Should you pass the desolate walls around Beadon Hall, take a glimpse through the rusty wrought-iron gates at the deserted mansion, beyond the jungle of trees and tangle of undergrowth. You would never believe, when the red sports-car glided into the estate a few short years ago, its beauty drew from the girl a gasp of pleasure. The American glanced at her from behind the steering wheel, pleased to observe her delighted eyes. He was bringing her home after their Italian honeymoon.
“This is incredible, David!” she cried. “Who takes care of it?”
The autumn sun threw a luminous light over the trees and shrubs, and the myriad flowers blooming everywhere.
“A chap called Henry Gardiner–-no kiddin’. Spelt with an ‘I’. Nearly got rid of him when I bought the place.”
“Whatever for, darling?”
“I wanted a row of palms along the driveway and he refused.”
“But he was right, my pet. It would have ruined the view.”
“Sure, sugar. I realise that. I resented his insolence.”
He waited. The question did not come.
“I kept him on because I was damn sure no one else would give the grounds the attention it deserves. He’s a strange one. His only interest is plants.” The words reflected puzzlement that anyone should devote himself to an occupation yielding no profits. “The servants believe he has a special relationship with them-–the plants, I mean–-but that’s lower class superstition.”
David Bullock might have been classically handsome but for the too firm jaw line that proclaimed his dogmatism and for the cold grey eyes that searched the world before him. The enterprises he controlled in his native America, he developed to international proportions. On his first trip to England in 1918, after the Great War, the superior reserve of the aristocracy and their cultivated disdain for the lower classes, so impressed Bullock, he became an Anglophile.
He acquired Beadon Hall to satisfy his need to ape the peers of the realm. He wished to furnish it with an aristocratic wife so he took the time to court Lord Grantley-Soames’ daughter Sandra, who had acquired notoriety for spurning the hand of a European prince.
Bullock depended not solely on his charm; he was no effete prince. When Sandra rejected him, he hired detectives to keep her under surveillance. After a week, the American held photographs of Sandra enjoying a liaison with the handsome family chauffeur.
Oddly enough, Sandra was flattered by the trouble he had taken. She had never been in love and had planned to postpone marriage for a while. She denied nothing to her healthy appetites. The green eyes in her round face, encircled with natural honey-blonde hair, radiated a paradoxical innocence. The choice between a social scandal and marriage to an attractive American billionaire was an easy one to make.
“Oh, David! Look at that!”
The object of Sandra’s attention was a hedge surrounding a grove of trees, the shrub cut into the shapes of various birds and animals. Here, a peacock, its tail spread fan-like; there, a bear rearing upon its hind legs. Here, a crouching leopard; there, a stork on one leg. So alive were they, one almost suspected they had grown into those shapes.
“He must be the very devil if he manages these grounds by himself,” observed Sandra.
“He sometimes hires the locals to help with the donkey work. I get the check-–no, bill. Gee, it’s tough, but I’ll learn. Anyway, it’s cheap at the price.”
“Perhaps an assistant?” said Sandra.
“I suggested it,” said Bullock. “Turned it down flat.”
Just then, Beadon Hall came into view, framed in an arch formed by two poplar trees.
“Stop a minute,” said Sandra.
She got out and walked to the trees, pulling her mink tightly about her against the cold. Bullock followed. She ran her hand over the bark.
“Look at this, David,” she said. “Not a twig on the inside; on the outside, profusion! And a mirror image, one of the other. See, they bend at their tops to meet each other.”
“So what, honey?” Bullock’s interest in horticulture was minimal.
“Don’t you see, David? Hedge animals perfectly formed and trees in precise arches. It’s not normal, is it? ”
“It looks great and that’s the point, honey.” He steered her back to the car. “Come on, I want to show you the house.”
The staff, lined up outside, tried not to show discomfiture in the sharp wind.
“Oh, David! How sweet!” exclaimed Sandra. “In my honour?”
The butler opened the car door for her.
Bullock said: “Why isn’t Henry here?”
“He’s tending the creeper, sir,” replied the butler in a crisp, flat voice.
“Couldn’t the damn thing wait?”
Sandra looked to her husband to make the introductions. Bullock was preoccupied with angry thoughts.
The butler bowed low. “Very pleased to meet you, Madam Bullock,” he said with disquieting obsequiousness.
“Yes, yes,” said Bullock, recovering himself. “Sorry, darling. This is Charles, the butler. He’ll introduce you to the staff.”
Charles led her down the line of servants and she made the appropriate murmurs. She watched David out of the corner of her eye. His gaze was fixed on the house.
The introductions over, the staff went round to the servants’ entrance. Charles led the way up the wide circular stairway to a balcony that stretched to two great doors fitted with thick panes of translucent glass. On either side of them, two smaller oakwood doors opened into a vast hall from whose centre a sweeping staircase led to the floor above. Immediately inside, to the left, stood a giant flowerpot from which sprang a creeper of ineffable beauty, its leaves a luminous green with shades of orange and red. It worked its way round the hall on a string, leaping over doors and down again in symmetrical ‘V’s.
On entering, Sandra noted the warmth, so uncommon in British stately homes.
“I’ve had heating installed,” said Bullock but his wife’s attention was elsewhere. Her eyes followed the creeper. Between each ‘V’ hung paintings by American artists in such good taste it suggested an advisor. Bullock assumed she was admiring the canvases, his one concession to his heritage.
“It’s a good collection, isn’t it?” he said.
She nodded. Her eyes came to rest on the back of a man squatting to their right. The open door and the butler at her side had covered him. He was bending forward. She peered over his shoulder and her heart leaped. The tentacle of the creeper unwound itself from around the man’s forearm and bobbed in an indicative way. The man rose to his feet.
He was well over six feet. A cataract of blond curls plunged to his shoulders. His corduroy trousers and army coat covered a broad body, heavy without being fat. His skin, upon which the summer tan still lingered, was smooth over a face in which gleamed two large blue eyes. An air of total self-possession surrounded him.
“Henry!” Bullock’s voice reflected his ire. “Why weren’t you outside to receive Mrs. Bullock?”
“It was too cold.”
Sandra sensed no rudeness in the cultured voice but she knew this man looked upon her husband with indifference. She knew also someone unmanipulatable presented a threat to his power.
“Come to my study in an hour.” Bullock’s voice was steel.
The butler’s mouth twisted into a smile.
“It’s all right, darling.” Sandra took advantage of her newlywed status to deflect her husband’s anger. “I didn’t mind. Really I didn’t.” She knew also, David would rue dismissing him.
The big man extended a large hand.
“I’m Henry Gardiner,” he said in deep, gentle tones. “Appropriate name, don’t you think?”
She smiled. Her hand found itself in a snug clasp giving her a feeling of safety.
That night, as Sandra cold-creamed her face before her dressing table, Bullock said from the bed: “I’m a jealous man, Sandra.”
“How very boring for you, darling,” said Sandra, without interrupting her ministrations.
“No one tampers with my possessions.”
“Is that what I am? Your possession?”
“You’re my wife.”
“And you’re my husband. But I don’t own you.”
“It’s different for a man.”
Sandra swung to face him.
Bullock was smiling.
“Keep cool, girl. That’s all I ask. And steer clear of chauffeurs’ and gardeners’ beds. I’ll kill you if you sleep around.”
She regarded her husband and, for all his smiles, she knew he was in earnest. A thrill of fear made her shiver. What manner of man had she married? She turned back to the mirror.
After a week, Bullock returned to work in the City and remained for days in his London flat. He came home weekends and, most often, once on a weekday. She was never certain which day he would choose. He was quite a raconteur and, at dinner, she interested herself in his stories of business wheeling and dealing. They enjoyed a late breakfast the morning after and, following a light lunch, he would motor back. Once a week she motored to London to visit her parents and lunch with David. When he deemed it necessary, she hosted a dinner for his business associates at Beadon Hall.
He preferred to drive the sports car. The Rolls Royce he left for Sandra’s use. Apart from shopping excursions to the village, Sandra found little to do.
Although he was away more than one would expect of a new husband, Sandra was certain he was aware of her every move. Any attempt to leave the house, even for a stroll around the grounds, and Charles materialised to open the door and escort her across the balcony. Flickering light from an upstairs window left no doubt he followed her progress through the gardens with binoculars. She observed also that, upon returning from a shopping trip, the chauffeur made for the pantry, where Charles was waiting.
Sometimes, unconscious of the cold, she remained outdoors to contemplate the hedge statues and wonder why the birds and animals did not growl or take flight.
If Gardiner came face to face with Sandra, he raised his hat, murmured a ‘Good day’ and continued with his work. His attitude irked her, for the man’s ability was intriguing and she wished to know more about him.
All through the winter, she did not catch Gardiner tending the creeper but its beauty remained undiminished. She never tired of savouring its delicate grace. She gave in to the urge to touch it, as if to do so were forbidden. When her fingers brushed a leaf, the plant moved. She snatched her hand away. The creeper began unwinding itself like a corkscrew. She felt a sense of elation, as if a great secret were being imparted to her. She reached out again. The tentacle stretched down from over the door and encircled her wrist. Impulsively she kissed the plant. Again, it unwound itself and settled on the string.
Aware of another presence, she spun round. Through the translucent glass of the great doors, she perceived a tall figure moving away. She pulled open the side door. Henry Gardiner, his blond curls shining in the late winter sun, was descending the circular stairs toward a motorized cart.
A voice at her ear enquired, “Would Madam like her lunch now?”
She started at the suddenness of it.
“Oh! Yes, Charles. Thank you.”
Bullock, caught up in his business activities, encouraged Sandra to invite her parents and her London friends to visit. Paradoxically, she felt more alone with them than by herself. She began to discover new facets to her character as her love for the garden and for the creeper grew. And the strange gardener haunted her thoughts.
Spring followed winter and the myriad flowers budded. The leaves dressed the trees in luscious green mantles. Days lengthened into summer and the hand of nature carelessly splashed colours on the earth’s canvass. Sandra thought increasingly of Henry Gardiner. This beauty was an expression of the man himself.
One morning, Sandra decided on a trip to visit her parents in London and shop at Harrods. She sank into the seat of the Rolls as Charles shut the door.
“Have a nice day, Madam,” said the butler, with a bow.
“Thank you, Charles.”
The car slid silently down the driveway.
“Sorry to be a nuisance, Tom,” she told the chauffeur, “But I’ve forgotten my handkerchief and I simply can’t live without one.”
“S’all right, M’um.” He turned the car around.
As she approached the great double doors, which now stood open, she heard the murmuring bass accents of Henry Gardiner. She stepped into the hall. He was reaching up as the creeper left his hand and curled itself round the string.
Gardiner turned to her, tipped his hat and said. “I’m sorry, Madam. I thought you’d gone for the day. I’d have asked your permission.”
“I’ve no objection, Henry,” she answered, barely in control of her voice.
“If it’s inconvenient…
“No. It’s all right. I just need a handkerchief.”
She felt embarrassed and annoyed with herself. As she passed him, she smiled, wanting to be condescending. Her face was stiff and awkward. On her return, she found him kneeling by the vast pot, gently turning the soil.
“Good morning, Henry.”
Her voice sounded louder than she intended.
He rose to his feet and tipped his hat. She walked past him struggling with her composure, hardly able to breathe.
The butler stood by the car, holding the door open. Again he bowed low. She entered with outward composure but a violent turmoil fomented in her breast as the car drove down the driveway.
This day dawned perfect. The sun shone brightly, bees buzzed and birds twittered. Sandra dressed herself in light-green slacks, white blouse and a green chiffon scarf tied around her neck. She brushed her honey-hued hair vigorously, felt no need to pinch her cheeks and, appraising herself in the mirror, set a broad-brimmed white hat upon her head. She felt marvellous. Her vibrancy lit her bright green eyes. At breakfast, feeling brave, she instructed Charles to let Henry know she wished to accompany him over the grounds.
Gardiner waited at the foot of the circular steps and again she felt that surge.
He tipped his hat. “Good morning, Madam.”
He looked very brown in his short-sleeved open-necked shirt. He stood by two motorized carts.
“Good morning, Henry. I hope you haven’t much to do. It’s so lovely after such a grey, wet week, I thought you might give me the grand tour. I have some ideas I hope you can implement.”
“For you, Madam, I must make myself free.”
He made a slight bow and smiled. He extended his hand to help her mount the cart. “If you’ll take this one…”
“Oh no, Henry!” she said. “Not if you don’t want your garden ploughed up. I haven’t an inkling how to operate these machines. No. You must drive me.”
“As you please, Madam.”
Sandra climbed into the seat while Henry took his place at the controls. The butler on the balcony, watched as they chugged away.
With no breeze to speak of, the flowers in their beds were yet swaying. The leaves rustled in the trees and the branches creaked, moving to the rhythm of some silent music. She wondered why she felt no terror. Was it because Henry was with her? As the cart advanced, those they passed ceased to sway and those they neared began their dance. Sandra felt vibrations of joy. She looked at Gardiner but he stared ahead.
“Why did you marry him?” The question came unexpectedly.
“I beg your pardon?” said Sandra.
“Why did you marry him?” he repeated. “You have nothing in common.”
“I’ll not answer that,” said Sandra. She was glad it mattered to him.
“It wasn’t the money,” he continued. “What they say makes it impossible.”
“The plants. The creeper.”
“They talk to you?”
He turned to her at last.
“Incredible, isn’t it? But since they’ve taken you into their confidence, I believe I can too.”
“Have they taken me into their confidence?”
“Look at them,” he said. She noted he no longer addressed her as Madam. “Do you suppose they put on this display for everyone?”
She contemplated the swaying flowers and the rustling trees.
“The creeper talks to you too,” he said.
He was right, of course. A manner of communication passed between her and the plant she loved.
“Do they tell you I should not have married my husband?” she chaffed.
He glanced at her. “They tell me you must be careful. You’re not safe. They also tell me you are a sensitive woman and as generous as you are beautiful.”
“They tell you all that?” she said, flushing.
“Some I see for myself,” he replied.
Bullock arrived early that evening. He eyed her across the dinner table.
“You have a nice day, hon?”
“Perfect, thank you, darling.”
“Do anything special?”
“No, nothing special. I toured the grounds. Henry agrees we should surround the rose garden with a low wall and arrange pathways and benches inside. One gets a beautiful view of the hedge animals from there. It will make a delightful walk.”
“Right,” said Bullock. “I’ll tell him to get on with it.”
Sandra spent hours watching the progress of the rose garden. This brought her into daily contact with Henry Gardiner. She sought him out, ostensibly for his advice or opinion. Falling in love was a new experience and she was unaware it was happening; unaware too that Gardiner was enchanted by her. Even had she remembered her husband’s threat, she would not have heeded it.
Her love for Gardiner touched him. His solitary existence made him vulnerable to its power. It wrapped itself round him as the creeper did around his arms. It was inevitable they would consummate their feelings.
He invited her to have tea in his cottage, buried in a secluded clump of trees and surrounded by bushes of bright red and white oleander. She was amazed at how the sparse interior and the neatness of everything reflected his personality so precisely. She could not understand why it drew tears to her eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
She shook her head unable to speak. He drew her to him and brought her lips gently to his. The incredible sweetness took her by surprise. It opened her to another dimension. When he parted from her, her unsatisfied mouth again searched for his, needing more of the nectar they had exchanged.
When he took her she moaned from unknown heights, blotting out all else but the feel of the man inside her, moving with a rhythm that matched her own. Suddenly, she was drawn up, up into an alien but exquiste world she never knew existed. The pleasure was so intense, she felt about to explode and the sweeping release took her to a state of rapture where she floated on a sheet of silk that was the man’s skin wrapped around her tingling body.
In this cottage haven, they felt safe. They believed the light in their eyes went unnoticed and their trysts unsuspected. Sandra did not notice the butler’s eyes narrow when Henry came into her presence. Love was a new emotion and she was unconscious that everything about her shouted it to the world.
She tried to convince the gentle gardener the he and she had been created for one another but Gardiner was not certain she should abandon the life that was her birthright.
“The question, Henry, is not whether I can leave all this,” she said with the innate shrewdness of her sex, “but whether you will abandon your garden.”
“You will give up much more than I. I take my gift with me.”
“But the plants?” she insisted.
“Bullock can find another gardener.”
“And the creeper?”
“Yes,” he said. “The creeper. We could take cuttings of that one and I would grow them for you.”
Gardiner was won over without realising how she had done it.
That night, Bullock, home again, smiled at his wife as he sipped an after-dinner brandy. She smiled back hesitantly.
“David…?” she began.
“Do you love me?”
Bullock set his drink on the coffee table and rose from the sofa. He slipped his hand into the pocket of his dinner jacket and withdrew a parcel. He crossed the silk Persian and handed it to Sandra.
“Maybe this will answer your question.”
“What is it?” Sandra’s heart sank.
A bracelet studded with diamonds and rubies twinkled at her from within.
“Oh, David! It’s beautiful. But I don’t need it. Really.”
“Darling, I wasn’t thinking of your needs when I bought it,” said Bullock. “Well, I guess I’ll turn in. Glad you like it. Gotta be up at four tomorrow. Flying to Paris for a nine o’clock appointment. Won’t be back for a couple of days. Coming up?”
“Yes. All right,” said Sandra.
Bullock had been gone an hour when the maid entered to waken Sandra and run her bath. Sandra permitted herself a long soak, savoring the thought she and Henry had two carefree days before them. Time enough to ask Bullock for the divorce. She took added pains over her toilette. She heightened her cheekbones and drew attention to the radiance in her eyes. When she descended to the breakfast table, Charles lifted an eyebrow and the footmen blinked.
After breakfast, Sandra slipped into the hall, relieved to see no sign of the butler. However, the creeper was trailing its tentacle on the floor. She bent to pick it up and place it over the string when, suddenly, it wrapped itself round her body. She struggled for terrifying minutes before she succeeded in unwinding herself from its grasp. Had she looked back as she fled, she would have seen it weave from side to side and sink again to the floor.
Sandra ran across the balcony, down the circular steps, panic welling in her breast. When her heart stopped its pounding, she realised to tell Henry must force him into an inevitable and terrible conclusion. Perhaps the plant meant her no harm. She decided she would watch it for a while.
In the cottage, when he learned she had not asked Bullock for a divorce, his disappointment was plain.
“Please, darling,” she explained, “try to understand, the moment was not right. Can you imagine my saying, ‘Thanks for the bracelet, David, I want a divorce’? Oh, darling, I know you’re upset. Believe me, I want to marry you more than I can say.”
She went into his arms and laid her cheek against his shoulder.
“Oh Henry, dear Henry, we’ll have our day yet. I promise.”
That day was never to come. Sandra was dead before she heard the shot. She slipped to the floor at Henry’s feet, her skull smashed by the bullet. David Bullock stood in the doorway, gun in hand with the butler a pace behind. Henry took a step toward them. The gun exploded a second time.
Bullock and the butler waited for dark. They dug through the short summer night. A pink dawn was lining the sky when they heaved the bodies into the hole. An immediate rustling filled the air. The trees swayed furiously, creaking and groaning as in a storm. A branch broke away and hit the butler on the chest. The bushes shivered in torment. Bullock and the butler spaded the earth into the grave and quickly returned to the house. All that day, an unearthly stillness lay upon the grounds. No bird flew overhead, no insect chirruped, no leaf stirred. By evening the servants had fled Beadon Hall to spend the night in the village.
Charles, the butler remained. He knew the public would crucify the American for the murder of his aristocratic English wife and her lover, the English gardener. They would savour every scrap of gossip and would hate the foreigner for spilling English blood. He himself would not escape notoriety, but he was no accessory, no, sir! He had been forced at gunpoint to do his master’s bidding. Mr. Moneybags would find his servant’s silence dearly bought.
All the butler’s scheming came to naught. His body was discovered later in a tangle of undergrowth, his face petrified in a mask of horror.
In the eerie silence of the night, a strange tickling at his wrist disturbed Bullock’s restless sleep. He switched on his bedside lamp and was appalled to see the creeper stretched across the room from the open window. It wound itself round his body and dragged him out of bed, pulling him toward the window with surprising strength. Desperately, he clung to the headboard but it wrenched him away, bringing him crashing to the floor. He was hauled across the carpet and he knew death faced him two stories below. The windows were fitted with steel shutters. He scrambled to his feet, grabbed hold of the plant and pulled himself forward to the window. He brought the shutter down with a swift crash. The plant was severed and shut outside. The tentacle round Bullock fell to the floor.
He fled the bedroom and hurtled down the staircase to the hall. The plant moved like a huge python. Bullock ran to the kitchen, grabbed the meat carver and rushed to the pot. Frantically, he dug. The creeper’s tentacle regained entrance to the hall. But Bullock had reached the root and severed the plant. Immediately it was stilled along the walls and went limp. Bullock, in a bath of sweat, sank to the floor, his back against the giant pot.
Something moved against his shoulder. He looked up. The creeper, regenerating at a tremendous pace, began to encircle his throat. Bullock tore the plant off his neck and rising, attacked the root. He plunged the blade in repeatedly, then dragged the root out of the pot. He opened the door to the balcony and with all his strength, flung it from him in hysterical joy. As the plant hit the earth, the rustling began. Bullock locked the door. He rushed into the study and closed the skylight. Back in the hall, he took the stairs two at a time and raced to the open window in the second bedroom. As he reached it, a branch came hurtling at him through the darkness, striking him full in the face. He let out a cry and slammed down the steel shutters. Then he closed and bolted the window. Blood streamed from his nose, staining his pyjama top. He dashed through the house to ensure every window and door was shut tight. Finally, he crawled into bed, exhausted but unable to close his eyes.
A tapping at the window grew to a steady hammering that intensified to a dynamic drumbeat. Bullock pulled the blanket over his head and drew his knees up to his chin in an ague of fear. He stopped his ears to no avail. The crunch of splintering wood and the sharp brinkle of breaking glass made Bullock jump up.
“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” he cried.
Nature itself had pronounced judgement and was taking up arms against him. The steel shutter at the window buckled. Bullock sprang out of bed in terror. The window gave way. Pouring through were branches of trees, thick with foliage. Slithering in with them, like a wounded snake, was a tentacle of the creeper, almost denuded of leaves. Those that had grown were small, grey and lustreless. Its central vein was horribly gouged and weeping a viscous fluid but it weaved inexorably toward the American. For one split second, Bullock stood hypnotized. Then with a cry, he flung himself out of the bedroom and flew down the stairs to the hall. The whole house was rocking now, the paintings swaying wildly. In ones and twos, they crashed to the floor. Bullock was unaware he was uttering squeaks of shock and fear.
“Gardiner! Gardiner!” he cried out. “Stop them! Please, please stop them!”
The creeper appeared at the head of the stairs. Bullock had one thought-–to get to the garage. He raced to the double doors, drew back the bolts and fled straight into a peacock bush. He screamed in fright and hurtled down the steps into the driveway. The beating above his head was from the plant wings of a stork. He pulled on the leg gouging at his face. He was left with a bunch of leaves in his bleeding hand. Growls of bear and leopard followed him as he raced forward. Each breath he drew tasted like blood. The growls neared but he dared not look back. He reached the garage door and swung it open. The polish on his sports car twinkled from the garden lights. He jumped into the driver’s seat.
In the glove compartment, where he always kept it. He started the engine and there, before him, barring his way, were the shapes of bear and leopard. He ground into gear and raced forward. The car smashed through the animals in a spray of leaves and splinters. He accelerated down the driveway, laughing at his victory. The bordering plants shivered. Tentacles of the wounded creeper reached out vainly as the car sped toward the main gates, two hundred yards ahead.
As he pressed on the accelerator, the twin poplars that had fascinated Sandra the day she arrived at Beadon Hall, began a desperate dance. He watched mesmerized as the further tree leaned forward with a huge effort and toppled across the road. He jammed on the breaks and bumped against it. The twin towered over him, shivering in death throes. He looked up in wild terror. A grating sound brought on a weird stillness. The plants stopped quivering. An eerie quiet filled the night.
Again, the grating sound tore into him as the tree uprooted itself, creaking and groaning. Bullock’s face was transfixed in horror as the huge tree fell.
They found Bullock’s body with cracked ribs and punctured lungs in the smashed car, which had crashed head-on into the trunk of one of two tall poplars growing on the side of the drive, almost uprooting it. A sepulchral silence stretched over the grounds where hedge animals stood guard.
They dug up the turned earth near Henry Gardiner’s cottage, over which the dying creeper lay spiraled, and found two bodies in the embrace of death.
Edmund Jonah was born in Calcutta, India to Iraqi-Jewish parents. Educated by Belgian and Canadian Jesuits. Moved to the U.K. for ten years. Lived in Israel since then. Father of three children and grandfather of three. One book published, several short stories, essays and verses published. Retired and spends time lecturing on various subjects.