Growing up as the governess's daughter in the shadow of the Harding family's eccentric charm, Mary Fox can never hope to share their unshakable social confidence. Beautiful Godfrey, outrageous Nettie, and the twins, Jonathan and William, are born into a world of privilege where money, status, pleasure and love seem their birthright. Although aware of the disparity between them, Mary clings to the illusion of family that sharing a life with them brings--for her own mother, the secretive, mysterious Sybil, is most definitely not the maternal type.
When the idyll is shattered by the outbreak of war, Mary and Nettie are forced to find their own, very individual ways of making ends meet. Mary finds her formidable intelligence valued for the first time, but Nettie has a much more unusual way of helping the brave boys fighting Hitler...
In The Dark Side of the Sun, Elizabeth Palmer brings all her sharp wit and brilliant observation to bear, combining glittering lifestyles, potent sensuality and dark secrets in a poignant and compelling story of love and the art of survival.
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About the Author
Elizabeth Palmer has published several novels with St. Martin's Press, including The Golden Rule, Flowering Judas, Old Money, and Plucking the Apple. She and her husband live in Dublin, Ireland.
Elizabeth Palmer has released several novels with St. Martin's Press including THE GOLDEN RULE, FLOWERING JUDAS, OLD MONEY and PLUCKING THE APPLE. She lives in Dublin with her family.
Read an Excerpt
The Dark Side of the Sun
By Elizabeth Palmer
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Elizabeth Palmer
All rights reserved.
Screaming and whooping, the four Harding children stormed along the hall, past Miss Halliday's room and thundered on down the uncarpeted oak staircase. The time was 7 a.m. It was not, thought Miss Halliday resuming her packing, that they were bad children. No, not bad. She groped for the word. Untamed, that was it. Primitive, even. But then, meeting the mother, who could fail to be surprised at that? Davina Harding was so unmaternal that it was difficult to imagine her having one child, let alone four. There was a vagueness, loopiness even, about her which meant that most of the time while she was there in sylph-like body, she was not there at all in spirit. So where was she? Not for the first time Miss Halliday gave up on it. Though, because Mrs Harding was habitually so distrait, childbirth must have come as a nasty, earthy shock, and not once but three times if you counted the twins as one ordeal rather than two.
Elfrida Halliday folded up two pairs of lisle stockings and placed them in the bottom of her valise together with assorted snip-clean shabby underwear and two nightdresses, all of which had been thriftily mended time and time again. Into the case also went a Bible, a silver-framed sepia photograph of her parents, long since dead, a bottle of eau-de-Cologne, a sponge bag and a small velvet pouch which contained all her jewellery, namely a garnet brooch and matching garnet earrings which had belonged to her mother. On top went two neat, serviceable skirts, together with two neat, serviceable blouses. Lastly, and carefully folded with tissue paper in between the layers, she added her attending interviews/going to church/funerals costume plus gloves. Shoes, two pairs, were destined for another holdall, along with her small collection of books. Shorn of her few personal possessions, the tiny room in which she had passed the last six months had a forlorn air, as though it did not know what to expect next. Elfrida wondered about the new incumbent as well. She also wondered if her four charges would miss her. Probably not. Like a litter of boisterous puppies they had each other, though not for long. As was the habit of the upper classes who, once they had sired their children, immediately looked for ways of getting rid of them, Godfrey was shortly to go to boarding-school whence he would be followed eventually by the twins. Not by Nettie though. Nettie would continue to be educated at home until she was finally sent off to be finished.
Elfrida shut the case and placed her hat which, in the interests of preservation, she intended to wear on the journey, beside it. The old, uncomfortable feeling of impermanence surfaced, accompanied by the frankly terrifying imponderable: What will I do when I'm too old to work? No doubt it was a question that governesses everywhere asked themselves. Better not to think of the future. Live for the moment. She suddenly became aware that the din downstairs had ceased, and that there was a deathly hush.
* * *
The cause of the silence was Geoffrey Harding, who had arrived at his country home late the previous night without any warning. An old-fashioned father of the 'Children Should Be Seen But Not Heard' variety, and veering moreover in the direction of 'And Not Seen Too Often Either', he was affronted when his own brood erupted into the drawing-room where he was sternly reading yesterday's Times in the gloaming of drawn curtains. The maid, who in common with everyone else did not know of her employer's sudden arrival, had not yet opened up the room or laid the fire and it did not strike Harding to pull back his own drapes when he had a servant to do it for him. During sojourns at home, he treated the drawing-room like his gentlemen's club in London. Wing armchairs, hushed tones and no interlopers was the form. And no women. Even Davina knocked before entering when Geoffrey was in residence. It did not occur to him that in a family house, albeit a large one, such behaviour was tyrannical.
'OUT! OUT!' roared Geoffrey Harding, rising unexpectedly out of the wing armchair in wrath, giving them all a fright. Without bothering to greet his offspring, whom he had not seen for three weeks, he threw his newspaper at them. As though he had pointed a blunderbuss, in a group his children turned, rushed into the hall and then scattered.
'DOOR!' yelled Harding, after the last one through it. When they had gone he picked up the pages of his newspaper, put them back in order and resumed reading the foreign news pages.
Panting, they finally reassembled in the day nursery.
At first glance they looked very different. Godfrey was blond and willowy, like their mother. The twins, Jonathan and William, were sturdier and altogether more robust in appearance while Venetia, the plump youngest, all curls and dimples, was straight out of Mabel Lucie Atwell. It was almost as though the more children Davina Harding had had, the more the original blueprint had firmed up. All had the unusual turquoise-blue Harding eyes and dark eyebrows and all were victims of the upper-class compulsion to bestow nicknames, so that the respectably christened Godfrey, William, Jonathan and Venetia had become Dods, Wigs, Jonty and Nettie.
'When did Father come home?' asked Nettie.
'Must have been last night,' said the twins, answering together as they often did. There was a silence. Nobody liked it when their autocratic parent was in situ. Father, who sometimes mixed up his own children's names, alternated between taking no notice of them at all and taking too much notice of a destructive kind. What Mother's view of these visitations was, none of them knew. If anything she seemed to become even more removed from the real world when he was there. At lunchtime, a meal they frankly dreaded, nobody spoke until he did and, because they feared the sarcasm, all preferred it that way. When one or other of them was singled out for criticism, Mother would flutter her hands in a despairing sort of way, saying, 'Geoffrey! Geoffrey!' but that was as far as it went. None of them ever saw her stand up to Father. When the household arrangements broke down, which was quite frequently, he would voice his displeasure in front of all of them, the current governess included. In the face of such criticism, Mother remained meekly Geisha-like and mute, reacting with martyred patience and no discernible improvement in the running of the house. His overbearing presence produced uneven behaviour, and seasoned observers noticed that when he was in residence the children crept about like mice and, when he was not, ran riot. The mystery was, of course, why the Hardings had had any children. The answer was probably that everyone did.
Nettie said, 'Miss Halliday leaves today.' And then, very smug, 'I got her a present.'
Their interest caught by this, the others all chorused, 'Did you? What?'
'Soap!' said Nettie.
There was a silence. Nobody else had thought of doing such a thing.
'You can give it with me if you like,' offered Nettie generously.
* * *
Elfrida put on her hat and pinned it. She glanced at her watch. It was nearly time for the taxi to arrive. She decided to go downstairs and wait in the hall. It would be interesting to see if Mrs Harding came to say goodbye. On the whole, Elfrida did not think that she would. After one last glance around the room to make sure that she had not left anything behind, she opened the door and, carrying valise and grip, stepped out into the passage. At the head of the staircase she met Geoffrey Harding.
'Ah, Miss Halliday!' said her employer. And then, noting her hat, 'Are you going out?'
'I am leaving today, Mr Harding,' replied Elfrida. Perhaps his wife had not told him. In fact, since it was three weeks since he had last been in the country, it was quite likely that she had not.
'Are you? Well, good luck.' Without very much interest, he shook her gloved hand and then turned on his heel and walked along the landing in the direction of his dressing-room. Watching him go, Elfrida thought, I'm glad I'm getting out of here. She walked on down the stairs, across the hall and out through the massive front door into the porch where she was confronted for the last time by the park and a bold, brilliant winter morning. A new incarnation beckoned. She put down her bags. It was here that she was ambushed by her four charges.
'We bought you a present, Miss Halliday,' said Nettie, offering it. She smiled up at the governess. For the first time Elfrida noticed a sort of flirtatious coquetry about Nettie which momentarily caught her attention. With all of them watching, she opened the little parcel.
Soap. Very expensive soap. Chanel soap. It raised the question of where it had come from. Davina Harding's bathroom, perhaps?
'It's lovely, simply lovely,' said Elfrida. 'Thank you!'
A tear slid down her middle-aged cheek.
The taxi arrived. With all of them clustering around, she got in. As the cab drew away, she waved. Watching the tiny group receding, she wondered with a pang what would happen to them all. I've been in some odd households in the course of my job, thought Elfrida, but that was definitely the oddest.
The car turned a corner of the drive and the little Hardings were lost to sight.CHAPTER 2
Sitting opposite her prospective employer, Sibyl Fox uncharacteristically felt herself the victim of creeping exhaustion. It was as though the extreme languor of the other was catching. Or maybe it was that the only way Davina Harding seemed to be able to function was by syphoning off other people's energy. When words failed her, she simply waved her hands balletically and then carried on speaking as though the sentence had been properly finished and her audience knew what it was she had intended to say. All the same, in spite of the fits and starts, a lot of information came out of the interview. Mrs Fox learnt that governesses had come and gone with rapidity, the last having been a Miss Elfrida Halliday who had departed three weeks earlier.
'So close to Christmas. So inconsiderate!'
So close to Christmas? It was only September.
'Since her departure, Dods has gone to boarding-school leaving Wigs, Jonty and Nettie. In the fullness of time, by which I mean next year, Jonty and Wigs will go as well, leaving only Nettie in your charge.'
Dods and Wigs and Jonty and Nettie? With the exception of Jonty, who seemed to have got off lightly when name assassination was taking place, Mrs Fox wondered what on earth they could all have been christened in the first place. Aloud she said, 'And what about Nettie? When does Nettie go to school?'
Davina Harding looked quite shocked.
'Nettie is a girl. Nettie will not go to school. No, no, Nettie will remain at home until she goes to finishing-school, prior to Coming Out. So, what do you say, Mrs Fox?'
This was the moment. Fortified by the knowledge that so far the Harding forays into the governess market appeared to have been disastrous, Mrs Fox said, 'I should like to take the post, but there is one thing you should know.'
'Yes?' said Davina Harding, looking almost alert for the first time.
'I am a widow and have a daughter who is the same age as Nettie. It would be impossible for me to accept this position unless I could bring her with me and educate her along with Nettie.'
Mrs Harding felt rather put out. However Mrs Fox, whose references had been adequate, though only that, seemed a ladylike person and, presumably, had a ladylike daughter. After a pause, she said, reluctantly, 'Oh, very well. I should like you to start as soon as you possibly can.'
'I shall be free to come to you at the end of this month.'
'Then that will have to do, I suppose.'
'May I be allowed to see the nursery wing?'
'Of course. I shall take you there myself.'
Following Davina Harding as she swayed, storklike, up the staircase, Mrs Fox looked around her. The house was well furnished with silk curtains, Persian rugs and impressive paintings and furniture. What Mrs Harding lacked in energy she appeared to have made up for in taste. The culture shock, then, going into the children's wing was immense. Beyond an oak door, polished floorboards gave way to grey lino and chipped paintwork.
'This is the day nursery,' said Mrs Harding, pushing open the door.
Spartan was the only word for it.
Outside the window the munificence of the park only served to point up the extreme spareness of the room in which they stood. Collapsing armchairs of the sort which might be seen on the back of totters' carts were haphazard and shelves overflowed with tattered books and jigsaws. There was what looked like an open scrapbook on the floor accompanied by a pot of paste and a pair of scissors, the whole surrounded by coloured pencils and crayons. Dominant was a huge rocking-horse with glass eyes whose tail was reduced to a few wispy strands and whose stuffing had partially disgorged itself through a hole in its bald leather stomach. There were no curtains.
'As you see, it's a large room,' said Davina Harding, encapsulating all there was to say about the wasteland that was the day nursery. 'And now, perhaps you would like to see the one that is to be your own.'
She turned and led the way. Watching her retreating back, Mrs Fox was reminded of Edith Sitwell's lines Jane, Jane, tall as a crane ... She followed. This room was medium-sized and prettier than she might have expected. The wallpaper was covered in a pattern of small deep-pink and red roses and the mahogany furniture was plain but acceptable. In one corner stood a washtand on which was a large flowered jug and bowl and beside that was a pedestal hand basin. A single bed was positioned along one wall and a chaise-longue which, although it had seen better days was still elegant in a faded sort of way, ran along the other. The only other piece of furniture was a small desk. There were no pictures or ornaments of any kind with the exception of a rectangular china plaque which bore the legend Thou, God, seest me and hung over the head of the bed. One for the back of the cupboard, thought Sibyl, eyeing it with disfavour.
She became aware that the room felt very cold.
Apparently able to read her thoughts, Davina said, 'In the winter, should you so wish it, the maid will lay the fire for you both here and in the day nursery where you will teach the children. In the normal course of events when my husband is in London you and they will have supper together. When Geoffrey is here he likes us all to eat together in the dining-room.'
A small moue and a ripple of transparent, blue-veined hands indicated incomprehension. Later Sibyl was to learn Geoffrey likes us all to eat together really meant Geoffrey likes to hold forth and for that Geoffrey requires an audience. The answer to another unspoken question followed.
'You and your daughter, whose name is ...?'
'You and Mary will share a bathroom with the children. If you are agreeable, I suggest that Mary sleeps in the night nursery. Now, is there anything else you would like to ask me, Mrs Fox?'
Astounded that she and not the vague Mrs Harding was having to suggest it, she replied, 'Yes. I wonder if it would be possible to meet Nettie and Jonty and Wigs.'
'Of course. What a good idea! I have no idea where they are, however. We shall have to go in search of them!'
We shall have to go in search of them? It had occurred to Sibyl Fox to wonder who was supervising the three young children during the hiatus between one governess leaving and another arriving. The answer, it appeared, was that no one was. It reinforced her first impression that Davina Harding had very little idea of what was going on in her own household which, if it was indeed the case, opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities. She followed in the scented, limp wake. Eventually, with the aid of the cook, introduced as 'Mrs Boswell who has just joined us,' Nettie, Jonty and Wigs were run to ground helping the gardener, who was preparing to burn leaves. The light was just beginning to fade. Cobalt, sweet-smelling smoke swirled heavenwards. With a dangerous crackle, the fire caught hold and suddenly surged. Tongues of yellow flame snaked high into the air shedding a surprising amount of light all around. Far too close for their own safety, three small sturdy figures waving sticks whirled like little dervishes and screamed with delight, intoxicated by the blaze. Silhouetted against the radiance, they struck the burning leaves again and again, so that showers of sparks exploded all around them. None was aware of the approach of their mother and her companion.
Davina Harding and Mrs Fox reached the gardener first.
'This is Mr Patten, who started work here last week,' elucidated Mrs Harding, not seeming at all exercised by the fact that three of her offspring were practically dancing in the fire. Inwardly laughing, Mrs Fox thought, I don't believe it. Another recent arrival! She turned her attention back to the matter in hand.
Excerpted from The Dark Side of the Sun by Elizabeth Palmer. Copyright © 1999 Elizabeth Palmer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: A Complicated Childhood,
Part Two: Survival,
Part Three: Venetia,
Part Four: The Notebooks of Sibyl Fox,
Part Five: The Account of Alice Fort,
Part Six: Another Country,
Part Seven: Full Circle,
Also by Elizabeth Palmer,