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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII
Lillian turned Steve’s face back to hers. The weight of his head was heavy in her hands.
“He’s lost consciousness.” Lillian looked up to Dr. Drummond. “All that blood he’s lost has made him weak. He’ll be alright now, won’t he Dr. Drummond?”
She leaned to kiss Steven again. “My husband! I didn’t realize how proud I would be to say those words, Steve. My husband.”
“I think he should rest now.” Dr. Drummond gently removed her hands from around Steven’s head. “You need some rest too.” He helped her stand. “It has been an ordeal for both of you.” He took her out of the infirmary.
“Yes. Yes.” She held her hand up to look at the wedding ring. “Married. I’m actually married.”
She glanced back and saw the orderly pull the sheet over Steven’s face. “No! He’s not …”
She couldn’t stand. Dr. Drummond signalled to one of the nurses to help lead Lillian out of the infirmary.
The nurse helped Lillian sit on one of the benches in the wash area.
“Would you like some water? I could get you a cup of tea, if you’d like, Miss McTavish.”
“It’s Mrs. O’Dowell now.” Lillian replied savouring the words. “Mrs. Steven O’Dowell.”
“I’ll be back in a bit with a nice cup of tea for you Mrs. O’Dowell.” The nurse left.
Restless Lillian walked aimlessly around the wash house. She stepped out and went toward the main gate. The cramped feeling of walls and roofs was suffocating her. She wanted to be able to breathe deeply without the smell of coal in the air.
Her steps took her up the road that lead away from the colliery. One rather side she saw dark shuttered houses. Some had light flickering in various rooms. People with homes. At least homes for now until he company made the move.
How many of them had lost husbands fathers to the mines? A second story curtain flashed white in the dark. She saw the white sheet being pulled up over Steven’s face. Was he actually dead?
She felt the ring on her finger. Yes, they had been married. She felt his head in her hands. His face smudged with coal dust and blood. His eyes so full of love for her.
She stopped and began to weep. She couldn’t stop her sobs and she let herself give out a howl of grief, anger and fear. Wiping her face on her shawl she stopped at the steps to St. Agatha’s. She found the key where it was hidden in a nook under a window sill and let herself in.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to the dark. A few steps to her to the votive rack. She found a candle and lit it before genuflecting and going into the church.
The air was still and clean. It was silent.
She knelt, took out her rosary and prayed aloud.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst 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.”
After each amen she moved to the next bead sometimes visualizing Steven transcending out his pains. At other times she reaffirmed her trust that Mary would be lead her to do what was right for her. after the last prayer was said she remained still for a few moments before slowly standing.
Dizzy she sat on the pew. She turned so she could lay flat and stretched her legs out, pushing her back against the firm wood of the bench. How many parishioners has sat here over the years. She fell asleep.
She woke with the sun streaming through the windows. Straightening out her skirts she left the church, locked the door and put the key back in its nook. She went to the manse and went in though the back door.
While she started a fire in the stove to make herself a cup of tea she wondered if her uncle was back. All she knew was that he had been summoned by the Bishop. Perhaps he had been reassigned a new parish with this sure to be closed thanks to the strike and now the disaster. She caught her breath. Steven was a victim of that disaster too. What would become of her?
Everything was where it had always been in the kitchen. There were some biscuits in the back pantry but little else. So her Uncle had not yet returned.
After going to the mine infirmary to see Steven’s body to convince herself that he was in fact dead she collected the the marriage licence and other papers he had had in his coat pocket. She kept the blood- stained ribbon he used to tie their wedding rings around his neck.
Back at the O’Dowell house she gave the envelope to Clara to open.
Clara sat and quickly went through the papers.
“I think the most pertinent, to you, at this time are these two letters.”
Lillian took the two single page letters. The first was from the American Consulate in Ottawa. It affirmed that Lillian Patrinella McTavish was alive. There was no legal record of her death registered with the authorities. The other was a letter from her father saying that he had been misinformed of her death by his brother and that he regrets any distress this may have caused his daughter.
“Lillian, I have seen these documents already.” Clara said. “Steven used his Federal connections to make sure that his marriage to you would be … legitimate. They were to be his gift to you after the ceremony. Which I guess in a way they are.”
Clara patted her eyes with her handkerchief.
The next few weeks moved so quickly Lillian often longed for the cool silence of the manse that morning which seemed like another world. After the funeral she remained unsure of her position in the O’Dowell household.
As she went down the stairs she could hear a babble of female voices coming from the living room. This was the day the Women’s Association for Catholic African Missionaries met at the O’Dowell house. After attending two of the meetings, solely to please Clara, she didn’t feel at ease with these women. All of whom were ten or more years older than her. They talked more about their neighbours than the plight of the African Missionaries.
Lillian ducked into the kitchen.
“You’re looking better to day Miss Lillian.” Aileen said.
“I wasn’t aware I wasn’t looking well?” Lillian joked. “Can I help with anything?”
“No, Miss. You join the others I can tend to this.” Aileen was pouring water into the tea pot.
“I’ll take that in Aileen. You can set a spell.” Lillian took the tea tray and went into the living room. “Good afternoon ladies.”
“Ah Lillian,” said Mrs. Donaldson. “We were talking about you and your future.”
“You are thinking I’d make a good missionary to Africa?” Lillian poured tea into their proffered cups.
“Oh dear no!” said Mrs. Murphy. “Rather we were discussing how happy we’ve been to have you here in our midst.”
“And how much they’d hate to see you leave.” Clara said.
“Yes!” came in a chorus from several of the ladies.
“What we offer to propose,” said Mrs. Murphy, “is that you teach our daughters proper etiquette.”
“The Sisters at the school are good for educating them,” said Mrs. Murphy, “but that doesn’t prepare them for being in society at large.”
Lillian looked at them. She wanted scream, ‘Look at me! Look at the society my fine upbringing has brought me to. You want your daughters to be cast aside the way we would a piece of furniture that has lost its use because it has some insignificant damage!’
“I’m sincerely flattered.” Lillian took a deep breath as she considered her reply. “I’m sure you mean well but …”
“Hear our offer first Lillian.” Mrs. Murphy said. “I’ve talked this over already with Mrs. Prentis and Mrs. Donaldson.”
Those two ladies nodded their heads.
“This came a pleasant surprise to me too Lillian,” Clara said. “I had no idea that you had made such an impression.”
“How could she not. Being at Steven’s side …” Mrs. Murphy paused to hold back her emotions. “during his campaign we all saw what a refine and practicable person you were. Even then it occurred to me that I would love to have daughter exactly like you.”
“Again I am flattered. But what exactly is it you want me to teach?”
“How to comport yourself.” Mrs. Donaldson said. “Too many of these young Catholic girls are becoming …. too modern. They talk about getting a job, not raising a family.”
“That’s right. It’s one thing to want to be a clerk at O’Dowell’s but to want to learn short-hand and typing and work in an office.” Said Mrs. Murphy. “That’s a step too far. That might be fine for Protestant girls but well … you know the morals of that sort.”
“I understand your concerns ladies but fail to see how I can impart anything to them of that nature. There are no books to fall back on. I might instruct them in needlepoint but that isn’t going to strengthen their morals as you imply.”
“But your example …” Mrs. Murphy started.
“No, ladies I don’t see what I can do.” Lillian shrugged.
“She is right.” Clara said smiling. “After all the way Lillian comports herself was learned in her own home. Right Lillian?”
“Yes, Clara.” she again resisted the temptation to lecture these women. “ It is probably more advantageous for your daughters to learn practical things that they can use in the world. Needlepoint and how to set a proper table won’t take you as far as short-hand. In fact, I’m sorry I never got the opportunity to learn it myself. Do you want your daughters to be so dependant on a husband that she can’t fend for herself in the world.” Lillian sighed deeply.
“We were looking for ways to be helpful to you.” Mrs. Murphy said taking Lillian by the hand and patting it.
“I know that Mrs. Murphy.” She leaned and kissed Mrs. Murphy on the cheek. “I’m not that helpless. The Lord has made clear my path thus far and He will continue to do so. I don’t need a crystal ball to be sure of that.”
“Shall you be wanting another pot of tea?” Aileen came into the living room.
“No, Aileen.” Clara said. “The meeting is about to adjourn.”
“I’ll help clear these things away Aileen.” Lillian busied herself with the cup and saucers to avoid any further conversations with the women.
She knew her first step would be get out of the reach of these well-meaning women. Perhaps though it might be wise to heed them after all her own plans had so far not worked out as expected. Each solution had produced yet another trial for her to face.
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