Philippa Carr

The Black Swan

Murder in the Street

We were at breakfast-my stepmother and I-when the letter came, Briggs, the butler, brought it in with the usual ceremony. It lay on the shining silver tray in which Belinda and I used to watch our grotesquely distorted faces leering back at us, while we grew hysterical with laughter.

My stepmother looked at the letter nervously. She was a very nervous woman. It was due I always thought to living with my father who was rather a terrifying man to some people. I could understand her feelings, although his relationship with me was quite different from that which he had with anyone else.

For a few seconds the letter lay on the table unopened while I waited expectantly.

Celeste, my stepmother, looked at me fearfully. She said, “It’s from Australia.”

I had realized that.

“It looks like Leah’s writing.”

I could see that, too.

“I wonder what ...”

I was very fond of Celeste. She had been a good, kind stepmother to me, but she did exasperate me sometimes.

“Why don’t you open it and see?” I suggested.

She picked it up gingerly. Celeste was one of those people who spend their lives in fear that something awful is going to happen. It had on occasions, but that was no reason for living in perpetual fear. She started to read, and as she did so, her face grew pink, “Tom Marner is dead,” she said. Tom Marner! The big hearty Australian who years ago had taken over the gold mine from my father, who had come to this very house and carried off Leah, our nurse, and Belinda with her, making it necessary to uncover long-buried secrets which could have remained hidden forever, and so changed the entire course of our lives. And now Tom Marner was dead.

“What else?” I asked.

“Leah herself is ailing. She is clearly worried about Belinda. If anything should happen to her ...”

“You mean if she died. Is she going to die, too?”

“She hints that it’s possible. There’s clearly something wrong with her health. The gold mine has been failing for some years. Tom lost a lot of money bolstering it up. I can see what she wants. She reminds me that I am Belinda’s aunt.”

“She wants Belinda to come back here then?”

“I shall have to speak to your father. Tom Marner had an attack. It was sudden.

She is a widow now. She thinks the attack was brought on by anxiety.”

“How sad! She was so happy when she married him. I had never seen Leah happy before. And at the same time she was very worried about Belinda... and all that. But once it was settled, she was quite different, wasn’t she? And now he’s dead. Poor Leah!”

“And she is ill.”

Celeste picked up the letter and read it out to me:

“ ‘What will happen to Belinda? If I could get her back to England, I’d be so relieved.

You see, here... there are no relations. You, Mrs. Lansdon, are her nearest, I suppose. There is her father, of course... but I don’t know about him. But you... you were always so kind to her ... to both of the children... even before you knew the truth. Belinda is impulsive.... ‘“

Celeste stopped reading and looked at me helplessly.

“She will have to come back,” I said.

I felt excited, but I was not sure whether I was pleased or dismayed. Belinda had been so much a part of my childhood and she had had a great influence on my life. She had tormented me persistently, but when she had gone I had missed her very much.

But that was more than six years ago... nearer seven, I supposed.

“I will speak to your father when he comes home,” said Celeste.

“It was a late sitting last night,” I said. “He would have stayed at the Greenhams.”

She nodded. “Perhaps you could mention it,” she said.

“I will.”

She passed the letter to me and I read it.

What memories it brought back! I could clearly recall dear patient Leah, our good nurse, who had been kind and gentle to me, the outsider, as everyone-except Leah-had thought then, though it had always been obvious that I came second to Belinda with Leah. She could not help her feelings for her own child; and when the truth was revealed, that all became clear.

And now there was a possibility that Belinda would return. What was she like now, I wondered? I knew exactly how old she would be because we had been born on the same day. We were now nearly seventeen years old. I had changed a lot since our last meeting. What of Belinda after those years in an Australian mining township? Something told me that, whatever way of life had been hers, nothing would change the old Belinda. During the morning I kept thinking of all that had happened. Ours was a strange story and difficult to believe unless one knew all the people concerned in it.

Right at the center of it was the scheming Cornish midwife, who had brought both Belinda and me into the world. Mrs. Polhenny, self-righteous and fanatically religious, had had a daughter Leah, and Leah, while working for the family of French émigrés to which Celeste and her brother Jean Pascal belonged, had become pregnant ... as it turned out later by Jean Pascal. Mrs. Polhenny was understandably horrified that, after all her preaching in the neighborhood, this should happen to her own daughter. So she made a devious plan. There was in the neighborhood a crazy woman named Jenny Stubbs who had once had a child who had died, and ever after Jenny suffered from the delusion of thinking she was about to have another. Mrs. Polhenny planned to take Jenny into her home at the time of Leah’s confinement and, when Leah’s child was born, pretend that it was Jenny’s. She was greatly aided in this by circumstances. Indeed she would not have been able to carry it out, nor would it have occurred to her to do so, if the scene had not been set for her.

Meanwhile my mother was about to give birth to me at Cador, the big house of the neighborhood, and Mrs. Polhenny was to act as midwife. My mother died and, as I was not expected to live, it then occurred to Mrs. Polhenny that it would be sensible to put me with Jenny and have Leah’s child take my place at Cador, thus giving Leah’s daughter opportunities which she would not otherwise have.

This she managed successfully to achieve; and Leah, wanting to be with her child, became nurse to Belinda, while I spent my first years in Jenny Stubbs’s cottage. My sister Rebecca came into the story here. Rebecca always had a strong feeling for me. She used to say that it was our dead mother guiding her. I do not know about that but I was aware that, from the beginning, there was a strong bond of affection between us, and it was almost as though some strange influence was watching over me, for when Jenny died, Rebecca insisted on bringing me into the Cador nurseries to be brought up there. The circumstances of Jenny’s death and the insistence of Rebecca, and the indulgence of her family, made this possible. Rebecca keeps a diary as the women of our family often do. It is a tradition. Rebecca says when I am older she will let me read it and I shall understand more fully how this all came about.

What I already knew was that Tom Marner wanted to marry Leah and take her to Australia and, as she could not be parted from her daughter, Belinda, she confessed to what had happened.

What a turmoil that made! Especially to my father and to me. From that time the relationship between us had changed. I had a feeling that he wanted to make up for all the years that he had been unaware that he was my father.

We seemed to have become indispensable to each other. Celeste never showed any resentment toward me and, with a rather sad resignation, she accepted his devotion to me which far exceeded his feelings for her. He had loved my mother single-mindedly and obsessively even though she was long since dead for she had died giving birth to me-and he had never recovered from the loss. No one could replace her. Over the years I had come closer than anyone to doing that. I suppose because I was part of her-her daughter and his.

His feelings toward my half sister Rebecca had mellowed in time, but I was sure that he always remembered that, though she was my mother’s daughter, she was not his; and he could not bear the thought of my mother’s first marriage. So I was the one he turned to.

He was a forceful man, distinguished in appearance; his entire being emanated power. Ambition had been the driving force of his life. There was a ruthless streak in his nature and a recklessness which at times had led him into dangerous situations. Such men rarely pass through life untouched by scandal. I sometimes wondered whether my mother, if she had lived, would have managed to subdue that side of his nature. She had been his second wife and he her second husband. Although they had known each other from childhood, circumstances had separated them and then brought them together, idyllically but briefly. He was always deeply regretful for the years they had wasted and that when they found each other there should have been so little time together. He had married his first wife for a gold mine; he had married my mother for love; and Celeste? I think he had been vainly trying to find consolation, someone to care for him and soothe that aching longing for my mother. Poor Celeste! She had failed to do this. I supposed it would have been small consolation to her to know that nobody could. But because he had found a daughter, because he had always felt drawn toward her-as he told me afterward-even when she had appeared to be a waif brought into the house by an eccentric whim of Rebecca’s, he had decided that I could become a substitute for my mother; and because I was attracted and fascinated by this powerful man with the unhappy eyes, and because the fact he was my father never ceased to fill me with wonder, I was only too ready to play my part; and so the strong bond between us was forged.