Secret For a Nightingale
To my dear friend PATRICIA MYRER, who first aroused my interest in Dr. Damien and the young woman who inevitably became involved in the Crimean war. In memory of many productive hours we have spent discussing my ‘people’.
On the night before my wedding I had a strange dream from which I awoke in terror. I was in the church and Aubrey was beside me. The scent of flowers was strong upon the air-lilies, heavy, overpowering, the odour of death. Uncle James the Reverend James Sandown was standing before us. The church was that which had become so familiar to me during my schooldays when I had stayed at the rectory with Uncle James and Aunt Grace because I could not join my father at the Indian outpost where he might be stationed. I heard my voice disembodied as though echoing in an empty place: T, Susanna, take thee, Aubrey, to my wedded husband . ” Aubrey was holding the ring. He took my hand and his face was coming nearer and nearer … and then the terror overtook me. It was not Aubrey’s face, and yet it was. It was not the face I knew. It was distorted … leering, strange, horrible, frightening. I heard a voice crying: No! No! And it was my own.
I was sitting up in bed, shivering, staring into darkness, my hands, clammy, clutching the sheets. The dream had been so vivid that it was some time before I recovered. Then I told myself that it was nonsense.
I was going to be married in the morning. I wanted to be married. I was in love with Aubrey. What could have brought about that dream?
“Wedding eve nerves!” Aunt Grace, that most practical of women, would have said. And she would be right. I attempted to shake off the effects of that dream but they would not go. It had seemed so real.
I got out of bed and went to the window. There was the church with its Norman tower, visible in the starlight, standing there as it had stood tor eight hundred years impregnable, defiantly facing the wind, the rain and the centuries, marvelled at and visited by many, the pride of Uncle James’s heart.
“It is a privilege to be married in such a church,” he said.
Tomorrow my father would lead me down the aisle and there I should stand beside Aubrey. I was shivering still. But it would not be anything like the dream.
I went to my wardrobe and looked at my dress white satin trimmed with Honiton lace; and there was a wreath of orange blossom to go with it.
Beyond the church in the Black Boar the only inn in Humberston Aubrey would be sleeping.
“A bridegroom must not spend the night under the same roof as his bride,” said my Aunt Grace. Would he be disturbed by dreams of the day to come?
I went back to bed. I did not want to sleep. I was afraid that the dream would continue and that I should go on from that moment when I had shouted “No! No!” while Aubrey stood there forcing the ring on my finger.
I lay in bed thinking about it all.
I met Aubrey for the first time in India where my father was stationed. I had just gone out to join him after seven years in England where I had been at school, spending my holidays at the rectory with my Uncle James and Aunt Grace, who had nobly stepped into the breach to look after a brother-in-law’s daughter who must, like all English young ladies of good family, be educated in England. The necessity naturally caused the usual complications to people serving in the outposts of Empire and, as was generally the case, good-natured relatives came to the rescue.
I remembered the joy of reaching my seventeenth birthday. It was June and I was at school at the time, but I did know that would be my last term, and in August I should be returning to India where I had spent the first ten years of my life.
It was ungrateful perhaps to be so eager to go, even though I should be joining my father. Uncle James and Aunt Grace, together with my cousin Ellen, had been very kind to me and did all they could to make a home for me. But it must have been something of an intrusion particularly at the beginning. They had their lives to lead and parish affairs were demanding. Cousin Ellen was twelve years older than I and deeply interested in her father’s curate whom she would marry as soon as he found a living; Uncle James had his flock of devoted parishioners; Aunt Grace had innumerable activities organizing sales of work, garden parties, carol singers something for every occasion, including the Mothers’ Union and sewing parties. I dare say I was trying. My heart was far across the seas, and because I was aware of being something of a burden, no doubt I assumed an attitude of indifference and arrogance mingled with critical comparisons between an ancient, draughty rectory with one cook, one maid and a twee ny and a Colonel’s residence with numerous native servants scurrying around to gratify our wishes.
I was not exactly an angelic child and my ayah and Mrs. Fearnley, who had been my governess up to the time I was ten years old, had said they never knew what to expect of me. There were two sides to my nature. I could be sunny-tempered, amenable, gentle and affectionate.
“It is like the moon,” said Mrs. Fearnley, who liked to make an educational point out of every situation. There is the bright side and the dark side. ” Unlike the moon, I showed my dark side now and then.
“Not often, thank goodness,” said Mrs. Fearnley; but it worried her that it was there. Then I could be obstinate. I could make up my mind and nothing would make me diverge from it. I would disobey orders to get my own way. I was really a most recalcitrant child on these occasions quite different from the sunny-tempered one who was so pleasant to teach and be with.
“We must fight the dark side,” said Mrs. Fearnley.
“Susanna, you are one of the most unpredictable children I ever met.”
My ayah to whom I was devoted put it differently.
“There are two spirits in this little body. They fight together and we shall see which one is the victor. But not yet … not now while you are little more than a baba … but when you full grown-up lady.”
During those years in England memories of my Indian childhood stayed with me. I dare say they became more delightful the farther I grew away from them. Vivid pictures came into my mind as I lay in bed remembering, before I drifted off to sleep.
After the death of my mother my life had been dominated by my ayah. My father was there in the background, grand, important, second only to God. He was loving and tender but he could not be with me as much as he wished, and I know now that I was an anxiety to him. The hours we spent together were very precious. He would tell me about the regiment and how important it was; I was very proud of him because he was honoured wherever he went.
But it was my ayah, familiar, musk-scented, my constant companion, who was perhaps more important to me than anyone else at that time. I loved the thrill of going into the streets with her. She would hold my hand in hers and warn me never to let go. That gave me a sense of danger to the expeditions which rendered them doubly exciting. There was noise and colour everywhere as we wended our way among representatives from every tribe and caste. I came to know them all the Buddhist priests because of their shaven heads, their saffron-coloured robes swishing as they hurried along without glancing at the crowds; the Parsees in their odd-shaped hats carrying umbrellas; the women who must not show their faces and whose black-rimmed eyes looked out through the slits in their veils. There was the fascination of the turbaned snake-charmer, who played his weird music while the sinuous and sinister cobra rose from the basket to writhe menacingly for the wonder of the watchers. I was always allowed to drop a rupee into the jar beside him, for which I received fulsome thanks and a promise of a happy life, blessed with many children, the firstborn a son.
The musky smell hung about the air; there were other smells less pleasant. If I had shut my eyes I should have known by the smell that I was in India. I was fascinated by the brilliantly coloured saris of the women who were unveiled because, said my ayah, they were of low caste. I said they were a lot prettier than the higher caste ones with their shapeless robes and veiled faces.
Mrs. Fearnley told me that Bombay was called the “Gateway to India’ and that it was given to us when Charles the Second married Catherine of Braganza.
“What a lovely wedding present!” I exclaimed.
“When I get married I should like a present like that.”
“It is only kings who get them,” said Mrs. Fearnley, ‘and they are often more of a burden than a blessing. “
We would ride in the pony cart up Malabar Hill and I could see the Governor’s house looking grand and imposing on Malabar Point; and around it were gardens and the clubs frequented by the officers and British residents. Mrs. Fearnley was almost always with me on these jaunts and she made use of every opportunity to improve my education.
But sometimes I was with my ayah who told me more of the things I liked to hear. I was far more interested in the burial grounds where the naked bodies of the dead were left out in the open to be stripped of their flesh by the vultures and their bones to whiten in the sun which, said my ayah, was more dignified than leaving them to worms than of accounts of how the Moguls had once dominated the country before the coming of the East India Company, and how fortunate the Indians were now because our great Queen was going to look after them.
Often in school holidays during those years in England I would sit in my bedroom in the rectory overlooking the graveyard with its grey stones, the inscriptions on many of which had long since been half obliterated by time, and think of the hot sun, the blue sea, the chanting voices, the colourful saris and mysterious-looking eyes seen through the slits in veils. I would think of the servants who had looked after our needs the boys in their long white shirts and white trousers; the shrewd and wily Khansamah, who ruled the kitchen and sallied forth each day to the markets like a maharajah, with his menials a few paces behind ready to rush forward at his command and bear off his purchases when the conference, which each transaction seemed to demand, was over.
I thought of the carts pulled by the patient-looking, long-suffering bullocks; the narrow streets; the vicious, persistent flies; the bales of brilliant coloured silks in the shops, water-carriers, hungry-looking dogs, goats with bells round their necks which tinkled as they walked, country women, come in from the nearby villages to sell their wares; coolies, peasants, Tamils, Pathans, Brahmins, all mingling in the colourful streets; and here and there would be a dignified gentleman in his beautifully arranged puggree with a smattering of brilliant jewels. And in contrast the beggars. Never would I forget the beggars . the diseased and the deformed, with their appealing dark eyes which I feared would haunt me forever and of which I dreamed after my ayah had tucked me in and left me under my protective net which kept me safe from the marauding insects of the night.
Vaguely I remembered my mother tender, loving, gentle and beautiful.
I was four years old when she died. Before that she seemed to be always with me. She used to talk to me about Home, which was England, and when she did so there would be a great longing in her voice and in her eyes which, young as I was, I was aware of. It told me that she wanted to be there. She talked of green fields, the buttercups and a special sort of English rain soft and gentle and a sun which was warm and benevolent and never or hardly ever fierce. I thought it was a sort of Heaven.
She would sing English songs to me. Drink to me only with Thine Eyes, Sally in Our Alley and The Vicar of Bray. She told me about the days when she was as little as I was. She had been in the Humberston rectory then, for her father had been the rector. Her brother James had taken on the living on his death, so when my turn came to go, it was not an entirely strange place, for I felt I had been there with my mother in those early days.
Then came the day when I did not see her and they would not let me go to her because she was suffering from some sort of fever which was infectious. I remembered how my father took me on his knee and told me that we had only each other now.
I was perhaps too young to understand the tragedy in our household, but I was vaguely aware of loss and sadness, though the magnitude of the disaster did not strike me immediately. Well-meaning ladies officers’ wives mainly invaded the nursery; they made much of me and told me my mother had gone to Heaven. I thought it was a trip to a land where there would be green fields and gentle rain, like going to the hills, only more exotic, and perhaps taking tea with God and the angels instead of officers’ wives. I presumed that she would come back after a while and tell me all about it.