Authors: Katharine Moore
To Polly Dyne Steel
OLD MRS SANDERSON
stared down at a house agent’s photograph of “a most desirable period property, ripe for modernization and offered at a bargain price for a quick sale, the owner now living abroad”. As she looked it ceased to be a rather blurred picture of a square, gaunt, blind building and became alive, each window crowded with familiar faces; trees grew up on either side of the gate and, on the front lawn, a spaniel waltzed around a pony with bags on his feet drawing an antiquated mowing machine. “Why, it’s the Lotus House, and I haven’t set eyes on it for more than fifty years. Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear,” sighed old Mrs Sanderson. It was a house she had known intimately as a child and had loved as deeply, as momentously and as unconsciously as only a child can.
The house had been built in the year of Waterloo. There was a tradition that the first owner had been an East Indian merchant, who had established a lovely dusky harem there, and that it was he who had planted the giant cedar tree that dominated the upper back garden. This tradition was probably quite untrue, owing its origin perhaps to the name by which the house had always been known — the emblem of a lotus flower, the Indian lily, was carved over the entrance — but it was romantically cherished by the large cheerful family living there in the early part of this century.
It was a house well-suited for family life, being neither too large or grand, nor cramped or insignificant. It had a graceful fanlight flanked by Ionic pillars, and there were pediments over the long windows that looked northwards across the heath to the distant trees of the park. The ground on which it was built sloped south, so that the basement was on the garden level on that side, and curving iron stairs led up to a narrow balcony flush with the drawing-room. Twisted up the stairway and along the balcony was an ancient wisteria and, leaning against the south-west end, a large conservatory housed a prolific vine and two great camellias, one white and one red. Every house of character possesses its own subtle blend of scents — from the wood of floor and stairs and panelling, the polish used on these and on the furniture, the faint exhalations from curtains and covers, and all these blending with other scents drifting in from without. The Lotus House in early summer was pervaded by the wisteria blossom and all through the years that particular scent never failed to bring to the mind of Letty Sanderson the visits she had spent there as a child. One whiff and she was back again in that enchanted place which had been for her both a refuge and a revelation. Perhaps this was because on her very first visit the wisteria was in full bloom.
She must have been just eight years old. Her father had been in the Indian Civil Service, and Letty, an only child, had been sent home to England the previous year to be taken immense care of by a couple of spinster great-aunts. The aunts were as kind as possible and she was not unhappy with them or with the governess who came every day to the small sedate house in South Kensington. She did not know she was lonely, for she had been lonely in India; her mother was delicate and withdrawn and her father busy and seldom at home. Letty had been left to her ayah, from whom she had had the same sort of loving
protective care as she later experienced from the aunts, but no real companionship. Then, one day, nearly a year after she had come to England, an invitation arrived from the family at the Lotus House, who were some sort of distant relations of her father’s. Little girls were not kept strictly to their lessons in those days and so, although the spring holidays were almost over, she was allowed to pay a visit which seemed to her to extend throughout the whole summer, although afterwards she realized it could not have lasted as long as that. Memories of later visits merged with the first, so that there seemed to have been a continual renewal of joyous experience throughout the four years of her relationship with the house and family.
She remembered her first momentous arrival, though, distinctly enough. She had drawn back into the shelter of the musty old cab that had brought her and Miss Marchant, her governess, from the station, overcome by shyness at the sight of what appeared to be a large crowd of people of all ages and sizes waiting to receive her. Then a plump smiling lady opened the door and helped her down the step and said, “So this is Letty — Mary and Selina have been so looking forward to your coming. Now children, take Letty up to your room so that she can make herself tidy, and then come down to tea. The children have their tea together in the schoolroom, Miss Marchant, you must let me give you yours in peace before you have to return.” Blissful words — “
” — suddenly Letty felt a warmth she had never before experienced. Yes, definitely and immediately as she heard those two words pronounced she became a citizen of a new world, the world of her contemporaries to which she properly belonged.
In age she was equal to Mary and one year older than Selina, and she slept with them at the top of the house in a large attic room which used to be the night nursery. It still had bars across the windows through which came the
scent of the wisteria. The days began with Minnie, the housemaid, bringing in the big brass jug of hot water and setting it on the washstand with a towel over it to keep it warm, though often they had been awake long before that, chattering to each other. Yet it always seemed a scramble to get downstairs in time for family prayers. The father of the family was, on the whole, an easy-going man but he was a stickler for pious punctuality. No one was allowed to be late for family prayers or for church services. The children sat in a row each morning with their backs to the windows so that their attention should not wander; the maids filed in and sat opposite. The mother closed the door after them and took her place before the coffee urn at one end of the table, the father was at the other end with the big family Bible open in front of him. Somehow, the day starting thus with the double sanction of two masculine deities, one above, the other below, gave it a structural security lacking in the visiting child’s life elsewhere — then only dimly felt but important if only that it enhanced the sense of freedom that followed.
Set lessons disappeared with Miss Marchant and each day always seemed an adventure, but yet contained within an ordered pattern. With the wealth of companionship available there was bound to be some plan or other afoot. The eldest boy, Edward, must have been about sixteen at the time of Letty’s first visit but to her he appeared practically grown up, capable of being wonderfully kind and condescending and at times exquisitely funny. His condescension occasionally stretched to shepherding the three little girls across the heath and through the park and on down to the Thames, to watch the great barges with their red and brown sails come sweeping along with the tide. The child Letty had believed for years that the East Indian merchant’s fortune had been conveyed by night to that very same little pier upon which she loved to stand.
Edward had told her it had to be by night because it was all wicked gains got by looting temples and palaces, and probably his Indian wives were all hidden in the barges, too. She always believed every word Edward said, so she pictured a cavalcade crossing the heath in the darkness at peril of their lives from highwaymen, to arrive at the chosen site where eventually the sacks of gold were turned into the Lotus House.
On red-letter days they would even take the little steamer and travel as far as the Tower. But really most days were red-letter days at the Lotus House. If Edward was busy on his own affairs, the twins, Bob and Jack, were at hand, though it was often Selina who invented their games. There was the thrilling roof game. It was possible to get out on to the roof through a trapdoor, and then to creep all round the house along a deep gully and even to wriggle up and down the tiles into the valley that lay between the back and the front. In this game you were either a burglar or a policeman. Letty preferred being a burglar because it gave her time to look about her while she was hiding. It was a strange particular world up there — the tiles, hot in the summer sun which seemed much nearer than usual, burnt the backs of her legs, sparrows flew up, chirping crossly, she was level with the tops of the chestnut trees by the front gates. She would have liked to have stayed up there for much longer but the policemen were on her trail. The boys would not allow Selina to get out on the roof so she had always to be on guard by the trapdoor. They were always very careful of Selina because she was the youngest and delicate, but they let her climb the cedar for the Monkeys’ Party game, though it was understood that the safe broad fork between the lowest branches was reserved for her particular use.
The garden at the Lotus House was, for the child Letty, the Garden of Eden, the standard by which she judged all
subsequent gardens. Its especial glories were the cedar, the wisteria, the two camellia trees and all the fruit — the bunches and bunches of sweet little black grapes from the vine, the figs and peaches and greengages that grew along the south wall between the upper and the lower garden, where apple, pear, plum and damson trees all vied with each other in delicious abundance. The boundary of the lower garden was the railway and, though their elders might complain of the smoke and the noise (there was shunting on a side track that sometimes kept up a symphony of banging and puffing well into the small hours), to the children the railway was a source of both interest and pride. The boys especially pitied anyone who hadn’t a railway at the bottom of their garden and Letty, who at first was a little frightened of the engines, soon learned to look upon them as powerful and benevolent friends.
A stable block housed the old grey pony who mowed the lawns, the carriage horse Kitchener, Bimbo the black and white spaniel and the children’s rabbits. Fred the coachman and Chittenden the gardener were good-natured and long-suffering, and let the children do much as they liked as long as they kept a few well-defined rules faithfully. The three worlds of servants, children and parents each had their own rules. They were interdependent within clearly marked boundaries and the citizens of each world knew exactly where they stood. Even when Rosamund, who was the eldest of the family, passed from one world to another at her coming out, there was no uncomfortable undefined period. On Letty’s first visit Rosamund still inhabited the children’s world, then, almost in a flash it seemed, her hair went up and her skirts came down, and she belonged there no longer.
Rosamund was Letty’s first romance; she was built on generous lines like her mother, and everything about her was warm and glowing. Mary and Selina were slim little
creatures, rather pale, with straight fair hair and grey eyes, but Rosamund’s hair was a rich red brown and her eyes were hazel, and she had cheeks that really were the colour of pink roses. She played the violin but her real passion was for acting. Those were the days of private theatricals and she was much in demand (but she knew it was out of the question to consider anything professional). She was very kind to the younger ones and invented charades for them and contrived wonderful costumes. “A duke is in love with her,” Edward told Letty, “he will come and carry her off soon to live with him in his mansion and be his duchess.” Letty was not surprised, though she wished the duke had been a prince and the mansion a palace, but she did not want even a prince to carry off Rosamund anywhere. She did not want anything to change ever at the Lotus House. When at night she lay in her bed between Mary and Selina, smelling the wisteria (for in her memory there it was, always in bloom and always scenting the whole house) and listening to far-off hooting of ships from the river and the nearby trumpeting and panting of the railway engines at the bottom of the garden, she felt so happy and so safe that she knew then for certain that the world was a kind place. Yes, she felt the house wrap her round with such assurance that she could look forward to the years with excited trust.
It was not altogether a trick of memory that made old Mrs Sanderson think of her visits to the Lotus House as being always in warmth and sunshine. Winter visits had been rare, as the aunts thought she needed their own special cosseting then. She would so much have liked to have spent a Christmas there, but this had never been allowed and, like most children in those days, she accepted as inevitable the decisions made for her.
She must have been granted one February visit once though, for Selina’s birthday. She remembered clearly the drifts of snowdrops under the black branches of the cedar
and the dancing shadows on the ceiling from the bedroom fire the little girls were allowed for a treat. She supposed on looking back that the three of them got on so well together because she, Letty, had fulfilled a need in both sisters. Mary and she shared the same birth year. “Why, you’re twins,” Selina had said on that first visit, and Letty’s heart had given a little jump for pleasure and though the real twins, Bob and Jack, had pointed out the inaccuracy of this statement, still the notion that she and Mary had a special bond persisted. They were actually more alike in temperament than the sisters. “I like you because you are ordinary, like me,” Mary once said to her, and Letty knew just what she meant. Selina was un-ordinary — set apart by being the only delicate member of the family, subject to alarming fits of asthma, but more so by the possession of a compelling imagination which often left Mary disconcerted. “You never know what Selina is going to be,” she complained. Once for a whole tract of time she was a cat, and insisted gently but firmly on eating most of her meals from a saucer on the floor, and at another time, after Edward had been romancing about the East Indian merchant, she was one of his wives and coaxed Rosamund into making her a sari out of an old sheet, and pretended she did not understand what was said to her. But in spite of the inconveniences caused by such behaviour, she was such a sweet-tempered cheerful child, and so patient when ill, that everyone petted her and Letty, charmed by the delicious experience of mothering someone younger and weaker than herself, became the most willing attendant of all Selina’s subjects.