A Novella by Bronwen Welsh
Part Eight - A New Generation
We were married six months later. By then, I had found a position as a Phys Ed teacher at an Oxford school, and Fiona was two months pregnant. Aunt Mary was a special guest of honour at our wedding which was a simple affair with only twenty-five guests. Fiona looked lovelier than ever as she walked down the aisle. Perhaps it was that extra glow of a pregnant woman, but at that stage it was our secret alone. During my speech I revealed how Aunt Mary had played match-maker and how grateful we both were that she did. She even had the grace to look slightly embarrassed.
A couple of months later we were talking about how Aunt Mary had contrived to bring us together, and how I had been asking her about the family tree at that time. I decided that the time was right to tell Fiona about Leonard and Leonora, including my visit to the graveyard and the vision at Castlerigg.
When I finished she asked “Why didn't you tell me this before?”
“Well I wanted you to get to know me much better first, so that you wouldn't think I was some weirdo prone to making up fantastic tales and ready for the 'funny farm',” I replied.
She laughed at that. “Well it does sound rather fantastic.”
“So you don't believe it then?”
“Well you believe it, and that's what matters. I believe in you so I believe it too.”
I didn't argue with her. If I had not experienced that vision at Castlerigg then perhaps I wouldn't have believed it either.
Now that we were living in Oxford, we saw much more of Aunt Mary than before — well that was certainly true in my case. One evening she rang me and I could hear excitement in her voice.
“Jack! I have a lovely surprise for you, but I don't want to tell you over the phone. Can you and Fiona visit me tomorrow evening?”
The following evening we arrived at the old house. Aunt Mary was as bright and bubbly as ever. Whatever the surprise was, she was certainly excited by it, but in typical style, she kept us waiting in suspense while she asked how we were faring, and of course about the progress of Fiona's pregnancy.
“Well, I think I've kept you in suspense long enough,” she smiled, “But before I show you what it is, I should give you some background. A cousin of mine, Dora, passed away a few months back. You never met her as she lived in Cambridge, and we often had jokes about the rivalry between the university cities. She lived with her daughter Jean in a big old house like this one, and of course Jean was given the task of sorting everything out when she died, just as someone will have to do in this place.”
She saw the look on my face and went on “Don't look like that Jack. Everyone has to go sometime and I think ninety-two is quite a good innings, don't you? Anyway, Jean was going through some old trunks in the attic and came across the item I'm going to show you. Fortunately she knew that I'm the unofficial family historian and thought I might be interested in it, so she arranged for it to be sent to me. It's in the library. Come with me and I'll show you.”
She led the way into the library, and there on the round table sat an old cardboard box, about eighteen inches long, a foot wide and perhaps nine inches deep. Aunt Mary smiled “Why don't you lift the lid Jack?”
I did as she suggested, and it was one of those heart-stopping moments. The box appeared to be full of type-written papers, and the top sheet was titled “Leonora's Journal, 1812-1866”.
I was so stunned that for a moment I couldn't speak. Aunt Mary stood there grinning. Obviously my reaction was all she could have wished for and more.
“So somebody copied it then?” I managed to get out eventually.
“Yes, I'm sure it was Dora, as Leonora's original journal and sketchings were at her house. She trained as a legal secretary, and my theory is that she used Leonora's journal to practise her typing skills. Presumably after she finished, she couldn't bear to throw away all that hard work, so she put the pages in this box and it ended up in the trunk in the attic and was forgotten about.”
“But you did say that the original journal was lost in a fire, so how did the copy survive?”
“Perhaps I wasn't clear enough about the fire, Jack. It didn't burn the house down, in fact it was mainly confined to the library which was where Leonora's journal was kept. Apparently a log fell out of the fire and set the carpet alight, but it was discovered fairly quickly and while most of the items in the library were lost, the fire didn't spread much beyond that room.”
“I can still hardly believe it,” I said “I wanted so much to read Leonora's journal, but I'd resigned myself to the fact that is was lost forever.”
“Yes, that alas has happened all too often,” Aunt Mary replied. “I should loan you 'Kilvert's Diary'. He was a country parson who wrote a diary of his life in Clyro on the border of England and Wales in the late eighteen hundreds, not long after Leonora died in fact. Much of his diary was lost for various reasons, but enough of it survives to paint an extraordinarily descriptive picture of life in those years. It would have been such a shame if it had all been lost.”
I could not stop myself lifting out the title page and read the first page of the journal
“Sept 3rd 1811. Today I have commenced writing a journal. I never thought to do so before, but one day when I am an old lady I shall look back at this extraordinary year, and I want to remember it for ever. I intend that for now it shall be for my eyes only, but hope it is not a conceit of mine to think that my descendants may find it of interest far into the future.
At the start of the year I was very sick, and Emma, my dear little sister confides in me that Mama and Papa were afraid I might fade away and die. Yet now I am fully recovered in all things except that I find my memory of past events and people is badly clouded, and I fear this will cause me not a little embarrassment when meeting old friends. I have decided therefore to be frank with them and explaining my dilemma look to their kindness in forgiving my apparent rudeness in not recognising them.
A wonderful thing has happened. I have met the man that I am going to marry. His name is Richard d'Anglais and not only is he the handsomest man I have ever met, but he has the sweetest nature that anyone could wish for. I know that we will be very happy together.”
I looked up to find Fiona and Aunt Mary both looking at me and smiling.
“Why don't you take it away and read it?” said Aunt Mary.
“Yes I will, and what's more, my first job will be to scan all the pages and copy them to disk so there is no chance that it will be lost again,” I replied.
The ending of my story is bitter-sweet. Aunt Mary had a fall three months later and broke her hip. For such an elderly person this was serious, and when I went to visit her I could tell that she was unlikely to be leaving hospital. She smiled at me reassuringly and said she had lived a good life and was not sorry to go. Her only regret was that she would not see our daughter grow up.
“How did you know that Fiona is having a baby girl?” I asked. “We only found out ourselves yesterday when she had the ultrasound.”
Aunt Mary smiled “A lucky guess I suppose. After all I had a fifty percent chance of being right.”
The next day, I brought Fiona with me to the hospital. We sat on either side of Aunt Mary's bed. While I held her hand, she smiled at Fiona and said “May I?”
“Of course,” said Fiona, and taking Aunt Mary's hand she laid it lightly on her 'baby bump'.
“Oh!” Aunt Mary gasped “I felt her kick.” We all smiled at this connection between generations. Then I exchanged glances with Fiona and nodded.
“Aunt Mary” she said, “Some people say it's bad luck to reveal a baby's name before she is born but I think you deserve to know.” Then she leaned over and whispered in Aunt Mary's ear.
She smiled. “Thank you my dear. That is a lovely choice.”
She died three days later, and we were so glad we made the decision we did. I was called upon to write and deliver the eulogy. in the little old church where she had worshipped most of her life. The congregation was rather sparse but then she had outlived most of her friends. I spoke about Aunt Mary's life and how although she never married she loved children and had been a teacher. I also mentioned how she had brought Fiona and I together and for that blessing we would be grateful to her all our lives.
As I suspected, Aunt Mary had requested that I shoulder the majority of the task of clearing out the old house prior to it being sold. In the process of doing so I came across an envelope addressed to me, and opening it I read the following letter:
It seems strange in a way to be writing this knowing that when you read it I will no longer be with you, but you know us women — we always want the last word. I'm hoping to still be around for the birth of your first child, but if not, I know that she will be such a joy to you. I'm so glad that I was able to facilitate your meeting with Fiona. I just knew you were perfect for each other and I have been proved right.
I hope you don't mind taking over as the 'family historian'. I know you have developed quite a fascination with it since finding out about your ancestor Leonora, and I'm sure there is still more of interest to be discovered in our family.
My love to you, Fiona and your children,
Dear Aunt Mary, she was right about everything, and I gladly took over her unfinished work on our family history, just as she knew I would. As for the mention of 'children', we did indeed have a son we called Richard, two years later.
I distributed various items of furniture and some of the pictures to various distant relatives, and what was not wanted went mostly to antique dealers. Besides the painting of Leonora and the first choice of any furniture that we wanted, Aunt Mary left us a generous bequest from the sale of the house — sufficient to pay off the mortgage on our cottage, and that was a special blessing now that we were reduced to one wage. In a place of honour we hung the portrait of Leonora and her one remaining drawing, together with a framed photograph of Aunt Mary.
Four months later, Fiona was delivered of a healthy baby girl. It was two days after she was born when I was visiting Fiona in hospital that she told me about something strange that had happened.
“I was asleep between feeds and I had a curious dream. In the dream I woke up and turned to where our daughter was sleeping in the cradle beside of my bed. There was a young woman dressed in white looking down at our baby with a lovely smile on her face. At first I thought it must be a nurse, but then I realised the young woman wasn't wearing a nurse's uniform, indeed it looked like she was wearing a rather old-fashioned high-waisted muslin gown, and when she turned to look at me and smile, I'm sure I recognised her from the painting.” She continued “Then it seemed in my dream that I fell asleep again. It all seemed so real, that now I'm not even sure if it was a dream. It was Leonora wasn't it.”
She said it as a fact rather than a question, and there was a slightly anxious look on her face.
“Yes I'm sure it was,” I replied “Perhaps it was her way of letting you know that what I told you was true. But there's no need to worry, she will be our daughter's guardian angel all of her life.”
Then I gazed down at our gorgeous baby girl — the daughter we had named Leonora Mary.
First I would like to thank all the readers of my story, especially those who awarded 'kudos'! A special thank-you to those who took time to leave comments. These are always very much appreciated.
Leonora's part of the story is necessarily curtailed, but I feel there might be interest in the rest of her life. Inspiration came when I recently re-read the late nineteenth century diary of the Rev Frances Kilvert covering nine years he spent at Clyro on the English and Welsh border country. Deemed a minor classic it is amongst the very best of English diaries. Why should Leonora not have kept a journal? Many ladies of that period did, so the rediscovery of it was fortuitous indeed. Titled, naturally enough “Leonora's Journal”, I propose to start posting it in about a month or so, but would appreciate readers' views if this is something they would like to read..
Finally Castlerigg stone circle, the inspiration for the story. Britain is fortunate in having over a thousand pre-historic monuments, standing stones, circles, burial mounts, earthworks etc. Even the most famous, Stonehenge is able to overcome the commercialism that rings it, but I prefer those sites which are still more or less in their natural state. I make no apologies that Castlerigg which I have visited twice is among my favourites, not just for the circle itself but the magnificent setting, surrounded as it is by some of the Lake District's iconic peaks, Skiddaw, Blencathra, Helvellyn etc. Others have their own favourites, and it is right that this should be so.
Why ancient man invested so much time and energy in marking these particular sites is not known, but being far closer to nature than we can ever be, maybe they did discern that these were unusual places, perhaps with special powers, who knows? Modern research has detected anomalies such as reduced background radiation, emissions of ultrasound and observations of light phenomena at some of these sites, but the research is still in its infancy. What I do know is that visitors to these sites rarely fail to be moved by their ancient surroundings, monuments which will still be there as far into the future as they have been in the past. They are truly in so many ways 'magical places'.
Bronwen Welsh 2013
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