Philippa Carr

The Gossamer Cord

Incident in the Forest

WHEN I LOOK BACK I can see that it all began one morning at breakfast in our home at Caddington Hall when my mother said casually, looking up from the letter which she was reading: “Edward has asked that German boy to stay with them for a holiday in England.”

“I expect he will bring him over to see us,” replied my father.

I was always interested in what Edward was doing. I thought he was such a romantic person because of his origins. My mother had been at school in Belgium when the war broke out, and she had had to leave that country in a hurry because of the advancing German armies. Edward’s parents had been killed by a bomb when it fell on their house which was close by the school, and the dying mother had extracted a promise from my mother that she would take the child with her to England; and this had been done.

Edward was always full of gratitude to my mother—understandably so, for what could he have hoped for from an invading army or fleeing refugees with themselves to care for and who might not have had much time to spare for a helpless baby.

He lived usually with my maternal grandparents at Marchlands, their estate in Essex, or in the London family home in Westminster. My grandfather had been a Member of Parliament—a tradition in the Greenham family—and now my uncle Charles had taken over the seat.

Edward was about twenty-two years of age at this time; he was going to be a lawyer, and he was, of course, just like any other member of the family.

My young brother, Robert, was saying that he expected Edward would pay a return visit to his friend in Germany.

“I wish I could go,” he said. “It must be wonderful. They have Beer Gardens and they are always fighting duels. They don’t think much of men until they have a scar received in a duel, and it has to be on the face so that everyone can see it.”

My mother smiled at him indulgently. “I can’t believe that is so, darling,” she said.

“I know it is because I heard it somewhere.”

“You shouldn’t believe all you hear,” said my sister Dorabella.

Robert grimaced and retorted: “And you…you’re such a know-all.”

“Now,” put in my mother, “don’t let’s quarrel about it. I hope we shall see Edward and this…er…” She looked at the letter. “…Kurt,” she went on. “Kurt Brandt.”

“It sounds rather German,” commented Robert.

“What a surprise!” mocked Dorabella.

It was the summer holidays and a typical morning and the family was all together for breakfast.

I can picture that morning clearly now that I know how important it was.

My father, Sir Robert Denver, sat at the head of the table. He was a wonderful man and I loved him dearly. He was different from any man I had ever known. There was not a trace of arrogance about him. On the other hand, he was rather self-effacing. My mother used to chide him about it; but she loved him for it all the same. He was gentle, kind, and I think, best of all, utterly to be relied on.

He had inherited the title on the death of his father not long before. My grandfather and he had been very much alike—entirely lovable—and it had been a great blow to us all when my grandfather died.

My grandmother Belinda lived with us. We always called her Grandmother Belinda to distinguish her from Grandmother Lucie. She did not come to breakfast but took hers in her room. She was quite different from my grandfather and father. Autocratic in the extreme, she demanded attention and took a mild yet cynical interest in family affairs, while being completely absorbed in herself; but at the same time she managed to be very fascinating. She was beautiful, still with magnificent black hair which had miraculously—or perhaps cleverly—not lost its color, and deep blue eyes which invariably seemed amused and a trifle mischievous. Dorabella and my brother were a little in awe of her; and I know I was.

So on this occasion there were only Dorabella, my brother, myself, and our parents.

Dorabella and I were twins and between us there was that special bond which is often there with such people. We were not identical, although there was a close physical resemblance. The differences had been brought about by our characters, because my mother said that when we were babies, it was difficult to tell us apart. But now that we were sixteen—or should be in October—the resemblance had faded.

Dorabella was more frivolous than I; she was impulsive, whereas I was inclined to pause for thought before I took action. She had an air of fragility, whereas I was sturdy; there was a certain helplessness about her which seemed to be attractive to the opposite sex. Men were always at her side, wanting to carry something for her or look after her in some way, whereas I was left to care for myself.

Dorabella relied on me. When we were very young and first went to school, she would be disturbed if we did not sit together. She liked to sidle up to me lovingly while she copied my sums. And later, when we went away to school, we were closer than ever. There was no doubt that there was a deep affinity between us.

Immediately after the war had ended, my father had come back from France; that was in 1918. He and my mother were married and in the October of the following year Dorabella and I were born.

At the time my mother had been fascinated by the opera. It must have been exciting when they came to London after four years of restrictions and privations and constant fear for their loved ones, and used my grandparents’ house in Westminster as their home. During that time they wanted to relish all that they had missed. My mother had always loved the opera; it became a passion of hers during this time, and she had the romantic notion of naming us after characters in two of their favorites. So I became Violetta from La Traviata and my sister, Dorabella from Così fan tutte.

My grandmother had once laughingly said that she would have protested at Turandot.

Our brother, who was born about three years after us, had to be Robert, because there was always a Robert in the family, which did make it a little difficult at times to know which one was being referred to. But tradition had to be obeyed.

True to our expectations, Edward came to visit us, bringing Kurt Brandt with him.

It was a lovely summer’s day in mid-August when they arrived. We were all waiting for him and when we heard the car come into the courtyard my mother, with Dorabella, Robert, and myself, ran down to greet him.

Edward leaped out of the car and I saw his eyes go to my mother. They embraced. I guessed that when he met her after an absence he thought of how she had brought him out of danger when he was a helpless baby. It had made a special bond between them, and I believe my mother thought of him as one of her children.

A young man of about Edward’s age got out of the car and came toward us.

“This is Kurt…Kurt Brandt,” said Edward. “I have told him about you all.”

He looked slight beside Edward and very dark because Edward was so tall and fair. He stood very straight before my mother, clicked his heels, took her hand, and kissed it. Then he turned to Dorabella and me and did the same. He shook Robert’s hand, which rather disappointed my brother who would have liked the clicking of heels, if not the hand kissing.

My mother said how delighted she was to see Edward and his friend and she led them into the house, for which Kurt Brandt expressed his admiration in good but accented English. The house was very ancient and dated back to the fifteenth century, and people were often impressed by it when they first saw it—so there was nothing unusual about that.

My father joined us for luncheon. Usually he was busy on the estate, but this was a special occasion and my mother had asked him to make an effort to be there.

Kurt Brandt told us that his home was in Bavaria. There was an old schloss which had been in the family for years.

“Not so big…not so grand as this house,” he said modestly. “Schloss sounds grand, but there are many such in Germany. Castles…but very small. Ours is an inn now—and has been for some years. Then there were bad times…the war…and after…it was not easy…”

I thought of my father, who had been decorated for bravery during that war, and remembered that he would have been fighting against Kurt’s father. But it was all over now.

“Tell us about the forest,” said my mother.

How glowingly he spoke of his homeland! I could see how much he loved it. We listened entranced and, seen through his eyes, the forest seemed an enchanted place. He told us how, during the autumn, the mists arose suddenly—bluish mists which shrouded the pine trees suddenly without warning so that even those who were familiar with the place could lose their way. About the necks of the cows which belonged to the few farms scattered on the wooded slopes were bells which tinkled as the cows moved, and so the sound gave their owners an idea of where they were.

He was a fascinating talker, and Edward sat back smiling because his guest was a success. It was an excellent beginning, not that the rest was disappointing.

Edward was eager to show him something of our country and, as one of his passions at the moment was his new motorcar, he insisted on driving us somewhere each day.

We went to Portsmouth so that Kurt might see Admiral Nelson’s battleship; we explored far beyond our neighborhood; then Kurt must see the New Forest, where William the Conqueror had hunted; and after that to Stonehenge, which was of an even earlier period.