In the chill of the early morning Violet yawned as she used a brush and small metal shovel to remove the ashes from the huge grate, ready to lay a new fire to warm the morning room before the family rose for breakfast. She had already lugged the heavy coal scuttle upstairs, in order to refill the ornate wooden and brass coal box that sat next to the grand black fireplace.
She pulled her rough woollen shawl around her to try to stop herself shivering, while she filled the pail with the grey dust, which seemed to get in her mouth and up her nose. She sneezed and dropped even more onto her apron, which then fell onto the rug.
She groaned, and then tried harder to clear up the mess. She rubbed hard at the brightly patterned floor covering, trying to hide the grey smudges that were all too apparent.
“Why can’t I do anything right?” she muttered to herself, while attempting to hide the problem before anyone came downstairs to see what she’d done.
She heard footsteps and the big oak door opened to reveal Agnes, looking pleased with herself.
“Master wants to see you at eleven o’clock this morning, in his study.” She was smiling “What have you been up to?”
“Oh nothing” she replied sweetly “He probably wants to offer me the new position above stairs.”
Agnes scowled and left and it was Violet’s turn to smile. She enjoyed putting her in her place – even though they both knew that it was more likely to snow in July than for anyone to see Violet above stairs during daylight hours.
She was fretting now as she finished up, before going back to the kitchen to start preparing breakfast. Her parents would be devastated if she lost her income, it was so vital to their household. She really should be happy with her lot and concentrate more, she scolded herself.
She headed for the back stairs to the scullery, trying the tiptoe silently so as not to wake anyone upstairs. She was looking down at her feet, reflected in the highly polished black and white tiles, laid out in their familiar chequered pattern, when she noticed that the Parlour Palms in the hallway were looking rather parched, the edges of their leaves curling and starting to turn brown. She pressed a tentative finger into the top of one of the huge glazed pots and found that none of the earth stuck to them. She hurried off to the scullery sink to fill a pan full of water to give them a drink.
As she returned and started to water them with soothing words (which she always believed helped) she glanced up and saw Mrs Salt glaring at her from the bottom of the stairs.
“Who told you to water them plants?” she demanded
“No one, Mrs Salt, I just thought..”
“You’re not paid to think, girl, you’re paid to work and do as you’re told. Get back to the scullery now!”
Violet turned to go and as she hurried down the hallway she heard another voice, a male voice, louder than the burly woman’s, a voice that seemed to be reprimanding the old housekeeper. She was causing her more trouble.
“Oh no” she thought “That’s all I need.”
The next few hours dragged as she performed one dreary task after another, all the while dreading the striking of the distant grandfather clock that would mark eleven o’clock.
She’d been lectured by Grace Salt on the virtues of knowing her place and then given all the worst jobs, mainly involving having her hands in cold water, peeling a huge assortment of vegetables, until her fingers were so red and raw and chilled that she could no longer feel them. Her back ached as she leaned over the cold stone sink and it did not help her state of anxiety. She wished she could be anywhere but here.
“You’d better get up there then” Mrs Salt urged as the clock finished striking,” the master won’t be kept waiting!”
She hurriedly dried her hands and walked out of the kitchen
“And don’t speak until you are spoken to!” followed her up the stairs.
Violet had never spoken to Lord Dearing since her first day at The Grange when the whole family had been introduced to him. She had no idea what to expect.
She stood outside the solid study door and knocked as loudly as she dared.
“Come” a voice bellowed and she gingerly turned the doorknob and pushed against the heavy door and stepped into the warmth of the study.
There in front of her, perched on the edge of a huge desk was the young master, David. He was wearing riding breeches and his cheeks were rosy and his eyes bright as if he’d just got back from a hard ride.
“Hello Vi-o-let” he beamed, carefully pronouncing her full name
She blushed and stammering, tried to explain how she was sorry for what she’d said as she had not realised who he was and …
“Ah” he interrupted “So if you’d known it was the heir to the estate you would have kept your opinions to yourself?”
“Yes, I mean No? Ah, I’m not sure..” she looked up hopefully at him
She relaxed a little when she realised that he wasn’t mad, in fact he was doing his best not to laugh.
“Please don’t dismiss me” she resumed the speech that she had been preparing in her mind “my family depends on my wage, I will work harder I promise.”
“Dismiss you?” he said “why would I do that? Especially when you take such good care of my indoor palms”
“You saw me?”
“Well I heard Mrs Salt telling you off, so I had to tell her that I’d asked you to do it.”
“I don’t think it helped” she blurted out before she could stop herself. “She blamed me for getting her a telling off! She said…”
“Well never mind that now, do you think I could get a word in edgeways?” he said “I have a notion that I want to put to you.”
“What is it?”
“I was very impressed by some of what you said yesterday”
He caught her eye and she couldn’t help but laugh at his emphasis on the word some
“How would you like to help me with the labelling and care of the specimens that I have imported recently? I can’t trust any of the younger gardeners to do it and your father is far too busy. You could be my garden clerk and keep my records.”
She stared at him.
“Of course you do realise how valuable the specimens are and how delicate?
“Of course” she whispered. She was convinced that if she spoke too loud she would wake up from this dream any second.
He turned to the shelves and reached up behind him. The huge volume he pulled down concerned the and its native flora. He placed it onto the desk and opened it. She marvelled at the illustrations and was soon stood beside him poring over the watercolours and exclaiming in delight. The flaming scarlet hibiscus, the purest white oleander, lilies, irises and her personal favourite the Bird of Paradise flower.
“Does such a wonder really exist?”
“Of course” he replied “In fact on my next voyage I intend to bring one home with me.”
She looked at him in wonder “I would dearly love to see that”
“If I can get the conditions right” he added. “No one has actually managed it yet so I can’t promise!”
He smiled as he watched her, blue eyes wide as she looked at one page after another. “Why don’t you take this up to your room and familiarise yourself with the different species?”
She looked like all her birthdays had come at once.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, if you are to be of use to me, you are going to have to know all about them.”
She was feeling bolder now, at ease in his friendly company.
“Can I ask you something?”
“How do you transport the specimens back to The Grange, from so far away?”
“It isn’t easy to get the conditions right for them to withstand the whole voyage” he explained
“I use Ox bladders as containers for the plant cuttings and try to keep them in fresh water. When the water gets scarce it is hard to keep it just for the plants. I had to fight a couple thirsty old sailors to keep the last consignment alive!”
She looked at him to see if he was serious – was looked as if he was.
“As for the seeds,” he continued “we press them into beeswax to preserve them and protect them from the salty air. Even so, they don’t all survive and germinate once we get back.”
His enthusiasm grew as he talked:
“In fact I’m to journey to next week to a Natural Philosophy demonstration where a Doctor Nathaniel Ward is to demonstrate what he feels could be the answer to all my problems.”
“I won’t know until I’ve been!” he was amused by her impetuosity which almost reflected his own.
” In the meantime, promise me you’ll study hard while I am away.”
“Of course!” She nodded to emphasise her commitment, shaking a little soot onto the beautiful rug.
“Very well, you’d better get back to your duties. When you have finished for the day, collect this weighty tome from my desk. I’ll leave it out for you.”
She just about remembered to thank him before returning to the vegetables in the sink with a lighter heart and a head full of ideas.
The rest of the day dragged as she longed to get the beautiful book up to her attic room and look at it by herself by the light of her candle. She had never felt so excited in all her life and was determined not to let him down. She would show him that she was a good scholar.