The Girls of Ennismore : Chapter 1

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The sun was not yet up when eight year old Rosie Killeen pulled the door of her family cottage closed behind her and stood shivering in the morning chill. Usually she enjoyed venturing out alone in the early hours but this morning was different. Anxiously she looked around for her friend – a black and white collie with a bent ear. Only when he trotted up beside her and sniffed her hand did she begin to walk.

Taking a deep breath, she set off barefoot down over the shadowy fields her new lace-up boots tucked securely under one arm. Cows peered over low stone walls watching her with limpid curiosity. Broody hens warbled as they squatted on their eggs while an angry rooster, his morning call preempted, followed her for a time, pecking at her feet.

She slowed her pace as she neared the narrow, rutted road that separated the Killeen farm from the Ennis Estate. The bravery she had felt when she boasted to her ma that she could make the journey alone was gone. Now she fought the urge to turn and race back up to the safety of her cottage and kneel beside her mother as she thrust a skillet of soda bread into the big turf fire. The urge passed and she walked across the road and up to the tall, wrought iron gate that guarded the Ennis Estate. She stood looking up at it, clutching her boots even tighter under her arm and biting her lip. Squaring her shoulders she pushed hard against it. As it creaked open she turned to her dog.

“Go home now, Rory, there’s a good boy.”

The dog looked up at her with mournful eyes and began to whimper.

“You can’t come where I’m going, Rory. You don’t belong there.”

The gate opened on to a dark, twisting, tree-lined avenue and into a strange and terrifying world. Ghosts from stories she had heard around the family fireside leered at her from behind the gnarled beech trees – headless horsemen, howling hunting dogs, tortured souls rising from their graves. She hurried on, looking neither left nor right, her heart thumping in her chest.

As the avenue gave way to open pasture-land she slowed her pace, but still she did not dare raise her head. She heard the squelch of her toes on the damp grass beneath her, the gathering notes of birds preparing for their dawn chorus, and the faint squawks of wildfowl from the distant lake. The familiar sounds calmed her a little and she allowed herself to look up. There ahead of her sitting on top of a gentle hill and surrounded by smooth green lawns stood the “Big House,” its lime-washed stone bathed pink in the pale dawn light.

She stopped. For all the stories she had heard from her family and neighbors about the “Big House” she had not been prepared for its beauty. It rose three stories above its basement, its lines square and clean, its tall windows equally spaced on either side of a massive, white oak front door. It looked like something from a fairy-tale. Rosie let go of her fear and allowed herself to imagine princesses inside singing fanciful songs and sipping tea from dainty china cups. Small waves of pleasure flowed through her as she stood, lost in her imagination.

Distant shouts startled her and she remembered why she had come. Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away from the house, stepped out of her imagination, and bent down to pull on her boots, carefully tying the laces. Straightening up, she tucked her black curls behind her ears and smoothed out her striped, cotton smock hoping no one would notice where Ma had carefully mended it. She took a deep breath and, remembering Ma’s directions, hurried along the path and under the archway that led to the stables and courtyard. By the time she ducked in through the kitchen door at the rear of the house her sweet fantasies had evaporated.

The heat of the kitchen slammed into her like a fist, knocking her backwards. Fire roared in a massive black oven on top of which steaming pots shuddered. The cook stood at a wooden table in the center of the kitchen, shouting instructions at a young maid. A boy shoveled coal into the oven to keep the fire going. Maids and footmen rushed in and out fetching and carrying buckets and mops, dishes and linens. Gardeners hauled in baskets of vegetables, while a gamekeeper tossed a brace of dead fowl on the kitchen table. The girl watched them, fascinated.

She stopped. For all the stories she had heard from her family and neighbors about the “Big House” she had not been prepared for its beauty. It rose three stories above its basement, its lines square and clean, its tall windows equally spaced on either side of a massive, white oak front door. It looked like something from a fairy-tale. Rosie let go of her fear and allowed herself to imagine princesses inside singing fanciful songs and sipping tea from dainty china cups. Small waves of pleasure flowed through her as she stood, lost in her imagination.

Distant shouts startled her and she remembered why she had come. Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away from the house, stepped out of her imagination, and bent down to pull on her boots, carefully tying the laces. Straightening up, she tucked her black curls behind her ears and smoothed out her striped, cotton smock hoping no one would notice where Ma had carefully mended it. She took a deep breath and, remembering Ma’s directions, hurried along the path and under the archway that led to the stables and courtyard. By the time she ducked in through the kitchen door at the rear of the house her sweet fantasies had evaporated.

The heat of the kitchen slammed into her like a fist, knocking her backwards. Fire roared in a massive black oven on top of which steaming pots shuddered. The cook stood at a wooden table in the center of the kitchen, shouting instructions at a young maid. A boy shoveled coal into the oven to keep the fire going. Maids and footmen rushed in and out fetching and carrying buckets and mops, dishes and linens. Gardeners hauled in baskets of vegetables, while a gamekeeper tossed a brace of dead fowl on the kitchen table. The girl watched them, fascinated.

“Who are you?” the cook shouted.

Rosie looked up in awe at the giant of a woman with black hair and ruddy cheeks who frowned down at her.

“Rosie Killeen, Miss.”

“Ah, you’d be Bridie’s sister come to help out. How old are you?”

“Eight last month, Miss.”

“Old enough, then. Well don’t be standing there like a spare dinner. Make yourself useful. Start peeling them spuds.”

Rosie swallowed hard. “Yes, Miss.”

At ten o’clock the house steward came into the kitchen and clapped his hands. “Everyone up to the front steps,” he shouted, “Her majesty Queen Victoria is about to arrive. Come quickly, now. You know your places.”

The female servants smoothed their uniforms with red hands and arranged unruly hair under caps while the men dusted themselves down and stood erect. One by one they marched to the back stairs that led up into the main house. Rosie lined up behind them but the firm pressure of the house steward’s hand on her shoulder stopped her.

“You stay here,” he said.

Rosie’s heart sank.

When the kitchen was empty Rosie looked around. There were no windows in the room or in the adjoining servants’ hall. She was frustrated. How was she going to see the Queen? After all, such a prospect was the reason she agreed to come and help at the “Big House” – that and the fourpence her sister Bridie had promised her for her work. She tiptoed out of the kitchen to explore. Minutes later she pressed her face to the small basement window in the house steward’s private quarters. She peered through the dusty panes, fingering a bullet hole in one of them.

From her vantage point, if she craned her neck enough, she could see the people assembled on the front steps of the house. A finely dressed man and woman she took to be Lord and Lady Ennis, the master and mistress of the “Big House,” stood together on the bottom steps. Crowded behind them were their guests, colorful as peacocks. Stretched across the bottom of the steps, to one side of their employers, were the servants arranged strictly in order of importance – the house steward standing closest to the master, and the scullery maid the farthest away.

At the clatter of approaching carriages Rosie stood on tiptoe. Gravel hopped and skittered under its wheels as the first carriage, drawn by four glistening black horses and driven by a coachman in a top hat, halted in front of the house. Her eyes followed him as he climbed down, opened the door and extended his hand to help the female occupant alight. So this was Queen Victoria. Rosie drew back from the window in disappointment. She had imagined the Queen would be a beautiful lady with a cloak of red and a golden crown. But instead, out of the carriage had stepped a fat, stern-looking old woman in a stiff black taffeta dress and in place of a crown, an ugly lace cap. She was attended by an equally dour lady-in-waiting. Leaning on a walking stick, the old woman limped to the bottom of the steps where Lord and Lady Ennis, their guests and servants, greeted her.

Rosie was indignant. “All this commotion over that oul’ biddy?” she thought. “You’d think she was the Pope himself.” She remembered her sister, Bridie, a maid at the “Big House,” telling their ma how the whole place was in an uproar over the visit and how everything had to be scrubbed and polished and the servants’ uniforms immaculate as nuns’ habits. She didn’t understand it at all. Then she thought of the fourpence Bridie had promised her for today’s work and she grinned, dimples punching her red cheeks.

It was June, 1900. Queen Victoria was making a rare visit to Ireland and had agreed to include a stop at Ennismore, which was the proper name for the “Big House,” in her itinerary. She was, however, only staying for lunch. Rosie counted at least six courses, all on different plates, sent up to the dining room in a contraption the servants called a “dumb waiter.” How could anybody eat all that food in one sitting? That amount would have kept her family fed for a month. Only when the Queen took her leave at three o’clock did the cook collapse on a chair and bend over to rub her sore feet.

“Well Her Majesty can’t complain we sent her away hungry,” she sighed. “From what the footmen said she scraped every last morsel off every plate.” She laughed aloud. “Fair play to herself. She’s not fretting over her figure like some in this house!”
When she had carried out the last bucket of potato peelings and dumped them in the pig-pen, Rosie stood in the kitchen and looked around. Ever since she was old enough to understand she knew that one day she would have to go to work at the “Big House,” just as her sister Bridie had done a few years before. It was the lot of most Irish country girls to enter into domestic service at the nearest “Big House” and to count herself grateful for the chance. Short of entering the convent, or obtaining a rare scholarship to secondary school, there was little choice. Rosie’s ma had worked at Ennismore before she married, and her ma before her. A wave of nausea rose up inside her and she reached for a stool. She told herself that the convent would be a better choice any day than the likes of this.

“You can go now,” said the cook. “No point sitting there on your arse.”

Emboldened by her resolve never to set foot back in this place Rosie put out her hand. “Where’s me wages?” she said, looking up at her, “me sister Bridie said I was to get fourpence.”

The cook’s ruddy face turned crimson. “Did ye ever hear such boldness?” she roared.

“Away with you now before I box the ears off you. You’ll settle that matter up with Bridie.”

The air outside was cool and fresh. Rosie took several deep breaths and decided to take the long way home along the path beside the lake. Lough Conn was the largest lake in County Mayo and ran along the edge of the Ennis Estate property. When she was very young her granda used to take her out fishing in a small wooden rowing boat called a “currach.” He was dead now, and her da, a tenant farmer beholden to Lord Ennis, had little time for such outings. She stood at the lake’s edge and looked out over its still blue waters to Mount Nephin, which rose smoky purple on the far shore, lost in her own thoughts.

A faint movement behind her made her turn. Standing a few yards away was a girl about her own age. She had long blonde hair tied with a pale blue ribbon that matched her beautiful dress. As Rosie stared at her she saw that the girl was crying. She marched up to her.

“What’s wrong with you?” she said.

“My boat,” the girl whimpered, “I let go of the string and it’s sailed away and now I can’t reach it.” She pointed to where a small object floated near the shore.

“Go in after it then,” said Rosie. “Sure I can see it from here.”

“I’m afraid of the water,” the girl whispered.
Rosie looked at her in astonishment. She’d never met anyone who was afraid of water. She and her brothers and sister swam in the local streams without a thought.

“Did nobody ever teach you how to swim?”

“Oh, what shall I do?” cried the girl. “It was a birthday present from the Queen. Oh, Mama will be so angry.”

“Ah, for God’s sake,” said Rosie, mimicking her ma’s favorite expression.

Swiftly she pulled off her dress and boots and, clad only in her petticoat, waded into the water and swam a few strokes. She retrieved the boat and swam back to the shore.

“Here” she said, handing it over to the girl.

The child looked at Rosie wide-eyed. “What’s your name?”

“Rosie Killeen. What’s yours?”

“Victoria Bell. I’m named after the Queen. She gave me this for my birthday. It’s today.”

“What age are you?” said Rosie.

“Seven.”

“I’m eight.”

Rosie studied the toy boat that the girl held. It was painted blue and white and was a perfect replica of an ocean liner, the sort of toy only a rich child would own. It dawned on Rosie then that the girl belonged to the “Big House.”
Both girls stood for a moment locked in each other’s gaze. At last Rosie broke the spell.

“I have to be away now,” she said, and picking up her dress and boots she fled across the green lawns, down the twisting path, out through the estate gate, and back to the safety of her own farm.

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