(I started Ellen’s story as a NaNoWriMo project 2-3 years ago and got a few chapters in. I’m not doing much editing as I post what got written then, just a bit of typo fixing. )
When she awoke in the mornings, Ellen still felt the steady rocking side to side she had grown so accustomed to. The sounds were different, the smells were different, even the lighting was different here than from her berth on the ship, and her memories of the trip across the great Atlantic were not fond. Yet every morning Ellen found she lingered in the bed, embracing the rock. It took her closer to home, but not so close it hurt too much. So while the sunlight crept through the silk curtains, across the hardwood floor and luxuriant Turkish carpet, and up onto the duvet of her ocean of a bed, Ellen kept her eyes squeezed shut and remembered the heavy saltiness of the air, the rough calls of sailor to sailor, and most importantly the gentle rock. It was comforting, if sometimes dizzying.
The safety of waking lasted only a few minutes though, and for less time each day. In no time the sailors’ calls faded into the soft murmur of traffic outside her window. Few carts braved the uneven, steep cobbled roadways of Beacon Hill, but those that did clattered loudly along. Errand boys called to each, a dog barked, a pair of gulls circled overhead, and the muffled click of boots traversing from wood to carpet and back again in the hallways punctuated the occasional groans of this old house. Ellen could even faintly make out the soft melody of voices through the wall next door. Everything was so close here in Boston, houses wedged in next to each other like buns in a pan. There was nowhere to go to find silence or solitude. Not that Ellen had ever had much of either back home. But now, faced with a strange place and unfamiliar faces and an unceasing amount of noise, Ellen found she very much longed for a bit of space and silence
The door swung open but no one entered at first. A disembodied foot held the heavy door as words were spoken to another in the hall. Ellen pulled the sheets up tighter to her chin and waited for the inevitably “rise and shine” that must commence. Three days she had lived here and that was all it had taken for her to grow to detest the phrase. Ellen did not feel like rising nor shining, not now, not ever.
Nurse Charity entered a moment later and first things first, threw open the curtains to let the warm August sun full into the room. Ellen forgot to pretend to still be asleep as her eyes followed Charity across the room. She hadn’t been able to stop staring, no matter how hard she tried, since she first lay eyes on Charity standing in the doorway behind Catherine and Matthew. Miss Abigail had escorted her to this tall brick house wedged in between others just like it, Catherine and Matthew had come hurrying down the stone steps to greet their new daughter, and Ellen had only been able to stare past them at Charity.
Charity’s skin was a dark, warm brown. Ellen had heard of people with dark skin, but had never seen one with her own eyes, never known if they really existed, until she’d glimpsed a few out the window of the carriage in London. But until Charity, she had seen no one up close, and Ellen was enthralled with her skin. She thought she might be as dark as Charity if all her freckles ran together. Was that what made you dark skinned, just freckles running together? Ellen wanted to touch her skin and see how it felt –it looked smooth and shiny, not pale and slightly fuzzy like her own. But Ellen was shy and quiet and had said perhaps five words since arriving at the McLeskey house.
“Rise and shine, Miss Ellen,” Charity greeted, pulling the covers off the small girl’s body. “I know you’re awake so get on up now.”
Ellen had the darkest brown eyes Ellen had ever seen, and thick straight black hair so unlike Ellen’s own unruly mess of red curls. Ellen wished her freckles would run together and she could have skin like Charity’s. She wondered why no one had skin like that back home. She wondered if it sunburned as badly as her own and, if not, why anyone ever bothered with pale skin at all.
Charity sat down on the bed beside her and folded her hands in her lap as she implored, “Come now, we’ve got to get you dressed and fed. Your governess gets here today. I’ve taken care of babes younger than you could dress themselves, and here you need help to get out of bed even.” Charity held her hands out to Ellen to help her out of the bed. Really, it was understandable that such a small girl should need assistance out of such an oversized mattress. Four girls beside Ellen could have slept in with her and all been quite comfortable.
Ellen placed her small pale hands in Charity’s and let herself be pulled from the folds of the blankets. Charity’s palms were cool and smooth and strong; she pulled Ellen to her feet without any apparent exertion.
A dress was selected from the wardrobe, a pale pink dress that left Ellen’s shoulders bare and puffed out the short sleeves. There were too many layers to put on when Ellen was used to wearing little more than a simple shift beneath a cotton gown. Here there was a crinoline and pantalettes beneath a summer petticoat and then the dress, and sometimes a hat as well if they were going outside. The first day Charity had pulled so many layers on her, Ellen had nearly toppled over from the weight of it all. How did one move in so many layers, or play, or sit? Ellen wasn’t sure she could even fit through the door and Charity had laughed as she’d carefully tottered along, taking tiny steps as she tried to grow accustomed to the bulk.
After two days wearing such costume already, Ellen was growing more comfortable, though she still would not have chosen so many petticoats over her simple cotton gowns from home. Miss Ruth had promised to bring them, but Ellen’s trunk had been missing since her arrival in Boston. Miss Ruth had promised to send it along if it was found.
Downstairs, Matthew had already left for the day. Ellen wasn’t quite sure what he did for a living, but she’d gathered it had something to do with the railroads. Catherine waited at the breakfast table, reading a note just handed her by Silas, the butler. She paused her reading when Ellen entered to smile warmly.
“Good morning, Ellen.”
Ellen bobbed her head and sat in the chair the footman, named Philip, pulled out for her across from Catherine. There were so many people to meet just in the household and Ellen could only really remember a few, but she was trying to get better. She ran through them as Philip placed breakfast before her and Catherine returned to the note.
Silas was the butler, and he had combed silver hair and large ears Ellen had noticed right away He was old, older than Matthew even, and had worked for Matthew’s family when he was a little boy–she’d been told that when he was introduced. That meant he was from England too, though his accent was thicker than Matthew’s light, crisp speech. Silas was a great big fat man, but he took great care with his appearance. Ellen had never seen him smile and was overall a bit afraid of him.
Philip the footman was old too but less old than Matthew. He was much thinner than Silas and also bald. He had light blue eyes and a sharp nose and had smiled at Ellen twice but she hadn’t smiled back. He was also very quick; when a glass had been knocked over, he caught it before it hit the ground even though he was several feet away. He could balance an incredible number of plates on a tray and seemed to move silently through the house.
The cook, Lou, was a thin, wiry French woman. Ellen only knew she was French because Catherine spoke to her in French and then assured Ellen she would be learning French as well. That Lou spoke an entirely different language was baffling to Ellen. How could a string of sounds that didn’t form English words mean something in English? Ellen supposed it made sense that not everyone everywhere spoke English, but she couldn’t reconcile that someone who spoke English, like Catherine, should also be able to learn another language. You could look at a pitcher and ask someone to hand it to you with different languages and different people would understand you. It was strange and confusing.
Ellen didn’t know much about Lou other than that she thought tidiness was extremely important and that she didn’t speak English very well. The only time Ellen had been in the kitchen, when Catherine was giving her a tour of the whole house, Lou had watched her like a hawk to be sure she didn’t touch anything. She kept her dark hair cropped short, just beneath her ears. Ellen couldn’t tell how old she was but thought probably around one hundred.
Agatha had white hair and wrinkled hands, which Ellen knew must mean she was old, but she didn’t move like an old woman. In fact, she seemed to have more energy than anyone in the house. Ellen had never seen her sit down. She was the head housekeeper and always bustling about, tidying or cleaning or collecting things to put elsewhere. She appeared friendly and had formally assured Ellen that if ever she needed anything, she should not hesitate to seek her out, but her energy scared Ellen. She also didn’t know how to react to being spoken to like an adult.
Dorothea, the last household employee aside from Charity, served as a maid and Agatha’s sort of helper. Dorothea was young, maybe younger than Charity, but she didn’t have half the energy of Agatha. She always seemed tired, movely slowly, and frequently dropped things. Agatha constantly checked on her to make sure she was working, and she often wasn’t. Ellen liked her the most of everyone though because one time Dorothea took a break from dusting in the room Ellen was sitting in (supposed to be reading) and Agatha came in to nag Dorothea about getting back to work. Dorothea insisted she had been working and pointed to Ellen for confirmation. Ellen panicked and nodded, which earned a weary sigh from Agatha and a wink from Dorothea. When Agatha left the room, Dorothea gave Ellen a candy from her pocket –she was always eating candies, which must mean she was rich, which must mean Catherine and Matthew were richer than rich if even their servants were rich.
Dorothea had a plain round face and brown hair and grey eyes and a small mouth. Ellen thought she was glamorous and very brave because Dorothea’s family lived in Minnesota, which was apparently a far way away, and Dorothea had come all the way to Boston on her own to make a living because “a woman shouldn’t need a husband to take care of her when all he’s going to do is drink anyway.”
Ellen didn’t have to know much to know Dorothea was scandalous and it fascinated her.
“Philip, we are finished,” Catherine called to the footman. She had folded the note already and sat patiently waiting for Ellen to eat. The girl had barely picked at her food though, and Catherine noted this. “Ellen, dear, you must try harder to clear your plate. You are far too thin.”
Ellen felt a lump rise in her throat at the admonishment and stared down at her fingers twisting in her lap as Philip pulled her dishes away. She didn’t need any reminder of how thin she was. Years of famine had stunted her growth and left her much too small for her age. Her knees and elbows were knobs on rail thin limbs made even more ridiculous by the thick skirts. The neckline of the dresses accentuated her bony shoulders. Her round face was pale and hollow. She and the other girls had been stared at in London and avoided on the ship and skirted around upon arrival in Boston. But the first warm meal she’d been offered in London had made her ill, and since then she’d been hard pressed to force down more than a few bites at a time before the nausea would return and her cheeks would flush from the heat of sickness. Eating meant thinking of food and remembering the lack of it and what that void had done to her family, which meant remembering her family, which made her stomach turn and her breathing come in gasps.
Just before Ellen could slide into this dark line of thought, Catherine broke the silence by rising and patted her shoulder, “Well, in good time. Come, let’s wait in the sitting room. Your new governess shall be here shortly.”
Catherine was an American, born and raised right here in Boston. Her family was extremely well-off and had political connections at every branch. Ellen hadn’t met any of her family yet, but “in good time” as Catherine was wont to say. She had only been here a few days after all, and Catherine seemed in no rush to introduce Ellen to what Matthew had called “the shark pool of the Johnson family.”
Catherine had wild curls like Ellen, which made Ellen feel a bit better, though Catherine’s were dark and she kept them tamed in elaborate hairstyles that took Lenora, her lady’s maid, sometimes an hour to prepare in the morning. Lenora’s skin was also a darker shade, though not as dark as Charity’s. Her hair was curly too but she just usually wore a bonnet over her curls and Ellen thought that was probably preferable to spending so long styling her own hair every morning in addition to Catherine’s. Ellen had only seen Lenora once, though, when she had accompanied Catherine to Ellen’s room to wake her that first morning. That was also the only time Ellen had seen Catherine’s hair unstyled.
Her thoughts also apparently drifting to hairstyles, Catherine remarked, as they perched on the sofas in the parlour, “Charity, tomorrow I’d like you to have Lenora help you do Ellen’s hair. She’ll know tricks to tame those curls.”
“Ellen, dear, straighten your back, please. Lift your chin. And don’t fidget.” Ellen tried to do these things but it was very comfortable and made her feel very tired after only a few minutes.
Just as she was about to give up and slouch back though, Silas entered and announced, “Miss Matilda Collins has arrived, Madam.”
“Very well, see her in please, Silas.” Catherine motioned for Ellen to stand, which she did. It was easier to stand than to sit, as long as she balanced her dress just right. Charity came closer as well, and that made Ellen feel a little bit braver, especially when she felt Charity’s hand pat her quickly on the shoulder.
The woman who entered the room was small and round-faced and had big, wide eyes that made her look constantly amazed by everything around her. She unclasped her bonnet and shawl and accepted when Silas offered to take them from her.
“Mrs. McLeskey,” the woman greeted at the same moment Catherine strode forward and welcomed, “Miss Collins. I trust your journey was uneventful?”
“Yes, yes, I only came from New York. It’s wonderful to be back in Boston, though. Lovely city.” Ellen could understand her, but Miss Collins accent was not like Catherine’s or Charity’s or Matthew’s. In fact Matilda was Swiss but Ellen would not know that, nor that such a place as Switzerland existed, for a few more weeks.
“We are thrilled to have you with us. You come highly recommended, of course.” The governess was younger than Ellen had expected, and her smile was warm and friendly as she surveyed Ellen. Normally she’d have fidgeted with anyone looking at her so closely, but Miss Collin’s face had a gentleness to it that calmed Ellen. She had dimples either side of her mouth, and Ellen didn’t know if people born with dimples could ever be mean.
“And you must be Miss Ellen,” she said, stepping closer and addressing Ellen directly. “It’s my pleasure to meet you.”
Ellen felt the lump in her throat again and her tongue seemed to swell in her mouth. The words she had mentally practiced hid among her teeth and she couldn’t remember the appropriate response that Catherine had prepped her on.
“She doesn’t speak much yet,” Catherine explained by way of apology when a long moment had passed in which Ellen said nothing. “You received my letter explaining the situation?”
“That’s quite all right,” Miss Collins replied with a nod of her head and another warm smile at Ellen. “This young woman has been through quite a lot and I am not the least bit surprised if it takes her more than a day or so to get her bearings.”
“Of course she will need a great deal of help,” Catherine warned. She lowered her voice, as though to prevent Ellen from hearing, as she admitted, “I don’t believe the child can even read.”
Ellen felt the color rise in her cheek. Not read! Perhaps she couldn’t read volumes, but Ma had made sure she could read some, and hadn’t she been reading right through the Bible with Da’s help?
“What is it you would like to say, Ellen?” Miss Collins asked. Ellen glanced up in surprise and saw Miss Collins watching her closely, as though the frustrated words had been dancing across her face, in full view. Perhaps they had. Still, she was surprised to be asked about it.
“I can read some, if it please you, mum. Wasn’t I reading the Bible just before I came here, though I don’t know all the words. And I don’t remember to sit up straight and my hair has curls but me Da always says I were a real quick learner.”
“Her speech needs refinement as well,” Catherine added to the list of things Ellen needed significant help with. “Though I dare say that’s the most we’ve heard from her since she’s arrived. I thought you must have a voice in there somewhere and what an Irish brogue it is! Well, no matter, Miss Collins will help you to set it right.”
Ellen then promptly burst into tears.
“Oh dear,” Miss Collins gasped. Catherine’s face took on a look of sheer bewilderment. She took a confused step backward out of the way as Miss Collins took a seat on the couch beside where Ellen had collapsed backwards. She wanted to curl up but her stupid skirts wouldn’t allow it.
“Now now,” Miss Collins urged gently, pulling Ellen’s hands from her face. “It’s quite all right to be frustrated, and I’m sure you are so very tired and probably homesick too. I know I was when I first moved to America.” Ellen stopped sniffling and looked at her curiously. Miss Collins continued, “I moved here when I was eighteen only I was entirely alone. I didn’t have anyone to take care of me and certainly no one to help me learn all the things it seemed I needed to learn. But after a while I got myself sorted and I have no doubt you’ll do the same. You’ll have my help, as well as your mother’s and your father’s.” It took a moment for Ellen to realize she meant Catherine and Matthew.
“I’m sure I don’t understand what upset the child so,” Catherine spoke to herself, shaking her head in confusion.
Miss Collins smoothed right past this and, patting Ellen’s arm, suggested, “Why don’t I take a moment to settle my things upstairs and then we can begin? You can show me what you’ve read and I’ll help if you find words or letters you don’t know. Reading is a good place to start because then you’ll never be alone as long as you have a good book. Is it all right with you, Mrs. McLeskey, if we start right away?”
“Of course!” Catherine quickly agreed, still glancing at Ellen with confusion. “Yes, of course. I will be in my parlour upstairs should you need me.” Tentatively patting Ellen on the head, she encouraged, “Be a good girl, Ellen,” and was gone.
As soon as the door had closed behind her, Ellen looked shyly at Miss Collins and asked, “Can I help you, Miss Collins?”
“‘May I help you’ and yes, you may. And when it is just the two of us, you may also call me ‘Matilda’.”
“Matilda,” Ellen repeatedly reverently, letting the name fall full and heavy from her tongue as she tried to mimic exactly as it had been said. “Matilda.”
“Just so,” Matilda applauded. “Now come along, Ellen. We’ll learn the names of things as I unpack and I can make sure I didn’t lose anything on the way here.”
Ellen took her hand and it was love at first meeting.