The famine that had wiped out a majority of Ireland was, by and large, ending. Many of the families in my town had suffered greatly because of it, now everyone was trying to rebuild their lives.
My parents, who weren't affected as greatly as others, decided to send me to an all girls school. They wanted me to have the best of everything and felt that with me going to school I'd have a greater chance of meeting someone of, what they called 'stature'.
Honestly, I was glad to be away from the farm. The smell of the animals and hay always bothered me. Father never made me work the farm, we had servants for that. After all, if I were to work it, my clothes would become dirty. That was one thing I hated most of all.
I would be living at the school, that part scared me a little. After all, I had never lived away from home before. Both Mother and Father would take me there, that was a little more reassuring.
“Mama,” I yelled, from my room. “What am I to bring?”
“All your things, my daughter. You'll not be returning until the winter,” she said sadly.
“Won't there be uniforms?” I felt lost in the sea of clothes that surrounded my room.
“Perhaps, but there will still be cotillions and other social events. You'll have a wonderful time, my dearest,” she said. “You need to get ready to go. We'll be taking the carriage first thing in the morning, and you know how your father doesn't like to be kept waiting.”
Mother was always dressed to perfection. Her hair pulled back from her face with soft curls flowing down her back to her collar, it was always shimmering brown. I remember on more than one occasion wanting to ask how long it took her to do her hair, but could never muster the courage.
“Yes, Mama,” I said sighing, turning back to the mess upon my bed. “Couldn't one of the servants do this?”
“Perhaps they can pack it up, once you decide what you're bringing,” Mother said, and she laughed looking at all the clothes. Turning to leave, she smiled back one more time.
“I won't be long,” I said, returning her smile.
“Good, dinner will be ready soon so try to be finished by then. You've had a lot of time to go through all of this it really should have been done before now, Danielle,” she said, walking away.
“Yes, Mama,” I said sighing again. I was excited for my trip but honestly, who's idea of a good time is sorting their clothes? Especially when you had someone to do it for you. Finally after much mind changing I decided on what to bring and what to leave at home, although I kept changing my mind. Frustrated, and afraid I would change my mind again, I left my room and headed downstairs for supper.
“Danielle, dinner's ready. Are you done yet?” Mother called softly.
“I'm here,” I said, entering the dining hall.
“Is everything ready to be packed?” she asked curiously.
“As ready as I'll ever be,” I shrugged, taking my seat. “Where's Father?”
“He'll be along shortly. You know how he is, always wanting to make the grand entrance,” she said, her eyes sparkling.
I could see that even after all their years of marriage, she still loved him deeply.
“Ah, here be my girls,” Father said, entering the dining room in grand style, as always. His arms outstretched waiting for a hug.
He was a tall man, and considered by many to be quite handsome. Mother was always telling me about how they met, and how their parents arranged their marriage. He wasn't the type of man to sit idle, instead he was always on the go with one business venture or another. Some would frustrate Mother, but she never spoke against him.
“Father,” I exclaimed, getting from my chair to meet him. My mother walked around the table to greet him as well, and the two of us were gathered into a bear hug tighter than I had ever felt.
“What do you girls say we sit and enjoy our last meal together?” Father asked.
I could tell he was trying to keep his voice light, but his eyes told another story. He seemed sad.
“Where is Thomas and William?” I asked. They were my younger brothers, and usually up to no good when my Father wasn't watching them.
“They're getting ready. I told them I wanted no funny business tonight. They were to be on their best behavior,” he answered. “We'll sit and wait, they shouldn't be long.”
When my brothers finally arrived, they sat quietly in their seats. I, at first, thought that they had some prank up their sleeves, but we managed to make it through the whole meal without incident.
The following morning Father's booming voice woke me from my sleep. We had all the suitcases I would be bringing with me taken downstairs the night before.
'It would save time,' my father had said. He was always wanting to save time. 'Make the most of the sun while it shines,' was one of his favorite sayings.
I could hear him through the closed door. Shaking my head, I got up and went to my dressing table. It wouldn't be long before Maria was in to help me dress. Truth be told, I hated those corsets we have to wear, but Mama wouldn't hear of me being without one.
Maria was the closest person I had to a friend on the farm. She was my personal servant and I couldn't help but think about how much I was going to miss her.
There was a gentle knock on the door, interrupting my thoughts.
“Miss Danielle?” Maria's voice called softly. “Are you up?”
“Yes, Maria. Do come in,” I replied, not getting up from my seat. My clothes lay spread across the chest that was at the foot of my bed.
'No wrinkles,' Mama had said, when we were turning in the night before.
Mama was always making sure that I looked my best, no matter what the occasion. We could be sitting on the lounge in the parlor and we would have to make sure not to have any wrinkles in our clothes. The boys didn't care about that, although Mama tried to get on them about it. They would just laugh and take off running into the field. As much as Mama tried to be stern with them she couldn't, they would disappear from the parlor so fast it would make your head spin, and she would wind up laughing.
Father was the same way, he wanted to mold them into 'strapping boys', as he could often be heard saying. When they would get caught up into mischief... that was it, Father would get this stern look on his face. Problem was, his eyes would have this twinkle in them and you knew he wasn't really mad. I smiled at the memories, and thought about how much I was going to miss seeing it.
“Miss Danielle?” Maria said, breaking through my thoughts. “It's time to get ready.” She held up the corset for me.
Grumbling, I reluctantly got up from my dressing chair and went to the corner of the bed, holding onto the bedposts tight. She fit it around me and began pulling it tight. I could feel the air being pushed up and out of my lungs as the strings were tied. Once that was done, after what felt like an eternity, I was able to finish dressing.
I looked around my room, as if taking everything in for the last time. I knew that was ridiculous, I was going to be home in a few short months. My four poster bed was hand carved by my father, he made it for me as a young girl. He loved working with his hands and he made all the beds in our home. There were no others like it in all of Ireland.
Mama used to say he could make anything out of a piece of wood, he said he did it because it made him feel useful. Since he got busy working at his business, which I still wasn't sure what he did, he didn't carve things anymore.
“Danielle,” came Mama's voice from the doorway. “It's time to go my dearest.”
“Alright Mama,” I said, my voice husky with emotion. “I think I'm ready.”
I headed out of my room, with Maria following close behind. We walked down the curved staircase, and I looked at the pictures along the wall. There was one of Father and Mama on their wedding day, then there was a separate one of me, Thomas and William and finally one of the five of us. Mama loved us having out pictures taken. I used to think it was so she could show us off.
Once we reached the bottom I saw Father pacing in the parlor. I thought something was wrong because he rarely paced, then he walked out from the room. There was a sad smile on his face, it wasn't the same as when the boys were acting up. He seemed genuinely melancholy.
“Are you alright, Father?” I asked concerned.
“Yes, yes. No need to fuss. You're just leaving home for the first time...”he said.
“I don't have to go,” I said, suddenly wishing I could stay home.
“Yes you do, it's what's best. Now no more nonsense, it's time to go. Your luggage is all packed and ready,” Father said gruffly.
“Mama, you're coming too right?” I asked, feeling close to a panic.
“Yes, my dearest. I'll be making the trip,” she said, clasping my hand.
“Then I guess it's time to go,” I said reluctantly. I kept hoping for a last minute reprieve, but none came, even my brothers were behaving.
The five of us headed out to the waiting carriage. I wasn't entirely sure if we would all fit, but somehow we managed. Actually, we were rather comfortable, in spite of all my luggage. Before long we were on our way.
The trip to the school was amazing. We left the house and I had assumed we'd be driving the whole way, but my father surprised us with train tickets. The whole family was taking the train just to bring me to school. I hadn't been on one before, although Father had many times. I felt like a little girl again, waiting on my birthday.
We got to the station, and I could see Mama was just as excited as I was. The two of us were laughing and pointing at the enormous train. I had never seen anything so large in all my life. The boys thought it was wonderful too. They were jumping around, trying to see all the parts of the train, asking father if they could have one like it. He laughed, ruffled their hair and did his usual, 'We'll see.'
“All aboard!” called the shrill voice of the conductor. “All aboard, train leaving for Dublin.”
“That's us,” Father said.
I looked at him, smiling. He seemed almost as excited as the boys, but I imagine that was because of how we were all acting.
With our luggage all secured, we climbed onto the train and were shown to our cabins. Mama and I were to share one, and Father, Thomas and William were sharing the one next to us. We had some time before they would be serving food, so we settled into our cabins.
I couldn't help wanting to explore, and wondering if there was anyone else who would be attending the school on the train.
“Can we go, Mama?” I asked anxiously.
“Don't you want to check out the scenery as the train leaves? I am not sure if we're allowed to just walk around,” Mama said.
“We can do that anytime, Mama. We've got the whole trip,” I said excitedly.
The train began to move, since I wasn't prepared for it I almost fell on top of Mama.
“See what happens when you don't listen? You could have been hurt,” Mama said scolding me.
“Yes, Mama,” I said, sitting down beside her.
“I can see you're excited, my dearest. I was too the first time I left home,” Mama said, sounding far away.
“You went away before marrying Father?” I asked surprised. Mama didn't talk much about her life before she got married. Part of me was worried if I talked too much, she'd stop talking.
“Yes,” she said smiling at me. “I went to finishing school. It was a wonderful time, although the famine made it a difficult time for most of us. Then again, my parents had it much worse than we did. We still made the most of it.”
“What was it like Mama?” I couldn't help but ask.
“School or the famine?” she asked, still sounding distant.
“School,” I said. We all knew about the famine, we had learned about it in school. Many people suffered and even more died because of it. I felt horrible for all their suffering.
“I made many friends there,” Mama said, recalling her school days. “The dances, oh, they were wonderful. The ballrooms were decorated to perfection for every occasion. They were always a major social event. Don't tell your father, but I had many a gentleman caller in those days.”
I looked at her surprised. I didn't think she would have ever looked at anyone other than Father. Her eyes appeared to be dancing as the memories came back.
“Didn't you meet Father there?” I asked.
“It was the last dance of the year when I met your father. He walked into the ballroom, and all the girls heads turned. At that moment I knew...” she trailed off.
“Knew what?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. I leaned in, unable to help myself. Mama had never spoken to me in such confidence before.
“I knew I would marry him, my dearest,” Mama said smiling.
“How did you know?” I asked, practically on the edge of my seat.
“Some things,” Mama paused, as if for effect, “a woman just knows.”
Before I could ask anymore there was a gentle knock on the door.
“How are my girls settling in?” Father's voice came though the door.
“Come in,” Mama said. “We're just having a little girl talk.”
My face flushed as Mama patted my leg gently.
“As long as everything is alright,” Father said as he opened the door.
“Everything is wonderful, Father” I gushed excitedly. “How long is the trip going to take? Will we see much?”
I asked question after question, not giving Father a chance to answer until he couldn't take it anymore and he interrupted me laughing.
“Goodness,” he said. “If I knew how excited you would be to take a train, I would have taken you before now.”
Again I flushed in embarrassment, then I waited for his answers which he supplied easily enough.
“It will soon be time to eat, I suggest we make our way to the dining car. Shall we?” Father asked.
Mama and I followed him out and waited while he gathered Thomas and William. They were just as excited as I was, perhaps more so. I laughed as they bounded down the hall.
As we entered the dining car, I thought we had entered another world. I felt like I was spying on one of Mama's fancy parties only I was actually here. It was breathtaking, there were even chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. All the tables were smartly arranged for not only comfort, but privacy as well.
“Is it like this when you travel?” I asked Father.
“Mostly,” he said, leading us to the table.
There was another couple in the dining car, but they weren't paying attention to anything around them. The woman was dressed so eloquently, her hair was similar to Mama's, but it was darker and longer than hers. Her gown was a stunning burgundy and the ruffles surrounding the collar showed some of her neckline, but not enough to be considered racy.
I suddenly felt quite under dressed. For the first time that I could remember, I felt self-conscious. Mama sensed this, I guess, because she placed her hand upon my arm and smiled at me reassuringly.
We sat, and talked to each other. Father told us about other trips that he had taken. I asked him why we had never taken a train like this before now. He told me about how he enjoyed taking the carriage on trips, but since this was a special event he made the decision to travel this way.
I sighed and gazed out the window. The trees were passing so quickly that they looked like one long blur. It reminded me of a painting I once saw, but I couldn't remember the name of the artist. The waiter arrived and took our orders. I had eaten on a boat before, when Father and Mama took us over to France. Now it was going to be an experience eating on a train.
When the meals arrived, I watched in amazement as my brothers tried their best to behave and act like little gentlemen. I hid a smile as I ate my own luncheon. The soup was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. The moment the broth hit my lips it was like entering another world. I hoped that I would be able to have this again.
The scenery passed, with eerie calm. For some reason I expected the train to be louder, but it seemed to be one of those noises that you could easily shrug off into the background. I was inspired by everything, it's heart-stirring beauty made me wish that I could express it through a painting or some other creative way. It was one of those moments that you wished would last a lifetime.
We were going to be on the train for two days. How I was going to keep busy in such quarters I wasn't sure, but I was looking forward to it.
After we were finished eating, we all retired back to our cabins. I felt bad for Mama. She was having to spend the night away from Father, and I don't remember the last time they were apart overnight. Father always made sure to be home, as much as he could.
Mama and I settled into our cabin. I got lost in my thoughts, wondering what the school and what the other girls would be like.
“I have something for you,” Mama said, interrupting my thoughts.
“I'm sorry, Mama. I was just thinking,” I said blushing.
“It's alright.. It's to be expected with everything that's happening,” she said, getting up from her seat and going to her bags. Pulling a small leather case from one, she handed it over to me.
I looked at her, slightly confused.
“It's a journal,” Mama said, returning to sit beside me. “My mother gave me one when I was your age. I thought you'd be able to use this as I had, all those years ago.”
“Thank you, Mama!” I exclaimed, hugging her tightly.
She gave me a fountain pen and I began writing. I wanted to have a written memory of everything we had seen and done on this trip. Father had said during dinner, that the train would be making a few stops along the way. Perhaps we'd get to see some of the other cities that we normally don't get a chance to visit.
As it turned out, we weren't able to visit any of the other places Father told us about. There wasn't time, he had told us. The rest of the trip passed relatively quickly. A lot of our time was spent in the cabins or in one of the sitting room cars they had set up. I wrote everything in the journal Mama gave me, so I could read it later. Before I knew it we had arrived in Dublin, it would only be a few more hours before we actually reached the school.
Father had arranged for a carriage to be waiting for us when we arrived. It was to take us to the Inn where they would stay the night, and then we would be heading to the school. When we stepped off the train there were men already struggling with our luggage, moving it to the carriage.
“We have arrived,” Father said softly, ruffling Williams hair.
'Father!” he protested, trying to put his hair back into place.
I could see William wasn't angry, which I was glad for. Once he got going on something, there was no turning back. Sometimes he could make it sound like the entire world was crumbling around him and all he had was a rock in his shoe. Then again, I wondered, when aren't brothers pests?
“Will we be going to the school tonight?” I asked excitedly.
“Yes, yes,” Mama said, trying to hide a smile. “I swear you're more impatient than your father at times, Danielle.”
“I'm sorry, Mama,” I said. “I just cannot wait to meet everyone.”
“I know, my dearest. It's understandable, I was excited too at your age,” Mama said.
We headed to the Inn and waited while Father had their luggage brought to their room. Then we were on our way to the school. 'O'Connellain Preparatory School For Girls' was where I would be spending the next two years. Mama and Father thought it would 'mold me into a fine young woman of stature.'
The school was built in the mid 1800's, at least that's what all the information we were given said. 'Proud history' and 'Tradition' were first and foremost, Mama told me on more than one occasion since they told me I would be going there.
From what else Mama told me, the school was once some castle that had fallen into disrepair. Instead of destroying it, they wanted to preserve the history of the site. Thus, they converted it into one of the most prestigious private schools in the country.
'Not only will you be representing the family,you'll be an important member of the school.' Mama seemed to enjoy telling me, repeatedly.
It made me feel uncomfortable, and a little... the word escaped my mind. I wasn't even sure how to explain it to anyone else, let alone myself.
Mama had this way of making you feel important and inferior at the same time, I had no idea how she did it.
We left the Inn and headed for the school. It wasn't a far ride, which I was thankful for. The cobblestone roads made the traveling a little bumpy, but the scenery more than made up for it; luscious landscapes, beautiful skies, and wildlife everywhere.
The trees seemed to be alive as they swayed in the breeze, and the sky seemed to have an almost paint brushed look to them. Watching the animals scurry around the trees and the grass made me wish I was able to run free in the fresh air.
The surroundings reminded me of a painting Father brought home from one of his trips to London. It was of an artist named Monet, Claude Monet. He did a lot of oil paintings and loved landscapes. I used to wish that I had his talent and eye for the world.
Part of me hoped that we would be taking some art classes. Even though I knew I had no talent at it, I was willing to learn. We pulled up the long drive in front of the school. I stared in awe out the window of the carriage. There were stain glass windows everywhere, they had restored the castle beautifully.
I couldn't help but wonder what the inside looked like, I knew it had to be just as breathtaking as the outside. In fact I felt a lot like the castle, calm on the outside, a lot of fear inside as I sat there.
You've nothing to be afraid of you're going to be fine here, I tried telling myself, but it wasn't working. I was terrified.
I watched as Father and Mama got out of the carriage. They told Thomas and William to stay inside so they wouldn't be getting under foot.
A pair of groans could be heard from the pair as they slumped back into their seats.
“Let's go, Danielle,” Father called.
As I stepped out of the carriage, another pulled up behind us. A girl about my age stepped out, alone. Her hair was fire red and tied back in ribbons, her dress was similar in design to my own but far more expansive. One look in her crystal blue eyes showed me that she was just as nervous as I was. This made me feel a little better.
“Danielle,” Father called again. “It's time to go inside and get everything settled.”
I blushed at having been caught staring and not doing what I had been told. As I walked up the front steps of what was about to be my new home, I couldn't help thinking, that perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all.
“Are you ready?” Father asked, turning back to me.
“Yes, I think so,” I said, eying the school again. Mama approached me and put a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
“We won't be staying,” Father said, in his 'I know what's best' voice. “We'll make sure your luggage is brought to your room, check to see if anything else is needed, then we will be heading back to the Inn.”
I was a little confused. Suddenly Father sounded cold and distant. I looked at Mama for answers, but she seemed to be just as confused as I did.
Father ordered the driver to help bring the luggage into the foyer of the castle. Immediately he jumped from the seat and began unloading the trunks that had been placed on top. No one ever questioned Father. When he said something... everyone moved, it didn't matter who they were.