Sylph Trillingham Quimby, Eighteenth Lady Rockingford
Does Monarda have a place in the mixed border? More precisely, does Monarda have a place in the English mixed border, that brilliant collage of shrubs and perennials at the back of the garden? Monarda is not native to the valley of the River Quimby or even to England. At Rockingford on Quimby, however, Monarda has always enjoyed the most patriotic associations.
The Twelfth Lord Rockingford brought the first specimens to the estate upon his legendary escape from North America, where he rubbed himself with their oil to perfect his disguise as an Iroquois Indian. His portrait still hangs in the great hall, depicting him clad from the waist up in the uniform of a colonel in the Rockingford Hussars and from the waist down in the filthy loincloth of the savage, much as he must have appeared stealing across the Canadian border to harass the Americans in their so-called War of Independence. His depredations were so successful that he earned the sobriquet “Tomahawk Rockingford,” although the derivation of that term was unknown until many years after his death. Though not a gardener himself, he planted enough root cuttings in the servants’ garden to provide a supply of the oil for use as a liniment and digestif.
To this day there are tales among the cottagers of some bleak creature roaming the forest at night, occasionally betraying its presence by a cry like that of a ghoul calling the damned to hell. One ancient is said to have told his great granddaughter, still alive in my mother’s day, that he was returning from a tavern one hot summer night when he was nearly overwhelmed by a pungent medicinal smell, as if something green had been distilled into a noxious vapor. Creeping forward, he saw the devil himself dressed from the waist up in a red coat with gold epaulettes and naked below. He was holding a dead man by the hair with one hand while he hacked at the crown of his head with a little hatchet in the other. Just as the moon shone through the great oaks, the devil looked up, and the horrified cottager stared into a leering face topped by a ridge of black hair like the crest on a Hussar’s helmet. With an awful roar, the fiend hurled his hatchet, slicing off the cottager’s right ear.
Away ran the cottager with the devil howling after him until he reached the church. Awakened by cries and pounding on the door, the vicar feared the French Revolution had spread to the Valley of the Quimby. He rang the alarm bell and hid under his bed, leaving the cottager to fend for himself. For several terrifying minutes, he stood trembling against the church door, while a dark shadow slipped closer and closer through the tombstones of the parish graveyard. Then the country people all came running with torches and pitchforks, and the apparition slipped back into the darkness. There was no more penitent sinner on the entire estate than that cottager, but nothing confirmed his tale except his missing ear. No body was ever discovered, though when the role of the estate was taken at Christmastide, one of his former drinking companions was found absent and thought to have been the victim of a passing press gang.
My own investigations have been inconclusive. When His Lordship died of apoplexy following passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act, twenty-seven shriveled pieces of skin with the hair still attached were found among his personal effects. The careful observer will note only seven scalps affixed to His Lordship’s loincloth in his formal portrait. Twenty cottagers went missing between the year His Lordship returned from America and his death. When his wig was removed to prepare his body for Christian burial, the servants observed that the sides of the head had been shaved clean, leaving a tuft of white hair running down the center of his skull. Without the bodies, however, all we have is numerology and the grossest sort of speculation designed to cast aspersions on the upper classes.
The next Lord Rockingford was more interested in stalking wild game than his predecessor had been and allowed the servants’ garden to grow to seed. Here Monarda had the advantage because it propagates by spreading its tendrils through the soil and crowding out the other plants. The original specimens now grew to a height of over sixteen feet. Seeking a short cut to the cold buffet on the south lawn after the hunt, His Lordship resolved to gallop through the old garden. His hunter, however, balked at the mixed border, hurling the rider headlong over the maroon-tipped jungle. When the other gentlemen of the hunt arrived at the buffet table by a more traditional route, they found not only the finest display of cold meat in the shire but also Lord Rockingford himself lying beside a plate of sliced pheasant, his face covered with maroon petals.
“This time, His Lordship has gone too far to satisfy his guests,” one of the huntsmen remarked.
By the time the Fourteenth Lord Rockingford received the coronet upon his return from the Crimea, boaters often commented on the colorful blanket that spread from the castle to the banks of the Quimby. Due to a terrible hangover incurred aboard Lord Cardigan’s yacht the night before the battle, the new Lord Rockingford had missed the charge of the Light Brigade, to which the Rockingford Hussars were attached. Imagine his distress when Lord Cardigan arrived at the yacht the evening after the great battle without any coherent story into which Lord Rockingford could credibly insert himself. Few, if any, of the Rockingford Hussars were left to boast of their Lord’s conduct, so Lord Rockingford quite correctly declined to discuss his behavior at Balaclava, saying only that his memories were too terrible to share. The public mistook his silence for a noble taciturnity. Thus His Lordship acquired the reputation of being the first soldier of the empire.
On summer afternoons, Lord Rockingford, in full uniform, would station his chaise lounge beside the Monarda bed and drink champagne, much as he had done aboard Lord Cardigan’s yacht the day before the battle. Just before he dozed off, his bugler would sound the charge. His Lordship would leap to his feet, draw his saber and charge, sometimes hacking his way nearly through the flowers before exhaustion and emotion overcame him. Concealed from the prying eyes of family and servants, he would call for more champagne to be brought by one of the cottager’s daughters. Many times he was not seen again until the next morning, smelling as if he had spent the night rolling amongst the pungent flowers.
These frolics, considered eccentric by his peers and provocative by the lower classes, ceased when Lord Rockingford disappeared. His body servant, who always consumed the last swallows of the champagne, recalled a young woman running out of the garden and then a much older man striding in with a pitchfork. A search of the castle, grounds, and stables revealed nothing. Then a cook who was searching for bay leaves to cover a noxious smell from the garden discovered His Lordship impaled upon his own saber, the rest of his uniform in disarray. For several days, there were reports of huge bearded Russians wandering the fens, thanking God for revenge for their great defeat at Balaclava. Then the excitement of a state funeral and the investiture of the new Lord Rockingford distracted the country from the morbid circumstances of his predecessor’s death.
The new Lord Rockingford was the first in that noble line to take a degree at Cambridge instead of a commission in the Rockingford Hussars. Determined to refute Darwin’s scandalous assertions, he devoted himself to the study of biology. What better living laboratory than Rockingford on Quimby? Unusually tall and thin, he swept across the grounds in his black baccalaureate’s gown with ermine collar, searching for evidence of the simultaneous emergence of all species.
Now nearly twenty feet tall, the original Monarda specimens attracted bees into the servants’ quarters and filled the castle with their raw green scent. Quickly identifying the star shaped flower as Monarda didyma, His Lordship ordered part of the original bed dug up so he could examine the rootstock. My grandmother, then a little girl, was present when the gardeners put their spades to a plot that had not been disturbed in over sixty years. Unusually tenacious, the roots resisted extraction as if something were holding them to the earth. One man started to pull them out by the roots, when Grandmother and His Lordship observed something holding them back: a bony human hand. Grandmother fainted, and His Lordship ordered the work stopped until he could bring his notebook to scientifically document the excavation.
Over the next week, using the most modern techniques, Lord Rockingford unearthed twenty human skeletons. Strikingly, many showed signs of violence to the crowns of their skulls. His Lordship concluded that he had unearthed the burial grounds of the original inhabitants of the Quimby valley intermingled with the original flora. To his mind, this was proof of the simultaneous creation of the human race and the flora that nourished them. Determined to rebut Thomas Huxley’s scandalous attack on the clergy and by implication the aristocracy itself, His Lordship published his conclusions in a pamphlet entitled Conclusive Evidence of Simultaneous Creation Discovered at Rockingford on Quimby. He was so convinced of his position that he sent a copy to The Times. This proved to be a mistake.
The vicar and the local gentry thought quite highly of the pamphlet, or so they told Lord Rockingford. The Times, however, sent a reporter to examine the skeletons, which His Lordship had laid out in the old south shed. Several were clad in knee breeches and waistcoats similar to those worn by servants in the Twelfth Lord Rockingford’s day, indicating a degree of civilization remarkable in such a primitive people. Although the reporter did not speak with His Lordship himself, he was fascinated by the history of the last three Lord Rockingfords. Then he asked the servants if anyone recognized the costumes of the deceased. The reporter leapt into his cart and raced back to the station when told it was the Rockingford livery.
The Times published a rebuttal entitled “The Revenge of Tomahawk Rockingford.” Instead of applauding His Lordship’s pious entry into this great debate, the article excoriated his methods and ridiculed his conclusions. Then the reporter presented his own scandalous speculation: All the bodies had been scalped, so they must be victims of the Twelfth Lord Rockingford. This outrage deeply distressed His Lordship. Now, whenever he traveled to London to sit in the House of Lords, he was greeted by cries of “Tomahawk Rockingford!”
For the rest of his life, Lord Rockingford tried to disprove this accusation by showing that scalping, far from being confined to the North American continent, had long been practiced along the River Quimby. Again his initial efforts appeared successful; cottagers had been finding scalped remains in fields and along hedgerows of the other great estates since the Twelfth Lord Rockingford’s time. Try as he might, however, His Lordship could not account for the costumes of the deceased, so unlike those of primitive people. My own mother recalls him observing to the vicar that if civilized people could revert to savagery within one lifetime, primitive peoples could acquire the vestments of civilization in the same period. The vicar agreed but urged His Lordship not to publish.
With the next Lord Rockingford, I turn from history to memory. As a fourth cousin once removed, I was housed with mother in the east wing overlooking the old servants’ garden. My earliest memories are of waking to the soft hum of bees and hummingbirds and the deep green aroma of the Monarda bed in summer. Arising early, I would run to the window to look out over the brilliant maroon flowers toward the river. Sometimes, if it was early enough, I might even see His Lordship trotting home from some nocturnal adventure of fighting dragons and trolls, as I supposed. He always pressed his fingers to his lips when he saw me wave. Like any fatherless child, I was thrilled to enjoy his trust.
Years later, during the controversy over Lord Rockingford’s behavior during the Great War, I told Mother about seeing him ride home in the morning. Overcome by some personal association with men on horseback, she whispered, “Wretch!”
Lord Rockingford’s summer evenings afield stopped in the fall of 1914, when he was called to lead the Rockingford Hussars to France. Like his noble progenitor, he sent the horses and men by troopship, preferring to cross the Channel in the family yacht, Le Scourge de Quimby. Also like his progenitor, he preferred the accommodations of the yacht to the rude life of the soldier in the trenches. Thus he was the last to know that some wag had defaced the Rockingford standard: instead of crossed claymores and wild roses, crossed tomahawks and Monarda now composed the family crest. When this proud banner was first displayed to the enemy, the Huns replied with the most raucous laughter ever heard in the Rockingford sector.
The Hussars’ most daring maneuvers were met with the same incredulous response. Sabers drawn, cuirasses flashing in the sun, the Rockingford Hussars would muster every morning and evening in full sight of the enemy, never drawing a single shot. Without His Lordship to sound the charge, however, the troop always withdrew to spend the day galloping through the fields or hunting on the grounds of the nearby chateaux.
First officers, and later common soldiers, would climb from the German trenches to photograph the daily parade. On one of Lord Rockingford’s monthly inspections to the front, however, the Germans were strangely inattentive. Through his binoculars His Lordship observed an official motorcade behind the German lines, with lines of troops drawn up at attention along the route. A bemedaled figure in a spiked helmet with an enormous ostrich plume was standing in the back of the largest motor coach, staring back at His Lordship through his binoculars. Their eyes met, and Lord Rockingford realized he was looking at the Kaiser himself. Drawing himself up to full height, he saluted. Across the field the Kaiser raised his left hand to his helmet and then signaled his chauffeur to drive on.
Realizing that Providence had given him the opportunity to end the war that very morning, His Lordship gave his troop the order to mount followed by, “Walk, march!” The motorcade was just starting away as the Rockingford Hussars entered no man’s land in line abreast. Seeing their quarry on the run, the Hussars advanced at a trot, then a gallop. The Germans broke formation and bounded back into their trenches. No longer laughing, they met the Hussars with machine-gun fire, sweeping that glorious charge from the field like lead soldiers toppled by an angry child.
All, that is, except Lord Rockingford and his bugler. Hallooing and urging his lancers onwards, he galloped after the Kaiser, unaware there was only one trooper behind him. As he approached the speeding Mercedes, he shouted, “Tallyho!” and in his exuberance leapt over the Kaiser’s motor coach followed by the bugler.
“Threes about!” His Lordship cried, and the bugler sounded the call to turn the troop.
Instead of his troop, however, Lord Rockingford saw a phalanx of German infantry and machine gunners lining the road beside the Kaiser’s motor coach. In the back seat the Kaiser held his trembling saber in his left hand. Beside him was a large basket covered by a linen cloth that revealed the too familiar outline of a bottle of champagne.
“I say!” His Lordship cried. “Shall we put this unpleasantness aside until after lunch?”
Dismounting, he became the only English officer taken prisoner by Kaiser Wilhelm during the entire conflict.
After receiving Lord Rockingford’s sword, the Kaiser invited him to a splendid lunch of cold chicken and champagne, beginning one of the more bizarre friendships in the history of the Rockingford line.
The news of the last charge of the Rockingford Hussars and His Lordship’s capture created a sensation. Through neutral diplomatic channels, he requested several vintages that were not in the Hohenzollerns’ cellars, clothing to participate in the highest society, and a few Monarda cuttings. The English Garden at Sans Souci, where His Lordship was interned, lacked that critical specimen to complete the mixed border. On a summer afternoon Lord Rockingford and the Kaiser and Empress, all dressed in white, were photographed taking tea together in the garden, admiring the glorious specimens. That was the summer of 1917, when the Germans thought they were about to win the war.
In later years, Lord Rockingford attributed his lack of popular support to that photograph. Instead of beautiful flowers buzzing with bees and hummingbirds, the ignorant public saw only an English lord consorting with the enemy at a time when thousands of his countrymen were dying daily in the trenches. Fortunately for his social standing, however, many of his peers saw the photograph as proof that the kinship of the European aristocracy had indeed survived the French Revolution. After the Kaiser abdicated, His Lordship visited him in exile in Holland to deliver a case of champagne and Monarda rootstock, melancholy reminders of their happy days together in the field.
These are the tales of my girlhood, which make my imagination soar with the hummingbirds over the Monarda bed sweeping down to the banks of the River Quimby. How difficult it was to leave the estate for Miss Trillingham’s School for Young Ladies to begin my progress into the educated elite. It was still more difficult to suffer His Lordship’s death along with the seventeen other Quimbys standing between myself and the title at the Boating Day picnic in 1937. Cook mistook a shaker of synthetic spider venom that the estate manager had carelessly placed beside the picnic basket, for paprika for the deviled eggs. It took nearly a year after our marriage for me to forgive the hapless manager. Instead of dwelling on that difficult subject, however, I shall conclude by praising Monarda. It is brilliant, rank, and feral, and like the English aristocracy propagates best underground.