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Encounter at the Pool
From the moment Benedict made his dramatic entry into the family circle I was aware of a special attraction between us—that was even before we were involved in the nightmare experience at the Pool of St Branok which was to haunt us in the years ahead, and to have such an effect on our lives thereafter.
My parents, with my young brother Jack and me, were in London to visit the Great Exhibition for it was the year 1851 and I was nine years old. Benedict was fifteen but when one is nine, six years is a great deal.
We had traveled up on the train from Cornwall—an adventure in itself—to the house in the Westminster square which was ruled over by Uncle Peter and Aunt Amaryllis. They were not really my aunt and uncle, but relationships in our family were very complicated and I always addressed them as such. Uncle Peter had married into the family and dominated it. Aunt Amaryllis was my grandmother's niece, although they were more or less the same age. My mother had always had a grudging admiration for Uncle Peter which made me feel that there was some mystery about him. He was ebullient, charming with a definite hint of wickedness about him which made him fascinating. I had often thought it would be exciting to discover what that meant. Aunt Amaryllis was quite different. She was gentle, kindly and had a rather innocent manner; and she was dearly loved by all. There was nothing secretive about her.
They were constantly entertaining important people at their house. I did not attend these occasions, of course, but even I, at my age, had heard the names of some of these guests.
Their son and daughter had exciting lives of their own. Helena was married to a successful politician, Matthew Hume. He was constantly at the house, even without Helena, and spent a good deal of time in the company of Uncle Peter who took a great interest in his political career. I heard my mother say that Uncle Peter was the éminence grise behind Matthew Hume. Then there was the son, Peter, who had been known as Peterkin since his birth to distinguish him from his father. He and his wife, Frances, ran a Mission in the East End of London, and did much good.
My mother told me a great deal about them. She loved to talk of the past. She had been born in our old house, Cador, which had belonged to the Cadorsons for hundreds of years. My mother had inherited it, so we were not Cadorsons now. My father was Rolf Hanson, who had inherited the house through marriage with my mother; but I think he loved the place even more than the rest of us. I had heard it said that the estates had never been run as well as when Mr. Hanson took charge of them. They had never been so large either, for his contribution to the family estates had been the manor property, which he had brought in when he married my mother.
He was not a Cornishman, but what they called in those parts a "foreigner," which meant that he had been born on the other side of the Tamar in that alien land called England. He was amused by it. We were a very happy family. My father seemed so wise; he understood every little problem that arose and made no fuss about solving it, so it seemed to me. I had never seen him lose his temper. I thought he was the most wonderful person in the world. I used to ride with him round the estate. Jack, who was three years younger than I, was just beginning to do the same. There had been a time when they had thought there would not be another child to follow me and it had been assumed then that one day Cador would be mine. But Jack came.
My mother used to say: "Cador is a wonderful house—not because of its towers and stone walls, but because of the people who lived in it and made it a home. Never, never," she would add, "let yourself believe that houses in themselves are important. It is the people whom you love and who love you who matter. I lost time when I could have been with your father because I thought he cared more for Cador than for me. Then I was lucky. I learned my lesson in time ... but only after we had missed a few years of life together. So someday Cador will be Jack's, and when the time comes for you to marry you will know that you are wanted for yourself and not because you are the owner of a great house."
She spoke vehemently. My mother was a great talker—unlike my father. I liked to see him sitting there smiling at her indulgently and lovingly while she talked in her vivacious way. I think I resembled her more than I did my father—although I had his looks. I was fairhaired with large dreamy-looking greenish eyes and a wide mouth. I looked as though I should have been serious, thoughtful, but the effect was spoilt by my pert nose which was quite unlike my father's rather noble-looking long one. It gave the contradiction to my seriousness, as it were. My father would touch it sometimes when I said something outrageous, as though my audacity was due to my nose.
I did not realize how lucky I was to have such parents in those days; but that, after all, is the sort of conclusion one comes to later in life.
They were the glorious days of childhood before I was suddenly aware that day at St Branok Pool that the world can be a very frightening place.
I remember those pre-Branok days when the sun seemed to shine perpetually and each day was a week long. I had a governess, Miss Prentiss, who despaired of turning me into the little lady she felt would be worthy of the House of Cador. I ran wild and as my parents did not seem to disapprove of this, what could a governess do? I believe she bemoaned her task to Mrs. Penlock, our cook, and Watson, our butler, when she deigned to go to the kitchen, which was on special occasions only, she being very well aware of the echelons of society which placed her on a higher rung of the social ladder than the domestic staff.
But Mrs. Penlock, who had been at Cador in the days when my mother was a girl, in her stately black bombazine, reigned majestically below stairs and could deal adequately with Miss Prentiss. So could Watson—a very dignified gentleman, except when he was making himself agreeable to one of the prettier maids, and he even did that with an air of condescension.
They were happy days. I suppose I was allowed to run wild, as Miss Prentiss said. My mother had had a certain amount of freedom when she was young and wanted me to have the same. There was nothing of the stern parent about her or my father. "Little children should be seen and not heard," said old Mrs. Fenny who lived in one of the cottages near the harbor in East Poldorey, shaking her head, ominously considering the fate of those who were heard as well as seen. She was one of those old women who look for sin and seem to find it. She spent hours looking out of her tiny window onto the quay to where men sat about mending their nets or weighing up their catch, and noting everything that went on. In the summer she would be sitting at her door, so much more convenient for discovering any misdemeanor and passing on any bit of scandal that came her way.
"There will always be people like that," said my mother. "It is because their lives are so dull. They are unhealthily curious about others whose lives seem more eventful, and because they are envious they seize every opportunity to slander them. Let's hope none of us ever get like that."
There were several others like Mrs. Fenny in both East and West Poldorey. The people of the east side regarded those of the west as aliens—though slightly less foreign than those who came from the other side of the Tamar. Mrs. Fenny always referred to them as "They West Poldorers" with a certain contempt. I always laughed when I heard her western counterparts speak of the inhabitants of the east side with equal scorn and superiority.
I loved the harbor with the little fishing boats swaying on the tide, secured as they were to the great iron rings which made you watch your step as you ran along. I liked to stand by and watch the men as they worked.
"Good day to 'ee, Miss Angel," they would call.
Angel. It was so incongruous. It was Angelet really. My mother was very interested in the family and she told me of an ancestress who had lived during the time of the Civil War. Her name had been Angelet and I was named after her. I am afraid the diminutive form did not exactly suit me. Perhaps people used it to try to make me live up to it.
They all knew who I was, "'er from Cador, Miss Angel who might have inherited the place but for Mr. Jack." I could imagine their conversation when he was born. "Well, it be right and proper for a lad to be the master. 'Tis no place for a maid."
I knew them so well, these people around me. I sometimes knew what they were going to say before they said it. Old Mrs. Fenny with her prying eyes, scenting out secrets; the Misses Poldrew who lived in a little house on the edge of East Poldorey which was as neat as they were. I knew they looked under their beds every night to see if a man was hiding there, so eager were they to guard their virtue which nobody so far had shown any inclination to assail. There was Tom Fish who was always about with his wheelbarrow when the catch came in; he trundled it through the two towns and up and down into the nearby villages calling "Fish, fresh from the sea this morning. Come, women. Tom Fish be at your door. I'm here, me darlings." There was Miss Grant who kept the wool shop and sat by her counter crocheting as she waited for customers; there were the bakers with the enticing smell of hot bread and Pengelly's who sold everything from thimbles to farm implements; and there was the Fisherman's Rest where the men went after they had disposed of their catch, mingling with the mining community. "Throwing away all that they snatched from the sea or grubbed from the land," Mrs. Fenny would comment sitting at her window watching them reel out of the inn. "Old Pennyleg ought to know better than serve 'em," was her comment. She had resigned old Pennyleg, the innkeeper, to the flames of hell long ago.
I was very interested in Mrs. Fenny. I liked to see her sitting with her Bible on her lap tracing the lines with her finger and moving her lips. I wondered why she did this for I knew she could not read.
I loved to sit on a pile of rope with its tang of seaweed and listen to the waves while I looked out to sea and I would think of the men who had gone off into the unknown to explore the world ... men like Drake and Raleigh. I would imagine the sails fluttering in the breeze and the bare-footed sailors running hither and thither while I strode the sloping decks, shouting orders. I imagined Spanish galleons, full of treasure; sending out raiding parties, bringing them in and taking the treasure back to England. I was constantly losing myself in daydreams. I was often Raleigh or Drake. Those dreams were difficult because I had to change my sex; but there were others in which I indulged with even greater frequency. I would be Good Queen Bess knighting these men. That was better. I could see myself very well as the great Queen. Three thousand dresses and a red wig and power ... glorious power. Sometimes I was Mary Queen of Scots, going to her execution. I made touching speeches on the scaffold and there was not a dry eye near me. The executioner was so touched that he refused to cut off my head. One of my ladies, who worshiped me, insisted on taking my place. We tried to stop her but she insisted. And then ... I pretended to be her ... until some gallant man came and rescued me. We lived in happy security to a great age and no one ever discovered that I was the Queen because everyone thought I had been executed in Fotheringay Castle.
Such dreams were more real to me than what was happening about me. This was before that terrible time in St Branok Pool. After that I changed. I dared not indulge in daydreams then in case they led me back to the pool.
Cador was about a quarter of a mile out of the two towns of Poldorey. We were on a hill looking out to sea. It was very splendid with its towers and turrets and its gray stone walls which had stood against the sea and the weather for hundreds of years—a fortress if ever there was one. One could lie in bed at night and listen to the wind playing about those stone walls—sometimes shrieking like a madman, sometimes whining like an animal in distress; sometimes shrill, sometimes melancholy. It had always fascinated me before that encounter; after that I hated the sound of the wind. It was like a warning.
There was a richness about life in those days. I was vitally interested in everything about me. "Miss Angel's nose b'ain't what you'd call a big 'un," was Mrs. Penlock's verdict, "but it be into everything."
I loved the little cottages with their whitewashed cob walls all huddled together on the quay. If ever I had a chance to get inside I seized it. I would go visiting with my mother at Christmas when we took gifts to the cottage folk in accordance with the custom of years. Those homes of the poor consisted of two dark rooms divided by a partition not as high as the roof which I understood was to allow the air to circulate. Some of the cottages had a talfat, a sort of shelf close to the ceiling, and here the young would sleep, climbing up by means of a rope ladder. The only light was what they called the Stonen Chill—an earthenware lamp in the shape of a candlestick having a socket in which they would pour oil before inserting the purvan, the local name for the wick.
The woman of the house would dust a chair for my mother to sit on, and I would stand beside her, eyes wide, noting everything and listening to the talk about how our Jenny was getting on as maid up at the rectory or when our Jim was expected home from sea. My mother knew their business. It was part of the duties of the lady of the big house.
There was always a smell of food in the cottages. They kept the fires going with the wood they picked up from the beach. I loved the blue flames which they said was due to the salt in the wood and betrayed the fact that it had been salvaged from the sea. Most of them had cloam ovens in which they did their baking, while a kettle, black with soot, hung on a chain over the flames.
They had a different language from ours, I often thought, but I learned it. They ate different foods such as quillet which was a mixture of ground peas rather like a porridge and there was pillas, a kind of oatmeal which they boiled into a mixture called gurts. My mother told me that in the last century when these people were very poor they used to pick the grass and roll it in a pastry made of barley and bake it under the ashes.
They were more prosperous now. My mother frequently pointed out to me that my father was a good man who looked on it as his duty to see that no one in his neighborhood should starve.
The poor fishermen depended so much on the weather, and the winds on our coast could be violent. A certain melancholy descended on the Poldoreys when the knowledgeable predicted fierce winds and storms which would keep the boats idle. Of course, sometimes these appeared without warning and that was what fishermen and their families dreaded most. I heard one fisherman's wife say: "He do go out and I never knows as whether he'll be coming back." I thought that was very sad. It was the reason why they were so superstitious. They certainly looked all the time for signs and portents—mostly evil ones.
The members of the mining community were the same. The moor began about two miles from the town and close to the moor was Poldorey's tin mine. It was affectionately known as the old "Scat Bal" which meant useless, worked-out old has-been. It was far from that for it had brought prosperity to the community. We were on visiting terms with the Pencarrons who lived in a pleasant house close by, called Pencarron Manor. They had come to the district some years ago, bought the place and started working the mine.
The superstitious miners used to leave a didjan, which was a piece of their lunch, in the mine for the knackers in order to placate them and stop their wreaking some mischief which was very easy to do in the mine. There had been some fearful accidents and there were several widows and orphans who had lost their breadwinner to the old Scat Bal. They, like the fishermen, took notice of signs. They could not afford to ignore them.
"They are naturally fearful," said my mother. "One understands it. And if it means giving up a little of their lunch in order to buy safety this is a small price to pay for it."
I was very curious to hear more of the knackers. They were said to be dwarves—spirits of those Jews who had crucified Christ. My mother did not believe in them. It was easy for her. She did not have to go down the mine. But she was very interested in superstitions.
She said: "How they would laugh at us in London. But here in Cornwall they do seem to fit sometimes. It's the place for spirits and strange happenings. Look at the legends there are ... all the wells that give special qualities ... all the stories of the piskies and the unexplained mysteries. And then, of course, there is Branok Pool."
"Oh yes," I said, round-eyed and eager, "tell me about Branok Pool."
"You must be careful when you go there. You must always have Miss Prentiss or someone with you. The ground's a bit marshy round the pool. It could be unpleasant."
"Tell me about it."
"It's an old story. I think some of the people round here actually believe it. They'd believe anything."
"What do they believe?"
"That they hear the bells."
"Bells? What bells?"
"The bells that are supposed to be down there."
"Where? Under the water?"
Excerpted from The Pool of St. Branok by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1987 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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