Sunday, 23 March 2014

12 October 1901 - 'Pixie O'Shaughnessy' by Mrs George de Horne Valzey- Chapter 2

The morning rose clear and fair, and the sun shone as cheerfully as if no tragedy were about to be enacted, and Pixie O'Shaughnessy would presently run out of the doors to sit swinging on a gate, clad in Esmeralda’s dyed skirt, Pat’s shooting jacket, and the first cap that came to hand on the hatstand, instead of starting on the journey to school in a new dress, a hat with bows and two whole quills at the side, and her hair tied back with a ribbon that had not once been washed!  It was almost too stylish to be believed!

Pixie entered the breakfast-room with much the same stride as that with which the big drum-major heads the Lord Mayor’s procession, and spread out her dress ostentatiously as she seated herself by the table. The armholes stuck into her arms, the collar was an inch too high, and the chest painfully contracted, but she was intensely proud of herself all the same, and privately thought the London girls would have little spirit left in them when confronted with so much elegance. Bridgie was wiping her eyes behind the urn, Esmeralda was pressing the mustard upon her, the Major was stroking his moustache and smiling as he murmured to himself – “Uglier than ever in that black frock!  Eh – what!  Bless the child, it was a mistake to let her go!  The house will be lost without her!”

Pat and Miles were conversing together in tones of laboured mystery – a device certain to arrest Pixie’s vivid attention. 

“On Sundays – yes!  Occasionally on Wednesdays also.  It does seem rather mean, but I suppose puddings are not good for growing girls!  Two a week is ample if you think of it!” 

“Good wholesome puddings too!” said Pat, nodding assent.  “Suet and rice, and perhaps tapioca for a change!  Very sensible, I call it.  Porridge for breakfast, I think they said, but no butter of course!”

“Certainly not!  Too bad for the complexion, but cod liver oil regularly after every meal.  Especially large doses to those suffering from change of climate!”

The major was chuckling with amusement; Bridgie was shaking her head and murmuring, “Boys, don’t!  It’s cruel!”  Pixie was turning from one to the other with eager eyes and mouth agape with excitement.  She knew perfectly well that the conversation was planned for her benefit, and more than guessed its imaginary nature, but it was impossible to resist a thrill – a fear – a doubt!  The bread-and-butter was arrested in her hand in the keenness of listening. 

“Did I understand you to say no talking allowed?” queried Pat earnestly.  “I had an impression that on holiday afternoons a little liberty might be given?”

“My dear fellow, there are no holidays!  They are abolished in modern schools as being unsettling and disturbing to study.  ‘In work, in work, in work always let my young days be spent!’  Pass the marmalade, please!  The girls are occasionally allowed to speak to each other in French, or, if they prefer it, in German or any other Continental language.  The constant use of one language is supposed to be bad for the throat.  I hope, by the way, father, that you mentioned distinctly that Pixie’s throat requires care?”

Pixie cast an agonised glance round the table, caught Bridgie’s eye, and sighed with relief as a shake of the head and an encouraging smile testified to the absurdity of the boys’ statements. 

“There’s not a word of truth in it, darling.  Don’t listen to them.  They are trying to tease you.”

“I’d scorn to listen!  Ignorant creatures, brought up at home by a lady governess!  What do they know about schooling?” cried Pixie, cruelly for this was a sore point on which it was not safe to jest on ordinary occasions.  Miles rolled his eyes at her in threatening fashion, and Pat stamped on her foot, but she smiled on unabashed, knowing full well that her coming departure would protect her from the ordinary retributions.

After breakfast it seemed a natural thing to go a farewell round of the house and grounds, escorted by the entire family circle, and a melancholy review it would have been to anyone unblessed with Irish spirits and the Irish capability of shutting one’s eyes to unpleasant truths.  Knock Castle sounded grandly enough, and a fine old place it had been a century before; but for want of repairs it had now fallen into a semi-ruinous condition pathetic to witness.  Slates in hundreds had fallen off the roof and been left unreplaced; a large staircase window blown in by a storm was still boarded up waiting to be mended “some time”, though more than a year had elapsed since the accident had taken place; the walls in the great drawing-room were mouldy with damp, for it had been deserted for many a day, because its owner could not afford the two big fires necessary to keep it aired.  Pixie sniffed with delight when she entered the gloomy apartment, for the room represented the family glory to her childish imagination, and the smell of mildew was irresistibly associated with luxury in her mind.

The dining-room carpet was worn into holes, and there was one especially big one near the window, where Esmeralda, who was nothing if not artistic, had painted so accurate a repetition of the pattern on the boards beneath that one could scarcely see where one ended and the other began!  The original intention had been to disguise the hole, but so proud was the family of the success of the imitation that it became one of the show places of the establishment.  When the hounds met at Bally William, and the Major brought old Lord Atrim into the house for lunch, he called the old gentleman’s attention to it with a chuckle of enjoyment.  “My daughter’s work!  The second, Joan here – Esmeralda, we call her.  She’ll be an artist yet.  A real genius with the brush.”  And the old Lord had laughed till he cried, and stared at Esmeralda the whole time of lunch, and when Christmas-time came round, did he not send her the most beautiful box of Winsor and Newton paints, the very thing of all others for which she had been longing, so that it seemed after all that it had been a good thing when the terriers Tramp and Scamp had scratched the thin web into a hole!  The ceilings were black with the smoke of fire and lamps, but the silver on the oak dresser would have delighted the heart of a connoisseur, and the dinner-service in daily use would have been laid out for view in glassed-in cabinets in most households, instead of being given over to the care of an Irish Biddy who tried to hang cups upon hooks with her head turned in an opposite dir, and had a weakness for sitting on the corner of the table to rest herself in the midst of washing the china. 

Outside the house the garden was an overgrown wilderness of vegetation, for the one gardener, realising the impossibility of doing the work of the six who would have been required to keep the place in order, resigned himself to doing nothing at all, or as little as was compatible with the weekly drawing of wages.  The stables were empty, save for the two fine hunters which were necessary for the Major’s enjoyment of his favourite spot, and the rough little pony which did duty for all the rest of the family in turns.  The row of glass-houses looked imposing enough from a distance, but almost squalid at a nearer view, for as the Major could not afford to keep them in working order, broken panes greeted the eye in every dir, and flowers were replaced by broken pieces of furniture, and the hutches and cages of such livestock as white mice, guinea-pigs and ferrets.

Pixie had many farewells to bid in this quarter, and elaborate instructions to give as to the care to be lavished on her favourites during her absence.  The ferret was boarded out to Pat, who had no idea of doing anything for nothing but for the fee of a half-penny a week to be paid “sometime” in happy O'Shaughnessy fashion, was willing to keep the creature supplied with the unsavoury morsels in which its soul delighted.  The white mice looked on coldly with their little pink eyes, while their mistress’s own grew red with the misery of parting from them, and the rabbit seized the opportunity to gnaw Bridgie’s skirt with its sharp little teeth; but for Pixie the keenest pang of parting was over when she saw no more the floor with its scattered cabbage leaves, and the door closed behind her, shutting out the dear mousy, rabbity smell associated with so many happy hours.

Outside on the gravel path old Dennis was sitting on a wheelbarrow enjoying a pipe in the sunshine.  He made no attempt to rise as “the family” approached, but took the pipe out of his mouth and shook his head lugubriously.

“This is the black day for us, for all the sun’s shining in the skies.  Good luck to ye, Miss Pixie, and don’t forget to spake a good word for ould Ireland when the opportunity is yours.  The ould place won’t seem like itself with you and Mr Jack both going off within the same month.  There's one comfort – one frettin’ will do for the pair of you.”  And with this philosophic reflection he stuck the pipe back in the corner of his mouth and resigned himself to the inevitable.

“Pixie, darling,” said Bridgie nervously, “I think we must go back to the house.  It’s time – very nearly time that you were getting ready.  Father is going to drive you over in the cart, and he won’t like to be kept waiting.” 

“Aren’t you coming too?” queried Pixie eagerly.  There was a look on Bridgie’s face this morning which reminded her of the dear dead mother, and she had a sudden feeling of dread and longing.  “I want you, Bridgie.  Come too!  Come too!”

“I can’t, my dearie.  Your box must go, you know, and there's not room for both.  But you won’t cry, Pixie.  It’s only babies who cry, not girls like you – big girls, almost in their teens, going away to see the world like any grand lady.  You may see the Queen some day!  Think of that now!  If you ever do, bow to her twice, once for yourself and once for me, and tell her Bridget O'Shaughnessy is hers to the death.  I wouldn’t cry, Pixie, if I were going to see the Queen!”

“Is it cry?” asked Pixie airily, with the tears pouring down her face and splashing on her collar, which had been manufactured out of the strings of an old bonnet, with only three joins at the back to betray the fact that it had not been cut out of “the piece”.  “It’s not likely I’ll cry, when I’m going on a real train and steamer, and meals on the way right up to tomorrow night!  You never had lunch on a train, Bridgie, and you are eight years older than me!

“ ‘Deed I didn’t, then.  No such luck!” sighed Bridgie regretfully, making the most of her own privation for the encouragement of the young traveller.  “That will be a treat for you, Pixie, and there are sandwiches and cakes in the dining-room for you to eat before you go.  Come straight in, for I brought down your coat before going out.  You must write often, dear, and tell us every single thing.  What Miss Phipps is like, and the other teachers, and the girls in your class, and who sleeps in your bedroom, and every single thing that happens to you.”

“And remember to write every second letter to your brothers, for if you don’t they won’t write to you.  Girls get all the letters, and it isn’t fair.  Tell us if you can play any games, and what sort of grub they give you, and what you think of the English as a nation,” said Miles, helping himself to sandwiches and turning over the cakes to select the most tempting for his own refreshment, despite the young housekeeper’s frowns of disapproval.  “Stick up for your country, and stand no cheek from the English.  You understand, of course, that you are to be the Champion of Ireland in the British metropolis?”

“I do!” said little Pixie, and her back straightened, and her head reared itself in proud determination.

“And if any English upstart dares to try bullying you, just let them know that your name is O'Shaughnessy and that your ancestors were Kings of Ireland when theirs were begging bread on the streets!  Talk to them straight, and let them know who they are dealing with!”

“I will so!” said Pixie.  She chuckled gleefully at the anticipation, but alas! Her joy was shortlived, for at that moment the shabby dog-cart passed the window, and the Major’s voice was heard calling impatiently from the hall.

“Ten minutes late already.  We shall need all our time.  Tumble in now, tumble in!  You have had the whole morning for saying good-bye!  Surely you have finished by now!”

The children thought they had hardly begun, but perhaps it was just as well to be spared the last trying moments.  Bridgie and Esmeralda wrapped their arms round the little sister and almost carried her to the door.  Pat and Miles followed with their hands in their pocket, putting on a great affectation of jollity in their anxiety to disguise a natural regret; the two women-servants wailed loudly from the staircase.  Pixie scrambled to her seat and looked down at them, her poor little chin quivering with emotion.

“Bridgie, write!  Esmeralda, write!” she cried brokenly.  “Oh, write often!  Write every day.  Pat, Pat, be kind to my ferret.  Don’t starve it.  Don’t let it die.  Take care of it for me till I come back.”

“I’ll be a mother to it,” said Pat solemnly. 

And so Pixie O'Shaughnessy went off to school. 

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