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Authors: Rosamond Lehmann

The Ballad and the Source

BOOK: The Ballad and the Source
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The Ballad and the Source
A Novel
Rosamond Lehmann

Part One

1

One day my mother told me that Mrs. Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her.

“Mrs. Jardine?” we said. “Is that the lady the house at the top belongs to?”

“Yes,” said my mother. “The Priory.” She had the note in her hand: violet paper, a large, clear, square-looking spidery writing.

“The one who wrote to you before from France to say she was an old friend of our Grandma's and we were to pick primroses on the hill every year till she came back?”

“Yes. An old Mrs. Grant Dugdale lived there when I was first married. She was Major Jardine's aunt, I believe. She called, and I returned her call, but I haven't been there since. She became completely crippled with arthritis and she went away years ago to live in Bath. Then she died and Major Jardine inherited the place. But he never came there to live; he let it. I think his tenants only went there at week-ends—rich business people, I believe—I never came across them. Yes. … She wrote some years ago. … Yes. It was such a kind thought.” My mother looked absent and dubious. She fingered the note and screwed her eyes up faintly to re-read it. “
We are getting too old to wander all our days, and Harry's torn roots in England and his childhood home have ached more and more with the passage of the years.
…”

“Is that what she says?” I asked, startled. Immediately, I felt attracted towards a lady who expressed herself with such picturesqueness.

“She means he was homesick,” said my mother. “
So we have come back; and are hoping that the climate will permit us to be well enough to enjoy these beauties for at least the major part of
the year. Precarious health has prostrated me at intervals for the last twenty years:
but who knows?
—
this may prove the right spot. I have liked to think of the children coming each year with primrose baskets to the hill. They have often appeared to me, like dreams,
like images in poetry.
…”
My mother stopped, raised her eyebrows. Her expression was complex.

“Go on,” I said.

“Hmm—hmm—
like poetry—spirit-like, unreal, yet in another sense so real—coming, for me, from so far back in the past, linked to what is clearest and most cherished in my memory—promising me something still to come, as it were, out of the past, into the present and the future, in this spring primrose-picking. … Little Primaveras.
… Primavera was the Goddess of Spring,” said my mother, deprecating all this, but improving the occasion. “There's a very famous picture of her by—er—by a great Italian painter.”

“Good gracious!” said Jess. “What on earth does she mean?”

I, personally, felt an extreme willingness to lend myself to the interpretation. My form appeared to me in an indistinct but pleasing diaphanous light, moving over the green hillside, spiritually and gracefully gathering blossoms.

“I believe Mrs. Jardine is a very unusual person,” said my mother. “She reads a lot, and expresses herself in this—er—in this way. …
But perhaps this will seem to you a tiresomely fanciful manner of speaking of your flesh and blood human three
—
or is it four?”

“Four,” said Sylvia, bitter. “If she means us children.”

“It is merely to show you how much it would mean to me to see my beloved Laura's grandchildren, how deeply I hope you and Edward will allow me this joy. …
Laura was your grandmother's name,” said my mother, “as you know.”

We didn't. We had never thought of her as having a name.

“Was she a friend of Grandma's, then?”

“Yes. Yes, I believe a great friend a long time ago. Of course she was a good deal younger than Grandma. Still, she must be getting to be an elderly lady now. Your father knew her when he was a boy, but I have never met her.
She says:
The primroses will be at their best next week. May they come Thursday, the 12th
—
if fine? I know how busy you are and scarcely dare to hope that you will accompany them, and give me the happiness of meeting Edward's wife?
If so
—
so much the greater the excitement for me. If not, I understand that you have a French lady in charge of your children
—I wonder how she found that out—
and hope to expect her with them. Please let them come early and pick their fill;
and tell them to come in by the blue door in the garden wall at four o'clock.”

“Oh, good, good!” said Jess. “I've always wanted to see through that door. The wall's so high you can't see the house—only the chimneys. We may go, mayn't we? Will you take us, Mum?”

“Well, no,” said my mother. “I couldn't take you.”

“Oh
bother! Must
it be Mamselle? She'll spoil it all. Can't we go alone?”

“I haven't decided yet,” said my mother, “whether I can let you go at all.”

“Why not?”

“Well … I don't know Mrs. Jardine.” Her voice was veiled, seeming, to our alarm, to conceal some serious motive for refusal.

“But Daddy does. And she was Grandma's great friend.”

My mother mused.

“I don't suppose your father would object.
…”
She took up the letter again and looked at it doubtfully.

“Of course he won't. Why should he?”

We had never yet known him object to a treat for us. He was away on a visit to his constituency.

“It's all such a long time ago
…”
murmured my mother. “Very well. I'll write and accept for you, Jess and Rebecca. Sylvia, it's much too long a walk, dear, for your little legs.”

“I don't want to go anyway,” said Sylvia, “if it means Mamselle. I simply pity the girls.”

“Don't talk like that, dear,” said my mother cheerfully. “It's so foolish.”

2

Next Thursday was fine. We wore our navy blue serge sailor blouses and skirts and jackets with brass buttons, and set off after lunch accompanied by Mademoiselle. She wore her best off-mustard flannel skirt, cream satin blouse with tucks, net yoke and whaleboned neck, hand-crocheted black bolero scalloped in violet, wide black waist-belt with clasp representing interlaced dragons in metalwork, and white felt tam-o'-shanter at a chic angle. We all wore brown laced boots.

This was our favourite walk at any season, leading as it did to Priory Copse, and the railings over which we turned somersaults. We left the last cottages behind us and went along the road that led up out of the valley until we came to the gate of the small park surrounding Major Jardine's property. A public road led through this, branching off left, to wind up into the copse, and right, round the shoulder of the hill, to fly up in a steep arc to the drive and the front door of the Priory. A footpath ran parallel to this road, close under the side of the hill, whose huge green eminence breasted up over us on our right; round, symmetrical, sudden as a hill in a child's drawing; green and smooth as a goose-girl hill in a fairy story. If one could only discover the right words, and say them, the side of the hill would open, and one would be able to go through, into the inside.

Soon we came to a kissing-gate in the iron-railed spiked fence. Once the other side of it, we were on the sheep-cropped grass, staring up at what opposed us so formidably yet so enticingly—the great slope, the primrose clumps splashed all over it, the track that soared to the church, then on again, swerving to take a milder angle, to the blue door in the brick wall that crowned the summit. Up, up, we toiled, picking and filling our baskets. Our fingers, when we smelt them, gave off that mysterious whispering breath which seems half-animal, half-made of air and dew.

By the time we had reached the top and had decided we must moderate the size of our bunches this year lest Mrs. Jardine think us rude and greedy, there was still a quarter of an hour before we were due to go through the gate. So we went into the churchyard to have a look at the graves. The church itself was tiny, crooked, Norman, with a pretty, rosy, lichen-crusted roof of tiles. Beside it grew a yew tree, said to be a thousand years old. Its trunk was of gigantic girth, belted with a chain to hold it together, twisted and moulded into vast bosses, knots, inlays and depressions, into sculptured reliefs of frenetic inspiration and irresponsibility. Silvery, veined with iron black, its substance, seen from close, gave a mineral impression: it had nothing of the warmth and life of wood. From farther off, this stoniness dissolved, became fluid, tender; became a column of water, pale and dark, pouring down silently out of the core of the sombre spread of branches, in snaky interlacing whorls and spirals.

In a corner of the churchyard grew a plantation of white violets, enormously plump and prosperous-looking. When I wondered why they should grow so exceptionally fat in that one spot, Mademoiselle answered in a dry way that no doubt they had a rich soil to nourish them; and I saw the dead stretched out under me in the earth, feeding these flowers with a thin milk drawn from their bones. One of the tombstones was engraved:
Sacred to the memory of Silence, wife of John Strong of this parish, who departed this life in the twenty-fifth year of her age.
The date was of the seventeenth century. The word Silence, in deep, high letters, in the midst of all the other names of dead women—the Hannahs, Marys, Ediths, Louisas, Georginas—gave this one grave a strange significance: as if among domestic griefs and protestations, something impersonal, cold, symbolic had been stated. Once, when I mentioned the name disbelievingly to my father, he smiled, and said: “My gracious Silence!” —I did not understand why.

I put a small bunch of primroses on this neglected grave: then it was four o'clock, and we went through the blue door into Mrs. Jardine's garden.

As we crossed the lawn, a french window in the front of the long, low, creeper-covered house opened, and a woman's figure appeared. She waved. She gave the impression of arms outstretched, so welcomingly did she surge forward to meet us. She was dressed in a long gown of pale blue with wide sleeves embroidered thickly with blue, rose and violet flowers. She had a white fleecy wrap round her shoulders, and on her head, with its pile of fringed, puffed, curled white hair, a large Panama hat trimmed with a blue liberty scarf artistically knotted, the ends hanging down behind. She was small and rather stocky, with short legs and little feet shod in low-heeled black slippers with tongues and paste buckles.

When she came up to us, she said:

“I must kiss you, because I loved your grandmother.”

We lifted our faces, and she gave us each a kiss. Her lips and cheeks were dry, warm, the skin so crinkled all over with faint lines it seemed a fine-meshed net. The most noticeable things about her were the whiteness of her face, the paleness of her large eyes, and the strong fullness and width of her mouth. Her teeth were regular, splendid, untouched by age.

We were deeply struck by her remark. It sounded strange to us that a person should so reveal her feelings: we did not say things like that in our family, though I dreamed of a life in which such pregnant statements should lead on to drama and revelation. I had at this time a sense that I might be a more romantic figure than my parents and other people realised.

She turned her full eye, that seemed to embrace more than it looked at, upon our primrose baskets, and said:

“Is that all you've picked?”

“We didn't like to pick too many,” said Jess.

“Why not?” We were silent, and she continued: “My dears, are you very well-behaved?”

“We have to be,” said Jess.

She gave a rough, chuckling laugh.

“Well, you can break out with our primroses another time. Anything so lavishly offered by Nature must be lavishly accepted. The real point of primroses is the amount—as with ice cream. Whoever heard of good manners over ice cream?”

“We have,” said Jess.

Her laugh broke out again, and taking Jess's chin in her fingertips, she turned her face up and gazed at it.

“How came you by this unsoothed breast?” she said.

Her voice was rather harsh, yet warm, energetic, throaty, with a break in it.

I thought Jess would find it necessary to reply that she came by it through unfairness and Mademoiselle, but something in the look they exchanged loosened her obsession; and colouring with shy pleasure, she smiled.


C'est un
esprit
fier et intransigeant,”
remarked
Mademoiselle
in the benign and delicate manner she assumed for discussing our temperaments with people of social importance. “
Le
fond est ex-cel-lent.”


Evidemment,”
agreed Mrs.
Jardine,
nodding, brooding over Jess. She looked sorry for her, amused and loving.

I was beginning to fear that the power of Jess's character would exclude me from the bonds being forged, and perhaps she guessed this, for she turned to me, raising her eyebrows in humorous questioning, as if to inquire: “What about
this
breast?”


Elle est
douce,
la cadette,”
murmured Mademoiselle, all honey. “Douce—douce
et serieuse.”

“You have your grandmother's eyes,” said Mrs. Jardine. She took up my hand and examined it. “When I was a young girl she gave me this ring.” She showed me, on her little finger, a half-inch of small cut rubies set in thin gold. Her other fingers were covered with important-looking rings, diamonds and turquoises and emeralds, and this one looked girlish, incongruous among them. “My joints are swollen a little, and now I can only wear it on this finger—but I have worn it for forty years. Her own rings would only fit a child, her fingers were so slender. But they were very firm. They could touch the piano keys as no others could. Is there music in these fingers?”

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