The fourth time I encountered Mr Tuke in the library, long after supper had finished and the rest of the household tucked up, I suspected it might not be a coincidence for either of us; for my part, I was curious to know more of my employer and there was always some task to undertake. We’d still never exchanged more than basic pleasantries, which, I knew was still more than a servant in my position should have exchanged.
That evening, his jacket and cravat had been discarded, he was swirling a great bubble of a glass I’d learned to call a snifter in his right hand.
“Mistress Alice, how are you finding the work in the house?”
“It’s very good, sir,” I said, bobbing a curtsey that was no less wobbly for frequent practice.
“I’m very grateful to have been taken on.”
“Is this your first such position?”
“And what did you do before?”
“I worked with my mother, sir.”
He had this habit of watching you closely when you spoke, but when he wanted more information, rather than question you, he simply let the silence between you lengthen until you felt compelled to continue. It was a clever ruse, and one, I suspected, led people to reveal far more than they would usually.
“She’s a laundress, sir, in Bedern. I used to help her take the washing in.”
“And your father?”
I laughed at this.
“You could say that, sir. There are thirteen of us, at the last count. Five more that didn’t live past a year.”
“And you’re the eldest?”
“That’s right, sir. Then my sister Eliza right through to Maria, who’s no more than your Gulielma.”
I reeled off the names of the rest, but I didn’t expect him to remember them; my pa found it hard half the time, but then, he spent at least that in his cups.
I was happy to chat with Mr Tuke, I felt at ease with him; not like his wife, Priscilla, who I discovered to be a sanctimonious prune of a woman.
The firelight was kind to him; when he smiled there were no rotten teeth, and I thought him the better for having a plain navy tailcoat rather than the crimson or sapphire of some of his peers. But I was wary too, I’d been warned about drawing attention to myself by Ma; and I’d heard enough tales myself about gentlemen seeking to take advantage, but I was not sure that this is what he was after.
Many wouldn’t blame him, not with Priscilla lying next to him, a dutiful wife but as cold as a fish, although the rumours had proven themselves true: she was holding herself differently so she at least did her duty as a wife. I thought though, even with a bustling house of six young children, I saw in his eyes what sometimes appeared under the surface of my sister Eliza’s otherwise serene countenance – sadness, and even perhaps loneliness.
Melancholy was not an emotion I was familiar with personally, but every now and then, Eliza would be so consumed with it that some days I wasn’t sure if she could get out of bed, certainly, on occasion, it was not worth you trying. An enveloping distress of spirits; sunk low within herself, so low that even sunshine on her face seemed to make little difference, and then, one morning, one day, she’d be out of the bed before me, brushing off my concerns and we’d all learned never to mention it.
Some things are easier swept out of sight, but I wondered, once in a dark corner, if it merely rotted and putrefied, and bloated with bitterness, biding its time, waiting to pounce, stronger and more callous than ever. Some things were better dealt with in the light.
The next night we met, he asked me, “What do you think of asylums, Alice?”
“Of asylums, sir?”
I was surprised. This was the first time our brief conversations had ventured past the mundane, and to ask this of me, it was almost as if I was not a servant, as if he were speaking to an equal.
His eyes were sharp and inquiring as he looked at me, awaiting my answer. My heartbeat quickened for it felt like an important question, one in which there was definitely a right or wrong answer.
I took my time before saying, “What do you mean exactly, sir?”
“I mean, what do you think of the place where they take people who are troubled in mind as well as body?”
“I can’t say as I have an opinion, sir. Not,” I rushed on, “that I don’t think, sir. It’s just that my ma always taught us never to speak if we ain’t – haven’t – got something worth saying, and I don’t know much about asylums.”
“A wise woman.”
“Indeed. Perhaps you’ll permit me to tell you a little, Alice?”
I nodded. I was hardly going to say ‘no’ to the master, and the only other place I had to be was my bed.
“I remember visiting a workhouse, oh, several years ago now, and while it was not designed for the treatment of insane persons, we enquired as to how those occupants were being treated. It was freezing outside, and the first cell we entered, for it can only be described as such, contained a young woman, not much older than yourself, Alice, and she was lying naked on the floor, trying to cover herself with the soiled straw that lay there.
“There were no windows, the only light and air coming from a small grate in the door. The woman had no blanket or even a horse throw to warm herself with, and she buried her head in the straw, no doubt to avoid being exposed to us. She appeared more physically, than mentally afflicted, but her keeper told us her lack of clothing was due to a propensity to tear them from herself; which she herself denied, much to the discomfort of the keeper. Indeed, he admitted that in the 12 months she had been kept there, unclothed, she had never suffered from any violent paroxysms.
“In another cell, there was a man lying, his leg bound to the wooden bed with a chain; a chain that, due to his exertions to release himself, had caused plentiful abrasions. The master of the house claimed to allow the ‘patients’ any further liberty would be to invite danger.
“Do you think you’re beginning to understand a little of what I mean now, Alice?”
“Yes, sir. You’re saying that even though that woman, even though she’d done nothing wrong, and wasn’t violent, she was still locked up?”
“Because that is what they do in asylums?”
“Indeed it is. Do you know of the lunatic asylum north of the city?”
“The one on Bootham? Yes, I’ve heard of it.”
My heart grew chilled.
“In there, patients are immersed in baths of freezing cold water and ice to temper their hot emotions. The doctors believe, as does the church and many of my class and education, that an insane person is evil, infected by demons and a scourge on society. In effect, their way of brutal treatment is the only way in which such people can be helped. Do you understand, Alice?”
“But I forget myself; you don’t want to hear all about that. Forgive me; I am preoccupied this evening. My words were hardly fit for the ears of a lady.”
“You forget, sir, I am not a lady.”
Our eyes met and held their gaze. He had no answer for me. I picked up the coal bucket and prepare to leave the room.
“Do you not also have the running of an asylum, sir?”
“Yes; The Retreat, but-”
I waited to hear no more. I had been mistaken. This was no man; this was a monster.
When my duties drew to a close on the following night, I headed straight for my room.
“No coal bucket tonight, Alice?” said Rachel, slyly.
If she had any true idea of how I’d been spending part of my nights, she’d have done more than make remarks, as it was, she thought I’d got my eyes set on James, the footman.
“They’re full,” I said and got into bed.
I rolled over to avoid her looks and fell asleep.
Another day and night passed, and still I kept away from the library as I intended to do so from now on, but Rachel had other plans. I was just slipping my nightdress over my head when she said, “Oh, Alice. I almost forgot. The coal scuttles in the lower rooms need replenishing.”
“I’ll do them in the morning, Rachel.”
“No. You’ll do them when I tell you to do them, Miss.”
“You want me to get dressed again, go downstairs, go out to the coal cellar, haul up a bucket of coal, and take it from room to room at this hour?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. Besides,” she said, “it never stopped you before.”
I sighed and stripping the nightdress off, I replaced my stale day dress, slipped my aching feet back into their shoes, and taking a candle, started the journey down the backstairs. I went from the breakfast room and the morning room in short order; neither of their scuttles were empty. I cursed Rachel. The dining room and the drawing room both required a little filling, but nothing that could not have been resolved on the morrow.
I hesitated outside the library door. I couldn’t see any light coming from beneath it and screwing up the small amount of courage I possessed, I walked into the library, coal bucket in my hand, head held high.
The room was in pitch darkness, and when the light of my candle illuminated it, completely empty. There was no jacket or cravat thrown to one side. No brandy glass rested on the sideboard. And there was no gentleman ensconced in the wing chair although I imagined I could still see the indent of his head, and it only took a moment to see him, clear as day, legs crossed at the ankles, sleeves rolled up, beckoning me over. But an empty room was all that was before me.
My resolve was replaced by anger. Anger that I had let this man have power over me, anger that I was unable to confront him, anger that I was in this situation at all.
I lugged the bucket to the fireplace with a snarl, and aimed a kick at its copper counterpart. Clearly the encounter meant little to him, as did I. I reminded myself that it was better that way.
I was about to leave when I noticed a book lying open on the arm of the chair. It hung temptingly, its rich red covers irresistibly pulling at me and I had it in my hands before I really knew what I was doing. I could recognise the occasional letter; ‘A’, I knew the start of my own name. But pages and pages, like that, defeated me.
There was no time for schooling when there was washing to be done, and besides, who would have taught me? – My pa, soaked to his eyeballs in the latest batch of cheap gin he could get his hands on, not that he had much learning anyway, or my ma, who never read a word in her life?
A whole world lay before me in that book. I wanted to better myself, and I’d be damned if I ended up in the workhouse or one of his asylums some day, like that poor creature he mentioned.
No use in a woman learning her letters was what most men would think, but somehow, in spite of everything, I didn’t think Mr Tuke would have agreed.
When I started, Hannah was still in the nursery, but since then, a governess had been appointed, much to Lucy’s delight – a stern looking woman called Pritchard – and I imagined that Maria, Sarah, little Priscilla and even Gulielma, barely out of her swaddling, wouldn’t be far behind; naturally little Henry had a tutor who came in daily, and with another one on the way, boy or girl, they’d be getting an education too.
Part of me felt resentment, but a greater part accepted that that was the way of the world. I remembered my pa saying one day, when he was actually sober, that the gentry didn’t want the likes of us educated because then we’d know we were due more in life. It was a dangerous thing, education. But I couldn’t help stroking the book in my hands.
I lifted it to my face and breathed its heady scent. The leather covers smelled as expensive as they no doubt were, and the thick creamy-white pages were smooth to the touch and smelled of opportunity.
I dropped the book. It hit the side of the chair and bounced on to the floor, landing with pages crushed and covers askew. I cried out and carefully lifted up the book and uncreased the sheets.
“You came back.”
“The scuttles don’t fill themselves, sir.”
“No, I see that. I was hoping you would return.”
“I have my duties to fulfil, and now, if you’ll excuse me, sir-”
“Alice,” he said once more, and grasped the sleeve of my dress. I stifled a gasp at his audacity and glared at him. He dropped my wrist.
“I- I wanted to apologise for the other night-”
“There’s no call for that, sir.”
“Damn it, girl, if you’ll just let me explain!”
His curse stopped me in my tracks.
“Forgive me. I see that I expressed myself poorly. I do have dealing with an asylum, Alice, but it is not as it sounds. It is not like the asylum north of the city; that place is odious to myself. The Retreat is different. It’s run by the Friends and we believe in moral treatment.”
In the face of my silence, he continued.
“We believe that every being retains their humanity and deserves to be treated appropriately. We do not purge or blister our patients; there are no manacles or chains; and we do not treat our patients like wild beasts. My grandfather, William, founded it in 1796, and the treatment is based on benevolence. Patients can walk or labour, if they choose, in the pleasant surroundings and we function as a family. We believe that recovery is possible and very probable given the right support and environment.”
“Why did you not rescue that woman?”
“From the workhouse? It was not within my power to do so, and I am truly sorry for it. However, after I returned to York I ordered a dozen flannel dresses to be made and sent to the workhouse. I can only pray they were made use of.”
“But if she was no harm to anyone, why was she kept there?”
“Do you know it’s a capital offense, that is, one punishable by death, to be insane?”
“You face the drop for being mad? That doesn’t make sense; besides there’s loonies all over the city that aren’t being hanged.”
“Would you believe me if I told you they’re the lucky ones?”
“Lucky? You should see the filth-” I stopped myself in time, remembered my company. “I mean to say, sir, that if you saw the way that some of them live, I doubt you’d call them lucky.”
“I’m sure you’re right, but there are worse places to be.”
“So you don’t keep people in chains in your Retreat?”
“No; we do not.”
“And you don’t let them be misused?”
I watched him speak, and I believed him; I believed in his words. The man who stood before me was not a monster.
“In which case, I must apologise to you, sir-”
“I let you speak, didn’t I? Well now it’s my turn. I have a sister, Eliza. I’ve mentioned her, and you see, she can be a bit funny like, not mad or anything like that. She just has these turns. She gets awful sad and low, and it’s like no one can reach her, you know? And then, well, you told me what it’s like in those asylums, sir. What they do to people like Eliza, I didn’t know before; and then I remembered that you had one too, and I didn’t much fancy talking anymore, sir. I can be gone by the morning, sir. I spoke out of turn.”
“I can have my things and be gone by the morning, sir.”
“Enough of that. Let us leave it all behind us. Ah, I see you’ve discovered Dafoe.”
It was my turn to look confused.
“The book you currently have clutched to your chest. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe. He was from York, you know.”
“No, Robinson Crusoe.”
“But isn’t this,” I rolled the unfamiliar word under my tongue, “a novel, sir?”
“Yes, that it is. And the protagonist, that is to say, the main character in the story, Robinson Crusoe, is from York.”
I’d heard of the book before but had never come across it. Who would I know with the money or the leisure to acquire a novel? Even Ma, who had big dreams of my learning to read, wouldn’t hold with a novel. ‘What was the point in that?’ I could hear her ask. ‘You stick with the Bible, and those knowledgeable books.’ Mr Tuke gestured to the book in my arms, and reluctantly I handed it back.
“It’s a first edition. My great grandfather purchased it when it first appeared in print. I’m rather fond of it. As you can see, “ he said, while pointing at the crack in the leather spine created by regular readings.
“Mr Crusoe goes against his parents’ wishes and sets sails on a sea voyage. Over the next years, he is shipwrecked not once, but twice, encounters cannibals and- but no, I don’t want to spoil the tale for you.”
“You needn’t worry about that, sir. I won’t be reading it any time soon.”
“You mean to tell me that you can’t read, Alice?”
He looked astonished, as if such a possibility had never crossed his mind, and under his gaze, I felt the colour rising in my cheeks.
“But didn’t you go to school, girl?”
“There were ten of us by the time I was twelve, sir. My ma needed me. I had no call to be going to school.”
“Yes, of course. How foolish of me. I apologise for embarrassing you, Alice, as I see my careless remarks have. My manners seem to abandon me in your presence.”
For the first time that I could recall I felt ashamed of myself, and of who I was. None of my friends knew how to read. Even some of the lads down my way didn’t. The apprentices might learn, but if you were a labourer, what need did you have of knowing your letters? My pa could only pick them out individually; give him a proper word and he was stumped.
We had passed unscathed through one misunderstanding, only to run into another. I picked up the empty bucket and made to leave the room.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, and dropped a curtsey. He didn’t grab my sleeve this time, and instead let me go.
I woke up less ashamed by my master’s words, and more by my reaction to them. I was a housemaid, and had no call to be offended by words, words that he then apologised for; his second apology of the evening. And however I looked at it, whatever angle I attempted to spin, I couldn’t avoid the fact that I wanted to see him again, and that, that night I’d take the coal into the library as if nothing had happened. Which, I reminded myself, it hadn’t.
“Ah, Alice,” he said, when I walked in. “There you are.”
A smile I believed to be genuine brought a twinkle into his eye, and I responded instinctively.
“Good evening, sir.”
He waved the red-leather bound book in his hand, “There’s something I didn’t mention about Robinson Crusoe. He had a companion named Man Friday.”
“Yes, rather an odd appellation, but he was named after the day on which Crusoe discovered him wandering the island he inhabited. Friday was, like you, unable to read or write,” he rushed on, seeing my eyes fall to the floor, “but Crusoe taught him both.”
“Yes, Alice; he did.”
He reached over to the sideboard where the crystal brandy decanter stood, and picked up a much slimmer volume bound in cloth.
“I borrowed this chapbook from Hannah’s governess. I thought we could start here.”
“Please excuse me, sir, but are you suggesting that you teach me how to read and write?”
“That’s correct. I’m afraid I’m not a natural teacher, and we’ll only have these brief sessions in which to work. I can’t excuse you from your duties within the house, but if you’re willing…”
I made my decision in a second, “I’d like that very much, sir.”
“Excellent. If you’d like to pull up that stool, we’ll begin.”
And so began the first of many enjoyable lessons. Far from being an unnatural teacher, as he said, Mr Tuke proved himself remarkably adept in teaching me, or so I thought. The few times I’d made it to the school in Bedern run by Christians, I’d witnessed daily beatings and children brought to tears by their inadequacies. Mr Tuke used no such methods.
Patience, gentleness and humility were his by-words, and under his tutelage I was soon able to identify the whole alphabet. I daren’t show the fruits of my labour to Ma when I went home on my next half-day, for I wasn’t sure she’d approve of the circumstances of my learning, but I looked forward to reading passages from the Bible to her some day. Only the third half-day I’d had since starting my employment at the Tukes, I took great pleasure in presenting her with a shiny pound.
“I’ve only just finished paying for my uniform,” I said. I executed a twirl as I was in my Sunday best, far and away the nicest piece of clothing I’d ever owned. Not only was it brand new to me, it was cut in the new Empire style with a high waist and dropped to the floor.
“Don’t you start getting any airs and graces now, young miss,” said Ma as I ducked to avoid an affectionate clip round the ear. Eliza, who’d let out a squeal when I walked through the kitchen door, was stroking the fabric in awe.
“It’s so soft, Alice,” she said.
“It’ll be yours next, Eliza.”
“Really?” she whispered.
“Of course, you silly girl. Who else would I be giving my best frock to?”
“And such a lovely colour too.”
A rich plum, too dark to be considered fashionable but in keeping with the Tukes’ Quaker plain dress, it was still a step above the dingy brown and grey stained dresses us Haxby girls were used to. I made a mental note then and there to gift the dress to Eliza on her next birthday. I only had need of it half a day every month, and then my afternoon dress would do perfectly well. Eliza would take such pleasure from owning a dress like that, and unlike me, she could wear it every day.
“Here you go, girls,” said Ma, and handed me a basket.
“It’s your lunch.”
“Get on with you. I have no need of Eliza this afternoon. Go on; take your sister. Enjoy yourselves.”
“Thank you, Ma,” I said, wanting to throw my arms around her but knowing she’d shrug them off uncomfortably.
“Off you go, now,” she said, and shooed us out of the kitchen. “Can’t be having you two under my feet all day.”
Stopping only to pick up a shawl for Eliza – she was such a skinny little thing she got cold easily – we dashed outside before she could change her mind.
“Oh, Alice. How I’ve missed you.”
Eliza had no qualms abut enveloping me in a hug. She had always been more demonstrative than the rest of us.
“And I, you. What shall we do with this glorious freedom in front of us? What’s it to be? The Minster? The Castle? The river?”
“Let’s go to the abbey ruins.”
“St Mary’s, it is. Now, Eliza,” I said, hooking the basket tightly under one arm, and linking my other through hers, “Can you keep a secret?”
“I think it’s time for something new,” Mr Tuke said to me one evening.
I was pouring over the chapbook that he liberated from the schoolroom each night.
“Let’s put some of this into practice,” and he brought out a thickly bound book in a red leather cover. I recognised it immediately. How could I not?
“Mr Dafoe? Do you think I’m ready, sir?”
It had taken me several sessions to overcome my mortification of stumbling over letters in front of him, I wasn’t sure I could bear the shame if I was incapable of reading this, the book that had brought us together.
“Alice, you’ve been ready for a while now. Come, let’s begin.”
I settled myself into the stool at his feet, which had become my favourite spot, gingerly took the proffered book from his hands and, before I opened its pages, brought the cover to my nose and smelled deeply. I was hardly aware of that action, so natural it seemed, but it caused him to laugh.
“I see I’ve converted you into a fellow bibliophile.”
“A what, sir?”
“A bibliophile. It’s from the Latin and means ‘a lover of books’.”
“I never knew it before I came here, sir, but there’s a whole world contained within. I find that a kind of magic.” I stopped, fearful that I had offended his Quaker ways.
“Yes,” he agreed. “They certainly do contain a kind of magic.” He pointed to the book in my hand and I obediently opened to the title page and began to read.
“The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque.”
I stumbled over the unfamiliar word, but was set back on my feet in a moment.
“Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates,” I paused for breath. “Is this just the title?”
“It is indeed; although most people refer to it simply as Robinson Crusoe now.”
“That’s a relief!”
As the story unfolded before me, I blushed to think of myself as Samuel’s Girl Friday. Imagined, just us two, alone on a desert island. The heat rose in my cheeks every time I thought of it. It seemed Ma was wrong about gentlemen preying on servants. Apart from that one time, that seemed many many months ago, Mr Tuke hadn’t touched me at all; nor made any inappropriate overtures. He was a good man, devoted to his family and his faith.