After supper, Ellen excused herself to her room to change into her nightgown. This was out of the ordinary, but it was a Saturday night and it was Catherine’s birthday and Ellen had spilled a bit of soup on her dress. The combination of these three things meant that Matthew and Catherine were going out for the evening –after dining at home because Catherine said she was loathe to spend too long away from her darling daughter–, that Ellen needed to change clothes, and that Matilda suggested she put on her nightgown and robe and settle in on the sofa to read stories until Ellen couldn’t hold her eyes open a moment longer. That this was so out of the ordinary made it extremely exciting, and Ellen accepted Matthew’s challenge to stay awake until they returned home from the symphony.
Charity was not in her room to help her change, as was expected. Instead Dorothea crouched by the fireplace in the corner, stoking the coals into a glowing red. She glanced over her shoulder when the door opened.
“Well now, what are you in here for? It’s not your bedtime yet!”
“I’m to change into my nightdress,” Ellen answered shyly, keeping her back pressed to the door. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Dorothea, in fact quite the opposite. But her fascination made her even shyer with the servant.
“Charity’s stepped out.” Ellen didn’t understand, not sure why her nurse would have left. Dorothea gave her a grin, motioned her closer, and whispered, “It was a man she stepped out for.” When Ellen didn’t look scandalized as Dorothea had apparently hoped, she laughed, “Well, aren’t you accepting? I don’t think it’s her man, though, so I suppose not as scandalous as it could be. Her father, I think. I hope, for her sake. He’s much older. All right, come on, I may not be your nurse but I think I can figure out how a nightgown is supposed to go on.”
She rose from the hearth and spun Ellen around, then undid the laces on the back of her dress quicker and more roughly than Charity did; Dorothea clearly cared little for the fancy frock, but did no actual damage.
“Arms up.” Ellen obeyed and Dorothea whisked the dress overhead, then set to untying the petticoats so that they dropped in a heap around Ellen’s feet. Ellen pulled her own chemise off and let it fell to the floor as well. Dorothea left her standing there in the mountain of linen and went to the wardrobe to select from the three lacy, frilled nightgowns, any one of which was nicer than Ellen’s best dress back home.
“Where are you from?” Ellen asked after a moment.
“Ah. Scotland,” Dorothea answered over her shoulder. “Not so very different from your Ireland except fewer potatoes, more sheep, and England doesn’t hate us quite so much.”
“Why does England hate us?”
“Them,” Dorothea corrected. “Don’t you remember? You’re not Irish anymore, Miss Ellen, you’re the American daughter of a wealthy and distinguished Boston family!” Dorothea was mocking her; Ellen didn’t need to be a grown up to know. But she was too interested in the one person who seemed more than happy to be painfully honest and blunt to let hurt feelings steer her away. Dorothea made her feel bold.
“Do you have one?” she asked.
“A Boston family?”
Dorothea’s face lit up as she came closer, “Oh, we’re getting nosy, are we?” She pulled the nightgown over Ellen’s head, freeing her curls from the neckline, before whispering, “I’ve got three. But shhh, or I’ll lose my job, and then who will answer your questions about boys?”
“I don’t have questions about boys.”
“You will someday,” Dorothea assured her. “The Irish aren’t exactly known for their celibacy. And don’t you go asking anyone what celibacy is. You’ll understand when you’re old enough.”
“You said you’d answer–”
“Ach, when you’re old enough! Don’t be pushing it. You’re only eight.”
“And now you’re speaking German to me, think I don’t understand because I’m a Scot?” Ellen didn’t understand but when Dorothea winked at her, she smiled back.
Dorothea brought her dressing gown over from its hook in the wardrobe and picked some dust off it before musing, “It’s a cast of the die that decides our fate, you know. Was a time I wasn’t so different than you, after all, except I was twelve when I came over, and it wasn’t into any nice family taking me for their daughter. I earned my keep, not by minding my Ps and Qs, and I suppose it was only luck I wound up with the connections to work as a maid. It’s a much darker world you could have found yourself in, Ellen. You’re a very, very lucky little girl, you know.”
“That’s what Ma said.” This was the first time Ellen had breathed a word of Ma or Da to anyone, but Dorothea felt like an all right person to say it to.
“Just don’t muck it up by becoming one of them,” Dorothea warned. “Don’t forget where you come from, I say.”
Before Ellen could ask who she meant by them, the door opened and Charity came bustling in.
“I’m sorry, Miss Ellen–”
“Oh, she’s all right,” Dorothea assured Charity, turning from Ellen. “All dressed and ready for her late night of sugar cookies and bedtime stories!”
Charity gave Dorothea a sharp look and scolded, “Don’t you go using that tone around Miss Ellen. Madame McLeskey won’t be happy to hear–”
“Go on. Ellen don’t mind it,” Dorothea retorted. “And you won’t report me anyway, will you?” Charity’s mouth set in a straight line as she quickly steered Ellen from the room. She mumbled under her breath something Ellen couldn’t quite catch, and pulled her down the hallway to the small parlor.
Inside, Matilda waited on the sofa as one of the serving girls stirred up the fire –this girl was younger, maybe not much older than Ellen, and Ellen had only seen her once or twice. It made Ellen think again about what Dorothea had said. She knew there were not many families eager to welcome the starving Irish into their homes. Though almost every family she knew had lost at least a few members to immigration, if not the family as a whole, all of them had been going to find work in Canada or Europe, many to America, and some even to Australia. Most families were not looking for new daughters among the Irish, and that was why Ma had fought so hard for Ellen to go.
But, Ellen reasoned, the serving girl would probably go home to her real Ma and Da tonight. If her choices were to be the petted daughter of a wealthy Boston family, or to work as a servant girl all day and go home to Ma at night, she would not have chosen the McLeskeys. The choice simply hadn’t been hers. Did that make her ungracious?
Her thoughts were interrupted by Matilda pulling a book onto her lap, a big thick book with lots of words and no pictures at all on the first page.
“Tonight, I thought we’d begin reading a book I love very much. We won’t be able to read all of it tonight, not anywhere close, but we can read a little bit each day, perhaps. I’ll read at first, and any time we come to a word you haven’t heard before, we’ll stop and say what it is. Eventually, you’ll be able to read it to me, and then I’ll be the one snuggled up beside you in my dressing down,” Matilda teased. “Are you ready to begin?” Ellen nodded.
“Among other public buildings, in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning . . .”
(and that’s all that got written a couple years ago, so new Ellen writing will be entirely new)