Mary Lavelle, a beautiful young Irish woman, travels to Spain to see some of the world before marrying her steadfast fiance John. But despite the enchanting surroundings and her three charming charges, life as governess to the wealthy Areavaga family is lonely and she is homesick. Then comes the arrival of the family's handsome, passionate - and married - son Juanito and Mary's loyalties and beliefs are challenged. Falling in love with Juanito and with Spain, Mary finds herself at the heart of a family and a nation divided.
Release date: May 19, 2016
Print pages: 368
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12th June, 1922.
I hope that by now you have had my telegram and are not worrying about me any more. The children here, whose English is not bad, sent it for me over the telephone last night about an hour after I arrived. But I am still wondering if the people at the other end of the telephone managed to get an understandable message through. I hope they did, as this letter will not reach you for about four days.
I am very well. I slept like a dead thing last night and have almost forgotten how tired I was when I got here. The journey from Paris to Irun was uncomfortable and afterwards getting from there to Altorno was very complicated. No one seemed to understand a word of English or my very bad French.
It is very pleasant here and I shall be happy, I think. Everyone is being kind to me and the children get great fun out of acting as interpreters between me and everyone else.
Cabantes is only a little fishing village where a few rich people have recently taken a fad to live, finding Altorno too noisy. The Casa Pilar is at the extreme end of the village, right on the little squat pier where the sardine-boats come in. The terrace of the house is only separated from the pier by a low, flat wall on which the children love to sit. They and their father are always talking with the fishermen and love watching the disputes that go on between them and the wild-looking sardine-women. The windows of my room look right over this little pier, and if I knew Spanish I am so near the boatmen even here on the second floor that I could hear all their conversation. It’s lovely to have the sea so close to my windows. The house is very big, of yellowish stone and rather ugly. About a hundred years old, the children say, but their father only bought it when he was married in 1896. Everything is very luxurious. There are four bathrooms, I think, and I seem already to have seen seven or eight maids. The garden is big and has glorious dark trees all round it in a semi-circle. It is a quiet place to live in, and the view in all directions is lovely. The mountains away behind this house look craggy and red – the children say they are full of iron-mines – but across the bay and all around Cabantes is very leafy and flowery, and though foreign to me, of course, not a bit what I expected Spain to be.
I think I will find my work easy enough – except the English lesson every morning which I am worried about. I really don’t know in the least how to teach. Otherwise, chaperoning the three while they have their other lessons, taking them for walks, escorting them to their friends’ houses, and talking English all the time – that sort of thing ought to be easy enough. They had a ‘miss’ for two years until last June. They don’t seem to have liked her much, but she taught them a fair amount of English. I like them, particularly the two younger ones. And I daresay I shall like their mother too when we can manage to understand each other. She is very pretty and seems kind. Certainly I am well looked after. I have meals by myself in a sort of breakfast room. They were apologetic about this, and said that it was because ‘papa,’ whom I have not yet seen, objects to having to talk to a stranger at every meal. I am greatly relieved about it. I dreaded the idea of having meals with them always. I believe misses usually have to.
I must write to Mother Liguori now, to thank her for getting me this job, and also I must write to John – so forgive me if I end up here. I will give more details of my life later on, when I know it better. My next letter home must be to Aunt Cissy, though. Tell her that she must excuse my not writing to her today, as really I haven’t much time. Give her my love, of course, and to dear Hannah and the cats. And to Jenny and Sheila when you write. I will send them postcards one of these days. I hope that you and Aunt Cissy are keeping very well. I shall write as often as I can. Meantime be sure that I am perfectly well and happy and am almost certain to be quite content here.
With once again my best love to everyone,
Your loving daughter,
12th June, 1922.
DEAR MOTHER LIGUORI,—
I arrived here safely yesterday evening, and feel that I must write at once to tell you how nice everything seems and to thank you very much once again for finding the job for me and arranging everything. The three girls whom I am to have charge of met my train in Altorno with the car and we drove out here to Cabantes which is right on the sea – about ten miles from Altorno. The girls are very lively and I imagine I shall get on all right with them. They can speak some English, which is a relief, as no one else in the house or anywhere seems to speak anything but Spanish or Basque. I got into great muddles on the journey from the frontier, through not knowing Spanish. I must try to learn some quickly.
You will forgive the dullness and shortness of this letter, as I have not much time for writing to-day, and am still a bit tired from the journey. I hope that you are very well. I wish I knew something about how to teach English. These girls have to have an hour every morning of English grammar and composition. I am in a funk about that – but the rest of my duties seem easy enough.
I am very grateful to you about the job, and you know that I will do my best to be a success in it. I am very well looked after, and everyone in the house seems kind and friendly.
With every good wish and many thanks, dear Mother Liguori,
Your affectionate pupil,
12th June, 1922.
MY DEAREST JOHN,—
I have just had to write to Father and to Mother Liguori and my hand is getting tired – so I’m afraid you will only get a dull sort of letter. I’m sorry for that, because there are thousands of things I want to tell you. Still – how could I possibly tell them? You know I’m no better than you at writing things down. And, oh, that reminds me – have you written to me yet? Letters take at least four days from here to Ireland! Isn’t that awful? Still, I’m hoping that you may have posted one the day after I left, and if you did I might with luck get it to-morrow. The postman comes twice a day, and always by the seafront. He comes in at a little iron gate from the pier, and every time this gate is opened a bell rings – just like a convent bell. When I’m in my room or the children’s study I can hear it. I’m dying for news of you and Mellick and everyone. It seems much longer than five days since I left. And all the trains and boats and taxis I’ve been in since then! You must admit that for someone who had never travelled at all I undertook a pretty good journey once I started! All the time since I left, in London and in Paris, and even yesterday at the frontier and in the little mountain-train coming here – though by then I was stupid with tiredness, I think – I was seeing things that I wanted to show you or tell you about. You’ll never hear about them now though, because they are all jumbled in my head and I am so much occupied with things that are strange to me here that I cannot get back to the impressions of the journey. Anyway, it all went smoothly enough in spite of the language question, and I found people extraordinarily nice, even when we hadn’t the least chance of understanding each other. (In Paris I discovered that my French, which was supposed to be good at school, is worse than useless!) Nothing nasty happened and no one was the least bit rude or sinister – so there was no need at all to be in the kind of fuss you got into, dearest. But lots of funny things cropped up, and there were muddles galore, and really it’s no thanks to me, but only because of the kindness of several total strangers that I got to Altorno at all. I hope that Father or Aunt Cis telephoned you when they got my wire – they promised they would.
I wish I knew how to describe this place so as to make it seem real to you – but I never could. You see, it’s entirely unlike everything you and I know, but it is not a bit like my idea of Spain – or yours, I imagine. And if I say that already after twenty-four hours I feel familiar with it, you’ll say I’m mad. But I mean it. Perhaps it’s the sea under my window that gives me the illusion – because now the tide is out, and the smell of seaweed is coming into the room exactly as if I were in Kilbeggan. I suppose that makes me feel less strange. The bay is lovely, and I have a grand view of it. It has two very long breakwaters, one jutting out from the extreme end of the sea-front, and the other from Torcal just opposite. Ships from everywhere – and fairly big ones, about as big as come into Mellick – sail past my windows up to Altorno. The children say that I will get to know all the flags of the world from watching the ships. But I prefer watching the goings-on on the little stubby fishermen’s pier, right under my nose. The house is practically built on that pier, and the boatmen sit on our terrace wall by the hour. The ferries for Torcal start from there – it’s amusing to see them load up, and the sardine boats come in here. When one is in a terrific bell rings, and the sardine-women come tearing up like demented creatures from the market-place. There are ructions then for about fifteen minutes!
There are mountains behind Cabantes – full of iron mines from which most of the rich people round here get their money. The children say that a great many Englishmen have jobs in these mines and foundries, engineers and so on – and that there is a large English colony in Altorno. But the mountains that I can see now across the water are only little hills. Torcal looks a pretty place – with white houses sloping down to the sea, and so does Playablanca, which is nearer here, and faces the breakwaters, and has a real strand. The only way to get from Cabantes to these places is in the little motor ferry boats I told you about. I went over this morning with the children to be shown the sights of Playablanca. These two places are very little more than summer resorts – especially Playablanca, which seems to be nothing but new-looking villas; the children tell me it is practically a dead place for ten months of the year. It is very quiet now – August and September are its season. All the houses are open then, they say, and the strand is packed with children, and there are crowds of yachts in the bay. The Yacht Club is built out on the water. The king is a member of it, and he may be here in September to race his yachts.
I like Cabantes much better than Playablanca. It seems a very old little town with an arcaded market place, and hilly streets going up to a brown church. It’s a kind of suburb of Altorno; electric trains go in there every half-hour. The journey only takes about fifteen minutes, so I shall go in on my first free afternoon. Coming from the train last evening I thought it seemed a very lively town – there was a lot of noise – but it looks poor and wild and very crumbly and dirty – anyhow, the part we passed through.
I can tell you very little about my life here, as I know nothing of it yet. Serious lessons, from me and from the other tutors, will go on until the end of this month and then cease until October. But to-day the girls had a holiday from all their classes – in my honour! They are nice girls – Pilár, Nieves and Milagros – called after Our Lady of the Pillar, of the Sorrows and of the Miracles. They are seventeen, fifteen and fourteen. Pilár will be coming out next year, she says – and she is very full of that subject. She is dark, the darkest of the family, very pretty, and laughs a lot. I like the other two better, I think. Their mother is very pretty too. I have not seen the children’s father yet. Thank the Lord he won’t have a stranger at table with him every day, so I eat my meals alone. I’m delighted about this. The food is awfully nice, but you are expected to eat more than is humanly possible. There is wine on my table always, but I haven’t had the courage to try it yet! Nice business if I got drunk! What would you say if you heard that of me?
My dearest – it is so difficult trying to tell you everything in a letter. My hand is awfully tired, but there are heaps of other things to say. About the house, which is very large and comfortable. I have an enormous room, with a huge white and gilt bed, very old-looking, but terribly comfortable. There are three long windows in my room, and they open on to a balcony and look over the bay towards Torcal. The sun is marvellous out there now and I can hear all sorts of sounds that are growing familiar already. But I must really go back to the study now – it is just across the landing, and the girls are probably waiting for me there – to go and play tennis, or something. They have a rather bad court. You’d like the garden, I think. At least, you’d say everything was ridiculously arranged perhaps, but you’d be interested in the curious trees, and the masses of flowers. Things flower twice a year here, they say. There are camellias and fuchsias, and roses everywhere – and simply torrents of wistaria! And you’ve never seen so many flowerpots – painted yellow and white and blue. They’d annoy you terribly, I think!
Oh, John – I must stop. You mustn’t think that all this gabble means that I don’t miss you. I wish I could tell you how I do! Hardly five minutes go by in which I don’t think of you, or want to show you something or talk to you. I get the most awful fits of loneliness for Mellick, and panic about everything. But I know these fits are very silly. It was the best thing to do, wasn’t it – to come out here for a year or so, until we can get married? But there’s no need to go over all that again. We thrashed it out so thoroughly. I’ll be quite happy here, and I’ll learn Spanish and get to know something about the world – or a bit of it. Which will be no harm, will it? I know you think me rather a fool – so perhaps foreign life – you could hardly call it foreign travel – will improve my mind for you. Dearest, I hope it will. You are so good and brainy, and have to work so hard for your pittance that it seems cruel to plan to marry you – and make things even harder the first minute they seem to improve. But I want to marry you – so what can I do, except promise to be a good wife? You deserve much more than that, but that is all I have to offer. Dearest boy, take care of yourself, and send me a lot of letters. Tell me all the news of Mellick. It’s funny that, apart from missing you, I miss just being at home very much – although you know that with the way father has been going on lately I wasn’t happy, and thought I was dying to be away from everything. But now the mere idea of Mellick makes me afraid of crying. Oh, John – I have never in my life written so long a letter, and I’m afraid you’ll be saying by now that you hope I never will again!
Good-bye, dearest. Please write to me. Love from
PS. – I don’t like to put that snapshot of you on my table, as the girls are always hopping into my room. But I keep it in the drawer of my writing-table and often look at it. It’s awfully like you, and looks very nice in the little leather frame. – M.
The writer of these three letters addressed them with care, the first to Dr Thomas Lavelle, 25, Upper Mourne Street, Mellick, Irlanda, the second to Mother Liguori O’Dowd, Convent of the Heart of Mary, Mellick, Irlanda, and the third to John MacCurtain, Esq., 16, Marguerite Terrace, Ballyburnagh Road, Mellick, Irlanda. As she folded the many thin sheets of the last, she stroked the paper gently and smiled.
When she had written in this letter that already she felt familiar with her new surroundings, the statement rang curiously to her, but she had let it stand, knowing the phrase as true as she, unpractised in writing or thinking about herself, was likely to achieve. She did not re-examine it at present.
She looked about her receptively. Her room was, as she had said, enormous, and being furnished with pieces discarded as shabby by Doña Consuelo, victim, with most of her contemporaries of the middle-class, of art nouveau – it had an elegance dismissed from the rest of the house. Mary Lavelle viewed its white walls, baroque and immense gold bed, its chipped mirrors, and above all, the little gilded shrine from which Our Lady, in muslin dress and sapphire crown, smiled with lovely innocence – she viewed all this new setting with a pang of mingled homesickness and pleasure. And the sounds which came in through her open window, already in twenty-four hours growing – as she had said – familiar, increased this mingling of emotion. For though she heard them still with a foreigner’s exasperated ear – the boatmen’s shouts, the strange, wild singing of some idle boy – cante hondo, the children called it – the soft gossip of women taking their ease on the pier – yet they had, though incomprehensible, a summer evening orthodoxy, an eternalness, so reassuring as to be very sad. She smiled, nevertheless, against nostalgia – summer evenings in another place of white skies and grey waters, of tall brown houses and shabby sycamore trees – summer evenings where every sound had its immediate meaning and a familiarity of twenty years – had they not been sad too, and exasperating? Aunt Cissy was right, very likely, about the folly of sitting in idleness, but this room invited some assimilatory contemplation. She smiled, counting its blessings. She had never been ruler of so much space before, had never had three windows and a balcony to call her own, had never slept in a bed so vast and fairy-tale. She had been brought up in unselfconscious habits and therefore was not so much regretful as relieved that the mirrors’ positions made it impossible that she should see herself when arranged for sleep – and yet this morning she had wondered, lying there, how in fact one did appear in such a cloudy resting-place. Now remembering that absurd reflection, she laughed at herself self-consciously, and opening her writing-table drawer, took out the photograph of John MacCurtain in its little leather frame. It was a brilliantly good snapshot. John with his pipe and his terrier-pup, and his invincible, good smile. She smiled back at him and his intense familiarity somewhat neutralised her mood by exacting an orthodox reaction of sentimentality. But she wished now that she had some of his courage. For at any minute she must return to her new charges in the study, and the girl was as shy as she was self-controlled. ‘Dearest,’ she said, and reluctantly put the photograph away.
Pilár, Nieves and Milagros Areavaga waited for their governess in the study, discussing her in their own language with freedom and good nature. They were used to governesses. Their first years, until Pilár was ten, had been ruled by a Frenchwoman; after her there had been Fräulein until in 1919 their parents thought it time they learnt some English. So Miss Murphy, ‘Miss Anita,’ had taken charge, but a month ago had forsaken them for a household in Madrid, ‘needing a change, needing a little gaiety.’ This craving of Miss Murphy’s had amused Pilár.
‘I don’t know what you’re worrying about, Pilár,’ said Milagros now. Milagros, grey-eyed and fourteen, was remarkable for detachment. ‘When you’re more used to her you’ll see that she’s exactly like a miss.’
Nieves smiled. ‘How can you possibly think that?’
Milagros looked up from her needlework. ‘I saw the usual waterproof in her room,’ she said gently, ‘and the usual regrettable hat.’
Pilár chuckled. ‘When a miss here in Altorno wants a new hat – you know, Milagros, the hat – what on earth does she do?’
‘Climbs the steps to Allera and lights a candle, I imagine.’
‘Still, it’s all very well for you and Nieves to take it so cheerfully – she’s not very likely to be around when you come out, but next year, really—’
‘Does she shake your conceit, Pilár?’ asked Milagros.
‘A raving beauty for a chaperone – wouldn’t you feel a fool?’
‘I won’t have a chaperone, perhaps.’
‘You’ll have to when you come out.’
‘Perhaps I won’t come out,’ said Milagros.
She could always amuse her two elder sisters, who laughed benevolently now.
‘Will you stay up here embroidering always?’ asked Nieves.
‘Wouldn’t be bad. Or I might be a nun.’
‘Oh no!’ Nieves’ thin face looked unhappy, but Pilár was bland.
‘Good,’ she said. ‘Then we can shelve all our real praying on to you. But aren’t we playing tennis to-day? Where is the Miss?’
‘She’s writing letters. Give her a chance,’ said Nieves.
‘What does mother think of her, do you imagine?’ Pilár was still worrying.
‘Annoyed, very likely; but – well, a lot of money has been spent in fetching her here and perhaps her looking as she does won’t matter much for the next twelve months—’ Nieves shrugged in friendly imitation of their mother. ‘Father hasn’t seen her yet,’ she added.
‘He never will see her,’ said Milagros. The others looked interrogatory. ‘I don’t think he has ever even seen us.’
But Pilár was by way of being a cherished family beauty. ‘You go too far with your nonsense,’ she said severely.
‘I wasn’t criticising,’ said the fourteen-year-old.
‘Oh no,’ said Pilár sarcastically. ‘You approve of father because you think he models himself on you.’ She moved towards a mirror on the wall and studied her complexion with gravity. She was the smallest of the three and was roundly and femininely made. Her frock of pale blue linen fitted and became her well. Her black hair gleamed and she had lively eyes of so light a brown that they were almost gold; they shone agreeably in a small, pretty face to which now, in her eighteenth year, she was allowed to apply cosmetics.
Nieves leant over the balcony. Thin and gawky in a ‘middy’ blouse and an old blue skirt, she looked an innocent fifteen-year-old. Her eyes were either grey or blue. There was a sweet and nervous beauty in her face. She liked the view from this balcony and took a great interest in the flags of the ships. Above all, she liked to see the English flag go by. Her chief day-dream was that she was an English boy at Eton. A Catholic, naturally, but at Eton. Catholics did go there.
Milagros scrutinised Pilár scrutinising her complexion.
‘When Mother said you could paint your face, Pilár, did you know right off how to do it?’
Pilár smiled inattentively.
Milagros talked more to Pilár than to Nieves, because she was the better target for the kind of remark that occurred to the youngest sister. It was conceivable that Nieves might even die of pain if one made such jokes about her foibles as Pilár either ignored or giggled at. But Milagros admired Pilár really. There she was, complete, confident, cap-à-pie ready for everything. The youngest sister did not analyse this temperamental condition – merely she felt it with pleasure. Her face, pale and bony like Nieves’, was nearly always amiably composed. The grey of her eyes never gleamed blue as did Nieves’. Were it not for coltish awkwardness and for the schoolroom haphazardry of her clothes, she might have been mistaken for the eldest of the three girls. She suspected the day-dreams of Nieves, who looked indeed a shameless dreamer, but for the most part she let them be; she teased Pilár with accurate wit about the myths by which her idle hours were very probably fed; but no one scratched at her inner life, whatever it was. So the three grew in affectionate peace and detachment; they were well-behaved, intelligent children, happy and beloved, devoted to their parents.
When their Miss entered the study they all turned towards her with pleasant smiles and Milagros stood up and put away her needlework. Each of the three made an effort to switch her mind to the English idiom.
Their governess eyed them with caution.
‘I’m sorry if I’ve kept you waiting. Shall we go to the garden now?’
They went down wide and polished flights of shallow stairs. Nieves carried the Miss’s racket; Pilár, hanging on her right arm, carried her letters to give to the gardener; Milagros brought up the rear.
‘We won’t call you Miss Lavelle, if you don’t mind,’ said Pilár. ‘We don’t use names in that way in Spain. Miss Murphy was “Miss Anita” here. What is your name, Miss?’
‘Ah, Mary, Maria. So are we all Maria, of course. May we call you Miss Maria?’
They strolled through the garden to the tennis court. On the way Pilár, with a great deal of vigorous talk, gave Miss Maria’s letters to the gardener to post. He was a smiling man with a gigantic black moustache.
‘I shall never understand Spanish,’ said the governess as they left Jaime behind.
‘Perhaps not,’ said Milagros, ‘but that was Basque. Pilár has a bad habit of speaking Basque to the servants.’
‘It’s the only way of making sure they understand,’ said Pilár.
Nieves came out of a tool-shed with some rackets.
‘Milagros is a snob about the way people speak,’ she said. ‘She thinks that her own Castilian is the purest in Altorno.’
‘Castilian? How do you mean?’
‘Spanish of the educated, Miss Maria,’ said Milagros. ‘I beg of you don’t learn any Spanish from Pilár.’
The governess smiled at the juvenile pomposity.
This passage of English conversation, though conducted gallantly enough by the three Spaniards, was not unnaturally starred with grammatical and phonetic errors which, set down in narrative, would be tedious. But there was comedy in hearing all through it in these eager Spanish voices, the high, insidious singing of the Cork accent. Miss Anita must indeed have worn the green, and Mary Lavelle could only assume that she now brought to the Areavagas another kind of brogue. Poor Milagros, in love with purity!
They played tennis. Miss Anita had not been an athlete. ‘She was about fifty, Miss Maria,’ said Pilár, ‘and rather like Jaime to look at – the same kind of moustache.’ She had not pretended to know even how to count in tennis. The new miss could do better than that. Nieves drank up the curious terms – ‘love, deuce, vantage’ – an Et. . .
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