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IN THE HEART OF THE FAMILY
It is one of the perversities of human nature that when something which has been passionately wanted is acquired, it loses its desirability and there can come a time when the need to escape from it becomes an obsession. Thus it was with me. What I had desperately needed as a child—obviously because of what had happened to me—was security. By the time I was thirteen in that fateful year of 1715, I longed to escape from the cosy cocoon in which my family had wrapped me, and when the opportunity came, I seized it.
I must have been about four years old when I was brought to England by my Aunt Damaris and my Uncle Jeremy. Those first four years of my life had been lived most dramatically though I did not realize that at the time. I suppose I thought it was the most natural thing for a girl to be kidnapped by her father, taken across the sea to live most luxuriously with her parents and then suddenly to find herself plunged into the poverty of the back streets of Paris, from which she was rescued and whisked over the sea again to an English home. I accepted all that with the philosophical endurance of a child.
One of the events which stands out in my memory is that homecoming. Vividly I recall getting off the boat and standing on the shingle. I shall never forget the ecstatic look in my Aunt Damaris's eyes. I loved her dearly. I always had from the time I met her when she had been ill, lying on a couch, unable to walk more than a few steps. I had been bewildered as I stood there. I knew that I had no mother for she had died mysteriously at the same time as my father had, and I was very anxious for it seemed to me that everyone ought to have a mother—and a father as well.
I had said: 'Aunt Damaris, are you going to be my mother now?' and she had answered: 'Yes, Clarissa, I am.' I still remember the great comfort those words brought me.
I had noticed that Uncle Jeremy was looking at her intently and I decided that as I had lost my handsome, incomparable father, he would do very well as a substitute, so I asked him if he would be my father. He had said it would depend on Damaris.
I know now what had happened. They had been two unhappy people, hurt by life, each of them watchful so as not to be hurt again. Damaris was gentle and loving, eager to be loved. Jeremy was different. He was on his guard, suspicious of people's motives. His was a dark nature; Damaris's should have been a sunny one.
When I was a child I had not understood this. I had merely realized that I was looking for security and these were the two who could offer it to me. Young as I was, in that moment on the beach I could see that I must cling to them. Damaris understood my feelings. For all her seeming innocence she was very wise—far wiser, in truth, than people like Carlotta, my brilliant, worldly mother.
Those days in England were a joyous revelation to me. I discovered I had a family, and that they were all waiting to greet me, ready to draw me into their magic circle. I was one of them; I was loved—and because of my mother's tragedy I was a consolation to them all. During those days I felt as though I was floating on a cloud of love. I revelled in it. At the same time I kept thinking of that moment when Damaris had come into the cellar-like room where I was with Jeanne's mother and grandmother, and I could smell the odour of dampness and decaying foliage which always seemed to hang about the place and which came from the cans of water in which the unsold flowers were kept in the hope of preserving them for sale the next day. It had been her voice I recognized first when she had said: 'Where is the child?' I had flung myself into her arms and she had held me tightly, saying: 'Thank you, God. Oh, thank you,' under her breath, which impressed me even at such a time for it occurred to me that she must be on very familiar terms with God to speak to him like that.
I remember how she held me as though she was afraid I would run away. I was not likely to do that. I was so glad to get away from that cellar, for although Jeanne was good to me, I was always afraid of Maman, who always took the few sous Jeanne brought in from the sale of flowers and feverishly counted them, muttering as she did so. I had always been aware that she grudged my being there and but for Jeanne would have turned me into the streets. Even more terrifying than Maman was the Grand'mère who was always dressed in musty black and had hairs growing out of a great wart on her chin which both fascinated and repelled me. I had quickly realized that they were not my true friends and Jeanne always had to protect me from them. Sometimes I had gone out with Jeanne and I was not sure whether I disliked that as much as staying in. It was good to get away from the cellar and Maman and Grand'mère of course, but I was usually so cold standing in the streets beside Jeanne holding out bunches of violets or whatever flowers were in season; they were always wet too because they had to be kept in water and my hands grew red and chapped.
It had been a dramatic homecoming and I remember every moment of it. We passed near the great house called Eversleigh Court where, Damaris told me, my great-grandparents lived, and we stopped at the Dower House, the home of Damaris and my grandparents. They were so excited to see us. My grandmother ran out of the house and when she saw Damaris she gave a cry of joy and ran to her and hugged her as though she would never let her go. Then she turned to me and as she picked me up she was crying.
A man came out and kept kissing Damaris and then me. After that we went into the house and everyone seemed to be talking at once. Jeremy stood by awkwardly and as it seemed the others had forgotten him I went over and took his hand, which seemed to remind them that he was there. My grandmother said we must be hungry and she would give orders.
Damaris declared that she was too happy to think of food, but I told them that I could be happy and hungry at the same time, at which they all laughed.
We were soon sitting at a table, eating. It was a lovely room—so different from Jeanne's cellar—and a warm and happy feeling seemed to wrap itself around me. This was going to be my home for a while, I gathered. I asked Damaris and she said, 'Until ...' and looked very happy.
'Yes, of course,' said my grandmother. 'It is wonderful to have you back, my darling. And Clarissa, too. My little love, you are going to stay with us for a while.'
'Until ...' I said uneasily.
Damaris knelt beside me and said: 'Your Uncle Jeremy and I are going to be married soon and when we are you will come to our home and live with us there.'
That satisfied me and I knew that all of them were glad I was here.
Jeremy rode back to his house and I was left at the Eversleigh Dower House. I had a little room next to that of Damaris. 'So that we can be close together,' she said, which was comforting because I did dream now and then that I was back in Jeanne's cellar and that the old Grand'mère turned into a witch and the hairs growing out of her wart turned into a forest in which I was lost.
Then I would go to Damaris's bed and tell her about the forest with trees which had faces like old Grand'mère and their branches were like brown fingers which kept counting money.
'Only a dream, darling,' Damaris would say. 'Dreams can't hurt you.'
It was a great relief to get into Damaris's bed when the dreams came.
I was taken to Eversleigh Court where there were more relations. These were very old. There was my Great-Grandmother Arabella and my Great-Grandfather Carleton, a fierce old man with bushy eyebrows. He liked me, though. He looked at me in a rather frightening way, but I planted my feet firmly together and putting my hands behind my back stared at him to show I was not going to let him scare me, because after all he was not nearly so alarming as old Grand'mère and I knew that if he wanted to turn me away, Damaris, Jeremy and the others would stop him. 'You're like your mother,' he said. 'One of the fighting Eversleighs.'
'Yes, I am,' I answered, trying to look as fierce as he did, at which everyone laughed and my Great-Grandmother said: 'Clarissa has made a conquest of Carleton.'
There was another branch of the family. They came to Eversleigh to visit from a place called Eyot Abbas. I vaguely remembered Benjie because he had been my father before Hessenfield. It was bewildering and I could not understand it at all. I had had one father and then Hessenfield had come and said he was going to be my father; now he was dead and Jeremy was going to be. Surely such a surfeit of fathers was most unusual.
Poor Benjie, he looked very sad, but when he saw me his eyes lighted up; he picked me up and gave me one of those emotional hugs.
Vaguely I remembered his mother, Harriet, who had the bluest eyes I had ever seen; then there was Benjie's father, Gregory, a quiet, kind man. They had been another set of grandparents. I was surrounded by relations, and I quickly realized that there was a controversy in the family and it was all about me. Benjie wanted me to go home with him. He said he was my father in a way and had a greater claim than Damaris. Grandmother Priscilla said it would break Damaris's heart if I was taken away from her and after all she was the one who had brought me home.
I was very gratified to be so wanted and sad when Benjie went away. Before he went he said to me: 'Dear Clarissa, Eyot Abbas will always be your home when you want it. Will you remember that?' I promised I would and Harriet said: 'You must come and stay with us often, Clarissa. That is the only thing that will satisfy us.'
I said I would and they went away. Soon after that Damaris and Jeremy were married and Enderby Hall became my home.
Jeremy had lived there by himself and when Damaris married him she was determined to change it a great deal. In the days before the wedding she would take me there. The place fascinated me. There was a man called Smith who had a face like a relief map with rivers and mountains on it; there were lines everywhere and little warty lumps; and his skin was as brown as the earth. When he saw me his face would crinkle up and his mouth went up at one side. I couldn't stop looking at him and I realized I was seeing Smith's smile.
Then there was Damon. He was a great Newfoundland dog who stood as tall as I was; he had curly hair, lots of it, half black, half white, with a bushy tail which turned up at the end. We took one look and loved each other.
'Careful,' said Damaris, 'he can be fierce.'
But not with me—never with me. He knew I loved him immediately. We had had no dogs in the hôtel and certainly not in Jeanne's cellar; and I was so happy because I was going to live in the same house as Damon, Damaris, Jeremy and Smith. Smith said; 'I've never seen him take to anyone like that before.' I just put my arms round Damon's neck and kissed the tip of his damp nose. They all watched with trepidation but Damon and I knew how it was between us.
Jeremy was very pleased that we liked each other. Everybody was very pleased about most things at that time, except of course when they thought of Carlotta, and when I thought of her and dear handsome Hessenfield I was sad too. Damaris assured me that they would be happy in the place they had gone to and that made me feel that I could be happy where I had come to—so I started to be.
Enderby Hall was a dark house at first, until they cut down—some of the bushes which were all round it and made lawns and flower-beds. Damaris took down some of the heavy furnishings and replaced them with lighter colours. The hall was magnificent; it had a vaulted roof and beautiful panelling, and at one end were the screens beyond which were the kitchens and at the other a lovely staircase which led to the minstrels' gallery.
'When we entertain we shall have musicians to play there, Clarissa,' Damaris told me.
I listened with awe, taking in every detail of my new life and savouring it all with complete delight.
There was one bedroom which Damaris hated to go into, and I soon sensed that, and with the directness of a child asked her why. She looked astonished. I think that was because she knew she had betrayed her reluctance.
She merely said: 'I'm going to change it all, Clarissa. I'm going to make it unrecognizable.'
'I like it,' I said. 'It's pretty.' And I went to the bed and stroked the velvet hangings. But she looked at it with loathing, as though she was seeing something I could not. I understood later—much later—what that room meant to her.
Well, she changed it and it certainly looked different. The red velvet was replaced by white and gold damask with curtains to match. She even changed the carpet. She was right. It did look different, but she did not use it as her and Jeremy's room although it was the best in the house. The door was always shut and I believe she rarely went there.
So this was my new home; Enderby Hall, about ten minutes' ride from the Dower House and an equal distance from Eversleigh Court, so I was surrounded by my family.
That Damaris and Jeremy were happy together there could be no doubt; as for myself, I was so pleased to have escaped from that Paris cellar that I lived in a state of joyful appreciation of everything for those first few months. I used to stand in the middle of the great hall and look up at the minstrels' gallery and say: 'I'm here.' And I tried to remember the cellar with the cold stone floor and the rats who came at night and looked at me with their baleful eyes that seemed yellowish in the darkness. I did this to remind myself that I had escaped and told myself I would never, never go back there again. I did not like to see cut flowers in pots because they reminded me. Damaris loved them and gathered baskets full from the garden. She had a special room called the flower room and she used to arrange them there. She would say: 'Come on, Clarissa, we'll go and get some roses.' She quickly noticed, though, that I grew quiet and mournful and I often had a nightmare the following night. So she stopped cutting flowers. Damaris was very perceptive. More so than Jeremy. I think he was too concerned with the way life had treated him before he met Damaris to think much about how it had treated others. Damaris thought of others all the time, and believed that what had gone wrong in her life was largely her own fault rather than fate's.
When the violets came she took me to the hedgerows and we gathered wild ones. She said: 'It was violets, you remember, that brought us together. So I shall always love violets. Will you?'
I said I would, and it seemed different picking them after that; and in time I didn't mind about the flowers. To show Damaris this I went into the garden to pick some roses for her. She understood at once and hugged me tightly, hiding her face so that I should not see the tears in her eyes.
In those early days they were always talking about me—not only at Enderby but at the Dower House—and there were conferences at Eversleigh Court. I often heard someone say: 'But what would be best for the child?'
The cocoon was being woven very tightly round me. I had had an unusual start. Therefore I needed very special care.
Perhaps that was why I felt very much at ease with Smith. I used to watch him doing the garden or cleaning the silver. Before Damaris became mistress of the house he used to do everything, but now servants from Eversleigh Court used to be sent over by Great-Grandmother Arabella. Jeremy did not really like that; Smith didn't like it either.
Smith treated me, as he would say, 'rough'. 'Don't stand there idle,' he would say. 'Satan finds mischief for idle hands to do.' And I would have to arrange the forks and knives in their cubbyholes, as he called them, or pick up branches and dead flowers and put them in the wheelbarrow. Damaris was often present and the three of us would be very happy together. With Smith I felt completely at ease—not the child whose welfare had to be continually considered, sometimes at some inconvenience to others, I feared—but a fellow worker of very little importance. It seemed strange to want to be of no importance, but I really did. It was an indication, of course, that I was already beginning to feel the bonds of security tightening around me.
There was a discussion in the family as to whether or not I should have a governess. Damaris had said she would teach me.
'Perhaps you are doing too much,' said Grandmother Priscilla anxiously.
'Dear Mother,' smiled Damaris, 'this will be a great pleasure, and I'll be sitting down all the time.'
Great-Grandmother Arabella wondered whether I should have a governess—a French one. I could speak French because I had learned it side by side with English in the hôtel with my parents, and later in the cellar no one had spoken anything but French.
'It would be a pity to lose that,' said Arabella.
'They never do,' was Great-Grandfather Carleton's comment. 'Not once they have acquired it. The child would only need a little practice at any time in her life. And you could not get a French governess with a war between our countries.'
So it was decided that for the time being Damaris should teach me and the idea of a governess was shelved.
All the talk of French reminded me of Jeanne. I had loved her very much in those days of trial. She had been a bulwark between me and the harsh Paris streets. If anyone had ever represented security to me, she had. I often wondered about her. I knew that Damaris had offered to bring her back to England with us, but how could she leave Maman and the old Grand'mère? They would have starved without her.
Excerpted from The Drop of the Dice by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1981 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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