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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Chapter XXVI – Lillian Gets A Letter

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXVI 

Lillian Gets A Letter

Lillian paced in the dining room as her uncle talked in the parlour with the Mother Superior of St. Margaret’s Convent in Sydney. Her bruise was still visible but not longer as vivid. She was dismayed to see how quickly it faded away but she resisted the temptation to pinch it in an attempt to make it last longer. She was grateful that she had not been confined to the rectory as she first feared. With the miner’s on strike her uncle had more pressing matters to attend to but made it clear she would be sent to the Convent as soon as it could be arranged.

As she paced she plotted. If he thought she would go into some cloistered life willingly he was mistaken. She would see to it that he regretted any further action to punish her in any way. She had hoped the sight of the bruise would result in his parishioners losing respect for him but other than being mildly surprised at it, they were mostly indifferent. No one had asked how it happened. 

The women had been more sympathetic but even they were not shocked. It was acceptable to them that a man would raise his hand to a woman if her behaviour called for it. Even if than man was a man of God. Even if her behaviour didn’t call for it.

“Lillian if you would care to join us?” her uncle said softly as he opened the door of the parlour.

She stepped resolutely into the room. The first thing that hit her was the smell. It was of something unwashed but wet at the same time. It made her think of dogs coming into her house in Boston after the rain. She had to restrain herself from sniffing. She kept he face as placid as possible.

The Mother Superior was larger than she expected. She was nearly as tall as her uncle but with a more ample figure. Clearly the nuns ate well. Lillian had the impression that nuns were small, thin women in big black cloaks.

“It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Sister Claire. Sister Claire my niece Lillian McTavish.”

Sister Claire stood and took Lillian by the hand. Lillian shook the sister’s hand. The nun’s hand was as rough as hers. Nuns didn’t have soft dainty hands after all. The Mother’s nails were uneven, some broken along the edge. Her knuckles red, rough and the back of one was mottled purple.

“Happy to make your acquaintance, Lillian. The lilies of our community do both grow and toil. We spin not, mind you, but we make easy the lives of those around us. It is propitious that we finally have a Lillian join the lilies.”

The Mother gave a small laugh and pushed her wimple back. The dark habit framed her oval face. Her eyes were a clear blue nestled in creases. Lillian was used to wrinkles but these marks were deeper. The right eyelid was lower than the left.

“Thank you … Sister. Mother Superior?” As an adult Lillian had never been introduced to a nun before. 

“Sister will do nicely if I can call you Lily?”

“Yes. Sister.” She hadn’t been called Lily since she was a child. Insisting on having her full name used had been one of the first things she was adamant about when she turned sixteen.

“Your uncle has been telling me that adapting to life here has been difficult for you.”

“At first.” Lillian stepped back. Her hands, now hidden under her apron, were restlessly squeezing each other. Would her hands look like the Mother Superior’s in a couple of years. 

“Did you find it that easy, Father Patrick? When you first arrived at St. Agatha’s parish?”

“I was quick to adapt, Sister, but … well … after the seminary it was a bit … of a challenge to be amongst ordinary folks again.”

“It is so much easier for a man to adapt isn’t it Father. Particularly one who feels, as you have demonstrated, that it is a natural part of his calling. A sacred vocation.”

“Yes, but Sister Claire, we’re here to discuss Lillian’s future prospects.”

“I know that but I wanted to make it clear that we are all aware of the challenges any new life will present.” She smiled. “What is easy for one may not be as simple for another. Now I wish to speak with Lillian.”

“Of course.” Father Patrick sat in his usual chair.

“Alone.”

“Ah …” He stood.

Lillian looked from Sister Claire to her uncle. She was amused at his discomfort. She had seen no one disconcert him this way since she arrived.

“Surely, you, of all men, must understand there are some things that require privacy.”

“Yes … uh … I do have matters to deal with at the church office. If you’ll excuse me.” He shook hands with the Mother Superior and left the room.

Sister Claire went to the window and waved to Father Patrick as he went down the front path.

“I had to make sure he was actually going.” She said. “before we spoke. I’ve learned never to trust a man.” She tittered and sat heavily in the chair the father had vacated.

Lillian was once again struck by the smell as the Mother’s habit unfolded around her. The hem of the tunic was dusty and frayed. The sleeve cuffs had been mended and there were square patches of a nearly matching serge on the elbows.

“I see you looking at my habit.” The Mother Superior said. “I know it has seen better days but those days have so full of grace I have found it hard to … replace it with a newer one. As you see I wear the double veil that represents my consecration to God.”

“Yes, I know. We had visiting sisters come to our school to explain some of these things.” Lillian served tea.

“Please sit Lily. There is no reason to be uncomfortable with me. I do have your best interests at heart.”

“Yes, Sister.” She sat in one of the side chairs. 

“Father Patrick is most concerned about your position in life.” Sh reached over to take Lillian by the hand.

“I know that but …”

“Hear me then I’ll listen to your ‘buts.’ He wants to protect you from the temptations of the world that are around us all. You may feel this is unreasonable on his part but your past indiscretions make it clear you are not a girl who can be trusted to make the wisest decisions on her own behalf.”

“So he has told you about Mr. Dunham?” Lillian stood.

“Yes, but that is not most concerns him. It is the attentions of Mr. O’Dowell that causes him the most concern.”

“But …”

“I told you no ‘buts.’ I have also spoken with Anthea O’Dowell and am fully aware that you have not sought such attentions. It has always been unfair to me that the pretty are blamed for how others respond to their prettiness. Yes, it is clear that often men are the victims of their own longings and hungers and it is up to us women to protect them from acting in unwholesome carnal ways. Their longings can be even more crippling than the chains that bound Christ.”

“How can we control hungers that we have not caused? Women have to live in this world with these men.” Lillian sat.

“Not necessarily so Lily. Which is why your uncle has asked me to speak with you today. He is concerned with your very soul. If you are incapable or unwilling to armour yourself then action must be taken.”

“Is that why you are in the convent Sister. To hide yourself from the eyes of men.” Lillian asked.

“We are the Brides of Christ. Some, to be sure, have hidden themselves with us, but most of our order does not hide. We have decided to surrender our human desires to confirm our dedication to spiritual fulfillment. We seek our protection from Christ so that we may work among His children. Although we are female, men stop seeing us as such but come to recognize us as emissaries of grace. Our very garment signifies taking on a new life in Christ.”

The idea of being protected from the unsavoury, and unwelcome, attentions of men appealed to Lillian. “I understand that it would be a blessing not to have to worry about pleasing mean or living one’s life at their beck and call. But if the price is to remove myself from the world around me I don’t know if I am strong.”

“What is it you have missed most of your life in Boston since coming here?”

“My family.” Lillian didn’t hesitate. “Being able to see my mother or father when I wanted to. To be able to come and go from my house as I pleased. To listen to my brother talking about his business affairs.”

“But those are sacrifices all women must make as we get older. If you married you would have to leave your family home, right?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything you don’t miss.”

Lillian sipped her tea and thought for a minute. “Yes! Here I no longer have to concern myself so much with how I look. There is no need to prepare my hair in the morning to do my chores, to face my uncle. I don’t have to select the right dress to wear. Those were things I once enjoyed, looked forward to, but now that I don’t, my life is much easier.”

“Then perhaps you have already heeded part of your calling?” Sister Claire said.

“Calling?”

“To be a sister is a calling, an avocation. It is to be free of …. adornment. Father Patrick didn’t become a priest on a whim. He knew he was making certain sacrifices to serve Our Lord. Sacrifices he gladly made.”

“I understand that. Being here isn’t a sacrifice I wanted to make. How would he have reacted if the priesthood had been forced upon him?”

“What is that you want Lily? What do you see in your future?”

“I expect to return to Boston, of course. To return to my family. Their intent in sending me was to spare my father any embarrassment in his political career.”

“How long do think he expects to be spared?” She took an envelope out from a fold in her habit.

“I … I had hoped to be home before Christmas. For my bother’s wedding.”

“Father Patrick had two reasons he wanted me to talk with you. One was to get a sense of your willingness to consider our vocation. The other was this …” she handed Lillian the envelope.

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