Copyright © 2021 Robert Loney
The Distracted Gardener
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The Distracted Gardener

An excerpt from Chapter 4

A Noble Widower

Haddon Hall sits on a limestone slope overlooking the River Wye which empties its crystalline water into the Derwent a few miles below Chatsworth. Much older than its Elizabethan neighbour, Haddon dates back nearly to the time of the Conquest. Almost abandoned by its owners at the beginning of the 18th century, it escaped the extensive rebuilding many of England's great houses underwent during the Georgian era. While these were modernized, Haddon slept and survived as a medieval manor house.
   It was sleeping still in Diana's day. A fine June afternoon found her aboard Roland, returning from the village of Youlgreave. She avoided the public roads, instead cutting through familiar fields and woods, and making a nearly straight line home. Her route would take her past Haddon Hall, whose towers and turrets loomed just ahead above the surrounding trees.
   As it was a Sunday, there had been only one likely purpose for her outing.
   'Why, socializing, of course.'
   I was about to say so, Diana. And who do you know at Youlgreave?
   'Who don't I know? My Grandma Woodforde lives there. I dropped in to see her. And then I was visiting with the parson's family.'
   And now you're going home to do some reading or write a letter maybe?
   'No, I think I'll put the kettle on and have Mary Ann over for a chat.'
   Oh. Well, I suppose there's merit in being such a social creature.
   'You suppose? What could be wrong with it?'
   Nothing wrong, really. I think I'd run out of things to talk about.
   'That's like running out of air to breathe.'
   You see Mary Ann every day.
   'The parson's wife told me some things that can't wait to be passed on. It's my social duty.'
   The grapevine in action. Does the Royal Mail have the same commitment?
   'Het or wet, blow or snow, it will be told.'
   Diana broke into a gallop and charged across the field toward Haddon. She slowed to clear a low point in the wall fronting the Haddon Hall grounds. After manoeuvring through a grove of trees, she again picked up speed in the open. She drove Roland splashing into a shallow stretch of the Wye, her usual crossing point. A human cry reached her ear just as she let out one herself and pulled hard on the reins.
   'Whoa, Roland! Whoa!'
   A line of some kind had caught her across the shoulders and might have caused her injury had it been attached securely at both ends.
   'Are you all right?' called an angler standing in midstream.
   'I didn't see you there,' she replied, untangling herself. 'You almost caught more than you wanted.'
   'The hook didn't catch you, did it?' he inquired anxiously.
   'No, I was a long way from the hook.' She coiled his line as she drew it in. 'You tie a nice fly.'
   'They seem to work well.' He patted a creel full of trout at his hip.
   She tossed the coil to him. 'I don't often see people fishing along here.'
   He reeled in the loose line. 'I've never fished here before. It's a shame. It's a fisherman's paradise.'
   'I never bothered much with fly fishing. It always seemed like such a challenge. My brother likes to do it. I never got the knack of casting.'
   'A good cast is as satisfying as catching the fish. You just have to practise a lot.'
   'I never would have guessed. Let's see you do it.'
   'All right... See that lone rock sitting just out from the willow up there?'
   'Yes,' said Diana of the distant landmark.
   'I'll aim for it.'
   The angler drew sufficient line off his reel to make the cast. Then he waved his pole back and forth, sending the heavy line swirling through the sky in an ever increasing arc until nearly all the loose line was airborne. With a final wave of his arm, the line played itself out upstream. The fly bounced off the rock into the water.
   'You're good!' Diana declared.
   'I usually don't have an audience to show it off to.'
   'You're not from around here, are you.'
   'No. What gives me away?'
   'Easy. If you were local, I'd know you. In fact, I'd know all about you. I'd know things you wouldn't want me to know. And I'd be dying to know more. Besides, your foreign accent gives you away.'
   'I'm from Leicestershire.'
   'That explains it.'
   'It's just the next county.'
   'That's far enough. You've come a long way to go fishing.'
   'I didn't come primarily for the fishing. I came to see Haddon Hall.'
   'Oh? It's not much of a drawing card. The place has been abandoned for a century and a half.'
   'My family has been rather negligent. We're a little too comfortable at Belvoir Castle to bother with Haddon.'
   'Your family? Are you one of the Manners?'
   'John Manners. My father is the Duke of Rutland.'
   'Well, hello. I've only heard about the Manners in legend and lore. I didn't think I'd ever meet one.'
   This girl on the white horse could have ridden out of legend and lore herself. 'The privilege is mine,' John assured her.
   'I suppose you're the future Duke.'
   'In fact, I am. I'll eventually inherit Haddon Hall, and as it's sitting here neglected I thought I might as well start fixing it up.'
   'You've got your work cut out for you. You've got a century and a half of gardening and housework to catch up on. You just can't let a place go like that.'
   'It is rather overgrown. I've heard a legend that Sleeping Beauty slumbers here. It does look appropriate.'
   'Ha, ha. I've lived around here all my life and I've never heard that. There are just bats and owls slumbering here.'
   'That's about all I've found so far. I've got several more rooms to check though.'
   'So you gave up looking for Sleeping Beauty to do some fishing. Now there's a man who's got his priorities straight.'
   'I figure there's no hurry. She can slumber a little longer.'
   'Sleeping Beauty only sleeps a hundred years. She might have come and gone already.'
   'I hadn't thought of that.'
   'And you're not a prince.'
   'No. Just a marquess.'
   'That'll never do. You can kiss and cuddle till you drop; she'll sleep right through it.'
   'If I find her then, I guess I should just leave her alone,' he replied, sighing.
   'Save all that frustration. Are you here by yourself?'
   'Yes, just for a few days this time. I haven't actually moved in yet.'
   'Do you mind me cutting across your property? I've never asked permission.'
   'Please do. Do you come through often?'
   'Now and then. Beyond the woods back here is Calton Pastures. Across that you come to New Piece Wood. And when you emerge from there you see a village in the distance. That's where I live.'
   'Chatsworth is over there somewhere.'
   'It sure is. Have you never been there?'
   'Actually, no. I've met the Duke in London but I've never been to any of his country homes.'
   'Well, you'll have to come over and see it. Let the Duke know you're coming and he'll probably show you around. Otherwise you'll just be a tourist.'
   'I'll do that. I don't know if I'll make it this time, but I'll be back.'
   'Enjoy your stay. I hope you don't get lonesome.'
   'Oh, I don't think I will. I've got three cooks, four gardeners, five housekeepers, the coachmen, and my valet for company.'
   'I thought you said you were by yourself.'
   'Of course there are the servants.'
   'I'm a servant myself. Well, happy fishing - now that I've scared them all off. C'mon Roland.'
   Diana splashed out of the stream and onto the bank.
   'Miss!' Manners called after her, but she did not stop.
   Dejected, he watched her ride away. He reeled in his line and waded over to the bank where he sat down, contemplative. Fishing seemed like a sorry pursuit anymore.


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