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The Song of the Siren
By Philippa Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Philippa Carr
All rights reserved.
A General Calls
Beau had come back. He was there, standing before me in all his elegance, his arrogance, his overwhelming charm. I had become alive again. I threw myself into his arms and I lifted up my face and looked at him.
I cried out "Beau! Beau! Why did you go away? Why did you leave me?"
And he answered: "All the time I have been here close ... close ..." His voice went on echoing through the house saying: "Close ... close ..."
Then I awoke to the realization that he was not with me. It was only a dream, and misery descended upon me, for I was alone again—even more desperately so because for a short while I had believed he had come back.
It was more than a year since he had gone away. We were to have been married. It had all been arranged. We were going to elope again—we had tried that once unsuccessfully—but this time we would plan more carefully. He had been hiding in the haunted house and I used to go there and visit him. My family had no idea of this; they thought they had separated us, but we were cleverer than they were. We had laid our plans carefully.
My family did not like Beau—particularly my mother, who became almost demented when his name was mentioned. I could see from the first that she was determined to prevent our marrying. At one time I thought that she was jealous of my love for Beau but I changed my mind later.
I had never felt I quite belonged to the Eversleighs, although Priscilla, my mother, had always made me feel I meant a great deal to her. I had always been deeply conscious of her possessiveness. She was quite unlike Harriet, who for so long I had believed to be my mother. Harriet was fond of me but not excessively so. She did not overwhelm me with her affection; and I was sure that if she knew that Beau and I had forestalled our marriage vows she would just have shrugged her shoulders and laughed, while Priscilla would have behaved as though it was a major disaster, although my very existence was evidence of her lack of conventionality in such matters.
It is known now that I am a bastard—the illegitimate daughter of Priscilla and Jocelyn Frinton, who was beheaded at the time of the Popish Plot. Of course he and my mother had intended to marry but he had been taken and executed before they could do so. Then dear Harriet had pretended to be my mother and she and Priscilla had gone to Venice, where I was born. On discovering this I had been rather pleased by my melodramatic entrance into the world. It was when my father's uncle left me his fortune that the story came out; everyone accepted it then and I came to live with my mother and her husband, Leigh, at Eversleigh, although I visited Harriet frequently.
Now Priscilla and Leigh had moved to the Dower House in the grounds of Eversleigh and lived there with my half sister, Damaris. Close by was Enderby Hall, where Beau and I used to meet. It had been left to me by my father's uncle Robert Frinton. Enderby was a house of memories. It was said to be haunted. It was for this reason, I suppose, that I had been fascinated by it ever since I was a child before it seemed possible that it could ever belong to me. Some terrible tragedy had taken place there and certainly there was an eerie atmosphere about the place. Beau liked it. He used to call out to the ghosts to come and see us. When we lay on the four-poster bed, he would draw back the curtains. "Let them join in our bliss, Carlotta," he said. He was bold, so recklessly adventurous and he cared for no one. I was sure that if one of the ghosts appeared he would not feel a twinge of uneasiness. He would have laughed in the face of the devil himself if that awesome being had put in an appearance. He used to say he was one of the devil's own.
How I longed for him! I wanted to creep into that house and to feel his arms about me as he sprang out on me. I wanted to be lifted in those arms and carried up the stairs to the bedroom in which the ghosts had slept when they were on earth; I wanted to hear his lazy voice, so beautifully modulated, so musical, so characteristic of him—determined to get what was good out of life, no matter how—and equally determined to turn his back on what could bring him nothing.
"I'm not a saint, Carlotta," he told me, "so don't think you'll get one for your husband, dear child!"
I assured him that a saint was the last thing I wanted.
He agreed that I was wise in that. "There's a passionate woman in you, my little virgin-no-more, waiting to get out. I am giving her the key."
He had constantly reminded me that I had lost my virginity. It seemed to be a source of amusement to him. Sometimes I believed it was because he was afraid they might persuade me not to marry him. "You're committed now, my little bird," he said once. "You cannot fly away now. You belong to me."
Priscilla, when she was trying to persuade me to give him up, said that it was my fortune that he wanted. I was very rich—or I would be when I was eighteen or in the event of my marrying; and when I taxed him with this, he replied: "I'll be frank with you, my sweet child, your fortune will be useful. It will enable us to travel, to live well. You would like that, my dear heiress. We'll go to Venice, to your birthplace. I believe I was there at that auspicious time, which seems like fate, does it not? We were intended for each other, so don't let a paltry fortune come between us. We cannot with truth say we despise your fortune. Let us say we are glad of it. But do you doubt, my dearest love, after all that has happened between us that you I mean more to me than a thousand such fortunes? We could live well together if you were but a little match girl, a seamstress. We are in tune, do you understand that? You were meant to love. There is such response in you. You are fiery; passion will be a part of your life; you are young yet, Carlotta. You have much to learn of yourself and the world; and fortune or not, I will be there to teach you."
I knew that he spoke the truth; that I was of a nature which matched his own. I knew that we were perfectly in harmony and that I was fortunate to have found him.
There was accord between us. I was only fifteen then and he was more than twenty years older—he would not tell me his age. He said: "I am as old as I can make the world believe I am. And you more than anyone must accept that."
So we met in the haunted house. It amused him that we should do so and it seemed a good place because so few people went there. Priscilla sent servants over once a week. They would not go singly because there was not one of them who would have entered the house alone. I knew when they would be going and could warn Beau to leave. He stayed there for three weeks; and then one day he was gone.
Why? Where? Why should he suddenly disappear? I could not understand it. At first I thought that he had been called away and there had been no means of letting me know. But when the time went on I began to be frightened.
I did not know what to do. I could not tell people that he had disappeared from the house. I could not understand it. For the first few days I was not unduly worried; but when the days went by as weeks and then the months, terror seized me and I feared some terrible doom had overtaken him.
I would go over to Enderby and stand there in the hall and listen to the silence of the house. I would whisper his name and wait for some response.
It never came. Only in dreams.
There is a certain comfort in writing down my feelings. By doing so I may come to a better understanding of what has happened and of myself too.
I shall soon be seventeen. I shall go to London and there will be entertainments there and at Eversleigh, for my grandparents as well as Priscilla and Leigh will want to provide me with a husband. I shall have suitors by the score. My fortune will take care of that; but as Harriet says I have what she calls that special quality which attracts the opposite sex like bees round the honey. She should know, for she has had it all her life. "The trouble is," she once said, "that the wasps come too—and all other kinds of noisome insects. What we have can be the greatest asset a woman can have, but, like most such gifts, wrongly handled it can work against us." Harriet has never denied herself the intimate society of men and I feel sure that she would have behaved exactly as I did with Beau. She had had her first lover when she was fourteen; it had not been a passionate love affair but it had provided both her and her lover with advantages, and she added when she told me: "Made us both very happy while it lasted, which is what life is meant to do."
I think I feel closer to Harriet than to anyone—except Beau. After all I had believed Harriet to be my mother for a long time. Harriet was a perfect mother. She never smothered me with affection; she never wanted to know where I had been, how I was getting on with my lessons; she was never anxious about me. I found Priscilla's obvious anxiety exasperating. I did not want my conscience disturbed by the fears of Priscilla for my welfare—particularly after I met Beau. Harriet was a comforting presence, though. I felt that she would help me if I were in difficulties and she would understand my feelings for Beau as my real mother never could.
I was always welcome at Eyot Abbass, and Benjie was there a good deal. I was rather fond of Benjie. He was Harriet's son, and for a long time I had believed him to be my brother. I knew he was very fond of me. He was so delighted to discover that I was not his sister, and that seemed to indicate something which I might have found interesting if I had not been so completely absorbed by Beau.
Benjie is a good deal older than I—it must be about twelve years—but I know how he feels about me. I became aware of it when Beau became my lover. In fact, I became aware of a good deal then. "You grew up overnight, as they say," commented Beau, "which means, my dear innocent, that you have ceased to be a child and have become a woman." Beau laughed at everything; there was so much that he despised; I think he despised innocence so much that he wanted to destroy it. He was quite different from everyone I had ever known. There would never be anyone else to take his place. He must come back. There must be some explanation. Sometimes when I smelt somewhere the faint musk-like smell—a mixture of scent and sandalwood—it would bring back poignant memories of him. His linen had always been scented with it; he was very fastidious; once when we were at the house he made me undress and he filled a bath with water which he scented with a scent of rose and made me bathe in it; and then he anointed me with the rose-scented lotion, which he said he had made himself; and he was very amused when we made love as though it was some ritual and there was some significance in it.
Harriet talked of him now and then. She did not know of course that he had been at the house. "He's gone away," she said. "Forget him, Carlotta."
I said: "He'll come back."
She said nothing but her beautiful eyes were unusually sad.
"Why should he go away?" I demanded.
"Because he decided that it was useless to wait. There was too much opposition."
"There was no opposition from me."
"How can we know what took him?" she said. "But the fact remains that he has gone."
I knew what she was thinking. He had gone abroad. In London, where he was well known in Court circles, it was being said that that was what he had done. When Harriet went to London she had heard that he had disappeared leaving enormous debts. She hinted that he had gone off in pursuit of another heiress. I could not tell even her that we had been meeting at Enderby, that we were making plans to elope.
It was strange how at times I felt so much aware of him. I often went to Enderby and sometimes I would shut myself in the bedroom and lie on the four-poster bed and dream it was all happening again.
I felt an irresistible urge to go there whenever I dreamed of him. That was how I felt after the dream and on the afternoon of the day which followed that night when he had seemed so real to me I rode over to Enderby. It was not very far, ten minutes' ride at the most. When I used to go to meet Beau I walked over because I didn't want anyone to see my horse and know that I was there.
On this day I tethered my horse to the post by the mounting block and taking out the key opened the door. I stood in the hall. It was a lovely old place, the vaulted roof was quite magnificent and the panelling on the walls was beautiful; at one end of the hall were the screens, beyond which were the kitchens, and at the other end was the minstrels' gallery. It was supposed to be the haunted part because one of the owners whose husband had been involved in the Rye House Plot had tried to hang herself over that gallery; the rope was too long and she injured herself and lived in lingering agony afterwards. At least that was the story I heard. I remember one occasion when I entered. Beau appeared there dressed up in a female costume he had found in the house. He liked to frighten me.
Now as I came in, my eyes immediately went to the gallery. They always did, and I thought, as I had a thousand times, how happy I would be if I could have seen him, if I could have had some indication that he was somewhere, that he would come back for me.
But there was nothing. Just silence and gloom, and that terrible oppressive atmosphere, that sense of brooding evil. I went across the hall, my footsteps ringing out on the stone pavings of the floor, and up the stairs, past the empty gallery.
I opened the door of the bedroom which we had made ours. The bed looked impressive with its velvet hangings. I began to think of the people who had died in that bed; then suddenly I flung myself down on it and buried my face in the velvet bolster.
"Oh, Beau. Beau, where are you?" I cried. "Why did you leave me? Where did you go?"
I started. I sat up in bed. It was as though I had been answered. I knew I was not alone. Someone was in the house. It was a movement. A footstep? Was it a footstep? I knew the sounds of this house, the creak of the old wood, the protesting groan of a floorboard. I used to be afraid when I lay on this bed with Beau that we would be discovered. How he had laughed at me. I think he rather hoped we would be. Once he said: "I should love to see Prim Priscilla's face when she saw me in bed with her daughter." Yes, I did know the sounds of the house and I now had a firm conviction that I was not alone in it.
A wild elation possessed me. My first thought was: He has come back.
"Beau!" I called. "Beau! I'm here, Beau."
The door opened. My heart leapt and I felt that it would suffocate me.
Then I felt furiously angry. It was my half sister, Damaris, who had come into the room.
"Damaris!" I stammered. "What ... what are you doing here?"
My disappointment sickened me and for the moment I hated my sister. She stood there, her lips slightly parted, her eyes round with astonishment; she was not a pretty child; she was quiet, obedient, and had a desire to please, which our mother said was "engaging." I had always found her rather dull; I ignored her in the main, but now I positively hated her. She looked so neat and clean in her pale blue gown with its sash of a slightly lighter hue and her long brown hair hanging down in loose curls. There was a certain amount of curiosity in her expression which was rapidly replacing the concern.
"I thought someone was with you, Carlotta," she said. "You were talking to someone, were you not?"
"I called out to know who was there. You startled me." I frowned at her accusingly.
Her mouth was a round O. She had no subtlety. Perhaps one should not expect it of a child of ten. What had I said? I believed I had called out Beau's name. Had she noticed it? I felt certain she had never heard of Beau.
"I thought you said something like Bow," she said.
"You were mistaken," I told her quickly. "I said: 'Who's there?'"
"You imagined the rest," I went on sharply. I had risen from the bed and gripped her none too gently by the shoulder so that she winced a little. I was glad. I wanted to hurt her. "You have no right to come here," I said. "This is my house and I came to see that it was all right."
"Were you testing the bed?"
I looked at her intently. No, there was no ulterior motive in the remark. No suggestions. No probing. One thing about my little sister, she was completely innocent. She was only ten years old in any case.
I pondered. Should I try to give her some explanation? No, it was best to leave things as they were.
We went out of the house together.
"How did you get here?" I asked.
I mounted my horse. "Then you can walk back," I said.
It was two days later and a Saturday. I was in the garden of the Dower House when a man appeared on horseback. He dismounted and bowed to me.
"Am I mistaken or is this the Dower House Eversleigh and does Captain Leigh Main live here?"
"You are right. He is not here at the moment but will be back very soon, I believe. Do come in. I'll show you where you can tether your horse."
"Thank you. You must be his daughter."
"I'm Gervaise Langdon. We were in the army together."
Excerpted from The Song of the Siren by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1979 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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