As Lillian walked along Chestnut Street she stopped to look at the remains of the company store. Some men were removing the charred remains of the flooring.
Under her arms she carried the package of the shirts and pants she was giving to Birk Nelson.
Mrs. Birk Nelson. Mrs. Lillian Nelson. The names sounded good to her. Nelson had such a soft sound to it, unlike McTavish with its harsh ‘c’ followed by an even harsher ’t.’ Nelson had a sweet flow to it. How long would it be before she was Mrs. Nelson?
It had taken her most of the morning to decide what to wear. She knew that her Bostonian visiting clothes would be inappropriate. So there would be no dainty gloves with pearl button fastenings on the wrist, no satin afternoon dress with the perfect hat to go with it.
She understood that that sort of attire, even if she had it here, would be too much for this family. It would certainly impress them but definitely wouldn’t allow them to see her as one of them, as someone to be welcomed as opposed to a …. to what, she wondered, a rich, flighty, show off?
Instead of the perfect hat she had a clean bandana to cover her hair and hold it back from her face. The pale blue would make the red of her hair even redder. She hoped her work shift, freshly washed, made her look domestic, practical, like the sort of woman who would make a good daughter-in-law. Not that she’d be so blunt as to bring that up. But that it would ingratiate her into the family.
Finding out where the Nelsons lived wasn’t a simple as she expected. She had asked Mrs. McIssac if she knew. Mrs. McIssac knew in a general way but wasn’t sure which house it was on one of the lanes off Pitt St. that was the Nelsons.
With loss of the company store there was no longer a post office in Castleton. Most the village picked up their mail from general delivery at the store. She was sure Mrs. Seldon would known where every family in the village lived.
Holding her package under her arm a little closer, she walked carefully along the rutted road of Pitt St. She stopped at some children playing in front of a house to ask them. They pointed out the lane and told her the Nelson’s lived in the last house at the end before you get to the fields.
None of the houses had numbers but all looked in good repair. Most needed fresh paint and some had never been painted. All faced directly to the street with no front yards. She came to the last house and knocked at the door.
She leaned to the door to listen and could hear a woman singing.
“Bring us to the river, bring us to the river, so we can lay our burdens down.”
She knocked louder. The flour-smudged face of a little girl appeared in the window, she was joined by another little girl. Then they disappeared.
The front door opened a crack and the face of the first looked out at her.
“Is this where the Nelson’s live?” she asked.
The little girl was wearing ragged dress that came to her dirty knees, that didn’t cover legs that needed washing, with no shoes or stockings
“Yes.” the child replied. “But our Pa isn’t here. He’s at the boilers.”
“I’m looking for Mr. Birk Nelson.” she said. “I have something for him.” she pointed to the package she was carrying.
“No Mr. Birk here.” the child started to laugh.
“He’s no mister.” The second girl appeared and opened the door wider. “No one calls him mister. Birk. Plain old Birk. I’ll get Ma.” She shut the door leaving Lillian standing there. The second child had been as sloppily dressed as the first.
The first girl’s face was staring at her from the front window.
The door opened and a heavy-set woman stood there, wiping her hands on her apron. “Ah tis you Miss McTavish. I’m Birk’s mother.”
“You know who I am?” Lillian took a step back.
Mrs. Nelson wasn’t quite what Lillian had imagined. She was tall, almost what her mother would call ‘a lanky lass.’ Her dark hair was pulled back in a loose bun. Her dress was well fitted though, unlike many fo the village she had met who preferred the loose shift that she herself wore most often. Like her girls she was barefoot.
“Most everyone in Castleton Mines know who you are miss.”
“I …” Lillian had expected that Birk would answer the door. She had planned what she would say to him but wasn’t ready for meeting his mother so soon. “I brought these for Birk.”
“There’s no need to thank him for doin’ what was right, Miss.”
“It’s not so much to thank him but to replace the shirt that was burned so badly when he … rescued me.” She thrust the package into Mrs. Nelson’s hands and turned to go.
“Perhaps you would like to come in for a cup of tea.” Mrs. Nelson stepped away from the door so Lillian could enter.
The house was very dark and smelled of cooking and something she couldn’t name. St. Agatha’s hall always had this lingering smell after the miners had been there. She thought of it as the smell of unwashed working people. Could she live in a house like this?
“As you might tell we weren’t expecting visitors.” Mrs. Nelson said leading Lillian to the side parlour. She quickly dusted an armchair for Lillian to sit in.
“These are my daughters.”
The two girls stood at the doorway. Both had changed into cleaner dress that made their brown legs look even dirtier.
“Maddy, say hello to the lady.”
“How do you Miss McTavish.” Maddy did a clumsy curtsy. “How is your babby? The one that Birk saved from the fire.”
“Oh no! That wasn’t my baby. It was Mrs. Seldon’s.”
“Weren’t you scared?” Maddy asked.
“Of course I was. When your brother got me down the stairs I was so thankful. He was very very brave.”
“He’s too hairy.” Sal said. “Not brave at all. He knew he wouldn’t burn up with all those airs all over him.”
“I doubt that.” Lillian said. She undid her hair. “You see here when I almost caught on fire myself.” She showed them the ends of where the fire had burned her hair.
“Ohh.” Sal began to tear up as she touched Lillian’s hair.
“But I’m safe now, thanks to Birk.” She hugged Sal.
“Now Sal, the lady is a guest not a dolly for you. I go and put the kettle on.”
“If it isn’t too much trouble.”
“None at all. Come with me Maddy.”
“Aw. I want to talk with the pretty lady.”
“I have other thing for you to do. Come.” Mrs. Nelson took Maddy by the shoulder and pushed her gently out of the room. “Twill only take a a few minutes, Ma’am.”
Lillian looked around the the small room. Her chair was in the corner beside the window the girls had been looking out. There was a dingy lace curtain covering the window. In front of her was a low table with a doily on it. Along the wall was a settee that had seen better days. a bit of carpet was under the low table. On the wall beside door was a painting of a lake.
“I can read to you Miss. If you’d like me to to?” Sal said. “I’ll go get my a b c book.”
Lillian heard Sal’s footstep run up the stairs and then back down.
“Here tis.” She sat in Lillian’s lap and opened the book. “‘A is for apples. Apples are for pie.’ We have apples in the back field. Ma bakes pies with them but mostly she makes apple sauce because that keeps better over the winter and pie crust doesn’t last that long and the sauce isn’t as much trouble in the long run because all it needs is big pot and some lasses to help it set as it boils and turns into the apple sauce. Have you ever made apple sauce Miss. I can show you if you don’t know how. Ma says I stir it right right even though I needs to stand on the stool to reach the pot and I had to be careful not to get burned. I did get burned once. She pulled back her sleeve to show Lillian a scar along the inside of her arm. “That hurt so much I couldn’t stop crying. That’s why I’m so glad Birk saved that babby from burning up. That would have hurt something terrible. You didn’t get burned beside you hair did you?”
“Sit over here, Sal.” Mrs. Nelson put a tray with a teapot, some tea cups with matching saucers on it. “I hope she wasn’t bothering you.”
“No not at all. She was telling me about apple sauce.”
“I hope you don’t mind the tea black, Miss McTavish. With all that going on it’s been hard to get decent milk. I sent Maddy to see if the next-doors had some to spare.” She poured tea into the cup closest to her guest.
“No! No! This will be fine.” Lillian took a sip. “As I said I brought some shirts for Birk. He isn’t here, is he?”
“No Ma’am, he want fishing with our border. Clancy Sinclair. Clancy’s not from around here but is fitting in with ease. Must be hard for you though. I mean coming from far away to here.”
“It has presented some challenges but a little hardship is what God uses to grace us with strength and gratitude.”
“Ah, quite right you are. I was afraid you were one of those who felt we were … savages … you know, set themselves on high over us because we’re miners.”
“Not at all. You have other children?”
“Not at home. Our eldest George has gone to Alberta with his wife to start a life where there are more opportunities. There was another after him who died, then Birk, then another two who didn’t make it through their first winters.”
Maddy came into the room with a small pitcher. Her knees and legs had been washed but she was still shoeless. “Mrs. Malone said she could spare this when I told her that we Miss McTavish here.” She put the milk on the table. “But she’ll be wanting her pitcher back.”
“I’ll see to it.” Mrs. Nelson said. “Why don’t you take this up to Birk’s room for him. It’ll be nice surprise for him when they get back from fishing.”
Maddy put the package to her face. “Smells like flowers. You giving him flowers too?”
“No! It must be from the other clothes the shirts were with. I picked them from our donations.” She didn’t want to admit that she had put a drop of her rosewater on the note she had inclosed.
“Maybe you could find us some dresses.” Maddy said, tugging at the edge of the dress she was now wearing.
“Maddy!” Mrs. Nelson said. “Take that package up to where I told you. You go with her too, Sal.”
“Don’t mind them.” Lillian laughed. “I can remember plaguing my mother once for a dress I saw another little girl wearing. I never did get it.”
“Yes, well, miss, we aren’t in the habit of accepting such from folks. We learn how to make do.”
“Sorry I didn’t mean to offend you. I must be going. My uncle, Father McTavish, will be expecting me home.” She stood. This was a sufficient start. When she met Birk the next time it wouldn’t seem so unexpected. “It has been a pleasure to meet you and your sweet girls. It is clear where Birk gets his strength of character.”
Mrs. Nelson went to the door with her. “I’m sure Birk will be sorry him missed you.”
“Thank him for me once again.”
“You best hurry dear. It’s clear it’ll rain soon.”
“You are very pretty.” Sally said. “I pray that I’ll be as pretty as you when I grow up.”
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