Esmond was rarely talked about in the family, and then only in disapproving tones, even though he was long since in his grave. So, being a “contrary” child, as my parents often said, I was intrigued and titillated by the thought of my “wicked” great-great uncle. I used to imagine him looking like a pantomime villain (“Too late, my Dear! Ha! Ha!”) – a big man with an enormous black beard, dark, sunken eyes, wolfish teeth and a fierce expression. But for a long time I had no idea what he was supposed to have done that was so wicked.
Then one day over Sunday lunch towards the end of the summer holidays when I was twelve years old my father said:
“It’s time I cleared out the attic. There’s too much junk up there, like those old papers of Esmond Saxon.”
“What, all of them?” my stepsister Stella said. “What about all those books he collected? Shouldn’t we keep them?”
“I mean especially those books,” my father snorted while he carved the roast. “Pernicious nonsense! Pagan claptrap! The sooner they’re thrown out the better.”
It was the first time I had heard the word “pagan” used about Esmond Saxon. I had only the vaguest idea what it meant, but it titillated me to think that my great-great-uncle had been a pagan.
“Esmond Saxon was mad,” my father went on. “He spent half his life buried in the British Museum Library and the other half travelling around following an obsession with the old pagan gods. There’s whole pile of books up there about nature-worship and the Druids and some even more disgusting things. We should have got rid of them long ago.”
Great-great-uncle Esmond was getting more and more interesting by the minute. Apparently he had inherited a fortune from his father, who had been a shipping magnate, so he had never had to work and had been able to pursue the life of a gentleman scholar.
“I’m glad you’re going to throw those books out, Mortimer,” my stepmother chipped in. “We’re a Christian family. We don’t want that sort of stuff in the house. Elbows off the table, Julian!”
“Well, I think we should keep them,” Stella said defiantly “and his diaries and letters as well. They’re part of the family history.”
Stella was seven years older than myself and was at Oxford, studying French and Italian. My mother had died when I was two years old, and my father had sought consolation in religion and so had met my mother, who was the daughter of a vicar and was also widowed. When she married my father Stella was already sixteen and I was nine. When I was growing up, Stella seemed more like an aunt than a step-sister. I loved her sparkle, her wilfulness, her teasing humour, the defiant way she tossed her long, dark hair when she was having an argument with her mother or with my father, which often happened.
“Everything’s getting thrown out,” my stepmother said tightly “and that’s final.”
I began to wonder if I could save any of great-great-uncle Esmond’s books and papers or at least look at them before they were thrown out. The first thing was to go up into the attic and find the stuff. Implicitly the attic was out of bounds, although I had never actually been forbidden to go up there. It was more that I had the feeling it was a place where family skeletons should be left to rest in peace. Eagerly but nervously I waited for a moment when I was alone in the house. The opportunity came on Wednesday afternoon, when my mother went out shopping.
Furtively, although there was no one to see me, I climbed to the first floor landing, and stood in front of the door to the attic stairs. I turned the brass handle and pulled open the door with a pounding heart.
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