Sis­ter Bene­dict’s Bless­ings

Con­clud­ing chap­ters of our in­spir­ing se­rial

My Weekly - - Contents - By Fran Tracey

Ex­cuse me, Sis­ter, I apol­o­gise for my rude­ness, but I pray you let me past, I must re­turn to my wife and Eimear forth­with.” Colonel Stephens rushed from the Burke’s house in a hur­ried and har­ried man­ner, sweep­ing past Sis­ter Bene­dict and Mary Burke who were ap­proach­ing the front door. Sis­ter Bene­dict was sur­prised to see him. She thought once the evic­tion had been car­ried out that Colonel Stephens’ busi­ness with the Burkes was done.

“I hope all is well, Colonel,” Sis­ter Bene­dict called af­ter him, feel­ing trep­i­da­tion at his ap­pear­ance, for both his sake and the Burkes’. The Colonel hes­i­tated, his coun­te­nance hard to read.

“I don’t know, Sis­ter, if the truth be told,” he ad­mit­ted to Sis­ter Bene­dict.

“You don’t know?” Mary’s voice trem­bled, and she rushed in to her Da.

“Speak with them, please,” the Colonel pleaded, once Mary had dis­ap­peared from view. “I have made Colm Burke a propo­si­tion. A good one, I hope, but from the re­cep­tion I re­ceived I am now not so sure. I trust you, Sis­ter. If any­one can per­suade them it’s for the best it will be you.” He mounted his horse and rode away. Sis­ter Bene­dict watched him make his way back to his wife and their newly adopted baby. She took a deep breath and en­tered the Burkes’ home.

Colm was sit­ting by the fire­side, his head in his hands, mum­bling. Mary sat by his feet. The sight was so rem­i­nis­cent of what Sis­ter Bene­dict had wit­nessed when she’d vis­ited the Burkes’ af­ter Mrs Burke had passed away it tore at her heart.

“Da, now speak clearly, will ya,” Mary asked, stroking his back. “I can’t make hide nor hair of what you’re telling me. Don’t know if it’s good, bad or in­dif­fer­ent.”

Colm was mak­ing no sense. Sis­ter Bene­dict won­dered if he’d par­taken of strong drink. He was no stranger to that, es­pe­cially since the loss of his wife and the shock of the birth of Mary’s il­le­git­i­mate baby. It was hard to blame him for turn­ing to it for com­fort when all else had failed him. But she needed to get to the bot­tom of the sit­u­a­tion.

“Colm, pull your­self to­gether. You’re nei­ther use nor or­na­ment to any­one in this state. Tell us now, Mary and my­self, what was the Colonel want­ing with you?” Sis­ter Bene­dict kept the tone of her voice firm, as though she was speak­ing to one of her In­dus­trial School re­cruits.

Even­tu­ally Colm looked up at her.

“I can’t make sense of it Sis­ter. First he tells me the farm is gone. Now, to­day, he tells me he is pay­ing for pas­sage to Amer­ica for my­self, Mary and Brid­get, should she wish to join us. That he has spo­ken with his wife and they are in agree­ment. It’s all too much for one man. I’m not sure I can ac­cept. Maybe the Colonel’s cheat­ing me some­how, but I don't un­der­stand how. Such luck can’t be hap­pen­ing to us, the Burkes, who’ve been be­set with mis­for­tune these past years.”

Colm’s head was back in his hands. Mary looked up, met Sis­ter Bene­dict’s gaze. A look of con­fu­sion crossed her face, then some­thing else, some­thing Sis­ter Bene­dict couldn’t fathom.

She needed to shake Colm Burke from his self-pity and help him see that an op­por­tu­nity he was un­likely to see the same of again was be­ing pre­sented.

“I only hope that you ac­cepted, Colm Burke. What a won­der­ful chance that is you’ve been of­fered. A fresh start. You will be able to join Ai­dan and his fam­ily. Colonel Stephens has his trou­bles, but he is a gen­er­ous man. It is good of him to think of you. You know he would not be sell­ing the farm if it wasn’t nec­es­sary. It will be the work­house or Amer­ica. Which is your pref­er­ence? You’ve over­come much worse than this, Colm, you and your brood. Think of the famine and all the trou­bles that brought. You made it through that when many oth­ers didn’t.”

“What a WON­DER­FUL chance you’ve been of­fered – a FRESH start”

There was si­lence for a mo­ment or two, as though every­one in the cot­tage were hold­ing their breath.

“You’re right Sis­ter. What other choice do I have? I’ll ac­cept. The Colonel has done right by us now.”

“Sis­ter, does this mean I have a choice too?” Mary’s voice was ten­ta­tive. “About Eimear? It’s not too late, is it?”

That was the un­fath­omable look, then, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought. Mary hop­ing she could take her baby with her. Eimear was still only days old. Mary would still have

milk. It was best for a baby to be with its mother, wasn’t it? And the Stephens had cre­ated the right con­di­tions for Mary to take care of her baby again.

“Da?” Mary de­manded her fa­ther’s at­ten­tion. “May I take her with us?”

Her voice trem­bled. Sis­ter Bene­dict watched fa­ther and daugh­ter. Colm Burke nod­ded, then gazed into the fire again. He’ll come round, Sis­ter Bene­dict thought. It won’t harm Eimear’s cause that she has the look of his late wife.

Ellen Stephens was set­tling Eimear when Mary Burke was seen fly­ing up the drive to the Big House, hat­less, her auburn hair fly­ing be­hind her. With a heavy heart she laid Eimear in her crib.

“I must see Mrs Stephens, Brid­get.” Mary’s voice echoed in the hall, and her foot­steps came thun­der­ing up the stairs.

“I’m so sorry, Ma’am,” Brid­get was in the nurs­ery door­way with her sis­ter, her face a pic­ture of con­fu­sion and up­set. “She wouldn’t take no for an an­swer.”

Mary breathed heav­ily. Her face was scar­let from ex­er­tion.

“Catch your breath, Mary, and share your busi­ness with me,” Mrs Stephens told the young mother.

“We’re so grate­ful to you for your gen­eros­ity, Mrs Stephens.” Mary even­tu­ally calmed her­self. “And my­self and Da, we will ac­cept. How could we not? When we know what would be­come of us other­wise? A fate we’ve avoided, un­til re­cently.” She looked away, her face aflame. “But if I’m to go, I would like to take Eimear with me. No one will know of my shame, not there. In Amer­ica I can be a young wi­dow. I’m sure God will for­give me that small un­truth.”

“But she is set­tled with us now, Mary,” Ellen replied, her voice barely au­di­ble.

“I un­der­stand.” Mary was calmer now, and Brid­get had re­treated from the room. “But Mrs Stephens, kind-hearted as you are, you’d know a baby be­longs with her mother, if her mother is in a po­si­tion to take care of her. Which I will be, now, thanks to you and the Colonel. I love her, Mrs Stephens. I have to have her with me. With­out her I’m lost.”

Ellen lis­tened aghast. De­spite her de­spair, she did un­der­stand Mary’s im­pas­sioned pleas. It was only nat­u­ral for a mother to want her baby with her. Eimear snuf­fled in her sleep, not wak­ing de­spite the com­mo­tion.

“My love.” The Colonel en­tered the nurs­ery. “I heard voices, and Brid­get in­formed me Mary was here. I overheard some of what was said. Un­til hear­ing it I’d have de­manded Eimear re­main with us, but she has right on her side. We must re­lin­quish the baby to her mother.”

Ellen gazed at her hus­band. What he was agree­ing to was the right thing, she knew. But she could not sup­press her dis­ap­point­ment that her hus­band had not put up a fight on her be­half. He, of all peo­ple, knew what hav­ing a baby in their lives meant to her, to them.

She turned to her hus­band in fury.

“How could you let this hap­pen, James?” Ellen pounded his chest with her fist, know­ing the blows were hav­ing lit­tle im­pact. She had no strength left to fight.

He tried to hold her close to him as Mary stood by Eimear’s crib, watch­ing.

“Ellen, we must let them go,” he said. “We agreed to pay their pas­sage. We could have fore­seen this might hap­pen.” Sud­denly the fight went out of Ellen. “I can­not fight you both.” She turned to the young mother stand­ing pro­tec­tive over her baby. “I con­cede Eimear is yours, Mary. Take her with you. Make a new life for her, and take care of her.”

“But I must go be­fore you do, leave the house while you take their leave. I can’t bear it!”

Ellen dashed from the nurs­ery – the room that had been in­hab­ited by the most beau­ti­ful baby for the first time since they had lived in the house, bring­ing life to it, a fu­ture she had only dreamt of. The room she had thought would re­main empty – and now it was to be empty again. “Ellen,” her hus­band called af­ter her. She was half­way down the stairs. He held the ban­is­ter, mak­ing as if to fol­low.

“I beg you to leave me be,” she told him, turn­ing away sharply as he re­turned to the nurs­ery.

Eimear was cry­ing. The com­mo­tion had clearly wak­ened her.

Ellen couldn’t bear it. Once the front door had closed be­hind her she could no longer hear the cries, al­though they still echoed in her head.

You have done the right thing, Ellen, hard though it may be for now.” Sis­ter Bene­dict had wel­comed Ellen to the con­vent, de­spite Mother Su­pe­rior’s raised eye­brows as she passed the two women in the clois­ters. Sis­ter Bene­dict had thought it wise that they make their way into the herb gar­den.

“I know, Sis­ter. I was most un­kind to Mary – and to James. I hope he will for­give me. There’s been a lot for each of us to for­give re­cently. Our mar­riage has been un­der a great deal of strain. But our trou­bles are not those of the Burkes and other fam­i­lies like them, I know. There’s just the sad­ness…”

Ellen’s voice trailed away and she held her hands pro­tec­tively across her stom­ach, no doubt un­aware that she was do­ing so.

“He will for­give you, if there is any­thing to for­give. He loves you. Now, lis­ten, I was talk­ing with Fa­ther Maguire about ad­mis­sions to the In­dus­trial School. They are al­most upon us. He has re­cruited Sis­ter Scholas­tica to be the first teacher. Now isn’t she af­ter be­ing well named for her role?” Ellen gave a weak smile. “Fa­ther Maguire tells me the first in­take will be within two or three weeks,” Sis­ter Bene­dict con­tin­ued. “Ev­ery­thing is al­most in place. The desks have ar­rived, and the beds. Joe Mur­phy will be among the first in­take, Ellen. He can have the

“You’ve done the RIGHT THING, Ellen, HARD though it may be for now”

pick of the beds in the dor­mi­tory. No more sleep­ing top to tail with his sib­lings.”

Ellen was lis­ten­ing with greater in­ter­est now, Sis­ter Bene­dict took note, bend­ing to pick herbs and glanc­ing oc­ca­sion­ally at her friend. She had been dis­traught when she had first ar­rived. She picked sage for the com­mu­nal con­vent pot, not medic­i­nal herbs to­day. Mother Su­pe­rior’s foot was greatly im­proved.

As they were wont to do Ellen and Sis­ter Bene­dict per­am­bu­lated the gar­den in a con­tented si­lence, and Sis­ter Bene­dict was re­lieved that her friend was calmer. She felt cer­tain all was not lost. The Stephens had weath­ered worse.

“I must go,” Ellen said, fi­nally. “I will visit the Mur­phys. There is much news to pass on to Joe. He will be pleased, and in turn that will give me plea­sure.”

She smiled at Sis­ter Bene­dict, mak­ing as though to leave, a more con­vinc­ing smile this time. “Thank you, Sis­ter, as ever,” she said.

Ellen had taken the long way back to the Big House from the Mur­phy’s. Joe hadn’t been there.

“He’s out Mrs,” his youngest sis­ter told her. “He’ll be back later.”

Ellen had been un­able to get any more sense from the small girl as to Joe’s pos­si­ble where­abouts. “Will you tell him I called?” she asked. The small girl sniffed and nod­ded. “I will in­deed, Mrs.” Ellen was con­fi­dent the mes­sage would be passed on. Al­though she was a fairly fre­quent vis­i­tor to lo­cal fam­i­lies, her vis­its were still suf­fi­ciently out of the or­di­nary and her fine ap­parel un­usual enough to war­rant stares and com­ments.

“My love, I’ve been look­ing ev­ery­where for you.” “James!” Ellen had been so dis­tracted by her thoughts and con­cerns that she hadn’t seen or heard her hus­band’s ap­proach as she made her way though the wood on their es­tate to­wards the house.

They stood fac­ing one an­other. Ellen took in the face she knew so well, but that had be­come strange to her lately. His eyes showed con­cern and love.

“I’m so sorry, Ellen.” He drew her into his arms and held her close, her face pressed against his chest, feel­ing and hear­ing the rapid beat of his heart.

“And I am sorry too, my love,” she replied, rais­ing her head to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry I ran from you, that I was so an­gry ear­lier. You had merely con­firmed to me what I knew in my heart I needed to do.”

“But had I not con­cealed my fi­nan­cial af­fairs from you in the first in­stance we may not have be­come so es­tranged,” he said, kiss­ing her lightly on the cheeks where tears were dry­ing. “We will be strong to­gether again, my love. No more se­crets. I love you.”

“Mrs Stephens, were you af­ter pay­ing me a visit?”

Joe Mur­phy ap­peared from be­hind a tree. How long had he been hid­den there, Ellen won­der, un­able to su­press a smile at his filthy ap­pear­ance, wield­ing a big stick and hold­ing a sack of some­thing over his shoul­der. She chose to ig­nore

what might be con­tained within that sack, but guessed it would fill the Mur­phy fam­ily’s bel­lies tonight, how­ever il­lic­itly it had been ob­tained. She and James pulled apart. “I did visit, Joe, yes. I wanted to talk with you about Fa­ther Maguire’s plans.”

Joe flinched slightly at the men­tion of Fa­ther Maguire. No doubt he would be less for­giv­ing of the contents of the sack Joe held.

“Plans, Mrs Stephens?” Joe glanced from one to the other of them. “For me? Not bad, is it?”

Ellen could un­der­stand Joe’s wari­ness. When you had lost so much, and life con­tained so much un­cer­tainty and poverty, all you would ex­pect would be bad news.

“I think Mrs Stephens only has good news for you, Joe, from Fa­ther Maguire. Con­cern­ing the school, I be­lieve.” Colonel Stephens in­ter­jected. “That would be the case, wouldn’t it, Ellen?”

De­spite Joe’s grimy ap­pear­ance, Colonel Stephens put his arm around the boy’s shoul­ders.

“Can I let you into a se­cret?” he asked. Joe nod­ded. “I’m learn­ing ev­ery day how good my wife is, how ded­i­cated she is to you, Joe, to your fam­ily, and to the In­dus­trial School and all the fam­i­lies she cares so much for.”

Joe looked up to the Colonel and Ellen smiled and flushed, em­bar­rassed and happy. Joe looked vaguely dis­ap­pointed that the se­cret was re­vealed to be that, that it didn’t in­volve trea­sure, or some­thing more ap­peal­ing to a small boy.

“Time to get that rab­bit home and in the pot then, Joe.”

Colonel Stephens pat­ted Joe’s shoul­der and pointed him in the di­rec­tion of home.

“He’s a good boy, that one. Has spirit. A boy af­ter my own heart. I ad­mire your ded­i­ca­tion to him and to the school. And per­haps there are mat­ters I may help you with?”

She watched her hus­band watch Joe make his way into the wood. There was a look of af­fec­tion on his face, and she felt a sud­den rush of hope for the fu­ture.

“Come, Ellen, it’s time we re­turned home too,” he said, hold­ing his wife around the waist and kiss­ing her again. A longer, deeper kiss now Joe was no longer around. Ellen felt a fris­son of ex­cite­ment. The kind of fris­son she had not felt for some time.

“Shall I fetch tea for you, Sir, Ma’am?” Brid­get nod­ded as they ar­rived at the Big House.

“Later Brid­get,” Colonel Stephens replied, lead­ing his wife up the wide stair­case and to­wards her room. Ellen was aware of Brid­get’s open-mouthed stare, but this time she didn’t care a jot what the ser­vants thought.

All she wanted was to be in her hus­band’s arms again.

All was calm as Sis­ter Bene­dict walked slowly around her gar­den, trail­ing her hands through wispy fronds of dill. The events of the past few days had been tu­mul­tuous. There had been new life, fresh starts, fi­nan­cial crises, sor­row and de­spair – but happiness too. The Burkes would soon be on their way to Amer­ica. There was lit­tle point in de­lay­ing mat­ters, as the farm would quickly be sold. Their few pos­ses­sions would be packed away and taken to the port and then they would be gone.

All she could do for them now was to pray for a safe pas­sage. There was so much more hope for them in Amer­ica, so much to look for­ward to. They would be to­gether as a fam­ily again. The Burkes had al­ways been close, and had missed Ai­dan keenly. Brid­get, de­spite hav­ing qualms had de­cided to join them. Sis­ter Bene­dict had re­as­sured her it was best.

“Sure, Mrs Stephens will miss you, and you her, but a per­son needs their fam­ily,” she’d ad­vised when Brid­get had vis­ited with pro­duce for the con­vent from the Stephens’ es­tate.

Sis­ter Bene­dict was care­fully se­lect­ing herbs to­day. Rasp­berry leaf, sting­ing net­tles, red clover. Not all palat­able, but ef­fec­tive herbs, es­pe­cially when it came to mat­ters of con­cep­tion. She smiled as she placed them care­fully in her bas­ket.

If she stood very still, Sis­ter Bene­dict could hear the mur­mur­ings of the sis­ters, her fam­ily, go­ing about their daily tasks, each work­ing to their strengths. Later they would con­gre­gate for their evening meal and ser­vices.

Alone and happy for now, Sis­ter Bene­dict also looked for­ward to the times she spent with her fel­low sis­ters, al­beit much of it in si­lence or com­mon prayer. A happy com­mu­nion. Even a nun who had ded­i­cated her life to God needed peo­ple to thrive and grow. Fam­i­lies such as her com­mu­nity, the Burkes and the Stephens were strong to­gether, sup­port­ing and lov­ing one an­other. A fam­ily could com­prise of a mix of peo­ple, like her in­fu­sions, and the bal­ance was of­ten sub­tle. Some­times bits were added, other times taken away. But still the fam­ily sur­vived. Look at the Burkes. And the Stephens. With lively, clever, mis­chievous Joe in­ex­tri­ca­bly tan­gled in their lives they would face chal­lenges and much happiness.

She picked up her bas­ket. It was time to re­turn to her fam­ily. Her com­mu­nity.

Ellen would visit soon, she was quite cer­tain. She would pre­pare an in­fu­sion for her from the contents of her bas­ket.

The sun emerged from be­hind a cloud. Sis­ter Bene­dict raised her face heav­en­wards, closed her eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on her face. From now on all would be in God’s hands.

Ellen didn’t CARE a jot – she was in her HUS­BAND’S arms once again

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