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On the day when the Comte d'Aubigné arrived at Eversleigh I had been out riding and when I came into the hall he was there in close conversation with my mother. I was aware at once that we had a very distinguished visitor. He was not young—about my mother's age, perhaps a few years older—and he was most elegantly dressed in a manner not quite English; his frogged coat of dark green velvet was a little more fancy than I was accustomed to seeing, the fringed waistcoat more delicate, the striped breeches fuller, and the buckled shoes more shining. He wore a white wig which called attention to his flashing dark eyes. He was one of the most handsome gentlemen I had ever seen.
'Oh, there you are, Lottie,' said my mother. 'I want you to meet the Comte d'Aubigné. He is going to stay with us for a few days.' She put her arm through mine and thus presented me to him. 'This,' she went on, 'is Lottie.'
He took my hand and kissed it. I was aware that this was no ordinary meeting and that something very important was taking place. Knowing my mother well, I guessed that she was very anxious for us to like each other. I did like him immediately, mainly because of the way in which he kissed my hand and made me feel grown-up, which was just how I wanted to feel at this time, for the fact that I was not quite twelve years old was a great irritation to me. If I had been older I should have eloped by now with Dickon Frenshaw, who occupied my thoughts almost exclusively. There was a family connection between Dickon and myself. He was the son of my grandmother's cousin and I had known him all my life. It was true he was about eleven years older than I but that had not prevented my falling in love with him, and I was sure he felt the same about me.
Now there was a lilt in my mother's voice. She was looking at me earnestly as though to discover what I thought of our guest. He was watching me intently.
The first words I heard him say, and he spoke in English with a strong foreign accent, were: 'Why, she is beautiful.'
I smiled at him. I was not given to false modesty and I knew that I had inherited the good looks of some long-dead ancestress whose beauty was notorious in the family. I had seen a portrait of her and the likeness was uncanny. We had the same raven black hair, and deep-set dark blue eyes which were almost violet; my nose might have been a fraction shorter than hers, my mouth a little wider, but the resemblance was striking. She had been the beauty of the family. Her name had been Carlotta, and it added to the mystique that before this likeness was apparent, I should have been christened Charlotte, which was so similar.
'Let us go into the winter parlour,' said my mother. 'I have sent for some refreshment for our guest.'
So we did and the wine was brought, over which he talked in a way which I found both exciting and amusing. He seemed determined to charm us and it was clear that he knew how to do that very well. He told us a great deal about himself in a short space of time and I felt he was presenting himself to me, even more than my mother, and wished to make a good impression. He need not have had any doubt about that. He was a spellbinding talker and seemed to have led a varied and most vivid life.
The time sped by and we parted to change for dinner. I had certainly not been so amused and interested since I had last seen Dickon.
During the next few days I spent a great deal of time in his company. Often I rode with him, for he said he was eager for me to show him the countryside.
He talked to me about life in France where he was attached to the Court as some sort of diplomat, I gathered. He had a château in the country and a house in Paris, but he was often at Versailles where the Court was mostly, for, he told me, the King scarcely ever went to Paris ... only when it was impossible for him to avoid going.
'He is very unpopular because of the life he leads,' said the Comte; and told me about King Louis XV and his mistresses, and how heartbroken he had been on the death of Madame de Pompadour, who had not only been his mistress but virtually ruler of France.
The glimpses of life in France fascinated me and I was delighted that the Comte talked openly to me as though he were unaware of my youth, which my mother was constantly stressing ever since she had known of my feeling for Dickon.
The Comte described the fantastic entertainments which were given at Versailles and which he was expected to attend. He talked so vividly that he made me see the exquisite gentlemen and beautiful ladies as clearly as I could the life in the country to which he escaped now and then.
'I hope,' he said, 'that one day you will do me the honour of visiting me.'
'I should like that,' I replied enthusiastically, and that pleased him very much.
It must have been about three days after his arrival. I was in my bedroom getting dressed for dinner when there was a gentle tap on the door.
'Come in,' I called, and to my surprise my mother entered.
There was a glow about her which I had noticed lately. I guessed she was pleased to have a visitor and I was glad, because we had had enough tragedy lately and she had been so unhappy since my father's death. Following that she had lost a very dear friend in the doctor who had attended my father. He had suffered a horrible death in a fire at his hospital. That had been a terrible time, for my governess was burned to death in the fire also. Such events had had a sobering effect on us all, but most of all on my mother. Then of course there was the matter of Dickon, about which she was very upset and this worried me a great deal, for as much as I should like to comfort her, I could not, because doing so meant promising to give up Dickon. So I was very relieved that she was lifted out of her depression, if only temporarily.
'Lottie,' she said, 'I want to talk to you.'
'Yes, Mother,' I replied, smiling at her.
'What do you think of the Comte?' she asked.
'Very grand,' I answered. 'Very elegant. Very amusing. In fact a very fine gentleman. I wonder why he called on us? I think he must have been here some time. I get the impression that the place is not quite strange to him.'
'Yes, that's true.'
'Was he a friend of Uncle Carl?'
'A friend of mine,' she said.
She was really behaving rather oddly, fumbling for words. She was usually so direct.
'So,' she went on, 'you do ... like him?'
'Of course. Who could help it? He is most interesting. All that talk about the French Court and the château. All those grand people. He must be very important.'
'He is a diplomat and works in Court circles. Lottie, you do ... er ... like him?'
'Mother,' I said, 'are you trying to tell me something?'
She was silent for a few seconds. Then she said quickly: 'It was long ago ... before you were born.... It had to be before you were born. I was very fond of Jean-Louis.'
I was astonished. It seemed strange that she should call my father Jean-Louis. Why did she not say 'your father', and in any case she did not have to tell me how fond she had been of him. I had seen her nurse him through his illnesses and witnessed her grief at his death. I knew more than anyone what a loving and devoted wife she had been.
So I said: 'Of course!' a little impatiently.
'And he loved you. You were so important to him. He often said what joy you had brought into his life. He said that when you came into it you made up for his affliction.'
She was staring ahead of her; her eyes were bright and I thought that at any moment she would start to cry.
I took her hand and kissed it. 'Tell me what you want to, Mother,' I said.
'It was thirteen years ago when I came back to Eversleigh after all those years. My ... I call him uncle but the relationship was more involved than that. Uncle Carl was very old and he knew he had not long to live. He wanted to leave Eversleigh in the family. It seemed that I was the next of kin.'
'Yes, I know that.'
'Your father was unable to come. He had had that accident which ruined his health ... so I came alone. The Comte was staying at Enderby and we met. I don't know how to tell you this, Lottie. We met ... and became ... lovers.'
I looked at her in amazement. My mother ...with a lover in Eversleigh while my father was lying sick at Clavering Hall! I was overwhelmed by the realization of how little we knew about other people. I had always thought of her as strictly moral, unswerving in her adherence to convention ... and she had taken a lover!
She was gripping my hands. 'Please try to understand.'
I did understand, in spite of my youth, far better than she realized. I loved Dickon and I could understand how easy it was to be carried away by one's emotions.
'The fact is, Lottie, there was a child. You were that child.'
Now the confession had taken on a fantastic aspect. I was not the daughter of the man whom I had always believed to be my father but of the fantastic Comte. I was incredulous.
'I know what you are thinking of me, Lottie,' my mother rushed on. 'You are despising me. You are too young to understand. The ... temptation overwhelmed me. And afterwards your father ... I mean Jean-Louis ... was so happy. I could not have told him. I couldn't have confessed my guilt. It would have wounded him mortally. He had suffered so much. He was so happy when you were born and you know how it was between you. You were also so good to him ... so sweet, so gentle, so considerate ... and that meant a great deal to him. He had always wanted children ... but apparently he could not have them. I could, as I proved and so, Lottie, now you know. The Comte is your father.'
'Does he know this?'
'Yes, he knows. That is why he has come here ... to see you. Why don't you say something?'
'I ... can't think what to say.'
'You are shocked?'
'I don't know.'
'My darling Lottie, I have broken the news too abruptly. He wants you to know. He has become so fond of you in a short time. Lottie, why don't you say something?'
I just looked at her. Then she took me into her arms and held me tightly.
'Lottie ... you don't despise me ...'
I kissed her. 'No ... no .... Dear Mother, I just don't know what to say ... what to think. I want to be by myself. I want to think about it all.'
'Tell me this first,' she said. 'It makes no difference to your love for me?'
I shook my head. 'Of course not. How could it?'
I kissed her fondly and she seemed like a different person from the one I had known all my life.
My feelings were so mixed that I could not sort them out. It was a startling revelation. I suppose everyone receives some sort of shock some time, but to discover that a man you have believed all your life to be your father is not and to have another introduced into that role was to say the least bewildering.
The Comte was such a dazzling figure that I felt proud as surely anyone would have to be to acknowledge him as a father. That emotion was immediately followed by shame when I thought of poor Jean-Louis, so kind, gentle and self-sacrificing. He had cared so deeply for me and it was not in my nature to be indifferent to such devotion. His eyes used to light up when I appeared and when I sat beside him his eyes would glow with a tenderness which warmed me. I had made a great show of looking after him just to see his pleasure in my presence. One cannot lightly dismiss such a father and rejoice in his replacement. When he had died I had been desolate—so had my mother for that matter. She had loved him too. People's emotions were too deeply involved for me at my age to understand then, but try as I might I could not suppress the excitement my mother's revelation had aroused in me.
Strangely enough I did not connect the Comte's fortuitous reappearance with my involvement with Dickon. If I had thought about it, I would have accepted the fact that he had not come to England by chance after all those years.
When I went down to dinner I was composed. My mother watched me anxiously and there was a constrained atmosphere throughout the meal which the Comte did his best to disperse by telling us accounts of amusing happenings at the Court of France.
When we rose from the table my mother pressed my hand and looked appealingly at me. I smiled at her, kissed her hand and nodded. She understood. I accepted my new father.
We went into the punch room to drink some after-dinner wine and my mother said: 'I have told her, Gerard.'
He swept aside all embarrassment and, coming to me, took me into his arms; then he held me away from him.
'My daughter,' he said. 'I am so proud. This is one of the happiest moments of my life.'
And after that all the embarrassments were gone.
I spent a great deal of time in his company. My mother arranged it, I believe. Very often she left us alone together. She seemed very anxious that we should get to know each other. He talked constantly about my visiting France and said he would not be content until he had shown me his château and I said I should not be content until I had seen it.
I was fascinated by him—everything about him pleased me: his easy manners, his gallantry, even what we in England might call his dandyism. It enchanted me. But most of all I was delighted by the fact that he treated me as a grown-up, and because of this it was not long before I was telling him about Dickon.
I loved Dickon. I was going to marry Dickon. Dickon was the most handsome man I had ever seen.
'I think,' I said, 'that you must have been rather like him ... once.'
'Ah,' he replied, laughing, 'you see what the years do. I am no longer handsome like Dickon. My only consolation is that Dickon will come to this pass one day.'
'What nonsense!' I cried. 'You are as fascinating in your way. Dickon is just younger ... although he is a lot older than I. About eleven years older ....'
My father put his head on one side and said: 'Poor old man.'
I knew that I could talk to him about Dickon as I never could to my mother.
'You see,' I explained, 'she hates him. It has something to do with tricks he played when he was a boy. He was very mischievous, as most boys are. I am sure you were just as bad.'
'I dare say,' he agreed.
'So it is rather silly to have prejudices about people ...'
'Tell me about Dickon,' he said.
So I tried to describe Dickon, which wasn't easy. 'He has beautiful blond hair which curls about his head. I think it is what is called hyacinthine. I have always liked hyacinths for that reason. His eyes are blue ... not dark blue like mine, but lighter. His features look as though they have been sculpted by a great artist.'
'Apollo has returned to Earth,' said the Comte lightly.
'He is very charming.'
'So I gathered.'
'In an unusual way,' I said. 'He never seems to take things seriously ... except us. I think he takes that seriously. He has a quick wit which can be cruel sometimes ... though never to me. Somehow that makes me love him more. He would be too perfect without it.'
'A little imperfection makes the charm irresistible,' said the Comte. 'I understand.'
'If I tell you something, you won't tell my mother, will you?'
'I think she is a little jealous of him.'
'Well, you see, it is due to her mother ... my dear grandmother, Clarissa. She is a darling. Long before she married my mother's father, she had a romance—very brief but very memorable—with a young boy. It was very—'
'Yes. He was transported because of the '15 Rebellion. Then she married my grandfather and my mother was born. The young man returned years later after my grandfather was dead, but instead of marrying my mother he married her cousin Sabrina, then he was killed at Culloden. Sabrina had his child and that was Dickon. He was brought up by my grandmother and by Sabrina and they both doted on him. They still do. I have always thought that my mother believed her mother loved Dickon more than she did her ... her own child. It's a bit complicated, but do you see?'
'Therefore she hated Dickon.'
'Isn't there a stronger reason than that?'
'Oh, reasons build up, don't they? You only have to start by disliking people and then you can find all sorts of reasons why you should.'
'I see you are something of a philosopher.'
'You are laughing at me.'
'On the contrary, I am overcome with admiration. If I smile it is because I am so happy that you should confide in me.'
'I thought perhaps you might influence my mother.'
'Tell me more.'
'Dickon and I are in love.'
'He is many years older than you.'
'Only eleven. And people grow up.'
'An indisputable fact.'
'And when I am forty he will be fifty-one. We shall both be old then ... so what does it matter?'
'True, the gap lessens with the passing of the years, but alas, it is the present that we must consider. I think he has been a little premature with his proposal of marriage.'
'Well, I don't. Queens are betrothed in their cradles.'
'True again, but often those betrothals come to nothing. In life one often has to wait and see. What do you want to do? Marry Dickon now ... at your age!'
'I suppose everyone would say I'm not old enough. But I would wait until I am fourteen, say.'
Excerpted from Zipporah's Daughter by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1983 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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