A memory of violets, p.4
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       A Memory of Violets, p.4

           Hazel Gaynor
 

  A small crowd had gathered to gaze at the astonishing display of color: vivid blues; regal purples; soft, candy-floss pinks; strawberry reds; vibrant lime greens; sun-bright, buttercup yellows; rich oranges; and creamy, vanilla whites. Tilly’s eyes were unable to take it all in, her mouth unable to suppress a smile of sheer delight. It was as if someone had poured a box of paints onto this one street, leaving nothing with which to brighten up the drab gray of the rest of the city she had just passed.

  “Wonderful, isn’t it.”

  Tilly turned to see a woman next to her, three children scampering around her skirts. “It’s magnificent,” she whispered in reply.

  “If only they could open a new factory here every day,” the woman said, smiling. “How bright our days would be then! Are you visiting one of the girls?” she asked, noticing the trunk at Tilly’s feet.

  Tilly felt a glow of pride flush her cheeks pink. “No,” she said. “Actually, I work here.”

  “Well, God bless you, love. It’s wonderful work those girls do. God bless them all.”

  The woman called her children to her and continued on her way.

  Taking a moment to smooth her skirt and adjust her hat, Tilly turned to walk down the street, her eyes darting from left to right and upward to make sure she didn’t miss any of the fabulous displays. She strode purposefully toward Violet House, passing the low iron railings that ran along the fronts of all the houses on the street. She read the names that had been etched into a stone lintel above the door at the front of each: Bluebell, Rosebud, Primrose, Orchid, and Iris. She remembered taking such hesitant steps along this same street just a few months ago, but something was different today; she walked a little faster, stood a little taller.

  Reaching Violet House, she pushed open the wrought-iron gate. It squeaked a welcome. Her heart pounding in her chest, she walked along the short pathway of red and gray diamond-patterned tiles leading to a neatly varnished front door. Each small footstep felt like a great stride—away from one life and toward another. She stopped in front of the leaded glass panels of the door and placed her trunk at her feet. Her hand poised over the brass knocker, she paused for a moment and took a long, deep breath. It had taken twenty-one years and a seven-hour train journey, but on this quiet London street, Tilly Harper felt, for the first time in her life, that she was, very definitely, at the beginning.

  Chapter 4

  Violet House, London

  March 25, 1912

  She was greeted by a large, red-faced woman who filled the narrow doorway with her ample frame and sizable arms.

  “Well, you must be our Miss Harper. You’re very welcome!” the woman enthused, a broad smile spreading across her face, accentuating her general roundness. Tilly took the hand that was offered to her, shaking the plump fingers firmly. “Come in, come in! Mrs. Pearce is my name. Harriet Pearce,” she continued, still shaking Tilly’s hand vigorously as she half dragged her inside the door and then into the passage.

  “Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Pearce,” Tilly replied, wincing as her trunk banged off the edge of the door. “And what a wonderful greeting. The flowers are beautiful!”

  “They are indeed. Quite the spectacle. On account of the new factory opening. We didn’t decorate the entire street just for you, I’m afraid!” Mrs. Pearce laughed at her own joke as she closed the door. “Did you have a good journey? My, what a long distance you’ve traveled. From the Lake District, aren’t you? You must be exhausted. Are you hungry? You must be hungry. Let me take that for you,” she added, grabbing Tilly’s trunk and hoisting it easily to one side of the narrow passage, despite its considerable weight.

  It was like being met by a whirlwind. Tilly wasn’t sure which question to answer first—or whether any answers were required at all, since Mrs. Pearce seemed quite capable of conducting an entire conversation with herself. As she chattered on about the noise of the locomotives and the disappointing quality of the items available on the refreshment trolleys, Tilly took the opportunity to look at her new home.

  The passage was pleasantly lit by the pale afternoon sunlight, which had briefly penetrated the fog and shone through the leaded panels in the door. The walls were decorated with pretty tulip-patterned wallpaper, the vivid reds of the flowers set against a rich background of green and gold. It gave the impression of a field of tulips stretching from one end of the house to the other.

  Looking down the long passage, Tilly admired the highly polished floors and banisters, which shone like glass. Someone had been very hard at work, she could tell. She caught a glimpse of a room to the right, which she presumed to be the parlor, and could see the scullery at the very back of the house. Just inside the door was an umbrella stand, and on the wall to her left hung a large beveled mirror, reflecting the light of a small hall lantern and making the passage feel larger than it was. Catching a glimpse of her reflection, Tilly adjusted her hat and rubbed at a smudge of soot on her cheek.

  “I’m the housemother next door at Number Five. Rosebud,” Mrs. Pearce said. She had hardly paused for breath. “Unfortunately, we’ve had quite the turn of events these last few days, and poor Mrs. Harris, the housemother here, finds herself with a broken leg!”

  “Goodness. That’s terrible. I hope she’ll be all right.” Despite her words, Tilly could think only of the repercussions Mrs. Harris’s injury would have on her.

  “Yes, it’s dreadful bad luck—not to mention, awful timing. The poor woman. But never mind, these things are sent to try us!” Mrs. Pearce chuckled to herself good-naturedly as she took up a corner of her white apron, using it to wipe her hands, which were covered in flour. “Anyway,” she continued, “she asked me to step in and show you the ropes until she’s back on her feet. Oh! Hark at me. ‘Back on her feet!’ My, oh, my!”

  Tilly’s heart sank. How was she ever going to manage on her own, in an unfamiliar house, with unfamiliar routines and twelve girls to look after?

  Mrs. Pearce didn’t notice the look of shock on Tilly’s face, or if she did, she chose to ignore it. “So, we’ll just have to carry on without her and do our best! Won’t we, girls?” she added, raising her eyebrows and winking at Tilly.

  Following the direction of Mrs. Pearce’s gaze, Tilly heard giggling and shuffling coming from the room behind her. Turning around, she was met with the sight of a dozen eyes staring back at her.

  Mrs. Pearce leaned forward. She was so close that Tilly could feel the warmth radiating from her flushed cheeks. “Of course, we call them all ‘girls,’ but some of them are as old as me! Eyes in the back of your head. That’s what you need round here,” she whispered.

  Tilly smiled weakly, her nose balking at the sour smell of body odor that accompanied Mrs. Pearce’s every movement. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She felt awkward, unsure of what to do with herself. She wished someone would produce a pile of sopping laundry for her to mangle, or a carpet to beat or a fender to blacken—anything, just as long as she could do something useful. She was determined to prove herself here, determined to show that she was worth more than the people of Grasmere gave her credit for. The sooner she could get started on that, the better.

  “Now, girls,” Mrs. Pearce continued, turning to speak to the staring eyes and placing her hands firmly on her hips. “Don’t gawp like that. I’m sure you’ve all seen new staff members arrive, and I’m quite sure Miss Harper doesn’t need an audience inspecting her after such a long journey.” This comment produced more barely stifled giggles.

  Mrs. Pearce turned back to Tilly. “Always fascinated by the arrival of a new member of staff,” she muttered. “Hopefully they won’t give you too much trouble.”

  “Trouble?”

  “Oh, nothing serious. Just childish pranks. The usual.”

  Tilly smiled nervously, wondering what “the usual” consisted of.

  Finding it hard to ignore the increasingly loud whispers behind her, she decided it would be best to make her introductions and get it over with.

/>   “Hello, everyone,” she announced to the gathered eyes. “I’m Tilly. I’m really happy to be here.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she wished she hadn’t spoken. She’d intended to sound confident and assured, but her voice sounded small and meek, even in the narrow entrance hall. She didn’t sound authoritative or useful, let alone like someone who should be entrusted with the welfare of a houseful of blind and crippled girls.

  “Hello,” a dozen voices replied politely. The words were followed by more giggles.

  “Now, girls, you’re to leave Miss Harper—Matilda—to settle into her room and don’t be causing her any difficulties. She’ll start her duties tomorrow morning, and not before. So don’t be bothering her to mend this and fetch that, d’you hear? We’ve enough on our plates as it is, what with Mrs. Harris out of action and Mr. Shaw’s announcement expected this evening.”

  Tilly watched as Mrs. Pearce did a quick head count of the girls gathered around the door “. . . nine, ten, eleven . . . and where’s Buttons?”

  “Hiding. Again!” one of the girls replied. She spoke with a strong Yorkshire dialect. “ ’aven’t seen ’er since lunchtime.”

  Mrs. Pearce sighed. “Very well. I’ll look for her when I have Miss Harper settled. Now, off you all go,” she added, clapping her hands as if she was rounding up chickens. “We’ve to be in the chapel for six o’clock.”

  “Yes, Mrs. Pearce,” the girls replied, before drifting back into the room, leaving the doorway empty.

  “They’re not a bad lot really. You’ll soon get used to them. Now, follow me. I’ll show you to your room and then I’ll make you a nice cup of tea. No doubt you’re gasping.”

  Before Tilly could say anything, Mrs. Pearce had grabbed the heavy trunk and was striding off up the stairs, reeling off a list of information and instructions as she went. Tilly grabbed her smaller carpetbag and raced after her, trying to take everything in.

  “Coal hole’s under the stairs. Scullery’s at the back of the house—there’s a range and a copper for heating water for washday and the occasional bath. You’ll be familiar with all that, I presume?” Tilly didn’t get chance to reply before Mrs. Pearce continued. “Lavatory’s at the back of the scullery. Backyard’s out the back. Washday’s Monday, as usual.”

  As Tilly followed Mrs. Pearce up two flights of stairs, she wondered how the girls without legs ever managed. She didn’t get a chance to ask.

  “Bath’s in the off room at the end of the landing there. There’s another tin bath in the yard.” Tilly tried to keep up—physically and mentally—as Mrs. Pearce reeled off the daily routine without stopping for breath. “The girls sleep in dormitories in the front and middle bedrooms, six to a room. They go to the workrooms—or factory I suppose I should be saying now—from eight till six, Monday to Friday. They’re expected to make their own beds and help with the washing up after each meal. And mind they do. You’d think some were afraid of water the way they try to sneak off. They’re free to do as they wish on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, though we encourage them to go to church at least once. Some of them could do to be going many more times, if you ask my opinion, but it’s not my place to say.

  “You’ll have eight shillings a week to run the house. It’s not much, granted, but a good housemother will make those eight shillings work as hard as the girls do at making their flowers. I prefer to do all the washing myself rather than send it out—leaves you a bit extra for food that way. I’ve always been very proud of the fact that my girls have margarine and dripping all week and butter on Sundays. When I’m bent over the washtub scrubbing those bedsheets and dresses, I remind myself of how good that butter tastes. The ache in my arms doesn’t seem so bad that way.

  “The weekly menu is written down in the housemother’s book—fish on Wednesdays, roast mutton on Sundays, suet pudding on Saturday. You can come to the markets with me for the supplies until Mrs. Harris is back on her feet. Don’t worry. You’ll soon get the hang of it all.”

  Tilly’s mind was reeling but, despite Mrs. Pearce’s relentless chatter, there was an air of starchy efficiency about her that Tilly warmed to. She was clearly used to being in charge, to having her instructions paid attention to, and although the unpleasant odor she produced every time she moved was an unfortunate addition, there was something quite charming about her.

  Much to the relief of Tilly’s exhausted ears, the exertion of the upstairs climb eventually rendered Mrs. Pearce incapable of speech, apart from when she stopped occasionally to call for Buttons. Other than this, the only sounds as they made their ascent were the rhythmic thud, thud, thud as the heavy trunk bumped crossly off each step and the swish of Mrs. Pearce’s skirts as they jostled for position over her substantial rear.

  Tilly’s eyes wandered from left to right as they passed closed doors, the tulip-patterned wallpaper following them to each new floor of the house, her boots squeaking against the oilcloth floor.

  “Does the cat go missing often, Mrs. Pearce?” she asked as Mrs. Pearce called for Buttons again. “Ours was always going missing at home. We’d find her in cupboards or down the back of the dresser. They can sneak into all sorts of tiny spaces, especially if they’re chasing a mouse. Mittens was a great mouser.”

  She heard giggling behind her and realized they were being followed.

  “Oh, Buttons isn’t a cat!” Mrs. Pearce cried over her shoulder, without stopping or turning around. “Buttons is one of our girls, and—like your cat—she has a particular knack for disappearing.”

  “Oh! I see.”

  Finally they reached a white-paneled door on the third floor of the house and Mrs. Pearce stopped. “Now, this is your room, Matilda.” She gasped, her face flushed with color as she tried to catch her breath. An attractive leaded skylight above the doorframe allowed just enough light onto the landing to prevent it from being entirely gloomy.

  “Wonderful. Quite the climb, isn’t it?” Tilly wasn’t even breathing heavily.

  “Not so much of a climb as a stroll for a fit and healthy young lass like you!” Mrs. Pearce leaned against the doorframe. “If I didn’t already know you were from the mountains, I could probably have guessed. You’re not even breathing heavily. Look at me—I’m practically dead!”

  Tilly laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t usually be carrying a heavy trunk up the mountains. Oh, and actually, I use the name Tilly.” Mrs. Pearce looked at her, confused. “It’s short for Matilda.”

  “Oh. Right. Yes. Very well then. Tilly it is. Now,” she continued, pushing the door open to reveal a neat, sparsely furnished room, “this will be your room.” She stood in the doorway while Tilly walked in. “I’ll leave you to unpack. Mrs. Harris’s room is down the corridor to the right, but, well, I suppose that doesn’t matter with her not being here.”

  “Not here?” Tilly turned, surprised to hear this. “Not here—at all?”

  “No! Didn’t I mention it? I was sure I had. How silly of me. She’s gone to stay with her sister in Brighton to convalesce. ‘No use to us lying around here with your leg in plaster. Much better off by the seaside’—that’s what I told her. ‘The fresh sea air will heal that bone faster than you can say pease pudding,’ I said. She went two days ago—in a motorcar no less, sent by her nephew. He’s quite the gentleman, by all accounts.”

  Tilly felt her face pale.

  “Oh, don’t worry, dear. You won’t be entirely on your own. I’ll be around as much as I can, to help out—and you’ll soon get the hang of everything. You look like a competent enough young woman. I can always tell a hard worker when I see one. You can feel it in their hands. That’s why I always give them a good shake when I first meet a person.”

  Tilly wished she could feel as confident about her abilities as Mrs. Pearce did. Her mind was in a whirl. Twelve girls to look after on her own. How had Mrs. Ingram described her new position? “Demanding circumstances.” Mrs. Ingram didn’t know the half of it.

  “We’ll be heading to the chapel for six o’clock,” Mr
s. Pearce said as she rubbed at the door handle with the edge of her apron, hovering around the entrance to Tilly’s room, neither stepping inside nor leaving.

  “Oh, yes. I meant to ask—if I’m not intruding,” Tilly said. “You mentioned that Mr. Shaw has an important announcement to make this evening. Are there to be some changes made?”

  “No idea. Although,” Mrs. Pearce whispered, “I did hear a rumor that he received a letter from Queen Alexandra recently. Perhaps we’re to be making some flowers by royal appointment! Imagine that!” Her hands flew to her cheeks, like a small child on Christmas morning.

  “Really? Goodness, that would be quite something, wouldn’t it?” Tilly had always had great admiration for Queen Alexandra, especially for the dignified manner in which she’d tolerated her husband’s scandalous behavior and many mistresses, a matter that had been discussed and debated at great length by the ladies at Wycke Hall as they sipped their tea or played a game of bridge.

  “Well, I suppose we’ll find out soon enough anyway,” Mrs. Pearce continued, still fluttering around the doorway like an indecisive moth. “We’ll meet in the kitchen and make our way together from there. Your caps and white aprons are in the wardrobe,” she added before turning on her heel and disappearing.

  Closing the door behind her, Tilly placed her carpetbag on the bed and glanced around the room. It was pleasant enough, if a little cramped; a neat efficiency about the room that her mother would have approved of. A pale light crept in through the narrow sash window on the right, casting everything in a yellow hue. Lace curtains framed the window, and a small vase of dusky pink roses and purple violets stood on the windowsill. They gave off a wonderful aroma. A small rosewood writing table in the window alcove was well positioned to catch the best of the meager daylight. Tilly planned to do her sketching there.

 
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