Almost every woman I know has lost a child. It is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, it’s more common than bringing one alive and kicking into the world, and even if you manage that miracle, to have a child reach its adulthood is considered good fortune. The fact that I had lost my baby troubled no one but myself; even dear Eliza was concerned only for me, I feared. I knew my husband cared not, and Ma thought it a blessing. After all, it was only a bastard child. And no one mourns for them. But I did.
Daily I found myself at the church of the Holy Trinity, sometimes without even knowing how. There was a bench in the graveyard placed for reflection and prayer. Sometimes I sat and stared into nothingness, other times I wandered from gravestone to gravestone, but always careful never to go close to the sight of my child’s own burial.
I must never forget that what Eliza and I did was an act of blasphemy. No bastard child, no unbaptised child, can be laid to rest in holy ground. I feared that to linger over the spot would be to bring unnecessary and dangerous attention to it, yet I knew that I was not the first mother to have committed such a crime. I would do so again.
When the weather was miserable and to sit outside would be to draw unwelcome notice, I gravitated to the church itself. Before my wedding, I had never known its interior. It was not my local church; I had no call to be there, yet I found the uneven flagstones and the unyielding hard wooden box pews a comfort.
To feel the cool surface as I sat was to feel grounded somehow and even the white-misted air that escaped my mouth, regardless of the outside temperature, brought succour. It was fitting to sit amongst the dead, the icy cold and austere interior when I had been brought lower than ever before. If the sun broke through the clouds and the glorious stained glass window in the east was brought alive in dancing rays of brilliantly alive colour, I would leave. I could not bear the sight of it and I would return to my duties across the street.
Duties that must not be forgotten and my husband saw to it that they weren’t. Every morning, as before, I rose before him to prepare his breakfast, often crossing paths with Simon, the apprentice, whose eyes I could not bring myself to meet, as he stoked the fires.
Every day I cleaned the house from floor to ceiling; every midday I presented Thomas with a plate of hearty food and Simon with his smaller one, while I chose not to partake. I knew I was becoming smaller, my husband remarked upon it. He did not even grant me an evening’s reprieve from his ministrations after I miscarried, only commenting on how pleasant it was to tup a wife who no longer looked like a pregnant sow.
An unfair comment, as at barely four months my stomach had only boasted a small round to it, but my heart grieved for the flatness that was indeed clear to see a mere day later. After all the fuss it had caused, my baby had left this world with barely a mark. And yet, it was only several weeks later that Thomas began to complain of the new angles in my body. My breasts, which had once shown themselves full of promise, were shrunk close to my chest, while my ribs and collarbones stuck sharply from under their thin skin covering.
There was no looking glass in the house, but reflections bore the truth of his remarks as cheekbones I had never known had stretched my face, gaunt hollows taking the place of rounded rosy cheeks. I had lost my looks, and my hair, so thick and golden, had begun to shed with every brush stroke.
I continued my wifely duties as best I could, not for the sake of the fat sweating pig that shared my bed each night, but for my own, with the knowledge that if I did not, I must surely go mad.
But despite my best efforts, Thomas was becoming increasingly infuriated by me: whenever the urge took him, he used me like a whore. I disgusted him. I was not the woman he had married. Even with a bastard in my belly, I had been lusted after for my fine looks, I had bettered myself by working for a fine family, and yet, within a few short weeks, I had been reduced to a haggard shell.
I couldn’t contradict him, and my silence, where once there would have been spirited retorts, angered him more and soon my arms were covered with raging red bruises which barely had time to fade to blue and purple before the next ones appeared. I sat on the bench in the churchyard, risking his wrath for my disappearance, and wondered how my life had ended there.
One day, as I sat, a soft rain began to fall. It was a gentle rain that if I closed my eyes and imagined as deeply as I dared, I could envisage as an embrace from someone, anyone. I lifted my face to the sky and prayed for some comfort or some advice.
Eyes shut, the world became alive to my senses; I could hear a bird trilling in a nearby tree, and the voice of the vicar from within. I fancied I could even hear the sound of the rain as it bounced off the grass beneath my feet, and as I listened closer, I heard another sound. Another voice.
“Alice,” it called.
The rain had intensified and indeed, now I could hear it bounce off the slats of the wooden bench, but when I opened my eyes, there was not a soul in sight, but still, I heard it.
I craned my neck behind me, but no one. It was more persistent, more demanding and I knew that I must find the source. The rain was falling fast now, as insistent as the voice I heard and it blurred my vision.
From inside the church, the vicar appeared and beckoned me inside. We have become friends, of sorts, Rector Lund and I. I took a step forward to comply, as unthinkingly obedient as I had become, and yet, there was the voice, to the other side, away from the church.
Wrapping my shawl tight around my head, I quickly walked, not towards the church, nor towards the alleyway that would have brought me back to Low Petergate, but to the other, the second, that led me on to Goodramgate itself. I turned left almost immediately and was at Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate within moments.
I could no longer hear the voice but it was of no matter. I knew where I was going: down Fossgate and Walmgate until I reached Lawrence Street. I had to see Samuel. I had to tell him of the death of our child. He had to know.
By the time I reached the house, I had removed the shawl from my head. Sodden with water, it offered little protection against the elements, and long strands of my hair had fallen down on to my face in my mad dash across the city. It was exactly as I remembered; little wonder since it was barely two months since I left. How could so much happen in a month?
I stood on the street looking up at a house I was once privileged to call home. I never entered through the front door, not once in four years, but then, I never expected to. The delicate pale blue of the entrance hall was not for the likes of myself, except to sweep and mop its floors. I understood that, and even after Samuel and I became intimate, I never fooled myself that I might once be mistress of this house. I knew my place then, and I wish that I knew it still, but my mind was racing like a frightened horse.
I couldn’t stop staring at the façade and wondering what was going on behind the walls. Was Samuel even there? The clock on the church tower over the road proclaimed it to be a little after three in the afternoon. It would be a rare day to find him at home at that time.
My heart, temporarily buoyed, sank deep; deeper than I thought possible. My journey – my mad foolish, impulsive journey – was in vain. What could I have hoped for? – A joyous reunion? Yet I knew that it was he who had sent me away; he who had condemned me to my miserable existence while he returned to the sour safety of his wife. He could not want me now, even if he hadn’t betrayed me; and he certainly wouldn’t want me turning up on his doorstep in full view of his family dressed in clothes shamefully ragged.
Tears which had become so commonplace to me now mingled with the rain on my cheeks, and the salty taste on my lips brought vivid memories of a time when it was sweat, not tears, that ran down my cheeks as Samuel and I made love in the very room not a stone’s throw from here. Seeing the house now, seeing truly what I had lost and for what; nothing; was crueller than I could ever have imagined. Part of me raged and I was tempted to throw myself at the house, railing at Samuel and his treatment of me, but what would that prove? Who would that help? I forced my eyes from the house and turned back towards the city, its medieval walls in sight.
I heard my name called but I knew, as before, it was merely a figment of my mind. Samuel’s voice did not summon me from across the city. It was my own fancy, and a stupid foolhardy one at that. I didn’t search for the voice; there was no point. Even when it became stronger, louder, I continued onwards. It was only when a hand grasped my arm that I swivelled around.
“Alice,” he said. “Did you not hear me calling for you?”
“Samuel,” I said, before correcting myself. “Mr Tuke. I- I feared it was only my mind playing tricks on me, sir.”
“It was not your mind, Alice; it was I. Indeed, it is I.” He sounded forced, formal, and unsure of himself. He released my arm from its grip, and gingerly placed a hand underneath my chin, gently forcing my head up and my eyes to meet his. “Why did you leave me, Alice? Why did you go?”
“I-” I stammered, and found myself unable to answer.
“My wife told me you had gone to nurse your sister, but I felt certain that if Eliza had been sick, you would have told me of it. I felt certain of it, but then, when you didn’t return, as the weeks passed, I feared that perhaps you did not want to return, and I’m afraid I grew angry with you, Alice. I thought perhaps it was for the best, for you to leave and never return-”
“But Samuel,” I cut him off; passion had overtaken me. “I was told to leave. I was dismissed; my services no longer needed, by your wife, by Priscilla. She found out about us. I was disgraced.” I pulled my head from his hands, the shame of the situation made me turn my eyes away. “I thought it was you who had sent me away.”
“And I thought it was you who had left me.” He tried to pull me into his arms and I ached for his embrace yet I was painfully aware of our surroundings.
“No, Samuel. Not here; we cannot embrace. I am a servant in disgrace. You are the respected master of the house.”
Looking taken aback at the vehemence with which I pronounced these words, he took an uncertain step away from me, hands lying impotent at his side. As he did so, his eyes raked across my body, taking me in, in my entirety.
“Alice,” he said, a look of horror dawning on his face. “What happened to our child? What have you done to our child?”
“We cannot have this discussion in the street, sir,” I said, again.
“Then you must return with me to the house.”
“I can never return to the house,” I said.
“Priscilla is visiting this afternoon, with the elder children and I daresay, the younger are safely in the schoolroom. You shall have no trouble, I guarantee it, but Alice, I must know about the child.”
It was the desperation in his face that decided me; that, and knowing that he would share in my pain and misery upon hearing the truth. At last, I would be able to grieve with the father of my child. I headed towards the servants’ entrance.
“No, it must be the main,” he said.
“But what if someone should see us?”
“Far more chance of that if we use the back stairs,” and he held open the front door. I slipped inside and wondered if the grandfather clock looked as imposing to all visitors. He quickly ushered me into the Library. “I shall tell Roberts that I am not to be disturbed. You have nothing to fear.”
He returned in due course, and my fears were further allayed when I saw him turn the key in the lock. He gestured to the chaise longue but I was ashamed to sit on it in my sodden clothing. Instead, I took the footstool and was immediately conscious of a cruel parody of our former roles but there was no use moving once more; Samuel took his accustomed seat in the wingback chair.
“Tell me everything, Alice,” he said, and I began. I missed nothing out, from my dismissal at the hands of his wife to my recent marriage to Thomas. Samuel displayed little emotion until I came to the loss of our child. “A boy?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It came too soon and was too early to tell, but boy or girl, I would have loved it,” I said, fiercely. “I did not rid myself of it. The baby was mine, was ours, Samuel, and I held on to that when sometimes there seemed no other light thing to hold on to.”
“What happened-” he struggled over the words, and I longed to take him into my arms and offer comfort as I had done when Esther was taken from him. “What happened to the child, to the body?”
When I explained that the child had been buried in the graveyard at Holy Trinity, I was worried that he might disapprove, knowing his orthodox Quaker ways, but he only said, “It was done rightly, Alice. It was the right thing to do. God will be watching over. I only wish- I only wish that I could have been there for you. I only wish that you had not, are not, suffering as you are now. This Thomas Smith, he is a good man?”
I didn’t wish to tell Samuel of the intimate details of my marriage; not for propriety’s sake but for my own; the shame at being so used and my own fears that Thomas’ treatment of me led to the loss of the babe. Instead, I led him to believe it was a simple miscarriage. But even without divulging the full extent to which I was fallen, I could still take comfort from our shared grief at the loss of our child.
“He provides for me,” I answered. “And he would have provided for the child, I think.”
“And do you- do you care for him? What of these bruises, Alice?”
In all our time together, not once did words of love pass our lips, and with reason: to do so would have been folly. We both knew we were indulging in something that could never exist, not truly, not once exposed to the real world. Our affair offered us a respite from the toils of everyday life, yet I had loved Samuel, and I still did, far more than I thought possible. The love I felt for him was as strong as the revulsion I felt when Thomas touched me making my skin crawl where once it danced.
“My life is hard now, Samuel, harder than before, but Thomas took me in when no one else would. I do not care for him, but I owe him my life, I think.” And I realised that I did. For all my distaste of the man, he offered me a roof and food when even my family would, or rather, could not. If I had not married Thomas Smith, I did not know where I would be now, and I said as much.
“I wish,” he said. “I wish that you could come back and all would be as it once was.” The first piece of whimsy I had known from the man.
“That can never be, Samuel. You see that, don’t you?” And when I looked into his eyes, I realised that he did, but there was something else there, something other than grief and regret.
“I have missed you.”
“And I, you.”
In another move that surprised me, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me with passion on my forehead, my cheeks, my neck and when I felt his tongue pressing against my lips I responded as a dying man might to the offer of water.
“I know you are another man’s wife, Alice. I know that; and still I cannot stop myself.”
I collapsed into him, my arms flung tightly around his neck and I pulled him as close as I could for I never wanted to let him go again. We surfaced for air but immediately returned to our embraces, all thought of the household and the world beyond the locked door banished.
It was I who reached for the strings of his breeches first. His kisses had only inflamed my passion, not sated it. I could not have enough of the man I loved. My whole being was poured into that very moment, but even then I knew that it must be the last time. There could not be another.
As we lay in each other’s arms, sweat cooling on brows and with a feeling between my thighs much different from that inspired by my husband, he turned to me and whispered in my ear, “I love you, Alice Haxby.”
“And I love you, Samuel Tuke,” I said, feeling both a great lightening of my heart, and a sinking of my stomach, for I was no longer Alice Haxby, but Mrs Smith, and his words had a finality to them. He was not a stupid man. He knew that this must be the final time we met too.
“Samuel, I know we must not see each other again; I understand that, but can I ask one favour of you?”
“I left here without my books. Would you please return them to me?”
“I don’t even have to search for them. Your boxes are here; their presence was a balm to me. Here; take them.”
“I cannot take all of them, but I will take the most precious.”
Unseen and unsuspected, I slipped out from the front door, pressing several copies close to my breast; a different woman from the one that entered, but, I wondered, a better one?