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
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.
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
You are not Italian? he told
me, he then thought for a few moments, are you Irish?
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.
nodded, not sure what to say.
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.
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
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.
Ah il duca.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Duke shrugged slightly, maybe so, but at least there was order and
nobility; this is a fallen world and I despair.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
What is it supposed to be?
she asked, after a rather guilty looking Gill had rejoined his
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
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
What will you do when it is
complete? Will you go back to Ireland?
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
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.
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.
stood by the entrance, I felt very close to her, and her sorrow was
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
couldnt and didnt even try, and she left me without a
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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