ut why?" I said, for the hundredth time. Linda, Louisa and I were packed into Louisa's bed, with Bob sitting on the end of it, chatting in whispers. These midnight talks were most strictly forbidden, but it was safer, at Alconleigh, to disobey rules during the early part of the night than at any other time in the twenty-four hours. Uncle Matthew fell asleep practically at the dinner-table. He would then doze in his business-room for an hour or so before dragging himself, in a somnambulist trance, to bed, where he slept the profound sleep of one who has been out of doors all day until cockcrow the following morning, when he became very much awake. This was the time for his never-ending warfare with the housemaids over wood-ash. The rooms at Alconleigh were heated by wood fires, and Uncle Matthew maintained, rightly, that if these were to function properly, all the ash ought to be left in the fireplaces in a great hot smouldering heap. Every housemaid, however, for some reason (an early training with coal fires probably) was bent on removing this ash altogether. When shakings, imprecations, and being pounced out at by Uncle Matthew in his paisley dressing-gown at six a.m., had convinced them that this was really not feasible, they became absolutely determined to remove, by hook or by crook, just a little, a shovelful or so, every morning. I can only suppose they felt that like this they were asserting their personalities.
The result was guerrilla warfare at its most exciting. Housemaids are notoriously early risers, and can usually count upon three clear hours when a house belongs to them alone. But not at Alconleigh. Uncle Matthew was always, winter and summer alike, out of his bed by five a.m., and it was then his habit to wander about, looking like Great Agrippa in his dressing-gown, and drinking endless cups of tea out of a thermos flask, until about seven, when he would have his bath. Breakfast for my uncle, my aunt, family and guests alike, was sharp at eight, and unpunctuality was not tolerated. Uncle Matthew was no respecter of other people's early morning sleep, and, after five o'clock one could not count on any, for he raged round the house, clanking cups of tea, shouting at his dogs, roaring at the housemaids, cracking the stock whips which he had brought back from Canada on the lawn with a noise greater than gun-fire, and all to the accompaniment of Galli Curci on his gramophone, an abnormally loud one with an enormous horn, through which would be shrieked "Una voce poco fa"—"The Mad Song" from Lucia—"Lo, here the gen-tel lar-ha-hark"—and so on, played at top speed, thus rendering them even higher and more screeching than they ought to be.
Nothing reminds me of my childhood days at Alconleigh so much as those songs. Uncle Matthew played them incessantly for years, until the spell was broken when he went all the way to Liverpool to hear Galli Curci in person. The disillusionment caused by her appearance was so great that the records remained ever after silent, and were replaced by the deepest bass voices that money could buy.
"Fearful the death of the diver must be,
Walking alone in the de-he-he-he-he-depths of
or "Drake is going West, lads."
These were, on the whole, welcomed by the family, as rather less piercing at early dawn.
"Why should she want to be married?"
"It's not as though she could be in love. She's forty."
Like all the very young we took it for granted that making love is child's play.
"How old do you suppose he is?"
"Fifty or sixty I guess. Perhaps she thinks it would be nice to be a widow. Weeds, you know."
"Perhaps she thinks Fanny ought to have a man's influence."
"Man's influence!" said Louisa. "I foresee trouble. Supposing he falls in love with Fanny, that'll be a pretty kettle of fish, like Somerset and Princess Elizabeth—he'll be playing rough games and pinching you in bed, see if he doesn't."
"Surely not, at his age."
"Old men love little girls."
"And little boys," said Bob.
"It looks as if Aunt Sadie isn't going to say anything about it before they come," I said.
"There's nearly a week to go—she may be deciding. She'll talk it over with Fa. Might be worth listening next time she has a bath. You can, Bob."
Christmas Day was spent, as usual at Alconleigh, between alternate bursts of sunshine and showers. I put, as children can, the disturbing news about Aunt Emily out of my mind, and concentrated upon enjoyment. At about six o'clock Linda and I unstuck our sleepy eyes and started on our stockings. Our real presents came later, at breakfast and on the tree, but the stockings were a wonderful hors d'oeuvre and full of treasures. Presently Jassy came in and started selling us things out of hers. Jassy only cared about money because she was saving up to run away—she carried her post office book about with her everywhere, and always knew to a farthing what she had got. This was then translated by a miracle of determination, as Jassy was very bad at sums, into so many days in a bedsitting-room.
"How are you getting on, Jassy?"
"My fare to London and a month and two days and an hour and a half in a bed-sitter, with basin and breakfast."
Where the other meals would come from was left to the imagination. Jassy studied advertisements of bed-sitters in The Times every morning. The cheapest she had found so far was in Clapham. So eager was she for the cash that would transform her dream into reality, that one could be certain of picking up a few bargains round about Christmas and her birthday. Jassy at this time was aged eight.
I must admit that my wicked parents turned up trumps at Christmas, and my presents from them were always the envy of the entire household. This year my mother, who was in Paris, sent a gilded bird-cage full of stuffed humming-birds which, when wound up, twittered and hopped about and drank at a fountain. She also sent a fur hat and a gold and topaz bracelet, whose glamour was enhanced by the fact that Aunt Sadie considered them unsuitable for a child, and said so. My father sent a pony and cart, a very smart and beautiful little outfit, which had arrived some days before, and been secreted by Josh in the stables.
"So typical of that damned fool Edward to send it here," Uncle Matthew said, "and give us all the trouble of getting it sent to Shenley. And I bet poor old Emily won't be too pleased. Who on earth is going to look after it?"
Linda cried with envy. "It is unfair," she kept saying, "that you should have wicked parents and not me."
We persuaded Josh to take us for a drive after luncheon. The pony was an angel and the whole thing easily managed by a child, even the harnessing. Linda wore my hat and drove the pony. We got back late for the Tree—the house was already full of tenants and their children; Uncle Matthew, who was struggling into his Father Christmas clothes, roared at us so violently that Linda had to go and cry upstairs, and was not there to collect her own present from him. Uncle Matthew had taken some trouble to get her a longed for dormouse and was greatly put out by this; he roared at everybody in turn, and ground his dentures. There was a legend in the family that he had already ground away four pairs in his rages.
The evening came to a climax of violence when Matt produced a box of fireworks which my mother had sent him from Paris. On the box they were called Pétards. Somebody said to Matt: "What do they do?" to which he replied: "Bien, ça péte, guoi?" This remark, overheard by Uncle Matthew, was rewarded with a first-class hiding, which was actually most unfair, as poor Matt was only repeating what Lucille had said to him earlier in the day. Matt, however, regarded hidings as a sort of natural phenomenon, unconnected with any actions of his own, and submitted to them philosophically enough. I have often wondered since how it was that Aunt Sadie could have chosen Lucille, who was the very acme of vulgarity, to look after her children. We all loved her, she was gay and spirited and read aloud to us without cease, but her language really was extraordinary, and provided dreadful pitfalls for the unwary.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est ce custard, qu'on fout partout?"
I shall never forget Matt quite innocently making this remark in Fullers at Oxford, where Uncle Matthew had taken us for a treat. The consequences were awful.
It never seemed to occur to Uncle Matthew that Matt could not know these words by nature, and that it would really have been more fair to check them at their source.
By the time the Montdores and Polly returned from India, I was grown-up and had already had a season in London. Linda's mother, my Aunt Sadie (Lady Alconleigh), had taken Linda and me out together, that is to say, we went to a series of debutante dances where the people we met were all as young and as shy as we were ourselves, and the whole thing smelt strongly of bread and butter; it was quite unlike the real world, and almost as little of a preparation for it as childrens' parties are. When the summer ended Linda became engaged to be married, and I went back to my home in Kent, to another aunt and uncle, Aunt Emily and Uncle Davey, who had relieved my own divorced parents of the boredom and the burden of bringing up a child.
I was finding it dull at home, as young girls do, when, for the first time, they have neither lessons nor parties to occupy their minds, and then one day into this dullness fell an invitation to stay at Hampton in October. Aunt Emily came out to find me—I was sitting in the garden—with Lady Montdore's letter in her hand.
"Lady Montdore says it will be rather a grown-up affair, but she particularly wants you as company for Polly. She says there will be two young men for you girls, of course. Oh, what a pity it happens to be Davey's day for getting drunk. I long to tell him, he'll be so much interested."
There was nothing for it, however, but to wait. Davey had quite passed out and his stertorous breathing could be heard all over the house. Davey's lapses into insobriety had no vice about them; they were purely therapeutic. The fact is he was following a new regime for perfect health, much in vogue at that time, he assured us, on the Continent.
"The aim is to warm up your glands with a series of jolts. The worst thing in the world for the body is to settle down and lead a quiet little life of regular habits; if you do that it soon resigns itself to old age and death. Shock your glands, force them to react, startle them back into youth, keep them on tiptoe so that they never know what to expect next, and they have to keep young and healthy to deal with all the surprises."
Accordingly, he ate in turns like Ghandi and like Henry VIII, went for ten-mile walks or lay in bed all day, shivered in a cold bath or sweated in a hot one. Nothing in moderation. "It is also very important to get drunk every now and then." Davey, however, was too much of a one for regular habits to be irregular otherwise than regularly, so he always got drunk at the full moon. Having once been under the influence of Rudolph Steiner, he was still very conscious of the waxing and waning of the moon and had, I believe, a vague idea that the waxing and waning of the capacity of his stomach coincided with its periods.
Uncle Davey was my one contact with the world, not the world of bread-and-butter misses, but the great wicked world itself. Both my aunts had renounced it at an early age so that, for them, its existence had no reality, while their sister, my mother, had long since disappeared from view into its maw. Davey, however, had a modified liking for it, and often made little bachelor excursions into it from which he would return with a bag of interesting anecdotes. I could hardly wait to have a chat with him about this new development in my life.
"Are you sure he's too drunk, Aunt Emily?"
"Quite sure, dear. We must leave it until to-morrow."
Meanwhile she wrote (she always answered letters by return of post) and accepted. But the next day when Davey re-appeared looking perfectly green and with an appalling headache ("Oh, but that's splendid, don't you see, such a challenge to the metabolism, I've just spoken to Dr. England and he is most satisfied with my reaction"), he was rather doubtful whether she had been right to do so.
"My darling Emily, the child will die of terror, that's all," he said. He was examining Lady Montdore's letter. I knew quite well that what he said was true. I had known it in my heart ever since Aunt Emily had read me the letter, but nevertheless I was determined to go; the idea had a glittering fascination for me.
"I'm not a child any longer, Davey," I said.
"Grown-up people have died of terror at Hampton before now," he replied. "Two young men for Fanny and Polly, indeed! Two old lovers of two of the old ladies there, if I know anything about it. What a look, Emily! If you intend to launch this poor child in high society you must send her away armed with knowledge of the facts of life, you know. But I really don't understand what your policy is. First of all, you take care that she should only meet the most utterly innocuous people, keep her nose firmly to Pont Street—quite a point of view, don't think I'm against it for a moment—but then all of a sudden you push her off the rocks into Hampton and expect that she will be able to swim."
"Your metaphors Davey—it's all those spirits," Aunt Emily said, crossly for her.
"Never mind the spirits and let me tell poor Fanny the form. First of all, dear, I must explain that it's no good counting on these alleged young men to amuse you, because they won't have any time to spare for little girls, that's quite certain. On the other hand, who is sure to be there is the Lecherous Lecturer, and, as you are probably still just within his age group, there's no saying what fun and games you may not have with him."
"Oh, Davey," I said, "you are dreadful."
The Lecherous Lecturer was Boy Dougdale. The Radlett children had given him this name after he had once lectured at Aunt Sadie's Women's Institute. The lecture, it seemed, (I was not there at the time) had been very dull, but the things the lecturer did afterwards to Linda and Jassy were not dull at all.
"You know what secluded lives we lead," Jassy had told me when next I was at Alconleigh. "Naturally it's not very difficult to arouse our interest. For example, do you remember that dear old man who came and lectured on the Toll Gates of England and Wales? It was rather tedious, but we liked it—he's coming again, Green Lanes this time.... Well, the Lecherous Lecturer's lecture was duchesses and, of course, one always prefers people to gates. But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex. Think what a thrill! He took Linda up onto the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing when he was on his way down to dine. Do admit, Fanny."
Of course my Aunt Sadie had no inkling of all this, she would have been perfectly horrified. Both she and Uncle Matthew always had very much disliked Mr. Dougdale, and, when speaking of the lecture, she said it was exactly what she would have expected, snobbish, dreary and out of place with a village audience, but she had such difficulty filling up the Women's Institute programme month after month in such a remote district that when he had himself written and suggested coming she had thought, "Oh, well. . . !" No doubt she supposed that her children called him the Lecherous Lecturer for alliterative rather than factual reasons, and, indeed, with the Radletts you never could tell. Why, for instance, would Victoria bellow like a bull and half kill Jassy whenever Jassy said, in a certain tone of voice, pointing her finger with a certain look, "Fancy?" I think they hardly knew why, themselves.
When I got home I told Davey about the Lecturer, and he had roared with laughter but said I was not to breathe a word to Aunt Emily or there would be an appalling row and the one who would really suffer would be Lady Patricia Dougdale, Boy's wife.
"She has enough to put up with as it is," he said, "and besides, what would be the good? Those Radletts are clearly heading for one bad end after another, except that for them nothing ever will be the end. Poor dear Sadie just doesn't realize what she has hatched out, luckily for her."
All this happened a year or two before the time of which I am writing and the name of Lecturer for Boy Dougdale had passed into the family language so that none of us children ever called him anything else, and even the grown-ups had come to accept it, though Aunt Sadie, as a matter of form, made an occasional vague protest. It seemed to suit him perfectly.
"Don't listen to Davey," Aunt Emily said. "He's in a very naughty mood. Another time we'll wait for the waning moon to tell him these things. He's only really sensible when he's fasting, I've noticed. Now we shall have to think about your clothes, Fanny. Sonia's parties are always so dreadfully smart. I suppose they'll be sure to change for tea? Perhaps if we dyed your Ascot dress a nice dark shade of red that would do? It's a good thing we've got nearly a month."
Nearly a month was indeed a comforting thought. Although I was bent on going to this house party, the very idea of it made me shake in my shoes with fright, not so much as the result of Davey's teasing as because ancient memories of Hampton now began to revive in force, memories of my childhood visits there and of how little, really, I had enjoyed them. Downstairs had been so utterly terrifying. It might be supposed that nothing could frighten somebody accustomed, as I was, to a downstairs inhabited by my uncle Matthew Alconleigh. But that rumbustious ogre, that eater of little girls was by no means confined to one part of his house. He raged and roared about the whole of it, and indeed the safest place to be in, as far as he was concerned, was downstairs in Aunt Sadie's drawing room, since she alone had any control over him. The terror at Hampton was of a different quality, icy and dispassionate, and it reigned downstairs. You were forced down into it after tea, frilled up, washed and curled, when quite little, or in a tidy frock when older, into the Long Gallery where there would seem to be dozens of grown-ups, all, usually, playing bridge. The worst of bridge is that out of every four people playing it, one is always at liberty to roam about and say kind words to little girls.
Still, on the whole, there was not much attention to spare from the cards and we could sit on the long white fur of the polar bear in front of the fireplace, looking at a picture book propped against its head, or just chatting to each other until welcome bedtime. It quite often happened, however, that Lord Montdore, or Boy Dougdale, if he was there, would give up playing in order to amuse us. Lord Montdore would read aloud from Hans Andersen or Lewis Carroll and there was something about the way he read that made me squirm with secret embarrassment; Polly used to lie with her head on the bear's head, not listening, I believe, to a single word. It was far worse when Boy Dougdale organized hide and seek or sardines, two games of which he was extremely fond, and which he played in what Linda and I considered a stchoopid way. The word stupid, pronounced like that, had a meaning of its own in our language when we (the Radletts and I) were little; it was not until after the Lecturer's lecture that we realized its full implication and that Boy Dougdale had not been stupid so much as lecherous.
When bridge was in progress, we would at least be spared the attention of Lady Montdore, who, even when dummy, had eyes for nothing but the cards; but if by chance there should not be a four staying in the house she would make us play racing demon, a game which has always given me an inferiority feeling because I do pant along so slowly.
"Hurry up, Fanny—we're all waiting for that seven, you know, don't be so moony, dear."
She always won at demon by hundreds, never missing a trick. She never missed a detail of one's appearance, either—the shabby old pair of indoor shoes, the stockings that did not quite match each other, the tidy frock too short and too tight, grown out of, in fact—it was all chalked up on the score.
That was downstairs. Upstairs was all right, perfectly safe, anyhow, from intrusion, the nursery being occupied by nurses, the schoolroom by governesses and neither being subject to visits from the Montdores who, when they wished to see Polly, sent for her to go to them. But it was rather dull, not nearly as much fun as staying at Alconleigh. No Hons' cupboard (the Hons was the Radlett secret society and the Hons' cupboard its headquarters), no talking bawdy, no sallies into the woods to hide the steel traps or to unstop an earth, no nests of baby bats being fed with fountain-pen fillers in secret from the grown-ups, who had absurd ideas about bats, that they were covered with vermin, or got into your hair. Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through her day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and so friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.
She was the exact opposite of the Radletts, who always "told" everything. Polly "told" nothing, and if there were anything to tell it was all bottled up inside her. When Lord Montdore once read us the story of the Snow Queen (I could hardly listen, he put in so much expression) I remember thinking that it must be about Polly and that she surely had a glass splinter in her heart. For what did she love? That was the great puzzle to me. My cousins and I poured out love, we lavished it to right and to left, on each other, on the grown-ups, on a variety of animals and, above all, on the characters (often historical or even fictional) with whom we were in love. There was no reticence, and we all knew everything there was to know about each other's feelings for every other creature, whether real or imaginary. Then there were the shrieks. Shrieks of laughter and happiness and high spirits which always resounded through Alconleigh, except on the rare occasions when there were floods. It was shrieks or floods in that house, usually shrieks. But Polly did not pour or lavish or shriek, and I never saw her in tears. She was always the same, always charming, sweet and docile, polite, interested in what one said, rather amused by one's jokes, but all without exuberance, without superlatives, and certainly without any confidences.
Nearly a month then to this visit about which my feelings were so uncertain. All of a sudden, not only not nearly a month but now, to-day, now this minute, and I found myself being whirled through the suburbs of Oxford in a large black Daimler. One mercy, I was alone, and there was a long drive, some twenty miles, in front of me. I knew the road well from my hunting days in that neighbourhood. Perhaps it would go on nearly for ever. Lady Montdore's writing paper was headed Hampton Place, Oxford, station Twyfold. But Twyfold, with the change and hour's wait at Oxford which it involved, was only inflicted upon such people as were never likely to be in a position to get their own back on Lady Montdore, anybody for whom she had the slightest regard being met at Oxford. "Always be civil to the girls, you never know who they may marry," is an aphorism which has saved many an English spinster from being treated like an Indian widow.
So I fidgetted in my corner, looking out at the deep intense blue dusk of autumn, profoundly wishing that I could be safe back at home or going to Alconleigh or, indeed, anywhere rather than to Hampton. Well-known landmarks kept looming up; it got darker and darker but I could just see the Merlinford road, branching off with a big sign post, and then in a moment, or it seemed, we were turning in at lodge gates. Horrors! I had arrived.
Excerpted from The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Mitford. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.