Ellen accompanied Matilda upstairs and sat on a chair by the window as Matilda bustled about the room, emptying the contents of her trunks into the wardrobe, stacking her books on the shelf, and arranging her toiletries on the small vanity. It was a rather simple room, all a dark rose color, and yet still about the size of Ellen’s whole old house.
At first Matilda worked quietly but, perhaps unsettled by the child’s unabashed silence, eventually began to chatter, “I suppose I shall tell you a bit more about myself, and I shall like to get to know you more as well. I am Matilda Collins, the third daughter of my parents. My father works at a printing press in New York, outside of the city. My mother died many years ago.” She glanced back at Ellen, as though gauging the effect of these words on her, but Ellen just stared back. “Both my elder sisters are married, one in Connecticut and one in Virginia. You are the third child I shall have taught, both little girls before you. I am thirty-four years old and I love to read, to wander through gardens, and I love a good hot bun at Michaelmas. And my birthday is May the fourteenth.”
Finished with her things, Matilda sat on the edge of the bed closest to Ellen and said, “Now it’s your turn.”
Ellen found her tongue knotted and remembered what had knotted it. The first day, when Charity had woken her in the morning, dressed her in the first day of petticoats, and brought her down to breakfast, Catherine and Matthew were both waiting at the table. They smiled at her as she sat in the chair Philip pulled out for her (and motioned for her to take). “Good morning, Ellen,” Catherine had greeted. “Today is the first day of your life as Ellen Catherine McLeskey.” That had startled Ellen from the beginning because Ellen was her middle name and Mary her first name and Templin her last name. She was too startled to speak up as Daniel continued, “From this morning forward, you will refer to us as ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’. There will be no talk of Ireland or your previous parents or anything across the ocean. We think this will make the transition easiest on you.” Catherine nodded and concluded, “We’ll be bringing in a governess to help you learn the American way of things, and today we’ll get you measured for a wardrobe. It will take some time for you to adjust, we understand, but we have faith that within a short time you’ll be happy as a lark, our little American daughter.”
Ellen was young and perhaps uneducated, but she was not so foolish that she couldn’t understand the message –as if Miss Ruth and Ma hadn’t already warned her this was how things would be. Catherine and Matthew didn’t want a poor little Irish fosterling. They wanted a daughter. Ellen’s argument that she was already somebody’s daughter had not kept Ma from making her go.
So now, when directly asked about herself, Ellen found she didn’t know what to say. She was forbidden to discuss her life in Ireland, but she didn’t know much about her life in Boston. She’d only been here three days and hadn’t really done anything but sit around. She hadn’t even been out of the house yet!
Was this a test? Perhaps Catherine had asked Matilda to question Ellen, make sure she remembered the rules and didn’t slip up when actually put to the test.
“My name is Ellen,” Ellen finally managed to say. “Ellen C-Catherine McLeskey.”
Matilda held out her hand as she said, “It is wonderful to make your acquaintance, Ellen.” She held her hand like that until Ellen tentatively put hers in it. “Very good. Now please tell me more about yourself. For instance, when is your birthday?”
Catherine and Matthew hadn’t said anything about a new birthday, so Ellen supposed that meant she kept the same one. She answered, “November 12th.”
“And how old are you, Ellen?”
“You are nine years old,” Matilda repeated. “That’s wonderful. Now who are you, Ellen?”
Ellen felt the lump rising in her throat again but tried to push it down as she answered morosely, honestly, “I don’t know who I am.” This seemed to catch Matilda by surprise.
After a moment’s recovery, Matilda rose to her feet and held her hand out again, saying, “Well, Ellen, you have a world of new things before you to decide what your like and don’t like, and we shouldn’t waste another moment wondering but should jump right in. Let’s see what we can learn about Miss Ellen Catherine McLeskey. Does that sound all right?” Ellen nodded and slipped her small hand in Matilda’s, then let herself be led from the room.
The parlor next to Ellen’s room was called “the schoolroom”. As they entered Matilda explained that if Ellen were younger it would have been called a nursery. The room had tall windows overlooking the small garden but the sun never came directly in. There were old paintings on the walls, and a globe, a rocking chair, a large desk and a smaller table in front of a plush sofa. Bookshelves lined a whole wall although there were only a few dozen books among an assortment of trinkets collected on the shelves.
Matilda pulled a book off the shelf after reading several titles and brought it to the sofa. She motioned for Ellen to sit beside her, then laughed as the girl wiggled around to get comfortable. The petticoats were scratchy on her legs. For a moment Ellen thought Matilda was laughing at her, but the woman’s smile remained friendly as she perched beside Ellen.
“Now, I want you to read as much of this as you are able to me, but I don’t want you to be frustrated if you don’t understand some of the words, or many of the words, or any of the words at all.” She opened to the first page and set the book in Ellen’s lap, then leaned in close to look at the page alongside her.
Ellen glanced across the page and felt intimidated by the number of words. She really had been reading the Bible with Da, but that felt so long ago, and they had only read the parts she already knew. Here was a book she didn’t know, and she felt the letters melt into each other and slide around on the page.
“In the . . .” she began, then faltered. The next word started with an M, like Mary, and then an i, and the next work she thought made a ‘d’ sound like ‘Da’ though she couldn’t remember the name of the letter. “. . . middle o’ a . . .”
“. . . midst of a garden . . .” Matilda encouraged after a moment of silence.
“. . . midst of a garden,” Ellen repeated. She paused again and tried to make sense of the letters, hoping Matilda would give her another hint.
Instead she said, “Why don’t you point out the words that you do know?”
Ellen’s cheeks flushed as she searched the page and only came up with a handful of simple words that were familiar. Tears bit at her eyes as she carefully closed the book unprompted.
“Did you go to school in Ireland, Ellen?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it,” Ellen replied quickly, her eyes darting to the doorway.
“It’s all right. I understand that your mother and father want you to focus on your life here, but sometimes it’s all right for you to answer questions especially for me. It will help me teach you.” Ellen shooked her head and squeezed her lips closed. She wasn’t about to risk anything that might make Catherine any more unhappy with her than she already was.
When Ellen refused to speak, Matilda rose from the couch and Ellen thought she might be going to leave. There was no winning! If she spoke, Catherine was angry; if she didn’t speak, Matilda would leave.
However Matilda only retrieved a different book from the shelf and brought it over, trading this second book in Ellen’s hands. Ellen risked opening the leatherbound cover and felt relief wash over her. A bible! This she could read.
“Will you read me something from this book instead?” Matilda asked. “I seem to remember you have read some of this before.”
Ellen flipped through pages, running her fingers along the rough paper. It felt comforting to have a familiar book in her hands, even if she’d never held this particular one before. She returned to the first page and began reading,
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form . . .” she continued to read for several minutes, slipping into the familiar words as Da’s voice rose up around her. At one point she even closed her eyes and strained her ears to hear his deep, musical voice bouncing along the words. When Matilda shifted on the sofa beside her though the magic was broken and Da’s voice retreated into the woodwork.
“That was lovely,” Matilda praised. “You know Genesis very well. Did you go to a Catholic church or a Presbyterian church?” Ellen squeezed her lips shut again and Matilda laughed. “All right, I won’t press. Now, I want to try something else. I’m going to read you this page from the first book and I want you to follow along.”
She opened the first book in Ellen’s lap and read, tracing the word she was on with her finger so Ellen’s eyes knew where to look. The story was about a tiny elf that lived in the flowers and wound up flying into a rose that a heartbroken young woman was giving to the man she loved because he had to leave due to her brother not liking him. When she reached the bottom of the page, Matilda leaned back and motioned to the page.
Ellen glanced back at the page and though the words didn’t make much more sense to her than they had a moment ago, this time she could hear Matilda’s voice in her mind and see her finger dragging across the page. So Ellen recited the page, missing only a few words here and there.
Matilda closed the book after the exercise and said, “Well, I have learned my first fact about Miss Ellen McLeskey. She has an excellent memory and can memorize new things very quickly. I’m going to help you memorize what each letter is called and what it sounds like so that you’ll remember the words before you’ve ever heard them before. Let’s begin right this very minute.”
At dinner, Matilda had requested that Ellen eat with her in the schoolroom. After Philip set places for them at the table in there, Matilda explained to Ellen what each piece of silverware, each plate, and each glass was for. This was a great relief to Ellen, who was well aware she’d been stumbling through meals by mimicking Catherine’s manner of eating, bite for bite and sip for sip.
Matilda did not eat with Ellen and Catherine at suppertime, though Matthew returned home and joined his wife and new daughter at the table in the dining room. Now, perched on her chair across from Catherine, Ellen took her first solo mealtime step, choosing to eat greenbeans from her plate while Catherine was drinking. No one said anything, which must mean she wasn’t doing anything wrong, at least.
After a few minutes, Matthew began conversation by asking, “I hear your governess has arrived, Ellen. How do you like her?” He stopped eating and looked at her expectantly. Ellen panicked and didn’t know how to respond.
“She seems lovely,” Catherine offered, but Matthew held up his hand and insisted, “I’d like to hear it from Ellen.” He raised his eyebrows.
Ellen coughed nervously, then responded quickly, “I like her very well but I still have my brogue, if it please you.” Those weren’t quite the words she had meant to say, but she found when forced to speak directly with Matthew or Catherine that phrases she’d heard at various points of her life came slip-sliding from her mouth.
“Your brogue?” he repeated, looking questioningly now at Catherine.
“I might have said something in front of the child,” Catherine offered. “But she must know that she needs to work on her diction! She sounds fresh off the boat.”
“She is fresh off the boat,” Matthew reminded.
To Ellen this time, Catherine said, “Of course we don’t expect your diction to be fixed within a day. It will take a great deal of time and as long as you are trying, that is all we ask.” Ellen nodded mutely and sat back in her chair. She didn’t understand why her words sounded different and couldn’t imagine saying them a different way, so how could she change how she sounded?
Catherine continued her report, “Miss Collins says she has very limited reading skills but that she can memorize a whole page of text almost in a single hearing. Imagine a memory like that!” She smiled at Ellen, meaning to praise, and Ellen tried to smile back but thought it must not look very convincing. “She learned the piano for a time this afternoon and started a sampler. She has very neat, steady stitches. It’ll be a beautiful sampler.” Ellen remembered Matilda asking if she had learned to stitch in Ireland. She wouldn’t stop finding sneaky ways to ask about Ireland! Ellen had kept tight-lipped though.
“It sounds like you had a very productive day,” Matthew said. Ellen nodded, reached for another bite of food and realized with surprise that her plate was empty. “You worked up quite an appetite, as well! If you keep with days like today you’ll fill out in no time and your new wardrobe will have to be replaced almost immediately!”
“The first three dresses will be delivered tomorrow,” Catherine said only a second before Ellen cried out, “I’m sorry!”
“I don’t see what there is to be sorry about,” Catherine assured her.
“The dresses . . .” Ellen hated talking in front of them. This morning was not the first time Catherine had mentioned her “brogue” and it was all she could hear when she spoke. Even speaking two words brought into sharp relief how different she sounded from Catherine and even Matthew, and the difference filled her with shame. She remembered why she spoke so little and curtailed her sentence.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Catherine comforted. “The dresses can be tailored or replaced and no one minds a bit. We only worry you’ll suffer through the winter, as small as you are, and catch every illness out there. An appetite is a good thing. It means you are adjusting.”
Adjusting. Ellen didn’t feel ‘adjusted’, though she also didn’t quite know what it meant. She guessed it meant something like “more comfortable in this home away from home” and couldn’t feel further from that. But she had eaten her whole plate of food and didn’t even feel nauseated, though she shook her head when asked if she would like more.
“Philip, Ellen and I will each have a hot chocolate, please, to celebrate her first day of lessons. Would you like that, Ellen?” Ellen stared blankly at Matthew which prompted him to ask, “Have you never had a– no, of course you haven’t. Well, this will be quite a treat then.”
“You’ll spoil her,” Catherine insisted, though she smiled as she said it, rising from the table.
“In my study please, Philip. Come, Ellen. Your mother has agreed we should attend dinner with her parents on Saturday, which means it is time you learn all about your family.” He rose and motioned for Ellen to follow.
Catherine, meanwhile, laughed and batted at Matthew’s arm, “Oh, stop it, you.” Ellen had not seen them behave this way with each other before. It reminded her very much of Ma and Da.
Matthew set Ellen’s hand in the crook of his elbow and led the girl upstairs and into a room she had only peeked into before. His study was warm and dimly lit now that the sun had gone down. It was one of the rooms in the house with gas lamps instead of just candles. The false light cast shadows on the bookshelves lining the walls; these shelves though were full of books of all sorts, with only a few trinkets here and there. Matthew’s desk was buried somewhere beneath piles of paper, and his ink well had spilled and leaked over the side onto the floor. He didn’t seem to notice.
“There’s a lovely evening breeze. Let’s sit by the window,” he suggested, pulling the upholstered chairs there and flinging open the window. Ellen had noticed that Catherine called servants in to help with just about everything, but Matthew appeared to prefer to do his own minor tasks, like moving chairs and lighting lamps and opening windows.
The hot chocolates arrived just as they were sitting down, and Matthew suggested they let them cool for a moment as he began, “It will take several days, I think, to tell you all about mine and Catherine’s families, your new family as they are, but it’s a lovely way to spend an evening and I think it shall help us get to know each other. What say you?” Ellen nodded but Matthew prodded, “Come no, what say you? I don’t mind a little brogue of an evening.”
“Aye,” Ellen squeaked out, and Matthew grinned.
“Aye indeed. Ah, here are the hot chocolates, and tonight let’s begin with your two brothers. Yes, you have two ungrateful elder brothers. I say ungrateful because one has run off and become a farmer in New Hampshire and is outrageously happy despite our insistence he wouldn’t be. The other . . .” he leaned in conspiratorially and whispered with an exaggerated disgust, “is an artiste.” He lifted an eyebrow as though saying he told her so and Ellen couldn’t help it, she smiled. Perhaps Matthew wasn’t as scary as he seemed, and Ellen settled in to hear about his boyhood in England, quite content to listen and have nothing expected of her but an occasional nod.