Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXVII
Birk Pays a Call
Holding Maddy loosely by the hand Birk stood at the corner street. He stared down at the door of the rectory. His mother had pressed the shirt and finally stitched the cuffs of pants Lillian had sent to him but he thought he still looked unkept. His borrowed belt made the pants bunch out around his behind. That was a tailoring job his mother said would take more than a few stitches to do. He was already sweating from his walk there. His face itched from shaving it twice in the same morning. His hair refused to stay down no matter what he tried. He looked down at his work boots wishing he had shoes more fitting to wear.
The boots, even when they were new, didn’t hold any kind of shine. There weren’t meant to. His sisters had tried to clean them but there was nothing to be done about the scrapes on the toes. The crease of the pants made the boots look even more unsuitable. His mother wouldn’t let him go in bare feet.
“We going to stand here all morning?” Maddy asked. She was wearing her Sunday dress with a new piece of lace sown around the neck. There was a yellow satin bow in her hair that she kept pushing back into place.
His mother had insisted he take his sister along so she could see how those outside Mudtown lived. He was sure it was to make sure he acted proper. He wished Clancy could have been with him but after the scrap they got into yesterday that wasn’t going to be.
When Birk had woken that morning it took a few minutes for him to remember that Clancy was gone and not sleeping on the floor where it was cooler in the summer.
He walked to the front door of the house and knocked. No answer. Knocked again a little harder. Maddy kicked at the door but her shoes did make much of a sound.
“You sure you got the right day?” she asked.
“It’s the day Clancy read to me from her note.” Did he have the wrong day? Wrong time? Clancy had read those things to him off the note. Was that his idea, to send him there at the wrong time to make an even a bigger fool of himself. Maybe the note didn’t ask for him to lunch. “You read it too, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” She stood on tiptoes to see through the side window.
He turned to leave.
The door opened.
“Mr. Nelson.” Father Patrick said. “You have to knock louder than that.”
Birk turned back to the door. “Sorry.. uh … Father McTavish. I wasn’t sure how ….”
“Come in, please.” Lillian appeared behind Father Patrick and pushed past him.
“Thank, ye, Miss. You remember my sister Maddy.” He was awed at Lillian’s appearance.
“Hello.” Maddy curtsied.
Previously Birk had only seen Lillian dressed in dark green pinafores with darker green aprons around them, a black kerchief of some sort covering her hair. So similar to a nun he had assumed that she was one.
Today she was wearing a light blue shift with a pleated skirt that ended directly below her knees. A row of blue buttons along the back went from her neck to her waist. How did those buttons get done? He had enough trouble with ones that went up the front of his shirt. She was wearing black shoes with small heels and with straps across the top of her foot.
He took this all in with a couple of rapid shy glances as they followed her into the parlour. She continued through the parlour to another room.
“How is your family faring during the strike?” Father Patrick asked him. He gestured to a chair for Birk to sit. Maddy sat on chair by the fire. Hey eyes wide as she looked around the room.
“We gets by.” Birk looked briefly at Father Patrick. “We have … a little garden… we hunt some and …. fish in the lake.”
The room wasn’t much bigger than the parlour in his house. The furniture was more ornate. The window panes were so clean as to be nearly transparent. The lace curtains barely held back the sun. He was nervous with the crucifix on the wall that loomed over his shoulder.
“Very enterprising.” Father Patrick said. “How are you doing is school.” The priest asked Maddy.
“Good. How do you get the windows so clean? The curtain are so white. My sister Sal wasn’t feeling strong today so she couldn’t come with us. She supposed to help Ma with picking pears, which means finding any that fall from the tree.”
“Pears?” Lillian asked.
‘Yes ma’am.” Birk said. “There some pear trees and apple trees in behind our lane.”
“Very nice. I’ll get the tea things.”
Lillian retuned with a tray on which was a tea service. Birk had never seen such a set. The tray was highly polished silver. The whitish ceramic tea pot had a thick gold braid along the base, the cups had saucers that matched and weren’t cracked. The gleaming ivory of the china glowed in the sunlight that came through the window. He was afraid to handle it.
“Tea? Mr. Nelson.” Lillian asked him.
“Why thank ‘er miss.”
She handed him a cup and saucer.
He quickly put them on the table beside him before they could notice how much he was shaking. Maddy went to the tea service and brought the milk over and poured some into Birk’s cup.
“Thank you.” He said as she stirred for him. He tired to pick the cup up by the handle but his fingers could barely hold it. He sipped trying not too look too clumsy.
“Father Patrick, my uncle, and I wanted to express our gratitude for your daring rescue. Your brother is very brave.” She put a cup and saucer on the table beside Maddy and poured her a cup tea.
“T’wasn’t me who saved that babby, it was you miss. That took a brave heart to do that. I only helped when I had to.”
“Be that as it may, I wanted to thank you in person.” She handed Birk a plate with a couple of biscuits on it. “I made these fresh this morning.”
Birk looked directly at her face for the first time. Her dark auburn hair shone in the light that came through the window. The light gave it a reddish tinge. Her skin was clear. No sign of the bruise remained. She smelled of flowers. He didn’t know what kind. Lilacs or roses. A delicate clean smell.
“This is thanks enough for me.” He touched the shirt she had sent to him.
“A little large on you.” She laughed lightly.
“True miss but it’ll wear well.”
“Not those trousers through.” Father Patrick said.
Maddy started to giggle. “Me and Sal each fit in a leg of them.”
“Stand so I can see how they fit you.” Lillian said.
Birk blushed as he stood. Some of his mother’s hasty stitch work had come loose. The cuffs were unrolled and caught beneath the heels of his boots. The waist was bunched by the belt he had borrowed from Blackie to cinch it. They had tried suspenders but the pants drooped so he looked as if he was wearing a cloth barrel.
“I am much taller than you, my lad.” Father Patrick grinned. “But I think Lillian can alter them to fit you somewhat better.”
“Yes. Thank you …” Birk blushed that they were going do those alterations right away.
“I can bring them over another day.” Maddy said. “Ma’d’ve done them but she was busy tending to Sal.”
“Yes.” Lillian laughed. “We aren’t going to do it now, if that’s what you feared.”
“I like your biscuits.” Maddy said. “Can I have one to take home to Sal?”
“Of course.” Lillian turned to Birk. “Do the men think the strike will last much longer?” She asked.
“Can’t say miss. We have the … demonstration at the end of the week.”
“The attack on the company store was not a wise action.” Father Patrick said. “I’ve sure troops will be brought in soon to make sure order is maintained.”
“Not as if that at the pluck me was planned. Happened so fast none of us was ready for it.”
“Not from what I hear.” Father Patrick said. “It has been brewed up by a couple of the men for a few days. They were waiting for an opportunity. You know Jim McKlusky?”
“Sure. He lives next door to us in Mudside.” So Jim was the ring leader of that pack.
There was knock at the door. Lillian went to answer it. She brought Mr. Bowen, one of the mine managers, into the room
“It’s Mr Bowen, Father Patrick.”
“Sorry to barge in on you this way Father but ….” he caught sight of Birk. “Oh, I see you have company.”
“Yes. This is Birk Nelson. The young miner who saved my niece from the fire the other night.”
“Least he could do. It was them bastards that started it.” Mr. Bowen glared at Birk. “You men should know better.”
“I didna’ have anything to do with that.” Birk said.
Mr. Bowen give a dismissive snort and turned to Father Patrick. “Father I have some urgent business that I must speak to you about. In private.”
“Why don’t we step out into the garden Mr. Bowen.” Father Patrick said. “It won’t take up too much time will it Mr. Bowen?”
Father Patrick lead Mr. Bowen out through the kitchen to the back garden.
“The garden is where we first saw you a few weeks back.” Birk said.
“I was not very happy that day. You were going fishing with your brother. I envied your freedom.” Lillian got up and leaned against the fence.
“Clancy’s no brethren to us.” Maddy said sharply.
“Oh I see.”
“They fights like brothers though.”
“It’s true! You and Clancy were as bad and you and Geo t’other day punching away at each other.”
“He’s had some schoolin’ mor’n me and thinks he’s better n’ me ‘cause of it. Same way as so many mainlanders, you see. I jus’ got tired of him lordin’ it over me.” Birk said.
“You do want to improve your mind, don’t you.” Lillian looked at Birk, “You don’t want to be a … an uneducated miner for the rest of your life, do you?”
“Twas good nuf for my father, his father, good enough for me.” Birk shifted uneasily on his chair. Each move of his caused it to squeak.
“The mines can’t last forever you know.”
“Long nuf for the sorts of me, ma’am.”
“Is it such a bad thing, I mean, to improve your mind.”
“No ma’am. But I jus don’t see the point in it, for me. Fir my sister’s it’s different. Ma wants them to leave here one day.” Birk stared up at her. “There’s isn’t much else for me. Not that I care for the coal but …”
“Don’t you have any dreams, Birk.”
“Dreams, miss. Sure but they are dreams not life.”
“You don’t want, say a wife, someone to look after you and someone you can look after.”
“Got me ma to look after me and I got my sisters to look out fer. My family’s enough family for me.” He nodded at Maddy.
“The right wife could be a helpmate in that though, wouldn’t she?”
Birk was confused and unsure what she was getting at. He didn’t want to ask her because he knew Maddy would be telling his Mother everything she heard here. He stood. “I thank you miss, for taking the time to talk with me. We best be on our way though.”
“Wait a moment and I’ll give Maddy some of the biscuits to take home.” She took Maddy by the hand and they went to the kitchen.
He looked around the room. He couldn’t picture Lillian living anywhere else. She would never be suited to a life in Mudtown.
Maddy and Lillian were laughing when they returned from the kitchen.
“I’d be happy to come by to visit with Sal.” Lillian said to Maddy.
“She would never believe how nice you are.” Maddy said. “She’s gets better and better, so our ma tells us.”
“I’m sure she is.” Lillian smiled. “Don’t forget what we talked about.” She adjusted Maddy’s hair ribbon.
“I won’t. Thank you kindly for the biscuits.” She curtsied. “We can go now, Birk.”
She took Birk by the hand as Lillian opened the front door for them
“Thank you again for rescuing me.” Lillian kissed Birk quickly on cheek.
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