Friday, 27 July 2007

Sweet Thames, run softly

The complete line from Edmund Spenser, is of course Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. But since I am not yet quite in a position to talk of ending my song (though I do have an ending firmly in sight, that much I promise!), I have borrowed the first part only, to reflect the mood of unease and melancholy with which this most brutal of summers seems to have afflicted us all at present.

For many, the floods are already a reality, and the daily routine has become a question simply of retrieving what they can of the ordinary little props of life. Things like chairs, and tables, and sofas; and having enough water to drink – the idea of water to bathe, or shower with, having become for the moment but a cherished memory. For those beside the Severn, ordinary life has more or less been washed away with the rising water; and the promises of politicians, who come to stand knee-deep in flood water to talk bravely about ‘what lessons can be learned from all this’, and ‘what can be done’ ( by the year 2010, say!) to ‘prevent such calamities from occurring in the future’.... the promises of politicians, and newsmen, and Weather and Water Board officials, must ring hollow indeed.

For those of us down here beside the lower reaches of the Thames, the expected surge of water has not yet arrived. Though it has reached Oxford already, and we scan our own part of the river daily, making our little contingency plans for moving what we can of our lives to safety if the surge should come. Lady Macauley wishes Bill were here to advise her. Bill would know what to do, she says. Bill would tell her if she should move pictures, and tapestries, and ancient bedsteads, from basements to the upper floors – or if she should concentrate instead simply on staying alive, and dry herself. Leaving the fate of ancient artefacts in the hands of the old River God, whose ivy-wreathed statue lies mercifully land-locked still in the front forecourt.

In Bill’s absence, she has found David Porteous and his daughters a considerable resource however. And for this she acknowledges the debt she owes to that ‘rather odd little person’, Miss Frances Fanshawe, who had the good sense to release him from an ill-advised engagement before real harm was done. She thinks he is bearing up quite nobly in presence of what must have been, for him, a considerable loss of dignity and face - never mind about all the splendid material comforts he has glimpsed, and been obliged to relinquish. “Only think what it must be for him to have had to give up the luxury of her father’s library, for a start!” she observed to Belle and Rose and me yesterday. “One might have expected that for that reason alone, he’d have clung fast to his engagement in the face of no matter what little local difficulty.”

I was glad that Lady Macauley was the one to put into words what I at least had more or less been thinking. It had occurred to me too, that the loss of the library for working in must have brought home to David Porteous, as nothing else could quite have done, all that he had given up when he allowed Frances to terminate their engagement. I have had opportunity to study him quite closely in the past few days, he and I having both been Lady Macauley’s guests at this and that little impromptu gathering at the old house. And though I persist in my theory that he is the most studied of men, and that nothing he says or does is ever to be taken quite at its surface value – by which I mean that his effects are always carefully calculated so as to show him in the most advantageous possible light; yet I have had to accept that the public face he shows at present is impeccable; and that no-one, simply looking at or listening to him, could possibly say that here was a man who had recently had the unhappiness of seeing his best possible opportunity for social advancement abruptly snatched away.

Bill has continued to find much to amuse him in my little nightly telephone bulletins about the situation here. Bill is presently in Adelaide, enjoying the hospitality of some woman whose husband seems to hold no grudge against him for amorous past associations with his wife. He tells me he is enjoying himself hugely - but he keeps up an interest in the conduct of David Porteous just the same; and wants to know, in particular, if he has yet been successful in ‘laying the ghost of the old monk in the Macauley chapel’?

The old monk had become a familiar presence to Bill and me. Well, presence is hardly the word to use, since neither of us has actually seen him – and nor, we believe, has Lady Macauley herself, or Belle. Others claim regularly to have done so however. Which has prompted in Lady Macauley an anxious pre-occupation with the idea that the brown-robed figure does still on occasion return to haunt that part of the ground floor which had once been consecrated as a chapel. Bill and I had felt uncomfortable about that part of the hall ourselves, as a matter of fact; and had quite seen how easily spectral images might have been conjured there. For it remains windowless, and dark - and unaccountably cold – in spite of all the efforts that have been made to incorporate it into the body of the hall.

Bill has been very taken with the idea that David Porteous might have been brought in as exorcist. Never can such opportunity have been brought by God or Man, he says – or by their opponent in the other place – for unexpected personal advancement on the part of Mr David Porteous! But on this front I have had to disappoint him; since although Mr Porteous has indeed stood gravely with Lady Macauley in that dark and gloomy part of the hall on several occasions, no ghostly presence has yet manifested itself to him. And he has explained that though the Church of England does still embrace certain ancient rituals for the banishment of evil spirits, he is not versed in them himself; so that his advice to Lady Macauley has thus far been no more occult than that the introduction of a window into the space might help. Or failing that - given the restrictions imposed by English Heritage or other ruling bodies - the simple expedient of covering every surface with fresh white paint, and of putting something cheerful in there, like the pretty piano from the morning room, or a painted pillar with fresh garden flowers atop ..... would probably have the effect of neutralising past associations, no matter how malevolent, or deep-rooted.

Lady Macauley thinks this excellent advice, and has called in a man to paint the walls in gentle shades of pale blue and ivory. And has meanwhile drafted David Porteous in to assist her on another front. He is to sift through all the books in her own scattered library, with a view to collecting them together in one carefully selected and vastly superior place that she will be able to call a library. She thinks this will to some extent compensate him for the loss of Miss Fanshawe’s father’s library – “He will be able to come and work there himself, when it’s done” she said. “Quite apart of course, from all the advantages the possession of a proper library will have for us.” It was her idea that he should be paid in cash or kind for his trouble, but he has waved this aside, protesting that the pleasure of the occupation will be compensation more than enough.

His daughters Imogen and Amy are to be properly remunerated however, for their advice and practical assistance in the matter of fraying tapestries and abandoned pictures. A workroom has been set up for them in the old Orangery, and they go there daily to stitch, and stretch, and do their best to clean some of the worst affected tapestries and paintings. Lady Macauley has taken a great liking to both the girls – especially to pretty Amy, whom she thinks likely to take the eye of her grandson Will, when he comes to stay with her next month. Will has apparently attached himself to some impossible girl – Alice, his mother, is aghast at the association. And though Lady Macauley has never had the smallest interest in trying to gratify her chilly daughter-in-law, she does think that in this instance a concerted family effort is called for; and that if anyone can divert Will from the impossible girl, it will probably be pretty Amy Porteous. Of Amy’s sister Imogen she is less certain – though she believes the girl has spirit, and a latent gaiety; and it amuses her at present to try to ‘bring them out’.

“Mummy is very happily involved with all her Porteouses” Belle told me yesterday, when we returned as usual with the dogs. “She thinks Mr Porteous is rather erudite – he mentioned God, and Erasmus, and Sir Thomas More all in the space of one paragraph; which in her book is a sure sign of erudition. She likes erudition in a man - provided it isn’t all he’s got. She thinks erudition on its own would be very tiresome. But Mr Porteous has a breadth of shoulder which suggests what she calls a just sufficient muscularity as well.... She has taken it into her head lately, besides, that the house will probably have to pass to the National Trust when she has gone; since neither Jack nor Will shows the least interest in it, and it certainly can’t be allowed to pass to me! She thanks heaven therefore, for the advent of such a group of highly personable, useful people to help her get the process underway.”

How Belle herself views the association has not yet become clear. Though I have observed that she is always very quiet in David Porteous’s presence; as if she were perhaps afraid of putting a foot wrong in some particularly glaring way. I know how she feels of course – he has the same effect on us all, do what we will to try to withstand it! I have observed too that his own conduct towards Belle is exemplary. He treats her in much the same way as he treats her mother; which is to say with perfect courtesy, and the least perceptible little distance, denoting deep respect. So that if Bill had been hoping to hear he had been caught out in something flagrant or unguarded - or better still, thoroughly ignoble! - then I’m afraid he is to be disappointed on both counts; at least for the present.

The Thames meanwhile continues to flow sweetly enough along these stretches. And although the local water meadows are flooded, bringing the river to within fifty yards of the Macauley gates, the old River God perches safely high and dry still. And I have been obliged to report to Bill that everything goes along here quite satisfactorily, despite his unnecessarily prolonged, and possibly pre-meditated absence.