The Temple of Optimismby James Fleming
Sir Anthony Apreece, a man accustomed to having his own way, covets the land of his young neighbour, the carefree Edward Horne. For his part Edward covets Daisy, Anthony's wife. On these deceptively simple foundations, James Fleming has built a tale rich with humour, guile, intrigue, and tenderness. The large cast of characters, high and humble alike, are drawn with penny-bright sureness; the narrative positively sings. And as Edward stirs to a slow realization of Sir Anthony's intentions, and falls deeper and deeper in love with Daisy, the suspense grows and the novel races exhilaratingly toward its gloriously unconventional conclusion.
- Miramax Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.44(w) x 9.62(h) x 1.07(d)
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GREY BOLSTERS of cloud rolled across the sky, their bellies tinged with pink. Like elephants, he thought, or Daphne Cuthbert's jowls. He leaned a little further out of bed. Everywhere it was the same, from one horizon to the other. He scratched his ribs. So today was to be no different at Winterbourne from any other in this strange month of June 1771. Wise men would wear a hat in the certainty of rain, fools would not, and both would be right. The cattle would stare silently into the river Eve and the leaves hang flabby and moist. The smallest noise would travel for miles. Everything would be middling and dull. It was not at all the weather that Nathaniel Horne was used to among the hills of Derbyshire.
He crossed his hands over his plump, furry stomach and lay back twiddling his thumbs. The conversation of birds going about their vital, early-morning business, the distant noises from the stables, the rumbles from the kitchen area, all were congenial to him. He liked to be where things happened. Movement of any sort was attractive to his impatient, capricious mind. He was a person in whom the sight of a fresh hole in the ground excited the same rustle of anticipation as the words Terra Incognita! evoke in an inveterate explorer. `Ah,' he would say, peering down or up, or along; at any rate fixing his brown and marvelling eye to what he pronounced as the arperture and fiddling inside it with his stick `can it be that the mole still sleepeth, and that the lion roareth not?', or `Doth Mrs Brock snore while Adam delves?', or any one of a number of homely biblicisms that he hadcomposed out of an instinctive sympathy for the animal kingdom. A hole in which one of his men was working attracted him as surely as a catapult a schoolboy, for it combined the best of both worlds: an underground mystery and the chance for a pow-wow. Hard on the heels of why? would follow an amiable inquisition about the man's health, his wife's sores, the ease of digging, the composition of the soil and then, more likely than not, some loosely tangential anecdote that had happened, as they conversed, to bound fully accoutred into his fructuous brain.
Anything concerning drainage was a source of endless fascination to him. To watch the deep square drain in the stableyard being unblocked left him with a sense of total fulfilment. As Amos Paxton, his steward, poured in a bucket of water at the top, he'd scamper on his chubby legs to its mouth in the orchard to see it cleanse. `Exemplary,' he'd chortle, dashing his hat against his knee. Or `That'll let the air in, eh lads!' jabbing with the tip of his cane at the flotilla of horse turds that bobbled like rotten apples beneath his fleshy nose. In this respect, as in many others, Nat Horne had retained into middle age a pleasing sort of childishness.
His favourite expressions were mudgy me, by Jove and by Jupiter. Some of his friends even called him Jupiter Horne to his face. But he was never disconcerted or thought they presumed too far. He just grinned and pronounced himself extraordinarily flattered.
He clasped his hands behind his head and smiled the reposeful smile of a man content with his lot and having before him the prospect of an agreeable day doing nothing urgent.
In point of fact he had never done anything urgent throughout his fifty years, unless one excepts the vicarious urgency that is involved in riding a horse flat out in the name of vulpicide. It was merely the impression that he gave. His entire manner proclaimed the end of time if the blacksmith had not finished shoeing the oxen by such-and-such an hour, or the fleeces been bagged by noon. But he never meant it. It was the way he was, sea water without brine.
To matters of domestic economy he was indifferent. In the mornings he would breakfast by himself, for preference off a snipe and a poached egg, his small jaws agitating rapidly as he considered his day. After a conference with Paxton, he'd perch himself jovially atop Pilot, the towering grey gelding that he'd bought principally for its name, and set out to inspect his projects, aflood with bustle and enthusiasm, proposing this and belaying the other: exhorting, interfering and contradicting himself but always with such good humour and absence of condescension that not one person on Winterbourne estate ever thought the less of him. `It's the master's way, it can't be helped,' his men would say as they shifted a hundred drainage pegs eighteen inches to the left. No one could take against an employer with a face that glowed like a conker and such a cheery way of carrying on.
At midday he would return for a slice of cold pie. Perhaps he would then have a nap, curled up on the sofa. And perhaps he would not. It all depended on the events of the morning. For instance, the trill of a skylark wavering above the moors might inspire him to enumerate all the birds that sang as they flew. Then nothing would satisfy him until he had established whether the plink of a blackbird as it flitted from bush to bush was from pleasure (which made it eligible) or from alarm (which disqualified it). Or it might occur to him as he inspected the stables to make a pet out of a bat. (Thus, in fact, did he once spend an entire summer and so greatly amused his neighbours until, at a dinner the Cuthberts were giving for the bishop, he produced it from his pocket and invited the company to observe its appetite for liver.) Or he might be overtaken by a desire to devise a mechanism for quantifying the flow of water from a well. Or for weeks be heard trying to measure in a certain hollow the distance required for the perfect reflection of one syllable of echo. (In 1768 he described the results in a paper he read at the Assembly Room in town. But since he got carried away by the excitement of it all as he ran up and down the stage shouting `Pantaloon', which was his test word, no one was able to hear his conclusion 105 feet a syllable and he had to go round later repeating this nugget.)
These were what he termed his Private Enquiries, as distinct from his morning labours which he classed as Agriculturalism.
At four p.m. Digworth smote the gong, first in the hall with three stately taps of a pro-forma nature and then, should his master not appear, on a valorous thumping circuit of the terrace, crying out between each series of blows, `Cutlets today, Mr Horne, beetroot soup, kidneys, suet pudding ...' This was the summons for the main meal of the day for Nat and his wife, Lady Blanche.
Afterwards he surrendered himself to the duties of a husband. Once a week in the winter he would take the trap into Buxton and partner his friend Major Seddon, late of the Fencible Regiment, in a rubber or two of whist. It was a game that he played noisily and with sly skill. Sometimes in the summer he'd go with his terrier and his fishing rod for a walk beside the little river Eve. But these, it was clearly understood between them, were concessions by Blanche.
Fox-hunting in its season had been a favourite pastime until he had fallen out with the owner of the hounds, his neighbour at Overmoor.
Blanche was of a less brisk disposition and especially so before her morning cup of chocolate. No one was more aware of this than Nat after twenty-three years of marriage. And since he loved her (he looked down fondly to where she lay beside him, her knees drawn up towards her chest and her head half-hidden by the covers), he adhered loyally to the terms of their truce: that so long as he did not move or speak before Digworth brought up his hot water, he was free of all obligations towards her (except on Sundays, holy days and when they had callers) up to the moment the four o'clock gong struck.
So on this morning as on others he lay by her side and waited, quivering, for the crackle of Digworth's catarrh in his dressing-room. It occurred to him that he might have Digworth shave him in the afternoon. Was it today the Scarletts were coming, or was it on Thursday? And was there actually a difference between one day and the next? Time should be treated like dough, he thought, and chopped up to suit one's needs and not according to some fusty convention.
He wiggled his toes and watched a spider with an oval, putty-coloured body tiptoe up the bed-curtains. By Jove but he'd been lucky to snare a wealthy wife! He traced with a fingernail the twist of gold thread that spiralled through the blue-grey bed-curtains. By Jove yes, that'd been a stroke of unmitigated good fortune finding himself acceptable to a peer's daughter. Not that he'd been out tuft-hunting, mind you. Absolutely not. It had been from the first a marriage of love as far as he was concerned. Well, perhaps unmitigated was an exaggeration. Blanche's marriage portion had made a difference. One had to be candid about it. It had allowed him to do all sorts of things at Winterbourne that he could never have managed from his own resources. But it had added to their union a couleur that he sometimes regretted. It was a matter of pride, really.
A lock of dark hair had escaped from her nightcap and settled laxly across her thin cheek. When they were married they'd laughed at the contrast between her cap, which invariably greeted the morning as neat as new, and his, which when it could be found at all, had the appearance of having been savaged by a mastiff during the night. But that had been years ago. Before Edward was born. Before laughter became less plentiful.
He picked his nose and started to fidget. He crooked a finger round the hem of the bed-curtains and again examined the sky. The fish bellies were losing their lustre and the clouds congealing into one huge canopy the colour of lava. Invisible in the depths of the horse chestnut tree that grew on the edge of the lawn, two wood pigeons gurgled to each other as they brazened and strutted amidst the foliage. He heard the skeek of a kestrel a long way off. He heard Digworth shuffling around in his dressing-room. His eyes lit up. There was a tap on the door. It was enough and with a haroosh of the covers he plunged through the bed-curtains like an opera singer who hears five hundred voices baying for an encore. Within seconds he was shouting down the stairwell for his chocolate, his breakfast, Amos Paxton, his hat, horse, dog, the gardeners: in short, for everyone and everything that his imagination had listed as imperative for his enjoyment of the day. And when no one responded, he set off for the nether regions of his large and crumbling mansion with his nightshirt billowing round his little legs and his slipper heels cracking on the stair treads.
Blanche, who had been awake for a good hour but had not wished to advertise the fact, uncoiled herself and flung an arm across her eyes. At a distance that was altogether insufficient, she listened to doors slamming, the joyful yelps of Trump, the rumble of Paxton's voice and the clatter of something dropped on stone flags. To Nat talking nonsense to Trump as he climbed back up the stairs. To Nat washing, Nat singing, the window being lifted, to Nat addressing the weather as if he were Harry Hotspur on the eve of battle. Had it ever been otherwise?
She laid a finger across her lower lip and pressed it against the gum. Yes, that night three years ago when it had been so cold that he'd had to get up twice to bank the fire. Had stolen every one of the blankets. Had lain doggo even when Digworth brought up his water and eventually, as quiet as a mouse, had disappeared to return carrying the thermometer in his gloved hands.
`Look at it, my dear,' he had said in a voice of awe, `fourteen degrees of frost in the kitchen larder, in the kitchen larder would you believe.' Then he'd put the thermometer in the bed, jumped in after it and for the next hour (in fact until 32°F was achieved) informed her with sepulchral glee of the upward progress of the mercury.
It had been, she decided, the only day of their married life that had commenced without a fanfare. Was it impossible for him to do anything quietly? Did he have to attack every hour as if it were his last? Frankly she was sick of it. There were times when she couldn't have cared twopence if he and Edward and these great barracks they lived in all flew off to the moon. She had been faithful to him, faithful, dutiful and sharing. She had fulfilled the most painful and humiliating obligation of a wife by giving birth to the tiresome Edward, and she felt she was owed something in return.
She had never disguised from him her contempt for their neighbours. She had never for a moment pretended she felt other than she did about the discomforts of Winterbourne from the day he had brought her there as his bride and their carriage got stuck on the moor. Once, on a bitter February evening when the draughts coming under the door had made even the carpets shiver, she had taken off her mittens and shown him her chilblains. She had looked him squarely in the eye and said she could not tolerate another winter in the place. They must buy a town house in London: nothing excessive, just so long as it had some decent rooms where she could entertain her friends. But she had known immediately it was hopeless. His face had puckered like that of a child whose kite has lodged in a tree. `You mean, go to town just as the fun is starting here? No hunting or duck shooting? I couldn't do that. Go to London for the winter? I'd sooner die.' So she had desisted. If it meant choosing between London and Nat, at the end of the day she'd rather have Nat.
It was not, she thought as she shook out her long black tresses, that he was a scoundrel. He did not beat her, ignore her or patronise her. When he needed her money (which was whenever he called her his little treasure), he was civil and, so far as she could tell, truthful. He did not gamble for anything more than a few pennies when he went off to play whist. He was not a rake. He was still handsome and, in his own fashion, charming. No, on not one point of his externals had she any right to complain. The real problem was that a little of him went a long way. He was everywhere at once. To reflect was unthinkable, to idle anathema. No sanctuary existed that was completely free of his Jack-in-the-box personality. Total strangers became his best friends at the drop of a hat and with their retinues would invade Winterbourne for weeks on end, filling the house with their nonsense and denying her a moment's peace. He was, she knew, the most exhausting man on the planet.
`Help yourselves,' he'd boom, his brown eyes sparkling as the newest troupe spilled into the hall with their dogs and children and without an instant's hesitation began, like gold miners, to drive home their pegs in this adventitious El Dorado. `Only two things you need to know at Winterbourne: grog's in the cupboard that way, the necessary place in the cupboard that way. All that's mine is yours. Stay the winter if you can, the duck'll give capital sport by and by. Her ladyship'll be delighted, won't you, my ruby?' And then with absolutely no concept of propriety, not even a flicker of comme il faut, he'd give her waist a blustery squeeze in exactly the same way as he did to Cook on her birthday. It was embarrassing beyond words. She deserved better.
`Your coat, Mr Horne, don't go forgetting your coat now. It'll likely rain before the day's out.'
`Blast it! Oh very well, Digworth, if you insist. Come on then, Packy, time we were off.'
Footsteps crunched through the gravel towards her window. So, they were on their way, Nat and his faithful Paxton, to make their customary tour of all his little projects. That's what he was, a dabbler: a noisy, bumbling dabbler. She heard him say something about having the windows reputtied. The footsteps stopped. She knew they were inspecting the sills. Nat whistled philosophically through his teeth. Then the gravel stirred as they set off again. No wonder he had insisted on having gravelled paths instead of slabbing them down as others did. Nothing silent could ever happen in gravel. Perhaps she should suggest they replace the drawing-room carpets with beds of gravel so he could march up and down having conversations with it and never disturb her.
`Tom Glossipp came to see me last night,' Amos was saying. `Asked if we'd be counting the lambs soon.'
`Why ever did he want to know that?'
`Pardon me saying so, Mr Horne, but he did the lambing again for us this spring, if you remember.'
Nat struck his forehead with the flat of his palm. She heard it plainly.
`Bless me, so he did! Memory's like a sieve these days. Of course he did! Good lad, Tom. Nice and gentle with his hands. Can't think what we'd do without him. Tell me, Packy, did we agree to pay him by the lamb or, ahem, for le tout lambing, if you follow me.' (They halted directly below her window.)
`By the lamb, sir. A farthing for every lamb living at June 1st and as the day's passed and he's seemingly got a need for the money '
`Trump! Trump!' Nat's roar seemed to emanate from under her very bed. `What the devil d'ye think you're doing rolling in that shite, you scabby little muck-worm, you. Come into heel this instant, d'ye hear me?' His voice faded to a purr. She heard him click his fingers and imagined the creature fawning at his boots with a besotted look in its eyes. And then he'd bring it into the house with him and let it jump on the sofa so that the servants would have to clean everything. God, but he knew how to try a woman.
`Very well then, Packy, we'll ride out to Britannia in the afternoon and count our way home. Tra-la-la, tra-la-lee, la, la-la lee. Now I was thinking last night ...'
They rounded the corner of the house and made off into the pleasure grounds. Soon only the sound of his distant rallies with the gardeners remained to displease her. She picked up her rosewood hand mirror and, as she waited for Margaret to bring in her chocolate, arranged her hair in girlish licks across her forehead.
`Will there be anything further, my lady?' Margaret asked later, putting down the nail scissors. Blanche considered. She must speak to Mrs Croft about provisions. Her sewing basket needed a good clear-out. She really should go to the schoolroom and see how Edward was faring with his new tutor, the beetle-browed Mr Dryce, MA. There were flowers to be cut if they were dry enough. Then she might read until Nat returned for his midday repast. If he did. A few pages of Pamela would divert her. But there was another thing
Though generally speaking immune to intellectual effort, Nat had recently discovered the pleasures, if she could use that word, of Tristram Shandy. `I say, little ruby,' he'd chirrup of an evening, uncrossing his legs, removing his spectacles and as usual interrupting her without any consideration for anyone but himself, `this fellow's extraordinarily droll for a parson. Wish we had more like him. Just listen to this, will you? What's happened is that Uncle Toby's had a misadventure. Mind you, we can't be sure but that's how it looks ' and then he'd read out the most frightful whimsy, bouncing round in his chair, pinching his nostrils and shrieking with laughter like a drunkard as the tears rolled down his cheeks. There was one passage in the book that had particularly caught his fancy. Somewhere in one of Shandy's interminable digressions, it was remarked by she forgot whom that of all the pleasures of bachelordom, the freedom to sleep diagonally across one's own bed was among the greatest. `The majesty of genius,' he said wistfully, `only an original could have put his finger on it so unerringly,' and when she retorted indignantly, but wasn't that what he did anyway, he responded, `Oh surely not. I lie as straight as a cucumber.' But it was true! He slept like an octopus! Arms and legs all over the place, grunting, groaning, twisting, nudging and kicking at her until she was consigned to an outpost no wider than a sandbank. And so it went on. If she was really unlucky, he'd lean forward and tap her on the knee and say, `Oh I must read that to you again, isn't he the funniest parson you ever did hear of?'
Once she had thought to humour him by reading a chapter for herself. But she had soon desisted, thinking to herself, why do I need to be any further acquainted with Mr Shandy when I have him living in the house with me already?
This thought put her off the idea of reading. She decided instead she would check the linen press after seeing Edward, and so instructed Margaret to meet her there with the housemaids at eleven. Then she scrutinised her fingernails down her long nose and slid angularly into the chemise Margaret was holding for her.
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