(Still reading through/posting writing from a couple years ago.)
The family’s tailor, Miss Aller, came by in the morning, two men helping her haul a large trunk up from the street. Catherine had Silas fetch Ellen, Matilda, and Charity from the schoolroom where Charity was knitting a pair of wool socks and Ellen was practicing multiplication tables. Matilda was impressed that her mathematics were actually quite good and Ellen didn’t explain that she’d helped Da at market since before she could remember, though the words were on the tip of her tongue. He always said she had a head for figures.
Miss Aller was an older, sharp-faced woman who never smiled and quite terrified Ellen. The girl had only met her once, when Miss Aller had stripped her down and measured every inch of her body to begin work on this “wardrobe” Catherine was so excited about. The two dresses that had been waiting for her when she’d arrived apparently had been guessed at and didn’t fit well, though Ellen, upon trying on the first of the new dresses, couldn’t have told you how it fit any better.
“Two day dresses and a dinner dress,” Miss Aller explained to Catherine as they dug through the chest together. There was also a new petticoat and two sets of new underthings. Ellen wore one of the day dresses, made of a shiny dark blue material that felt cool to her fingers. “I’m working as fast as I can but I’m unwilling to sacrifice quality.”
“Of course,” Catherine agreed. She turned her attention back to Ellen, whose fingers explored the black lace on the bodice. Coming closer, she lifted Ellen’s chin and walked a circle around the little girl, her smile increasing as she did. “My, but doesn’t she look lovely.”
“Doesn’t she just,” Miss Aller repeated. “The color is a good one for her.”
Catherine was apparently so pleased with Ellen’s appearance that she squeezed her cheeks and kissed her forehead.
“Charity, please put that dress away. Ellen will stay in this dress for today. Miss Aller, let us discuss the rest of the deliveries . . .” Miss Aller followed Catherine from the room.
Charity gathered up Ellen’s discarded clothing and called for Dorothea to help her carry the new garments upstairs.
Dorothea looked Ellen up and down and teased, “Don’t you look like a little China doll?”
“I can’t raise my arms,” Ellen said instead of asking what a China doll was. Because the dress sat off her shoulders, it constrained her from raising them any further than straight out in front of her. Dorothea laughed loudly and Charity smiled to herself, shaking her head.
“What should you need to raise your arms for?” Dorothea retorted. “You don’t need to pick anything up. You’ve got a house full of servants to pick things up for you.”
Ellen thought this through. She didn’t need to carry anything, that was true. She didn’t need to get anything from a high shelf, or climb a ladder into a loft bed, or haul peat or firewood or buckets of water. She couldn’t hug anyone but then, she supposed, she didn’t really have anyone to hug.
Finally she had an idea and suggested, “What if I want to catch the rain?” Dorothea and Charity looked at each other, though Ellen couldn’t read their expressions.
Charity spoke first, placing a hand on Ellen’s back to guide her upstairs and assured her, “The good thing about raindrops is they’ll fall right down to your hand, no matter how low you have to hold it.” Ellen thought her answer was lovely, though she wasn’t sure why Dorothea and Charity had looked at each other like that.
They left the room, but not before Ellen heard Dorothea laughing to herself, “What a mysterious little child.”
It was the grey clouds she glimpsed through the window that had made Ellen think of the rain and the way in Ireland it felt so cool as it trickled through her hair and down her dress. Was the rain cool here in Boston the same way? She didn’t know, and when Matilda caught her staring longingly out the window, her governess apologized that she most certainly could not go out in the rain.
“It looks to be quite a storm, though, don’t you agree?” she mused, settling into the window seat beside Ellen. “See how dark the clouds are over there? And they are moving quickly this way.” Ellen frowned. She liked the rain, but not storms. Her small body shivered, recalling clearly the feel of the ice cold wind cutting into their dugout, whipping the fire into a frenzy and stealing all its warmth away. They could go sneaking in the rain, but a storm meant trouble, and afterwards the way missing people would turn up alongside the road, their bodies–
“Ellen, dear, are you all right?” Without realizing it, Ellen had begun to cry. She wiped the tears quickly from her cheeks and sniffled. Matilda wisely understood it was not being kept indoors that made her sad, but also, for once, did not press for the thoughts Ellen had been thinking. Instead she pulled Ellen into her arms and squeezed.
It was the first time Ellen had been held in weeks and she abandoned herself to the warmth and comfort of this woman whom she had only just met. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of lilacs, though she did not know the name, as Matilda swayed gently side to side.
“There there, little miss, a rainy afternoon is just asking for sad thoughts but we shall not let it win! How about some music?” She pulled Ellen from the windowseat and led her through the house to the piano in the parlor.
Ellen was fascinated by the square grand piano that lived in the back parlor. She hadn’t yet touched it, though the day before Matilda had played on it for her a little bit and tried to coax her into joining. The smooth rosewood body reflected the gaslamp light in the room, which the stormy skies outside had cast into shadow. Ellen had never seen a piano before this one, and found the row of ebony and ivory keys fascinating. Matilda had explained these were carved from the tusks of great lumbering elephants in a far away place called Africa –even further away than Ireland. This had made Ellen sad to hear, but Matilda explained there were lots of elephants and then changed the subject to explain that the ebony of the dark, smaller keys was just a wood polished to a shine. Ellen liked the clicking sound the keys made behind the music as Matilda played. Her fingers move so quickly and delicately over the keys that Ellen almost couldn’t follow them and instead leaned in closer from her perch on the chair next to the piano. Matilda smiled but otherwise didn’t show any anxiety about having a little girl so closely watch her playing.
When the first peal of thunder shook the house, though, Matilda decided to move the music lesson along and insisted, “It’s time you begin to learn to play, Ellen. You have watched me long enough.” She pulled the chair closer for herself to sit in and made Ellen transfer to the stool. Even the seat made Ellen nervous and her teeth chattered as Matilda began pointing to the keys on the piano and to the lines on a sheet of music to explain what each meant. Coincidentally enough, the notes each had a letter name, just like the letters Ellen was learning in the alphabet. Except that these letters sometimes were called a sharp or a flat, and you could organize notes into sentences called “scales” that had to be played a certain way. And at the beginning of a song, you had to know what “scale” the song was in, and that let you know what notes you could play in the song, because if you played different notes, it changed the way it sounded.
Matilda encouraged Ellen to spend some time plinking keys to get a feel for what each one sounded like, and encouraged her to say what letter each key was as she tapped it. Ellen practiced, first only hitting keys that were next to each other, then pushing the limits and hitting keys that were far far apart. As the lightning cracked outside and rattled the bubbled glass windows, Ellen experimented with the low, sonorous notes and the squeaky high ones that made her wince at their pitch.
After she’d been at her work some time, it occurred to Ellen that certain notes played one after another sounded familiar. This came as such a shock to her, that notes played on an instrument she had only just become acquainted with should remind her of a song she had certainly never heard played like this, that she froze for a solid minute, her fingers perched expectantly on the keys. Matilda said nothing, just watched her closely and waited.
Ellen played the notes again, the four notes that reminded her of a song she had not heard in ages, it felt. Her fingers pecked at a few different notes until she found the right next key to push, and then she played the five notes. Then the sixth, which was easier to find by remembering that if she went right the notes got higher and left they got lower. After several minutes of this hunting and pecking, Ellen had successfully plinked out a melody from home.
The memory of the melody, though, felt different to her than the other memories that had sneaked into her mind and painfully pinched. The melody stirred a deep sorrow in her, certainly, but it also soothed her in a way that nothing so far had come close. Instead of the gut-wrenching longing for her family, for the familiar hills and valleys, for the feel of the cool rain on her scalp, the melody wrapped around her insides and rocked her gently side to side the way Matilda had done in the window seat. A tear escaped from Ellen’s eyes and splattered onto an ivory key, but gladly she played the melody again.
“That’s a lovely song,” Matilda commented after Ellen had played it twice more. “Is it a song you thought of or a song you remembered?” Ellen was afraid to reply, but Matilda encouraged, “It’s all right. You will learn songs throughout your life, and just hearing them will take you right back to where you first heard it. That’s the magical quality of music.”
“I remembered it,” Ellen admitted.
“Does it have words?” Matilda asked. Ellen nodded slowly, not taking her eyes from the keys beneath her fingers. “Will you sing the words for me?” Ellen shook her head, shy and quiet again. “I think I know a song that came from Ireland. What if I sing my song about Ireland first? Will that make you sad or would you like to hear the song?”
Ellen hesitated a moment longer before saying softly, “I think it’ll make me sad but I’d like to hear it all the same.”
Matilda’s voice was clear and strong and piped from her rounded lips like the chirps of a little bird. The song told of rolling, lush green fields, warm fires, and a mischievous young man who plays tricks on girls until he meets one he likes. It wasn’t sad at all, but rather quite funny.
When she finished, Matilda admitted, “It isn’t one you will be singing at a party, of course. But I learned it from an uncle of mine, who visited Ireland once or twice, and I don’t believe I will ever forget it. It makes me think of him, though he died several years back, and though that makes me sad to recall, it makes me happy to remember him and his life and how wonderful he was to be around.”
Ellen thought about this, and wondered if Matilda was right. Perhaps music was a way she could fondly remember her family just the right amount. After all, music had been such a large part of their home. A day didn’t go by that Da didn’t play the fiddle after supper, not until things got bad. Ma sang always as she cooked or did the wash. And on a stormy night, not so very unlike this one, any one of her sisters or her Nonni or even Da himself would pull her into their lap and sing through the thunder.
“Now, I would very much like to hear your song. If you would please, stand there, breathe deeply, and sing out strongly. There’s nothing to be shy about here!”
Ellen stood where Matilda motioned, opened her mouth, and only the tiniest, wispiest of a voice came out. Startled, she clicked her teeth, waited a moment, and then tried again. She sang a verse of the song that way, barely above a whisper. Matilda leaned in and listened closely but smiled at Ellen as she sang.
After a verse, Ellen stopped herself and admitted, “I used to sing louder.”
“More loudly,” Matilda corrected. “And singing, like anything, takes practice. You have a lovely voice, and you’ll find volume returns to you in time. After all, you appear to be quite musical.”
Ellen’s gaze followed Matilda as she moved back to the piano, and she smiled to herself. Ellen came from a family of talented musicians, who sang and danced and played the flute and fiddle like they were born to it. Ma had always told her music was in her blood, just like it was in the soil of Ireland and the wind that rustled the crops. Ellen Templin had never quite found her niche in the family of music makers, who all seemed to play as naturally as they drew breath. But Ellen McLeskey was musical, according to Matilda, if a bit shy. Da would have been so proud.