I passed in and out of consciousness. Once, long enough to name my son, Joseph; another time to see Eliza at my bedside.
“Stay with us, Alice,” she pleaded. “Don’t leave me.”
“Rebecca,” I whispered, my throat like sandpaper. “Joseph.”
“I have them, Alice. We’re looking after them.”
“But, the cholera. In Bedern, but not here. You shouldn’t be-”
“It came to Petergate a few days ago. It’s spread to most of the city now. Once we heard that, and that you were sick, Thomas couldn’t keep us away.”
Knowing that, despite the cholera, my children were in safe hands, I allowed myself one more question before letting my dreams take me again, “Am I dying?”
“No, Alice.” I heard. “We’ve got you. You’re not going anywhere.”
This time I woke to muffled sounds and Eliza was no longer at my bedside. I was feeling stronger, better. I hadn’t vomited in several hours, nor did I lie in my own filth. I had been aware of sheets being changed and my body being sponged down, but knew only too well that my nurses must have been fighting a losing battle as far as cleanliness went. I was still too weak to move, but had somehow attracted the attention of someone in the room.
“Ma?” I said.
“Oh Alice. It’s me. I’m here.”
“Water,” is all I could manage. Very carefully a beaker was lowered to my mouth, and although much of the contents escaped over my face, it felt like a gift from God. My tongue felt large and ungainly in my mouth, and I struggled to swallow. Finally, despite my thirst having been far from sated, I found the energy to speak once more.
“Cholera is what happened. That filthy pestilence came. I thought I was going to lose you, my baby.”
Her words brought a jolt of memories flooding through my head.
“My babies?” Ma looks away from me. “My babies?” I cried. “What of Rebecca and Joseph?”
“Eliza is taking care of Joseph.”
“She- she was taken from us yesterday.”
“Taken from us? By the doctors? To the cholera hospital?”
“No, girl. She was in suffering, and God, in his kindness, released her from that.”
Many people turn to God in times of distress; I find that I turn away. I had no use for Ma’s platitudes, however kindly meant. My baby, my daughter, the child that was for me, had left this world before I had even got to know her. I cursed the man that brought sickness into this city.
“Can I see her?”
“You know that we must bury the dead before twelve hours have passed.”
“She is gone?”
“But I didn’t even get to say goodbye to her.” If I had had any water left in my body, I would have wept. Instead, my tear ducts stung with unwept promise. “Where is she buried?”
“The cholera pit.”
“Not in Holy Trinity?”
“Your Thomas wouldn’t allow it.”
“No. The rector, William Lund, said he’d make an exception seeing as how she was so small, but Thomas forbade it.”
“What did he say?”
“It makes no difference now.”
“What did he say, Ma?”
“He said that she had to go where all the other victims went, the depraved and sinful; into the pit where they belonged. He said she weren’t no child of his. Blue eyes, he said.”
Hearing those words, his words, worked faster and better than all the soothing words Ma might have found. My husband, and quite likely, Rebecca’s father as well, had condemned her for simply not having his colouring. I was the only Haxby to have fair hair but my pa didn’t see fit to send me away. Every woman knows a bairn is often born with blue eyes.
“Is the pit consecrated yet, Ma?”
“Not yet, Alice. It will be though. It will be soon. Everyone’s for it.”
“And Rebecca, was she- was she baptised?”
“Eliza made sure of that. Took both of them to Holy Trinity the moment you fell ill. Baptised in the sight of the Lord. You’ve no need to fear for her soul.”
“It’s not my soul I fear for. Now let me see Joseph.”
“I dare not, Alice. You’re still too weak, and, well, we think he can’t last much longer.”
“Then it makes no difference. Bring me Joseph, Ma.”
I held him until his little body cools and even then, I cradled him close and refused to let Ma take him from me. Another child gone; God was punishing me. He must have been, and I need not have looked too far for the cause.
I was everything my husband called me, and more. I only hoped now that the twins had been Samuel’s. Believing that, I could believe they had gone to a better place.
As the sun cruelly announced another day, despite the tragedy in this house, the city official knocked on the door and Eliza persuaded me to release Joseph. According to the laws first passed when the pestilence arrived, every victim had to be buried within twelve hours of death; they had to be buried at least one foot below the surface – an impossibility in most graveyards – and their bodies were not allowed inside a church.
Several months from the first sign of the disease, there were no burials in graveyards, all had to be transported to the cholera pit outside the city walls; all had to be buried in pitch-cloth and many feet below, before being covered in lime; all clothes of the victims had to be burned; and all houses of the victims fumigated and whitewashed.
I had nothing to remember my children by for Thomas had not even allowed a headstone to be placed. I had not seen him since the day he had declared our children bastards, although I had no real sense of how long ago that was; a week? Two?
I had no wish to see him, and yet, there was no other place for me. I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t return to the Tukes, and if I left the house, I would have been on the streets. I might even have ended up there if Thomas had thrown me out, yet to do so would have been to invite public scandal.
Ma returned to the Bedern the day Joseph was taken, but Eliza stayed with me, sleeping on a pallet at the foot of the bed until I was strong enough to walk. Still there was no sign of Thomas. Eliza told me he was drowning his sorrows. I didn’t doubt that but soon I had to face him. My chance came that night; the night that Eliza left for home.
The door to our bedroom slammed back against the wall and my husband staggered in, using the wall for support. The candle still burnt and I was lying in a clean nightdress on top of clean sheets, the room was freshly whitewashed and the smell of lime still lingered.
“There you are, wife.”
“Thomas,” I said.
“Better, I see.”
“As you see.” He stumbled against the bed and stopping only to remove his filthy boots, climbed beneath the covers.
“I am come to share your bed again, wife. As is my due. Maybe this time I can make sure the children you carry are mine this time. Slut.” He tried to roll over on to me, but with his vast bulk and hampered by the beer he had drunk, he ended up on his back, as impotent as an overturned beetle.
I looked at him with disgust. I had lost two children, and I was still sore and bandaged below from giving birth to them. I would not let him touch me, tonight, or any night. I was risking his highly developed sense of his own reputation against my self-respect. He would not throw me out; to be publicly pronounced a cuckold.
I didn’t doubt that he would try to make my life a misery, but what could he make me feel that I did not already feel? I would live under the same roof as this man, for I had no other choice, but I would be his wife in name alone.
“Come here,” he slurred.
“No, Thomas. I will not.”
“You dare disobey me? After all you have put me through?”
“I grieve for our children, husband.”
“Our children? Our children? They were the bastard offspring of some other man, and I’d have not raised them. It was God’s judgement that they died. Cholera is his punishment for the sick and depraved.”
“God’s punishment? He would not be so cruel.”
“No? If I’d been more fortunate, you would have died too. Whore that you are. But as you’re here, and you are my wife, I’ll take my pleasure of you.”
“Try, husband. Try to heave your fat drunken belly on top of mine. You’re a pathetic excuse for a man.”
“You’ll pay for that, bitch.”
“Perhaps, Thomas. But not tonight, I think. I bid you good night, sir.”
I couldn’t bear to share the same bed as him so I grabbed hold of the edge of one sheet and hauled it out from underneath him. The pallet was light and easy to lift, even so, by the time I reached the kitchen, I was sweating. I had not left my bed in weeks. I knew Thomas would make good on his threat. He would punish me in the morning for my behaviour. I prayed that he was too drunk to remember.
A sharp kick to my sides woke me. I saw that Thomas, far from forgetting the night before, was in a fouler mood than ever.
“Get up, wench.” He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me roughly to my feet. I saw Simon cowering the corner of the kitchen. “You dare to speak to me that way? Listen to me, and listen well. You are my wife. Wedded in church, blessed by a vicar and consummated in the eyes of God. And I will do with you as I see fit.
You will not leave this house without my permission. You will not receive visitors, not even your family. You will clean this house, you will cook my meals and you will submit to me in every way. I am not a man to be made a fool of. Disobey me and you will wish you had died along with your bastards. Do I make myself clear, Mistress Alice?”
Every other word was punctuated with a blow and after the first, which saw me crumple to the ground; I curled in a ball to avoid the worst.
“I have the keeping of you, and you will do exactly as I wish. If I want to fuck you over this table right now, it is my right. If I want to beat you within an inch of your life, it is my right. If I want to lock you in a room with only bread and water to teach you some respect, it is my right. Never forget that. Now get up, put some clothes on and make me some food.”
I limped upstairs, taking each step as slowly as I dared. My fresh shift was now covered in blood, but I had not a spare. I threw a dress over the top, rolled woollen stockings up my legs and laced my feet into shoes. My hair I pulled back from my face and fastened a neat cap in place. Already bruises were beginning to show on my cheeks and lip. But I deserved this. I knew I did, and the physical pain was almost a relief to block out my mental anguish.
The days blurred into one, and Thomas was as good as his word. Eliza was forbidden to visit me, and I, her. Simon was now sent out to pick up groceries and such, and I wondered what the shopkeepers must have thought of the arrangement. An apprentice selecting meat? Unheard of.
The quality proved this; tough cuts of meat, offal not fit for the table and gristle were all that filled the stew pot. Thomas beat me whenever I displeased him, which was regularly, and once again, I couldn’t bear to look Simon in the eyes. I was ashamed of what I had become.
One day, I slipped out and walked to the pit. It was a terrible sight. Although much lessened, the disease was still present and almost daily carts were brought to the place where bodies were wrapped in linen and thrown side by side with a priest to say a few words if you could find a few coins. Most couldn’t.
Mothers brought their children there to watch the spectacle. It was grotesque but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I wondered where Rebecca and Joseph were buried. The ground was still unconsecrated. I sent up prayers to a God I no longer believed in, but still felt rightfully punished by.
Thomas punished my absence with blows that no longer shocked me, and despite my vow to never lie with him again, a roughness in bed that I was almost become accustomed to. I couldn’t stop him from using me. It scared me that one could become accustomed to almost anything.
I had no future before me and Thomas never ceased to remind me of my past, yet, my senses were awakened one morning.
I realised that I had not bled that month. I crossed my fingers and waited a few more days, but still I did not bleed. When I had all the confirmation that I needed, I once again slipped from the house.
“Eliza, this child can only be Thomas’ and I will not carry it.”
“But Alice, you have no choice.”
“You know as well as I do that there is one.”
“But no! You’ll be condemning yourself.”
“My soul is already condemned. There’s no saving me. But I will not have his child.”
“Will you visit-”
“No. I’ll get some tansy or pennyroyal.” I added, “I’ll only visit her if I have to.”
“And then what?”
“And then I’ll wait.”
Neither tansy nor pennyroyal were hard to find. Pennyroyal oil is very dangerous, but the leaves, when boiled into a tisane, were said to be effective. I drank only one brew in the morning, but had enough left for more if the baby proved stubborn to come away.
With Thomas in the workshop, I was able to hide the vomiting well enough although I hoped that I had swallowed enough to work. The cramps came later in the day: vicious jabbing pains that were followed by blood; lots of it. I created wads of linen and was able to ward Thomas off that night with clear signs of bleeding.
The child remained inside all the next day but I still bled. I could feel myself becoming weaker, and if the bleeding didn’t stop soon, I would have to go for Eliza. Thankfully, on the morning of the third day, I felt something shift inside me, and with a stabbing pain that could only mean one thing, a bloody mess was released from within me.
This time, I had no desire to search the shape for any sense of a child, and besides, I believed I could only have been a few weeks pregnant. There would have been nothing to see. No child. Not yet. I wrapped it in linen, and threw the bundle on to the fire.
It was the smell that did it. Burning meat; rancid and vile. I sank to the floor. What had I done? I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. I cried not only for the bundle in the fire, but for Rebecca and Joseph; the first time that I had wept for them. I cried for myself too.
What had I been driven to? And who had driven me thus? My eyes alighted on the pennyroyal leaves and I reached to throw them, damning evidence, into the fire, but something stayed my hand.
It was Thomas’ fault that I had no gravesite to visit and mourn my children. It was his fault that I was reduced to this squalor. I loathed the man, more than I had ever thought possible. It took a moment to boil the pennyroyal until the leaves were soft before adding them to the stew downstairs. I had no wish for Simon to fall ill so I kept back some for him. I cared not if I succumbed. What had I to live for now? I was become a monster. I would go to hell for certain but it was no more than I deserved; as long as I could drag Thomas there too.
“Mutton stew, Thomas,” I said, ladling a good portion into his bowl. “Fresh bread too.” He tucked in with abandon, as I knew he would, as he always did. I barely managed a few mouthfuls. He had not been asleep an hour when the cramps wakened him. I was lying awake at his side.
“Ugh. Where’s the chamber pot, wife?” I got out of bed and placed it in front of him where he threw up copiously. I watched with satisfaction. My own cramps were no worse than I had expected, and it was not long before I too was vomiting into another bedpan. The whole chamber reeked of sickness.
I hurried to empty the pots, saying, “Let me get you some tea, husband. You must drink.” He fell back against the pillows without a murmur. Using the last of the pennyroyal, I brewed a tisane that I placed carefully into his hands. I had added peppermint to disguise the taste. “For your sickness,” I said. He emptied the cup.
“Now leave me alone, woman.” My cramps were lessened but it was easy to see that he was in some discomfort. I hugged my illicit knowledge to myself and smiled. The tisane worked its magic and much of the night was spent nursing Thomas as he simultaneously vomited and shit himself. A foul task at any other time, I was almost enjoying it. He was completely at my mercy. The morning came and his lips were parched, his skin pale, greenish, and covered with a sheen of sweat. I made sure Simon saw me empty the vomit and shit-filled pots outside. I sent him home. I supposed I ought to have sent for a doctor, and a concerned wife would have, but everyone knew my husband was a miserly type of man and doctors are expensive. He had certainly never bothered to send for one when the twins died.
Instead, I begged the assistance of one of our neighbours, Mrs Simpson: a nosy old cow. Together we rolled the weight of Thomas across the bed to change the soiled sheets beneath him. I shut the window and stoked up the fire while she made sure there was plenty of boiling water. We tried to draw the fever out with flannel patches on his forehead and mustard emetics, but to no avail. The pennyroyal had done its job.
When it became clear that Thomas was breathing his last, I asked Mrs Simpson for some time alone with my husband. Smiling sympathetically, she left the room.
“Thomas?” I whispered. “Thomas? Can you hear me?” I received only a mumble in return. “Thomas, you’re dying and I need to tell you some things before you go. Rebecca and Joseph, my twins, my babies, they were not yours. They were never yours. They were Samuel Tuke’s. And the whole city has been laughing at you. Publicly cuckolded. You were a laughing stock, Thomas. A fool.” I told him things I could only hope for, never truly know.
“And this sickness? This sickness that is going to take your life? It is of my doing. Pennyroyal. I gave it to you after I had aborted our baby with it. That’s right, Thomas, our child. I was pregnant. But I’ll not carry a child of yours.” His eyes fluttered as I spoke, but never fully opened, and as his last breath rattled in his chest, I leant closer and said, “See you in hell, Thomas.”