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Home <> Lifestory Library <> Explore By Location <> <> <> The Parlour

  Contributor: Helen RobertsView/Add comments

'We called it the parlour, but we might just have well have called it the study. It can truthfully be said that we never missed studies, in those green years. It was in the Parlour, every afternoon between half-past-two and five, that they were reluctantly pursued.'

This parlour belonged to Deverell Cottage in a road called Westbrooke. It is still there today, opposite the Sion Junior School. The lady taking us on this 'tour' of the parlour, was one Helen Roberts. Helen was born in 1877 during the Victorian era and lived, with her parents, two sisters and brother, in Deverell Cottage. Helen continues.

Just inside the parlour door stood the cottage piano, its chest fluted with crimson silk, patiently ready in old age for doleful scales and exercises. In the middle was the stout square table, upon which we comfortably spread our slates and copybooks.

Over the mantelpiece, on either side of the elaborate, but punctual cuckoo clock, hung the portraits of our great grandparents. She in her short-waisted blue gown, pensively clasping her pink rose, - he with peculiar gaze which, when I had been particularly tiresome with our patient governess (Miss Warner), seemed to follow me reproachfully about the room.

There was a tall bookcase in the window corner, its lower half forming the cupboard, where homemade jam was stored. And opposite the fireplace my mother's sewing machine, called by us, affectionately, but for no reason that I know, 'the Anna Machine'. This was furnished with castors as well as treadles, so that one could, at will, take a joyride on the Anna Machine round every wall in the Parlour.

Through russet curtains with gold borders you could step through the French window into the greenhouse, with its pots of musk and scented geranium, with, out of sight, just round the corner, the hutch where our guinea pigs lived, Lily and Billy. And beyond the greenhouse, was a yard covered thickly with a rather gritty sort of gravel, ending in a flower border of nasturtium and double daisies and the high partition wall.

Every morning, while Nursie was 'doing' her two nurseries, we spent an hour or so with our mother in the Parlour. First we sang hymns, then dallied with beads, and paints and picture lotto. And sometimes we ran out into the yard for our favourite game of 'Treasure Hunting'.

It was to Aggie Pepper, the housemaid, that we were indebted for this diversion. She was a foolish body, very inferior, we considered, to austere but admirable Nursie, and plump pretty Eliza, the cook.

One of Aggie's early morning duties was to sweep the parlour floor. And we held the theory that, in doing this, she swept into her dustpan many valuable objects, such as thimbles, dolls' shoes, pencils and button hooks, which we had left inadvertently about the carpet. Then, to spare herself the trouble of going round the house to the dustbin, flung the whole lot, dust and treasures together, out into the yard.

It was up to us, anyway, we thought, to retrieve these treasures. And the finding by me of a magnet that had been missing for months, and by Mia of a gem ring out of a cracker that somebody had once brought home from a Christmas party, were the highlights of our hunting.

We were one day, all three sisters, on our knees in the yard, when Mab, to her extreme joy, discovered a penny. And while she still held it aloft in triumph, lo and behold I had found a penny myself! And a moment later came a third shout of amazement from Mia who had found a penny too! It was a miracle. Pennies from Heaven? Why yes, for here came yet another, tinkling on the gravel.

We looked up to see three young men, roaring with laughter, at the upper window of the Vicarage next door. Well, we were not sufficiently self-conscious to mind being laughed at. The pennies were going securely into our trick moneyboxes, and all was well.

The Vicar, the Reverend Francis Cruse, who had long white hair and a rather sheep-like voice, 'took' young gentlemen who were reading for the Universities. His wife had long grey curls, and must have been the last gentlewoman in Sussex to wear ankle length pantalets. When she walked down the road thus attired, holding her voluminous black skirts high in either hand, she created as much interest as the young gentlemen boarders. They would go down to bathe with bright coloured towel round their necks, or hurry to some tennis party in soft hats embroidered, 'Oscar-Wildely', with sunflowers.

Discipline at the Vicarage was said to be lax, and pennies were not the only things that came to us over the Vicarage wall.

One day, when my mother was sitting alone in the parlour, she was much taken aback by the appearance of two strange beasts - lizards wrapped up in white fur - who came creeping through the greenhouse, and open window, snakelike, to her very feet. Horrified, she flung down her needlework, and rushed out of the room shutting the door. A little later came the Sunday voice of the Vicar 'Are you aware, James, that two of your ferrets have gone over the wall?'

My mother, who had a very cheerful and lively disposition, much disliked being alone. My father, who served in the Sussex Volunteers, used to go to camp in July, and it was during one of these absences, that a great hue and cry was raised locally over the famous 'Clayton Tunnel murder'. The victim in this case, had been killed and flung out of a train by a man called Lefroy who was still at large and reported to be lurking in our neighbourhood.

On those hot summer nights my mother got very little sleep, for all the time she was imagining a sinister figure in blood-stained garments crawling into the greenhouse; a fearsome face concealed behind the innocent home of Lily and Billy…
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