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The Last Summer
I was ten years old when my contented life was disrupted by my mother's marriage to Benedict Lansdon. Had I been older, more experienced of life, I should have seen the inevitability of it. But there I was, happy and snug in my little world, my mother the center of my life—as I believed I was of hers—and it did not occur to me that there could be an intruder to disturb us.
It was not as though he were a stranger to me. He had been there almost as long as I could remember—a rather flamboyant figure in the background, and that was where I wanted, and expected, him to remain.
He had been present on the Australian goldfields when and where I was born. In fact my arrival had actually taken place in his house.
"Mr. Lansdon," my mother explained, "was different from the rest of the miners. He owned a moderately successful mine and he employed men who had given up trying on their own. We all lived in shacks. You never saw the likes unless it was the hut in the woods where that old tramp stayed last winter. Quite unsuitable for babies! And it was decided you should be born in his house. Pedrek was born there too."
Pedrek Cartwright was my greatest friend. His parents lived in London but his grandfather owned Pencarron Mine which was near Cador, my grandparents' home in Cornwall—so we were often together both in London and Cornwall. If his parents were not going to Cornwall and we were going to see my grandparents, he travelled with us; and my mother was very friendly with his parents in London; so we were really like one family.
Pedrek and I used to play at gold mining when we were smaller. There was a great bond between us because we had both been born in a mining township on the other side of the world—and in the house of Mr. Benedict Lansdon.
I should have guessed what was happening because when my mother spoke of Benedict Lansdon her voice would change, her eyes would sparkle and her mouth smile. But I did not attach any significance to that at the time.
Not that it would have made any difference. I should have hated it just the same, but if I had been prepared, it would not have been such a shock.
It was not until after the marriage that I realized how good life had been. I had taken so much for granted.
There had been my happy life in London not far from the park where I would go each morning with my governess, Miss Brown, to walk though the paths under the great trees-chestnut, oak and beech. We would sit with the other nannies to whom Miss Brown wanted to chat while I played with their children. We would feed the ducks on the pond and run about on the expanse of grass which was there for that purpose.
I loved the shops; there was a market some little distance from us and I was sometimes taken there on winter afternoons with Miss Brown. How exciting it was to wander among the crowds and watch the people at their stalls, particularly when it began to get dark and the naphtha flares were lighted. Once we ate jellied eels at a stall about which Miss Brown was a little uneasy because she thought it unsuitable; but I cajoled her. I loved to see the ladies in their wonderful clothes and the gentlemen in their top hats and morning coats. I loved winter evenings when we sat by the fire and listened for the muffin man's bell when Emmy our maid would run out with a dish and buy some which my mother and I would toast by the fire.
They were happy days which I thought would go on for ever, because I was then unaware of Benedict Lansdon lurking in the background, just wailing for the appropriate time to change it all.
When the trees in the Park began to bud, and even the one in our little square garden showed signs of a few inedible pears that it might in due course produce, my mother would say: "It is time we went to Cornwall. I'll speak to Aunt Morwenna. I wonder what their plans are this year?"
Aunt Morwenna was Pedrek's mother, and my mother and I would go to their house which was not very far from ours and Pedrek would take me up to his room to show me his new puppy or some toy he had just acquired; we would talk of Cornwall and what we would do when we arrived there—he to his grandparents, me to mine.
There would follow the excitement of the train. Pedrek and I would endeavor to have a window to ourselves; we would shriek to each other to look at this and that as the train rushed by meadows, streams and woodlands before pulling into the stations.
And at the end of this journey there would be our grandparents waiting for us and making us feel that it was the most wonderful thing that could happen because we were coming to be with them. Then Pedrek would go on his way to Pencarron and I to Cador.
Cador, that most magnificent and exciting house, had been the home of Cadorsons for hundreds of years. There were no Cadorsons there now. The name had died out when my great-grandfather Jake Cadorson and his son Jacco were drowned in Australia and the house had passed to my grandmother who had married Rolf Hanson. I always thought it was a pity the name had died out, for Cadorsons would have been so appropriate at Cador.
Thankfully, however, the house was still in the family; and although my grandfather had come to it through marriage, he loved it, I believe, more than any other member of the family did.
I could understand his feelings for it. There it stood—grey stone, with its towers and turrets, like a medieval fortress. When I was alone in the big lofty rooms, I could imagine myself back hundreds of years. It was exciting and when I was young rather frightening; but there was always the reassuring presence of my mother and my grandparents. My grandfather would tell exciting stories of the past involving roundheads and cavaliers, of storms and shipwrecks and of adventurers who had gone off to the hitherto undiscovered places of the world.
I loved Cador. There the days seemed longer and the sun seemed to shine for days on end. And when the rain came it was just as exciting. I loved the sea. Sometimes we would be allowed to take a little trip on it, but my grandmother never liked that. She could not forget that her parents and brother had been drowned.
I used to go down to the two towns of Poldorey with my mother and grandmother. We would stroll past the cottages on the quay and watch the fishermen mending their nets or talking about the catch. Sometimes I would go down with Mr. Yeo, the butler, to buy fish. I was fascinated by the fishes squirming on the weighing machine which was spattered with silver scales. I would listen to the fishermen's talk. "'Twas a good catch today, 'Arry. The Lord calmed down them old waves, 'e did and all." At other times it was a gloomy story. "No fish today. Jesus Christ Himself wouldn't venture out on a sea like this." I knew most of them by name—Tom, Ted, Harry. Some of them had grand-sounding names: Reuben, Solomon, Japheth, Obediah ... names taken from the Bible. Most of the families had been ardent Wesleyans since John and Charles Wesley had roamed through Cornwall bringing its people to righteousness.
Cador was about a quarter of a mile from the two towns East and West Poldorey which were separated by the River Poldor and were connected by an ancient bridge. I loved the steep streets of the town which wound up to the cliff top where one could look out across the sea. There was a wooden seat so that people might sit and rest after the climb and there I would sit with my grandfather and persuade him to tell me stories of smugglers and wreckers who lured ships to disaster along this coast. I would search on the beach for the semi-precious stones which were reputed to be found there, but the only ones I ever saw were in the window of Mr. Bander's shop, marked with the inscription "Found on Poldorey Beach."
I was proud to belong to Cador Folk as the family were respectfully referred to in the Poldoreys.
All this was mine—and there was the London home, too. The tall narrow house which my mother and I shared with the servants ... not many of them. There were of course my governess, Miss Brown, who would have been horrified to be called a servant, then Mr. and Mrs. Emery; she was cook and housekeeper and he a man of all work who tended our tiny garden; and there was a housemaid Ann and a parlormaid Jane.
It was an intimate household. My mother was not one to stand on ceremony, and I think all the servants were devoted to her. They felt themselves to be part of the family. There was not that impenetrable barrier between up and below stairs as there was in larger establishments such as that of Mr. Benedict Lansdon and my Uncle Peter and Aunt Amaryllis. Not that they were really my uncle and aunt; they were not even my mother's. They were very old and the family connection went back some generations. Benedict Lansdon was Uncle Peter's grandson, so there was even a link with him.
Uncle Peter, though very old, was an important man; he was rich and had lots of interests—some of them rather mysterious; but he was quite an awe-inspiring figure. His wife, Aunt Amaryllis, was one of those very feminine women who seem endearingly helpless and somehow hold the family together. Everyone loved her—including myself.
They entertained lavishly, although Uncle Peter's daughter Helena and his son-in-law Martin Hume, the well-known politician, were often hostess and host at the functions held at their home. It was an exciting family to belong to.
I remember the incidents from what I thought of afterwards as the Last Summer, for it was after Christmas of that year that I had my first inkling of what was to come.
My mother and I had arrived in Cornwall. Pedrek had travelled down with us and the days seemed to have been spent between Cador and Pencarron Manor. Both Pedrek and I had to do lessons for a certain number of hours each day and these were allowed to coincide by an accommodating Miss Brown and Mr. Clenham who was Pedrek's tutor. Pedrek was to go to school the following year so that in itself would bring change. We rode a great deal but were not allowed to go out on our own. There always had to be an adult with us which was rather restricting. So we spent a good deal of time in the paddock practicing jumping and showing off our equestrian skill to each other.
On this occasion we were with my mother and, as it seemed on many occasions, we found ourselves at St. Branok's Pool.
I was fascinated by it. So was Pedrek. It was an uncanny spot with the willows hanging over it. The still waters of the Pool were said to be bottomless, and it had a reputation for being a place to avoid after dark. I suppose that was why it attracted me. My mother always appeared to be fascinated by it.
As usual we tied up our horses and stretched ourselves out on the grass leaning against the boulders which protruded from the ground in certain places.
"They could be the stones of an old monastery," my mother had told us.
We had heard the story many times of the bells which were reputed to ring if a disaster threatened. They were at the bottom of the pool according to the legend.
Pedrek, who was very logical, said that if they were at the bottom, the pool could not be bottomless, to which my mother replied that flaws could often be found in most legends if one tried hard enough.
"I don't want flaws to be found," I told them. "I like to think it is bottomless and that the bells are there all the same."
"A monastery was destroyed by floods because the monks turned from the path of righteousness," explained my mother.
"There are lots of righteous people about here," I commented. "There is old Mrs. Fenny on the quay who watches everything that goes on and thinks everyone but herself is heading for hell fire. And there's Mrs. Polhenny who goes to church twice on Sundays and tries to make her daughter Leah as holy as she is, so that the poor girl never gets any fun."
"People are very strange," said my mother, "but you have to be tolerant with them. 'Cast the beam out of your own eye ...'"
"You sound like Mrs. Polhenny now, Mama," I said. "She's always quoting the Bible, but she would be sure she hasn't the slightest speck in her eyes."
Dreamily I would stare at the pool and lure her to tell me the story, which she had told so many times of how, when I was a little girl, I had been taken away by Jenny Stubbs who still lived in the cottage near the pool; they had thought I had wandered into the water because one of my toys was found in the brink.
"They dragged the pool," said my mother, her eyes wide as though she were looking into the past. "I shall never forget it. I thought I had lost you."
She was too emotional to proceed, and as I loved the story I could not hear it often enough: how Jenny Stubbs had rung toy bells hoping to drive them away because she had me hidden in her cottage, how she had cherished me and believed I was the little girl whom she had lost.
Pedrek liked the story too. He had heard it often enough before but he was never impatient when it was repeated. He knew that I liked to hear it over and over again, and he was always careful not to hurt other people's feelings, even when he was a boy.
What I remember of that occasion is that while we were talking Jenny Stubbs herself, the main character in the story, came out of her cottage and walked to the edge of the pool.
She did not see us at first and she was singing to herself. She had a rather high, reedy voice which sounded uncanny on the stillness of the air.
My mother called: "Good afternoon, Jenny."
She turned sharply, as though startled. "Good afternoon to 'ee, Ma'am," she said.
She stood facing us, her back to the pool. The light breeze ruffled her fine fair hair and she looked fey—someone who is not quite as others are.
"Are you well, Jenny?" asked my mother.
"Yes, thank 'ee, Ma'am. I be well."
She walked slowly towards us. Her eyes scanned Pedrek and myself and I expected to see some interest in her for the child she had once stolen and cherished. But there was no sign that she was any more interested in me than she was in Pedrek. My mother said later that she would have forgotten that it had ever happened. We had to remember that Jenny was strange ... not as other people; she lived in a world of her own creating; she must do to have taken someone else's child and thought it was her own.
She came and stood near us. She was gazing at my mother and it was easy to see that she drew some comfort from her presence.
"I be expecting this Lammas," she said.
"Oh Jenny ..." replied my mother, and added quickly: "You must be very happy."
"'Tis a little girl, I be sure of that," said Jenny.
My mother nodded and Jenny turned away; walking towards her cottage, she started to sing in her strange unworldly voice.
"It is very sad," said my mother, when she was out of earshot. "She can never forget that she lost her baby all those years ago."
"That baby would be the same age as I am now," I said, "because she thought I was her baby once."
My mother nodded. "And now she thinks she is going to have another. It is not the first time she has thought this."
"What happens when she doesn't?" I asked.
"It is hard to know what goes on in her poor clouded mind. But she does know how to look after a baby. She was wonderful with you during the few days she had you. We couldn't have looked after you better."
"But I wanted to come home, didn't I? When you found me in her cottage I ran to the door, calling for you to take me home."
My mother nodded again. "Oh, poor, poor Jenny," she said. "I feel so very sorry for her. We must be as kind to her as we can."
We were silent, looking at the pool. I was thinking of the days I had spent in Jenny's cottage, and wishing I could remember more of that time; I was thinking of her ringing toy bells to drive people away so that she could have me to herself.
I felt that poor Jenny was a part of my childhood and I must always be kind and understanding towards her. I knew that was how my mother felt.
I was constantly reminding myself of little incidents from that Last Summer. I remember seeing Jenny often walking along the lanes past the pool to her cottage, singing to herself in that slightly out of tune way which gave her an otherworldliness that was, for me, intriguing.
She seemed happy and her happiness was in constant delusion. She thought she was going to have a child to replace the one which she had lost; it was what she longed for, and in her simple mind she believed that child would be born to her.
It was pathetic, and yet in a way she was happy because she believed in her fantasy.
Another incident I remembered from that summer occurred when I was in the company of my grandmother. We were the greatest of friends; she seemed too young to be a grandmother; she was more like a lively young aunt or an elder sister.
She told me a great deal about my mother. "You must look after her," she said. "She has had a sad time, you know. She was married to a wonderful man—your father—and he died before you were born and she was all alone."
Excerpted from The Changeling by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1989 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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