Cousins Clio Hirsh and Grace Stretton were born within hours of each other and raised as sisters in the innocent days before the Great War. But as they grow up, Grace is the one who enchants all those who meet her, leaving shy and quiet Clio to fade into the background. Even as time, ambition, and the winds of war take their lives in different directions—Grace into the arms of a dependable stockbroker and Clio into the literary world of Paris and Berlin—jealousy and bitterness simmer beneath their friendship.
Decades later, Clio recounts the story of her family to her biographer. She tells of her brother Jake’s wartime experiences and medical career; Clio and Grace’s early years in bohemian London; younger brother Julius’s career as a concert violinist. But for herself, Clio remembers a different story―one of tragedy, heartbreak, and secrets. And above all, the surprising truth about her mesmerizing cousin Grace.
“A master storyteller.” —Cosmopolitan
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The old woman sat propped in her nest of cushions and rugs. Her hands rested like small ivory carvings on the rubbed velvet arms of the chair. The visitor waited, watching her to see if she would doze, or sit in silence, or if today would be a talking day.
Clio said to Elizabeth, not looking at her but away somewhere else, a long way off, 'I remember the holidays. There were always wonderful holidays.' She tilted her head, listening to something that reminded her.
When she thought about it, she supposed that had been Nathaniel's doing. Nathaniel applied the same principles to holidays as to his work. He could turn the radiance of his enthusiasm equally on the business of enjoyment or the pleasures of academic discipline. And Nathaniel's enthusiasm infected them all, all of his children. When the time came for the family migrations, excitement would fill the red-brick house with high-pitched twittering, like real birds. Clio could hear the starlings out in the garden now. It must be their chorus that had taken her back. The nurse would have tipped the crusts of the breakfast toast on the bird-table.
'Where did you go?' Cressida's daughter Elizabeth asked.
'Different places.' Clio glanced at her, suddenly sly. 'Grace and the others used to come with us, too.' It amused her to see how the mention of Grace sharpened the other's attention. It always did.
There had been different holidays, but almost always beside the sea. They would take a house, or two houses, if one was not big enough for Hirshes and Strettons together, with their retinue of nursemaids and attendants. The children and their mothers would stay there all the long summer, and the two fathers would visit when they could.
Only they almost never came at the same time. Nathaniel would go away for some of those summer vacations on reading parties with his undergraduates, or on visits to Paris and Berlin. And John Leominster had the estate at Stretton to attend to, and business in London, and the affairs of his club.
It was Blanche and Eleanor who were always there.
Clio and Grace and the boys ran over the expanses of rawly glittering sand, or hung over the rock pools, or dragged their shrimping nets through fringes of seaweed before lifting them in arcs of diamond spray to examine the catch. It was the mothers they always ran back to, to show off the mollusc or sidling crab, Jake pounding ahead with Julius at his heels, and shoulder to shoulder, the two girls, with their skirts gathered up in one hand and their sharp elbows sticking out. If one of them could manage a dig at the other, to make her swerve or miss her footing, then so much the better. It would mean reaching the boys first, having the chance to blurt out with them the news of the tiny discovery, while the loser came sulkily behind, forced to pretend that nothing mattered less.
The two nannies sat with the nursemaid in a sheltered corner at the top of the beach. The little brothers and sisters, Hirshes and Strettons, played at their feet or slept in their perambulators. These babies were beneath the attention of the bigger children. The flying feet swept past, sending up small plumes of silvery sand, heading for the mothers.
Blanche and Eleanor sat a little distance apart, beneath a complicated canvas awning. They were protected from the sun and the sea breeze by panels of canvas that unrolled from the roof-edge. The little pavilion was carried down to the beach every morning and erected by Blanche's chauffeur, who also brought down their canvas chairs and spread out the rugs on which they rested their feet. One year Hugo Stretton had made a red knight's pennant to fly from the top of the supporting pole. This spot of scarlet was the focus of the beach, however far the children wandered. The twin sisters sat beneath it in the canvas shade, watching their families and mildly gossiping. Sometimes there was a husband nearby, either Nathaniel Hirsh, with his black beard bristling over a book, or John Leominster, bowling at Hugo who stood in front of a makeshift wicket and squinted fiercely at the spinning ball. But if neither husband was there, Blanche and Eleanor were equally content. They found one another's company perfectly satisfactory, as they had always done.
It was always Jake who reached them first.
'Look at this, Mama, Aunt Blanche. Look what we found.'
Then Julius would plunge down into the sand beside him. 'I found it. It came up in my net.'
And one of the girls would drop between the two of them, panting for breath and grinning in her triumph. 'Isn't it beautiful? Can we keep it for a pet? I'll look after it, I promise I will.'
The second girl would stumble up, red-faced and pouting. 'Don't be silly, you can't keep things like that for pets. They aren't domestic,' Clio would say scornfully, because it was the only option left open to her. It was usually Clio. Grace was quicker and more determined in getting what she wanted. She usually won the races. It isn't fair, Clio had thought, almost from the time she had been able to think. Jake is my brother and Julius is my twin. They're both mine, Grace is only an outsider.
But Grace never behaved like an outsider, and never behaved as if she owed her Hirsh cousins any thanks for her inclusion in their magic circle. She took it loftily, as her right.
The children knelt in a ring, at their mothers' feet. Jake put his hand into the net and lifted out their catch to show it off. Blanche and Eleanor bent their identical calm faces and padded coiffures over him, ready to admire.
One of them gave a faint cry. 'It is quite a big one. Don't let it nip you, Jacob, will you?' Hugo was digging in the sand nearby. His curiosity at last overcame him and he left his complicated layout of moats and battlements and strolled over to them, his hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers.
'It's only a stupid crab,' he observed.
'Stupid yourself,' Clio and Grace rounded on him, united in defence. 'Just because you didn't catch it.'
'I wouldn't have bothered. It'll die in five minutes, in this sun.'
Hugo turned his back on them, returning to his solitary game. Hugo was Grace's elder brother. He was good as an extra player in field games, or for Racing Demon, or to perform the less coveted roles in the rambling plays that Clio and Julius wrote, but he never belonged to the circle. There was room for only the four of them within it.
Hugo would have said, 'I'm not interested in stupid clubs. They're for little girls.'
Knowing better, none of them would have bothered to contradict him.
Eleanor or Blanche would say, soothingly, 'It is very handsome. Look at those claws. But I think Hugo may be right, you know. It will be happier under a rock, somewhere near the water. Shall I walk over there with you, so we can make sure it finds a safe home?'
Then, whichever mother it happened to be would stand up, smoothing the folds of her narrow bell skirt and the tucked and pearl-buttoned front of her white blouse. If it was a hot day she would shake out the folds of her little parasol and tilt it over her dark head, before following them across the shimmering sand. The hem of her skirt trailed on it, giving a rhythmic, languid whisper. The mothers' feet were always invisible, even beside the sea. Even though she knew Blanche really wore elegant narrow shoes in suede or glacé kid, Grace used to imagine that her mother's gliding step was the result of wheels, smoothly revolving beneath her rustling gowns.
When they came to the rocks the children hunched together, watching as Jake slowly opened his hands and laid the crab in the narrow slice of shade. The creature seemed to rise on its toes, like a ballerina on points, before it darted sideways. They watched until the crimped edge of the green and black shell disappeared under the ledge. Julius flattened himself on his stomach and peered after it, but he couldn't see the stalky eyes looking out at him.
'It's gone,' they said sadly.
The mother or aunt reassured them. 'It will be happier, you know. A crab isn't like the dogs, or Grace's rabbits.' And, seeing their miserable faces, she would laugh her pretty silvery laugh, and tell them to run over to Nanny and ask if they might walk to the wooden kiosk at the end of the beach road for lemonade.
When was that? Clio asked herself. Which summer, of all those summers? Grace and Julius and I must have been nine, and Jake eleven.
It might have been Cromer, or Hunstanton. Not France, that was certain, although there had been two summers on the wide beaches of the Normandy coast. That had been Nathaniel's doing, too. He had made the plans, and chosen the solid hotels with faded sun awnings and ancient, slow-footed waiters. He had supervised the exodus of the families, marshalling porters to convey brassbound trunks, seemingly dozens of them, and booming instructions in rapid French to douaniers and drivers. It had all seemed very exotic. Clio was proud of her big, red-mouthed, polyglot father. Uncle John Leominster seemed a dry stick beside him, and Clio glanced sidelong at Grace to make sure that she too was registering the contrast.
But if Grace noticed anything, she gave no sign of it. She would look airily around her, interested but not impressed. Her own father was the Earl of Leominster, milord anglais, and she herself was Lady Grace Stretton. That was superiority enough. Clio writhed under the injustice of it, her pride in Nathaniel momentarily forgotten. That was how it was.
Eleanor and Blanche enjoyed Trouville. They liked the early evening promenade when French families walked out in chattering groups, airing their fashionable clothes. The Hirshes and Strettons joined the pageant, the sisters shrewdly appraising the latest styles. The Countess of Leominster might buy her gowns in Paris but Eleanor, a don's wife, couldn't hope to. She would take the news back to her dressmaker in Oxford.
The two of them drew glances wherever they went. They were an arresting sight, gliding together in their pongee or tussore silks, their identical faces framed by huge hats festooned with drooping masses of flowers or feathers. Their children walked more stiffly, constrained by their holiday best, under the benign eye of whichever husband happened to be present. Grace liked to walk with Jake, which left Julius and Clio together. Clio was happy enough with that, but she would have preferred it if Jake could have been at her other side.
They were all happy, except for Uncle John, who did not care for Abroad. Blanche never wanted to oppose him, and so the experiment was only repeated once. After that, they returned to Norfolk.
Nineteen eleven was the year of the boat.
The summer holiday began the same way as all the others. The Hirshes and their nanny and two maids travelled from Oxford to London by train, and stayed the night in the Strettons' town house in Belgrave Square. It was an exciting reunion for the cousins, who had not seen each other since the Easter holiday at Stretton. Clio and Grace hugged each other, and then Grace kissed Jake and Julius in turn, shy kisses with her eyes hidden by her eyelashes, making the boys blush a little. Hugo watched from a safe distance. He was already at Eton, and considered himself grown up. The other four sat on the beds in the night nursery, locking their circle tight again after the long separation.
The next day, the two families set off by train from Liverpool Street station. There were three reserved compartments. The parents travelled in one, the children and nannies in another, and the maids in the third. The nannies pinned big white sheets over the seats, so the childrens' hair and clothes didn't touch them.
'You never know who else has been sitting there before you, Miss Clio,' Nanny Cooper said, compressing her lips. They ate their lunch out of a big wicker picnic basket, and afterwards the smaller children fell asleep. Tabitha Hirsh, the youngest, was still a tiny baby.
At the station at the other end, the Leominster chauffeur was waiting to meet them. He had driven up from London with part of the luggage.
That year, there was one big house overlooking the sea. It was a maze of rooms opening out of each other, with a glassed-in sun room to one side that smelt of dried seaweed and rubber overshoes. The children ran through the rooms, shouting their discoveries to each other while the maids and nannies unpacked.
Later, in the early evening, there was the first scramble down on to the beach. The clean air was full of salt and the cries of gulls. Nathaniel put on his panama hat and went with the children, letting them run ahead to the water's edge and not calling them back to walk properly as the nannies would have done. From the high-water mark, where the girls hesitated in fear of wetting their white shoes, they looked back and saw Nathaniel talking to a fisherman.
'What's he doing?' Julius called. 'Can we go fishing?'
When he rejoined them, Nathaniel was beaming. 'Surprise,' he announced, waving his big hands. The children surged around him.
'What is it? What?'
'Look and see.'
They followed him across the sand. There was an outcrop of rock draped with pungent bladder wrack, and an iron ring was let into the rock. A rusty stain bled beneath it. A length of rope was hitched through the ring, and the other end of it was secured to a small blue dinghy beached on the sand. A herring gull perched briefly on the boat's prow, and then lifted away again.
Grace stooped to read the faded lettering. 'It's called the Mabel.'
'Your Mabel, for the summer,' Nathaniel told her.
'Ours? Our own?'
'I'll teach you to row.'
Hugo was already fumbling with the rope. 'I can row.'
Nathaniel and the fisherman eased the dinghy down to the water's edge, steadying it when the keel lifted free and bobbed on the ripples.
'Six of us. You'll have to sit still. Hugo in the front there, Jake and Julius in the middle. Leave room for the oarsmen. The girls at the stern.' He ordered them fluently, and they scrambled to his directions, even Hugo. The fisherman in his tall rubber waders lifted Clio and swung her over the little gulf of water.
'There, miss. Now your sister's turn.' He went back for Grace, and hoisted her too.
'She's my cousin, not my sister,' Clio told him quickly.
'Is that so? She's like enough to be your twin.'
'He's my real twin,' Clio pointed at Julius.
'But he's nothing like so pretty,' the man twinkled at her. Clio was sufficiently disarmed by the compliment to forget the mistake. Nathaniel dipped the oars, and the Mabel slid forward over the lazy swell.
There had been boat rides before, but none had seemed as magical as the first trip in their own Mabel. They bobbed out over the green water, into the realm of the gulls. Only a few yards separated them from the prosaic shore, but they felt part of another world. They could look back at the old one, at the holiday house diminished by blue distance and at the white speck of a nanny's apron passing in front of it. Out here there were the cork markers of lobster pots, a painted buoy with another gull perching on it, and the depths of the mysterious water.
Grace leant to one side so that her fingers dipped into the waves. She sighed with pleasure. It was the first day of the holidays. There were six whole weeks to enjoy before she would be returned to Miss Alcott and the tedium of the schoolroom at Stretton. Jake and Julius were here. She was happy.
Nathaniel bent over the oars. The dinghy skimmed along, and the sea breeze blew the railway fumes out of their heads.
Jake said, 'I can see Aunt Blanche. I think she's waving.'
Nathaniel laughed. He had a big, noisy laugh. 'I'm sure she's waving. It's our signal to make for dry land.'
He paddled vigorously with one oar and the boat swung in a circle. When it was broadside to the sea a wave larger than the others slapped against the side and sprayed over them. The girls shrieked with delight and shook out the skirts of their white dresses.
'Rules of the sea,' Nathaniel boomed, as the Mabel rose on the crest of the next wave and swept towards the beach.
The rules were that no child was allowed to take out the dinghy without an adult watching. The girls were not allowed to row unless one of the fathers came in the boat. The boys would be permitted to row themselves, once they had passed a swimming test that would be set by Nathaniel.
The boys often bathed in the summer holidays, wearing long navy-blue woollen bathing suits that buttoned on the shoulders. To their disappointment the girls were not allowed to do the same, because Blanche and Eleanor had never done so and didn't consider it desirable for their daughters. They had to content themselves with removing their shoes and long stockings and paddling in the shallows.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All My Sins Remembered"
Copyright © 1991 Rosie Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of The Overlook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Awesome book, story line & characters. Love Rosie Thomas, I can’t get enough... !! So very absorbing, I feel I’m a part of the story.
If you're a fan of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles or Penny Vincenzi's No Angel/Something Dangerous/Into Temptation trilogy, you will love this! I'm only halfway through and am already sad that it will end.