Authors: Alison Uttley
A TRAVELLER IN TIME
THE NEW YORK REVIEW CHILDREN'S COLLECTION
In love and gratitude
Time is not
All my early years were spent at the farm across the hill-side from the small manor-house I have called “Thackers” in my story, and often I climbed to the crest and looked down the well-known fields to the church tower with its emblazoned shields which rose from among the barns and haystacks of Anthony Babington's birthplace. My father talked of Anthony Babington as if he had recently lived in the old farm-house of his neighbour. He spoke of the secret passages underground which he had entered in his own childhood. The tunnels had been filled in, but the memory remained. Country tradition is strong, and they say that Anthony Babington tried to help the Queen of Scots to escape from Wingfield along these hidden galleries to the little manor farm. This unsuccessful plot took place two years before the great plot which shook England and brought the Queen to the block and Babington to the gallows.
I paddled in Thackers brook and picked bluebells in Thackers meadows: “Squirrels, Westwood, and Meadow Doles”, mentioned in Anthony's will. I played with the little girl who lived in the farmhouse and on special occasions I went to the old church among the haystacks.
Many of the incidents in this story are based on my dreams, for in sleep I went through secret hidden doorways in the house wall and found myself in another century. Four times I stepped through the door and wandered in rooms which had no existence, a dream within a dream, and I talked with people who lived alongside but out of time, moving through a life parallel to my own existence. In my dreams past and present were co-existent, and I lived in the past with a knowledge of the future. I travelled into that secondary dream-world, seeing all things as if brightly illuminated, walking in fields and woods dazzling in their clarity of atmosphere. I sat on the stone walls in the sunshine of other times, conscious of the difference, knowing intermediate events. The painted room, the vision through the windows of the house, and many another incident came to me in dreams, and I have woven them into this story.
I, Penelope Taberner Cameron, tell this story of happenings when I was a young girl. To this day every detail of my strange experience is clear as light. I see the beautiful countryside with its woods and gentle hills stretching out infinitely green, and the little brook shimmering with sunlight as it flows under the hazel groves. I hear the murmur of wood-pigeons, sleepy and monotonous in the beech wood, and the warm intimate call of the cuckoo in the orchard by the house. Ice-cold water springs from the mossy earth and I stoop with cupped hands, one clasping the other, to sip the draught, and the taste of that water is on my lips many years afterwards. I smell the hot scents of the herb garden drenched in sunshine, and the perfume of honeysuckle after rain, but stronger than these is the rich fragrance of the old house, made up of wood-smoke, haystacks, and old old age, mingled together indissolubly. All these scents and sounds are part of the story I have to tell, with light and darkness, shadows and tragedy interwoven.
I was called Taberner after my mother's family, yeomen farmers of Derbyshire stock, and Penelope is a name which was often given to members of that family in bygone days. I was born in Chelsea, and lived with my parents in Cheyne Row, near the river. My sister Alison was older than I and had different interests, and my brother Ian, who was near me in age, was her companion, so I was left very much to myself. I was a delicate girl, and often had to miss school. I was small, too, for my years, and this separated me from the others who were tall and strong.
When I was kept at home through illness I pored over many leather-backed books from my father's shelves, and found my own friends in the pages. I read legends and folk-lore, books of poetry and stories of knights in armour, antique tales which had been forgotten and lay thick with dust under piled-up newspapers and periodicals. My favourite occupations were drawing and modelling, and I worked with my pencil, and a lump of clay, spending hours with them when I ought to have been out of doors taking exercise.
Our house in Cheyne Row was little and old, with four steps leading to the green front door, and a little flight going down to the basement. We had the furniture brought by my Grandmother Penelope from Derbyshire, ancient oak chests with inlaid bands and carved initials, Bible boxes, tables riddled with worm-holes, and a great arm-chair with scrolls along the front and a hinged seat which held a score of books inside it.
In the oak presses and the writing-desk were queer musty smells, and from my earliest days I used to lean over them and breathe the strange mildewed odours which seemed to rise from them like incense.
When we were allowed a special treat, and it was my turn to choose, I always asked for the pleasure of rummaging in a great oak chest. My mother gave me a worn, heavy key, and I unlocked it, using both hands for it was stiff and the lock in the carved hollowed panel was unyielding. Then as the key turned I lifted the lid and stood for a moment smelling rapturously at a delicate odour of musk and old linen, and the smell of long-ago which came out of the dark depthsâfor it was pitch-black in that deep chest. Then I plunged in a hand and drew up first one object and then another, and I laid them on the table by my side. As I reached down in the chest I had to bend so low I nearly fell inside and I was fearful lest I should slip and be shut up there. So after the lid was opened a heavy cudgel was propped inside to keep the massive top from dropping upon me and making me lost for ever.
Sometimes Ian and Alison came to help, for they loved the chest as much as I, but I had an advantage. I could invent tales about the things we foundâor perhaps I should say I told the stories, certain that they were true. As I picked up the cashmere shawls, the silk-embroidered waistcoats, the pistol with its mother-of-pearl and incised roses and leaves, I seemed to hear a voice telling me about them. Then even clever Alison listened to me.
“Come and hear Penelope,” she cried. “Quick! Quick!” and they sat with wide eyes as I told the tales and Ian clapped his hands and made me blush with pleasure.
Then I folded the dresses and smoothed the silks and twisted the tarnished ribbons and tassels, and I replaced all as I had found them, for although I was untidy with my own belongings, I never dared misuse these ancient possessions.
There had never been much money in our house, with three children to feed and educate. Father wrote scientific articles which nobody printed, and Mother did all the housework except the scrubbing which was done by stout Mrs. Jakes, our charwoman. Alison and I always made the beds, and Ian helped to wash up, but even then it was a busy household, and there was always some task waiting. I was the lazy one, but Alison usually discovered me hiding in the dark basement kitchen, reading in the corner, and up the stairs she fetched me, an unwilling helper, to dust and tidy the rooms.
I always answered the front door bell, it was my special privilege. Footsteps walked along the pavement in front of our house, people going to see Mr. Carlyle's house farther up the street, people going to the Embankment to stare at the great barges on the Thames, people hurrying for buses, or sauntering on pleasure, and I listened to these steps, imagining their owners, inventing adventures for them. Somebody would walk up our five steps, which were stoned with sand as in Mother's country childhood, and the bell clanged and rattled. I opened the green door very gently, just a crack, with intense excitement, wondering if a fairy godmother would be waiting there. It was usually a flower-woman with a basket of tulips on her head, or a man selling muffins, and nobody like the magician I had imagined. Once a boy came with bunches of cowslips, great golden balls smelling of honey and wine, and this excited me very much. I ran helter-skelter down the crooked narrow stairs to the basement calling: “Cowslips! Cowslips from the country. Oh Mother!” but I slipped in my hurry and sprained my ankle. This was another expense for us, and I had to lie for days on the couch without even the pleasure of door-opening.
At night, when I was in bed, I had a private joy. I slept in the front attic, a little room with a view sideways to the river. Alison's bed was in a corner and mine by the window. In cold weather we had a fire in the high fireplace with its two hobs, and we roasted chestnuts or made toast and pretended we were at boarding school or caravanning, and I felt on an equality with Alison. But when my sister was asleep, at eleven o'clock or later, a fiddler used to play at the little inn across the way. I always awoke when he began, and as he walked out of the inn down the street to the river-side, I in my thoughts danced after him on tiptoe, swaying to the music, swinging in the air. Then strange and entrancing visions came to me, flowering trees waved their branches before my eyes, lilies sprang from the earth and blossomed as I watched them, and misted dream-like figures seemed to float up the streets moving and speaking to one another, and I was with them, living another life from my own.
One day I met one of these people of my dreams on our own stairway. Ours was a steep, crooked stair, with a handrail on one side, very narrow, with rooms leading off it so suddenly that it was easy to fall headlong as one stepped from a doorway. We had a Morris wallpaper with leaves on it, like a green wood in spring, and I used to sit on the stairs, pretending I was in a forest far away from London with birds singing round me. I was sitting there one evening, with my feet tucked under me, in the blue dusk, waiting for the lamplighter to come whistling down the street to bring a gleam to the stairway. There was a street lamp near, and this shone brilliantly through the fanlight over the door and saved us from using our own gas-lamp. We had no electric light, the landlord refused to have the old house wired, so we put pennies in a slot for our gas.