The Big House
I had always been fascinated by the big house of Framling. Perhaps it had begun when I was two years old and Fabian Framling had kidnapped me and kept me there for two weeks. It was a house full of shadows and mystery, I discovered, when I went in search of the peacock-feather fan. In the long corridors, in the gallery, in the silent rooms, the past seemed to be leering at one from all corners, insidiously imposing itself on the present and almost-though never quite-obliterating it.
For as long as I could remember Lady Harriet Framling had reigned supreme over our village. Farm laborers standing respectfully at the side of the road while the carriage, emblazoned with the majestic Framling arms, drove past, touched their forelocks and the women bobbed their deferential curtsies. She was spoken of in hushed whispers as though those who mentioned her feared they might be taking her name in vain; in my youthful mind she ranked with the Queen and was second only to God. It was small wonder that when her son, Fabian, commanded me to be his slave, I-being only six years old at that time-made no protest. It seemed only natural that we humble folk should serve the Big House in any way that was demanded of us.
The Big House-known to the community as "The House" as though those dwellings which the rest of us occupied were something different-was Framling. Not Framling Hall or Framling Manor but simply Framling, with the accent on the first syllable which made it sound more impressive. It had been in the possession of the Framlings for four hundred years. Lady Harriet had married into the family most condescendingly, for she was the daughter of an Earl, which, my father told me, meant that she was Lady Harriet instead of simple Lady Framling. One must never forget that, for the fact was that she had married beneath her when she became the wife of a simple baronet. He was dead now, poor man. But I had heard that she never allowed him to forget her higher rank; and although she had come to the village only when she was a bride, ever since she had considered it her duty to rule over us.
The marriage had been unproductive for years-a source of great annoyance to Lady Harriet. I guessed she constantly complained bitterly to the Almighty for such an oversight; but even Heaven could not ignore Lady Harriet forever, and when she was forty years old, fifteen years after her wedding day, she gave birth to Fabian.
Her joy was boundless. She doted on the boy. It was simple logic that her son must be perfect. His slightest whim must be obeyed by all underlings; and the Framling servants admitted that Lady Harriet herself would smile indulgently at his infant misdemeanors.
Four years after the birth of Fabian, Lavinia was born. Although, being a girl, she was slightly inferior to her brother, she was Lady Harriet's daughter and therefore far above the rest of the community.
I was always amused to see them come into church and walk down the aisle-Lady Harriet followed by Fabian, followed by Lavinia. They would be watched with awe while they took their places and knelt on the red and black prayer mats embroidered with the letter F; and those behind were able to witness the amazing spectacle of Lady Harriet's kneeling to a Higher Authority-an experience which made up for everything else the service lacked.
I would stare in wonder as I knelt, forgetting that I was in church, until a nudge from Polly Green reminded me and recalled me to my duty.
Framling-the House-dominated the village. It had been built at the top of a slight incline which made one feel that it was on the alert, watching for any sins we might commit. Although there had been a house there in the days of the Conqueror, it had been rebuilt over the centuries and there was hardly anything left of the pre-Tudor building. One passed under a gatehouse with its battlemented towers into a lower courtyard where plants grew out of the walls, and in iron-banded tubs shrubs hung over in artistic profusion. There were seats in the courtyard onto which leaded windows looked down-dark and mysterious. I always fancied someone was watching behind those windows-reporting everything to Lady Harriet.
One went through a heavily studded door into a banqueting hall where several long-dead Framlings hung on the walls-some fierce, some benign. The ceiling was high and vaulted; the long polished table smelled of beeswax and turpentine; and over the great fireplace the family tree stretched out in all directions; at one end of the hall was a staircase leading to the chapel and at the other end the door to the screens.
During my tender years it seemed to me that all of us in the village rotated like planets round the glorious blazing sun that was Framling.
Our own house, right next to the church, was rambling and drafty. I had often heard it said that it cost a fortune to heat it. Compared with Framling, of course, it was minute, but it was true that although there might be a big fire in the drawing room, and the kitchen was warm enough, to ascend to the upper regions in winter was like going to the arctic circle, I imagined. My father did not notice. He noticed very little of practical matters. His heart was in ancient Greece and he was more familiar with Alexander the Great and Homer than with his parishioners.
I knew little of my mother because she had died when I was two months old. Polly Green had come as a substitute; but that was not until I was just past two years old and had had my first introduction to the ways of the Framlings. Polly must have been about twenty-eight when she came. She was a widow who had always wanted a child, so that just as she took the place of a mother to me, I was to her the child she never had. It worked very well. I loved Polly and there was no doubt whatever that Polly loved me. It was to her loving arms that I went in my moments of crisis. When the hot rice pudding dropped into my lap, when I fell and grazed my knees, when I awoke in the night dreaming of goblins and fierce giants, it was to Polly I turned for solace. I could not imagine life without Polly Green.
She came from London-a place in her opinion superior to any other. "Buried myself in the country, all for you," she used to say. When I pointed out to her that to be buried one had to be under the earth in the graveyard, she grimaced and said: "Well, you might as well be." She had contempt for the country. "A lot of fields and nothing to do in them. Give me London." Then she would talk of the streets of the city where something was always "going on," of the markets, lighted by night with naphtha flares, stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables, old clothes and "anything you could think of," and all the costers shouting in their inimitable way. "One of these days I'll take you there and you can see for yourself."
Polly was the only one among us who had little respect for Lady Harriet.
"Who's she when she's out?" she would demand. "No different from the rest of us. All she's got is a handle to her name."
She was fearless. No meek curtsy from Polly. She would not cower against the hedge while the carriage drove past. She would grasp my hand firmly and march on resolutely, looking neither to the right nor the left.
Polly had a sister, who lived in London with her husband. "Poor Eff," Polly would say. "He's not much cop." I never heard Polly refer to him as anything but He or Him. It seemed that he was unworthy of a name. He was lazy and left everything for Eff to do. "I said to her the day she got engaged to him: 'You'll sup sorrow with a long spoon if you take that one, Eff.' But did she take a bit of notice of me?"
I would shake my head solemnly, because I had heard it before and knew the answer.
So in the early days Polly was the center of my life. Her urban attitudes set her aside from us rural folk. Polly had a way of folding her arms and taking a bellicose stance if anyone showed signs of attacking her. It made her a formidable adversary. She used to say she would "take nothing from nobody" and when I pointed out, having been initiated into the intricacies of English grammar by my governess, Miss York, that two negatives made an affirmative, she merely said: "Here, are you getting at me?"
I loved Polly dearly. She was my ally, mine entirely; she and I stood together against Lady Harriet and the world.
We occupied the top rooms of the rectory. My room was next to hers; it had been from the day she had come and we never wanted to change it. It gave me a nice cozy feeling to have her so close. There was one other room on the attic floor. Here Polly would build up a nice cozy fire and in the winter we would make toast and bake chestnuts. I would stare into the flames while Polly told me stories from London life. I could see the market stalls and Eff and Him, and the little place where Polly had lived with her sailor husband. I saw Polly waiting for him to come home on leave with his baggy trousers and little white hat with H.M.S. Triumphant on it and his white bundle on his shoulder. Her voice would quaver a little when she told me of how he had gone down with his ship.
"Nothing left," she said. "No little 'un to remind me of him." I pointed out to her that if she had had a little 'un she wouldn't have wanted me, so I was glad.
There would be tears in her eyes which made her say briskly: "Here. Look at me. You trying to make me soft in me old age?"
But she hugged me just the same.
From our windows we looked down on the churchyard...tottery old gravestones, some of them, under which lay those who had long since died. I used to read the inscriptions and wondered what the people who lay there were like. Some of the writing on the stones was almost obliterated, so old were they.
Our rooms were big and wide with windows on either side. Opposite the graveyard, we looked on the village green with its pond and the seats where the old men liked to congregate, sometimes talking, sometimes sitting in silence staring at the water before they shuffled off into the inn to drink a pint of ale. "Death on one side," I pointed out to Polly, "and life on the other."
"You're a funny bit of baggage are you," Polly would often reply, for any fanciful remark produced that comment.
Our household consisted of my father, myself, my governess Miss York, Polly, Mrs. Janson the cook-housekeeper, and Daisy and Holly, two lively sisters who shared the housework. I learned later that the governess was there because my mother had brought a little money into the family which had been set aside for my education and I was to have the best possible, no matter what hardship had to be endured to attain this.
I loved my father but he was not as important in my life as Polly was. When I saw him walking across the graveyard from the church to the rectory in his white surplice, prayer book in hand, fine white hair made untidy by the wind, I felt a great desire to protect him. He seemed so vulnerable, unable to take care of himself, so it was odd to think of him as the guardian of his spiritual flock-particularly when it contained Lady Harriet. He had to be reminded of mealtimes, of when to put on clean clothes, and his spectacles were constantly being lost and found in unexpected places. He would come into a room for something and forget what it was. He was eloquent in the pulpit, but I was sure the villagers at least did not understand his allusions to the classics and the ancient Greeks.
"He'd forget his head if it wasn't fixed on his shoulders," was Polly's comment in the half-affectionate, half-contemptuous tone I knew so well. But she was fond of him and would have defended him with all the rhetoric of her colorful language-sometimes quite different from ours-if the need arose.
It was when I was two years old that I had the adventure of which I could remember so little. I had had the story by hearsay, yet it made me feel I had some connection with the Big House. If Polly had been with me at the time, it would never have happened; and I believe it was due to this that my father realized I must have a nurse who could be trusted.
What happened is an indication of the nature of Fabian Framling and his mother's obsession with him.
Fabian would have been about seven at the time. Lavinia was four years younger and I had been born a year after she was. I had heard details of the story because of the friendship between our servants and those of Framling.
Mrs. Janson, our cook-housekeeper, who worked so well for us and instilled discipline into the house and kept us all in some order, told me the story.
"It was the strangest thing I ever heard," she said. "It was young Master Fabian. His lordship leads them all a fine dance up at the House...always has done. Lady Harriet thinks the sun, moon and stars shine out of his eyes. She won't have him crossed. A little Caesar, that's what he is. He'll have his own way or there'll be ructions. Heaven knows what he'll be like when he's a bit older. Well, his little majesty is tired of playing the old games. He wants something new, so he thinks he'll be a father. If he wants it...it's going to be. They tell me up there that he expects everything he wants to be his. And that's no good for anyone, mark my words, Miss Drusilla."
I looked suitably impressed, for I was eager for her to get on with the story.
"You were put in the rectory garden. You could toddle round and that was what you liked to do. They shouldn't have left you. It was that May Higgs, flighty piece, she was. Mind you, she loved little ones...but she was courting that Jim Fellings at the time...and he came along. Well, there she is giggling with him...and didn't see what was happening. Master Fabian was determined to be a father and a father had to have a child. He saw you and thought you would do. So he picked you up and took you to the House. You were his baby and he was going to be your father."
Mrs. Janson put her hands on her hips and looked at me. I laughed. It seemed very funny to me and I liked it. "Go on, Mrs. Janson. What happened then?"
"My goodness, there was a fine how-do-you-do when they found you'd disappeared. They couldn't think where you'd got to. Then Lady Harriet sent for your father. Poor man, he was in a rare flummox. He took May Higgs with him. She was in tears, blaming herself, which was only right that she should do. Do you know, I think that was the start of the rift between her and Jim Fellings. She blamed him. And you know she married Charlie Clay the next year."
"Tell me about when my father went to the House to fetch me."
"Well, talk about a storm! This was one of them tornadoes. Master Fabian raged and he fumed. He wouldn't give you up. You were his baby. He had found you. He was going to be your father. You could have knocked us all down with feathers when the rector came back without you. I said to him, 'Where's the baby?' and he said, 'She's staying at the Big House, only for a day or so.' I said, shocked-like, 'She's only a baby.' 'Lady Harriet has assured me that she will be well looked after. Miss Lavinia's nurse will take care of her. She will come to no harm. Fabian flew into such a rage when he thought he was going to lose her that Lady Harriet thought he would do himself some harm.' 'You mark my words,' I said, 'that boy-Lady Harriet's son though he may be-will come to a bad end.' I didn't care if it got back to Lady Harriet. I had to say it."
"And so for two weeks I lived in the Big House."
"You surely did. They said it was real comical to see Master Fabian looking after you. He used to wheel you round the gardens in the push chair which had been Miss Lavinia's. He used to feed you and dress you. They said it was really funny to see him. He's always been such a one for rough games...and there he was playing the mother. He would have overfed you if it hadn't been for Nancy Cuffley. She put her foot down, took a firm hand for once and he listened. He must have been really fond of you. Goodness knows how long it would have gone on if Lady Milbanke hadn't come to stay with her young Ralph who was a year older than Master Fabian. He laughed at him and told him it was like playing with dolls. It didn't make any difference that this was a live one. It was a girl's game. Nancy Cuffley said Master Fabian was really upset about it. He didn't want you to go away...but I suppose he thought it was a slur on his manhood to look after a baby."
I loved the story and asked to have it repeated many times.
It was almost immediately after that incident that Polly came.
Whenever I saw Fabian-usually in the distance-I would look at him furtively, and in my mind's eye see him tenderly caring for me. It was so amusing; it always made me laugh.
I fancied, too, that he looked at me in a rather special way, although he always pretended he did not see me.
Because of our standing in the village-the rector was on a level with the doctor and the solicitor, though of course chasms separated us from the heights on which the Framlings dwelt-as I began to grow older I was invited to have tea now and then with Miss Lavinia.
Although I did not exactly enjoy these occasions, I was always excited to go into the house. Before those little tea parties I knew very little of it. I had only seen the hall because it had rained once or twice when the garden fête was in progress and we were allowed to shelter from the rain in the House. I shall always remember the thrill of leaving the hall and mounting the stairs, past the suit of armor, which I imagined would be quite terrifying after dark. I was sure it was alive and that when our backs were turned it was laughing at us.
Lavinia was haughty, overbearing, and very beautiful. She reminded me of a tigress. She had tawny hair and golden lights in her green eyes; her upper lip was short and her beautiful white teeth slightly prominent; her nose was small and very slightly turned up at the tip, which gave a piquancy to her face. But her glory was in her wonderful, abundant curly hair. Yes, she was very attractive.
The first time I went to have tea with her stands out in my mind. Miss York accompanied me. Miss Etherton, Lavinia's governess, greeted us and there was an immediate rapport between her and Miss York.
We were taken to tea in the schoolroom, which was large with paneled walls and latticed windows. There were big cupboards there, which I guessed contained slates and pencils and perhaps books. There was a long table at which generations of Framlings must have learned their lessons.
Lavinia and I regarded each other with a certain amount of hostility. Polly had primed me before I left. "Don't forget, you're as good as she is. Better, I reckon." So with Polly's words ringing in my ears, I faced her more as an adversary than as a friend.
"We'll have tea in the schoolroom," said Miss Etherton, "and then you two can get to know each other." She smiled at Miss York in an almost conspiratorial manner. It was clear that those two would like a little respite from their charges.
Lavinia took me to a window seat and we sat down.
"You live in that awful old rectory," she said. "Ugh."
"It's very nice," I told her.
"It's not like this."
"It doesn't have to be to be nice."
Lavinia looked shocked that I had contradicted her and I felt that ours was not going to be the easy relationship which that between Miss York and Miss Etherton showed signs of becoming.
"What games do you play?" she asked.
"Oh...guessing games, with Polly, my nurse, and with Miss York we sometimes imagine we are taking a journey through the world and mention all the places we should pass through."
"What a dull game!"
"Oh yes it is," she affirmed as though that were the last word to be said on the matter.
The tea arrived, brought in by a maid in starched cap and apron. Lavinia dashed to the table.
"Don't forget your guest," said Miss Etherton. "Drusilla, will you sit here?"
There was bread and butter with strawberry jam and little cakes with colored icing on them.
Miss York was watching me. Bread and butter first. It was impolite to have cakes before that. But Lavinia did not observe the rules. She took one of the cakes. Miss Etherton looked apologetically at Miss York, who pretended not to notice. When I had eaten my piece of bread and butter I was offered one of the cakes. I took one with blue icing on it.
"It's the last of the blue ones," announced Lavinia. "I wanted that."
"Lavinia!" said Miss Etherton.
Lavinia took no notice. She regarded me, expecting me, I knew, to give the cake to her. Remembering Polly, I did not. I deliberated, picked it up from my plate and bit into it.
Miss Etherton lifted her shoulders and looked at Miss York.
It was an uncomfortable teatime.
I believe both Miss York and Miss Etherton were greatly relieved when it was over and we were despatched to play, leaving the two governesses together.
I followed Lavinia, who told me we were going to play hide and seek. She took a penny from her pocket and said: "We'll toss." I had no idea what she meant. "Choose heads or tails," she said.
I chose heads.
She spun the coin and it landed on the palm of her hand. She held it where I could not see it and said, "I've won. That means I choose. You'll hide and I'll seek. Go on. I'll count to ten..."
"Where..." I began.
"But this house is so big...I don't know."
"Course it's big. It's not that silly little rectory." She gave me a push. "You'd better go on. I'm starting to count now."
Of course she was Miss Lavinia of the Big House. She was a year older than I. She seemed very knowledgeable and sophisticated; and I was a guest. Miss York had told me that guests often had to be uncomfortable and do things they would rather not. It was all part of the duty of being a guest.
I went out of the room leaving Lavinia counting ominously. Three, four, five...It sounded like the tolling of the funeral bell.
I hurried on. The house seemed to be laughing at me. How could I possibly hide in a house of whose geography I was ignorant?
For a few moments I went blindly on. I came to a door and opened it. I was in a small room. There were some chairs, the seatbacks of which had been worked in blue and yellow needlepoint. It was the ceiling that attracted my attention; it was painted and there were little fat cupids up there seated on clouds. There was another door in this room. I went through it and I was in a passage.
There was no place to hide there. What should I do? I wondered. Perhaps make my way to the schoolroom, find Miss York and tell her I wanted to go home. I wished Polly had come with me. She would never have left me to the mercy of Miss Lavinia.
I must try to retrace my steps. I turned and went, as I thought, back. I came to a door, expecting to see the fat cupids on the ceiling, but this was not so. I was in a long gallery, the walls of which were lined with pictures. There was a dais at one end on which stood a harpsichord and gilded chairs.
I looked fearfully at the portraits. They seemed like real people regarding me severely for having trespassed into their domain.
I felt the house was jeering at me and I wanted Polly. I was getting near to panic. I had the uneasy notion that I was caught and never going to get away. I was going to spend the rest of my life wandering about the house trying to find my way out.
There was a door at one end of the gallery. I went through this and was in another long passage. I was facing a flight of stairs. It was either a matter of going on or going back to the gallery. I mounted the stairs; there was another passage and then...a door.
Recklessly I opened this. I was in a small dark room. In spite of mounting fears I was fascinated. There was something foreign about it. The curtains were of heavy brocade and there was a strange smell. I learned afterwards that it was sandalwood. There were brass ornaments on carved wooden tables. It was an exciting room and for a moment I forgot my fears. There was a fireplace and on the mantelshelf a fan. It was very beautiful, in a lovely shade of blue with big black spots. I knew what it was, because I had seen pictures of peacocks. It was a fan made of peacock feathers. I felt an urge to touch it. I could just reach it by standing on tiptoe. The feathers were very soft.
Then I looked about me. There was a door. I went to it. Perhaps I could find someone who would show me the way back to the schoolroom and Miss York.
I opened the door and looked cautiously in.
A voice said, "Who is there?"
I advanced into the room. I said, "It is Drusilla Delany. I came to tea and I am lost."
I went forward. I saw a high-backed chair and in it an old lady. There was a rug over her knees, which I felt showed she was an invalid. Beside her was a table strewn with papers. They looked like letters.
She peered at me and I looked back boldly. It was not my fault that I was lost. I had not been treated as a guest should be.
"Why do you come to see me, little girl?" she asked in a high-pitched voice. She was very pale and her hands shook. For a moment I thought that she was a ghost.
"I didn't. I'm playing hide and seek and I am lost."
"Come here, child."
She said, "I have not seen you before."
"I live in the rectory. I came to tea with Lavinia and this is supposed to be a game of hide and seek."
"People don't come to see me."
She shook her head. "I am reading his letters," she said.
"Why do you look at them if they make you cry?" I asked.
"He was so wonderful. It was ill fortune. I destroyed him. It was my fault. I should have known. I was warned..."
I thought she was the strangest person I had ever met. I had always sensed that extraordinary things could happen in this house.
I said I should have to go back to the schoolroom. "They will wonder where I am. And it is not very polite for guests to wander about houses, is it?"
She put out a hand which reminded me of a claw and gripped my wrist. I was about to call for help when the door opened and a woman came into the room. Her appearance startled me. She was not English. Her hair was very dark; her eyes deep set and black; she was wearing what I learned later was a sari. It was a deep shade of blue, rather like the fan, and I thought it beautiful. She moved very gracefully, and said in a pleasant singsong voice: "Oh dearie me. Miss Lucille, what is this? And who are you, little girl?"
I explained who I was and how I came to be here.
"Oh, Miss Lavinia...but she is a naughty, naughty girl to treat you so. Hide and seek." She lifted her hands. "And in this house...and you find Miss Lucille. People do not come here. Missie Lucille likes to be alone."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."
She patted my shoulder. "Oh no...no...it is naughty Miss Lavinia. One of these days..." She pursed her lips, and putting the palms of her hands together, gazed up at the ceiling for a moment. "But you must go back. I will show you. Come with me."
She took my hand and pressed it reassuringly.
I looked at Miss Lucille. The tears were slowly running down her cheeks.
"This part of the house is for Miss Lucille," I was told. "I live here with her. We are here...and not here...You understand?"
I didn't, but I nodded.
We went back by way of the gallery and then through parts which I had not seen before and it seemed to me some little time before we reached the schoolroom.
The woman opened the door. Miss York and Miss Etherton were deep in conversation. There was no sign of Lavinia.
They looked startled to see me.
"What happened?" asked Miss Etherton.
"They play hide and seek. This little one...in a house she does not know. She was lost and came to Miss Lucille."
"Oh, I am sorry," said Miss Etherton. "Miss Lavinia should have taken better care of her guest. Thank you, Ayesha."
I turned to smile at her. I liked her gentle voice and kind black eyes. She returned my smile and went gracefully away.
"I hope Drusilla didn't, er..." began Miss York.
"Oh no. Miss Lucille lives apart with her servants. There is another...both Indian. She was out there, you know. The family has connections with the East India Company. She is a little...strange now."
Both governesses looked at me and I guessed the matter would be discussed further when they were alone.
I turned to Miss York and said, "I want to go home."
She looked uneasy, but Miss Etherton gave her an understanding smile.
"Well," went on Miss York, "I suppose it is about time."
"If you must..." replied Miss Etherton. "I wonder where Miss Lavinia is. She should come and say goodbye to her guest."
Lavinia was found before we left.
I said, "Thank you," in a cold voice.
She said, "It was silly of you to get lost. But then you are not used to houses like this, are you?"
Miss Etherton said, "I doubt there is another house like this, Lavinia. Well...you must come again."
Miss York and I left. Miss York's lips pursed together, but she did say to me, "I should not care to be in Miss Etherton's shoes from what she told me...and the boy is worse." Then she remembered to whom she was talking and said it had been really quite a pleasant visit.
I could hardly call it that, but at least it had held elements of excitement which I should not easily forget.
Although I was not eager to visit the house again, its fascination for me had increased. Whenever I passed it I used to wonder about the strange old lady and her companion. I was consumed with curiosity, for I was by nature inquisitive; it was a trait I shared with Polly.
I used to go down to my father's study on some days when he was not busy. It was always just after tea. I almost felt I was one of those things like his spectacles which he forgot about from time to time; it was when he needed his spectacles that he looked for them and when a sense of duty came over him he remembered me.
There was something lovable about his forgetfulness. He was always gentle with me and I was sure that if he had not been so concerned about the Trojan Wars he would have remembered me more often.
It was quite a little game talking with him, the object being for him to get onto some classical subject and for me to steer him away from it.
He always asked how I was getting on with my lessons and whether I was happy with Miss York. I thought I was doing quite well and told him that Miss York seemed satisfied.
He would nod, smiling.
"She thinks you are a little impulsive," he said. "Otherwise she has a good opinion of you."
"Perhaps she thinks I am impulsive because she is not."
"That could be so. But you must learn not to be rash. Remember Phaeton."
I was not quite sure who Phaeton was, but if I asked he would take possession of the conversation, and Phaeton could lead to some other character from those old days when people were turned into laurels and all sorts of plants, and gods became swans and bulls to go courting mortals. It seemed to me such an odd way of going on and in any case I did not believe it.
"Father," I said, "do you know anything about Miss Lucille Framling?"
A vague look came into his eyes. He reached for his spectacles as though they might help him to see the lady.
"I did hear Lady Harriet say something once...Someone in India, I think."
"There was an Indian servant with her. I saw her. I got lost playing hide and seek and I found her. The Indian took me back to Miss York. It was rather exciting."
"I did know that the Framlings were somehow connected with India. The East India Company, I suppose."
"I wonder why she is shut off like that in a wing of the house."
"She lost her lover, I think I heard. That can be very sad. Remember Orpheus who went down to the underworld to search for Eurydice."
I was so preoccupied with the mystery of Miss Lucille Framling that I allowed my father to win that session and the rest of the time was taken up by Orpheus and his trip to the underworld to find the wife who had been snatched from him on their wedding day.
In spite of that unfortunate beginning, my acquaintance with Lavinia progressed and, though there was always a certain antipathy between us, I was attracted by her and perhaps most of all by the house, in which anything might happen; and I never entered it without that feeling that I was embarking on an adventure.
I had told Polly about the game of hide and seek and how I had met the old lady.
"Tut tut," she said. "There's a nice little madam for you. Don't know how to treat her guests, that's for certain. Calls herself a lady."
"She said the rectory was small."
"I'd like to get her carrying coal up them stairs."
I laughed at the thought.
Polly was good for me. She said: "You're a sight more of a little lady than she is. That's for sure. So you just stand up to her. Tell her a thing or two and if she don't like it, well, there's no harm done, is there? I reckon you could enjoy yourself somewhere nice with me...more than that old house. Time for it to go to the knacker's yard if you was to ask me."
"Oh, Polly, it's the most marvelous house!"
"Pity it's got them living in it that don't know their manners."
I used to think of Polly when I went into the house. I was as good as they were, I reminded myself. I was better at my lessons. That had slipped out. I had heard Mrs. Janson say that that Miss Lavinia led Miss Etherton a nice dance and refused to learn when she didn't feel like it, so that that young lady was at least a couple of years behind some people. I knew who "some people" implied and I felt rather proud. It was a useful piece of knowledge to be remembered when I was in the presence of Lavinia. Moreover I knew how to behave better than she did, but perhaps she knew and refused to act as she had been taught. I had been in Lavinia's company long enough to know that she was a rebel.
Then there was Polly's admonition to give her as good as I got, so I did not feel quite so vulnerable as I had on that first occasion.
My father constantly said that all knowledge was good and one could not have too much of it. Miss York agreed with him. But there was one piece of knowledge that I could have been happier without.
Lady Harriet had smiled on my friendship with Lavinia and therefore it must persist. Lavinia was learning to ride and Lady Harriet had said that I might share her lessons. My father was delighted, and so I went riding with Lavinia. We used to go round and round the paddock under the watchful eyes of Joe Cricks, the head groom.
Lavinia enjoyed riding and therefore she did it well. She took a great delight in showing how much more proficient she was than I. She was reckless and did not obey orders as I did. Poor Joe Cricks used to get really scared when she disregarded his instructions and she was very soon ordering him to take her off the leading rein.
"If you want to feel good on your mount," said Joe Cricks, "don't be afraid of him. Let him see that you are the master. On the other hand...there's dangers."
Lavinia tossed her tawny hair. She was fond of the gesture. Her hair was really magnificent and this called attention to it.
"I know what I am doing, Cricks," she said.
"I didn't say as how you didn't, Miss Lavinia. All I says is...you have to consider the horse as well as yourself. You may know what you're doing but horses is nervous creatures. They get it into their heads to do something you might not be expecting."
Lavinia continued to go her own way; and her very boldness and assurance that she knew better than anyone else carried her through.
"She's going to be a good horsewoman," was Joe Cricks's comment. "That's if she don't take too many risks. Now, Miss Drusilla, she's a more steady party. She'll come to it in time...then she'll be real good."
I loved the lessons, trotting round the paddock, the excitement of the first canter, the thrill of the first gallop.
It was one afternoon. We had had our lessons and had taken the horses back to the stables. Lavinia dismounted and threw her reins to the groom. I always liked to stay behind for a few minutes to pat the horse and talk to him, which was what Joe had taught us to do. "Never forget," he said. "Treat your horse well and the chances are he'll treat you well. Horses is like people. You have to remember that."
I came out of the stables and started across the lawn to the house. There I was to join Lavinia in the schoolroom for tea. Miss York was already there enjoying a tête-à-tête with Miss Etherton.
There were visitors in the house. There often were, but they did not concern us. We hardly ever saw Lady Harriet-a fact for which I was extremely grateful.
I had to pass the drawing-room, which was open, and I caught a glimpse of a parlormaid serving tea to several people. I went hurriedly past, averting my eyes. Then I paused to look up at that part of the house which I thought must be Miss Lucille's quarters.
As I did so I heard a voice from the drawing room. "Who is that plain child, Harriet?"
"Oh...you mean the rector's daughter. She is here quite frequently. She comes to keep Lavinia company."
"Such a contrast to Lavinia! But then Lavinia is so beautiful."
"Oh yes...You see, there are so few people. I gather she is quite a pleasant child. The governess thinks so...and it is good for Lavinia to have the occasional companion. There aren't so many people here, you know. We have to make do with what we can get."
I stared ahead of me. I was the plain child. I was here because they couldn't get anyone else. I was stunned. I knew that my hair was a nondescript brown, that it was straight and unmanageable...so different from Lavinia's tawny locks; my eyes were no color at all. They were like water, and if I wore blue they were blueish, green, greenish...and brown...just no color at all. I knew I had a big mouth and an ordinary sort of nose. So that was plain.
And of course Lavinia was beautiful.
My first thought was to go into the schoolroom and demand to be taken home at once. I was very upset. There was a hard lump in my throat. I did not cry. Crying for me was for lighter emotions. Something within me was deeply hurt and I believed that the wound would be with me forever.
"You're late," Lavinia greeted me.
I did not explain. I knew what her reaction would be.
I looked at her afresh. No wonder she could behave badly. She was so beautiful that people did not mind.
Polly, of course, noticed my preoccupation.
"Here, don't you think you'd better tell me?"
"Tell you what, Polly?"
"Why you look about as happy as if you've lost a sovereign and found a farthing."
I could not hold out against Polly, so I told her. "I'm plain, Polly. That means ugly. And I go to the House only because there is no one better here."
"I never heard such a load of nonsense. You're not plain. You're what they call interesting, and that's a lot better in the long run. And if you don't want to go to that house, I'll see you don't. I'll go to the rector and tell him it's got to stop. From what I hear you'd be no worse without them."
"How plain am I, Polly?"
"About as plain as Dundee cake and Christmas pudding."
That made me smile.
"You've got what they call one of them faces that make people stop and take a second look. As for that Lavinia...or whatever she calls herself...I don't call her all that pretty when she scowls...and my goodness, she does a good bit of that. I'll tell you what. She'll have crow's-feet round her eyes and railway lines all over her face the way she goes on. And I'll tell you something else. When you smile your face all lights up. Well, then you're a real beauty, you are."
Polly raised my spirits and after a while I began to forget about being plain, and as the House always fascinated me, I tried not to remember that I was only chosen because there was no one better available.
I had caught glimpses of Fabian, though not often. Whenever I did see him I thought of the time when he had made me his baby. He must remember, surely, because he would have been seven when it happened.
He was away at school most of the time and often he did not come home for holidays, but spent them with some school friend. His school friends came to the House sometimes, but they took little notice of us.
On this occasion-it was Easter time, I think-Fabian was home for the holidays. Soon after Miss York and I arrived at the House it began to rain. We had tea and Lavinia and I left the governesses together for their usual chat. We were wondering what to do when the door opened and Fabian came in.
He was rather like Lavinia, only much taller and very grown up. He was four years older than Lavinia and that seemed a great deal, particularly to me, who was a year younger than Lavinia. He must therefore have been twelve, and as I was not yet seven, he seemed very mature.
Lavinia went to him and hung on his arm as though to say, this is my brother. You can go back to Miss York. I shan't need you now.
He was looking at me oddly-remembering, I knew. I was the child whom he had thought was his. Surely such an episode must have left an impression, even on someone as worldly as Fabian.
"Will you stay with me?" pleaded Lavinia. "Will you tell me what we can do? Drusilla has such silly ideas. She likes what she thinks are clever games. Miss Etherton says she knows more than I do...about history and things like that."
"She wouldn't have to know much to know more than you do," said Fabian-a remark which, coming from anyone else, would have thrown Lavinia into a temper, but because Fabian had said it, she giggled happily. It was quite a revelation to me that there was one person of whom Lavinia stood in awe-not counting Lady Harriet, of course, of whom everyone was in awe.
He said, "History...I like history, Romans and all that. They had slaves. We'll have a game."
"Yes. I am a Roman, Caesar, I think."
"Which one?" I asked.
He considered. "Julius...or perhaps Tiberius."
"He was very cruel to the Christians."
"You need not be a Christian slave. I shall be Caesar. You are my slaves and I shall test you."
"I'll be your queen...or whatever Caesars have," announced Lavinia. "Drusilla can be our slave."
"You'll be a slave, too," said Fabian, to my delight and Lavinia's dismay.
"I shall give you tasks...which seem to you impossible. It is to prove you and see whether you are worthy to be my slaves. I shall say, 'Bring me the golden apples of Hesperides'...or something like that."
"How could we get them?" I asked. "They are in the Greek legends. My father is always talking about them. They are not real."
Lavinia was getting impatient, as I, the plain outsider, was talking too much.
"I shall give you the tasks to perform and you must carry them out or suffer my anger."
"Not if it means going down to the underworld and bringing out people who are dead and that sort of thing," I said.
"I shall not command you to do that. The tasks will be difficult...but possible."
He folded his arms across his chest and shut his eyes as though deep in thought. Then he spoke, as though he were the Oracle of whom my father talked now and then. "Lavinia, you will bring me the silver chalice. It must be a certain chalice. It has acanthus leaves engraved on it."
"I can't," said Lavinia. "It's in the haunted room."
I had never seen Lavinia so stricken, and what astonished me was that her brother had the power to drive the rebellion out of her.
He turned to me. "You will bring me a fan of peacock feathers. And when my slaves return to me, the chalice shall be filled with wine and while I drink it my slave shall fan me with the peacock-feather fan."
My task did not seem so difficult. I knew where there was a peacock-feather fan. I was better acquainted with the house than I had once been and I could find my way easily to Miss Lucille's apartments. I could slip into the room where I knew the fan to be, take it and bring it to Fabian. I should do it so quickly that he would commend me for my speed, while poor Lavinia was screwing up courage to go to the haunted room.
I sped on my way. A feeling of intense excitement gripped me. The presence of Fabian thrilled me because I kept thinking of the way in which he had kidnapped me, and there I had been, living in the house for two weeks just as though I were a member of the family. I wanted to astonish him with the speed with which I carried out my task.
I reached the room. What if the Indian were there? What would I say to her? "Please may I have the fan? We are playing a game and I am a slave."
She would smile, I guessed, and say "Dearie dearie me," in that singsong voice of hers. I was sure she would be amused and amenable, though I wondered about the old lady. But she would be in the adjoining room, sitting in the chair with the rug over her knees, crying because of the past which came back to her with the letters.
I had opened the door cautiously. I smelled the pungent sandalwood. All was quiet. And there on the mantelshelf was the fan.
I stood on tiptoe and reached it. I took it down and then ran out of the room back to Fabian.
He stared at me in amazement.
"You've found it already?" He laughed. "I never thought you would. How did you know where it was?"
"I'd seen it before. It was when I was playing hide and seek with Lavinia. I went into that room by accident. I was lost."
"Did you see my great-aunt Lucille?"
I nodded. He continued to stare at me.
"Well done, slave," he said. "Now you may fan me while I await my chalice of wine."
"Do you want to be fanned? It's rather cold in here."
He looked toward the window from which came a faint draft. Raindrops trickled down the panes.
"Are you questioning my orders, slave?" he asked.
As it was a game I replied, "No, my lord."
"Then do my bidding."
It was soon after that when Lavinia returned with the chalice. She gave me a venomous look because I had succeeded in my task before she had. I found I was enjoying the game.
Wine had to be found and the chalice filled. Fabian stretched himself out on a sofa. I stood behind him wielding the peacock-feather fan. Lavinia was kneeling proffering the chalice.
It was not long before trouble started. We heard raised voices and running footsteps. I recognized that of Ayesha.
Miss Etherton, followed by Miss York, burst into the room.
There was a dramatic moment. Others whom I had not seen before were there and they were all staring at me. There was a moment's deep silence and then Miss York rushed at me.
"What have you done?" she cried.
Ayesha saw me and gave a little cry. "You have it," she said. "It is you. Dearie dearie me...so it is you."
I realized then that they were referring to the fan.
"How could you?" said Miss York. I looked bewildered and she went on, "You took the fan. Why?"
"It...it was a game," I stammered.
"A game!" said Miss Etherton. "The fan..." Her voice was shaking with emotion.
"I'm sorry," I began.
Then Lady Harriet came in. She looked like an avenging goddess and my knees suddenly felt as though they would not hold me.
Fabian had risen from the sofa. "What a fuss!" he said. "She was my slave. I commanded her to bring me the fan."
I saw the relief in Miss Etherton's face and I felt a spurt of laughter bubbling up. It might have been mildly hysterical, but it was laughter all the same.
Lady Harriet's face had softened. "Oh, Fabian!" she murmured.
Ayesha said, "But the fan...Miss Lucille's fan..."
"I commanded her," repeated Fabian. "She had no alternative but to obey. She is my slave."
Lady Harriet began to laugh. "Well, now you understand, Ayesha. Take the fan back to Miss Lucille. No harm has been done to it and that is an end to the matter." She turned to Fabian. "Lady Goodman has written asking if you would care to visit Adrian for part of the summer holiday. How do you feel?"
Fabian shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly.
"Shall we talk about it? Come along, dear boy. I think we should give a prompt reply."
Fabian, casting a rather scornful look at the company which had been so concerned over such a trivial matter as the borrowing of a fan, left with his mother.
The incident was, I thought, over. They had been so concerned and it seemed to me that there was something important about the fan, but Lady Harriet and Fabian between them had reduced it to a matter of no importance.
Ayesha had gone, carrying the fan as though it were very precious, and the two governesses had followed her. Lavinia and I were alone.
"I have to take the chalice back before they find we had that, too. I wonder they didn't notice, but there was such a fuss over the fan. You'll have to come with me."
I was still feeling shocked, because I had been the one to take the fan, which was clearly a very important article since it had caused such a disturbance. I wondered what would have happened if Fabian had not been there to exonerate me from blame. I should probably have been banned from the house forevermore. I should have hated that, although I never felt welcome there. Still, the fascination was strong. All the people in it interested me...even Lavinia, who was frequently rude and certainly never hospitable.
I thought how noble Fabian had looked pouring scorn on them all and taking the responsibility. Of course, it was his responsibility, and it was only right that he should take the blame. But he had made it seem that there was no blame, and that they were all rather foolish to make such a fuss.
Meekly I followed Lavinia to another part of the house, which I had never seen before.
"Great-Aunt Lucille is in the west wing. This is the east," she told me. "We are going to the Nun's room. You had better watch out. The Nun doesn't like strangers. I'm all right. I'm one of the family."
"Well, why are you frightened to go alone?"
"I'm not frightened. I just thought you'd like to see it. You haven't got any ghosts in that old rectory, have you?"
"Who wants ghosts anyway? What good do they do?"
"A great house always has them. They warn people."
"Then if the Nun wouldn't want me, I'll leave you to go on your own."
"No, no. You've got to come, too."
"Suppose I won't."
"Then I'll never let you come to this house again."
"I wouldn't mind. You're not very nice...any of you."
"Oh, how dare you! You are only the rector's daughter and he owes the living to us."
I was afraid there might be something in that. Perhaps Lady Harriet could turn us out if she were displeased with me. I understood Lavinia. She wanted me with her because she was afraid to go to the Nun's room alone.
We went along a corridor. She turned and took my hand. "Come on," she whispered. "It's just along here."
She opened a door. We were in a small room that looked like a nun's cell. Its walls were bare and there was a crucifix hanging over a narrow bed. There was just one table and chair. The atmosphere was one of austerity.
She put the chalice on the table and in great haste ran out of the room, followed by me. We sped along the corridors and then she turned to regard me with satisfaction. Her natural arrogance and composure had returned. She led the way back to the room where, a short time before, Fabian had sprawled on a sofa and I had fanned him with the peacock-feather fan.
"You see," said Lavinia, "we have a lot of history in our family. We came over with the Conqueror. I reckon your family were serfs."
"Oh no, we were not."
"Yes, you were. Well, the Nun was one of our ancestresses. She fell in love with an unsuitable man...I believe he was a curate or a rector. Those sort of people do not marry into families like ours."
"They would have been better educated than your people, I daresay."
"We don't have to worry about education. It is only people like you who have to do that. Miss Etherton says you know more than I do, though you're a year younger. I don't care. I don't have to be educated."
"Education is the greatest boon you can have," I said, quoting my father. "Tell me about the Nun."
"He was so far below her that she couldn't marry him. Her father forbade it and she went into a convent. But she couldn't live without him, so she escaped and went to him. Her brother went after them and killed the lover. She was brought home and put in that room, which was like a cell. It has never been changed. She drank poison from the chalice and she is supposed to come back to that room and haunt it."
"Do you believe that?"
"Of course I do."
"You must have been very frightened when you came in for the chalice."
"It's what you have to do when you're playing Fabian's games. I thought that since Fabian had sent me the ghost wouldn't hurt me."
"You seem to think your brother is some sort of god."
"He is," she replied.
It did seem that he was regarded as such in that household.
When we walked home, Miss York said, "My goodness, what a to-do about a fan. There would have been real trouble if Mr. Fabian hadn't been behind it."
I was more and more fascinated by the House. I often thought of the nun who had drunk from the chalice and killed herself for love. I talked of this to Miss York, who had discovered from Miss Etherton that Miss Lucille had become quite ill when she discovered that the peacock-feather fan had been taken away.
"No wonder," she said, "that there was all that fuss about it. Mr. Fabian should never have told you to take it. There was no way that you could know. Sheer mischief, I call it."
"Why should a fan be so important?"
"Oh, there is something about peacocks' feathers. I have heard they are unlucky."
I wondered whether this theory might have something to do with Greek mythology and if it did my father would certainly know about it. I decided to risk a lecture session with him and ask.
"Father," I said, "Miss Lucille at the House had a fan made of peacocks' feathers. There is something special about it. Is there any reason why there should be anything important about peacocks' feathers?"
"Well, Hera put the eyes of Argus into the peacock's tail. Of course, you know the story."
Of course I did not, but I asked to hear it.
It turned out to be another of those about Zeus courting someone. This time it was the daughter of the King of Argos and Zeus's wife, Hera, discovered this.
"She shouldn't have been surprised," I said. "He was always courting someone he shouldn't."
"That's true. He turned the fair maiden into a white cow."
"That was a change. He usually transformed himself."
"On this occasion it was otherwise. Hera was jealous."
"I'm not surprised...with such a husband. But she should have grown used to his ways."
"She set the monster Argus who had one hundred eyes to watch. Knowing this, Zeus sent Hermes to lull him to sleep with his lyre and when he was asleep to kill him. Hera was angry when she learned what had happened and placed the eyes of the dead monster in the tails of the peacocks."
"Is that why the feathers are unlucky?"
"Are they? When I come to think of it, I fancy I have heard something of that nature."
So he could not tell me more than that. I thought to myself: It is because of the eyes. They are watching all the time...as Argus failed to do. Why should Miss Lucille worry so much because the eyes are not there to watch for her?
The mystery deepened. What an amazing house it was, having a ghost in the form of a long-dead nun as well as a magic fan with eyes to watch out for its owner. Did it, I wondered, warn of impending disaster?
I felt that anything could happen in that house; there was so much to discover and, in spite of the fact that I was plain and only asked because there was no one else to be a companion to Lavinia, I wanted to go on visiting the House.
It was a week or so after the incident of the fan that I discovered I was being watched. When I rode in the paddock I was aware of an irresistible urge to look up at a certain window high in the wall and it was from this one that I felt I was being observed. A shadow at the window was there for a moment and then disappeared. Several times I thought I saw someone there. It was quite uncanny.
I said to Miss Etherton, "Which part of the house is it that looks over the paddock?"
"That is the west wing. It is not used very much. Miss Lucille is there. They always think of it as her part of the house."
I had guessed that might be so and now I was sure.
One day when I took my horse to the stable, Lavinia ran on ahead and, as I was about to return to the house, I saw Ayesha. She came swiftly toward me and, taking my hand, looked into my face.
She said, "Miss Drusilla, I have waited to find you alone. Miss Lucille wants very much to speak to you."
"What?" I cried. "Now?"
"Yes," she answered. "This moment."
"Lavinia will be waiting for me."
"Never mind that one now."
I followed her into the house and up the staircase, along corridors to the room in the west wing where Miss Lucille was waiting for me.
She was seated in a chair near the window that looked down on the paddock and from which she had watched me.
"Come here, child," she said.
I went to her. She took my hand and looked searchingly into my face. "Bring a chair, Ayesha," she said.
Ayesha brought one and it was placed very near Miss Lucille.
Ayesha then withdrew and I was alone with the old lady.
"Tell me what made you do it," she said. "What made you steal the fan?"
I explained that Fabian was a great Roman and that Lavinia and I were his slaves. He was testing us and giving us difficult tasks. Mine was to bring a peacock fan to him, and I knew there was one in that room, so I came and took it.
"So Fabian is involved in this. There are two of you. But you were the one who took it and that means that for a while it was in your possession...yours. That will be remembered."
"Who will remember?"
"Fate, my dear child. I am sorry you took the fan. Anything else you might have taken for your game and no harm done, but there is something about a peacock's feathers...something mystic...and menacing."
I shivered and looked around me. "Are they unlucky?" I asked.
She looked mournful. "You are a nice little girl and I am sorry you touched it. You will have to be on your guard now."
"Why?" I asked excitedly.
"Because that fan brings tragedy."
"How can it?"
"I do not know how. I only know it does."
"If you think that, why do you keep it?"
"Because I have paid for my possession."
"How do you pay?"
"I paid with my life's happiness."
"Shouldn't you throw the fan away?"
She shook her head. "No. One must never do that. To do so is to pass on the curse."
"The curse!" This was getting more and more fantastic. It seemed even wilder than my father's version of the maiden being turned into a white cow.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it is written."
"Who wrote it?"
She shook her head and I went on, "How can a feather fan be unlucky? It is, after all, only a fan, and who could harm the one who had it? The peacock whose feathers it was must be dead a long time ago."
"You have not been in India, my child. Strange things happen there. I have seen men in bazaars charm poisonous snakes and make them docile. I have seen what is called the Rope Trick when a seer will make a rope stand on end without support and a little boy climb it. If you were in India you would believe these things. Here people are too materialistic; they are not in tune with the mystic. If I had never had that fan I should be a happy wife and mother."
"Why do you watch me? Why do you send for me and tell me all this?"
"Because you have had the fan in your possession. You have been its owner. The ill luck could touch you. I want you to take care."
"I never thought for an instant that it was mine. I just took it for a while because Fabian commanded me to take it. That was all. It was just a game."
I thought: She is mad. How can a fan be evil? How could someone turn a woman into a white cow? My father seemed to believe this though, which was extraordinary. At least he talked as though he believed it. But then the Greeks were more real to him than his own household.
"How can you be sure that the fan is unlucky?" I asked.
"Because of what happened to me." She turned to me and fixed her tragic eyes on me, but they seemed to be staring past me as though she were seeing something which was not in this room.
"I was so happy," she said. "Perhaps it is a mistake to be so happy. It is tempting the fates. Gerald was wonderful. I met him in Delhi. Our families have interests there. They thought it would be good for me to go out for a while. There is a good social life among the English and the members of the Company...that is, the East India Company, and we were involved in that. So were Gerald and his family. That was why he was out there. He was so handsome and so charming...there could never have been anyone like him. We were in love with each other from the first day we met."
She turned to smile at me. "You are too young to understand, my child. It was...perfect. His family were pleased...so were mine. There was no reason why we should not be married. Everyone was delighted when we announced our engagement. My family gave a ball to celebrate the occasion. It was really glittering. I wish I could describe India to you, my dear. It was a wonderful life we had. Who would have guessed that there was a tragedy waiting to spring up on us? It came suddenly...like a thief in the night, as it says in the Bible, I believe. So it came to me."
"Was it because of the fan?" I asked tremulously.
"Oh, the fan. How young we were! How innocent of life! We went to the bazaar together, for when we were officially engaged that was allowed. It was wonderful. Bazaars are so fascinating, though I was always a little afraid of them, though not with Gerald, of course. It was thrilling...the snake charmers...the streets...the strange music...the pungent smell that is India. Goods to sell...beautiful silks and ivory...and strange things to eat. It was exciting. And as we went along we saw the man selling fans. I was instantly struck by them. 'How lovely they are!' I cried. Gerald said, 'They are very pretty. You must have one.' I remember the man who sold them. He was badly crippled. He could not stand up. He sat on a mat. I remember the way he smiled at us. I did not notice it then, but afterwards it came back to me. It was...evil. Gerald unfurled the fan and I took it. It was doubly precious to me because he had given it to me. Gerald laughed at my delight in it. He held my arm tightly. People looked at us as we passed along. I suppose it was because we looked happy. Back in my room I opened the fan. I put it on a table so that I could see it all the time. When my Indian servant came in, she stared at it in horror. She said, 'Peacock-feather fan...Oh no, no, Missie Lucille...they bring evil...You must not keep it here.' I answered, 'Don't be silly. My fiancé gave it to me and I shall always treasure it for that reason. It is his first gift to me.' She shook her head and covered her face with her hands as though to shut out the sight of it. Then she said, 'I will take it back to the man who sold it to you...though now it has been yours...the evil is there...but perhaps a small evil.' I thought she was crazy and I wouldn't let her touch it."
She stopped speaking and the tears began to run down her cheeks.
"I loved the fan," she went on after a while. "It was the first thing he gave me after our engagement. When I awoke in the morning it was the first thing I saw. Always, I told myself, I will remember that moment in the bazaar when he bought it for me. He laughed at my obsession with it. I did not know it then, but I do now. It had already cast its spell on me. 'It is only a fan,' said Gerald. 'Why do you care so much for it?' I told him why and he went on, 'Then I will make it more worthy of your regard. I shall have something precious put in it, and every time you see it you will be reminded of how much I care for you.'
"He said he would take it to a jeweler he knew in Delhi. The man was a craftsman. When I received the fan back it would indeed be something to be proud of. I was delighted and so happy. I ought to have known happiness like that does not last. He took the fan and went into the center of the town. I have never forgotten that day. Every second of it is engraved on my memory forever. He went into the jeweler's shop. He was there quite a long time. And when he came out...they were waiting for him. There was often trouble. The Company kept it under control, but there were always the mad ones. They didn't see what good we were bringing to their country. They wanted us out. Gerald's family was important in the country...as my family was. He was well known among them. When he came out of the jeweler's they shot him. He died there in the street."
"What a sad story. I am so sorry, Miss Lucille," I said.
"My dear child, I see you are. You are a good child. I am sorry you took the fan."
"You believe all that was due to the fan?"
"It was because of the fan that he was in that spot. I shall never forget the look in my servant's eyes. Somehow those people have a wisdom we lack. How I wish I had never seen that fan...never gone into the bazaar that morning. How blithe and gay I had been...and my foolish impulse had taken his life and ruined mine."
"It could have happened somewhere else."
"No, it was the fan. You see, he had taken it into the jeweler's shop. They must have followed him and waited for him outside."
"I think it could have happened without the fan."
She shook her head. "In time it came back to me. I will show you what was done." She sat there for a few moments with the tears coursing down her cheeks. Ayesha came in.
"There, there," she said. "You shouldn't have brought it all back to yourself. Dearie me, dearie me, it is not good, little mistress...not good."
"Ayesha," she said. "Bring the fan to me."
Ayesha said, "No...forget it...Do not distress yourself."
"Bring it, please, Ayesha."
So she brought it.
"See, child, this is what he did for me. One has to know how to move this panel. You see. There is a little catch here. The jeweler was a great craftsman." She pulled back the panel on the mount of the fan to disclose a brilliant emerald surrounded by smaller diamonds. I caught my breath. It was so beautiful.
"It is worth a small fortune, they tell me, as if to console me. As if anything could. But it was his gift to me. That is why the fan is precious."
"But if it is going to bring you bad luck..."
"It has done that. It can bring me no more. Ayesha, put it back. There. I have told you because, briefly, the fan was yours. You must walk more carefully than most. You are a good child. There. Go and rejoin Lavinia now. I have done my duty. Be on your guard...with Fabian. You see, he will take some of the blame. Perhaps because you were in possession of it for such a short time it will pass over you. And he, too, would not be considered free of blame..."
Ayesha said, "It is time to leave now."
She took me to the door and walked with me along the corridors.
"You must not take too much notice of what she says," she told me. "She is very sad and her mind wanders. It was the terrible shock, you understand. Do not worry about what you have heard. Perhaps I should not have brought you to her, but she wanted it. She could not rest until she had talked to you. It is off her mind now. You understand?"
"Yes, I understand."
And I said to myself: What happened made her mad.
And the thought of the ghostly nun in the east wing and the madwoman in the west made the House seem more and more fascinating to me.
As time passed I ceased to think about the peacock-feather fan and to wonder what terrible things might befall me because it had once been in my possession. I still visited the House; the governesses remained friendly; and my relationship with Lavinia had changed a little. I might still be plain and invited because I was the only girl in the neighborhood of Lavinia's age and my station in life was not too lowly for me to be dismissed entirely, but I was gaining a little superiority over Lavinia because, while she was exceptionally pretty, I was more clever. Miss York boasted a little to Miss Etherton and on one occasion when Miss Etherton was ill, Miss York went over to the House to take her place until she recovered; and then the gap between myself and Lavinia was exposed. That did a lot for me and was not without its effect on Lavinia.
I was growing up. I was no longer to be put upon. I even threatened not to go to the House if Lavinia did not mend her ways; and it was obvious that that was something she did not want. We had become closer-even allies, when the occasion warranted it. I might be plain, but I was clever. She might be beautiful, but she could not think and invent as I could; and she relied on me-though she would not admit it-to take the lead.
Occasionally I saw Fabian. He came home for holidays and sometimes brought friends with him. They always ignored us, but I began to notice that Fabian was not so oblivious of my presence as he would have us believe. Sometimes I caught his furtive glance on me. I supposed it was due to that adventure long ago when I was a baby and he had kidnapped me.
It was whispered now that Miss Lucille was mad. Mrs. Janson was very friendly with the cook at the House, so, as she said, she had it "straight from the horse's mouth." Polly was like a jackdaw. She seized on every bit of dazzling gossip and stored it up so that she could, as she said, "piece things together a treat."
We used to talk about the House often, for Polly seemed as fascinated about it as I was.
"The old lady's mad," she said. "Not a doubt of it. Never been right in her head since she lost her lover out in India. People must expect trouble if they go to these outlandish places. It turned Miss Lucille's head, all right. Mrs. Bright says she's taken to wandering about the House now...ordering them around like they was black servants. It all comes of going to India. Why people can't stay at home, I don't know. She thinks she's still in India. It's all that Ayesha can do to look after her. And she's got another black servant there."
"That's Imam. He comes from India too. I think she brought him with her when she came home...with Ayesha, of course."
"Gives me the creeps. Them outlandish clothes and black eyes and talking a sort of gibberish."
"It's not gibberish, Polly. It's their own language."
"Why didn't she have a nice British couple to look after her? Then there's that haunted room and something about a nun. Love trouble there, too. I don't know. I think love's something to keep away from, if you ask me."
"You didn't feel like that when you had Tom."
"You can't find men like my Tom two a penny, I can tell you."
"But everyone hopes you can. That's why they fall in love."
"You're getting too clever, my girl. Look at our Eff."
"Is he still as bad?"
Polly just clicked her tongue.
Oddly enough, after that conversation, there was news of Him. Apparently he had been suffering, as Polly said, from "Chest" for some time. I remember the day when news came that he was dead.
Polly was deeply shocked. She wasn't sure what this was going to mean to Eff.
"I'll have to go up for the funeral," she said. "After all, you've got to show a bit of respect."
"You didn't have much for him when he was alive," I pointed out.
"It's different when people are dead."
"Oh, you and your 'whys' and 'whats.' It just is...that's all."
"Polly," I said. "Why can't I come to the funeral with you?"
She stared at me in amazement.
"You! Eff wouldn't expect that."
"Well, let's surprise her."
Polly was silent. I could see she was turning the idea over in her mind.
"Well," she said at length, "it would show respect."
I learned that respect was a very necessary part of funerals.
"We'd have to ask your father," she announced at length.
"He wouldn't notice whether I had gone or not."
"Now that's not the way to speak about your father."
"Why not, if it's the truth? And I like it that way. I wouldn't want him taking a real interest. I'll tell him."
He did look a little startled when I mentioned it.
He put his hands up to his spectacles, which he expected to have on his head. They weren't there, and he looked helpless, as though he couldn't possibly deal with the matter until he found them. They were, fortunately, on his desk, and I promptly brought them to him.
"It's Polly's sister and it shows respect," I told him.
"I hope this does not mean she will want to leave us."
"Leave us!" The idea had not occurred to me. "Of course she won't want to leave us."
"She might want to live with her sister."
"Oh no," I cried. "But I think I ought to go to this funeral."
"It could be a morbid affair. The working classes make a great deal of them...spending money they can ill afford."
"I want to go, Father. I want to see her sister. She's always talking about her."
He nodded. "Well, then you should go."
"We shall be there for a few days."
"I daresay that will be all right. You will have Polly with you."
Polly was delighted that I was going with her. She said Eff would be pleased.
So I shared in the funeral rites, and very illuminating I found it.
I was surprised by the size of Eff's house. It faced a common, round which the four-storied houses stood like sentinels. "Eff always liked a bit of green," Polly told me. "And she's got it there. A little bit of the country and the horses clopping by to let her know she's not right out in the wilds."
"It's what you call the best of both worlds," I said.
"Well, I won't quarrel with that," agreed Polly.
Eff was about four years older than Polly but looked more. When I mentioned this Polly replied, "It's the life she's led." She did not mention Him because he was dead, and when people died, I realized, their sins were washed away by the all-important respect; but I knew it was life with Him that had aged Eff beyond her years. I was surprised, for she did not seem to be the sort of woman who could be easily cowed, even by Him. She was like Polly in many ways; she had the same shrewd outlook on life and the sort of confidence that declared that none was going to get the better of her before anyone had attempted to do so. During my brief stay I recognized the same outlook in others. It was what is referred to as the cockney spirit; and it certainly seemed to be a product of the streets of London.
That visit was a great revelation to me. I felt I had entered a different world. It excited me. Polly was part of it and I wanted to know more of it.
Eff was a little nervous of me at first. She kept apologizing for things. "Not what you're used to, I'm sure," until Polly said, "Don't you worry about Drusilla, Eff. Me and her get on like a house afire, don't we?" I assured Eff that we did.
Every now and then Polly and Eff would laugh and then remember Him lying in state in the front parlor.
"He makes a lovely corpse," said Eff. "Mrs. Brown came in to lay him out and she's done a good job on him."
We sat in the kitchen and talked about him. I did not recognize him as the monster of the past; I was about to remind Polly of this, but when I attempted to, she gave me a little kick under the table to remind me in time of the respect owed to the dead.
I shared a room with Polly. We lay in bed that first night and talked about funerals and how they hadn't known how ill He had been until He had been "took sudden." I was comforted in this strange house to be close to Polly, because below us in the parlor lay "the corpse."
The great day came. Vaguely I remember now those solemn undertakers in their top hats and black coats, the plumed horses, the coffin, "genuine oak with real brass fittings," as Eff proudly explained.
It was piled with flowers. Eff had given him "The Gates of Heaven Ajar," which I thought a little optimistic for one of his reputation-before death, that was. Polly and I had hurried to the flower shop and bought a wreath in the shape of a harp which seemed hardly suitable either. But I was learning that death changed everything.
There was a solemn service, with Eff being supported on one side by Polly and on the other by Mr. Branley, to whom she let rooms in the house. She drooped and kept touching her eyes with a black-bordered handkerchief. I began to think that Polly had not told me the truth about Him.
There were ham sandwiches and sherry, which were taken in the parlor-blinds now drawn up and looking quite different without the coffin-a little prim and unlived-in, but without the funereal gloom.
I learned that there was a great bond between Polly and Eff, though they might be a little critical of each other-Polly of Eff for marrying Him and Eff of Polly because she had "gone into service." Father, Eff hinted, would never have approved of that. Mind you, Eff conceded, it was a special sort of service and Polly was almost one of the family, with that rector who never seemed to know whether he was standing on his head or his heels, and Eff admitted that I was "a nice little thing."
I gathered that Eff was in no financial difficulties. Polly told me that it was Eff who had kept things going in the house on the common. He hadn't worked for years because of his Chest. Eff had taken lodgers. The Branleys had been with her for two years and they were more like friends than tenants. One day, of course, when the little nipper grew up they would have to consider getting a place of their own with a garden, but just now the Branleys were safe.
I realized that Eff's fondness for the Branleys was largely due to "the nipper." The nipper was six months old and he dribbled and bawled without reason. Eff allowed them to keep his perambulator in the hall-a great concession of which Father would never have approved-and Mrs. Branley would bring him down so that he could have his airing in the garden. Eff liked that; and I gathered so did Polly. When he lay in his pram Eff would find some excuse to go into the garden and gaze at him. If he were crying-which was often-they would babble nonsense at him: "Didums want his Mumums then?" or something like that, which sounded so strange on their lips, as they were both what Mrs. Janson would have called "sharp tongued." They were completely changed by this baby.
It occurred to me that the great lack in the lives of both Polly and Eff was a baby of their own. Babies seemed to be very desirable creatures-even Fabian had wanted one.
I remember very well an occasion two days after the funeral. Polly and I were going back to the rectory the next day. Polly had been making the most of our last day and she had taken me "up West," which meant the west end of London.
We were in the kitchen. I was seated by the fire and I was so sleepy that I dozed off.
Vaguely I heard Polly say, "Look at Drusilla. She's half asleep already. Well, we did a bit of traipsing about, I can tell you." Then I really did doze.
I awoke suddenly. Eff and Polly were at the table, a big brown earthenware teapot between them.
Eff was saying, "I reckon I could take two more people in here."
"I don't know what Father would have said, you taking in lodgers."
"They call them paying guests...in the sort of place I'll have. Did you know, Poll, the Martins next door are going and I reckon I could take on that place."
"More paying guests, of course. I reckon I could make a real business out of this, Poll."
"I reckon you could."
"Mind you-I'd need help."
"What'll you do...get someone to come in with you?"
"I'd want somebody I know. Somebody I could trust."
"What about you, Poll?"
There was a long silence. I was quite wide awake now.
"The two of us would make a regular go of this," said Eff. "It would be a nice little venture. You in service...well, you know Father would never have liked that."
"I wouldn't leave Drusilla. She means a lot to me, that child."
"Nice little thing. No beauty...but she's sharp and I reckon she's got a way with her."
"Sh!" said Polly.
She looked in my direction and I immediately closed my eyes.
"Well, that won't go on forever, Poll. I reckon sisters ought to stick together."
"Well, if it wasn't for her I'd be with you like a shot, Eff."
"You like the sound of it, do you?"
"I'd like to be here. The country's dead dull. I like a bit of life."
"Don't I know that. Always did, always will. That's you, Poll."
"While she wants me I'll be there."
"You think about it, that's all. You don't want to be at the beck and call of others all your life. You was never one for that."
"Oh, there's not much of the beck and call there, Eff. He's soft...and she's like my own."
"Well, it would be a good life. The two of us working together."
"It's nice to know you're there, Eff."
So a new fear had come into my life. There would come a day when I would lose Polly.
"Polly," I said to her that night when we had retired. "You won't go away from me, will you?"
"What you talking about?"
"You might go in with Eff."
"Here! Who's been listening to what she wasn't meant to? Pretending to be asleep. I know. I rumbled you."
"But you won't, will you, Polly?"
"No. I'll be there as long as I'm wanted."
I hugged her, holding her tightly for fear she would escape from me.
It would be a long time before I forgot Eff's holding out the bait of freedom to Polly.