Last Port of Call: The Queenstown Series
Twelve-year-old Harp Delaney is an unusual child, quiet and intelligent far beyond her years. She would rather spend her days in the library of the grand Georgian house that she sees as her home than playing on the streets with other children.
Her mother, Rose, is the reserved and ladylike housekeeper at the Cliff House. The local women envy her grace and poise while the men admire her beauty. She behaves not as a servant should, but as someone who belongs at the ancestral home of eccentric loner Henry Devereaux.
Nobody ever visits the Cliff House, but Harp, Rose and Henry have a happy life together, each accepting the idiosyncrasies of the others.
The day Titanic sails from Queenstown, taking with it the hopes and dreams of so many, Harp's life too is devastated. The small port town is shaken to its foundations at the loss of the unsinkable ship, but the revelation of a long-held secret means that Harp and Rose have a much more pressing issue to solve, one that could destroy them if they cannot find a solution.
Unexpectedly, fate takes a hand, and mother and daughter find themselves thrown a lifeline, one that inextricably links them to the stories of men, women and children for whom Queenstown was the last-ever sight of Ireland as they sailed away to new lands and new lives.
Last Port of Call is the first book in The Queenstown Series.
Release date: February 26, 2021
Print pages: 288
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Last Port of Call: The Queenstown Series
Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland. 1912
‘You said we could go down. You promised, Mammy.’ Harp Delaney thought she might have sensed a crack in her mother’s normally stern exterior. Rose was peeling potatoes at the large sink in the basement kitchen. The room was warm and welcoming and smelled of baking and soda crystals.
‘I did not indeed promise any such thing. You see it fine from the top window, don’t you? What business have we down there, with all sorts coming and going? Now it’s more in our line to take down the net curtains on the top floor – they’re as grey as smoke, so they are. Go on with you now, and I won’t tell you again.’
Harp knew better than to contradict her mother; she would get nowhere. She trudged upstairs to get the curtains, deep in thought. She could try Mr Devereaux, see if he’d take her, but he never went anywhere. In all of her twelve years, she’d never once seen him leave the huge house on the cliff overlooking the port of Queenstown. She thought he would understand though, why she wanted to actually be there, to see it in person. She could watch from the window, of course she could. The Cliff House was the best house in the whole town, and it commanded the best view of the entire harbour of Cork, the islands of Spike and Haulbowline, the headlands of Roches Point on one side and Crosshaven on the other, jutting out, keeping guard over the entrance to the second biggest natural harbour in the whole world. But to be down at the quay, to see that magnificent unsinkable ship looming up out of the water, that would be really something. Millions of people left Ireland from Queenstown; it was the biggest and busiest port in the country, and for centuries people had set sail from it to the New World, some in chains, some as free men and women.
‘They say it’s unsinkable, the biggest ship in the world. It’s so big it has to stay out in the bay and the people have to be brought on and off by tender. It was built up in Belfast, and already it has been to France and England and now it is coming here and then going all the way across the Atlantic to America.’ It was a long speech for her; she normally didn’t speak so much, and never to anyone but her mother really, but the sense of occasion was making her giddy, a sensation she wasn’t used to. She wanted to feel the excitement. Imagine Titanic, the pride of the White Star Line, being there, in their home town, today.
Queenstown had spoken of little else since the arrival was announced. Every child in her class knew. The ship would leave Southampton, then go on to Cherbourg in France and then Queenstown. She smiled. The teacher said Cherbourg wrong – with a hard ‘ch’ at the start, like ‘chair’, instead of the correct ‘sh’ sound, and ‘bourg’ pronounced like ‘berg’ – but she didn’t correct him; she never did. To do so would earn her nothing but slaps for impertinence. And anyway, the others didn’t like it – they thought she was showing off – so she kept her own counsel most of the time. They thought her strange enough as it was.
She knew the correct pronunciation and could have explained it in English or in French had she been asked, but Master Tiernan never asked and she never volunteered. Her teacher was nice enough, and he was a good teacher considering most of the class barely opened a book once they left the schoolyard, but Harp wasn’t like that. She wasn’t like anyone, she thought ruefully. She’d tried so often, more when she was younger, to blend in with the other children, but she’d never managed to become one of them. She said the wrong things and she looked odd too, and so eventually she stopped trying to make them like or accept her. She sat in class each day and did the work assigned. She got top marks on her tests, and her homework was always completed perfectly and in full.
But the only real learning she did was in Mr Devereaux’s sitting room overlooking the bay. There, she was in heaven, reading Dickens or Austen or Proust. Mr Devereaux was like her; he didn’t say much. But he didn’t seem to mind her being in his room, reading quietly, while he pored over his pages of prime numbers or chemistry tables. She wasn’t sure what he did exactly, but it seemed by the look of concentration on his face to be very important. He didn’t work at anything, though. He’d been born at the Cliff House, then the family went to Japan, where old Mr Devereaux had a posting with the British government, and from there he went to boarding school in England and then back here. That’s what rich Protestants did, not that Mr Devereaux was religious – he had hardly been inside the door of the little church on the hill since she’d been born.
Old Mrs Devereaux died last year, and though it wasn’t nice to say it, Harp was relieved. The woman had a way of looking at Harp as if she were trying to memorise her face or something. She stared but never spoke. It was very disconcerting. She was a crosspatch anyway, forever barking at Mammy and behaving like there was a whole household of staff downstairs like in the olden days, when in fact there was just Mammy now.
She should be more use, Harp supposed – some of the girls in primary school were used to doing all sorts of work around the house, lighting fires, cleaning windows – but she preferred to read. At the moment she was reading a lot of philosophy, some Greeks but mainly Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She went through phases. Last year she’d been fascinated by medieval languages and thought she might go on to teach herself another language next. Already she could converse easily in French, English, Irish and German, so perhaps Spanish or Italian. She liked studying languages. She’d learned Latin when she was eight, and it made other languages so much easier when she could understand the root word.
Sometimes after dinner, she discussed the points she discovered with her mother, and she loved how Mammy never made her feel silly. Mammy respected and listened to her opinions as if they carried as much weight as her own. Though she wasn’t much use around the house, Harp knew her mammy was proud of her, and it made her warm inside.
Sometimes they talked about music. There was an old harp in the study, and Harp was teaching herself some Irish tunes. Mr Devereaux seemed to enjoy listening to her play as he read.
At night, tucked up in her little room under the eaves of the house, she would read by candlelight. She liked to read interesting things during the day, non-fiction, but before she slept, she always got lost in a novel. At the moment she was reading a story about an archaeologist who had uncovered a plot to kill an Egyptian nobleman when he read the hieroglyphics in a previously unopened tomb in the Valley of the Kings. They revealed a curse on the nobleman’s family through time, all the way back to Ramesses. She’d had a marvellous time reading up about the tombs across the Nile from Luxor in Egypt and saw some truly graphic pictures of people who were now blind because of the river blindness caused by the blackfly there.
She wished Mr Devereaux spoke more. He knew so much but was very quiet. He always answered her gently when she asked him a question, but his answers were short. However, he spoke more to her and her mother than to anyone else in the world. Harp noticed he changed when her mother came in the room, seemed to straighten himself up and made eye contact with her, something he avoided doing with everyone else. Not that there were many visitors to the Cliff House, just Mr Cotter, the solicitor; Mr Byrne, the accountant who administered the Devereaux Trust; and sometimes the vicar. But if they had five visits a year from anyone, it was a lot.
Mr Devereaux had learned much as a young man in Tokyo, or Edo as it was called up until 1868. His father had been stationed there from the late 1850s up until 1875 and negotiated a series of trade and diplomatic treaties between the Japanese and the British. On the wall of the dining room was a picture of Mr Devereaux Sr aboard a British iron paddle schooner called the Enpiroru, presented to the Emperor of Japan from Queen Victoria.
When Mr Devereaux spoke about Japan, he became quite animated, and he would tell her of the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent move to more Western ideas that followed.
Her mother tutted that she shouldn’t be bothering him, but she didn’t think he minded; she didn’t chatter on and on. He never mentioned the weather or other trivialities – he said something about a specific topic and then went back to his books. She found him restful and never felt pressure to speak as she did when she was out in the world. They were alike in so many ways. Each day at some point, she slipped into the library attached to his room and read quietly, often hours going by with no communication between them whatsoever.
Harp was unclear about how long her mother had been the Devereauxes’ housekeeper. Since before Harp was born for sure, but the whole matter of the past was something Rose never wanted to discuss.
When Harp had asked where her daddy was after first going to school at age four – the other children demanded to know – her mother told her that he was dead and up in heaven. They had no relatives; Mammy said her own parents were long dead too, and Harp had never met them. She didn’t know why she didn’t have lots of aunties and uncles and cousins like all of the boys and girls in school, but her mother shut the conversation down abruptly whenever Harp tried to raise it.
Rose answered Harp honestly on most things but sometimes said that Harp would discover whatever it was she asked about when she was older, which infuriated Harp. Sometimes her mother mentioned that she had worked in the house since she was a girl. Harp assumed she left to get married and then came back again when her husband, Harp’s father, died, but the details were scant.
Harp didn’t mind too much not having a father, but she wished she could have something to tell the other children at school when they asked. She felt the red-hot spotlight of their inquisition and blushed and mumbled under their gaze. If she just knew the story, she could say it for once and for all and be done with it. It was one of the many reasons they thought her odd. She knew she was. She wished she could converse easily with the others, talk about the local news or even flirt with the boys, but she couldn’t. She never knew what to say, and whenever she did speak, everyone looked at her like she was mad.
It didn’t help that her eyes were a strange grey colour or that her hair was a kind of reddish blond but neither straight nor curly or that she was too short or too skinny. At twelve, she noticed that most of the other girls had a burgeoning bustline, something the boys sniggered about constantly, but Harp’s narrow chest remained depressingly flat. Some of the others were always going on about liking boys or liking girls, but none of that remotely interested her. Even if it did, she was no beauty, she knew that, but she wished she looked a bit more like the other girls. She was too small and thin to look remotely womanly.
In the books she read, the heroines were dark-haired sultry beauties or blond beguilers; none of them ever had that not-quite-blond, not-quite-red hair that she had. And her grey eyes were unsettling; it was never a colour you read about except on a criminal with murderous intent – not ideal on a small twelve-year-old girl. When she explained this to her mother, Mammy had kissed her head and hugged her, weeping with mirth, clearly her predicament causing nothing but hilarity.
She was never invited to the birthday teas of the other children, and she knew her mother was hurt on her behalf, but it was difficult to say why she was excluded except that she was odd.
She’d never had a friend.
Sometimes, when she was little and the other children were arranging to play together, never inviting her, she cried, asking her mother if she knew of any way she could fit in. Rose had looked so sad then, so utterly heartbroken, that Harp stopped telling her how much she minded, and after a few years she found she didn’t really care any more. She had her home and the library and her mother, and that was all she needed.
Mixing with others was so difficult. She didn’t even talk like the other children. She couldn’t help using words like ‘vicariously’ or the hypothetical imperative. She tried to speak as they did, but it was hard and unwittingly a word would slip out and she would feel their gaze of mistrustful bewilderment once more.
‘Ah, Harp,’ her mother would say, smiling benignly, ‘it is a fruitless quest to try to blend in when you are created to stand out. You will do great things, go to interesting places, meet fascinating people. You are destined for something other than this.’ She would wave her hand to indicate either the house or the town of Queenstown; Harp was never sure.
When the time had come to go to secondary school the previous year, Rose had explained that it really wasn’t for servants’ children but more for the offspring of the professional classes or even the bigger shopkeepers in the town. But Harp had pleaded and her mother relented, paying the fee from her wages. Harp had hoped there might be someone there like her, someone she could befriend, but alas, no; it was more of the same. The children who attended didn’t do so out of a love of learning but because they were sent there. It was disappointing.
She stood in the main upstairs bedroom, which overlooked the harbour – it had been Mrs Devereaux’s room – and gazed out. Her mother had sent her up there to do something, but she’d forgotten what. She went to the small bookcase under the window. It was one she rarely visited, being full of Mrs Devereaux’s choice of literature – romances – but it would do. She took a book and sat on the window seat, but even the first paragraph bored her. Simpering heroines and grumpy handsome earls dancing around each other until one or another cracked and declared passionate love – it was all so drearily monotonous. It was as if they only had one plot and swapped silly titled men and women and fancy houses in England in and out to make each book seem different. She snapped it closed and replaced it.
Mr Devereaux wouldn’t allow such ridiculous books in his personal library. He really only liked non-fiction, though he did have some old fairy story collections she’d enjoyed when she was younger. Of course, Mr Devereaux didn’t collect all of the books himself. The Cliff House had been built in the 1700s, so there were some lovely antiquarian books as well. He never minded if she read them, even if the pages were delicate and yellowed with age. She treated them with the reverence they deserved.
He was her friend, she realised. He wasn’t like anyone in any other way either. He was old – Mammy said he was fifty-two years old – and he wore his silver hair long and sometimes even tied back with an elastic. His skin was pale, though that was from hardly ever venturing outside, she supposed. He was small and slight and not a physically robust man.
He did look unusual, with his wide cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. He dressed strangely too, in colourful shirts and loose trousers, and often he wore nothing on his feet, preferring to be barefoot. ‘Eccentric’ was the word her mother used, though always affectionately. She’d taken care of him and his mother for so many years, an easy affection had grown between them. She chided him for working too late in dim light, or not wearing an extra jumper in the winter when the house was stone cold despite the fires.
It might be old and draughty, but Harp loved the Cliff House. It was by far the most imposing building in the town, a double-fronted Gothic mansion with ten bedrooms, four sitting rooms and several other rooms – libraries, salons and drawing rooms – the vast majority of which were closed and filled with furniture covered in white sheets.
It had been in the Devereaux family for generations. Mr Devereaux’s great-great-grandfather built it, having made a fortune in the colonies, and those who’d once lived there were now resting in the Protestant graveyard beside the church at the top of the town. The Devereauxes were French Normans who came to Ireland after the Norman invasion of 1169, establishing themselves first in Dublin and Wexford but eventually moving to Cork. They were traders and merchants, and one notable ancestor was knighted, thus elevating the family in society and allowing the construction of such a house as the Cliff House. Where all the money went was another of the unexplained mysteries of Harp’s life, since these days they lived like poor church mice. The roof leaked, the windows were rotten, and there wasn’t a spare penny for repairs.
Her mother explained that Mrs Devereaux left a trust fund for the upkeep of the house and the care of Mr Devereaux, but it was a paltry sum and the remainder of her money had gone to Mr Devereaux’s brother, Ralph, who was in India. Harp had never met Ralph; he’d left Queenstown before she was born and had never returned. There was a portrait on the stairs of Mr Devereaux and his brother when they were younger. Mr Devereaux looked very much like he did now, just younger, but Ralph was dashing and handsome. Harp had pointed out how attractive he was to her mother one day, but Rose had dismissed it as foolish talk and told her that it was not appropriate for her to speak of their employers in that manner.
As Harp wandered back downstairs, having forgotten to do whatever her mother had instructed her, she saw Mr Devereaux’s door open. His rooms were made up of a bedroom, a sitting room and a library. The sitting room and library had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the books were arranged first by subject, then alphabetically. There were a pair of huge red leather Chesterfields either side of the enormous fireplace, the leather cracked on the arms, as well as three Queen Anne chairs, each upholstered in dark-green velvet, all worn now on the seat. The fireplace was red Cork marble, and the polished walnut floorboards were covered with oriental rugs Mr Devereaux’s father had brought back from Japan when he retired in 1880.
Her favourite piece in that room, apart from the harp that some previous Devereaux had played years ago, was the maroon Edison Gem gramophone. It was new, and both she and Mr Devereaux loved it with its huge red horn, beautiful mahogany casing and brass handle. It featured both two- and four-minute gearing as well as a combination reproducer, which meant it could play all cylinder records.
He loved the modern jazz music coming out of America and ordered records, which he played over and over. But the music they returned to each night was O’Carolan – phonograph recordings filling the silent room with his harp music.
Harp music had soothed her to sleep since she was a baby, and one of her earliest memories was her mother lifting her upstairs to bed with the recording of ‘Eleanor Plunkett’ ringing peacefully in her ears.
‘That’s one of the reasons I called you Harp,’ Rose said once, in a rare moment of introspective nostalgia. ‘Because I knew you would love that sound. When you were in my belly, the moment that music played, you settled.’
When she was younger, it hadn’t occurred to Harp to question how her mother could listen to harp music when she was pregnant far away in another house with her husband, Harp’s father, but now it did. However, like all other questions pertaining to her mother’s life before coming to the Cliff House, it was shut down.
Her mother was right, though. Nothing could soothe her like the pluck of the strings, but it didn’t make for an easy life. Harp was not a name, as the children at school were apt to point out; it was a thing, like a table or a chair or a bucket. And the fact that she played the very instrument she was named after was even sillier, not that anyone at school knew she could play. But it was her name and yet another thing about her that was unlike everyone else. She sometimes wished her mother had not been given to such a flight of fancy and just called her Kate or Hannah or Mary…anything normal.
And it wasn’t as if her mother was one for mad notions – quite the opposite. If Mr Devereaux was eccentric, her mother was every inch a perfect lady. She dressed in sombre colours, every garment pressed and stitched to perfection. She never showed any flesh, except her face, which was unlined and porcelain white and framed by her perfectly set dark hair. Harp thought her mother was beautiful. Her lips formed a natural cupid’s bow and were never tinted but were naturally red, her long dark eyelashes framed her brown eyes, striking-looking with her dark colouring, her cheekbones were high, and the hollows of her cheeks and her jawline were as contoured as if Michelangelo himself had sculpted her.
‘Harp, come in here. I want to show you something,’ Mr Devereaux called as she passed. He so rarely spoke, his voice startled her.
She stepped into his room that smelled of pipe smoke and woody cologne. Her seat by the large bay window was as it always was, ready for her, her current books in a pile on the small table beside it. His desk was pushed into the bay of the other window, piled high with papers and drawings and books open to various pages. Rose knew never to tidy it; it might look chaotic but it was perfectly ordered to him.
His needs were few. He ate whatever Rose brought up to him, and Harp sometimes wondered, if Rose didn’t bring his three meals a day up to his study, would he ever stop to eat?
Because he’d been sent to school in England, as was the norm for people from his class, he spoke with a British accent, but he held that country and all it represented in disdain. Harp knew he was fiercely pro-Irish independence. He read the writings of Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Charles Stewart Parnell and Daniel O’Connell, gently directing Harp to read them too. He’d hardly left the house for years, except for the funerals of his parents and one reluctant visit to a doctor in London last summer.
He beckoned her closer and opened a parcel that had been delivered earlier that morning as she was eating her porridge in the kitchen. It was a velvet box, the size of two decks of playing cards side by side but thicker. He handed it to her. ‘It’s for you. Open it.’
Should she refuse it? Her mother was anxious to always remind Harp of their position within the house, how they relied on the Devereauxes’ good graces for all they had – a roof over their heads, food in their bellies – and hammered home how they should be grateful, but Harp had a different relationship with Mr Devereaux.
They understood each other in a way that nobody else could. He didn’t talk down to her, or make her feel like an oddity. She could be herself with him. He was an important part of her life. She could never say it, of course not, but he was. She didn’t have a father, or a grandad or even an uncle, but she had Mr Devereaux and he was worth more than all of those rolled into one.
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