Copyright © 2021 Robert Loney
The Distracted Gardener
All Rights Reserved

The Distracted Gardener

An excerpt from Chapter 1

The Darling of the Estate

Diana Woodforde and Alan Sterling have known each other since they were small children, both born in 1835. He's a soldier now, about to leave for the Crimean War. On his last visit home, a village on the Chatsworth estate, Diana picks his pocket and leads him on a chase through the garden. They wind up in the maze and Alan finally catches her after a tortuous pursuit....

   'Now I've got you!'
   She fell to the ground in trying to wrestle free but he held her firmly.
   'You're getting grass stains on my dress!'
   'Just turn over the money and I'll let you go.'
   He pried the fingers of her right hand open and found an empty palm.
   'Let's see your other hand.'
   She held up both open palms, and then slapped him with each.
   'Where are they?' he demanded, grappling with her again.
   'I spent them already.
   'You must have a pocket somewhere.'
   'Careful where you look. What a rude man.'
   'Truly they're gone. Just like all your money will be when we're married.'
   Alan released her. 'I haven't asked you to marry me.'
   She cosied up to him. 'Some things don't need asking. They were meant to be. You don't ask a dog if he'll bark, or the wind if it'll blow. They do by nature. You don't ask the sun to rise in the morning....'
   'Or set at night,' Alan added gloomily.
   'No. They were meant to be.... You don't ask the rose to be fragrant, or the bumblebee's honey sweet.'
   'Or its sting painful, or the adder's bite deadly.'
   'No, they were meant to be,' intoned Diana. 'You don't ask the fox to be clever, or the brook to flow downhill.'
   'You don't ask a bull to be vicious, nor a she-bear robbed of her cubs.'
   'You don't ask the swan to be graceful,' Diana countered,' or the swallows to return in the spring.'
   'You don't ask the lash to be painful, or the hangman's noose to be tight.'
   'You don't ask the nightingale to sing sweetly, or the cock to crow at dawn. And you don't ask if we'll be married. It was meant to be.'
   'So I'm trapped?'
   'Irrevocably. Imagine the confusion that would be rampant if we didn't marry. If that isn't certain, then what is? Will the sun come up tomorrow? Will spring turn into summer? It would be socially irresponsible.'
   'I'm not going to marry just to satisfy idle gossip.'
   'It's hardly idle. With other people it's idle.... Did you know there's a rumour that Andrew Barnham has been seeing Alice Green?'
   'The laundry maid.'
   'Yes. And some people ask, "Will they be married?" It's natural to ask if they'll be married. But no one asks if we'll be married. I've never heard someone ask if we'll be married. It was meant to be-e-e.'
   'If you're going to marry the vicar's son, a certain standard of behaviour is required.'
   'Oh, your father's a stuffed shirt. And your mother's so prim - I'd like to spill something on her at one of her creamed teas.'
   'They happen to like you, although I sometimes wonder why.'    'I live off my mother's reputation, as you know.'
   'I don't want to marry your mother's reputation. Diana, we were children when we met. What are you to me but a playmate of my youth?'
   'The playmate of your youth.'
   'Well, who else was there?'
   'You know the fellows I sported with. Jamie Douglas, the Cockham boys...'
   'Those were your brothers' friends. You just tagged along.'
   'Jonathan Crace, Albert Collier, Lenny Barnes...'
   'They used to beat you up.'
   'They were bigger than me.... My brothers were playmates.'
   'They beat you up too. The vicar's sons were hellions.'
   'Surely you remember Billy Howard.'
   'I'd need a good memory. When did you last hear from Billy Howard? Eight years ago? Nine?'
   'Long enough for him to become Bill, I'm sure,' Alan agreed with a sigh.
   'Fact is, you spent most of your time with me. And I'm the only one left. Face it, Alan: nobody else likes you.'
   'You think I couldn't find another woman?'
   'You'd never be happy with another woman.'
   'Oh, Diana. What an absurd remark. You call this bliss?'
   'Well, name another woman.'
   Alan scowled as he tried to think.
   'Can't come up with one, can you? Then make one up. What kind of woman would you like to marry?'
   'If I tell you, will you try to be more like her?'
   'No. I'm just curious.'
   'The woman I'd marry,' said Alan dreamily. 'She'd be someone I could think of as a comrade, an ally - someone I could share my troubles with.'
   'That'd keep her busy."
   'She'd be someone I could carry on an intelligent conversation with. She'd be contemplative.'
   'You're contemplative enough for ten people. Just how much is there to contemplate?'
   'She'd be a rock of stability - someone I could hold up as an example to our children. She'd radiate decorum. She'd be... demure.'
   'What does that mean?'
   'Diana, what's the point of even talking about it with you?'
   'Very little. Wonderful as this creature might be, she doesn't exist.'
   'It's a big world. Maybe I should look beyond our lane.'
   'I could complain too, Alan. You think I don't wish you were different in some ways? You have some glaring defects.'
   'Like what?'
   'Your toes are too long. You could write with them.'
   'Oh-h, how trivial. Who cares?'
   'You're too melancholy.'
   'Next to you, anyone seems melancholy. Anyone who's the least bit reflective seems melancholy.'
   'Well, your worst defect is one I can hardly mention, but I've noticed it for years.'
   'You'd think me crude.'
   'Diana, you're whimsical, frivolous, carefree, and sometimes irreverent, but I'm confident I could never think of you as crude.'
   'I've always been afraid to tell you. There's nothing you can do about it anyway.'
   'Out with it!'
   'Frankly, dear, your rear end is too large.'
   'There's nothing wrong with my rear end!'
   'Oh-h, you could use a set of hind legs to carry it. It's true of your father and your brothers. It's the Sterling bum.'
   'That's preposterous. No one, in my entire life, has ever mentioned that.'
   'It's a hard subject to bring up. I didn't want to tell you. You're already too self-conscious.'
   'I'm not too self-conscious. You're as unconscious of yourself as you are of everything else, that's all.'
   Diana brushed his dishevelled hair into order. 'Don't get abusive,' she said tenderly. 'I wish it weren't true. I'd like to have perfect children, but I know they're all going to have gargantuan backsides. Can you question my devotion?'
   Alan lay back and his head found her lap.
   'Poor Alan. You're just no fun anymore. You take life far too seriously, and you're always borrowing trouble... and your ears need cleaning.'
   'Aw, stop it.'
   He knit the fingers of her right hand with his own and placed hers against his cheek. A sharp fragrance cut his nostrils and he put them to her wrist.
   'What are you wearing?'
   'Jasmine... I know rosemary is a symbol of faithfulness.'
   'I've never worn rosemary.'
   'Does jasmine stand for anything?'
   'No. It's just alluring.'
   'You wear it for me only, I trust.'    'For anyone with a nose. Only most people don't sniff my wrists.'
   'They're such slender wrists. I can touch my thumb and little finger around them.... Oh-h, and look at the little tendons running to your little hands so they can engage in their inconsequential activities.'
   She snatched away her disparaged member. 'I don't kill anyone with them.'
   He drew it back. 'They're lovely hands, Diana. They're perfectly formed like the rest of you. Such elegant housing. It deserves a noble soul. Diana, I don't want to marry a will-o'-the-wisp. I have to know that you're more than frolic. Could I lean on you in a crisis? Would you be supportive?'
   'I'll walk out on you as soon as you run out of cash.'
   'Diana, that doesn't encourage me. I want to think differently of you.... If I were ill, would you care for me?'
   'I'll hang a quarantine sign on the door and come back when it's over.'
   'Oh, Diana. I have such a high pedestal awaiting you. I'll help you onto it, if you'll let me. Please... What if something happened to me? Would you raise our children to honour my memory?'
   'I'll tell them they were sired by a peddler.'
   'Would you swear to any of that?'
   'What good's an oath from me? I don't have any moral fibre to back it up.'
   'Oh-h-h, Diana,' he whimpered.
   'I'm not going to bargain with you. You know that to part with me would be like abandoning your own soul. I find all this questioning offensive.'
   Alan sat up. 'You won't come my way at all?'
   'Not an inch.'
   'No compromise?'
   'I don't know the meaning of the word.'
   'I can believe that,' He reached into his pocket. 'I guess then there's nothing left to discuss.'
   'There wasn't anything in the first place. We've wasted all this time.'
   'We've wasted so much of the past nineteen years together. I'm not to ask if we'll be married, am I?'
   'You know the answer.'
   'It was meant to be.... Close your eyes.'
   'You think I trust you?'
   'I'm pretty sure you do.'
   'You're not sticking anything in my mouth,' she warned him, her eyelids shut.
   'Then keep it closed. Hold out your hand.... Now, take a look.'
   Her eyes opened, and then opened wider. 'A diamond ring!'
   'If we're going to be engaged, you ought to have one. See how it fits.'
   'Is it a real diamond?'
   'Yes, it's a real diamond. I bought it in London. I've been waiting for the right romantic moment to give it to you, but it hasn't come along.'
   'Oh, you fool.' She pushed him to the ground and smothered him with affection.
   'Easy, Delilah,' he finally managed to plead as he gasped for breath.
   'You can breathe later.' She proceeded to suck out his tonsils.
   Alan squirmed ineffectually. Then he lay helpless. At length he went limp.
   'Alan!' Diana slapped him repeatedly.
   His eyes opened slowly and he began to breathe heavily. 'It was the only way to get you to stop.'
   'Don't scare me like that.'
   He put his hand to his throat. 'You had your tongue in my windpipe.'
   'I did not.'
   'Do they still make demure women?'
   'Demure... Sounds French.' She pondered a moment. When will the wedding be?'
   'As soon as I get back.'
   'When will that be?'
   'In a few months. They expect this Russian business to be over in short order.'
   'So we can have a summer wedding?'
   'Should be able to.'
   Diana admired her ring. 'Can you really afford it? It must have cost so much.'
   'Eleven pounds.'
   Diana frowned, pulled off her shoe, and dumped out the confiscated coins. 'There. Now we're even. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and eleven pounds sterling in your shoe. Ha, ha.'


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A few weeks later