Now that I have reached the mature age of twenty-seven I look back on the fantastic adventure of my youth and can almost convince myself that it did not happen as I believed it did then. Yet sometimes even now I awake in the night because, in my dreams, I have heard a voice calling me, and that voice is the voice of my child. But here I am, a spinster of this parish— at least those who know me think of me as such— though deep within me I believe myself to be a wife even as I ask: Did I suffer some mental aberration? Was it really true— as they tried to convince me— that I, a romantic and rather feckless girl, had been betrayed as many had been before and because I could not face this fact, had fabricated a wild story which none but myself could believe?
Because it is of the greatest importance to me to understand what really happened on the Night of the Seventh Moon, I have decided to set out in detail the events as I remember them, in the hope that by so doing, the truth will emerge.
Schwester Maria, the kindest of the nuns, used to shake her head over me. "Helena, my child," she would say, "you will have to be very careful. It is not good to be as reckless and passionate as you are."
Schwester Gudrun, less benevolent, would narrow her eyes and nod significantly as she regarded me. "One day, Helena Trant, you will go too far," was her comment.
I was sent to the Damenstift to be educated when I was fourteen years old and had been there for four years. During that time I had been home to England only once which was when my mother had died. My two aunts had then come to look after my father and I disliked them from the first because they were so different from my mother. Aunt Caroline was the more unpleasant of the two. The only thing she appeared to enjoy was pointing out the shortcomings of others.
We lived in Oxford in the shadow of the college in which my father had once been a student until circumstances— brought on by his own reckless passionate conduct— had forced him to give up. Perhaps I took after him; I was sure I did, for our adventures were not dissimilar in a way; though his were never anything but respectable.
He was the only son and his parents had determined that he should go to the university. Sacrifices had been made by his family— a fact which Aunt Caroline could never forget nor forgive, for during his student days he had, in the company of another student, taken a walking holiday through the Black Forest and there he had met and fallen in love with a beautiful maiden, and after that, nothing would satisfy them but marriage. It was like something out of the fairy tales which had their origin in that part of the world. She was of noble blood— the country abounded in small dukedoms and principalities— and of course the marriage was frowned on from both sides. Her family did not wish her to marry a penniless English student; his had scraped to educate him for a respectable career and it was hoped that he would make that career within the university, for in spite of his romantic nature he was something of a scholar and his tutors had high hopes for him. But for both, the world was well lost for love; so they married and my father gave up the university and looked around for a means of supporting a wife.
He had made a friend of old Thomas Trebling who owned the small but lively little bookshop just off the High Street and Thomas gave him employment and rooms over the shop. The young married couple defied all the evil prophecies of sarcastic Aunt Caroline and Cassandra-like Aunt Matilda and were blissfully happy. Poverty was not the only handicap; my mother was delicate. She had in fact when my father met her been staying at one of her family’s hunting lodges in the forest for her health’s sake. She was consumptive. "There must be no children," announced Aunt Matilda, who considered herself an authority on disease. And, of course, I confounded them all by making my existence felt almost as soon as they were married and appearing exactly ten months afterwards.
It must have been considered tiresome of them to prove everyone wrong, but this they did; and their happiness continued until my mother’s death. I know that the aunts disapproved of fate which instead of punishing such irresponsibility seemed to reward it. Crusty old Thomas Trebling who could scarcely say a polite word to anyone— even his customers— became a fairy godfather to them. He even conveniently died and left them not only the shop but the little house next door, which he had occupied until then; so that by the time I was six years old, my father had his own bookshop, which if it was not exactly a flourishing concern provided an adequate living; and he lived a very happy life with a wife whom he continued to adore and who reciprocated that rare brand of devotion, and a daughter whose high spirits it was not always easy to curb, but whom they both loved in a remote kind of way because they were too absorbed in each other to have excessive affection to spare for her. My father was no businessman but he had a love of books, particularly those of an antiquarian nature, so he was interested in his business; he had many friends at the university and in our small dining room there were frequent intimate little dinner parties when the talk was often learned and, on occasions, witty.
The aunts came now and then. My mother called them the greyhounds because she said they sniffed about the place looking to see if it had been properly cleaned and on the first occasion I remember seeing them at the age of three I burst into tears protesting that they weren’t really greyhounds but only two old women, which was very difficult to explain and did not endear me to them. Aunt Caroline never for-gave my mother which was characteristic of her; but she didn’t forgive me either which was perhaps less reasonable.
So my childhood was passed in that exciting city which was home to me. I can remember walking by the river and my father’s telling me how the Romans had come and built a city there, and how the Danes had later burned it down. I found it exciting to see the people scurrying through the streets, scholars in scarlet gowns and the students in their white ties, and hearing how the Proctors prowled the streets at night preceded by their bulldogs. Clinging to his hand I would go with him southwards down the Cornmarket right into the very heart of the city. Sometimes the three of us went on a picnic into the meadows; but I always preferred to be with one or the other alone for then I could have the attention I could never capture when the three of us were together. When we were by ourselves my father would talk to me of Oxford and take me out to show me Tom Tower, the great bell and the spire of the Cathedral which he proudly told me was one of the oldest in England.
With my mother it was different. She would talk of pine forests and the little Schloss where she had spent her childhood. She told me of Christmases and how they had gone into the forest to get their own trees with which they would decorate the house; and how in the Rittersaal, the Hall of the Knights, which was found in almost every Schloss large or small, the dancers came on Christmas Eve and when they had danced sang carols. I loved to hear my mother sing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht; and her old home in the forest seemed to me an enchanted place. I wondered that she never felt homesick and when I asked her once and saw the smile on her face I knew how deep was the love she bore my father. I believe that it was then that I convinced myself that one day there would be someone in my life who would be to me as my father was to her. I thought that this deep unquestioning unshakable devotion was for everyone to enjoy. Perhaps that was why I was such an easy victim. My excuse is that, knowing my parents’ story, I expected to find a similar enchantment in the forest and believed that other men were as tender and good as my father. But my lover was not like hers. I should have recognized that. Tempestuous, irresistible, overwhelming, yes. Tender—self-sacrificing—no.
My happy childhood was overshadowed only by the visits of the aunts and later the need to go away to school. Then followed holidays and a return to the exciting city which never seemed to change— indeed, said my father, it had been the same for hundreds of years; that was its charm. What I remember from that time is the wonderful sense of security I felt. It had never occurred to me that anything could change. I should always take walks with my father and listen to his accounts of the days when he had been a student; and it was such a joy to listen because although he spoke of them with pride there was no regret. I loved to listen to him as he talked reverently of his days at Balliol; I felt I was as familiar with the college as he was; and I could clearly understand his absorption in the life as he planned to spend the rest of his days there. He would proudly tell me of the famous people who had studied there. My mother talked of her childhood and sang Lieder to me, fitting her own words to melodies from Schubert and Schumann which I loved. She made little sketches of the forest and they seemed to have a fairy-tale quality which has always haunted me; she would tell me stories of trolls and woodcutters and some of the old legends which had been handed down from pre-Christian days when people believed in the gods of the North such as Odin the All Father, Thor with his hammer, and the beautiful Goddess Freya after whom Friday was named. I was enthralled by these stories.
Sometimes she would tell me about the Damenstift in the pine forest where she had been educated by nuns; she talked sometimes in German so that I became moderately conversant with that language although never quite bilingual.
It was her dearest wish that I should be educated at that convent where she herself had been so happy. "You will love it there," she told me, "high up in the pine-clad mountains. The air will make you strong and healthy; in the summer mornings you will eat breakfast out of doors— fresh milk and rye bread. It tastes good. The nuns will be kind to you. They will teach you to be happy and work hard. It is what I have always wanted for you."
As my father always wanted what she wanted, I went to the Damenstift and when I had recovered from my homesickness I began to enjoy it. I was soon under the spell of the forest though I had in fact been so before I had set eyes on it; and as I was at that time the sort of girl who has few inhibitions I was able to accept the new life and my companions with no great difficulty. My mother had prepared me so nothing seemed very strange. There were girls from all over Europe. Six of them were English including myself; there were just over a dozen French and the rest were from the various little German states of which we were in the midst.
We mingled well. We spoke English and French as well as German; the simple life was good for us all; the discipline was intended to be stern but of course there were those indulgent nuns who could be wheedled and we were quick to find them.
I was soon happy in the convent and I spent two contented years passing even the vacations there, because it was too far and too expensive to return home. There were always six or seven of us who did this and some of the happiest times were when the others had left and we decorated the hall with firs from the forest and sang our carols or decorated the chapel for Easter, or took picnics in the forest during the summer.
I had come to accept this new life; Oxford with its towers and spires seemed far away until that day when I heard that my mother was dangerously ill and I was to go home. Fortunately it was in the summer and Mr. and Mrs. Greville, friends of my father, who were traveling in Europe, collected me and took me home. My mother was dead when I arrived.
What a change I found. My father had aged by ten years; he was vague as though he could not drag himself away from a blissful past to face an intolerable present. The aunts had descended upon the house hold. At great sacrifice, Aunt Caroline told me, they had given up their comfortable cottage in Somerset to come and look after us. I was sixteen years old, time to stop wasting my time on a lot of foreign languages and habits which would be of no use to me; I should make myself useful in the home. They could find plenty for me to do there. Young girls should be able to cook and sew, keep a stillroom and perform other domestic tasks which she doubted were taught at outlandish foreign convents.
But father roused himself from his apathy. It had been my mother’s wish that I should complete my education at the Damenstift and should stay there until I was eighteen years old.
So I went back and I often thought that if the aunts had had their way that strange adventure would never have taken place.
It happened two years after my mother’s death. I had forgotten so much of life in Oxford and only rarely did I think of walking down the Cornmarket to Folly Bridge and St. Aldate’s, of the castellated walls of colleges; of the hollow silence of the Cathedral and the fascination of the Murder of St. Thomas à Becket in stained glass in the east window. But the reality was the convent life, the secrets shared with girls as we lay in our cell-like dormitory where a thick stone buttress divided one cell from another.
And so there came that early autumn after which nothing would be the same again.
I was nearly eighteen— perhaps young for my years. I was frivolous yet in a way dreamily romantic. I have no one but myself to blame for what happened.
The most gentle of the sisters was Maria. She should have been a mother of children; perhaps she would have been overindulgent, but how happy she would have been and so would they! But she was a virgin nun and had to content herself with us.
She understood me more than any of the others. She knew that I did not wish to be wayward. I was high spirited; I was impulsive; my sin was thoughtlessness rather than willfulness. I know she had constantly explained this to the Mutter.
It was October— and we were enjoying an Indian summer for the autumn was long coming that year. It was a pity to waste the golden days, said Schwester Maria, and she was going to choose twelve girls whose conduct warranted the privilege to accompany her on a picnic. We could take the wagonette and go up to the plateau; and there we would make a fire and boil a pan of water and make coffee and Schwester Gretchen had said she would bake a few of her spiced cakes as a special treat.
She chose me to be among the favored twelve rather as a hope that I might mend my ways than because of past good conduct I was sure; but what ever the reason I was in the party on that fateful day. Schwester Maria drove the wagonette as I had seen her so many times before, looking like a big black crow in her flapping black robes, sitting there holding in the horse with a masterly touch which was surprising. Poor old horse, he would have known the road blindfolded, so it did not really need very much skill to lead him there. During his lifetime, he must have taken the wagonette full of girls up to the plateau many times.
So we arrived; we made the fire (so useful for the girls to learn these things); we boiled the water, made the coffee and ate the spiced cakes. We washed the cups in the nearby stream and packed them away; we wandered around until Schwester Maria clapped her hands to call us to her. We were leaving in half an hour, she told us, and we must all assemble at that time. We knew what this meant. Schwester Maria was going to lean against the tree under which she was sitting and for half an hour take a well-earned nap.
And so she did while we wandered off, and the feeling of excitement which being in the pine forests always gave me began to creep over me. In such a setting Hansel and Gretel were lost and came upon their gingerbread house; in such a wood the lost babes had wandered to lie down and sleep and be covered by the leaves. Along the river, although we could not see them here, castles would appear to hang on the edge of the hillside— castles such as the one in which the Beauty slept for one hundred years before she was awakened by the kiss of a Prince. This was the forest of enchantment, of woodcutters, trolls, princes in disguise and princesses who must be rescued, of giants and dwarfs; it was the fairy-tale land.
I had wandered away from the others; no one was in sight. I must watch the time. Pinned to my blouse was a little watch with blue enamel decorations which had been my mother’s. It would not be fair to be late and upset dear kind Schwester Maria.
Then I started to brood on what I had found when I last returned home: the aunts in possession and my father grown indifferent to what went on around him; and it occurred to me that I would have to go back soon for girls did not stay after nineteen at the Damenstift.
The mist comes suddenly in the mountainous forests. We were very high above sea level. When we went into the little town of Leichenkin, which was the nearest to the Damenstift, we went downhill all the way. And as I sat thinking of home and wondering vaguely about the future, the mist descended and when I got to my feet I could only see a few yards ahead of me. I looked at my watch. It was time to be going. Schwester Maria would already be rousing from her slumbers, clapping her hands and peering about for the girls. I had climbed a little and the mist might be less thick where she was resting, but in any case the fact that it was there would alarm her and she would certainly decide that we must leave at once.
I started off in what I thought was the direction in which I had come; but I must have been wrong, for I could not find the road. I was not unduly alarmed, I had five minutes or so to spare and I had not wandered very far. But my concern grew when I still could not find the way. I believed I could be wandering round in circles but I kept assuring myself that soon I would come upon the clearing where we had had our picnic. I would hear the voices of the girls. But there was no sound in the mist.
I called out: "Cooee!" as we did when we wished to attract each other’s attention. There was no response.
I did not know which way to turn and I knew enough of the forest to realize that one could be deceived by direction in a mist such as this one. A horrible panic came to me. It might thicken. It might not lift all night. If so how could I find my way back to the clearing. I called again. There was no answer.
I looked at my watch. I was five minutes overdue. I pictured Schwester Maria fussing. "Helena Trant again!" she would say. "Of course she didn’t mean it. She was just not thinking . . ."
How right she was. I must find my way back. I could not worry poor Schwester Maria.
I started off again, calling: "Coo-ee. It’s Helena. Here!"
But no answer came out of the implacable gray mist. The mountain and forests are beautiful but they are also cruel, which is why there is always a hint of cruelty in the fairy tales of the forest. The wicked witch is forever waiting to spring, the spellbound trees are waiting to turn into the dragons they become when darkness falls.
But I was not really frightened although I knew I was lost. The wise thing was to stay where I was and call. So I did.
I looked at my watch. Half an hour had passed. I was frantic. But at least they would be searching for me.
I waited. I called. I abandoned my decision to remain where I was and began to walk frantically in several directions. An hour had passed since the time for our rendezvous.
It must have been half an hour after that. I had called until I was hoarse; and then I was alert for the sound of a displaced stone rolling and the crackle of undergrowth indicated that someone was near.
"Cooee!" I called with relief. "I’m here."
He loomed up out of the mist like a hero of the forest on his big white horse. I went toward him. He sat for one second regarding me, then he said in English: "It was you who called. So you’re lost."
I was too relieved to be surprised that he spoke in English. I began to talk quickly: "Have you seen the wagonette? And Schwester Maria and the girls? I must find them quickly."
He smiled slowly. "You’re from the Damenstift."
"Why, yes, of course."
He leaped down from his horse. He was tall, broad, and immediately I was aware of what I could only describe then as authority. I was delighted. I wanted someone who could get me back to Schwester Maria with all speed and he gave an impression of invincibility.
Excerpted from On The Night of the Seventh Moon by Victoria Holt.
Copyright © 1972 by Victoria Holt.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.