"I feel like I should do something to make this into a Momentous Occasion," I said to Pond as I crossed the Vere River on a narrow stone bridge and took the turning off the Piddinghoe Road toward Verevale.
"My lord?" he hung onto his hat with one hand and the dashboard with the other; I suppose I took the turn a little too fast, the tyres squealing in protest, but I didn't want to bother with changing gears.
"The Saint-Clairs return to Verevale after fifty years, there should be banners and fanfares and whatnot, don't you think?"
"Forty-five years, my lord, and I don't believe one Saint-Clair attending a hunt-party as an invited guest quite constitutes a triumphant homecoming," he smiled over at me, "Though perhaps your lordship might blow a fanfare on the motor's horn?"
"Good idea!" I grinned back at him, then spent the next few minutes tootling away at the electric klaxon. I must say, though, the result wasn't very satisfactory, it sounded less like a triumph and more like a goose being murdered slowly. I gave up the enterprise when I startled a small herd of cows into a stampede.
The countryside we were driving through was quite lovely, smooth rolling downs with the willow-lined Vere meandering through it, the grass still green in late autumn and dotted with white cattle, the trees along the river and laying in patches along the hillsides glowing in shades of gold and vermilion. I wondered how much of what I was seeing was Saint-Clair land and how much was let along with Verevale Court, if those were our cows or the Levondales'. I knew so little about the estates aside from Foxbridge Castle, had no idea how much land there was or how it was being managed, or even where it was all located. I would have to remember to ask Nanny about it when I got home.
"Well, this is an awfully grand sort of village, what?" I remarked as we crossed the Vere one more time and were met by a sort of monumental gate, like Wellington Arch in miniature, through which we drove into a perfectly circular road lined with pale golden stone buildings; it was impressive enough to warrant shifting down to first gear so I could take it in slowly.
"The village was built all-of-a-piece by the third Earl of Vere in 1740 after the old village burned down," Pond informed me, quoting from one of the numerous books he'd read about the history and architecture of Verevale Court during his week in Portsmouth--when he wasn't chatting up sailors, that is, "All that remains of the original Verevale are the church foundations, crypt, and graveyard. Many believed at the time that the Earl started the fire himself, in order to rebuild in a more organized fashion."
"Well, it certainly is neat," I said, coming to a stop in front of the church in question, which bore a striking resemblance to St. George's Hanover Square and looked wildly out of place in the country. A proper country church should be Norman, or Gothic at a pinch, not Neoclassical.
The village was laid out like a compass, with the church on the eastern point, the archway we'd just come through on the northern point, an equally monumental lodge-flanked gate into the park on the southern point, and a village hall that looked just like the Royal Opera Covent Garden on the western point; the spaces in between these points were filled with identical three-storey houses standing close together like suburban crescents. Instead of a village green, the circle was filled by a formal garden with gravel paths radiating out from a broad fountain at the center, tiled to resemble a compass rose with an immense iron armillary rising out of it.
"It was based on designs by the Adam Brothers," Pond went on, "who remodeled several of the rooms at Verevale Court and Vere House in London for the third Earl."
"Indeed?" I said, just to show I was listening. As we neared the park gates at a crawl, a very cross-looking old man came hobbling out of one of the lodges to open them for us, pulling his forelock as we passed through. Beyond the gate, the drive rose in a perfectly straight line terminating at the top of the hill, where Verevale Court squatted regally, a big golden box with a dome like a fireplug on top, flanked by two smaller boxes with identical smaller domes.
"The main block of the house was built by the first Earl in 1672," he enthused as we flashed past a few more pristine white cows scattered decoratively beside the drive, "It's considered the first truly Baroque house in England, twenty years ahead of the style."
"You don't say," I prompted, though he didn't really require any encouragement. We didn't seem to be getting any closer to the house, though I was back up to third gear by then; some kind of optical illusion was at work, it got larger and more complicated with pillars and statues, just not any nearer.
"The design was based on the principle of the Golden Mean, and all the major dimensions are found on the Fibonacci Sequence," his voice had taken on a tone of fanaticism as he warmed to the topic, "The main block is a hundred and forty-four feet wide on each side, eighty-nine feet high including the roof, with the rotunda of fifty-five feet high comprising a drum of thirty-four feet and a dome of twenty-one feet, for a total of a hundred and forty-four feet from base to apex."
"Extraordinary!" I was impressed by the cleverness of it, and his memory for numbers.
"When the second Earl added the flanking pavilions, he followed the same principles, each pavilion is eighty-nine feet wide and fifty-five feet high, with a thirty-four foot rotunda. The connecting colonnades use Fibonacci numbers but not in sequence, each has thirteen columns twenty-one feet high and eight feet apart."
"Golly," I breathed out as we finally entered the decorative gate into the vast courtyard, where the immense house towered over us; it's one thing to say 'one hundred and forty-four feet high,' and something else entirely to look up at a flagpole waving a hundred and forty-four feet in the air at the top of the rotunda--less than half as high as the dome of St. Paul's, but pretty breathtaking nonetheless.
"Very impressive, my lord," Pond agreed as we pulled up to the foot of the front steps and craned our necks at the gilded statue of Victory that leaned out from the pediment thirty yards overhead like the figurehead of a gargantuan ship.
A pair of tall young footmen came down the steps, one to open my door for me and the other to direct Pond toward the service court. At the top of the steps an exceptionally impressive butler, well over six feet tall with a face reminiscent of the Duke of Wellington, stood ready to receive me. He welcomed me with a stately bow and led me through the house, going slow so I could gawk as we went.
The hall was two storeys high and walled with monumental portraits and stone medallions embedded in a froth of plaster cherubs and flowers, its chequered marble floor scattered with great thronelike chairs; then came the rotunda, more terrifying from the inside than outside, painted robin's-egg blue with more plaster garlands frothed on its walls, the far-away dome enameled cobalt and spattered with silver stars, the coloured marble floor representing a map of the world with England plated in gold at the centre; then a long and lofty room (called the Saloon, I was later told) with scarlet brocade hangings and a busily painted ceiling, dozens of imposing portraits in heavy gold frames, dozens of tables and settees with heavy gold legs, and a row of tall French windows looking out onto a terrace and sloping lawn going down to a lake in the distance; and finally we reached a more human-scaled room (the morning room, specifically), light and airy and filled with flowered chintz sofas and prettily draped tables laden with silver photograph-frames and delicate flower arrangements.
"Viscount Foxbridge, my lady," the butler boomed in a voice like the Last Trump, which rattled the chandelier and could likely be heard in the village--though it didn't seem to have much of an effect on the lady in the room, who didn't look up from the embroidery-frame she was working on.