Rhiannan opened the glass door of the shop. One side had a solid double brick wall with the milliners shop next door; its windows full of feathers and flowers and massive circles of felt or woven cane and the rows and rows along the walls of boxes that Rhiannan knew contained toppers and flat caps and hunting caps for gentlemen. She was responsible for the windows in the shop she was entering. She arranged silver stands with sugar stiffened lace doilies beneath delicately stacked finger-buns and sweetmeats and other delicious delicacies made to authentic French recipes. And in the centre the latest display of their main advertised draw card; decorated cakes to order. That was Rhiannan’s main task; to fill the orders for individually made cakes iced uniquely to the client’s desires. Aside from that, she would assist Mrs Johnson, the proprietor, with sales and write receipts and order invoices, receive and store the supplies and at the end of her day clean the shop down. She had been working here for nearly a year now and it had given her a great sense of pride and establishment to know she was capable of taking care of herself.
‘There you are lass.’ Mrs Johnson greeted her. ‘This came for you early this morning.’ She handed Rhiannan a thick buff envelope and busied herself dusting behind the counter with her feathered wand.
Rhiannan took the envelope around the back of the counter and placed it on the surface hiding behind the display of ceramic cake decorations in their glass cabinet. She saw to taking off her coat and hat and hanging them on the hooks provided in the back passageway, before tying the large white apron about her waist to cover the front of her pale blue crinoline dress.
‘Well?’ Mrs Johnson asked, in her “need to know but not one to pry” tone, ‘What does it say?’
‘What does what say Mrs Johnson?’ Rhiannan asked politely giving in to the slight tease but wanting terribly to tell the old gossip where to take her snooping.
‘Far be it for me to pry, Miss Buran but that envelope was hand delivered by a court official, a court official no less.’ She emphasized. ‘I think I have a right to know if my employee is about to leave my employ.’
‘Of course you do ma’am and when I leave I will be sure and tell you.’ Rhiannan assured her. ‘If I may be excused for a moment?’ she asked, holding the envelope and indicating the privacy of the back passage.
‘Oh don’t let me stop you.’ was her employer’s indignant reply.
Smiling with a mixture of victory and annoyance at needing to fight for her privacy, Rhiannan took the letter and slipped sideways into the small corridor room, at the base of the stairs at the back of the shop, and closed the door. She heard the two cake bakers singing their lowland songs in the baking kitchen that came off this and behind that was the store room. Stairs ran the full length of the corridor the top turn above the shop door and leading to Mrs Johnson’s private quarters above the shop; the lower end turned in front of the back exit door which was thick wood, the top half a window with smudged panes. Rhiannan took the envelope to this for the marginally better light to read by. The runner, nailed to the stairs, smelt musty from lack of cleaning, but Rhiannan sat on the two turned lower steps by the back door and saw to the envelope in her hands.
“My Dear Miss Buran,
By your request I have located the file and person of Miss Rosemary Campbell. She is presently incarcerated on the hulk “Sampson.” moored off South pier in the mighty Themes River.
“By your directive I have had her trial brought to the attention of the magistrates and have had her sentence changed to transportation for a further period of fourteen years. She departs on the morning tide Sunday week aboard the sloop “Marionette.” leaving Portsmouth England bound for Sydney harbour. She will be one of the last “life” convicts sent to Sydney and will most likely serve her time either at the women’s factory Parramatta or with luck, in service to a private household.
I trust this information will be of service to you.
I enclose my bill for the agreed upon amount.
James W Grouse.”
Rhiannan folded the page and returned it to the envelope folding this in half and sliding it beneath her apron and into her dress’s waist pocket. Then returned to the shop where her employer’s looks fell on deaf ears for she would not allow her past to influence her future. As far as Mrs Johnson was concerned Rhiannan was an orphan with service training and nothing further. Thankfully Mrs Johnson was also of some mild breeding and thinking herself gentry did not demean herself by demanding the information of the letter. But it did not stop her from scrutinising her employee’s determined continence.
Much to Mrs Johnson’s dismay Rhiannan hid her private life well and spent the rest of the day merely politely serving cakes and slices to members and servants of the rich households. Mrs Johnson had been in Paris and said it was all the rage there; rarely did the house cook bake the best of cakes and the social set would rather be known for purchasing from the finest patisserie than baking the same old afternoon teas.
In this artificial world of pleasantries and lace doilies Rhiannan worked automatically while her mind came to terms with the information gleaned and the need to decide what to do next.
Working with Mrs Johnson had given Rhiannan the means to survive. The contact had been made through a friend of Cookie’s. When Rhiannan had secretly returned wet and cold, late one rainy night, Cookie had taken her to the woman and demanded Rhiannan be given a chance to prove herself; insisting on informing Mrs Johnson that Cookie herself had taught Rhiannan to bake and decorate brilliantly.
Rhiannan had soon afforded a room in a near by hostel and to save most of her wages, in a purse about her waist under her skirts. On her way home that evening she would need to stop by the solicitor’s office and pay him the five pounds they had agreed upon. He had wanted ten; she had allowed him to raise her from three to five. She had hoped to be able to afford passage to travel to Australia also with her mother but that was not to be with most of her money going to Grouse. She would have to work another year with Mrs Johnson to raise the funds for herself.
But this Sunday Rhiannan would have to visit her mother before the woman left England. She could not do it the following one, for her mother would have been moved to the ship in Portsmouth by then and gone on the morning tide, well before she could get to the southern port village, possibly even before she woke up! No, this Sunday she would have to go to the hulk and see her mother. She could take her some things, that thick shawl Cook had made her for last winter, soap or food. What did you take a convict on a hulk awaiting transportation for life?
Grouse’s house was dark. The small door painted black and the single window at the front heavily curtained. If she hadn’t gone up closer she would never have seen the faint glow beneath the door. She knocked so quietly the first attempt that even she barely heard it.
‘Come on girl! Knuckle up and do the job right!’ she told herself in a whisper that echoed from Cookie’s kitchen and seemed to give her courage, for she knocked on the door loud enough for it to echo down the street and scare her half out of her wits.
‘Who’s there?’ Grouse yelled at the other side of the door, the light beneath suddenly brighter.
‘It’s me.’ She replied then mentally chastised herself for such a ridiculous answer. ‘Rhiannan Buran’ she told him with more confidence and felt better. ‘I’ve come to settle your bill.’
The door opened suddenly it seemed, as she was expecting it to be hauled slowly and possibly even to creak, it hadn’t crossed her mind it was a perfectly serviceable door. Grouse stood there lantern raised casting a yellow glow to his angular, creased features; his one blue eye glowing a dull green in the lamp light, the other, the brown eye, black in contrast in the shadow of his enormous nose. His height seemed even smaller in his house slippers and night cap; the smoking jacket may have been new once but was never big enough to cover his voluminous and stained night shirt. She stared at his skinny white ankles and one toe poking through the threadbare carpet slippers and nearly burst out laughing.
She had the money ready in a small material purse expecting his hand to be extended so she could pay him and be on her way but his hands never left either the lantern or the door. Instead he opened the door further and swung the lantern to show her into the one roomed house. Reluctantly she side stepped into the room. On her earlier day visit it had never dawned on her that the building was so small he actually slept in the room he used as his office. The couch in the corner was now dressed for bed, his desk held the remains of his evening meal, the stove in the back smoked sadly.
She reached the middle of the small room and turned to find him inches from her, the lantern still high as if he had been studying her hair. She still wore it long and relatively free, tied simply with a ribbon at the nape and now his manner made her feel she should pin it up high, severely, under a hat.
‘Your payment sir, five pounds I believe.’
‘Come now share a dram with me.’
‘No, no, I must be on my way or the landlady of my lodgings will be concerned.’
‘But I need to write you up your receipt and you still require a visitation pass. I presume you shall be visiting the lay-dee.’
He drawled the title and she felt it was more out of condescension than his accent. It coupled with the glint she now saw in his mismatched eyes gave her spine further excuse to tingle and stiffen. Right then, Rhiannan was feeling so trapped, the idea of running all the way home to Scotland was looking most inviting. But if she needed a pass to see her mother, if she angered this man would he withhold that pass? Would he revoke the transportation sentence?
‘Yes thank you.’
‘Then a wee dram will bolster you against the cold while I see to the paperwork.’ He spoke as he poured and held it to her. She took the small glass and he trotted around to the other side of his desk and cleared off his plate. He looked up. ‘Drink up lass, don’t go wasting my good whiskey now.’
Rhiannan had never had straight spirits of any kind, not since a child when her drunken mother had given her some whiskey to stop her wailing and George had become angry because of it. She didn’t remember ever seeing George angry before or since but it was after that that he had become part of her life. Other than that there had been the ale at the inn on the trip to London and the regular celebratory small very watered down dram of whiskey at New Year, as the only tastes of alcohol she’d ever knowingly had. But she knew plenty of men had drunk ten times more than what was in that wee glass and never a stagger from it. Her own mother needed half a jug of ale before her eyes began glazing over and then she’d be able to drink six pints more. She took a breath raised the glass and tipped the liquid down her throat.
It burnt all the way down, leaving the passage numb after its passing. The fumes filled her nostrils and made her eyes water. And then the tingling began. In her fingers and toes, up her limbs, across her top lip and under her eyes and then down her nose. She was having trouble regulating her senses. Her breathing was shallow and erratic her hands and lower legs were now numb, her sight blurred and her hearing muffled. Her balance became off centre and the lantern light seemed to dance. Her head throbbed and her thoughts spun and she felt so ill she wanted to vomit. Then she became effortlessly light. And things seemed funny. His face swimming before her eyes, the lantern dancing high then low and then it seemed a very good idea to just sit down. So clutching the bag she sunk to the floor as darkness obliterated her sight and silence soothed her throbbing head.
☼ 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! ☼