the schoolroom, where we had been left by our governess for what was called 'private study'.
She shrugged her shoulders and lowered her eyes and I saw her teeth come out over her lower lip. I knew her habits so well that I understood she was faintly disturbed. But her feelings could be mixed. There was a good deal she hated about Castle Paling but there was one thing she loved. That was our cousin Bastian.
'I wonder how long we shall stay?' I went on.
'Not more than a week, I expect,' she answered. 'You know Mother hates to be away too long for fear Father should return in her absence and she will not be there to welcome him.'
Our father was often away from home for months at a stretch because he was deeply involved with the East India Company which had been founded by his father—amongst others—and which for a time had prospered. In this year of sixteen hundred and thirty-nine it was less successful than it had been, but to a man like my father that was a challenge. Many people connected with the Company visited us at Trystan Priory and there always seemed something exhilarating to discuss about it. For instance, at this time there was a great deal of talk about the new factory they were planning to build on the banks of the Hooghly River in India.
'Fennimore will be primed to send a message if the ship is sighted,' I reminded her.
'Oh yes, but she likes to be here.'
'I shall take my new muff,' I announced.
'A muff in summer! You are crazy,' said Bersaba.
I was crestfallen. My muff had been a birthday present. I had wanted it because I had heard they were now worn a great deal by the ladies of King Charles's court, which meant that they were the height of fashion.
'Besides,' went on Bersaba, 'where would you wear a muff at Castle Paling? I shall take my sketch book,' she added.
Bersaba had drawn a piece of paper towards her and was sketching on it. She was very good and could, in a few lines, create an impression. There was the sea with the Devil's Teeth, those terrifying rocks, and I could almost feel that I was at Castle Paling looking out from one of the turret windows.
She started to sketch Grandfather Casvellyn. What a terrifying man he must have been when he could walk about. Now there was something pathetic about him because he looked so frighteningly fierce while at the same time he was so crippled that he could not walk and had to spend most of his time lying on a couch or being wheeled about in a chair. He had been thus for many years—since more than twelve years before we were born. It seemed to us that he had been there for always and always would be there. He was like the Flying Dutchman, but instead of sailing the seas he had been doomed to sit in his chair in expiation of some terrible sin.
'Well,' I said slyly, 'it will be good to see our cousins.'
Bersaba went on sketching and I knew she was thinking of Bastian. He was twenty-three years old and resembled Aunt Melanie; kind and gentle, he had never taken up the patronizing attitude which older people give to the young. Nor did our brother Fennimore, for that matter. Our mother would not have allowed it in our house but Castle Paling was different. I think that at some time Bastian must have shown some preference for Bersaba which won her immediate devotion, for she reacted quickly to any form of appreciation.
There were three girl cousins. Melder, the eldest, was twenty-six and disinclined to marry; she loved housekeeping and coped with Grandfather Casvellyn better than anyone else, partly because she remained impassive when he swore and cursed her and everything round him, and quietly went on with what she had come to do. Then there was Rozen, aged nineteen, and Gwenifer, seventeen.
As Aunt Melanie, my father's sister, had married my mother's brother Connell there was a double relationship between us all. It seemed to bind us very closely together, but perhaps that had come about because Aunt Melanie was the homemaking family-conscious type of woman—just as my mother was—and they believed in welding families together.
Bersaba had started to sketch Bastian.
'He's not as handsome as that,' I protested.
She flushed and tore the paper in halves.
I thought to myself: She really loves Bastian. But the next moment I had forgotten it.
A week later we set out for Castle Paling, Bersaba and I, our mother, three grooms and two maidservants. We really did not need servants, for there were plenty at Paling, but the roads were not altogether safe and the servants were a protection. My father had made my mother promise never to ride out without making sure that she was adequately guarded against attack, and although the roads between Trystan Priory and Castle Paling were well known to us she would never go against his wishes.
Bersaba looked pretty on that morning. June is such a lovely month, when the hedges are gay with wild roses and lacey chervil while great clumps of yellow gorse brighten the downs and the red sorrel shows itself in the fields. She was wearing her dark red outer petticoats which we called safeguards and which we always wore for riding. I had put on my blue ones. Although we sometimes dressed alike we did not always wear identical clothes. There were occasions when we liked to because we took a mischievous delight in puzzling people. I could put on a good impersonation of Bersaba and she could of me. We used to practise sometimes, and one of the great jokes of our childhood had been to deceive people in this way. We would laugh until we were hysterical when someone said to her: 'Now, Miss Angelet, it's no use your pretending to be Miss Bersaba. I'd know you anywhere.' It gave us a kind of power, as I pointed out to Bersaba. We could put it to good use on certain occasions. Well, on this day she wore her red so I wore my blue; our cloaks matched our safeguards and we each had brown soft boots. So there would be no danger in our being mistaken for each other on that journey. But when we were at Paling I knew we would wear identical clothes at times and enjoy deceiving them.
Excerpted from Saraband for Two Sisters by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1976 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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