Extracts From a Journal, 176_
His Majesty is greatly displeased by my efforts at Shadley Park. I find that serving him faithfully, as my duty as a loyal subject requires, and serving him well, in the manner that my instincts and capability dictate, to be a matter of considerable difficulty. These two obligations can no more be harmoniously conjoined than two horses at opposite ends of a carriage.
Speedwell’s excitement as he related the King’s anger was unsavory in the extreme. “His Majesty has a great love of mazes,” he said. “He regards their wanton destruction as a matter of personal insult.” Flecks of spittle appeared on his lips as he spoke, the words slurring into each other. He leaned closer. His breath stank of the loitering ghost of yesterday’s schnapps, a form of refreshment I hear is much in fashion at Court. His lips turned downward in a characteristic sneer. “It is beholden upon you, Sir, to refrain from any further such activity, whatever aesthetic reasons may tempt you to it.”
Chestnut candles have perfumed the spring air these last days. The world is wrapped in a mantle of green gauze.
Speedwell came again, bringing word of His Majesty’s new interest in Chinese gardens. I was civil, I think, and showed no impatience as he quaffed one, then two, then three jugs of wheaten ale. He himself has doubtless been pouring honeyed nonsense into the King’s ear, using the very words with which he sought to persuade me. The Chinese, he said, supplement nature with art and seek to create gardens so fantastical that gods will descend to dwell in them and bring the secret of immortality to earth. The paths are made crooked to confuse devils. It is not hard to imagine His Majesty being taken with such heathenish nonsense, for his youth renders him dangerously susceptible to the gaudy bauble of Orientalism. This does not bode well for my employment in the King’s service. Or in anybody else’s service, for that matter, for to be out of favour with the House of Hanover is to be out of favour with the whole country.
My plans for Bagley Hall are almost complete, and I will travel north in a few days to begin work. Among the oaks and elms around the lake I will plant primroses, violets, daffodils, and other flowers, not in straight lines but rather to appear accidental, as if part of the natural woodland. There should be no appearance of artifice or design and the garden should no more need constant work to preserve its serene beauty than our pleasant English countryside, save the mowing and rolling of the wide grass walks and the cutting out of dead branches. The maze, of course, must be levelled.
How sweet this northern air, how uncloyed and brisk even at the start of summer. I have hired a dozen artisans and they will start clearing the ground tomorrow, ridding this divine spot of its grottoes and its statuary and its prancing stone satyrs and preparing for a new garden more in keeping with the natural beauty of God’s design. After supper I will take a stroll around the maze, for by week’s end that dubious pleasure will no longer be available, to me or to anyone.
The maze is larger than I had at first supposed, and appears to be considerably more complex. Unlike other examples I have seen, which have been made of yew or box trees, the Bagley maze has been fashioned from privet, which has grown much higher than a man. Even an upraised hand could not be seen from outside. The privet grows so close to the ground that if one were to go down on one’s knees and press one’s cheek to the earth it would not be possible to see the feet of a person on the adjacent path. The height of the walls and the narrowness of the path between them create a disagreeable sense of confinement. Moreover, they keep out the rays of the sun, so the maze seems to exist in its own climatic region, cooler and damper than the world outside. Stepping through the entrance, I shivered. The evening had been sweet with birdsong, but inside the maze silence hung heavily upon the air. Ahead and behind and to each side I saw the same blank and faceless walls of privet, rising like cliffs and seeming to close over me. I felt unease, and even a little fear. How easy it would be to become lost between those privet walls, with each turn bringing only another hateful green box. If I wished to penetrate the maze I would take a length of thread, as Theseus did, so I could retrace my steps. But the idea held no attraction and I withdrew without further exploration. Tomorrow I will have the workmen soak faggots in oil and consign the whole devilish edifice to the flames.
Early in the forenoon I was by the lake, deliberating the best way to set the daffodils, when a carriage drew up and discharged a most unwelcome visitor. I can barely tolerate Speedwell in London, and when I see him in the country his base and toadying character becomes a blight upon the landscape. Wiping his lips with the back of one hand after quaffing cognac from a beaten pewter flask, he said that he had come up to offer me the benefit of his experience.
I invited him to break fast at the village inn, and watched him gorge on pheasant pie and bread and pickles and guzzle down a bottle of Rhenish. I offered more cognac, which he accepted without thanks. I enquired whether he knew that Bagley had a maze. Belching, he said he did not. I suggested that, since mazes were of particular interest to His Majesty, he would do well to make a survey of it and confirm that the path eventually led back to the entrance. He grunted, and appeared dangerously close to sleep. Taking his arm, I escorted him to the entrance to the maze, and watched him stumble out of sight around the first turn. Shortly thereafter the workmen gathered and began to prepare the faggots. I returned to the lakeside and the question of whether to use one variety of daffodils or several.
To make things appear to be the direct handiwork of God and to efface all sign of his own intervention is the gardener’s greatest challenge. I did not allow the crackling of flames and the pall of smoke that drifted over the lake to disturb my concentration.