Monday, October 8, 2007

Poetry Train Monday - 22 - Third Gardener Story Installment

Happy Thanksgiving, Canadian bloggers! Hope you had a delicious turkey dinner yesterday, or will be having one today. My husband and I had a wonderful time at my cousin's last night.

For this week's Poetry Train, I'm picking up the story of Robbie and Helen, not long after we left them out on the snowy grounds of an English country house.

Cheltenham, England - Winter of 1844

Trailing behind the younger laundry maids on her way back to the servants’ entrance, Helen didn’t notice the man on horseback following behind her until the horse gave a shrill whinny.

She turned and saw Mr. Zackary Chase pulling the horse back into a walk, though it obviously strained to bound ahead. Helen looked toward the two girls, heads together chatting as they neared the great house. Behind her, the little stone laundry seemed just as far.

Her heart thumped with alarm.

Another part of her saw the fine way he sat his mount, the way his blue eyes twinkled as he looked down at her. He didn’t seem anything like the man she’d been warned against so often.

“Good afternoon,” he said, touching the brim of his hat in greeting.

Helen blushed. Mr. Chase dismounted as she bobbed quickly in a curtsey.
He held the horse steady by the reins, though for a moment the animal side-stepped and swished its tail as though frustrated.

“She gets jealous when I stop to talk,” Mr. Chase said, his voice filled with the promise of laughter.

Helen smiled, unable to stop herself.

“Do you ride?” he asked, his eyes inviting her to move closer.

She shook her head, looking at the shining golden mare with pale blonde mane and tail, at the way it pulled playfully against the reins in Chase’s hands.

“I’ve nearly grown up on a horse,” he said. “I ride every day. Weather permitting.”

Helen was certain she was not to speak to her betters unless answering a question, yet he just stood there, waiting for her to say something.

“I suppose we ought to introduce ourselves,” he said, suppressing a grin. “I'm Zackary Chase. You've heard of my father, of course - Brigadier-General Josiah Chase, retired. Late of the 13th, Madras. India.”

The young gentleman was coming closer, the now docile mare following behind. “Until I went to school, of course,” he continued, his gloved hand reaching for hers. Helen had to fight the urge to snatch it away from him. What could he be thinking?

“Then I returned to England,” he said, bringing her hand to his lips. He held it tenderly in both of his, the soft grey doeskin caressing her like velvet. His blue eyes filled with confusion. “But where are your gloves?”

Helen couldn’t bear it any longer. She pulled against his grip until he allowed her to slip free. “I don’t have any, sir,” she replied, her tone flustered.

“Sir...” he echoed, and he cocked his head slightly.

“You’ve mistaken me, surely. My name is Helen Slaunwhite. I’m the new laundry maid.” Her words seemed to hang there between them. A raven’s irritated caw punctuated the silence.

Then he laughed. A marvelous, infectious laugh that smoothed the furrow from Helen’s brow. “I’m afraid I did take you for someone else,” he said, eyes alight with amusement. “I was certain you were a visitor from the neighboring estate. I feared you’d become seperated from your party somehow and got lost.”

“Oh, no, sir,” she said, feeling her cheeks grow hot. “Just dawdlin’ behind, is all.” The way his eyes took her in - the flush on her cheeks spread into her chest, making her stomach flutter.

Mr. Chase stroked the mare’s face with affection. “Would you like to meet Miss Slaunwhite?” he asked the horse, whose ears pricked forward.

The master's son looked at Helen and flicked his head toward the mare. “Come and meet Madhu.” Helen took a step forward, hardly believing a beautiful, regal animal such as this really existed.

“This is Miss Slaunwhite,” he said to the mare, nodding encouragement as Helen stretched out her hand. “Let her find your scent, first,” he advised Helen. “That’s it.”

Helen began to softly stroke the darker brown muzzle when Madhu shook her head and blew sharply through her nose. Helen swallowed the squeal that lodged in her throat.
A chuckle erupted beside her. Helen smiled at her own foolishness and resumed stroking the mare’s golden face.

“That’s it,” Mr. Chase assured. “She’s lovely, isn’t she?”

“Oh, yes,” Helen whispered.

Suddenly she felt him standing very near, his face brushing her ear. “I was talking about you.”

Helen’s breath caught in her throat. She twisted away, but he was already swinging up into the saddle and Madhu was tossing her head, impatient to be off.

Mr. Chase again touched the brim of his hat. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” he said, his face serious. Then he turned Madhu, cantering off in a spray of snow and a sweep of that glorious blonde tail.

Helen stood and watched him disappear into the trees. She was humming inside with a secret joy. It radiated outward, leaving her trembling with the force of it.

Slowly she walked back toward the house and the servants’ entrance. When she’d left the flat back in town, she’d simply had no idea how much would be left behind. At home, Helen Slaunwhite was little more than a problem to be solved - a mouth to feed, a back to clothe. But here, at Ashbury Downs, Helen Slaunwhite was fussed over, worried about, talked to, smiled upon.

It made her feel like someone who mattered.


(the next scene does not follow directly afterward, but for the Poetry Train I'm telescoping them to stay with the storyline)

Robbie pushed through the bracken, snapping twigs in his wake. He was looking for picturesque branches laden with bright red berries.

Sollows needed them for several large floral arrangements requested by Mrs. Chase for her dinner party tomorrow.
He spied a number of them. Rosehips they looked to be, but they'd do. Pulling out his pocketknife, he cut the branch with practised ease, taking care with the thorns. When he had several, he closed up the knife and dropped it in his pocket.

A laugh floated through the trees. Rob looked up from tying the branches into a bundle.

The wind stirred the tree tops, and for a moment Rob thought he surely imagined it.
But there it came again. Crystalline laughter that floated on the breeze.

He peered between the trees, looking for its source. To the west he could make out two people and a golden horse. Only one man owned an animal with such unmistakable coloring. Young Mr. Chase at his favorite sport again.

Rob bent to his work, fighting the urge to see which poor maid was at the young gentleman’s mercy. It was one thing to know it was a common occurrence. But after those excruciating moments spent witnessing poor Lucy’s torment - well, it was hard to look her in the face, was all.

He turned back to the rosehips. Again that laughter rippled past him and he left his work to weave through the trees for a closer look.

The horse tossed its head and whinnied. Chase helped the maid into the saddle, murmuring some encouragement or other.

Robbie’s breath felt knocked from his chest. It was Helen.

It couldn't be - he’d sent word. Through Lucy. Stay away from Zachary Chase he’d said. Lucy had assured him she’d told Helen the other night.

He stared down at the rosehips. Sollows waited for him. Must he court trouble for himself again on account of the new laundry maid? Rob looked to see Chase leaning close against the horse, Helen’s head bent low as she listened to the young master weave his lies.

How quickly Chase had walked out on Lucy once he was done with her. Rob remembered how it felt to look into Helen’s hazel eyes, gazing on him through the conservatory glass that same afternoon. He couldn’t bear to think of the pain that would fill those eyes if Chase got his hands on her.

Dashing back for the bundled branches, Robbie made for the clearing and for Helen.

The horse raised its head. Chase turned. All Robbie saw was Helen and the glow on her face.

“Ah. Flynn, is it?” Chase said.

Robbie took his hat off and nodded, glancing quickly to Helen. Uncertainty clouded her features. Then her expression changed and Rob suddenly felt his swollen lip as if it had grown to cover his head.

“Gardening out here in the wood?” Chase asked, his tone conversational.

Rob raised the rosehip bundle. “Your mother’s dinner party, sir.”

“Ah,” Chase smiled, turning to Helen. “I knew there was some sort of gloom hanging over tomorrow.”

“Has she hurt herself?” Robbie said, nodding up at Helen.

Chase turned back to Robbie, his smile gone.

“A laundry maid should ride the master’s horse, sir?” Rob wondered pointedly.

“Oh, I’m not hurt,” Helen protested, blushing.

“And I am not master here. That would be my father,” Chase said. “And then my brother, in his turn. I am but a guest in this house.”

“You shouldn’t trouble Mr. Chase, miss,” Rob tried again, looking up at Helen and hoping she’d sense his urgency. To her credit, she did seem uncomfortable sitting up there where she had no business being.

“She’s no trouble,” said Chase.

Rob looked towards the house, wondering how he could get Helen away from Chase without losing his livelihood into the bargain. “I could accompany Miss Slaunwhite, sir, if ye’re done with her,” Robbie offered.

“Oh, I’m not done with her,” Chase answered, smiling and leaning into the horse with a hand absently stroking its neck.

“If ye please, sir," Helen said, her voice flustered. "Might be best if I go with Mr. Flynn.”

“Best for whom?” Chase asked, his tone warm and inviting.

Rob saw the glow return to Helen’s face. He flared just as quickly with outrage, marvelling how she was so easily charmed. Why should he stick his neck out for her? If Chase was who she wanted, she’d soon have him.

“I’ll be off, then,” Rob said, unable to look at Helen. He slapped his hat back on and turned.

Chase’s hand grabbed Rob’s shoulder and yanked him to a stop.

“One moment,” Chase admonished.

Rob bristled at such treatment before Helen. It took everything he had not to shrug Chase off.

“As it happens, I feel like a brisk ride just now,” Chase said.

Rob turned to see the young gentleman wrap his hands around her waist, helping her down from the horse. Helen kept her eyes averted, yet Rob could almost feel how much she’d thrilled to Chase’s touch.

“I confess I would like you to walk the little miss across the grounds,” Chase ordered.

“No trouble at all, sir,” Rob said, fighting to keep the edge out of his voice.

Chase stepped up into the stirrup and swung his leg effortlessly over the horse’s back. Catching up the reins in one hand, he turned the suddenly spirited animal in a circle, holding the horse back while he gazed down at Helen.

He smiled a dazzling smile and bounded away in a blur of gold.

Robbie stood with Helen in silence for several moments. He didn’t know if he wanted to shake her or shield her with his embrace. When Helen looked up to meet his gaze, a shiver crawled over his skin.

It felt the same as someone passing over his grave. The urge to shake her grew stronger. Anything to stop this hollowing out of his heart.

Copyright 2007 Julia Smith

You can find out what happens a bit later in the story here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Poetry Train Monday - 21 - Another Gardener Story Excerpt

I'm immersed in my works in progress at the moment. I should be doing more revisions on my vampire story, but I've had a little flash of brilliance where my gardener story is concerned. So I'm doing a bit of work on Robbie and letting my vampire character, Peredur, take a bit of a break.

For the Poetry Train this week, here's another excerpt from Robbie's story - though the scene is from Helen's point of view. Strangely, although all of my stories give equal time to the male and female characters, in my own mind I always refer to them as the male character's story. Probably because I'm partially in love with my heroes.

This takes place earlier in the story than last week's scene. Helen Slaunwhite is the newest member of the staff of an English country house. She's been warned about the predatory habits of the younger son of the family that employs her, but has not encountered him yet. In this scene, she's at work in the laundry.

Cheltenham, England, the winter of 1844

Helen slapped the wet napkins onto the press, pulling down on the lever in an unseeing cadence. She’d worked past such pain before.

Hours spent hunched over piecework for the seamstress, eyes smarting, her head as though ground by a gristmill - so many times she’d longed to put down her sewing and sleep sitting up.

Every time she’d felt like giving in, Helen had merely looked over at her sisters. If they could go on, she could go on.

Now in the laundry of a country house - imagine - feeling so weak and sore, she determined to go on until the other laundry maids stopped. At least it was light and airy here. How different from her family's dingy flat. As cold as it was outside, the steam from the laundry kettles kept it warm inside, even with all the windows and their drafts. At home, the one window on the far wall had been avoided at all costs, though they'd stuffed old rags and paper into the gaps.

Before too long Helen was done with her basket. She turned to the windows nearest her as Marjorie and Sue lugged it over to the clotheslines. Helen peered out at the frigid landscape between the white window sashes and the frosted panes.

The sky glowed a soothing rosiness. Laceworked barren trees shimmered lavender on the horizon. Snow draped the land as far as she could see. Such open space - then a figure moving across the snow caught her attention.

It was a workman emerging from the trees. Had she ever seen one man alone against such a backdrop? The way he trudged quietly through unmarked snow fascinated her. He carried his tools in mittened hands, his clothing bulky against the cold. The workman slowed, coming to a full stop, turning to regard the stone building housing the laundry. Helen’s breath caught in her chest.

It seemed that he could see her through the frosty window, as though he were looking for her across the grounds. Her heart thudded strangely. Could it be the gardener she’d met yesterday? How she wished he'd spoken to her after dinner.

The figure continued on his unhurried way. And she could hear the girls returning for her final load of linens. Helen turned from the window, her face flushed. Her fatigue had vanished. Blood coursed through her veins, making her feel like she could do an entire day’s work all over again.

“Well, Missy,” Mrs. Greeley said, pushing wayward hair out of her face. “That's a good day’s work. You may go for now. Miss Tattersoll and I will finish this last bit. It’s a very old table linen, very fine and we’ll look after it ourselves. You girls, as well.”

Sue and Marjorie curtsied quickly. “Thank you, Mrs. Greeley,” they said together. Making their way to the hooks by the door, they took up their wraps. Helen followed, swept by urgency. She hoped the gardener was not too far along his way. Sue and Marjorie whispered and giggled, as girls will. They seemed not to notice Helen’s dash out the door.

Helen walked as quickly as she could without running in the direction he’d taken.
The moment she caught sight of him, she knew it was the gardener. He had the same deliberate gait she’d noticed when he left the kitchen yesterday. She closed in on him and he slowed, turned, surprise washing over his face.

Helen stopped, panting so her breath hung in wisps between them.

He looked back at the laundry, then turned his gaze to Helen. “So. Working today, were you?”

Why was she so tongue-tied, and she racing to catch him? “I have a letter for ye,” she blurted out.

“A letter? For me?”

“From home,” she explained.

His green eyes clouded with confusion.

“Yer mum,” she went on. “She sent it through my brother Ned. He used to work fer yer dad at the flower shop.”

Robbie’s eyes widened in recognition. It seemed he saw her now for the first time. His bearing lost some of its stiffness. “Ned Slaunwhite, ye mean?” Rob asked.

“My brother.”

A smile lit the gardener’s face. Helen's stomach lurched, as though she’d jumped from the shed roof into a snowbank.

“Well," he said. "Such a surprise,” and he gave a delighted laugh. “Where is Ned, these days?”

“At home, lookin' after me mum and sisters. And brothers.”

“Yer father’s gone, is he?”

She could only shake her head in answer.

“What’s Ned working at?” Robbie asked, bridging the awkward silence.

“Sellin’ news sheets,” Helen answered, hearing again her dad’s insult that Ned did a boy’s job. “He can read,” she added.

Robbie looked away. Somehow this was all turning out wrong. “I’ll bring yer letter at dinner,” she said, turning suddenly. She didn’t want to see whether the gardener tried to hide his pity.

Robbie Flynn, who delivered flowers with young Ned Slaunwhite when they were both boys. Only, Robbie’s father owned the flower shop - a respected merchant in the spa town of Cheltenham. What was Helen’s father, other than a trial to her mother and a scourge to his children?

If service wasn’t beneath a shopkeeper’s son, was it disgraceful for Helen Slaunwhite to work on an estate as grand as this one? She turned back to find herself staring into the gardener's green eyes again. They were alive with questions.
All he said was, “You must be wanting to wash up for dinner.”

“Oh. Sorry - I'm keepin’ ye. Am I keepin' ye from yer work?”

“Not at all, not at all,” Robbie laughed as Helen hurried to head back for the service door. She hadn't gone far when she risked a look back. The gardener hadn’t moved an inch. Just stood there watching her.

Helen’s heart begin to thump a little stronger than usual. And not just because of the look in the gardener's eyes.

Three men on horseback emerged from the barren grey wood behind Robbie, smooth as rolling fog.

Robbie turned, removing his hat as the riders passed by. He sent Helen a warning look. Thankfully she had enough sense to drop a curtsy before it was too late.
Somehow daring to look up, Helen watched the three gentlemen sway comfortably in their saddles as they rode away from her toward the stables. An older gentleman and two younger ones, all dressed in dark greatcoats draped over the backs of their mounts to be flicked by glossy tails. All three wore tall hats and carried crops in their gloved hands. Shiny boots to the knee poked out from the corners of their coats with the movement of the horses.

Such fine gentlemen. Helen had never seen their like in all her life.

Just as she was about to chide herself for staring, one of the younger men turned in his saddle and looked back at her. He rode a golden horse whose blonde mane and tail nearly glowed in the thin winter light.

The gentleman stared directly at her, his blue eyes icy against the grey sky. His blonde hair lay groomed neatly beneath the brim of his hat. His lips curled slightly in one corner.

The hairs on the back of Helen's neck stood on end.

With a movement as fluid as wine, the gentleman turned away, facing the stables as the other men did.

Helen gasped as Robbie took her by the arm and forced her to look at him. His eyes crackled with alarm. “What on earth were you doing?” he whispered hotly.

“What do ye mean?”

“Has no one told you about that one?”

Helen remembered Bernadette’s words as she led her through the servants’ wing last night. “I didn’t know it were him,” she said.

“Well, who else would look at you like that?” Robbie snapped.

Helen looked down. Robbie was standing very close to her. Her skirts nearly brushed the gardener’s trousers.

A bird called in the moist stillness. Cold crept up her legs and along her spine. Robbie let her go, backing away from her.

“I’ve got to finish my rounds or Sollows will have my head on a platter," he said. "I’m already in it up to my neck from yesterday.” Helen looked at him, afraid it was her arrival yesterday that got him into trouble. The dark impatience she saw in his eyes told her that it was.

“I’ll bring ye the letter. At dinner,” she offered.

He nodded and turned to leave. Helen shut her eyes and sighed. She’d got off to a bad start and was only making it worse.

“Miss Slaunwhite.”

Her eyes opened to see Robbie moving away from her, though he’d twisted around to address her.
“You must take care, now. Promise me.”

She nodded and he turned again, making his way through the wet snow. Helen faced the stables where she could see the gentlemen dismounting in the distance. She fought tears that pulled at her eyes and crushed her throat. When had she ever heard someone asking her to take care?

And how had she managed to live this long without it?

Copyright 2007 Julia Smith