CHARLOTTE BINGHAM -           Novelist and Playwright

THE LIGHT ON THE SWAN






PROLOGUE
Rosalie Talland had just heard some bad news, something which always pleased her.
‘But how simply ghastly for you, Rosalie dear,’ her lunchtime companion remarked, waving away the dessert menu a waiter was proffering politely and fitting a cigarette into a long ebony holder instead. ‘You’re sure Charles is serious? Even if his marriage has gone wrong as you say – even so –
divorce. God knows it’s bad enough when a marriage goes wrong, but divorce. Divorce is so final, and still generally quite unacceptable.’
‘I am perfectly well aware how divorce is viewed thank you, Betsy dear,’ Rosalie replied, also refusing any dessert and taking one of her oldest friend’s cigarettes from the gold case lying on the table. ‘Like you, I may have been born in America but I have lived in this country long enough to know the form.’
‘Everything is quite closed to you if you choose that particular path.’
‘I know,Betsy dear.’
‘One is struck off the list quite entirely,’ Betsy persisted. ‘No Royal Ascot, no Garden Parties, no State Banquets - Margaret Lissadel told me that people cross the road rather than speak to her because she is a divorcee.’
‘If you had been listening for once, Betsy,’ Rosalie said, having accepted a light for her cigarette from the waiter. ‘Had you been paying the slightest attention to what I was saying you would have noticed I never mentioned divorce.’
‘You can say what you like, Rosalie,’ Betsy continued unperturbed. ‘Whatever anyone says or thinks privately, and in spite of the War, nothing has really changed. Only a member of the royal family divorcing would reverse attitudes, and that of course will never happen. One would have to say that they have hardly recovered from the Abdication after all.’
‘I never said Charles was intending to divorce the wretched Violet, Betsy,’ Rosalie said, examining and then carefully adjusting the rings on her left hand. ‘I simply said poor Charles considers his marriage to have broken down irretrievably.’
‘Whatever you say, Rosalie,’ Betsy sighed, idly looking round the busy dining room. ‘It still must have come as a God awful shock to you.’
‘On the contrary,’ Rosalie replied, slowly exhaling a plume of cigarette smoke. ‘I could have danced all night. Of course on top of that the poor woman is mad.’
Even though they had been friends since childhood says, Betsy found Rosalie still had the capacity to shock her. Like all who knew the imperious and once famously beautiful Rosalie, Betsy Creagan was well aware how devoted Rosalie was to her sons Charles and John, and just how little affection she had for either of their wives, but even so the look of spiteful joy in the eyes of the woman sitting opposite her took her quite by surprise.
‘It’s not for me to say,’ Betsy began, wiping one corner of her mouth on her napkin.
‘Then don’t,’ Rosalie advised her.
‘I was simply going to say that even though I really barely know Charles’ wife -’
‘Consider yourself fortunate, Betsy dear,’ Rosalie interrupted. ‘What Charles ever saw in her I have simply no idea. One of the dullest little creatures on God’s earth, she really is. Absolutely
no redeeming features. And as I just said, mad on top of it all.’
‘I take it that is a figure of speech?’
‘You can take it any way you like, Betsy. I actually take madness quite seriously.’
‘Yes. Yes but mad in what way, Rosalie?’
‘Mad as in lacking any control,’ Rosalie sighed. ‘Mad as in losing one’s senses. Not mad as in eccentric. Mad as in watch out. One really doesn’t know what she’s going to do next.’
‘What about her daughter?’
‘What about her?’
‘You must be concerned for that pretty little daughter of hers. How old is she now? Matilda, wasn’t it?’
‘And sadly it still is. And hardly pretty.’
‘She must be four or five now, surely?’
‘I think she may be even older than that, dear. I seem to remember a sixth birthday somewhere along the line. And of course -’
Rosalie dropped her voice significantly but the change had little effect on Betsy who just ploughed on.
‘Of course that is always the worry with divorce, is it not?’ she wondered, talking another good long look around the dining room. ‘The effect it has on children.’
‘Just pay attention, Betsy, just for once,’ Rosalie insisted. ‘Or I shall simply walk out of here and you can pay for lunch. As I was saying. About the child. Matilda. It is the wretched Matilda who is more than a little responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Now this isn’t to go any further and that I do insist upon. This is strictly entre-nous.
‘But of course,’ Betsy agreed, leaning forward and now giving Rosalie her full attention, understanding only too well that whatever dirt was about to be dished must be shared immediately with every one of their mutual acquaintance. ‘You don’t even have to ask, Rosalie dear.
Friendships as long as ours can only be built on absolute trust.’
‘Good.’ Rosalie sat back to regard her friend the Countess of Ismay. She gave her a long searching look then lit another cigarette.
‘But surely the poor child isn’t responsible for her mother’s – her mother’s – well. Let’s just say state of mind.’
‘Of course not,’ Rosalie said brusquely. ‘If you would just listen for once. I was about to say the reason why Charles’ marriage has broken down irretrievably is because there can be no more children,’ she announced. ‘There were untold complications with the birth and the long and the short of it is no more children. Charles will now be deprived of an heir - which is what I meant about Matilda being responsible.’
‘This is absolutely -?’ Betsy left her question to hang in the air.
‘Absolutely,’ Rosalie assured her with a deep sigh. ‘Charles can’t say I didn’t warn him. I said from the start the wretched girl was simply not right for him. Not in any way.’
‘Then surely divorce is the only answer, dear,’ Betsy said, nodding thoughtfully. ‘There simply is no alternative, under the circumstances. And for once people will be perfectly understanding - and very sympathetic.’
‘Huh.’
Rosalie gave her companion another withering looked before raising a long forefinger to summon the waiter back.
‘Coffee,’ she ordered. ‘And clear all this mess away.’
The long finger was now used to indicate everything that was no longer wanted on the table.
‘It has to be the only solution now we come to think of it, Rosalie,’ Betsy continued as a waitress appeared with a small brush and silver pan to sweep the table free of crumbs. ‘If there were the slightest chance of another child -’
‘Which there most categorically is not, I do assure you.’
‘Then we are agreed. There is simply not any alternative.’
Rosalie just clicked her tongue in irritation and sighed loudly.
‘There can only be such a thing as an alternative if there is such a thing as a choice,’ she announced. ‘And in this instance as you like to call it, Betsy dear, there is no choice because the wretched Violet will not even contemplate it.’
Seeing the blank look on her friend’s face, Rosalie allowed silence to fall while she smoked her cigarette, allowing the ash to miss the ash tray and fall on the now spotless linen cloth. At once she pointed irritably to the waitress who thought her job was finished to brush up the detritus.
‘Violet won’t contemplate it?’ Betsy echoed.
‘Not for a moment,’ Rosalie assured her. ‘Because of the
child. Because of Matilda.
‘I see. And does Charles feel the same way?’
‘It really isn’t up to Charles,’ Rosalie snapped back. ‘He should have thought the whole thing through when he first got it into his head to marry the stupid girl. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I said so at the time. I told him at the time. Wrong, wrong, wrong.’
‘But if Violet will not agree to a divorce -’
‘Yes?’
‘Impasse.’ Betsy held up two heavily jewelled hands in a gesture of despair. ‘Stalemate.’
‘Never say die, Betsy dear,’ Rosalie replied with a half-smile. ‘I never have. And I never will. Even the loss of William – even when I lost my husband far too early – I did not allow even that – even the loss of my dear husband to bring me down. The wretched Violet does not know with whom she has chosen to engage. Believe me.’
‘Yes, yes, dear – I know how strongly you feel in these matters -’
‘You really, don’t, Betsy dear. You have simply no idea.’
‘Nevertheless, Rosalie. In this instance -’
Rosalie gave a deeply dissatisfied sigh.
‘Very well,’ Betsy said, also with a sigh. ‘Under the circumstances then. Nevertheless under the circumstances I do not see what you can do.’
You don’t, Betsy. But I do. I know exactly what I can do and believe you me I intend to do it. Violet simply has no idea. I do know an awful lot of people, yes? An awful lot of very influential people. A lot of very influential people all of whom are devoted to me and will offer me their help whenever and whatever.’
‘Yes, dear. You’re quite right. The poor young woman can have no idea who she has taken on,’ Betsy replied, suddenly feeling nothing but pity for Violet Talland and her child as well as more than a little fearful on both their behalf.
‘Ah,’ Rosalie announced. ‘Coffee. And about time, too.’


CHAPTER ONE
The younger object of Betsy Ismay’s pity was at that moment standing up and staring at herself in her mother’s dressing table mirror.
She was wearing a party frock. It was a very pretty golden yellow, and although she could not see her whole reflection she had the feeling that the rest of her was quite pretty too.
‘Matilda?’ She heard her mother call her yet again from the bottom of the staircase but still could resist taking one last look at herself in the mirror.
‘Mattie darling do come on! We are going to be late!’
Her mother now appeared at the bedroom door holding Matilda’s coat.
Matilda stepped down from the dressing table stool, slipped into the proffered coat then skipped out of the room in front of her mother.
Before following her Violet took her turn to check herself in the looking glass, tilting her head to one side and adjusting the was wearing a flowered cotton frock, pleased at the way her tiny waist was accentuated by the wide skirt of the dress.
She turned herself around once to make sure yet again no petticoat was showing below the hem then followed her daughter downstairs to where Mrs Harrison, her housekeeper, was waiting at the door with Violet’s own overcoat.
‘You do look nice,’ she said approvingly. ‘You both do. I used to love going to parties when I was Matilda’s age. I used to love going to parties when I was your age, Mrs T. Still do, mind.’
‘It’s never too late, Mrs Harrison,’ Violet replied with a smile. ‘I hear the new Vicar’s a widower, and not that bad looking either.’
‘I should cocoa,’ Mrs Harrison sniffed.
‘Can’t see me handing round the cucumber sandwiches. Go on – off with the pair of you. Or all the jelly will be gone by the time you get there.’
The party was to celebrate the birthday of Matilda’s cousin Cosima whose parents John and Jane Talland lived in a fine Georgian manor a little over half a mile from Violet’s home.
The evening was fine as Violet and Matilda set out to walk it although according to Mrs Harrison there was heavy rain forecast later. Matilda took her mother’s hand and thought of all the excitement that lay in wait for her, imagining how the party would be and whether there would be a conjuror again as there had been at her cousin’s last birthday party. Other children were arriving at the house but not on foot, most of them being driven in large chauffeur driven cars, but since Matilda’s father was away as usual on business and since her mother didn‘t drive there was no one to drive the two of them to the party.
‘I don’t mind walking, Mummy,’ Matilda had said. ‘As long as it doesn’t rain and spoil my dress.’
‘If it looks like rain we’ll get a taxi,’ Violet had assured her. ‘But really it’s hardly worth it for half a mile.’
Now as they walked through the tall iron gates and up the long tree lined drive it began to spot with rain but no one stopped to offer them a lift for the last leg of their journey so until the light shower passed they took shelter under one of the large beech trees before continuing on. Ahead of them half a dozen small children were being shepherded up the steps and into the house by their nannies and nursemaids where Violet could see her sister in law Jane and her daughter Cosima waiting to greet each new arrival. Violet took Matilda’s hand as they climbed the stone steps, happy to see that her daughter held her own in the company that was assembling in the hall, looking as pretty as a picture in her gold dress with her light brown hair, still streaked with baby blonde, held up by a matching gold ribbon at the back.
‘Happy birthday, Cosima,’ Matilda said as with one hand in her back Violet eased her forward to be greeted by her cousin. ‘Here’s your present.’
But rather than say anything in return, having taken the present Cosima turned and looked up at her mother who had now hurried to her side.
‘I thought you said Matilda wasn’t coming, Mummy?’ Violet heard her niece saying before finding herself being hastily taken aside by her sister in law.
‘What are you doing here, Violet?’ she whispered. ‘Didn’t you get the message?’
‘What message?’ Violet asked. ‘A message? About what exactly?’
‘About the party,’ Jane continued, looking around once again before taking Violet and Matilda with her into an alcove. ‘You’re going to have to go.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Violet protested. ‘Is something wrong? Has something happened?’
‘No – no but something will happen if you’re found here. You really will have to go - and I mean now.’
‘What happened to your face?’ Violet asked suddenly, noticing a swelling under one of Jane’s eyes. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing – is going on,’ Jane hissed. ‘And never mind about my face. That happened in Scotland. On the moors. It’s nothing. You have to go.’
‘I’m not going anywhere, Jane,’ Violet insisted. ‘Not until you tell me what’s going on. And why we should have to leave a party to which we have been invited.’
‘I can’t understand why you didn’t get the message,’ Jane countered.’ ‘Jenkins was told to drop it off at your house.’
‘Jenkins?’ Violet wondered. ‘Rosalie’s chauffeur? Why should Jenkins -’
‘Because he was told to, that’s why,’ Jane replied quickly, taking Violet by the arm. ‘He was meant to drop it off on his way to pick Rosalie up from the Harringtons – where’s she staying - which is why you have to go and go now -before they get here. Before Rosalie arrives. Because if you don’t -’
‘If I don’t?’
‘We will all live to regret it.’ Jane stopped and looked at Violet, as if she was regretting every step being taken in this direction. ‘Rosalie has told us – all of us -’ Jane continued in an even lower voice. ‘She has issued one of her directives – and this one says that we are all – that none of us are to have anything to do with you. We are not to entertain you. And we’re not to speak to you.’
Violet stared at her sister in law in silence, while Matilda tugged impatiently on her arm.
‘Mummy,’ she said. ‘Mummy can we go into the party now please?’
‘In a minute, Mattie – just a minute.’
‘Everyone else is going in, Mummy. Please?’
But Violet just continued to stare at Jane, without saying a word.
‘Violet,’ Jane protested. ‘Violet it is not my fault! This is nothing to do with me!’
‘Our mother in law has said you are to have nothing to do with me? On what grounds? Did she say why precisely?’
‘You know as well as I do, Violet,’ Jane replied. ‘Rosalie never gives reasons. Just go – please?’
‘Jane -’
‘For all our sakes?’
There was something in Jane’s voice as well as a certain look in her eyes that told Violet she had to leave, even though she had not the slightest idea why she was being asked to do so. What she did know was that once her mother in law had set herself against something or somebody there was very little point in opposition.
‘Cosima?’ Violet heard Jane saying behind her as she steered both Mattie and herself to the large front doors. ‘Cosima you had better give Matilda back the present as well. It wouldn’t be fair to take it.’
‘But Mummy -’ Cosima began to protest.
‘No buts, Cosima, just do as I say.’
With a deep and puzzled frown Cosima handed Matilda’s present back to her who at once looked up at her mother, unable to understand quite what was happening.
‘There’s been a mistake, Mattie,’ Violet whispered to her, taking her hand and walking out through the double front doors held open by a poker faced Hoskins, the Talland’s butler. ‘For some reason there’s been some sort of a mix up over the invitations and they weren’t expecting us.’
‘But I always get asked to Cosima’s parties,’ Matilda protested, on the edge of tears.
‘Don’t worry, Mattie,’ Violet reassured her daughter. ‘We’ll throw an extra special birthday party for you this year, conjuror and everything – to make up for it.’
No sooner had they set foot in the drive than it began to rain but this time it wasn’t a light summer rain but a sudden heavy torrent.
Violet wrapped an already bedraggled Matilda under her light raincoat and put a useless hand up over her own head as once again she ran for shelter under a tree only to be stopped by a voice calling out behind her.
‘Miss?’ the voice called. ‘Madam?’
Violet turned and saw a chauffeur at the wheel of a large green Bentley that had now pulled up alongside her. The immaculately liveried young driver jumped out and threw open the nearside back door of the car, urging Violet to get in before she and her little girl were drowned.
‘That’s the idea,’ the young driver said as he got back in behind the wheel. ‘I’ll take you to wherever it is you’re going. You’d be washed away in that, the both of you. Where is it you’re headed?’
‘Are you sure this is all right?’ Violet said, taking her coat off so as not to saturate the fine leather seats. ‘You won’t get into trouble I mean?’
‘Perfectly all right, madam,’ the driver assured her. ‘Don’t you worry about a thing. No one will miss me for a while, don’t you worry. So just tell me where you need to go.’
Violet sighed with relief, wiping Matilda’s face dry with her handkerchief.
‘This is really very kind of you,’ she said to the chauffeur.
‘That really is some storm.’
The driver looked back at her in the mirror.
‘Might I ask what happened? Is your little girl all right? She hasn’t been taken ill, I hope.’
Violet hesitated.
She would have liked to have lied, but Matilda was sitting beside her and she would hear the lie.
‘No, Matilda is fine, thank you.’
She turned her head for a second and stared out of the window, the reality of what had just happened hitting her. ‘No Matilda is absolutely fine. It seems there was some kind of mix up over the invitations. And we didn’t get some message or other that we were meant to get.’
‘I understand,’ the driver replied with another look in his mirror, this time directly catching Violet’s eyes. ‘Just as long as the little girl is all right.’
Violet had the feeling that he understood more than she was saying.
‘It seems – for some reason or other – it seems we were not on the invitation list after all.’
‘These things happen, I suppose,’ the driver replied. ‘No matter who or what you are.’
‘I suppose so,’ Violet agreed, although more to herself. ‘Or perhaps they happen because of who and what you are. This is us – the next turn on the left. The thatched house at the end of the road straight ahead.’
It was still pouring with rain when the car pulled up at the front of the house, so the driver told them to wait where they were while he fetched a large umbrella from the boot of the Bentley.
‘You’ve been very kind,’ Violet said at the front door. ‘Perhaps you’d like to come in for a cup of tea?’
‘I shouldn’t, but I will,’ the young man replied, taking off his chauffeur’s cap as he entered, stooping down to avoid the low beams.
‘Yes, do be careful of the beams,’ Violet said. ‘It’s all right for someone as small as me, but you’re very tall -.’ She turned and looked at him for a moment. ‘Yes,’ she continued. ‘So you really must mind your head. Do sit down. I’ll go and ask Mrs Harrison to make us some tea.’
‘I don’t even know your name,’ he said to Matilda when they were left alone. ‘Though I think I heard your mother call you Mattie? Is that right?’
‘My name is Matilda,’ Matilda replied. ‘People only call me Mattie if they know me.’
‘I do beg your pardon,’ the driver said with a poker face. ‘Please forgive me.
‘That’s all right,’ Matilda told him. ‘Actually I don’t mind if
you call me Mattie because as Mummy said – it was very kind of you to bring us home.’
‘My pleasure, Mattie.’
‘You are very tall, aren’t you?’
‘I’m quite tall, yes.
Just over nine foot.’
‘You’re not?’ Mattie said in wonder.
‘No I’m not,’ he replied. ‘I was exacerbating. I’m actually only eight foot eight inches.’
‘Gosh,’ Matilda gasped. ‘That is tall.’
Violet came back in and while they were waiting for the tea to be made Matilda made her mother guess how tall their visitor really was.
‘I like your house, if I may so,’ the young man said. ‘It really is lovely.’
‘Even though you’re eight foot too tall for it?’ Violet smiled, offering him another biscuit.
‘I’ve always liked thatched houses, with beamed ceilings. The heart of England really.’
‘Yes,’ Violet agreed. ‘Yes I suppose they are really. My husband hates this place. But then he’s tall as well. Not quite as tall as you. But tall enough for the beams to bother him.’
She regarded her visitor steadily, resisting the temptation of adding the fact that since her husband was hardly if ever present the height of the ceilings was really of very little consequence.
Her visitor held her look and then smiled back at her, before consulting his watch.
‘I think I had better be off,’ he said. ‘Before they miss me. Which I’m sure they won’t. Don’t worry.’
He put his tea cup down and picked up his hat.
‘I’m sorry you had a disappointment, Mattie,’ he said. ‘But I’m sure something good is just around the corner to make up for it.’
‘Thank you again,’ Violet said, seeing him out. ‘You really were very kind.’
He opened the front door and looked at the sky. It was no longer dark, the summer storm had passed and there was even a patch of blue.
‘It was the least I could do,’ he said, looking down at her. ‘Whatever happened up there at the house, don’t worry - you would always be on my guest list.’
Then putting his cap back on, he turned and quickly left, all as if he had said too much.
Violet watched him go, watched him climb in behind the wheel of the Bentley, and watched until the car had disappeared from her sight. Then she went inside, shutting the front door behind her, more than grateful for the kindness of strangers and trying to prevent the sudden overwhelming feeling of panic that was starting to rise within her, the sense that something terrible was about to happen.

















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