We’d known sickness before. In a city where whole families lived in one room and open sewers flowed down many streets it is an accepted part of life. People will fall ill and some will die. Myself, I had nursed the Tuke children through scarlet fever and I was hardly the only one with such a story. For them to lose only Esther was considered a blessing at the time. Yet, when the rumours began to filter through that another sickness was spreading through the city, another far more lethal, I couldn’t act with complacency.
I was within weeks of my due date, and I’d have guarded my precious cargo with my life. Seeing Samuel all those months ago had changed the course of my life once more. I could not say whether the child I carried was his or that of my husband, but I prayed every night that he was Samuel’s.
I returned home that day, soaked again by the rain on my walk back, to find Thomas in a temper, demanding to know where I had been. I never told him the truth, of course; instead that I had been visiting my family, and the next time I saw Eliza, I handed her the precious volumes to keep safe; I couldn’t risk Thomas finding them.
I hadn’t seen Samuel since but those brief hours we shared, reunited, were enough to bring some light back into my life. Knowing that he did not betray me, and that he too would grieve for the child we lost, had lifted me from the cold dark place I had willingly crawled into.
To say I was filled with joy at my life with Thomas Smith was to tell a lie, but I was reconciled; accepting of my circumstances. He was a violent, coarse, crude man, but I was provided for, and with no reason to suspect the babe I carried might not be his, his pleasure at discovering I was pregnant almost touched me.
He had proved a milder man since that day, and I was no longer taken so roughly. I could look Simon in the eyes once more, and that time, my rounded belly was no shame. Neighbours congratulated me, and I was welcomed most openly into my childhood home. No one begrudged me an hour or two with Eliza those days.
But there was a slight shadow; for the first time in my life, I was keeping a secret from her. No one apart from Samuel and myself knew of our brief reunion. I hadn’t dared tell Eliza; not for lack of trust for I would entrust her with my life, but for simple superstitious fear that to speak of such things will be to release them into the world, for anyone to catch at. I dared not. I had simply handed her the books.
And so I carried my babe and my secret alone, and then sickness came to the city and I knew real fear once more.
They said some sailors brought it with them from Hull. Hearing of the habits of such men, I don’t doubt it, even today, and certainly, within hours of their arrival, the first people began to fall ill. We might not have afforded a daily newspaper in our household, but news travels fast by word of mouth.
With the first death came confirmation of the worst kind. Cholera was come to York.
Months ago, while snow still laid on the ground, it was rumoured that something was afoot when city officials had begun to make their rounds demanding a clean up. We had laughed at them. How do you clean up an open sewer? Where do you put your nightsoil when there are no drains? The river has always seemed as good a place as any for most.
And yet, rooms were whitewashed, as were the pigsties and privies, for those lucky enough to have the latter. Ma had said it wasn’t the first time officials had been to Bedern, but they had scurried away fast enough with their tails between their legs and shit on their shoes. But when nothing followed these incursions into the filthier parts of the city, interest had waned. We should have known that something had spurred those officials on; they never spend money unless they have to.
It was May, Race Week, and a hot day brought with it the stench of sewage, hardly unusual and liable to get much worse before the summer was out; a yearly occurrence, but never one with the whisper of cholera before.
I was unsure whether to count myself fortunate or not for I had a little knowledge of the disease. Samuel’s library was varied and he had let me have free rein. I had thought once I might have been interested in medicine had I been a boy and of means. I remembered only fragments of what I had read but those tightened around my heart like a vice.
It is a dreadful sickness, striking fast and taking those inflicted within days, even hours, as they lie in their own filth unable to keep any fluid in their body. Sacrificing a coin from my pitiful savings, I bought a copy of the day’s Gazette and read:
“The disease has at last manifested itself in our city. The first alarm was on Sunday when a poor man named Hughes residing in The Hagworm’s Nest became ill. He has now recovered and is doing well. The next was Greaves a sawyer living in the same court. He went home intoxicated on Monday night and was a corpse on Tuesday night. Barrett who kept The Anchor in Middle Water Lane was taken to the cholera hospital; a woman in Swan Street (in an advanced pregnancy of an illegitimate child) was the next victim…”
Despite the relief I felt that Hagworm’s was far removed from Petergate, the infection of a pregnant woman hit me hard. It should not have come as a surprise to me. Everyone knows a woman with child is at risk, and to be carrying an illegitimate child is to court infection, for, who does cholera target other than the poor and depraved? Or so we are led to believe.
I only knew a few days’ relief for soon we received news that victims were numbered in the Shambles, and the city officials appeared in full strength once more.
Notices were pinned up (a futile effort if ever I saw one for many in the poorer areas barely knew to recognise their own names, never mind struggle with alien words) across the city urging for increased cleanliness from the citizens, and strong-smelling quicklime was dumped in great quantities across the roads, ditches and ancient moats, turning the cobbles and puddles white, while houses with sick inhabitants were fumigated with pitch.
From single figures, the name of victims rose rapidly as the disease wound its lethal way through Bootham, Coppergate, Gillygate, Monkgate and ever onwards, until, inevitably it found its way into Bedern. A note was delivered to Thomas and I in Eliza’s hand begging us not to visit them; she needn’t have feared for my husband.
As soon as he learnt of the sickness, he forbade me from attending them, and for once, I did not resent his demands. I was torn between my desire to help my family, and my need to protect the child inside me. My unborn child won out.
By now, my belly was so big that the birth could only be days away, and I carried myself ungainly. Thomas’ comparisons to a cow were unkind, yet sadly just. The heat caused my ankles to swell uncomfortably in my leather shoes and in the house, where I spent most of my hours, I had taken to wandering barefoot like a slattern.
My back ached from the weight of my belly, my thighs chafed and my breasts were tender. The housework suffered as it took me long minutes to heave my bulk up the stairs and I thought, not altogether joking, that if the pregnancy went on for much longer, I might have to take up permanent residence in the kitchen, where even a restful minute on the stool caused sweat to pour down my face and pool between my breasts from the heat of the stove. An elegant brood mare, I was not, yet Thomas remained pleased with me, and for that, I was hugely grateful, and relieved.
It was amidst the news of the disease spreading to Goodramgate that I was brought to bed. I had thought to have Eliza and Ma with me at my confinement, but was instead tended by a local midwife on whom Thomas had spared no expense, perhaps motivated by guilt at his continued insistence that my family were not to visit us while cholera was still rife; more likely to protect his heir.
The heat from the midday July sun was stifling and I longed to have the window open, but this was forbidden, and a fire was built up in the grate instead. After Simon had brought the great copper bowl from the kitchen and filled it with water, both he and Thomas were banished downstairs by the midwife; an unnecessary pronouncement for the former scuttled off as fast as his legs could carry him, and the latter had yet to make an appearance. I imagined him either in the kitchen with a pint, or the pub with several. I couldn’t say that I blamed him. As the pain increased in my belly, I half wished I could join him. Drinking certainly seemed to take Pa away from the trials of everyday life.
The pains were coming stronger and faster now, and I knew, from helping Ma that it couldn’t be too long now. I also knew that first babies could take the longest, although, was this really my first child, I wondered. By the time Ma was on Maria, I’d swear she slipped out like a puppy. Mind you, that’s what having thirteen children will do to you. I was the first and I bet I didn’t come easily.
When the midwife told me to push, I did and it was a relief to have something to do, something to push against to fight against the pain. I screamed out. It’s unladylike to do so and I had never heard Priscilla Tuke do so in all the time I was with them; four babes in all, but I’m no lady and never had pretensions to that.
“That’s right, love,” said the midwife. “You scream out. Let your husband know what he’s put you through.”
I felt a tightening down below, as if I was going to explode, and with the next push, I knew that the head had passed through. Stretched beyond belief, it was a blessed relief to push the rest of my child out from me and into the midwife’s capable hands, who briskly cut the cord and then laid the sticky red bundle on my chest.
“A boy, Mistress Alice,” she said. “A healthy baby boy. But it’s not over yet. There’s still the afterbirth to be delivered. That’ll come in it’s own time. Now let me clean up baby for you,” and my son was taken away from me.
I watched as he was tenderly sponged down and wrapped tightly, before being placed in the cradle, a makeshift thing provided by Eliza many weeks ago. A son. I could not believe it. After carrying him inside me for nine months, I had a son. Samuel’s son, I hoped, I prayed.
“Come now, let’s get you finished. Push, Mistress Alice; push one last time for me.” I did as bidden and was rewarded with an excruciating pain that shot across my belly. I had never known pain like it and screamed accordingly. “There now, Mistress; the worst is over.”
“It feels different,” I panted. “Wrong.”
“Wrong?” she repeated and put a firm hand on my stomach before slicking her hands with oil and slipping up inside me. I felt a sharp tug and screamed again. “Not the afterbirth,” she said, under her breath. “You’ve got another bairn coming there.”
“Another?” I said.
“Another, and he’s lying funny.”
“A breech?” I asked. I knew what a breech was. Ma had had one with our Philip. He didn’t last more than a few minutes once delivered, and for a while, we wondered if Ma might follow him. “What can you do? Will it be alright?”
“Aye. I’ve delivered breech before. Don’t you worry, Mistress; we’ll have this baby out of you in no time but first, I need to twist him. I’m not going to tell you a lie; this is going to hurt. I’ll put my hands inside you, and I’ll be looking to pull him the right way. Now take a big breath; that’s right, and bite down on this.” I slid the wood into my mouth and tried to calm the rising panic in my chest. “Scream as much as you like, it won’t make no difference to me.”
Her cold hands slid into me once more and almost immediately I felt a brutal yank from deep inside. I clenched my hands into fists and closed my eyes. I wished Eliza were there. I felt as if I was being torn apart and with one final agonising wrench, the hands came free and with them, an immense pressure was lifted.
The arms that held up my second child were covered in blood to the elbows, and this time, the baby was taken away immediately. I was too tired to lift my head and watch it being washed and wrapped. With a slithering that felt like I was voiding my bowels, the afterbirth slipped out from within me, and exhausted, my head dropped to one side and my eyes closed. I didn’t even know if the child lived.
I was wakened by the sound of crying, not the cries of a week-old baby, but the soft, almost pathetic, mewing of a newborn when it has been so cruelly ripped from warmth into the cold brightness of this world. I shifted my position, and attracted the attention of the midwife.
“Ah, there you are, Mistress Alice. You’ll want to be seeing the bairns.” She placed one bundle on one breast. “This is your son.” And another to his left. “And this is your daughter.”
“A daughter? I have a daughter?” I was filled with joy. Ma always used to say that sons were for the fathers but daughters were for the mothers. And I was blessed with both. Another shift caused me to wince in pain.
“You’ve torn down there, my love. But nothing a few days rest won’t fix as long as that husband of yours keeps his hands off you. I’ll go tell him the good news, shall I?”
Without waiting for a response, she shuffled out of the room, and left me alone with my babies, my twins. They were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Both topped with a fluffy down of whisper-fine brown hair, their skin was the smoothest thing I had touched, and their hands, with tiny grasping fingers each with their own miniature nail, seemed like miracles.
Cries abating, and as drowsiness overcame them after their epic battle, I fell in love with their pale blue eyes; unfocused and soft, they reminded me of my new role as their protector. How defenceless they were. I thought, already, that I would die for them, and I pressed my nose on to their scalps and breathed in deeply. It was heaven, but heaven was interrupted by the arrival of Thomas, who threw open the door with a bang, causing two pairs of sleepy blue eyes to start open, and two pink perfect mouths to open in harmony.
“I have a son!” he exclaimed and strode briskly to the side of the bed. “A son!”
“Yes, and a daughter too.” I smiled at him, determined to let nothing prick my bubble of happiness. “Would you like to hold one of them?” I offered up the boy, knowing this to be the real source of his elation. “What shall we name them?” I said. Thomas was cradling our son close to his chest. One hand cupped the small head, the other laid flat taking the weight of the body, and if I hadn’t known otherwise, I’d have said that it is natural for him.
“Thomas,” he said. “After his father. Young Thomas Smith. I’ll train him up to take over from me. Smith and Son. A fine sounding name.”
“Thomas,” I said. The name was not disagreeable to me. I would not have suggested Samuel. “And our daughter?”
“You name her, Alice. It is your right.”
“Rebecca,” I said. “A good strong Christian name. Thomas and Rebecca Smith.”
Thomas let his son’s tiny fingers clasp one of his own, and he studied him with love, but as I watched, his back stiffened, and he roughly thrust the baby back into my arms.
“Blue eyes?” he said.
“Yes, Thomas. Blue, and Rebecca’s as well. See.”
“Blue eyes and dark hair.” I suppose new motherhood had dulled my senses for it took me a second to realise what he was saying. “And you with brown eyes and fair hair? And I with brown eyes and red hair? Not a blue eye between us.”
“But-” I stuttered, and was interrupted by the midwife.
“Master Smith, babes are more often than not born with blue eyes. They change as the weeks go by.”
“Hold your tongue!” he snarled. The atmosphere changed the room in an instant. “Let’s see then, shall we? Let’s see if the child’s eyes turn brown like his father, or stay blue; a sure sign his whore of a mother is up to her old tricks. I said I’d raise your bastard once before, but I’ll not this time. Not if you strayed while living under my roof. No bastard boy is going to be called Thomas.”
“But, we had decided. He is yours Thomas. I swear to it. They both are yours.” I would have sworn anything to protect those babes, even that the blue eyes, in which I prayed I saw their real grey-eyed father reflected, were only a passing colour.
He pressed his face up to mine, his anger caused spit to escape as he said, and “The boy will not be called Thomas; understand?”
The babies were scared. I could feel them squirming on my chest, and soon their cries would join my husband’s.
“But what shall I call him?”
“It’s no concern of mine, Mistress Smith. You call the bastard what you will,” and he swept from the room, slamming the door behind him.