The Daughters of Blane
Such days came rarely to the Isle of Blane and Vivien Buchanan was not going to waste the opportunity, even if she was supposed to be sitting in the drawing-room with the guests, being a dutiful daughter. There would, naturally, be recriminations for this absence, but Vivien thought that a small price to pay. The light was so clear and bright, the air so still, that conditions were near perfect to get the most wonderful photograph of Blane Bay, a photograph which would be just the thing to enter in the Glasgow Photographic Society’s Autumn Show.
“Blane Bay” by Miss V E. Buchanan. She could imagine it already, neatly mounted and labelled (she would get Isobel to do that – she had an elegant hand), and perhaps “The Mountains of Blane” as well, for now, as she stood in the lead-covered valley where the east wing joined the main wing of the Castle, she saw that would make another fine subject. It was odd, she realised, that although she had known this view all her life, she had scarcely appraised it as she did now. It had simply been there; the outlines of the fells which ran from north to south like a backbone were as familiar to her as the profiles of her sisters, and as unremarkable, and yet they were wonderful, as wonderful in their beauty as Leonora and Isobel were. It struck her that the lens of the camera had taught her to see what she had never noticed before, and this added to her feeling of exultation as she stood leaning on the parapet, her equipment at her feet. It was a justification for her, and now whenever her mother decided to complain about her photography she knew that she need not waver. She knew she need no longer be moved by her mother’s relentless and guilt-inducing arguments about wasting time and money, for she had a quiet creed. She understood her passion, saw the nature of her god, photography. She was not trying to be different or deliberately awkward but she was learning to see through it, to see the world as it really was. Of course, this statement of faith would mean nothing to her mother, much as the early Christians’ simple statements of faith had not moved their Roman judges. But for Vivien it was a cross to cling to.
She gazed into the distant blue haze, perfect in that midsummer light, and realised how deeply she loved the place. It was dreadful, in a way, to be confronted with so much beauty when she was also beginning to understand how much it trapped her. For how could she begin to see when the breadth of her life was no wider than the compass of that lovely view? For some, perhaps, it was enough to look east and see the Ayrshire coast and then to turn west to where the protecting arm of the Mull of Kintyre sheltered Blane from the Atlantic, but Vivien knew it would not be enough for her. That was all the world she knew, and she knew she must leave, as many had left Blane before to find a wider life. But they, and she suspected this would be true of herself, had always lived as exiles. It was necessary for her to go, for the sake of her own self, she knew that, but it did not make the thought of going any easier.
She distracted herself from this gloomy train of thought by setting up her tripod and camera and was soon absorbed. It was not easy to get the tripod to settle easily on the uneven roof leads, and it took a great deal of fumbling with wretched little screws until it was level. She had decided that she would take the first plate of Blane Bay and, as she opened up the camera, she had the satisfaction of knowing that she had a unique view to take. None of the tourist photographers who came to Blane on the Ardrossan steamer and stayed at the boarding-houses in Port Blane had access to the roof of Blane Castle. Strictly speaking, she should not have been there herself. Her parents had made the roof out of bounds years ago, not because it was unsafe, but because climbing and scrabbling over its considerable extent was unladylike. Hugh had never been forbidden to go up there – in fact, he had shown her the way up there in the first place.
She dipped her head under the focusing cloth and steadied the image. She was practised at this now, and as it came into focus, she saw that she had caught the Ardrossan steamer on the focusing glass. It was sending up a most picturesque plume of white smoke into the sky, and she hoped it would come out. A bit of well-caught movement would be sure to improve her chances of a prize. Swiftly she dived into her bag and brought out a sensitive plate. Speed was of the essence, but she still had to be careful not to ruin the plate. She slipped it in, feeling it click into place, and covered it with the cloth. Then with a firm but steady hand she pulled out the protective cover from the plate. Glancing again at the view, she saw the steamer was still smoking nicely, and reached and carefully removed the lens cover. She half-shut her eyes and counted to five, hardly daring to breathe in case such a tiny movement might disturb the shot. “Let this be a good one,” she prayed silently, “please…”
The door in the corner of their room was irresistible.
“Where does it go?” he had asked the ancient butler who had shown them to their rooms.
“To the roof, sir. There’s a magnificent view on a day like this from there – yes, you should be able to see as far as Glasgow today, sir.”
“That I must see,” he said, pushing open the door. A steep turnpike stair confronted him.
“We should be going downstairs, Rory,” said Louis Faulkner to his brother, as he carefully washed his hands and face clear of the dirt of the journey. But Rory ignored him and began to climb the steps with vigorous strides, taking two at a time because he was anxious to stretch his long legs. He wanted to get the measure of this extraordinary place which had dazzled and amused him. He had never believed the lithographs of Blane Castle which had hung on his mother’s dressing room wall. They had been executed in that vapid, languid style of the 1840s which made him uncertain of the scale and dubious about the perspective. He had not imagined that the place actually existed as it appeared in those prints, which hung icon-like to be admired, worshipped even, as tokens of his mother’s past. They had seemed, to tell the truth, just another of her elaborate fictions. The glories of her girlhood on that fabulous Scottish island and her subsequent bitter and humiliating exile to the soggy fields of Rutland had been so often chanted, like some desperate epic, that he had grown cynical about it all.
But when the steamer had pulled up at the pier in Port Blane and he had looked up and seen the castle set above the town, dominating it like a great white baronial fist thumped down upon a table, he had seen at once that exaggeration had not been necessary. The lithographs had, if anything, understated the stupefying arrogance of the architecture. It was the stuff of dreams – or rather of nightmares: a great sprawl of round towers, keeps and crenellated walls which combined the aesthetics of Ivanhoe with the scale of a vast Manchester factory. It was so ludicrous that he had laughed at first, and then, as if it were some overdressed woman, he saw past the vulgar trimmings, and appreciated the absolute power of it. For the first time in his life he understood why his mother was as she was. She was like the place of her birth: overbearing, ridiculous at times, frequently contradictory and sublimely indifferent to the feelings of others. Like the castle, one could not ignore her.
“Remember you are Buchanans,” she had always told them fiercely. “You are Scotsmen before you are Englishmen.” When other small boys had sailor suits and Eton jackets, they had been dressed in kilts, an embarrassing distinction it was hard to forgive. Yet, as he raced up those stairs, he had a sense that there was something about this place which could arouse extraordinary passions. For there was a strange, churning excitement in his stomach which he had not intended. He had not wanted to be caught by the place. He was there under protest, after all, and yet here he was eager to see the view, like any tourist who had come to Blane for pleasure rather than from an unwilling sense of family duty.
He had reached the top now and stood on a tiny landing flooded with sunlight because the door to the roof was propped open with a large smooth pebble. He noticed, taking off his coat and waistcoat, that this doorway, like everything else he had yet seen in the house, was neo-Norman in style; the door arched in a semicircle, the frame was carved with dentels and even the hinges were formed from giant iron straps. He hooked his coat over the door handle and went out on to the roof.
The heat was dazzling, bouncing off the leads, and the air was extraordinarily still, despite the height of the tower. In fact, as he peered over the parapet, he realised he was a dizzying two hundred feet or so up. But the silent remoteness of that vantage point impressed him most of all. It gave him command of the ridge of hills one way and of the sea the other. No wonder his mother thought she ruled the earth! Such a view as this would give one delusions of grandeur for life, and with sudden dread he thought of his unknown cousins downstairs. Would they all be like his mother, stamped with unshakeable conviction and set rigid in convention? The thought of that, and the realisation that he should be down there shaking hands with this tribe of relations (whom, previously, he had not had to worry about) somewhat took the edge off his exultation. He could not revel in this glorious view without remembering why he was there. Wonderful though the place might be, it could not be enjoyed without all the distracting paraphernalia of a country-house visit which demanded constant good humour and impeccable manners and which made few allowances for solitude. The thought of a month of family dinners, church-going and general conversation was appalling. It was a vast imposition upon his liberty when he had been hoping to spend the summer wandering about Europe with a few of his closest friends. But the summons had come from his mother. It was imperative that he come to Blane. She had decided, and that was that. He had not yet in his twenty-one years found a way to resist such commands, although he despised his own submission. He was not like Louis who was making a career of submission in the Foreign Office, but he was afraid that she would soon coerce him into some equally respectable and depressing line of work. She had been mildly pleased to learn that he had been named Second Wrangler in his Tripos finals: “Such things are always useful,” she had written, “in the choice of a suitable career,” and the word “suitable’ had been underlined with a forceful scratch of the pen.
“Suitable indeed!” he muttered to the hills of Blane. “What the devil does she know about it?” They did not answer, but lay mutely ahead of him, flooring him with their absolute and ancient beauty, making him feel as he stood there on that vulgar keep tower like a terrible intruder. The petty problems of his life had little meaning against such a backdrop, which was not in truth a backdrop, but a great drama in its own right: a rolling geological drama upon which humans and their tawdry edifices were only the props and tricks of the light upon a stage, transient and insignificant.
He shook himself out of this depressing conviction and turned to the view of the sea, interrupted by the complex patterns of the roof of the castle. The sprawl of roof ridges, valleys and lanterns was interesting in its own right, forming a diabolical geometry for which a formula had not yet been devised. And then, amongst it all, he caught sight of a flash of human movement and realised that there was a woman standing at the other end of this pattern of roofs.
The only way down from the keep to these other leads appeared to be a large iron ladder which clung to the edge of the tower and dropped down some forty feet. With some care and a little trepidation, Rory straddled the parapet wall and climbed down on to it. Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the wall in front of his eyes, he descended the ladder, surprised by the heat of the rough metal beneath his hands.
It took some time to reach the girl. If to get there had appeared easy from the keep, it as an illusion. There was much climbing and dodging to be done, and once or twice he reached a dead end. But this maze did not annoy him in the least. It was an interesting challenge.
At last, as he scaled a ladder up a sloping stretch, he saw that he had reached her. He paused there, realising she was not aware of his presence. She stood with her back to him, and seemed to have abandoned the bodice of her dress, for her back was covered only by a flimsy piece of lawn rising above the more solid form of a pair of pale blue stays. He could see quite clearly she was sweating – there was a damp patch on the material between her shoulder blades and one or two loose strands of short hair which had escaped being piled up were plastered to the nape of her neck. She stood as still as a statue, one bare arm extended, with something clasped in her hand. What she was doing he could scarcely imagine, but the pose enchanted him.
Gently, so as not to disturb her, he pulled himself over his final hurdle, but in his anxious care he grew clumsy and the slope was steeper and smoother than he imagined. His footing went and he slipped down at a violent speed, unable to land on his feet. Instead, he fell sprawling on to his back, within touching distance of her hem. As he hit the ground he could not help bellowing out, in surprise rather than pain.
She started terribly. He saw her shudder, almost as if she might topple back and fall on top of him from her surprise. But she regained herself and spun round in a moment. She stared down at him, her astonishment giving way to anger.
“How could you!” she exclaimed. “You’ve ruined the shot!”
“What?” he managed to say, although he felt winded by the fall. He struggled to prop himself up on his elbows and saw that she had been standing in front of a camera. “Oh,” he said, sinking back. “I’m sorry.”
She looked as if she were about to expostulate, when suddenly her face cracked into a smile and in a moment she was laughing.
He felt he should be piqued at being mocked, for it was obvious she was laughing at him. But then he realised how ridiculous he must look, how absurd indeed the entire situation was, and soon he was laughing too. She made some effort to master herself.
“You must be Rory, mustn’t you? Your mother -” She was unable to go on and Rory could not answer because the thought of what his mother might have been saying about him was too predictable. “My younger son is both a fool and a boor.” He had heard it too many times for his pride to be wounded any more. Laughter was preferable.
“Let me help you up,” she offered, when at last they had managed to control themselves.
“I think I can manage,” he said, grinning. “I’ve no idea who you can be, except one of my female cousins, and there are such a tribe of you.”
“There are only three of us. Shall I make you guess?”
“Well, I don’t think you can be the one engaged to the Duke,” he began, as he struggled to his feet.
“No fear!” she exclaimed. “Oh, not that he isn’t very nice, but that isn’t quite what I had in mind for myself.”
“No, I can imagine.” He could not help staring at how much her chemise revealed. She blushed suddenly, and folded her arms to cover herself, while he looked away rather pointedly. A graver mood seemed to have descended upon them.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have disturbed you.” He was embarrassed in his turn. “And your photograph – will it be quite ruined?”
“It’s had too much light now, and I knocked the tripod.” She turned away to retrieve her bodice. “Excuse me,” she muttered, and Rory tactfully directed his gaze towards the sea.
“It would have made a wonderful picture,” he said, seeing from the corner of his eye that she was struggling with hooks and eyes.
“I have some others. It won’t matter.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You looked very angry.”
“My mother says I have a very bad temper.”
“We are alike then,” said Rory, turning slightly and seeing she was respectable again. The bodice made her look demure and commonplace and he felt disappointed. “Why else do you think I am up here now, when I should be downstairs meeting all my cousins?”
“I should be downstairs too,” she said. “We shall both be in trouble, I imagine.”
“It’s worth it,” he told her, leaning on the parapet, “to see this. I had to see it to get the measure of this place. My mother is so obsessed with it.”
“I’d noticed that.”
“It must be because she is an exile.”
“An exile?” she asked, with interest. “Is that what she is?”
“I think so. This place is like another country. I feel I have come half across the world.”
“It is another country, it’s Scotland.”
“No, I don’t mean that. I mean it’s Blane, a place in its own right. A kingdom of its own. Especially up here.”
She looked at him searchingly for a moment or two. It was a disturbing scrutiny. She had the same, sharp discerning eyes as his mother. “How odd you should say that,” she said, folding down her camera, “when you have never been here before.”
“I feel I have been here all my life. Perhaps the place is in my blood. Or was it something in my mother’s milk?”
“Blood,” she said, snapping shut the camera. “That is it. You look completely like a Buchanan, you know. There is a portrait in the dining-room that you might have sat for.”
“Another blow to my Faulkner pride,” said Rory. “Not a drop of Faulkner in me. Perhaps the Buchanans are like those strange plants that only need one sex to reproduce.” At this she blushed again. Probably no one had ever discussed that topic in her presence before. “I’m sorry.”
She said nothing, and carried on with the evidently complicated business of collecting up her camera outfit.
“I still don’t know which one you are,” he said, stooping to lift something for her.
She smiled. “Vivien.”
“You suit your name,” he said, shaking her hand.
Five minutes or so later they were scurrying breathlessly towards the drawing-room, now feeling like a pair of conspirators. Vivien could not help being wonderfully elated at what had happened, despite knowing that she ought to be embarrassed and angry at being caught like that. But although she had found herself blushing when he had looked at her, it was only some ingrained reflex in herself that made her look to her modesty. She had sensed the appreciation there and that experience, quite new to her, was not unpleasant. Besides, why must they all go covered from neck to toe on such a hot day? She almost wished she was brave enough to cast off the bodice again as they approached the drawing-room, as Rory had not bothered to retrieve his coat from the keep tower. He was not the least bothered about shirt-sleeves and braces, it seemed, and she sensed he was looking forward to shocking them all. Indeed, she could not help rather enjoying the moment herself. Their faces would be worth something.
He glanced at her as they reached the great door into the drawing room. His eyes glinted with a smile, although his expression was quite composed. She wondered how she would keep a straight face. There was something intrinsically amusing in his appearance. It was the Buchanan face in all its essentials – with the beaky nose and staring eyes beneath the thundering brows, the coarse, tow-coloured hair and the uncompromising bones – but if the concordance was striking, the differences were more so. It was the Buchanan face taken by the devil and turned upside-down, its various parts transformed from a group of aristocratic signatures into something that represented not the past and years of careful breeding, but the future, which fell out of the skies to jolt the world into new life. “My son is little short of an anarchist,” Mrs Faulkner had said the other night at dinner, and now Vivien understood what she had meant. But she did not despise anarchy. She rejoiced in it, and, with sudden decision, put one hand on the arm of her new friend and the other on the door handle. “Well, shall we go in?”
They pushed open the door with jaunty strength and walked in. The drawing-room looked as it always did on such occasions: gloomily formal, like a vast fish tank full of still, slightly dirty water, for the holland blinds were down, because the afternoon light was considered damaging by her mother. Although there were guests the furniture had not been rearranged to promote any sort of sociability. Instead, each person seemed marooned on his own seat, with an imprisoning space all around him. As the door opened, there was a little movement, of figures turning towards them, or rising from their seats. She glanced up at Rory. He looked slightly horrified.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured, “it’s not as bad as it looks, really.”
“Ah,” said her mother, her voice only barely polite. “Vivien, dear, I wondered where you had got to.”
“I’m most awfully sorry, Aunt, I distracted her,” said Rory, going forward. “We’ve been up on the roof – and I’m so glad. The view, well…”
Vivien stared airily at the ceiling as if those dull old vaults were suddenly interesting. Of course he wasn’t to know that she was not allowed on the roof, but she wished he had not said it.
“You must be my nephew,” said her father, stepping forward.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m Rory. How do you do, sir?” and he put out his hand.
“If he knew him better,” thought Vivien, “he wouldn’t have done that.”
Sir Walter looked his nephew up and down, and did not deign to put out his hand in return. It was clear from the twitch of his craggy features that this new relative did not come up to scratch.
“So, Walter,” said Sally Faulkner to her brother, in a languid but vicious tone, “you can see my problem.”
Rory smiled at that. “It’s good to see you, Mama,” he said, and went and kissed her. She received it without grace. “Well, aren’t you going to present me to everyone?”
“You seem pretty well in already,” she responded.
“Here, let me,” said Vivien, marching forward. “Mama, this is Rory – as you must have guessed.”
“Of course, dear,” said Lady Buchanan, and let Rory kiss her hand. “And this,” said Vivien, moving along, “is the rest of the tribe, as you call us. This is Leonora, and Isobel.”
Leonora smiled, and Isobel said: “Welcome to Blane, cousin Rory. I’m glad you like our view.”
“I know this one,” said Rory, to the young man who sat beside Leonora on the sofa.
“But I don’t!” Vivien couldn’t help exclaiming.
The stranger laughed. “I’m Louis, Rory’s brother.”
“Of course – our diplomat! How do you do?” said Vivien, shaking his hand. She would never have guessed he was one of them. He did not look the least like a Buchanan.
“And this is my brother,” said Vivien. “Hugh.”
Hugh pulled his long-limbed self out of his chair, and greeted Rory warmly.
“It’s about time,” he said. “You should have come here long ago. It isn’t right families should quarrel.”
“Hugh, really!” murmured Lady Buchanan.
“The younger generation, eh?” said Mrs Faulkner. They do like to speak their minds, don’t they? In our day, such frankness was not allowed. A very good thing it was too.”
Hugh pointedly ignored this and turned. “And here’s someone neither of you have met. This is Mr Henderson, who has come to paint the girls’ portraits. Poor devil, they’ll never sit still.”
Vivien had forgotten about the painter and looked at him with surprise. He seemed to have been hiding in a corner behind Hugh. A young, lean, dark-haired man with piercing eyes, he wore a badly made tweed suit and looked very ill at ease, as well he might. Blane had not been built to make people feel comfortable.
“We’re very glad you’ve come,” she said to him. “It’s a great honour for us to be painted by a protégé of Sir William Grant’s.”
“Will you take a cup of tea?” asked Lady Buchanan, loudly. She hated any small conversations developing.
“Tea, tea!” exclaimed Sir Walter. “Why will you insist on everyone drinking that pernicious stuff. Macfarlane!” he called out to the butler. “Bring some whisky up to the library. I’m sure the guests could do with something stronger after their journey. If you’ll excuse us, ladies.” He never lasted long in the drawing-room.
“For goodness’ sake, say you like it,” Vivien murmured to Mr Henderson and Rory just as they were about to follow Sir Walter. “Even if you don’t. He’ll never speak to you again if you don’t.”
“An initiation with whisky, eh?” said Rory. “Well, I’m game.”
“I’m going up to my room,” said Mrs Faulkner. “I’ll see you there later, Rory,” she added pointedly.
Vivien was annoyed the party had broken up so quickly, even if it had been awkward. Left alone with her mother and sisters she knew she would not escape a scolding.
“Vivien,” began Lady Buchanan, “how many times does it have to be said. The roof-”
“Is out of bounds. Yes I know!” she said. “Though what you think will happen to me I really don’t know.”
“It’s extremely dangerous. But that isn’t the point, is it? You can’t go running around as if you were still in the schoolroom. What your cousin must have thought of you.”
“He didn’t seem bothered.”
“Exactly. Now he thinks you’re forward, and that in a man’s eyes means cheap.”
“I’d rather be cheap than boring!” said Vivien, and went to the window, so she could stare through the crack between the frame and blind at the tempting richness of the sunlit terrace. It was such a good day for photographs…
“You will end up an old maid,” said Lady Buchanan, “if you carry on like this. And you won’t like that, I can tell you, Vivien. I’m going to go and make a start on the ball cards for the Gathering. You can come and help me with them.”
“But, Mama,” she had to protest, “I wanted to go out before dinner and take-”
“And take more ridiculous photographs. No, Vivien, you may not. I need your help. Goodness, the house full of people and the Gathering in three weeks and all you can think of is that wretched business. I wish you would try and be more considerate.”
“Why don’t I help, Mama?” offered Isobel. “My hand is so much clearer than Vivien’s.”
“No, dear, you’ve too much to do with the trousseau as it is. I couldn’t allow it. Whereas Vivien has nothing to occupy her.”
“You speak as if I were simply reading silly novels all the time.”
“At least that wouldn’t draw attention to yourself. Goodness knows what they will make of you in town! I shall be surprised if you get any offers!”
“I don’t want any.”
“Please, please,” begged Isobel. “Both of you,”
“I know it seems hard, Isobel,” said Lady Buchanan. “But I do know best in this. When you have daughters of your own you will see.”
Leonora spoke. “Can I do anything, Mama?” Her tone was such that Vivien wanted to curse under her breath.
“No dear, it’s quite all right,” replied Lady Buchanan, going to the door. “Come along now, Vivien.”
“I did try,” whispered Isobel.
Vivien shrugged her shoulders. There was no quarrelling with their mother once she had a notion in her head.