Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 75-88
The Dower House at Kellynch
A Somerset Romance
It is not always easy to distinguish attachment to person from attachment to property. I know it is widely held that Elizabeth was joking when she declared that she fell in love with Darcy when first she saw Pemberley. I used to think so myself. Now I am not so sure. Let me tell you my story, and you may make your own judgement. I have yet to make mine.
They call it the Dower House, but really it is nothing of the sort. It once fulfilled the function of a Dower House, some time in the last century, the period at which the facade looking down over the pleasure gardens had been refurbished. One of the always more or less unfortunate Lady Elliots (or had it been a Lady Bridgewater?) was said to have been secluded there, and the improvements had been made for her benefit. The terrace with its Gothic alcoves, the urns and the sun dial, the rounded finials on the roof had been added at this time, but it was no more a dower house than nearby Uppercross Cottage was a cottage. Both were renovated farm houses. Uppercross Cottage, incidentally, is now known as The Elms, after the unfortunate whim of an early twentieth century owner who decided the word cottage was inappropriate for so substantial a residence. The elms are all dead, of Dutch elm disease, but the name remains. It is a happy house and well maintained. It belongs to an architect from Taunton. His children and grandchildren play table tennis on the verandah in the summer evenings.
The Dower House is neither happy nor well maintained. But it is beautiful.
I fell in love with it at first sight. I was taken there by my friend Rose with whom I was staying at her farm on Exmoor. I did not know Somerset well, and we had spent a pleasant few days, walking, swimming in the icy river Barle, looking at churches and country houses. Rose was working on the illustrations for a book of European pond and river plants, and we collected specimens. On the whole we kept our own company, talking over our own affairs – I was still giddy with relief at having not long left my cad of a husband, she was involved with a philandering philosopher – but one evening she arranged for us to go over to Kellynch for dinner.
As we left the chalky uplands and descended into the red deeps, driving through increasingly narrow, high-banked purple-flowering lanes of foxglove and rosebay, Rose told me its history. Ever since some early Elliot had been obliged to let the Hall, at the beginning of the last century, the property had been hedged with difficulties. There had been a scandalous liaison round the time of Waterloo, which had scattered illegitimate children through the country, followed – or perhaps accompanied – by a marriage which had promised well, the bride being a Bridgewater and wealthy. But it had ended in long drawn out disaster. The Bridgewaters figured well in Debretts but not in other organs of record. They were, not to beat about the bush, said Rose, barmy. The duties and dignities of a resident landowner had appealed neither to Elliots nor to Bridgewaters. But they had hung on there, as the estate fell to pieces. During the Second World War Kellynch Hall had been requisitioned as an Officers Training Centre and it had never recovered. It was now a Field Study Centre. She herself occasionally taught a course of botanical drawing there.
Yes, she said, slowing to avoid a pheasant, accelerating to overtake a tractor, there had been dramas. There had been suicides and incarcerations. The men drank and the women wept. The cold blood of the Elliots had mingled disastrously with the black blood of the Bridgewaters. One bride had thrown herself from an upper storey of Kellynch Hall on her wedding night: she had been caught in the arms of the great magnolia tree and had lingered on, an invalid. A daughter had taken her brother’s shotgun and blown out her brains on Dunkery Beacon. A son had drowned himself in the pond. When the pond was drained, in the 1920s, said Rose, it was found to contain a deposit of bottles of claret both empty and full: old Squire William, the one who had sold off Parsonage Farm and the woods beyond Barton, had been in the habit of wandering down there of an evening, sometimes drunk, sometimes in a frenzy of remorse. In either state he had thrown bottles. The tench had thrived on them: never had such vast fish been seen. There was one stuffed on show in the Hall.
With such legends she entertained me as we drove westward. The present owner of the estate, Bill Elliot, with whom we were to dine, was now in his late thirties. His father, Thomas Elliot, had been a military man and had fought in the desert with Montgomery of Alamein, but the peace had disagreed with him and he had come home to drink himself to death, dying of cirrhosis of the liver in his sixties. Bill had inherited a property that was mortgaged, entailed, and ill-starred. Oppressed by this legacy, he had made a brief stay of execution by hiring the house, parkland and pleasure gardens to a film company for a costume movie. This venture had turned out well, for his dowerless sister Henrietta had insisted on appearing as an extra in the hunting sequence, had taken a nasty fall, and had been wooed on her sickbed in Taunton Hospital by one of the film’s more portly and substantial stars, who had married her. Did I know Binkie? Maybe I had seen him as a bishop in the latest Trollope series? He was really rather good.
But one cannot live off one windfall. And so Kellynch Hall had been let to the Field Study Centre on a 99 Year Maintaining and Repairing Lease. The Elliots had washed their hands of it. Bill was now camping out in the Dower House. I would like him, she hoped.
I wondered. As I struggled with the heavy metal latch of a broken down five barred gate – for it seemed we were to drive down a cart track to Kellynch – I struggled also with my feelings about the English land and its owners. I come, though I trust you cannot detect this, from the lower middle classes, to whom property is important – but by property we mean the freehold of a suburban house with a garden where you can hang out the washing, not farms and tenancies and arable acres. The Elliots of old would not have acknowledged the existence of my category of person. To them we did not signify. And now it was they who hung on by a thread. Kellynch Lodge, which had once belonged to the Russells, was owned by an absentee Canadian newspaper proprietor, and the Vicarage by a designer of computer software. Trade and the middle classes had triumphed.
Even Rose, who had done her best to declassify herself, sometimes annoyed me. She worked for her living, after a somewhat haphazard manner, but she carried with her the assumptions of a gentlewoman. She assumed I knew things I did not know, people I did not know. She lives in a world which I know largely through literature. I am the second-hand person, the ventriloquist. She is the real thing.
I relatched the gate with difficulty, got back into the car, and we edged carefully down what I now realised was not a cart track but an avenue of oaks leading towards Kellynch Hall. This had been the grand approach, and the trees, though some were stag-crested, were grand still: but they had returned so much to nature that the formality of their planting, ordained by some Elliot four centuries ago, was not at once apparent. They had been reabsorbed into the landscape, as had the great sweet chestnuts of the park boundary. Soft lumps of honey fungus sprouted from the old wood. The gold of a field of barley rose to our right. There was a hint of autumn fulness in the August air.
We descended, past the Big House, down the curved drive, through what had been the stable courtyard, to the Dower House. The melancholy deepened and tears stood in my eyes. I had never seen anywhere so beautiful in my life. Pink peeling walls, grey-yellow lichen encrusted stone, single white roses, white doves. It had reached the moment before decay that is perfection.
Bill Elliot, too, was in his own way perfect. Decay had hardly touched him, though perhaps his hair was very slightly receding. He was extremely good looking – the Elliots are famed for their good looks. He was of no more than middle height, with the blue eyes, fair tanned skin, fine blonde hair, regular features and open yet quizzical look of the beleaguered late twentieth-century English country gentleman. He was wearing a pair of moss-stained trousers rolled up to the knee and a limp blue shirt lacking most of its buttons. He put himself out to charm me, and I was charmed. I felt that it was a privilege to meet him. It was fortunate for me that he was not my type, I told myself.
It was a memorable evening. Bill’s estranged wife Penny, who now lived with a trout farmer at Winthrop, had come over to join us. She had not brought the trout farmer. There was one other couple, a doctor who worked in Bristol and her husband, an ornamental blacksmith. Bill did the cooking, on an old-fashioned temperamental solid fuel kitchen range which I was to get to know all too well. He made us a risotto, with a mixture of field mushrooms and slices of sulphorous yellow growth called Chicken-of-the-Woods. He said he would show me where it grew. It was delicious. We ate Somerset cheese, and salad, and blackberries and cream.
The Dower House was derelict. Patterned curtains hung tattered and drooping from bare rails, broken-springed chairs sprouted feathers, and feathers drifted under the kitchen door from a vast woodshed full of nesting doves. The wiring dated from between the wars. I had not seen such bakelite plugs, such furred and twisted flex since my childhood.
We talked of the difficulties of the landed gentry as we sat around the scarred paint-stained seventeenth century kitchen table. What should one do? Turn the stately homes into venues for pop concerts, into miniature zoos, into hotels? The Big House at Uppercross was now an expensive retirement home. The National Trust would not accept properties as gifts unless they were heavily endowed. I knew of these problems, but I had never met anyone who faced them in person. I had never felt much sympathy with them. But there was something touching about Bill Elliot, rinsing out a glass and drying it on a tea towel covered with garish pictures advertising Lyme Regis and its dinosaurs.
I said I had never been to Lyme. We wandered back into the drawing room with our coffee, and Bill showed us his grandfather’s battered dusty cabinet of treasures. There were little drawers of fossils and minerals, all labelled, and drawers full of pinioned butterflies and moths, and dried leaves from the rare trees in the pleasure gardens. Bill said he preferred the minerals. He had added specimens of his own, some of them collected at Lyme. He loved Lyme. He said I should go there one day.
At Bill’s suggestion, we took a turn in the gardens. It was hardly dark, but Bill courteously took my arm as we stumbled through the undergrowth. There were nettles waist high, overgrown rhododendrons, Himalayan balsam, wild garlic. It was a wilderness. The mild air was heavy, rank, lush, erotic, sad.
We went back to the house for a last glass of wine. Bill told us that he was leaving the country. There was, he said, no freedom for him here. Penny, who was not hearing this news for the first time, said nothing. She watched a spider walk along the wall. They had two daughters, both at boarding school in Exeter. There would be no more Kellynch Elliots. A Shropshire Bridgewater Elliot was next in line, would inherit the title and the debts. Bill said he was off to Alaska, to a place called Anchorage. I asked why. “Because it sounds safe there,” he said, and we all laughed. He said that he had been there once, briefly, changing planes on the way to Japan. He had liked it. It was as far from Kellynch as you could get. It was all snow and minerals. He would study minerals there in the long nights. He had sold a couple of paintings – a flood-damaged Hudson, a doubtful Reynolds, to finance his expedition. You could live for ten years in Anchorage on a gentleman in brown velvet, a lady in blue satin.
I did not know whether he was being whimsical or speaking the truth. It is difficult to know the difference with that kind of person.
On parting, he kissed my hand. The gesture was more intimate than a peck upon the cheek. “Dear girl,” he said. “Good bye. Wish me well.”
Rose was very quiet on the way home. I think she had once been a little in love with him.
I heard no more of Kellynch for seven years. I somewhat lost touch with Rose: she sold her farm and took off to the South Seas to do a book on tropical flora, and this broke the rhythm of our friendship. In those seven years much happened. My imprudent early marriage came to a final end in divorce, but my career prospered. I had been no more than a promising actress in those early days, and not even I had thought I would be able to do more than scratch a living: but a lucky break in the form of a film role – as Juliet in a freely adapted version of Fanny Bumey’s The Wanderer – had come my way and since then I had been able to pick and choose. Tragic heroines from rustic romances were offered to me regularly, and most of them I declined. I had become well known and lonely.
I was sitting one evening in my flat off the King’s Road reading a Thomas Hardy screenplay when the phone rang. I picked it up – which I might well not have done – and an unfamiliar voice said “Is that Emma Watson? Emma? You won’t remember me, but this is Penelope Elliot. Do you have time for a word?”
Of course I remembered her. I could see her face as though it were yesterday – her silver-yellow hair, her pale high brow, her girlish Alice band, her freckled nose, her little breasts, her faded jeans, her long thin bare feet.
“Penny,” I said. “Yes, of course. How are you?”
She was well. The girls were well. Bill was well. She had left her fish man and married a lawyer. She knew I was well as she had seen me on TV. She was ringing about the Dower House. Bill’s picture money – did I remember the picture money? – was running out, and he was thinking of letting the Dower House. They seemed to remember I was rather taken with it, and Rose had thought so too. Would I consider renting it for six months, for a year? Would I like to ring Bill in Calgary, or should she get him to ring me?
Whatever is he doing in Calgary, I asked. Oh, she said, he has fallen in love with the mountains and the everlasting snows. He says that Somerset is full of putrefaction.
We both laughed, and she gave me Bill’s number. I tried to work out what time it might be in Calgary and what hours a man like Bill might keep, but I do not think I got it right because he sounded way out of all things when I spoke to him. Nevertheless we struck a bargain. I would take Kellynch Dower House for six months, renewable at six monthly intervals. He said it had been done up slightly since my last visit. Not too much, I hoped. Oh no, he did not think I would find it over-restored. Any problems I could put through Penny and her husband. So useful to have a lawyer in the family.
This time I could detect the irony.
He was right in assuming I would not find the Dower House too much modernised. There had been attempts at improvement: the roses that had climbed in through the windows had been cut back, the roughly hacked dog-door had been blocked, the kitchen range had been given a coat of black lead, and loose covers had been fitted on some of the chairs. There were two new lavatories, though the bath still stood on claws in the centre of a three-doored bathroom. There was a second hand refrigerator and a washing machine in an outhouse.
I was enchanted by my new retreat. How well I remember my first night there, as I stared at the flames of the log fire I had finally managed to light, and listened to some early Italian opera on the crackly radio. (Reception was never very good in that deep valley.) I was as safe as Bill in his snowy eerie.
As I sat, a strip of wall paper, disturbed by my presence, slowly unpeeled itself. A quarter of an hour later it began to rain and the chimney began to smoke. Rain fell down the chimney and on to the hissing logs. Smoke billowed at me. Coughing, I left the room, and found a rivulet of red water running through the back door, across the red tiles, through the hallway, and out again under the front door. I opened the door and saw the water disappearing into a grate partly blocked by twigs and moss. I cleared the grate, and watched with satisfaction as the bloody trickle drained away.
I was by now muddy, so thought I would take a bath. The hot water was boiling, and gushed forth bravely. But alas, the cold pipes had developed an airlock. I sucked and blew but to no avail. I had to wait for the water to cool. I assisted it with ice cubes. When I got to bed, I could hear the sound of scrabbling in the rafters. Rats, mice, pigeons, owls, squirrels, doves? I fell asleep, content.
Each day brought some new disaster. It is extraordinary how many faults an old house can develop. I lived as in the nineteenth century. I became expert with bellows and stirrup pump, with mop and bucket, with toasting fork and balls of string and clothes pegs. Electricity cuts occurred almost daily. At times, tormented by the cooing of a hundred doves, I thought of buying a shot gun, but contented myself by throwing stones.
I arrived in a wet March, and stayed through most of the summer. My agent despaired of me and sent me threatening messages. Friends came to see me, were appalled by the discomfort, and went away. I wandered the hedgerows, climbed the hills, lost myself in the woodlands. I trod in the footsteps of the Wordsworths and Coleridge and Loma Doone, I made my way through a thousand pages of The Glastonbury Romance. I studied the landscape and its history. I discovered that one of the oak trees in the avenue was the second tallest in Britain – quercus petraea, thirty-six metres high, and more than six metres in girth. Once I went to Bath, but I did not like it there – it was full of young men drinking beer from cans, and the car parks were crowded and expensive. I never got to Lyme. I made acquaintances – a young woman up the valley called Sophy Hayter who kept goats, a retired vet who told me where to watch for the red deer. I dined with the Wyndhams at the Elms, had a drink with Dominic the blacksmith, and spoke, once, to the vicar. I often called in the church to see the Elliot ancestors. One lay helmeted and cross-legged on his crumbling sandstone tomb. There was a plaque to the Lady Elliot who had been so ill for so long.
I was on good terms with the people who ran the Hall, who said I could take my guests round whenever I wished. The Elliot coat of arms, with a date of 1589, was engraved over the three-storeyed porch of the south front, and the great magnolia still blossomed. Occasionally I would wander in to admire the lofty plaster ceilings, the polished floors (which smelt more of the schoolroom now than of the country house), the quantities of gilt-edged looking glasses, the paintings, the charming light rococo staircase. It was hard to think the house unworthily occupied and fallen in destination as one watched the peaceful pursuits of the students who came on botany or geology or painting courses. Some of them were very mature students, grey-haired, tweed-suited, rain-bonneted. They were usefully employed, and they kept the roof on, which was more than the Elliots had done. The whiff of carbolic and shepherd’s pie was a small price to pay.
Sometimes I indulged a fancy that Bill Elliot was walking down the grand staircase with a new bride upon his arm, but this image derived more from Daphne Du Maurier than from the house’s own history. I could not help wondering how he felt about the place, and my proximity to it. Since I had become his tenant, he had taken to sending me enigmatic postcards. One mentioned the Chicken-of-the-Woods; he had drawn a little map of its whereabouts, so he too had remembered the details of our meeting. I did not have an address for him, so could not have responded had I wished.
There was a portrait of Bill in Kellynch Hall, by an undistinguished member of the St Ives school. He was wearing a sailor suit, and had gold ringlets.
In my Dower House, there was another portrait that interested me almost as much. It was of a woman dressed in the style of the 1820s, wearing a blue and yellow striped dress with a low neck. She stared out of the frame boldly and with a certain effrontery. Her hair was auburn, her smile slightly crooked. Her largish hands – not well painted – were clasped in front of her bosom, holding a posy of primroses. I liked her. I wondered if she had been banished from the big house, or stolen thence by one who loved her. She seemed to smile at me with encouraging complicity.
In August I wrote to Bill’s agent in Taunton renewing my lease. I was growing more and more attached to my solitude. I dreamed of Bill quite often.
One fine evening in late September I took myself up to the deserted kitchen gardens behind my house in search of rosemary. Some of the more tenacious herbs still grew there, though the beds were overgrown, the espalier fruit trees untrained, and the glass of the greenhouses broken. Mr Shepherd at the Hall told me that once fourteen gardeners worked there, growing asparagus and beans and lettuces and peaches for the Elliots. Why did they not put the gardens back into cultivation, I asked, to provide food for the students? Nobody would do such work these days, he said. It was cheaper to shop at the supermarket. Why did they not run a course on kitchen gardening, I suggested, and let the students grow their own supper? A good idea, he said. But I knew nothing would happen.
So I was the only ghost who haunted the garden. I came down with my handful of herbs, watching the evening light slant and flatten over the cedar of Lebanon, the tall hollies, the yellow Bhutan cypress, possessed by a luxury of self pity and self admiration so intense that I was consumed by it. I almost ceased to exist. And as I stood there, in a trance, I heard someone speak my name. I started with surprise – yet I was not wholly surprised, for was I not always expecting an audience, and did I not know that I was, that autumn evening, after a summer of fresh air, in particularly good looks?
“Miss Watson?” I heard, from the terrace. There was a man standing there, my binoculars in his hand. I had left them on the little writing table in the outdoor alcove, along with my book, my pack of cards, and my glass of whisky – a glass covered, alas, inelegantly, by a postcard, to protect it from the flies. He had been watching my hawk.
“Yes?” I hazarded, a little coldly. Was he some intruder from the world of commerce, some angry messenger from my agent? But no, he was a gentleman.
“Miss Watson, I apologize for my intrusion. I could not pass without seeing the old house, and I was told I would find you here. And then I saw you, up in the walled garden. So I waited. Please – ” he stretched out his hand – “let me introduce myself. I am Burgo Elliot.”
“Ah,” I said. “You must be Burgo Bridgewater Elliot. From Shropshire.”
“Indeed, from Shropshire.”
We shook hands. I was in some confusion. For this was the heir, and I was the usurper.
In the circumstances – which included my glass of whisky – I felt obliged to offer him refreshment, to invite him in to see the improvements. Yes, he would like that, but perhaps we could sit first for a while in the garden? So we settled together in the alcove, I with my whisky, he with a sherry (he was lucky there, I do not often have sherry in the house) and a bowl of Bombay Mix between us. I inspected him, and he inspected me. He was, if anything, younger than Bill, so perhaps there was not much chance of his inheriting anything unless Bill fell down a glacier quite soon. Was he married, did he have sons, and would the estate be entailed to them when Bill died?
Such thoughts, which were quite unlike any I had ever had before I came to Kellynch, buzzed around in my head with as much determination as the wasps buzzed around the sherry. Where had they come from? Were they bred by the red earth itself, by the crumbling stone? They were not my thoughts at all. They had slept deep in the ancient masonry and had crept out at last into the late sun.
Burgo Elliot did not seem to hold me responsible for the neglect of the gardens, the peeling wall paper, the smoking chimney, the laundry cupboard door. I was a paying guest, and apologies were due to me, not from me. But it saddened him to see how run down things had become. Did I not find it too melancholy?
No, I said. It was the melancholy I loved. I did not care for fresh paint. I was a romantic.
He smiled. This was fortunate, he said.
We moved indoors, and he made the tour, even glancing into my bedroom with its embroidered counterpane. He stroked the scarred kitchen table, patted the settee as though it were an old family dog, and sighed. He said he had not been to Kellynch for years, not since he and Bill were boys. Poor Bill, he said. Did I know Bill well? No, I said, hardly at all, though even as I spoke I knew this was not quite true. I did know Bill Elliot. I had invested in him, and he had lodged in me.
Burgo Elliot was, like his cousin, a handsome man, though in a different style. He was darker, he was taller, he had grey eyes, and a Roman – perhaps a Norman – nose. He was also very thin. His head was a fine skull of sharp planes and bone, he had worn thin with time like an antique silver spoon.
He was, it appeared, a bachelor. He denied wife and progeny. He also denied Shropshire: although he was indeed one of the Shropshire Bridgewater Elliots, he lived in London. As, he believed, did I?
We sat indoors and he spoke affectionately of the old days. Here they had played, he and Bill and Henrietta. He had been an only child, and had looked forward to his summer holidays, though Lady Elliot had been a sad lady, and the old man a monster. He it was who had let the Hall go to its final rack and ruin. He had stoked the fire with priceless manuscripts, buried the family silver in the pleasure gardens without marking the spot, and shot the local policeman. He had done nothing to restore the Hall after the war years, and in the bitter winter of 1947 the tanks had burst and the rococo staircase had been a cascade of ice. So Sir Henry and his lady had moved out to the Dower House, evicting old Boniface who had been squatting there as the sole remaining gardener, and they had camped like gypsies. The children had learned to fend for themselves. Bill had shot rabbits for the pot, and cooked them in the garden on an everlasting bonfire. They had made great cauldrons of oatmeal and nettle stew. The last of the staff had deserted, and the empty Hall had crumbled. When the old man died and Bill came of age, it was too late to rescue it. Lady Elliot had gone into a Nursing Home in Chard.
It was growing late, and my lamb cutlet would not feed two. So I fell silent, and he, being a gentleman, at once took his leave. He was on his way to see friends in Devon, who would be expecting him, he said.
He was lying. He would go no further that night than the Dalrymple Arms or the Egremont at Uppercross. But I accepted his fiction and let him go. I knew I would see him again. And I wanted time to think about his apparition.
How could I not have been stirred by it? It would have taken a dulled, nay deadened fancy not to have been stirred by Burgo Elliot.
Why, I wondered, had he remained single? In my experience there were two likely explanations – one, that he had liked those of my own sex too much, the other, that he liked them not at all. I pride myself on having a good eye in these matters, but Burgo baffled me.
He had spoken with great fondness of Bill. Had he been in love with the beautiful boy? Or had it been his own childhood he mourned ?
Bill, he said, had always loved the inanimate. He had thought it safe. When I had finished my cutlet, I went and knelt down by the little cabinet and looked at the weathered fragments of ammonite, the fossilised starfish, the swaying stone flowers of the sea, labelled in Bill’s childish hand. And where was Bill now, perched on what ledge, huddled in what remote crevasse, while Burgo Bridgewater Elliot slept between clean sheets in a warm inn?
I became obsessed by Burgo Elliot. Had I dreamed him up? Even his name seemed false. Burgo – surely a name for a novel, not for real life. A name for a rogue and a villain?
Let me make this plain. Until I went to Kellynch I had no interest in what is called family. My own family – well, I have said they were lower middle class, but by the time I was born they were middle middle class. My father worked for an insurance company in Newcastle, my mother was a school teacher. He reads Trollope, she reads Jane Austen. They are sensible, hard working people, but they have no connections and are proud of it. Nevertheless, my mother can never resist a temptation to tell the story of her meeting with the Duchess of Northumberland. It is a pointless story but she will tell it. My ex-husband, with more reason but as little excuse, likes to let it be known that his maternal grandmother was a Dalrymple. He reveals this fact in order to mock it. But nevertheless he reveals it. And am I not now letting you know that I married into the Dalrymples?
The Elliots and the Bridgewaters were much more interesting to me than the Dalrymples. How could I find out more about Burgo? I was too ashamed of my curiosity to ask anybody, and it was a happy moment when I remembered the books in my own back parlour. They were a deeply unattractive assortment of old bound volumes of Blackwoods and Punch and the Spectator, redolent of Sunday afternoons of ancient boredom, foxed and mildewed and spotted with birdlime – jackdaws often came down the chimneys and one of my occupations was to chase them away. I had never thought of browsing in this dull library, but now was its moment – and yes, indeed, there was exactly what I was looking for. There was the Baronetage, a heavy purplish folio volume with gold lettering on the spine.
I lugged it on to the kitchen table. I was not the first to consult it. The pages fell open, as I might have predicted, upon the Elliots of Kellynch Hall. It was clear that the entry had been much perused. There were two whole pages of Elliot this and that, but I could soon see that they were only of historical interest, for the last entry, added to the Gothic print in fine copperplate hand, read ‘Heir presumptive, William Walter Elliot, Esq. great grandson of the second Sir Walter.” We were back in 1810. This was no use to me. I needed something more modern.
I dug around, and at length found a 1952 volume of Burke’s Peerage, which also fell open upon Elliots. And here they were, my very own Elliots. There was Sir Thomas, there was his son and heir William Francis Elliot and his daughter Henrietta. I read the names again and again, hoping to wrest some occult significance from the very words. There was no mention of Burgo Bridgewater Elliot. I could not find him anywhere. I needed a sequel, published after Sir Thomas’s death.
In the morning I rang an old friend who I thought might help, and to whom I did not mind revealing my interest. He is himself a baronet, though he does not like this to be mentioned as he is also an actor and he hopes (so far in vain) not to be typecast. He was currently appearing in Lady Windermere’s Fan. James seemed pleased to hear from me and delighted by the nature of my query. The Shropshire Elliots, I wanted? Well, first of all I must forget about the Shropshire bit. People do not come from where they say they come from. Does the Duke of Devonshire live in Devonshire, the Norfolks in Norfolk, the Bristols in Bristol? Certainly not. Now I am James Winch of Filleigh, he said, but I don’t even know where Filleigh is, I think it is the home of some cricket team where grandfather once got a hat trick while touring with the Myrmidons ….
I checked his flow and asked him to look up the Shropshire Elliots, to see if they had any money left. “Why, thinking of marrying one, darling?” he said, and went off to consult his reference library. He came back in triumph, I knew he would have the right books. People like that always do, however much they dissimulate.
Yes, he said, here were the Elliots of Kellynch. William Francis, m. Penelope Hargreaves, 2 d., marriage dissolved 1978. And the heir was kinsman Burgo Bridgewater Elliot, of the Shropshire branch. He looked up Burgo, and told me that he was a company director of Felsham Metal Frame Windows. A very good prospect, said James. I should marry him if I were you, and not that other fellow. Or would you like to marry me and take a turn as Lady Filleigh?
I thanked him for his gallant proposal and rang off. I was shaking slightly and almost poured myself a vodka. I was shocked by my own curiosity. I could not shock you more than I shock myself.
Burgo reappeared in the spring. I had wintered in London, avoiding the dark nights and obliging my agent by doing some work. But in March I was back at the Dower House with the primroses, to find a postcard from Bill that had been waiting for me for weeks upon the red tiles. Rain had flowed over it, intruding cats had stepped inkily upon it, and its message was hardly decipherable, but I think it said “With love to my fair tenant. Have you yet heard the nightingales?”
On my first evening the phone rang. It was Burgo. This was not much of a coincidence, it seemed, as he said he had been ringing me all winter. Where had I been? In London, I said. Ah, so have I, he said. But now he was in Somerset. Could he call and take me out to dinner at the Castle Hotel in Taunton?
And so it was that Burgo Bridgewater Elliot re-opened negotiations. And, over his subsequent campaign, I remained as much in the dark as ever about his nature and his intentions. Never have I known so opaque an admirer. Never did he touch me, save in the way of courtesy – a hand at greeting, a hand to help me into the car or over a stile or to disentangle me from a bramble. Yet he was in his way translucent. He was worn thin with a lonely pain. One felt one could see through him and beyond. Like one of those elegant thoroughbred dogs that appear to have no space for normal bodily organs, he seemed to have nowhere within him to live a natural animal or emotional life. He was all stretched tenuous surface. Bill, in comparison, had been a solid man.
Perhaps, I sometimes thought, it was the place that Burgo came to see. It had cast its spell upon him, as it had upon me.
Was I falling in love with Burgo? I could not tell. I had nobody else to love, and at this moment in the history of my heart a second attachment, and to so eligible a gentleman, might have seemed a natural sequel to a somewhat unfortunate first choice. (Not that I entirely regret the cad. He had his points.) Did I want to fall in love with Burgo? Again, I could not tell.
It was impossible to reject his attentions. My vanity would not have permitted it. He was the perfect escort, who increased my consequence in my own eyes even when there were no others to watch, and he escorted me gallantly through all weathers. I dragged him up hill and down dale that spring, that summer, curious to see how far I could lead him. One day I decided to take him to Lyme.
I wanted to look for fossils. Bill had sent me a postcard of a dinosaur’s egg from the Rockies, and I determined to try to find some small dull long dead creature of my own to add to the Elliot collection. I informed Burgo of my plans, and we fixed a date for our excursion. I had bought a little hammer, and I told Burgo to bring his boots. I was becoming imperious with him, but he seemed to like it.
The weather did not look promising, and we wondered whether to cancel our trip, but out of stubbornness I would not. Burgo did not disobey. It rained as we set off. I insisted on going in my car. I said it would clear but it did not. We drove along twisting lanes, the windscreen wipers working, the windows misting, and on the high ground as we moved into Dorset there was fog and I had to put on the headlights. Burgo sat there without a murmur of complaint. What was he thinking of my folly and my obstinacy? I spoke to him of the Black Venn Marls and the Blue Lias and the Green Ammonite beds. I could not even tell if he was listening. I did not know what I was talking about. I wondered if he knew I did not know. Maybe, with Bill, he had searched those beaches as a child, had been there many times before. Why was he so docile towards me?
Lyme is a steep little town, not friendly to the motor car. Various signs ushered us towards parking places, and we ended up at the bottom, down by the Cobb. The rain had settled into a steady downpour, but despite this there were a few bedraggled persistent holiday makers huddling their way along the streets. There was a smell of vinegar, fish, harsh false sugar and fried onions. There was even a pair of lovers embracing on the end of the Cobb. There is always a pair of lovers embracing upon the end of the Cobb. I made poor Burgo march along the Cobb, and we stood there and looked at the boiling water beneath us dashing against the rocks. It was very slippery underfoot. My trousers were soaked. Burgo, still looking every inch the gentleman, was wet through.
Even then I would not relent. I dragged the poor man off to the fossil cliffs – and you can guess the rest. We survived the Cobb, but the Black Venn Marls got us.
It was my fault. I was a bloody fool. But Burgo by this time was not behaving very sensibly either. There is something dementing about that landscape. The dark raw caked sliced earth, the ribbed ledges, the steaming fissures, the stunted trees sticking out of recent landslips, the dreary trickling of small black waterfalls, the dreary pounding of wave after wave upon the wet curve of the beach – I had never seen anywhere so desolate. As we walked along the beach, a great chunk of cliff the size of a packing case dislodged itself and fell with a mournful thud behind us. We should have turned back, but we went on. We both went on.
It was Burgo that saw the devil’s toenail. His eyes are sharper than mine. He should never have pointed it out to me, but I should never have scrambled after it. I had not realized the black stuff was so friable. In short, just as I grabbed hold of the fossil, I slipped, and in slipping I dislodged a small avalanche, and thus it was that I did whatever I did to my leg.
I could not believe it. I am tough as well as stubborn. But I could not walk. There was nobody else in sight. Burgo would have to carry me back. I was covered in black mud, I was in pain, and I thought the tide was coming in. It was not a good surface for walking on at the best of times, and with the burden of a muddy lady Burgo must have found it agonising. I kept apologising. And still Burgo did not lose his temper.
I ended up in Weymouth General Hospital with my leg in traction. I was there for two and a half weeks. I had plenty of time to think. At the end of the first week Burgo asked me to marry him. I asked him why. He said it seemed to have been intended, and who were we to struggle against our destiny? If we found we didn’t like it, he said, we could always get divorced. I was bold enough to ask him why he hadn’t got married before, and he said that the black blood of the Bridgewaters had made it seem unwise, but maybe I wouldn’t mind taking the risk? I seemed quite robust, he added.
I was quite pleased with myself, as you can imagine. Everything was going according to plan.
I told Burgo I needed time to make up my mind. He was far too much of a gentleman to retract his offer, I thought. I still did not know whether he wanted to marry me, thought he wanted to marry me, thought he ought to marry me, thought I wanted to marry him, or was in such despair that he didn’t much care what happened. Or maybe he was up to some other game altogether?
My game by now is, I imagine, quite clear. I want the Dower House. I want it more than I have ever wanted anything. As I sit here, flying over the Rockies on my way to negotiate with Bill Elliot, I feel faint with desire at the thought of it. It is in my reach. Burgo says he will buy it for me, if Bill will let us have it. We shall see. If Bill won’t let me have it, maybe I will marry Bill instead of Burgo. I feel such a sense of my own power as I sit here above the clouds. I can move mountains. A very small south coast avalanche was enough to bring Burgo to his knees. The Rockies look more formidable, but I cannot believe that they or Bill Elliot are impervious to my intentions. Bill has been waiting for me for eight long years. He will have something to say, surely, when we meet on the shores of Lake Louise.
Love of person, love of property. It is not as simple as that. What if I were to substitute the romantic word place for that cold Augustan word property? Would you then think so harshly of me? For the Dower House is worthless, as property. It is its own history. It is Bill and Burgo and Henrietta eating rabbit in the garden. It is the hawk and the Chicken-of-the-Woods and the red rain. It is the dead jackdaw in the book case, it is the avenue of oaks, it is the smiling woman with her primroses. She approves of my determination. So, too, incidentally, does Henrietta – she and Binkie and I get on very well. She thinks I should probably marry Burgo, but on the other hand she thinks it is time Bill came home, and I should try to get him back to the old country if I can.
I do not know what will happen. Emma Watson’s story had no ending. Who knows what awaits me, down there on earth?