Saturday, 5 May 2007

In the garden with Mr Porteous

I have to hold very fast to my scepticism when in presence of Mr Porteous. In particular, must I persist in thinking of him as Mr Porteous, for example; since if I did not, I should probably find myself going all Jane Eyre on you: saying “Reader, he affected me!” - and calling him ‘dear David’, just like all the rest. I had only to be left alone in the garden with him for ten minutes the other day, to be reminded of just how vital it is to keep up one’s guard when in company with him.

He does that to you; he has a way of making you want to fill his silences, make things easy for him. It’s a considerable art. One that he perfected, I daresay, whilst gazing down upon his adoring congregation from the pulpit. He has had years in which to study its effects after all - and for my own part, well, it was only by summoning the image of Bill’s jubilant countenance (Bill would have relished the idea of my being made subject against my will!), that I was spared the ignominy of breaking out at once in foolish chatter again.

He and Frances had been engaged in making little water-colour sketches of the knot garden when I interrupted them. Mr Porteous was poised with brush-stroke in the making, but was quick to stand up from his easel and put out his hand to me in greeting; explaining as he did so that in this enterprise, as in so many others, it was Frances who led, he who entirely ineptly followed. “ I have very little aptitude, I’m afraid” he told me (he had the most engaging small smile for it). “But Miss Fanshawe has been kind enough to take me in hand. She‘s finding it uphill work though. My daughters have considerable skill in all branches of painting and the plastic arts, but it’s a gift they must have inherited from their mother, since I have never been able to lay claim to any such thing myself.”

Frances fluttered some kind of self-deprecatory little response to this. She had been painting in water colour since she was a small girl, she explained; her father had been fond of it too. But she had never received the least tuition, and didn’t believe she had progressed beyond the entirely amateurish stage. She thought Mr Porteous under-estimated himself, besides. “His little sketch of the knots was most accurate,” she said. “And I think he has captured the mood of the garden extremely well.” She took up his picture to show me, wanting to know if I didn’t agree with her? She was very pink beneath her sun-hat, and I thought her hand trembled a little, but she was doing her best to seem perfectly at ease.

She talked with me a little longer – she missed Bill and Monty on the common, but she was so pleased to hear about his fishing trip, and hoped it would help restore him to full health. She remembered then that Mrs Meade had promised to bring tea at four o’clock; and since that hour had already passed, and still no sign, she thought she ought to go and see what had become of her. Having said which, she drifted off in the direction of the house; leaving me in silent confrontation with Mr Porteous across the easels, wondering what I might conceivably say that would be of interest to him.

It occurred to me that Frances’s reference to Bill might provide a start, so I ventured to suggest that it might interest Mr Porteous to know that my brother, too, was writing a book about his experiences in the Middle East? I knew I did Bill no favours in linking his book with that of David Porteous – there could hardly have been any juxtaposition I might have hit upon indeed, that he would actually have disliked more! But if Mr Porteous had heard of Bill, he was prepared to show no sign of it. He only remarked that of course his own small offering was unlikely to cause much of a stir. He did not expect to set the world alight with his musings, he said – but he had dared to think he might kindle a spark or two.

I murmured what I could in response to this. I think I said something to the effect that there was need, in this particular field, for a study from every possible angle. But his message had not escaped me; and it was clear, from the way he removed his eyes from mine to gaze, meditatively, at some point in the middle distance above my head, that he thought there was room in this garden for only one man of distinction at a time.

I tried the subject of his daughter next, mentioning that I had visited her shop, and thought she had arranged it so artistically. “She makes such pretty things too – and all herself, she tells me! I simply couldn’t resist buying two of her samplers, and an embroidered cushion. They look so charming in my little sitting room at the gatehouse. ” I was gushing, I knew it; and was not proud of myself. Nor was I prepared for his response, which came only after a considerable silence, and which I thought, in all the circumstances, just a little sharp.

“Oh yes, the shop…” he said - and it was remarkable to me, how much of pure dismissiveness he could put into that one word. He had collected himself the next moment, though, and went on in more light-hearted vein. “She would have her little shop, you know! It was not in the least what I had hoped for her. And I’m afraid she will make a very poor sort of shop-keeper - giving away all her prettiest things to the first person who expresses an interest in them, and operating at a loss! Personally, I thought it a poor sort of use to which to put her inheritance from her aunt. And a poor sort of return, come to that, for all the money I have been required to expend on her art school education!”

He smiled very pleasantly whilst delivering himself of these remarks. But there was a coldness beneath, which made me sorry I had introduced the subject of Anne and her shop at all. I felt a sudden stab of compassion for the girl indeed: it couldn’t be easy, I thought, to find favour in the eyes of such a father. On the whole I was very glad when at length the clematis curtain parted again, and Frances had returned; followed closely by Mrs Meade, and each of them bearing heavily laden trays. Mr Porteous sprang up at once to do what he could to relieve them of their burdens, and there followed a short period of intense activity, during which tables were arranged and teapots put down. I was glad of the distraction, and found myself able to breath more easily again. The moment had come and gone, I thought, in which I might have heard myself doing the unthinkable - which was to say challenging the unimpeachable Mr Porteous; and on his own home ground at that.

Tea passed pleasantly enough, and I stayed another forty minutes or so. Mrs Meade and Frances between them had gone to a good deal of trouble in the matter of cakes and sandwiches, and I didn’t want to seem ungracious by rushing away too soon. Mr Porteous’s smooth surface had been entirely restored, besides. He chatted amiably about this and that, and was gracious kindness itself, toward Frances. I have to admit that I saw nothing in his conduct or demeanour to suggest that there was anything more than a perfectly innocent friendship between them - and I fully intend to apprise Rose and Pamela of the fact.

I had received a glimpse of something else in him however. I had known it must be there, so it hardly surprised, though did alarm me a little. I mean to hold on to it, at any rate. Mr Porteous is not quite what he seems: Bill insisted on it, and I now believe he was right. I’m not at all sure what I’ll be able to do if Frances takes it into her head to fall in love with him – but I shall continue to try to keep her welfare very closely within my sights.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Tableau in the garden

Rose Mountjoy evidently bears me no ill will. I met her in the high street yesterday and stopped to chat a while; after which she suggested we go and have coffee together in the little garden café down on the riverbank where, she assured me, they make a cappuccino quite as good as those at Starbucks. She was right; they make an excellent cup, and it must have acted as a stimulant with Rose, for she began at once to talk to me about Lady Macauley and Belle. Poor Belle has a hard time of it, apparently. The old lady is very exacting, and never more so than when she has taken it into her head to die again.

“She took to her bed ten days ago and hasn’t budged since” Rose informed me. “She engages a nurse of course, at the first sign of illness, but it’s always Belle she wants in the last resort. Belle’s only respite comes when there are visitors. Lady M allows herself to be whispered at from a discreet distance now and then, by those among the most faithful of her old friends whom she doesn’t regard as quite impossible; who don’t prognosticate or shout, and who haven’t about them anything of what she calls, even in her prostration, the aspect of the angel of death. She might be dying, she says, but she doesn’t require the assembled cast of the Oresteia to send her on her way!”

So, Theodora has a sharp tongue, I reflected, as I listened to this account. She doesn’t mince her words, and has a lively way of expressing herself. I supposed it must have taken something of the sort to have captivated Jack Macauley and held on to him so long; and I allowed myself to dwell a moment, on that old image I’d always had, of the early Theodora, the early Jack. Though what I went on to say to Rose, by way of a response at last, was something altogether more prosaic.

“And is she dying?” I inquired. To which Rose replied “ Oh good lord no! She’s tough as an old boot and will outlive us all. She’s bored, that’s all. She was bored with Florence and then with the Bay of Naples. When you have lived to become as bored as that, there’s very little left to keep you amused! We thank heaven, Belle and I, for the prime minister and the mayor of London, to each of whom she has taken such a profound dislike that it keeps her occupied for hours on end. She looks for them everywhere; she scours the newspapers and all the television bulletins. It seems to her that the one smiles too much, and the other too little. It’s evidence, she says, of their particular brands of perfidy: they resemble Hamlet’s mother - they can smile and smile ( or not smile, in the case of Mr Livingstone, whose best effort lies somewhere between a smirk, and a scowl)…. they can smile as much as they will, and still be villains. She thinks they’re bringing the country to ruin, and she can’t see how they have managed to persuade so many people to go on voting for them. But there they are, and there, by virtue of the persistent folly of the British people, they seem likely to remain. She has heard of Mr Brown of course, and of the likelihood of his taking over from Mr Blair at any moment. But she hardly sees how she’s going to like him any better – she thinks that if anything, especially on the smile front, he will actually turn out to be a great deal worse!”

I thought this such entertaining fare that I was loath to depart from it. But Rose herself had different ideas, and soon began talking of other things; notably of David Porteous, and that fantastic theory of Pamela’s, that he might be making love to little Frances Fanshawe! Rose can’t see it happening, herself. Though of course one never knows; and David, having nothing much more, himself, poor man, than his aunt’s rather decrepit old house, must find some temptation in what Rose calls 'Frances’s ten bedchambers and her rooms of state'.

We left the subject there; I finding myself unwilling to discuss Frances with the talkative, but rather indiscreet Mrs Mountjoy. It seemed to me that a certain caution was called for, with one who was apparently so willing to reveal intimate details about her friends. And that afternoon (it was yesterday in fact) I did take myself to the manor house at last, with the idea of trying to find out what actually is going on there.

Mrs Meade shuffled out to the gates to admit me. I thought she seemed a little out of sorts, and not just with the effects of possible gin consumed. More, did it seem to be with the general idea that Miss Fanshawe was just then, as she put it, ‘out in the garden with Mr Porteous.’ “You’ll find them in the herb garden” she rather stiffly told me, before shuffling back again to the house. “They’re having a little painting lesson out there, apparently.”

I know my way to what Mrs Meade calls the herb garden by now. Frances herself calls it the knot garden, and it’s a pretty place, filled with varieties of lavender, all lovingly kept trim by the faithful Mr Jessop. To enter it, you must cross the paved courtyard where a pair of ancient cedar trees block out the light, and follow a path through massed azaleas and rhododendrons, until you reach an arched gateway in an old brick wall. I went quietly, not wishing to disturb them, lest they should be too deeply engrossed in the work at hand. And what I saw, on parting a curtain of trailing clematis that partially blocked the gateway, was a little scene of such tranquillity, so much industry and quiet charm, that I was reluctant to break in on it.

Frances sat at one easel in flowered dress and sunhat; David Porteous, splendidly panama-ed, leant before another close beside her. So deeply absorbed were they in their respective canvases, only pausing now and then to look up and compare brush-strokes with one another, that I couldn’t find it in my heart to disturb them; and was just about to creep silently away again, when Frances looked up and saw me and, putting down her brush at once, called gaily to me to come and join them.

But I have already exceeded my allotted thousand words, alas. And, having pledged myself not to tax possible readers’ patience too much, all in the space of one blog entry, I must break off at this point, promising to come back again tomorrow, or thereabouts, to describe to you what happened next…….