Authors: Philippa Gregory
efore there was anything, there was the dream. Before Richard, before I even knew the hills around Wideacre, the sweet rolling green downs which encircle and guard my home – there was the dream. As far back as I can remember, the dream is there. Was always there.
And it is not the dream of a child. It is not
dream. It belongs to someone else. But I do not know whose dream it is
In the dream I am hurt – hurt and heartbroken with a pain that I hope has never been felt in real life. My feet are sore from walking far on stony cold ground, and they are wet with mud, Wideacre mud, and with blood from a hundred cuts from the sharp chalk and flint stones. I am stumbling in midnight darkness through the woods near our house towards the river, the River Fenny, and I can hear the roar of its winter-deep waters, louder even than the howling and tossing of the wind in the treetops. It is too dark for me to see my way and I stumble in the blackness between the shattering blasts of lightning
I could walk easier but for my burden. The only warm dry part about me is the little bundle of a new-born baby which I am holding tight to my heart under my cape. I know that this baby is my responsibility. She is mine. She belongs to me; and yet I must destroy her. I must take her down to the river and hold that tiny body under the turbulent waters. Then I can let her go, and the little body in the white shawl will be rolled over and over by the rushing flood, away from my empty hands. I must let her go
The roaring noise of water gets louder as I struggle down the muddy footpath, and then I catch my breath with fear when I see the river – broader than it has ever been before, buffeting the trunks
of the trees high on the banks, for it has burst out of its course. The fallen tree across the river which we use as a bridge is gone, hidden by boiling depths of rushing water. I give a little cry, which I cannot even hear above the noise of the storm, for I do not now know how I am to get the baby into the river. And she must be drowned. I have to drown her. It is my duty as a Lacey
This is too much for me, this fresh obstacle on top of my tears and the pain in my heart and the pain in my feet, and I start to struggle to wake. I cannot see how I can get this warm soft sleeping baby to the cold dashing river water, and yet I have to do it. I am stumbling forward, sobbing, towards the river, which is boiling like a cauldron in hell. But at the same time a part of my mind knows this is a dream – the dream which I always have. I struggle to be free of it, but it holds me. It is living its life in my mind. It is as if I have split into two people. One of them is a little girl struggling to wake from a nightmare, tossing in her bed in the little room and crying for her mama to come. And the other is this woman with a baby warm under her cloak and an utter determination to drown her like an inbred puppy in the cold waters of the river which rushes from the slopes of the downs and through Wideacre and away
am an old woman now. In my heart I am an old woman, tired, and ready for my death. But when I was a child, I was a girl on Wideacre. A girl who knew everything, and yet knew nothing. A girl who could see the past all around as she walked on the land – dimly, like firelit smoke. And could see the future in bright glimpses – like moonlight through storm-torn clouds. The unstoppable hints of past and future moulded my childhood like drips of water on a tortuous limestone stalactite that grows and grows into a strange racked shape, knowing nothing.
Oh! I know now. I have been a fool. I was a fool over and over in the years when I learned to be a woman. But I am no fool now. I had to shed the shell of lies and half-truths like a summertime adder coming out of a sloughed skin. I had to scrape the scales of lies off my very eyes so that I blinked in the strong light of the truth at last; and was a fool no more. In the end I was the only one that dared to face the truth. In the end I was quite alone. In the end there was only me. Only me and the land.
It is no ordinary land – that is our explanation and our excuse. This is Wideacre, set on the very chalk backbone of southern England, as beautiful and as rich as a garden, as the very first garden of Eden. The South Downs enclose the valley of the River Fenny like a cupped hand. High chalk downs, sweet with short-cropped grass and rare meadow flowers, dizzy in summer with tiny blue butterflies. These hills were my horizon. My little world was held inside them. And its centre was the hall, Wideacre Hall. A smoke-blackened ruin at the head of the chalk-mud and flint-stone drive, tumbling down amid an overgrown rose garden where no one walks. In the old days the carriages would roll past
the front door and down the drive, passing fertile fields, passing the little square sandstone Dower House, stopping at the great iron gates at the head of the drive for the lodge-keeper to swing them open for a tossed coin or a nod. To the left is the village of Acre – a lane lined with tradesmen’s cottages, a whitewashed vicarage, a church with a pretty rounded spire; to the right is the lane which runs to the London road, meeting it at the corner where the stage-coach stops on its way north to Midhurst and beyond.
I was born Julia Lacey, the daughter of the squire of Wideacre and his wife, Celia, of Havering Hall. I was their only child, the only heir. I was raised with my cousin Richard, the son of Beatrice, my father’s sister. Those two – my papa and his sister-made my cousin and me joint heirs to Wideacre. They changed the entail on the estate so that we two could jointly inherit. We always knew that we were to run Wideacre together.
Those are the facts. But there is also the truth. The truth that Beatrice was desperate to own her brother’s estate, that she lied and schemed and ruined the land and murdered – oh, yes, the Laceys have always been killers. She stopped at nothing to put herself in the squire’s chair. She enclosed fields and shut footpaths, she raised rents and planted wheat everywhere to pay for her plans. She drove her husband half mad and stole his fortune. She dominated her brother in every way a woman can. And she outran her destiny for season after season until the village which had once adored her came against her with torches in their hands and a leader on a black horse riding before them.
They killed her.
They killed her. They burned down the house. They ruined the Lacey family. And they put themselves outside the law for ever.
My papa, the squire, died of a weak heart. Beatrice’s husband, Dr John MacAndrew, went away to India, swearing to repay her creditors. And then there were only the three of us left: my mama, my cousin Richard and me in the square little box of a house, half-way down the drive from Wideacre Hall with the
great trees of the Wideacre parkland leaning over the roof and pressing close to the windows. Three of us, two servants, and a whole world of ghosts.
I could name them all. I saw them all. Not very clearly. Not well enough to understand with my child’s imagination. But at night when I was asleep, I sometimes heard a voice, a word or an echo of a word. Or once, very clearly, the ripple of a joyous laugh. And once I had a dream 50 intense that I awoke, in a start of terror, my bedroom windows bright with the reflection of flames from a fire as big as a house, the fire which burned down Wideacre Hall, my house. And killed the squire, my papa. And left three survivors in this house: the three of us and a family of ghosts.
In real life there was my mama. Her face was heart-shaped, pale like a cream rose, her eyes pansy-brown. Her hair was fair when she was young but went grey – long ageing streaks of dullness among the gold, as if her sorrow and her worry had laid fingers on her smooth head. She was widowed when I was only two years old, so I cannot remember her wearing any colour other than purple or sage or black, I cannot remember the hall as anything but a ruin. When we were little children, she would revile the dull colours and swear she would marry a great merchant for his stocks of pink shot silk. But as we grew and no merchant arrived, no geese laid golden eggs and no trees grew diamonds, she laughed no more about her old dark gowns, shiny at the seams and worn at the hems.
And there was Richard. My cousin Richard. My dearest friend, my little tyrant, my best ally, my worst enemy, my fellow conspirator, my betrayer, my playmate, my rival, my betrothed. I cannot remember a time before I loved him. I cannot remember a time before I loved Wideacre. He was as much a part of me, of my childhood, as the downland and common land, as the tall trees of Wideacre woods. I never made a choice about loving him, I never made a choice about loving the land. I loved land and boy because they were at the very heart of me. I could not imagine myself without my love for Richard. I could not imagine
myself with any other home than Wideacre, with any other name than Lacey.
I was blessed in my loves. For Richard, my cousin, was the sweetest of boys, as dear to me as a brother, one of those special children who draw in love as easily as green grass growing. People would turn to smile at him in the streets of Chichester, smile at his light-footed stride, his mop of black curls, his startlingly bright blue eyes, and the radiance of his smile. And anyone who heard him sing would have loved him for that alone. He had one of those innocent boyish voices which soar and soar higher than you can imagine anyone can sing, and the clear purity of each note could make me shiver like a breeze sighing out of the sky from heaven itself. I loved so much to hear him sing that I would volunteer for hours of pianoforte practice and for the discomfort of constantly learning new pieces so that I could play while he sang.
He loved duets, but neither threats nor blandishments could make me hold a tune. ‘Listen, Julia! Listen!’ he would cry at me, singing a note as pure as spring water, but I could not copy it. Instead I would strum the accompaniment as well as I was able, and sometimes in the evening Mama would hum the lower part while Richard’s voice soared and filled the whole of the tiny parlour and drifted out of the half-open window to rival the birdsong in the twilit woods.