Dust puffed around Rodney’s feet as he plowed down the straight back road. The pale grains marred the shine he had polished into the cracked leather before he began his trek from town. By the time he reached the end of the brick wall lining the road and faced the pair of granite lions guarding the entrance, the dust reached up to his knees, sweat dripped down his back and his hair felt plastered to his head beneath his hat.
The Breckenridge manor house loomed atop the hillside. Grassy slopes, pockmarked with dead patches encircled the stone fortress. Overgrown rose bushes and a tangle of ivy crept up the front face as if straining to reach the sky. The spread of sagging oaks provided shade over the statuary erected on the front lawn.
Retrieving a grungy handkerchief from his pocket, Rodney mopped the sweat off his forehead. Lifting his wide brimmed hat, he raked a hand through his straight muddy locks then pressed the hat back into place. Burying the linen, he plucked the set of sealed letters from his vest pocket and began the last part of his journey.
Greek figurines in the shape of nymphs and mythological beings waded in bubbling fountains spewing out of mossy green pools. Shrugging his shoulders, Rodney tried knocking off their stony eyes as he reached the main entrance.
A trio of wide marble stairs brought him between columns capped with carved foliage and before a double oak door. With the letters in one hand, he smoothed down his vest with the other before rapping with the brass lion-shaped knocker the size of his head.
A steady gait began nearing the door after his third round of pounding. The oak divided with a groan, revealing the pinched face of a bald man. The butler, Rodney assumed, dressed in a snug black suit complete with tails. Rodney gulped as the servant’s speculative gaze washed over him from sweaty brow to dusty shoes.
“Good afternoon.” Rodney plucked off his hat and gave a little bow. “I’m here to see Mrs. Breckenridge about her advertisement.”
“For the gardener?”
The butler gave a mild snort, and then motioned him inside.
Clutching his hat and letters, Rodney stepped across the threshold and into the coolness of the marble lined foyer.
“Would you wait here,” asked the butler, “while I see if the Madame is interested in speaking with you?”
The butler strode down one in the pair of checkered hallways, his crisp steps echoing against the tiles. The rhythm quickly dwindled behind mahogany paneling as he strode out of sight.
Rodney felt a chill beginning on his skin as the seconds stretched and his sweat began to cool. As his solitude continued, he felt the tension ebbing from his shoulders. Shaking out his limbs, he began passing his gaze around the room with more interest.
A pale mustard colored vase, as high as his waist stood to his right. An oval circle depicting a Great Blue Heron in a marsh had been painted onto the porcelain’s wide belly. A bouquet of sunny yellow peonies overflowed the rim. A matching the vase on the opposite side held amber mums.
Raising his eye from the flowers, Rodney found the wall between the corridors drooping with a pair of gilt lined paintings.
In the foreground of the first, a young man, with straight dark hair laced with a wire crown and dressed in a gold and buff tabard, stood holding a spear at his side. Behind him, an Arthurian style castle with flapping golden banners, poked out of evergreen hillsides beneath a spring sky.
In the other sat an elegantly dressed middle aged man, wearing a suit looking as soft as velvet, with a wire thin moustache and combed chestnut hair. One arm rested on a broad desk stacked with books and instruments Rodney failed to identify. One tome lay open on the man’s lap. A beast with a broad dorsal stripe, identified in the image’s caption as an onager, dominated the page.
Both men’s deep eyes, the color of rich soil, shared Rodney’s focus. As he stared he felt certain he had seen such eyes before.
“Would you come this way?”
Rodney jumped and cringed as the butler cocked a peeved eyebrow. “Yes, sir.”
Following the butler down the second corridor, a sweet hint of roses reached Rodney’s nose. By the time the servant paused at a set of doors, the hint had grown into a veritable storm.
A snowy haired woman as stiff as the tall arm chair she sat upon caught Rodney in a sharp amber flecked gaze as soon as the butler had slid open the entryway.
“Madame,” said the butler, bowing at the waist.
“Show him in,” she ordered, “this is not some social call.”
The butler withdrew and clasped his hands at his waist. Rodney bobbed his head in thanks and stepped inside.
His feet sank into the plush cerulean rug laced with floral ivory swirls. The paisley verdant wall paper spun around the room, broken by a cluster of portraits similar to those in the foyer but smaller, and a single massive countryside landscape. A matching lounge chair and second arm chair identical to the one occupied by Mrs. Breckenridge, had curving cushions as crimson as newly split blood and mahogany limbs as lean as horse legs.
Rodney halted in the center of the room before Mrs. Breckenridge and fought a mix of dizziness and sudden apprehension.
“Tell Agatha I want tea,” said Mrs. Breckenridge as her wiry hands clasped the bare knobs at the end of her chair’s arms. Emeralds, sapphires and a diamonds glinted on her fingers. Lace peeked out from the edges of her sleeves and the throat of her violet gown. A fist-sized topaz dangled below her chest from the gold chain encircling her neck.
Rodney dropped his eyes to his hands to keep them from staring at the gems. He felt Mrs. Breckenridge’s eyes bore into the top of his bowed head.
“Look up boy,” she snapped.
Rodney forced himself to oblige and met her gaze. Her thin lips pursed as if she had sucked on a lemon and fine lines marred her pale brow.
“Your name, boy.”
“Rodney Jones, Madame.”
“Jones,” she sniffed. “A rather common name.”
“You say you are a gardener?”
Rodney nodded briskly. “Yes, I am.”
“We shall see.” She tapped at the arm rest with one bony finger. “With everyone in my employ, I demand a certain level of professionalism and respect. I do not endure any kind of thievery, heist or lacksidasicalness. Tasks are dolled out and expected to be completed efficiently. The gardener here will confront a variety of challenges by the surrounding terrain, from areas of overgrowth, drought and flood. Each needs careful attention to maintain a balance and regain the lush growth I am expecting.” Her dark eyes narrowed. “Are you still interested?”
Rodney simply nodded.
“I assume you have some kind of letters vouching for the surety of your character?” She held out her hand with expectation.
Rodney took one long stride forward and deposited the slightly damp envelopes into her outstretched palm. Collecting a letter opener from the side table, she slit through the seals, removed the page within and methodically perused each note.
Rodney gripped his hat as his mouth turned dry.
“These are highly complementary,” she said, placing the last upon her angled lap.
Rodney smiled but he muted his lips quickly as Mrs. Breckenridge scowled with disapproval.
“I like to believe I do good work, Madame.”
“We shall see,” she said again. “I expect you here in the morning. Agatha will supply you with a lunch at mid-day. You’ll work again until dusk. You first task will be the fountains. I want them cleaned of weeds, moss and mildew by weeks end.”
Rodney’s mouth gaped while his heart soared. “Does that mean I have the job?”
“Is there dirt in your ears as well as under your nails, boy?”
“No, Madame. Thank you, Madame.”
The clink of porcelain rattled behind him. A nimble young woman in a long black skirt and white blouse both covered by a crisp apron, maneuvered inside. Winding around Rodney as if he was a piece of furniture, she placed the tray on the side table and proceeded to add an exact amount of sugar lumps and pour from a tall silver pot.
“Thank you, Miranda.”
Miranda bobbed a swift curtsy. Tendrils of her blonde hair swayed free of a tight twist and the ruffles on her apron rose like waves upon the sea. As she turned, Rodney caught a pair of sky blue eyes glance at him through a heavy set of lashes.
“Ms,” said Rodney. He lifted one hand as if to tip his hat, then realized he held it in his hands.
“Mr. Jones,” said Mrs. Breckenridge.
Rodney snapped his gaze back around as Miranda hurried off with a soft rustle.
“I have a few last questions before you leave for today.”
Mrs. Breckenridge’s eyes narrowed like a cat contemplating a pounce. “Who was your father?”
Rodney winced. “My step-father was Wendell Taylor.”
“My father died before I was born. My mother doesn’t like to speak of it. She married Wendell when I was a boy.”
“And your mother?”
“Bethany Jones, Madame. She’s lives up in Lockshire with my Aunt.”
Mrs. Breckenridge’s hands drifted toward her cup. She raised the porcelain to her mouth with methodical precision. Her near silent sip dominated the quiet falling upon the room like a swift blizzard.
“That will be all,” she said placing the cup back onto the saucer. “Tomorrow, your work will begin and we will see how you fare.”
“Yes, Madame.” Rodney fumbled to bow as Butler Jenkins had. “Thank you, Madame.”