William Ashton, retained as a gardener by Edward Hillier, discovers his new master to be a detached and driven man. Over the years, travail and tragedy bring them closer together, but the affection they feel is sorely tested by boundaries of class and of rigid Victorian morality. Like the private garden behind high walls their love must flourish only in the strictest secrecy - or not at all.
In the midst of Nature run riot wandered Hillier, making his way through the grass, unaware for the moment of the presence of his gardener. Ashton did not seek to remind him, finding he took pleasure in watching his employer. To Ashton's eyes he seemed in harmony with his surroundings, and the gardener saw no reason to disturb the pleasant interlude. Hillier turned and caught sight of Ashton where he stood amidst the green foliage by the half-opened door and hastened back to him, an aura of intense, suppressed emotion about him.
"I have not stood in this garden for many years," Hillier began, clearly needing to explain. "It is very pleasant to walk here again." He surveyed the overgrown state. "I am afraid it is going to be more work than I realised. I should have spoken to you before everything started to grow, but I have been so busy elsewhere."READ MORE
It was a pity, reflected Ashton somewhat gloomily, that his employer had not mentioned the work sooner. He supposed the lawyer would want him to clear it all. That, however, was what he was paid to do, he reminded himself again firmly. If he found Hillier's manner towards him more that of an equal than anything else, he did not consider it further.
As if reading Ashton's thoughts, Hillier went on, "I wish this place to be cleared – only a little, you understand. You need not return it to its formal state. I prefer it to be left a little – untidy." He was not looking at Ashton as he spoke, his gaze intent upon his surroundings.
"Very well, sir," replied Ashton, accepting the eccentricities of the well-to-do without demur, "but the work would be done faster if there was more than me to do it. It'd take two of us far less time to clear the garden; then you'd have it nice for the rest of the summer." He supposed this was Hillier's aim. "Be pleasant for you and Mrs Hillier to walk in."
The lawyer's attention was caught; he turned to stare at Ashton. "Obviously I have not made myself clear. I want you alone to work in this garden. Only you. No-one else will be allowed entrance." He turned away, once more looking around him, then swung back to face his employee, his tone becoming fierce. "I will not have anyone else in here, do you understand? I hold the only key there is to the door. I will have a copy made and you shall have that other key. You must keep it safe, and lock the door behind you when you are in here."
Some surprise must have shown on Ashton's face, however well he tried to conceal the emotion, for the lawyer added, "I need somewhere I can walk in peace, knowing that no-one will disturb me." And to Ashton's amazement he began to explain.
"When I was a child, Will, I came here to escape from my everyday world. The property belonged then to a Mr Elswood, an elderly gentleman, and on his death, for he had no immediate family, it was purchased by a Mr Crichton, from whom I bought it many years later at the time of my marriage." A fleeting expression, almost of pain, passed across his face. "Neither owner was in residence very often and we youngsters wandered at will through the park. I dare say we were trespassing, but we were never caught. I found this place and climbed one of the trees near the wall to see over, and determined there and then it should be my own special garden. I think it must have been built originally as a pleasure garden. It was overgrown even then – a boy's delight." He laughed quietly, his grey eyes sparkling with gentle humour. "I was small enough in those days for the branches of the tree to take my weight. It was over there." He indicated toward the far side of the enclosure. "It has been cut down long since, but then I was quite able to scramble onto the wall and down through the bushes on the inner side. I spent endless hours of enjoyment here, thirty or so years ago; it was an escape from the reality of my life." He gazed for a moment longer at the overgrown foliage before turning to look at Ashton. "Tell me, Will, have you met my aunt?"
It was such a switch of topic in this unlikeliest of unlikely conversations, that Ashton blinked. He had not seen Miss Hillier, but had heard more than enough about her from Curtis to make him determined to avoid her if at all possible, for by all accounts she sounded a redoubtable lady. "No, sir."
"Dear Aunt Ursula," Hillier said softly, half to himself, "I must have been a trial to her. You see, Ashton, she brought me up from babyhood, and I owe her everything. But she ordered my life like clockwork and it was a relief, sometimes, to escape." He half turned away and fell silent.
The gardener could do nothing but stand in mute silence. He could not reach out to this man the way he wished to, not even as one friend offering understanding to another. He had no right to do so, even though Hillier had spoken with such candour to him, a virtual stranger, and one not of his own standing.
Hillier turned back to him, his self-control regained. "There is little more to tell. I grew too tall and heavy for the branches to support me safely, and then I went away to finish my schooling at Rugby. I didn't see the garden again till after I had bought the property, and then … I had no wish to do anything about it … until now.
"It is all arranged, Will, I have spoken to Josiah Curtis, and he will see that you have time to do this work for me."
Ashton found his voice. "Why me, sir? Anyone could have cleared the place for you long ago."
The owner of Pennerton Manor paused for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to answer. Finally he replied, "You will not be a disturbance to me," and gave the gardener a smile of friendship that silenced Ashton completely.COLLAPSE
"The Walled Garden is the best example of historical romance, cause it manages to remain realistic but at the same time delivers a romantic lovestory."
Length: 102,000 words/356 pages