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