Lillian Sews In The Sun
The men bowed and complemented her once more on the meal. She went back to the kitchen and poured hot water from the kettle into the sink and put the remainder of the dishes in carefully. She was very cautious with the good china.
“Lillian.” her uncle came into the kitchen “That was …”
She could tell by the tone of his voice he was upset by something.
“What is it uncle … I mean Father Patrick?” she faced him.
“I observed that each of these so-called gentleman connived to spend a few moments alone with you. Did you notice that?”
“I was too occupied with my serving duties to notice anything other than that Father Pat.”
“Considering your past I find your innocence difficult to accept. Yes, watching your conduct this day I see you may have done nothing deliberate to lure these men. You must find a way to … ”
“Me? Find a way to what.”
“Not appear as you do for one thing.”
“With no mirrors I do not know how I appear.” She looked at what she was wearing. The shapeless blue, or was it green, pinafore, her stained, and now wet, flour sack apron. She held her raw, red hands out to her uncle. “How am I to appear?”
“Woman has always been the downfall of man. It is in her nature. It is in the air she breathes out. If men are helpless to resist it is the fault of the female.”
“Am I to be a mute. Not speak even when spoken to in your home?”
“I will contact Sister Claire.”
“The Mother Superior of St. Margaret’s Covent in Sydney. It would be best for all if you were to be removed from contact with men. Your wickedness has to be curbed somehow.”
“I will not go into a convent Father.” She grabbed one of the Royal Worcester plates and dropped it. It shattered into four uneven pieces. “Do you understand? Yes, I was lead astray by a so-called gentleman and this is my penance for my inability to withstand the affection, the attentions of that man but I will not be punished for the rest of my life for the callow actions of man whom my own father encouraged me to see.”
“My child this is not punishment nor is it penance. It is salvation.”
“You should offer those presumed gentlemen the path to salvation. All I served them was the food you provided. That they wished to partake of more is not my fault.”
“Perhaps not deliberately but your gender is the cause of original sin. You allure without awareness.”
“The next time you hold conference with men in your home you should have someone else do the serving.”
“You may be right Lillian. I …” he plucked at the cross around his neck. “I have things to attend to at the church. But before I go you must pray with me.”
He got to his knees and gestured for her to do so. She knelt beside him. They took out their rosaries.
Father Patrick recited The Hail Mary and she followed suit. When he was done he added: “Mary Mother of God please intercede into the hearts of men to spare my niece temptations she may not have the fortitude to withstand.”
He helped her back to her feet. “I won’t be back until later in the evening. Do not prepare a supper for me.”
“Yes Father Pat.” Once he left she picked up the pieces of the broken plate. She began to weep that another piece of her connection to Boston had been broken by her own rash anger. She would try harder to be less obdurate, more infused with the grace of God. She prayed fervently as she washed the rest of the dinnerware.
She had placed the last dinner plate back in the sideboard when there was a knock at the front door. Annie Clark and Mary Francis always came through the back. Anyone who wished to see her uncle would go to his office at the church.
She peeked out of the dining-room window as the knocking continued. She couldn’t see clearly who it was till the man stepped back to survey the upper windows of the house. It was Mr. O’Dowell.
What was she to do? She could see that his knocking had caught the attention of the McIssac’s on the opposite side of them. Regardless of what she did her uncle was sure to hear of it.
She went to the door and opened slightly.
“Mr. O’Dowell my uncle … Father Patrick has gone to the church office. You may speak with him further there.” She attempted to shut the door but O’Dowell placed his hand against it to prevent from closing further.
“It is you I wish to speak to Miss McTavish.”
“That is not possible. It wouldn’t be proper without my uncle here.” Even in Boston the men she had met had first asked her father’s permission to approach her. Her father had informed her first.
“We aren’t as proper about such things here in Castleton Mines.”
“That might be so, but Father Patrick said nothing to me about allowing a gentleman caller. Please speak to him first.”
She sorely wanted to let him in but with Mrs. McIssac already watching the house she was sure that the Danvers, next door to them, were now also peering from behind their windows.
“I don’t …” Mr. O’Dowell said.
“Mr. O’Dowell! I have my uncle’s position in the community to think of. I am his niece. It wouldn’t be fitting for me to see you under these circumstances. You must understand that.”
“My apologies Miss McTavish. I surely meant no offence to your honour.”
“Mr. O’Dowell this conversation is over.” She leaned heavily against the door and shut it, threw the bolt. What would she do if he came to the back? No, she prayed he was still too much of a gentleman to such a thing. She went to the back door to make sure it was also secure.
What had she done that deserved this sort of attention? Did Mr. O’Dowell sense something about her, about her past and feel that that was permission to treat her in such a way. Or was her uncle correct about the innate sinfulness of women.
She stepped into the parlour to clear away the remaining cutlery. She knelt and swept the crust crumbs into the palm of her hand. It seemed wherever men were, something damaged, sullied remained behind.
She tidied the dining room and the kitchen. With no dinner to prepare she had no pressing household duties to perform. The sun was shining in the small back garden. She recognized that she hadn’t left the confines of the house for more than a few moments the last two days. She got the sewing basket from the pantry and went into the yard and sat on bench there that caught the sun.
The skills she had in embroidery were easy to adapt to repairing her uncle’s clothing. A button here or there, darning well-worn socks and even maintaining the lace on his surplice.
She wondered what would become of her. She didn’t see herself banished in Cape Breton forever, confined to either this house or the uncle’s church or some convent. She wasn’t a pet that need to be confined in such a way. Surely her womanhood wasn’t such a threat to humanity. Yet her Uncle was correct in the way these men had reacted to her, as unaware as she had been when it happened.
She wasn’t the only woman in the world. Surely all women didn’t have such an alarming effect. Did it stop once they were married. Was that the purpose of marriage? To protect the wife from unwanted male advances. How did her mother cope with such events.
Her mother had been very adamant about men’s unwholesome desires. Did they end with marriage as well or did men expect some sort of debasing satisfaction from the women they professed to love and cherish.
Was what transpired between her and James Dunham a mortal sin or merely venal. She had never encouraged his actions with her but had never discouraged him either. The act he performed on her was neither pleasant or unpleasant to either of them, for he seemed as shamed by his desire as she was. Yet neither of them could resist when those opportunities presented themselves. In fact she rather enjoyed the secretiveness of it all. She enjoyed having something of her own that was a secret from her family.
The sun started to go down and the garden cooled quickly. She could hear the men in the street passing on their way to night shift at the mine. The men whose worries and concerns were being discussed in this very house. Her uncle held their fate in his hands, or so it seemed to her. The same way he held hers.
“Hallo.” A woman’s head appeared over the fence. “Is that you Miss McTavish.”
It was Vera McIssac. She was dressed similarly to Lillian. Lillian envied the floral print of Vera’s smock. It was almost feminine even with the dusty, dirty apron that was over it.
“Yes, Mrs. McIssac. The Father has been delayed at the church. It gave me the opportunity to do some sewing and enjoy the fresh air.”
“Not much fresh air round here.” Vera pushed open the back gate and came into the garden. A small child clung behind her. “Now don’t be shy Marie. You’ve met Miss McTavish before. Remember? Now say hello.”
“Hello.” The freckled face darted from behind her mother’s skirts and hid again.
“I seen that the union man was here this afternoon?”
“Yes he was. As well as Steven O’Dowell and James Bowden.”
“So there is a strike on, is there?”
“I don’t know.” She understood that the men’s conversation was private and chose her words carefully. “They did talk about the miner’s being unhappy with their wages and that coal is no longer selling as well as it once did.” It was safe to repeat what she had previously heard the parishioners discussing.
“Could be. Could be. But they aren’t the ones getting thinner, are they. It’s us here. The Father hasn’t agreed to anything drastic has he?”
“I don’t know that he is in a position to agree to anything.”
“Ah, Miss, they know they need him on their side to keep the men in check. He’s same as havin’ the eyes of God on them. Keep’s the sorts of O’Dowell in line. He was a rough ‘un. Got them medals in the war and come back thinkin’ he was a gift to the women.”
“Medals?” Lillian couldn’t imagine the over-primped man fighting anything more threatening than a cold.
“Oh yes. That was before Father Patrick came to us. Mr. O’Dowell rescued his unit during some battle. Can’t say as I know which one now.”
“I hope there isn’t a strike Vera.”
“We all do Miss McTavish. Last time was a sore hardship for so many. By the way, Mrs. Seldon tells me there’s a new Eaton’s catalogue if you can to drop by the store.”
The mine whistle sounded for the coming shift change.
“I best get going. Red Mac‘ll be home for his dinner.”
Lillian went back into the house. Did she want to pour over another catalogue at the company store? Mrs. Seldon was the store manager’s wife. Going there to shop for various food stuff was Lillian’s only excursion, if one could call a twenty minute walk with her uncle at her side, being away from the rectory. He would leave her alone there while he talked with men across the street at Calder’s Iron Foundry.
Mrs. Seldon was from Portland, Maine and understood in some ways Lillian’s sense of displacement. The company store was also the catalogue order office.
The catalogue could wait until the Friday when her uncle brought her down to the store.
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