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Intrigued by the ruined splendor of the Wideacre estate, Julia Lacey proceeds with her plans for its restoration and a romance with her cousin Richard, a course threatened by dark legends
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Philippa Gregory is an internationally renowned author of historical novels. She holds a PhD in eighteenth-century literature from the University of Edinburgh. Works that have been adapted for television include A Respectable Trade, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen's Fool. The Other Boleyn Girl is now a major film, starring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana. Philippa Gregory lives in the North of England with her family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I 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 molded 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. At its center was the hall, Wideacre Hall. A smoke-blackened ruin at the head of the chalk-mud and flintstone 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 lodgekeeper 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 stagecoach stops on its way north to Midhurst and beyond.
I was born Julia Lacey in 1773, the daughter of the squire of Wideacre and his wife Celia Havering of Havering Hall. I was their only child; there was no male 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 forever.
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 the Dower's house, halfway 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 so 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 gray -- long aging streaks of dullness among the gold, as if her sorrow and her worry had laid fading fingers on her smooth head. She was widowed when I was only two years old, so I cannot remember her wearing any color 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 colors 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 parlor and drifted out of the half-open window to rival the birdsong in the twilit woods.
And then, when Richard was singing and the house was still, I could feel them. The ghosts who were always around us, as palpable as the evening mist filtering through the trees from the River Fenny. They were always near, though only I could feel them, and only at certain times. But I knew they were always near, those two -- Richard's mama, Beatrice, and my papa, the squire, who were partners in the flowering and destruction of the Laceys in the short years when they made and wrecked Wideacre.
And when Richard was singing and my hands were stumbling but picking out the tune and Mama dropped her sewing unnoticed in her lap to listen to that high sweet tone, I knew that they were waiting. Waiting almost like the three of us. For something to happen.
For something to happen on Wideacre again.
I was older by a year; but Richard was always bigger than me. I was the daughter of the squire and the only surviving Lacey; but Richard was a boy and the natural master. We were raised as country children, but we were not allowed into the village. We were isolated in threadbare gentility, hidden in the overgrown woods of the Wideacre parkland like a pair of enchanted children in a fairy tale, waiting for the magic to set us free.
Richard was the leader. It was he who ordered the games and devised the rules; it was I who offended against them. Then Richard would be angry with me and set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, and I would go white-faced and tearful to my mama and complain that Richard had been mean to me, gaining us both a reliably evenhanded punishment. We were often in trouble with my mama, for we were a bad team of petty sinners. Richard was often naughty -- and I could not resist confession.
I once earned us a scolding from Mama, who had spotted my stained pinafore and taxed me with stealing bottled fruit from the larder. Richard would have brazened it out, blue eyes persuasively wide, but I confessed at once, not only to the theft of the bottle of fruit, but also to stealing a pot of jam days before, which had not even been missed.
Richard said nothing as we left Mama's parlor, our eyes on the carpet, uncomfortably guilty. Richard said nothing all morning. But later that afternoon we were playing by the river and he was paddling in midstream when he suddenly said, "Hush!" and urgently beckoned me in beside him. He said there was a kingfisher's nest, but when I tucked my skirts up and paddled in alongside him, I could not see it.
"There!" he said, pointing to the bank. "There!" But I could see nothing. As I turned, he took both my hands in a hard grip and his face changed from smiles to his darkest scowl. He pulled me closer to him and held me tight so I could not escape and hissed, "There are water snakes in this river, Julia, and they are sliding out of their holes to come for you."
He needed to do no more. The ripples in the river were at once the bow waves from the broad heads of brown water snakes. The touch of a piece of weed against my ankle was its wet body coiling around my bare foot. The splash of a piece of driftwood in the flow was a venomous dark-eyed snake slithering in the river toward me. Not until I was screaming with terror, my cheeks wet with tears and my wrists red from trying to pull away, would the little tyrant let me go, so that I could scramble for the bank and fling myself out of the water in a frenzy of fear.
And then, as if my tears were some cure for his rage, he forgave me. He took my handkerchief out of my pocket and dried my eyes. He put his arm around me and talked to me in a tender voice, and petted me, and called me sweet little names. And finally, irresistibly, he sang for me my favorite folk songs about shepherds and farming and the land and crops growing ripely and easily, and I forgot to cry, I forgot my tears, I forgot my terror. I even forgot that Richard had been bullying me at all. I nuzzled my head into his neck and let him stroke my hair with his muddy hand, and I sat on his lap and listened to all the songs he could remember until he was tired of singing.
When we splashed home in the golden sunlight of the summer evening and Mama exclaimed at my dress, my pinafore, my hair all wet and muddy, I told her that I had fallen in the river and bore her reproaches without one murmur. For that I had my reward. Richard came to my bedroom later in the night when Mama was sitting downstairs trying to work by the light of only two candles. He came with his hands full of sweet things begged or stolen from Mrs. Gough, the cook. And he sat beside me on my bed and gave me the best, the very best, of his haul.
"I love you when you are good, Julia," he said, holding a cherry to my lips so I turned up my face like a questing lapdog.
"No," I said sadly as I spat out the cherry stone into his warm little palm. "You love me when I am bad. For lying to Mama is not good, but if I had told her about you and the water snakes, she would have had you whipped."
And Richard laughed carelessly, seeming much older than me, not a year younger.
"Shhh!" I said suddenly. I had heard a floorboard in the uncarpeted parlor creak and the scrape of her chair.
Richard gathered the remains of our feast in his hands and slid like a ghost in his nightgown toward the bedroom door. Mama came slowly, slowly up each step as if she were very tired, and Richard melted up the stairs to his attic bedroom at the top of the house. I saw the ribbon of light from Mama's nighttime candle widen as she pushed open my bedroom door. I had my eyes shut tight, but I could never deceive her.
"Oh, Julia," she said lovingly. "You will be so tired tomorrow if you don't go to sleep at the proper time."
I sat up in bed and stretched my arms to her for a good-night hug. She smelled faintly of lilies and clean linen. There were lines around her brown eyes and I could tell by the weariness on her face that she had been worrying about money again. But she smiled tenderly at me and the love in her face made her beautiful. There might be a darn on her collar, and her dark dress might be shiny with wear, but just the smell of Mama and the way she walked told you she was Quality born and bred. I sniffed appreciatively and hugged her tight.
"Were you writing to Uncle John?" I asked as she pulled up my bedclothes and tucked them securely around me.
"Yes," she said.
"Did you tell him that Richard wants singing lessons?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, smiling, but I saw her eyes were grave.
"Do you think he will send the money?" I asked, my concern for Richard making me press her.
"I doubt it very much," she said levelly. "There are more important bills to pay first, Julia. There are the Lacey creditors to repay. And we have to save for Richard's schooling. There is not a lot of money to spare."
Indeed there was not. Mrs. Gough and Stride worked for love, loyalty and a pittance paid monthly in arrears. The food on the table was game from the Havering estate or fish from the Fenny; the vegetables were grown in the kitchen garden, the fruit came from my Grandmama Havering at Havering Hall. And wine was a rare luxury. My dresses were hand-me-downs from my distant Havering cousins, and Richard's shirt collars were turned and turned and turned again until there was neither shirt nor collar left. Mama would accept clothes and food from her mama, my Grandma Havering. But she never applied to her for money. She was too proud. And anyway, the Havering estate, our nearest neighbor, was derelict through neglect itself. My mama's stepfather, Lord Havering, was not an attentive master of the land.
"Go to sleep, Julia," Mama said softly, taking up her candle and going to the door.
"Good night," I said, and obediently shut my eyes. But I lay half wakeful, listening as the house settled for the night. I heard Mama's footsteps in her room and the creak of her bed as she sprang in quickly, for the floorboards were icy to bare feet; the nighttime noises of Stride bolting the back door, checking the front door -- as if there were anything to steal! -- and then his heavy tread up the back stairs to his bedroom at the top of the house.
Then the outside noises: a trailing creeper tapping at a windowpane, the distant call of a barn owl flying low across a dark field and away in the woods the abrupt b...
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Book Description Pocket Books, 1989. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110671679104
Book Description Pocket Books. Hardcover. Condition: New. 0671679104 New Condition. Seller Inventory # NEW7.0250513
Book Description Condition: New. New. Seller Inventory # STORE-0671679104
Book Description Pocket Books, 1989. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0671679104
Book Description Pocket Books, 1989. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0671679104