Ramona Pores Over Remnants of Clive Family Past, Arranges Visits to Church, and Finds Herself Struck by the Strangeness of Beauty in Unexpected Places; Millicent and Molly Have a Shockingly Awful Exchange Unperturbed
Gradually, over my weeks at Helvstead, I grew more comfortable. I began creeping beyond my usual range of the morning and sitting rooms to make my way up to the salon on the second floor. During the empty hours between luncheon and tea, I took to heading to the upstairs parlor, where I prowled about, investigating the repository of forgotten Clive treasure: pearl-inlayed opera glasses, Chinese paper fans; clusters of nests; ribbons and trophies from Millicent’s equine exploits; a cracked magnifying glass (could it be, I thought, holding it up to the light, Reggie’s?); medals from the Crimean war (the beginning of the end of the Clive dynasty, as seven heirs had died); Roman coins; geodes with jagged purple teeth, souvenirs from Millicent’s first honeymoon in New York, ivory carvings, mortar and pestles, porcelain figurines of courtly ladies. The walls were similarly crammed. Pictures of fruit, cheese and dead rabbits, picnics, masquerade balls, kings, queens; a very forgiving etching of Helvstead, a lovely pastoral I suspected to be a Constable. Statuettes sat in desultory clusters on the tables: an elephant in headdress; a marble bust of Nero, Egyptian cats and lapis lazuli scarabs.
There were groves of framed photographs, mostly formal portraits from engagements, christenings, military portraits. Photo albums sagged the shelves, weddings, Victorian memory books, baby books and the like. I might heft an album on my lap, flip through the pages, gazing at relations I’d never known nor heard of, to view snaps from parties, holidays in the Alps with girls in pinafores, men in old-fashioned swimsuits. I glanced at one of my uncle, Millicent’s father, young, blond head shining, waving a lobster at the camera. Molly in her early forties, hair still untouched by gray, very pretty and very pregnant, recognizable really only by her preternaturally penetrating gaze and her uniform, exactly the same as it was now. There were snaps of my aunt and uncle, and my aunt’s wintry face still caused a frisson of fear in the pit of my stomach. Millicent’s habitual childhood expression, however, of scorn, mischief and disdain, so frightening to me as a girl, inspired no terror now, although I remembered the sensation well enough. Millicent’s riding triumphs had been recorded, picture after picture of horses standing sleekly obedient next to her. There were also photos of her, rather a lot in fact, with a dark-haired girl I didn’t recognize,mostly around stables or equine contests. The girl seemed to be beaming with the childlike joy of a friend’s proximity, standing by Millicent who held a trophy. The girl was lovely, with something shy about her averted gaze. Next to her, Millicent dominated the picture, in a deliberate and dangerously apt imitation of her mother’s hauteur. Then a great deal of views from the stables, where Millicent seemed to pitch-in, full stop, filling feedbags, helping to move a lame horse from one stall to another, Millicent standing next to the same dark-haired girl and a mustachioed man, Millicent tying a rope around a bandy-legged foal, helping to hoist it.
My favorite album chronicled Millicent evolving from an elegant girl into that rarest of creatures, an elegant adolescent. Millicent on sailboats, at the mast, crouched over ropes, laughing. Then more of her riding triumphs holding trophies; in the latter the same dark-haired girl stood behind Millicent. I scanned her face with interest, attention: if I had known about her I’d have been envious.
Sometimes, after these prowlings about the upstairs room, I’d watch the afternoon light wane, the shadows pooling about the base of the trees in ever-deepening circles, till the sun fell under the line of woods and everything was blanketed in a crepuscular haze that seemed particular to Helvstead: vague, bluish, rather depressing. I had an urge to leave the room before I’d need to turn on a light, and did so, heading downstairs to face the evening.
The question of photos came up a few weeks later, at the breakfast table. I had already filled my plate from the chafing dishes, as Millicent had expressly told me not to wait, but consuming what I’d culled for eating before her arrival was more than I could manage. I heard her tread on the stairs, and hastily reached for a triangle of toast so as to at least pretend I went ahead.
“Here. Take a look,” A small box slid toward me, cruising to a stop at my teacup and emanating the scent of mothballs. “I found it rummaging about for my wool vest. Mummy’s. She got pack-rattish in the end.” Millicent slathered her toast with marmalade. “Go on, then.”
Inside lay photographs. Millicent, impatient with blinking regard, pulled one round with deft fingers, holding it like toast, by the edges. “Honestly. Who are these people? Well, that’s mummy, as a girl. She almost looks human, what do you know. This giant next to her with enormous mustache. Can you imagine that coming at you at the end of an evening—never mind!—forgotten the virtuous company I’m in. But who is he? Nothing but‘1899’ on the far side. Fat lot of good that does. Probably isn’t even a relation for Christ’s sake and—” she stopped seeing the recognition on my face.
“You recognize him, don’t you?”
I squinted. “I believe that’s—yes, your Great-Uncle Minton.”
“How on earth did you—goodness, I believe you’re right. Put that down—why are you reading that ancient copy of Tattler, anyway?—and tell me—how did you know?”
I blinked, stupidly. “Why, I don’t know.”
“I know you couldn’t have met him—Mummy was—well Mummy would have been a snob about such things.”
“I suppose I’ve spent time looking through the old albums. In the parlor, upstairs. They are well-marked—”
“And from that you recognized him?”
I thought she was going to commend me on my acumen. I nodded.
“Good Christ, Ramona,” she recoiled. “Is that how you’ve been spending your time here, brooding over the family photos?”
“Not really, Millicent. I mean, not entirely.”
She held up another snap. “Who’s this?”
“Who is it?”
“Well. Oh…ehm…your great-great-grandmother Newscombe.”
“And here—this one. Go on,” she urged.
“Uncle Roderick and his gamekeeper.”
“Yes. Hmmm…actually, I think I remember that old renegade. A pincher. Now this one. Bit of a tart, isn’t she? No, I suppose the frock is all-too-carefully-tasteful for that. But the look in her eye—furtive, yes? One of the parlor maids? Seems they were always off having intrigues by the seashore.”
I pulled my spoon through my porridge. “That is my mother, actually.”
“Aunt Sarah!” she cried. “Ah. So it is.” She tossed the snap on the table. “Well, that’s torn it.”
“It’s all right, Millicent.”
“Is it?” She looked doubtful, but not remotely distressed or defensive.
She considered. “Don’t you know, there aren’t really many photos of your Mum. A bloody million of Daddy. But I’ve seen—three—if that many of your mother.”
I shrugged as if it mattered little. She was right, though. I wanted the photo, and badly.
“Well, Ramona, you really must do something with yourself besides brooding over the family albums. Yet another thing I must take in hand, apparently. We must get you out.”
A distinct trill of panic coursed through my chest. “Millicent. I appreciate your concern, but I’m quite well occupied. And not everyone would consider it so…disturbing for someone to pass the time with a few old family photos.”
“Perhaps. You must swear thought, that you won’t get genealogically—consumed, Ramona. Hanging around in the family mausoleum, dragging the family crest into every conversation. Grubbing about in library archives.”
Involuntarily, I felt myself smile at this vision of myself demented by ancestral obsession. “Is there some deep dark secret you don’t want me plunging into?”
“If only there were. The Clives are most disappointing on that score. No, it’s the perversion of it that I detest. Now you’re laughing at me—yes, you are, you’re not as good at hiding it as you think you are—but I tell you, I won’t abide such nonsense.”
“I swear on my honor and as your nearest relation to have no particular or pressing interest in the history of the Clives.”
“Well, you’re lying, but perhaps not too much, darling,” Millicent said, her ‘darling’ a flick of the whip.
Her attention turned to the newspaper. I’d grown more accustomed to a subject opening without warning only to be dropped without preamble but it still disconcerted me.
She spoke without raising her eyes, turning a page. “So what should I do today, Ramona? Riding or golf with that nasty-minded Lord Haverton that’s been following me around this fortnight? Or shall I sit with you staring at old albums of Clive family snaps for the whole bloody afternoon?”
“I think if you were searching for your old wool vest, Millicent, you’ll be going riding.”
“Mmm…perhaps. Goodness, is old ‘Hapsie’ in trouble with the parliamentary review again? Charles always does say he’s a rotter. Hmmm. So what’ll it be, Ramona?”
Stealthily, I slid my mother’s picture in my pocket. “In any case, I’m sure you’ll do what you like, Millicent.”
The paper dropped. “Aren’t you cheeky. What do you know of my life then?”
“Goodness. Cheeky? I don’t think anyone’s ever called me that.”
“I don’t believe it. They just don’t know you well enough,” she picked up her toast, and waggled it at me. “You’re a sly one Ramona. You’ll never get me to believe any different.”
It might be considered an odd thing to be rusticating amidst three thousand five hundred acres of the finest English countryside and rarely venture out. But as a frail child, prone to illness and allergies, and often kept indoors to watch over an even frailer parent, I hadn’t developed an inclination for the usual country activities, rambles, riding or picniqing. I didn’t know how to drive a car nor ride a bicycle and dreaded going into the town of Clive Cross, where there were plenty, I suspected, with long memories including those of my mother. And the need to imagine myself useful kept me inside, which would have thoroughly irritated Millicent, if she’d been aware of the extent of it. A weekly jaunt to church however could be justified. Arranged by the excellent women of the parish, a Miss Caruthers came to shepherd me to St. Anne’s every week. I knew Miss Caruthers to be a spinster, much admired for her needlepoint, and her dedication to her employer the Dowager Cherbourg-Bales, nominally as a private secretary, but really the last of that venerable institution, the paid companion. And, so, exactly at nine, she would pull round in the antediluvian black Daimler of her employer, craning to see if my curtains were open. She had a horror of oversleeping, something I imagined (correctly, as it turned out) to do with the stringency of her employer.
Miss Caruthers was exactly the industrious, uncomplaining, conscientious woman one might have imagined. But here was an unexpected thing, one that no one had been mentioned: Miss Caruthers was a great beauty. Strange, the way nature sprinkles these gifts. Any mother of the finest families in the county would have wished Miss Caruthers’ romantic looks for their daughters. Still, as unlikely as it seems, it was easily missed. She was perhaps a little past forty, not always the age most associated with shining pulchritude. Her clothes were as shapeless, dowdy and penny-pinched as my own, and she often wore a pea-green cape of such an unflattering cut and color it could have made Helen of Troy look bilious. Her shoes sat lumpishly on her feet, disguising the shape of her legs; her squat green-brown hat hid her hair, and obscured the shape of her face. But it was her perpetual squint, behind large gold pince-nez, eyes kindly and blinking like some poor-sighted animal—cruelly imitated by the altar boys—that made it hard to reconcile her with anything other than plainness.
Yet a rare beauty was there to observe: dark gold hair fell in heavy burnished waves; a delicate profile with very large eyes that fairly could be described as emerald-coloured; a small, neat nose with a piquant tilt at the tip, a pink mouth of a refined yet sumptuous shape. Her skin had a golden tint, with delicate flushed cheeks and she had that rare of English gifts, white, straight teeth. Her figure too, if one observed what lay beneath the dreadful clothes, was nothing less than willowy, with no spinster stringiness or lumpishness to be found.
I sometimes felt it was as if a magic trick had taken human form with Miss Caruthers, a ravishing woman had been transformed to dowdiness. Having been humbled by my looks since childhood, Miss Caruthers’ obliviousness to her own fascinated me. But I saw no deliberate obfuscation, the way some girls, uncomfortable with the attention or competition they attract, obscure themselves. Miss Caruthers referred to missionary parents in the Congo, and I wondered if exposure to famine and illness rendered beauty unimportant, undesirable, or even, most fascinating at all, irrelevant.
“I hope you didn’t wake late then?” Miss Caruthers would probe after I slid in the car and we exchanged our good mornings. “Oh, good. And a nice breakfast? Ah. Lovely.”
I liked Miss Caruthers. We may have had only the most conventional sort of conversations, but I found her gentle manner, immune to gossip, reassuring. I couldn’t make the same claim for myself, but I’d become good in detecting it in others.
It was around the time I attended St. Anne’s I took up smoking. I’d had the odd cigarette in London, but between rations and perpetual impecunity, it had been rare treat. Smoking had similar virtues to newspaper reading: not only was it an immediate pleasure, the very act demonstrated a reassuring distance from my old life. It also provided a means to occupy the morning that wouldn’t conclude, afternoons that refused to budge any closer to tea.
Lifting the lid of the heavy silver box that had sat in the same place since childhood visits to Helvstead, I relished the sight of cigarettes, lined in neat soldierly order. My father maintained smoking a weakness, and no matter what the adverts said, not remotely health activity. I, on the other hand, couldn’t find an aspect of smoking I disliked; I only wished I could have done so years earlier.
Millicent seemed amused to find me with a cigarette in hand, but said nothing. This was somehow typical of her: when I thought she might really lambaste me with some humiliating remark, she would say nothing. Perhaps it was simply she was encouraged by any sign that could be construed as the beginning of a slide into perdition.
“Don’t you ever leave the house?” Molly snapped one afternoon, bustling about me, having descended upon Helvstead for one of her surprise visits. “You’re not a prisoner here are you gerl?”
Thinking of my promise to take a firm line, I managed to squelch the apology that sprung to my lips. “Of course not, Molly—”
“But what do you do all day? Sit, reading the papers, smoking, reading these old serials, for some mad reason. Is that all you have to do with yourself? Are you gormless like your mother?”
“Molly, do stop,” said Millicent from the doorway, tossing her hat on the table. “I’ve had the most wretched afternoon at Ronnie and Bilby’s, and I’m simply not in the mood your horrid spewing.”
“Oh I’m horrid, am I?” said Molly. “That’s a nice way to speak to your Nursie.”
“Well, my old Nursie is an old termagant. Now why don’t you behave like an actual housekeeper, and tidy your way out of here and leave me—and poor Ramona, who you’ve been doing your best to bully—alone. Or bring us tea, if you want to so something useful.”
“You don’t fool me for an instant. You’re up to no good.” Molly ticked her chin in my direction. “What did you ask her here for, anyway? You never liked her.”
Stung, I felt my cheeks flush.
“I didn’t like anybody very much, if you’ll remember. I don’t now, for that matter,” Millicent said, picking up the Times. “You really are in fine fettle today, Molly. Did you find a silver server with a nick in it or something?”
“If I did, I’d be the only one left to care. It’s a sin how you treat this place.”
“You must let go of this dreadful attachment of yours to Helvtstead, Molly. Really, I’ve told you a hundred times. You might pray to that God you’re always blatting about.”
“You best not joke about our Lord and Savior. Oh, Satan’s got his claws in you.”
“So you say…” Millicent said, turning a page. “With nauseating repetition. Now, my tea, you old witch? Could you possibly trouble yourself?”
“The Lord is coming Millicent Clive, and he will have his vengeance.”
Millicent turned to me. “Do you see what I am asked to tolerate? Ronnie and Bilby never have to put up with this nonsense.”
“That’s because Mrs. April is a worthless slattern,” Molly said.
“She is rather bad,” Millicent conceded. “Actually, she’s damn awful. Don’t believe I got a decent meal or any other than lukewarm bath at New Year’s. Molly would have had that place running like a top: breakfast at eight, scorching hot water, shoes polished every night. And cheese scones.” It was nearly impossible to tell in the mix of affection, approbation, derision and mockery what predominated. “Molly could whip any of these estates into shape. Even if she is an old as the hills and long past the time a sensible person might have mercy on us all and retire.”
“I do what needs to be done, as I will until Jesus sees fit to take me,” Molly said.
“Let it be soon,” Millicent said in a mock prayer.
“Are you saying I’m old and useless, you don’t need me anymore, you foolish chit?”
I thought Millicent had said a good deal more, but kept my face studiously blank.
“We haven’t needed you for the last twenty-five years, Molly, but you seem to not have noticed,” Millicent said.
“Not so, Milly girl. But I have seen how all the great houses aren’t what they once was. England is going to the dogs.”
“Here it comes…” Millicent sang.
“The foreigners running around the country now, it makes a person sick. And the upstarts buying the peerages. Disgusting. And you, Miss Millie, with your fine family, wasting your time on silly parties, squandering your fortune, committing foul acts of adultery—”
“Molly, whatever can you be imagining England’s finest have been doing for the last thousand years?”
“Go ahead, be clever—doesn’t change a thing! You’re a Jezebel. You’ll see your sins written in hell.”
Millicent yawned. “You are aware you’re a religious maniac Molly darling, or is this merely what you do to appear interesting? What do you think, Ramona?”
Never in my life had I heard people saying such dreadful things to each other with such familiarity and ease; it was mesmerizing. It took a moment to register Millicent was speaking to me.
“I’m sorry,” I roused myself. “What did you say?”
“Never mind. Listen, Molly, pretend to be an old dear and get us some tea, will you? Oh, might as well whip a batch of those cheese scones, eh? Scrumptious!”
And, then, to my infinite surprise: Molly bustled off to the kitchen. In half hour, we had scones, piping hot and as delicious as the smell that preceded them.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com