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The Knot Garden

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The drive up to the house is rutted. It makes the carriage shudder and shake, the doors rattling ominously. Alex stirs from his uneasy slumber, blinking slowly as his surroundings become clearer. It’s a full moon, and the sky is clear and starry. Ahead, just visible through the trees, is the house—his new home. He has never been here before. Some obscure and cantankerous relative from the disreputable side of his family left it to him, seemingly on a whim. Cousin John, as he was always known, never put in an appearance at family occasions had at least three offspring by three different mothers, and, worst of all, was a rumoured Jacobite. And, for a final jest, he left his entire fortune to one of the most sober and respectable scions of his line, a second son, destined from birth for naught but the army or the priesthood.

There is a light shining, high up in one of the towers. Otherwise, the place looks deserted, although Alex, in correspondence with the family lawyer, established that there were at least two servants in residence, who under the terms of the will were to remain there in perpetuity. Or, at least, until they died, as his lawyer noted with a somewhat grim smile the last time they discussed the matter. Alex sighs, letting his head drop back onto the padded seat. The jostling aggravates an already sore head, but he is too fatigued to move. He cannot recall the last time he slept well, and does not know when he will next sleep at all.

Lily would have laughed at this, would have thought it a great adventure, but then, she was always the mischief maker. He was the sober, staid one, coaxed into courting her, and then into marrying her, always following where she led, until she went where he was unable to, taken from him in the blink of an eye. He smiles a little. The memory of her does not sting as much as it used to. He is growing used to his own company once more, allowing his world to become smaller, quieter. He is content. Or, at least, he was. Now, he has inherited a title, and with it the reputation of his mother’s family, with all it entails, and he knows not if it will do him good or ill.

*

It is damnably late, and he had sent no word of his coming, so no one greets them at the door. They let themselves in, leave the groom to the horses, taking one of the carriage lamps for light. It is a cold house, and an old one, the panelling dark with age. There is the scent of beeswax candles, sweet rushes, woodsmoke. It feels as if he has gone back a hundred years, as if he is in the wrong century. He breathes in the scent, strangely at peace. He is hungry and tired, and his bones ache from the journey, but something within him settles, making him smile in spite of his small discomforts. His man, Tom, slips off to find a bedchamber that is suitable for his use, and he waits, alone in the quiet.

He doesn’t know how long he sits in the entrance hall. He has lit a candle, which casts flickering shadows on the stone walls, dimly illuminating the portraits above, the hunting trophies. This house has been left as it is from the time of Elizabeth, or even Henry; it is as though none of his ancestors have acknowledged the passing of the centuries since then. He knows not why.

He may yet return to London, leave this house to remain trapped in time. He could resume his life there, accept this as a brief interruption in the smooth progression of his slide into middle aged respectability. No one would blame him for leaving: it is a property in the wilds of Yorkshire, owned by a mercurial distant relative, that he has only just set foot in. No one would blame him, and yet.

“I have prepared one of the bedchambers,” Tom says quietly from one of the far doorways, dimly lit by the glow of the lamp. “It will suffice for tonight, sir.”

And so he spends his first night in his new home in a room with half the Holland covers still on the furniture, in a bed that smells of tallow and old lavender, in a room that is cold, the wind howling through the casement window.

*

The next day, the house is a bustle of activity. The two incumbent servants have been found, and with them, some lads and lasses from the village nearby. Alex does not know what tales have been spread of him, or the instructions that his lawyer has sent ahead, but everyone appears to be in a frenzy of activity, bringing the house back to life. He does not know what he thinks of this, of the shutters being flung off, the rooms being aired, carpets beaten, coverings removed from the furniture. He is but one man, heirless and without a family. He is not the harbinger of a long line of Langlands, back to their rightful property. He is merely the last quirk of an already peculiar man’s legacy.

He cannot think of a way to tell them this, so he dons his accustomed sober garb, and escapes the house, having left the full running of the day’s activity to his housekeeper. He wonders, fleetingly, what the men who were under his command at sea would have thought of this cowardice. But then, the ordering of a household is a far greater task than any cannon fire, so he escapes through a small side door, leaving Tom to answer any questions that might arise, with the slightly giddy feeling of a schoolboy escaping his lessons for the day.

The house is red brick, mellowed by age. A rose runs riot along the front of it, although as it is winter it does not bloom. In front of the house, there is a large lawn. The drive sweeps to the left and towards the stables. To the right of the house, there is a smaller path, and it is this that he follows, ducking under the overgrown briars, the box hedge that has been allowed to grow far beyond its accustomed shape. This part of the grounds has endured years of neglect, and he wishes he had at least a billhook to fight his way through the weeds. It would be as well to rip the whole lot out, to landscape it in the current fashion, to create a vista, a view--

And yet.

There is something here, a pattern beneath the chaos, a garden. While the box hedge now runs riot, he would stake his affidavit that it once formed a knot garden. There is a wall, crumbling in places. When he follows what must once have been a path, he comes to a stone plinth, a basin atop it, with the remains of some pipework open to the elements. Next to it, on the grass, there is a statue, arm outstretched. He brushes the moss off the statue’s face—

“Aphrodite, I reckon.”

He thought he was alone. A man leans against the base of the fountain, looking down at him. Alex is suddenly acutely aware of his grubby state, his snagged and torn clothes.

“I thought Diana,” he says despite himself. “I think those are hounds.”

“You might be right there,” the stranger says. He is stocky, his hair falling in dark curls, utterly unpowdered. His eyes are light and keen beneath thick black brows. Alex is pleased to note that he is in similar disarray to him. “I’m Peter, live a few fields west of here. Odd, seeing the house in such a bustle. Old John’s will finally come to light? He led the lawyers a merry dance, wily fellow that he was.”

Alex has the distinct sense that Peter was about to use something distinctly less flattering than ‘fellow’ in that sentence, and has to bite his lip to prevent himself from smiling. “His final joke; this is all mine,” he says.

“What’re you going to do with it?” Peter asks, nodding at the garden.

Alex stares at the broken statue, then looks out at the tangled mess of plants, the crumbling walls, the briars, the lines of apple trees, the coppicing gone awry, hazel allowed to grow in all directions, the thistles, nettles, goose grass. “I have no idea. But I think…I think I want to keep it. Bring some life back into it, restore it.”

He always thought that he had avoided the madness of his mother’s side of the family. Now, though, he has to wonder; surely some streak of wild devilry has created this idea. But Peter is nodding as though he has passed some form of test, looking out at the garden with an assessing eye. “We’ll get that Aphrodite statue back up where she belongs, bring her back to her former glory.”

This time, he makes no attempt to correct Peter. He has a sneaking suspicion that he does it on purpose.

*

“—and I am sure, when your wife travels down, she will wish to have a hand in the ordering of the bedchambers…”

The housekeeper trails off, her hands clasped in front of her. Alex tries to smile—he likes her; she is a sensible woman, kind and practical, and he has no wish to cause her embarrassment.

“I am a widower,” he says, his voice a steady as he can make it.

“Sir, I—I am sorry.”

“She would have thought it a great adventure, to live in such a house as this,” he tells her. They would have got on famously together, planning balls and picnics, flinging the doors of the house open to all. “As do I.” He finds that this is true, that something has changed within him. “I would like to thank you, for taking such great care of it. I hope I am worthy.”

*

The days take a pattern. In the morning, he learns all he can of the estate, poring over the old deeds and Cousin John’s papers, looking over the accounts, incomes and rents received from the tenant farmers nearby. It is all dauntingly unfamiliar to Alex, who has previously only rented some rooms in London, having no need to maintain a large property. Still, with the help of his local agent, and the advice of his lawyer in London, he feels as if he is gradually learning how everything works. It helps that, for all his peculiarities, Cousin John was a precise and shrewd businessman, keeping scrupulous records of his dealings, both above board and…not quite so above board.

At noon, having eaten a small repast, he rides a section of his land, building up familiarity with the farms and buildings on it, mapping where the water flows and the springs rise.

The afternoon is for the knot garden. Peter seems always to know when he will arrive, and is there waiting for him. He has told none of the servants where he goes, although he is sure they know, from his muddy clothes, the snags in all of his shirts. He has managed to find billhooks, some forks, some spades and some heavy leather gloves, and is determined to do all of the work himself—with Peter’s help.

Peter seems to be constantly cheerful. Even when the ground is frozen and the briars seem possessed of some evil spirit, he is smiling. Lily would have loved him. Alex finds himself drawn to Peter, seeking something—he knows not what, some kindred spirit, perhaps, or simply the warmth of his good humour and kindness. It catches him unawares sometimes, how much he looks at Peter, watches him work. And sometimes, when he looks at Peter, Peter looks back at him. Alex is still trying to fathom what that means.

He sleeps each night like the dead, does not dream.

*

Alex meets his other neighbours, the Goodmans, at church. He has a boxed pew to himself, which is his right as Cousin John’s heir. He feels very much as if he is somehow on display, scrutinised by all, has to resist the urge to stare back at the congregation. He fixes the priest with his full attention, even through the interminable sermon, and does not slip out immediately after the service as he wishes. The Goodmans are the first to introduce themselves, and he finds himself agreeing to dine with them that night.

Their house is about a mile away, so he foregoes the carriage. It is a cold, crisp night, and a pleasant walk along the narrow country lane. His breath turns to steam as he walks, and the frost is already silvering the grass on the verge, and some of the puddles are already turning to ice. It will be difficult work tomorrow, digging the roots up from the iron-hard earth. His hands are already roughened by his toil, his always lanky frame filling out. His mother would be utterly bemused by the change in him. It is one thing to become a country squire, quite another to become a labourer.

Mr and Mrs Goodman are welcoming and gracious hosts, their unaffected manners putting Alex immediately at his ease. He has a horror of dinner parties, as he is generally invited either to make up the numbers or because his hosts have some unmarriageable female relative they wish to thrust upon him. Here, he has only to make conversation with their two daughters, and, to his surprise, Peter. Peter is dressed smartly, his cravat dashingly tied, his shoes polished to perfection. To see him indoors, and not grimy and dishevelled is utterly strange, but when he smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners, it still feels as though it is just the two of them in the garden, working together.

They walk back together, the moon lighting their way as if it were daylight. Peter’s eyes look black as pitch in the moonlight, his skin silver. They lean into each other as they walk, the brandy making their knees soft, their speech lazy. He feels immeasurably blessed in that moment, contentment stealing up on him until all he can do is smile. Cousin John may only have been acting on a whim, and the title may well die with Alex, but it still feels as if he is in precisely the right place, at the right time. He tries to tell Peter this, but can scarcely articulate it. Peter laughs at him, slings an arm around his shoulder, carelessly affectionate, so he must understand at least a part of what Alex is trying to say.

*

”I think some of these roots have been here since the Fall,” Peter says, leaning back and tipping his head up to the sky. He has removed his coat and waistcoat, stands there in his undress, the shirt clinging in places to his skin where he has sweated. Alex smiles, looking down at the plan he has sketched out of how it will look, taken from the old drawings he found in the library a few days ago.

“Keep digging,” he says. “Only another score of briars to dig up.”

“You dig.”

“I have thinking to do.”

Alex keeps his face as mild as buttermilk as Peter glares, meekly accepts the fork that Peter thrusts at him. He can do both. After a minute of watching Alex work, Peter picks up his fork. They work together, the quiet only broken by the song of a robin on a nearby branch.

It is backbreaking work. They take a pickaxe to the soil in places, break through the frozen ground. They try to contain the box hedge, to at least create the suggestion of a border line. The box hedge knotwork is important, too, although that will take years of pruning to train it back to its former shape. They prune the old rosebushes until their hands are bleeding, the skeletal forms of the roses dark against the scattering of the snow on the floor.

As they work, they talk. Peter tells him of his time on the Continent, of his wild younger sister, his brother's struggle to find a decent regiment. Peter lives alone in a sprawling farmhouse, living the life of a country squire and desiring little else. He has the enviable ability to be content with precisely what he has, at ease in any situation. They go to the local inn after a hard afternoon's work, sit by the fire and toast their labours and travails. Peter seems to know everyone there, and draws Alex in to every one of his conversations. And, bit by bit, Alex gains some of Peter's ease in company.

*

He writes to a merchant he knew of old in Amsterdam, ordering bulbs to be delivered. They save what they can of the flowers in the borders, choked as they are with briars and bindweed. Alex finds himself consulting books about flowers and gardening, learns the right time to plant seeds, the proper pruning of trees and shrubs. Peter is a surprising source of knowledge, good with his hands, versed in skills that Alex has only seen mentioned in the books he reads.

"Most of the stone is still good-- see, it's good, solid rock. A bit of mortar, and the wall will be perfect."

Alex looks down at the tumbled mess of stone, then back at Peter. Then, because he likes to work on the assumption that Peter is right, he begins to work through the lumps of stone. He has no experience of building, but he will learn. He has done nothing but learn, these past few months. He spares a thought for his friends in London, for how aghast they would be if they knew how rough and dirty his hands were, how chapped his lips, how windblown his cheeks.

"Perfect?"

Peter just nods, winks at him. "Trust me," he says, and to Alex's surprise, he does.

*

The snowdrops seem to appear all at once one morning, shaded by a coppice of trees away from the knot garden. There will be crocuses, perhaps, primroses and cowslips, but for now, the snowdrops are all the flowers he needs, giving him the hope of a garden, long sleeping, coming to life. Lily would have loved them. She would have loved everything about this garden.

When Peter comes, Alex shows him the snowdrops. When Peter smiles at him, it is soft, more gentle than Alex is used to, with none of the amusement that usually shows in his sharp green eyes. They stand facing each other, and it feels as if they are on the edge of something, some greater journey that they will take together. It can wait, though. Now, there is work to do. They walk together, side by side, back into the garden, leaving the snowdrops at the edge of the trees, just waiting for spring.