Sis­ter Bene­dict’s Bless­ings

Part two of our in­spir­ing new se­rial

My Weekly - - Contents - By Fran Tracey

Join me in the gar­den, Ellen, where we can be alone.” Sis­ter Bene­dict led her friend by the arm, aware of her poorly dis­guised ag­i­ta­tion. “I feel you have the need to tell me some­thing. There is no rush. Mother Su­pe­rior can wait for her poul­tice.”

Sis­ter Bene­dict smiled at her friend, who gazed into the dis­tance, past the walls. Try­ing to sup­press tears, Sis­ter Bene­dict won­dered? If so, why? Had the con­ver­sa­tion with the Colonel about the adop­tion not gone to plan?

The two women took small steps, silent at first. Sis­ter Bene­dict would pause to col­lect herbs, watch­ing her friend, know­ing that given time she would speak of her own ac­cord. Her life in the con­vent had taught that pa­tience was a virtue. A com­fort­able si­lence is con­ducive to confession, what­ever the re­li­gion.

“I spoke to James,” Ellen fi­nally spoke, clearly at­tempt­ing to sup­press sobs. “Take your time, Ellen.” “He won’t con­sider the adop­tion. And Sis­ter, there is worse.” Sis­ter Bene­dict waited. “I fear James is the father of Mary’s baby.” Ellen slumped onto a bench, twist­ing her bon­net in her hands, her tears no longer hid­den. “If I’ve lost my hus­band, Sis­ter, I blame my­self. I’ve been dis­tracted. I still love him – but I fear he no longer loves me.”

Sis­ter Bene­dict, who prided her­self on her abil­ity to fore­see events, was, nev­er­the­less, sur­prised at the rev­e­la­tion.

“Mary Burke and the Colonel?” she asked softly.

“I fear so,” replied Ellen. “I have seen them speak­ing with one an­other. He says his rea­sons for re­fus­ing the adop­tion are fi­nan­cial. But if the baby is his, surely we should be tak­ing the poor mite in? She shouldn’t face a fu­ture in that dread­ful place. I fear ev­ery­thing is spoilt.”

Ellen’s voice was bor­der­ing on hys­te­ria. Sis­ter Bene­dict sat next to her, hold­ing her hand. She wasn’t used to hu­man touch, ex­cept when the woman was un­der her care. As Ellen was to­day.

Sis­ter Bene­dict’s life, al­though part of a busy and thriv­ing com­mu­nity, could be lonely and iso­lated. It sad­dened her at times, de­spite her strong vo­ca­tion.

“Calm your­self, Ellen. Noth­ing good will come of such up­set.”

Sis­ter Bene­dict had never pressed Mary to name her child’s father. From her ex­pe­ri­ence un­mar­ried women who found them­selves in trou­ble were of­ten re­luc­tant to name the men they had sinned with if mar­riage wasn’t promised. It was no sur­prise that a man had taken a fancy to Mary’s translu­cent skin, comely fig­ure and long auburn locks.

“May I speak to Mary of the sit­u­a­tion we find our­selves in?” Sis­ter Bene­dict said. “Seek as­sur­ances from her?”

Ellen turned to her. Doubt, un­cer­tainty, then a glim­mer of what looked like hope crossed her face.

“I would be so grate­ful, Sis­ter. Maybe she will con­fide in you, and I can make amends with James. I love him so.” Sis­ter Bene­dict nod­ded and smiled. “I know you do, Ellen. All is not lost.” This sit­u­a­tion would re­quire del­i­cate han­dling. Sis­ter Bene­dict hoped Mary would be open with her.

“Now, Ellen, Mother Su­pe­rior’s foot is fair driv­ing her to dis­trac­tion. Fol­low me. I have gath­ered pep­per­mint for a calm­ing in­fu­sion. When are we next to meet with Father Maguire about plans for the school? I gather the build­ing is al­most done.” Sis­ter Bene­dict drew cheer into her voice as she changed the sub­ject.

“In­deed, and Joe Mur­phy is ex­cited to be one of the first to re­ceive a book.” Ellen com­plied with the shift in tone. “That boy will take to school, I know it. I will visit Father Maguire this af­ter­noon. I need to speak to him of chalk and slates.”

Sis­ter Bene­dict thought that a good idea. Any dis­trac­tion for Ellen would

“If I’ve LOST MY HUS­BAND, I blame my­self. I FEAR he no longer LOVES ME”

serve her well. She held the wooden door open and fol­lowed Ellen Stephens back into the con­vent, her heart heavy.

She hoped she would ob­tain an an­swer from Mary that would sat­isfy Ellen. She also hoped the fi­nan­cial trou­bles of which the Colonel had spo­ken were not too se­ri­ous.

Eimear’s nurs­ing well, Mary. Her name wears her well.” Sis­ter Bene­dict thought the work­house no place for a mother and

child, but what was the al­ter­na­tive? Mary and her baby were placed at the end of a long dor­mi­tory.

“She’s named for my ma.” Mary whis­pered her re­ply.

Sis­ter Bene­dict nod­ded. She knew. She also knew how much missed Eimear Burke was.

“Will Mrs Stephens choose a name of her own? An English name?”

Mary touched her baby’s head, stroking an auburn curl, her head down. An­other woman wish­ing to hide tears from me to­day, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought.

“I don’t know, Mary, that’s the truth of the mat­ter,” Sis­ter Bene­dict replied, hes­i­tat­ing be­fore speak­ing again. “Mrs Stephens vis­ited me ear­lier.”

Mary’s hand stilled. She met the nun’s gaze, her cheeks glis­ten­ing with tears as Sis­ter Bene­dict had sus­pected. What mother wishes to part with their new­born baby?

“Did she have news? Of when I am to take Eimear to her?”

“Not news, Mary.” Sis­ter Bene­dict was re­luc­tant to tell Mary of the Colonel’s de­ci­sion re­gard­ing the adop­tion. It was too soon. Too new. “She had ques­tions. And con­cerns. I am charged to ask you, who is Eimear’s father?”

“What com­fort is it to Mrs Stephens that she knows who I sinned with?”

Spots of red ap­peared on Mary’s pale cheeks. Her mouth nar­rowed, tak­ing on a de­ter­mined look. Sis­ter Bene­dict sighed. She did not wish to up­set Mary fur­ther, a new mother whose milk was just com­ing in, but she’d made a prom­ise to Ellen. She took Eimear’s tiny hand, al­lowed it to clench tightly round her fin­ger.

“It would be of com­fort, Mary, if she knew it wasn’t the Colonel.”

Mary laughed. A hol­low laugh, maybe. A sign of guilt or in­no­cence?

A fig­ure burst into the dor­mi­tory, hold­ing her skirts high as she bar­relled to­wards them. Brid­get.

“Sis­ter Bene­dict, Mary, I bring dread­ful news.”

The third woman I must calm to­day, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought wryly.

“Dais so an­gry, Mary. We’ve been served no­tice. We have to leave. Colonel Stephens vis­ited the farm this morn­ing. Dais all in a panic .”

Brid­get’s words rushed out, be­fore com­ing to stop, and she fell onto a chair, putting her head in her hands, pant­ing.

This fam­ily had too much to bear, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought. First the baby. She knew that men of­ten took ad­van­tage of in­no­cent young women, and it was the women who car­ried the shame with them for the rest of their lives. And now the loss of their home and liveli­hood.

“If only Ai­dan were still home,” Brid­get lamented, hav­ing re­gained her breath.

Ai­dan, their brother, had left for Amer­ica two years be­fore to make a new life for him­self and his new wife. The fam­ily had raised some of the cost of pas­sage, hop­ing Ai­dan would in time be able to send money back home, and

Colonel Stephens had helped with a fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion too, for which the Burkes had been most grate­ful. Only six months later Eimear Burke had passed away. The fam­ily was short of a mother, now, and a hard-work­ing son.

“Or if we could run away and join him, that would be best,” Mary said, a bit­ter tone to her voice.

They all knew this was an im­pos­si­bil­ity. The only place the Burkes would be run­ning to es­cape from their trou­bles was the work­house.

Mary turned her gaze from Brid­get to Sis­ter Bene­dict.

“The father is not Colonel Stephens. Eimear’s father is a trav­el­ling man.” Mary’s voice was soft. “He passed through last sum­mer, helped Da on the bog. He was a good-look­ing man, charm­ing, and I lost my­self to those charms.”

Once she fin­ished speak­ing she gazed down at her baby, as though re­mind­ing her­self of some­thing pre­cious she had shared, al­beit fleet­ingly, and re­sult­ing in her loss of in­no­cence, and of which Eimear was the prod­uct.

Sis­ter Bene­dict looked from one sis­ter to an­other. Brid­get showed no sur­prise.

So Colonel Stephens was in­no­cent of hav­ing re­la­tions with Mary, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought. She be­lieved Mary. She’d never known her to lie. The Burkes were a proud fam­ily, and faith­ful too. They would be well aware ly­ing was a sin.

The Burkes’ evic­tion was ev­i­dence the Colonel had prob­lems. He was known as a com­pas­sion­ate land­lord, not harsh and ruth­less like so many. He wouldn’t take this de­ci­sion lightly, know­ing what fate it would mean for the fam­ily. There was lit­tle more Sis­ter Bene­dict could do here than of­fer false hope and short-term com­fort. The work­house was the fate of many be­fore them, and would be for many fol­low­ing them too.

“Mary, Brid­get, I must leave you. Mother Su­pe­rior will be af­ter won­der­ing where I am. Take care of your­selves.”

She tried to re­sist the urge to glance back at the women as she walked down the dor­mi­tory, one hold­ing her pre­cious baby, but for once she gave into temp­ta­tion. They gave weak smiles, but Sis­ter Brid­get knew what heartache and de­spair they must be feel­ing.

The door closed qui­etly be­hind her.

Mother Su­pe­rior, I hope I find you im­proved.” Sis­ter Bene­dict nod­ded her re­spect.

“You per­form mir­a­cles, Sis­ter Bene­dict. I feel as well as one of my age and ex­pe­ri­ence can ex­pect to feel. Now, what may I do for you?”

Sis­ter Bene­dict smiled. Mother Su­pe­rior knew her well. That she would keep her­self to her­self un­less some­thing was trou­bling her.

“May I take some time away from my du­ties, Mother? I wish to visit the Stephens. We have mat­ters to dis­cuss.”

There was some truth in this

“He’s a SHADOW of his former self. Now I’ve STRIPPED HIM of his LAND”

state­ment. It was the Stephens’ home she would be vis­it­ing. If she timed her visit well, she would see Colonel Stephens alone. Time was of the essence.

Mrs Stephens would leave for home in time for Father Maguire to pre­pare for the An­gelus, and Sis­ter Bene­dict would need to re­turn to the con­vent for the same service.

Mother Su­pe­rior eyed Sis­ter Bene­dict. Would she hurry now with her de­ci­sion, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought?

“You may go, Sis­ter, and I ex­pect you to re­port back. A list of names, if you please. En­rol­ment must be due.”

That would be no prob­lem. She and Ellen had dis­cussed a num­ber of chil­dren. She would write the names on her re­turn. “Thank you, Mother Su­pe­rior.” She nod­ded and left the room.

Colonel Stephens, I thank you for agree­ing to see me.” If Sis­ter Bene­dict’s visit was a sur­prise to Colonel Stephens he kept it well hid­den. “Come in, take this seat.” “Thank you.” Sis­ter Bene­dict replied. “Now, what may I do for you?” Sis­ter Bene­dict told him of his wife’s sus­pi­cions of his in­fi­delity in the most in­di­rect lan­guage she could muster. “How can she think that of me?” The Colonel looked close to tears. Sis­ter Bene­dict averted her eyes to save him from em­bar­rass­ment. She re­mained quiet. He would an­swer his own ques­tion, in time.

“I have ne­glected her. I have trou­bles, Sis­ter. An in­vest­ment failed in Eng­land. I fell foul of a char­la­tan. I was a fool.”

He met Sis­ter Bene­dict’s gaze. She nod­ded. He con­tin­ued.

“I must speak with Ellen. I have lost a good deal of money. I can­not lose the love and re­spect of my wife too. She is pre­cious to me. With­out her I would be a des­per­ate man.”

“It would be wise to do so,” Sis­ter Bene­dict said.

“See­ing Colm Burke with­out his wife sad­dens me so. He’s a shadow of his former self. And now I’ve stripped him of all he has left, his liveli­hood and his land. The farm must go, but there may be some­thing I can do for them.”

“The fam­ily would be thank­ful if you could,” Sis­ter Bene­dict re­as­sured him.

“I will give it con­sid­er­a­tion. Thank you for vis­it­ing me, and for help­ing me see clearly, Sis­ter.”

Sis­ter Bene­dict made her good­byes and left with time to spare.

The Colonel watched his wife and Joe Mur­phy gather wind­fall ap­ples, sort­ing them as they went along. Some were too bruised, but some could be used. Some, the Colonel knew, Joe would take home with him, plus other food be­sides. Every so of­ten Ellen might ruf­fle Joe’s hair, smil­ing, as a mother would a son. He would move in close, point and ask a ques­tion, which Ellen would an­swer be­fore they con­tin­ued with their task.

The Colonel had to look away. It broke his heart to think that his wife would never be a mother.

My wife is miles from me, Colonel Stephens thought, and no won­der.

“My love, may we speak?” Ellen looked star­tled at his ap­pear­ance. “Of course.” Her voice was cool. “Joe, there are more ap­ples fallen from the trees close to the wall. Go and see for me, please. Take this bas­ket.”

Joe glanced at the Colonel and ran to­wards the fur­thest trees.

“May I walk with you?” the Colonel asked gen­tly. “You may,” his wife replied. “Sis­ter Bene­dict vis­ited me.” Ellen glanced at him, spots of colour on her cheeks.

“She spoke of your fears,” he added. “I am sorry that you were led to be­lieve I have been un­faith­ful to you, my love. I have been dis­tant, and ab­sent too. I have with­held things from you, wrongly think­ing I was pro­tect­ing you.”

“I’m your wife, James. I don’t need pro­tec­tion from all the harsh re­al­i­ties of life. I’m not a frag­ile flower. I’m here to help you when times are chal­leng­ing.” “I am sorry, my love.” He bent to kiss her, his heart swelling with love for her. He’d been liv­ing in a fog of his own fear and con­cern, un­able to see or think clearly.

“I have other news,” he con­tin­ued. “Not good news I am afraid. I have had to serve no­tice on the Burkes. They must leave the farm and I must sell the land. My fi­nan­cial trou­bles are se­ri­ous, my love. I am giv­ing thought to how I can help the fam­ily.”

“Oh, that poor fam­ily,” Ellen lamented. “They’ve been be­set with trou­bles. Ai­dan leav­ing for Amer­ica, Mrs Burke pass­ing, Mary’s trou­bles. We have a duty of care to them, James. We must help them.”

They walked to­gether in si­lence, her arm in his. The Colonel thought the si­lence to­day dif­fered from those that had been a wall be­tween them in re­cent months. Be­ing close to his wife again gave him com­fort. With each step he took, his mind cleared.

There was some­thing. Some­thing that would help the Burkes, and would please them too. His re­ac­tion when his wife had sug­gested it pre­vi­ously had been too hasty, he re­alised.

“I will in­form Sis­ter Bene­dict the adop­tion will go ahead. We will col­lect Eimear to­mor­row morn­ing, if she is in agree­ment. I will ask Sis­ter Bene­dict to break the news gen­tly to Mary Burke. The baby will have a fu­ture away from the work­house. I hope you are in agree­ment?”

Be­fore his wife could re­ply Joe Mur­phy ap­peared in front of them.

“Miss, Miss, look, lots of ap­ples. Sure, they will make a good pie.” His voice was wist­ful. “I will have Brid­get make one and send it over to re­ward you for your ef­forts, Joe,” Ellen smiled.

The Colonel put his arm around his wife. Chang­ing his mind about the adop­tion was the cor­rect de­ci­sion. She would make a won­der­ful mother.

“I do agree, James – thank you.”

Too ra loo ra loo ral Too ra loo ra li.” Mary’s voice was choked with love and loss as she rocked Eimear. Her baby snuf­fled, then fell into a deep milkin­duced sleep. Brid­get sat along­side her. They were in the work­house of­fice; a com­fort­able room, oak-lined and filled with sturdy fur­ni­ture. A far cry from where Mary slept and worked.

“It’s time now, Mary,” Sis­ter Bene­dict whis­pered, whether for fear of wak­ing the baby or for not wish­ing to break such bad news, she wasn’t sure.

Mrs Stephens stood be­hind her, silent and re­spect­ful. She must be only too well aware how hard this would be for Mary, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought.

“I can’t,” Mary said, glanc­ing to­wards Mrs Stephens. “I can’t bear to lose her,” she sobbed. “She’s mine.”

“But, sure what life will there be for you and Eimear in this place?” Sis­ter Bene­dict asked.

“Sis­ter’s right,” Brid­get said. “And Da has said you may come home now if you give up the baby. Eimear will have a good life in the Big House, and you’ll be back home with your fam­ily. You can visit. Isn’t that right, Mrs Stephens? Mary can visit?” “You will be most wel­come, Mary.” Ellen’s voice sounded plead­ing, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought. Her dream of mother­hood was so close. But one mother’s gain to­day would be an­other’s loss, and that was a most dread­ful sit­u­a­tion in­deed, sin or no sin.

Mary gazed at Mrs Stephens, who smiled gen­tly in re­turn.

“Best you take her whilst she sleeps so she doesn’t know I’ve aban­doned her.”

Mary kissed her daugh­ter on the fore­head, cheek and lips and held her out to Mrs Stephens. For one fleet­ing mo­ment both women held Eimear.

Then she was solely in the hands of Ellen Stephens, who held her with the great­est of care, gaz­ing at her with love al­ready, as Sis­ter Bene­dict had known she would.

“Thank you, Mary. We will take the best of care of Eimear.”

“Will you be keep­ing her name now, ma’am?” the girl asked. “I will, Mary. Will that please you?” The baby’s mother nod­ded, then turned into Brid­get’s arms. “Stay strong,” Brid­get urged. “Come now, the wet nurse awaits us at the Big House,” Sis­ter Bene­dict said, lead­ing Mrs Stephens to the door. “Mary, Brid­get, I will be back with you shortly.”

The Colonel helped them into the car­riage, and Sis­ter Brid­get watched them dis­ap­pear into the dis­tance, slow in pace, no doubt at Mrs Stephens’ be­hest.

She turned back to the work­house. She could hear Mary’s sobs from the en­trance. And that was of no sur­prise.

To lose a child, how­ever it hap­pened, was a dread­ful thing.

“I CAN’T. I can’t bear to LOSE HER,” Mary sobbed. “She’s MINE”

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