Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1:
On the morning of his seventieth birthday, in the Jubilee month of June 1897, Adam Swann, onetime cavalryman, subsequently haulier extraordinary, now landscaper and connoisseur, picked up his Times, turned his back on an erupting household, and stumped down the curving drive to his favourite summer vantage point, a knoll sixty feet above the level of the lake overlooking the rustic building entered on the Tryst estate map as "The Hermitage."
His wife, Henrietta, glimpsing his disapproving back as he emerged on the far side of the lilac clump, applauded his abrupt departure. Never much of a family man, preoccupied year by year with his own extravagant and mildly eccentric occupations, he had a habit of getting under her feet whenever she was organising a social event and preparation for a family occasion on this scale demanded concentration.
By her reckoning there would be a score sitting down to dinner, without counting some of the younger grandchildren, who might be allowed to stay up in honour of the occasion. She knew very well that he would regard a Swann muster, scheduled for dinner that night, as little more than an obligatory family ritual, but she was also aware that he would humour her and the girls by going through the motions. Admittedly it was his birthday and an important milestone in what she never ceased to regard as anything but a long and incredibly adventurous journey, but she knew him well enough, after thirty-nine years of marriage, to face the fact that celebrations of this kind had no real significance for him. Whenever he gave his mind to anything it needed far more substance and permanence than an evening of feasting, a few toasts, a general exchange of family gossip. That kind of thing, to his way of thinking, was a woman's business and such males who enjoyed it were, to use another phrase of his, "Men who had run out of steam" -an odd metaphor in the mouth of a man who had made his pile out of draught horses.
As for him, Henrietta decided, watching his deliberate, slightly halting progress down the drive and then hard right over the turf to the knoll, he would almost surely die with a full head of steam. Increasing age, and retirement from the city life eight years before, had done little to slow him down and encourage the repose most successful men of affairs regarded as their right on the far side of the hill. He had never changed much and now he never would. Indeed, to her and to everyone who knew him well, he was still the same thrustful Adam of her youth, of a time when he had come riding over a fold of Seddon Moor in the drought summer of 1858 and surprised her, an eighteen-year-old runaway from home, washing herself in a puddle. He was still a dreamer and an actor out of dreams. Still a man who, unless his creative faculties were fully stretched, became moody and at odds with himself and everyone about him. In the years that had passed since he had surrendered his network to his second son, George, she had adjusted to the fact that old age, and the loss of a leg, had diminished neither his physical nor mental energies. He continued to make many of his local journeys on horseback. He still followed, through acres of newsprint, the odysseys of his hardfisted countrymen and the egregious antics of their commercial imitators overseas. All that had really happened, when he moved over to make room for George, was the exchange of one obsession for another.
Once it had been his network. Now it was the embellishment and reshaping of his estate that had filled the vacuum created by his retirement. He still made occasional demands on her as a bed-mate, but she was long since reconciled to the fact that there was a part of him, the creative part, that was cordoned off, as sacrosanct as Bluebeard's necropolis, even from George, his business heir, and from Giles, who did duty for his father's social and political conscience; even from network cronies out of his adventurous past, who occasionally visited him and were conducted on an inspection of the changes he had wrought in this sector of the Weald since taking it into his head to make Tryst one of the showplaces of the county. There were some wives, she supposed, who would have been incapable of acquiescing to this area of privacy in a man for whom they had borne five sons and four daughters. Luckily for both of them Henrietta Swann was not one of them. She had always been aware both of her limitations and her true functions and had never quarrelled with them, or not seriously.
To reign as consort of a man whose name was a household word was more than she had ever expected of life and fulfilment had been hers for a very long time now. Her place in his heart was assured and their relationship, since she had passed the age of child-bearing and become a grandmother, was as ordered as the stars in their courses. Any woman who wanted more than that was out looking for trouble.