Philippa Carr

The Drop of the Dice


IT IS ONE OF the perversities of human nature that when something which has been passionately wanted is acquired, it loses its desirability and there can come a time when the need to escape from it becomes an obsession. Thus it was with me. What I had desperately needed as a child—obviously because of what had happened to me—was security. By the time I was thirteen in that fateful year of 1715, I longed to escape from the cosy cocoon in which my family had wrapped me, and when the opportunity came, I seized it.

I must have been about four years old when I was brought to England by my Aunt Damaris and my Uncle Jeremy. Those first four years of my life had been lived most dramatically though I did not realize that at the time. I suppose I thought it was the most natural thing for a girl to be kidnapped by her father, taken across the sea to live most luxuriously with her parents and then suddenly to find herself plunged into the poverty of the back streets of Paris, from which she was rescued and whisked over the sea again to an English home. I accepted all that with the philosophical endurance of a child.

One of the events which stands out in my memory is that homecoming. Vividly I recall getting off the boat and standing on the shingle. I shall never forget the ecstatic look in my Aunt Damaris’s eyes. I loved her dearly. I always had from the time I met her when she had been ill, lying on a couch, unable to walk more than a few steps. I had been bewildered as I stood there. I knew that I had no mother for she had died mysteriously at the same time as my father had, and I was very anxious for it seemed to me that everyone ought to have a mother—and a father as well.

I had said: ‘Aunt Damaris, are you going to be my mother now?’ and she had answered: ‘Yes, Clarissa, I am.’ I still remember the great comfort those words brought me.

I had noticed that Uncle Jeremy was looking at her intently and I decided that as I had lost my handsome, incomparable father, he would do very well as a substitute, so I asked him if he would be my father. He had said it would depend on Damaris.

I know now what had happened. They had been two unhappy people, hurt by life, each of them watchful so as not to be hurt again. Damaris was gentle and loving, eager to be loved. Jeremy was different. He was on his guard, suspicious of people’s motives. His was a dark nature; Damaris’s should have been a sunny one.

When I was a child I had not understood this. I had merely realized that I was looking for security and these were the two who could offer it to me. Young as I was, in that moment on the beach I could see that I must cling to them. Damaris understood my feelings. For all her seeming innocence she was very wise—far wiser, in truth, than people like Carlotta, my brilliant, worldly mother.

Those days in England were a joyous revelation to me. I discovered I had a family, and that they were all waiting to greet me, ready to draw me into their magic circle. I was one of them; I was loved—and because of my mother’s tragedy I was a consolation to them all. During those days I felt as though I was floating on a cloud of love. I revelled in it. At the same time I kept thinking of that moment when Damaris had come into the cellar-like room where I was with Jeanne’s mother and grandmother, and I could smell the odour of dampness and decaying foliage which always seemed to hang about the place and which came from the cans of water in which the unsold flowers were kept in the hope of preserving them for sale the next day. It had been her voice I recognized first when she had said: ‘Where is the child?’ I had flung myself into her arms and she had held me tightly, saying: ‘Thank you, God. Oh, thank you,’ under her breath, which impressed me even at such a time for it occurred to me that she must be on very familiar terms with God to speak to him like that.

I remember how she held me as though she was afraid I would run away. I was not likely to do that. I was so glad to get away from that cellar, for although Jeanne was good to me, I was always afraid of Maman, who always took the few sous Jeanne brought in from the sale of flowers and feverishly counted them, muttering as she did so. I had always been aware that she grudged my being there and but for Jeanne would have turned me into the streets. Even more terrifying than Maman was the Grand’mère who was always dressed in musty black and had hairs growing out of a great wart on her chin which both fascinated and repelled me. I had quickly realized that they were not my true friends and Jeanne always had to protect me from them. Sometimes I had gone out with Jeanne and I was not sure whether I disliked that as much as staying in. It was good to get away from the cellar and Maman and Grand’mère of course, but I was usually so cold standing in the streets beside Jeanne holding out bunches of violets or whatever flowers were in season; they were always wet too because they had to be kept in water and my hands grew red and chapped.

It had been a dramatic homecoming and I remember every moment of it. We passed near the great house called Eversleigh Court where, Damaris told me, my great-grandparents lived, and we stopped at the Dower House, the home of Damaris and my grandparents. They were so excited to see us. My grandmother ran out of the house and when she saw Damaris she gave a cry of joy and ran to her and hugged her as though she would never let her go. Then she turned to me and as she picked me up she was crying.

A man came out and kept kissing Damaris and then me. After that we went into the house and everyone seemed to be talking at once. Jeremy stood by awkwardly and as it seemed the others had forgotten him I went over and took his hand, which seemed to remind them that he was there. My grandmother said we must be hungry and she would give orders.

Damaris declared that she was too happy to think of food, but I told them that I could be happy and hungry at the same time, at which they all laughed.

We were soon sitting at a table, eating. It was a lovely room—so different from Jeanne’s cellar—and a warm and happy feeling seemed to wrap itself around me. This was going to be my home for a while, I gathered. I asked Damaris and she said, ‘Until…’ and looked very happy.

‘Yes, of course,’ said my grandmother. ‘It is wonderful to have you back, my darling. And Clarissa, too. My little love, you are going to stay with us for a while.’

‘Until…’ I said uneasily.

Damaris knelt beside me and said: ‘Your Uncle Jeremy and I are going to be married soon and when we are you will come to our home and live with us there.’

That satisfied me and I knew that all of them were glad I was here.

Jeremy rode back to his house and I was left at the Eversleigh Dower House. I had a little room next to that of Damaris. ‘So that we can be close together,’ she said, which was comforting because I did dream now and then that I was back in Jeanne’s cellar and that the old Grand’mère turned into a witch and the hairs growing out of her wart turned into a forest in which I was lost.

Then I would go to Damaris’s bed and tell her about the forest with trees which had faces like old Grand’mère and their branches were like brown fingers which kept counting money.

‘Only a dream, darling,’ Damaris would say. ‘Dreams can’t hurt you.’

It was a great relief to get into Damaris’s bed when the dreams came.

I was taken to Eversleigh Court where there were more relations. These were very old. There was my Great-Grandmother Arabella and my Great-Grandfather Carleton, a fierce old man with bushy eyebrows. He liked me, though. He looked at me in a rather frightening way, but I planted my feet firmly together and putting my hands behind my back stared at him to show I was not going to let him scare me, because after all he was not nearly so alarming as old Grand’mère and I knew that if he wanted to turn me away, Damaris, Jeremy and the others would stop him. ‘You’re like your mother,’ he said. ‘One of the fighting Eversleighs.’

‘Yes, I am,’ I answered, trying to look as fierce as he did, at which everyone laughed and my Great-Grandmother said: ‘Clarissa has made a conquest of Carleton.’

There was another branch of the family. They came to Eversleigh to visit from a place called Eyot Abbas. I vaguely remembered Benjie because he had been my father before Hessenfield. It was bewildering and I could not understand it at all. I had had one father and then Hessenfield had come and said he was going to be my father; now he was dead and Jeremy was going to be. Surely such a surfeit of fathers was most unusual.

Poor Benjie, he looked very sad, but when he saw me his eyes lighted up; he picked me up and gave me one of those emotional hugs.

Vaguely I remembered his mother, Harriet, who had the bluest eyes I had ever seen; then there was Benjie’s father, Gregory, a quiet, kind man. They had been another set of grandparents. I was surrounded by relations, and I quickly realized that there was a controversy in the family and it was all about me. Benjie wanted me to go home with him. He said he was my father in a way and had a greater claim than Damaris. Grandmother Priscilla said it would break Damaris’s heart if I was taken away from her and after all she was the one who had brought me home.

I was very gratified to be so wanted and sad when Benjie went away. Before he went he said to me: ‘Dear Clarissa, Eyot Abbas will always be your home when you want it. Will you remember that?’ I promised I would and Harriet said: ‘You must come and stay with us often, Clarissa. That is the only thing that will satisfy us.’