Authors: Victoria Holt
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
THE LANDOWNER LEGACY
It was at the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee when events took a dramatic turn and changed the entire
course of my life. I was only fourteen years old at the time and although those momentous occurrences were taking place around me—and I myself played a part in them—I was not aware of their importance until much later. It was as though I looked through a misty glass; I saw them, but I did not understand their significance.
To the casual observer, ours would have seemed to be a very fortunate household. But how often are things what they seem? We were what is called “well-to-do.” Our London residence was in one of the fashionable squares not far from Hyde Park; our comforts were presided over by Wilkinson, the butler, and Mrs. Winch, the housekeeper, between whom there was a perpetual state of armed neutrality, as each was very anxious to maintain superiority over the other. In the early hours of the morning, before members of the family left their beds, the lower echelons of the domestic staff scuttled about, removing the remains of the previous day’s fires in all the grates, polishing, dusting, getting the hot water, so that when we arose, as if by magic, all we needed was waiting for us. They all knew that my father was most displeased if any of them made their presence known, and the sight of a cap and apron scuttling away could mean the dismissal of their possessor. Everyone in the household dreaded his displeasure—even my mother.
Papa was Robert Ellis Tressidor—one of the Tressidors of Tressidor Manor of Lancarron in Cornwall. The family had owned large estates since the sixteenth century and these had been greatly increased after the Restoration. The great West Country families—with very few exceptions—had been firmly for the King at that time—and none was more royalist than the Tressidors.
Unfortunately the family mansion had passed out of my father’s hands and had been annexed (that was the word and I had had to look it up to see what it meant, for I was an inveterate listener and gleaned most of my information about the family from keeping my ears and eyes open) by Cousin Mary. Cousin Mary’s name was always spoken by my father and his sister Imogen, who was his devoted admirer, in a tone of contempt and loathing—but with a flash of envy, I fancied.
I had discovered that my grandfather had had an elder brother, who was Mary’s father. She was his only child and as he was the elder, Tressidor Manor and all its land had gone to her instead of to my father who, apparently, had every right to it, because although he was the son of a younger son he belonged to that superior sex which no woman should attempt to rival.
My Aunt Imogen—Lady Carey—was as formidable in her way as my father was in his. I had heard them discussing the contemptible behaviour of Cousin Mary, who had cheerfully taken possession of the family house and not paused to think for a moment that she was robbing the rightful heir. “That harpy!” Aunt Imogen called her, and I imagined Cousin Mary with a woman’s head and trunk, a bird’s wings and long claws flapping at my father and Aunt Imogen as the harpies did over poor blind King Phineus.
It was difficult to imagine anyone’s getting the better of Papa, and as Cousin Mary had done so I guessed she must be very formidable indeed and I could not help feeling a certain admiration for her which, said my sister Olivia, when I told her of it, was decidedly disloyal. But however much Papa had been defeated over his inheritance, he was certainly the master in his own house. There he ruled supreme, and everything must be done as he ordained. There was a big staff of servants—necessary because of his public life and the entertaining that entailed. He was the chairman of committees and organizations—many of them for the good of humanity, such as the Useful Employment of the Poor and the Rehabilitation of Fallen Women. He was the leader of
good causes. His name was often in the papers; he had been called another Lord Shaftesbury and it was hinted that his peerage was long overdue.
He was obviously a great friend of many important people, including Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister. He did have a seat in Parliament, but he did not take Cabinet rank—which it seemed could have been his for the asking—because he had so many interests outside Westminster. He thought that he could better serve his country by following them than giving his complete attention to politics.
He was a banker and on the board of several companies. Every morning the brougham would come round from the mews and draw up in front of the house. The carriage must be highly polished and the coachman’s livery absolutely correct; and even the little “tiger” who stood at the back as they drove along and whose duty it was to leap down when they reached their destination and open the door must be equally immaculate.
He possessed the two most important qualities of a gentleman of our times: he was rich and he was virtuous.
Miss Bell, our governess, was very proud of him.
“You must remember that your father is the fountain from which all your comforts flow,” she told us.
I immediately pointed out that I had noticed people were not very comfortable in his presence, so perhaps it was not exactly comfort which flowed from that particular fountain.
Our governess often despaired of me. Dear Miss Bell—so earnest, so eager to do well in that task to which God—and the great Mr. Tressidor—had called her. She was conventional in the extreme, overawed by the virtues of her employer, accepting without question his own valuation of himself—which in fact was the general one—constantly aware that however efficient she was, however well she performed her duties, she was merely a member of the inferior sex.
I must have been an irritating child, because I never accepted what I was told and lacked the sense to keep quiet about it.
“Why,” said my sister Olivia, “do you always have to turn everything round to make it different from what we are told?”
It was probably, I replied, because people did not always tell the truth and said what they thought we ought to believe.
“It’s easier to believe them,” said Olivia, which was typical of her. It was why they called her a good child. I was a rebel. I often thought it was strange that we should be sisters. We were so different.
Our mother did not rise until ten in the morning. Everton, her lady’s maid, took her a cup of hot chocolate at that hour. She was a great beauty, and there were frequent pieces about her in the society columns of the newspapers. Miss Bell showed them to us from time to time: “The beautiful Mrs. Tressidor” at the races … dining out … at some charity ball. They always described her as “the beautiful Mrs. Tressidor.”
Olivia and I were overawed by her beauty just as we were by our father’s towering goodness. I remarked that they both made ours rather an uneasy home. My mother was sometimes very affectionate towards us; at others she did not seem to be aware of us. She would embrace us and kiss us fervently at times—especially me. I noticed that and hoped Olivia didn’t. She had sparkling brown eyes and masses of chestnut hair the colour of which, Rosie Rundall, our very extraordinary parlourmaid, whispered to me, Everton took great pains to preserve with mysterious lotions. Keeping our mother beautiful was an absorbing task, apparently. Everton was good at it, and she kept the whole household at bay, demanding absolute quietness throughout when our mother was resting with ice pads on her lids or being gently massaged by Everton’s expert hands. There were continual discussions about the latest fashions.
“It is an exhausting business being a beauty,” I remarked to Olivia, and Rosie Rundall, who happened to be there at the time, agreed with a “You can bet your life on that!”
Rosie Rundall was the most unusual parlourmaid I had ever known. She was tall and good-looking. In fact parlourmaids were always chosen for their appearance. They were the servants seen by visitors, and ill-favoured ones could give a bad impression of a household. I often thought that in Rosie we had the supreme in parlourmaids.
Rosie could be extremely dignified with guests. People noticed her. They gave her a second glance. She was aware of it and received this silent homage with an equally silent dignity. But when she was with Olivia and me—which she contrived to be quite often—she was a different person altogether.
Both Olivia and I were very fond of Rosie. I suppose there were not many people to whom we could show affection. Our father was too good, our mother too beautiful; and although Miss Bell was very worthy, and good for us, I was sure, she was not exactly affectionate.
Rosie was warm-hearted and not averse to flying in the face of authority. When Olivia spilt gravy on her clean pinafore, with a wink
Rosie had whisked it away, washed it and ironed it in such a short time that nobody knew anything about it; and when I broke a Sevres vase which stood on a whatnot in the drawing room, Rosie took it away and stuck it together again, craftily placing it in an inconspicuous position.
“I’ll be the one to dust it,” she said with a grin. “Nobody will know. What the eye don’t see, the heart don’t grieve for.”
It occurred to me that Rosie went about the world saving a lot of hearts from grief.
On her nights out—one a week (she had insisted on those nights when she first came, and Mrs. Winch, delighted to acquire such a good-looking girl, gave in), Rosie would dress up like a lady. She became quite a different person from the one we knew in white cap and apron. She would look very grand in a silk dress and a hat with a jaunty feather and gloves and a parasol.
When I asked where she went she gave me a little push and said: “Ah, that’s telling. I’ll tell you when you’re twenty-five.” That was a favourite expression of hers. “One of these days, when you’re twenty-five, you’ll know.”
I was always interested to see the important people who came to the house. In the hall there was a beautiful staircase which wound round and round to the top of the house, with a well in the middle so that from the top floor—where the servants’ sleeping quarters, the nurseries and the schoolroom were situated—one could look right down and see what was happening in the hall. Voices floated upwards and it was often possible to glean all manner of surprising pieces of information in this way. There was nothing so maddening—nor so intriguing—as to have a conversation cut short at some vital point. It was a game I thoroughly enjoyed, although Olivia thought it was somewhat shameful.
“Listeners,” she said, quoting adult philosophy, “never hear any good of themselves.”
“Dear sister,” I retorted, “when do we ever hear
of ourselves—good or evil?”
“You never know what you might hear.”
“That’s true and that’s what makes it exciting.”
The plain fact was that I enjoyed eavesdropping. There was so much which was kept from us—unfit for our ears, I supposed. I just had an irresistible desire to know these things.
So peering down at the guests as they arrived was a source of great enjoyment. I liked to watch our beautiful mother standing at the top of
the stairs at the first floor on which were the drawing room and salon where well-known artistes—pianists, violinists and singers—often came to perform for our guests.
Poor Olivia would squat beside me in torment lest we should be discovered. She was a very nervous girl. I was always the ringleader when it was a question of acting adventurously, although she was two years my senior.
Our governess, Miss Bell, used to say: “Speak up, Olivia. Don’t let Caroline call the tune every time.”
But Olivia was always retiring. She was really quite pretty, but the sort of person people simply did not notice. Everything about her was pleasant but ordinary. Her face was small and pale; I was already taller than she was; her features were small, except her eyes, which were large and brown. “Like a gazelle’s,” I told her, at which she did not know whether to be pleased or hurt. That was characteristic of Olivia. She was never sure. Her eyes were beautiful but she was short-sighted and that gave her a helpless look. Her hair was straight and fine, and no matter how it was restricted, strands would escape, to the despair of Miss Bell. There were times when I felt I had to protect Olivia; but for the most part I was urging her to reckless adventure.
I was quite different in looks as well as in temperament. Miss Bell used to say that she would not have believed two sisters could be so unlike. My hair was darker, almost black; and my eyes were a definite shade of green which I liked to accentuate by wearing a green ribbon in my hair, for I was very vain and aware of my striking colouring. Not that I went so far as to think of myself as pretty. But I was noticeable. My rather snub nose, wide mouth and high forehead—in an age when low ones were fashionable—precluded me from a claim to beauty, but there was something about me—my vitality, I think—which meant that people did not dismiss me with a glance, and they invariably took a second look.