I didn’t start awake as I was already sitting on the hard wooden floorboard, staring at the wall that had been one of my few companions over the last few days. I got to my feet stiffly as Samuel flung himself at me.
“Who is dead, my love? The bairn? But I thought it as a boy.”
“It was; it is; he is. Daniel. But Priscilla; she is dead.”
“Childbed fever. It was a difficult birth, her twelfth. And now she is gone.”
I sat on the bed, in shock. Priscilla was dead, and Samuel was now a widower. I could not stop the unworthy thoughts creeping into my head.
I knew I had to always be there, in that place, but perhaps I could also be with him, as we once were. I pushed the thoughts away. Now was not the time. Now I was cradling the man that I loved, who was in pain. This was the man who saved me from a dreadful death; he deserved everything that I could give him, and more.
“Hush, my love,” I said. “Hush now.” From the state of his features, I imagined sleep had been avoiding him for several nights now.
He had never looked his age before, but there were bags beneath his eyes and a merciless hand had drawn wrinkles across his forehead. My heart ached for him. If I could have taken his pain, and make it mine, I would have done so.
Instead, I held him close and soon, I felt his breathing change. Pushing myself up from my elbows, I saw his eyes had fallen shut and sleep had taken over. I felt my own heartbeat rise. What was I to do?
Although my door was shut, it was not locked from within. Anyone could come in and see. How would I have explained Samuel Tuke, founder, trustee, and board member, asleep in my bed? It would have been to risk both of us. I forced myself to think clearly and calmly. There was no moving Samuel, and I had no wish to. Sleep was the best medicine for him, but I could not stay there in my shift, alone with him.
One of my two dresses was lying neatly on the chair in the corner, and I slipped into it, pulling the laces tight behind my back. Once I was respectfully clad, I came to a decision. Although it was early, I had no doubt that Doctor Tucker would be about somewhere, if only I could find him before someone stumbled upon Samuel.
His office was the hub of the institution and my first port of call. I knocked quietly on the door, and hearing ‘Come’ from within, I entered.
“Ah, Mrs Smith. You’re up early. What can I do for you?” he said, genially.
“Mr Tuke is here.”
“Samuel? Excellent. Where is he?”
“He’s in my room, sir.”
“Your room, Alice?”
“Yes, sir. That is, he rushed in not a moment ago. It’s his wife, sir. She is dead.”
Doctor Tucker sat back in his armchair with a heavy sigh. “Good grief. Priscilla Tuke dead? And the child?”
“Still living, sir.”
“Thank heavens for that. I’ll go to him now, Alice. And thank you, for being so discreet about this.”
I bobbed a little curtsy; years as a domestic don’t disappear overnight, and followed him from the room.
Over the years I had been at the asylum, Doctor Tucker and I had developed respect for each other, Samuel had seen to that. A friend of Samuel’s, as well as colleague, I thought that perhaps he saw more than most in my being there, and I thought that that, at first, explained his hostility to me. Samuel’s conduct, after all, went against everything that he had stood for, and as a Quaker, Doctor Tucker couldn’t countenance his behaviour.
I thought, seeing Samuel laugh with me as we struggled over a passage in French, or stroll in the garden an arm’s width apart, that he had seen the joy that we brought to each other, and slowly, little by little, his attitude to me had softened.
I thought that I could trust him. I hoped that I could trust him. If not, I was undone, and my life may have been forfeit.
He had walked swiftly to my room, and Samuel was there, as I had left him not moments before, lying on top of the sheets, his eyes closed and his breathing deep.
“He was exhausted. Sleep seemed like the best thing.”
“You were right, Alice. We shall leave him be, for the present,” and he gently shut the door, ushering me before him.
When Samuel awoke several hours later, I was sitting by the bed with two glasses, one of cool water and one of fresh milk placed carefully on the windowsill. He nodded to the water and I passed the glass over.
“Alice,” he said, after he has drunk deeply, “I must apologise for my outburst.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” I said. “You suffered a great shock. It was right for you to come here.”
“I must explain myself to Doctor Tucker.”
“There is nothing to explain. I told him all.”
He sank back into the pillow, “What must he think of me? Of us? I should not have rushed to you.”
“Doctor Tucker is a good man. I do not think he thinks ill of you, Samuel. He was concerned for his friend, that is all.”
“I must go now, and return to the children. There is much to arrange at home.”
I bowed my head. Despite worrying for him, I had enjoyed these last few hours when he had once more seemed mine, and mine alone; even if only in sleep.
“I wish I could help you, but I know I cannot.”
“You help me by being here, Alice. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
He left me disappointed. By what? Perhaps, as after the death of poor Esther, I had hoped that I could temper his grief in coming together. But the death of a wife is a different thing to that of a child.
It would have been too soon, and disrespectful of his loss. I tried to console myself. I knew there was no future for us, but still I hoped; how I hoped. But was I not disappointed long. He came to me. After the funeral: quiet and modest as a Quaker funeral should be. Clad in his plainest and most sombre clothes, Samuel came to me in The Retreat.
He took me in his arms, and he let out a great shuddering sigh as he entered me. It was a joy to be together again, as we rocked against each other with muffled moans and groans. When he was spent, he laid his head on my breast, and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep, as peaceful as a child, and I held him tight.
Our days resumed their usual routine after Priscilla’s passing. Samuel visited more frequently perhaps, and more and more books were finding their way into my room. One day, he arrived with a small bookcase which he slotted into one corner; the next a beautiful green plant in a simple clay pot; the following, a book of illustrations of York, and so, slowly, day-by-day, my room became a home, and a refuge for us both.
No one disturbed us there, not even Doctor Tucker. I found that I was given more responsibility around the clinic. I helped bathe and dress some of the patients, accompanied others in their walks around the grounds, and aided the nurses with the most basic of their tasks.
I was becoming useful once more, and my life was gaining a purpose. I might have been Mad Alice to the outside world, but here, in The Retreat, I was simply Alice.
No one called me Mrs Smith any more, for which I was immensely grateful. Ma and Eliza continued to visit, and they could not help but observe Samuel when he too paid a call. Ma was tongue-tied in front of him, her usual acerbic words replaced by a muteness caused by gratitude, but Eliza chattered away, yet it was Ma who first commented, “Alice, I do declare you’re looking positively plump, child.”
I smiled, “Yes. I think you might be right, Ma. It’s all the good food and fresh air.”
“And perhaps happiness?” said Eliza.
“Oh, yes, that definitely!”
“If happiness put meat on bones then there’d be a great deal of obese rich people.”
“Which there are, Ma.”
“You know what I mean, girl. Come here,” and she took my face in her hands, turning it from left to right. “Your old looks are almost returned. It’s almost as if…but no.” She pulled my chin back sharply to the centre. “You’re not, girl, are you?”
“Yes,” I said, defiantly. “I think I am.”
“You foolish, girl. Not again! Did you not learn anything from the first time?”
“But it’s different now, Ma!” I protested.
“He’s a widower now.”
“Aye, that he may be, but you’re not his wife-to-be, nor will you ever be. You’re a convicted murderess, Alice. You’re confined to this place for the rest of your days. What life could a child have here?”
“I would make a life for it, a good life.”
“It will be loved and cared for.”
“It will be a bastard.”
“It will not. It will be mine and Samuel’s child.”
“It won’t carry the Tuke name, I reckon.”
“Perhaps not, Ma, but it won’t be a bastard either.”
“Hmmm, we’ll see about that.”
“Samuel is pleased, Ma. He says that no one shall interfere here, under his jurisdiction. I am quite safe, and so is the child.”
“Are you quite sure, Alice?” asked Eliza.
“In which case, there is nothing to be done now anyway except pray for a healthy pregnancy and a good birth. Isn’t that so, Ma?” I clasped my sister’s hand gratefully. She had become my protector. “When is the child due, Alice?”
“Six months or so, I believe,” and I laid a hand on my stomach tenderly.
“And what will you do once the child arrives?”
“It is to stay here, with me. It is not unknown for children to be born here. Insane women get themselves into all sorts of fixes.” Ma snorted. “The child can stay here for few years at least, and then, well, I trust Samuel to do what is right.”
“You love him?”
“With all my heart.”
“And he loves you?”
“I have no doubt.”
“Then you have found some happiness at last.”
“I- I think I have, finally,” I said, and smile at her and Ma, who reluctantly returned it. We sat, three women, in my whitewashed room with sunlight streaming through the windows and the sound of laughter below, and held hands together.
God granted me an easy birth and a healthy son. I no longer thought he wished to punish me. James Samuel, we called our son. He was as blue-eyed and fair-haired as his siblings had been, and as sweet natured as his father.
A crib took its place next to the bookcase, and I sat beside it, spending hours in silent contemplation of this miracle. He was perfect. Ten perfect tiny toes; ten exquisite tiny fingers, soft eyes that stare trustingly, a pink mouth that crinkled delightfully and hair that smelt so delicious I could have carried him around like a pomander.
James was no secret in the clinic; indeed, he was fast becoming a favourite plaything of those I knew I could trust, and proving as good as any therapy. Women pressed him to their chests, while the men dandled him on their knees as he gurgled happily. I was well contented.
“How are you today, my fair Alice?” said Samuel, pausing to land a kiss on the top of my head and leaning over to take James from my arms. “And how fares my handsome son? Growing up fast, I see. Big and strong.”
“Big and strong, like his father,” I said.
“Better he be kind and good.”
“He’s that too. Can’t you see? He’s all things good.”
“A miracle child, is it that we have, Alice?”
“Aye. A miracle child,” and the three of us came together, united by blood.
When the time came to send James Samuel away to school, and it came all too soon, I felt as if my heart could not bear it. Only the thought that it was best for him stopped me from clinging to him. Samuel had chosen an excellent school that would provide the very best grounding, then, when he was old enough, he would move back here to York and attend the school that Samuel and his family had established for Quaker boys.
For many hours we had sat and discussed our son’s future. It was impossible for him to be known as James Samuel Tuke, nor Smith, nor Haxby. Instead, after investing Doctor Tucker with his godparentship, he became James Samuel Tucker.
He had lived a queer life for the first six years; he was universally adored and had hardly a hard word from anyone, and yet, he had been brought up in a mental asylum. He knew that I was his mother, I would not have it any other way, but Samuel was not his father. Instead, he was his guardian, as Doctor Tucker.
We wanted him to feel no shame for himself. He believed merely that I worked at The Retreat, and indeed, those last few years had seemed like that. I was certainly no ordinary inmate. I thought that people had forgotten about me outside of these walls, and I knew that that is for the best.
Eliza brought me tales from Bedern and beyond. Already my name had become myth – Mad Alice – with the truth behind it long since abandoned. Some even say I was hanged, she told me; others that I still haunt the streets after nightfall.
I had become a ghost in this, the most haunted of cities. It was a relief to hear. If I am a ghost, I am no harm to anyone, and have nothing to fear.
The day that James Samuel left, I hugged him tightly. Samuel had had him outfitted in the finest clothes, suitable for a young gentleman; indeed, he was going to the same school as several of Samuel’s Tuke sons. I hoped they would make happy playmates. I held back the tears in my eyes, and smiled as best I could.
“Goodbye, Mama,” he said, solemnly.
“Goodbye, my darling. You be a good boy and learn your lessons.”
“And I will see you again soon.”
“Give Mama a kiss.” A sloppy kiss was planted on my cheek, but the horse and carriage that had drawn up outside the building had already taken my son’s attention.
He was itching with excitement. “Off you go, then,” I said, and sent him on his way with a pat on the behind. Samuel was there to help him into the carriage and a servant put the heavy trunk aloft.
With a flick of the whip, the carriage started forward and I stood there, by the iron railings, watching them get smaller and smaller until they were no more. Still I stood there, until Doctor Tucker came out, and taking me by the arm, led me inside and to tea.
“I shall miss him so much,” I said.
“I’m sure you will, Alice.”
“What am I to do with myself?”
“Yes, here. What shall I do with my time?”
“Why, you shall continue helping me as you have been. You are an excellent helper, Alice; a proper little nurse and I have become quite reliant on you.”
“Yes, but when those duties are done, what shall I do?”
“You shall read, Alice, and walk in the gardens. You will visit with Samuel, and life will continue as it did before you were blessed with James Samuel.”
“Yes, I suppose it shall, but, oh, the days shall seem so long.”
“What would you like to do?”
“Me? Like to do? I- I hardly know. It’s not a question I get asked often,” I said.
“I’m asking you now; what would you like to do?”
“Well, I like to help you, and I like to read my books, and I like to spend time with Samuel, of course.”
“Of course. And what else?”
“I enjoy my lessons with Samuel. I enjoy learning new things, and, well-”
“I enjoy writing.”
“Do you indeed?”
“Yes. I have often joked to Samuel that apart from training as a doctor, being a writer is as great an ambition as I could wish for. Of course, that is all nonsense. I can never be a writer, for, living here, I suppose I am not really alive.”
“Not really alive? How so?”
“I ought to have hanged for my crimes, you know.”
“I know that.”
“So, to be here, insane, I am not really alive, am I?”
“I beg to differ, Alice. As would your son, and Samuel; you’re very much alive.”
“But I can’t write, can I? I mean, not anything that anyone would read.”
“I agree it would not do to draw attention to yourself but there are ways to get published under another name; it is called a nom du plume.”
“A nom du plume?”
“Yes, and until then, you can write regardless.”
“But what would I write about?”
“My dear Alice, you can write about anything you like; the world is your oyster. Write about your hopes and dreams, write about your son, and write about your life.”
“Anything I like?”
“Anything you like.”
“Would people want to read it?”
“It matters not. What matters is, do you want to write it?”
I smoothed a piece of startling white paper in front of me, and dipped the quill into the inkpot. Samuel was sitting behind me in the little morning room where patients sometimes received visitors. He was ensconced in a comfortable armchair, a book in his hands and his head had fallen on to his chest, which rose and fell gently with each breath. It might have almost been a happy family scene from a painting. I stood up, and knelt beside him, placing the book on one armrest, and taking his hands into mine, gently stroked them. He roused, looked down, and smiled at me.
“My dearest girl, whatever are you doing down there?”
“I was just thinking how happy I am, how blessed. We have made a life here, haven’t we?”
“We have indeed.”
“And you are happy, Samuel?”
“You make me the happiest man in the world.”
“We’ll always have each other.”
“Forever, my darling. Now, can’t a man get some shut eye without someone disturbing him?”
“I love you,” I said.
“And I love you too,” he said, rather gruffly and he shuffled position in his chair. He folded his hands across his chest and within minutes, his head was once more nodding to the rhythm of his deep peaceful breathing.
I tiptoed back to the desk, and looked at the blank paper. I had written before; Samuel had taught me all those years before, and yet, this was quite foreign to me; a vast expanse for me to fill as I liked. I put the nib firmly on the sheet, and began:
“At 19, I was considered old to be entering service for the first time…”