Philippa Carr

A Time for Silence


I FIRST MET CARL Zimmerman in my father’s house in Westminster when I was eleven years old. I remember the occasion well. We were, in common with the whole of London—or the entire country for that matter—celebrating the coronation and new reign of the King and Queen.

The old King had died. He had been a colorful character in his day, especially as Prince of Wales. He had seemed to attract scandal which shocked the people—and the people love to be shocked. When he became King he appeared to be much more sober, but then, of course, he was much older.

I was born in the last year of the century—too young, as my mother had said, to remember the relief of Mafeking, though she had stood at the window of our London house with me in her arms looking down at the revelry in the streets below, and apparently I had appeared to be most amused.

The Prince of Wales had become Edward VII soon after that, on the death of his mother, the great Victoria, after which, I often heard, things were never the same again. Now Edward himself had passed on and we were welcoming his son, George, and George’s Queen Mary to be our new sovereigns.

My father, Joel Greenham, was the Member of Parliament for Marchlands, a constituency close to Epping Forest which had been represented by a Greenham since the days of George II—as a Whig in those days, and a Liberal since the party changed its name.

I was accustomed to gatherings, for we entertained frequently, both at Westminster and Marchlands, where we had a delightful house which I loved. Here, in London, the parties we gave were mostly political, and the guests were quite important well-known people whom I enjoyed meeting when I had the chance. It was different in the country, where the guests would be neighboring landowners and such like. They were more cozy.

My presence at the London parties was a secret one. I would be on the second floor, close to the banisters where I could get a good view and still be able to draw back quickly if anyone should chance to look up. My parents knew I was there. They would sometimes look up and lift a hand surreptitiously to let me know they were aware of my presence. Robert Denver knew, too, but then he was like a member of the family.

There had always been close ties between us and the Denvers. My mother and Lady Denver had been brought up together in their early days; then Lady Denver, whom I called Aunt Belinda, had gone to Australia for some years and when she returned and married Sir Robert Denver, the relationship had been resumed. Aunt Belinda had two children. One was Robert, the other Annabelinda. Both were very important to me.

Robert was about five years older than I, and one of the nicest people I had ever known. He was tall and lean; he had rather a disjointed look which was somehow endearing, as though, said his sister, Annabelinda, he had been put together in a hurry and some parts had not fitted very well. He had a gentle nature and I had loved him from the first moment I knew him.

Annabelinda was two years older than I and not in the least like her brother; she was disturbing, unpredictable and immensely exciting.

“Annabelinda takes after her mother,” I had heard my own mother say on more than one occasion.

They had an estate in the country and when they came to London they stayed with us. Robert was going to take over the estate in time, and he and his father were not such frequent visitors as Annabelinda and her mother. Those two much preferred London to the country.

On this occasion the whole family was with us. Sir Robert and Aunt Belinda and Robert were guests at the party. Annabelinda was with us on the stairs. She was a beauty already with deep-blue eyes, thick black hair and beautifully smooth, pale skin; she was full of vitality and outrageously adventurous. I could imagine that Aunt Belinda had been exactly like her in her youth and that she had plagued my mother as Annabelinda now plagued me.

“You must not let Annabelinda rule you,” said my mother. “Make your own judgments. Don’t let her lead you. She could be overpowering…just like her mother,” she added reminiscently.

I knew what she meant and determined to follow her advice.

On this occasion, after Miss Grant, my governess, had sat with us while we drank our milk as we did every evening, Annabelinda had given vent to her annoyance.

“It’s all very well for you, Lucinda,” she said. “You are, after all, only eleven years old. I am thirteen and still treated like a child.”

“We can see them all arrive. That’s fun, isn’t it, Charles?” I said to my younger brother.

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “And when they have all gone into the dining room, we creep downstairs and wait in the cubbyhole till Robert brings us gorgeous things to eat.”

“Annabelinda knows all that,” I said. “She’s been with us at other times.”

“It’s fun,” said Charles.

“Fun?” retorted Annabelinda. “To be treated like a child…at my age!”

I studied her. She certainly did not look like a child.

“Annabelinda will develop early,” my mother had said.

It was true. She was already shapely. “She’s like her mother…born mature.” That was my mother again, who often expressed her deep knowledge of Aunt Belinda in a way which made it seem like a warning.

I shall not come to look through the banisters at them,” went on Annabelinda. “It is too childish for words.”

I shrugged my shoulders. I was looking forward to it. The guests would ascend the wide staircase from the hall to where my parents would be waiting to greet them under the big chandelier. The drawing room and dining room were on the first floor and there was a space at the top of the stairs where they talked together before they drifted into the other rooms. It was at this stage that we watched them through the banisters.

Then when they were in the dining room, we would creep down and go into that small room which was reached by ascending a few steps of a back staircase. There we waited. The room contained several cupboards in which all sorts of things were stored. There was a table and some chairs in it and it was around this that we would settle happily, eating whatever Robert brought us. He would creep in with a tray on which would be trifle, ice cream or some such delicacy. He would sit with us in this room—which we called the cubbyhole—while we ate. It was the best part of the evening, and I think Robert enjoyed it, too.

When Miss Grant left us, we went to our point of vantage at the banisters and Annabelinda was with us. She did not explain her change of mind. She just squatted beside us and made critical comments on the appearances of the ladies while she gave most of her attention to the men.

When the guests had all gone into supper we prepared ourselves for the most exciting part of the evening. Silently we crept downstairs, sped under the chandelier, along to the end of the landing and up the four stairs to the cubbyhole.

Charles was finding it hard to suppress his giggles, and almost immediately, just as I expected, Robert appeared with a tray on which were four glass dishes containing syllabub. He had guessed Annabelinda would be there.

She was a little ashamed, I believe, at being seen joining in with the young ones, but as her brother, Robert, had stooped from even greater heights—although he did not seem to be aware of this—she was to some extent reconciled.

We sat down at the table to enjoy the syllabub.

“I knew it would be syllabub,” Charles said. “I heard Cook say. She wasn’t very pleased. Old-fangled stuff, she said it was.”

Everyone ignored him. Poor Charles! But when one is the youngest, one gets used to being ignored, and Charles had a very cheerful disposition. He was content to attack the syllabub with relish.

“I brought you an extra-large portion,” Robert told him. “I thought you might need it.”

“Thanks,” replied Charles, and showed his appreciation with a beaming smile.

“What are they talking about down there?” asked Annabelinda.

“Politics mainly,” said Robert.

“Not still going on about that old election, are they?” I asked.

“Well, it’s the House of Lords really. That seems to be the main cause of the trouble.”

“They oppose everything the Government wants to do,” I said. “There is nothing new about that.”

“Perhaps the new King will do something about it,” suggested Annabelinda.

“Monarchs are constitutional now,” I reminded her, “and the House of Lords is not so important as the Commons—though the laws have to be passed by them as well. My father says Mr. Asquith should create more peers so that he has the balance in his favor.”

Annabelinda yawned, and I went on. “It was wonderful of you, Robert, to bring this to us.”

“You know I always do at these affairs.”

“I know…and I like it.”

He gave me his special smile. “The fact is,” he said, “I like being here…rather than at the party, actually.”

“I should have liked a little more,” confessed Charles.

“What? After that big helping, you greedy creature,” I said.

“Have mine,” volunteered Robert, and Charles accepted with, “If you’re sure you don’t want it. It’s a shame to waste it.”

It was at that moment that I thought I heard footsteps outside the door.

I paused and listened.

“What is it?” asked Robert.

“Someone’s on the stairs. I heard that board creak. It always does…just outside the cubbyhole.”

I went to the door and opened it.