“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other to find a post in keeping with her gentility.”
As the train carried me through wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taking this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.
I pictured myself as I must appear to my fellow travelers if they bothered to glance my way, which was not very likely: a young woman of medium height, already past her first youth, being twenty-four years old, in a brown merino dress with cream lace collar and little tufts of lace at the cuffs. (Cream being so much more serviceable than white, as Aunt Adelaide told me.) My black cape was unbuttoned at the throat because it was hot in the carriage, and my brown velvet bonnet, tied with brown velvet ribbons under my chin, was of the sort which was so becoming to feminine people like my sister Phillida but, I always felt, sat a little incongruously on heads like mine. My hair was thick with a coppery tinge, parted in the center, brought down at the sides of my too-long face, and made into a cumbersome knot to project behind the bonnet. My eyes were large, in some lights the color of amber, and were my best feature; but they were too bold—so said Aunt Adelaide; which meant that they had learned none of the feminine graces which were so becoming to a woman. My nose was too short, my mouth too wide. In fact, I thought, nothing seemed to fit; and I must resign myself to journeys such as this when I travel to and from the various posts which I shall occupy for the rest of my life, since it is necessary for me to earn a living, and I shall never achieve the first of those alternatives: a husband.
We had passed through the green meadows of Somerset and were now deep in the moorland and wooded hills of Devon. I had been told to take good note of that masterpiece of bridgebuilding, Mr. Brunel’s bridge, which spanned the Tamar at Saltash and, after crossing which, I should have left England behind me and have passed into the Duchy of Cornwall.
I was becoming rather ridiculously excited about crossing the bridge. I was not a fanciful woman at this time—perhaps I changed later, but then a stay in a house like Mount Mellyn was enough to make the most practical of people fanciful—so I could not understand why I should feel this extraordinary excitement.
It was absurd, I told myself. Mount Mellyn may be a magnificent mansion; Connan TreMellyn may be as romantic as his name sounds; but that will be no concern of yours. You will be confined to below stairs, or perhaps to the attics above stairs, concerned only with the care of little Alvean.
What strange names these people had! I thought, staring out of the window. There was sun on the moorland but the gray tors in the distance looked oddly menacing. They were like petrified people.
This family to which I was going was Cornish, and the Cornish had a language of their own. Perhaps my own name, Martha Leigh, would sound odd to them. Martha! It always gave me a shock when I heard it. Aunt Adelaide always used it, but at home when my father had been alive he and Phillida never thought of calling me Martha. I was always Marty. I could not help feeling that Marty was a more lovable person than Martha could ever be, and I was sad and a little frightened because I felt that the river Tamar would cut me off completely from Marty for a long time. In my new post I should be Miss Leigh, I supposed; perhaps miss, or more undignified still—Leigh.
One of Aunt Adelaide’s numerous friends had heard of “Connan TreMellyn’s predicament.” He needed the right person to help him out of his difficulties. She must be patient enough to care for his daughter, sufficiently educated to teach her, and genteel enough for the child not to suffer through the proximity of someone who was not quite of her own class. Obviously what Connan TreMellyn needed was an impoverished gentlewoman. Aunt Adelaide decided that I fitted the bill.
When our father, who had been vicar of a country parsonage, had died, Aunt Adelaide had swooped on us and taken us to London. There should be a season, she told us, for twenty-year-old Martha and eighteen-year-old Phillida. Phillida had married at the end of that season; but after four years of living with Aunt Adelaide, I had not. So there came a day when she pointed out the two courses to me.
I glanced out of the window. We were drawing into Plymouth. My fellow passengers had alighted and I sat back in my seat watching the activities on the platform.
As the guard was blowing his whistle and we were about to move on, the door of the carriage opened and a man came in. He looked at me with an apologetic smile as though he were hinting that he hoped I did not mind sharing the compartment with him, but I averted my eyes.
When we had left Plymouth and were approaching the bridge, he said: “You like our bridge, eh?”
I turned and looked at him.
I saw a man, a little under thirty, well dressed, but in the manner of the country gentleman. His tail coat was dark blue, his trousers gray; and his hat was what in London we called a “pot hat” because of its resemblance to that vessel. This hat he had laid on the seat beside him. I thought him somewhat dissipated, with brown eyes that twinkled ironically as though he were fully aware of the warnings I must have received about the inadvisability of entering into conversation with strange men.
I answered: “Yes, indeed. I think it is a very fine piece of workmanship.”
He smiled. We had crossed the bridge and entered Cornwall.
His brown eyes surveyed me and I was immediately conscious of my somewhat drab appearance. I thought: He is only interested in me because there is no one else to claim his attention. I remembered then that Phillida had once said I put people off by presuming, when they showed interest, that it was because no one else was available. “See yourself as a makeshift,” was Phillida’s maxim, “and you’ll be one.”
“Traveling far?” he asked.
“I believe I have now only a short distance to go. I leave the train at Liskeard.”
“Ah, Liskeard.” He stretched his legs and turned his gaze from me to the tips of his boots. “You have come from London?” he went on.
“Yes,” I answered.
“You’ll miss the gaiety of the big city.”
“I once lived in the country, so I know what to expect.”
“Are you staying in Liskeard?”
I was not sure that I liked this catechism, but I remembered Phillida again: “You’re far too gruff, Marty, with the opposite sex. You scare them off.”
I decided I could at least be civil, so I answered: “No, not in Liskeard. I’m going to a little village on the coast called Mellyn.”
“I see.” He was silent for a few moments and once more turned his attention to the tips of his boots.
His next words startled me. “I suppose a sensible young lady like you would not believe in second sight … and that sort of thing?”
“Why …” I stammered. “What an extraordinary question!”
“May I look at your palm?”
I hesitated and regarded him suspiciously. Could I offer my hand to a stranger in this way? Aunt Adelaide would suspect that some nefarious advances were about to be made. I thought in this case she might be right. After all, I was a woman, and the only available one.
He smiled. “I assure you that my only desire is to look into the future.”
“But I don’t believe in such things.”
“Let me look anyway.” He leaned forward and with a swift movement secured my hand.
He held it lightly, scarcely touching it, contemplating it with his head on one side.
“I see,” he said, “that you have come to a turning point in your life. You are moving into a strange new world which is entirely different from anything you have known before. You will have to exercise caution … the utmost caution.”
I smiled cynically. “You see me taking a journey. What would you say if I told you I was visiting relatives and could not possibly be moving into your strange new world?”
“I should say you were not a very truthful young lady.” His smile was puckish. I could not help feeling a little liking for him. I thought he was a somewhat irresponsible person, but he was very lighthearted and, being in his company, to some extent made me share that lightheartedness. “No,” he went on, “you are traveling to a new life, a new post. There’s no mistake about that. Before, you lived a secluded life in the country; then you went to the town.”
“I believe I implied that.”
“You did not need to imply it. But it is not the past which concerns us on occasions like this, is it? It is the future.”
“Well, what of the future?”
“You are going to a strange house, a house full of shadows. You will have to walk warily in that house, Miss … er …”
He waited, but I did not supply what he was asking for, and he went on: “You have to earn your living. I see a child there and a man … Perhaps it is the child’s father. They are wrapped in shadows. There is someone else there … but perhaps she is already dead.”
It was the deep sepulchral note in his voice rather than the words he said which momentarily unnerved me.
I snatched my hand away. “What nonsense!” I said.
He ignored me and half closed his eyes. Then he went on: “You will need to watch little Alice, and your duties will extend beyond the care of her. You must most certainly beware of Alice.”
I felt a faint tingling which began at the base of my spine and seemed to creep up to my neck. This, I supposed, was what is known as making one’s flesh creep.
Little Alice! But her name was not Alice. It was Alvean. It had unnerved me for the moment because it had sounded similar.
Then I felt irritated and a little angry. Did I look the part then? Was it possible that I already carried the mark of the penurious gentlewoman forced to take the only course open to her? A governess!
Was he laughing at me? He lay back against the upholstery of the carriage, his eyes still closed. I looked out of the window as though he and his ridiculous fortune-telling were not of the slightest interest to me.
He opened his eyes then and took out his watch. He studied it gravely, for all the world as though this extraordinary conversation had not taken place between us.
“In four minutes’ time,” he said briskly, “we shall pull into Liskeard. Allow me to assist you with your bags.”
He took them down from the rack. “Miss Martha Leigh,” was clearly written on the labels, “Mount Mellyn, Mellyn, Cornwall.”
He did not appear to glance at these labels and I felt that he had lost interest in me.
When we came into the station, he alighted and set my bags on the platform. Then he took off the hat which he had set upon his head when he picked up the bags, and with a deep bow he left me.
While I was murmuring my thanks I saw an elderly man coming toward me, calling: “Miss Leigh! Miss Leigh! Be you Miss Leigh then?” And for the moment I forgot about my traveling companion.
I was facing a merry little man with a brown, wrinkled skin and eyes of reddish brown; he wore a corduroy jacket and a sugar-loaf hat which he had pushed to the back of his head and seemed to have forgotten. Ginger hair sprouted from under this, and his brows and mustaches were of the same gingery color.
“Well, miss,” he said, “so I picked you out then. Be these your bags? Give them to me. You and me and old Cherry Pie ’ull soon be home.”
He took my bags and I walked behind him, but he soon fell into step beside me.
“Is the house far from here?” I asked.
“Old Cherry Pie’ll carry us there all in good time,” he answered, as he loaded my bags into the trap and I climbed in beside him.
He seemed to be a garrulous man and I could not resist the temptation of trying to discover, before I arrived, something about the people among whom I was going to live.
I said: “This house, Mount Mellyn, sounds as though it’s on a hill.”
“Well, ‘tis built on a cliff top, facing the sea, and the gardens run down to the sea. Mount Mellyn and Mount Widden are like twins. Two houses, standing defiant-like, daring the sea to come and take ’em. But they’m built on firm rock.”
“So there are two houses,” I said. “We have near neighbors.”
“In a manner of speaking. Nansellocks, they who are at Mount Widden, have been there these last two hundred years. They be separated from us by more than a mile, and there’s Mellyn Cove in between. The families have always been good neighbors until—”
He stopped and I prompted: “Until … ?”
“You’ll hear fast enough,” he answered.
I thought it was beneath my dignity to probe into such matters, so I changed the subject. “Do they keep many servants?” I asked.
“There be me and Mrs. Tapperty and my girls, Daisy and Kitty. We live in the rooms over the stables. In the house there’s Mrs. Polgrey and Tom Polgrey and young Gilly. Not that you’d call her a servant. But they have her there and she passes for such.”
“Gilly!” I said. “That’s an unusual name.”
“Gillyflower. Reckon Jennifer Polgrey was a bit daft to give her a name like that. No wonder the child’s what she is.”
“Jennifer? Is that Mrs. Polgrey?”
“Nay! Jennifer was Mrs. Polgrey’s girl. Great dark eyes and the littlest waist you ever saw. Kept herself to herself until one day she goes lying in the hay—or maybe the gillyflowers—with someone. Then, before we know where we are, little Gilly’s arrived; as for Jennifer—her just walked into the sea one morning. We reckoned there wasn’t much doubt who Gilly’s father was.”
I said nothing and, disappointed by my lack of interest, he went on: “She wasn’t the first. We knowed her wouldn’t be the last. Geoffry Nansellock left a trail of bastards wherever he went.” He laughed and looked sideways at me. “No need for you to look so prim, miss. He can’t hurt you. Ghosts can’t hurt a young lady, and that’s all Master Geoffry Nansellock is now … nothing more than a ghost.”
“So he’s dead too. He didn’t … walk into the sea after Jennifer?”
That made Tapperty chuckle. “Not him. He was killed in a train accident. You must have heard of that accident. It was just as the train was running out of Plymouth. It ran off the lines and over a bank. The slaughter was terrible. Mr. Geoff, he were on that train, and up to no good on it either. But that was the end of him.”
“Well, I shall not meet him, but I shall meet Gillyflower, I suppose. And is that all the servants?”
“There be odd boys and girls—some for the gardens, some for the stables, some in the house. But it ain’t what it was. Things have changed since the mistress died.”
“Mr. TreMellyn is a very sad man, I suppose.”
Tapperty lifted his shoulders.
“How long is it since she died?” I asked.
“It would be little more than a year, I reckon.”
“And he has only just decided that he needs a governess for little Miss Alvean?”
“There have been three governesses so far. You be the fourth. They don’t stay, none of them. Miss Bray and Miss Garrett, they said the place was too quiet for them. There was Miss Jansen—a real pretty creature. But she was sent away. She took what didn’t belong to her. ’Twas a pity. We all liked her. She seemed to look on it as a privilege to live in Mount Mellyn. Old houses were her hobby, she used to tell us. Well, it seemed she had other hobbies besides, so out she went.”
I turned my attention to the countryside. It was late August and, as we passed through lanes with banks on either side, I caught occasional glimpses of fields of corn among which poppies and pimpernels grew; now and then we passed a cottage of gray Cornish stone which looked grim, I thought, and lonely.
I had my first glimpse of the sea through a fold in the hills, and I felt my spirits lifted. It seemed that the nature of the landscape changed. Flowers seemed to grow more plentifully on the banks; I could smell the scent of pine trees; and fuchsias grew by the roadside, their blossoms bigger than any we had ever been able to cultivate in our vicarage garden.
We turned off the road from a steep hill and went down and down nearer the sea. I saw that we were on a cliff road. Before us stretched a scene of breathtaking beauty. The cliff rose steep and straight from the sea on that indented coast; grasses and flowers grew there, and I saw sea pinks and red and white valerian mingling with the heather—rich, deep, purple heather.
At length we came to the house. It was like a castle, I thought, standing there on the cliff plateau—built of granite like many houses I had seen in these parts, but grand and noble—a house which had stood for several hundred years, and would stand for several hundred more.
“All this land belongs to the master,” said Tapperty with pride. “And if you look across the cove, you’ll see Mount Widden.”
I did look, and saw the house. Like Mount Mellyn it was built of gray stone. It was smaller in every way and of a later period. I did not give it much attention because now we were approaching Mount Mellyn, and that was obviously the house which was more interesting to me.
We had climbed to the plateau and a pair of intricately wrought-iron gates confronted us.
“Open up there!” shouted Tapperty.
There was a small lodge beside the gates and at the door sat a woman knitting.
“Now, Gilly girl,” she said, “you go and open the gates and save me poor old legs.”
Then I saw the child who had been sitting at the old woman’s feet. She rose obediently and came to the gate. She was an extraordinary-looking girl with long straight hair almost white in color and wide blue eyes.
“Thanks, Gilly girl,” said Tapperty as Cherry Pie went happily through the gates. “This be miss, who’s come to live here and take care of Miss Alvean.”
I looked into a pair of blank blue eyes which stared at me with an expression impossible to fathom. The old woman came up to the gate and Tapperty said: “This be Mrs. Soady.”
“Good day to you,” said Mrs. Soady. “I hope you’ll be happy here along of us.”
“Thank you,” I answered, forcing my gaze away from the child to the woman. “I hope so.”
“Well, I do hope so,” added Mrs. Soady. Then she shook her head as though she feared her hopes were somewhat futile.
I turned to look at the child but she had disappeared. I wondered where she had gone, and the only place I could imagine was behind the bushes of hydrangeas which were bigger than any hydrangeas I had ever seen, and of deep blue, almost the color of the sea on this day.
“The child didn’t speak,” I observed as we went on up the drive.
“No. Her don’t talk much. Sing, her do. Wander about on her own. But talk … not much.”
The drive was about half a mile in length and on either side of it the hydrangeas bloomed. Fuchsias mingled with them, and I caught glimpses of the sea between the pine trees. Then I saw the house. Before it was a wide lawn where two peacocks strutted before a peahen, their almost incredibly lovely tails fanned out behind them. Another sat perched on a stone wall; and there were two palm trees, tall and straight, one on either side of the porch.
The house was larger than I had thought when I had seen it from the cliff path. It was of three stories, but long and built in an L-shape. The sun caught the glass of the mullioned windows and I immediately had the impression that I was being watched.
Tapperty took the gravel approach to the front porch and when we reached it, the door opened and I saw a woman standing there. She wore a white cap on her gray hair; she was tall, with a hooked nose and, as she had an obviously dominating manner, I did not need to be told that she was Mrs. Polgrey.
“I trust you’ve had a good journey, Miss Leigh,” she said.
“Very good, thank you,” I told her.
“And worn out and needing a rest, I’ll be bound. Come along in. You shall have a nice cup of tea in my room. Leave your bags. I’ll have them taken up.”
I felt relieved. This woman dispelled the eerie feeling which had begun, I realized, when I encountered the man in the train. Joe Tapperty had done little to disperse it, with his tales of death and suicide. But Mrs. Polgrey was a woman who would stand no nonsense, I was sure of that. She seemed to emit common sense, and perhaps because I was fatigued by the long journey I was pleased about this.
I thanked her and said I would greatly enjoy the tea, and she led the way into the house.
We were in an enormous hall which in the past must have been used as a banqueting room. The floor was of flagstone, and the timbered roof was so lofty that I felt it must extend to the top of the house. The beams were beautifully carved and the effect decorative. At one end of the hall was a dais and back of it a great open fireplace. On the dais stood a refectory table on which were vessels and plates of pewter.
“It’s magnificent,” I said involuntarily; and Mrs. Polgrey was pleased.
“I superintend all the polishing of the furniture myself,” she told me. “You have to watch girls nowadays. Those Tapperty wenches are a pair of flibbertigibbets, I can tell ’ee. You’d need eyes that could see from here to Land’s End to see all they’m up to. Beeswax and turpentine, that’s the mixture, and nothing like it. All made by myself.”
“It certainly does you credit,” I complimented her.
I followed her to the door at the end of the hall. She opened it and a short flight of some half-dozen steps confronted us. To the left was a door which she indicated and after a moment’s hesitation, opened.
“The chapel,” she said, and I caught a glimpse of blue slate flagstones, an altar, and a few pews. There was a smell of dampness about the place.
She shut the door quickly.
“We don’t use it nowadays,” she said. “We go to the Mellyn church. It’s down in the village, the other side of the cove … just beyond Mount Widden.”
We went up the stairs and into a room which I saw was a dining room. It was vast and the walls were hung with tapestry. The table was highly polished, and in several cabinets I saw beautiful glass and china. The floor was covered with blue carpet and through the enormous windows I saw a walled courtyard.
“This is not your part of the house,” Mrs. Polgrey told me, “but I thought I would take you round the front of the house to my room. It’s as well you know the lay of the land, as they say.”
I thanked her, understanding that this was a tactful way of telling me that as a governess I would not be expected to mingle with the family.
We passed through the dining room to yet another flight of stairs and mounting these we came to what seemed like a more intimate sitting room. The walls were covered with exquisite tapestry and the chair backs and seats were beautifully wrought in the same manner. I could see that the furniture was mostly antique and that it all gleamed with beeswax and turpentine and Mrs. Polgrey’s loving care.
“This is the punch room,” she said. “It has always been called so because it is here that the family retires to take punch. We still follow the old customs in this house.”
At the end of this room was another flight of stairs; there was no door leading to them, merely a heavy brocade curtain which Mrs. Polgrey drew aside, and when we had mounted these stairs we were in a gallery, the walls of which were lined with portraits. I gave each of them a quick glance, wondering if Connan TreMellyn were among them; but I could see no one depicted in modern dress, so I presumed his portrait had not yet taken its place among those of his ancestors.
There were several doors leading from the gallery, but we went quickly along it to one at the far end. As we passed through it I saw that we were in a different wing of the house, the servants’ quarters I imagined, because the spaciousness was missing.
“This,” said Mrs. Polgrey, “will be your part of the house. You will find a staircase at the end of this corridor which leads to the nurseries. Your room is up there. But first come to my sitting room and we’ll have that tea. I told Daisy to see to it as soon as I heard Joe Tapperty was here. So there shouldn’t be long to wait.”
“I fear it will take some time to learn my way about the house,” I said.
“You’ll know it in next to no time. But when you go out you won’t go the way I brought you up. You’ll use one of the other doors; when you’ve unpacked and rested awhile, I’ll show you.”
“You’re very kind.”
“Well, I do want to make you happy here with us. Miss Alvean needs discipline, I always say. And what can I do about giving it to her, with all I have to do! A nice mess this place would be in if I let Miss Alvean take up my time. No, what she wants is a sensible governess, and ’twould seem they’m not all that easy to come by. Why, miss, if you show us that you can look after the child, you’ll be more than welcome here.”
“I gather I have had several predecessors.” She looked a trifle blank and I went on quickly: “There have been other governesses.”
“Oh yes. Not much good, any of them. Miss Jansen was the best, but it seemed she had habits. You could have knocked me down with a feather. She quite took me in!” Mrs. Polgrey looked as though she thought that anyone who could do that must be smart. “Well, I suppose appearances are deceptive, as they say. Miss Celestine was real upset when it came out.”
“The young lady at Widden. Miss Celestine Nansellock. She’s often here. A quiet young lady and she loves the place. If I as much as move a piece of furniture she knows it. That’s why she and Miss Jansen seemed to get on. Both interested in old houses, you see. It was such a pity and such a shock. You’ll meet her sometime. As I say, scarcely a day passes when she’s not here. There’s some of us that think … Oh, my dear life! ’twould seem as though I’m letting my tongue run away with me, and you longing for that cup of tea.”
She threw open the door of the room and it was like stepping into another world. Gone was the atmosphere of brooding antiquity. This was a room which could not have fitted into any other time than the present, and I realized that it confirmed my impression of Mrs. Polgrey. There were antimacassars on the chairs; there was a whatnot in the corner of the room filled with china ornaments including a glass slipper, a gold pig, and a cup with “A present from Weston” inscribed on it. It seemed almost impossible to move in a room so crammed with furniture. Even on the mantelpiece Dresden shepherdesses seemed to jostle with marble angels for a place. There was an ormolu clock which ticked sedately; there were chairs and little tables everywhere, it seemed. It showed Mrs. Polgrey to me as a woman of strong conventions, a woman who would have a great respect for the right thing—which would, of course, be the thing she believed in.
Still, I felt something comfortingly normal about this room as I did about the woman.
She looked at the main table and tutted in exasperation; then she went to the bell rope and pulled it. It was only a few minutes later that a black-haired girl with saucy eyes appeared carrying a tray on which was a silver teapot, a spirit lamp, cups and saucers, milk and sugar.
“And about time too,” said Mrs. Polgrey. “Put it here, Daisy.”
Daisy gave me a look which almost amounted to a wink. I did not wish to offend Mrs. Polgrey, so I pretended not to notice.
Then Mrs. Polgrey said: “This is Daisy, miss. You can tell her if you find anything is not to your liking.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Polgrey, and thank you, Daisy.”
They both looked somewhat startled and Daisy dropped a little curtsy, of which she seemed half-ashamed, and went out.
“Nowadays …” murmured Mrs. Polgrey, and lighted the spirit lamp.
I watched her unlock the cabinet and take out the tea canister which she set on the tray.
“Dinner,” she went on, “is served at eight. Yours will be brought to your room. But I thought you would be needing a little reviver. So when you’ve had this and seen your room, I’ll introduce you to Miss Alvean.”
“What would she be doing at this time of day?”
Mrs. Polgrey frowned. “She’ll be off somewhere by herself. She goes off by herself. Master don’t like it. That’s why ’e be anxious for her to have a governess, you see.”
I began to see. I was sure now that Alvean was going to be a difficult child.
Mrs. Polgrey measured the tea into the pot as though it were gold dust, and poured the hot water on it.
“So much depends on whether she takes a fancy to you or not,” went on Mrs. Polgrey. “She’s unaccountable. There’s some she’ll take to and some she won’t. Her was very fond of Miss Jansen.” Mrs. Polgrey shook her head sadly. “A pity she had habits.”
She stirred the tea in the pot, put on the tea cosy, and asked me: “Milk? Sugar?”
“Yes, please,” I said.
“I always do say,” she remarked, as though she thought I needed some consolation, “there ain’t nothing like a good cup of tea.”
We ate tea biscuits with the tea, and these Mrs. Polgrey took from a tin which she kept in her cabinet. I gathered, as we sat together, that Connan TreMellyn, the master, was away.
“He has an estate farther west,” Mrs. Polgrey told me. “Penzance way.” Her dialect was more noticeable when she was relaxed as she was now. “He do go to it now and then to see to it like. Left him by his wife, it were. Now she was one of the Pendletons. They’m from Penzance way.”
“When does he return?” I asked.
She looked faintly shocked, and I knew that I had offended because she said in a somewhat haughty way: “He will come back in his own time.”
I saw that if I was going to keep in her good books, I must be strictly conventional; and presumably it was not good form for a governess to ask questions about the master of the house. It was all very well for Mrs. Polgrey to speak of him; she was a privileged person. I could see that I must hastily adjust myself to my new position.
Very soon after that she took me up to my room. It was large with big windows, and from the window seats there was a good view of the front lawn, the palm trees, and the approach. My bed was a four-poster and seemed in keeping with the rest of the furniture; but though it was a big bed it looked dwarfed in a room of this size. There were rugs on the floor, the boards of which were so highly polished that the rugs looked somewhat dangerous. I could see that I might have little cause to bless Mrs. Polgrey’s love of polishing everything within sight. There was a tallboy and a chest of drawers; and I noticed that there was a door in addition to the one by which I had entered.
Mrs. Polgrey followed my gaze. “The schoolroom,” she said. “And beyond that is Miss Alvean’s room.”
“I see. So the schoolroom separates us.”
Mrs. Polgrey nodded.
Looking round the room I saw a screen in one corner and as I approached it I noticed that it shielded a hip bath.
“If you want hot water at any time,” she said, “ring the bell and Daisy or Kitty will bring it to you.”
“Thank you.” I looked at the open fireplace and pictured a roaring fire there on winter days. “I can see I’m going to be very comfortable here.”
“It’s a pleasant room. You’ll be the first governess to have it. The other governesses used to sleep in a room on the other side of Miss Alvean’s room. It was Miss Celestine who thought this would be better. It’s a more pleasant room, I must say.”
“Then I owe thanks to Miss Celestine.”
“A very pleasant lady. She thinks the world of Miss Alvean.” Mrs. Polgrey shook her head significantly and I wondered whether she was thinking that it was only a year since the master’s wife had died, and that perhaps one day he would marry again. Who more suitable to be his wife than this neighbor who was so fond of Miss Alvean? Perhaps they were only waiting for a reasonable lapse of time.
“Would you like to wash your hands and unpack? Dinner will be in two hours’ time. But perhaps first you would like to take a look at the schoolroom.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Polgrey,” I said, “but I think I’ll wash and unpack first.”
“Very well. And perhaps you’d like a little rest. Traveling is so fatiguing, I do know. I’ll send Daisy up with hot water. Meals could be taken in the schoolroom. Perhaps you’d prefer that?”
“With Miss Alvean?”
“She takes her meals nowadays with her father, except her milk and biscuits last thing. All the children have taken meals with the family from the time they were eight years old. Miss Alvean’s birthday was in May.”
“There are other children?”
“Oh, my dear life, no! I was talking of the children of the past. It’s one of the family rules, you see.”
“Well, I’ll be leaving you. If you cared for a stroll in the grounds before dinner, you could take it. Ring for Daisy or Kitty and whoever is free will show you the stairs you will use in future. It will take you down to the kitchen garden, but you can easily get from there to wherever you want to go. Don’t ’ee forget though—dinner at eight.”
“In the schoolroom.”
“Or in your own room if you prefer it.”
“But,” I added, “in the governess’s quarters.”
She did not know what to make of this remark, and when Mrs. Polgrey did not understand, she ignored. In a few minutes I was alone.
As soon as she had gone the strangeness of the house seemed to envelop me. I was aware of silence—the eerie silence of an ancient house.
I went to the window and looked out. It seemed a long time ago that I had driven up to the house with Tapperty. I heard the August notes of a bird which might have been a linnet.
I looked at the watch pinned to my blouse and saw that it was just past six o’clock. Two hours to dinner. I wondered whether to ring for Daisy or Kitty and ask for hot water; but I found my eyes turning to the other door in my room, the one which led to the schoolroom.
The schoolroom was, after all, my domain, and I had a right to inspect it, so I opened the door. The room was larger than my bedroom but it had the same type of windows and they were all fitted with window seats on which were red plush fitted cushions. There was a table in the center of the room. I went over to it and saw that there were scratches on it and splashes of ink, so I guessed that this was the table where generations of TreMellyns had learned their lessons. I tried to imagine Connan TreMellyn as a little boy, sitting at this table. I imagined him a studious boy, quite different from his erring daughter, the difficult child who was going to be my problem.
A few books lay on the table. I examined them. They were children’s readers, containing the sort of stories and articles which looked as if they were of an uplifting nature. There was an exercise book on which was scrawled “Alvean TreMellyn. Arithmetic.” I opened it and saw several sums, to most of which had been given the wrong answers. Idly turning the pages I came to a sketch of a girl, and immediately I recognized Gilly, the child whom I had seen at the lodge gates.
“Not bad,” I muttered. “So our Alvean is an artist. That’s something.”
I closed the book. I had the strange feeling, which I had had as soon as I entered the house, that I was being watched.
“Alvean!” I called on impulse. “Are you there, Alvean? Alvean, where are you hiding?”
There was no answer and I flushed with embarrassment, feeling rather absurd in the silence.
Abruptly I turned and went back to my room. I rang the bell and when Daisy appeared I asked her for hot water.
By the time I had unpacked my bags and hung up my things it was nearly eight o’clock, and precisely as the stable clock was striking eight Kitty appeared with my tray. On it was a leg of roast chicken with vegetables and, under a pewter cover, an egg custard.
Daisy said: “Are you having it in here, Miss, or in the schoolroom?”
I decided against sitting in that room where I felt I was overlooked.
“Here, please, Daisy,” I answered. Then, because Daisy looked the sort of person who wanted to talk, I added: “Where is Miss Alvean? It seems strange that I have not seen her yet.”
“She’s a bad ‘un,” cried Daisy. “Do ’ee know what would have happened to Kit and me if we’d got up to such tricks? A good tanning—that’s what we’d have had—and in a place where ‘tweren’t comfortable to sit down on after. Her heard new miss was coming, and so off her goes. Master be away and we don’t know where her be until the houseboy comes over from Mount Widden to tell we that she be over there—calling on Miss Celestine and Master Peter, if you do please.”
“I see. A sort of protest at having a new governess.”
Daisy came near and nudged me. “Miss Celestine do spoil the child. Dotes on her so’s you’d think she was her own daughter. Listen! That do sound like the carriage.” Daisy was at the window beckoning me. I felt I ought not to stand at the window with a servant, spying on what was happening below, but the temptation to do so was too strong for me.
So I stood beside Daisy and saw them getting out of the carriage … a young woman, whom I judged to be of my own age or perhaps a year or so older, and a child. I scarcely looked at the woman; my attention was all on the child. This was Alvean on whom my success depended, so naturally enough in those first seconds I had eyes for no one but her.
From what I could see she looked ordinary enough. She was somewhat tall for her eight years; her light brown hair had been plaited, and I presumed it was very long, for it was wound round her head; this gave her an appearance of maturity and I imagined her to be terrifyingly precocious. She was wearing a dress of brown gingham with white stockings and black shoes with ankle straps. She looked like a miniature woman and, for some vague reason, my spirits fell.
Oddly enough she seemed to be conscious that she was being watched, and glanced upward. Involuntarily I stepped back, but I was sure she had seen the movement. I felt at a disadvantage before we had met.
“Up to tricks,” murmured Daisy at my side.
“Perhaps,” I said as I walked into the center of the room, “she is a little alarmed at the prospect of having a new governess.”
Daisy let out a burst of explosive laughter. “What, her! Sorry, miss, but that do make me laugh, that do.”
I went to the table and, sitting down, began to eat my dinner. Daisy was about to go when there was a knock on the door and Kitty entered.
She grimaced at her sister and grinned rather familiarly at me. “Oh, miss,” she said, “Mrs. Polgrey says that when you’m finished, will you go down to the punch room. Miss Nansellock be there and her would like to see you. Miss Alvean have come home. They’d like ‘ee to come down as soon as you can. ’Tis time Miss Alvean were in her own room.”
“I will come when I have finished my dinner,” I said.
“Then would you pull the bell when you’m ready, miss, and me or Daisy’ll show you the way.”
“Thank you.” I sat down and, in a leisurely fashion, ate my meal.
I rose and went to the mirror which stood on my dressing table. I saw that I was unusually flushed and that this suited me; it made my eyes look decidedly the color of amber. It was fifteen minutes since Daisy and Kitty had left me and I imagined that Mrs. Polgrey, Alvean, and Miss Nansellock would be impatiently awaiting my coming. But I had no intention of becoming the poor little drudge that so many governesses were. If Alvean were what I believed her to be, she needed to be shown, right at the start, that I was in charge and must be treated with respect.
I rang the bell and Daisy appeared.
“They’m waiting for you in the punch room,” she said. “It’s well past Miss Alvean’s supper time.”
“Then it is a pity that she did not return before,” I replied serenely.
When Daisy giggled, her plump breasts, which seemed to be bursting out of her cotton bodice, shook. Daisy enjoyed laughing, I could see. I judged her to be as lighthearted as her sister.
She led the way to the punch room through which I had passed with Mrs. Polgrey on my way to my own quarters. She drew aside the curtains and with a dramatic gesture cried: “Here be miss!”
Mrs. Polgrey was seated in one of the tapestry-backed chairs, and Celestine Nansellock was in another. Alvean was standing, her hands clasped behind her back. She looked, I thought, dangerously demure.
“Ah,” said Mrs. Polgrey, rising, “here is Miss Leigh. Miss Nansellock have been waiting to see you.” There was a faint reproach in her voice. I knew what it meant. I, a mere governess, had kept a lady waiting while I finished my dinner.
“How do you do?” I asked.
They looked surprised. I suppose I should have curtsied or made some gesture to show that I was conscious of my menial position. I was aware of the blue eyes of the child fixed upon me; indeed I was aware of little but Alvean in those first few moments. Her eyes were startlingly blue. I thought: She will be a beauty when she grows up. And I wondered whether she was like her father or mother.
Celestine Nansellock was standing by Alvean, and she laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Miss Alvean came over to see us,” she said. “We’re great friends. I’m Miss Nansellock of Mount Widden. You may have seen the house.”
“I did so on my journey from the station.”
“I trust you will not be cross with Alvean.”
Alvean bristled and her eyes glinted.
I answered, looking straight into those defiant blue eyes: “I could hardly scold for what happened before my arrival, could I?”
“She looks on me … on us … as part of her own family,” went on Celestine Nansellock. “We’ve always lived so close to each other.”
“I am sure it is a great comfort to her,” I replied; and for the first time I gave my attention solely to Celestine Nansellock.
She was taller than I, but by no standards a beauty. Her hair was of a nondescript brown and her eyes were hazel. There was little color in her face and an air of intense quietness about her. I decided she had little personality, but perhaps she was overshadowed by the defiance of Alvean and the conventional dignity of Mrs. Polgrey.
“I do hope,” she said, “that if you need my advice about anything, Miss Leigh, you won’t hesitate to call on me. You see, I am quite a near neighbor, and I think I am looked on here as one of the family.”
“You are very kind.”
Her mild eyes looked into mine. “We want you to be happy here, Miss Leigh. We all want that.”
“Thank you. I suppose,” I went on, “the first thing to do is to get Alvean to bed. It must be past her bedtime.”
Celestine smiled. “You are right. Indeed it is. She usually has her milk and biscuits in the schoolroom at half past seven. It is now well past eight. But tonight I will look after her. I suggest that you return to your room, Miss Leigh. You must be weary after your journey.”
Before I could speak Alvean cried out: “No, Celestine. I want her to. She’s my governess. She should, shouldn’t she?”
A hurt look immediately appeared in Celestine’s face, and Alvean could not repress the triumph in hers. I felt I understood. The child wanted to feel her own power; she wanted to prevent Celestine from superintending her retirement simply because Celestine wished so much to do it.
“Oh, very well,” said Celestine. “Then there’s no further need for me to stay.”
She was looking at Alvean as though she wanted her to beg her to stay, but Alvean’s curious gaze was all for me.
“Good night,” she said flippantly. And to me: “Come on. I’m hungry.”
“You’ve forgotten to thank Miss Nansellock for bringing you back,” I told her.
“I didn’t forget,” she retorted. “I never forget anything.”
“Then your memory is a great deal better than your manners,” I said.
They were astonished—all of them. Perhaps I was a little astonished myself. But I knew that if I were going to assume control of this child I should have to be firm.
Her face flushed and her eyes grew hard. She was about to retort, but not knowing how to do so, she ran out of the room.
“There!” said Mrs. Polgrey. “Why, Miss Nansellock, it was good of you …”
“Nonsense, Mrs. Polgrey,” said Celestine. “Of course I brought her back.”
“She will thank you later,” I assured her.
“Miss Leigh,” said Celestine earnestly, “it will be necessary for you to go carefully with that child. She has lost her mother … quite recently.” Celestine’s lips trembled. She smiled at me. “It is such a short time ago and the tragedy seems near. She was a dear friend of mine.”
“I understand,” I replied. “I shall not be harsh with the child, but I can see she needs discipline.”
“Be careful, Miss Leigh.” Celestine had taken a step closer and laid a hand on my arm. “Children are delicate creatures.”
“I shall do my best for Alvean,” I answered.
“I wish you good luck.” She smiled and then turned to Mrs. Polgrey. “I’ll be going now. I want to get back before dark.”
Mrs. Polgrey rang the bell and Daisy appeared.
“Take miss to her room, Daisy,” she commanded. “And has Miss Alvean got her milk and biscuits?”
“Yes, m’am,” was the answer.
I said good night to Celestine Nansellock, who inclined her head. Then I left with Daisy.
I went into the schoolroom where Alvean sat at a table drinking milk and eating biscuits. She deliberately ignored me as I went to the table and sat beside her.
“Alvean,” I said, “if we’re going to get along together, we’d better come to an understanding. Don’t you think that would be advisable?”
“Why should I care?” she replied curtly.
“But of course you’ll care. We shall all be happier if we do.”
Alvean shrugged her shoulders. “If we don’t,” she told me brusquely, “you’ll have to go. I’ll have another governess. It’s of no account to me.”
She looked at me triumphantly and I knew that she was telling me I was merely a paid servant and that it was for her to call the tune. I felt myself shiver involuntarily. For the first time I understood the feelings of those who depended on the good will of others for their bread and butter.
Her eyes were malicious and I wanted to slap her.
“It should be of the greatest account,” I answered, “because it is far more pleasant to live in harmony than in discord with those about us.”
“What does it matter, if they’re not about us … if we can have them sent away?”
“Kindness matters more than anything in the world.”
She smiled into her milk and finished it.
“Now,” I said, “to bed.”
I rose with her and she said: “I go to bed by myself. I am not a baby, you know.”
“Perhaps I thought you were younger than you are because you have so much to learn.”
She considered that. Then she gave that shrug of her shoulders which I was to discover was characteristic.
“Good night,” she said, dismissing me.
“I’ll come and say good night when you are in bed.”
“There’s no need.”
“Nevertheless, I’ll come.”
She opened the door which led to her room from the schoolroom. I turned and went into mine.
I felt very depressed because I was realizing the size of the problem before me. I had had no experience in handling children, and in the past when I thought of them I had visualized docile and affectionate little creatures whom it would be a joy to care for. Here I was with a difficult child on my hands. And what would happen to me if it were decided that I was unfit to undertake her care? What did happen to penurious gentlewomen who failed to please their employers?
I could go to Phillida. I could be one of those old aunts who were at the beck and call of all and lived out their miserable lives dependent on others. I was not the sort of person to take dependence lightly. I should have to find other posts.
I accepted the fact that I was a little frightened. Not until I had come face to face with Alvean had I realized that I might not succeed with this job. I tried not to look down the years ahead when I might slip from one post to another, never giving satisfaction. What happened to women like myself, women who, without those attractions which were so important, were forced to battle against the world for a chance to live?
I felt that I could have thrown myself on my bed and wept, wept with anger against the cruelty of life, which had robbed me of two loving parents and sent me out ill-equipped into the world.
I imagined myself appearing at Alvean’s bedside, my face stained with tears. What triumph for her! That was no way to begin the battle which I was sure must rage between us.
I walked up and down my room, trying to control my emotions. I went to the window and looked out across the lawns to the hilly country beyond. I had no view of the sea because the house was so built that the back looked out on the coast and I was at the front. Instead, I looked beyond the plateau on which the house stood, to the hills.
Such beauty! Such peace without, I thought. Such conflict within. When I leaned out of the window I could see Mount Widden across the cove. Two houses standing there over many years: generations of Nansellocks, generations of TreMellyns had lived here and their lives had intermingled so that it could well be that the story of one house was the story of the other.
I turned from the window and went through the schoolroom to Alvean’s room.
“Alvean,” I whispered. There was no answer. But she lay there in the bed, her eyes tightly shut, too tightly.
I bent over her.
“Good night, Alvean. We’re going to be friends, you know,” I murmured.
There was no answer. She was pretending to be asleep.
Exhausted as I was, my rest was broken that night. I would fall into sleep and then awake startled. I repeated this several times until I was fully awake.
I lay in bed and looked about my room in which the furniture appeared in intermittent moonlight like dim figures. I had a feeling that I was not alone; that there were whispering voices about me. I had an impression that there had been tragedy in this house which still hung over it.
I wondered if it was due to the death of Alvean’s mother. She had been dead only a year; I wondered in what circumstances she had died.
I thought of Alvean who showed a somewhat aggressive face to the world. There must be some reason for this. I was sure that no child would be eager to proclaim herself the enemy of strangers without some cause.
I determined to discover the reason for Alvean’s demeanor. I determined to make her a happy, normal child.
It was light before sleep came; the coming of day comforted me because I was afraid of the darkness in this house. It was childish, but it was true.
I had breakfast in the schoolroom with Alvean, who told me, with pride, that when her father was at home she had breakfast with him.
Later we settled to work, and I discovered that she was an intelligent child; she had read more than most children of her age and her eyes would light up with interest in her lessons almost in spite of her determination to preserve a lack of harmony between us. My spirits began to rise and I felt that I would in time make a success of this job.
Luncheon consisted of boiled fish and rice pudding, and afterward when Alvean volunteered to take me for a walk, I felt I was getting on better with her.
There were woods on the estate, and she said she wished to show them to me. I was delighted that she should do so and gladly followed her through the trees.
“Look,” she cried, picking a crimson flower and holding it out to me. “Do you know what this is?”
“It’s betony, I believe.”
She nodded. “You should pick some and keep it in your room, miss. It keeps evil away.”
I laughed. “That’s an old superstition. Why should I want to keep evil away?”
“Everybody should. They grow this in graveyards. It’s because people are buried there. It’s grown there because people are afraid of the dead.”
“It’s foolish to be afraid. Dead people can hurt no one.”
She was placing the flower in the buttonhole of my coat. I was rather touched. Her face looked gentle as she fixed it and I had a notion that she felt a sudden protective feeling toward me.
“Thank you, Alvean,” I said gently.
She looked at me and all the softness vanished from her face. It was defiant and full of mischief.
“You can’t catch me,” she cried; and off she ran.
I did not attempt to do so. I called: “Alvean, come here.” But she disappeared through the trees and I heard her mocking laughter in the distance.
I decided to return to the house, but the woods were thick, and I was not sure of my direction. I walked back a little way but it seemed to me that it was not the direction from which we had come. Panic seized me, but I told myself this was absurd. It was a sunny afternoon and I could not be half an hour’s walk from the house. Moreover, I did not believe that the woods could be very extensive.
I was not going to give Alvean the satisfaction of having brought me to the woods to lose me. So I walked purposefully through the trees; but as I walked they grew thicker and I knew that we had not come this way. My anger against Alvean was rising when I heard the crackle of leaves as though I were being followed. I was sure the child was somewhere near, mocking me.
Then I heard singing; it was a strange voice, slightly off key, and the fact that the song was one of those which were being sung in drawing rooms all over the country did nothing to reassure me.
“Alice, where art thou?
One year back this even
And thou wert by my side,
Vowing to love me,
Alice, what e’er may betide …”
“Who is there?” I called.
There was no answer, but in the distance I caught a glimpse of a child with lint-white hair, and I knew that it was only little Gilly who had stared at me from the hydrangea bushes by the lodge gates.
I walked swiftly on and after a while the trees grew less dense and through them I saw the road; then I realized that I was on the slope which led up to the plateau and the lodge gates.
Mrs. Soady was sitting at the door of the lodge as she had been when I arrived, her knitting in her hands.
“Why, miss,” she called. “So you’ve been out walking then?”
“I went for a walk with Miss Alvean. We lost each other in the woods.”
“Ah yes. So her run away, did her.” Mrs. Soady shook her head as she came to the gate trailing her ball of wool behind her.
“I expect she’ll find her way home,” I said.
“My dear life, yes. There ain’t an inch of them woods Miss Alvean don’t know. Oh, I see you’ve got yourself a piece of betony. Like as not ’tis as well.”
“Miss Alvean picked it and insisted on putting it in my buttonhole.”
“There now! You be friends already.”
“I heard the little girl Gilly, singing in the woods,” I said.
“I don’t doubt ’ee. Her’s always singing in the woods.”
“I called to her but she didn’t come.”
“Timid as a doe, she be.”
“Well, I think I’ll be getting along. Good-by, Mrs. Soady.”
“Good day to ’ee, miss.”
I went up the drive, past the hydrangeas and the fuchsias. I realized I was straining my ears for the sound of singing, but there was no sound except that of an occasional small animal in the undergrowth.
I was hot and tired when I reached the house. I went straight up to my room and rang for water and, when I had washed and brushed my hair, went into the schoolroom where tea was waiting for me.
Alvean sat at the table; she looked demure and made no reference to our afternoon’s adventure, nor did I.
After tea I said to her: “I don’t know what rules your other governesses made, but I propose we do our lessons in the morning, have a break between luncheon and tea, and then start again from five o’clock until six, when we will read together.”
Alvean did not answer; she was studying me intently.
Then suddenly she said: “Miss, do you like my name? Have you ever known anyone else called Alvean?”
I said I liked the name and had never heard it before.
“It’s Cornish. Do you know what it means?”
“I have no idea.”
“Then I will tell you. My father can speak and write Cornish.” She looked wistful when she spoke of her father, and I thought: He at least is one person she admires and for whose approval she is eager. She went on: “In Cornish, Alvean means Little Alice.”
“Oh!” I said, and my voice shook a little.
She came to me and placed her hands on my knees; she looked up into my face and said solemnly: “You see, miss, my mother was Alice. She isn’t here any more. But I was called after her. That’s why I am little Alice.”
I stood up because I could no longer bear the scrutiny of the child. I went to the window.
“Look,” I said, “two of the peacocks are on the lawn.”
She was standing at my elbow. “They’ve come to be fed. Greedy things! Daisy will soon be coming with their peas. They know it.”
I was not seeing the peacocks on the lawn. I was remembering the mocking eyes of the man on the train, the man who had warned me that I should have to beware of Alice.
MISTRESS OF MELLYN. Copyright © 1960 by Victoria Holt, renewed 1988. Reprinted with the permission of Patricia Hamilton. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.