Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

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

Ashenden (7 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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Joshua fended off the dog and hastily closed the sketchbook. “Good day, Mr. Hastings.”

“Don’t let me disturb you,” said the steward.

Hastings had made several attempts to run the Gypsies off the land and none so far had succeeded. Somehow the Romany always got wind of the plans and moved their camp each time. A good portion of the estate, which covered thousands of acres, was wooded, and finding a handful of people who were expert at the art of concealment was a poor game of cat and mouse.

The locals were easy to intimidate. Arrest a trapper, a herder, a woodcutter. Change the language. Call the trapper a poacher, the herder a trespasser, the woodcutter a thief and hang them or send them to prison. That taught the villagers they were no longer free to snare hares for their pots, graze their sheep on the uplands, or fuel their fires. The Romany were different. What did they care for surveyors with telescopes and chains? Title deeds, fences, and walls meant nothing to them. Land was land. They roamed and lived lightly on it. They took what they needed and moved on, covering their traces, melting away.

“Must be hard work, drawing trees,” said Hastings, his mouth twisting up to one side.

Joshua kept his hand clamped on the cover of the book and eyed the man warily. “Drawing is work. It takes practice.”

Hastings said, “I know a man who can tell when an oak is ripe for the felling by the taste of the acorn. I call that proper skill.”

“I have heard of such.” Joshua made to shove the sketchbook in his pocket.

Hastings was too quick for him, snatched it out of his hand, and flicked through the pages. Laughed. “Is this what you call work?” he said.

The sketch he held up was of a round building, raised on columns, with a spiraling stair in front. “It’s what I call thinking.” Joshua’s heart was hammering. Don’t turn any more pages, he thought.

Hastings turned more pages. “And this?” he said, holding up a sketch of a tower. “Don’t tell me. It’s more of your thinking. You ask me, I’d say it was the work of a madman.”

“I don’t ask you, Mr. Hastings. You do your job and I do mine,” said Joshua. “Call off your dog.”

“Bess!” Hastings called the dog, which was chasing round in excited circles, nipping at Joshua’s heels. “Catch,” he said to Joshua, and threw the book at him. It fell on the ground, open to the page where he had drawn the Romany girl.

There was a silence as they both stared at the drawing. Joshua got up from his perch on the tree root, his breath shallow and fast. As he recovered the sketchbook, he felt the steward’s eyes shift to him and heard his thoughts.

“Where did you see her?” said Hastings in a quiet voice.

“Her?” said Joshua.

“The girl in your book.”

“I made her up. I imagined her. Just as I imagined the buildings.”

“Oh yes? Then you’ve made up the very likeness of a thieving Gypsy.” Hastings narrowed his eyes. “You’ll want to tell me when and where you see her next. That’s something I’d like to know.”

“I’ll be sure to tell when she next visits my thoughts,” said Joshua, with greater defiance than he felt. The man was not fooled.

“What’s all that writing? Under the drawing.”

“It’s a poem,” lied Joshua. “Do you want me to read it to you?”

“I want you tell me when you next see that girl,” said the steward. “Or any other of her filthy tribe.” He rubbed a finger inside his neckcloth. “I don’t rightly understand your notion of work, but making things hard for those that break the law is what I do for a living.” He called the dog to heel and went off.

When he had gone, Joshua opened the sketchbook to the page where he had drawn the Romany girl. Underneath, in the neat lettering that Woods had taught him, was a description of their encounter, the date, the place, the gathering of the mushrooms, the knife. He let out a long sigh and thanked his stars that Hastings could not read.

As he put the book in his pocket, rain began to patter on the ground. In a matter of minutes, the patter became a drumming, a hissing, a roaring. There was a flash of lightning, followed by a low rumbling roll of thunder.

Joshua came out of the woods into a downpour. It was as if the sky had burst and all the preceding dry days had saved themselves up for this flood. Rain was pelting down, drenching him to the skin, running off the dry ground in muddy rivulets. There was a kind of exultation to it. He pulled up his coat collar and ran. When he reached the spot where he had been sitting earlier and sketching the old manor, he found the drawing sodden and ruined.

He looked around, expecting to see men laughing and rushing for cover from all directions. Instead, over the insistent sound of the rain, he heard shouts and sharp cries of panic come up from the riverbank. It was his dream, he thought, his terrible dream, as he slid down the slope to meet it.

*  *  *

The storm took them by surprise. One minute they were joking, negotiating the by-now familiar routine of loading the stone onto a wagon and nursing it up the hill, the next it was chaos. Rain, hail, lightning, thunder.

The force of the deluge loosened the timbers of the roadway,
and a wagon laden with stone veered sideways and threatened to discharge its cargo into the river. At the sound of the thunderclap, one of the horses hitched to the wagon slid off into the mud and the other reared, its eyes wild and rolling back in its head. Yoked together, they skittered and thrashed in opposite directions as the men ran about, unsure where to push or to pull. All the while, rain sluiced down the hill.

Woods could hear the foreman shouting. Then, looking up the slope through the teeming rain, he saw Joshua sliding down it.

“Get back! It’s going over!” yelled Wilkes, waving his arms. “Get back!”

Afterwards, Woods was never sure of the order of events, although he tried to reconstruct it in his mind many times. He had been standing by the wagon, that much he remembered, and he remembered, too, the sight of the stone tipping off the top, the certainty that it would be lost in the river. The rest was as blank as a sheet of paper.

When he came back to himself, he was lying on his side on some sort of litter, which was jolting over the ground. He saw a man’s hand, black hairs on his knuckles, gripping the side. The next time he opened his eyes, he was in bed. Wilkes was there and a few other faces he recognized but could not put names to. His head was lifted and brandy was spooned into his mouth.

On what he would later learn was the third day, he asked for Joshua. Wilkes—he thought it was Wilkes—rose from his seat near the window.

The doctor had been, bled and cupped him. But it was the housekeeper’s tea brewed from bitter herbs that had cleared his raging, aching head. This morning he had a sharpened sense of himself, of his limbs working, of being a whole person. “Joshua?” he said.

Wilkes sat himself on the bed. Rubbed his nose, then his eyes. “Friend,” he said, absently patting and smoothing the counterpane. “The boy is dead.”

Joshua was dead, and Joshua had saved him. Had seen the wagon going over, the stone beginning to topple, and pushed him out of
the way with so much force that he had been knocked unconscious. The stone had fallen and crushed Joshua instead.

“I want to see him,” said Woods, raising himself up against the bolsters, fighting the bedclothes.

Wilkes shook his head.

“I want to see him, do you hear?”

“We buried him this morning.”

*  *  *

Woods remained on site for another few months. The stone rose in its courses and the house took the shape he had imagined, growing up from the ground story by story, but the delight had gone out of the building for him. At the close of each day, he often found himself in the churchyard, where the lad’s unmarked grave was a hillock of earth. They had given him Joshua’s sketchbook, which they had found in his pocket. At first he had thought he might send it on to the boy’s mother, the widow, along with the letter that it had taken him five days to compose, but some of the sketches were bloodstained and he thought it better not to. Truth be told, he wanted to keep it.

He didn’t understand the designs Joshua had drawn—unbuildable, fictional things—but he recognized the independence of thought and marveled at it. Woods knew he was a competent follower of patterns, of rules; he was not, and would never be, an original. If the boy had lived, eventually the teacher would have become the taught. That was clear to him.

The steward, Hastings, came to see him one day, wanting to see the drawing of the Gypsy girl, wanting to know what was written underneath it. Woods told him he had burned the book.

In their own good time, the Gypsies left the woods and went elsewhere. In his own good time, More came in his carriage to inspect progress. He was on his way back to London and talked at length of the trouble in the American colonies, and promised to pay for the stone, although it took another six months to get the account settled, by which time the trouble in the American colonies had become a war.

Bath stone killed Joshua. It wouldn’t do for his grave. Back in Yorkshire, Woods commissioned a granite slab and paid for its inscription and transport.

The widow refused to see him. He did not blame her. The office was busy with several new commissions, one of which was a house in Beverley for a wealthy Catholic family. In Berkshire, Wilkes wrote to him, the roof was on. On Woods’s drawing table lay the pottery fragment the men had unearthed during the digging of the foundations.

When he had shown the shard to Joshua, the lad had asked what type of tool might have been used to make the indentations—the blunt end of a stick, a piece of bone? It was then that it had occurred to Woods that in profile the dents looked very much like the cross-section of the reeds that grew down by the river. They had tested this out, making impressions on a smooth patch of damp soil, and the results staring up at them from the ground had slipped the hand of the present into the past.

   3   
A Book of Ceilings: 1796

I
n twenty years the stone has mellowed and the house has lost its raw, stark newness. Now it sits naturally in a landscape that has taken much art, much time, and much expense to achieve. Contoured into flattering vistas, planted with clumps of trees and grazed by deer, the park is enclosed by high walls and defended by two stone gatehouses, in case anyone is in any doubt about ownership and entitlement.

From the outside, you might think the house has always been here. Yet inside, it isn’t finished. Only a few of the principal rooms, designed for entertaining and society, are completely furnished and decorated. The structure may be sound and weathertight, but what is missing are the people to inhabit it.

*  *  *

At the age of seventy-six, James Woods was traveling south again, this time in the company of his nieces, Hannah and Maria. Their destination was Fawley Court in Buckinghamshire, where he had been asked to design a pair of lodges. The commission had come when Woods was midway through a survey of York Minster he was conducting on behalf of the diocese. He was busy and could have refused the work. Always careful with money, he lacked for nothing and had nothing to prove, but he hadn’t turned down a job in half a century and was not about to do so now.

It had been Hannah’s idea that she and her sister should accompany him. Maria, she said, needed a change. It would do Maria good. Neither of his nieces had ever left Yorkshire, and Hannah’s notion of adventure was a visit to Harrogate. It was so unlike her to put forward such a proposal that he had agreed, thinking that there must be a reason behind it, but not wishing to ask what it was.

It had been Maria’s idea that they visit Ashenden Park, as it lay on their way to Fawley, which was a few miles away down the Thames. She had heard so much about it and she had always wanted to see it. To this, he had also agreed, with a heavier heart. After Joshua had died, he had returned to Ashenden only once and that had been twelve years ago. The memory was less painful now, but he would have preferred not to revisit it.

The journey south had taken them through so many clamorous towns and staging posts, so many dead wastes and empty fields, that the creaking, jolting carriage had become a kind of refuge, a welcome familiarity among the confusing changes of scene. Something to shield them, too, from the unrest and distress of the country, the blank hungry faces at every turnpike, the deserving and undeserving poor trudging back to cots with a few crooked branches lashed to their backs or howling drunk in the lanes. This afternoon, after such a long time on the road, it was strange to think that they were approaching the first of their destinations, places that had come to seem beyond reach.

As they rattled through the gates of Ashenden Park, Maria leaned out of the open window, her thin face turned into the sun. Her watercolors, which had slid out of her portfolio, littered the floor, and there was a crumpled shawl beside her. Her sister, seated opposite, was reading a letter from her son.

“Look at this landscape, Hannah. Look at the green. Have you ever seen anything greener? If I were to paint it, it would have to be on white paper. Not like home, where you’d want a duller ground. Pale gray perhaps.”

Hannah raised her eyes for a moment. “What difference would it make? The colors go on top.”

“Precisely.” Maria drew in her head and fell back against the buttoned seat. Before they had left Yorkshire, she had cut her hair short, and dark wisps of curls escaped from under her cap. “What do you say, Uncle James?”

“We are on chalk here. I am inclined to agree with you. In my experience, you have to respect what lies underneath.”

His nieces were kind and affectionate women. Hannah believed he did too much. The word “retirement” was often on her lips. She pointed out quiet villages where it would be pleasant to spend one’s later years and thought of quiet occupations, such as fishing, it would be pleasant for him to take up. Maria sometimes asked questions to which he did not have the answers. Aside from that, they were good companions, and had not complained once since they had set out days ago.

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