Violet lay on her bed looking at the ceiling. The attic room that she shared with two other servant girls was small, but it fitted three wooden beds in a row and they shared a washstand. She gazed at the cracks in the ceiling and heard her stomach rumbling, reminding her of the punishment meted out by Grace Salt, for her earlier misdemeanour with the glasses. As she’d expected it had been extra saucepan washing duties and then straight to bed with no supper. She was very tempted to try to slip out of the house once more, while they would be busy clearing up after dinner, and find some wild blackberries to calm her complaining innards.
She heard someone outside the door and sat bolt upright. The door opened and in came Lottie, smiling sympathetically and holding something in her hand.
“I managed to save you this” she held out a piece of bread and butter.
Violet grabbed it gratefully and started to eat while Lottie told her the gossip from below stairs.
“Mrs Salt says that Agnes is to be allowed to serve above stairs very soon. She just has to ask the mistress and she will get her new uniform. I wish I could be next” she sighed
“Well, it’s never going to be me” Violet said through a mouthful of bread. “I’m not cut out for this life.” Though she thought to herself – even if it’s the only life I can hope for.
“You’d look very good in the dress, though” sighed Lottie wistfully eyeing her slender shape and naturally curled hair.
“Why couldn’t I have been born a boy?” continued Violet, oblivious to the envious glances from lovely plump Lottie
“Then I could work outside in the gardens and maybe even accompany Master David on his next expedition.”
“Oh I saw him today!” said Lottie. “I was coming out of the kitchen and he came through – looking for someone. He found Mr Holmes and they went back upstairs. He’s very good-looking and grown so tall since I last saw him.”
“Do we have a new under-gardener?” Violet asked, suddenly remembering her earlier encounter.
“Lord knows, no one tells me anything. Anyway I’d better go before I’m missed, you know Agnes is always trying to get me into trouble.” Lottie fled down the stairs to return to her kitchen duties.
Violet looked out of the tiny attic window and over towards the close-cropped lawns and the distant orchards. She was still hungry so she decided to risk it. She jumped off the bed and opened the door as quietly as possibly. She knew, from past adventures, which floorboards would creak the loudest and she picked her way gingerly down the stairs without a sound.
Maybe her father would still be around outside and she could ask him about his new helper. There had been talk below stairs, of him employing that drunk Elijah’s son – although Lord Dearing was said to have had some reservations about the wisdom of that.
She ran across the lawns and headed for the cover of the wild part of the garden where she knew the blackberries grew. Dusk was falling and it would soon be dark. She grabbed hungrily at the ripe berries, squashing them in her haste and getting the dark sweet juice on her hands and the front of her dress. She ate several. But she knew from experience that too many would give her a stomach ache later.
She inhaled the evening smells of warm earth and heady perfume, feeling at home outdoors surrounded by foliage and flower heads. She heard the screech of an early owl as she headed for her favourite place of shelter, the Orangery. It was always kept locked, on the orders of Lord Dearing, due to the valuable plants it often contained, but Violet had spied where her father hid the key.
She located a drainpipe halfway up the wall and placed her hand inside. A spider scuttled out of the way, allowing her grasp the key. She chuckled to herself when she imagined Lottie doing this – that spider would have made her scream so loudly that it would have brought the whole household running out to see who was being murdered.
If only she had spent many hours watching spiders weaving their webs between plant stalks, like Violet had when she’d followed her father everywhere during her younger years. Then Lottie would realise how amazing they were.
Not to mention how many of those annoying houseflies they ate. Maybe then she would love them too. There was no more miraculous sight than a maze of spiders webs in the sunshine after a storm, glistening with raindrops like rainbow crystals
Violet had been distraught when she came of an age, on her sixteenth birthday, when she’d had to leave her father’s side and start work. Her mother, Mary was too ill and weak to work these days, only managing a little sewing to earn a few pennies. No one seemed to know what her illness was but she seemed to be getting weaker and thinner each week. She had never recovered from the difficult birth of Lily, the last of the Dean daughters three years ago.
Poor Lily was always weak and Violet doted on her. She cared for her while her mother recovered a little. Her father had made a small cart which Lily loved to ride in. Violet wiped away a tear as she remembered the giggling little girl being pulled along the lawns of the Mill House. If only things had turned out differently then her mother would not have lost the will to live, she’d not been the same since Lily’s death.
Violet knew her family duty, but she still longed for something different. She felt that there must be something more to life than the endless drudgery of life below stairs. She knew that the world was huge and strange and scary and delightful and she pined to be set free into it somehow.
Unlocking the Orangery’s ornate door she slipped inside and closed it carefully behind her. There was a whole row of new plants in there and she immediately recognised the familiar shapes. She stood in reverie, stroking the curled up leaves gently, lost in her daydreams once more. She quite forgot the time.
“Don’t touch those!” a voice behind her
She wheeled round in panic to come face-to-face, for the second time that day, with the strange young man.
“It’s alright – I wasn’t doing them any harm”
“How did you get in here? When I checked a few minutes ago it was locked.”
She hesitated, then asked him his name, determined to tell her father just how rude his new employee was.
“Ah” he said, avoiding the question “So papa lets you in here, does he?”
“No!” she blurted out, not wanting to get her father into trouble “He has no idea I can get in here. He wouldn’t like it – I er… just happened to see where he hid the key, one day.”
She noticed then, while waiting for him to speak again, that he was looking a lot smarter than he had this afternoon among the ferns. In fact, she was starting to think to herself, “Isn’t that a dinner jacket he is wearing….”
“You don’t realise” he said, tenderly stroking the young plant “this is a…”
“Cyathea arborea” she finished “The only tree fern in ”
“How on earth…” he looked at her while she smiled sweetly in return.
“Have the labels been put on already?”
“I can’t see any label” she laughed at his confusion.
“Of course” he said, half to himself “You wouldn’t be able to read it anyway. Well, I would hazard that you have been talking to one of the gardeners?”
She looked indignant, drew herself up to her full height, which wasn’t much over five foot and two inches tall and coldly informed him that she could indeed read AND write and knew more about plants then he ever would – under-gardener or no under-gardener!
He was not used to being addressed in this way by a servant – and something of his father’s temper rose up in him as he prepared to put her in her place and send her back to the scullery. However, he was suddenly struck by a thought. He’d always painstakingly spent his own time classifying and labelling his botanical finds and although he’d tried to educate his garden staff he had not yet found anyone who he could trust to get on with it without close supervision. Maybe, just maybe she could help – if she was telling the truth.
“Perhaps you could educate me, then” he teased “tell me a little about how plants are ordered.”
“Of course,” she was pleased to be able to tell him what she knew, all learned from her father who, lacking a son and heir had imparted all his knowledge to the only one of his girls who had shown any interest.
“You have heard of Linnaeus, of course?”
“Vaguely. Wasn’t he from Manchester?”
“No! He was Swedish. Carolus Linnaeus was the man who thought up a system for classifying plants. He grouped them according to their attributes and gave each a two-part name. The first part of the name is the genus. The second part is the species.”
“Yes, for example the ‘Helianthus annuus’ here is the group known as sunflowers – and this particular one is the common annual sunflower.”
He looked at her intently now as she described the classification of plants to him. It was of course familiar yet fascinating to hear it come from her. She was flushed with excitement now and he felt some stirrings within him as he realised that she felt the same as he did.
He recalled the classroom, scrubbed wooden benches and spilt ink where he had sat in awe during botany classes with his old professor. He had spent many hours drawing detailed diagrams of spores, leaves, stems, pistils, ovules and roots. It had been the only class to engage his whole attention and he loved, even more, the practical classes out among the University’s own gardens. She seemed to have the same passion and enthusiasm for his own subject.
He smiled as she spoke. She stopped in mid-sentence, eyes blazing
“What are you laughing at?”
“I am not laughing at you” he tried to explain “I am just amazed at your knowledge. Who taught you all this?”
“My father, of course, no one knows more about plants than him.”
“Not even the master of the house?”
“No” she said “Nor his spoilt son who’s father’s money can buy him a place on a voyage with the real experts”
“Tell me more. Do you think that he just goes along for a pleasure cruise, then?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised!”
“But I’d heard that he went to Cambridge and has studied botany.” He found himself trying to defend himself against this surprising slip of a girl.
“Pft – what can you learn in a classroom? You need to spend your time outdoors with the plants and the soils and the changing seasons. In fact…”
She was about to expound on her theory further when she was abruptly stopped by a familiar voice.
She turned round and saw her father, his face an angry red, marching towards them.
“What the hell are you doing in here?”
But before she could think of a good answer he turned to the young man and started to bow
“I am so sorry Master David, I do hope that she is not bothering you”
Violet looked at him with her mouth open.
“I suggest you get back to the house” her father ordered. “Immediately!”
She looked from one to the other, her hands clasped over her mouth and then fled. This was the second time she had disgraced herself today and she felt that this time it was really serious.