Violet looked behind her at the big house, then ran and ran until she was safely hidden among the ferns. As the furled fronds towered above her and sheltered her pale skin from the late afternoon sun, her breathing calmed and heart rate slowed. She was in trouble again and dreaded going back inside.
If only she wasn’t so clumsy. Another breakage, which meant her wages would be docked again. She knew Mrs Salt, the frowning housekeeper, would be looking for her, ready with a few choice words and probably the back of her rough, red hand. That also meant she would be on early morning grate-cleaning duties for the foreseeable future.
She wandered forlornly deeper into the fern bed, marvelling at their magnificent size and the contours and unique patterns of their fronds. Soon she was daydreaming, walking backwards to feel the coolness of the plants against the skin of her neck and arms, when she stumbled and fell right into the grasp of a young man.
“Hey! Watch your step” he laughed as she tried to right herself with some semblance of dignity.
“I’m sorry” she was trying to shake the dust from her skirts, then turned to see who had broken her fall
“What’re you doing here anyway?” she said as she tried to smooth down her skirt. She looked into his sunburned face and darker brown eyes “I don’t recognise you” she said when he didn’t answer, “you must be the new garden boy”
“I suppose you could say that.” He said, with a smile on his face, as he continued to set out bottles on a fallen tree trunk.
She looked the young man up and down. He was obviously used to spending time outdoors as his skin was tanned and his arms looked strong and his hands were plainly those of a worker. Not the pale soft hands of a gentleman. He had dark, curly hair, which he frequently brushed out of his eyes, although seconds later it returned there as if to shield them from the bright sun.
He was in a clearing where he had set up a small stool on which was placed a canvas bag filled with glass vials and bottles of clear liquid. As he strode among the plants, she couldn’t take her eyes off him.
“Do you work for my father?” she tried to regain her composure and satisfy her curiosity at the same time.
“Who is your father?”
“Mr Dean, the head gardener”
“And you are?”
“Ah, I’d heard he had several daughters.”
“Well, there are four of us” said Violet “Rose and Iris are married, of course and Daisy is still too young to work in the house.” She looked at his bottles and the seeds he was collecting. “What are you doing and what are the bottles for?” She held one up to the light.
“Checking on the health and viability of the fern seeds – I am collecting these specimens for comparison.” he could see she was interested “Do you always ask so many questions?” he was laughing again. “Anyway - what do you do?”
“I am a scullery maid – at present”
“Ah, so you have aspirations?”
“Not after today!”
He saw her look of sheer exasperation.
“Why - what happened?”
Violet wasn’t sure she should be talking to a stranger like this, but he looked so friendly she just shrugged and found herself telling him of that morning’s disaster. Mrs Salt, the housekeeper had promised her a chance to help to serve at dinner later in the week. There was an air of excitement throughout the kitchen because Master David, the son of Lord and Lady Dearing had returned from a long voyage. Lots of important people were going to be there and Violet had been given the task of taking a silver salver of crystal glasses up to the dining room, in readiness for the toasts at the occasion.
This is where the trouble began. Her mind was wandering as she imagined the journey that the young master had just undertaken to search out and bring back rare and exotic tropical plants for Lord Dearing’s garden. It was said that he was an ardent plant hunter and had been lucky enough to gain passage on a voyage to Barbados with some of the eminent plant-hunters of the day. Gossip in the kitchen was that one of them had even previously sailed on The Beagle on one of his epic voyages back in the 1830s.
Violet had never seen David, she had only heard of him from the other servants. Lottie, the other downstairs maid, whispered to her that he was handsome, nothing like his bald, portly father, the present Lord Dearing.
Violet’s family had only been in service at The Grange for a few months as her father had been recommended to the position of head gardener here by his previous employer who knew Lord Dearing and was happy to lend him his staff when he was in urgent need of a new gardener. Mr Grindley was a mill owner, a hard-working, self-made man, but determined to ingratiate himself with the true aristocracy. Even if this meant he had to go as far as losing his own gardener and his family, most of who had worked in the Mill House. Violet was just grateful to be away from the city and the dark forbidding factories that could have been her destiny.
As she talked to the stranger of her envy and longing to be in the beautiful gardens where she now found herself, the young man looked up from his work and gazed at her properly, for the first time. Her hair, as pale as dried straw, was escaping tendril by tendril from its restraining cotton band as she spoke and her blue eyes danced with life as she told her disastrous tale. He noticed that they were the colour of wild cornflowers.
“…..that was when I tripped over the edge of the hall rug and dropped the tray. Five glasses broke.” She frowned up at him.
“So, your promotion to Housekeeper is postponed then?”
She laughed and then stopped suddenly as she remembered what was waiting for her back at the house.
“I’d better get back or they’ll be looking for me. I will have punishment enough as it is.”
“Very well, Vi” he replied.
She turned to him with blazing eyes
“It’s Vi-o-let” she countered
The young man drew himself up to his full height and looked as if he was about to say something, then thought better of it when he saw the anger in her eyes.
“I do beg your pardon, Violet .” he corrected himself with a small bow in her direction. “I may see you again soon, no doubt.”
He watched as she turned and ran over the manicured lawns, down between the dahlia avenues and disappeared round the back of the Orangery.
He turned his attention back to the ferns he had been studying before she had interrupted him, and was soon absorbed into his scientific examination of the spores of his favourite specimen.