Authors: Penny Vincenzi
‘So don’t you try getting me to watch Shakespeare and read Dickens,’ he said to LM, ‘because there’s other things I’d rather do. I need cheering up after a long day in the cold, not preaching.’
LM said Dickens had never preached, and indeed held views on society which she was sure Jago would sympathise with, but he said all he could remember was some nonsense about a little chap being sent to the workhouse and working as a pickpocket before being reunited happily with his high-born family.
‘That wouldn’t ever happen, Meg—’ he called her Meg, said it was his own name for her, that LM didn’t sound like the sort of woman she was. ‘It would never happen, not in real life and you know it as well as I do.’
He had a certain passion for geography, dreaming of other places, other peoples and LM gave him, for their first Christmas together, a subscription to the
magazine, which he devoured, bombarding her with information about remote tribes in Africa, Eskimos, the Chinese and their astonishing early civilisation. He dreamed of travelling one day, if only to Europe; she promised him that they would do it together. She had travelled a little with her father, to Rome, Florence and Paris; she said it was indeed a most wonderful experience.
The more she knew of him, the better she liked him; even his considerable tactlessness was the result of an impeccable honesty which echoed her own. The only difference was that she had learned to stay silent, not to speak her mind.
He never said he loved her; but he told her he enjoyed being with her more than he had ever enjoyed anything. ‘Except being with Annie of course.’
‘Of course,’ said LM, struggling not to feel hurt, and then he said that being with Annie was different, and she was not to mind.
‘She was very young for a start,’ he said, ‘it was me telling her things, not the other way round.’
She could have talked to him forever; enjoyed their agreements, which were many, as much as their disagreements. On Sundays, they would go for long long walks, sometimes just over the Heath; sometimes they would take an omnibus out to the country, to the Hog’s Back in Surrey, to Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire and talk endlessly, about politics, class, the countryside – in which he was surprisingly interested – about travel and religion. He was a passionate atheist, she was a modestly committed Anglican and liked to go to church.
‘Although how you can look God in the face after what we’ve just been doing without His blessing, I don’t know,’ Jago said, the first time she left him on Sunday morning.
She told him she thought God had meant people to enjoy sex, and wouldn’t care if they were married or not. ‘And besides, I love the words. They’re very beautiful. You should come with me.’
‘Not me,’ he said, reaching out to stroke her dark hair. ‘If I did find God it’d be in a forest or on a mountain top, not in some grim church.’
LM said that was what all non-church goers said and that most churches were far from grim: ‘Wait till you see Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Or St Peter’s in Rome. Then you’ll change your mind.’
Jago said he was quite happy to wait and turned over to go back to sleep.
They had been together now for three years; happy, odd years. They gave each other great contentment, saw one another at least three times a week, spent most Sundays together, shared one another’s hopes, fears and pleasures, agreed that they were as happy as two people could be, and yet they told no one officially of their relationship. Jago feared ridicule from other people on the subject, and LM feared humiliation.
They occasionally discussed meeting one another’s families, wondered whether it would make their lives together easier or more difficult, and always finally decided against it.
‘They’d just be watching us, wondering how we got on and what might happen in the end,’ Jago said. ‘And not just yours, mine as well. Mine more so, I should say. So let’s just keep ourselves to ourselves. It’s worked pretty well so far. Might spoil it if we changed anything.’
It wasn’t quite as difficult as one might suppose, this near-secrecy; their individual lives were perfectly self-sufficient. They both worked hard, long hours, albeit in rather different ways, and then LM’s life had always been entirely absorbed by Lyttons, work, and to a lesser degree, her politics; they were hardly likely to find friends in common.
LM was quite sure it would not last, and if people saw her abandoned, left to her loneliness and singleness again, it would hurt twice as much. She was aware that Oliver and Celia suspected there was someone in her life, but they both respected her reticence: Oliver out of delicacy, Celia from a sense of sisterhood. Celia was an extraordinary woman friend; unquestioning, undemanding, untroubled by secrets. Her philosophy was based on the simple assumption that if LM – or indeed anyone – wanted to tell her something, then they would; if she did not, then Celia had no desire whatsoever to know it. LM was quite sure that if she had asked Celia to buy a white dress for her, recommend a priest and suggest some music suitable for a wedding (or, for that matter, to lend her a baby’s cradle and a perambulator) she would do so without asking a single question.
There was, LM knew, no question of such a thing ever being necessary; Jago and she could be lovers, best friends, twin souls, but they could never be man and wife.
‘It’s unthinkable,’ he had said once, adding, ‘well, not unthinkable, but undoable.’
LM agreed with him, while crushing a pang of rather natural hurt. He had, not surprisingly, a dread of her becoming pregnant.
‘I couldn’t bear it,’ he said, ‘really couldn’t stand it.’ Every month he would ask anxiously whether she was ‘all right’ and would visibly relax when she told him she was. She was fairly confident that it would never happen; she had never been so much as a day late, even when she had been really young, and running appalling risks. At thirty-five, as she now was, it seemed extremely unlikely.
The only person who did know of course, was Mrs Bill; she had been with Edgar Lytton for many years, had watched LM grow up, and accepted what she saw as the extraordinary behaviour of her mistress with resignation and total discretion. She neither approved nor disapproved; it was LM’s own business, and as incomprehensible to Mrs Bill as her insistence on working all the hours God sent, when there was not the slightest need for it.
One of the things Jago most liked and admired about LM was that she worked; it increased his respect for her. He never tired of hearing about it, not so much the details of the books they were publishing, that mostly bored him, but about the mechanics of the company, the cost of running it, the way books made a profit, or indeed a loss, and the number of people required to keep the operation going. He was also fascinated by the dynamics of her relationship with Oliver and Celia, how they could work together without strife.
‘We do have strife, though,’ LM said, laughing. ‘We argue all the time. About what to publish, when, and how much it’s going to sell at.’
‘That’s not strife,’ he said, looking at her with genuine amazement, ‘that’s housekeeping, I mean who’s the boss?’
‘Oliver and I are the boss,’ said LM, ‘and Celia just works with us. Not for us, with us. It’s perfectly simple.’
Jago said if that was simple, he was the Earl of Beckenham. He was much fascinated by Celia’s parentage, by her life before her marriage, by her presentation at court; LM teased him about it and told him he was a social climber at heart. There were times when she really thought it was true.
‘Now Mrs Miller, this is Lady Celia Lytton. Lady Celia, Sylvia Miller.’
Jess Hargreaves had been placed in charge of introducing various Fabian ladies to their subjects in Mrs Pember Reeves’s survey. Her pleasant rather strong voice boomed through Sylvia’s front room and into the room beyond, where the children, threatened with the loss of dripping for their tea if they misbehaved, sat listening enthralled.
‘Mrs Miller has – what is it now, Mrs Miller – oh, yes, six children. Her husband works in a warehouse in the city. Mrs Miller is very happy for you to sit with her, and to tell you anything you want to know; but she is worried she may be rather too busy to give you much of her time. Also she is expecting again, and not feeling terribly well, especially towards the evening, so it might be better if you came in the mornings, while most of the children are at school. Only Barty, she’s the baby, will be here then.’
Sylvia looked at the ladies anxiously; she had been worrying all day about their arrival, had scrubbed the steps specially, got the washing out, put Barty into a clean pinafore dress. Mrs Hargreaves had stressed that none of it was necessary, but it was all right for her, she didn’t have to welcome a lady – and a Lady, what was more, they hadn’t warned her about that – into a dirty house full of grubby children and pretend it didn’t matter. She liked Mrs Hargreaves, but the new lady, she looked a bit – well a bit much with her hair piled up on her head and just a few curls escaping from a very large hat with an enormous bow at the side. She had lovely clothes, a loose cream wool coat over a long dress with a high lace collar, and very high-heeled shoes. Sylvia wished she could have had someone more normal.
She wished even more that she’d said no, right at the beginnning, that she’d got enough to worry about, without trying to remember what she spent on what, and which child had had which illnesses, without having someone watching her while she got on with her work. Ted had told her not to do it and she’d been going to refuse; but when Mrs Hargreaves came back to see what she’d decided, it had been the awful day when she’d realised she must have fallen again, and she was in such a state it was easier just to give in.
‘Hallo, Mrs Miller,’ said the lady, holding out her hand, ‘it’s so very good of you to let me do this. Can I hold your little girl? Just for a moment? I’m expecting myself, I’ve got a little boy already and I’m so hoping for a girl this time. Oh, isn’t she pretty? And what lovely hair. It’s the colour of a lion’s mane.’
Sylvia hoped that the lady wouldn’t notice the nits in the lion’s mane. She’d spotted them herself that morning and hadn’t had time yet to do anything about them.
‘Well, I’ll leave you to get acquainted,’ said Mrs. Hargreaves, ‘and you can arrange with Lady Celia which days would be best for her to come. I’m sure you’re going to work together very well.’
Work together, Sylvia thought: that was a fine way of putting it.
But as time went on, it did get to feel rather like that. Lady Celia was extremely tactful; she never pressed her for any information if she wasn’t certain about it, always asked her if she was sure she could spare the time for her, and once or twice, when the evening sickness had been really bad, had actually rolled up her sleeves and made the dripping sandwiches for the children’s tea. She wasn’t supposed to do that, Sylvia knew; she liked her for it. Nor did she ever make Sylvia feel uncomfortable or inferior to her; indeed she always told her how wonderfully she managed, that she could never do half so well herself, and although she did have very nice clothes and arrived in a big chauffeur-driven car, she chatted away to her in the most normal manner about the children and Giles and her own pregnancy.
‘I’m a bit worried, I’m so big already, only four months, I think I must have a monster in there.’ She often sent the chauffeur off with the children for rides in the car, and although she was supposed to be meticulous about getting every detail right in her notes, saying it was important if the report was to be of any use, she sometimes would smile at Sylvia conspiratorially and tell her she could always make it up if Sylvia had forgotten whether she’d bought fourteen or fifteen loaves in a week, or spent a shilling or elevenpence on the boot club. She clearly found things like the boot club and the clothing club a bit difficult to understand at first.
‘Can’t you just keep the money aside, and buy things when you need them?’
Sylvia tried to explain that if the money was there it would get spent on food. ‘There’s always a call on it. Important to have it where it can’t be touched.’
After a bit Lady Celia stopped asking about such things.
She adored Barty, and spent ages playing with her, or singing nursery songs.
‘I’d love to bring you some toys Giles has grown out of, and even some clothes. His pinafores and so on would do wonderfully for her, they’re just like girls’ clothes, but Mrs Hargreaves and Mrs Pember Reeves both say it’s absolutely forbidden. This whole thing is not about charity, as I know you understand.’
Sylvia did know, and most of the time she wished it was; she would have loved a few outgrown toys for Barty who was bored most of the time now, being the ex-baby tied in her high chair for much of the day; half her delight at seeing Lady Celia came from being released, taken outside, shown books and played pat-a-cake with. Barty was so pretty too, Sylvia could see why Lady Celia liked her. It was true about her hair being the colour of a lion’s mane, and she had a very long, delicate neck; she was a clever little monkey, had learned to walk exceptionally early, which was a pity, given her position in the family: better if she’d been a pudding like Marjorie and Frank. As for clothes, Barty was dressed most of the time in what resembled rags; a few frilly pinafores from Lady Celia’s nurseries would be very welcome.
Still the time and the attention were very welcome; from dreading Lady Celia’s visits, she had come greatly to look forward to them. She wondered if Lady Celia enjoyed them as much. It really didn’t seem very likely.
It was almost Christmas. The Lytton house was filled with it, every downstairs room and the nursery decorated with garlands made of evergreen and bunches of holly. A vast tree stood in the hall, studded with wax candles, which were to be lit on Christmas Eve, the pile of presents under it growing daily. Wonderful smells of baking rose up from the kitchen, carol singers arrived almost every night, and Giles would stand at the door in his nightgown listening to them. Celia had taken him to see the giant Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square and the special shop windows in Regent Street and Knightsbridge, and they had sent a letter up the big chimney in the drawing-room to Santa Claus, carefully dated December 1909 to avoid confusion. Every house in Cheyne Walk was brilliant with lights, and the trees along the row were all strung with twinkling, star-like garlands. Celia had a child-like love of Christmas; this year, being pregnant, it seemed to her especially poignant. She remembered the Christmas when she had cried so unexpectedly and so often and felt the guilt ease away. She had planned Christmas surprises, bought and wrapped presents, organised a big Christmas dinner party and a children’s party as well. Oliver, whose Christmases had been rather severe affairs, presided over by his overworked father, and without a mother to give them magic, teased her about her excitement, worried about her getting too tired, but became caught up in her starry happiness nonetheless.
Twice a week, though, the happiness faded, was replaced by guilt. The Miller house had no tree, no presents, and the street was dull and dark, apart from one tree in the window of the house at the end. Ted had promised to go and hack a branch of yew down from the park one night nearer Christmas; they could decorate that, he said, with a few sweets and chains of coloured paper, and they could set the two big candles he had been promised from the factory in the window. There wouldn’t be much in the way of presents exactly, Sylvia explained to Celia.
‘But Ted’s doing overtime and we should be able to afford a ham on the bone, by way of a Christmas dinner. And some oranges and nuts. And Ted’s mum, she said she’d be over with some sweets for the children.’
Celia hadn’t realised Ted had a mother; she’d assumed all four parents must be dead, or they would surely be helping their beleaguered children. It turned out that Sylvia’s parents had both died, and so had Ted’s father, but his mother lived with her only daughter in Catford.
‘But they don’t get on, her and Ted. She says he could do better in life. I’d like to know how. Anyway, we agreed years ago, it’s better she stays away. Comes for Christmas Eve or thereabouts and that’s enough.’
Celia had actually prepared a Christmas box for the Millers: little toys for all the children, a tin of pressed tongue, a small box of crackers, and some dried fruit. And a couple of warm shawls for the new baby. She had to be careful, if there was too much, the other families who were being observed might get to hear of it; there would be jealousy and she’d get into terrible trouble.
She was worried about Sylvia; she had almost two months to go, and hardly seemed able to drag herself about, she was even paler than usual, and apart from her large stomach, was wraith-thin. That was hardly surprising: Ted had been ill for a couple of weeks, unable to work, there’d been a shortfall in the money, and when there was less money, the children and the wife went without. The man needed the food to work; that was a given, an accepted precept, nobody questioned it. Even a pregnant wife. Even allowing for such problems, Sylvia was not herself. Normally brave and cheerful, she was much given to fretting, obsessed that there was something wrong with the baby.
‘It’s so small,’ she said to Celia one cold, dark afternoon, ‘and it’s hardly kicking at all. I hope it’ll be all right.’
‘I’m sure it’s all right,’ said Celia soothingly, ‘it’s small because it’s another girl, I expect.’
‘Doesn’t follow. I was huge with Marjorie. We’ve been lucky so far, not lost any. Most people have, out of six.’
Celia couldn’t imagine how anyone in Sylvia’s situation could regard themselves as lucky, but she smiled at her encouragingly.
‘Well there you are. You’re obviously a good, healthy mother, have good, healthy babies.’
‘It’s terrible when they die,’ Sylvia said, her eyes gazing into space as she squeezed out the washing, ‘really terrible.’
‘Yes, of course it must be. Here, let me do that.’
‘No, no you mustn’t, Lady Celia. Not my washing.’
‘Why not? I don’t have to do my own,’ said Celia simply, ‘go and sit down, Sylvia, please. Give Barty a cuddle, she’s been so good.’
She stood at the table, squeezing out the endless clothes. None of them looked very clean.
‘What I mean is,’ said Sylvia, stroking Barty’s soft cheek, ‘what I mean is, if the baby dies, there’s a funeral to pay for. Over two pounds that can cost, and we only have insurance for thirty shillings.’
At least one shilling a week from a working class family budget went on burial insurance.
‘Don’t, Sylvia,’ said Celia, distressed at this talk of babies’ funerals, ‘don’t even think about it.’
‘I have to think about it,’ said Sylvia earnestly. ‘And then if a child is born early and it’s alive, and then it dies, you don’t get no insurance at all. So it means a pauper’s grave. We couldn’t do that. We’d have to find the money somehow.’ Her face was very drawn, her eyes heavy.
‘Sylvia please! You mustn’t distress yourself so much. Of course your baby won’t die. It – she, I’m sure it’s a she – will be lovely and strong. Just like Barty. There, shall I hang this up for you?’
‘We’ll leave it for now,’ said Sylvia, ‘till the children have had their tea. Nicer that way for them.’
The washing line hung in the kitchen, sagging over the small table; it was indeed much nicer without it.
‘Anyway, Lady Celia, I shouldn’t be talking like this, worrying you. You being in the family way as well.’
‘Oh, well mine’s a long way off,’ said Celia, ‘not till May. Only unlike you, I’m absolutely enormous. My doctor’s coming to see me tomorrow actually. What does – what does your doctor say? About you being small?’
Sylvia looked at her, and her heavy eyes were almost amused. ‘We don’t see the doctor, Lady Celia. Not for a baby. It costs a lot of money, seeing a doctor does.’
Celia felt sick suddenly; she was always making these mistakes, saying stupid, thoughtless things. Here she was, over-cared for, over-indulged, her every ache and pain fussed over, her tiredness treated as an illness in itself, and Sylvia couldn’t consult a doctor over a very real worry. It was terribly wrong.
‘Sylvia, if you want to see a doctor,’ she said quickly, knowing she was yet again overstepping the strictly drawn up boundaries, ‘you could see mine. I would gladly arrange that. If you’re really worried.’
Sylvia flushed, looked shocked. ‘I couldn’t,’ she said, ‘it’s very kind of you, Lady Celia, but I really couldn’t. It’s only a baby. Not an illness. I’ll be all right. Oh, now, here are the children. I’d best be getting on.’
Celia wondered miserably, as she was driven home, if she was actually making matters worse rather than better for the Millers.
‘Good Lord,’ said Oliver. He was reading a letter intently; he had been sorting through the post at the breakfast table, adding to the ever-growing crowd of Christmas cards on the sideboard.
‘What?’ asked Celia. She was buttering her third piece of toast; her appetite was enormous.
‘My brother. He’s getting married.’
‘Well don’t sound so surprised. He’s twelve years older than you, I can’t think why he hasn’t been snapped up before. Who’s the lucky girl?’
‘Hardly a girl. She’s older than Robert. She’s – heavens. She’s forty-two. A very elderly bride. How extraordinary.’
‘Oliver, forty-two is hardly elderly. LM is nearly thirty-six. I shall tell her you said that, if you’re not careful.’
‘Oh, darling please don’t. It was a slip of the tongue. But I am surprised. Robert so likes pretty girls.’
‘Well maybe she’s a pretty woman. Or a rich one,’ she added thoughtfully.
‘Celia, really! Anyway, Robert doesn’t need to marry money. He’s got more than enough already.’
‘You don’t know that, Oliver. Darling, don’t look at me like that, I’m only joking. You know how much I adore him. I do hope they come to London to visit.’
‘That’s exactly what they are doing. As part of their honeymoon.’
‘How lovely. When? I hope I’ll still be able to move out of my chair.’
‘You should be able to. Quite soon after Christmas. They’re getting married just before, on Christmas Eve. Then sailing out of New York on January the first.’
‘Of course we must ask them to stay,’ said Celia. She looked at Oliver thoughtfully. ‘All a bit sudden, isn’t it? Maybe it’s a shotgun wedding.’
‘Celia, don’t be ridiculous. Anyway, this was sent a while ago, it takes two weeks at least for a letter to come from New York.’
‘I know. That still makes it sudden. What’s her name?’
‘Um – Jeanette. Mrs Jeanette Elliott. She’s a widow. She has two sons. She has a house in New York City and – heavens, a house on Long Island as well.’
‘There you are,’ said Celia, ‘a rich widow. How very intriguing. I can’t wait to meet her. I shall start planning their visit today.’
It was extremely intriguing. Why should Robert Lytton, so good-looking and charming and rich, who had apparently always enjoyed his freedom so much, suddenly decide to marry a woman older than he was, with the added complication of two stepsons? There could be only two explanations, Celia thought, as she went upstairs to prepare herself for Dr Perring’s visit; either Robert had fallen madly in love, or he needed some money. The latter seemed more likely. She was still pondering on it, and thinking how revealing the newly-weds’ visit might be when Dr Perring arrived; what he had to tell her drove any thoughts about anything but herself straight out of her head.
He stood over her for a long time, first holding his stethoscope to her stomach, then probing it gently. He took so long that she began to feel anxious, that there must be something wrong.
‘No,’ he said, smiling down at her, folding the sheet back over her, ‘nothing wrong. But I think I can hear two heartbeats. And you are very – large. I think you’ve probably got twins in there, Lady Celia. That is, if you are quite confident about the dates.’ ‘I’m quite confident,’ said Celia. She was: she had conceived during a magical time she and Oliver had had in Venice the previous summer. In a vast bed in a vast room, the golden light on the water reflecting on the ceiling, at the Hotel Cipriani. She had absolutely no doubt about it. She managed to smile at the doctor, then lay looking down at her stomach in silence. She felt very shaken. Shaken and almost scared. Twins! Two babies: that was extremely strange. It was almost as if one of them was replacing the child she had lost.
Dr Perring patted her hand. ‘You look rather pale. You mustn’t worry, most women carry twins perfectly safely. The birth can be difficult of course, but you had no complications last time and you’re still very young. Young and strong. I think I would like you to have them in a nursing home, rather than here, that would be my only advice.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘yes of course. If that’s what you think. Er – what makes twins Dr Perring, how does it happen?’
‘Well, it’s a division of the egg at the moment of fertilisation. Into two embryos. It’s not that uncommon of course. But—’
‘Yes, but what causes that, the division? Why should it happen?’
‘Nobody knows,’ he said, ‘it’s a mystery. Fun though, twins.’ He smiled at her encouragingly. ‘Most mothers enjoy them. They amuse each other and if they’re the identical sort, you can dress them alike, all that sort of nonsense.’
‘When will we know that?’ asked Celia ‘Not till they’re born, I suppose?’
‘No. They’ll be the same sex, of course, if they’re identical that is, but the real point is that they share a placenta. The afterbirth you know.’
‘Yes. Yes, I do know. I’ve published a book about pregnancy and childcare.’
‘I always forget,’ he said, smiling at her, ‘what a clever, well-informed young woman you are. It’s very refreshing. Now there is one other thing, Lady Celia. I would advise extra rest. Extra care. Several hours a day with your feet up, early to bed, that sort of thing. The strain on your system will be considerable.’
‘Yes,’ she said dutifully, ‘yes of course.’
After he had gone, she sat thinking. About all that it would mean. A big change, not just one more child, but two: a large family all at once. It was exciting: Dr Perring was right. It was also quite challenging. There was no question of the current nurseries being big enough: they would need to prepare a new day nursery and probably a new night nursery as well. And she would need more help: Jenny would have to have a permanent nursery maid. Possibly two. She’d like that. It would stand her in very good stead on the nanny benches in Kensington Gardens. And the maternity nurse would have to stay for longer than two months. The feeding would be very demanding. Giles’s pram and cot wouldn’t do either; she would have to buy a double pram, and another cot. Perhaps Sylvia would like her old pram. Just as a loan. The new baby could sleep in it. Then she thought, it was much too big; it would practically fill the little room, certainly take up all the available space.
She’d forgotten about Sylvia briefly; she started worrying about her again now. If she was to have this extra rest, she wouldn’t be able to continue with her visits. If Oliver knew, he’d practically tie her to the bed. She had a feeling he’d welcome the excuse to do so: he was getting very weary of hearing about the Millers and their problems. But she must be around to help Sylvia when she had her baby. She couldn’t fail her now. She’d need things like extra milk, extra food, clean sheets, napkins for the baby. The ones she’d seen had been in rags. She had already promised herself that she’d provide them; no matter what Mrs Pember Reeves said. She wasn’t going to sit there, making her wretched notes, while Sylvia starved politely.
Celia made a decision. She would tell Oliver about the twins after Sylvia had had her baby. She would rest as much as she could until then, but she couldn’t fail her new friend. And she would telephone Dr Perring and tell him she hadn’t told Oliver yet, that he was very busy and she didn’t want him worried until after Christmas. Or something like that. It only meant a delay of a few weeks.