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My cousin Richard. My dearest friend, my little tyrant, my best ally, my worst enemy, my fellow conspirator, my betrayer, my playmate, my rival, my betrothed. I cannot remember a time before I loved him. I cannot remember a time before I loved Wideacre.

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He was as much a part of me, of my childhood, as the downland and common land, as the tall trees of Wideacre woods. I never made a choice about loving him, I never made a choice about loving the land. I loved land and boy because they were at the very heart of me.

I could not imagine myself without my love for Richard. I could not imagine myself with any other home than Wideacre, with any other name than Lacey.

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I was blessed in my loves. For Richard, my cousin, was the sweetest of boys, as dear to me as a brother, one of those special children who draw in love as easily as green grass growing. People would turn to smile at him in the streets of Chichester, smile at his light-footed stride, his mop of black curls, his startlingly bright blue eyes, and the radiance of his smile.

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And anyone who heard him sing would have loved him for that alone. He had one of those innocent boyish voices which soar and soar higher than you can imagine anyone can sing, and the clear purity of each note could make me shiver like a breeze sighing out of the sky from heaven itself.

I loved so much to hear him sing that I would volunteer for hours of pianoforte practice and for the discomfort of constantly learning new pieces so that I could play while he sang. He loved duets, but neither threats nor blandishments could make me hold a tune. Instead I would strum the accompaniment as well as I was able, and sometimes in the evening Mama would hum the lower part while Richard's voice soared and filled the whole of the tiny parlor and drifted out of the half-open window to rival the birdsong in the twilit woods.

And then, when Richard was singing and the house was still, I could feel them. The ghosts who were always around us, as palpable as the evening mist filtering through the trees from the River Fenny. They were always near, though only I could feel them, and only at certain times. But I knew they were always near, those two -- Richard's mama, Beatrice, and my papa, the squire, who were partners in the flowering and destruction of the Laceys in the short years when they made and wrecked Wideacre. And when Richard was singing and my hands were stumbling but picking out the tune and Mama dropped her sewing unnoticed in her lap to listen to that high sweet tone, I knew that they were waiting.

Waiting almost like the three of us. For something to happen. For something to happen on Wideacre again. I was older by a year; but Richard was always bigger than me. I was the daughter of the squire and the only surviving Lacey; but Richard was a boy and the natural master. We were raised as country children, but we were not allowed into the village.

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We were isolated in threadbare gentility, hidden in the overgrown woods of the Wideacre parkland like a pair of enchanted children in a fairy tale, waiting for the magic to set us free. Richard was the leader. It was he who ordered the games and devised the rules; it was I who offended against them. Then Richard would be angry with me and set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, and I would go white-faced and tearful to my mama and complain that Richard had been mean to me, gaining us both a reliably evenhanded punishment.

We were often in trouble with my mama, for we were a bad team of petty sinners. Richard was often naughty -- and I could not resist confession. I once earned us a scolding from Mama, who had spotted my stained pinafore and taxed me with stealing bottled fruit from the larder. Richard would have brazened it out, blue eyes persuasively wide, but I confessed at once, not only to the theft of the bottle of fruit, but also to stealing a pot of jam days before, which had not even been missed. Richard said nothing as we left Mama's parlor, our eyes on the carpet, uncomfortably guilty.

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Richard said nothing all morning. But later that afternoon we were playing by the river and he was paddling in midstream when he suddenly said, "Hush! He said there was a kingfisher's nest, but when I tucked my skirts up and paddled in alongside him, I could not see it.

As I turned, he took both my hands in a hard grip and his face changed from smiles to his darkest scowl. He pulled me closer to him and held me tight so I could not escape and hissed, "There are water snakes in this river, Julia, and they are sliding out of their holes to come for you. The ripples in the river were at once the bow waves from the broad heads of brown water snakes. The touch of a piece of weed against my ankle was its wet body coiling around my bare foot.

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The splash of a piece of driftwood in the flow was a venomous dark-eyed snake slithering in the river toward me. Not until I was screaming with terror, my cheeks wet with tears and my wrists red from trying to pull away, would the little tyrant let me go, so that I could scramble for the bank and fling myself out of the water in a frenzy of fear. And then, as if my tears were some cure for his rage, he forgave me. He took my handkerchief out of my pocket and dried my eyes. He put his arm around me and talked to me in a tender voice, and petted me, and called me sweet little names.

And finally, irresistibly, he sang for me my favorite folk songs about shepherds and farming and the land and crops growing ripely and easily, and I forgot to cry, I forgot my tears, I forgot my terror. I even forgot that Richard had been bullying me at all. I nuzzled my head into his neck and let him stroke my hair with his muddy hand, and I sat on his lap and listened to all the songs he could remember until he was tired of singing.

When we splashed home in the golden sunlight of the summer evening and Mama exclaimed at my dress, my pinafore, my hair all wet and muddy, I told her that I had fallen in the river and bore her reproaches without one murmur. For that I had my reward. Richard came to my bedroom later in the night when Mama was sitting downstairs trying to work by the light of only two candles. He came with his hands full of sweet things begged or stolen from Mrs. Gough, the cook. And he sat beside me on my bed and gave me the best, the very best, of his haul.

For lying to Mama is not good, but if I had told her about you and the water snakes, she would have had you whipped. I had heard a floorboard in the uncarpeted parlor creak and the scrape of her chair. Richard gathered the remains of our feast in his hands and slid like a ghost in his nightgown toward the bedroom door.

Mama came slowly, slowly up each step as if she were very tired, and Richard melted up the stairs to his attic bedroom at the top of the house. I saw the ribbon of light from Mama's nighttime candle widen as she pushed open my bedroom door. I had my eyes shut tight, but I could never deceive her. She smelled faintly of lilies and clean linen. There were lines around her brown eyes and I could tell by the weariness on her face that she had been worrying about money again. But she smiled tenderly at me and the love in her face made her beautiful.

There might be a darn on her collar, and her dark dress might be shiny with wear, but just the smell of Mama and the way she walked told you she was Quality born and bred. I sniffed appreciatively and hugged her tight. There are the Lacey creditors to repay. And we have to save for Richard's schooling. There is not a lot of money to spare. Gough and Stride worked for love, loyalty and a pittance paid monthly in arrears.

The food on the table was game from the Havering estate or fish from the Fenny; the vegetables were grown in the kitchen garden, the fruit came from my Grandmama Havering at Havering Hall. And wine was a rare luxury. My dresses were hand-me-downs from my distant Havering cousins, and Richard's shirt collars were turned and turned and turned again until there was neither shirt nor collar left. Mama would accept clothes and food from her mama, my Grandma Havering. But she never applied to her for money.

She was too proud. And anyway, the Havering estate, our nearest neighbor, was derelict through neglect itself.

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My mama's stepfather, Lord Havering, was not an attentive master of the land. But I lay half wakeful, listening as the house settled for the night. I heard Mama's footsteps in her room and the creak of her bed as she sprang in quickly, for the floorboards were icy to bare feet; the nighttime noises of Stride bolting the back door, checking the front door -- as if there were anything to steal! Then the outside noises: a trailing creeper tapping at a windowpane, the distant call of a barn owl flying low across a dark field and away in the woods the abrupt bark of a dog fox.

I imagined myself, high as the owl, flying over the sleeping fields, seeing below me the huddle of cottages that is Acre village, with no lights showing, like a pirate ship in a restless sea, seeing the breast of the common behind the village with the sandy white tracks luminous in the darkness and a herd of deer silent as deep-sea fish, winding across it. Then, if I were an owl, I would fly to the west wall of the hall of Wideacre, which is the only one left standing. If I were an owl I would fly to the gable head of it, where the proud roof timbers once rested, where it is scorched and blackened by the fire that burned out the Laceys, that wrecked the house and the family.

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I would sit there and look with round wide eyes at the desolate fields and the woods growing wild and call, "Whoo! I knew, even then, that there is a balance of needs on a land like ours. The masters take so much, the men take so much, and they both keep the poor. The land has its rights too: even fields must rest.

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  5. My Aunt Beatrice was once the greatest farmer for miles around, but somehow, and no one would ever tell me quite how, it all went bad. When my Aunt Beatrice died and my papa died in the same night, the night of the fire, the Laceys were already ruined. After that day nothing went right on Wideacre: not in the village, where they were as dirty as gypsies and as poor, and not for the Laceys. Mama and I were the only survivors of the great Lacey family, and we went in darned gowns and had no carriage. Worse than that for Mama, we had no power.

    Oh, I don't mean in the way that many landowners have power. I don't think she would ever have missed the power to order men as if they were all servants.