Copyright © 2021 Robert Loney
The Distracted Gardener
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The Distracted Gardener

An excerpt from Chapter 6


Diana is heading home at the end of the day when she encounters a hunting party coming in from the field. She manages to avoid them but soon hears someone calling behind her....

   'Ho there! Wait, please!'
   Diana drew rein and a huntsman pulled up close.
   'Oh-h-h-h,' she moaned. 'I didn't know who it was.'
   'Now, just a minute. Don't ride off.'
   'What do you want?'
   'To be treated civilly, to begin with.'
   'I'm capable of that.'
   'Good. I'm sorry: you rode by us back there and it took a while for me to realize who it was.'
   'You had so little to go on, I suppose.'
   'Just a pretty face, and general proportions.'
   'Good day, sir.'
   'Now, come on.' He took hold of her reins. 'You invited that.'
   'It seems I have to put up with you whether you have an invitation or not.'
   'You will once more. Now, give me a hearing.'
   'Very well. I hardly want people to see you chasing me across the park.'
   'Look... That other time I stumbled across you purely by accident. You can't hold that against me.'
   'It was a rather prolonged stumble. You could have left.'
   'I explained that. I... was mesmerized for the moment. You must have been in the house here. You've seen all the frescoes, hardly one of which doesn't treat clothing as unnatural. And you've seen the statues throughout the garden. And it's the same at other places I stay. A person becomes so used to it after so much exposure. You were... like a work of art, only so much more fascinating for being obviously quite alive.'
   'You saw how troubled I was but you persisted. And with quite a cavalier attitude.'
   'You seemed to find the whole thing amusing, regardless of my feelings.'
   'Well, I felt ridiculous once you brought me down to earth, and I had a proper hard time backing away gracefully. When I'm so thoroughly embarrassed, it's natural to try to cover it with a little humour.'
   'Strange I didn't think of that.'
   'I would like to put the incident behind us. I regret that it happened, while I'm not taking blame for it. But I am sorry if I mishandled it once it did happen.'
   'I'm sorry that I did mishandle it. Now, will you forgive me?'
   'You pick poor circumstances to ask. Look at how you're dressed and the company you've just left. I detest fox hunting.'
   'It seems fate really is against me. Could we deal with one transgression at a time?'
   'The fox hunting first. Try again when you're doing something else.'
   'Actually, we haven't been fox hunting. We were hunting rabbits.'
   'Don't trifle with me.'
   'Trifle? I mistook you for a goddess that other time and you think I trifle with you? It's been a struggle for me to see you in terms of mere humanity.'
   'Would you like some help? I know some ghastly profanity that would leave you wondering if I'm even a woman.'
   'Please, no. The illusion is too pleasant.'
   'If you want to preserve it, you'd better let go of my reins.'
   He relinquished them.
   'Thank you,' she said, icicles hanging from her words. She turned Roland for home.
   'Look,' said the huntsman, riding up beside her. 'If we engage in a proper introduction, it might help erase the other one. My name is Spencer.'
   'Really? I thought it might be Tom - of peeping fame.'
   'Now stop that! You're not giving me a chance at all.'
   'The only reason I even talk to you is because you're the Duke's nephew. At least, you say you are. You think you can thoroughly mortify me and then erase it willy-nilly with some half-hearted apology. I don't have to forgive you.'
   'My apology has hardly been adequate,' he conceded meekly. 'I am deeply sorry for what happened. And I'm sorry for trying to save any face at all in apologizing. I seek your forgiveness with all humility.'
   Diana drew rein and assessed his apparently heightened remorse. 'Why is it so important to you?'
   'You place as much importance on withholding it as I do on seeking it.'
   'I may place more,' she replied, allowing Roland to continue. 'You've hardly tried me yet.'
   Spencer sighed deeply. 'How does that proverb go? "It is easier to capture a strong city than to regain a brother offended." Something like that. I guess it applies to sisters too.'
   'Brothers or sisters, it hardly applies to us. We're neither.'
   'I have a sister I get along with quite well. I don't think I've ever offended her. But then, she is a gracious sort and sensitive to human frailties.'
   'You think I'm not?'
   'I didn't say that.'
   'You might as well.'
   'All right. Can you prove me wrong?'
   'No. You've just offended me again. Try taking two cities.'
   'Oh-h-h. What a predicament.'
   'Ha, ha.'
   'I've amused you. Your resentment is wearing thin.'
   'My resentment is armour thick. I just lifted my visor for a moment.'
   'I'll have to appeal to God for forgiveness, I guess.'
   'I recommend it.'
   'Do you think he will?'
   'It's worth a try.'
   'So... he might do something you won't.'
   'Oh, I would - with appropriate penance.'
   'Let's say... a pilgrimage to Canterbury, the last three miles on your knees.'
   'And a flogging at the end, I suppose.'
   'A flogging along the route. I want the whole populace to join in.'
   'You're enjoying this. Don't deny it.'
   'I'm making the best of an unpleasant situation. You can leave anytime.'
   'It isn't altogether my choosing. My mare seems to have taken a shine to your mount and I don't like to cut off a budding romance.'
   'She would do well to take warning. Roland is arrogant, unfeeling, and at times obnoxious - poor material for a suitor.'
   'Qualities I'm sure you would avoid.'
   'I try to avoid them. The people who have them tend to be persistent though.'
   'I guess it's dogs that take on their master's personality, not horses. Do you own a dog?'
   'I wouldn't be English if I didn't.'
   'Of course not. I'm sure it must be the warmest, most endearing and charming of creatures.'
   'He bites when provoked.'
   'What's his name?'
   'Why do you need to know my dog's name?'
   'I would rather know your name. I'm just trying to build up some familiarity before asking.'
   'Then you will never know my dog's name, because I don't intend to tell you mine.'
   'It's a terrible burden not to know - to think you withhold it out of resentment toward me. I'll languish for not knowing.'
   'Well, we can't have that. It's Bony.'
   'No. Bony: b-o-n-y.'
   'Your name is Bony?'
   'No. My dog's name is. I hope your mind is much relieved.'
   'Greatly,' said Spencer with a sigh. 'What kind of a name is Bony for a dog?'
   'After Bonaparte.'
   'Of course. Any good Englishman should have seen that.'
   'I wouldn't name my children after him.'
   'I suppose he's a ferocious bulldog.'
   'No. He's a cute, little Blenheim Spaniel.'
   'I am pleased at the progress I'm making. Your horse and your dog and I are nearly best friends.... If I did some enquiring around the estate, I think I'd learn your name soon enough.'
   'Yes, you would,' she conceded.
   'Then why not just tell me?'
   'Very well. Woodforde.'
   'Woodforde? Your last name, I hope.'
   'I told you my first name.'
   'Did you? It's hard to tell with a name like Spencer.'
   'Spencer makes a fine surname. It was the maiden name of one of my great-grandmothers. You've probably heard of Lady Georgiana. It sounds good as a middle name; the Duke bears that. And it's tolerable as a first name.... My middle name is Compton - the maiden name of another great-grandmother. My great-grandmothers are well remembered, for some reason.'
   'So you have nothing but last names. It hardly seems polite to call you anything, which suits me fine.'
   'You're still bitter. I really think if we got this introduction out of the way, we could put the past behind us.'
   'You're confident of that.'
   'Quite. May I know your Christian name?'
   'It's more of a pagan name.'
   'My curiosity is piqued.'
   'You'll probably find out anyway, and I'm getting tired of this. My name is Diana.'
   An aspiring smile played with the corners of his mouth. 'You're joking.'
   'I'm hardly in a humorous mood. You don't need to believe me.'
   'Oh, I believe you. It's just a little too easy to believe.'
   'And now you can forget our first meeting.'
   'It's going to be a challenge. It serves more to entrench our first meeting than erase it.'
   'You sounded so certain.'
   'I had no idea.'
   'Well, I did. And I think it'd be best if we parted company now.'
   'I guess I've been lucky,' said Spencer, musing. 'When Actaeon came upon Diana bathing, she turned him into a stag. Then his dogs killed him.'
   'That's an interesting idea. Don't promote it too much.'
   'My efforts have been wasted. You're as resentful as when I started. It seems there's no hope of me gaining your forgiveness.'
   'I'll strike a bargain with you, Spencer. If I forgive you, will you promise to leave me alone?'
   'Never to see you again?'
   'That's right.'
   'It would be no different than if our regrettable meeting had never taken place,' he continued, thinking aloud, 'but if it hadn't happened, at least there would be the happy chance that we might meet in a manner you wouldn't regret. Now you're ruling that out. That is not forgiveness. Forgiveness should erase the offence as though it never happened.'
   'Take it or leave it. I'll only hold the offer out so long.'
   He rode alongside Diana in a profound reverie.
   'The flogging,' he asked, finally emerging. 'Would that be just the last three miles, or all the way from here to Canterbury?'
   'I'll give you to the crest of the hill.'
   'No. I need no more time. I'm done seeking your forgiveness then.'
   'You won't agree?' she asked, amazed.
   'I can't agree - any more than I can control my infatuation.'
   'Infatuation?' exclaimed a wide-eyed Diana.
   'It's shameless of me, but I'll admit it. Yes. I only had so much control over the way I behaved in the garden. It's something beyond me. I can't help the way I'm created, or the way I react to the way you're created.'
   'I wonder what I've created. You're really lost on me.'
   'Found is more like it. I've never experienced such a rudimentary sense of purpose - such clear perception of why I was placed on this earth. I've never felt so alive. It took a chance amble in the garden to awaken me. How can I go back?'
   'Look,' she said with a level of anxiety foreign to her. 'You're forgiven anyway. Now go away. Whatever it takes. Please go!'
   'Then I can still see you again.'
   'No, you can't. Please!' She gave Roland her heel and fled.


Story links:

A few months later

A few days earlier