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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXIII
After her meeting with the magistrate Lillian went to St. Teresa’s to collect her thoughts and pray. While she was there it began to rain heavily. She regretted not bringing her umbrella with her as she walked briskly back to the courthouse for two o’clock. She paced back and forth in the lobby checking the time on the clock there each time she passed it. At 3:15 a clerk came out.
“Miss McTavish. Magistrate Doucet will see you now.”
She went into his office and sat in one of the arm chairs in front of his desk.
He made notes for a few moments before looking. “Thank you or coming back Miss McTavish.”
“Is no one present to record what I have to say?” she asked.
“Not at this point Miss McTavish. The case, as it were, is almost settled. We may not have to waste any valuable court time on it. I’m merely getting the details to see if there is enough to warrant taking it trial. I’ve spoke with the two lads in question.”
“They denied everything I suppose?”
“On the contrary they confirmed much of what you suspected. But I do want to hear what it was exactly you saw.”
“They were naked and touching each other’s private parts. Smiling while they enjoyed …” she shuddered at what she had seen. “Unnatural expressions in their eyes.”
“Where were you when you saw this.”
“Blue Lake on the south shore side.”
“Yes, I know the area. Good fishing at times. Sun was in your eyes at all?”
“There was a slight glare from the water but my vision was clear.”
“About how far from them where you?”
“I … I don’t know.” Was he doubting what she saw? “I know what I saw. It was a clear as …” she glanced out the window and peered across to the other side of the street, “the lace on the curtains in that window across the street.”
“I see,” he answered without looking where she was looking. “Miss McTavish as an outsider you have been quick to adapt our Island life. But you know that in some matters of decorum we are quite different. We tend to be less formal, less concerned with appearance. For example swimming in the nude amongst men in what is usually a private setting, is not at all unusually. I even did it myself often in my youth.”
“They were not swimming when I saw them” Lillian said firmly.
“You did observe them in the water didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Lillian blushed at the momentary pleasure she had taken in watching them in the water.
“Have you seen many men in the nude?” He asked gently.
“Never!” she exploded. “But this was more …”
“I can easily see how a young, delicate, lady such as yourself would be flustered by such a sight. It would have offended your refined sensibilities. Quite rightly so.” He chuckled. “But to impute more to what you saw than that is a gross overstatement. An over-reaction to the situation. But given recent events in your life. After the death of Mr. O’Dowell, I can see where your mien could be unsettled by such an unexpected and unwelcome sight.”
“It was not their nudity …” Lillian stood to make her point.
“Mrs. O’Dowell, I am dismayed that a female of your breeding would even countenance such thoughts as you have hinted at. An awareness of such unspeakable acts does not reflect well upon you or your family. Now sit down.”
She sat glaring at him
“Now, even if what you say is true, let me tell you now, nothing more will be done about this matter. Any attempts by you to besmirch these men will only sully the memory of the late Steve O’Dowell and the other men who died in that tragic accident.”
“Sully?” Lillian said. “Sully?”
“Yes, sully. This sort of sordid stain will taint memory forever. Birk Nelson was instrumental in that rescue. Leave it be.” He said forcefully
“I refuse.” She stood again. “You may not have the moral fortitude to take action …”
“These people cannot be allowed to live such a way!”
“I see no evidence of that in this case. It is more case of a silly, grief stricken, woman being alarmed by a naked man.”
“It was more than that. Much more.” She slammed the palms of her hands on the desk. “Don’t these people care at all?”
“Mrs. O’Dowell.” He said quietly. “After working twelve hours in a dark, dank, wet, lightless hole they have little time or energy to care for much more than getting food, sleep and back to work another day. How they might seek even a small bit of pleasure is of no great importance. To other men, or to God. Good day Miss McTavish.” He went to the door and opened it for her.
“I will speak to the Bishop about this matter.” she said as she passed him.
“Consult with whom you wish.”
“They cannot be let off scot-free.”
“They haven’t been. Public nudity is an offence, as is creating a public mischief. They have both been charged and pled guilty to those charges.”
Lillian wanted to slap the tight smirk off the magistrate’s face. Treating her as if she were merely a hysterical female was bad enough but to indulge these men in their behaviour was too much.
She fumed all the way across the bay and back to the O’Dowell house. The windows in her room rattled as she slammed the door behind her. She sat heavily on the chair in front of her vanity table. Her face was drawn and pale. Her forehead and eyebrow muscles ached, her jaw was sore from being clenched. She tanked off her hat, took the pins out of her hair and began to brush it relishing the sharp pain on her scalp as she tugged at the snarls.
She heard the front door open and close.
“Are you in Lillian?” Clara called from the bottom of the stairs.
“Yes, Clara.” She shook her hair out and wrapped it in a quick braid as she went down the stairs.
“That scowl tells me things didn’t go as you expected.”
“No Clara, they did not. Not that I’m surprised. The spiritual laxness of these people is a bottomless pit.”
“It is a struggle we all deal with in one way or the other.” Clara agreed. “Some sins are more visible than others. It’s those unseen ones we must be particularly vigilant about. Pride leads the list.”
“Pride! These people have no pride!” Lillian exploded. “If they had any pride they would not live as they do.”
“It’s not their pride or lack of it that I’m speaking of, but yours, my dear.”
“Mine!” Lillian was shaken.
“Yes, yours. When I first met you at Father Patrick’s I saw that in you. You felt you were better than the circumstance into which you had fallen. In some ways that was justified and I admired your stubbornness in refusing to let yourself be humbled by it.”
“I was humbled.” Lillian said.
“No! Humiliated but not humbled. Then when you came to us even your gratitude had an element of ‘look how I’m lowering myself to be of help to you. I may be refined but I’m willing to be a garden drudge.’ You demanded to have your sacrifice recognized, acknowledged.”
“I did not!” Lillian said.
“Never in words. Even with Steven you sometimes acted as if you were doing him a great favour when you appeared with him. Never did it appear that you were there because you loved him but because it was duty.” Clara stopped to sip her tea.
“I married him for …”
“Don’t say for love. How could you deny a dying man his final wish?” Clara said.
“I … didn’t know he was about to die.” Lillian wiped a tear from her face. “Are you quite finished?”
“I might ask you the same question. Are you quite finished?”
“If by that you do I know what I’m going to do. The answer is no. I have limited resources and clearly no options, but I’m not finished.” Lillian sighed then cried bitterly. “I don’t what to do next.”
“Look to your heart Lillian not to your head or your pride. What do you truly want?”
Lillian stood. “More than anything I’d want to feel that I have a future. To be free.”
She went out the garden. The rain had stopped and the plants were eager to turn to face the setting sun. Some of what Clara had said was true but she was wrong about one thing. Lillian had never felt she was a drudge in the garden. There she was in control. She had made it possible for some plants to thrive, to come back to life after years of neglect. She had seen the results of her efforts in the fresh herbs they had for salads, the ripening tomatoes, the new shoots that had formed on the climbing rose.
With her own hands she had shaped and encouraged and had be rewarded amply.
She pulled off some sage leaves and crushed them. The aroma was of the earth, of life and she had to find a way to be free to be a part of it. Here all she could do was crush it between her fingers or be crushed by it.