Copyright © 2021 Robert Loney
The Distracted Gardener
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The Distracted Gardener

An excerpt from Chapter 5

A Garden Encounter

The huge garden at Chatsworth was Diana's playground as a child and she still treats it as her private paradise when it isn't open to the public. She has just gone for a swim in the grotto pond and is drying off...

   This remote part of the garden was not as strictly manicured as the realm closer to the house, and wild flowers grew abundantly here. Diana picked some and placed them between the toes of her right foot - wild pansies and harebells, buttercups and marigolds. With every few additions, she held the arrangement out at leg's length to admire the bouquet her foot was sprouting.
   She was reaching for a poppy when a rustle in the grass distracted her. She looked up with curiosity. There arose from her lips a cry that sent the ducks scurrying as she scrambled to her feet, grabbed her petticoat, and draped it from her shoulders as a veil.
   'I'm sorry,' said the young man who confronted her. 'I didn't mean to frighten you.'
   'Frighten me?!' Flabbergasted, Diana groped for words. 'Wha - what are you doing here?'
   'Lots of people visit the garden,' he replied calmly. 'Thousands annually.'
   'Not at this hour. It's closed.'
   'Not to everyone. It's a private garden now. Although not as private as you thought, I guess.'
   'Are you from the house?'
   'Visiting there. The Duke is my great-uncle.'
   Diana bowed her head in humiliation. 'Then I am the intruder. I had no idea anyone else would be out this morning.'
   'Oh, no intrusion at all. You fitted in quite nicely, I thought. They're always making changes to this place. I suspect you're not a permanent addition though.'
   'You have a compromised audience. Please don't be smart.'
   'Forgive me. How did you get in?'
   'From the woods. I often come in that way.'
   'You're quite familiar with the place.'
   'My father is one of the gardeners. We live in the village across the way.'
   'Then you're certainly more familiar with it than I am. I only come here occasionally and I always like to stroll about and see what's new. Shame to have a place like this in the family and enjoy it so little.'
   'I practically grew up here.'
   'In the garden. I like that. I'm going into my final year at Cambridge and, lovely a place as that is, I sometimes find myself growing stale there. You're a welcome bit of inspiration.'
   Diana fixed her widened, cornflower-blue eyes upon him with incredulity at his suave, garden party casualness under such circumstances. A tall, slender fellow, he had an intelligent bearing, although some faculty seemed to not be serving him well just now. He was dressed enviably in tweeds - including a jacket and cap - and should have been too warm. He seemed all brown in contrast to Diana's stark white. The sun rarely enjoyed the privilege of her current exposure and her skin had never known a tan.
   'Anyway, I'm digressing,' he continued. 'I see you don't have a towel. I take it you don't bathe here as a habit.'
   'It was an impulse.'
   'I can understand that. A fine summer day, warm sun, the birds singing... I'm inclined to feel one with nature myself under such influences.'
   'I've come here before on Sunday morning and never once met anyone.'
   'Well, I truly am sorry to have been the exception and to have caused you such anxiety.'
   'Then would you be kind enough to leave, please?'
   'Certainly. Actually, my immediate inclination on seeing you here was to turn away and respect your privacy. I hesitated a little too long and got captivated. I was quite helpless really.'
   'How long have you been here?'
   'You were just stepping into the water when I came in. I was over in the trees there by the path.'
   'You amaze me with your boldness.'
   'Some would think it to my advantage to have remained hidden. I really had no untoward intent, but perhaps I've been too ingenuous. I was quite taken by the beauty and innocence of the whole scene.'
   'I'm not so easily beguiled.'
   'I'm sincere. Believe me. Just what are we trying to recreate here?' He gazed about at their lush surroundings. 'A little bit of Eden? The best of creation, with all the ugly aspects removed. We do our best with plants and some animal life, but they really aren't enough. This garden has been awaiting creation's crown. You've provided the missing component.'
   'I am every bit as human with my clothes on.'
   'I'm sure. But for several exalted minutes the illusion of Eden was complete. I was genuinely surprised you recoiled as you did on my approach.'
   'My reaction goes back to the same Genesis you cite.'
   'With a petticoat for fig leaves.'
   'Am I powerless to remove you?' she asked, almost in tears. 'I know it's your family's estate.'
   'Oh, I couldn't stay on that account.'
   'On what account might you leave?'
   'I'm sorry: I feel I've sullied something. I really thought it was a higher element of our natures at work. But now I feel embarrassed.'
   'If I had room for any more, I would take it from you,' she replied wearily.
   'I'm going,' he promised, moving away. 'From now on I'll have to be satisfied with our poor statues: Venus, Diana - cold stone. But they'll always bring this occasion to mind. I hope you don't remember me as a serpent.'
   'I would not be as troubled by a serpent right now.'
   'I must leave then. You've been a sermon. Again, forgive me.'
   Diana watched him out of sight without moving. Then she grabbed her wet clothing, hid herself amongst the shrubs, and dressed in a flurry.


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Later that summer

A month earlier