London was huge and very scary. Never had Rhiannan seen so many people in one place at the same time. The streets seemed stuffed with carts, wagons, horses, and all manner and size of carriages and buggies; with dogs barking and all sorts of other noises and smells assailing every sense. The buildings towered above her and were, at times, so close together it seemed if she put both hands outstretched she could touch them without taking a step across the street between.
Finally they reached the house they were to now consider home. It was almost as large as the Scottish house but the staff complained. Rhiannan had no idea why. She had lived in Cook’s room back in Scotland so she knew no difference and thought she was to do so again in the London house, in fact she decided it was better, as the Scottish room had been under the house and facing the fowl yard where as in this house Cook’s room was to the back of the second floor and you could go straight out onto the back balcony and see away over the walls and fences into other gardens and houses. Rhiannon’s place had moved from a cot at the foot of cook’s bed, to a bed in the side window alcove. There was a pull out drawer under her for her clothes and a shelf above her head that she could keep her bible and candle on. There was even a heavy curtain to pull across and give her privacy. For the first time in her life she had a place she could be alone and unwatched in. But the other staff were now sharing dormitories in the attics, where in Scotland they had small rooms that no more than two shared.
The old gardener complained the most. He came just to see to what would need to be done with the small gardens and then leave strict instructions with Finn, his new under gardener, and the two labouring lads, staying to keep them neat. But he had to return to Scotland to oversee the maintenance of the estate land there and couldn’t be in two places at once, and he didn’t know if he could trust Finn to remember what bloomed where and when. He didn’t like the weather, didn’t like the size of the garden, didn’t like the soil and didn’t like the plants that they did have. And if he were to do his job right he would have to stay a year to see what the garden gave him in order to know what to improve where. But the idea of the under gardener being promoted or worse, a second gardener being employed, was completely abhorrent to him. At best he would have to rely on his under gardener’s memory.
Finn though had better idea and began a garden journal. He had a separate note book for each of the three formal gardens surrounding the front of the house, and the informal garden and two kitchen gardens out back. He started each book with what plant was where, and what the soil was like and then he reported whatever changed and everything he did. When he found out that Rhiannan had been taught her letters by Grant back in her early days in Scotland, Finn enlisted her help and although her sentences were simple, her letters were neatly readable, so she put in the words where he was better at drawing the likenesses of the plants on the pages. Over time she taught him how he could write as neatly as she and he discovered how frustrating it was not to know spelling. So he bought a dictionary to find out the right words for them to use.
Every day after she’d cleaned the luncheon dishes, Rhiannan spent an hour with him in his little office beside his amazing green house. Never had she seen a house made almost entirely of glass before she went to London. In Scotland the old gardener had a hut with big windows and windows in the roof but she was never allowed near it. Finn’s greenhouse was far superior though. It seemed the glass walls sat on glass bricks. Fine wood separated and supported and there were special long thin pains that opened to catch the breeze. The best was the huge arch window above the door; the pains seemed to radiate out from the centre like the segments in a slice of lemon, a bronze flower at its heart.
Inside were tiers of shelves where Finn sat pots and pots of seedlings and other plants. One section; the warmest nook farthest from the outside door and closest to the back of his chimney, he had plants that could never go outside. These he kept for cuttings and blooms and to swap with those in the conservatory attached to the house. Once Finn had taken Rhiannan into the conservatory to take notes of the plants there for him. It looked similar to his greenhouse but so much bigger. And there were seats and tables and chairs for the family to sit and amuse themselves surrounded by the wonderful plants and the heady scent from them.
But Rhiannan liked it best when it was raining or snowing and she and Finn huddled in his office around the iron potbelly stove. It stood before and heated the brick wall between his office and the green house. He had to keep it going night and day so the green house was warm enough for the exotic plants to survive the cold. On the afternoons there was no work to do outside they sat beside it and had hot chocolate and worked on the books. He showed her what gardening was about and slowly they became fast friends.
Behind the office she knew was his bedroom always neatly kept; his spare shirt and jacket hanging from a crude hanger on the hook, his hat on the hook above the locker never left open or askew, his tightly made bed and things on the nightstand beside his candle always straight and all sheltered by a curtain falling from the rafter at the end of his bed. She knew this for she needed to pass through it on occasion to use his wash house behind it with the back room kept not so neatly by the two labouring lads. These lads seemed friendly enough though. They liked Finn and held her in high esteem out of respect for him. Scullery maids were supposed to be the lowest rank of all of them even though these lads usually only dug ditches and cut grass as their lot. But when Cook found a new scullery maid and promoted Rhiannan to assistant cook, everyone felt better about having previously warmed to her and given her respect that had transcended their staff stations.
Belatedly Rhiannan finally realised the master’s two sons had not accompanied them, nor had there been any provision for them and all talk about them had ceased. But she wanted to know what had happened to her angel, Grant, and to his younger brother, the very handsome Jack. Faye had become one of the upper maids, and had always been swooning over Jack ever since he joined them in their lessons with Grant. She also seemed to have had other meetings with the second son in the evenings or at other times when she would sneak off and leave Sally to compensate for her in their work. Sally had made a friend of Rhiannan around those lessons where Faye had not. Whenever she could Sally would hover about the kitchens chatting to Rhiannan and usually the gossip that came from upstairs. Sally held the impression that the second son would be certain to inform Faye of everything. So now with Sally gone Rhiannan had to ask Faye herself. The response was Faye bursting into a flood of tears and dashing away, her apron over her eyes but not a word in answer spoken.
Cook was no better.
‘Never mind the master’s lads now lass, look to the cake you’re icing. We want a spider’s web not a chess board.’
Rhiannan didn’t think she ought to try again.
Again life settled down into routine although there were no big parties like there had been in Scotland. It made work relatively easy for the staff; yet somewhat mundane. But Rhiannan looked forward to Sundays when she attended the nearby church with cook and the others, while the master and mistress went to the cathedral. And then she had the afternoon off to walk in the big nearby park or down by the river; although that wasn’t very pleasant at times when the tide brought the stench up from the hulks… well so Cook said that smell was.
On the first day they arrived she had seen the huge ships, without their masts, moored in the river off the shore. The house keeper had warned them all that if they were not careful that would be where they ended up; rotting in the hulks with the other convicts who were waiting or just plain unsuitable for transportation. As they moved on she had looked back at the huge black things. They seemed all the more unnatural that she couldn’t see masts and sails on them or hear any noise or smell anything from them. In her immaturity she wondered if the people on them liked their rooms. She had no idea what the conditions were actually like.
The sun was shining warmly when Rhiannan came down for breakfast on her fifteenth birthday. She had never celebrated her birthday before coming to the Urquhart household and so couldn’t tell any one what the actual date was. Laughingly old Dirk had told her she should celebrate it with the horses then, and she’d happily agreed. And so every August first, the staff celebrated her birthday. Cook made her a cake and everyone gave her a small present and they had high tea in the staff parlour. Her favourite was when the first fell on a Sunday, for the reverend mentioned her in the prayers and the staff usually had the afternoon off to help her celebrate. It made the day feel all the more special.
At Rhiannan’s sixteenth party the mistress happened to come in to talk to Cook. As was their staff custom, Rhiannan was sitting at the head of the staff table wearing a special hat that resembled those of a medieval jester, made of coloured scraps of material, flamboyant feathers bits of gold brocade and shining buttons.
Eliza Urquhart stared at Rhiannan as if she hadn’t a clue who the girl was.
‘Oh yes the waif. What was your name?’
Rhiannan had been encouraged to adopt George’s name and add it to hers, once Cook found out what her mother had told her about him. Cook had decided it was reasonable to assume George was her father, not the man that had died from burns. She would love to know for sure. To be George’s daughter would be a miraculous thing.
‘Rhiannan, ma’am.’ She answered politely and with a small measure of pride added, ‘Rhiannan Buran.’
It was the first time she had announced herself as such. But the response was not what Rhiannan or any of the staff had expected. Rhiannan hadn’t really thought about what people would say to her name but she was certain it was not what the mistress gave. Eliza went white and then furiously red. Her eyes widened showing the whites all around the pale blue iris. Never had Rhiannan seen such a look of wild fury.
‘What did you say?’ she growled out slowly breathlessly as if she had been suddenly winded and furious all at once.
‘My… my name ma’am.’ Rhiannan stuttered in sheer terror.
‘Didn’t your father die from the fire your mother set?’ Faye injected deciding the scullery maid was getting far too much attention from the mistress, birthday or no!
‘I… I don’t think he was my father.’ She replied in a tiny terrified voice. ‘I …I …’ she faltered then saw the familiar flash of her beloved George’s face and his smile and found her full pride. ‘I remember a nicer man before him that I called George. His hair was red like mine and mother said he gave me his name.’
‘Get out!’ the mistress hissed. ‘Get out this instant! Get out of my house! I never want to see you again do you hear!’ she screeched the last then turned on the house keeper and Cook. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? How dare you both harbour that wretched slut in my house? Her mother was a convict Irish slut, and for all we know her rotted corpse is still incarcerated on one of those god forsaken hulks!’ That revelation clutched Rhiannan in sheer terror, but the last words said in a voice so full of hatred completely condemned her. ‘And if her father is that bastard Buran, he stole my son away!’
The whole staff froze in sheer fright at the beginning of the tirade, but at that revelation the mood changed from misunderstanding and protection of Rhiannan to complete hatred of her.
‘We had no idea ma’am.’ The housekeeper defended the staff. ‘It was Cook here who protected her. Cook must have known.’
‘I didn’t ma’am I swear I had no idea who the lass’s father was. I never even knew the man in question. As for the mother well that was common knowledge I thought you knew that ma’am. Master Grant did.’
‘Don’t you ever speak of my husband’s bastard son to me!’ Eliza Urquhart hissed. ‘You can pack and leave as well.’ She turned to the butler. ‘James! Come collect their severance pays from me immediately and make sure they are escorted from the premises. And that attains to anyone else who may choose to follow.’ She gave the staff one glance with her wizened eyes and strode from the room.
☼ To be continued …
For my NaNoWriMo challenge
One Part of a three part novel.
A spin off from my Daintree Daughter’s Book
Beware: this is a realistic Adult book & not a pretty tale like my poetry
It tells of the fight to become free and happy, with the leading characters first facing the trials of the ugly side of life, and the shackles of their pasts dragging at them as they carve their own standard of living. But in the mid 1800s it was normal for the children of the poor to see the activities of their parents – good & bad; generally they weren’t sheltered … that came in soon after when everyone wanted to live like the well to do did & hide or ignore the brutality of the ugly side of life.
Remember in Australia, Corporal Punishment was only outlawed 35 years ago! Child abuse is still being fought & wives could not testify against their husbands for anything including marital rape until recent times also.
So all that aside I hope you can enjoy the story! ☼