The West's Awake
Release date: June 12, 2021
Publisher: Independently Published
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The West's Awake
Queenstown, Cork, Ireland
‘Is that all, Miss Devereaux?’ Cissy Devlin asked, wrapping the ham she’d just cut from the large joint in greaseproof paper. Almost everyone in Queenstown called Harp ‘Miss Devereaux’ now, ever since Henry had named her as his daughter in his will.
Harp smiled and checked her list. ‘Em…a tin of mustard powder and some Epsom salts too please.’ If she arrived back to Cliff House without all the items she’d been sent for, her mother would not be happy.
It was mid-July and they were full every night in the guest house, which meant she was constantly having to run out for one essential or another. The Devlins’ shop was the best grocer in the town; it was immaculately clean, the produce arranged neatly and held mostly behind the counter. The more discerning housewives preferred it to the cheaper huckster shops, where rats and mice were hard to keep out and everything always smelled a bit off.
‘And what about you, Mr Quinn?’ Cissy smiled over Harp’s shoulder. ‘What can we delight you with today?’
Harp turned in pleased surprise to find Brian Quinn behind her. He must be home from Dublin for the holidays, she thought. The undertaker’s son was universally liked and instantly recognisable, tall and thin with freckles peppered across his pale skin and a shock of red curls that he tried to tame with hair oil with limited success.
‘Nothing, Miss Devlin, thanks. I’m a penniless student. I just popped in to say hello.’
Brian smiled warmly at Harp, and she suspected he had spotted her on her way into the shop and was there to see her as well.
Cissy arched an eyebrow at them both. ‘I suppose the two of ye have gone too big and sophisticated altogether for a few pear drops?’
‘Never.’ Brian chuckled as she poured a few of the boiled sweets into two paper cones and handed them to him and Harp. ‘I might look grown up, but you know my weakness, Miss Devlin.’
‘I do well. Didn’t I serve you enough of them over the years? Now tell me, how are the studies above in Dublin going? I’d say medicine is very hard all the same.’
Cissy was a great one for talk, whereas Liz, who was quietly stacking tins on the shelves behind her sister, was much more reserved. Neither woman had ever married, but they seemed very contented living together. They looked alike, both small and wiry with dark hair set in respectable waves. They wore housecoats, one pink, one blue, and only took them off for Mass. Liz had thick glasses and Cissy was the friendlier of the two, but when they weren’t wearing the different coloured housecoats, people often confused one for the other.
‘Medical college is fine and hard, I can tell you, Miss Devlin. I don’t know if I’ll make it at all some days,’ Brian said ruefully. ‘’Tis Harp here should be doing the complicated books of anatomy and physiology – she’s the brains of the town.’
Harp glanced at him with a shy smile. She’d always thought he’d make a good doctor; he had the sort of open face and gentle manner that people trusted.
‘We’ll be losing Miss Devereaux to the halls of the university soon enough, I’d say. You’ll be the first girl from here I ever heard of to do it, fair play to you. I suppose ’tis to Cork you’ll go, is it? What will you be studying?’ Cissy asked as Harp popped a pear drop into her mouth.
At sixteen she probably shouldn’t be accepting free sweets like a child, but the Devlin sisters had been so nice and kind to her all her life, from when she was a tiny little scrap of an oddball. ‘Well, I have to matriculate next year, but I think it will be all right if I work hard enough. And then I’m still not sure – it will depend on lots of things, I suppose.’ She reddened as she spoke but was still pleased at how confident she sounded. What a difference four short years had made to her. Having the whole town know her as the daughter of Mr Devereaux had changed her. She looked even more like him now as she grew older, her strawberry-blond hair the exact shade of his. She loved it when people remarked upon it.
Cissy nodded. ‘Well, you’ve all the time in the world – sure you’re only a child still. Are ye busy above? The place is teeming with people all the week.’
‘We are busy,’ agreed Harp. ‘There are two ships going this week, one to Boston, the other to Canada.’
After Henry had left her the Cliff House in his will, she and her mother had converted it into a successful guest house. They catered mostly to the second-class passengers, as the first-class passengers stayed at the Queen’s Hotel and the third class were consigned to Mrs O’Flaherty’s boarding house in the part of Queenstown known as the Holy Ground, an area best avoided if possible.
The guest house had gained quite the reputation as a lovely place to stay, without the hefty price tag of the hotel, so the Cliff House was becoming increasingly popular with well-to-do Irish who could afford a holiday by the sea, or British officers and their wives and families enjoying some leave. It meant they were no longer dependent on sea passengers alone, which was just as well, because with the war raging in Europe, passenger travel wasn’t what it was. The deliberate sinking of the Lusitania last May had really rattled people. The Germans had given an undertaking to allow civilian traffic across the ocean, but people were still nervous. The sinking of Titanic in 1912 had shaken Queenstown to its foundations, and though the Lusitania was sunk off Kinsale, on the other side of the harbour, the rescue mission was launched from Queenstown.
Harp remembered the pathetic sight of the notice board up in the hotel, people seeking information about family and friends who were aboard. She and her mother had watched in horror as the ship went down, nine miles off the Old Head of Kinsale. They had a view from the top window of the Cliff House. It sank in eleven minutes, with the loss of 1198 lives. The British said it wasn’t carrying munitions, but it would be hard to imagine how it would have sunk so fast if it weren’t.
‘And another one next week,’ added Cissy. ‘Though just to England. There seems to be an awful exodus altogether on.’
‘I suppose the carry on above in Dublin at Easter means there’s plenty need to get out of sight of the authorities,’ said Brian darkly. ‘Idiots. You should see the state of the city in Dublin after them and their shenanigans. Hotheads and romantic fools is all they were, and what have we to show for it? A needless waste of lives and a city in ruins.’
‘It wasn’t a “needless waste of lives”,’ Harp protested indignantly. ‘It was an armed insurrection demanding independence from our oppressors. And you shouldn’t speak about the rebels so disrespectfully, when their leaders were slaughtered so coldly and callously.’ She had liked Brian ever since he stuck up for her as a tiny terrified child in the schoolyard, but he was a person who saw the world very differently to her and she wondered if they would ever agree on anything. Clearly, he considered the Easter Rising a reckless adventure, but Harp had felt a thrill of excitement and patriotism. She’d followed the progress of the rebels carefully and felt the pain of the Cork men and women who were not given the opportunity to participate due to a series of misinformed messages that said the Rising was off.
‘Populist claptrap.’ Brian dismissed her objections. ‘If the rebels were so wonderful, how come they allowed women to fight? Big brave men they were for sure, sending girls no older than yourself out to die.’
‘Why shouldn’t women fight? I think they were marvellous. Why should we not have a voice? We are part of this country too, and we suffer at the hands of the British even more than the men sometimes. If you listened – and I mean actually listened – rather than scoffed at what Countess Markievicz had to say about women’s suffrage and the links between the equality of the sexes and the ideas of sovereignty, you might learn something.’
The Devlin sisters shot each other a look, and Harp blushed once more. She knew she shouldn’t argue in public, but honestly, Brian Quinn was infuriating sometimes.
The undertaker’s son smiled at the sisters. ‘I’m sorry, Misses Devlin, for our outbursts. Harp and I have a lot of debates. She’s a young lady who knows her own mind, I’m afraid.’ He nudged Harp affectionately, but she didn’t respond. He was typical of so many men and boys, thinking women were there to have babies and keep houses.
‘What are you afraid of, Brian?’ Cissy asked, her blue eyes innocent.
‘Oh, I’m not afraid of anything, Miss Devlin. I just don’t want my young impressionable friend here falling under the spell of glory-hunting hotheads.’
Liz stopped putting tins on the shelves and turned to face him. ‘Oh, I don’t think Miss Devereaux is in any danger of being impressionable. She’s clever enough to know her own mind.’
‘Thank you, Misses Devlin.’ Harp was pleasantly surprised, first at Cissy’s question and then at Liz’s intervention. Smiling, she placed the groceries in her basket and turned to leave.
‘Good day to you both,’ called Cissy as Brian followed Harp out and another customer entered. ‘And, Harp, please make sure to come again soon.’
‘Ah, Harp, you were ages!’ Rose Delaney exclaimed as Harp entered the Cliff House by the back door. ‘I thought I’d have to send out a search party.’
‘Sorry, Mammy. I met Brian. He insisted on carrying my shopping, and we argued all the way here about the Rising.’ Harp placed the basket on the large table in the centre of the kitchen, then glanced up at her mother, who looked beautiful in a pale-green dress. Harp envied her mother’s beauty. Her dark hair and eyes, her alabaster skin and her slim figure made people stop and admire her wherever she went. Unlike me, thought Harp. I still have the scrawny figure of a child.
Rose looked concerned. ‘Matt and Brian are coming to supper tonight – is that all right?’
‘Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?’
‘I just thought if you and Brian had fallen out…’ Rose turned back to the pot on the range, and Harp wondered what had got into her mother; she was normally never flustered by little things.
‘Oh, that. Don’t worry about that. I like Brian, but it’s just he’s so infuriating when he’s losing. He makes it personal, trying to make me feel like a silly little girl when he’s such a worldly man according to himself. Just because he’s studying medicine up in Dublin. Cicero was right – he said that when you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.’
‘Harp…’ Her mother stopped stirring and gave Harp her full attention. ‘I think Brian Quinn might have an eye for you, and maybe that’s why he teases you. You really are a lovely looking girl, so no wonder he does, but it doesn’t do to lead boys on, thinking there might be something going to happen if there isn’t. Do you know what I mean?’
Harp was astonished. It was the first time her mother had made such a suggestion. If anything, she treated Harp like she was younger than her sixteen years, and so her raising the possibility of Harp having a boyfriend or anything like it was astounding. ‘Brian Quinn has no more interest in me than the man in the moon, Mammy, I can assure you. He thinks I’m an annoying little twerp with ideas above my station, so you need have no worries about that.’
‘I’m not so sure.’ Rose clearly wasn’t convinced. ‘He rushes to see you the moment he’s back from college, and Matt says he talks about you a lot. He says you’re fascinating, which of course you are, but I just want you to be on your guard, you know?’
‘He doesn’t find me fascinating – that’s just Matt being nice. I’d say it’s more like giving out about me, no doubt.’ Harp was sure her mother was worrying unnecessarily.
‘All right, but just be careful. You are growing into a very pretty woman, Harp. Men will notice you, and you need to be careful, for lots of reasons, not just having them think something that isn’t there, but…well…other things too. Even walking alone with him might set tongues wagging.’
‘Don’t worry, Mammy. I’m no Fanny Hill.’ Harp chuckled.
‘Harp! How do you even know about that book? It’s banned, isn’t it?’
Rose was extremely proper. She had been only seventeen when Henry’s brother, Ralph, had seduced her with false promises; later, Henry had told the world in his will that Harp was his child and a Devereaux. As a result of being known as an unmarried mother, Rose was very anxious never to give anyone the impression she was a woman of loose morals. Since becoming lady of the house, she had started to wear brighter clothes, but she kept her slim figure covered up completely.
‘Don’t tell me Henry had a copy in the library.’ Rose rolled her eyes and sighed. ‘That man.’
‘He did. He didn’t believe in banning books. But he made me promise to wait until I was sixteen to read it, so I did.’
‘Harp, that’s not suitable reading for a girl of any age. It’s…well, it’s…’ Rose flushed, struggling to explain what was so objectionable. Everyone knew the book Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, but nobody admitted to reading it.
‘Mammy, this is all part of the problem, making women feel less important than men. Why shouldn’t a woman appreciate her body? Why shouldn’t she get pleasure from it? What’s so wrong with that? Men’s pleasure is all that seems to matter, with women just helpless objects to be used. Either the men are gentlemen and want to marry a nice chaste girl, or they are cads seeking wanton seduction. It’s all so demeaning to us. We’re expected to take their names, have their children, run their houses and bend to their wills. I’ll tell you what I think – I won’t ever do that. I mean it, Mammy. I’ll never marry. Who on earth would sign up for that life of drudgery, at a man’s beck and call?’
Rose laughed despite herself. ‘Henry said you were unique, Harp, and he was right – you really are. And I suppose you’ve got a point. I’m hardly in a position to judge anyway, but maybe you’ll fall in love, and what will you do then?’ Rose placed the apple pie in the oven and washed her hands.
‘I won’t, simple as that.’ Harp was certain. ‘I know my own mind. Socrates said to know yourself, for once you know yourself, then you can begin to care for yourself. I’m paraphrasing, mind you.’
‘Yes, well, Socrates had no opinion on peeling potatoes, I take it?’ Rose replied, nodding at the pile of dirty potatoes in the sink.
‘Not that I know of.’ Harp grinned and began peeling.
Still fired up by the argument with Brian, her young mind was not on love but on the Rising. The treatment of the Irish by the British was never good, but it was getting worse. The police were taking on a much more military stance nowadays, swaggering about like they were cock of the walk and sending officers over from England all the time, who treated the local people with disdain. She glanced at her mother. ‘You know Liam O’Halloran?’
‘The Liam in your class at school?’
‘Yes, that one. Well, Lieutenant Groves and about ten RIC men barged into his family’s house one evening last week when the little ones were in bed and started shouting and demanding that Mrs O’Halloran tell them where Liam’s father was. They suspect him of being involved with the Volunteers. They got very rough with Mrs O’Halloran, so Liam stepped in to defend his mother, and when he arrived to school, he had a big bruise on his chin and a split lip. Groves himself hit him, and Liam is not big, as you know.’
Rose stirred the gravy to go with the lamb, a shadow of concern on her face. ‘Harp, it’s best if we stay out of things. Since the Rising, everyone is jumpy, and it’s best to keep a low profile. I know you feel strongly about it, and I don’t blame you, but we are a single woman and a girl and we don’t need to be drawing the likes of Groves on us, do you hear me? So please keep your opinions on that matter inside these four walls, do you promise me?’
Harp gave a derisory snort, and Rose shot her a warning glance. Her mother preferred her as a docile little girl, but Harp had been awakened by the plays performed in the newly founded Abbey Theatre and by the performances and writings of Maud Gonne and Yeats and Countess Markiewicz. She’d only been able to read the plays, of course, but one day she would go to Dublin and see them on stage for herself. She’d read all she could get her hands on, especially about the women of the freedom movement, and she rejected the claims made by many that the Irish women’s movement was subservient to the male revolutionaries. She knew her heroines didn’t see it that way, and neither did she.
She thought of how Henry Devereaux would have understood her growing interest in the equality of the sexes. He’d pointed her in the direction of Karl Marx, Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. She felt a pang of loneliness; she missed him still, his gentle presence, his love for her. He had written her a letter to be given to her after his death, explaining how he cared for her and how proud he was of her. The truth was, he was not her biological father despite him claiming her as such in order to make her his heir. But she saw him as her father in every way that mattered.
‘Has everyone checked in?’ she asked her mother, changing the subject away from the thorny matter of politics.
‘Yes. There’s a couple in the blue room that seem a bit strange – I don’t know why. They are older than the usual couple that emigrate, easily in their fifties, and I don’t know, they seem kind of furtive or something.’ Rose was chopping the carrots and parsnips. ‘And there are the three brothers – they’re joining Sean O’Sullivan on his ranch in Kentucky, would you believe? They are cousins of his mother’s.’
‘Sean O’Sullivan! Imagine! He left here with Gwen, having no idea what the future held. They wouldn’t even have been going together if Molly O’Brien didn’t give Gwen her ticket. And now look at him. In his last letter, he told me he owns his own ranch in America, breeding winning racehorses. Life is so strange, isn’t it?’ Harp put the peeled potatoes into the large saucepan to boil.
‘I’m so glad things worked out for him,’ Rose agreed. ‘That’s another one for your book, isn’t it?’
Since the guest house opened, Harp had been keeping a record of all their guests and their adventures.
‘And talking of letters,’ Rose added, ‘there’s three for you on the hallstand, and one is from JohnJoe, judging by the clever little drawing on the envelope.’
‘Oh, really?’ Harp was delighted. ‘I haven’t heard from him for weeks and weeks. I hope he’s all right.’
Rose shot her a curious glance. ‘Why wouldn’t he be all right?’
‘Oh, no reason. I just like to hear from him, that’s all.’ Harp reddened; she was a terrible liar and her mother could see right through her.
‘Hmm.’ Rose’s gaze locked with Harp’s. ‘Would I be correct in thinking that your feelings for JohnJoe might extend beyond a childhood friendship?’
‘No! Of course not! We’re just friends –’
A deep, smooth voice interrupted her. ‘Fall in love or not, my charming niece, one day soon you’ll have to be married…’
In mutual shock, Harp and her mother turned towards the garden doorway. There stood Ralph Devereaux, Henry’s younger brother, clearly back from India for the second time that year. Tall and muscular, he had suspiciously dark wavy hair for a man his age, and his skin was tanned from years under the Indian sun. He always dressed fashionably and smelled of a woody cologne; he was said to be attractive to women, and he could be charming at times. Yet whenever she looked at him, Harp was reminded of the words of Cicero: ‘Ut imago est animi voltus’ – the face is a picture of the mind. That was true in the case of most people, but not her uncle. She never knew what was going on behind those eyes. It felt like a malevolent force.
Of course, to be fair, there were things that Ralph Devereaux didn’t know about Harp either, for instance that he wasn’t her uncle – he was her biological father. And therefore that his brother, Henry, had had no right to leave the crumbling family home to Harp when he’d named her as his own daughter in his will.
Rose tried to put a good face on the sudden appearance of her one-time seducer. ‘Ralph! When did you arrive?’
He lounged in the doorway, preening. ‘Got here on the one o’clock train. Might stay for a month or even more this time. The house looks well. You’ve done a lot more work on it. I assume I can have my usual room?’
Harp’s mother always gave the best bedroom to Ralph. Harp knew that part of Rose felt guilty; Cliff House was, after all, his ancestral home. Six generations of Devereauxes had lived there, and to have his inheritance snatched from under his nose by the former maid and her daughter must have been hard to take. So whenever he arrived, she treated him as an honoured guest, with room service, meals and drink – and never once did he put his hand in his pocket to pay for any of it.
‘Then I’ll go on up. No need for dinner. I’ll be going out later. That excellent fellow Groves is staying at the Queen’s Hotel, and he wants to stand me a drink. You should join us, Rose.’
Rose kept her head down. ‘I have other dinners to cook…’
‘What a shame. You shouldn’t work so hard. Yet even with all the skivvying, you’re as beautiful as ever. And, Harp, you’re looking very grown up. Very pretty as well, in your own little way.’
Harp emptied the potato peels into the bucket for the hens without answering. She hated the way Ralph’s eyes rolled over her and her mother as he spoke, as if they were cows at the mart. And it disgusted her that her biological father would drink with Lieutenant Groves, or any British officer.
When he had left for his room, she blurted, ‘Urgh. What’s he doing back here so soon? He’s only been gone a few months. And he says he might stay for more than a month! That’s not acceptable. Honestly, who does he think he is? I can’t bear him, Mammy, I really can’t.’
‘I know, Harp, but what choice have we?’ Rose said gently. ‘He’s here, and I can hardly ask him to go. Look, we’ll just endure it, try to stay out of his way, and hopefully it won’t be for as long as he says.’
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