by Andrew Lee-Hart
There was a drunk duke sitting in a tavern in one of Romes darkest backstreets, who looked as if he wanted to die, as this made two of us I decided to join him.
I did not know he was a duke then, but he had an aristocratic hauteur about him, whilst the way that his body was slumped revealed that he was drunk and his look of hopelessness I knew so well, from my comrades in the trenches and then the horror that continued in my native Ireland afterwards. After all there was plenty of despondency in Europe in 1920, and my heart had its share of it too.
On impulse I had fled to Italy after the war, and travelled south to Rome wandering aimlessly around that ruined city, looking at the buildings and wondering if I should carry on being an architect; help to rebuild a blighted world, or whether it was all up with me and I should crawl away somewhere to die. And then I walked into a small, unprepossessing tavern and saw the Duke of Dovedale in his cups, and my life took the strangest of diversions.
I am a little wary of the English; the Black and Tans obviously and farther back the various atrocities and neglect which even those of us who do not pledge allegiance to the church of Rome know so well. But the Duke looked so pathetic and lonely that I forgot all that and sat next to him and ordered a drink. He slowly became aware that he had company.
You seem out of sorts. I suggested.
You are not Italian? he told me, he then thought for a few moments, are you Irish?
I admitted that this was the case, and we shook hands.
I met Oscar Wilde, as a young man. He told me, in London at a literary soiree, a very witty man, but kind, you could see that.
I nodded, not sure what to say.
The duke did not speak for awhile, perhaps gathering up his scattered wits, and we sat in a companionable silence, whilst a couple of old men in the corner, one of whom was the owner of the tavern, talked of a woman called Antonia.
The Duke then roused himself to ask me to accompany him to his pensione, so we walked through the cold, dark streets of Rome, the Duke taking my arm with a surprisingly tight grip, but perhaps he was frightened of falling. There were beggars everywhere and a bleakness about the city. Rome has a peculiar smell at night; perhaps it is the damp and the cigarettes, or the smell of ruins and poverty. I shivered, my ancient overcoat failing to protect me from the chill. The Dukes pensione was a cheap place hidden away opposite to a grim looking church, it was odd as the man was clearly an aristocrat, and presumably could afford somewhere more becoming. Once he was safely deposited in his room, I made my way to another tavern to drink and wonder what to do next.
I called on him the next morning; I had no particular plans for that day, or for any other day, and was rather curious about him; an English Duke alone in Rome, he seemed rather vulnerable or perhaps I just sensed the fate that was bringing us together. A slim looking woman was sitting in a wicker chair at the entrance to the pensione knitting something in blue.
The English signore?
Ah il duca.
At that moment, il duca came down the marble staircase, looking rather precarious on his feet.
Ah my rescuer. And we retired to a bar to drink coffee.
He still seemed slightly drunk but was undeniably dapper in a suit and tie, particularly when surrounded by such poverty. In fact, I never saw him looking anything but smart wherever he happened to be and whatever he happened to be doing.
You are a long way from home he said rather accusatory, but then he looked at me, and his eyes peered deep into my soul, but you fought. You have that look.
I told him a bit about myself; about my training as an architect in Dublin and then the war that changed everything, and my decision to fight.
Come back with me. He almost ordered me. I have an idea for a folly in the grounds of Dovedale Hall. I have drawn up some basic plans, but I need someone professional.
And I agreed to go back with him, after all I was just drifting and at least it was a project, and as so often in my life I say yes to whatever is offered, in the hope that it will lead me on to better things.
He borrowed some paper from the owner of the bar and drew a quick sketch of his idea for a folly; it was to be a small bell tower, Gothic in style, and it would be in the gardens surrounded by trees.
I love the Middle Ages, he told me, there was something noble about it all, more humane and heroic.
Only for the kings and the gentry. I suggested gently. I was not exactly poor myself, but I had seen poverty in Ireland and heard about the villages deserted because of potato blight and the uncaring English.
The Duke shrugged slightly, maybe so, but at least there was order and nobility; this is a fallen world and I despair.
Two days later we were on the train out of Italy, heading north and then west. The train slowly meandered through a desolate Europe, full of widows and parents who had outlived their children. I asked the Duke what he was doing in Italy.
Oh I wanted to forget everything, and see how Europe had changed. I thought I could write something profound about it; I used to write pieces before I inherited Dovedale; journalism and poetry, that is how I met Oscar. But I could not think of what to say and anyway I have a wife back home and I need to get back to her. She will be glad to have some company, to have a guest to fuss after.
And slowly the train headed back to France and then we got a boat to England and soon we were entering the gates of the Dukes seat of Dovedale Hall a few miles to the North of the medieval city of Nottingham.
Dovedale Hall is a large eighteenth century residence hidden away amongst villages and farmland. The hall, built in the Palladian style, is highly symmetrical and with large, formal gardens; it is not dissimilar to Keddleston Hall in nearby Derbyshire, which strongly reminded me of it when I visited ten years later.
I first saw the hall in the late summer; the dying sun shining directly in my eyes as the Duke and I were driven towards the entrance. There was an emptiness about the building, as if it was between owners, but as we got closer I saw some signs of life; curtains being drawn and a maid looking out of a window, awaiting our return.
The Duchess was waiting for her husband at the front door. She was tall, with red hair interspersed with grey, set in a rather modern style. She was in her early fifties by the look of it, the same age as her husband, and like him had an air of authority but also a sadness about her. As I walked towards her she briefly gave me a look of hope and love before realising that I was a stranger, and then more restrainedly she welcomed me to her home.
The following morning the Duke showed me the site for the bell tower, in the gardens to the West of the Hall. It was a sheltered spot and atmospheric, I could see why he had chosen it.
Stay until it is complete. The Duke said in his usual authoritarian manner, you will be our guest, but I will pay you. We would love to have you here and your decisions will be final as regard to the building, you are the architect after all. I would appreciate your company and so would my wife. You can oversee the workers, once they begin. He stalked back to the hall, whilst I looked at the area destined to be the site of the tower.
I spoke to the Duchess that evening as her husband went off to visit a crony. On the walls were several pictures of two young men, some showing them in uniform.
Yes, Douglas dead at Ypres and poor Marty shortly after the end of the war, this Spanish flu. He was being tended for at some mobile hospital in Belgium and it went through the patients killing most of them. Marty was such a tough boy, but . She stared at the floor. I sat there awkwardly and then walked about the room looking at the pictures of her sons, pretending that I could not hear her gulps.
Over the next few days the Duke and I worked on plans for the bell tower. Despite what he had promised, my word was not always the last one; the Duke already had a clear idea what he wanted, and the man was a perfectionist, with an idea of a campanile straight out of a fairy tale. We spent several days going through various plans, the Duke never happy with what I produced, although he was always polite about it. Eventually I came up with a design that did satisfy him and was practicable.
As soon as we had agreed to it, the Duke got men in from nearby villages to start building the folly. Most of them had not fought in the war but rather worked the land although there were a couple of ex-soldiers as well. They all worked hard, and as the foreman I found them easy to deal with. There was none of the bolshiness I had found as an officer, presumably they were grateful for the work and there was a sense of compassion for the Duke and the Duchess, I imagined that many of these local young men had known the two sons and had perhaps been their friends.
I was somewhat wary of the men; perhaps because of my having been an officer or my natural secrecy and not wanting to reveal too much of myself. At least they were not rude about my being Irish, well not to my face. Over time we got along well however, and gradually became relatively close, although I always kept up my guard.
The Duke had arranged to get the bell itself set at a foundry in Nottingham; he had already set the process in motion as soon as we arrived at Dovedale. I wondered if the bell was to mourn the dead; I imagined it tolling across the countryside; it would be quite haunting but a reminder of things that perhaps the local people would want to forget.
As the bell tower gradually came into being I grew happy with it; seeing my designs becoming reality has always been magical; similar to hearing a piece music that one has written I would imagine. The bell tower was faux medieval and a suggestion of the romantic which previous generations would have appreciated. It was the sort of building that might have appeared in one of Turners landscapes, or Wordsworth could have written a poem about it; Lines on The Ruin at Dovedale Hall. This would be my first work, and I was glad that it would be something odd, but also something that was likely to last, at least for a few generations.
Some of the workmen went home at night but the majority camped out there in tents, and often we could hear their voices and the sound of singing coming through the gloom. I sat with the Duke and Duchess most evenings, the curtains open as the darkness came into the hall. I had arrived in late August and thus as the building was slowly erected the nights were growing darker.
Rose was the maid; she had been with the family since before the war and appeared younger than she actually was; blonde and with large breasts which she did her best to smother behind her tight uniform. The Duchess talked about her with some fondness; Rose was originally from Nottingham, and had been brought to the hall by the Duchess, as a favour to an old friend whose daughter she was, and she had stayed loyal to the family ever since.
Up early one morning having a cigarette in the kitchen garden, I saw Rose sitting on a bench; there seemed to be tears in her eyes and the sound of weeping. Was she too mourning a dead soldier? Maybe it was something more mundane, perhaps she had been jilted or had been told off by her mistress; the Duchess certainly had a sharp tongue, even with those she professed to care her about.
I watched Rose; she was beautiful but I only felt this in an objective way. She soon became aware of my presence, and looked up at me. I smiled at her and she wiped her eyes awkwardly, and said something I could not hear, before heading off to the kitchen, looking embarrassed. Perhaps somebody like that, so beautiful, could make me happy; I am sure she would have been loving and kind and I wished that I could feel something more than appreciation of her good looks.
That same day I found a pianoforte in the drawing room; it clearly was regularly polished and there was sheet music atop of it, but I had never heard it being played. I sat down and picked out a tune, a hymn that I remembered from my youth. I had played frequently as a child and young man; my mother having taught me the basics one summer when she was having one of her periodic bouts of illness. Sitting in the drawing room I continued to play, going through the various sheet music that had been left out. Nothing too difficult but I enjoyed the noise that I was making, and for awhile forgot where I was.
I love music and even though I was never a great pianist I can read music and play well enough to amuse myself for hours at a time. My friend Peter had been truly musical and we had played many duets in the afternoons, our thighs almost touching on the piano stool, our music conveying feelings towards each other that we were too young to express in any other way.
Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine; Or leave a kiss but in the cup, And Ill not look for wine.
But that was over ten years ago, and Peter was still in Ireland working for the new government, and married with children. I wondered if he sat with his wife and played the love songs that he first played with me, and missed me as I much as I missed him.
I became aware that the Duchess was watching me, looking pale and a little frightened. I stopped playing and turned to her.
Marty used to play it, he had a real ear for music and I used to love to hear him play in the evenings.
I wondered if I had done the right thing playing.
I only play for fun I told her, I have no pretensions to be a musician.
Oh please play it. I used to but havent for some time, and so did the Duke, but it is unused. It is lovely to hear it being played again.
Does something ail your maid? I asked the Duchess, only to change the conversation I saw her crying earlier.
She is a flirt, it will be some man. She will get over it. Save your pity for others.
It seemed harsh but then the Duchess was mourning two sons, and perhaps had little time for anybody elses sorrow. The Duchess often sat in the Drawing room doing embroidery her mind clearly elsewhere, thinking of her dead. At least her husband seemed to have found things to do as he was rarely in the hall; sometimes speaking to the men involved with the erection of the tower, but more often he would be out visiting the local farms or inspecting his extensive lands or even going into Nottingham.
The Duchess seemed uninterested in the bell tower, she rarely mentioned it, and when she did it was rather dismissively and I was not aware that she had ever gone out to have a look at it. But one late morning I was talking to a young workman called Gill and unexpectedly she was at my side, almost touching me.
What is it supposed to be? she asked, after a rather guilty looking Gill had rejoined his comrades.
Oh a bell tower; it will have a wooden staircase leading up to the belfry where the bell itself will be. There is going to be fluting and other decoration.
Like something out of a fantasy; halfway between an Italian village and a fairy tale, she commented.
The bell tower was about halfway complete, and she peered in and up it before coming back to me, the workmen stopping what they were doing as she inspected their work.
What will you do when it is complete? Will you go back to Ireland?
I was not sure where I would go, but not to Ireland, not now.
Probably London. I do not have much family in Ireland; I have no brothers or sisters and my parents .well we are not close. I have a friend, who is setting up as an architect, I am sure he will be able to find a job for me.
Sometimes I hope you will stay here forever. I suppose it is good to have a young man here. I will miss you terribly when you go.
I escorted her back towards the hall, her hand light upon my arm.
My husband feels guilty, you know. She told me quietly as we walked.
Yes; he was all for the war, and pushed Marty and Douglas into fighting. His friends, none of whom had children the right age to fight, were awful, telling him how lucky he was to have two sons who could do their duty, and he believed them, or perhaps he did not want to lose face. It is odd because he is not a warlike man and always seemed independent, rather the intellectual writer type, but he felt he had to go along with what they said, would not stand up to them.
We stood by the entrance, I felt very close to her, and her sorrow was palpable.
Perhaps they would have gone anyway, certainly Douglas, but I am not sure about Marty, he was a tough lad, but underneath he was sensitive. I cannot imagine him in the trenches. And the Duke nagged at them to go; told them it was their duty, that they would be upholding the family name and their position. All nonsense of course.
I had a sudden vision of Marty; a young man sitting huddled in a trench, trying to write a letter, trying to express how he felt, or maybe hiding his fears and putting a brave face on it. Was the letter to his mother? Or perhaps there was some girl who cried when she heard that he had died. I imagined the noise of the gunfire and the dirt; the hell that I remembered so well myself, and started to shake, and I turned away to look at the folly and the workmen surrounding it. After a few moments I regained my composure and turned back to the Duchess.
As she made her way into the hall to talk to the cook the Duchess took my hand and held it for a few moments. Her skin was warm and for a moment I was intensely aware of this woman who was so austere but had such strong emotions in her breast. I felt such a longing from her, and doubted that anybody could cure it, certainly not me. She then let me go and without a word disappeared into the kitchens.
And then one night she came to me; I was in bed writing my journal; more thoughts than day to day events, something that I had done since I realised that there was nobody I could tell about my deepest emotions. She may have knocked, but I did not hear her. She was then in my room in a dressing gown. She came into my bed and kissed me on the forehead.
I cant I am sorry I said.
She lay beside me in the bed and eventually I fell asleep in her arms, my head upon her breast. I felt at peace and had the first peaceful night since I could remember. I awoke at about four and she was gone, although only just, because the bed was still warm, perhaps it was her leaving that woke me. And then downstairs I could hear music drifting up, the piano, something by Mozart.
Thereafter the Duchess would often come to my room at night; I could not give her much, but I could hold her and listen to her, and then we would fall sleep in each others arms. She was always gone when I awoke in the morning, a faint smell of her remaining, and sometimes a strand or two of her hair upon my pillow.
I often noticed Rose; in the gardens or in one of the many corridors of the house trying to look inconspicuous. There was clearly a sadness about her. Once I walked into the drawing room as Rose hurried past me in tears whilst the Duchess stood in the middle of the room looking pale and angry, she too walked past me without a word. I left the room and went to see how the folly was getting on, rather embarrassed and sensing that there was something going that I did not understand.
Later that day I caught the Duke and Duchess shouting. I had rarely heard them talk to each other except in the most formal and politest terms, and was surprised by the naked emotion on display. I was looking at a book in the library with the door ajar when I heard their voices from nearby.
She has to go. Why are you so protective of her?
Then there was the Dukes voice. But she is so young. She is not the only one to have been in this predicament. You are being very cruel. She has probably been foolish.
Foolish? There was a snort. She needs to leave this house shouted the Duchess and then there was silence and I silently closed the library door.
The bell was brought to the hall that afternoon; the tower was ready for it and I supervised it as it was hoisted into place. The Duke and Duchess were there to see it being placed into the belfry. I watched Gill and his fellows straining on ropes as it slowly was dragged up into the air, and I prayed that the tower would not collapse. But the men knew what they were doing and the tower was sturdy so there were no problems. It was only a small bell but the bell tower now looked complete and as if it was part of its surroundings, as if it had always been there.
The bell tolled slowly and dully and the men and the Duke and Duchess stood there in awkward reverence listening to it, with who knows what thoughts; the dead, the future or perhaps more mundane concerns, but nevertheless important such as crops and love. The Duke smiled at me briefly,
You should be proud he said; it is excellent. He shook my hand rather formally whilst the Duchess gave me a brief, tight smile and the two of them walked away.
It is his the Duchess told me that night. That stupid maid has been got with child, my husbands child. He does not realise that I know he is the father. The young fool. First Marty, then his father.
Marty? I was shocked.
Oh yes, they were in love, or certainly he was. Marty told me all about it shortly before he went off to fight. He had this idea of running away with her, but I talked him out of it, and then he went off to France. His father did not know anything about it, he and Marty were never that close. And I am certainly not going to tell him now.
She was warm against me but was hardly aware of my presence. I thought of the duke; so reserved even when drunk and yet he was clearly as distraught as his wife and was looking for comfort and maybe to replace his dead sons. I wondered how much say Rose had had in the matter. Would she willingly have given herself to the son and then to the father? That poor girl, and I wondered what would happen next.
Perhaps if it hadnt been for this stupid war something might have been possible between them. I always hoped that he would come back and rescue her. Take her away.
She was lying on her shoulder, quite beautiful in the light which was silver. I stroked her side slowly as she continued to talk to me.
And now his father; I understand why; she missed Marty and he was the next best thing. God knows what he was thinking, the old fool. And she snorted almost affectionately.
She kissed me hard on the lips. Cant you love me once? she asked. Pretend that I am a young man. That workman you like so much.
But I couldnt and didnt even try, and she left me without a word.
Rose stayed at Dovedale, getting larger and larger. She was given light duties until the baby was born. The Duchess did not come up to my room anymore, and we rarely spoke; I felt as if I had become staff rather than a guest of the Duke and the Duchess, and that was better. Nowadays I would often eat in the kitchens with the servants or walk to the Red Lion Inn where many of the workers on the tower went. Gill was often there, and we chatted quietly in a corner. There was an honesty about him and self-containment which made me feel calm and happy in his presence.
There was never anything between Gill and me, well not then; he was a handsome young man, but the thought of human bodies just conveyed death and destruction. Every time I thought of him, I imagined his body lifeless and his eyes closed. A beautiful corpse.
I remembered in France, coming across three dead German soldiers on an endless road. They had been leading a gun carriage; the two horses lay dead, their harnesses on top of them, and the three soldiers lay nearby as if they had been dropped from a great height. One, the youngest, looked alive and I checked him as he appeared to be unblemished, I gently touched his face but he was cold and had no life in him. I wanted to stay with him awhile, but my men were getting restless and we had to move on, so I left him there, beautiful but dead.
I heard Rose screaming in the night and people running and calling, she had been put in one of the bedrooms as the time for the baby drew near. I walked downstairs with the odd idea that I could do something, and then I heard the piano being played. The Duke was playing something complicated by Chopin without any music in front of him, whilst upstairs his child was being born. The music went on and on inexorably, and I listened, not being able to take myself away.
And then he coughed and stretched and so I left before he realised that I was there. I walked upstairs and past the room where Rose lay after all her exertions. Walking out of the room was the Duchess and she carried the new baby, rocking it gently in her arms and singing to it, an old folksong I remembered from my youth. There was love in her voice, and tenderness, and I imagined that was how she was when her two sons were born. Seeing the woman and the baby I knew they would both be safe.
I lay on my bed and decided to pack. The folly was almost complete and they did not need me, if they ever had, and I suspected, the Duke would not be interested in it any longer. It was time I left Dovedale; I had served my purpose and I needed to go.
The next morning I got up early and left, One of the servants drove me to the station. I looked over at the bell tower as we left the grounds; in its unfinished state it looked impressive and austere, as if it had been there for centuries. In years to come the casual visitor would think it part of the original hall, with Dovedale Hall a more modern building. I hoped that it would stay like that; I wanted my first building to be unfinished, felt it symbolic somehow.
I caught the train to London, opposite me sat Gill looking out of the window. Neither of us needed to go back to Dovedale again; the future lay ahead of us, and it was ours to take. Just as the newly born infant at Dovedale reached out its arms for its inheritance and for love, most of all for love.
Sometimes in my flat in London, with Gill lying asleep beside me I think of the Duke and Duchess and I wonder what happened to them, and to the baby, a boy I understand. The child must be a teenager now, and I wonder what he knows of his parentage and what he makes of the situation he is in. But most of all I wonder about Rose; that beautiful young woman who was involved with both a father and his son, and maybe loved them both. And I hope she was not cast aside as an inconvenience, as the aristocracy are wont to do with people who outlive their usefulness, but rather I hope she is happy and with her son who treats her with respect and love.
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