In Jane Delury’s latest novel, Hedge (Zibby Books, June 2023), a garden historian leaves her unhappy marriage in California for a 19th-century estate in the Hudson Valley, where she rediscovers joy in her work. In this abridged scene, Maud searches for a lost garden with the help of an archeologist—and new love interest—as she waits for her daughters to join her for the summer, bringing along a dark secret.
Maud had been at Montgomery Place for two weeks, and she still hadn’t found half of the beds that once bloomed from the mansion to the conservatory. Sprawled on the steps of the empty glass building, Gabriel calculated measurements, a notepad balanced on his knee and a pencil clenched between his teeth. With his muddy boots, untucked shirt, and unruly hair, he resembled a boy in his mid-forties. At his feet, archaeological flags traced the rectangles and circles of the beds they’d discovered. He was thinking hard—Maud could tell by the way he tapped the fingers of his free hand against the air as if playing a piano. She continued to walk the lawn, trying to imagine flowers, statuary, and marble benches where there was now an enormous tombstone of green.
“We’ll figure it out,” Gabriel said. He dropped the chewed-up pencil back into his T-shirt pocket. They both liked to handwrite, thought better that way.
“We will?” Maud squinted in the May sunlight as he walked toward her, ripping the paper from the notepad.
“We have to.” He folded the paper into her hand. “Actually, you have to. I’m officially stumped.”
“Go to your dig,” Maud said. “I’ll sit in the archives for another hour banging my head against the desk.”
“Don’t give yourself a concussion.” Gabriel scooped up a bag of soil samples, the magnifying glass around his neck swinging on its leather cord. “See you at six?” he said. “I’ll bring the new lab results.”
“I’ll bring the wine,” Maud said.
As Gabriel walked away toward the woods, she headed to the mansion. Where the lawn ended in a horseshoe of gravel, the building rose three stories, painted the color of milky tea and frosted with cornices and floral festoons. A century ago, Montgomery Place had been one of the finest estates in New York’s Hudson Valley, its grounds spreading for hundreds of acres through forest and field. This September, the gates would reopen with the mansion and grounds restored. Maud had been hired to turn back the clock to 1860 on the lawn she now crossed, once a labyrinthine formal garden. She planned to reseed the flower beds, remake the paths, and return the statues and urns to their positions. By mid-June, as the roots settled into the warming soil, she’d fill the conservatory with tropical plants.
That was the plan, but only if she could figure out the location of those missing beds. Maud mounted the steps of the mansion, feeling deflated. She wanted to resurrect the original garden, not some inauthentic, shrunken version. And she knew from her fifteen years of experience as a landscape historian in England that sometimes you failed. Sometimes you never found the documents listing the original plants. Sometimes the soil didn’t turn up seeds or chemical traces and the stone wall you were sure had run through a sea of ivy turned out to be an errant mark on a faulty map. Garden archaeology was notoriously difficult. Despite Gabriel’s encouragement, she knew that he was losing hope too.
Inside the mansion, she coaxed off her boots and put on the velvet slippers used to protect the fragile floors, then passed through the foyer under the spun-sugar chandelier. The restoration of the house’s lower floor was already done. The dining room table was set for a late eighteenth-century dinner: a plaster roast, ringed by plastic grapes, throned in a cornucopia of silver and crystal. Behind gilded mirrors, the wallpaper bloomed with poppies and dripped with ivy. Upstairs, however, the floors were still carpeted and the rooms furnished for the 1960s. At the end of an avocado-green hallway, a fat spool of plastic sheeting and a heap of power tools waited for the upcoming demolition. A sign on the door to the archives read “No Food, Drink, Smoking, Chewing Gum. Wear gloves! Return all documents to their rightful place!!!”
From the metal shelves, Maud retrieved the box marked “MP Formal Garden” and sat at the Formica desk. Since she’d arrived at Montgomery Place from her home in California, this room with its smell of decaying cellulose, ink, and formaldehyde had become her lair. Hands in gloves, she extracted documents from their plastic sleeves: a map of the grounds drawn by a visitor in 1870; a jaundiced newspaper article from the New York Times; a watercolor of the formal garden by a forgotten Hudson School painter. She placed the paper with Gabriel’s measurements at the center of the arrangement and waited for an epiphany.
After another ten minutes, measured by the tsk-tsk of a grandfather clock wedged between the bookcases, she abandoned the desk for the window, leaning her forehead against the windowpane to scrutinize the view. Honey-colored light filled the conservatory and bounced off the grass. The beds were right there; they had to be. Maud could see them, swimming their way past the black locust trees that sentried the lawn, blooming and tufting, whooping with color. Women in silk dresses shaped like calla lilies and mustached men in top hats strolling the paths, sipping sherry from crystal glasses. In the conservatory, a harpist playing under the dripping eaves of banana fronds. And once the guests had gone, the garden still, the chirping of robins now the hooting of owls, Alexander Gilson, the estate’s head gardener, would sit alone on the steps to watch night fall. He was the person Maud most wished she could talk to. He would know everything she needed to know. He could point out each bed and tell her its secrets. As the sun dissolved and the moon appeared, she’d walk behind him in the gloaming, taking notes, asking questions, and writing down plant names.
And with that thought, an idea flashed. A trick used somewhere—where had that been? The Lost Gardens of Heligan, where she’d worked one summer during graduate school in England: a two-hundred-acre estate much like this one, left to bramble and ivy when the laborers sailed for the French front in 1914 and didn’t return. The depressions of garden beds, invisible in daylight, could be seen in shadow at night. The archaeology team used spotlights at Heligan, but here she could try the headlight beams of her rental car. It might not work. But it might.