Coal Dusters – Chapter VI

Chapter VI 

Lillian Washes The Lunch Dishes

“No, best stay where you are. I don’t want them to see you a servant. You are a McTavish after all.”

“Come in gentlemen. Come in. Please excuse the state of my home but my niece is still learning how to keep cleanliness next to Godliness.”

Lillian hid her hands under her apron and nodded to the men.

“I don’t think any of you gentleman has had the pleasure of meeting my niece. Lillian McTavish.” As he introduced them to her, each man took off his overcoat and handed it to Father Patrick.

“We have seen you at Mass, m’dear and was wondering when the good Father would allow us to meet you.” A short, thick set man with an uneven moustache reached out for her hand. He reeked of cigar smoke. His large red hands had uneven cracked fingernails. “The rectory can always benefit from a woman’s presence.”

“Enough William. This is William Gregory the local union representative.” 

She extended her hand briefly.

He quickly introduced her to the other two men. 

James Bowden, one of the mine managers, bowed to her. His brown tweed coat fit him much better than Mr. Gregory’s dusty black sports coat fit him. His short black hair was peppered with grey.

Finally, Steven O’Dowell, an assistant to the county’s provincial government representative. He didn’t hesitate to bring her hand to his lips. His hands were smooth with a heavy gold ring on his left pinky finger. His dark blue sports coat was well-fitted with a rather florid green and blue tartan waistcoat underneath.

She recognized him as the type of no-longer-so-young man she’d met frequently at social gatherings in Boston. Unmarried and dressing a little younger than they should in hopes of appearing a little younger than they were. He smelled strongly of Bay Rum. It reminded her of James Dunham. James had began his courtship by kissing her hand.

Lillian started to back out of the room. In Boston she would have been at ease making small talk with such men but here she was still unsure of her role. Was she house drudge or valued relative, all be it female.

“Perhaps your charming niece will pour a glass of wine for each of us before she’s leaves.” O’Dowell handed his Bowler hat to the Father and gestured to the tray of glasses.

“Please, do Lillian. As you can see my hands are full.”

“You know, the Father has more than spiritual power.” Steven leaned toward her. “He was able to get my nephew Manny transferred out the depths of the mines to a job more suited to his temperament above ground.”
She handed a glass of wine to each of the men.

“There was nothing to it,” Father Patrick said. “Red Mac is a good member of my congregation and was only too happy to stay in God’s graces. After all he knows what I hear in confession and he was eager to do penance.”

The men all laughed.

“A nice wine, Father Patrick,” O’Dowell said. “Mrs. Donati makes a wine almost as full bodied as she is.”

“Mr. O’Dowell I will not have such talk when there is a lady present.” Father Patrick said.

“Yes, uh … the good Father wields power even we in management can only dream of having.” James poured himself another glass of the wine.

“I am sorry.” O’Dowell bowed in Lillian’s direction. The twinkle in his eye told her he had no regrets.

“Thank you. Now Lillian, please take the gentlemen’s overcoats.” Father Patrick laid the coats across her extended arms.

She was relieved to have an excuse to exit the room. Where was she going to put them? These were the first visitors they had had since she arrived and there was no coat rack, only a couple of hooks by the back door for her coat and for his.

She leaned to the Father to whisper. “Where might I put these.”

“Excuse me gentlemen while I check on the progress of lunch.” He stepped into the dining room. Lillian followed him. “Lillian I understand you are still getting used to our ways but I didn’t think you were … stupid. Do I have to explain to you how everything is done? You are nearly an adult woman. You’ve certainly demonstrated the ability to think for yourself in the past. Or is all your knowledge from the artifice of theatre productions. Now I must returns to my guests.”

Lillian gasped. This was the first time he had mentioned why she had been banished to his care. She turned her back on him and marched into the kitchen kicking the door shut behind her. She glanced around for a surface large enough for the coats. There was none. She elbowed open the back door and dumped them on top of the hutch that protected the wood pile. As long as it didn’t rain they would be fine.

She stirred the soup. She had made enough for several more than arrived so they would be having it for the next week. She ladled enough into the tureen to fill each bowl once and an extra ladleful for spillage. Her uncle had been very clear on the importance of measurements, of never offering more than enough. 

She brought the tureen to the table. She stood in the parlour doorway listening to the men talk for a few moments. It brought her back to memories of evenings at home with her family in Boston. The men were jovial but wary with one another as they discussed political issues.

“I’m sorry,” Bowden jabbed at the air between him and Gregory. “But since the war ended the demand for coal as declined drastically every year. We can’t afford to keep paying what once did. Even Premiere Baldwin … ”

“Don’t talk about Premiere Baldwin,” Gregory said. “He might as well be on the BritCan board of directors. That  the miners have to make a working wage, means nothing to him. The families are already suffering for want of the basic necessities.”

“Surely there has to be an alternative to cutting their wages.” O’Dowell played with gold watch chain in his waistcoat absently.

“Whatever we do, they are the one’s to suffer. Either we cut …” Bowden said as he glanced up from the papers he was referring to. “Ah Miss McTavish.”

“Lunch is served gentlemen.” She stepped aside to allow them to enter the dining room. “Father Patrick, would you care to serve the soup while I get the sandwiches.”

She knew that asking him to ladle the soup would let him see how much each man got, and how she had been attentive to his household management stipulations.

She placed the tray of sandwiches beside the tureen where he could continue to keep his watchful eye on what was consumed.

“Thank you Lillian. I’ll let you know when we are ready for dessert.”

She returned to the kitchen and sat at the table. Her tea from breakfast was still on the table. She glanced up fearful that her uncle might have caught her neglect. It was no longer hot but the sweetness soothed her. She never knew how good it would feel to sit and sip a cup of tea, hot or cold.

She could hear bits of the men’s conversation in the dining room. She gathered than the miner’s were unhappy with the tonnage pay they were getting, that they were unhappy about safety conditions in the mine, unhappy about nearly everything – the company houses were too cold, the school teachers weren’t teaching their children, they needed better medical attention. The list went on and on. 

To each complaint Bowden’s response was always the same – the coal itself wasn’t generating enough profit to pay for all these services. 

She found herself getting sleepy sitting close to the warmth of the stove. How nice it would be to go up to her room in Boston and rest on her big bed there. Cool, soft clean sheets. Or to go the bathroom by her room and sink into a the tub, to rub scented ointment into her hands.

A shaking awoke her.

“I’m most sorry to disturb your slumber Miss McTavish.” It was William Gregory. “But we have finished and are retiring back to the parlour. I brought these in for you.” He hand placed the soup bowls on counter by the sink.

“Thank you Mr. Gregory. That was most kind of you.”

“Father Patrick would have you serve the pie and tea once you have cleared the rest of the table.”

“I’ll do that directly. Thank you again.” What must he think of her sleeping at the table … she was not a scullery maid.

Once he left she filled the kettle and put in on the stove. Stoked the fire a little. She sliced the pies. The kettle came to a boil. Which should she steep. Ceylon or English? The English was cheaper so she brewed that.

She went the the parlour to retrieve the tray with the wine and glasses to use it for the tea service. She had been tempted to use her cutting board but knew her uncle would never have permitted that.

“Allow me to assist you,” Bowden followed her into the kitchen “My wife always tells me a woman needs more arms than an octopus at times.”

He took the two pies and she brought in the plates and forks.

“Thank you my dear.” Her Uncle said.

“Will there be anything else?” She wanted to get back to her kitchen. Having the eyes of the men on her made her comfortable.

Back in the kitchen she prepared to wash the dishes and wiped down the counter for them to dry.

“Bring the gentlemen their coats now Lillian.”

“Yes Father Pat.”

Bowden follower her. “Let me help you with those, Miss McTavish.”

“That’s quite alright Mr. Bowden. I can manage.”
He waited in the kitchen while she got the coats from where she had placed them.

“Ah! That is mine on the top. At least let me take that one.” He pulled the coat on. “Your uncle is a fine man. We count on his influence with his parishioners when we have less that good news to give them. Not only is he the mediator between them and God but also between them and the mine owners.”

“I see.” she continued into the parlour with the other coats.

“Thank you for your hospitality Father, and for the fine cooking of your lovely niece.” Mr. O’Dowell caught her eye as he put on his coat. His look was quite flirtatious, she hoped her uncle didn’t see it.

“You must tell me what you do with the bread. I can’t remember when I had delicious bread.” Mr. Gregory asked as he put his coat on. “If you’ll allow me the recipe I’m sure my wife would be most appreciative. Not that her bread isn’t equally as fine.”

“I …” Lillian blushed. “It was given to me by Annie Clark’s mother.” She didn’t want to admit that her secret was an accident. While preparing the flour she had accidentally knocked pepper into the batter. That was the first loaf that her uncle had called perfection.

“Surely not. I’ve had her bread many times and it never tasted that good.”

“Then …” relieved of the coats she thrust her hands under her apron and thought a moment, “It must be prayer! You see before I arrived here in Castleton Mines I had never baked a loaf of bread, or anything else for that matter. Each time I put the bread in the oven I pray.”

“I see,” Mr. Gregory laughed. “Every housewife keeps a little secret to herself.”

“Prayer is no secret to those who avail themselves of it.” Lillian longed for the quiet of the kitchen. “If you’ll excuse me gentlemen I have dishes to wash.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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