“Miss Crocker. What a pleasure to see you again. Please do come in. Her Grace is expecting you.”
Alice smiled and stepped over the threshold. “It’s good to see you again as well, Faversham.”
“May I take your wrap, Miss Crocker?”
“Thank you, yes.”
The grandeur of the reception room took her breath away, as it always did, with its marble fireplace, magnificent paintings, and exceedingly fine furnishings. She would have loved to remain and study the room down to the smallest detail, but it seemed unlikely she would ever have the chance. Indeed, she was most fortunate to be permitted to enter through the front door, given her lowly status as a gardener. But then, the Duchess of Haverford had some very unusual—perhaps even revolutionary—ideas about such things. What other high-ranking lady would invite her former gardener to her home for tea? Her grandfather’s long-time employer, Mrs. Manley, was another such one, but most of the ton ladies Alice had encountered tended to ignore the presence of the lower classes.
“Miss Crocker, it’s been too long!”
Alice gave a brief curtsey as she entered the lovely blue drawing room and took the seat across from her hostess, wishing she had something prettier to wear than the plain gray wool gown she saved for Sundays.
“It’s been several years at least, since you hired me to redesign your parterre garden. I hope your gardener is maintaining it properly?”
The duchess nodded. “Indeed he is, and you shall see for yourself before you leave. My garden is the envy of the ton, thanks to you.”
Alice flushed. “Thank you, your grace, but I assure you, the pleasure was mine. Designing gardens is one of my fondest amusements. I seldom have the opportunity to assist in their execution.”
The duchess leaned forward. “I am well aware of it, my dear. In fact, that is why I have invited you here this afternoon. I have a commission for you.” At that point, the housekeeper entered with the tea trolley, so Alice had to wait until Her Grace had poured the tea and invited her to partake of the lemon tarts.
A commission? A landscaping commission? But the duchess can afford to hire the best, even Sir Humphrey Repton. Why would she think of me?
“It’s kind of you to invite me to tea,” she said after taking a calming breath. “The tarts are delicious.”
“I have them sent in from M Fournier’s fine establishment. His wife is a distant relative of mine.” She smiled and indicated the plate of tarts. “Have another if you wish.”
Alice obeyed. The tarts were delicious. Grandfather would love them.
“My housekeeper will wrap some up for your excellent grandfather,” said the duchess, causing Alice to start. She knew Her Grace had a reputation for being able to read people, but could she really read people’s minds?
She took a sip of tea. “You are very kind, your grace.”
The duchess snorted. “I hope you think so after my proposition,” she said. “My reasons are really quite self-indulgent. You see, I would like to engage you to design a garden for my house in Spinney Hill.”
Alice nearly dropped her cup. “Me?”
“Your work with the garden here was exceptional, Miss Crocker. I believe you could be one of the best landscape designers in England, given the chance. And I mean to see you have the chance.”
Alice listened in disbelief as the duchess told her about a house she owned in Spinney Hill that she had established as a home for expectant mothers.
“Mitcham House is an easy carriage ride from London. You will use my carriage, of course.”
“I am truly honored, your grace, but what about my position at Vauxhall? I am engaged there six days a week in the spring and summer.”
The duchess waved her arm. “No worries. You shall have the winter to create and perfect the design, in consultation with me, of course. After the spring thaw, I shall expect you to come every day for a fortnight or so; perhaps we may be able to find you accommodation at Mitcham to avoid the tedious journey.”
A fortnight only?
“Of course, a fortnight is not nearly long enough to complete a project of this magnitude,” continued the duchess, “but you will have my gardeners to carry out much of the labor, as well as those occupants of the house who would like to learn about gardening.” She lifted her chin. “We require them to assist with household tasks while they are there, and if they should learn a few useful skills, so much the better.”
Tears welled up behind Alice’s eyelids. “You are so good!” she said shakily. “It would be my pleasure to be a part of your philanthropic venture, your grace.”
“Much will be required of you, Miss Crocker, but I sense that you are a young lady who enjoys a challenge. You will be expected to give up your free Sundays in order to supervise the work until its completion. In return, I am prepared to pay you two hundred and fifty pounds.”
Alice gasped. She had never held more than ten pounds at one time. “But-But—”
“By the time you are finished, you will have earned every penny of it, Miss Crocker. I can be a hard taskmaster. So… what do you say? Are you up to the challenge?”
Alice swallowed and sat up straight in her chair. “I am, your grace. You shall have no cause to regret giving me this remarkable opportunity.”
“I’m sure I shall not.” The duchess put down her tea cup. “Now that it’s all settled, I should like to show you how the garden you created has matured over the years. It is the envy of the neighborhood, I assure you.”
Alice nodded. She felt like shouting with joy, but somehow managed to contain herself in the presence of the duchess. Was this really happening to her?
Alice Crocker is a character in A Malicious Rumor, from the Bluestocking Belles’ 2017 anthology, Never Too Late. The events here take place in 1813, the year before she meets Peter de Luca and her life takes another unexpected turn.
Never Too Late has its own page on the Bluestocking Belles website, where you can learn more about each story and find preorder links while they are being added. (It’s 99c while in preorder, so buy now.)