I relished my life at Lawrence Street; how could I not? I had a friend in Lucy, the nursemaid; the conditions were far better than those I was used to, I was treated well, the work itself could be tiring, but apart from posh folk, who could boast of more? Moreover, I was bettering myself. My evenings with Mr Tuke – Samuel, as I now called him in my head – were bread and butter to me.
Four years had passed since joining the household and much had changed. Mrs Tuke had delivered one child successfully – a son, James; a little girl, Esther, had followed the next year and she was by then a bonny little lass of two. As fair as her mother and siblings are dark, she was doted upon by all, not least Samuel. He always tried to make a trip to the nursery and schoolroom each day to see his children, but little Esther reserved a special place, I warranted.
But one day, as it is wont to do, disaster came to the house. Young Master Henry, heir to the Tukes, was struck down by scarlet fever – with a headache, restless and fretful, he was hard to manage. No one could rightly say how he came by it, but we were all quickly plunged into quarantine. Much good it did us.
One by one, each of the children, apart from Little James and Eliza, were infected. I waited for a sore throat, shivering, fever and rash to appear, but being brought up in Bedern had its advantages, it seemed. When spirit of nitre failed, the windows were thrown open for fresh air and buckets of coal carted back and forth to stoke up raging fires. Mrs Murray prepared great vats of beef tea, while the patients were bathed with cold water and vinegar, and strips of flannel rinsed in cool water and placed upon the brow.
After a few days, the fever abated with the sore throat lessening soon after, while the rash took several more days to fade resulting in peeling skin, causing loud squeals to emanate from Mistress Hannah and Maria’s room.
Soiled linens were burnt in the furnace below stairs and appetites restored, the house at Lawrence Street returned to order. Until, that was, one of the new nursemaids appointed to help with James and Eliza came running. Being isolated in the nursery had shielded them from infection, but only for a time. The doctor was called and the fires stoked once more.
James, a hearty little lad of almost four, recovered in a matter of days, but Esther took a turn for the worse. Never a thriving baby, as soon as she sickened, the doctor warned Samuel and Mrs Tuke to prepare for the worst. With a raging fever that no amount of linen strips could quench, and a rash that inflamed her whole body, she passed from this life a week after taking ill.
Lord knows I was never a seamstress but after Ruth was dispatched to the drapers for some black fabric, I spent a good few hours making armbands for the servants, while Rachel looked out and aired the family’s mourning clothes.
Mrs Tuke, who proved an inadequate nurse, paid the first respects to the tiny coffin before the undertaker arrived. The sight of it would have brought tears to anyone’s eyes, and although plenty of my brothers and sisters didn’t make it past a year and were buried swaddled in the best that we could find, the sight of Miss Esther broke my heart; and I knew that Samuel’s would be breaking too. He had doted on her, his fair-haired angel. I longed to go to him, to comfort him, but not only was that impossible, I respected his need to grieve with his family. Instead I simply bade my time until the hours passed when I might enter the library, even though I suspected it would lie empty.
I was wrong. He was there, slumped in the armchair and had let the fire burn down to smouldering ashes. He didn’t look up when I entered, and I saw that the whisky decanter had joined its brandy counterpart. Both were far from full, and the crystal glass in Samuel’s hands was askew.
I closed the door softly behind me, and for the first time ever, turned the key in the lock and pocketed it. Making sure my black armband was firmly in place, I drew my usual footstool to the armchair, and sat. I said nothing, and let the silence sit comfortably between us.
When he finally turned his face to me, I saw wet lines running from the corners of his eyes, and he seemed aged by years. Still he said not a word, so I took the tilted, and now empty, glass from his hands and placed it on the sideboard, then, in a moment of braveness, or madness, I clasped my hands over his.
We sat there, together, watching the embers glow. Emboldened by his acceptance of my gesture, I started to rub my thumb across the back of his hand. Soothing him, as I would have done any creature in pain.
“Alice,” he said.
“Samuel,” I replied, uttering his Christian name for the first time. He didn’t flinch.
“Oh, Alice. She is gone. Esther is gone.”
His voice cracked and he looked helplessly into my eyes, I found I could bear it no longer. Pushing the footstool to one side, I climbed into his lap, placed my arms around him, and he leant his head into my chest and began to cry.
“I’m so sorry, Samuel. So terribly sorry.”
I cringed at how empty and useless my words sounded, but I hoped that my actions offered some comfort. I held him tight, determined, naively, to never let anything hurt him.
I don’t know how long we remained like that: I, in his lap, he, in my arms, but I awoke to the clock above the fireplace gently announcing a new day. His cries had subsided and his breathing settled, as slow as a sleeper, and I reached down to press my lips to the top of his head.
I breathed in; he smelled of wood smoke, whisky and cologne. My eyes and then my mouth lingered on the delicate curves of his ear, and while my right hand caressed the back of his neck, my left began to stroke his chest.
I didn’t notice his breathing change, but then he lifted his head and met my gaze.
I know the desire of men, and I saw it that night, in his eyes. I also knew that he was too much of a gentleman to act but my body yearned for his touch; I was emboldened. Placing one hand on his cheek, I pressed my lips against his, lingered, and then drew back.
This time, it was he who moved towards me; his grief morphed into physical lust, a need to feel alive in the face of death. One hand went to my hair, the other to the nape of my neck as he pulled me against him.
My mouth was greedy, and not inexperienced. When my tongue probed, his responded. We gripped each other tighter, all thoughts abandoned. In my quietest and most secret moments, I had dreamt of this. His eagerness suggested that I too had not been far from his thoughts, and yet, it was he who pulled back.
“We can’t do this, Alice. It is a sin.”
I had no good answer for him, only an apology.”
“I am sorry, sir. I meant only to offer comfort.”
“Do not call me ‘sir’ once more. Oh, let me be your Samuel again,” he said and lifting me into his arms, carried me across to the settle and laid me down.
Despite the best efforts of some lads from home, I was still a virgin, although I had eyes in my head and sense in my mind to have an idea of what coupling was about. Rough and ready; wherever it could be taken seemed the prevailing theme.
Samuel lifted my shift and dress to my waist, and I stifled a gasp when he first pushed inside me. It hurt like the devil himself; his hips thrust against mine as he set up a rhythm and the weight of his body forced my breath short and sharp. Just as the pain began to grow less, Samuel grunted; his body tightened, convulsed and then he lay limp across me.
“Samuel?” I said, worried by his deadweight. “Samuel?”
He lifted himself on to his elbows and placed a kiss on my lips.
“What a lovely creature you are. Lord forgive me, but I think of you often, Alice. I find that I am only sorry that I could not bed you properly.”
He drew himself off me, and began to tuck his undershirt into his breeches when he spotted the blood on my shift.
“I hurt you?”
“No, Samuel,” I tried to reassure him with a smile. “But I was a virgin.”
“A virgin?” he looked horrified.
“Yes,” I said, offended at his shock. “Of course, I was.”
“Dear Lord. What have I done?” He took my hand in his. “You must forgive me, Alice. I had no idea; if I had known-”
“This would not have happened?”
“You did nothing that I did not wish you to. I came to you willingly, and I would do so again.”
He was silenced. I quickly pulled my shift and dress to my ankles, and he buttoned up his breeches. We were suddenly awkward in each other’s company. I had not thought to question my actions so soon. Was I now worthless? Had I simply fulfilled a purpose?
He turned to leave, but finding the door locked, looked back. I reached into the pocket of my dress and retrieved the key. He was on the threshold before turning; he came to me once more. He kissed me softly on the lips, cheek and finally, forehead.
“Had I known, I would have been more gentle and given less thought to myself. I seem to forever be making myself a monster in your eyes and I am truly sorry for that. I will make it up to you, on that you have my word. Goodnight, Alice; and thank you.”
That night I slept with a red leather-bound copy of Robinson Crusoe under my pillow and dreamed of desert islands.
Despite our awkwardness the night before, there was no question in my mind, nor, I believed, in his, whether we would meet in the library on the following evening. While at first we resumed our lessons – I had long since moved past Dafoe and could then boast a reasonably elegant script – as soon as our bodies brushed against each other, it didn’t take many seconds for our lips to follow suit. Our initial encounter had been borne out of grief and comfort, now a relationship far beyond teacher and student was blossoming, and it seemed impossible to deny it.
My fingers no longer fumbled at his buttons, nor his hands around my shift. After that first painful, misunderstood encounter, we were beginning to learn each other’s bodies as I had once learned my letters. I responded to his touch with pleasure, and in turn, he looked me in the eyes when we made love, and his monster fed by the grief for his lost daughter was temporarily assuaged.
He was a moral man, however, and some nights we did not touch at all, while others I was left to sit on the little stool on my own in front of a dying fire with only a book for company. He never explained these absences and I knew his conscience was torn.
I thought that I would feel more torn myself if I had had any loyalty for his wife, Priscilla, but I had nothing but dislike. In the four years she had been my mistress, I had never had a pleasant word from her; the best any of us hoped for was civility. She was not the gentlewoman of my imaginings but still she was no tyrant; simply a woman who never looked beneath her. I gave no thought to her feelings until one day I learned that she was with child again.
My emotions were a mess of anger and guilt: anger that Samuel was still undertaking his husbandly duties with her, and guilt that I was participating in adultery. I even felt pity for the woman but not as much as I felt for myself, a mere servant. I could offer only illicit temporary comfort while she occupied his bed.
That evening, it was my turn to miss our appointment, and I huddled under my sheets in the cold attic room, hugging my resentment and bitterness close to my chest. But the next night, I returned, as faithfully as any addict.
I think, even then, a small part of me hated the loss of my own self-control; my sense of self was spiralling and I knew Ma would be horrified and ashamed by my actions. My missing night became just another thing left unsaid between Samuel and I.
When he asked me to choose our next book to read, I selected Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; a new addition to his library. I have since wondered if books have minds of their own. Certainly, specific books have had a way of finding themselves into my hands when they were most needed, if not desired.
I had once thought to be honoured by Samuel’s nickname, Friday, but from faithful companion, had I now transformed into Dr Frankenstein’s monster? – A grotesque creation that ruined the lives of those around him. I struggled to push the morbid thoughts out from my head, and instead focused on Samuel’s voice.
“It is thought that this is written by a woman, you know, Alice.”
“Really?” I asked; my interest piqued.
“Yes; the poet Shelley’s wife, Mary. She is the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. You may find her writing on women’s rights interesting.”
Getting up, he pulled a pale green fabric book from his shelves and passed it to me. I turned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in my hands.
I was building up quite a library myself. After finishing a book, Samuel always found a way to present me with my own copy, whether it was the original we had read together or a new one entirely. Two wooden crates pilfered from the kitchen were pushed under my bed with almost a hundred volumes lying carefully nestled inside. It would not have done to have them on display, and they were the most precious objects in my possession, not my housemaid’s box, as Rachel had predicted.
That evening, Samuel and I forgot our fears and worries as we fell into each other, and sated, lying side by side breathing heavily, I reflected that I loved the man with body and soul. To be his mistress should have been enough; I can see that now, but I wanted more. And it was love that destroyed us.
At first, I gave no thought to my monthly curse when it didn’t appear. I had always been irregular but when Rachel’s courses came, once, twice, and I wasn’t scrabbling in the linen closet for some pads, a penny dropped in my head; too slowly; far too slowly.
I was a fool to not consider the consequences, in this life, never mind the next. I saw Ma bring thirteen children into this world, and Mrs Tuke, two. I knew what the signs were. My breasts were tender and slightly swollen, and when, a few days later, I found myself dashing to the outside privy to throw up my breakfast, there was no avoiding the situation.
“Samuel,” I said, breaking off from Frankenstein. “I have something to tell you.”
He looked at me expectantly.
“I am with child.”
His first reaction was everything I could have hope for, as his face broke into an instant smile and he wrapped his arms around me.
“What marvellous news,” he said, planting a kiss on my forehead. “Are you sure?”
“Quite sure. I’ve missed my last two courses and I’m feeling nauseous.”
He placed a careful hand on my stomach, and despite the churning feeling there, which was nothing to do with the child, I smiled in return.
“A son perhaps? Or another daughter?”
“Yes; perhaps,” I said, ‘but what are we going to do?”
“I’ll start to show in a few months.”
“Yes, Samuel,” I said, as patiently as I could. “The babe will start to show through my uniform.” I watched as the knowledge sank in, and he stared wide-eyed.
“Ah, well, right. Hmmmm.” He sat back down in the chair and took a big swig of brandy. “Well, I suppose it will have to be taken care of properly.”
“Taken care of? You can’t possibly mean-”
“Good gracious, Alice! No! Of course not. Could you not say that your mother, or one of your sisters, is ill and that you’re needed at home?”
“For seven months, Samuel? I could hardly expect my place to be held open for me.”
“Leave that with me, Alice. I’ll talk to Priscilla. I’ll take care of everything.”
I was about to nip up the backstairs and change into my day dress, when Mrs Nelson walked into the kitchen.
“Alice, Rachel, come with me now,” she snapped.
“Mrs Nelson?” I asked. She ignored me and swept up to the ground floor. I had no choice but to follow, but not before seeing Rachel shoot me a bewildered glance. She led us into the morning room, where Mrs Tuke was sat with some embroidery in her hands, and Nanette, her lady’s maid, stood to one side.
“Mrs Tuke,” said Mrs Nelson. “Here are the girls. I’m sure we can get this cleared up to everyone’s satisfaction. I’m sure there’s just been a misunderstanding.”
My heart raced, and I clasped my arms tightly behind me so no one should see my shaking hands. What misunderstanding? I could only think of one thing I was guilty of, and that was no misunderstanding. What had Samuel done?
“Thank you, Mrs Nelson. We shall see. Nanette, please get the boxes.” We three – Rachel, Mrs Nelson, and myself – stood while Nanette bent to the floor, picked a wooden crate, leaving the second, and set it on the little fancy table between herself and Mrs Tuke. My shoulders relaxed, and I brought my hands out before me. “Can either of you girls explain this?”
Rachel looked at the box of books, the upmost lying face up, and its cover reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
“No, ma’am,” she said. “I’ve not seen them before. Are they from the library?”
“And you, Alice?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, happy to own my guilt to such a petty crime.
“Yes, ma’am, you say. No dissembling? No excuses. A thief in my household.”
“In that case, you’re dismissed immediately from my service-”
“If you please, ma’am,” I interrupted. “I’m sorry to interrupt and speak out of turn, but I have not stolen the books.”
“No, ma’am, they were given to me by the master.”
“The master? You mean Mr Tuke, my husband, gave you these books? Don’t be so preposterous girl.”
“It’s true, ma’am,” I said. “He was teaching me to read; ask him.” And then, I suddenly knew I had gone too far.
“You may leave, Rachel,” she said. “And you, Nanette. You, Mrs Nelson, you must stay.”
The two girls traipsed out, reluctantly, and the door was shut behind them.
“You say I can ask him, Miss Haxby? That I should ask my husband if he has given you books from our private library. Now why should he do a thing like that?”
I shrugged, but answered, “He saw I was curious, ma’am. That is all.”
“That is all, is it? Don’t make the mistake in thinking that because I am simply a housewife and mother, that I am a fool, Alice.” She picked up Robinson Crusoe. “I wonder,” she said. “I wonder.”
She turned to the inside cover, where Samuel had scrawled, ‘To my girl Friday, Alice’. She read the inscription aloud. Mrs Nelson gasped and turned to me with an accusatory stare.
“Alice!” she cried.
“Indeed,” said Mrs Tuke. “Alice, indeed. What have you and my husband been up to?” She dropped the book with disgust into the box where it landed crushing pages haphazardly. I leaped forward to smooth them out.
“Don’t you dare,” hissed Mrs Tuke, transformed from a gentlewoman in lace collar and cap to a spitting gorgon. She gripped my arm cruelly. “Don’t you dare.” She brought her face close to mine. “You think you’re the first one? You think with eight children conceived, carried and born that you’re the first slut to take his fancy? You little fool. You’re no different than the others.”
She leaned back and landed a sharp stinging slap on my cheek. I bit my lip to stop myself from crying out and clasped my hand to my burning face. She looked at me with real hatred. I didn’t dare contradict her; besides she was right; I was a slut, and it was my own arrogance that was my undoing.
“He was right to tell me about you.”
I couldn’t hold in my gasp.
“He told you?”
“Of course he did. He came snivelling to me. Who do you think you are? I am his wife, while you’re just some little whore who’ll end her days in the gutter. After I brought you in, fed and clothed you. You’re lucky that I refuse to taint this family in a scandal. Now get out of my sight.”
“But-” I stumbled on my words, the shock that Samuel had betrayed me making me slow and stupid. “But where am I to go?”
“To hell, for all I care; and I think it likely you’re headed there anyway. I hope you’re not expecting a reference. You have ten minutes to retrieve your belongings and if I ever see your face around this house again, I shall call the constable.”
Woodenly, I allowed Mrs Nelson to escort me to my room, which she did without once touching me, as if my sin was infectious. Forgotten are the times I nursed the children of the house through sickness, and the years of loyal service.
She didn’t leave me as I gathered my meagre belongings together; I thought that my influence must be considered too pernicious to allow any of the other staff to come into contact with me. A woman I had grown to like as well as respect; a fair woman, and a good one, she addressed not a single word to me until I have reached the backdoor.
“Good riddance,” she said, spitting on the floor, and the door to 29 Lawrence Street slammed shut.
All I carried in my arms was my uniform – a day and night dress – a clean shift and apron. My books were left behind. I had brought nothing else with me. I had nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other and head towards Bedern. As I walked away from the house, running footsteps behind me lifted my heart in the hope that Samuel had heard of my plight and was coming to my rescue but there was only Lucy.
“I am so sorry, Alice. I’m sorry it’s not more, but it’s the best I could do under such short notice.” She pressed a coin into my hand. “I’ll miss you. Good luck.”