“Mum, are you expecting an official letter?” Colin shouted a thunderous inquiry as he rounded the tall, green hedge and raced up the stone steps onto the veranda.
His reckoning was right as usual. Catherine Finnegan sat in her favorite chair drinking her morning tea and looking ever bit the grand dame of the manor. In all his twenty-two years, Colin had always thought of his mother as elegant. Not ostentatious or lofty, but the elegance of culture and grace that had manifested even in the worst of times.
“You look so much like your father that it takes my breath away,” softly she spoke as she accepted the letter he offered. It isn’t so much the damp ebony mop or eyes dark as night. No, it is the way he moves and the infectious smile, John’s smile.
Memories of a time so long ago captured her thoughts.
Catherine had stepped off the ship into a world so different from her beloved Irish homeland. New South Wales, Australia, was an untamed frontier in 1828 and convicts like Catherine were shipped there along with cattle, farming-tools and other supplies to prosper this God-forsaken wilderness.
“Line up, I said or else you’ll be feeling this whip on yer back!” The guard was as loud as he was coarse. The women convicts shuffled to get in line for inspection by the free settlers. Most women convicts were used in the factories, but the fortunate ones would be assigned a position as servant or housekeeper.
“I’ll take the one with the flaming-red hair. I’ve got just the job for her,” called the swarthy man leaning against his horse. Several of the men punched each other and laughed at the bold insult. Twenty-year old Catherine closed her moist sky-blue eyes and asked God to protect her.
“She’s assigned to me as housekeeper,” said the tall dark-haired man near the front. Then he walked up to Catherine and led her away. That was the first time Catherine saw the smile, John’s smile.
John Finnegan is as fine a man as God ever created. Hard-working, honest and pure, John sought God’s will in all he did. Catherine and John were married in spite of her convict status and his as free. In thirty-five years of marriage, John had never asked Catherine about her past.
They had worked side by side to carve the early homestead into one of the largest ranches in New South Wales, producing the best wool from their huge flocks of sheep. Five sons and two daughters, yes, God had truly blessed them.
“Mum, the letter,” the youngest son was saying, bringing her mind back to the here and now.
Catherine set her teacup onto the wicker table and opened the envelope. “Let’s see what this is all about.” Two sheets fell out onto the table. Picking up one, Catherine began to read the hand-written note.
My dearest Cass, the letter began. Only one person had ever called her by that nickname. One from long ago and far away.
My dearest Cass,
How I have missed you all these years and shame has kept me from you. How can I ever ask you to forgive me?
I can never make it up to you for the position I put you in by letting you take the blame for my misdeed. I was so afraid and so young. But, there is no excuse worthy of allowing you to suffer for my crime. I slipped that ring into your pocket when I saw the shopkeeper watching us in the market that day. Never did I think he would have you arrested. I beg your forgiveness.
I have made a confession to the authorities. My health is fading and I choose to clear my conscience before I die. I prayed for you every day. Please, pray for me that God will forgive me even if you choose not to.
Your repentant sister,
The accompanying sheet was a formal declaration titled ‘ABSOLUTE PARDON’.
Catherine laughed so hard and for so long that she had trouble answering John when he came out to see what was causing the ruckus. Colin picked up the paper and asked, “What’s an ABSOLUTE PARDON?”
“Well, son, that’s what Jesus paid for with his blood. I received it long ago.” Catherine looked up at John. There was that smile, John’s smile.
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