Harkives Summer Serial: ‘Roses and Crucifix’, Instalment II

We hope you enjoy the second instalment of ‘Roses and Crucifix’, which this week we continue with in weekly serial instalments through its twelve chapters.

‘Roses and Crucifix’ was first serialised between December 1891 and February 1892 in The Woman’s Herald, which David Doughan and Denise Sanchez describe as ‘the most vigorous feminist newspaper of its time.’ Founded in 1888 by women’s rights activist Henrietta Muller (who also edited the paper under the pseudonym Helena B. Temple), the periodical was known as The Women’s Penny Paper until 1890 when Muller changed its name to reflect the paper’s ambition to ‘herald in the new womanhood.’ The paper’s masthead identifies The Women’s Herald as ‘the only paper conducted, written, published and printed by women.’ Although Muller eventually sold the paper due to her own failing health, it would continue as an important organ of lively and liberal feminist thought as The Women’s Signal until its eventual disintegration in 1899.

Given the venue of its publication, it is no surprise that ‘Roses and Crucifix’ is a story in which Harkness makes the relationship between economic and sexual exploitation startlingly clear. The barmaids in this story exist in a system of perpetual negotiation with male power: they are required to ‘attract customers and do good business,’ but despite flirtation must keep the men ‘at arm’s length.’ Each day, they are subject to the leering stares of countless men, and are regularly followed home by ‘hangers-on’. In this story, Harkness draws on her previous journalistic research undertaken for the British Weeklyseries ‘Toilers in London: Female Labour in the Metropolis’, which she edited and to which she contributed an essay on ‘Barmaids.’ Yet in its representation of the support networks of religious groups this story also looks ahead to George Eastmont, Wanderer (1905), a novel which includes a more lengthy cameo of Cardinal Manning (whom Harkness knew personally).

In ‘Roses and Crucifix’ readers will recognise themes later explored by George Moore’sEsther Waters (1894) and George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). It also is a richly intertextual story. There are overt references, such as to Goethe’s Faust (1808) in the epigraph and at the conclusion, but also more obscure allusions, such as to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) both in theme and direct quotation.

Source: John Law [Margaret Harkness], ‘Roses and Crucifix’, Women’s Herald, 12 December, 1891, pp. 5–6.


By John Law

Author of “A City Girl,” “Captain Lobe.” etc.

Chapter II

Lilian’s History

The story Lilian refused to tell her friend must be told here to the reader.

She was the daughter of a High Church curate.

Her father married on his stipend, while very young, and offended his family by his marriage, for his wife was an orphan, pretty, delicate, and penniless. For a few years things went well with the curate, then he broke a blood-vessel while reading the service in church. The doctors ordered him to Madeira, and there he died, leaving his wife and child with scarcely enough money to pay for their return to England. His family could not forgive his “improvident marriage,” and refused to recognise his widow and child, so Mrs. Murray struggled on alone, until she became a Catholic, and received the helping hand which the Church of Rome holds out to converts. But by that time sorrow and anxiety had undermined her health, and very soon after her conversion, she died of bronchitis.

Lilian was adopted by a Catholic lady, and placed in a convent, near London; where she grew up amongst twenty other girls, all orphans like herself. She was educated by the nuns and went by the name of “the Convent Pet” because she was only a baby when the lady brought her to the Prioress.

The first trouble of Lilian’s life was the news of this lady’s death. She had been too young to feel the loss of her father and other, but when her friend died, she was almost eight years old.

It was Christmas day when she heard what had happened.

The lady had promised to send a servant to fetch her from the Convent to the beautiful house which the child thought like a palace.

On Christmas Eve, at five o’clock, Lilian asked to go to bed, saying that she must be up early the following morning, because her friend would be sure to send for her directly after breakfast.

The nuns let her do as she liked, for it was holiday time and the other children had gone away for Christmas.

Early the next morning as she crept out of bed, and went to the window, where she raised the blind. She could not see out of doors, but she felt sure that it was not snowing, so she crept back to bed again, and listened to the nuns singing hymns in the chapel.

Directly after breakfast she climbed up on a chair, by the window, to watch for her friend’s servant. But hour after hour went by, and no one came to the door of the Convent. Snow began to fall in small flakes, and she counted the flakes as best she could, fearing they would fall fast, and prevent her friend from sending for her.

The nuns called her to dinner, which she had by herself, in the deserted school-room. She left the roast beef untasted and she refused to eat the plum-pudding. Directly she heard the nuns saying grace, she hurried back to the chair by the window, where she pressed her little white face to the panes of the glass, and waited for her friend’s servant.

At last it began to grow dark.

“Lilian,” said the Prioress, “you must come to tea. You will catch cold if you stay there any longer.”

“Perhaps,” thought Lilian, “Someone will send for me next Christmas.”

She went to bed, and lay there awake, thinking over the Christmas day she had spent, contrasting it with the one she had imagined, and wiping her wet eyes with the blanket.

Presently the door bell pealed loudly through the Convent. She sprang up to listen. Had her friend sent for her at last? If so, it was too late. But possibly her friend had not forgotten a Christmas present.

“Lilian!” called the Prioress, “where is Lilian?”

“I’m here,” she said, “I’m in bed, Mother Prioress.”

The Prioress came slowly into the room, holding a candle in her hand. She wore her black cloak, for it was cold; her white flannel dress showed beneath the cloak, and her beads hung on the dress, also a large crucifix. She gave Lilian the crucifix to kiss, and the child felt that something was going to happen.

“Lilian,” said the Prioress, “I have bad news for you. Your friend is dead.”

Lilian hid her face in the blanket, and sobbed to herself.

“No one will send for me next Christmas.”

Years passed by, and Lilian grew up. She was tall and slight, and had a pretty face. Her large grey eyes, and thick brown hair, were the pride of the Convent.

“I wish Lilian had a vocation,” said the Prioress to the Sub-Prioress.

“She is too pretty to be a governess, but we can’t keep her here, as she has no vocation.”

“It’s curious how few of the girls have vocations,” said the Sub-Prioress, “I don’t understand it.”

The Prioress and the Sub-Prioress were a great contrast. The Prioress was a little woman, with a smile that frightened the girls, and a frown that made them tremble. Power and determination marked her face, although it was round and rosy. One look from the Prioress went further than a dozen words from the Sub-Prioress, who, however, had plenty of quiet wit and a splendid head for business.

For many years the Prioress and the Sub-Prioress had lived and worked together, and they talked over the girls and the nuns as if they were the heads of a family. They agreed upon all subjects except politics, and these they carefully avoided, Mother Prioress was a Conservative to her finger tips. Mother Sub-Prioress was a Home Ruler. Their confessor had the benefit of their opinions once a week, after confession, when he came into the little Receiving Room for a cup of tea. But he was a wise man, who eschewed politics.

“What is the good of having political opinions if one has no vote?” he asked.

“Women and priests have no votes,” he said, “so why should they trouble their heads about other people’s business?”

The Convent was a quiet, peaceful country place. Fields stretched in front of it, and at the back was a wood where the girls played, the novices walked soberly up and down under the care of the Novice-mistress, the nuns spent their recreation hours, and the heads of the Convent discussed business. Rooks cawed among the tall chestnuts, doves cooed in the firs, thrushes and blackbirds built their nests in the elm trees. No sound of the city reached the Convent grounds, which were so large that the girls required no other place for exercise.

The days passed quietly in the Convent, with nothing to mark them, except the Confessor’s visits. Then a thrill of excitement rant through the place, and a bright spot came into the cheeks of the novices. What sins could the nuns have to confess? It is difficult to guess, but their aim was to become perfect, so they called it a sin to slam a door, or to drop a pin on the carpet.

Lilian grew up in this quiet place with no experience of life further than an occasional visit to London where she passed her examinations. The Sun, a magazine edited by the nuns, told her all that she knew of the outside world, for no newspapers were allowed in the Convent. The Sun was written in a copy book. It recorded the deaths of cats, the loss of chickens, the illnesses of dogs, goats, and other Convent pets. One read in it how Sister Amelia had finished planting the potatoes, and Sister Rose had begun to paint the greenhouse. Scraps of news that had fallen from the lips of visitors were entered in The Sun, the names of girls who had passed good examinations were mentioned, and there was generally some anecdote about the children, some little joke that kept the Convent amused for a month.

Lilian rose at five o’clock, and practised while the nuns were in Chapel. In the summer she did not mind this, for the Convent garden looked green and fresh, and the scent of flowers came through the school-room window; but in the winter it was cold work, and she did not like it. After prayers and breakfast came lessons, until twelve o’clock. Then the girls were sent into the garden for an hour to play at ball or cricket.

At one o’clock came dinner and after dinner followed lessons.

Tea was at six o’clock; and at eight the girls went to bed, where they whispered ghost stories in the dark, for they were not allowed to talk after the gas was put out.

Lilian had no vocation to be a nun, so on her eighteenth birthday she was told that she must become a governess. She hardly realised what the words meant, she only knew that she must leave the convent. At first her heard beat with excitement, for the convent was dull, and she longed to know what the outside world was like; but afterwards she felt frightened, and said to herself that she would be very lonely without the nuns and the Prioress. Each morning she expected to hear her sentence, and each night she lay down with a feeling of relief, rejoicing that she had not to leave the convent for another week. The Prioress always gave the girls a week’s notice before despatching them to situations, and Lilian knew that she would have seven days’ grace from the time that her future was decided.

At last she heard her fate.

She was told to go to the Receiving Room, one Sunday evening, and to wait there for the Prioress. She knocked at the door, but received no answer so she went into the room and say down. In front of her, above the mantlepiece, was a picture of the Holy Father, as she called the Pope, and over the piano hung the likeness of Cardinal Manning. She has kissed the Cardinal’s ring, which he holds out to the faithful, on the memorable day when the Prioress took her to the Archbishop’s house. She looked at the ascetic face, and she remembered how kind the Cardinal had been when the Prioress told him she was an orphan.

Was it true, she wondered, that he had had a daughter once, a daughter now as old as herself, in Paradise? Was that why he had spoken to her so gently, and had made the tears come into her eyes by his kindness?

Behind her was a tall bookcase that held Cardinal Newman’s books. She had read two of them, and the Prioress had promised that she should read them all when she was old enough. Cardinal Newman had visited the convent once; and, wonder of wonders, he had eaten break and butter like an ordinary priest, and had drunk tea out of a cup.

The door opened and the Prioress came into the room.

Lilian rose from her seat.

“Sit down,” said the Prioress.

The Lilian heard that she was to be sent as a governess to a lady who lived in Essex, and that she would have three little girls to teach.

“You will always have a home with us,” said the Prioress. “You must write to use very often. We wish you had had a vocation, but as you have not, we are obliged to find you a place as a governess. You will be a good girl, we know, and do us credit. We have had no fault to find with you since you came to us ten years ago. You are one of our best and dearest children.” Then the Prioress kissed her, and added, “Go into the garden, don’t go to bed until you wish it.”

Lilian could not speak. She went slowly into the garden, and walked up and down under the trees, trying the swallow the sobs that swelled in her throat. She could hear the nuns singing Latin hymns in the chapel, and as their voices rose and fell, she wished that she had had a vocation.

“If I could have become a nun,” she said to herself, “I need not to have gone away, I could have stayed here always.”

She remembered her little school friend, Ruby, who had wanted to be a nun, and who had been received on her death-bed. All of the convent children had been taken to see Ruby after her death, and had stood beside the bed on which lay the child novice, in white dress and white veil, with her bands full of lilies. Lilian had stood there with the rest, and had kissed Ruby’s cold forehead, wondering where she had gone to, and what she was doing. But Lilian had no vocation. The Priest had said this, and added “it is a great pity.”

So she must go out into the world, as a governess.

The Latin hymns had ceased in the Chapel, and the nuns came out to breath the evning air before going to bed. Lilian watched these novices walking up and down with their mistress: she saw the Sub-Prioress hurrying to close the greenhouse, and the Prioress following slowly, on her way to look at the chickens. One of the nuns passed by, and Lilian heard her relate how she had fund the Prioress’s spectacles.

“I prayed,” said the nun, “I asked our Patron Saint to help me, and I walked to the very place where Rev. Mother had dropped her glasses.”

Then Lilian went to an old chestnut tree, and climbed to her favourite seat on one of its branches. She laid her cheek against the hard wood, and cried bitterly, saying to herself that Convent was her only home, and that next Sunday she would be amongst strangers.

“Are you there, Lilian?” said a nun. “Come to us.”

So she left the chestnut tree, and walked up and down with the nuns, listening to their conversation, until bed time.

“You will always have a home with us,” the nuns told her. “We will pray for you every day. We will place prayers for you amongst the bones of our Patron Saint. You will not forget the Convent, pet? We will write prayers for you on paper, and carry them next our hearts; and from our hearts we will pray “God help Lilian.”

(To be Continued.)


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