Authors: Alison Rattle
‘Why do you think I came here? Because I
to?’ He laughed. Then his voice grew fierce.
‘Do you think I wanted to come
to the man who betrayed Mother? The great Dr William Swift, who is held in such esteem by society? Such a great man he would not even help his own
when she needed it.’
‘Please, Jacob!’ I pleaded. My voice sounded muffled and strange. I did not understand what he was saying.
‘I only came here to get what is rightfully mine. To have a taste of the kind of life that should have been mine and Mother’s.’
I managed to turn my head and take a deep breath.
‘I do not understand,’ I said, my voice shaking. ‘Father has taken you in. You have that life now.’
‘What? A life among the dead? Cutting off limbs and weighing organs? Spending my days in that room of death? I don’t want to
you foolish girl!’
Jacob stroked my hair. For a brief moment I thought all would be well. He does not know what he is saying, I thought. He misses his mother. Then suddenly he grasped my hair and pulled my head back. I cried out in pain. He stared at me. His face was twisted and ugly. His eyes were black.
‘You have no idea how you have ruined my life.’ His words fell like drops of poison. ‘If
had never been born, Mother and your
father would never have argued. She didn’t agree with him, you see. She thought what he was doing was so very wrong. So she left, and he washed his hands of her.’
Jacob let go of my hair and pulled me close again with one arm around my waist. His other hand was sliding down my back and on to my skirts. He was pulling and bunching up the fabric. I tried to call for Mary but all that came out was a sob. My head was spinning. Why was Jacob saying these things? Why was he doing this to me?
‘I know your father’s dirty secret, Ellen. That’s why I came. To ask him for money in exchange for his reputation. But what did he do? Persuaded me to become his apprentice. Said it would bring me far greater riches in the end. Stupidly I agreed.’
Jacob was still tugging my skirts and I could feel his hand through my petticoat, pressing on the back of my thigh.
‘Jacob,’ I managed to say. ‘What . . . what are you doing?’ My heart was throbbing in my head.
‘It didn’t take me long to realise that your father had taken me for a fool. Shutting me in that room day after day with no company but corpses. I am worth more than that!’
He pulled hard at my petticoat and I heard the thin muslin rip. I struggled to free myself, gasping with the effort. His grip on me tightened.
‘Jacob! Please!’ I begged. ‘Let me go!’ I closed my eyes and wished for it all to be a nightmare. I wished to be anywhere but here. I felt the morning breeze on the back of my neck and I heard the chirrup of a goldfinch in the distance. These things from the normal world calmed me for a moment. Then Jacob’s voice came again.
‘So I told him, Ellen. I told him I wanted only money. A modest amount. Then I would be on my way and his little secret would be safe.’
Jacob pulled me to the ground.
‘No!’ I screamed.
His hand covered my mouth and my heart beat so violently I felt the ground beneath me shake. He pushed his face into mine. I whined in terror.
‘He is not a man to be threatened, is he Ellen? It seems he doesn’t want me here any more. He thinks I can do him no harm. Someone like me ruin the reputation of the great William Swift?’
Jacob rolled on top of me and I knew I was lost. I lay perfectly still and tried to disappear into the ground. The dew on the grass was cold on the bare skin of my legs.
‘I will tell the world his dirty secret. I will tell the world all about you. Ellen Swift. Not the daughter of Eliza and William Swift. No . . . you are
, Ellen. The bastard of a maid. An ordinary, simple maid that your father liked the look of.’
. The word filled my head. I closed my eyes. My head was heavy. My legs were heavy. Jacob was heavy on top of me.
‘Do you think your father did it to your whore of a mother like this, Ellen? Just like this?’
There was a sharp pain deep inside me. I gasped and clenched my fists. I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. Jacob moved inside me, faster and faster.
I thought of Father plunging his hands into the dead man’s body, and I felt like a corpse lying on a cold marble slab with all my most private secrets exposed to the world.
Jacob stiffened and sighed and pushed himself away from me. I kept my eyes shut tight and I heard him cough and the swish of his footsteps on the wet grass. The goldfinch was still singing and I listened to it until all was still.
Queenie woke with a start. She stared into the darkness of the kitchen wondering what had woken her. There was not a sound from the sofa. Maybe one of the babies had whimpered, but had now gone back to sleep? She reached out for her candle and the matches. She’d best check that all was well.
The candlelight flickered over the small faces and Queenie watched closely for each little chest to rise and fall. They seemed peaceful enough now. Maybe one had had a bad dream. Queenie remembered how Mam would sing lullabies to the little ones if they woke in the night. She began to hum softly as she tucked blankets round the babies.
‘Soft the drowsy hours are creeping, hill and dale in slumber sleeping, I my loved one’s watch am keeping, all through the night.’
The words drifted through her head. She paused as she came to the last baby in the row, then looked back and counted. One, two, three, four, five. Only five of them? But there had been six there when she’d gone to bed. Then she heard a noise, a rustling sound coming from the scullery. She froze. The sound came nearer. Then the kitchen door began to slowly open. Queenie swallowed a scream.
‘What are you doing, girl?’
Queenie caught her breath. It was just Mrs Waters carrying a lit candle stump and still with her cloak and bonnet on. She had a brown paper parcel tucked under her arm.
‘Was just checking on the babes, ma’am. Thought I heard one of ’em crying.’
‘They are all peaceful now, are they?’
‘Yes, ma’am. But ma’am, there’s only the five of ’em now. Were six when I went to bed, ma’am.’
‘Well, that’s because one has been fetched away to a new home. It’s all been arranged. The carriage has just left.’
‘Oh, ma’am. I see. And has it gone to a healthy place in the country, ma’am? Like the others?’
‘Yes, yes. A healthy place in the country. Now I must get my rest. See that I am not disturbed in the morning. If you need anything, then speak to Mrs Ellis.’
‘Goodnight, Mrs Waters.’
Queenie went back to her mattress and lay down. She was wide awake now, her head spinning with questions. She heard a bang in the distance. It sounded like the front door. But it couldn’t be. Mrs Waters wouldn’t be going out again. She was off to bed, she’d said so herself.
Queenie wondered why Mrs Waters hadn’t woken her to help get the baby ready, and how she’d managed to be so quiet about it. She hoped she’d wrapped it up well. It would be cold for a small thing out at night. And what was she doing in the scullery? There was only the washtub in there for the dishes and the laundry, and the mops and brushes for cleaning. Maybe she’d been looking for string for her parcel? But the post office wouldn’t be open till morning. Couldn’t it have waited? She was a strange one all right, thought Queenie. A very strange one. But at least another baby had a home to go to. Queenie imagined it cradled in its new mam’s arms, lulled to sleep by the rocking carriage carrying it away to a healthy place in the country.
Mrs Ellis was down in the kitchen early. Queenie had changed the babies’ napkins and put the dirty ones in to soak. The kitchen fire was blazing and she had laid the breakfast trays out.
‘Fetch me a bowl of warm water and some clean cloths!’ ordered Mrs Ellis. ‘One of our young ladies has gone into labour. Quickly, girl! Bring them up to me. The front bedroom at the top.’ She hurried out of the room, rolling her sleeves up as she went.
Queenie ran to the scullery to fetch the big enamel bowl and a pile of old sheeting she had being cutting down for napkins. As she picked up the cloths she noticed the kitchen scissors lying on the side and some scraps of brown paper. So Mrs Waters had wrapped her parcel in here? Queenie didn’t have the chance to wonder why as she hurried to fill the bowl with water from the kettle.
As she carried the bowl carefully up two flights of stairs, minding not to spill a drop of water, she could hear cries and groans getting louder and louder. The door to the front bedroom was ajar and she pushed it open with her shoulder.
‘On the table here.’ Mrs Ellis gestured her to put the bowl down. The young lady on the bed was groaning deeply. Her eyes were wide with terror and her hands were twisting the sheets round and round like a mad thing.
‘God help me! God help me!’ she screamed.
‘Now, now,’ said Mrs Ellis. ‘There’s no need for all this fuss. The baby’s coming whether you like it or not, and shrieking like that won’t make it come any quicker.’
Queenie thought the lady looked so small and helpless lying there in the centre of the bed. With her nightdress pushed up around her thighs and her fair hair loose and sticking to the sweat on her forehead, she looked like a young girl; nothing like the quiet lady of the past few weeks in her flowing gowns with her hair piled high on her head. Queenie wanted to tell her it would be all right. She’d seen Mam do it all well enough and knew the pain would quickly end as soon as the lady had her baby in her arms.
‘Don’t just stand there gawping, girl! Fetch Mrs Waters!’ Mrs Ellis turned away from Queenie and bent down to peer between the lady’s legs.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ said Queenie and she hurried out of the room. She jumped as she almost bumped into the other young lady, the dark-haired one. She was standing right outside the door, still wearing her nightgown and looking as pale as a ghost.
‘Is she dying?’ she whispered to Queenie.
‘Dying? No, ma’am. No. She’s not dying. The baby’s coming is all.’
‘I know the baby’s coming,’ hissed the lady. ‘But is it killing her?’
‘No, ma’am. It’s just the pain. There’s no harm. It’ll be over soon. It’s how it always is with babies.’
To her horror, the lady burst into tears and grabbed hold of Queenie’s arms. ‘Can’t you make it go away?’ she cried. ‘Please make it go away. I can’t do that. I can’t! Oh God! I am ruined, I am ruined!’
Just then there was a wail from the bedroom behind them. A low quivering wail that got louder and stronger and deeper. Queenie and the lady stood in silence. The wail got louder and louder and grew into a roar of agony. Then it suddenly stopped and Queenie realised she was holding her breath and the lady’s fingers were digging into her skin.
Then a small tinny sound broke through the quiet and Queenie shook off the lady’s fingers and said, ‘See, baby’s here all safe now.’ The lady was trembling and crying gently now, but before Queenie could steer her back to her room, Mrs Waters appeared at the top of the stairs.
‘Miss Godfrey! You really shouldn’t be upsetting yourself in your condition. Back to your room now, and I’ll have Queenie bring you up some tea.’ She glared at Queenie as she led the lady away.
Later that evening Mrs Ellis brought the newborn babe down to the kitchen and told Queenie to make it up a feed. It was mewling gently, its little face all wrinkled and screwed up.
‘Can I hold it?’ asked Queenie.
‘I don’t see why not,’ said Mrs Ellis. ‘But don’t make a habit of it. We don’t want it spoiling.’
The baby pushed its face into Queenie’s chest, its mouth searching for its mam’s titty. Queenie wriggled the rubber teat into its mouth and the baby pulled on it hard. She had fetched the milk from the dairy only a while ago, so knew it was fresh and creamy. She hadn’t watered it down with builder’s lime, even though Mrs Ellis always insisted on it. It didn’t seem right to somehow, with the little one being only a few hours old. She held the baby close. Its head smelt of warm biscuits and honey. A strange feeling rushed through Queenie’s body and she found herself hoping that this baby stayed well.
The sun was warm now. I rolled onto my side and curled into myself. My cheek rested on the grass. It smelt of wet soil. I had pulled my skirts down to cover myself and glimpsed a smudge of blood on my petticoats. I tried not to think of it. I tried not to think of anything. I wanted to stay there forever; curled up on the soft grass with just the distant rumble of noises you can only hear when you are still and hardly breathing. I stared at the buttercup in front of my eyes. It was so close that when I blew gently, it trembled. I closed my eyes and the buttercup stayed as a fuzzy white shape on the insides of my eyelids.
‘Oh, miss! Oh, miss! What’s happened?’
Suddenly Mary was there. She touched my shoulder gently; felt my face. ‘Did you faint, miss? Shall I call the doctor out?’
I opened my eyes and looked at her face, which was creased with concern. I couldn’t speak.
‘Do you think you can get up, miss? Least let’s try and get you back to the house.’
She gently lifted me to sit. ‘Just rest there a minute, miss, and get your bearings. Oh! You have blood on your . . .’ She stopped and began to pick out crushed buttercups that were tangled in my hair. ‘Now, let’s get you up. Come on. Lean on me and we’ll take it slowly.’
I clung to her arm. Her familiar smell of clean laundry and her soothing voice made me want to cry. But I knew if I started, I would never stop. We walked back up the garden. Mary talked nonsense all the way.
‘If this warm weather keeps up, miss, we’ll be having to do the spring cleaning early, I’m sure. Maybe we can get your mother out in the garden this year?’
I wanted to tell her what had happened, but I did not have the words. As we got nearer to the house I stopped. I did not want to go on. I looked at Mary. Her face was drained of colour.