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Voices in a Haunted Room
By Philippa Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Philippa Carr
All rights reserved.
A Birthday Party
On my seventeenth birthday my mother gave a dinner party to celebrate the occasion. At that time I had been living at Eversleigh for three years. Little had I thought when I had left my grandfather's château that I should never see him again. Of course I had known that there was great anxiety throughout France. Even a girl as young and ignorant of the world as I had been, could not be unaware of that, especially as my own grandmother had met a violent death at the hands of the mob. That had had a devastating effect on everyone around me.
Afterwards my mother, my brother Charlot and I had left our home at Tourville and had gone to live in my grandfather's château of Aubigné in order to comfort him, and Lisette, my mother's friend, and her son, Louis Charles, had come with us.
I had loved Aubigné and my grandfather had seemed a splendid gentleman, though a very sad one, unlike the man I had known before the death of my grandmother. Yes, no one could help being aware of a brooding menace; it had been everywhere—in the streets, in the country lanes, in the château itself.
Then my mother had brought us to England—myself, Charlot and Louis Charles—to visit her relatives, and there everything was different. I was fourteen at the time and adapted myself quickly. I felt it was my home. I knew my mother felt like that too; but that was understandable because she had lived there in her childhood. There was a certain peace—indefinable—for it was by no means a quiet household. No household could be with Dickon Frenshaw in it. Dickon in a way reminded me of my grandfather. He was one of those dominating men of whom everyone is in awe. Such men don't have to ask for respect; it is freely given them, perhaps because they take it for granted that it must be there. He was tall, quite handsome, but what one was most aware of was that sense of power which emanated from him. I think we were all aware of it—some resented it, like my brother Charlot, and I fancied on some occasions that Dickon's own son Jonathan resented him as well.
So through those June days we rode, we walked, we talked, and my mother spent a lot of time with Dickon, while I was delighted with the company of his children, David and Jonathan, who both showed an interest in me and teased me because of my imperfect English; and Sabrina, Dickon's mother, looked on benignly because Dickon liked to have my mother there, and Dickon's slightest wish was law to Sabrina.
She was turned seventy then, but she did not look her age. She had a great purpose in living, and that was anticipating and granting the wishes of her son.
It was clear to us all even then that Dickon would have liked my mother to stay. If ever two people were attracted by each other, those two were. They seemed very old to me and it was a source of wonder that two such mature people could behave like young lovers—and one's own mother, at that, made it more surprising than ever.
I remember the time when my father had been alive. She had not been the same with him; and I think she did not mind very much when he had gone to fight with the American colonists. That was the last we saw of him for he had died in the fighting, and it was soon after that when we left Tourville and went to my grandfather at Aubigné.
Then came this holiday. My mother had refused to leave my grandfather and he had promised to come with us but he had been too ill right at the last moment when it was too late to cancel our arrangements—and I have never seen the château since.
I remembered well that day when my mother received the message that he was very ill and prepared to return to France. There had been hurried consultations and at length she had decided to leave us children—as she called us—with Sabrina, and had travelled back with one of the grooms who had brought the message from Aubigné.
Dickon had been in London at the time and Sabrina had tried to persuade my mother not to go because she knew how upset Dickon would be by her departure when he returned to find her gone. But my mother was adamant.
When Dickon returned and discovered that she had left for France, he was frantic and lost no time in setting out after her. I did not fully understand why he should have been so disturbed until I heard Charlot talking with Louis Charles and Jonathan.
"There's trouble over there," said Charlot, "big trouble. That is what Dickon is afraid of."
"She should never have gone," said Louis Charles.
"She was right to go," retorted Charlot. "My grandfather would want to see her more than anyone when he is ill. But she should have taken me with her."
I joined in then. "You would, of course, fight all the mobs in France."
"What do you know about it?" asked Charlot witheringly.
"If I knew what you knew, that wouldn't amount to much," I replied.
Jonathan grinned at me. I always felt that he was amused by me. He provoked me, but in a special sort of way—not in the least like Charlot, who was contemptuous.
"You're an ignoramus," said Charlot.
"You're a swaggering braggart."
"That's right, Claudine," said Jonathan. "Stand up for yourself. But there's no need to tell you to do that. She's a bit of a firebrand, our little Claudine, eh?"
"A firebrand?" I asked. "What is this firebrand?"
"I'd forgotten mademoiselle's imperfect knowledge of the language. It is one who is always ready for trouble, Claudine ... and very energetic in pursuing it."
"And you think that describes me?"
"I know it. And I'll tell you something else, mademoiselle. I like it. I like it very much indeed."
"I wonder how long they'll stay in France," went on Charlot, ignoring Jonathan's banter.
"Until our grandfather is better, of course," I said. "And I expect we shall be going back soon."
"That was the idea," said Charlot. "Oh I do wonder what is happening there. It was so exciting ... in a way ... but awful that people are hurt. One wants to be there when something important is happening in one's country." Charlot spoke earnestly and it occurred to me then that he did not feel as I did about Eversleigh. This was an alien place to him. He was homesick for the château, for a way of life which was different from that of Eversleigh. He was French. Our father had been French and he took after him. As for myself, I was like my mother, and although she had had a French father, her mother had been English, and it had not been until she was well past her youth that she had married my grandfather and became the Comtesse d'Aubigné, presiding over achâteau, living the life of a lady of the French nobility.
Ours was a complicated household, and I suppose that accounted for many things.
I shall never forget the day they came home—my mother and Dickon. News was filtering into England from France, and we were realizing that the long-awaited revolution had broken out at last. The Bastille had been stormed and the whole of France was in turmoil. Sabrina was beside herself with anxiety to contemplate that her beloved Dickon was caught up in the holocaust.
I never doubted for one moment that he would not emerge triumphant. And he did, bringing my mother with him.
When they reached the house one of the grooms saw them and shouted: "He's here. Master's here." Sabrina, who had been watching and waiting during those days of anxiety, ran out and I saw her in the courtyard, laughing and crying at the same time.
I went out too and was caught in my mother's arms. Then Charlot and all the others came. I thought Charlot was just a little disappointed. He had been planning to go and get them out of France. Now he no longer had an excuse to return there.
And what a tale they had had to tell—how they had escaped death by inches, how my mother had actually been taken to the mairie and the mob were round the place screaming for her blood. She was after all the acknowledged daughter of one of the leading French aristocrats.
My mother was in a strange mood of shock and exultation which I supposed was to be expected from one who had narrowly escaped death. Dickon seemed more powerful than ever; and for some time I think we all shared Sabrina's view of him. He was magnificent; he was unique; he was a man who could ride into the midst of the mob and come through unscathed and triumphant.
There was a shock for poor Louis Charles, as his mother had been yet another victim of the revolution. She had never been much of a mother to him and I think he cared more for my mother than he ever had for his own, but it was a blow nevertheless.
My mother had such tales to tell—tales which would have seemed incredible had not wild and fearful happenings taken place across the water. We heard about Armand, the Comte's son, who had been imprisoned in the Bastille, and whom we all thought had been murdered when he disappeared. But he had come back to Aubigné when the Bastille had been stormed; and he was still at the château with his poor sister Sophie, who had been so badly disfigured during the disaster at the fireworks display which had shocked the whole of France at the time of the King's wedding.
When my mother had arrived in France she had found my grandfather dead, and she had come to think of that as a blessing, for he could never have borne to see the mob ravaging his beloved château and destroying that way of life which he and his family had known for centuries. No wonder my mother was torn between a bewildered grief and that exultant exhilaration which Dickon always inspired in her. She had always had such spirit; she was so beautiful—one of the most beautiful people I have ever known. I was not surprised that Dickon wanted her. He always wanted the best of everything. Sabrina would say he deserved it. As for her, she was supremely happy. I believed that what was happening in France meant little to her. She wanted my mother to stay in England and marry Dickon, and she had wanted that as soon as she had heard that my father had died in the colonies. She wanted it fiercely because it was what Dickon wanted, and in her eyes his wishes must always be gratified. And if these terrible things had happened to bring to Dickon what he wanted, she accepted that calmly enough.
So my mother and Dickon were married.
"This is our home now," said my mother to me tentatively. I was always closer to her than Charlot had been, and I remember how anxiously she had looked at me. I knew what she was thinking.
I said: "I should not want to go back, Maman. What is it like ... at the château?"
She shivered and lifted her shoulders.
"Aunt Sophie ..." I began.
"I don't know what is happening to her. They came for us and they took Lisette and me. They took us away and left the others. Armand was in a sad state. I don't think he can live long. And Jeanne Fougère was looking after Sophie. Jeanne seemed to understand the mob. She showed them Sophie's poor scarred face. It stopped their desire to harm her, I think. They left her alone. Then Lisette jumped from the balcony of the mairie ... and the mob were at her."
"Don't talk of it," I said. "Dickon brought you safely home."
"Yes ... Dickon," she said, and the look which illuminated her face left little doubt of her feeling for him.
I clung to her. "I'm so happy you're back," I told her. "If you hadn't come back, I should never have been happy again."
We were silent for a few moments, then she said: "Shall you miss France, Claudine?"
"I'd hate to go back," I told her truthfully. "Grandfather is not there. It must be quite different. Grandfather was France."
She nodded. "No. I don't want to go back either. It's a new life for us, Claudine."
"You'll be happy with Dickon," I said. "It is what you have always wanted ... even when—"
I was going to say "even when my father was alive," before I stopped. But she knew what I meant and that it was true. I knew it had always been Dickon for her. Well, now she had him.
When they were married she seemed to throw off her melancholy. She seemed young ... only a few years older than I ... and Dickon went about breathing contented triumph.
I thought: Now it is to be "happy ever after."
But when is life ever like that?
I adapted very quickly and soon I was feeling that I had always belonged to Eversleigh. I loved the house. To me it was more homely than either my father's or my grandfather's château.
Every time I approached it I had a feeling of excitement. It was partly hidden by the high wall which surrounded it, and I found great pleasure in glimpsing, from some little distance, the gables just visible beyond the wall. There was that sense of coming home when I rode or drove in through the wide-open gates. Like so many big houses which had been constructed during that period in England, it was built in the Elizabethan style—E-shaped, in honour of the Queen, which meant that there was a huge main hall with a wing on either side of it. I loved the rough stone walls adorned by armoury which had actually been used by my ancestors; and I spent hours studying the family tree which had been painted over the great fireplace and added to over the decades.
I enjoyed galloping through the green fields; I liked to walk my horse through the country lanes; sometimes we rode to the sea—which was not very far from Eversleigh—but then I could not resist looking across that expanse of water and thinking of my grandfather—who had died just in time—and wondering what was happening to unfortunate Uncle Armand and sad Aunt Sophie of the scarred face and constant melancholy. So I did not go to the sea often. But I believe Charlot did.
I was with him once and saw the look of frustration in his eyes as he gazed across to France ...
There were undercurrents of emotion in the household. I did not pay much attention to them because I was so absorbed in my own affairs. A governess had been engaged and I had lessons with her; but I mainly studied English. I think it was Dickon's idea that I should, as he said, "speak properly," which meant that he wanted me to be rid of my French accent. Dickon seemed to hate everything French, which I was sure was due to the fact that my mother had married Charles de Tourville. Not that he dominated my mother completely. She was not of a nature to be dominated. They sparred together in a way which is really lovers' talk; and they could scarcely bear to be out of each other's sight.
Charlot did not like that. There was a great deal that Charlot did not like.
I was really more concerned with David and Jonathan, for both of them had a very special interest in me. David, the quiet and scholarly one, liked to talk to me and told me a great deal about the history of England; he would smilingly correct me when I mispronounced a word and used an incorrect construction of a sentence. Jonathan's attentions were no less obvious but quite different. There was the jocular banter for one thing; and he was constantly putting his hands on me in a protective proprietorial way. He liked to take me riding; we would gallop along the beach or across meadows, and I always tried to outride him—something he was determined I should not do. But he enjoyed my attempts. He was constantly trying to prove his strength. It occurred to me that when his father had been his age he must have been more than a little like Jonathan.
It was an interesting situation. The brothers made me feel important and that was very pleasant for me, particularly as Charlot kept up the big-brother contemptuous attitude, and Louis Charles, although he was a little older than Charlot, looked up to him and took his cues as to how to behave from my brother.
When I was fifteen—that was about a year after we had settled in Eversleigh—my mother had a serious talk with me.
It was clear that she was anxious about me. "You are growing up now, Claudine," she began.
I did not mind that in the least. Like most young people I was eager to escape the bonds of childhood and to live freely and independently.
Perhaps living in such a household was a kind of forcing ground. I was aware of the dynamic attraction between my mother and her husband; one could not live in such an atmosphere without being constantly reminded of the powerful effect one person can have on another. That my stepfather was a man of immense physical powers, I was sure, and that he had awakened my mother to an understanding of such a relationship I was subconsciously aware even then, although I did not see this clearly until later. My father—whom I remembered vaguely—had been a typical French nobleman of his age. He must have had numerous love affairs before his marriage, and I was to have proof of that later. But this bond between my mother and Dickon was different.
My mother was watchful of me, and no doubt because she was growing more and more aware of the power of physical attraction, she saw what was brewing round me.
She had suggested we walk in the gardens and we sat in an arbour while she talked.
"Yes, Claudine," she said, "you're fifteen. How the time flies. As I said ... you're growing up ... fast."
She had not brought me here to tell me such an obvious fact, so I waited somewhat impatiently.
"You look older than your years ... and you are in a household of men ... and brought up with them. I wish I could have had another daughter."
Excerpted from Voices in a Haunted Room by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1984 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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