Tempted By the Windflower – Sue London

Alfred “Freddie” Marshall ran a brush over Baybridge’s glossy coat one last time and the gelding snickered his thanks. Few horses loved a rubdown and brush quite like Baybridge did. Freddie was a groom in the Duke of Devon’s stables and he tried to take satisfaction in the simple pleasures of life. A happy horse. A good day’s work. “Fred,” the stablemaster called. “Muck out the third stall.” And then there were the other things in life. He gave Baybridge a final rub on the nose before sighing and grabbing his pitchfork. Freddie rather missed the duke’s temporary stablemaster, Mr. Ableman. He’d been the sort who mucked and brushed as much as any groom in his employ. Mr. Frederickson, whom Freddie had worked for all his life, was well enough tempered, but his recent injury made him even less inclined to set his back to the difficult work of the stables, and that meant there was more than enough work to share among the grooms and stable boys. Not that Freddie was silly enough to think that life would be, on balance, more than fair.

He had work, enough to eat, and even a book of his very own that he could read from time to time when his work was done. It wasn’t the life he might have hoped for, but a good life nonetheless. He spent the afternoon in the sort of mindless, sweaty labor that made the time fly because he could think on whatever he wanted, rather than stay attentive to the lords and ladies while following them around on horseback. That was, in fact, his least favorite duty and he was more than willing to leave it to Nash, his fellow groom who was much more affable. Freddie was particularly good at finding something else to do, or simply disappearing entirely, when a riding party was assembled. Otherwise he had to listen to them prattle on with their vapid gossip just in case one of them might need something, might ask him for something while his mind was otherwise occupied. Because if there was one thing he knew about Quality they did not like being ignored. They did not like it at all. And however much he might not enjoy every aspect of his job he did not want to give the family any reason to turn him off. He didn’t know quite what he would do in that instance.

He’d been in the Hartland Abbey stables for as long as he could remember. The duke’s family were lovely, they really were, but there was an attentiveness that a servant was expected to have that never came naturally to Freddie. The other servants teased him that he had his head in the clouds. That sometimes you had to wave a hand in his face or snap your fingers to get his attention. It was true that he was often lost to his own thoughts. He’d learned to be careful about it, however. He’d learned to be alert when the family was around. It was odd but it felt like being mindful was one of the harder things he had to do. He was glad enough to be in the stables because the horses were quite a bit easier to get along with than the rest of the household. His past before Hartland Abbey was something of a mystery.

Some said that his father had sought work as a groom then left without notice, not even taking his son. Others said the man who’d brought him hadn’t even been his father. The servants of the household had taken him in as one of their own, however, feeding him, clothing him, and preparing him for his life as a groom in the duke’s stables. And since he’d been the child of all the servants, he’d also learned more than most children in his place. It was as though everyone wanted him to like their place in the household best, even if he wasn’t likely to serve there. He knew how to polish silver, trim hedges, polish boots, and even sew a fine enough stitch to repair a gentleman’s jacket. Growing up the man that Freddie had loved best, however, had been the tutor Mr. Eldridge. The man owned five books of his very own, and had access to the family library as well. Mr.

Eldridge’s job had been to prepare the duke’s sons for school and that had been, from what Freddie gathered, something of a challenge. Freddie, however, had taken to books and learning like a duckling set in water to swim for the first time. Mr. Eldridge had spent evenings by the fire teaching Freddie his letters, then reading, and then discussing the world of ideas and stories. Freddie had been fascinated. Mr. Eldridge had also been the one to insist that Freddie have a real name. The man who may have been his father only went by Dorsey and the servants didn’t seem keen to consider that to be Freddie’s last name. Mr. Eldridge suggested Marshall, and insisted that the more formal Alfred was preferable to the simple Freddie.

The tutor had called him Mr. Marshall after that. And when the man left because his assignment was done he’d gifted Freddie his book of Greek mythology, inscribed ‘to Mr. Alfred Marshall with fond remembrance, Mr. Oliver Eldridge’. Sometimes Freddie gently ran his finger over the inscription, as though that would make the memories of Mr. Eldridge that much stronger now that the man had been gone near ten years. The book, however, was only the physical manifestation of the greater gift that he’d been given. The gift of words, which was an entire world unto itself. The world of history.

The world of ideas. Something that made his mind so much bigger, so much more expansive than anything in his environs. He wasn’t so bold as to ask to read the books in the duke’s library, but he hoped that one day he might earn enough to be able to purchase a second book of his own. He wasn’t quite sure on what subject yet, but he undoubtedly had plenty of time to consider the question. On the one hand he thought about history, most likely about a foreign land. He wanted to learn something new. On the other hand it would be prudent to put his money toward a book about horses. His literacy was already something that made him unusual in his profession. If he could be learned as well as experienced in horse handling then it could make him irreplaceable. And however much he might not seem intent on being an excellent servant, he had the apprehension common to his class.

If it weren’t for his current employment he might starve. He didn’t know that categorically to be true, but he didn’t remember ever living anywhere else and didn’t particularly relish the idea of finding other employment. He’d not even gone with the family as they traveled among their homes. He’d always been here. And really, here was where he wanted to be. *** Rosalind Flowers leaned forward to peer out the window of the carriage again. Her father snored softly in the seat next to her and her elderly maid Lucia knitted quietly in the seat across. Rosalind, however, was brimming with energy. It was, she thought, the freedom that this trip gave her from the endless rounds of teas and visits her mother insisted upon. Since Rosalind wasn’t even out she didn’t know why her mother thought that she needed to attend every single thing possible.

But then father had received this invitation from the duke and Rosalind had served as her father’s assistant for so long that even her mother hadn’t resisted the idea that Rosalind would accompany him. Mother, of course, had reassured herself that Rosalind had always rubbed along well with Lady Caroline, the duke’s middle daughter, and that it would be excellent for Rosalind’s prospects to revive the friendship. Rosalind didn’t have the heart to point out to her mother that the last time she’d seen Lady Caroline they had both been significantly younger and it was unlikely that the duke’s daughter still had the same affection for playing with her small printed theater. Caroline had been entranced by Rosalind’s ability to make up story after story for them to ‘stage’ on the tiny contraption. The two had exchanged periodic letters ever since. Caroline especially thought to write to her whenever she saw a new performance. She once even encouraged Rosalind to consider writing plays herself. That was amusing in particular. It was one thing to create tiny stories to entertain a ten year old child, quite another to write a play for performance in a duke’s house. And besides, now her head was full of calculations instead of stories.

Her father’s love of astronomy had always foundered because of the mathematics required. He’d taught all three of his daughters about astronomy, but only Rosalind had excelled. By the age of fourteen she’d been correcting his work. She’d been acting as his assistant for four years, even corresponding with his peers about calculations and observations. She wasn’t quite as entranced as her father was about the thrill of discovery, but there was a great deal of satisfaction in helping him achieve his dreams. And she loved the fact that in mathematics there were answers. Everything else in the universe seemed much more mysterious, but using numbers sometimes felt like she was finding keys to unlock all those mysteries. The carriage came to a stop with a gentle rocking motion and Rosalind heard the coachman and grooms jumping down. Her father awoke with a snort as the steps were placed next to the door. She wasn’t sure quite how he managed things like that, but it was very much in character.

He promptly fell asleep at the first sign of boredom and always awoke at the first sign in a change of activities. She wished she’d inherited the talent. Then they were all in the swirl of arrival, with footmen and luggage and even some dogs barking and dancing about. Rosalind was still turning around getting her bearings when a young woman emerged from the chaos, her black curls bouncing and contagious smile crinkling her sparkling blue eyes. “Lady Caroline!” The girl had certainly grown up, now having the natural grace and elegance that made her look even more like her mother than before. The duchess and her daughter shared the same coloring. “Miss Flowers! I’m ever so glad to see you!” Lady Caroline was still young enough for enthusiasm, however, pulling Rosalind into a quick hug. “I was delighted when Mama said you were coming with your father!”

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