Tuesday, 30 December 2014
19 October 1901 - 'Pixie O'Shaughnessy' by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey - Chapter 3
Major O'Shaughnessy and his little daughter reached London on the following afternoon, after a comfortable and unadventurous journey. Pixie had howled dismally all the way to the station, but had dried her eyes at the sight of the train, and brightened into the most hilarious spirits on boarding the steamer. She ate an enormous dinner of the richest and most indigestible dishes on the menu, slept peacefully through a stormy passage, and was up on deck conversing affably with the men who were washing down, long before her father had nerved himself to think of dressing. The journey to London was a more or less disappointing experience, for if she had not known to the contrary, she was not at all sure that she would have recognised that she was in a strange land. What she had expected, it was impossible to say, but that England should bear so close a resemblance to her beloved land seemed another “insult to Ireland” as Pat would have had it, and that it should in some respects look better, more prosperous and orderly, this was indeed a bitter pill to swallow. As the train neared London, and other passengers came in and out of the carriage, Major O'Shaughnessy became conscious for the first time what a dusty, dishevelled little mortal he was about to introduce to an English school. He was not noticing where his children were concerned, and moreover his eye had grown accustomed to the home surroundings, but the contrast between these trim strangers and his own daughter was too striking to be overlooked.
Pixie had wriggled about until her frock was a mass of creases, her hat was grey with dust, and she had apparently forgotten to brush her hair before leaving her cabin. The Major was too easy-going to feel any distress at this reflection. He merely remarked to himself whimsically that “the piccaninny would astonish them”, meaning the companions to whom she was about to be introduced, and decided then and there to take her straight to her destination. This had been the only point upon which he and his young daughter had been at variance, for from the start Pixie had laid down as her idea of what was right and proper that her father should take her for the night to “a grand hotel”, introduce her the next morning to the Tower, the Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s, and deposit her at Surbiton in the afternoon. The Major’s ideas on the subject were, however, that an exacting little daughter was a drawback to a man’s enjoyment of a visit to London, and that there were other forms of amusement which he would prefer to a visit to the beforementioned historic resorts. With accustomed fluency, he found a dozen reasons for carrying out his own wishes, and propitiated Pixie by promising that Jack should take her sight-seeing before many weeks were over.
“I’ll tell Miss Phipps that I wish you to go out with your brother on Saturday afternoon, and you’ll have a fine time together seeing all there is to be seen. Far greater fun than if we tried to hurry about with not a minute to spare.”
“I like to do things now,” sighed Pixie pensively, but as usual she resigned herself to the inevitable, and a box of chocolates, bought at Waterloo, sufficed to bring back the smiles to her face and restore her lost equanimity.
The arrival at Kingston Station was a breathless experience, though it was a distinct blow to her vanity to find that no deputation from Holly House was in waiting to receive Patricia O'Shaughnessy with the honours she deserved. No one took any notice of her at all. Even the cabman, when directed to drive to Holly House, preserved an unmoved stolidity of feature, and had no remark whatever to offer on the subject. How different from dear friendly outspoken Bally William, where each man was keenly interested in the affairs of his neighbour, and the poorest peasant upon the road felt himself competent to offer advice on the most intimate family matters! Pixie felt a chill of foreboding as she drove through the trim Surbiton streets and noticed girls like herself walking demurely beside mother or governess with laced-in boots, gloved hands, and silky manes flowing down their backs in straight uninterrupted flow. She looked down at her own new stout little boots. Sixteen buttons in all, and only one missing! Such a pitch of propriety made her feel quite in keeping with her surroundings, and she had kid gloves too – dyed ones – which looked every bit as good as new, and left no mark at all except round the fastenings and the lobes of the fingers. She gave a wriggle of contentment, and at that moment the cab turned in at the gate of Holly House.
The name of the house seemed to have more appropriateness than is usually the case, for the garden was surrounded by a thick holly hedge, and the beds were planted with holly-trees so dark that they appeared to be almost black in hue. To the eyes of the new pupil there was something awe-inspiring in the sight of the grim flowerless beds and the foliage which looked so stern and prickly – almost as bad as the pieces of broken glass which are laid on top of high walls to prevent escape or intrusion. The house itself was big and square, with a door in the centre, and at the top two quaint dormer windows, standing out from the roof like big surprised-looking eyes. “Dear, dear!” they seemed to say. “If this isn’t Pixie O'Shaughnessy driving up to the door! Wonders will never cease!”
The hall was wide and cold, and, oh, so clean – “fearful clean” thought the new pupil with a sigh as she stepped gingerly over the polished oilcloth and gazed awesomely at spotless wood and burnished brass. The drawing-room had none of the splendour of that disused apartment at Knock Castle, but it was bright and home-like, with an abundance of pretty cushions and table-cloths, a scent of spring flowers in the air, and a fire dancing cheerily in the grate. Pixie’s prejudices received a shock at the sight of so much frivolity in a drawing-room, and she could not echo her father’s admiration. She seated herself on the edge of the sofa and began to paint imaginary pictures of the mistress of this fine house. “She will be tall, with yellow hair. She will have cold fingers and nose that looks thin and has a bump in the middle. No, I don’t believe she will, after all. I believe she’ll be fussy, and then they are small and dark – dark, with eye-glasses, and those funny red cheeks that are made up of little lines, and never get lighter or darker. And she’ll have a chain hanging from her waist with a lot of things that jingle, like the lady in the train. Oh, me dear, suppose she was old! I never thought of that. Suppose shew as old, in a cap and a black satin dress, and chilblains on her hands!” And then the door opened – it was really a most exciting occasion – and Miss Phipps came into the room.
She was not in the least like any of the three pictures which Pixie had imagined – she was far, far, nicer and prettier. She was tall, and so graceful and elegantly dressed as to be quite dazzling to the eyes of the country-bred stranger. She had waving brown hair, which formed a sort of halo around her face, a pale complexion, and grey eyes which looked at you with a straight long glance, and then lightened as if they liked what they saw. She was quite young too, not a bit old and proper; the only thing that looked old were the little lines about the eyes, and even those disappeared when her face was in repose. She came forward to where the Major was standing, and held out her hand with a smile of welcome.
“Major O'Shaughnessy! I am very pleased to see you. I hope you have had a good journey and a comfortable crossing.” Then she turned and looked at the crumpled little figure on the sofa, and her eyes softened tenderly. “Is this my new pupil? How do you do, dear? I hope we shall be very good friends!”
“Oi trust we may!” returned Pixie fervently, and with a broadening of the already broad brogue which arose from the emotion of the moment and made her father frown with embarrassment.
“Ha – hum – ha – I am afraid I have brought you a rather rough specimen,” he said apologetically. “Pixie is the baby of the family and she has been allowed to run wild and play with all the children about the place. I hope you will not find her very backward in her lessons. She has had a good governess at home but -“
“But she wasn’t much good either!” interrupted Pixie, entering into the conversation with the ease and geniality of one whose remarks are in the habit of being received with applause. “I didn’t pay much attention to her. I expect there's a good deal I don’t know yet, but I’m very quick and clever, and can be even with anyone if I choose to try.”
“Then please try, Pixie! I shall be disappointed if you don’t!” said Miss Phipps promptly. Her cheeks had grown quite red with surprise, and she pulled in her upper lip and bit at it hard as she looked down at her new pupil and noted the flat nose, the wide mouth and the elf-like thinness of the shabby figure. “Pixie! That's a very charming little name, but a fancy one, surely. What is your Christian name?”
Father and daughter gazed at each other appealingly. It was a moment which they had both dreaded, and the Major had fondly hoped that he might escape before the question was asked. He remained obstinately silent, and Pixie nerved herself to reply.
“Me name’s not suited to me appearance,” she said sadly. “I’d rather, if you please, that ye didn’t tell it to the girls. I am always called Pixie at home. Me name’s Patricia!”
Miss Phipps bit her lip harder than ever, but she managed to control her features, and Pixie was relieved to see that she did not even smile at the mention of the fatal name.
“It’s rather a long name for such a small person, isn't it?” she said seriously. “I think we will keep to Pixie. It will make school more home-like for you than if we changed to one to which you are not accustomed.” Then turning to the Major, “I am sorry my head mistress, Miss Bruce, is not at home today, as I should have liked you to see her. She is very bright and original, and has a happy knack of bringing out the best that is in her pupils. She directs the teaching, and I am the housekeeper and sick nurse of the establishment. Would you like to come upstairs and see the room in which Pixie will sleep, or shall we wait perhaps until after tea?”
The Major declared that he could not wait for tea. He had kept the cab waiting at the door, and was all anxiety to get the parting over as quickly as possible and return to the fascinations of town, so he discussed a few business matters with Miss Phipps, and then took Pixie’s hand and accompanied her up the staircase to the third floor bedroom which she was to share with three other pupils. Two windows looked out on to the garden in front of the house, and an arrangement of curtains hung on rods made each little cubicle private from the rest. Pixie’s handbag had already been laid by her bed, and she felt quite a swelling of importance as she surveyed her new domain, wherein everything was to be her very own, and not shared with someone else, as had always been the case at home. The Major gushed over all he saw, and professed himself as more than satisfied, but he was plainly ill at ease, and after walking twice round the room was all eagerness to make his escape.
“I’ll say good-bye to you now, Pixie,” he said, “for your bag is there, I see, and you would be much the better for a wash and a bush. It’s no use coming downstairs again. Be a good girl, now, and Jack shall come often to see you! I’m happy to have you in such good hands and it’s a lucky child you are to have such a school to come to! It will be your own fault if you are not happy.”
“I’ve no doubt I’ll be very comfortable, thank you,” Pixie said pleasantly, lifting her cheek to receive his kiss, with little sign of the emotion dreaded by the two onlookers. Her father had never been as much to her as the other members of the household, and her mind was too full of the new excitements to allow her to realise his departure. He hurried out of the room, followed by Miss Phipps, and Pixie withdrew into her little cubicle, pulled the curtain closely around her and felt monarch of all she surveyed. A dear, little white bed, so narrow that if you turned, you turned at your peril and in instant dread of landing on the floor; a wonderful piece of furniture which did duty as dressing-table, washstand and chest of drawers combined; a single chair and a hanging cupboard. Everything fresh, spotlessly clean, and in perfect order; absolutely, if you can believe it, not a single broken thing to be seen1 Pixie drew a quick breath of admiration, and wondered how long it could possibly be before she succeeded in cracking that lovely blue and white china, and exactly what would happen if she spilt the water over the floor! She was so much occupied in building castles in the air that ten minutes passed by and she had not moved from her seat, when suddenly there came the sound of footsteps running up the stairs, the door was pushed open, and tramp, tramp, in came her future companions, hidden from sight, but talking volubly to each other as they took off hats and jackets after the afternoon walk.
“The new girl has arrived!” cried number one in a tone of breathless excitement. “I saw her box as I came through the hall. I peeped at the label, but hadn’t time to read it properly.”
“I did though!” cried another. “A funny name. O’ something or other. Shog-nessie, or something like that. Such a shabby old trunk1 Looked as if it came out of the Ark.”
“It will be rather fun having an Irish girl, don’t you think?” number two suggested. “They are untidy and quarrelsome, of course, but it is funny to hear them talk, and they make such droll mistakes. I shouldn’t like to be Irish myself, but it will be a pleasant change to have a Paddy among us!”
“Well, I hope she isn’t quarrelsome in this room, that’s all,” said a third speaker, who had hitherto been silent, “because if she is, I shall feel it my duty to give her a taste of Home Rule that she may not appreciate. And if she snores I shall squeeze my sponge over her, so you may tell her what she has to expect. There’s nothing like training these youngsters properly from the beginning!”
“Twelve years old! I call it mean to put a child like that in this room! You are fourteen, I’m fourteen, Ethel is fifteen; we ought to have one of the older ones with us. We will make her fag for her living. She shall get the hot water, and fold up our nightgowns, and pick up the pins. All the same I shall be kind to her, for the credit of the country, for Irish people are always imagining themselves ill-used by England. If I had thought of it I would have drawn a picture for her cubicle as a delicate little mark of attention. An Irishman with his – what do you call it? – shi-lee-lah!”
The speaker stopped suddenly as she pronounced this difficult word, for a curious muffled sound reached her ears. “What’s that?” she asked quickly, but her companions had heard nothing, so she retired into the cubicle next to Pixie’s own to brush her hair, slightly raising her voice so as to be heard more easily by her companions.
“She lives in a castle! I heard Miss Phipps telling Miss Bruce when she was sending the labels. ‘Knock-Kneed Castle’ or something like that. Every second house in Ireland is called a castle, my father says. It’s no more than a villa in England, and all the people are as poor as Job, and have hens in their parlours and pigs on the lawn. They don’t know what it is to keep order. What are you grunting for, Ethel? It’s quite true, I tell you!”
“Dear me, I’m not grunting, I’m only washing my hands,” cried Ethel, aggrieved. “What’s the matter with your ears this afternoon? I don’t care where she lives so long as she behaves herself, and knows how to respect her elders. I wonder what she is like!”
“Irish girls are mostly pretty.”
“Who told you that?”
“Never mind, I know it. It’s always raining over there, and that is supposed to be good for the hair, or the complexion, or something. And they are so bright and vivacious. If an author wants to make a specially lively heroine in a book, the father is Irish and the mother is French. Perhaps she’ll be the beauty of the school and then won’t someone we could mention tear her hair with rage?”
“Well, I don’t know about being pretty,” said Pixie’s neighbour reflectively. “We have had lots of Irish servants, and they were plain enough. But the name sounds interesting – ‘Miss Shog-nessie – The Castle – Ireland’. It certainly sounds interesting. I’d give something to know what she’s like.
“If ye’ll step inside the curtain, ye may judge for yeself,” said a deep rich voice suddenly from behind the curtain which was furthest from the door.
There was silence in the bedroom – a silence which might be felt!