Arriving home after three years' absence, Lord Lyddington discovers that his sister is having his garden remodelled. Being a convivial soul, he is pleased to discover a friend and roistering companion in his gardener's nephew, "Master" Sutcliffe. Young Sutcliffe is not all he seems however, and soon the Earl is obliged to reassess his ideas.
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His Lordship's Gardener
By Ann Barker
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 1999 Ann Barker
All rights reserved.
Lyddington Court would never have figured as a fashionable place to visit, but those who knew it, loved it. In an age when taste was everything, it was a tribute to no one's taste, precisely because everyone who had lived there had added something to give themselves pleasure, but had knocked nothing down.
In life, there are people who hoard; people who never give anything away, either because they love it, or because 'one never knows when it might come in handy'.
The Sarrell family were in the main mostly hoarders by nature, and none had yet wanted to tear down any part of what had been built and was always seen as a family home. There had been Sarrells living there in the fifteenth century, but at that time, the castle where they lived had been up on Ampthill hill, looking out not towards Bedford, but in the direction of Woburn and Dunstable, and taking in the little village of Lidlington. It was from that village that the first earl had taken his title, when it was bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth I.
In the days when there was a castle there, there was also a castle at Bedford, which took precedence. It was this, as much as anything, that caused the second earl, perhaps the most ruthless of the family historically, to decide that the days of castles were done. He tore down most of the castle, leaving an interesting ruin on the hill, and built a manor house nestling in a more sheltered position at its foot.
Around the gates of the new house, a village grew to serve its inhabitants – in fact, the self-same village which had just recently been demolished. This was named Lidlington Over, in order to distinguish it from the original village of Lidlington. Visitors interested in historical detail were apt to ask for the significance of the word 'over'. They were generally disappointed to have explained to them that the word was used to signify the Lidlington 'over there' as opposed to the original one.
Time went by and words changed their pronunciation, until eventually, by the time of Charles II, the village's name, and the earl's title, were both settled as Lyddington.
It was the second earl who had built the main central area of the house, with its hall, adjoining kitchen area and parlour, and great chamber with other chambers above, together with a chapel. Thankfully for the solvency of the Sarrells, he offended the queen by marrying against her will – not greatly, but enough to ensure that she never paid him one of those royal visits, so cripplingly expensive for the host.
A succeeding Sarrell added the gatehouse, long after such fortified entrances were necessary. However, no later Sarrell ever had the heart to tear it down; and anyway, it was useful for housing visitors. A later, Palladian-minded Sarrell, tried to make the house symmetrical, but with very little success, as his sentimental nature would not allow him to demolish anything that was already there. The result of all this activity over the generations was a real hotchpotch of styles which pleased no one of an artistic bent, but which felt like home to those who inhabited it.
The present Earl of Lyddington – the ninth – had gone away leaving his sister carte blanche, for he had had every confidence in her ability to handle all matters of business. Of course, it had not occurred to him that she might demolish an entire village, or he would almost certainly have prohibited it. However, the villagers seemed perfectly happy, as far as he could tell.
As for his own house, other than redecoration, the building of an orangery and the total reorganization of his garden, she had not touched the fabric of the place, and that was what mattered to him. He had never had any real fear that she would change his home in any essentials. She was too much of a Sarrell for that.
The parlour in the oldest part of the house was where the earl took most of his meals when he was not entertaining. It was a cosy room, with a low ceiling, exposed beams, and wood panelling. Instead of the original flagstones, the floor had been lined with wood and carpeted, and on winter days, it was one of the warmest rooms in the house.
It was in this room that Lady Valeria Cardingholme found her brother, Spencer Stephen Sarrell, Lord Lyddington, seated in a chair by the fire – for although it was June, the weather was unseasonably chilly – enjoying a hearty breakfast, his bandaged foot resting on a stool.
'Good morning, Spencer,' she said briskly, helping herself to scrambled eggs and toast from the chafing dish. 'You have always wanted an excuse not to rise when I enter the room, and now you have found it.'
'Damnation, Valeria, have a little sympathy,' responded his lordship with a wry grin. 'I spent the whole of yesterday in bed, remember. Pour me some more ale, there's a good girl.'
'I'm sure I don't know why I should,' replied her ladyship, obliging nevertheless. 'After all, you brought this entirely upon yourself.'
'Brought it....' His lordship's voice faded away in wrathful astonishment.
'Yes, brought it upon yourself. And do not try to tell me that you were not as drunk as a ... a....'
'Skunk? Newt? Wheelbarrow?' suggested the earl helpfully.
'Yes, any of those! Because I should not believe it.'
'Well, and what of it? If an Englishman ain't entitled to get roaring drunk on his own land, then it's the first I've heard of it. And if it hadn't been for this leg, I would have been up on my feet, as polite as any dashed courtier.'
Lyddington forked up a mouthful of cold beef from the tray set on the table at his right hand, followed it with a piece of bread and butter, and washed the whole down with a draught of ale. Her ladyship turned away disdainfully.
'I might have guessed you would find an excuse for not sitting at the table as well.'
'If you can find a means whereby I can get this under the table then I shall be happy to join you,' said he, pointing to his bandaged foot.
'I presume the doctor will be returning to look at it again,' remarked his sister.
'Mmm,' replied the earl, failing for some reason to look her in the eye. Her ladyship regarded him intently, instantly mistrustful of his change in manner.
'Spencer, the doctor has been, hasn't he? Did he come when I was over at the home farm?' she asked.
'It's not broken,' said the earl blithely. 'It's just a severe strain. I've got to keep off it for a few days.'
'Spencer, who saw it?' asked his sister suspiciously.
'Ruddles looked at it for me,' said his lordship, again not looking at her.
'Ruddles!' exclaimed Lady Valeria almost in a shriek. 'You asked your groom to look at your ankle?'
'Well, you know, when Bessy strained a fetlock....'
'Spencer, you are not a horse with a strained fetlock, you are a peer of the realm!'
'Yes, I am!' replied the earl vigorously. 'And I'm damned if some managing female —'
'Who happens to be your sister —'
'... whoever she is, is going to dictate to me what I do with my health. When my leg drops off, then you can send for the doctor. Will that suit you?'
'You know perfectly well that will not suit me at all!' retorted her ladyship, 'for despite your excessive obstinacy, I am disposed to be fond of you. You are, after all, the only brother I have.'
'My dear sister, such an admission deserves a reward, so allow me to say that I like the new colour scheme in the dining-room. It's a vast improvement, I find.'
Lady Valeria coloured slightly with pleasure. She had put a great deal of thought into the decorations that she had chosen, and always at the back of her mind had been the consideration that the previous Lady Lyddington – the earl's late wife – had been responsible for the choosing of them.
She had never really understood the relationship that had existed between Spencer and Alfreda Comberley. Certainly, he had courted and married the well-dowered beauty within a very short space of time, and the match between the season's greatest toast and London's greatest care-for-naught had been the talk of the town. Such was the speed of the courtship that it was rumoured to be a love match. Despite such rumours, however, once wed, they had gone their own ways, as did many fashionable couples.
When six months with child, the Countess of Lyddington had travelled home from London, making a diversion to her parents' home in Cambridgeshire, and leaving her husband behind in town; it was to be her last visit to them before her lying in. Indeed, it had proved to be a last visit altogether, for the night before she was due to leave them, a raging fire had all but destroyed Comberley Hall, taking with it many lives, including that of the countess, her parents, and her unborn child.
Upon his bereavement, the earl had conducted himself with all the solemnity and dignity that might have been expected of one in his situation. But he did not remain in England long, and indeed during the fifteen years since his wife's death, he had been out of the country for longer than he had been in it, and the latest absence had been for three unbroken years.
Her mind dwelling on these facts, her ladyship found herself saying, 'For how long are you staying this time?'
'I'm not at all sure,' he replied, passing his tankard for more ale. 'Long enough to inspect all the changes, at any rate. Which reminds me, why the devil did you move Lyddington Over?'
'It was no longer fashionably situated,' said Lady Valeria defensively. 'And besides, you did say that I might do what I pleased.'
'Did I really? I must have been demented. And in any case, I was referring to my own home. I didn't say you could do what you pleased with anyone else's. Did you ask them?'
'Ask them? Certainly not,' retorted her ladyship haughtily. 'It is your village, after all.'
'Yes, I know. But it's their home. Only the circumstances of most of them seeming to feel that they like it better now reconciles me to the idea.'
Lady Valeria looked a little offended.
'I only wanted to help, after all ...' she began.
'Stuff and nonsense,' retorted his lordship good humouredly. 'What you wanted was to be in charge. You've nobody to boss about at your house in Bath, and Charlotte's husband would soon send you packing if you tried it at Sunnings, so my house is ideal. Well, I don't mind, in fact, I think you've done a fine job; I've just said so. But there are limits; and I think that in moving Lyddington Over without my express approval, you crossed those limits. That's all.'
Lady Valeria stood up, utterly speechless, and absolutely furious. Then at last, her bosom swelling, she managed to give voice to an outraged 'Ooh!' whereupon she swept majestically from the room, leaving the earl chuckling to himself.
The unpleasant atmosphere between brother and sister did not last long; it never did. The earl had always been able to wheedle his way around his sister. While she was seated in the newly decorated drawing-room, totally ignoring the fine view of the terrace, and instead stabbing her needle viciously into a piece of embroidery that would never be the same again, he came upon her, grinning ruefully and assisted by two impassive footmen. Her temper was no more resentful than was her brother's, and she found herself returning his grin with one so alike that no one seeing them at that moment could possibly have failed to recognize them as brother and sister.
She put down her embroidery, but knew better than to try and help him to his chair.
'I'm glad you approve of some of the things I've done,' she remarked.
'Of all of them, to be honest,' he replied, after a word of thanks to the footmen who then effaced themselves. 'Even the village; although I have to say that it is the apparent improvement in the condition of the houses themselves that I approve; not the moving of the village.'
'Only because it means you will have to ride further in order to get drunk at the Lyddington Arms.'
'There have been worse reasons for leaving something where it is. Now tell me about the gardens.'
Her ladyship immediately became animated.
'Ah yes, the gardens. I have put a great deal of time and thought into what to do about them, and at length I have decided to employ one Thomas Sutcliffe.'
Lyddington drew his brows together.
'Sutcliffe? I don't believe I've heard of him.'
'No, perhaps not, but he comes very highly recommended, and he worked under Repton for a time. His plans are very impressive.'
'I should like to meet him, and also to see these plans.'
'I believe that they are laid out in the steward's room,' she replied.
'Then I had better go there,' replied the earl, making as though to stand, and realizing again his incapacity. 'Damn!' he declared forthrightly, then lifting his voice, he bellowed, 'James! Frederick!'
'Spencer, really,' murmured his sister, in the long-suffering tones of one who has said a thing many times and never been heeded. 'There are such things as bells, you know.'
The footmen hurried in, and helped his lordship to his feet, for which service he thanked them politely, but with gritted teeth. He was a vigorous, active man, and hated to be so dependent upon another for the smallest thing.
On arrival in the steward's room, he found to his consternation, a completely empty table and no steward visible.
'Confound it,' he declared irritably, once settled in a high-backed wooden chair with arms. 'Frederick, go and see if you can find the steward. And James, make sure that m'sister meant the steward's room and not the book-room, will you?'
Both of the footmen departed on their different errands, and the earl sat impatiently, drumming his fingers on the table top. Eventually, the door opened, but to the earl's surprise it did so to admit a complete stranger. It was a young man dressed neatly and with propriety and wearing a close brown wig. He was slightly built, but there was in his step a resilience that hinted at wiry strength. At sight of his lordship, he bowed politely, whilst the earl knit his thick dark brows.
'Who the devil are you?' he asked.
'I am Masters, My Lord,' said the young man with wary respect, as he moved forward into the room.
'I'm none the wiser,' retorted the earl. 'Perhaps I should rather have said, "what the devil are you doing in my house"?'
'I ... I am your agent, My Lord,' replied the young man, rapidly losing any self-assurance that he might have had to start with.
For several long moments, the earl stared at him in silence, then, in tones of fury, he exclaimed, 'God in heaven, am I to be treated like a child at every turn? Upon my honour, it appears that I had best never leave again, for fear of what might occur! Whole villages are destroyed, my house is altered beyond recognition, plans that I have a perfect right to peruse are not available to me, and the management of my estate is given over to a ... a babe in arms. What is the meaning of this, and where the devil is Bobkiss?'
'Spencer, you would try the patience of a saint,' said his sister, who had come in behind him. 'You know perfectly well that you have been pleased to approve the changes that I have made to the Court, whilst the business of the village has been settled. There is absolutely no need for you to rip up at Masters in that dreadful style.'
Masters looked apprehensively from brother to sister. Such a speech would surely only incense the earl further, were that possible. However, after a moment or two, the earl responded in a far more moderate tone.
'You are right as always, Valeria. Your pardon, Masters; but I would still like to know how you come to be here.'
'What I should like to know,' interposed Lady Valeria, giving Masters no chance to speak, 'is what has happened to all the letters that I have sent you, Spencer? I have informed you in writing of every decision that I have taken, but you disclaim knowledge of any of them. I wrote to you some months ago, telling you that Bobkiss has had to retire because of ill health, and that I was taking on Masters who comes strongly recommended by my friend, Rosemary Ferrier. You, however —'
'Thank you, Valeria,' said his lordship firmly. 'You have now very thoroughly put me in my place and can have nothing more to say! Don't be afraid on Masters' account; I shan't bully him any more.'
'Women,' said the earl in accents of loathing as the door closed. 'Take my advice, Masters, and never marry. Women are the very devil.' He smiled quizzically at the young man as he spoke. Masters inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement that his lordship had spoken; but in his eyes there remained a slight wariness, and not a flicker of humour. Leaving the subject, therefore, the earl continued in a businesslike manner, 'Now, two things I want to be satisfied about straight away: what provision has been made for Bobkiss and his wife?'
Excerpted from His Lordship's Gardener by Ann Barker. Copyright © 1999 Ann Barker. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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