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  • Writer's picturejessicagustafson

Violet's Light, a Short Story

Updated: Mar 4

Short story teaser. The full story is available to newsletter subscribers.

March, 1873


Violet sprinted after the slowly disappearing coach, a case in one hand and a wooden box in her other. Her case knocked against her skirts, her hat blew off her head, but although she called out for the coach to stop, it didn’t falter. Panting, she came to a halt, her heart sinking.

Everything that could have gone wrong that afternoon had. Unable to find her suitcase, she had been forced to borrow her father’s old one with cracks in numerous places, the catches barely holding. Then she hadn’t been able to find her shoes, though she could have sworn she had left them where they always lived.

Now she had missed the coach that would take her to Hamilton.

Her bottom lip trembled, and she drew in a deep breath, pressing one hand against her aching waist. In preparation for the lecture today, she had laced her corset tighter than usual and now regretted it.

Carefully, she set the wooden box on the dirt road as she retrieved her hat. Her father had made this box especially to house the lantern she had designed over the past few years. This had been her opportunity to attend the competition, held by the famous Mrs. Hensley, and present her invention. If she was lucky, she would win the prize money and Mrs. Hensley would take her on as an assistant in her laboratory. It was the dream she had harbored ever since she was a small girl, to work as an inventor, and the prize money had the added benefit of being able to move her family from Greenwood to the more salubrious Hamilton.

She had to win. Both for herself and for her little sister, Beatrice, who deserved to attend school just as she had, so that she one day might have the same opportunities as Violet had.

Failing was not an option. She simply would not allow it to be.

Papa was out of town, so she couldn’t borrow his wagon, but she still had three hours to travel the nearly twenty miles to make the lecture on the far end of Hamilton. This would be impossible if she walked, but if she set off, perhaps she would find someone traveling in that direction who might offer her a lift. She had some money, after all, and she was more than happy to give some to whichever kind soul might be willing.

Please, Lord, help me make it to the lecture in time.

She could not bear to see the disappointment on both Mama’s tired face and Papa’s proud one if she failed when she had been so close.

Steeling herself, she picked up her case and lantern and set out, ignoring the ache in her arms. Even if it killed her, she would make this lecture. Mrs. Hensley was famed throughout Coveland for her inventions and the space she gave for women within that field. It was an inspiration to see, and Violet desperately wanted to be a part of that. If she succeeded, she would be given a place in Mrs. Hensley’s home to live during the week and the chance to see her family at weekends. It had felt as though everything had fallen into place—at least until so much had gone wrong that afternoon.

A wagon rumbled up behind her, and she glanced back to see Mr. Frank, their neighbor, guiding a horse, potatoes piled in the wagon behind him. The bench beside him was empty. If he was going to Hamilton, perhaps she could catch a lift with him.

When he saw her walking along the road, he pulled the horses to a stop. “Violet,” he called in confusion. “What are you doing walking alone?”

“I missed the last coach to Hamilton, and I must get there before five.” She held up Papa’s pocket watch, which he had gifted her to ensure she would not be late. “I don’t suppose you’re traveling to Hamilton?”

He pursed his lips. “I am, but I’ve promised to stop at a few houses along the way to deliver potatoes. I can’t say I will get you to Hamilton before five, but if you have no other options, you can certainly ride with me.”

“Thank you, Mr. Frank. I’m very grateful.”

His smile was kind as he hopped down and took her suitcase from her, lifting it into the back. She carried the box in her arms as she seated herself beside him, not prepared to tempt fate. If anything happened to her lamp, this would all have been for naught.

“Where are you delivering the potatoes to?” asked Violet. She prayed it wasn’t many houses.

“First Mr. Benson’s, then a few others, and finally the Clements’s residence.”

Violet frowned. “The widow and her boys?”

“That’s right.”

Frustration gnawed at her, although she did her best not to let it show. Mr. Frank’s generosity was to be applauded, of course, but he could just as easily deliver the food tomorrow, and this was the opportunity of a lifetime. If she missed the lecture, there was no guarantee Mrs. Hensley would take another assistant.

If Violet failed, she would have to go and work back at the factory, backbreaking hours for little pay.

They reached Mr. Benson’s house, and six wide-eyed children surrounded Mr. Frank as he unloaded potatoes with a smile. Mr. Benson, his back bowed and his hair prematurely gray, clasped Mr. Frank’s hand in both of his. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely. “I will pay you back as soon as I recover enough to find work.”

“No need.” Mr. Frank gave an encouraging smile. “One day, when you are back on your feet, you may find someone else who needs the help. Repay me by helping them.”

Mr. Benson nodded, a smile on his worn face. Time had not been kind to him, and neither had the needs and worry for six children. After Mr. Benson injured his back at the mill, his children had to find jobs after school. Four of them worked on farms, Violet knew. Good work, but difficult. The youngest son was a chimney sweep, and his little face was blackened though she was sure he had been scrubbed clean that morning.

“Thank you,” Mr. Benson said again. “I shall. God bless you, Mr. Frank.”

Her heart gave pang as Mr. Frank settled beside her again, flicking the reins and clicking the large horse into a walk. She had known about the Bensons and the difficulties they had faced ever since Mr. Benson had been out of work, but her family’s needs being what they were, it had never occurred to her to give what little they had away.

As they approached the next house, she checked her pocket watch. If every house took as long as that one had, she estimated she would be close to missing the lecture. Her breath came too fast, and a sense of dread washed over her. Yet there was nothing else she could do; without Mr. Frank, she would not have the chance of getting to Hamilton at all.

Their next two stops were perhaps fractionally quicker, but Violet was still plagued by the worry she would miss her lecture.

“Just Widow Clements next,” Mr. Frank said. “She’s a little out of the way, but that’s the last stop.”

Frustration had her gripping her box even more tightly. “Is there no way for you to stop on the way back instead? Only, if we stop there first, I think I will miss my lecture, and—” She bit off the words before she could say everything else on her mind. Beatrice would not be able to go to school, and her family would not be able to move to Hamilton and forge a better life for themselves. Her mother would be forced to ruin her eyesight by taking in sewing and doing it by candlelight, as she refused to use Violet’s lantern before she had a chance to replicate it. Money was tighter than it used to be, and Violet’s hours at the factory combined with their increased rent proved an impediment. Everything would continue as it had been, and Violet’s dreams would be utterly lost.

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