The Language of Flowers
Ellen Barrett smiled as she felt her way down the staff staircase. She tiptoed into the servants’ hall and listened as Speight read to the group.
“Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”
She squinted, coming deeper into the dimly-lit room—illuminated only by the light of the fire, two oil lamps and three candles by which Vi and Gamilla sat with their mending. Mrs. Pepper sat in the plushest chair by the fire, her tired feet raised up on a poof, a cup of chocolate nestled in her hands. Gerard and Charles sat at the long dining table which they’d covered with an oil-cloth. They buffed the masters’ boots, in unison, in the light of one of the oil lamps. Gerard wasn’t looking at his work, his eyes were fixed on Speaight, absorbing every word from “The Adventures of Oliver Twist.”
At Speaight’s feet, in front of the fire, Jenny and Ethel sat cross-legged, like children, drowsily hearing the words of Boz. Ethel slowly munched a butter biscuit. In a dark corner, Tom, the page, sat in a small wooden chair—Ellen couldn’t tell if he was awake or not.
Ellen’s grin broadened—it was a happy family scene. Mrs. Pepper and Mr. Speaight—the mother and father—protecting their “children.”
Quietly, Ellen took a seat next to Gerard. Gamilla looked up and smiled from across the servant’' hall.
Speaight paused in his reading, causing Gerard to grunt. Looking up, Gerard noticed that Ellen had sat next to him. He nodded a friendly greeting.
“Will you be joining us this evening, Miss Barrett?” Speaight asked gently.
“If you don’t mind.” Ellen replied.
“Of course not, we welcome you.” Speaight answered. “Is the little master asleep?”
“Yes,” Ellen nodded. “Master Colin is quite soundly asleep.”
“Shall I go stay with him?” Gamilla asked. She took her duties as Nursery Maid quite seriously for she loved the child very deeply.
“I wouldn’t want you to miss your rest,” Ellen shook her head. “I’ll return to him in a few moments. I just thought I’d like to hear Mr. Speaight read for awhile.”
“We just begun ‘Oliver Twist,’ Miss.” Gerard informed the governess.
“So, I heard.” Ellen nodded. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“You’ve not,” Speaight replied, taking a sip of his chocolate. On the small table next to Speaight’s rocking chair, a small vase of fresh spring flowers sat.
“What lovely flowers.” Ellen smiled.
“Glad you think so,” Mrs. Pepper said dryly. “They’re yours.”
“Sure,” Ethel spoke up, “Jenny found ‘em.”
“I don’t understand.”
Shyly, Jenny explained. “When I went to answer the service door earlier, a young man was there. I ‘xpected the butcher. But, it weren’t him. It were a young man, handsome, too. He handed me them flowers and said I should give them to you.”
“Me?” Ellen’s eyes widened.
“Yes, Miss.” Jenny giggled. Ethel giggled, too.
“Did he leave a name?”
“Victor, miss.” Jenny whispered.
“Looks as if you got an admirer, Miss.” Charles teased.
“There’s jonquils.” Jenny giggled.
“Means someone wants you to return their affection, Miss.” Ethel added seriously.
“And, Iris,” Jenny continued. “What means good news.”
“And lavender,” Mrs. Pepper growled.
“That stands for devotion, Miss.” Jenny said.
“Or distrust…” Mrs. Pepper added.
“Miss Barrett, do you know this young ‘Victor’?” Speaight said.
“I think that I do.” Ellen nodded slowly.
“Perhaps you should tell him that’s it’s not proper for a gentleman to visit the servants’ hall door to leave tokens of affection for the young governess.”
“If I see him, Sir, I most certainly will do so.” Ellen replied firmly.
“Are we gonna hear ‘bout Oliver Twist, then?” Gerard asked softly.
“Patience, my friend,” Charles whispered. “It’s not every day that our governess is courted by a young man.” Charles grinned slyly. “What’d he look like, Jenny?”
“Ginger.” Jenny replied. “Ever-so covered in handsome freckles. Fine, broad shoulders and a nice…” She stopped. “Even in the dim light, they could all see that she was blushing.
“Did you say he was ginger?” Ellen asked.
“Yes, miss. Bright ginger. Not like His Grace’s hair what’s dark. But, bright…”
“Like a carrot, no doubt.” Mrs. Pepper chuckled.
“And he told you that he was called ‘Victor’?”
“Yes, Miss.” Jenny nodded resolutely. “Had a bit of the Scotch in his voice, like me pa.”
“Is this not the man you thought?” Speaight asked.
“No,” Ellen muttered.
“I’m sorry,” Ellen nodded. “Mr. Speaight, do carry on with your reading.”
“Shall I?” Speagith grinned.
“Oh, yes, Sir.” Gerard spoke up.
“Sure you don’t want to hear more of Miss Barrett’s Scottish lad?” Charles teased.
Gerard drew in breath impatiently.
“Charles…” Speaight warned.
“Sorry, Sir.” Charles smiled.
“I’d best return to Master Colin.” Ellen rose from her chair.
“Don’t you want to take your flowers, Miss?” Jenny asked.
“No, let’s leave them here for all of us to enjoy.” Ellen answered quickly.
“Oh, how nice.” Ethel chirped. “Thank you.”
“Good night, all.” Ellen nodded. “Enjoy your story.”
“We will.” Gerard snorted.
“Good night, Miss.” Gamilla added. “I’ll come up shortly to check on you both.”
“Thank you, Gamilla.” Ellen said—with that, she hurried up the stairs.
“Queer.” Mrs. Pepper muttered.
“I should say so.” Speaight nodded. “Now, where was I?” He looked at his book and began again.
“For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child could survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.
Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred…”
Once upstairs, Ellen paused in the opulent front hall. She tried to catch her breath but her heart was racing. She steadied herself by sitting briefly on one of the French gilt chairs which were nestled in the dramatic curve of the grand staircase. Then, suddenly, she heard a rustling from outside.
At first she thought the sound was coming from the vestibule which separated the foyer from the front door—the little space with its marble floor and walls of brightly-colored stained glass. But, surely, there was no one there. All that stood in the vestibule was a fine, ebonized, mirrored hall tree and a low, deeply-carved bench.
She rose, walking to the ebonized wood and stained glass door of the vestibule and opened it. Someone was outside the front door. Slowly and cautiously, she placed her hand on the large, bronze door handle and with her other hand unlatched the door.
Ellen flung the door open quickly. She found no one there. Yet, on the steps to the street lay a peculiar thing—a cream-colored envelope bound with black ribbon which held to the paper a single flower—a yellow carnation.
“Disappointment.” Ellen whispered to herself as she picked up the parcel.
Holding the envelope up to the lamp above the door she saw there written in a childish hand, “Julian, Duke of Fallbridge.”
Ellen’s hands shook so that she could hardly hold it.
Did you miss Chapters 1-16 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back on Monday for Chapter 18.