Philippa Carr

The Adulteress

A Cry for Help

IT HAS ALWAYS SURPRISED me that people who have lived conventionally, observing all the rules laid down by society, will suddenly appear to change their entire personality and act in a manner alien to everything they have been before. That I should be one of them was as great a shock to me as it would have been to those who knew me well—if they ever discovered it; that was why it was absolutely necessary to keep it secret; there were, of course, other, more practical, reasons for doing so.

I have often tried to understand how it could have happened to me. I have tried to make excuses. Is it possible for people to be possessed? Some of the mystics of the past declared they were. Was it some inner force? Was it the spirit of one long departed which had entered my body and made me throw aside the principles of a lifetime and act as I did? What is the use of trying to placate my conscience? The rational explanation can only be that I did not know myself until I came face to face with temptation.

It really began on that spring day which was just like any other day in my ten-year marriage to Jean-Louis Ransome. Life had flowed smoothly and pleasantly for us. Jean-Louis and I agreed on most things; we had known each other since childhood and had been brought up in the same nursery, for my mother had taken charge of him just before I was born when he was about four years old. His own French mother had left him in my mother’s charge when he had shown so determinedly that he did not want to go away with her and her new husband.

Ours had been one of those predicted marriages which pleased everybody. Perhaps it had been too easy, and because everything had fallen so neatly into place we had become the ordinary conventional people we were.

So there was I in the flower room, I remember, arranging the daffodils I had picked a short while before from our garden which merged into the woods and which we agreed we would keep a little wild because we both liked it that way. At this time of year the daffodils seemed to spring up everywhere. I loved their subtle scent, their bright yellowness the color of sunshine and the way they proudly held up their trumpets as though proclaiming the coming of summer. I always filled the house with them. I was the sort of person who quickly formed habits and went on with them mainly because I had for so many years.

There was a sink in the flower room and I had filled my containers with water and was enjoying the arrangements in an epergne of pale green glass which set off the yellow flowers perfectly when I heard the sound of horses’ hooves on the gravel and then … voices.

I looked up a little ruefully. I enjoyed visitors but I wished they had waited until I had finished with the flowers.

Sabrina and Dickon were coming toward the house so I reached for a cloth and dried my hands, and went out to meet them.

Sabrina was my mother’s cousin—a rather strikingly beautiful woman to whom dramatic things had happened a long time ago. She was about ten years my senior, which meant she must be forty years old at this time. She didn’t look it, though there was often a haunted expression in her eyes and sometimes one caught her staring into space as though she were looking back over the years. Then she would look really sad. She had always been a member of our household, and my mother had been a mother to her. Dickon was Sabrina’s son, on whom she doted rather more than was good for him, I fancied. He had been born after the death of her husband.

“Zipporah!” cried Sabrina. I had often wondered why I had been given such a name. There were no other Zipporahs in the family. When I asked my mother why she had chosen it, she said: “I just wanted something unusual. I liked it, and your father, of course, made no objections.” I discovered that it came from the Bible and was disappointed that the life of my biblical namesake had been no more exciting than my own. All she appeared to have done was married Moses and borne a lot of children. She had been as insignificant as I was, except of course that in the whole of my marriage—to my sorrow and that of Jean-Louis—we had not been blessed with offspring.

“Zipporah,” continued Sabrina, “your mother wants you to come over to supper. Could you and Jean-Louis manage this evening? There’s something she wants to talk about.”

“I should think so,” I said, embracing her. “Hello, Dickon.”

He acknowledged my greeting coolly. My mother and Sabrina had made him the very center of their lives. I sometimes wondered what Dickon would grow up like. He was only ten years old now, so perhaps he would change when he went away to school.

“Do come in,” I said, and we went past the open door of the flower room.

“Oh, you were doing the daffodils,” said Sabrina with a smile. “I might have known.”

Was I so predictable? I supposed so.

“I hope I didn’t interrupt the ritual,” she added.

“No … no. Of course not. It’s lovely to see you. Are you out for a ride?”

“Yes and called in … only for a moment.”

“You’ll have a glass of wine and some of cook’s biscuits.”

Sabrina said: “I don’t think we’ll stop for that.”

But Dickon interrupted her: “Yes, please,” he said. “I should like some biscuits.”

Sabrina smiled fondly. “Dickon is very partial to those wine biscuits of yours. We must get the recipe, Dickon.”

“Cook is very jealous of her recipes,” I said.

“You could order her to give it to our cook,” retorted Dickon.

“Oh, I wouldn’t dare,” I said lightly.

“So, Dickon, you will have to wait until you visit Zipporah for your wine biscuits.”

The refreshment came. Dickon hastily finished all the biscuits, which would please cook anyway. She was very susceptible about her food and lapped up compliments. A good one could put her in a very pleasant mood for a whole day; while the faintest hint of criticism could, as one of the maids said, make life in the kitchen a hell on earth.

“It sounds as though something important has happened,” I said.

“Well, it could be. It’s a letter from old Carl … you know, Lord Eversleigh.”

“Oh … yes of course. What does he want?”

“He’s worried about the Eversleigh estate. Because he has no son to inherit.”

“I suppose it would have gone to the general, if he hadn’t died.”

“Strange really to think there is no one in the direct line … no male, that is. Everybody seemed to have girls. A pity old Carl didn’t have a boy.”

“Didn’t he have one who died at birth?”

“Oh yes … long ago … and the child’s mother died with him. That was a terrible blow. He never got over it, they said. He never married again, although I believe he had … friends. However, that’s past history and the old man is now a bit anxious and his thoughts have settled on you.”

“On me! But what about you? You’re older than I.”

“Your grandmother Carlotta was older than my mother, Damaris, so I supposed you’d come first. Moreover, I wouldn’t be considered. I’ve heard that he talked about my marrying that ‘damned Jacobite.’”

“I think Jacobites were brave,” put in Dickon. “I’ll be a Jacobite if I want to.”

“Thank heaven all that nonsense seems to be over now,” I said. “The ’Forty-five finished it.”

Then I was sorry I had said that because Sabrina had lost her husband at Culloden.

“We hope so,” she said quietly. “Well, the fact is old Carl wants to see you, doubtless with a view to making you his heiress. He wrote to your mother, who would come before you, of course, but she is the daughter of that arch Jacobite, Hessenfield.”

“How they seem to clutter our family,” murmured Dickon.

“That leaves you,” went on Sabrina. “Your father was a man Uncle Carl highly approved of, so the Jacobite strain is far removed and possibly wiped out, particularly as your father once fought for King George. So you are redeemed. The point is your mother wants you to come over so that we can discuss it all and decide what should be done.”

“Jean-Louis couldn’t leave the estate just now.”

“It would only be for a short visit. Anyway, think about it and come over today.”

“I’d like to go to Eversleigh,” said Dickon.

His mother smiled at him fondly. “Dickon wants everything that’s available, don’t you, Dickon? Eversleigh is not for you, my son.”

“You never know,” said Dickon slyly.

“Talk about it with Jean-Louis.” said Sabrina to me, “and we’ll go into it thoroughly. Your mother will show you the letter. That will put you in picture.”

I saw them off and went back to the daffodils.

Jean-Louis and I walked to Clavering Hall from the agent’s house which had been our home since we had married. I had told Jean-Louis of old Carl’s desire to see me and he had been a little disturbed, I think. He was very happy managing the Clavering estate, which was not large and where he had everything working peacefully and in perfect order. Jean-Louis was a man who did not change.

We walked arm in arm. Jean-Louis was saying that it would be difficult for us to leave Clavering just at this time. He thought we might go later when there was less to do on the estate.

I agreed with him. We rarely disagreed on anything. Ours was a very happy marriage. That was what made my actions all the more incomprehensible.

The only real cloud on our happiness was what appeared to be an inability to have children. My mother had spoken to me about it for she knew it grieved me. “It is sad,” she admitted. “You would have made such good parents. Perhaps in time, though … perhaps a little patience …”