Jenny: Old Acquaintances

There was a bit of sun skittering through the flat ranks of snowclouds far overhead, lighting up the wooded countryside and pastureland as Ambrosius took the track down the hills to Lord Alan's villa. The rooks had taken to the woods across the river from the villa and were making an unholy racket as Cyrus jogged along, frothing and foaming, breath curling in great white clouds around his head. Ambrosius' face was chilled, his fingers numb; Cyrus would be steaming by the time he drew up in Alan's courtyard. The ragged scar on his leg was sore by the time they crossed the river by the shallow pebbly ford and climbed up between the hedges for the house.

In summer the house would be surrounded by big, wild, native trees, a pale seashell sort of image in an emerald setting; but it was winter, and the trees were starkly bare, curving their black claws over the grey, empty-looking building. There was only a smudge of smoke from the kitchen wing and, in the south quarter, a slave out beating clouds of dog-fur off a rug to indicate life within. Cyrus put on a reluctant burst of speed and rattled up the snowy drive, passing through the open gate and down the long avenue of dead bean rows for the colonnade and the atrium beyond.

Ambrosius was glad to see Cwm out in the single patch of sun in the colonnade. The old manservant looked up without any surprise as he approached, and got up off his stool, putting down one of Alan's boots which he had been mending. "Good day, sir," the man said without a movement of deference of any sort.

"Good day, Cwm. It is always a good day to see you." Ambrosius uncurled his stiff hands from the reins and swung down. "I've come to see Lord Alan. Is he at home?"

"Yes, he is, sir." Cwm fetched up the boot and gestured toward the imposing oak-wood doors to the atrium. "Come this way out of the wind. I'll go tell him you have arrived."

Ambrosius left Cyrus to eat the remains of autumn's bean crop and followed the native manservant through the doors by way of the vestibule into the atrium. Alan, who had never learned that winters brought cold, who had never cared, had not bothered to roof in his atrium as Ambrosius had done to his own villa, and the white winter sky blazed down with a washed touch of sunlight on the inner pool and dead garden within. Cwm put the boot on a stone bench, indicated the brazier which was burning by the outer wall, and hastily retreated into the interior of the house to find his master. Ambrosius was left in the quiet of the atrium, arms tucked close against the shadowy chill, listening to the tinsely rattle of the little fire and the irregular, lonesome drip of water off the roof into the pool below. He stood in what little sunlight there was, glad to be out of the wind. Once again he was met with how different winter left the landscape. The last he had been in Alan's atrium it had been full summer, and the great tangled damson tree - an import of which Alan was immensely proud - had been thick with leaves. Now it hung about itself in the corner of the garden, listlessly stretching its branches for the sunlight, empty and cold. He rubbed his hand on his arm: but come April, he told himself, the tree would be heavy with white blossoms, and it would not remember that it had been as deathly-looking as it did now.

"It is too cold to be climbing in trees today," a voice spoke at his side.

A faint wind blew from above, and he looked down to see a brown curl of plum-leaf scuttle across the stones before him. "I am too old to be climbing trees, at any rate," he said, and turned to the woman who had come up beside him.

She had not changed. Strange, he had always thought of her as the same, whenever he chanced to think of her; but now that he saw her, he thought she should have changed. She still wore her thick black hair in curled masses in the old way: a becoming way, for her face, but too becoming, too heavy; and there was always about her a faintly cloying scent which dug his nails into his palms. But she must have been thinking of change, too, for her narrow dark eyes darted across his face and, with a little tilt of her smile, she reached up and touched his temple. "You are going grey with this oldness," she said. Her tone was janglingly mocking.

He could count on one hand with fingers to spare the moments in which he had longed to run from a fight. This was one of them. "I have come on a matter of business with your husband," he said, turning his head just enough to pull away.

"It is always that way."

He was saved from further conversation by Alan's entrance. He forced a smile and disengaged himself as his friend approached. He wondered in the back of his mind for the briefest instant if he should say something...but then he thought better of it. Now was not the time for it, and anyway, it did not deserve to be mentioned.

"Ambrosius!" Alan reached out a thick old hand to grip him and shake him heartily. "You look like you have been through Hades."

Ambrosius laughed mirthlessly, giving one shoulder a twist.

Catching the Hawk's inconspicuous glance, Alan turned to his wife. "I'll have to ask you to leave us for a little while. Boring men's politics. You understand, Murgen?"

"Yes, of course." She gathered her pallas around her. "I'll have some wine warmed up for you." She left without a sound.

No comments:

Post a Comment