Coal Dusters: Chapter XXVII – Lillian’s Letter

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXVII

Lillian’s Letter

Since arrive in Cape Breton Lillian had received several letters from her Mother that kept her informed of family matters, of the parties she was going to and her brother’s upcoming nuptials in the fall. Letters that her Uncle had read first to make sure she wasn’t be contacted by suitors. This was wasn’t addressed to her but to her uncle.

“It’s my mother handwriting.” She eagerly opened the envelope then stopped. “It must be bad news. Otherwise you wouldn’t be giving it to me. Has my father died?” Tears came to her eyes.

“No. Someone even closer.”

In the envelope were two newspaper clippings. The first was an obituary for Lillian McTavish’s death.

“On the 20th day of June, 1925, the death angles visited Lillian McTavish when she succumbed to influenza while visiting her uncle, Father Patrick McTavish, at St. Agnes Parish in New Castleton, Cape Breton. She had gone there to join Father McTavish in his work the parish. Father McTavish found her to be always kind and good to each and everybody.”

Lillian looked up from the notice to wipe her eyes after skimming the family details. Then she continued to read.

“It was sad and hard for her loving family to give her up. But weep not loved ones for she cannot come to us, but we can go to her. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh, and His will must be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

“This is not God’s will,” she burst out. She then read aloud from the obituary. “‘Her voice is hushed, her foots steps still, her chair is vacant the can never be filled!’ This is a fabrication.”

The other clipping was an announcement of a Boston memorial service, to be held at the Holy Cross Cathedral, as the body had been interred in Cape Breton.

“What? I don’t understand. I am not dead.” She was trying to make sense of this. She looked in the envelope there was no letter.

“You are to them.” Sister Claire said gently.

“Why? What I did wasn’t my fault! Was it so shaming that they would …” She covered her face with her hands and wept.

She heard Sister Claire pour a cup of tea.

“Here my child. Drink this.”

Lillian pushed the cup away from her. She knocked it out of  the Sister’s hands to the floor. She hoped it had broken. She wanted to jump up and go the china cupboard and break all those dishes. All those reminders of a life that now rejected her.

“This came as a great shock to your uncle as well. He thought, as I am sure you did, that your stay here would only be temporary. He does care for you but he admits that he isn’t prepared to take on the task of raising you.”

“Raising me.” Lillian stood. “I am a woman! Not a child. I’m twenty-three years old.” She paced the room. “I will not go into your convent Sister Claire, or any other. I do not have that calling. My family may be willing to sacrifice me for their sense of propriety but I am not ready to make any further sacrifices of my own.”

“Be that as it may, Father McTavish wishes you elsewhere.”

“And he has brought you here to do what he didn’t have the courage to do! If this were God’s will my uncle would have no reluctance though, would he? He knows this is wrong.”

Sister Claire picked up the cup and saucer and poured Lillian another cup of tea.

“Sit, Lillian. Sit. He wanted you know there were clear alternatives.”

“The clear alternative is that we contact my father to tell him that I am alive!”

“Father McTavish has tried to do so but your family has refused any contact from him.”

Lillian sat and drank her tea.

“I’m not surprised you are upset, that you would feel this strongly. Perhaps once you have had time to consider what has happened you will be more prepared to accept the conditions of your circumstance. Many girls welcome the opportunity to find a new life in Christ.”

Lillian’s mind raced with revenge. Her family would pay for this. Her uncle would suffer as well. The thought of returning to her Boston life was the only thing that made what she had been going through in this house bearable. Now that return was impossible. What would her family do if she showed up at their door? 

“You have no other friends or family here?”

“No, Sister Claire. Miss O’Dowell did offer me a place in her home but that is not a solution.”

“No marriageable men amongst the congregation?”

“Marriage! To a miner?” At one time she had anticipated marrying a man of considerable means, of wealth. “Me, in one of those squalid little company houses stinking of cabbage and turnips. Barking dogs and unwashed children underfoot. A crying baby and a drunken husband stumbling home reeking of sweat and mud.”

“I see your uncle is right one account. You haven’t learned enough humility. There comes a point in life where we must learn to adjust ourselves to things as they are Lily, and not let things as we wish them to be get in the way.”

“Yes Sister.”

“Not all the men are miners either. Perhaps if you had socializes outside of Castleton you might seen brighter prospects.”

“Socialize!” Lillian laughed derisively. “I have been a veritable prisoner in this house. My uncle has seen to that. Opening my mail, restricting what I am allowed to wear, accusing me of … deliberate allure when any man acknowledges my presence in the room.”

“It is understandable, considering your past actions.” 

“Sister Claire as far as I can tell there are no men here capable of the sort of … No, this is pointless. I was sent here, as you apparently know, to be kept out of the sight of eligible men. Not to enter into the social whirl of Cape Breton.” Lillian took a deep breath. “If I agree to go into the convent how soon would that happen?”

“We could find a place for you by the first of next week.”

That was sooner than Lillian had anticipated.

“Could I have time to make a prayerful decision. I don’t want to be forced into some rashly that all may regret later.”

“How long?” Sister Claire picked at clumps of mud on the hem of her skirts.

As long as my uncle will abide Lillian thought. “I’m not sure. With the miners on strike I feel I should remain here at St. Agnes. I’d rather Father Patrick didn’t have to cope with keeping up the house and attending to his parishioners in this time of difficulty. I have been gathering and distributing food stuff for them.”

“You may not be aware Lily, you are heeding some calling. You are more … maternally caring than even you think. I’ll speak with Father Patrick. If  I assure him that you are seriously considering joining us he will be satisfied. It would be more suitable for our purposes if you joined in the fall which is when two of the sisters will be leaving to work for the Catholic Missionaries in Africa. Their departure would make the way for you more natural. I would not have to male a place for you.”

“Thank you Sister Claire.” That should give her enough time to find a husband. If she was going to a bride it wouldn’t be of Christ.

“I will go and inform Father Patrick of the good news.”

“Thank you, Sister Claire. But before you go, will you pray with me.” Lillian took out her rosary. She knew this would convince the Mother Superior of a sincerity she did not feel.

“I’d be honoured Lily.” 

The two women knelt holding their rosaries and facing the crucifix. Sister Claire started and Lillian joined:

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Sister Claire added “Christ thank you for bringing your lost lamb closer to the fold of your everlasting arms. Amen”

When Sister Claire left Lillian cleared the parlour and washed the dishes. In the heat of summer Father Patric only wanted a simple cool evening meal. It usually consisted lightly buttered sandwiches with cold meat and whatever greens were available.

She set the table in the dining room then went to her room. Staring out her window that overlooked the garden she leaned against the frame to still her trembling. So this is why her father had been so eager to get her out of Boston. Out of sight of anyone who knew her. How many of her family knew that his was his plan? Were they all complicit in it? 

No, she couldn’t see her mother knowing the truth. It had to be her father’s plan to rid himself of his troublesome child. He had never understood why women wanted to vote, wanted to work, wanted to be free of the domineering hand of superior men. 

On her desk was a letter she had been writing to her brother. She took his last note to her from the desk. The date was the same as her memorial service yet there was no mention of it in his letter which was concerned with preparations for his nuptials and how his bride, Margaret, was looking forward to having Lillian at the wedding as her maid of honour. This was a letter from someone who thought his sister was alive. 

She checked the envelope Sister Claire had given her for a letter or a note, there was none, then she examined the newspaper clippings carefully. They were, as far as she could tell, actual newspaper clippings. There was no way her uncle could have something of this nature forged so well. There were portions of advertisements on the backs of each clipping. One for silk blouses. For a moment she thought of asking her brother if he could send her some silk blouses. She shook her head to bring herself back to reality.

She began to add to the letter she had started but words didn’t come to her. She wanted to know how they could do this to her. Why was he pretending things were going on as normal? Could her father not have told anyone in the family? Would he father merely intercept any letters from Canada?

No, the next time she wrote them it would be to invite them to her wedding. First she needed a husband. Someone who would be an affront. Mr. O’Dowell was merely a dullard and he would fit too well in with her family. 

The hairy imp! Yes! Who could be better for her purposes. A mixed marriage would be sure to offend not only her uncle but the entire congregation that did nothing when they saw how her uncle had mistreated her. 

He was man she knew she would have no problem controlling. The marriage wouldn’t have to last for that long. Just long enough for a Boston honeymoon. Show him off to all her friends and family and vanish. He was so unintelligent he’d probably not feel anything once she left him anyway. All she had to was find a way into his life. What was his name? B … Brian, Bradly something.

She had spoken with him and his friend a few times when they were on strike duty at the colliery entrance. Next time she would be sure to get his name. Find out where he lived in Mudtown. She’d prove that even if her family deemed her dead she wasn’t going to be that easy to bury.

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