Violet sighed as she put the last saucepan away and wiped her hands on her apron before taking it off and hanging it up for the next day. She raced up the stairs, narrowly missing Tom the valet, and then tried to slow down as she went towards the study. She felt a little hesitant, but David had told her to just go in and take the book. She listened for a few seconds outside the door, just to make sure no one was in there, then tentatively turned the brass knob and pushed the door open. The fire was still burning so she could see the heavy book still on the desk at the far side of the room. She looked around her marvelling at the rows and rows of leather bound books. She wondered how anyone had time to read them all. How wonderful to be able to come in here whenever you wanted and choose something to read. She sighed as she picked up her book and very carefully carried it out of the door and up the back stairs to her room.
As she entered Lottie was getting ready for bed. She looked exhausted and had dark circles under her eyes.
“What on earth have you got there?”
“It’s a book on flowers”
“But how did you dare take it?”
“It’s alright Lottie, Master David has instructed me to read it!”
Lottie looked doubtful
“You know how I was called into the study this morning?”
“Oh Lord, I’d forgotten. Did you get scolded?”
“Not at all” Violet’s eyes shone “He asked me to help him.”
“Help him? How?”
“I have learned a lot about plants from my father. So he wants me to help him to catalogue all the new plants that arrive”
“But you are not a gardener!”
“No, I know, but I can read and I can write out his labels and keep a record of the plants and their names, when they came from and when they arrived here.”
“Gracious!” exclaimed Lottie “What did Mrs Salt have to say about it? She complains she doesn’t have enough girls as it is”
Violet was momentarily floored
“Well – I don’t know. He didn’t say”
She was far too excited to let a little thing like that worry her now though. She shrugged off Lottie’s doubts and settled on her bed with the weighty book. Lottie was talking still, but she didn’t hear a word. She was absorbed in the rich colours and sensual shapes of the Hibiscus, its pistils and carpel bursting with life. She traced the shapes with her finger, dreaming of the faraway places, unimaginable to her but idealised in her mind. She resolved to ask David, next time she saw him, to describe and the . She longed to experience the heat, sounds and smells of somewhere so alien to her present existence.
That night she dreamt that she was there. The white sails flapping above her head as a salty breeze whipped her hair around her head and caught her breath until she thought she would never breathe again.
Unfamiliar fish leapt from the creamy waves and returned to the blue depths as she laughed in delight. She turned to see the smiling face of David – holding her hand to steady her as she hung over the rails of the ship. He pointed out the land to her – a lush green mass of plant life, unfamiliar trees, bushes and flowers fringed with pale, pale sand. As they disembarked into a small rowing boat she let her hands trail behind her in the clear warm waters as his strong arms rowed them until they bumped to a halt on the beach and paddled ashore bursting with anticipation at what they might find.
They ran among the flowers, their fragrances mingling and overwhelming their senses in the warming sun. Suddenly David was close to her, putting his arms around her and shaking her, gripping her shoulders hard. “Violet!”
She awoke with a start, her heart thumping fast and loud in her ears.
It was Agnes, roughly shaking her to get her up for early morning duties.
Agnes eyed the book, still in Violets arms and looked questioningly at her. “It’s alright” said Violet “I haven’t stolen it!”
She pushed past Agnes and plunged her hands into the cold water in the jug on the chipped and battered washstand. She splashed some on her face to try to wake herself up properly, as the remnants of the delicious dream faded from her mind, replaced by the drab darkness of reality.
She headed for the scullery to begin her day.
Mrs Salt was in a flap already. Tonight was the night of the Ball and as well as accommodation to sort out, she had a huge buffet supper to prepare, as well as ensuring all the guests were catered for during the day.
Violet and Lottie were dispatched right away to the Dining Room and Morning Rooms respectively to set the fires and dust through before the rest of the household was awake.
Lottie was caught up in the excitement.
“Do you know who is coming to stay?”
Violet wasn’t interested “No idea – I wasn’t really listening to Agnes last night.”
“Lady Thomas is coming with George and Emma, they could be staying for a while, well not the Lady – she has to go back to her estate the next day, but the others. Also I heard that there could be more than sixty guests at the ball. Shall we sneak out and watch them arrive later? I want to see what they are all wearing!”
Violet looked at her friend, the tiredness in her face replaced, for now, with a feverish glow.
She relented “Of course we will!” she exclaimed.
“George! How wonderful to see you. Emma, you are looking as lovely as ever.”
“Hello David” George replied “How was the voyage? You must tell me all about it!”
Emma was enveloped suddenly in the bosoms of her cousins before she could answer David, and they dragged her up to their rooms exclaiming about her new hair fashion and the cut of her travelling frock.
“There’s time before lunch, come with me to the hothouses and I’ll show you my latest finds”
As they strolled through the gardens David told his cousin about the ship he’d sailed on, the storms that had made him fear for his life, the seasickness that made him wish he wouldn’t survive and the eventual calming of the waters and the wild paradise of the Caribbean islands that made it all worthwhile.
He pointed out the new specimens expecting George to gasp in wonder. Well, at least feign an interest. They’d often dreamed, while at Cambridge of taking voyages together and earning fame and fortune through their daring adventures and discoveries of new species that everyone would want. The famous Plant-Hunter cousins!
George was polite enough, but couldn’t wait to change the subject to his own sailing adventures.
“You must come down to and join my crew” he laughed “I have bought a wonderful Schooner. We are winning prizes with her already!”
Well I am coming down to next week, so maybe I will come over and see you after that”
“Perfect, you can join us on the Isle of Wight for Cowes week! You are going to love it! Lots of pretty girls there too, it’s about time you had some female company!”
“How are your plans coming along for your landscaping?” David tried to get back to his favourite topic
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” replied George “I’ve hired a fantastic new designer, highly recommended. Jeffry Wyatville, he had a hand in Chatsworth I believe. He’ll take care of it all.”
“You are overseeing it though?”
“I am far too busy with the rest of the estate now and my father’s affairs” He looked sad for a moment
“So you don’t have any plant hunting voyages planned? I was hoping that you would come to with me”
“We are going for Italianate style now. I think mama needs me close to home anyway, for the time being.”
David couldn’t really argue about that.
Later as he dressed for the evening’s entertainments he reflected on his life and the direction it would take. He did not have much enthusiasm for it right now, but he supposed that he would have to marry soon, and produce children if the Dearing name was to continue. Besides, he couldn’t let his precious gardens fall into anyone else’s hands. He thought about how it would be to have a son, who he could share this obsession with and work alongside to finish the finest gardens in all of . He began to see the advantages of this plan.
There was a tap on his door and opening it he saw his valet Tom. “The guests are starting to arrive, sir” he informed him “Your presence is required in the Hallway”
Tom straightened his tie for him and led the way downstairs.
Oil lamps and candles were blazing throughout the house and there were mouth-watering aromas of roast meats and sweet pudding coming from below stairs. The servants were lined up outside as the first carriage arrived and Caroline Fitzroy stepped down swathed in furs, even though it was a very warm August evening.
After receiving an encouraging nod from his mother, David rushed forward and took her hand to help her down. He offered her his arm and escorted her into the ballroom and offered to get her a drink.
She smiled sweetly at him
“And don’t forget a drink for Butterfly!”
David looked around as the other guests filed into the room, chatting animatedly.
“Here, silly! Caroline exclaimed, producing from beneath her fur stole a tiny dog with malevolent eyes.
“Certainly, I’ll be right back”
David exited quickly and went himself down to the kitchen and through to the scullery. It was momentarily deserted as the staff were out front welcoming the guests, taking their coats and hats and directing their luggage to the correct rooms.
He turned on the tap over the huge stoneware sink, looking around for a suitable bowl or something to put the cold water in.
That moment Violet came back in the back door and looked shocked to find him there.
“Lady Caroline has brought her dog” he offered, by way of explanation “He’s thirsty, apparently”
Violet gave him a pitying look and then laughed.
David laughed too.
“Is there something we could put water in – that it could drink out of?”
“A silver dish?” Violet enquired
“I think an earthenware bowl will do”
As she filled the bowl with water, he asked how she was getting on with the book.
“Fine, thank-you. I am enthralled in azaleas at the moment.” Her cheeks were flushed from the cold outside and her blue eyes shone with enthusiasm. He looked pleased and was about to say something else when the other servants came back into the kitchen.
“I’d better get back…” he stood awkwardly for a second then turned to leave
As he walked back up the stairs balancing the bowl so that the water did not spill on his evening suit, Violet noticed how his dark hair curled over the crisp white collar of his dress shirt. A snatch of the dream came back to her, fleetingly, and was gone again. She shook her head, as if to get rid of her fanciful notions and fetched the cream out of the cold storeroom and started to beat it hard and fast until it whipped up frothy and thick.