A memory of violets, p.11
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       A Memory of Violets, p.11

           Hazel Gaynor
 

  Her father walking down the shale path in his soldier’s uniform. A smile on his face, a twinkle in his eyes. He had come home!

  She ran, shrieking with delight, ran from the cool of the scullery into the warmth of the sun to the warm embrace of the father she loved so much.

  He stopped and sank to his knees as he saw her, his arms outstretched in welcome.

  “Daddy! Daddy! You’re home! You came home!”

  Running, tripping, falling into his outstretched arms, throwing her hands around him, nuzzling into the sun-darkened skin on his neck, his standard-issue felt cap falling from his head.

  “Yes, Tilly! Yes, love! I came home. I came back for you, my love . . .”

  Chapter 17

  Clacton

  August 1876

  Florrie

  I could never in my life have imagined the sea was so big. Matron says it reaches all the way to France and if ye go the other way y’d be in America. I still don’t like to dip more than my toe in the water, but I like the sound of them great waves. We sometimes leave the dormitory windows open at night—’specially when it’s too warm to sleep—and there’s never a better sound to soothe you to sleep than all them waves coming and going, sure there’s not.

  I’m in Buttercup House, which is closest to the cliff tops, and when the wind blows from the south, ye can taste the salt in the air. It’s as different here from Rosemary Court as I think Heaven must be from Hell. Sometimes, the sky seems so big and bright I get an ache in my eyes with staring at it. I like to watch the clouds, too. Ain’t never seen clouds like these ones, all fluffed up like a great bunch of cresses. And the grassy bits outside the houses, what the gardener calls “lawns,” are as green as sea kale. They look so nice Lily Brennan says you could eat that grass, ’specially in the early morning, when the dew sits on it, sparkling like diamonds. There’s gardens at the back, too, which is kept so nice looking, and the roses . . . the roses smell sweeter here than any I ever smelled before. If I shut my eyes and stand among them, I can pretend I’m back in the markets at Covent Garden. And I can pretend that Little Sister is standing beside me. Just for a moment, I can pretend that when I open my eyes there she’ll be, smiling up at me.

  But ye can’t keep your eyes closed forever, can ye?

  I like the meadow, too, just over the fence. There’s poppies and cornflowers growing there, what we pick for Mother, who minds us in our house—and for Matron, who minds us all.

  Some of the girls think she’s fierce with her words, but I tell them they don’t know what fierce is and that they should have met my da, then they’d think different. I think Matron’s nice. She’s as skinny as a bean and taller than anyone I ever seen, ’cept Mr. Shaw. Like a great stick, so she is, striding about the place. She keeps us all proper and right, though, saying we must be keeping ourselves clean and tidy in the black dresses and white aprons we all wear, and ye wouldn’t want to be messin’ when she gives you a job to do. Best to just get on and do it, that’s what Lily Brennan says. Sleeps in the bed next to mine, Lily does.

  Mother here at Buttercup is awful kind to us. I like it best when she reads to us at bedtime and I like when she tucks the bed covers so tight around me that I can hardly move my arms and legs and the blankets tickle my nose.

  I help with the littlest ones when I can. There’s eight little ones in our house, and there’s the new home now, built ’specially for the little babies whose mammies and daddies don’t be wanting them, or are after dying. I told Matron I was good with the babies after minding Little Sister, so she lets me help whenever I can, but only when I’ve my chores done.

  I still wake a lot in the night, screaming Rosie’s name. Matron says I’m after suffering from a shock and that it’ll take a good long while to recover. I tell her I don’t think I’ll ever recover; that I don’t want to, ’cause that would mean I’d stopped looking, and I’ll never stop looking for Rosie, sure I won’t.

  Mr. Shaw tells me they’re still searching for her up in London, but nobody’s seen a sight of her in all this time, and I worry so much, so I do, and I’m after imagining something terrible has happened to her, so that I frighten myself. I don’t know what’s worse: to think that she’s dying somewhere all alone or to think that someone’s taken her and she’s with people she don’t know, scared out of her wits.

  “Better to be lost than to be found dead.” That’s what Lily says. Maybe she’s right. Lily has nobody in the world left living—or lost. All she has is her rag dolly she made, who she calls Mother. Takes that dolly everywhere with her, she does. Said I should make a dolly with the rags and call her Rosie, and that way I’ll always have Little Sister with me.

  I made that rag dolly.

  But it’s not the same.

  It’ll never be the same. Not till I find her.

  London

  September 23, 1880

  Dear Mr. Shaw,

  I must write, once again, to express my delight after attending the recent fete day at the Flower Village in Clacton. This is my fourth fete day and they never fail to impress. What wonderful displays the girls put on for us this year—the dancing, the singing, and the gymnastics were most impressive, not to mention the spectacular fire-drill display, which more than lived up to its billing. The smaller children were quite delightful, sitting at tea with their teddy bears and all so well-mannered and dressed so smartly in their cotton bonnets and white pinafores. They are a testament to the hard work and devotion of all the staff, who work tirelessly to make the children’s lives so vastly improved.

  The setting of the Flower Village is quite something. Such wonderful views over the meadows at the front of the homes and the sea just visible on the horizon. I must admit to finding the sea breeze quite invigorating—I am sure the children’s health improves from the moment they take their first breath of that wonderful, clear air. My daughter attended with me this year. She was so taken with the place that she wept when it was time to leave.

  Mr. Hutton provided a very informative tour of the gardens. He has cultivated such beautiful displays, and the scent of the rose garden is unlike anything I have encountered before. He informed me that it is the sea air that creates such a wonderfully fragrant bloom.

  I was also delighted to meet your president, Lord Shaftesbury. He speaks very highly of your mission and all the work you are doing on behalf of those who depend so entirely on the generosity and dedication of people such as yourself. It must be quite the boost to have the support of such an esteemed gentleman.

  I hope to visit another display of the girls’ work in the near future and will look forward to attending the fete day next summer. In the meantime, I hope the enclosed sum of one hundred pounds will be of help in making the necessary improvements to the Flower Homes, here in London and at the orphanage.

  Yours in admiration,

  “Daisy”

  Chapter 18

  London

  June 1876

  Rosie Flynn had known many bad things in her short life—cold, hunger, exhaustion, sadness, death, and cruelty—but she had never known terror like that which she felt as she ran to get away from the man who had grabbed her.

  She ran and ran, darting wildly through the crowds, bumping into people, stumbling forward, then backward, a blur of grainy shadows and strange shapes all that she could make out. She had no idea what she was running toward. All she knew was that she had to get away from him. From the bad man.

  She couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe, almost choked by the panicked breaths that caught in her throat as she struggled to get away, struggled to understand what had happened.

  She wanted to scream, to cry out, “Florrie! Florrie! Where are ye?” But she didn’t, knowing that by shouting she’d only draw unwelcome attention to herself. So she stayed silent and kept running through the terrifying, shadowy world she inhabited.

  Without her sister’s hands and eyes to guide her, she quickly became lost and bewildered. A strange sound came from deep within her
a whine, like that of a frightened animal. She’d felt Florrie fall, felt her hand wrenched from her own. She’d heard the clatter of Florrie’s crutch hitting the road, the mutterings of people inconvenienced by having to step over a child on the ground. She’d stood perfectly still, as Florrie had always told her to if ever they became separated. “Stay right where ye are, and I’ll find ye. It’s best not to go wandering off.”

  But within seconds of Florrie falling, strong hands had grabbed Rosie around her waist, whisking her away, her legs dangling in the air, a hand covering her mouth so that she couldn’t scream. She’d smelled the sweet, sticky scent of lemonade on the rough, manly hands smothering her mouth and knew immediately who had taken her. “Don’t look at ’im, Rosie. Don’t look in his eyes.”

  Struggling and thrashing with what little strength she had in her frail body, she’d wriggled enough to make the man adjust his grip as he tried to get a tighter hold of her. That was when she’d grabbed a piece of his stinking, hairy flesh between her teeth, biting down as hard as she could on the back of his hand. Howling in pain, he’d lost his grip and dropped her. Scrambling to her feet, she’d started to run.

  The usually familiar noises of a busy Sunday became strangely amplified in her terror, startling her at every twist and turn: hawkers shouting their wares—strawberries, hokey-pokey, gingerbread, knives to grind; the laughter and cheer of the crowd gathered around the Silly Billy entertainer; the lilting notes of the organ grinders and the chatter of their monkeys; beggars pleading with passersby; horses’ hooves thudding past; dogs barking and snapping at her heels; children bawling in their perambulators. Twice, she was knocked to her knees by the thick legs of burly men who didn’t notice a frightened child darting among them, running for her life. What would they care even if they did?

  AT FIRST, THE CARRIAGE APPEARED as just another indefinable shape, looming out of the passing blur of light and shade. Then she heard the familiar snort of a horse to her right, the bright jangling of metal from fastenings on reins and bridles and bits. Reaching out her hands, she stumbled toward the noise, detecting the distinctive, musty smell of horsehair and the rich scent of leather. Her hands fell first onto the wheel, her fingers tracing the spokes and the solid rim. Then she felt a step and the cool of a metal handle, which she used to pull herself up. The muffled noises from the street, the cool black shade, the smell of wood, and the gentle snorting of the horse told her she was inside a carriage.

  Squeezing into the small gap beneath the seat—dust and cobwebs clinging to her hot, clammy skin—she curled into a tiny, tiny ball. She hardly dared to breathe, stifling her sobs of terror and panic as best she could to allow her to listen.

  Had he followed her? Had he seen her climb inside?

  “Rosie! Rosie!” She was sure she heard a cry from somewhere amid the noise outside. Was it Florrie, calling for her, or was it just a seller crying out her wares? “Roses! Roses! Buy yer lovely, sweet red roses. Two blooms for a penny.” She didn’t know, couldn’t be sure. Too terrified to move, too terrified to shout back, she said nothing, rocking gently, retreating into herself as she felt a spider crawl slowly across her hand.

  Everything became blank. She lay in a mute, paralyzed ball of fear, allowing nothing to penetrate the tiny space she occupied under the carriage seat. She was barely conscious of breathing.

  SOMETIME LATER—she wasn’t sure how long—a voice close by broke through the silence, a woman’s voice, pleasant and gentle, wishing someone farewell. Then laughter, and the carriage door opening, allowing a welcome rush of light and air to fill the small space inside.

  From her hiding place, Rosie listened to the rustle of skirts as someone sat down on the seat above her. She caught the sweet scent of damask rose. Perfume, not real flowers.

  A woman’s voice. “Back to the house, Thompson.”

  “Yes, m’lady. Right you are.”

  Rosie kept perfectly still as she listened to the two strange voices.

  “And I do hope the river won’t smell so terrible at Richmond. It really is quite something in this heat.”

  The man’s voice again, shouting for the horse to move off. The crack of a whip, the creaking of wood and leather as the carriage rolled into motion.

  A sense of panic. She was moving away, away from Florrie! “Stay right where ye are, and I’ll find ye. It’s best not to go wandering off,” her sister had said.

  Should she jump out?

  She listened to the steady rhythm of the hooves on the road beneath her, pressing herself farther against the back of the carriage. She was terrified of being discovered and thrown back onto the streets and just as terrified of the distance growing between herself and Florrie with each turn of the wheels.

  Covering her ears, Rosie blocked out the thunderous rumble of the wheels as they rattled against the uneven roads. As the carriage rushed along, a breeze blew through a crack in the floor, tickling her bare toes. She drew her knees farther up into her body, shaking with fear, waiting for whatever was going to happen next. She didn’t know where Richmond was, but she guessed that it was far away. How would Florrie ever find her there?

  They traveled for some time, the noise of London’s streets fading into the distance, the nauseating stench of the Thames dissipating with every rotation of the wheels. Occasionally, the woman readjusted her position, the fabric of her skirts rustling and the seat creaking as she did. Sometimes, she seemed to be rummaging in her purse. Each movement sent a fresh burst of rose perfume drifting through the carriage. It was the only familiar thing to Rosie in all that was so startlingly strange. She held that scent within her, locking it away in her memory as if it were the most precious of treasures; a trail of bread crumbs that would, one day, lead her back to Florrie.

  Eventually, the carriage came to a halt amid the sounds of hooves and wheels crunching over gravel. A flurry of dust was disturbed from among the dry stones and blown through the crack in the carriage floor. The dust crept into Rosie’s throat. The carriage door opened. The lady was standing up, stepping out. The dust tickled Rosie’s nose. There was no way she could stop the violent sneeze.

  The lady screamed.

  Rosie screamed.

  Footsteps came rushing to see what the commotion was. She felt hands pulling at her.

  The driver’s voice. “Well, I never did!”

  She was discovered.

  “It’s a child, m’lady,” he said, grabbing Rosie by the arms and dragging her from beneath the seat.

  “A child?”

  “A filthy little urchin. Well, I never did!”

  Rosie was dragged out of the darkness of the carriage into the sunlight. She felt the change in temperature against her face. She kicked her legs against the driver’s until he dropped her to the ground. Her feet crunched against the gravel. She crouched low, bundling herself into a tight, tight ball. “Florrie, Florrie, Florrie,” she whispered. Where was Florrie? Where was she?

  “But, but . . . what on earth is a child doing hiding in my carriage?” The lady’s voice was high-pitched. Anxious. Breathy.

  “I don’t know, m’lady. But we’ll soon find out.” Rosie felt the man lean down toward her, blocking out the pale light. “Trying to steal from the lady’s purse, was ya?” He dug a bony finger into Rosie’s arm, his face so close to hers that she could feel his breath, warm and laced with tobacco.

  She had no words. All she could do was cry fresh tears of fear and desperation, shaking her bowed head as she gazed blankly at the blurred edges of her feet against the stones. She sank to her knees, confused and terrified.

  She heard the crunching of footsteps then, moving quickly, as another woman’s voice joined them.

  “M’lady! M’lady! Are you quite all right? I heard a scream and came as quickly as I could.”

  “Yes, Mrs. Jeffers. Thank you. I’m quite well. Just a little alarmed to find this child hiding in the carriage.”

  “A child!”

  “Yes—and all the way from Westminster
Bridge, no less. Just imagine what might have occurred had it been a young boy of ill intent!”

  “My goodness! It doesn’t bear thinking about. Would you look at the state of her?” Rosie caught the smell of bread and sweat as the woman—Mrs. Jeffers—walked a full circle around her. “She’s filthy. Filthy! Street seller by the look of her. See, flowers in her hands. The cheek of it! Planning to rob you, most likely. Is anything missing, m’lady?”

  “No. Nothing. I’ve checked. Everything is as it should be.”

  “She probably crawled in thinking it would be a good place to get some sleep. Lazy, good-for-nothing little so-and-so.” Mrs. Jeffers tutted. “Well, she can crawl straight back in again and Thompson can take her back to where she came from. Carrying all sorts of infectious disease, I shouldn’t wonder, and we certainly don’t want any more of that.”

  Rosie sobbed as she listened to the two women and the driver speculate about what had happened and what might have happened and what they should do with her now.

  “Yes, Mrs. Jeffers. Thank you.” The lady from the carriage seemed a little calmer now, her voice measured and controlled. “Just look at her,” she said. Rosie felt as though she were a pig being inspected at market, as footsteps moved around her. “She’s nothing but skin and bone. And what unusual hair color—red—although it’s difficult to tell under all that soot and dirt. Do you think she’s Irish? What’s your name, little girl?”

  The words were spoken softly, almost whispered as the lady bent down. Rosie was enveloped by a strong burst of the lady’s perfume and knew she stood close by.

  “Don’t get too close, m’lady,” Mrs. Jeffers cautioned. “She might bite, and Lord knows what might be leaping around in that matted hair of hers. Goodness me, I never in all my days thought I would see such a thing, and right here on the carriage circle of Nightingale House, of all places!”

 
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