Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Cultural Heritage, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary, #Historical Fiction

Ashenden (6 page)

BOOK: Ashenden

*  *  *

When on site, it was Woods’s custom to eat sparingly during the day, and his afternoon meal was cheese and bread, washed down with half a jug of small beer. The cheese was good, the bread a little stale, the small beer so weak it would have been fit for the nursery. He pushed the plate and jug aside. Work, not food, was the remedy for waiting.

Woods could work anywhere. Upstairs, in the bedchamber, where he had been worrying over the accounts books the previous evening, or downstairs, here in the great hall, which was where the daily site business was conducted; if need be, he could work on the road in jolting carriages and stagecoaches (he had often found movement conducive to design thought). Now he sat at the midpoint of the long refectory table that bisected the great gloomy hall of the manor, an orderly chaos surrounding him, and reached for a scroll of drawings. The drawings were of a smaller, simpler commission, a design for a little classical pavilion or temple, a trifle to stand
in the grounds of a house he had built fifteen years ago near York. When he unrolled them, his right hand knocked against a shard of pottery resting on the tabletop and sent it flying. He just managed to catch it before it fell and smashed on the floor.

The men were always bringing him such things, relics that they unearthed during the digging of the foundations, wanting to know what they were, or imagining that he might find some inspiration in them or use for them. Most of their findings were unremarkable: bits of broken tiles, old sections of beams, rusting metalware. This pottery shard was of a different order of discovery and he had brought it to the attention of Joshua, who had humored him by pretending an interest in it. The fragment was irregular and of varying thicknesses, a segment of an earthen vessel made of coiled, fired clay. Into its rough unglazed surface a hand had pressed a pattern of indentations with some sort of blunt-ended tool. His fingers traced the spiraling lines. The shard was ancient, he was certain of that; how old he did not know. In the regular pattern he recognized a tension that was familiar. Material knew how it wanted to be shaped—that was form. Material told you how to embellish it—that was decoration. Sometimes the marriage was perfect.

Woods laid the pottery fragment back on the table. At the same moment the door was pushed open and Joshua appeared with news on his face.

Despite himself, Woods felt anticipation tighten his chest. “The stone?”

Joshua nodded. “It’s come.”

*  *  *

Andrea Palladio’s
Four Books of Architecture
and Sebastiano Serlio’s
Seven Books of Architecture:
these two treatises were Woods’s constant companions and his teachers. The rules and proportions set out in their pages formed the guidelines by which he built and the ideals to which he aspired. As he accompanied Joshua down the slope to the river, he thought that even the masters, Palladio and Serlio, would have been struck by what he saw in front of him. Here
were the building blocks of the classical order; here, in raw form, were plinth, column, architrave, frieze, and cornice.

Sometimes when Woods looked out over the trenches and earthworks of the foundations, as he had done earlier that morning, he was surprised not to see the house already complete, it was such a fully formed thing in his mind. A thing, moreover, of inexpressible joy and delight. Of love. During his life he had known love twice (one of the women had died and the other had married someone else) and the sensation of building was the closest he had ever come to that enraptured state. Building was a voluptuous pleasure; taste it once and you wanted more. Now as he saw the stone waiting to become architecture, waiting to become what he held in his head, he was gripped by desire. It was nothing to do with ownership. This type of possession was entirely imaginative, and so the longing was infinitely renewable. Patrons, who inhabited your buildings once they were finished and sometimes spoiled them, were a small price to pay for it.

Men were swarming around and over the barge, making it fast to the landing stage, removing the canvas covers from the stone and hitching the blowing draft horses that had pulled the barge up-river. On the bank, two wagons were drawn up, fresh horses nodding in their leather head collars, and an arrangement of pulleys and winches was being assembled to hoist the cargo to land.

A small crowd was gathered on the riverbank. Among the villagers, dumbstruck for the most part, he spotted the local blacksmith, innkeeper, and parish priest. Even the girl who brought the eggs in the morning was there, a red kerchief crossed over her breast, and the old housekeeper had roused herself out of the chimney corner.

“Was I the last to be told?”

“Word gets around,” said Joshua.

In the pale spring sunshine the uncovered blocks radiated their own glow, as if they were lit from within. England was a wet country; Bath stone was porous. You had to keep it dry on its travels and detail buildings to protect it from rain, which called for deep overhangs, among other things. This afternoon what the stone drank was light.

“I had no idea it was so fine,” said Joshua, wonder in his voice.

“You get what you pay for,” said Woods.

“Or what you haven’t paid for. Is that how it works?”

“On occasion,” said Woods.

He went to speak to Wilkes, who was directing the men, and asked him if the timber roadway had been made stable according to his instruction.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said Wilkes, raising his voice. “Do you take me for a fool? So far as your instruction goes, I’d already given the self-same one.” The sharp words threatened an open quarrel.

In the bright glitter of the foreman’s eyes Woods recognized the hunger he felt himself. An architect was only as good as his craftsmen and the craftsmen were only as good as their foreman. Wilkes was skilled and experienced, and well paid on both accounts.

“Then I shall leave you to it.”

“I thank you for that, sir.” Wilkes signaled to the men.

The horses pulled forward and the rope tightened over the creaking winch. The first block, nestled within its cradle, was lifted off the barge and over the riverbank, its great weight a pendulum of doom.

The stone swung in the sky, to and fro, back and forth, long enough for everyone to wonder what it would do to a skull. Gasps came from the crowd, some of whom ducked. Others put their hands on their heads. A few scrabbled up the slope and out of the way.

Then slowly, slowly the horses were made to reverse, the rope slackened, and the descending block was grappled onto the back of a wagon. Cheers of relief greeted its landing.

More gasps, more cheers as the second block came ashore. By the fifth, the crowd was bored of the spectacle and fell silent. By the sixth, they began to disperse. Only a few remained to see the wagon laden with stone begin its progress up the roadway to the site, and none, bar the workmen, were there to see it arrive.

So it went all afternoon. The first barge was unloaded, pulled away from the landing stage, and moored downstream, and the second barge had arrived when the light began to go.

They covered the piles of stone for the night. One by one, the workmen drifted back to their billets in the outbuildings of the manor.

“Will you dine with us, Mr. Wilkes?” said Woods.

*  *  *

The housekeeper had made pigeon pie. More pie than pigeon, truth be told. Over the meal, they talked about the day’s work. Above the flames flickering in the hearth the ceiling was lost in darkness.

Joshua, chasing the last morsel around in the dish, remembered Woods saying,
Better make an enemy of your patron than your foreman.
As good as his word, he was mending bridges, discussing with Wilkes the arrangement of the stone on the site, what covers, what pallets would be required, although he needed advice on none of these questions.

“I thought your roadway served us well,” said Woods.

Wilkes swallowed and rubbed his mouth on his grubby sleeve. “A dry night or two and it will set hard.”

Joshua’s eyelids drooped, then jerked open again. The day had been long and he wanted his bed. He rose from the table. “Well, I’ll make one less.” Wilkes had got onto the Gypsies again, like a terrier worrying a bone. Woods waved his hand in an absent gesture. Joshua took a candle, stumbled up the stairs that pitched under his feet, and went along the gallery with its squeaking floorboards. In his bedchamber, where cool spring air dampened the worn linen sheets, he fell asleep almost immediately and dreamed of nothing.

*  *  *

They were lucky with the weather. Day after day was dry. The roadway compacted under the weight of the wagons that trundled up it and the stone accumulated in neat, square, honey-colored piles. Woods had intended to start building as soon as the first blocks were unloaded, an intention that was fueled by a desire not to waste the opportunity offered by the dry weather. Yet, despite what he had said to Joshua about the unlikelihood of More showing his face
when there was an account to settle, the knowledge that his patron remained in the neighborhood held him back. He made inquiries, established where More was staying, and wrote to inform him that the delivery of the stone was proceeding. In return, he received a brief reply that said neither one thing nor another.

Woods had often observed that the laying of the foundation stone wedded patron to house, even if the stone had to be removed and reset in a proper fashion afterwards. While there was still a chance that such a ceremony might flatter More into releasing the funds that would spur progress, he was willing to delay. Now the last barge was half unloaded and the men were looking at him with question marks on their faces. One more day, he told himself, and then he would wait no longer.

He had set Joshua the task of recording the old manor before they pulled it down, and this morning he could see the lad sitting some way off, dutifully working on a drawing of the north elevation. In his own mind the site was already cleared and the new stable block built on top of it. In his own mind carriages were pulling up and people were alighting from them.

*  *  *

There wasn’t a single right angle in the old manor, thought Joshua, rubbing a stale crust over his charcoal marks to correct what he had drawn. Not a one. Everything leaned. Squinting against the light, he saw Woods surveying the stone piled up alongside the trenches dug for the foundations and even from a distance he could sense his impatience. He quickly sketched in the architect to give a human scale to the drawing and then scrubbed this out too. The sketch was very lifelike and therefore somewhat disrespectful.

During the five years that Joshua had been apprenticed to Woods, he had learned that staircases must have odd-numbered treads, which types of timber, brick, and stone were suitable for construction, how to mark out foundations in straight lines, how to burn the ends of piles and drive them down into the earth, how to joint dressed stone with thin mortar so the wall was a smooth skin, the properties of lime
and sand, the importance of model making, and many fine points of architectural drawing. He had studied the masters: Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio, Serlio. He had been taught to read a site like a book: to identify the direction of the wind and the aspect that would bring light into a building, to investigate ground conditions. Standing unre-marked on the sidelines, he had seen for himself how a combination of mute resistance and cunning could deliver an architectural vision intact and uncompromised, despite the best efforts of patrons, with all their absurd vanities and contradictory demands, to thwart it.

For most of his apprenticeship what Joshua had wanted was to emulate his master, to conceive designs that would meet with his approval, and eventually to achieve a reputation as solid and distinguished as his. In recent months, however, ideas of his own had boiled up in his head and filled his sketchbook, and he was shocked to find that, despite what he had absorbed so eagerly from Woods and the books in his library, what he had drawn was very different. So different that the drawings almost seemed like a kind of heresy.

In the pages of his sketchbook sprouted soft, fluid buildings, buildings that were more expressive of feeling than reason, less mathematical and austere. Fantastical, freakish buildings that could never be built, their plasticity unattainable in any kind of known material. Woods, he knew, would see the designs as aberrations, the products of disordered thought, which was why he kept them hidden.

Joshua looked up from his drawing of the north elevation and saw that Woods was gone. He put down the board on which he had pinned the paper, covered it, and set off in the direction of the woods.

He liked the woods. He liked their quickening smell in these mild spring days, the life stirring, the trees budding, the crack of twigs under his boots. He walked a while, swishing his feet through the dry leaf litter, until he came to the clearing, a little vaulted space where he had seen the Romany girl.

The day he had seen her, she had been cutting mushrooms with a small knife and gathering them into her apron. When he blundered through the undergrowth and surprised her, she dropped the corners of her apron, scattering the mushrooms on the ground. She
stood stock-still, their eyes had met, and he had wondered if she would use the knife on him. Then she had run away deeper into the woods, her dirty bare feet making next to no sound.

Joshua hadn’t seen her since, although not for want of trying. He sat down on a tree root, pulled his sketchbook out of his pocket, and turned to the page where he had drawn her. The snap of her dark eyes, her black hair streaming behind her when she had fled. An impression of color, and an abiding sense of connection, which kept drawing him back to this place. He had never come across anyone like her.

A noise startled him. For a moment he thought the Romany girl had returned, but when he looked up, he saw that the steward, Hastings, had come into the clearing. Hastings was not much older than he was; he had a swaggering walk and a mean mouth. As always, he was accompanied by his dog, which ran over panting, poking its wet nose in everywhere.

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