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Authors: Mary Williams

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Portrait of a Girl

BOOK: Portrait of a Girl
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© Mary Williams 2014

 

Mary Williams has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published in Great Britain 1986 by William Kimber & Co Limited

 

This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

To the memory of dear Mike,

my
husband, whose courage and

enduring
love enabled me to

carry
on, and write this book.

 

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Extract from
An Inconvenient Affair
by Mary Williams

 

Chapter One

 

1866

 

Whenever I think of Kerrysmoor, I see in memory the dark granite shapes of the Three Maidens standing stark against a fading cold sky. In the shadowed valley below, the mansion crouches square-faced beside a wind-driven copse of leafless trees. The vision is only momentary and quickly fades into a veil of drifting fog which finally resolves into something else — the cottage half a mile away that was to bring such beauty and tragedy into my life. Bushes wave in a thin breeze about its doors, swaying rhythmically to the haunted echo of singing.

For
a few seconds I am a girl again, caught into the magic and mystery of the past. I see Rupert riding through the fitful light to meet me.

And
the pool.

It
is still there, but the cottage has become an empty shell, and Kerrysmoor is no more.

A
wave of chill suddenly floods me; then just as quickly it is gone, and I am real again, in a present I thought at times could never be.

The
beginning of it all was so different. I had my ambitions, from an early age but they were the glittering fantastic dreams of childhood only — of riding like a princess in a shining chaise drawn by white-plumed horses through cheering crowds. ‘Princess’ — that’s what my father called me. He was a Breton seaman and each time he returned home to Falmouth from weeks — sometimes months — away, he brought gifts of silk and wonderful shawls and we’d have a ‘dressing up’ time while he pinned my hair high with fancy shining combs and ribbons and he would say, ‘Ah! —
c’est
magnifique
! — a real princess.’ In time, although my real name was Josephine, I was always Princess to him, which made his wife jealous. She was the daughter of a tavern keeper in Falmouth’s docklands where we lived. Anna, who was good-looking in a fierce bold way, liked attention only for herself. There was little sympathy between us, which perhaps was understandable, as she was really only my stepmother. My own mother had died when I was three years old, and Pierre had married Anna twelve months later.

So
when he was drowned at sea, I was left, by blood, an orphan, and felt very much alone. I think Anna did her best at first to care for me. But she was over-fond of men, and during my father’s absence had been forever in the bar. Consequently I spent hours as a child wandering about the maze of fashionably cobbled streets round Falmouth’s harbour, or hiding in corners and round the door of the taproom, listening to bawdy jokes and laughter, and strange chatter in foreign tongues. There was music and singing. Sometimes even I caught the echo of a Celtic melody heard in babyhood, and then I hummed it myself, softly at first, until a strange longing for something unknown and far away filled me. Forgetting caution, and as my voice swelled, I danced, impelled by instinct and a blurred memory of my mother’s face — dark-eyed and pale, with her dusky hair blown wild and free as clouds over the Cornish sea. She had been Welsh and ‘
très
belle
’, Pierre often told me. Anna had hated him saying it, and once he’d set sail again on a long journey, she’d remarked cruelly; ‘
Belle
! that means “beauty”. And “Princess”. Forget it. A little Froggie you are — no more. So don’t go getting fine ideas. There’s only work ahead for you, my girl. And plenty of it.’

Six
weeks later we learned that his ship had foundered off the African coast, taking all hands with it.

He
was dead.

The
next few years were sordid in many ways, holding, however, a strange colourful side that gradually absorbed me by its demimonde atmosphere of dark excitement. I could sing; and as time passed my voice sweetened and matured. While Anna sank further and further into debauchery and shame, I spent many of the night hours entertaining clients of the district’s numerous hostelries and inns, by songs and ballads remembered from childhood. In this way I earned sufficient casual money to have occasional good meals and buy shoes, combs and other etceteras to wear with the silk shawls brought for me in the past from overseas by my Breton father.

My
looks, also, caught men’s attention. I was very pale-skinned, but with a wealth of black hair and eyes of deep dark blue, fringed by thick lashes. When I stared at myself through the mirror occasionally, chin up-tilted, with a little smile on my full lips, I knew why my father had called me ‘Princess’, and when I sang, I really became one. The dusty interiors of tap rooms and inns disappeared, taking the smell of spirits and bawdy laughter with them, and I was singing — singing — to far away regions of enchantment — of mountains and rivers and eternal springtime. There was sadness too, of dying and being born again! Oh, I never wanted my singing to end; it was as though only through my voice I could really be myself.

Pierre
’s Princess.

Feeling
so made me proud. I allowed no liberties, no man to touch me. Their admiration flattered me, and one day I thought, perhaps someone with influence — some musician or opera producer — might be induced to launch me on the stage to a wider audience. The idea was just a wild dream of those early years, but it was sufficiently vivid and inspiring to keep my life apart from Anna’s influence. Occasionally, when she was at her lowest ebb and I had had a particularly successful period singing at some respectable hostelry, I helped her a little financially; in a way I was sorry for her. The inn had become a place of ill-fame, and she had turned into nothing more than a slatternly promiscuous harridan available for any man who wanted her. Her father, who lived drunkenly in an upstairs room, died from a stroke, and soon afterwards Anna herself was found with her throat cut in a dark alley leading from the docks.

Her
murderer was never found. The police didn’t bother much. Her death was no loss. Only I attended her sordid funeral, and though I tried to feel grief, no tears came — merely a sense of gratitude that Pierre had never known her degradation.

I
left that particular district soon after the event, and moved to a more respectable area, where the clientele of the various inns and eating houses had a more restrained and cultured character. My voice soon became appreciated, and my appearances in demand. It was wonderful knowing I could sing, and sing, without lascivious hands wishing to touch me or fondle me. Money too was good. I no longer had to accept what was thrown or meanly afforded.

At
the Golden Bird, an establishment frequented by travellers and moneyed people, I was eventually given employment on the regular basis of two hour nightly sessions each evening, for which I was paid quite a handsome sum, and allowed sleeping quarters for myself. My looks and voice still blossomed. I became a symbol for the inn and was soon known as ‘the Bird’. Oh, I was happy for those first few months; then gradually a deep longing flooded me for wider spheres and audiences. Singing had become my life. But there were other things too, an awakening emotional hunger of which my voice was only a part.

I
was just sixteen when I first met Rupert Verne. It was his eyes that arrested my attention. They were long slits of smouldering deepest gold, unswerving in their gaze, under heavy brows and a wide forehead from which crisp, thick hair waved back. In that first moment of awareness between us I felt excitement flood my veins with a passionate desire that he should know the best of me — the wildest part perhaps — but sense the magic of my songs and share the far-away dreams born in me of my Welsh mother and her love for Pierre my father.

Written
down this may sound naive and childish. To Rupert I suppose I could have
seemed
almost a child, with my flying hair and satin skirt swirling beneath the yellow shawl. But my throat had never before arched so joyously, or music trilled so sweetly from it as I lifted my arms above and towards the grouped heads before me. Faces had dimmed and become only blurred discs intermingled with smoke and the fragrance of perfumes and spirits; Rupert’s eyes alone glowed, bright with vitality and fire — eyes that never left my face and that I knew must somehow have great significance in my life.

As
my song ended he got up. I half believed that he’d make his way between the tables and come towards me. But he didn’t. He stood quite still for a moment, watching me, and then turned and slowly, deliberately went away.

Others
applauded, and would have crowded round me, but I was so heavy with disappointment. I rushed from the lounge past the taproom to my own humble apartment.

Why
had he gone so quickly I wondered? Why had he left without a single word of appreciation? Perhaps after all my singing hadn’t really pleased him. He was not exactly a young man — probably in the late thirties — with considerable experience of the Opera. Yet his eyes! — I couldn’t forget them, or the way they’d seemed to drain my very spirit from me.

The
next night he was there again, alone at a small table with a glass of wine in his hand. The glow of a lantern from an alcove gave the fawn velvet coat he wore the lustre of satin. Everything about him: though of quite good taste, marked him as a man of quality. Yet beneath the civilized facade I sensed emotional undercurrents as tumultuous as my own.

Still
he didn’t approach me, but as my singing session ended, moved quietly away into the dusk outside. I watched him through the window, place his tall beaver hat on his head, then without another glance at the inn mount the step of a waiting carriage.

Joe
Burns, the landlord of the Golden Bird, must have noticed my concentration. He touched my arm in a friendly way and said, ‘No use having a fancy for that one, girl — A real gentleman he is, an’ with a fine lady wife into the bargain. Verne, his name is — Mr Rupert Verne. Got a large estate on the North Coast. So there’s nothin’ there for ‘ee. Now young Harry Bolson—’

I
shrugged, snapped my fingers, and said contemptuously, ‘
Bolson
! — he’s not my kind, and your Mr Verne doesn’t interest me. No man does.’ I could hear my earrings tinkle as I tossed my head.

Joe
Burns regarded me solemnly for a moment then turned away and said, ‘That’s all right by me, girl. There’s always work for you here. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of raisin’ your wage again.’

He
kept to his word; I should have been content, but I wasn’t, simply because for seven whole evenings Mr Rupert Verne didn’t appear again. I supposed during the interim he’d become bored with my entertainment and had found something more stimulating — perhaps even returned to the vast estate I’d been told of in North Cornwall.

Oh
well, I decided defiantly, so be it. There were other, more youthful, male faces to admire me. At the end of the week therefore, being in a coquettish mood, I donned a particularly gay attire of an orange-coloured swirling skirt over a peacock-blue silk shawl, and with a poppy behind one ear, above a jingling earring, broke into a medley of French songs, dancing to the rhythm of an Apache number. How my feet pirouetted, how my arms swayed and my thick dark curls flew to the melody, and oh! — how wonderful it was when the door at the far end of the taproom opened revealing the square-shouldered figure of Rupert Verne impressively silhouetted against the glow of the swinging oil lamp outside.

He
was wearing a caped coat, and as he entered swung his stove hat from his head. The light’s rays lit the chestnut hair and lean carved lines of his face to orange fire. Something electric in the atmosphere caused heads to turn. Movement ceased, mugs and bottles were momentarily stilled. No sound any more came from my throat. My slippers were motionless on the floor.

Then,
suddenly, he strode forward, and said for all to hear, ‘I beg no pardon for the intrusion, but ask your co-operation. This young lady and myself have matters of some importance to discuss, and I’ve had a hard ride, so for your deprivation of the night’s pleasure — allow me — !’

He
flung a fistful of coins into the gathering, quickened his approach to me and took the tips of my fingers for a second in his, then led me into the shadowed back portion of the inn.

I
was bemused and exhilarated at the same time; it was as though a strange kind of enchantment had fallen upon me. The door of the back parlour opened slightly — through a chink of light I saw Joe Burns’ face watching curiously. At a quick glance from Mr Verne the latch snapped, and we were alone in the fusty room. I stood with my head raised, fiddling with the fringe of shawl drawn close to my neck. There was a brief pause in which the monotonous sound of an ancient carved mahogony clock ticked the moments away. It was a drab brown room that badly needed dusting. An oleograph of the Battle of Trafalgar hung on the wall, a tired potted plant drooped on the sill, yellow and sick-looking in the wan lamplight. Embers in the fireplace were already dying, and remains of a meal had been left on the table. I was aware of these things, but they held no meaning for me. My heart was beating wildly. Every sense in me was heightened and expectant.

I
waited.

Through
the film of blurred air I watched the golden slits of eyes widen, and a faint smile pucker his lips. Then he spoke. ‘Don’t be afraid. I’ve no foul designs on you.’

BOOK: Portrait of a Girl
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