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

We hope you enjoy the final 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 27 February, 1891: 5.

ROSES AND CRUCIFIX

By John Law

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

Chapter XII.

Roses and Crucifix.

They did not stay very long. “Jim,” said Mary, when they were safely outside the Convent door, “she’s an angel.”

“Yes,” said Jim, tapping his breast pocket, in which lay the cheque, “she’s an angel.” Mary wiped her eyes. “Did you hear what she said when I gave her the Cat’s message?” “No.”

“She sent the Cat her love. Just think of that! And the Cat’s treated her shameful. Doesn’t she look ill, do you think she will ever get better?”

“She doesn’t look like it.”

“Oh, Jim, you are cruel to talk like that,” said Mary crying. “How can you be so cruel?”

Mary sobbed, and her lover did not know what to say, so he walked beside her in silence, thinking of the cheque in his pocket. “When shall we put up the banns?” he asked, at last.

“Oh, Jim, how can you think of being married!”

“Well, it won’t make her any better if we don’t get married,” said Jim, “and there’s no reason we shouldn’t. I’ll have to give a month’s notice because they won’t be able to fill my place off hand, but I may as well see the parson. She said she wanted us to get married.”

Mary did not answer. She walked on, sobbing as she went, trying to find some consolation for the loss of Lillian.

“Jim,” she said presently, “When we’re married, and at the Chummy.”

“Yes.”

“If we’ve a baby, we’ll call it Lillian.”

“Suppose it’s a boy,” suggested her lover.

“Oh, Jim, how can you be so unfeeling. If it’s a boy, we’ll call it Lillias.”

“So we will, I’ve nothing against it.”

No more was said until they were near the station, but then Jim could not resist taking the cheque out of his pocket to look at it. “What sort of a fellow is this man Grey?” he asked.

“Oh, a tall, fair man, handsome some people would call him, with a nice voice. He’s not my sort. I don’t like those men, they soon grow fat.”

Jim looked at his own slight figure, and smiled complacently. “Was he in love with your chum?” he asked.

“Can’t say. Those people have such a queer way of behaving – I mean ladies and gentlemen. They aren’t like us. There’s no knowing what they feel and think. As to Lillian, she never said nothing, I only guessed.”

Meanwhile Lillian lay in the infirmary watching the sun set. Beside her, on a small table, were grapes and roses, which the Prioress had brought to her, and had left without saying a word. Lillian guessed where they came from, but did not ask any questions. After the Prioress had gone away, she watched the sun sinking down behind the trees. She did not move, she lay quite still, with her eyes on the setting sun. The bar had almost faded from her memory: it was like a dark cloud behind her, but a cloud with a silver lining, for Mary had been her friend, and the sight of the chummy barmaid’s sad face made her feel that she would be missed by-and-bye, although the cheque lay in Jim’s pocket. And the nuns would be sorry, the sisters with gentle faces, and holy eyes, whose lives were spent in prayer and work, who waited for heaven all their life, and welcomed death because they had nothing to live for here, and everything to hope for hereafter, they would be sorry to lose her. “Why was it I had no vocation?” she wondered. She looked at the flowers and grapes, and her thin hands wandered to them, and rested lovingly on them, although she knew they were Cain’s offering, and that God had accepted the sacrifice of Abel, and had refused the offering of Cain. She was too weak to think much, and no one seemed to be able to explain anything to her. There lay the crucifix, with the sacrifice on it, the Lamb of God, who had spoken of sorrow here and happiness hereafter. How often she had cried as a child, when she looked on His sad face, how often she had wondered what it all meant! And now she was dying, she was leaving this beautiful world without understanding it, and –

The door opened, and Father Dominic came in. He wore his cassock, and a black sash, which made him look even taller and thinner than usual. His grave face grew soft and tender when he approached Lillian, and he bowed down his head, asking how she felt and what she was thinking about.

“I am tired, Father,” she said, “too tired to think.”

He sat down beside her, and took her thin hand in his large hands, holding it as he had done when she was a child.

“Father,” she said, after a silence, “you believe in guardian angels, don’t you?”

“Yes, my child.”

“You think they are in the room, yours and mine, I mean?”

“Yes, my child. They watch over us, but they see God’s face. If they did not see Him, our sins would grieve them. They see Him while they watch over us.”

“I don’t understand,” said Lillian, in a weary voice. “When I was a child, you tried to explain, and you said angels could do without help. I never could understand.”

“But you believe, my child.”

“Oh yes.”

“They have neither parts nor passions,” continued the priest, “and they see God, always.”

“Still they watch over us?”

“Yes.”

“Father,” asked Lillian, “do you think when I die God will let me become a guardian angel, and watch over – ”

“Hush, my child,” said the priest, “hush.”

Each day Lillian grew weaker and thinner, but she suffered no pain, for Death sent his favourite handmaid to fetch her, and consumption came to her in the form of weakness. They lifted her from the bed to the armchair by the window, and there she lay watching the Convent garden, where she had played as a child, and had built castles in the air when she was a school girl. Only the birds broke the stillness around her, unless the nuns were in the chapel. Butterflies flew in through the window and out again, and sometimes birds perches on the window sill. Each day she watched the sun set, and she was happiest when Father Dominic came to her after Vespers, and sat beside her chair, reading a book or talking. The nuns passed in and out of the room, and sometimes the school children crept to her chair, with flowers. So one day followed another, and she waited for the time when she would be told to die.

“You will be with me when I die?” she asked Father Dominic.

“Yes, my child, I promise.”

Lying in the armchair by the window, the memory of childish days came back to her, and she remembered the silly fancies she had had as a child; then her thoughts wandered to the Hall; but the bar seemed to be blotted out of her memory, for the bar had nothing to do with nuns and priests, Latin hymns and Masses. Her book and the crucifix were by her side night and day, and often she looked into the prayer book. At last, one night, when spring was turning to summer, the Prioress came into the room carrying a large crucifix. For almost a week she had been in bed, too weak to move, almost unable to swallow the beef tea and milk which the nuns brought to her. Twice that day she had fainted from sheer weakness. When the prioress came into the Infirmary she was lying in her favourite position, with her arms above her head, and her hair scattered above the pillow. A nun was sitting beside her, reading the life of a saint in a low voice, by the dim light of a candle.

“Am I to die to-night?” she asked the Prioress.

“Perhaps.”

“You will be sure to send for Father Dominic?”

“Yes,” said the Prioress, and went away.

After she was gone, Lillian opened the prayer book and took something out of it which she pressed to her lips. Then she lifted up the crucifix from the table and kissed it. The nun who was reading did not see her, and when the nun had finished the life of a saint, Lillian was asleep holding the crucifix.

The convent was still as death, but downstairs in the chapel the Prioress was kneeling before the alter, praying, and Father Dominic kept vigil in his little house outside the Convent gates.

At four o’clock, when the sky was growing grey and the birds were beginning to twitter, there was a hasty knock at Father Dominic’s door, and a voice said, “Father, come, Lillian is dying.”

The priest hurried to the Convent. But by the time he arrived, Lillian was unconscious. The Prioress was kneeling be her bed, and the nun who had called Father Dominic was standing beside her pillow.

“She asked for you, Father,” whispered the nun, “at half past three, she had a sudden fit of coughing, and then she asked for you. But she had fainted before I could get away, and since that time she has not been conscious.”

The priest went downstairs to the Chapel for the Holy Oil, and came back saying some Latin words as he entered the Infirmary. Then the nun and the Prioress rose up and came to stand beside him. He anointed Lillian’s closed eyes, her feet, and her hands that held the crucifix. But she did not hear what he was saying, or know that he was standing beside her.

“I wish she would speak before she dies,” said the Prioress, “I should like her to speak.”

Father Dominic bent down to listen if she were still breathing. He heard a sigh, like the sigh of a tired child. Her eyelids quivered and her lips moved.

“Father,” said the Prioress, “she said something.”

“Yes.”

“What was it?”

“A name.”

“The name of a saint?”

Father Dominic did not speak, for he knew that the name she had said with her dying lips has not been canonised yet.

“Is she dead?” asked the Prioress.

“Yes, she is dead,” answered Father Dominic.

He tried to take the crucifix from her hands, but found her cold fingers clasped tightly around it, and when he unclasped her fingers, he saw in them not only the crucified Christ – but, also, some faded dog-roses.

The End.

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