My eyes opened with a start and I moved up into a sitting position immediately. I was not entirely certain of what was going on, but my body and my mind were alert.
I looked around me. I was in a small room, painted entirely white, from the wooden floorboard to the plaster ceiling. It was a far cry from the cell I had occupied for the last few months. Tentatively I stretched my arms to see if shackles still bound them but they moved freely, coming to rest in front of me. There were still raw red marks on my wrists but they were clean.
In fact, my entire body was clean; both in look and smell. I was wearing a simple white linen shift, not of fine quality, but of good sturdy fabric with a ribbon that tied tightly at my neck. There was no mirror, but I put a hand to my head, which no longer felt as if it was crawling alive with lice. My hair was unmated and lay soft and smooth against my scalp, caught together at the nape of my neck by a tie of some sort.
I got up from the wooden bed, complete with thick woollen sheets and a soft horsehair mattress, and went over to the window. It was barred with iron, but I could still see out on to a green park where, in the distance, carriages passed. I thought I knew where I was: The Retreat.
I remembered the trial, piecing it together in my head. I remembered the twin relief and horror to look up, recognising a voice and seeing Samuel standing there, facing the judge, then to look down at myself, covered in grime, smelling of a pigsty and accused of murder. The shame of it made me wish the ground would open up and swallow me whole, and then, when the judge passed sentence – that I was to be taken to The Retreat and not to the gallows – it seemed as if the ground did open, and I remembered nothing more.
The force of the recollections caused me to sit down on the bed once more with a thump. I had escaped the gallows, despite killing my husband. It was painful to think of those nightmare days with him, but I was saved from doing so by a key in the door.
I drew the sheets over my legs to gain some sort of protection but let them fall when I saw the face that entered. Samuel.
He looked uncomfortable and awkward, and had yet to meet my eyes. I had to speak first.
“You must be feeling a little disorientated. You fainted after the judge passed sentence at your trial. What do you remember?”
Although I had crossed my legs leaving ample space on the bed, Samuel pulled a chair towards him and sat on that.
“What do I remember?” I asked, confused. This was not the Samuel I knew. I was wrong-footed; adrift.
“Yes, Mrs Smith. What do you remember of the trial?”
“I remember it all, Mr Tuke,” I said.
“So, you recall you stood accused of murdering your husband, and that you faced death?”
“I am aware of it, yes.”
“And that you have been brought here, under my protection, as you have been declared insane?”
“And you understand that you are to remain here for the rest of your days? That although you have been spared a death sentence, the law demands retribution for your crimes.”
“You will never leave this place, Mrs Smith.”
I was unable to take his coldness anymore, “Sam-” but I was interrupted when the door swung open once more.
“I see you were quite right in your assessment, Samuel,” said the man, who had entered. “She is perfectly calm but clearly not cognisant of her crimes. She could not have faced the noose.”
“Mrs Smith,” said Samuel. “This is Doctor Tucker. He will be overseeing your care.”
“Doctor Tucker,” I said.
“I hope you realise you’re a very lucky girl,” he replied, in a patronising tone. “Without Mr Tuke here vouching for your current state of mind, and your former excellent behaviour, you’d be waiting for the hangman right now.” I nodded; there seemed little I could have said. “Samuel, I shall see you later,” and with that, he swept from the room, leaving Samuel to shut the door quietly behind him.
“We will be alone now, for a few minutes,” he said. “Tell me, Alice, tell me the truth, did you kill your husband?”
“You know I did, Samuel.”
“But why, Alice? Why?”
“You vouched for me, you know why.”
“I know only what your family and the young apprentice told me. I must hear it from you.”
“My husband, Thomas, was a cruel man. He beat me, but that I could have borne; many men beat their wives. He was fat, he was old, he was smelly, and I was in love with you, Samuel. After I lost our child, I was heartbroken, but you helped to heal me once more.
“I will always remember those few hours fondly, but I became pregnant once more. I could not say in all honesty if the child was yours or his. Cholera was in the city, and I gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. But Thomas would not own them. And they died while I lay stricken with fever. He had them thrown into the common pit; their tiny bodies wrapped in linen, covered in pitch and lime and set on fire. Without my sister and Ma, they would not even have been baptised.
“He was an ungodly man, and I grew to hate him. Once I recovered, my life grew worse. I was a prisoner in the house, allowed no visitors and was there only to do Thomas’ bidding. When I became pregnant again, I knew it could only be his child but I wouldn’t have it. I couldn’t have it; do you understand Samuel? After everything that had happened, after everything that he had done, I would not have his child. And so, I took a tisane of tansy.”
“No, Samuel. Judge me if you must, but do not pity me. I deliberately tore that child away from my womb, and then, after, when I realised what I had done, what Thomas had brought me to, I knew that I could not live with him for a moment longer. There was some tansy left, and I cooked it into a stew. We both fell sick, but when I recovered, he died.”
“But why did you call for the constable?”
“Because I knew I had to atone for my sins. And I could not bear the thought of Thomas’ death to be judged as cholera and he to be buried in the same pit as my poor babies.” I stopped speaking and a silence fell between us.
Samuel took my hands in his. He turned them over, and ran a finger gently upon the marks made by the manacles. He lifted my wrists to his mouth, and placed a kiss on each, as light as a feather.
“Can you forgive me, Samuel?” I said, daring to break the silence.
“It is not for me to forgive you, Alice; that is for God alone.”
“I am not asking this of God, I am asking this of you.”
“You are the same woman that I loved from first setting eyes on you, you are the same woman that I loved when we lay in an embrace, and you are the same woman who carried my child. Alice Smith, I will love you until the end of time.”
He got up from the chair, sat on the bed, and pulled me, none too gently, into his arms. He grasped me tightly, and I cried: great big tears escaping from my eyes to be soaked up in the folds of his waistcoat and jacket. I was safe in his arms. Nothing, and no one, would ever hurt me again; of that, I was certain; not while I had Samuel’s protection.
Pulling back, he rained kisses on my mouth and I eagerly responded. When the initial hunger was sated, he gently eased himself away from me.
“I will always love you, Alice, but nothing has changed between us. I am married to Priscilla and I must honour that. This is my clinic, and there must be no hint of anything untoward between us. I would never forgive myself if anything jeopardised your future here. And although Doctor Tucker was listening earlier, I meant what I said. You will have to stay here for the rest of your life, and you will be determined insane, any decision otherwise will see you walk to the gallows after all. You are safe in here, but this is the only place I can guarantee that safety.”
“But how will I act? How will I live?”
“Have no fear. Your madness is not judged to be a raving sort but instead, a disturbance in your mind that has affected its growth. You are not judged to be responsible for your actions.”
“And I am to stay here? Locked in this room? Until I die?”
“You will only be kept in this room until you are deemed fit for the company of others. Doctor Tucker has seen you know, and I think it will only be a matter of days, perhaps a few weeks, until you are allowed to go about as many of our calmer patients are.”
“But what shall I do with myself?”
“I will bring you books, Alice. We can resume our lessons, if you would like.”
“I’d like that very much.”
“And you may have visitors, once a month.”
“So I may see Eliza and Ma?”
‘I’m not sure that they will want to see me.”
“You misjudge them, Alice. It was Eliza who came to me after your arrest.”
“But Eliza didn’t know you and I had been reunited.”
“It seems you had told her enough, and she is a clever girl, Alice. She knew.”
“You think they will wish to see me?”
“I have no doubt of it, my love. But now, I must leave you. There are other patients who require my time, and I cannot be accused of favouritism. At least, not just yet.” He pressed a kiss on my forehead. “I will return, Alice, with books and some writing paper. Do not despair.”
I was left with the whisper of his kiss and promise lingering in the air.
He was as good as his word and the following day he appeared with a stack of books in his arms: The Complete Works of Jane Austen. I did not recall these from his library so I thought he must have procured them specially.
“The books I bring you are monitored, Alice. These are deemed acceptable for a female mind. Ann Radcliffe is too volatile at present, although I am permitted to bring you a copy of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. I thought you might prefer these though. I believe you had spoken of Miss Austen before?”
“Yes, I have heard of her writing, but this will be the first time that I can read it for myself. I am truly grateful, Samuel.”
“I cannot stay and read with you today, Alice, but I am unfamiliar with Miss Austen’s novels so perhaps, you can tell me all about them on our next meeting?”
I devoured the novels hungrily and even when the time came for my door to remain unlocked, I spent the first few days on my bed reading. I was not ready to face others yet and with the door closed, no one, except the doctors, ventured in.
I was proving to be a model patient, or perhaps, inmate. Everyone knew that Samuel vouched for me, but that was not so unusual. He had stood witness in other trials, although not always successfully. He was universally known as a good man. His interest in me, as a former servant, was not remarked upon and I began to see a life of sorts for myself here.
When Eliza and Ma visited, plenty of tears were shed.
“Your father refuses to own you, Alice,” said Ma. I was not surprised, nor was I disappointed. We were never close, and it was he who sold me to the highest bidder, Thomas, even if it was my own faults that brought me to that position. “And I don’t think it’s right for your brothers and sisters to come visiting.”
“I understand, Ma. I really do. It’s you and Eliza I care about. That’s all.”
“He’s a good man, Mr Tuke.”
“He is, Ma.”
“He saved you.”
“Although I warned you often enough about gentlemen taking advantage, didn’t I?”
“You did, Ma, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for everything that has happened. What are people saying about me?”
“That you’re as crazy they come.”
Eliza interrupted, “They’re calling the ginnel where your house is Mad Alice Lane.”
“They’re not?!” I said, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.
“And Mad Alice, you’ll stay, if you have your wits about you.”
“Ma, that doesn’t make sense.”
“Don’t you sass me, my girl. You know what I mean.”
“I know. I know. So Mad Alice, eh? It has a certain ring to it,” and I smiled. “Does anyone mourn Thomas?”
“Not round those parts. Of course, everyone says what a wicked thing it was you did, and how you should be punished, but it was no secret the man he had become. And most people saw you lose your twins.”
“And what about the twins, and the burial pit?”
“Well, you know it’s consecrated now. There’s no more burials though. The sickness has gone, it seems. Praise God. But your Mr Tuke, he’s arranged for a headstone to be placed there.”
“Really? For the twins?”
“Not just for the twins. That’d set people talking more than they are now. It’s for all those lying in the pit, but we know, Alice, we know it’s for them. It’s a fine headstone, beautifully carved. It’d soothe your heart to see it.”
“Why didn’t he tell me himself?”
“Well now, happen he didn’t like to. Happen he thought we, your family, had the right to tell you.”
“I must thank him.”
“Aye, that you must, girl. It’s time for us to be going. I’ve left Hannah with the washing and Lord knows what state it’ll be in when we get home. You know what our Hannah is like, all fingers and thumbs. I tell you what, having a mad sister has brought her down a peg or two. And bloody, excuse me, a blooming good thing too; silly child. Eliza, come along now.”
Ma got up to leave, pausing briefly to pat my hand with hers. Eliza waited until she had left the room and pulled two books out from underneath her dress, one of my old ones from the Tukes.
“Here you go,” she said, and placed a copy of Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein in my hands. “I know these are your favourites.”
“Oh, Eliza. What would I do without you?”
“I think you’d find a way to get along quite nicely. You’re a survivor, Alice. Make sure it stays that way.” She kissed me on the cheek and left me feeling like the younger sister, not the elder. When had she grown up, this baby sister of mine?
Within months, I was even allowed to walk in the grounds. On a glorious spring morning, it seemed like a real gift to feel the grass beneath my feet – I had taken to walking barefoot everywhere. The one advantage of being thought mad was that, with care, one could do as one liked. The books that Samuel brought me have changed too; he also brought all the books he’d gifted me months before.
I was building up quite a library along the sill of my window and that brought me even more joy than being outside. Austen’s novels lay at the very left, with the rest following neatly alphabetised.
Pamela was brought, as promised, and was dismissed as pious drivel, but other, far more interesting books had made their way into my hands from both Samuel and Eliza who continued to secrete my former treasures on each visit.
Remarkably, Samuel had taken it upon himself to teach me French. The cause? A marvellous satire from Voltaire, entitled Candide. I must admit; it was slow work. I did not find it was easy as learning to read and write English, but Samuel was a patient teacher and it meant we could spend more time together.
His endeavours were approved by the board in the name of improving a sinful mind. In this way, hours passed by happily. His wife, Priscilla, sometimes came to the institution, to read to the less fortunate. She never visited me and for that I was heartily grateful. She could not be ignorant of who I was and how her husband had helped me. Whether she knew I once carried his child is one thing, but she certainly dismissed me for an inappropriate relationship with her husband.
The year I was brought to The Retreat she was pregnant once more, little Esther left to memory, and a son, Samuel Junior, was born. Samuel was overjoyed, and for a while, his visits decreased, but soon he returned to me.
While I might have harboured a desire to be the woman carrying his children, only a cruel person would have denied him his pleasure. Yet, he was careful not to share too much of this child with me, knowing that it had only been months since I had lost two of my own. It was still a raw wound to me. I no longer carried Rebecca and Joseph around with me. I had not since I first woke up in The Retreat, but they had not gone from me, and not a day went past that I did not think of them.
I thought that my life would have continued at this pace quite happily. It was a gentle life, in my white room with my shelf of books, and a garden below. Not a bad life at all. Lonely, at times, and sad too, but I had nothing to be displeased about.
Time passed slowly but easily: Eliza became engaged to the baker’s son. She shared her secrets with me monthly, and I cautioned her not to make the same mistakes as I did. She had learned that from me, at least. Visits from the doctors were regular but few. I was no longer considered a risk to anyone, but remained, resolutely insane.
I could now read Candide, in the French, without the aid of Samuel, although not without the aid of a dictionary, and Priscilla was once again pregnant, and it wouldn’t be long before the babe was due.
I awaited word of the birth. I could not help but live through the lives of the Tukes sometimes. I knew the family intimately. Yet when no word came for a week, and then two, and still no sign of Samuel either, I grew concerned.
I asked Doctor Tucker, and was informed that Mrs Tuke had indeed given birth, to another son, Daniel; and yet, no Samuel. I dared not draw more attention to myself than necessary. I wrote him a letter before screwing it up viciously and starting anew. On the fifth attempt, I was happy with my words, and labelled an envelope accordingly.
Yet the letter sat on the sill. Who had I to give it to? Only Ma and Eliza and they were not due for several weeks more. And Samuel. So I sat at the window, and I waited.
I counted the days. It was eighteen. The longest I had been without him since I arrived. Each hour seemed like an eternity. For almost the first time, I felt as if I might truly be insane. I stared at the white walls and patterns started to make appear. I stared longer, and harder, and soon whole scenes appeared before my eyes.
It was one morning, a few days later and far earlier than usual, when the door to my room burst open.
“She is dead, Alice.”