The Sisters of St. Croix

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The Sisters of St. Croix

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1

9th September 1937

Adelaide Anson-Gravetty drifted awake with the feeling that today something special was going to happen. And then she remembered. Today she was twenty-one. Today she was an adult and could decide things for herself. Today was the beginning of the rest of her life. Today, though she didn’t yet know it, her life was going to be turned upside down.

She swung her legs out of bed and, crossing the room, threw back the curtains. The morning sun streamed in and her heart lifted with pleasure as she opened the window and, leaning out, looked down into the gardens of the square below. There were already plenty of people about, and she watched them going about their business as she often did, but for some reason today it was as if she were seeing them all for the first time. Footmen exercised dogs in the gardens, a newsboy sold papers from a stand at the end of the square, old Mrs Harriman had already taken her seat on her favourite bench. All was the same and yet all was different for now, today, Adelaide looked at it all through adult eyes.

There was a knock at her bedroom door and Florrie, the housemaid, came in with her morning tea.

“Oh, Miss Adelaide, you’re up already,” she said, setting down the tray and catching up Adelaide’s dressing gown from a chair. “Here, Miss Adelaide, put this on. You’ll catch your death there at the open window.”

“Don’t worry, Florrie,” Adelaide laughed. “It’s not cold, it’s a beautiful morning.”

“So it may be, miss, but you shouldn’t be leaning out the window with only your nightdress on. What would the master say?”

“He won’t know,” Adelaide said, adding conspiratorially, “if you don’t tell him.”

Florrie sniffed. She had known Miss Adelaide since she was three years old, and never once had she given her away to the master. “Come and drink your tea while it’s hot,” she instructed, “and I’ll draw your bath for you.”

“Thank you, Florrie,” Adelaide said meekly, though her eyes still gleamed with mischief.

“And may I be the first to wish you many happy returns of the day, miss,” Florrie added as she turned to leave the room.

“Thank you, Florrie.” Adelaide smiled at the maid with genuine affection. She took her cup to a chair by the window and continued to watch the comings and goings in the square below as she dutifully sipped the tea.

Twenty-one! she thought. Father can’t stand in my way now!

It wasn’t strictly true of course. Her father, Richard Anson-Gravetty, could always stand in her way while he held the purse strings, but now she was of age she could decide for herself if she wanted to get a job, and if she did she could, perhaps, support herself. She need no longer rely on him. It was a heady thought. She gave it further consideration as she lay in the bath a few moments later. She loved her father, of course she did, but he liked to make all the decisions, and when he had there was no going against him. Quick of temper, any opposition put him in a towering rage, and she and her mother had both learned that the most comfortable way to live was to keep her father happy; to do what he required of them and to ask permission before doing anything that was the least bit out of the ordinary.

Mummy. Darling Mummy. Adelaide thought of her mother, so pretty, so timid, so… what? Irresolute? Docile? Weak? Heather Anson-Gravetty had lived all her married life in her husband’s shadow, biddable, eager to please, and when she had died when Adelaide was sixteen, Richard had hardly seemed to miss her. Adelaide missed her dreadfully. She had been away at school and summoned at the last moment, had come home to find her mother lying in bed, her once-auburn hair faded and in disarray about the gaunt parchment of her face. Adelaide knew that her mother had been ill for a while, but no one had warned her how quickly Heather was wasting away. When she came into the bedroom and saw her lying, a frail waif against the white pillow, Adelaide gave a cry of distress, bitten off as her father gripped her shoulder with an iron fist. They had been together, the three of them, for the last time, but it was Adelaide, not Richard who sat holding her mother’s hand. When her mother’s grasp finally slackened, it was Adelaide who laid her head on the counterpane and wept. Richard simply turned and walked out of the room, leaving his grieving daughter sobbing by the bed.

Still, Adelaide thought now as she lay back in the warm water of the bath, that’s Father’s way. He never shows his emotions… except when he’s cross of course!

In the days that followed her mother’s death Adelaide had always felt that Richard wasn’t so much saddened by it as angry that she had dared to die without his permission. He seldom mentioned her and if he did it was never, it seemed to his daughter, with affection.

“It’s as if he’s put her in a cupboard and forgotten about her,” Adelaide confided to Grand’mère one day.

“That’s how he copes with the loss,” Adelaide’s grandmother replied gently. “Some people find it easier to cope by hiding the loved one away, by not thinking about them, or talking about them. Some people find that too painful.” She had smiled at her granddaughter. “ I miss her, too, you know, so we can talk about her together, you and I,
hein
?”

Life from then on had not been easy for Adelaide. Although her mother had never made a stand or taken her side against her father, Adelaide had known that on occasion she had sympathised with her and had done what she could to make up for Richard’s rigid rule. After the funeral Adelaide had been sent back to school, and during the holidays she had spent most of her time staying with Grand’mère, Heather’s French mother. Richard’s parents were both still alive, but Adelaide found them less sympathetic. She had always been closer to her mother’s mother and it was she who helped Adelaide through the difficult days after Heather died. It was Grand’mère who championed Adelaide’s cause, who stood out against her son-in-law when she thought he was too harsh, who gave her the warmth and love her father seemed unable to express.

When Adelaide had wanted to go university, Richard had been adamant that it was a waste of time and money, even though there was a place for her at King’s College, London. Adelaide had never discovered what Grand’mère had said to make him change his mind, but eventually her father had simply shrugged. “Do what you like, though why a woman would want a degree is beyond me.”

Adelaide had read French, a subject she found easy as she was already almost bilingual. Grand’mère had always insisted on speaking to her in French, even when she was quite a little girl, and Adelaide had responded with enthusiasm. She had spoken French to her mother, too, but never when Richard was there. He had forbidden them to speak it in front of him as he spoke none and refused to be excluded from the conversation in that way.

No more college, thought Adelaide as she finally emerged from her bath and set about getting dressed. She had taken her degree earlier in the year and was now, unwillingly, a lady of leisure again. She had no mother to “bring her out”, and anyway she despised the debutante scene. Adelaide was a girl of action. She wanted to be up and doing. She wanted to get out into the world and earn her own bread, to be responsible for herself.

Richard Anson-Gravetty was not at home on the morning of the day that his daughter attained her majority; he was away on business and wouldn’t be back until the evening. So, when she finally made it down to the dining room, it was to breakfast alone, to open the cards from her grandparents and her cousin Andrew, in solitary state; to open the unexpected letter that waited beside her plate with no one there to see her do it.

The envelope, typewritten, was addressed to her and had a Belcaster postmark, but she had no idea from whom it came. Leaving it till last, she finally slit open the envelope and drew out the contents. It was from a firm of solicitors, Brewer, Harben and Brewer, with an office in Cathedral Road, Belcaster. She skimmed through it, but, as its significance penetrated her mind, she started to read again from the beginning.

Dear Miss Anson-Gravetty,

Allow me to congratulate you on attaining the age of majority. I write in pursuance of the wishes expressed in the will of your late grandfather, Sir George Hurst. As you know he died in 1920 and left you a substantial legacy to become yours on your twenty-first birthday. As Sir George’s only grandchild, you were named as the residual legatee, the money to be invested and held in trust until you came of age.

This happy day is now upon us and I respectfully suggest that you make an appointment with me to go through the terms of the will. I am sure your stepfather has a financial advisor who will take over from me now that I am no longer your trustee, but I should certainly like to meet with you and explain my stewardship to date. I hope you will be satisfied with it.

If you would write to my secretary and arrange a time convenient to yourself I shall look forward to meeting you at last.

I remain, madam, yours very sincerely,

Arthur Brewer

Adelaide stared at the letter and then looked at the envelope again to make sure it was really addressed to her. It was. She read it through yet again. Her grandfather, Sir George Hurst? She hadn’t got a grandfather called George Hurst. Her grandfathers were called Gilbert Anson-Gravetty and Norman Driver. Norman Driver, Grand’mère’s husband, had been dead now for ten years or more, but her other grandfather, Father’s father, was alive and well and living in Winchester. So who was this George Hurst? And why did the letter refer to her father as her stepfather? None of it made any sense. Had she been adopted? Were Mummy and Daddy—she seldom called him Daddy anymore but when thinking of them together it sometimes still slipped out—were Mummy and Daddy not her real parents then?

Adelaide left the last of her breakfast and went out into the hall to telephone Grand’mère.

“Adelaide, my darling,” Grand’mère cried when she came onto the line, “many happy returns of the day!”

“Thanks, Grand’mère,” Adelaide said. She paused and then asked, “Can I come and see you? We need to talk.”

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