A young girl befriends an elderly woman during the First World War in this remarkable novel by one of Britain’s best-loved authors Sibyl Jardine, the former best friend of Rebecca Landon’s grandmother, has recently returned to the Priory, her home at the top of a hill. Rebecca is instantly drawn in by Sibyl’s magnetic personality and blunt, shocking manner. Decades earlier, Sibyl had left her husband Charles for another man and, as a result, lost her daughter Ianthe. Now she is finally about to meet her three grandchildren, who will become an integral part of Rebecca’s life as she journeys into adolescence. At the heart of this extraordinary novel is the enigma that is Sibyl Jardine: Is she a saint or a sinner? Is she a duplicitous lover or a woman who has been unjustly punished? Played out in a series of conversations between Rebecca, Sibyl Jardine, Jardine’s granddaughter Maisie, and a Cockney maid named Tilly, The Ballad and the Source is a tale of perception and memory, passion and betrayal, and the fearsome power of a mother’s love.
About the Author
Rosamond Lehmann (1901–1990) was born on the day of Queen Victoria’s funeral, in Buckinghamshire, England, the second of four children. In 1927, a few years after graduating from the University of Cambridge, she published her first novel, Dusty Answer, to critical acclaim and instantaneous celebrity. Lehmann continued to write and publish between 1930 and 1976, penning works including The Weather in the Streets, The Ballad and the Source, and the short memoir The Swan in the Evening. Lehmann was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1982 and remains one of the most distinguished novelists of the twentieth century.
Read an Excerpt
The Ballad and the Source
By Rosamond Lehmann
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1944 Rosamond Lehmann
All rights reserved.
One day my mother told me that Mrs. Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her.
"Mrs. Jardine?" we said. "Is that the lady the house at the top belongs to?"
"Yes," said my mother. "The Priory." She had the note in her hand: violet paper, a large, clear, square-looking spidery writing.
"The one who wrote to you before from France to say she was an old friend of our Grandma's and we were to pick primroses on the hill every year till she came back?"
"Yes. An old Mrs. Grant Dugdale lived there when I was first married. She was Major Jardine's aunt, I believe. She called, and I returned her call, but I haven't been there since. She became completely crippled with arthritis and she went away years ago to live in Bath. Then she died and Major Jardine inherited the place. But he never came there to live; he let it. I think his tenants only went there at week-ends — rich business people, I believe — I never came across them. Yes. ... She wrote some years ago. ... Yes. It was such a kind thought." My mother looked absent and dubious. She fingered the note and screwed her eyes up faintly to re-read it. "We are getting too old to wander all our days, and Harry's torn roots in England and his childhood home have ached more and more with the passage of the years. ..."
"Is that what she says?" I asked, startled. Immediately, I felt attracted towards a lady who expressed herself with such picturesqueness.
"She means he was homesick," said my mother. "So we have come back; and are hoping that the climate will permit us to be well enough to enjoy these beauties for at least the major part of the year. Precarious health has prostrated me at intervals for the last twenty years: but who knows? — this may prove the right spot. I have liked to think of the children coming each year with primrose baskets to the hill. They have often appeared to me, like dreams,like images in poetry. ..." My mother stopped, raised her eyebrows. Her expression was complex.
"Go on," I said.
"Hmm — hmm — like poetry — spirit-like, unreal, yet in another sense so real — coming, for me, from so far back in the past, linked to what is clearest and most cherished in my memory — promising me something still to come, as it were, out of the past, into the present and the future, in this spring primrose-picking. ... Little Primaveras. ... Primavera was the Goddess of Spring," said my mother, deprecating all this, but improving the occasion. "There's a very famous picture of her by — er — by a great Italian painter."
"Good gracious!" said Jess. "What on earth does she mean?"
I, personally, felt an extreme willingness to lend myself to the interpretation. My form appeared to me in an indistinct but pleasing diaphanous light, moving over the green hillside, spiritually and gracefully gathering blossoms.
"I believe Mrs. Jardine is a very unusual person," said my mother. "She reads a lot, and expresses herself in this — er — in this way. ...But perhaps this will seem to you a tiresomely fanciful manner of speaking of your flesh and blood human three — or is it four?"
"Four," said Sylvia, bitter. "If she means us children."
"It is merely to show you how much it would mean to me to see my beloved Laura's grandchildren, how deeply I hope you and Edward will allow me this joy. ... Laura was your grandmother's name," said my mother, "as you know."
We didn't. We had never thought of her as having a name.
"Was she a friend of Grandma's, then?"
"Yes. Yes, I believe a great friend a long time ago. Of course she was a good deal younger than Grandma. Still, she must be getting to be an elderly lady now. Your father knew her when he was a boy, but I have never met her. She says: The primroses will be at their best next week. May they come Thursday, the 12th — if fine? I know how busy you are and scarcely dare to hope that you will accompany them, and give me the happiness of meeting Edward's wife? If so — so much the greater the excitement for me. If not, I understand that you have a French lady in charge of your children — I wonder how she found that out — and hope to expect her with them. Please let them come early and pick their fill; and tell them to come in by the blue door in the garden wall at four o'clock."
"Oh, good, good!" said Jess. "I've always wanted to see through that door. The wall's so high you can't see the house — only the chimneys. We may go, mayn't we? Will you take us, Mum?"
"Well, no," said my mother. "I couldn't take you."
"Oh bother! Must it be Mamselle? She'll spoil it all. Can't we go alone?"
"I haven't decided yet," said my mother, "whether I can let you go at all."
"Well ... I don't know Mrs. Jardine." Her voice was veiled, seeming, to our alarm, to conceal some serious motive for refusal.
"But Daddy does. And she was Grandma's great friend."
My mother mused.
"I don't suppose your father would object. ..." She took up the letter again and looked at it doubtfully.
"Of course he won't. Why should he?"
We had never yet known him object to a treat for us. He was away on a visit to his constituency.
"It's all such a long time ago ..." murmured my mother. "Very well. I'll write and accept for you, Jess and Rebecca. Sylvia, it's much too long a walk, dear, for your little legs."
"I don't want to go anyway," said Sylvia, "if it means Mamselle. I simply pity the girls."
"Don't talk like that, dear," said my mother cheerfully. "It's so foolish."
Next Thursday was fine. We wore our navy blue serge sailor blouses and skirts and jackets with brass buttons, and set off after lunch accompanied by Mademoiselle. She wore her best off-mustard flannel skirt, cream satin blouse with tucks, net yoke and whaleboned neck, hand-crocheted black bolero scalloped in violet, wide black waist-belt with clasp representing interlaced dragons in metalwork, and white felt tam-o'-shanter at a chic angle. We all wore brown laced boots.
This was our favourite walk at any season, leading as it did to Priory Copse, and the railings over which we turned somersaults. We left the last cottages behind us and went along the road that led up out of the valley until we came to the gate of the small park surrounding Major Jardine's property. A public road led through this, branching off left, to wind up into the copse, and right, round the shoulder of the hill, to fly up in a steep arc to the drive and the front door of the Priory. A footpath ran parallel to this road, close under the side of the hill, whose huge green eminence breasted up over us on our right; round, symmetrical, sudden as a hill in a child's drawing; green and smooth as a goose-girl hill in a fairy story. If one could only discover the right words, and say them, the side of the hill would open, and one would be able to go through, into the inside.
Soon we came to a kissing-gate in the iron-railed spiked fence. Once the other side of it, we were on the sheep-cropped grass, staring up at what opposed us so formidably yet so enticingly — the great slope, the primrose clumps splashed all over it, the track that soared to the church, then on again, swerving to take a milder angle, to the blue door in the brick wall that crowned the summit. Up, up, we toiled, picking and filling our baskets. Our fingers, when we smelt them, gave off that mysterious whispering breath which seems half-animal, half-made of air and dew.
By the time we had reached the top and had decided we must moderate the size of our bunches this year lest Mrs. Jardine think us rude and greedy, there was still a quarter of an hour before we were due to go through the gate. So we went into the churchyard to have a look at the graves. The church itself was tiny, crooked, Norman, with a pretty, rosy, lichen-crusted roof of tiles. Beside it grew a yew tree, said to be a thousand years old. Its trunk was of gigantic girth, belted with a chain to hold it together, twisted and moulded into vast bosses, knots, inlays and depressions, into sculptured reliefs of frenetic inspiration and irresponsibility. Silvery, veined with iron black, its substance, seen from close, gave a mineral impression: it had nothing of the warmth and life of wood. From farther off, this stoniness dissolved, became fluid, tender; became a column of water, pale and dark, pouring down silently out of the core of the sombre spread of branches, in snaky interlacing whorls and spirals.
In a corner of the churchyard grew a plantation of white violets, enormously plump and prosperous-looking. When I wondered why they should grow so exceptionally fat in that one spot, Mademoiselle answered in a dry way that no doubt they had a rich soil to nourish them; and I saw the dead stretched out under me in the earth, feeding these flowers with a thin milk drawn from their bones. One of the tombstones was engraved: Sacred to the memory of Silence, wife of John Strong of this parish, who departed this life in the twenty-fifth year of her age. The date was of the seventeenth century. The word Silence, in deep, high letters, in the midst of all the other names of dead women — the Hannahs, Marys, Ediths, Louisas, Georginas — gave this one grave a strange significance: as if among domestic griefs and protestations, something impersonal, cold, symbolic had been stated. Once, when I mentioned the name disbelievingly to my father, he smiled, and said: "My gracious Silence!" — I did not understand why.
I put a small bunch of primroses on this neglected grave: then it was four o'clock, and we went through the blue door into Mrs. Jardine's garden.
As we crossed the lawn, a french window in the front of the long, low, creeper-covered house opened, and a woman's figure appeared. She waved. She gave the impression of arms outstretched, so welcomingly did she surge forward to meet us. She was dressed in a long gown of pale blue with wide sleeves embroidered thickly with blue, rose and violet flowers. She had a white fleecy wrap round her shoulders, and on her head, with its pile of fringed, puffed, curled white hair, a large Panama hat trimmed with a blue liberty scarf artistically knotted, the ends hanging down behind. She was small and rather stocky, with short legs and little feet shod in low-heeled black slippers with tongues and paste buckles.
When she came up to us, she said:
"I must kiss you, because I loved your grandmother."
We lifted our faces, and she gave us each a kiss. Her lips and cheeks were dry, warm, the skin so crinkled all over with faint lines it seemed a fine-meshed net. The most noticeable things about her were the whiteness of her face, the paleness of her large eyes, and the strong fullness and width of her mouth. Her teeth were regular, splendid, untouched by age.
We were deeply struck by her remark. It sounded strange to us that a person should so reveal her feelings: we did not say things like that in our family, though I dreamed of a life in which such pregnant statements should lead on to drama and revelation. I had at this time a sense that I might be a more romantic figure than my parents and other people realised.
She turned her full eye, that seemed to embrace more than it looked at, upon our primrose baskets, and said:
"Is that all you've picked?"
"We didn't like to pick too many," said Jess.
"Why not?" We were silent, and she continued: "My dears, are you very well-behaved?"
"We have to be," said Jess.
She gave a rough, chuckling laugh.
"Well, you can break out with our primroses another time. Anything so lavishly offered by Nature must be lavishly accepted. The real point of primroses is the amount — as with ice cream. Whoever heard of good manners over ice cream?"
"We have," said Jess.
Her laugh broke out again, and taking Jess's chin in her fingertips, she turned her face up and gazed at it.
"How came you by this unsoothed breast?" she said.
Her voice was rather harsh, yet warm, energetic, throaty, with a break in it.
I thought Jess would find it necessary to reply that she came by it through unfairness and Mademoiselle, but something in the look they exchanged loosened her obsession; and colouring with shy pleasure, she smiled.
"C'est un esprit fier et intransigeant," remarked Mademoiselle in the benign and delicate manner she assumed for discussing our temperaments with people of social importance. "Le fond est ex-cel-lent."
"Evidemment," agreed Mrs. Jardine, nodding, brooding over Jess. She looked sorry for her, amused and loving.
I was beginning to fear that the power of Jess's character would exclude me from the bonds being forged, and perhaps she guessed this, for she turned to me, raising her eyebrows in humorous questioning, as if to inquire: "What about this breast?"
"Elle est douce, la cadette," murmured Mademoiselle, all honey. "Douce — douce et serieuse."
"You have your grandmother's eyes," said Mrs. Jardine. She took up my hand and examined it. "When I was a young girl she gave me this ring." She showed me, on her little finger, a half-inch of small cut rubies set in thin gold. Her other fingers were covered with important-looking rings, diamonds and turquoises and emeralds, and this one looked girlish, incongruous among them. "My joints are swollen a little, and now I can only wear it on this finger — but I have worn it for forty years. Her own rings would only fit a child, her fingers were so slender. But they were very firm. They could touch the piano keys as no others could. Is there music in these fingers?"
I said I had begun music lessons; letting it be inferred that I showed promise. But Jess said:
"We can't any of us sing in tune — not a note. Daddy's tried us again and again, but it's no use. He says Mummy's influence is astonishing."
"I only saw your dear mother once," said Mrs. Jardine. "It was in Rome, soon after she married your father."
"Oh, then she must have forgotten," I said. "She said she didn't know you."
"No. We have never met. I was in Rome at the same time. I saw them — at the Opera. They did not see me. I watched her for a long time. I wanted so much to know what kind of girl your father had taken for his wife. Such a pretty, fresh, Puritan face, so much firmness. Yes. ... I think she gave you these strong limbs and rosy cheeks. Your grandmother was rather an invalid, you know. Her chest was delicate; and none of her children was very robust. She used to get a dreadful cough in winter and had to leave England and follow the sun."
"I have bronchitis sometimes," I said.
"Do you?" she said gravely, observing me. "That must be watched. This damp foggy valley is so bad, if there is an inherited weakness — as well there may be."
"Oh, I cough all winter," I said recklessly; but Jess's mood was now so mellow that she let it pass.
We were in bliss: our hearts were bursting to give and to receive. Such reminiscent conversations are what children most delight in: they expand in the glow of an enhanced importance; their identity, to themselves so dubious, so cloudy, becomes clarified. The darkness they feel behind them, from which they are beginning to emerge, is suddenly, consolingly populated by familiar phantoms: shapes with eyes and hands from which theirs are copied, voices which have not altogether ceased to sound, but passed into their new throats. Brains, beauty are enhanced by establishment of their origin and continuity; a clue, a dignity is given to idiosyncrasy of temperament. Even disabilities — fatness, lack of inches, straight hair, tone deafness, failure to spell or do sums, distaste for mutton or greens — touched with the mystery of a recurrent phenomenon, receive a kind of consecration; also an absolution from total responsibility. Others before us compounded with these shames and handicaps: so why not ourselves?
Portraits, letters, albums in the library, family legends, all conspired to float these grandparents, dead before our birth, glamorously before us. Figures larger than life size surrounded them, mingled with them in a rich element of culture and prosperity. In that lost land it was always midsummer; and the handsome, the talented, the bearded great moved with Olympian words and gestures against a background of marble-columned studios, hallowed giant writing-desks, du Maurier-like musical drawing-rooms, dinner tables prodigious with good fare, branched candlesticks and wit.
Without conscious awareness that our circumstances were a decline from all this, we did receive early intimations that our budding time was somehow both graced and weakened by echoes and reflections from the prestige of that heyday. When elderly relations came to stay, and the talk, punctuated with sighs and smiles, turned on the old days, we listened, drinking in wafts of air unknown, yet recognised, with rapt attention. When their eyes fell affectionately, speculatively on us, we felt them wondering what, if anything, was to be hoped for from this generation in the way of particular inherited promise. Although unmusical, and for that reason a disappointment, something, we felt, might be done with writing? — drawing? — acting? ... We would be three brilliantly talented sisters, as in the generation before us, and the one before that. Yet sometimes a doubt blew across this simple optimistic programme. That mint was abandoned, the coins were passing out of currency. There seemed something that had once been generated in the family circle, and from thence radiated among friends and acquaintances — a life-wish so crackling with energy that it could overcome no matter what minatory fate, and electrify the whole human span from birth to death. We had a great deal in our childhood, but we had not that. When our father in his middle years married a girl from New England, our cradles were swung at the meeting place of complex and opposing forces, and rocked rather bewilderingly in the process of their conjunction and redistribution. We did not quite know what we were, or from what quarters self-recognition would arise.
Excerpted from The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann. Copyright © 1944 Rosamond Lehmann. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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