The Grand Tour
Nineteenth-century Greece is the setting for Alison Carter’s evocative complete story.
An atmospheric story by Alison Carter
CHARLOTTE RAINGER laid the letter down. Her friend Jane Lawson wrote monthly from England, usually about the demands of family and home. This time, Jane had a favour to ask. My daughter Arabella has set her heart on travel. And you will know from my past letters that Arabella can rarely be shifted from any purpose.
Arabella Lawson seemed, from Jane’s descriptions, to be a stubborn child with a love of adventure. Arabella was always sulking about not being allowed to read such and such a novel, or was recovering from a sprained wrist after climbing a tree!
Now that she was eighteen, Arabella desired to make the Grand Tour of Europe.
I know what you will say, Jane wrote. She is female! But such trifles don’t deter my daughter. “What about Uncle Harold in Paris, in that embassy, and your friend in Greece, Mama?” she says.
Charlotte looked about her. The villa was inconvenient for guests. Rhea, her housekeeper, would have extra work to do if Charlotte agreed.
It was 1831, and Charlotte was the widow of an English civil servant who had been sent to the town of Derofina on the Aegean soon after their marriage. She and her husband, John, had lived well in this bustling coastal town, and employed a staff. Charlotte recalled parties and trips to the beaches.
But her husband’s investments at home had done poorly, and when he’d died suddenly she had been told gently by his lawyer that to remain in Greece was wisest if she wanted a comfortable life. “Here, one can live on next to nothing.” “I have next to nothing?” Charlotte had asked, pale in her mourning gown. She was but in her mid-thirties then. The lawyer had laughed. “Dear me, no, Mrs Rainger. You will never want for anything, plus you have the warm climate here and the sea. I rather envy you.”
Charlotte took his advice and stayed. She’d grown used to the place. At the time of his illness she and John had silently given up on the idea of children, so she had only herself to consider.
Gradually she reduced her staff and by now she employed only Rhea.
Charlotte wrote back reluctantly to Jane, saying she would have Arabella if she could be taken as far as Athens, from where she would contrive to fetch the child. Her hope was that this silly idea of a girl making the Grand Tour would perish in the planning.
“Mrs Rainger, you need tea?” Rhea put her head around the door, smiling her gap-toothed grin. “No, Rhea. You can go to your room.” “Well today?” the housekeeper asked in her heavy accent.
“Quite well.” Charlotte waved a dismissive hand.
Rhea vanished. Her footsteps shuffled out on to the terrace, a sound so familiar that Charlotte barely registered it. Rhea was a widow, too – a tiny, wrinkled creature all in black, as was the local custom.
She was eccentric, tending to chat to herself as she cooked, and she swept the villa and the verandahs with zeal. Her cooking had slowly but steadily reverted after John’s death to what Charlotte called “peasant Greek”, which would be a concern if the Lawson girl did come.
Charlotte didn’t care what she ate, but if Arabella came to the Villa Daphne then things would have to change.
It would be an upheaval if Jane’s child arrived. She would want entertaining, and Charlotte never went to parties any more among the British, or gave suppers. But to refuse Jane would be admitting to how reduced her life had become.
Another letter came just as summer reached its broiling height. The mail must have been delayed because it had been written more than a month previously, and it announced that Arabella would reach Athens by sea on July 18.
Today was the 15th. Charlotte tried not to be irritated by the news, but it threw her into disarray, and an hour later she was perspiring heavily as she hurried back from town. She had managed to secure a carriage in which to fetch the girl.
Did Jane not understand that not everyone had carriages and horses waiting for trips here and there? The trip across to Athens would take most of a day, and she would have to reach the city in good time because Arabella’s present paid companion was to sail back to Italy.
I have a cousin near Bari, the letter said, who has been kind enough to tour that part of Italy with Arabella. Arabella’s letters say that she is thrilled by what she insists on calling her Grand Tour. After a month in France, Switzerland and Austria in the patient company of my husband’s aunt, she made her way to Rome by way of Milan and the galleries of Florence. By now she will have seen Naples and travelled by coach to Bari.
Charlotte, when I think of you in our schoolgirl days, and your spirit of fun, I know that Arabella will adore you!
Charlotte climbed into the carriage, wincing at a twinge of rheumatism in her knee, and contemplated the hot journey.
Jane seemed unaware that people change. The girl of f ifteen, chasing a hen around the Lawson Suffolk estate and pinching pies from the pantry, was now a widow of forty-f ive, trying to survive in an adverse climate and among foreigners.
ARABELLA was immediately recognisable at the port off ice. The girl was the image of her mother – tall and lanky, brown-haired. “Mrs Rainger! Ahoy!” The girl had picked up her skirts and was actually running!
“I am so glad to meet you!” She kissed Charlotte, their bonnets crashing together. “We almost died at sea – the storms!”
“How dreadful,” Charlotte said, rearranging her bonnet. “Were you very ill? I dislike sea travel.”
“I was very sick indeed, and so was the silly woman Papa engaged to get me across from Italy. I had a wonderful time!”
“Well, I am glad to have you here,” Charlotte said. “I must warn you, however, that I live quietly.” Arabella blinked. “I see.” “We will f ind somewhere to rest in the shade before we go on.” Charlotte looked anxiously about her. “Where should we leave your baggage? They tell me Athens