The start, I think I know too well. It is the first of my mistakes.
I imagine a table, slick with blood. The blood is my mother’s. There is too much of it. There is so much of it, I think it runs, like ink. I think, to save the boards beneath, the women have set down china bowls; and so the silences between my mother’s cries are filled—drip drop! drip drop!—with what might be the staggered beating of clocks. Beyond the beat come other, fainter cries: the shrieks of lunatics, the shouts and scolds of nurses. For this is a madhouse. My mother is mad. The table has straps upon it to keep her from plunging to the floor; another strap separates her jaws, to prevent the biting of her tongue; another keeps apart her legs, so that I might emerge from between them. When I am born, the straps remain: the women fear she will tear me in two! They put me upon her bosom and my mouth finds out her breast. I suck, and the
house falls silent about me. There is only, still, that falling blood— drip drop! drip, drop!—the beat telling off the first few minutes of my life, the last of hers. For soon, the clocks run slow. My mother’s bosom rises, falls, rises again; then sinks for ever.
I feel it, and suck harder. Then the women pluck me from her. And when I weep, they hit me.
I pass my first ten years a daughter to the nurses of the house. I believe they love me. There is a tabby cat upon the wards, and I think they keep me, rather as they keep that cat, a thing to pet and dress with ribbons. I wear a slate-grey gown cut like their own, an apron and a cap; they give me a belt with a ring of miniature keys upon it, and call me ‘little nurse’. I sleep with each of them in turn, in their own beds, and follow them in their duties upon the madhouse wards. The house is a large one—seems larger to me, I suppose—and divided in two: one side for female lunatics, one side for male. I see only the female. I never mind them. Some of them kiss and pet me, as the nurses do. Some of them touch my hair and weep. I remind them of their daughters. Others are troublesome, and these I am encouraged to stand before and strike with a wooden wand, cut to my hand, until the nurses laugh and say they never saw anything so droll.
Thus I learn the rudiments of discipline and order; and incidentally apprehend the attitudes of insanity. This will all prove useful, later.
When I am old enough to reason I am given a gold ring said to be my father’s, the portrait of a lady called my mother, and understand I am an orphan; but, never having known a parent’s love—or rather, having known the favours of a score of mothers—I am not greatly troubled by the news. I think the nurses clothe and feed me, for my own sake. I am a plain-faced child but, in that childless world, pass for a beauty. I have a sweet singing voice and an eye for letters. I I suppose I shall live out all my days a nurse, contentedly teasing lunatics until I die.
So we believe, at nine and ten. Some time in my eleventh year, I am summoned to the nurses’ parlour by the matron of the house. I imagine she means to make me some treat. I am wrong. Instead, she
greets me strangely, and will not meet my eye. There is a person with her—a gentleman, she says—but then, the word means little to me. It will mean more, in time. ‘Step closer,’ the matron says. The gentleman watches. He wears a suit of black, and a pair of black silk gloves. He holds a cane with an ivory knob, upon which he leans, the better to study me. His hair is black tending to white, his cheek cadaverous, his eyes imperfectly hidden by a pair of coloured glasses. An ordinary child might shrink from gazing at him; but I know nothing of ordinary children, and am afraid of no-one. I walk until I stand before him. He parts his lips, to pass his tongue across them. His tongue is dark at the tip.
‘She’s undersize,’ he says; ‘but makes enough noise with her feet, for all that. How’s her voice?’
His own voice is low, tremulous, complaining, like the shadow of a shivering man.
‘Say a word to the gentleman,’ says the matron quietly. ‘Say how you are.’
‘I am very well,’ I say. Perhaps I speak stoutly. The gentleman winces.
‘That will do,’ he says, raising his hand. Then: ‘I hope you can whisper? I hope you can nod?’
I nod. ‘Oh yes.’
‘I hope you can be silent?’
‘Be silent, then.—That’s better.’ He turns to the matron. ‘I see she wears her mother’s likeness. Very good. It will remind her of her mother’s fate, and may serve to keep her from sharing it. I don’t care at all for her lip, however. It is too plump. It has a bad promise. Likewise her back, which is soft, and slouches. And what of her leg? I shan’t want a thick-legged girl. Why do you hide her leg behind so long a skirt? Did I ask for that?’
The matron colours. ‘It has been a harmless sport of the women, sir, to keep her dressed in the costume of the house.’
‘Have I paid you, to provide sport for nurses?’
He moves his stick upon the rug, and works his jaws. He turns again to me, but speaks to her. He says, ‘How well does she read?
How fair is her hand? Come, give her a piece of text and let her demonstrate.’
The matron hands me an open Bible. I read a passage from it, and again the gentleman winces. ‘Softly!’ he says, until I speak it in a murmur. Then he has me write the passage out while he looks on.
‘A girl’s hand,’ he says, when I have finished, ‘and burdened with serifs.’ But he sounds pleased, nonetheless.
I am also pleased. I understand from his words that I have marked the paper with the marks of angels. Later I will wish that I had scrawled and blotted the page. The fair characters are my undoing. The gentleman leans harder upon his stick and tilts his head so low I can see, above the wire of his spectacles, the bloodless rims of his eyes.
‘Well, miss,’ he says, ‘how should you like to come and live in my house? Don’t push your pert lip at me, mind! How should you like to come to me, and learn neat ways and plain letters?’
He might have struck me. ‘I should like it not at all,’ I say at once.
The matron says, ‘For shame, Maud!’
The gentleman snorts. ‘Perhaps,’ he says, ‘she has her mother’s unlucky temper after all. She has her dainty foot, at least. So you like to stamp, miss? Well, my house is a large one. We shall find a room for you to stamp in, far away from my fine ears; and you may work yourself into fits there, no-one shall mind you; and perhaps we shall mind you so little we shall forget to feed you, and then you shall die. How should you like that—hmm?’
He rises and dusts down his coat, that has no dust upon it. He gives some instruction to the matron and does not look at me again. When he has gone, I take up the Bible I have read from and throw it to the floor.
‘I will not go!’ I cry. ‘He shall not make me!’
The matron draws me to her. I have seen her take a whip to fractious lunatics, but now she clutches me to her apron and weeps like a girl, and tells me gravely what my future is to be, in the house of my uncle.
Some men have farmers raise them veal-calves. My mother’s brother has had the house of nurses raise him me. Now he means to
take me home and make me ready for the roast. All at once, I must give up my little madhouse gown, my ring of keys, my wand: he sends his housekeeper with a suit of clothes, to dress me to his fancy. She brings me boots, wool gloves, a gown of buff—a hateful, girlish gown, cut to the calf, and stiffened from the shoulder to the waist with ribs of bone. She pulls the laces tight and, at my complaints, pulls them tighter. The nurses watch her, sighing. When it comes time for her to take me, they kiss me and hide their eyes. Then one of them quickly puts a pair of scissors to my head, to take a curl of hair to keep inside a locket; and, the others seeing her do that, they seize the shears from her, or take up knives and scissors of their own, and pluck and grasp at me until my hair tears at the root. They reach and squabble over the falling tresses like gulls— their voices rousing the lunatics in their own close rooms, making them shriek. My uncle’s servant hurries me from them. She has a carriage with a driver. The madhouse gate shuts hard behind us.
‘What a place to raise a girl in!’ she says, passing a handkerchief across her lip.
I will not speak to her. My strait gown cuts me and makes my breath come quick, and my boots chafe at my ankles. My wool gloves prickle—at last I tear them from my hands. She watches me do it, complacently. ‘Got a temper, have you?’ she says. She has a basket of knitting and a parcel of food. There are bread rolls, a packet of salt and three white eggs, boiled hard. She rolls two of the eggs across her skirt, to break their shells. The flesh inside is grey, the yolk as dry as powder. I will remember the scent of it. The third egg she places on my lap. I will not eat it, but let it jerk there until it falls upon the carriage floor and is spoiled. ‘Tut tut,’ she says at that. She takes out her knitting, then her head droops and she sleeps. I sit beside her, stiff, in a miserable rage. The horse goes slowly, the journey seems long. Sometimes we pass through trees. Then my face shows in the window-glass, dark as blood.
I have seen no house but the madhouse I was born in. I am used to grimness and solitude, high walls and shuttered windows. It is the stillness of my uncle’s house that bewilders and frightens me, that first day. The carriage stops at a door, split down the middle
into two high, bulging leaves: as we watch, they are tugged from within and seem to tremble. The man who opens them is dressed in dark silk breeches and what I take to be a powdered hat. ‘That’s Mr Way, your uncle’s steward,’ says the woman, her face beside mine. Mr Way observes me, then looks at her; I think she must make some gesture with her eyes. The driver puts the steps down for us, but I will not let him take my hand; and when Mr Way makes me a bow, I think he does it to tease—for I have many times seen nurses curtsey, laughing, to lady lunatics. He shows me past him, into a darkness that seems to lap at my buff gown. When he closes the door, the dark at once grows deeper. My ears feel full, as if with water or with wax. That is the silence, that my uncle cultivates in his house, as other men grow vines and flowering creepers.
The woman takes me up a staircase while Mr Way looks on. The stairs are not quite even, and the rug is sometimes torn: my new boots make me clumsy, and once I fall. ‘Come up, child,’ says the woman when I do that; and now when she puts her hand upon me, I let it stay there. We climb two flights. I grow more frightened, the higher we go. For the house seems awful to me—the ceilings high, the walls not like the smooth undecorated walls of the madhouse, but filled with portraits, shields and rusting blades, creatures in frames and cases. The staircase turns upon itself, to make a gallery about the hall; at every turning there are passages. In the shadows of these, pale and half-hidden—like expectant grubs, in the cells of a hive—there stand servants, come to see me make my progress through the house.
I do not know them for servants, however. I see their aprons and suppose them nurses. I think the shadowy passages must hold rooms, with quiet lunatics.
‘Why do they watch?’ I say to the woman.
‘Why, to see your face,’ she answers. ‘To see if you turned out handsome as your mother.’
‘I have twenty mothers,’ I say at that; ‘and am handsomer than any of them.’
The woman has stopped before a door. ‘Handsome is as hand-
some does,’ she says. ‘I mean your proper mother, that died. These were her rooms, and are now to be yours.’
She takes me into the chamber beyond, and then into the dressing-room that joins it. The windows rattle as if battered by fists. They are chill rooms even in summer, and it is winter now. I go to the little fire—I am too small to see my face in the glass above—and stand and shiver.
‘Should have kept your mittens,’ says the woman, seeing me breathe upon my hands. ‘Mr Inker’s daughter shall have those.’ She takes my cloak from me, then draws the ribbons from my hair and brushes it with a broken comb. ‘Tug all you like,’ she says as I pull away. ‘It shall only hurt you, it shan’t harm me. Why, what a business those women made of your head! Anyone would have supposed them savages. How I’m to see you neat, after their work, I can’t say. Now, look here.’ She reaches beneath the bed. ‘Let’s see you use your chamber-pot. Come along, no foolish modesty. Do you think I never saw a little girl lift up her skirts and piddle?’
She folds her arms and watches me, and then she wets a cloth with water and washes my face and hands.
‘I saw them do this for your mother, when I was parlourmaid here,’ she says, pulling me about. ‘She was a deal gratefuller than you are. Didn’t they teach you manners, in that house of yours?’
I long for my little wooden wand: I would show her all I’d learned of manners, then! But I have observed lunatics, too, and know how to struggle while only seeming to stand limp. At length she steps from me and wipes her hands.
‘Lord, what a child! I hope your uncle knows his business, bringing you here. He seems to think he’ll make a lady of you.’
‘I don’t want to be a lady!’ I say. ‘My uncle cannot make me.’
‘I should say he can do what he likes, in his own house,’ she answers. ‘There now! How late you’ve made us.’
There has come the stifled ringing of a bell, three times. It is a clock; I understand it, however, as a signal to the house, for I have been raised to the sound of similar bells, that told the lunatics to rise, to dress, to say their prayers, to take their dinners. I think,
Now I shall see them!, but when we go from the room the house is still and quiet as before. Even the watchful servants have retired. Again my boots catch on the carpets. ‘Walk softly!’ says the woman in a whisper, pinching my arm. ‘Here’s your uncle’s room, look.’
She knocks, then takes me in. He has had paint put on the windows years before, and the winter sun striking the glass, the room is lit strangely. The walls are dark with the spines of books. I think them a kind of frieze or carving. I know only two books, and one is black and creased about the spine—that is the Bible. The other is a book of hymns thought suitable for the demented; and that is pink. I suppose all printed words to be true ones.
The woman sets me very near the door and stands at my back, her hands like claws upon my shoulders. The man they have called my uncle rises from behind his desk; its surface is hidden by a mess of papers. Upon his head is a velvet cap with a swinging tassel on a fraying thread. Before his eyes is another, paler, pair of coloured glasses.
‘So, miss,’ he says, stepping towards me, moving his jaw. The woman makes a curtsey. ‘How is her temper, Mrs Stiles?’ he asks her.
‘Rather ill, sir.’
‘I can see it, in her eye. Where are her gloves?’
‘Threw them aside, sir. Wouldn’t have them.’
My uncle comes close. ‘An unhappy beginning. Give me your hand, Maud.’
I will not give it. The woman catches my arm about the wrist and lifts it. My hand is small, and plump at the knuckles. I am used to washing with madhouse soap, which is not kind. My nails are dark, with madhouse dirt. My uncle holds my finger-ends. His own hand has a smear or two of ink upon it. He shakes his head.
‘Now, did I want a set of coarse fingers upon my books,’ he says, ‘I should have had Mrs Stiles bring me a nurse. I should not have given her a pair of gloves, to make those coarse hands softer. Your hands I shall have soft, however. See here, how we make children’s hands soft, that are kept out of their gloves.’ He puts his own hand to the pocket of his coat, and uncoils from it—one of those things,
that bookmen use—a line of metal beads, bound tight with silk, for keeping down springing pages. He makes a loop of it, seeming to weigh it; then he brings it smartly down upon my dimpling knuckles. Then, with Mrs Stiles’s assistance, he takes my other hand and does the same to that.
The beads sting like a whip; but the silk keeps the flesh from breaking. At the first blow I yelp, like a dog—in pain, in rage and sheer astonishment. Then, Mrs Stiles releasing my wrists, I put my fingers to my mouth and begin to weep.
My uncle winces at the sound. He returns the beads to his pocket and his hands flutter towards his ears.
‘Keep silence, girl!’ he says. I shake and cannot. Mrs Stiles pinches the flesh of my shoulder, and that makes me cry harder. Then my uncle draws forth the beads again; and at last I grow still.
‘Well,’ he says quietly. ‘You shan’t forget the gloves in future, hmm?’
I shake my head. He almost smiles. He looks at Mrs Stiles. ‘You’ll keep my niece mindful of her new duties? I want her made quite tame. I can’t have storms and tantrums, here. Very well.’ He waves his hand. ‘Now, leave her with me. Don’t stray too far, mind! You must be in reach of her, should she grow wild.’
Mrs Stiles makes a curtsey and—under cover of plucking my trembling shoulder as if to keep it from falling into a slouch—gives me another pinch. The yellow window grows bright, then dim, then bright again, as the wind sends clouds across the sun.
‘Now,’ says my uncle, when the housekeeper has gone. ‘You know, do you not, why I have brought you here.’
I put my crimson fingers to my face, to wipe my nose.
‘To make a lady of me.’
He gives a quick, dry laugh.
‘To make a secretary of you. What do you see here, all about these walls?’
‘Books, girl,’ he says. He goes and draws one from its place and turns it. The cover is black, by which I recognise it as a Bible. The others, I deduce, hold hymns. I suppose that hymn-books, after all,
might be bound in different hues, perhaps as suiting different qualities of madness. I feel this, as a great advance in thought.
My uncle keeps the book in his hand, close to his breast, and taps its spine.
‘Do you see this title, girl?—Don’t take a step! I asked you to read, not to prance.’
But the book is too far from me. I shake my head, and feel my tears return.
‘Ha!’ cries my uncle, seeing my distress. ‘I should say you can’t! Look down, miss, at the floor. Down! Further! Do you see that hand, beside your shoe? That hand was set there at my word, after consultation with an oculist—an eye-doctor. These are uncommon books, Miss Maud, and not for ordinary gazes. Let me see you step once past that pointing finger, and I shall use you as I would a servant of the house, caught doing the same—I shall whip your eyes until they bleed. That hand marks the bounds of innocence here. Cross it you shall, in time; but at my word, and when you are ready. You understand me, hmm?’
I do not. How could I? But I am already grown cautious, and nod as if I do. He puts the book back in its place, lingering a moment over the-aligning of the spine upon the shelf.
The spine is a fine one, and—I will know it well, in time—a favourite of his. The title is—
But now I run ahead of my own innocence; which is vouchsafed to me a little while yet.
After my uncle has spoken he seems to forget me. I stand for another quarter-hour before he lifts his head and catches sight of me, and waves me from the room. I struggle a moment with the iron handle of his door, making him wince against the grinding of the lever; and when I close it, Mrs Stiles darts from the gloom to lead me back upstairs. ‘I suppose you’re hungry,’ she says, as we walk. ‘Little girls always are. I should say you’d be grateful for a white egg now.’
I am hungry, but will not admit to it. But she rings for a girl to come, and the girl brings a biscuit and a glass of sweet red wine. She sets them down before me, and smiles; and the smile is harder to
bear, somehow, than a slap would have been. I am afraid I will weep again. But I swallow my tears with my dry biscuit, and the girl and Mrs Stiles stand together, whispering and watching. Then they leave me quite alone. The room grows dark. I lie upon the sofa with my head upon a cushion, and pull my own little cloak over myself, with my own little whipped, red hands. The wine makes me sleep. When I wake again, I wake to shifting shadows, and to Mrs Stiles at the door, bringing a lamp. I wake with a terrible fear, and a sense of many hours having passed. I think the bell has recently tolled. I believe it is seven or eight o’clock.
I say, ‘I should like, if you please, to be taken home now.’
Mrs Stiles laughs. ‘Do you mean to that house, with those rough women? What a plaqe to call your home!’
‘I should think they miss me.’
‘I should say they are glad to be rid of you—the nasty, pale-faced little thing that you are. Come here. It’s your bed-time.’ She has pulled me from the sofa, and begins to unlace my gown. I tug away from her, and strike her. She catches my arm and gives it a twist.
I say, ‘You’ve no right to hurt me! You’re nothing to me! I want my mothers, that love me!’
‘Here’s your mother,’ she says, plucking at the portrait at my throat. ‘That’s all the mother you’ll have here. Be grateful you have that, to know her face by. Now, stand and be steady. You must wear this, to give you the figure of a lady.’
She has taken the stiff buff dress from me, and all the linen beneath. Now she laces me tight in a girlish corset that grips me harder than the gown. Over this she puts a nightdress. On to my hands she pulls a pair of white skin gloves, which she stitches at the wrists. Only my feet remain bare. I fall upon the sofa and kick them. She catches me up and shakes me, then holds me still.
‘See here,’ she says, her face crimson and white, her breath coming hard upon my cheek. ‘I had a little daughter once, that died. She had a fine black head of curling hair and a temper like a lamb’s. Why dark-haired, gentle-tempered children should be made to die, and peevish pale girls like you to thrive, I cannot say. Why
your mother, with all her fortune, should have turned out trash and perished, while I must live to keep your fingers smooth and see you grow into a lady, is a puzzle. Weep all the artful tears you like. You shall never make my hard heart the softer.’
She catches me up and takes me to the dressing-room, makes me climb into the great, high, dusty bed, then lets down the curtains. There is a door beside the chimney-breast: she tells me it leads to another chamber, and a bad-tempered girl sleeps there. The girl will listen in the night, and if I am anything but still and good and quiet, she will hear; and her hand is very hard.
‘Say your prayers,’ she says, ‘and ask Our Father to forgive you.’
Then she takes up the lamp and leaves, and I am plunged in an awful darkness.
I think it a terrible thing to do to a child; I think it terrible, even now. I lie, in an agony of misery and fear, straining my ears against the silence—wide awake, sick, hungry, cold, alone, in a dark so deep the shifting black of my own eye-lids seems the brighter. My corset holds me like a fist. My knuckles, tugged into their stiff skin gloves, are starting out in bruises. Now and then the great clock shifts its gears, and chimes; and I draw what comfort I can from my idea that somewhere in the house walk lunatics, and with them watchful nurses. Then I begin to wonder over the habits of the place. Perhaps here they give their lunatics licence to wander; perhaps a madwoman will come to my room, mistaking it for another? Perhaps the wicked-tempered girl that sleeps next door is herself demented, and will come and throttle me with her hard hand! Indeed, no sooner has this idea risen in me, than I begin to hear the smothered sounds of movement, close by—unnaturally close, they seem to me to be: I imagine a thousand skulking figures with their faces at the curtain, a thousand searching hands. I begin to cry. The corset I wear makes the tears come strangely. I long to lie still, so the lurking women shall not guess that I am there; but the stiller I try to be, the more wretched I grow. Presently, a spider or a moth brushing my cheek, I imagine the throttling hand has come at last, and jerk in a convulsion and, I suppose, shriek.
There comes the sound of an opening door, a light between the
seams of the curtain. A face appears, close to my own—a kind face, not the face of a lunatic, but that of the girl who earlier brought my little tea of biscuits and sweet wine. She is dressed in her nightgown, and her hair is let down.
‘Now, then,’ she says softly. Her hand is not hard. She puts it to my head and strokes my face, and I grow calmer. My tears flow naturally I say I have been afraid of lunatics, and she laughs.
‘There are no lunatics here,’ she says. ‘You are thinking of that other place. Now, aren’t you glad, to have left there?’ I shake my head. She says, ‘Well, it is only strange for you here. You will soon grow used to it.’
She takes up her light. I see her do it, and begin at once again to cry.—’Why, you shall be asleep in a moment!’ she says.
I say I do not like the darkness. I say I am frightened to lie alone. She hesitates, thinking perhaps of Mrs Stiles. But I dare say my bed is softer than hers; and besides, it is winter, and fearfully cold. She says at last that she will lie with me until I sleep. She snuffs her candle, I smell the smoke upon the darkness.
She tells me her name is Barbara. She lets me rest my head against her. She says, ‘Now, isn’t this nice as your old home? And shan’t you like it here?’
I say I think I shall like it a little, if she will lie with me every night; and at that she laughs again, then settles herself more comfortably upon the feather mattress.
She sleeps at once, and heavily, as housemaids do. She smells of a violet face-cream. Her gown has ribbons upon it, at the breast, and I find them out with my gloved hands and hold them while I wait for sleep to come—as if I am tumbling into the perfect darkness and they are the ropes that will save me.
I am telling you this so that you might appreciate the forces that work upon me, making me what I am.
Next day, I am kept to my two bleak rooms and made to sew. I forget my terrors of the darkness of the night, then. My gloves make me clumsy, the needle pricks my fingers. ‘I shan’t do it!’ I cry,
tearing the cloth. Then Mrs Stiles beats me. My gown and corset being so stiff, she hurts her palm in the striking of my back. I take what little consolation I might, from that.
I am beaten often, I believe, in my first days there. How could it be otherwise? I have known lively habits, the clamour of the wards, the dotings of twenty women; now the hush and regularity of my uncle’s house drives me to fits and foaming tempers. I am an amiable child, I think, made wilful by restraint. I dash cups and saucers from the table to the floor. I lie and kick my legs until the boots fly from my heels. I scream until my throat bleeds. My passions are met with punishments, each fiercer than the last. I am bound about the wrists and mouth. I am shut into lonely rooms, or into cupboards. One time—having overturned a candle and let the flame lap at the fringes of a chair until they smoke—I am taken by Mr Way into the park and carried, along a lonely path, to the ice-house. I don’t remember, now, the chill of the place; I remember the blocks of grey ice—I should have supposed them clear, like crystal—that tick in the wintry silence, like so many clocks. They tick for three hours. When Mrs Stiles comes to release me I have made myself a kind of nest and cannot be uncurled, and am as weak as if they had drugged me.
I think that frightens her. She carries me back quietly, by the servants’ stairs, and she and Barbara bathe me, then rub my arms with spirits.
‘If she loses the use of her hands, my God, he’ll have our characters for ever!’
It is something, to see her made afraid. I complain of pains in my fingers, and weakness, for a day or two after that, and watch her flutter; then I forget myself, and pinch her—and by that, she knows my grip is a strong one, and soon punishes me again.
This makes a period of, perhaps a month; though to my childish mind it seems longer. My uncle waits, all that time, as he might wait for the breaking of a horse. Now and then he has Mrs Stiles conduct me to his library, and questions her as to my progress.
‘How do we do, Mrs Stiles?’
‘Still badly, sir.’
‘Fierce, and snappish.’
‘You’ve tried your hand?’
She nods. He sends us away. Then come more shows of temper, more rages and tears. At night, Barbara shakes her head.
‘What a dot of a girl, to be so naughty! Mrs Stiles says she never saw such a little Tartar as you. Why can’t you be good?’
I was good, in my last home—and see how I was rewarded! Next morning I upturn my chamber-pot and tread the mess into the carpet. Mrs Stiles throws up her hands and screams; then strikes my face. Then, half-clad and dazed as I am, she drags me from my dressing-room to my uncle’s door.
He flinches from the sight of us. ‘Good God, what is it?’
‘Oh, a frightful thing, sir!’
‘Not more of her violence? And do you bring her here, where she might break out, among the books?’
But he lets her speak, looking all the time at me. I stand very stiff, with a hand at my hot face, my pale hair loose about my shoulders.
At length he takes off his spectacles and closes his eyes. His eyes appear naked to me, and very soft at the lids. He raises his thumb and smudged forefinger to the bridge of his nose, and pinches.
‘Well, Maud,’ he says as he does it, ‘this is sorry news. Here is Mrs Stiles, and here am I, and here are all my staff, all waiting on your good manners. I had hoped the nurses had raised you better than this. I had hoped to find you biddable.’ He comes towards me, blinking, and puts his hand upon my face. ‘Don’t shrink so, girl! I want only to examine your cheek. It is hot, I think. Well, Mrs Stiles’s hand is a large one.’ He looks about him. ‘Come, what have we that is cool, hmm?’
He has a slim brass knife, blunt-edged, for cutting pages. He stoops and puts the blade of it against my face. His manner is mild, and frightens me. His voice is soft as a girl’s. He says, ‘I am sorry to see you hurt, Maud. Indeed I am. Do you suppose I want you harmed? Why should I want that? It is you who must want it, since you provoke it so. I think you must like to be struck.—That is cooler, is it not?’ He has turned the blade. I shiver. My bare arms
creep with cold. He moves his mouth. ‘All waiting,’ he repeats, ‘on your good manners. Well, we are good at that, at Briar. We can wait, and wait, and wait again. Mrs Stiles and my staff are paid to do it; I am a scholar, and inclined to it by nature. Look about you here, at my collection. Do you suppose this the work of an impatient man? My books come to me slowly, from obscure sources. I have contentedly passed many tedious weeks in expectation of poorer volumes than you!’ He laughs, a dry laugh that might once have been moist; moves the point of the knife to a spot beneath my chin; tilts up my face and looks it over. Then he lets the knife fall, and moves away. He tucks the wires of his spectacles behind his ears.
‘I advise you to whip her, Mrs Stiles,’ he says, ‘if she prove troublesome again.’
Perhaps children are like horses after all, and may be broken. My uncle returns to his mess of papers, dismissing us; and I go docilely back to my sewing. It is not the prospect of a whipping that makes me meek. It is what I know of the cruelty of patience. There is no patience so terrible as that of the deranged. I have seen lunatics labour at endless tasks—conveying sand from one leaking cup into another; counting the stitches in a fraying gown, or the motes in a sunbeam; filling invisible ledgers with the resulting sums. Had they been gentlemen, and rich—instead of women—then perhaps they would have passed as scholars and commanded staffs.—I cannot say. And of course, these are thoughts that come to me later, when I know the full measure of my uncle’s particular mania. That day, in my childish way, I glimpse only its surface. But I see that it is dark, and know that it is silent—indeed, its substance is the substance of the darkness and the silence which fills my uncle’s house like water or like wax.
Should I struggle, it will draw me deep into itself, and I will drown.
I do not wish, then, to do that.
I cease struggling at all, and surrender myself to its viscid, circular currents.
That is the first day, perhaps, of my education. But next day, at
eight, begin my lessons proper. I never have a governess: my uncle tutors me himself, having Mr Way set a desk and a stool for me close to the pointing finger on his library floor. The stool is high: my legs swing from it and the weight of my shoes makes them tingle and finally grow numb. Should I fidget, however—should I cough, or sneeze—then my uncle will come and snap at my fingers with the rope of silk-covered beads. His patience has curious lapses, after all; and though he claims to be free of a desire to harm me, he harms me pretty often.
Still, the library is kept warmer than my own room, to ward off mould from the books; and I find I prefer to write, than to sew. He gives me a pencil with a soft lead that moves silently upon paper, and a green-shaded reading-lamp, to save my eyes.
The lamp smells, as it heats, of smouldering dust: a curious smell—I shall grow to hate it!—the smell of the parching of my own youth.
My work itself is of the most tedious kind, and consists chiefly of copying pages of text, from antique volumes, into a leather-bound book. The book is a slim one, and when it is filled my job is to render it blank again with a piece of india-rubber. I remember this task, more than I remember the pieces of matter I am made to copy: for the pages, from endless friction, grow smudged and fragile and liable to tear; and the sight of a smudge on a leaf of text, or the sound of tearing paper, is more than my uncle, in his delicacy, can bear. They say children, as a rule, fear the ghosts of the dead; what I fear most as a child are the spectres of past lessons, imperfectly erased.
I call them lessons; but I am not taught as other girls are. I learn to recite, softly and clearly; I am never taught to sing. I never learn the names of flowers and birds, but am schooled instead in the hides with which books are bound—as say, morocco, russia, calf, chagrin; and their papers—Dutch, China, motley, silk. I learn inks; the cutting of pens; the uses of pounce; the styles and sizes of founts: sans-serif, antique, Egyptian, pica, brevier, emerald, ruby, Pearl. . . They are named for jewels. It is a cheat. For they are hard and dull as cinders in a grate.
But I learn quickly. The season turns. I am made small rewards: new gloves, soft-soled slippers, a gown—stiff as the first, but of velvet. I am allowed to take my supper in the dining-room, at one end of a great oak table, set with silver. My uncle sits at the other end. He keeps a reading-easel beside his place, and speaks very seldom; but if I should be so unlucky as to let fall a fork, or to jar my knife against my plate, then he will raise his face and fix me with a damp and terrible eye. ‘Have you some weakness about the hands, Maud, that obliges you to grind your silver in that way?’
‘The knife is too large and too heavy, Uncle,’ I answer him fretfully once.
Then he has my knife taken away, and I must eat with my fingers. The dishes he prefers being all bloody meats, and hearts, and calves’ feet, my kid-skin gloves grow crimson—as if reverting to the substance they were made from. My appetite leaves me. I care most for the wine. I am served it in a crystal glass engraved with an M. The ring of silver that holds my napkin is marked a tarnished black with the same initial. They are to keep me mindful, not of my name, but of that of my mother; which was Marianne.
She is buried in the loneliest spot of all that lonely park—hers a solitary grey stone among so many white. I am taken to see it, and made to keep the tomb neat.
‘Be grateful that you may,’ says Mrs Stiles, watching me trim the springing cemetery grass, her arms folded across her bosom. ‘Who shall tend my grave? I shall be all but forgotten.’
Her husband is dead. Her son is a sailor. She has taken all her little daughter’s curling black hair to make ornaments with. She brushes my own hair as if the locks are thorns and might cut her; I wish they were. I think she is sorry not to whip me. She still bruises my arms with pinches. My obedience enrages her more than ever my passions did; and seeing that, I grow meeker, with a hard, artful meekness that, receiving the edge of her sorrow, keeps it sharp. That provokes her to the pinches—they are profitless enough— and to scolds, which pay more, as being revealing of her griefs. I take her often to the graves, and make certain to sigh, to the full strength of my lungs, over my mother’s stone. In time—so cunning
am I!—I find out the name of her dead daughter; then, the kitchen cat giving birth to a litter of kittens, I take one for a pet, and name it for her. I make sure to call it loudest when Mrs Stiles is near: ‘Come, Polly! Oh, Polly! What a pretty child you are! How fine your black fur is! Come, kiss your mama.’
Do you see, what circumstances make of me?
Mrs Stiles trembles and winks at the words.
‘Take the filthy creature arid have Mr Inker drown it!’ she says to Barbara, when she can bear it no more.
I run and hide my face. I think of my lost home, and the nurses that loved me, and the thought brings the hot tears coolly to my eyes.
‘Oh, Barbara!’ I cry. ‘Say you shan’t! Say you wouldn’t!’
Barbara says she never could. Mrs Stiles sends her away.
‘You’re a sly, hateful child,’ she says. ‘Don’t think Barbara don’t know it. Don’t think she can’t see through you and your designing ways.’
But it is she who cries then, in great hard sobs; and my own eyes soon dry in the studying of hers. For what is she, to me? What is anyone now? I had thought my mothers, the nurses, might send to save me; six months go by—another six, another—and they send nothing. I am assured they have forgotten me. ‘Think of you?’ says Mrs Stiles, with a laugh. ‘Why, I dare say your place at the madhouse has been filled by a new little girl with a happier temper. I am sure, they were glad to be rid of you.’ In time, I believe her. I begin to forget. My old life grows shadowy in proportion to the new—or, sometimes emerges to darken or trouble it, in dreams and half-memories, just as those smudged strokes of forgotten lessons now and then start out upon the pages of my copy-book.
My proper mother I hate. Didn’t she forsake me, before anyone? I keep her portrait in a little wooden box beside my bed; but her sweet white face has nothing of me in it, and I grow to loathe it. ‘Let me kiss mama good-night,’ I say one time, unlocking my box. But I do it only to torment Mrs Stiles. I raise the picture to my lips and, while she looks on, thinking me sorry—’I hate you,’ I whisper, my breath tarnishing the gold. I do it that night, and the night which
follows, and the night which follows that; at last, as a clock must tick to a regular beat, I find I must do it or lie fretful in my bed. And then, the portrait must be set down gently, with its ribbon quite uncreased. If the frame strikes the velvet lining of the wooden box too hard, I will take it out and set it down carefully again.
Mrs Stiles watches me do it, with a curious expression. I never lie quite still until Barbara comes.
Meanwhile my uncle observes my work and finds my letters, my hand, my voice, greatly improved. He is used occasionally to entertaining gentlemen at Briar: now he has me stand for them and read. I read from foreign texts, not understanding the matter I am made to recite; and the gentlemen—like Mrs Stiles—watch me strangely. I grow used to that. When I have finished, at my uncle’s instruction I curtsey. I curtsey well. The gentlemen clap, then come to shake or stroke my hand. They tell me, often, how rare I am. I believe myself a kind of prodigy, and pink under their gazes.
So white blooms blush, before they curl and tumble. One day I arrive at my uncle’s room to find my little desk removed, and a place made ready for me among his books. He sees my look, and beckons me to him.
‘Take off your gloves,’ he says. I do, and shudder to touch the surfaces of common things. It is a cold, still, sunless day. I have been at Briar, then, two years. My cheek is round as a child’s, and my voice is high. I have not yet begun to bleed as women do.
‘Well, Maud,’ says my uncle. ‘At last you cross the finger of brass, and come to my books. You are about to learn the proper quality of your vocation. Are you afraid?’
‘A little, sir.’
‘You do well to be. For here is fearful matter. You think me a scholar, hmm?’
‘Well, I am more than that. I am a curator of poisons. These books—look, mark them! mark them well!—they are the poisons I mean. And this—’ Here he reverently puts his hand upon the great pile of ink-stained papers that litter his desk—’this is their Index.
This will guide others in their collection and proper study. There is no work on the subject so perfect as this will be, when it is complete. I have devoted many years to its construction and revision; and shall devote many more, as the work requires it. I have laboured so long among poisons I am immune to them, and my aim has been to make you immune, that you might assist me. My eyes—do you look at my eyes, Maud.’ He takes off his spectacles and brings his face to mine; and I flinch, as once before, from the sight of his soft and naked face—yet see now, too, what the coloured lenses hide: a certain film, or milkiness, upon the surface of his eye. ‘My eyes grow weak,’ he says, replacing his glasses. ‘Your sight shall save my own. Your hand shall be my hand. For you come here with naked fingers, while in the ordinary world—the commonplace world, outside this chamber—the men who handle vitriol and arsenic must do so with their flesh guarded. You are not like them. This is your proper sphere. I have made it so. I have fed you poison, by scruple and grain. Now comes the larger dose.’
He turns and takes a book from his shelves, then hands it to me, pressing my fingers hard about it.
‘Keep this from others. Remember the rareness of our work. It will seem queer, to the eyes and ears of the untutored. They will think you tainted, should you tell. You understand me? I have touched your lip with poison, Maud. Remember.’
The book is called The Curtain Drawn Up, or the Education of Laura. I sit alone, and turn the cover; and understand at last the matter I have read, that has provoked applause from gentlemen.
The world calls it pleasure. My uncle collects it—keeps it neat, keeps it ordered, on guarded shelves; but keeps it strangely—not for its own sake, no, never for that; rather, as it provides fuel for the satisfying of a curious lust.
I mean, the lust of the bookman.
‘See here, Maud,’ he will say to me softly, drawing back the glass doors of his presses, passing his fingers across the covers of the texts he has exposed. ‘Do you note the marbling upon these papers, the morocco of this spine, the gilt edge? Observe this tooling, look.’ He
tilts the book to me but, jealously, will not let me take it. ‘Not yet not yet! Ah, see this one, also. Black-letter; the titles, look, picked out in red. The capitals flowered, the margin as broad as the text. What extravagance! And this! Plain board; but see here, the frontispiece’— the picture is of a lady reclined on a couch, a gentleman beside her, his member bare and crimson at the tip—’done after Borel, most rare. I had this as a young man from a stall at Liverpool, for a shilling. I should not part with it now, for fifty pounds.—Come, come!’ He has seen me blush. ‘No schoolgirl modesty here! Did I bring you to my house, and teach you the ways of my collection, to see you colour? Well, no more of that. Here is work, not leisure. You will soon forget the substance, in the scrutiny of the form.’
So he says to me, many times. I do not believe him. I am thirteen. The books fill me, at first, with a kind of horror: for it seems a frightful thing, that children, in becoming women and men, should do as they describe—get lusts, grow secret limbs and cavities, be prone to fevers, to crises, seek nothing but the endless joining together of smarting flesh. I imagine my mouth, stopped up with kisses. I imagine the parting of my legs. I imagine myself fingered and pierced … I am thirteen, as I have said. The fear gives way to restlessness: I begin to lie each night at Barbara’s side, wakeful while she sleeps on; one time I put back the blanket to study the curve of her breast. Then I take to watching her as she bathes and dresses. Her legs—that I know from my uncle’s books should be smooth—are dark with hair; the place between them—which I know should be neat, and fair—darkest of all. That troubles me. Then at last, one day, she catches me gazing. ‘What are you looking at?’ she says. ‘Your cunt,’ I answer. ‘Why is it so black?’ She starts away from me as if in horror, lets her skirt fall, puts her hands before her breast. Her cheek flares crimson. ‘Oh!’ she cries. ‘I never did! Where did you learn such words?’ ‘From my uncle,’ I say.
‘Oh, you liar! Your uncle’s a gentleman. I’ll tell Mrs Stiles!’ She does. I think Mrs Stiles will hit me; instead, like Barbara, she starts back. But then, she takes up a block of soap and, while
Barbara holds me, she presses the soap into my mouth—presses it hard, then passes it back and forth across my lips and tongue.
‘Speak like a devil, will you?’ she says as she does it. ‘Like a slut and a filthy beast? Like your own trash mother? Will you? Will
Then she lets me fall, and stands and wipes her hands convulsively upon her apron. She has Barbara keep to her own bed, from that night on; and she makes her keep the door between our rooms ajar, and put out a light.
‘Thank God she wears gloves, at least,’ I hear her say. ‘That may keep her from further mischief …”
I wash my mouth, until my tongue grows cracked, and bleeds; I weep and weep; but still taste lavender. I think my lip must have poison in it, after all.
But soon, I do not care. My cunt grows dark as Barbara’s, I understand my uncle’s books to be filled with falsehoods, and I despise myself for having supposed them truths. My hot cheek cools, my colour dies, the heat quite fades from my limbs. The restlessness turns all to scorn. I become what I was bred to be. I become a librarian.
‘The Lustful Turk,’ my uncle might say, looking up from his papers. ‘Where do we have it?’
‘We have it here, Uncle,’ I will answer.—For within a year I know the place of every book upon his shelves. I know the plan of his great index—his Universal Bibliography of Priapus and Venus. For to Priapus and Venus he has devoted me, as other girls are apprenticed to the needle or the loom.
I know his friends—those gentlemen who visit, and still hear me recite. I know them now for publishers, collectors, auctioneers— enthusiasts of his work. They send him books—more books each week—and letters:
‘”Mr Lilly: on the Cleland. Grivet of Paris claims no knowledge of the lost, sodomitical matter. Shall I pursue?'”
My uncle hears me read, his eyes creased hard behind their lenses.
‘What think you, Maud?’ he says. ‘—Well, never mind it now. We must leave the Cleland to languish, and hope for more in the spring. So, so. Let me see . . .’ He divides the slips of paper upon his desk. ‘Now, The Festival of the Passions. Have we still the second volume, on loan from Hawtrey? You must copy it, Maud …”
‘I will,’ I say.
You think me meek. How else should I answer? Once, early on, I forget myself, and yawn. My uncle studies me. He has taken his pen from his page, and slowly rolls its nib.
‘It appears you find your occupation dull,’ he says at last. ‘Perhaps you would like to return to your room.’ I say nothing. ‘Should you like it?’
‘Perhaps, sir,’ I say, after a moment.
‘Perhaps. Very good. Put back your book then, and go. But, Maud—’ This last, as I cross to the door. ‘Do you instruct Mrs Stiles to keep the fuel from your fire. You don’t suppose I shall pay, to keep you warm in idleness, hmm?’
I hesitate, then go. This is, again, in winter—it seems always winter there! I sit wrapped in my coat until made to dress for dinner. But at the table, when Mr Way brings the food to my plate, my uncle stops him. ‘No meat,’ he says, laying a napkin across his lap, ‘for idle girls. Not in this house.’
Then Mr Way takes the platter away. Charles, his boy, looks sorry. I should like to strike him. Instead I must sit, twisting my hands into the fabric of my skirt, biting down my rage as I once swallowed tears, hearing the sliding of the meat upon my uncle’s ink-stained tongue, until I am dismissed.
Next day at eight o’clock, I return to my work; and am careful never to yawn again.
I grow taller, in the months that follow. I become slender and more pale. I become handsome. I outgrow my skirts and gloves and slippers.—My uncle notes it, vaguely, and instructs Mrs Stiles to cut me new gowns to the pattern of the old. She does, and makes me sew them. I believe she must take a sort of malicious pleasure from the dressing of me to suit his fancy; then again, perhaps in her grief for
her daughter she has forgotten that little girls are meant to turn out women. Anyway, I have been too long at Briar, and draw a comfort, now, from regularity. I have grown used to my gloves and my hard-boned gowns, and flinch at the first unloosening of the strings. Undressed, I seem to feel myself as naked and unsafe as one of my uncle’s lenseless eyes.
Asleep, I am sometimes oppressed by dreams. Once I fall into a fever, and a surgeon sees me. He is a friend of my uncle’s and has heard me read. He fingers the soft flesh beneath my jaw, puts his thumbs to my cheeks, draws down my eye-lids. ‘Are you troubled,’ he says, ‘with uncommon thoughts? Well, we must expect that. You are an uncommon girl.’ He strokes my hand and prescribes me a medicine—a single drop to be taken in a cup of water—’for restlessness’. Barbara puts out the mixture, while Mrs Stiles looks on.
Then Barbara leaves me, to be married, and I am given another maid. Her name is Agnes. She is small, and slight as a bird—one of those little, little birds that men bring down with nets. She has red hair and white skin marked with freckles, like paper foxed with damp. She is fifteen, innocent as butter. She thinks my uncle kind. She thinks me kind, at first. She reminds me of myself, as I once was. She reminds me of myself as I once was and ought still to be, and will never be again. I hate her for it. When she is clumsy, when she is slow, I hit her. That makes her clumsier. Then I hit her again. That makes her weep. Her face, behind her tears, keeps still its look of mine. I beat her the harder, the more I fancy the resemblance.
So my life passes. You might suppose I would not know enough of ordinary things, to know it queer. But I read other books besides my uncle’s; and overhear the talk of servants, and catch their looks, and so, by that—by the curious and pitying glances of parlourmaids and grooms!—I see well enough the oddity I have become.
I am as worldly as the grossest rakes of fiction; but have never, since I first came to my uncle’s house, been further than the walls of its park. I know everything. I know nothing. You must remember this, in what follows. You must remember what I cannot do, what I have not seen. I cannot, for example, sit a horse, or dance. I have
never held a coin in order to spend it. I have never seen a play, a railway, a mountain, or a sea.
I have never seen London; and yet, I think I know it, too. I know it, from my uncle’s books. I know it lies upon a river—which is the same river, grown very much broader, that runs beyond his park. I like to walk beside the water, thinking of this. There is an ancient, overturned punt there, half rotted away—the holes in its hull a perpetual mockery, it seems to me, of my confinement; but I like to sit upon it, gazing at the rushes at the water’s edge. I remember the Bible story, of the child that was placed in a basket and was found by the daughter of a king. I should like to find a child. I should like it, not to keep it!—but to take its place in the basket and leave it at Briar to grow up to be me. I think often of the life I would have, in London; and of who might claim me.
That is when I am still young, and given to fancies. When I am older I do not walk by the river so much as stand at the windows of the house and gaze at where I know the water flows. I stand at my own casement, for many hours at a time. And in the yellow paint that covers the glass of the windows of my uncle’s library I one day, with my finger-nail, make a small and perfect crescent, to which I afterwards occasionally lean and place my eye—like a curious wife at the keyhole of a cabinet of secrets.
But I am inside the cabinet, and long to get out. . .
I am seventeen when Richard Rivers comes to Briar with a plot and a promise and the story of a gullible girl who can be fooled into helping me do it.
I have said it was my uncle’s custom, occasionally to invite interested gentlemen to the house, to take a supper with us and, later, hear me read. He does so now.
‘Make yourself neat tonight, Maud,’ he says to me, as I stand in his library buttoning up my gloves. ‘We shall have guests. Hawtrey, Huss, and another fellow, a stranger. I hope to employ him with the mounting of our pictures.’
Our pictures. There are cabinets, in a separate study, filled with drawers of lewd engravings, that my uncle has collected in a desultory sort of manner, along with his books. He has often spoken of taking on some man to trim and mount them, but has never found a man to match the task. One needs a quite particular character, for work of that sort.
He catches my eye, thrusts out his lips. ‘Hawtrey claims to have a gift for us, besides. An edition of a text we have not catalogued.’
‘That is great news, sir.’
Perhaps I speak drily; but my uncle, though a dry man himself, does not mark it. He only puts his hand to the slips of paper before him and divides the heap into two uneven piles. ‘So, so. Let me see . . .’
‘May I leave you, Uncle?’
He looks up. ‘Has the hour struck?’
‘It has, I believe.’
He draws out from his pocket his chiming watch and holds it to his ear. The key to his library door—sewn about, at the stem, with faded velvet—swings noiselessly beside it. He says, ‘Go on then, go on. Leave an old man to his books. Go and play, but—gently, Maud.’
Now and then I wonder how he supposes I spend my hours, when not engaged by him. I think he is too used to the particular world of his books, where time passes strangely, or not at all, and imagines me an ageless child. Sometimes that is how I imagine myself—as if my short, tight gowns and velvet sashes keep me bound, like a Chinese slipper, to a form I should otherwise outleap. My uncle himself—who is at this time, I suppose, not quite above fifty—I have always considered to have been perfectly and permanently aged; as flies remain aged, yet fixed and unchanging, in cloudy chips of amber.
I leave him squinting at a page of text. I walk very quietly, in soft-soled shoes. I go to my rooms, where Agnes is.
I find her at work at a piece of sewing. She sees me come, and flinches. Do you know how provoking such a flinch will seem, to a temperament like mine? I stand and watch her sew. She feels my gaze, and begins to shake. Her stitches grow long and crooked. At last I take the needle from her hand and gently put the point of it against her flesh; then draw it off; then put it back; then do this, six or seven times more, until her knuckles are marked between the freckles with a rash of needle-pricks.
‘There are to be gentlemen here tonight,’ I say, as I do it. ‘One a stranger. Do you suppose he will be young, and handsome?’
I say it—idly enough—as a way of teasing. It is nothing to me. But she hears me, and colours.
‘I can’t say, miss,’ she answers, blinking and turning her head; not drawing her hand away, however. ‘Perhaps.’
‘You think so?’
‘Who knows? He might be.’
I study her harder, struck with a new idea.
‘Should you like it if he was?’
‘Like it, miss?’
‘Like it, Agnes. It seems to me now, that you would. Shall I tell him the way to your room? I shan’t listen at the door. I shall turn the key, you will be quite private.’
‘Oh, miss, what nonsense!’
‘Is it? Here, turn your hand.’ She does, and I jab the needle harder. ‘Now, say you don’t like it, having a prick upon your palm!’
She takes her hand away and sucks it, and begins to cry. The sight of her tears—and of her mouth, working on the bit of tender flesh that I have stabbed—first stirs, then troubles me; then makes me weary. I leave her weeping, and stand at my rattling window, my eyes upon the lawn that dips to the wall, the rushes, the Thames.
‘Will you be quiet?’ I say, when her breath still catches. ‘Look at you! Tears, for a gentleman! Don’t you know that he won’t be handsome, or even young? Don’t you know, they never are?’
But of course, he is both.
‘Mr Richard Rivers,’ my uncle says. The name seems auspicious to me. Later I will discover it to be false—as false as his rings, his smile, his manner; but now, as I stand in the drawing-room and he rises to make me his bow, why should I think to doubt him? He has fine features, even teeth, and is taller than my uncle by almost a foot. His hair is brushed and has oil upon it, but is long: a curl springs from its place and tumbles across his brow. He puts a hand to it, repeatedly. His hands are slender, smooth and—but for a single finger, stained yellow by smoke—quite white.
‘Miss Lilly,’ he says, as he bends towards me. The lock of hair falls forward, the stained hand lifts to brush it back. His voice is very low, I suppose for my uncle’s sake. He must have been cautioned in advance, by Mr Hawtrey.
Mr Hawtrey is a London bookseller and publisher, and has been
many times to Briar. He takes my hand and kisses it. Behind him comes Mr Huss. He is a gentleman collector, a friend from my uncle’s youth. He also takes my hand, but takes it to draw me closer to him, then kisses my cheek. ‘Dear child,’ he says.
I have been several times surprised by Mr Huss upon the stairs. He likes to stand and watch me climb them.
‘How do you do, Mr Huss?’ I say now, making him a curtsey.
But it is Mr Rivers I watch. And once or twice, when I turn my face his way, I find his own eyes fixed on me, his gaze a thoughtful one. He is weighing me up. Perhaps he has not supposed I would be so handsome. Perhaps I am not so handsome as rumour has had him think. I cannot tell. But, when the dinner-bell sounds and I move to my uncle’s side to be walked to the table, I see him hesitate; then he chooses the place next to mine. I wish he had not. I think he will continue to watch me, and I don’t like to be watched, while eating. Mr Way and Charles move softly about us, filling our glasses—mine, that crystal cup, cut with an M. The food is set upon our plates, then the servants leave: they never stay when we have company, but return between courses. At Briar we eat, as we do everything, by the chiming of the clock. A supper of gentlemen lasts one hour and a half.
We are served hare soup, this night; then goose, crisp at the skin, pink at the bones, and with its innards devilled and passed about the table. Mr Hawtrey takes a dainty kidney, Mr Rivers has the heart. I shake my head at the plate he offers.
‘I’m afraid you’re not hungry,’ he says quietly, watching my face.
‘Don’t you care for goose, Miss Lilly?’ asks Mr Hawtrey. ‘Nor does my eldest daughter. She thinks of goslings, and grows tearful.’
‘I hope you catch her tears and keep them,’ says Mr Huss. ‘I often think I should like to see the tears of a girl made into an ink.’
An ink? Don’t mention it to my daughters, I beg you. That I must hear their complaints, is one thing. Should they once catch the idea of impressing them also upon paper, and making me read them, I assure you, my life would not be worth the living.’
‘Tears, for ink?’ says my uncle, a beat behind the others. ‘What rubbish is this?’
‘Girls’ tears,’ says Mr Huss.
‘I think not. Truly, sir, I think not. I fancy them delicately tinged—perhaps pink, perhaps violet.’
‘Perhaps,’ says Mr Hawtrey, ‘as depending on the emotion that has provoked them?’
‘Exactly. You have hit it, Hawtrey, there. Violet tears, for a melancholy book; pink, for a gay. It might be sewn up, too, with hair from a girl’s head …” He glances at me and his look changes. He puts his napkin to his mouth.
‘Now,’ says Mr Hawtrey, ‘I really wonder that that has never been attempted. Mr Lilly? One hears barbarous stories of course, of hides and bindings
They discuss this for a time. Mr Rivers listens but says nothing. Of course, his attention is all with me. Perhaps he will speak, I think, under cover of their talk. I hope he will. I hope he won’t. I sip my wine and am suddenly weary. I have sat at suppers like this, hearing my uncle’s friends chase tedious points in small, tight circles, too many times. Unexpectedly, I think of Agnes. I think of Agnes’s mouth teasing a bead of blood from her pricked palm. My uncle clears his throat, and I blink.
‘So, Rivers,’ he says, ‘Hawtrey tells me he has you translating, French matter into English. Poor stuff, I suppose, if his press is involved in it.’
‘Poor stuff indeed,’ answers Mr Rivers; ‘or I should not attempt it. It is hardly my line. One learns, in Paris, the necessary terms; but it was as a student of the fine arts that I was lately there. I hope to find a better application for my talents, sir, than the conjuring of bad English from worse French.’
‘Well, well. We shall see.’ My uncle smiles. ‘You would like to view my pictures.’
‘Very much indeed.’
‘Well, another day will do for that. They are handsome enough, I think you’ll find. I care less for them than for my books, however. You’ve heard, perhaps’—he pauses—’of my Index?’
Mr Rivers inclines his head. ‘It sounds a marvellous thing.’
‘Pretty marvellous—eh, Maud? But, are we modest? Do we blush?’
I know my own cheek is cool; and his is pale as candle-wax. Mr Rivers turns, searches my face with his thoughtful gaze.
‘How goes the great work?’ asks Mr Hawtrey lightly.
‘We are close,’ answers my uncle. ‘We are very close. I am in consultation with finishers.’
‘And the length?’
‘A thousand pages.’
Mr Hawtrey raises his brow. If my uncle’s temper would permit it, he might whistle. He reaches for another slice of goose.
‘Two hundred more then,’ he says, as he does it, ‘since I spoke to you last.’
‘For the first volume, of course. The second shall be greater. What think you of that, Rivers?’
‘Has there ever been its like? An universal bibliography, and on such a theme? They say the science is a dead one amongst Englishmen.’
‘Then you have raised it to life. A fantastic achievement.’
‘Fantastic, indeed—more so, when one knows the degrees of obscurity in which my subject is shrouded. Consider this: that the authors of the texts I collect must cloak their identity in deception and anonymity. That the texts themselves are stamped with every kind of false and misleading detail as to place and date of publication and impress. Hmm? That they are burdened with obscure titles. That they must pass darkly, via secret channels, or on the wings of rumour and supposition. Consider those checks to the bibliographer’s progress. Then speak to me, sir, of fantastic labour!’ He trembles in a mirthless laughter.
‘I cannot conceive it,’ says Mr Rivers. ‘And the Index is organised . . .?’
‘By title, by name, by date when we have it; and, mark this, sir: by species of pleasure. We have them tabled, most precisely’
‘The pleasures! Where are we presently, Maud?’
The gentlemen turn to me. I sip my wine. ‘At the Lust,’ I say, ‘of Men for Beasts.’
My uncle nods. ‘So, so,’ he says. ‘Do you see, Rivers, the assistance our bibliography will provide, to the student of the field? It will be a veritable Bible.’
‘The flesh made word,’ says Mr Hawtrey, smiling, enjoying the phrase. He catches my eye, and winks. Mr Rivers, however, is still looking earnestly at my uncle.
‘A great ambition,’ he says now.
A great labour,’ says Mr Huss.
‘Indeed,’ says Mr Hawtrey, turning again to me. ‘I am afraid, Miss Lilly, your uncle continues to work you very mercilessly.’
I shrug. ‘I was bred to the task,’ I say, ‘as servants are.’
‘Servants and young ladies,’ says Mr Huss, ‘are different sorts of creatures. Have I not said so, many times? Girls’ eyes should not be worn out with reading, nor their small hands made hard through the gripping of pens.’
‘So my uncle believes,’ I say, showing my gloves; though it is his books he is anxious to save, of course, not my fingers.
And what,’ he says now, ‘if she labour five hours a day? I labour ten! What should we work for, if not books? Hmm? Think of Smart, and de Bury. Or think of Tinius, so dedicated a collector he killed two men for the sake of his library.’
‘Think of Frere Vincente, who, for the sake of his, killed twelve!’ Mr Hawtrey shakes his head. ‘No, no, Mr Lilly. Work your niece if you must. But drive her to violence for literature’s sake, and we shall never forgive you.’
The gentlemen laugh.
‘Well, well,’ says my uncle.
I study my hand, saying nothing. My fingers show red as ruby through the glass of dark wine, my mother’s initial quite invisible until I turn the crystal; then the cuts leap out.
There are two more courses before I might be excused, and then two more soundings of the clock to be sat through, alone, before the gentlemen join me in the drawing-room. I hear the murmur of their
voices and wonder what, in my absence, they discuss. When they come at last they are all a little pinker in the face, and their breaths are soured with smoke. Mr Hawtrey produces a package, bound in paper and string. He hands it to my uncle, who fumbles with the wrappings.
‘So, so,’ he says; and then, with the book uncovered and held close to his eyes: ‘Aha!’ He works his lips. ‘Look here, Maud, look, at what the little grubbian has brought us.’ He shows me the volume. ‘Now, what do you say?’
It is a common novel in a tawdry binding, but with an unfamiliar frontispiece that renders it rare. I look and, despite myself, feel the stirrings of a dry excitement. The sensation makes me queasy. I say, ‘A very fine thing for us, Uncle, without a doubt.’ ‘See here, the fleuron? You see it?’ ‘I see it.’
‘I don’t believe we have considered the possibility of such a thing. I am sure we have not. We must go back. And we thought that entry complete? We shall return to it, tomorrow.’ He stretches his neck. He likes the anticipation of pleasure. ‘For now—well, take your gloves off, girl. Do you suppose Hawtrey brings us books to have you press gravy into the binding? That’s better. Let’s hear a little of it. Do you sit, and read to us. Huss, you must sit also. Rivers, mark my niece’s voice, how soft and clear she reads. I coached her myself. Well, well.—You crease the spine, Maud!’
‘Indeed, Mr Lilly, she does not,’ says Mr Huss, gazing at my uncovered hands.
I place the book upon a stand and carefully weight its pages. I turn a lamp so that its light falls bright upon the print. ‘How long shall I read for, Uncle?’
He puts his watch against his ear. He says, ‘Until the next o’clock. Now, note this, Rivers, and tell me if you suppose its like may be encountered in any other English drawing-room!’
The book is filled, as I have said, with common enough obscenities; but my uncle is right, I have been trained too well, my voice is clear and true and makes the words seem almost sweet. When I
have finished, Mr Hawtrey claps, and Mr Huss’s pink face is pinker, his look rather troubled. My uncle sits with his spectacles removed, his head at an angle, his eyes screwed tight.
‘Poor words enough,’ he says. ‘But I have a home for you, upon my shelves. A home, and brothers, too. Tomorrow we shall see you placed there. The fleuron: I am certain we have not thought of that.—Maud, the covers are closed, and quite unbent?’
He draws on his eye-glasses, working the wires about his ears. Mr Huss pours brandy. I button up my gloves, smooth creases from my skirt. I turn the lamp, and dim it. But I am conscious of myself. I am conscious of Mr Rivers. He has heard me read, apparently without excitement, his eyes upon the floor; but his hands are clasped and one thumb beats a little nervously upon the other. Presently he rises. He says the fire is hot and scorches him. He walks a minute about the room, leaning rigidly to gaze into my uncle’s book-presses—now his hands are behind his back; his thumb still twitches, however. I think he knows I watch. In time he comes close, catches my eye, makes a careful bow. He says, ‘It is rather chill, so far from the fire. Shouldn’t you like, Miss Lilly, to sit closer to the flames?’
I answer: ‘Thank you, Mr Rivers, I prefer this spot.’
‘You like to be cool,’ he says.
‘I like the shadows.’
When I smile again he takes it as a kind of invitation, lifts his coat, twitches at his trousers and sits beside me, not too close, still with his eyes upon my uncle’s shelves, as if distracted by the books. But when he speaks, he speaks in a murmur. He says, ‘You see, I also like the shadows.’
Mr Huss glances once our way. Mr Hawtrey stands at the fire and lifts a glass. My uncle has settled into his chair and its wings obscure his eyes; I see only his dry mouth, puckered at the lip. ‘The greatest phase of eros?’ he is saying. ‘We have missed it, sir, by seventy years! The cynical, improbable fictions which pass for voluptuous literature nowadays I should be ashamed to show to the man that shoes my horse . . .’
I stifle a yawn, and Mr Rivers turns to me. I say, ‘Forgive me Vf Rivers.’
He bows his head. ‘Perhaps, you don’t care for your uncle’s sub ject.’
He still speaks in a murmur; and I am obliged to make my own voice rather low, by way of answer. ‘I am my uncle’s secretary,’ I say ‘The appeal of the subject is nothing to me.’
Again he bows. ‘Well, perhaps,’ he says, while my uncle talks on ‘It is only curious, to see a lady left cool and unmoved, by that which is designed to provoke heat, and motion.’
‘But there are many ladies, I think, unmoved by that you speak of; and aren’t those who know the matter best, moved least?’ I catch his eye. ‘I speak not from experience of the world, of course, but from my reading merely. But I should have said that—oh, even a priest would note a palling in his passion for the mysteries of his church, if put too often to the scrutiny of wafer and wine.’
He does not blink. At last he almost laughs.
‘You are very uncommon, Miss Lilly’
I look away. ‘So I understand.’
‘Ah. Now your tone is a bitter one. Perhaps you think your education a sort of misfortune.’
‘On the contrary. How could it be a misfortune, to be wise? I can never be deceived, for instance, in the matter of a gentleman’s attentions. I am a connoisseur of all the varieties of methods by which a , gentleman might seek to compliment a lady’
He puts his white hand to his breast. ‘Then I should be daunted indeed,’ he says, ‘did I want only to compliment you.’
‘I was not aware that gentlemen had any other wants, than that one.’
‘Perhaps not in the books that you are used to. But in life—a great many; and one that is chief.’
‘I supposed,’ I say, ‘that that was the one the books were written for.’
‘Oh, no.’ He smiles. His voice dips even lower. ‘They are read for that, but written for something keener. I mean, of course, the want of—money. Every gentleman minds that. And those of us who are
not quite so gentlemanly as we would like, mind it most of all.—I am sorry to embarrass you.’
I have coloured, or flinched. Now, recovering, I say, ‘You forget, I have been bred to be quite beyond embarrassment. I am only surprised.’
‘Then I must take a satisfaction from the knowledge that I have surprised you.’ He lifts his hand to his beard. ‘It is something to me,’ he goes on, ‘to have made a small impression upon the evenness and regularity of yourdays.’
He speaks so insinuatingly my cheek grows warmer still.
‘What do you know,’ I say, ‘of those?’
‘Why, only what I surmise, from my observation of the house . . .’
Now his voice and his face are grown bland again. I see Mr Huss tilt his head and observe him Then he calls, pointedly: ‘What do you think, Rivers, of this?’
‘Of what, sir?’
‘Of Hawtrey’s champioting, now, of photography.’
‘Rivers,’ says Mr Hawtrey. ‘You are a young man. I appeal to you. Can there be any more perfect record of the amatory act—’
‘Record!’ says my uncle, peevishly. ‘Documentary! The curses of the age!’
‘—of the amatory act, than a photograph? Mr Lilly will have it that the science of photography runs counter to the spirit of the Paphian life. I say it is an image of life, and has this advantage over it: that it endures, where life—the Paphian life, the Paphian moment, in especial—must finish and fade.’
‘Doth not a book endure?’ asks my uncle, plucking at the arm of his chair.
‘It endureth, so long as words do. But, in a photograph you have a thing beyond words, and beyond the mouths that speak them. A photograph will provoke heat in an Englishman, a Frenchman, a savage. It will outlast us all, and I provoke heat in our grandsons. It is a thing apart from history.1
‘It is gripped by history!’ answers my uncle. ‘It is corrupted by it! Its history hangs about it like so much smoke!—you may see it, in
the fitting of a slipper, a gown, the dressing of a head. Give photographs to your grandson: he will study them and think them quaint. He will laugh at the wax tips of your moustaches! But words Hawtrey, words—hmm? They seduce us in darkness, and the mind clothes and fleshes them to fashions of its own. Don’t you think so Rivers?’
‘I do, sir.’
‘You know I won’t allow daguerreotypes and nonsense like that into my collection?’
‘I think you are right not to, sir.’
Mr Hawtrey shakes his head. He says, to my uncle: ‘You still believe photography a fashion, that will pass? You must come to Holywell Street, and spend an hour in my shop. We have albums made up, now, for men to choose from. It is all our buyers come for.’
‘Your buyers are brutes. What business have I with them? Rivers, you have seen them. What is your opinion as to the quality of Hawtrey’s trade . . .?’
The debate will go on, he cannot escape. He answers, then catches my eye as if in apology, rises, goes to my uncle’s side. They talk until the striking of ten o’clock—which is when I leave them.
That is the Thursday night. Mr Rivers is due to remain at Briar until Sunday. Next day I am kept from the library while the men look over the books; at supper he watches me, and afterwards hears me read, but then is obliged to sit again with my uncle and cannot come to my side. Saturday I walk in the park with Agnes, and do not see him; Saturday night, however, my uncle has me read from an antique book, one of his finest—and then, when I have finished, Mr Rivers comes and sits beside me, to study its singular covers.
‘You like it, Rivers?’ asks my uncle as he does so. ‘You know it is very rare?’
‘I should say it must be, sir.’
‘And you think I mean by that, that there are few other copies?’
‘I had supposed that, yes.’
‘So you might. But we collectors, we gauge rarity by other means. You think a unique item rare, if no-one wants it? We call that a dead
book. But, say a score of identical copies are sought by a thousand men: each of those single books is rarer than the unique one. You understand me?’
Mr Rivers nods. ‘I do. The rareness of the article is relative to the desire of the heart which seeks it.’ He glances at me. ‘That is very quaint. And how many men seek this book, that we have just heard?’
My uncle grows coy. ‘How many indeed, sir? I’ll answer you like this: put it up for auction, and see! Ha?’
Mr Rivers laughs. ‘To be sure, yes . . .’
But beyond the film of his politeness, he looks thoughtful. He bites his lip)—his teeth showing yellow, wolfish, against the dark of his beard, but his mouth a soft and surprising pink. He says nothing while my uncle sips at his drink and Mr Hawtrey fusses with the fire. Then he speaks again.
‘And what of a pair of books, Mr Lilly,’ he says, ‘sought by a single buyer? How are they to be valued?’
A pair?’ My uncle puts down his glass. ‘A set, of two volumes?’
‘A pair of complementary titles. A man has one, and seeks to secure the other. The second will greatly add to the value of the first?’
‘Of course, sir!’
‘I thought it.’
‘Men pay absurdly for such things,’ says Mr Huss.
‘They do,’ says my uncle. ‘They do. You will find a reference to such matters, of course, in my Index …”
‘The Index,’ says Mr Rivers softly; and the others talk on. We sit and listen—or pretend to—and soon he turns and studies my face. ‘May I ask you something, Miss Lilly?’ he says. And then, when I nod: ‘What do you see, for yourself, after the completion of your uncle’s work?—Now, why do you do that?’
I have given him what I suppose must be a bitter sort of smile. I say, ‘Your question means nothing, I can hardly answer it. My uncle’s work will never be finished. There are too many new books written that must be added to the old; too many lost books to be rediscovered; too much uncertainty. He and Mr Hawtrey will
debate it for ever. Look at them now. Should he publish the Index as he intends, he will only at once begin its supplements.’
‘You mean to keep beside him, then, for all that time?’—I will not answer.—’You are as dedicated as he?’
‘I have no choice,’ I say at last. ‘My skills are few and, as you have already noted, quite uncommon.’
‘You are a lady,’ he says softly, ‘and young, and handsome.—I don’t speak from gallantry now, you know that. I say only what is true. You might do anything.’
‘You are a man,’ I answer. ‘Men’s truths are different from ladies’. I may do nothing, I assure you.’
He hesitates—perhaps, catches his breath. Then: ‘You might— marry,’ he says. ‘That is something.’
He says it, with his eyes upon the book that I have read from; and I hear him, and laugh aloud. My uncle, supposing I have laughed at some parched joke of his, looks over and nods. ‘You think so, Maud? You see, Huss, even my niece believes it so . . .’
I wait until his face is turned from me again, his attention captured. Then I reach for the book on its stand and gently lift its cover. ‘Look here, Mr Rivers,’ I say. ‘This is my uncle’s plate, that is attached to all his books. Do you see the device of it?’
The plate bears his emblem, a clever thing of his own design—a lily, drawn strangely, to resemble a phallus; and wound about with a stem of briar at the root. Mr Rivers tilts his head to study it, and nods. I let the cover close.
‘Sometimes,’ I say, not looking up, ‘I suppose such a plate must be pasted upon my own flesh—that I have been ticketed, and noted and shelved—so nearly do I resemble one of my uncle’s books.’ I raise my eyes to his. My face is warm, but I am speaking coolly, still. ‘You said, two nights ago, that you have studied the ways of this house. Surely, then, you have understood. We are not meant for common usage, my fellow books and I. My uncle keeps us separate from the world. He will call us poisons; he says we will hurt unguarded eyes. Then again, he names us his children, his foundlings, that have come to him, from every corner of the world—some rich and handsomely provided for, some shabby, some
injured, some broken about the spine, some gaudy, some gross. For all that he speaks against them, I believe he likes the gross ones best; for they are the ones that other parents—other bookmen and collectors, I mean—cast out. I was like them, and had a home, and lost it—’
Now I do not speak coolly. I have been overtaken by my own words. Mr Rivers watches, then leans to take my uncle’s book very gently from its stand.
‘Your home,’ he murmurs, as his face comes close to mine. ‘The madhouse. Do you think very often of your time there? Do you think of your mother, and feel her madness in you?—Mr Lilly, your book.’ My uncle has looked over. ‘Do you mind my handling it? Won’t you show me, sir, the features that mark it as rare . . .?’
He has spoken very swiftly; and has startled me, horribly. I don’t like to be startled. I don’t like to lose my place. But now, as he rises and returns, with the book, to the fire, a second or two passes that I cannot account for. I discover at last that I have put my hand to my breast. That I am breathing quickly. That the shadows in which I sit are all at once denser than before—so dense, my skirt seems bleeding into the fabric of the sofa and my hand, rising and falling above my heart, is pale as a leaf upon a swelling pool of darkness.
I will not swoon. Only girls in books do that, for the convenience of gentlemen. But I suppose I whiten and look strange, for when Mr Hawtrey gazes my way, smiling, his smile quite falls. ‘Miss Lilly!’ he says. He comes and takes my hand.
Mr Huss comes also. ‘Dear child, what is it?’ He holds me close, about the armpit.
Mr Rivers hangs back. My uncle looks peevish. ‘Well, well,’ he says. ‘What now?’ He shuts his book, but keeps his finger, carefully, between the pages.
They ring for Agnes. She comes, blinking at the gentlemen, curtseying at my uncle, a look of terror on her face. It is not yet ten o’clock. ‘I am perfectly well,’ I say. ‘You must not trouble. I am only tired, suddenly. I am sorry.’
‘Sorry? Pooh!’ says Mr Hawtrey. ‘It is we who should be sorry. Mr Lilly, you are a tyrant, and overtask your niece most miserably.
I always said it, and here is the proof. Agnes, take your mistress’s arm. Go steadily, now.’
‘Shall you manage the stairs?’ Mr Huss asks anxiously. He stands in the hall as we prepare to mount them. Behind him I see Mr Rivers; but I do not catch his eye.
When the drawing-room door is closed I push Agnes away, and in my own room I look about me for some cool thing to put upon my face. I finally go to the mantel, and lean my cheek against the looking-glass.
‘Your skirts, miss!’ says Agnes. She draws them from the fire.
I feel queer, dislocated. The house clock has not chimed. When it sounds, I will feel better. I will not think of Mr Rivers—of what he must know of me, how he might know it, what he means by seeking me out. Agnes stands awkwardly, half-crouched, my skirts still gathered in her hands.
The clock strikes. I step back, then let her undress me. My heart beats a little smoother. She puts me in my bed, unlooses the curtains—now the night might be any night, any at all. I hear her in her own room, unfastening her gown: if I lift my head and look through the gap in my curtains I will see her upon her knees with her eyes hard shut, her hands pressed together like a child’s, her lips moving. She prays every night to be taken home; and for safety as she slumbers.
While she does it, I unlock my little wooden box and whisper cruel words to my mother’s portrait. I close my eyes. I think, / shall not study your face!—but, once having thought it, I know I must do it or lie sleepless and grow ill. I look hard into her pale eyes. Do you think of your mother, he said, and feel her madness in you?
I put the portrait away, and call for Agnes to bring me a tumbler of water. I take a drop of my old medicine—then, unsure that that will calm me, I take another. Then I lie still, my hair put back. My hands, inside their gloves, begin to tingle. Agnes stands and waits. Her own hair is let down—coarse hair, red hair, coarser and redder than ever against the fine white stuff of her nightdress. One slender collar-bone is marked a delicate blue with what is
perhaps only a shadow, but might—I cannot remember—be a bruise.
I feel the drops at last, sour in my stomach.
‘That’s all,’ I say. ‘Go on.’
I hear her climb into her bed, draw up her blankets. There is a silence. After a little time there comes a creak, a whisper, the faint groan of machinery: my uncle’s clock, shifting its gears. I lie and wait for sleep. It does not come. Instead, my limbs grow restless and begin to twitch. I feel, too hard, my blood—I feel the bafflement of it, at the dead points of my fingers and my toes. I raise my head, call softly: ‘Agnes!’ She does not hear; or hears, but fears to answer. ‘Agnes!’—At last, the sound of my own voice unnerves me. I give it up, lie still. The clock groans again, then strikes. Then come other sounds, far-off. My uncle keeps early hours. Closing doors, lowered voices, shoes upon the stairs: the gentlemen are leaving the drawing-room and going each to their separate chambers.
Perhaps I sleep, then—but if I do, it is only for a moment. For suddenly I give a start, and am wide awake; and I know that what has roused me is not sound, but movement. Movement, and light. Beyond the bed-curtain the rush-lamp’s wick has flared suddenly bright, and the doors and the window-glasses are straining against their frames.
The house has opened its mouth, and is breathing.
Then I know that, after all, this night is not like any other. As if summoned to it by a calling voice, I rise. I stand at the doorway to Agnes’s room until I am sure, from the evenness of her breaths, that she is sleeping; then I take up my lamp and go, on naked feet, to my drawing-room. I go to the window and stand at the glass, cup my hands against their own feeble reflection, peer through the darkness at the sweep of gravel, the edge of lawn, that I know lie below. For a time I see nothing. Then I hear the soft fall of a shoe, and then another, still softer. Then comes the single noiseless flaring of a match between slender fingers; and a face, made hollow-eyed and garish as it tilts towards the flame.
Richard Rivers keeps restless as I; and walks upon the lawns of Briar, perhaps hoping for sleep.
Cold weather for walking. About the tip of his cigarette, his breath shows whiter than the smoke of his tobacco. He gathers his collar about his throat. Then he looks up. He seems to know what he will see. He does not nod, or make any gesture; only holds my gaze. The cigarette fades, glows bright, fades again. His stance grows more deliberate.
He moves his head; and all at once I understand what he is doing. He is surveying the face of the house. He is counting the windows.
He is calculating his way to my room!—and when he is certain of his route he lets his cigarette fall and crushes the glowing point of it beneath his heel. He comes back across the gravel-walk and someone—Mr Way, I suppose—admits him. I cannot see that. I only hear the front door open, feel the movement of the air. Again my lamp flares, and the window-glass bulges. This time, however, the house seems holding its breath.
I step back with my hands before my mouth, my eyes on my own soft face: it has started back into the darkness beyond the glass, and seems to swim, or hang, in space. I think, He won’t do it! He dare not do it! Then I think: He will. I go to the door and put my ear against the wood. I hear a voice, and then a tread. The tread grows soft, another door closes—of course, he will wait for Mr Way to go to his bed. He will wait for that.
I take up my lamp and go quickly, quickly: the shade throws crescents of light upon the walls. I have not time to dress—cannot dress, without Agnes to help me—but know I must not see him in my nightgown. I find stockings, garters, slippers, a cloak. My hair, that is loose, I try to fasten; but I am clumsy with the pins, and my gloves—and the medicine I have swallowed—make me clumsier. I grow afraid. My heart beats quick again, but now it beats against the drops, it is like a vessel beating hard against the pull of a sluggish river. I put my hand to it, and feel the yielding of my breast—unlaced, it feels; unguarded, unsafe.
But the tug of the drops is greater than the resistance of my fear.
That is the point of them, after all. For restlessness. When at length he comes, tapping at my door with his fingernail, I think I seem calm to him. I say at once, ‘You know my maid is very close— asleep, but close. One cry will wake her.’ He bows and says nothing.
Do I suppose he will try to kiss me? He does not do that. He only comes very stealthily into the room and gazes about him in the same cool, thoughtful way in which I saw him take his measure of the house. He says, ‘Let us keep from the window, the light shows plainly from the lawn.’ Then, nodding to the inner door: ‘Is that where she lies? She won’t hear us? You are sure?’
Do I think he will embrace me? He never once steps close. But I feel the cool of the night, still clinging to his coat. I smell the tobacco on his hair, his whiskers, his mouth. I do not remember him so tall. I move to one side of the sofa and stand tensely, gripping the back of it. He keeps at the other, leans into the space between us, and speaks in whispers.
He says, ‘Forgive me, Miss Lilly. This is not how I would have met you. But I have come to Briar, after so much careful labour; and tomorrow I may be obliged to leave without seeing you. You understand me. I make no judgement on your receiving me like this. If your girl stirs, you are to say that you were wakeful; that I found out your room and came, without invitation. I’ve been guilty of as much, in other men’s houses.—It’s as well you know at once, what manner of fellow I am. But here, Miss Lilly, tonight, I mean you no sort of harm. I think you do understand me? I think you did wish me to come?’
I say, ‘I understand that you have found out something you think perhaps a secret: that my mother was a lunatic; that my uncle had me from a ward of the place she died in. But that is no secret, anyone might know it; the very servants here know it. I am forbidden to forget it. I am sorry for you, if you meant to profit by it.’
‘I am sorry,’ he says, ‘to have been obliged to remind you of it again. It means nothing to me, except as it has led to your coming to Briar and being kept by your uncle in such a curious way. It is he, I think, who has profited from your mother’s misfortune.—You’ll forgive my speaking plainly. I am a sort of villain, and know other
villains best. Your uncle is the worst kind, for he keeps to his own house, where his villainy passes as an old man’s quirk. Don’t tell me you love him,’ he adds quickly, seeing my face, ‘for manners’ sake. I know you are above them. That is why I have come like this. We make our own manners, you and I; or take the ones that suit us. But for now, will you sit and let me speak with you, as a gentleman to a lady?’
He gestures and, after a second—as if we might be awaiting the maid and the tea-tray—we take our places on the sofa. My dark cloak gapes and shows my nightgown. He turns his eyes while I draw close the folds.
‘Now, to tell you what I know,’ he says.
‘I know you gain nothing unless you marry. I first had it from Hawtrey. They speak about you—perhaps you know—in the shady bookshops and publishers’ houses of London and Paris. They speak about you, as of some fabulous creature: the handsome girl at Briar, whom Lilly has trained, like a chattering monkey, to recite voluptuous texts for gentlemen—perhaps to do worse. I needn’t tell you all they say, I suppose you can guess it. That’s nothing to me.’ He holds my gaze, then looks away. ‘Hawtrey, at least, is a little kinder; and thinks me honest, which is more to our point. He told me, in a pitying sort of way, a little of your life—your unfortunate mother— your expectations, the conditions attached. Well, one hears of such girls, when one is a bachelor; perhaps not one in a hundred is worth the pursuit. . . But Hawtrey was right. I have made enquiries into your mother’s fortune, and you are worth—well, do you know what you are worth, Miss Lilly?’
I hesitate, then shake my head. He names the figure. It is several hundred times the value of the costliest book upon my uncle’s shelves; and many thousand times the price of the cheapest. This is the only measure of value I know.
‘It is a great sum,’ says Mr Rivers, watching my face.
‘It shall be ours,’ he says, ‘if we marry’
I say nothing.
‘Let me be honest,’ he goes on. ‘I came to Briar, meaning to get
you in the ordinary way—I mean, seduce you from your uncle’s house, secure your fortune, perhaps dispose of you after. I saw in ten minutes what your life has made of you, and knew I should never achieve it. More, I understood that to seduce you would be to insult you—to make you only a different kind of captive. I don’t wish to do that. I wish rather to free you.’
‘You are very gallant,’ I say. ‘Suppose I don’t care to be freed?’
He answers simply: ‘I think you long for it.’
Then I turn my face—afraid that the beating of blood, across my cheek, will betray me to him. My voice I make steady. I say, ‘You forget, my longings count for nothing here. As well might my uncle’s books long to leap from their presses. He has made me like them—’
‘Yes, yes,’ he says, in impatience. ‘You have said as much to me already. I think perhaps you say it often. But, what can such a phrase mean? You are seventeen. I am twenty-eight, and believed for many years I should be rich now, and idle. Instead I am what you see me: a scoundrel, not too poor in pocket, but nor too easy in it that I shan’t be scrambling to line it for a little time to come. Do you think yourself weary? Think how weary am I! I have done many gross deeds, and thought each one the last. Believe me: I have some knowledge of the time that may be misspent, clinging to fictions and supposing them truths.’
He has lifted his hand to his head, and now puts back his hair from his brow; and his pallor, and the dark about his eye, seem suddenly to age him. His collar is soft, and creased from the grip of his neck-tie. His beard has a single strand of grey. His throat bulges queerly, as men’s throats do: as if inviting the blow that will crush it.
I say, ‘This is madness. I think you are mad—to come here, to confess yourself a villain, to suppose me willing to receive you.’
‘And yet you have received me. You receive me still. You have not called for your maid.’
‘You intrigue me. You have seen for yourself, the evenness of my days here.’
‘You seek a distraction from those? Why not give them up, for ever? So you shall—like that, in a moment! gone!—when you marry me.’
I shake my head. ‘I think you cannot be serious.’
‘I am, however.’
‘You know my age. You know my uncle would never permit you to take me.’
He shrugs, speaks lightly. ‘We shall resort, of course, to devious methods.’
‘You wish to make a villain of me, too?’
He nods. ‘I do. But then, I think you are half a villain already.— Don’t look like that. Don’t suppose I am joking. You don’t know all.’ He has grown serious. ‘I am offering you something very great and strange. Not the commonplace subjection of a wife to a husband— that servitude, to lawful ravishment and theft, that the world terms wedlock. I shan’t ask you for that, that is not what I mean. I am speaking, rather, of liberty. A liberty of a kind not often granted to the members of your sex.’
‘Yet to be achieved’—I almost laugh—’by a marriage?’
‘To be achieved by a ceremony of marriage, performed under certain unusual conditions.’ Again he smooths his hair, and swallows; and I see at last that he is nervous—more nervous than I. He leans closer. He says, ‘I suppose you’re not squeamish, or soft about the heart, as another girl might be? I suppose your maid is really sleeping, and not listening at the door?’
I think of Agnes, of Agnes’s bruises; but say nothing, only watch him. He passes his hand across his mouth.
‘God help me, Miss Lilly, if I have misjudged you!’ he says. ‘Now, listen.’
This is his plan. He means to bring a girl to Briar, from London, and install her as my maid. He means to use her, then cheat her. He says he has a girl in mind, a girl of my years and colouring. A sort of thief—not over-scrupulous, not too clever in her ways, he says; he thinks he will secure her with the promise of some slight share in the fortune—’Say, two or three thousand. I don’t believe she’ll have the ambition to ask for more. Her set are a small set, as crooks go; though, like crooks everywhere, think themselves grander.’ He shrugs. The sum means nothing, after all: for he will agree to whatever she asks for; and she will not see a shilling of it. She will
suppose me an innocent, and believe herself assisting in my seduction. She will persuade me, first, into marriage with him, then into a—he hesitates, before admitting the word—a madhouse. But, there she will take my place. She will protest—he hopes she will!—for the more she does, the more the madhouse keepers will read it as a form of lunacy; and so keep her the closer.
‘And with her, Miss Lilly,’ he says finally, ‘they keep close your name, your history as your mother’s daughter, your uncle’s niece— in short, all that marks you as yourself. Think of it! They will pluck from your shoulders the weight of your life, as a servant would lift free your cloak; and you shall make your naked, invisible way to any part of the world you choose—to any new life—and there re-clothe yourself to suit your fancy.’
This is the liberty—the rare and sinister liberty—he has come to Briar to offer. For payment he wants my trust, my promise, my future silence; and one half of my fortune.
When he has finished I sit not speaking, my face turned from his, for almost a minute. What I say at last is:
‘We should never achieve it.’
He answers at once: ‘I think we will.’
‘The girl would suspect us.’
‘She will be distracted by the plot into which I shall draw her. She will be like everyone, putting on the things she sees the constructions she expects to find there. She will look at you, here, knowing nothing of your uncle—who wouldn’t, in her place, believe you innocent?’
‘And her people, the thieves: shan’t they look for her?’
‘They shall look—as a thousand thieves look every day for the friends who have cheated and robbed them; and, finding nothing, they’ll suppose her flown, and curse her for a while, and then forget her.’
‘Forget her? Are you sure? Has she no—no mother?’
He shrugs. ‘A sort of mother. A guardian, an aunt. She loses children all the time. I don’t think she will trouble very hard over one child more. Especially if she supposes—as I mean that she
will—that the child has turned out swindler. Do you see? Her own reputation will help to bury her. Crooked girls can’t expect to be cared for, like honest ones.’ He pauses. ‘They will watch her more closely, however, in the place we’ll put her.’
I gaze away from him. ‘A madhouse . . .’
‘I am sorry for that,’ he says quickly. ‘But your own reputation— your own mother’s reputation—will work for us there, just as our crooked girl’s will. You must see how it will. You have been held in thrall to it, all these years. Here is your chance to profit by it, once; then be free of it, for ever.’
I still look away. Again, I am afraid he will see how deeply his words have stirred me. I am almost afraid of how deeply they stir me, myself. I say, ‘You speak as though my freedom were something to you. It’s the money you care for.’
‘I’ve admitted as much, have I not? But then, your freedom and my money are the same. That will be your safeguard, your insurance, until our fortune is secure. You may trust yourself, till then, not to my honour—for I have none—but, say, to my cupidity; which is anyway a greater thing than honour, in the world outside these walls. You will find that out. I might teach you how to profit from it. We can take some house, in London, as man and wife.—Live separately, of course,’ he adds, with a smile, ‘when the door of the house is closed .. . Once our money is got, however, your future will be your own; you must only be silent, then, as to the manner in which you got it. You understand me? Being once committed to this thing, we must be true to each other, or founder. I don’t speak lightly. I don’t wish to mislead you as to the nature of the business I’m proposing. Perhaps your uncle’s care has kept you from a knowledge of the law …”
‘My uncle’s care,’ I say, ‘has made me ready to consider any strategy that will relieve me of the burden of it. But—’
He waits and, when I add nothing, says, ‘Well, I don’t expect to hear you give me your decision now. It’s my aim that your uncle will keep me here, to work on his pictures—I am to view them tomorrow. If he does not, then we shall anyway be obliged to reconsider. But there are ways about that, as about everything.’
He passes his hand again before his eyes, and again looks older.
The clock has struck the twelve, the fire has died an hour before, and the room is terribly chill. I feel it, all at once. He sees me shiver. I think he reads it as fear, or doubt. He leans, and at last takes my hand in his. He says, ‘Miss Lilly, you say your freedom is nothing to me; but how could I see the life that is yours—how could any honest man see you kept down, made a slave to lewdness, leered at and insulted by fellows like Huss—and not wish to free you of it? Think of what I have proposed. Then think of your choices. You may wait for another suitor: shall you find one, among the gentlemen your uncle’s work brings here? And, if you do, shall he be as scrupulous as I, in the handling of your fortune?—of your person? Or, say you wait for your uncle to die, and find a liberty that way; meantime, his eyes have faded, his limbs have a tremor, he has worked you the harder as he has felt his powers fail. By then you are—what age? Say thirty-five, or forty. You have given your youth to the curating of books, of a kind that Hawtrey sells, for a shilling, to drapers’ boys and clerks. Your fortune sits untouched in the vault of a bank. Your consolation is to be mistress of Briar—where the clock strikes off the hollow half-hours of all the life that is left to you, one by one.’
As he speaks, I look not at his face; but at my own foot in its slipper. I think again of the vision I have sometimes had—of myself, as a limb bound tight to a form it longs to outgrow. With the drops in me the vision is fiercer, I see the limb made crooked, the flesh sour and grow dense. I sit quite still, then raise my eyes to his. He is watching me, waiting to know if he has won me. He has. Not by what he has told me, about my future at Briar—for he has said nothing that I have not, long ago, already concluded for myself; but by the fact that he is here, telling it at all—that he has plotted, and travelled, forty miles—that he has stolen his way to the heart of the sleeping house, to my dark room, to me.
Of the girl in London—who, in less than a month, he will persuade to her doom by a similar method; and to whom, a little later, with tears on my cheek, I will repeat his own arguments—I think nothing, nothing at all.
I say, ‘Tomorrow, when you are shown my uncle’s pictures: praise the Romano, though the Caracci is more rare. Praise Morland over Rowlandson. He thinks Rowlandson a hack.’
That is all I say. It is enough, I suppose. He holds my gaze, nods, does not smile—I think he knows I should not like to see him smile, at such a moment. He looses his grip about my fingers and then he stands, straightening his coat. That breaks the spell of our conspiracy: now he is large, dark, out of place. I hope he will leave. Again I shiver and, seeing that, he says, ‘I’m afraid I’ve kept you very late. You must be cold, and tired.’
He watches. Perhaps he is gauging my strength and beginning to grow doubtful. I shiver harder. He says, ‘You won’t be troubled— too troubled—by all I’ve said?’
I shake my head. But I am afraid to rise from the sofa, in case I tremble upon my legs and seem to him weak. I say, ‘Will you go?’
‘You are sure?’
‘Quite sure. I shall do better if you leave me.’
He would like to say more. I turn my face and will not let him, and in time hear his careful tread upon the carpet, the gentle opening and closing of the door. I sit a moment, then lift my feet, tuck the skirts of my cloak about my legs, raise my hood, lie with my head upon the hard and dusty sofa cushion.
This is not my bed, and the hour for bed has sounded and passed, and there are none of the things—my mother’s portrait, my box, my maid—about me, that I like to have close while I lie sleeping. But tonight, all things are out of their order, all my patterns have been disturbed. My liberty beckons: gaugeless, fearful, inevitable as death.
I sleep, and dream I am moving, swiftly, in a high-prowed boat, upon a dark and silent water.
I suppose that even then—or rather, especially then, when our compact is so new, so unproved, its threads still slender and weak—I suppose that even then I might draw back, unloose myself from the tugging of his ambition. I believe I wake thinking I will; for the room—the room in which, in whispers, at the hush of midnight, he took my hand, unfolded his dangerous plan, like a man putting back the rustling wrappers about a poison—the room reassembles itself in the chill half-hour of dawn into all its rigid familiar lines. I lie and watch it. I know every curve and angle. I know them, too well. I remember weeping, as a girl of eleven, at the strangeness of Briar—at the silence, the stillness, the turning passages and cluttered walls. I supposed then that those things would be strange to me for ever, I felt their strangeness make me strange— make me a thing of points and hooks, a burr, a splinter in the gullet of the house. But Briar crept on me. Briar absorbed me. Now I feel the simple weight of the woollen cloak with which I have covered
myself and think, / shall never escape! I am not meant to escape! Briar will never let me!
But, I am wrong. Richard Rivers has come into Briar like a spore of yeast into dough, changing it utterly. When I go, at eight o’clock, to the library, I am sent away: he is there with my uncle, looking over the prints. They pass three hours together. And when, in the afternoon, I am summoned downstairs to make my farewells to the gentlemen, it is only Mr Hawtrey and Mr Huss that I must give my hand to. I find them in the hall, fastening their greatcoats, drawing on their gloves, while my uncle leans upon his cane and Richard stands, a little way off, his hands in his pockets, looking on. He sees me first. He meets my gaze, but makes no gesture. Then the others hear my step and lift their heads to watch me. Mr Hawtrey smiles.
‘Here comes fair Galatea,’ he says.
Mr Huss has put on his hat. Now he takes it off. ‘The nymph,’ he asks, his eyes on my face, ‘or the statue?’
‘Well, both,’ Mr Hawtrey says; ‘but I meant the statue. Miss Lilly shows as pale, don’t you think?’ He takes my hand. ‘How my daughters would envy you! They eat clay, you know, to whiten their complexions? Pure clay’ He shakes his head. ‘I do think the fashion for pallor a most unhealthy one. As for you, Miss Lilly, I am struck again—as I always am, when I must leave you!—by the unfairness of your uncle keeping you here in such a miserable, mushroom-like way.’
‘I am quite used to it,’ I say quietly. ‘Besides, I think the gloom makes me show paler than I am. Does Mr Rivers not go with you?’
‘The gloom is the culprit. Really, Mr Lilly, I can barely make out the buttons on my coat. Do you mean never to join civilised society, and bring gas to Briar?’
‘Not while I keep books,’ says my uncle.
‘Say never, then. Rivers, gas poisons books. Did you know?’
‘I did not,’ says Richard. Then he turns to me, and adds, in a lower voice: ‘No, Miss Lilly, I am not to go up to London just yet. Your uncle has been kind enough to offer me a little work among his prints. We share a passion, it seems, for Morland.’
His eye is dark—if a blue eye can be dark. Mr Hawtrey says,
‘Now Mr Lilly, how’s this for an idea: What say, while the mounting of the prints is in progress, you let your niece make a visit to Holywell Street? Shouldn’t you like a holiday, Miss Lilly, in London? There, I see by your look that you should.’
‘She should not,’ says my uncle.
Mr Huss draws close. His coat is thick and he is sweating. He takes the tips of my fingers. ‘Miss Lilly,’ he says. ‘If I might ever—’
‘Come come,’ says my uncle. ‘Now you grow tedious. Here’s my coachman, look. Maud, do you step back from the door …”
‘Fools,’ he says, when the gentlemen have gone. ‘Eh, Rivers? But come, I’m impatient to begin. You have your tools?’
‘I can fetch them, sir, in a moment.’
He bows, and goes. My uncle makes to follow. Then he turns, to look at me. He looks, in a considering sort of way, then beckons me closer. ‘Give me your hand, Maud,’ he says. I think he means to have me support him on the stairs. But when I offer him my arm he takes it, holds it, raises my wrist to his face, draws back the sleeve and squints at the strip of skin exposed. He peers at my cheek. ‘Pale, do they say? Pale as mushroom? Hmm?’ He works his mouth. ‘You know what kind of matter mushrooms spring from?—Ho!’ He laughs. ‘Not pale, now!’
I have coloured and drawn away. Still laughing, he lets fall my hand, turns from me, begins to mount the stairs alone. He wears a pair of soft list slippers, that show his stockinged heels; and I watch him climb, imagining my spite a whip, a stick, with which I could lash at his feet and make him stumble.
I am standing, thinking this, hearing his step fade, when Richard returns to the gallery from the floors above. He does not look for me, does not know that I am there, still there, in the shadow of the fastened front door. He only walks; but he walks briskly, his fingers drumming the gallery rail. I think perhaps he even whistles, or hums. We are not used to such sounds at Briar, and with my passion raised and set smarting by my uncle’s words they strike me now as thrilling, perilous, like a shifting of timbers and beams. I think the dust must be rising in a cloud from the antique carpets beneath his
shoes; and when I raise my eyes to follow his tread I am sure I can see fine crumbs of paint flake and tumble from the ceiling. The
sight makes me giddy. I imagine the house walls cracking__
gaping—collapsing in the concussion of his presence. I am only afraid they will do so before I have had my chance to escape.
But I am afraid, too, of escaping. I think he knows it. He cannot speak privately with me, once Mr Huss and Mr Hawtrey have gone; and he does not dare to steal his way, a second time, to my own rooms. But he knows he must secure me to his plan. He waits, and watches. He takes his supper with us, still; but sits at my uncle’s side, not mine. One night, however, he breaks their conversation to say this:
‘It troubles me, Miss Lilly, to think of how bored you must be, now I have come and taken your uncle’s attention from his Index. I imagine you are longing to return to your work among the books.’
‘The books?’ I say. Then, letting my gaze fall to my plate of broken meat: ‘Very much, of course.’
‘Then I wish I might do something, to make the burden of your days a little lighter. Have you no work—no painting or sketching, material of that sort—that I might mount for you, in my own time? I think you must. For I see you have many handsome prospects, from the windows of the house.’
He raises a brow, as a conductor of music might raise a baton. Of course, I am nothing if not obedient. I say, ‘I cannot paint, or draw. I have never been taught it.’
‘What, never?—Forgive me, Mr Lilly. Your niece strikes one as being so competent a mistress of the general run of the female arts, I should have said— But, you know, we might remedy this, with very little trouble. Miss Lilly could take lessons from me, sir. Might I not teach her, in my afternoons? I have a little experience in the field: I taught drawing for all of one season at Paris, to the daughters of a Comte.’
My uncle screws up his eyes. ‘Drawing?’ he says. ‘What would my niece want with that? Do you mean to assist us, Maud, in the making up of the albums?’
‘I mean drawing for its own sake, sir,’ says Richard gently, before I can reply.
‘For its own sake?’ My uncle blinks at me. ‘Maud, what do you
‘I’m afraid I have no skill.’
‘No skill? Well, that may be true. Certainly your hand, when I first had you here, was ungainly enough; and tends to slope, even now. Tell me, Rivers: should a course of instruction in drawing help the firmness of my niece’s hand?’
‘I should say it would, sir, most definitely.’
‘Then, Maud, do you let Mr Rivers teach you. I don’t care, anyhow, to imagine you idle. Hmm?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I say.
Richard looks on, a sheen of blandness across his gaze like the filmy lid that guards a cat’s eye as it slumbers. My uncle bending to his plate, however, he quickly meets my look: then the film draws back, the eye is bared; and the sudden intimacy of his expression makes me shudder.
Don’t misunderstand me. Don’t think me more scrupulous than I am. It’s true I shudder in fear—fear of his plot—fear of its success, as well as of its failure. But I tremble, too, at the boldness of him— or rather, his boldness sets me quivering, as they say a vibrating string will find out unsuspected sympathies in the fibres of idle bodies. I saw in ten minutes what your life has made of you, he said to me, that first night. And then: I think you are half a villain already. He was right. If I never knew that villainy before—or if, knowing it, I never named it—I know it, name it, now.
I know it, when he comes each day to my room, raises my hand to his mouth, touches his lips to my knuckles, rolls his cold, blue, devilish eyes. If Agnes sees, she does not understand. She thinks it gallantry. It is gallantry!—The gallantry of rogues. She will watch while we put out paper, leads and paints. She will see him take his place at my side, guide my fingers in the making of curves and crooked lines. He will drop his voice. Men’s voices do badly in murmurs, as a rule—they break, they jar, they long to rise—but his can
fall, insinuate, and yet, like a musical note, stay clear; and while she sits and sews, half the length of a room away, he will take me, in secret, point by point across his scheme, until the scheme is perfect. ‘Very good,’ he’ll say—like a proper drawing-master with an able girl. ‘Very good. You learn quickly’
He will smile. He will straighten and put back his hair. He will look at Agnes and find her eyes on his. Her gaze will flutter away. ‘Well, Agnes,’ he’ll say, marking her nervousness like a hunter marks his bird, ‘what do you say to your mistress’s gifts as an artist?’ ‘Oh, sir! I couldn’t hope to judge.’
He might take up a pencil, go closer to her. ‘You see how I have Miss Lilly hold the lead? Her grip is a lady’s grip, however, and needs firming. I think your hand, Agnes, would bear a pencil better. Here, won’t you try?’
Once he takes her fingers. She colours scarlet at his touch. ‘Do you blush?’ he says then, in amazement. ‘You don’t suppose I mean to insult you?’ ‘No, sir!’
‘Well, why do you blush?’ -■ ‘I am only a little warm, sir.’ ‘Warm, in December—?’
And so on. He has a talent for torment, quite as polished as my own; and I ought, in observing this, to grow cautious. I do not. The more he teases, the more bewildered Agnes becomes, the more—like a top, revolving faster at the goading of a whip!—the more I taunt her myself.
Agnes,’ I say, while she undresses me or brushes out my hair, ‘what are you thinking of? Of Mr Rivers?’ I stop her wrist, feel the grinding of the bones inside it. ‘Do you think him handsome, Agnes? You do, I see it in your eye! And don’t young girls want handsome men?’
‘Indeed, miss, I don’t know!’
‘Do you say that? Then you’re a liar.’ I pinch her, in some soft part of her flesh—for of course, by now I know them all. ‘You’re a liar and a flirt. Will you put those crimes upon your list, when you kneel beside your bed and ask your Father to forgive you? Do you
think He will forgive you, Agnes? I think He must forgive a redheaded girl, for she can’t help it that she’s wicked, it’s in her nature to be so. He would be cruel indeed, to put a passion in her, and then to punish her for feeling it. Don’t you think? Don’t you feel your passion, when Mr Rivers gazes at you? Don’t you listen for the sound of his quick step?’
She says she doesn’t. She swears it, against her own mother’s life! God knows what she really thinks. She must only say it, or the play will founder. She must say it and be bruised, and keep the habit of her innocence complete; and I must bruise her. I must bruise her, for all the commonplace wanting of him that—were I an ordinary girl, with an ordinary heart—I would surely feel myself.
I never do feel it. Don’t imagine I do. Does de Merteuil feel it, for Valmont? I don’t want to feel it. I should hate myself, if I did! For I know it, from my uncle’s books, for too squalid a thing—an itch, like the itch of inflamed flesh, to be satisfied hecticly, wetly, in closets and behind screens. What he has called up in me, set stirring in my breast—that dark propinquity—is something altogether rarer. I might say, it rises like a shadow in the house, or creeps like a bloom across its walls. But the house is full of shadows and stains, already; and so no-one marks it.
No-one, perhaps, save Mrs Stiles. For I think only she, of anyone there, ever gazes at Richard and wonders if he is all the gentleman he claims to be. I catch her look, sometimes. I believe she sees through him. I believe she thinks he has come to cheat me and do me harm. But, thinking it—and hating me—she keeps the thought to herself; and nurses her hope of my ruin, smiling, as she once nursed her dying child.
These, then, are the metals with which our trap is made, the forces that prime it and sharpen its teeth. And when it is all complete— ‘Now,’ says Richard, ‘our work begins.
‘We must get rid of Agnes.’
He says it in a whisper, with his eyes upon her, as she sits at the window bent over her work. He says it so coolly, with so steady a gaze, I am almost afraid of him. I think I draw back. Then he looks at me.
‘You know that we must,’ he says.
‘And you understand how?’
I have not, until this moment. Now I see his face.
‘It’s quite the only way,’ he goes on, ‘with virtuous girls like that. Will stop up a mouth, better even than menaces, or coins . . .’ He has picked up a paintbrush, puts the hairs to his lip and begins to run them, idly, back and forth. ‘Don’t trouble with the details,’ he says smoothly. ‘There’s not much to it. Not much, at all—’ He smiles. She has looked up from her work, and he has caught her eye. ‘How is the day, Agnes?’ he calls. ‘Still fair?’
‘Quite fair, sir.’
‘Good. Very good . . .’ Then she must I suppose lower her head, for the kindness sinks from his face. He puts the paintbrush to his tongue and sucks the hairs into a point. ‘I’ll do it tonight,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘Shall I? I will. I’ll make my way to her room, as I made my way to yours. All you must do is, give me fifteen minutes alone with her’—again he looks at me—’and not come, if she cries out.’
It has seemed, until this point, a sort of game. Don’t gentlemen and young ladies, in country houses, play games—flirt and intrigue? Now comes the first failing, or shrinking back, of my heart. When Agnes undresses me that night, I cannot look at her. I turn my head. ‘You may close the door to your room, this once,’ I say; and I feel her hesitate—perhaps catch the weakness in my voice, grow puzzled. I do not watch her leave me. I hear the clicking of the latch, the murmur of her prayers; I hear the murmur broken off, when he comes to her door. She does not cry out, after all. Should I really be able to keep from going to her, if she did? I do not know. But, she does not, her voice only lifts high, in surprise, in indignation and then—I suppose—a kind of panic; but then it drops, is stifled or soothed, gives way in a moment to whispers, to the rub of linen or limbs . . . Then the rub becomes silence. And the silence is worst of all: not an absence of sound, but teeming—as they say clear water teems, when viewed through a lens—with kicks and squirming
movements. I imagine her shuddering, weeping, her clothes put back—but her freckled arms closing, despite herself, about his plunging back, her white mouth seeking out his—
I put my hands to my own mouth; and feel the dry chafe of my gloves. Then I stop up my ears. I don’t hear it when he leaves her. I don’t know what she does when he is gone. I let the door stay closed; take drops, at last, to help me sleep; and then, next day, wake late. I hear her calling, weakly, from her bed. She says she is ill. She parts her lips, to show me the lining of her mouth. It is red and raised and swollen.
‘Scarlet fever,’ she whispers, not meeting my gaze.
There are fears, then, of infection. Fears, of that! She is moved to an attic, and plates of vinegar burned in her room—the smell makes me sick. I see her again, but only once, the day she comes to make me her good-bye. She seems thin, and dark about the eye; and her hair is cut. I reach for her hand, and she flinches, perhaps expecting a blow; I only kiss her, lightly, on her wrist.
Then she looks at me in scorn.
‘You are soft on me now,’ she says, drawing back her arm, pulling down her sleeve, ‘now you’ve another to be hard to. Good luck to you trying. I’d like to see you bruise him, before he bruises you.’
Her words shake me a little—but only a little; and when she is gone, it seems to me that I forget her. For Richard is also gone— gone three days before, on my uncle’s business, and on ours—and my thoughts are all with him, with him and with London. London! where I have never been, but which I have imagined so fiercely, so often, I am sure I know. London, where I will find my liberty, cast off my self, live to another pattern—live without patterns, without hides and bindings—without books! I will ban paper from my house!
I lie upon my bed and try to imagine the house that I will take, in London. I cannot do it. I see only a series of voluptuous rooms— dim rooms, close rooms, rooms-within-rooms—dungeons and cells—the rooms of Priapus and Venus.—The thought unnerves me. I give it up. The house will come clearer in time, I am sure of it.
I rise and walk and think again of Richard, making his passage across the city, picking his way through the night to the dark thieves’ den, close to the river. I think of him roughly greeted by crooks, I think of him casting off his coat and hat, warming his hands at a fire, looking about him. I think of him, Macheath-like, counting off a set of vicious faces—Mrs Vixen, Betty Doxy, Jenny Diver, Molly Brazen—until he finds the face he seeks . . .
Her. I think of her. I think so hard of her I think I know her colour—fair—her figure—plump—her walk, the shade of her eye.—I am sure it is blue. I begin to dream of her. In the dreams she speaks and I hear her voice. She says my name, and laughs.
I think I am dreaming of her when Margaret comes to my room with a letter, from him.
She’s ours, he writes.
I read it, then fall back upon my pillow and hold the letter to my mouth. I put my lips to the paper. He might be my lover, after all—or, she might. For I could not want her now, more than I could a lover.
But I could not want a lover, more than I want freedom.
I put his letter upon the fire, then draw up my reply: Send her at once. I am sure I shall love her. She shall be the dearer to me for coming from London, where you are!—we settled on the wording before he left.
That done, I need only wait, one day and then another. The day after that is the day she comes.
She is due at Marlow at three o’clock. I send William Inker for her, in good time. But though I sit and seem to feel her drawing close, the trap comes back without her: the trains are late, there are fogs. I pace, and cannot settle. At five o’clock I send William again—again he comes back. Then I must take supper with my uncle. While Charles pours out my wine I ask him, ‘Any news yet, of Miss Smith?’—My uncle hearing me whisper, however, he sends Charles away.
‘Do you prefer to talk with servants, Maud, than with me?’ he says. He is peevish, since Richard left us.
He chooses a book of little punishments for me to read from, after the meal: the steady recitation of cruelty makes me calmer. But when I go up to my chill and silent rooms, I grow fretful again; and after Margaret has undressed me and put me into my bed, I rise, and walk—stand now at the fire, now at the door, now at the window, looking out for the light of the trap. Then I see it. It shows feebly in the fog—seems to glow, rather than to shine—and to flash, with the motion of the horse and the passage of the trap behind the trees, like a thing of warning. I watch it come, my hand at my heart. It draws close—slows, narrows, fades—I see beyond it, then, the horse, the cart, William, a vaguer figure. They drive to the rear of the house, and I run to Agnes’s room—Susan’s room, it will be now—and stand at the window there; and finally see her.
She is lifting her head, gazing up at the stables, the clock. William jumps from his seat and helps her to the ground. She holds a hood about her face. She is dressed darkly, and seems small.
But, she is real. The plot is real.—I feel the force of it all at once, and tremble.
It is too late to receive her, now. Instead I must wait further, while she is given a supper and brought to her room; and then I must lie, hearing her step and murmur, my eyes upon the door—an inch or two of desiccated wood!—that lies between her chamber and
Once I rise and go stealthily to it, and put my ear to the panels; but hear nothing.
Next morning I have Margaret carefully dress me, and while she pulls at my laces I say, ‘I believe Miss Smith has come. Did you see her, Margaret?’
‘Do you think she will do?’
‘As girl to me.’
She tosses her head. ‘Seemed rather low in her manners,’ she says. ‘Been half a dozen times to France and I don’t know where, though. Made sure Mr Inker knew that.’
‘Well, we must be kind to her. It will seem dull to her here, perhaps, after London.’ She says nothing. ‘Will you have Mrs Stiles bring her to me, so soon as she has taken her breakfast?’
I have lain all night, sometimes sleeping, sometimes waking, oppressed with the nearness and obscurity of her. I must see her now, before I go to my uncle, or I fear I will grow ill. At last, at half-past seven or so, I hear an unfamiliar tread in the passage that leads from the servants’ staircase; and then Mrs Stiles’s murmur: ‘Here we are.’ There comes a knock upon my door. How should I stand? I stand at the fire. Does my voice sound queer, when I call out? Does she mark it? Does she hold her breath? I know I hold mine; then I feel myself colour, and will the blood from my face. The door is opened. Mrs Stiles comes first and, after a moment’s hesitation, she is before me: Susan—Susan Smith—Suky Tawdry—the gullible girl, who is to take my life from me and give me freedom.
Sharper than expectation, comes dismay. I have supposed she will resemble me, I have supposed she will be handsome: but she is a small, slight, spotted thing, with hair the colour of dust. Her chin comes almost to a point. Her eyes are brown, darker than mine. Her gaze is now too frank, now sly: she gives me a single, searching look that takes in my gown, my gloves, my slippers, the very clocks upon my stockings. Then she blinks—remembers her training, I suppose—makes a hasty curtsey. She is pleased with the curtsey, I can tell. She is pleased with me. She thinks me a fool. The idea upsets me, more than it should. I think, You have come to Briar to ruin me. I step to take her hand. Won’t you colour, or tremble, or hide your eyes? But she returns my gaze and her fingers—which are bitten, about the nails—are cold and hard and perfectly steady in mine.
We are watched by Mrs Stiles. Her look says plainly: ‘Here is the girl you sent for, to London. She is about good enough for you, I think.’
‘You need not stay, Mrs Stiles,’ I say. And then, as she turns to go: ‘But you will have been kind to Miss Smith, I know.’ I look again at Susan. ‘You’ve heard, perhaps, that I am an orphan, Susan; like you. I came to Briar as a child—very young, and with no-one at all
to care for me. I cannot tell you all the ways in which Mrs Stiles has made me know what a mother’s love is, since that time . . .’
I say this, smiling. The tormenting of my uncle’s housekeeper is too routine an occupation, however, to hold me. It is Susan I want; and when Mrs Stiles has twitched and coloured and left us, I draw her to me, to lead her to the fire. She walks. She sits. She is warm and quick. I touch her arm. It is as slender as Agnes’s, but hard. I can smell beer upon her breath. She speaks. Her voice is not at all how I have dreamed it, but light and pert; though she tries to make it sweeter. She tells me of her journey, of the train from London— when she says the word, London, she seems conscious of the sound; I suppose she is not in the habit of naming it, of considering it a place of destination or desire. It is a wonder and a torment to me that a girl so slight, so trifling as she, should have lived her life in London, while mine has been all at Briar; but a consolation, also— for if she can thrive there, then might not I, with all my talents, thrive better?
So I tell myself, while describing her duties. Again I see her eye my gown and slippers and now, recognising the pity in her gaze as well as the scorn, I think I blush. I say, ‘Your last mistress, of course, was quite a fine lady? She would laugh, I suppose, to look at me!’
My voice is not quite steady. But if there is a bitterness to my tone, she does not catch it. Instead, ‘Oh, no, miss,’ she says. ‘She was far too kind a lady. And besides, she always said that grand clothes weren’t worth buttons; but that it was the heart inside them that counts.’
She looks so taken with this—so taken in, by her own fiction—so innocent, not sly—I sit a moment and regard her in silence. Then I take her hand again. ‘You are a good girl, Susan, I think,’ I say. She smiles and looks modest. Her fingers move in mine.
‘Lady Alice always said so, miss,’ she says.
Then she remembers something. She pulls from me, reaches into her pocket, and brings out a letter. It is folded, sealed, directed in an
affected feminine hand; and of course comes from Richard. I hesitate, then take it—rise and walk, unfold it, far from her gaze.
No names! it says;—but I think you know me. Here is the girl who will make us rich—that fresh little finger smith, I’ve had cause in the past to employ her skills, and can commend her. She is watching as I write this, and oh! her ignorance is perfect. I imagine her now, gazing at you. She is luckier than I, who must pass two filthy weeks before enjoying that pleasure.—Burn this, will you?
I have thought myself as cool as he. I am not, I am not, I feel her watching—-just as he describes!—and grow fearful. I stand with the letter in my hand, then am aware all at once that I have stood too long. If she should have seen—! I fold the paper, once, twice, thrice— finally it will not fold at all. I do not yet know that she cannot read or write so much as her own name; when I learn it I laugh, in an awful relief. But I don’t quite believe her. ‘Not read?’ I say. ‘Not a letter, not a word?’—and I hand her a book. She does not want to take it; and when she does, she opens its covers, turns a page, gazes hard at a piece of text—but all in a way that is wrong, indefinably anxious and wrong, and too subtle to counterfeit.—At last, she blushes.
Then I take the book back. ‘I am sorry,’ I say. But I am not sorry, I am only amazed. Not to read! It seems to me a kind of fabulous insufficiency—like the absence, in a martyr or a saint, of the capacity for pain.
The eight o’clock sounds, to call me to my uncle. At the door I pause. I must, after all, make some blushing reference to Richard; and I say what I ought and her look, as it should, becomes suddenly crafty and then grows clear. She tells me how kind he is. She says it—again—as if she believes it. Perhaps she does. Perhaps kindness is measured to a different standard, where she comes from. I feel the points and edges of the folded note he has sent by her hand, in the pocket of my skirt.
What she does while alone in my chambers I cannot say, but I
imagine her fingering the silks of my gowns, trying out my boots, my gloves, my sashes. Does she take an eye-glass to my jewels? Perhaps she is planning already what she will do, when they are hers: this brooch she will keep, from this she will prise the stones to sell them, the ring of gold that was my father’s she will pass to her young man . . .
‘You are distracted, Maud,’ my uncle says. ‘Have you another occupation to which you would rather attend?’
‘No, sir,’ I say.
‘Perhaps you begrudge me your little labour. Perhaps you wish that I had left you at the madhouse, all those years ago. Forgive me: I had supposed myself performing you some service, by taking you from there. But perhaps you would rather dwell among lunatics, than among books? Hmm?’
He pauses. I think he will return to his notes. But he goes on.
‘It would be a simple matter enough, to summon Mrs Stiles and have her take you back. You are sure you don’t desire me to do that?—send for William Inker and the dog-cart?’ As he speaks, he leans to study me, his weak gaze fierce behind the spectacles that guard it. Then he pauses again, and almost smiles. ‘What would they make of you upon the wards, I wonder,’ he says, in a different voice, ‘with all that you know now?’
He says it slowly, then mumbles the question over; as if it is a biscuit that has left crumbs beneath his tongue. I do not answer, but lower my gaze until he has worked his humour out. Presently he twists his neck and looks again at the pages upon his desk.
‘So, so. The Whipping Milliners. Read me the second volume, with the punctuation all complete; and mark—the paging is irregular. I’ll note the sequence here.’
It is from this that I am reading when she comes to take me back to my drawing-room. She stands at the door, looking over the walls of books, the painted windows. She hovers at the pointing finger that my uncle keeps to mark the bounds of innocence at Briar, just as I once did; and—again, like me—in her innocence she does not see it,
and tries to cross it. I must keep her from that, more even than my uncle must!—and while he jerks and screams I go softly to her, and touch her. She flinches at the feel of my fingers.
I say, ‘Don’t be frightened, Susan.’ I show her the brass hand in the floor.
I have forgotten that, of course, she might look at anything there, anything at all, it would be so much ink upon paper. Remembering, I am filled again with wonder—and then with a spiteful kind of envy. I have to draw back my hand from her arm, for fear I will pinch her.
I ask her, as we walk to my room, What does she think of my uncle?
She believes him composing a dictionary.
We sit at lunch. I have no appetite, and pass my plate to her. I lean back in my chair, and watch as she runs her thumb along the edge of china, admires the weave of the napkin she spreads on her knee. She might be an auctioneer, a house-agent: she holds each item of cutlery as if gauging the worth of the metal from which it is cast. She eats three eggs, spooning them quickly, neatly into her mouth—not shuddering at the yielding of the yolk, not thinking, as she swallows, of the closing of her own throat about the meat. She wipes her lips with her fingers, touches her tongue to some spot upon her knuckle; then swallows again.
You have come to Briar, I think, to swallow up me.
But of course, I want her to do it. I need her to do it. And already I seem to feel myself beginning to give up my life. I give it up easily, as burning wicks give up smoke, to tarnish the glass that guards them; as spiders spin threads of silver, to bind up quivering moths. I imagine it settling, tight, about her. She does not know it. She will not know it until, too late, she will look and see how it has clothed and changed her, made her like me. For now, she is only tired, restless, bored: I take her walking about the park, and she follows, leadenly; we sit and sew, and she yawns and rubs her eyes, gazing at nothing. She chews her fingernails—stops, when she sees me looking; then after a minute draws down a length of hair and bites the tip of that.
‘You are thinking of London,’ I say.
She lifts her head. ‘London, miss?’
I nod. ‘What do ladies do there, at this hour in the day?’
‘Ladies, like me.’
She looks about her. Then, after a second: ‘Make visits, miss?’
‘To other ladies?’
She does not know. She is making it up. I am sure she is making
it up! Even so, I think over her words and my heart beats suddenly
hard. Ladies, I said, like me. There are no ladies like me, however;
and for a second I have a clear and frightening picture of myself in
London, alone, unvisited—
But I am alone and unvisited, now. And I shall have Richard
there, Richard will guide and advise me. Richard means to take us
a house, with rooms, with doors that will fasten—
Are you cold, miss?’ she says. Perhaps I have shivered. She rises,
to fetch me a shawl. I watch her walk. Diagonally she goes, over the
carpet—heedless of the design, the lines and diamonds and squares,
beneath her feet.
I watch and watch her. I cannot look too long, too narrowly at her, in her easy doing of commonplace things. At seven o’clock she makes me ready for supper with my uncle. At ten she puts me into my bed. After that, she stands in her room and I hear her sighing, and I lift my head and see her stretch and droop. Her candle lights her, very plainly; though I lie hidden in the dark. Quietly she passes, back and forth across the doorway—now stooping to pick up a fallen lace; now taking up her cloak and brushing mud from its hem. She does not kneel and pray, as Agnes did. She sits on her bed, out of my sight, but lifts her feet: I see the toe of one shoe put to the heel of the other and work it down. Now she stands, to undo the buttons of her gown; now she lets it fall, steps awkwardly out of her skirt; unlaces her stays, rubs her waist, sighs again. Now she steps away. I lift my head, to follow. She comes back, in her nightgown— shivering. I shiver, in sympathy. She yawns. I also yawn. She
stretches—enjoying the stretch—liking the approach of slumber! Now she moves off—puts out her light, climbs into her bed—grows warm I suppose, and sleeps . . .
She sleeps, in a sort of innocence. So did I, once. I wait a moment, then take out my mother’s picture and hold it close to my mouth.
That’s her, I whisper. That’s her. She’s your daughter now!
How effortless it seems! But when I have locked my mother’s face away I lie, uneasily. My uncle’s clock shudders and strikes. Some animal shrieks, like a child, in the park. I close my eyes and think— what I have not thought so vividly of, in years—of the madhouse, my first home; of the wild-eyed women, the lunatics; and of the nurses. I remember all at once the nurses’ rooms, the mattings of coir, a piece of text on the limewashed wall: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me. I remember an attic stair, a walk upon the roof, the softness of lead beneath my fingernail, the frightful drop to the ground—
I must fall into sleep, thinking this. I must plunge to the deepest layers of the night. But then, I am woken—or, not quite woken, not quite drawn free from the tugging of the dark. For I open my eyes and am bewildered—perfectly bewildered—and filled with dread. I look at my form in the bed and it seems shifting and queer—now large, now small, now broken up with spaces; and I cannot say what age I am. I begin to shake. I call out. I call for Agnes. I have quite forgotten that she has gone. I have forgotten Richard Rivers, and all our plot. I call for Agnes, and it seems to me she comes; but she comes, to take away my lamp. I think she must do it to punish me. ‘Don’t take the light!’ I say; but she takes it, she leaves me in the terrible darkness and I hear the sighing of doors, the passage of feet, beyond the curtain. It seems to me then that much time passes before the light comes back. But when Agnes lifts it and sees my face, she screams.
‘Don’t look at me!’ I cry. And then: ‘Don’t leave me!’ For I have a sense that, if she will only stay, some calamity, some dreadful thing—I do not know it, cannot name it—will be averted; and I—
or sne—will be saved. I hide my face against her and seize her hand. But her hand is pale where it used to be freckled. I gaze at her, and do not know her.
She says, in a voice that is strange to me: ‘It’s Sue, miss. Only Sue. You see me? You are dreaming.’
She touches my cheek. She smooths my hair—not like Agnes, after all, but like— Like no-one. She says again, ‘It’s Sue. That Agnes had the scarlatina, and is gone back home. You must lie down now, or the cold will make you ill. You mustn’t be ill.’
I swim in black confusion for another moment; then the dream slips from me all at once and I know her, and know myself—my past, my present, my ungaugeable future. She is a stranger to me, but part of it all.
‘Don’t leave me, Sue!’ I say.
I feel her hesitate. When she draws away, I grip her tighter. But she moves only to climb across me, and she comes beneath the sheet and lies with her arm about me, her mouth against my hair.
She is cold, and makes me cold. I shiver, but soon lie still. ‘There,’ she says then. She murmurs it. I feel the movement of her breath and, deep in the bone of my cheek, the gentle rumble of her voice. ‘There. Now you’ll sleep—won’t you? Good girl.’
Good girl, she says. How long has it been since anyone at Briar believed me good? But she believes it. She must believe it, for the working of our plot. I must be good, and kind, and simple. Isn’t gold said to be good? I am like gold to her, after all. She has come to ruin me; but, not yet. For now she must guard me, keep me sound and safe as a hoard of coins she means, at last, to squander—
I know it; but cannot feel it as I should. I sleep in her arms, dreamless and still, and wake to the warmth and closeness of her. She moves away as she feels me stir. She rubs her eye. Her hair is loose and touches my own. Her face, in sleep, has lost a little of its sharpness. Her brow is smooth, her lashes powdery, her gaze, when it meets mine, quite clear, untinged with mockery or malice . . . She smiles. She yawns. She rises. The blanket lifts and falls, and
sour heat comes gusting. I lie and remember the night. Some feeling—shame, or panic—flutters about my heart. I put my hand to the place where she has lain, and feel it cool.
She is changed with me. She is surer, kinder. Margaret brings water, and she fills me a bowl. ‘Ready, miss?’ she says. ‘Better use it quick.’ She wets a cloth and wrings it and, when I stand and undress, passes it, unasked, across my face and beneath my arms. I have become a child to her. She makes me sit, so she may brush my hair. She tuts: ‘What tangles! The trick with tangles is, to start at the bottom …”
Agnes had used to wash and dress me with quick and nervous fingers, wincing with every catching of the comb. One time I struck her with a slipper—so hard, she bled. Now I sit for Susan—Sue, she called herself, in the night—now I sit patiently while Sue draws out the knots from my hair, my eyes upon my own face in the glass . . .
Then: ‘Thank you, Sue,’ I say.
I say it often, in the days and nights that follow. I never said it to Agnes. ‘Thank you, Sue.’ ‘Yes, Sue,’ when she bids me sit or stand, lift an arm or foot. ‘No, Sue,’ when she is afraid my gown must pinch me.
No, I am not cold.—But she likes to look me over as we walk, to be quite sure; will gather my cloak a little higher about my throat, to keep off draughts. No, my boots are not taking in the dew.—But she’ll slide a finger between my stockinged ankle and the leather of my shoe, for certainty’s sake. I must not catch cold, at any cost. I must not tire. ‘Wouldn’t you say you had walked enough, miss?’ I mustn’t grow ill. ‘Here is all your breakfast, look, untouched. Won’t you take a little more?’ I mustn’t grow thin. I am a goose that must be plump, to be worth its slaughter.
Of course, though she does not know it, it is she who must be plump—she who will learn, in time, to sleep, to wake, to dress, to walk, to a pattern, to signals and bells. She thinks she humours me. She thinks she pities me! She learns the ways of the house, not understanding that the habits and the fabrics that bind me will, soon, bind her. Bind her, like morocco or like calf … I have grown
used to thinking of myself as a sort of book. Now I feel myself a book, as books must seem to her: she looks at me with her unread-ing eyes, sees the shape, but not the meaning of the text. She marks the white flesh—Ain’t you pale!’ she says—but not the quick, corrupted blood beneath.
I oughtn’t to do it. I cannot help it. I am too compelled by her idea—her idea of me as a simple girl, abused by circumstance, prone to nightmare. No nightmares come, while she sleeps at my side; and so, I find ways to bring her to my bed, a second night and a third.—At last she comes, routinely. I think her wary, at first; but it is only the canopy and drapes that trouble her: she stands each time with a lifted candle, peering into the folds of cloth. ‘Don’t you think,’ she says, ‘of the moths and spiders that might be up there, miss, and waiting to drop?’ She seizes a post, and shakes it; a single beetle falls, in a shower of dust.
Once grown used to that, however, she lies easily enough; and from the neat and comfortable way she holds her limbs, I think that she must be used to sleeping with someone; and wonder who.
‘Do you have sisters, Sue?’ I ask her once, perhaps a week after she has come. We are walking by the river.
‘Not as I know of,’ she says.
‘And so you grew up—like me—quite alone?’
‘Well, miss, not what you would call, alone . . . Say, with cousins all about.’
‘Cousins. You mean, your aunt’s children?’
‘My aunt?’ She looks blank.
‘Your aunt, Mr Rivers’s nurse.’
‘Oh!’ She blinks. ‘Yes, miss. To be sure . . .’
She turns away, and her look grows vague. She is thinking of her home. I try to imagine it; and cannot. I try to imagine her cousins: rough boys and girls, sharp-faced like her, sharp-tongued, sharp-fingered— Her fingers are blunt, however; though her tongue—for sometimes, when putting the pins to my hair, or frowning over
slithering laces, she shows it—her tongue has a point. I watch her sigh.
‘Never mind,’ I say—like any kindly mistress with an unhappy maid. ‘Look, here is a barge. You may send your wishes with it. We shall both send wishes, to London.’ To London, I think again, more darkly. Richard is there. I will be there, a month from now. I say, ‘The Thames will take them, even if the boat does not.’
She looks, however, not at the barge, but at me.
‘The Thames?’ she says. *
‘The river,’ I answer. ‘This river, here.’
‘This trifling bit of water, the Thames? Oh, no, miss.’ She laughs, uncertainly. ‘How can that be? The Thames is very wide’— she holds her hands far apart—’and this is narrow. Do you see?’
I say, after a moment, that I have always supposed that rivers grow wider as they flow. She shakes her head.
‘This trifling bit of water?’ she says again. ‘Why, the water we have from our taps, at home, has more life to it than this.—There, miss! Look, there.’ The barge has passed us. Its stern is marked in six-inch letters, ROTHERHITHE; but she is pointing, not to them, but to the wake of grease spreading out from the spluttering engine. ‘See that?’ she says excitedly. ‘That’s how the Thames looks. That’s how the Thames looks, every day of the year. Look at all those colours. A thousand colours …”
She smiles. Smiling, she is almost handsome. Then the wake of grease grows thin, the water browns, her smile quite falls; and she looks like a thief again.
You must understand, I have determined to despise her. For how, otherwise, will I be able to do what I must do?—how else deceive and harm her? It is only that we are put so long together, in such seclusion. We are obliged to be intimate. And her notion of intimacy is not like Agnes’s—not like Barbara’s—not like any lady’s maid’s. She is too frank, too loose, too free. She yawns, she leans. She rubs at spots and grazes. She will sit picking over some old dry cut upon her knuckle, while I sew. Then, ‘Got a pin, miss?’ she will ask me; and when I give her a needle from my case she will spend ten
minutes probing the skin of her hand with that. Then she will give the needle back to me.
But she will give it, taking care to keep the point from my soft fingers. ‘Don’t hurt yourself,’ she will say—so simply, so kindly, I quite forget that she is only keeping me safe for Richard’s sake. I think that she forgets it, too.
One day she takes my arm as we are walking. It is nothing to her; but I feel the shock of it, like a slap. Another time, after sitting, I complain that my feet are chilled: she kneels before me, unlaces my slippers, takes my feet in her hands and hold and chafes them— finally dips her head and carelessly breathes upon my toes. She begins to dress me as she pleases; makes little changes to my gowns, my hair, my rooms. She brings flowers: throws away the vases of curling leaves that have always stood on my drawing-room tables, and finds primroses in the hedges of my uncle’s park to put in their place. ‘Of course, you don’t get the flowers that you get in London, in the country,’ she says, as she sets them in the glass; ‘but these are pretty enough, ain’t they?’
She has Margaret bring extra coals for my fires, from Mr Way. Such a simple thing to do!—and yet no-one has thought to do it before, for my sake; even I have not thought to do it; and so I have gone cold, through seven winters. The heat makes the windows cloud. She likes to stand, then, and draw loops and hearts and spirals upon the glass.
One time she brings me back from my uncle’s room and I find the luncheon-table spread with playing-cards. My mother’s cards, I suppose; for these are my mother’s rooms, and filled with her things; and yet for a second it quite disconcerts me, to imagine my mother here—actually here—walking here, sitting here, setting out the coloured cards upon the cloth. My mother, unmarried, still sane—perhaps, idly leaning her cheek upon her knuckles—perhaps, sighing—and waiting, waiting . . .
I take up a card. It slides against my glove. But in Sue’s hands, the deck is changed: she gathers and sorts it, shuffles and deals it, neatly and nimbly; and the golds and reds are vivid between her fingers, like so many jewels. She is astonished, of course, to learn I
cannot play; and at once makes me sit, so she may teach me. The games are things of chance and simple speculation, but she plays earnestly, almost greedily—tilting her head, narrowing her eye as she surveys her fan of cards. When I grow tired, she plays alone— or else, will stand the cards upon their ends and tilt their tips together, and from doing this many times will build a rising structure, a kind of pyramid of cards—always keeping back, for the top-most point, a king and a queen.
‘Look here,’ she says, when she has finished. ‘Look here, miss. Do you see?’ Then she will ease a card from the pyramid’s foundation; and as the structure topples, she will laugh.
She will laugh. The sound is as strange, at Briar, as I imagine it must be in a prison or a church. Sometimes, she will sing. Once we talk of dancing. She rises and lifts her skirt, to show me a step. Then she pulls me to my feet, and turns and turns me; and I feel, where she presses against me, the quickening beat of her heart—I feel it pass from her to me and become mine.
Finally I let her smooth a pointed tooth with a silver thimble.
‘Let me look,’ she says. She has seen me rubbing my cheek. ‘Come to the light.’
I stand at the window, put back my head. Her hand is warm, her breath—with the yeast of beer upon it—warm also. She reaches, and feels about my gum.
‘Well, that is sharper,’ she says, drawing back her hand, ‘than—’
‘Than a serpent’s tooth, Sue?’
‘Than a needle, I was going to say.’ She looks about her. ‘Do snakes have teeth, miss?’
‘I think they must, since they are said to bite.’
‘That’s true,’ she says distractedly. ‘Only, I had imagined them gummier …”
She has gone to my dressing-room. I can see, through the open door, the bed and, pushed well beneath it, the chamber-pot: she has warned me, more than once, of how china pots may break beneath the toes of careless risers and make them lame. She has cautioned me, in a similar spirit, against the stepping on, in naked feet, of
hairs (since hairs—like worms, she says—may work their way into the flesh, and fester); the darkening of eye-lashes with impure castor-oil; and the reckless climbing—for purposes of concealment, or flight—of chimneys. Now, looking through the items on my dressing-table, she says no more. I wait, then call.
‘Don’t you know anyone who died from a snake-bite, Sue?’
‘A snake-bite, miss?’ She reappears, still frowning. ‘In London? Do you mean, at the Zoo?’
‘Well, perhaps at the Zoo.’
‘I can’t say as I do.’
‘Curious. I was certain, you know, that you would.’
I smile, though she does not. Then she shows me her hand, with the thimble on it; I see for the first time what she means to do, and perhaps look strange. ‘It won’t hurt you,’ she says, watching my changing face.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, miss. If I hurt, you may scream; and then I will stop.’
It does not hurt, I do not scream. But it makes for a queer mix of sensations: the grinding of the metal, the pressure of her hand holding my jaw, the softness of her breath. As she studies the tooth she files, I can look nowhere but at her face; and so I look at her eyes: one is marked, I see now, with a fleck of darker brown, almost black. I look at the line of her cheek—which is smooth; and her ear—which is neat, its lobe pierced through for the wearing of hoops and pendants. ‘Pierced, how?’ I asked her once, going close to her, putting my finger-tips to the little dimples in the curving flesh. ‘Why, miss, with a needle,’ she said, ‘and a bit of ice . . .’ The thimble rubs on. She smiles. ‘My aunty does this,’ she says as she works, ‘for babies. I dare say she done it for me.—Almost got it! Ha!’ She grinds more slowly, then pauses, to test the tooth. Then she rubs again. ‘Tricky thing to do to an infant, of course. For if you happen to let slip the thimble—well. I know several as were lost like that.’
I do not know if she means thimbles, or infants. Her fingers, and my lips, are becoming wet. I swallow, then swallow again. My tongue rises and moves against her hand. Her hand seems, all at once, too big, too strange; and I think of the tarnish on the silver—
I think my breath must have made it wet and set it running, I think I can taste it. Perhaps, if she were to work a little longer at the tooth, I should fall into a sort of panic; but now the thimble rubs slower again, and soon, she stops. She tests again with her thumb, keeps her hand another second at my jaw, and then draws back.
I emerge from her grip a little unsteadily. She has held me so tight, so long, when she moves away the cold air leaps to my face. I swallow, then run my tongue across my blunted tooth. I wipe my lips. I see her hand: her knuckles marked red and white from the pressure of my mouth; her finger also marked, and with the thimble still upon it. The silver is bright—not tarnished, not tarnished at all. What I have tasted, or imagine I have tasted, is the taste of her; only that.
May a lady taste the fingers of her maid? She may, in my uncle’s books.—The thought makes me colour.
And it is as I am standing, feeling the blood rush awkwardly into my cheek, that a girl comes to my door with a letter, from Richard. I have forgotten to expect it. I have forgotten to think of our plan, our flight, our marriage, the looming asylum gate. I have forgotten to think of him. I must think of him now, however. I take the letter and, trembling, break its seal.
Are you as impatient as I? he writes. I know that you are. Do you have her with you, now? Can she see your face? Look glad. Smile, simper, all of that. Our waiting is over. My business in London is done, and I am coming!
The letter works upon me like the snap of a mesmerist’s fingers: _y I blink, look giddily about me, as if emerging from a trance. I look at Sue: at her hand, at the mark of my mouth upon it. I look at the pillows upon my bed, with the dints of our two heads. I look at the flowers in their vase on the table-top, at the fire in my grate. The room is too warm. The room is too warm and yet I am still trembling, as if cold. She sees it. She catches my eye, and nods to the paper in my hand. ‘Good news, miss?’ she asks; and it is as if the letter has worked some trick upon her, too: for her voice seems light to me—dreadfully light—and her face seems sharp. She puts away the thimble; but watches, watches. I cannot meet her gaze.
Richard is coming. Does she feel it, as I do? She gives no sign. She walks, she sits, as easily as before. She eats her lunch. She takes out my mother’s playing-cards, begins the patient dealing-out of solitary games. I stand at the glass and, in reflection, see her reach to take a card and place it, turn it, set it upon another, raise up the
kings, pull out the aces … I look at my face and think what makes it mine: the certain curve of cheek, the lip too full, too plump, too pink.
At last she gathers the pack together and says that if I will shuffle and hold it, and wish, she will study the fall of the cards and tell me my future. She says it, apparently quite without irony; and despite myself I am drawn to her side, and sit, and clumsily mix the cards, and she takes them and lays them down. ‘These show your past,’ she says, ‘and these your present.’ Her eyes grow wide. She seems suddenly young to me: for a moment we bend our heads and whisper as I think other, ordinary girls, in ordinary parlours or schools or sculleries, might whisper: Here is a young man, look, on horseback. Here is a journey. Here is the Queen of Diamonds, for wealth—
I have a brooch that is set with brilliants. I think of it now. I think—as I have, before, though not in many days—of Sue, breathing proprietorially over the stones, gauging their worth . . .
After all, we are not ordinary girls, in an ordinary parlour; and she is interested in my fortune only as she supposes it hers. Her eye grows narrow again. Her voice lifts out of its whisper and is only pert. I move away from her while she sits gathering the deck, turning the cards in her hands and frowning. She has let one fall, and has not seen it: the two of hearts. I place my heel upon it, imagining one of the painted red hearts my own; and I grind it into the carpet.
She finds it, when I have risen, and tries to smooth the crease from it; then plays on at Patience, as doggedly as before.
I look, again, at her hands. They have grown whiter, and are healed about the nails. They are small, and in gloves will seem smaller; and then will resemble my own.
This must be done. This should have been done, before. Richard is coming, and I am overtaken by a sense of duties unmet: a panicking sense that hours, days—dark, devious fish of time—have slithered by, uncaptured. I pass a fretful night. Then, when we rise and she comes to dress me, I pluck at the frill on the sleeve of her gown.
‘Have you no other gown,’ I say, ‘than this plain brown thing you always wear?’
She says she has not. I take, from my press, a velvet gown, and have her try it. She bares her arms unwillingly, steps out of her skirt and turns, in a kind of modesty, away from my eyes. The gown is narrow. I tug at the hooks. I settle the folds of cloth about her hips, then go to my box for a brooch—that brooch of brilliants—and pin it carefully over her heart.
Then I stand her before the glass.
Margaret comes, and takes her for me.
I have grown used to her, to the life, the warmth, the particularity of her; she has become, not the gullible girl of a villainous plot—not Suky Tawdry—but a girl with a history, with hates and likings. Now all at once I see how near to me in face and figure she’ll come, and I understand, as if for the first time, what it is that Richard and I mean to do. I place my face against the post of my bed and watch her, gazing at herself in a rising satisfaction, turning a little to the left, a little to the right, brushing the creases from her skirt, settling her flesh more comfortably into the seams of the gown. ‘If my aunty could see me!’ she says, growing pink; and I think, then, of who might be waiting for her, in that dark thieves’ den in London: the aunt, the mother or grandmother. I think how restless she must be, as she counts off the lengthening days that keep her little fin-gersmith on perilous business, far from home. I imagine her, as she waits, taking out some small thing of Sue’s—some sash, some necklace, some bracelet of gaudy charms—and turning it, over and over, in her hands . . .
She will turn it for ever, though she does not know it yet. Nor does Sue suppose that the last time she kissed her aunt’s hard cheek was the last of all her life.
I think of that; and I am gripped with what I take to be pity. It is hard, painful, surprising: I feel it, and am afraid. Afraid of what my future may cost me. Afraid of that future itself, and of the unfamiliar, ungovernable emotions with which it might be filled.
She does not know it. He must not know it, either. He comes that
afternoon—comes, as he used to come, in the days of Agnes: takes my hand, holds my gaze with his, bends to kiss my knuckles. ‘Miss Lilly/ he says, in a tone of caress. He is dressed darkly, neatly; yet carries his daring, his confidence, close and gaudy about him, like swirls of colour or perfume. I feel the heat of his mouth, even through my gloves. Then he turns to Sue, and she makes a curtsey. The stiff-bodiced dress is not made for curtseying in, however: the dip is a jagged one, the fringes upon her skirt tumble together and seem to shake. Her colour rises. I see him smile as he notes it. But I see, too, that he marks the gown, and perhaps also the whiteness of her fingers. ‘I should have supposed her a lady, I’m sure,’ he says, to me. He moves to her side. There, he seems tall, and darker than ever, like a bear; and she seems slight. He takes her hand, his fingers moving about hers: they seem large, also—his thumb extends almost to the bone of her wrist. He says, ‘I hope you are proving a good girl for your mistress, Sue.’
She gazes at the floor. ‘I hope I am, too, sir.’ I take a step. ‘She is a very good girl,’ I say. ‘A very good girl, indeed.’
But the words are hasty, imperfect. He catches my eye, draws back his thumb. ‘Of course,’ he says smoothly, ‘she could not help but be good. No girl could help it, Miss Lilly, with you for her example.’
‘You are too kind,’ I say.
‘No gentleman could but be, I think, with you to be kind to.’ He keeps his gaze on mine. He has picked me out, found sympathies in me, means to pluck me from the heart of Briar, unscratched; and I would not be myself, niece to my uncle, if I could meet the look he shows me now without feeling the stir of some excitement, dark and awful, in my own breast. But I feel it too hard, and grow almost queasy. I smile; but the smile stretches tight. Sue tilts her head. Does she suppose me smiling at my own love? The thought makes the smile tighter still, I begin to feel it as an ache about my throat. I avoid her eye, and his. He goes, but makes her step to him and they stand a moment, murmuring at the door. He gives her a coin—I see the yellow gleam of it—he puts it into
her hand, closes her fingers about it with his own. His nail shows brown against the fresh pink of her palm. She falls in another awkward curtsey.
Now my smile is fixed like the grimace on the face of a corpse. When she turns back, I cannot look at her. I go to my dressing-room and close the door, lie face down upon my bed, and am seized and shaken by laughter—a terrible laughter, it courses silently through me, like filthy water—I shudder, and shudder, and finally am still.
‘How do you find your new girl, Miss Lilly?’ he asks me at dinner, his eyes upon his plate. He is carefully parting meat from the spine of a fish—the bone so pale and so fine it is almost translucent, the meat in a thickening coating of butter and sauce. Our food comes cold to the table in winter. In summer it comes too warm.
I say, ‘Very—biddable, Mr Rivers.’
‘You think she will suit?’
‘I think so, yes.’
‘You won’t have cause to complain, of my recommendation?’
‘Well, I am relieved to hear it.’
He will always say too much, for the sport of the thing. My uncle is watching. ‘What’s this?’ he says now.
I wipe my mouth. ‘My new maid, Uncle,’ I answer. ‘Miss Smith, who replaces Miss Fee. You’ve seen her, often.’
‘Heard her, more like, kicking the soles of her boots against my library door. What of her?’
‘She came to me on Mr Rivers’s word. He found her in London, in need of a place; and was so kind as to remember me.’
My uncle moves his tongue. ‘Was he?’ he says slowly. He looks from me to Richard, from Richard back to me, his chin a little raised, as if sensing dark currents. ‘Miss Smith, you say?’
‘Miss Smith,’ I repeat steadily, ‘who replaces Miss Fee.’ I neaten my knife and fork. ‘Miss Fee, the papist.’
‘The papist! Ha!’ He returns excitedly to his own meat. ‘Now, Rivers,’ he says as he does it.
‘I defy you—positively defy you, sir!—to name me any institution so nurturing of the atrocious acts of lechery as the Catholic Church of Rome
He does not look at me again until supper is ended. Then has me read for an hour from an antique text, The Nunns’ Complaint Against the Fryars.
Richard sits and hears me, perfectly still. But when I have finished and rise to leave, he rises also: ‘Let me,’ he says. We walk together the little way to the door. My uncle does not lift his head, but keeps his gaze on his own smudged hands. He has a little pearl-handled knife, its ancient blade sharpened almost to a crescent, with which he is paring the skin from an apple—one of the small, dry, bitter apples that grow in the Briar orchard.
Richard checks to see that his gaze is turned, then looks at me frankly. His tone he keeps polite, however. ‘I must ask you,’ he says, ‘if you wish to continue with your drawing-lessons, now that I’m returned? I hope you do.’ He waits. I do not answer. ‘Shall I come, as usual, tomorrow?’ He waits again. He has his hand upon the door and has drawn it back—not far enough, though, to let me step about it; nor does he pull it further when he sees me wishing to pass. Instead, his look grows puzzled. ‘You mustn’t be modest,’ he says. He means, You mustn’t be weak. ‘You are not, are you?’
I shake my head.
‘Good, then. I shall come, at the usual time. You must show me the work you’ve done while I’ve been away. I should say a little more labour and—well, who knows? We might be ready to surprise your uncle with the fruits of your instruction. What do you think? Shall we give it another two weeks? Two weeks or, at the most, three?’
Again, I feel the nerve and daring of him, feel my own blood rise to meet it. But there comes, beneath or beyond it, a sinking, a fluttering—a vague and nameless movement—a sort of panic. He waits for my reply, and the fluttering grows wilder. We have plotted so carefully. We have committed, already, one dreadful deed, and set in train another. I know all that must be done now. I know I must seem
to love him, let him appear to win me, then confess his winning to Sue. How easy it should be! How I have longed for it! How hard I have gazed at the walls of my uncle’s estate, wishing they might part and release me! But now that the day of our escape is close, I hesitate; and am afraid to say why. I gaze again at my uncle’s hands, the pearl, the apple giving up its skin to the knife.
‘Let us say, three weeks—perhaps longer,’ I say finally. ‘Perhaps longer, should I feel I need it.’
A look of irritation or anger disturbs the surface of his face; but when he speaks, he makes his voice soft. ‘You are modest. Your talent is better than that. Three weeks will do it, I assure you.’
He draws back the door at last and bows me out. And though I do not turn, I know he lingers to watch me mount the stairs—as solicitous for my safety, as any of my uncle’s gentlemen friends.
He will grow more solicitous, soon; but for now, at least, the days fall back into something like a familiar pattern. He passes his mornings at work on the prints, then comes to my rooms, to teach me drawing—to keep close to me, that is to say; to look and to murmur, while I daub paint on card; to be grave and ostentatiously gallant.
The days fall back in their pattern—except that, where before they had Agnes in them, now they have Sue.
And Sue is not like Agnes. She knows more. She knows her own worth and purpose. She knows she must listen and watch, to see that Mr Rivers does not come too close, or speak too confidentially, to her mistress; but she also knows that when he does come near she is to turn her head aside and be deaf to his whispers. She does turn her head, I see her do it; but I see her, too, steal glances at us from the edge of her eye—study our reflections in the chimney-glass and windows—watch our very shadows! The room, in which I have passed so many captive hours I know it as a prisoner knows his cell—the room seems changed to me now. It seems filled with shining surfaces, each one an eye of hers.
When those eyes meet mine, they are veiled and blameless. But when they meet Richard’s, I see the leap of knowledge or understanding that passes between them; and I cannot look at her.
For of course, though she knows much, what she has is a counterfeit knowledge, and worthless; and her satisfaction in the keeping of it—in the nursing of what she supposes her secret—is awful to me. She does not know she is the hinge of all our scheme, the point about which our plot turns; she thinks I am that point. She does not suspect that, in seeming to mock me, Richard mocks her: that after he has turned to her in private, perhaps to smile, perhaps to grimace, he turns to me, and smiles and grimaces in earnest.
And where his torturing of Agnes pricked me on to little cruelties of my own, now I am only unnerved. My consciousness of Sue makes me too conscious of myself—makes me, now reckless, as Richard is sometimes reckless, in the gross performance of our sham passion; now guarded and watchful, hesitating. I will be bold for an hour—or meek, or coy—and then, in the final minute of his stay, I will tremble. I will be betrayed by the movement of my own limbs, my blood, my breath.—I suppose she reads that as love.
Richard, at least, knows it for weakness. The days creep by: the first week passes, and we begin the second. I sense his bafflement, feel the weight of his expectation: feel it gather, turn, grow sour. He looks at my work, and begins to shake his head.
‘I am afraid, Miss Lilly,’ he says, more than once, ‘that you want discipline, yet. I thought your touch firmer than this. I am sure it was firmer, a month ago. Don’t say you’ve forgotten your lessons, in my short absence. After all our labour! There is one thing an artist must always avoid, in the execution of his work: that is, hesitation. For that leads to weakness; and through weakness, greater designs than this one have foundered. You understand? You do understand me?’
I will not answer. He leaves, and I keep at my place. Sue comes to my side.
‘Never mind it, miss,’ she says gently, ‘if Mr Rivers seems to say hard things about your picture. Why, you got those pears, quite to the life.’
‘You think so, Sue?’
She nods. I look into her face—into her eye, with its single fleck of darker brown. Then I look at the shapeless daubs of colour I have put upon the card.
‘It’s a wretched painting, Sue,’ I say.
She puts her hand upon mine. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘but ain’t you learning?’
I am, but not quickly enough. He suggests, in time, that we go walking in the park.
‘We must work from nature now,’ he says.
‘I should rather not,’ I tell him. I have my paths, that I like to walk with Sue beside me. I think that to walk them with him will spoil them. ‘I should rather not,’ I say again.
He frowns, then smiles. As your instructor,’ he says, ‘I must insist.’
I hope it will rain. But though the sky above Briar has been grey all that winter long—has been grey, it seems to me, for seven years!—it lightens now, for him. There is only a quick, soft wind, that comes gusting about my unskirted ankles as Mr Way tugs open the door.—’Thank you, Mr Way,’ says Richard, bending his arm for me to take. He wears a low black hat, a dark wool coat, and lavender gloves. Mr Way observes the gloves, then looks at me in a kind of satisfaction, a kind of scorn.
Fancy yourself a lady, do you? he said to me, the day he carried me, kicking, to the ice-house. Well, we’ll see.
I will not walk to the ice-house today, with Richard, but choose another path—a longer, blander path, that circles my uncle’s estate, rises and overlooks the rear of the house, the stables, woods, and chapel. I know the view too well to want to gaze at it, and walk with my eyes upon the ground. He keeps my arm in his, and Sue follows behind us—first close, then falling back when he makes our pace grow brisk. We do not speak, but as we walk he slowly draws me to him. My skirt rises, awkwardly.
When I try to pull away, however, he will not let me. I say at last: ‘You need not hold me so close.’
He smiles. ‘We must seem convincing.’
‘You needn’t grip me so. Have you anything to whisper, that I don’t already know?’
He gazes quickly over his shoulder. ‘She would think it queer,’ he
says, ‘were I to let slip these chances to be near you. Anyone would think that queer.’
‘She knows you do not love me. You have no need to dote.’
‘Shouldn’t a gentleman dote, in the springtime, when he has the chance?’ He puts back his head. ‘Look at this sky, Maud. See how sickeningly blue it shows. So blue’—he has lifted his hand—’it jars with my gloves. That’s nature for you. No sense of fashion. London skies, at least, are better-mannered: they’re like tailors’ walls, an eternal drab.’ He smiles again, and draws me closer. ‘But of course, you will know this, soon.’
I try to imagine myself in a tailor’s shop. I recall scenes from The Whipping Milliners. I turn and, like him, quickly glance at Sue. She is watching, with a frown of what I take to be satisfaction, the bulging of my skirt about his leg. Again I attempt to pull from him, and again he keeps me close. I say, ‘Will you let me go?’ And, when he does nothing: ‘I must suppose, then, since you know I don’t care to be smothered, that you take a delight in tormenting me.’
He catches my eye. ‘I am like any man,’ he says, ‘preoccupied with what I may not have. Hasten the day of our union. I think you’ll find my attention will cool pretty rapidly, after that.’
Then I say nothing. We walk on, and in time he lets me go, in order to cup his hands about a cigarette and light it. I look again at Sue. The ground has risen, the breeze is stronger, and two or three lengths of brown hair have come loose from beneath her bonnet and whip about her face. She carries our bags and baskets, and has no hand free to secure them. Behind her, her cloak billows like a sail.
‘Is she all right?’ asks Richard, drawing on his cigarette.
I turn and look ahead. ‘Quite all right.’
‘She is stouter than Agnes, anyway. Poor Agnes! I wonder how she does, hey?’ He takes my arm again, and laughs. I do not answer, and his laughter fades. ‘Come, Maud,’ he says, in a cooler tone, ‘don’t be so spinsterish. What has happened to you?’
‘Nothing has happened to me.’
He studies my profile. ‘Then, why do you make us wait? Everything is in place. Everything is ready. I have taken a house for us, in London. London houses do not come cheaply, Maud
I walk on, in silence, aware of his gaze. He pulls me close again. ‘You have not, I suppose,’ he says, ‘had a change of heart? Have you?’
‘You are sure?’
‘And yet, you still delay. Why is that?’ I do not answer. ‘Maud, I ask you again. Something has happened, since I saw you last. What is it?’
‘Nothing has happened,’ I say.
‘Nothing, but what we planned for.’
‘And you know what must be done now?’
‘Do it then, will you? Act like a lover. Smile, blush, grow foolish.’
‘Do I not do those things?’
‘You do—then spoil them, with a grimace or a flinch. Look at you now. Lean into my arm, damn you. Will it kill you, to feel my hand upon yours?—I am sorry’ I have grown stiff at his words. ‘I am sorry, Maud.’
‘Let go of my arm,’ I say.
We go further, side by side but in silence. Sue plods behind—I hear her breaths, like sighs. Richard throws down the butt of his cigarette, tears up a switch of grass and begins to lash at his boots. ‘How filthy red this earth is!’ he says. ‘But, what a treat for little Charles . . .’ He smiles to himself. Then his foot turns up a flint and he almost stumbles. That makes him curse. He rights himself, and looks me over. ‘I see you walk more nimbly. You like it, hmm? You may walk in London like this, you know. On the parks and heaths. Did you know? Or else, you may choose not to walk, ever again— you may rent carriages, chairs, men to drive and carry you about—’
‘I know what I may do.’
‘Do you? Truly?’ He puts the stem of grass to his mouth and grows thoughtful. ‘I wonder. You are afraid, I think. Of what? Being alone? Is it that? You need never fear solitude, Maud, while you are rich.’
‘You think I feax solitude?’ I say. We are close to the wall of my uncle’s park. It is high, grey, dry as powder. ‘You think I fear that? I fear nothing, nothing.’
He casts the grass aside, takes up my arm. ‘Why, then,’ he says, ‘do you keep us here, in such dreadful suspense?’
I do not answer. We have slowed our step. Now we hear Sue, still breathing hard behind us, and walk on more quickly. When he speaks again, his tone has changed.
‘You spoke, a moment ago, of torment. The truth is, I think you like to torment yourself, by prolonging this time.’
I shrug, as if in carelessness; though I do not feel careless. ‘My uncle said something similar to me once,’ I say. ‘That was before I became like him. It is hardly a torment to me now, to wait. I am used to it.’
‘I am not, however,’ he replies. ‘Nor do I wish to take instruction in the art, from you or anyone. I have lost too much, in the past, through waiting. I am cleverer now, at manipulating events to match my needs. That is what I have learned, while you have learned patience. Do you understand me, Maud?’
I turn my head, half-close my eyes. ‘I don’t want to understand you,’ I say tiredly. ‘I wish you would not speak at all.’
‘I will speak, until you hear.’
‘Hear this.’ He brings his mouth close to my face. His beard, his lips, his breath, are tainted with smoke, like a devil’s. He says: ‘Remember our contract. Remember how we made it. Remember that when I came to you first I came, not quite as a gentleman, and with little to lose—unlike you, Miss Lilly, who saw me alone, at midnight, in your own room …” He draws back. ‘I suppose your reputation must count for something, even here; I’m afraid that ladies’ always do.—But naturally you knew that, when you received me.’
His tone has some new edge to it, some quality I have not heard before. But we have changed our course: when I gaze at his face the light is all behind him, making his expression hard to read.
I say carefully, ‘You call me a lady; but I am hardly that.’
‘And yet, I think your uncle must consider you one. Will he like to think you corrupted?’
‘He has corrupted me himself!’
‘Then, will he like to think the work taken over by another man’s hand?—I am speaking only, of course, of what he will suppose to be the case.’
I move away. ‘You misunderstand him, entirely. He considers me a sort of engine, for the reading and copying of texts.’
‘All the worse. He shan’t like it, when the engine bucks. What say he disposes of it and makes himself another?’
Now I can feel the beat of the blood in my brow. I put my fingers to my eyes. ‘Don’t be tiresome, Richard. Disposes of it, how?’
‘Why, by sending it home . . .’
The beat seems to stumble, then quickens. I draw back my fingers, but again the light is behind him and I cannot quite make out his face. I say, very quietly, ‘I shall be no use to you, in a madhouse.’
‘You are no use to me now, while you delay! Be careful I don’t grow tired of this scheme. I shan’t be kind to you, then.’
And is this kindness?’ I say.
We have moved, at last, into shadow, and I see his look: it is honest, amused, amazed. He says: ‘This is dreadful villainy, Maud. When did I ever call it anything else?’
We stop, close as sweethearts. His tone has grown light again, but his eye is hard—quite hard. I feel, for the first time, what it would be to be afraid of him.
He turns and calls to Sue. ‘Not far now, Suky! We are almost there, I think.’ To me he murmurs: ‘I shall need some minutes with her, alone.’
‘To secure her,’ I say. As you have me.’
‘That work is done,’ he says complacently; ‘and she, at least, sticks better.—What?’ I have shuddered, or my look has changed. ‘You don’t suspect her of qualms? Maud? You don’t suppose her weakening, or playing us false? Is that why you hesitate?’ I shake my head. ‘Well,’ he goes on, ‘all the more reason for me to see her, to find out how she thinks we do. Have her come to me, today or tomorrow. Find out some way, will you? Be sly.’
He puts his smoke-stained finger to his mouth. Presently Sue comes, and rests at my side. She is flushed from the weight of the bags. Her cloak still billows, her hair still whips, and I want more than anything to draw her to me, to touch and tidy her. I think I begin to, I think I half-reach for her; then I become conscious of Richard and his shrewd, considering gaze. I cross my arms before me and turn away.
Next morning I have her take him a coal from the fire, to light his cigarette from; and I stand with my brow against my dressing-room window and watch them whisper. She keeps her head turned from me, but when she leaves him he raises his eyes to me and holds my gaze, as he held it once before, in darkness. Remember our contract, he seems again to say. Then he drops his cigarette and stands heavily upon it; then shakes free the clinging red soil from his shoes.
After that, I feel the mounting pressure of our plot as I think men must feel the straining of checked machinery, tethered beasts, the gathering of tropical storms. I wake each day and think: Today I will do it! Today I will draw free the bolt and let the engine race, unleash the beast, puncture the lowering clouds! Today, I will let him claim me—!
But, I do not. I look at Sue, and there comes, always, that shadow, that darkness—a panic, I suppose it, a simple fear—a quaking, a caving—a dropping, as into the sour mouth of madness—
Madness, my mother’s malady, perhaps beginning its slow ascent in me! That thought makes me more frightened yet. I take, for a day or two, more of my drops: they calm me, but change me. My uncle marks it.
‘You grow clumsy,’ he says, one morning. I have mishandled a book. ‘You think I have you come, day after day, to my library, to abuse it?’
‘What? Do you mumble?’
He wets and purses his mouth, and studies me harder. When he speaks again, his tone is strange to me.
‘What age are you?’ he says. I am surprised, and hesitate. He sees it. ‘Don’t strike coy attitudes with me, miss! What age are you? Sixteen? Seventeen?—You may show astonishment. You think me insensible to the passage of years, because I am a scholar? Hmm?’
‘I am seventeen, Uncle.’
‘Seventeen. A troublesome age, if we are to believe our own books.’
‘Yes, Maud. Only remember: your business is not with belief, but with study. Remember this, also: you are not too great a girl— nor am I too aged a scholar—for me to have Mrs Stiles come and hold you still while I take a whip to you. Hmm? You’ll remember these things? Will you?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I say.
It seems to me now, however, that I must remember too much. My face, my joints, are set aching with the effort of striking looks and poses. I can no longer say with certainty which of my actions— which of my feelings, even—are true ones, which are sham. Richard still keeps his gaze close upon me. I will not meet it. He is reckless, teasing, threatening: I choose not to understand. Perhaps I am weak, after all. Perhaps, as he and my uncle believe, I draw a pleasure from torment. It is certainly a torment to me now, to sit at a lesson with him, to sit at a dinner-table with him, to read to him, at night, from my uncle’s books. It begins to be a torment, too, to pass time with Sue. Our routines are spoiled. I am too conscious that she waits, as he does: I feel her watching, gauging, willing me on. Worse, she begins to speak in his behalf—to tell me, bluntly, how clever he is, how kind and interesting.
‘You think so, Sue?’ I ask her, my eyes upon her face; and her gaze might flutter uneasily away, but she will always answer: ‘Yes, miss. Oh, yes, miss. Anyone would say it, wouldn’t they?’
Then she will make me neat—always neat, handsome and neat— she will take down my hair and dress it, straighten seams, lift lint from the fabric of my gowns. I think she does it as much to calm
herself, as to calm me. ‘There,’ she will say, when she has finished. ‘Now you are better.’—Now she is better, she means. ‘Now your brow is smooth. How creased it was, before! It mustn’t be creased—’
It mustn’t be creased, for Mr Rivers’s sake: I hear the unspoken words, my blood surges again; I take her arm in mine and pinch it.
I do not know who cries it, she or I: I reel away, unnerved. But in the second I have her skin between my fingers, my own flesh leaps in a kind of relief. I shake, horribly, for almost an hour.
‘Oh, God!’ I say, hiding my face. ‘I’m afraid, for my own mind! Do you think me mad? Do you think me wicked, Sue?’
‘Wicked?’ she answers, wringing her hands. And I can see her thinking: A simple girl like you?
She puts me into my bed and lies with her arm against mine; but soon she sleeps, and then draws away. I think of the house in which I lie. I think of the room beyond the bed—its edges, its surfaces. I think I shall not sleep, unless I touch them. I rise, it is cold, but I go quietly from thing to thing—chimney-piece, dressing-table, carpet, press. Then I come to Sue. I would like to touch her, to be sure that she is there. I dare not. But I cannot leave her. I lift my hands and move and hold them an inch, just an inch, above her—her hip, her breast, her curling hand, her hair on the pillow, her face, as she sleeps.
I do that, perhaps three nights in a row. Then this happens.
Richard begins to make us go to the river. He has Sue sit far from me, against the upturned boat; and he, as always, keeps close at my side, pretending to watch as I paint. I paint the same spot so many times, the card starts to rise and crumble beneath my brush; but I paint on, stubbornly, and he will now and then lean close to whisper, idly but fiercely:
‘God damn you, Maud, how can you sit so calm and steady? Hey? Do you hear that bell?’ The Briar clock sounds clearly there, beside the water. ‘There’s another hour gone, that we might have passed in freedom. Instead, you keep us here—’
‘Will you move?’ I say. ‘You are standing in my light.’
‘You are standing in mine, Maud. See how easy it is, to remove that shadow? One little step is all that must be made. Do you see? Will you look? She won’t. She prefers her painting. That piece of— Oh! Let me find a match, I shall burn it!’
I glance at Sue. ‘Be quiet, Richard.’
But the days grow warm, and at last comes a day, so close and airless, the heat overpowers him. He spreads his coat upon the ground and sprawls upon it, tilts his hat to shadow his eyes. For a time, then, the afternoon is still and almost pleasant: there is only the calling of frogs in the rushes, the slapping of water, the cries of birds, the occasional passing of boats. I draw the paint across the card in ever finer, ever slower strokes, and almost fall into slumber.
Then Richard laughs, and my hand gives a jump. I turn to look at him. He puts his finger to his lip. ‘See there,’ he says softly. And he gestures to Sue.
She still sits before the upturned boat, but her head has fallen back against the rotten wood and her limbs are spread and loose. A blade of hair, dark at the tip where she has been biting at it, curves to the corner of her mouth. Her eyes are closed, her breaths come evenly. She is quite asleep. The sun slants against her face and shows the point of her chin, her lashes, her darkening freckles. Between the edges of her gloves and the cuffs of her coat are two narrow strips of pinking flesh.
I look again at Richard—meet his eye—then turn back to my painting. I say quietly, ‘Her cheek will burn. Won’t you wake her?’
‘Shall I?’ He sniffs. ‘They are not much used to sunlight, where she comes from.’ He speaks almost fondly, but laughs against the words; then adds in a murmur: ‘Nor where she’s going, I think. Poor bitch—she might sleep. She has been asleep since I first got her and brought her here, and has not known it.’
He says it, not with relish, but as if with interest at the idea. Then he stretches and yawns and gets to his feet, and sneezes. The fine weather troubles him. He puts his knuckles to his nose and violently sniffs. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he says, drawing out his handkerchief.
Sue does not wake, but frowns and turns her head. Her lower lip
slightly falls. The blade of hair swings from her cheek, but keeps its curve and point. I have lifted my brush and touched it once to my crumbling painting; now I hold it, an inch from the card; and I watch, as she sleeps. Only that. Richard sniffs again, softly curses the heat, the season. Then, as before, I suppose he grows still. I suppose he studies me. I suppose the brush in my fingers drops paint—for I find it later, black paint upon my blue gown. I do not mark it as it falls, however; and perhaps it is my not marking it, that betrays me. That, or my look. Sue frowns again. I watch, a little longer. Then I turn, and find Richard’s eyes upon me.
‘Oh, Maud,’ he says.
That is all he says. But in his face I see, at last, how much I want her.
For a moment we do nothing. Then he steps to me and takes my wrist. The paintbrush falls.
‘Come quickly,’ he says. ‘Come quickly, before she wakes.’
He takes me, stumbling, along the line of rushes. We walk as the water flows, about the bend of the river and the wall. When we stop, he puts his hands to my shoulders and holds me fast.
‘Oh, Maud,’ he says again. ‘Here I have been, supposing you gripped by a conscience, or some other weakness like that. But this—!’
I have turned my face from him, but feel him laugh. ‘Don’t smile,’ I say, shuddering. ‘Don’t laugh.’
‘Laugh? You might be glad I don’t do worse. You’ll know—you’ll know, if anyone will!—the sports to which gentlemen’s appetites are said to be pricked, by matters like this. Thank heavens I’m not a gentleman so much as a rogue: we go by different codes. You may love and be damned, for all I care.—Don’t wriggle, Maud!’ I have tried to twist from his hands. He holds me tighter, then lets me lean from him a little, but grips my waist. ‘You may love and be damned,’ he says again. ‘But keep me from my money—keep us languishing here: put back our plot, our hopes, your own bright future—you shall not, no. Not now I know what trifling thing you have made us stay for. Now, let her wake up.—I promise you, it is as tiresome to me as to you, when you twist so!—Let her wake up
and seek us out. Let her see us like this. You won’t come to me? Very good. I shall hold you here, and let her suppose us lovers at last; and so have done with it. Stand steady, now.’
He leans from me and gives a wordless shout. The sound beats against the thick air and makes it billow, then fades to a silence.
‘That will bring her,’ he says.
I move my arms. ‘You are hurting me.’
‘Stand like a lover then, and I shall grow gentle as anything.’ He smiles again. ‘Suppose me her.—Ah!’ Now I have tried to strike him. ‘Do you mean to make me bruise you?’
He holds me harder, keeping his hands upon me but pinning down my arms with his own. He is tall, he is strong. His fingers meet about my waist—as young men’s fingers are meant to do, I believe, on the waists of their sweethearts. For a time I strain against the pressure: we stand braced and sweating as a pair of wrestlers in a ring. But I suppose that, from a distance, we might seem swaying in a kind of love.
But I think this dully; and soon I feel myself begin to tire. The sun is still hot upon us. The frogs still chant, the water still laps among the reeds. But the day has been punctured or ripped: I can feel it begin to droop and settle, close about me, in suffocating folds.
‘I am sorry,’ I say weakly.
‘You needn’t be sorry, now.’
‘It is only—’
‘You must be strong. I have seen you be strong, before.’
‘It is only—’
But, only what? How might I say it? Only that she held my head against her breast, when I woke bewildered. That she warmed my foot with her breath, once. That she ground my pointed tooth with a silver thimble. That she brought me soup—clear soup—instead of an egg, and smiled to see me drink it. That her eye has a darker fleck of brown. That she thinks me good . . .
Richard is watching my face. ‘Listen to me, Maud,’ he says now. He pulls me tight. I am sagging in his arms. ‘Listen! If it were any girl but her. If it were Agnes! Hey? But this is the girl that must be cheated, and robbed of her liberty, for us to be free. This is the girl
the doctors will take, while we look on without a murmur. You remember our plan?’ I nod. ‘But—’ ‘What?’
‘I begin to fear that, after all, I haven’t the heart for it…” ‘You’ve a heart, instead, for little fingersmiths? Oh, Maud.’ Now his voice is rich with scorn. ‘Have you forgotten what she has come to you for? Do you think she has forgotten? Do you suppose yourself anything to her, but that? You have been too long among your uncle’s books. Girls love easily, there. That is the point of them. If they loved so in life, the books would not have to be written.’
He looks me over. ‘She would laugh in your face, if she knew.’ His tone grows sly. ‘She would laugh in mine, were I to tell her …” ‘You shall not tell her!’ I say, lifting my head and stiffening. The thought is awful to me. ‘Tell her once, and I keep at Briar for good. My uncle shall know how you’ve used me—I shan’t care how he treats me for it.’
‘I shall not tell her,’ he answers slowly, ‘if you will only do as you must, with no further delay. I shall not tell her, if you will let her think you love me and have agreed to be my wife; and so make good our escape, as you promised.’
I turn my face from his. Again there is a silence. Then I murmur—what else should I murmur?—’I will.’ He nods, and sighs. He still holds me tightly, and after another moment he puts his mouth against my ear.
‘Here she comes!’ he whispers. ‘She is creeping about the wall. She means to watch and not disturb us. Now, let her know I have you . . .’
He kisses my head. The bulk and heat and pressure of him, the warmth and thickness of the day, my own confusion, make me stand and let him, limply. He takes one hand from about my waist and lifts my arm. He kisses the cloth of my sleeve. When I feel his mouth upon my wrist, I flinch. ‘Now, now,’ he says. ‘Be good, for a moment. Excuse my whiskers. Imagine my mouth hers.’ The words come wetly upon my flesh. He pushes my glove a little way along my hand, he parts his lips, he touches my palm with the point of his
ngue; and I shudder, with weakness, with fear and distaste—with rl’smay, to know Sue stands and watches, in satisfaction, thinking me his.
For he has shown me to myself. He leads me to her, we walk to the house, she takes my cloak, takes my shoes; her cheek is pink, after all- she stands frowning at the glass, moves a hand, lightly, across her face . . • That is all she does; but I see it, and my heart gives a plunge—that caving, or dropping, that has so much panic in it, so much darkness, I supposed it fear, or madness. I watch her turn and stretch, walk her random way about the room—see her make all the careless unstudied gestures I have marked so covetously, so long. Is this desire? How queer that I, of all people, should not know! But I thought desire smaller, neater; I supposed it bound to its own organs as taste is bound to the mouth, vision to the eye. This feeling haunts and inhabits me, like a sickness. It covers me, like skin.
I think she must see it. Now he has named it, I think it must colour or mark me—I think it must mark me crimson, like paint marks the hot red points, the lips and gashes and bare whipped limbs, of my uncle’s pictures. I am afraid, that night, to undress before her. I am afraid to lie at her side. I am afraid to sleep. I am afraid I will dream of her. I am afraid that, in dreaming, I will turn and touch her …
But after all, if she senses the change in me, she thinks I am changed because of Richard. If she feels me tremble, if she feels my heart beat hard, she thinks I tremble for him. She is waiting, still waiting. Next day I take her walking to my mother’s grave. I sit and gaze at the stone, that I have kept so neat and free from blemish. I should like to smash it with a hammer. I wish—as I have wished many times—that my mother were alive, so that I might kill her again. I say to Sue: ‘Do you know, how it was she died? It was my birth that did it!’—and it is an effort, to keep the note of triumph from my voice.
She does not catch it. She watches me, and I begin to weep; and where she might say anything to comfort me—anything at all— what she says is: ‘Mr Rivers.’
I look from her in contempt, then. She comes and leads me to the chapel door—perhaps, to turn my thoughts to marriage. The door is locked and can’t be passed. She waits for me to speak. At last I tell her, dutifully: ‘Mr Rivers has asked me to marry him, Sue.’
She says she is glad. And, when I weep again—false tears, this time, that wash away the true ones—and when I choke and wring my hands and cry out, ‘Oh! What shall I do?’, she touches me and holds my gaze, and says: ‘He loves you.’
‘You think he does?’
She says she knows it. She does not flinch. She says, ‘You must follow your heart.’
‘I am not sure,’ I say. ‘If I might only be sure!’
‘But to love,’ she says, ‘and then to lose him!’
I grow too conscious of the closeness of her gaze, and look away. She talks to me of beating blood, of thrilling voices, of dreams. I feel his kiss, like a burn upon my palm; and all at once she sees, not that I love him, but how much I have come to fear and hate him.
She grows white. ‘What will you do?’ she says, in a whisper.
‘What can I do?’ I say. ‘What choice have I?’
She does not answer. She only turns from me, to gaze for a moment at the barred chapel door. I look at the pale of her cheek, at her jaw, at the mark of the needle in the lobe of her ear. When she turns back, her face has changed.
‘Marry him,’ she tells me. ‘He loves you. Marry him, and do everything he says.’
She has come to Briar to ruin me, to cheat me and do me harm. Look at her, I tell myself. See how slight she is, how brown and trifling! A thief, a little fingersmith—/1 think I will swallow down my desire, as I have swallowed down grief, and rage. Shall I be thwarted, shall I be checked—held to my past, kept from my future—by her? I think, / shan’t. The day of our flight draws near. / shan’t. The month grows warmer, the nights grow close. / shan’t, I shan’t—
‘You are cruel,’ Richard says. ‘I don’t think you love me as you ought. I think—’ and he glances, slyly, at Sue—’I think there must be someone else you care for . . .’
Sometimes I see him look at her, and think he has told her. Sometimes she looks at me, so strangely—or else her hands, in touching me, seem so stiff, so nervous and unpractised—I think she knows. Now and then I am obliged to leave them alone together, in my own room; he might tell her, then.
What do you say, Suky, to this? She loves you!
Loves me? Like a lady loves her maid?
Like certain ladies love their maids, perhaps. Hasn’t she found little ways to keep you close about her?—Have I done that? Hasn’t she feigned troublesome dreams?—Is that what I have done? Has she had you kiss her? Careful, Suky, she doesn’t try to kiss you back . . .
Would she laugh, as he said she would? Would she shiver? It seems to me she lies more cautiously beside me now, her legs and arms tucked close. It seems to me she is often wary, watchful. But the more I think it, the more I want her, the more my desire rises and swells. I have come to terrible life—or else, the things about me have come to life, their colours grown too vivid, their surfaces too harsh. I flinch, from falling shadows. I seem to see figures start out from the fading patterns in the dusty carpets and drapes, or creep, with the milky blooms of damp, across the ceilings and walls.
Even my uncle’s books are changed to me; and this is worse, this is worst of all. I have supposed them dead. Now the words— like the figures in the walls—start up, are filled with meaning. I grow muddled, stammer. I lose my place. My uncle shrieks— seizes, from his desk, a paperweight of brass, and throws it at me. That steadies me, for a time. But then he has me read, one night, from a certain work . . . Richard watches, his hand across his mouth, a look of amusement dawning on his face. For the work tells of all the means a woman may employ to pleasure another, when in want of a man.
‘And she pressed her lips and tongue to it, and into it—’
‘You like this, Rivers?’ asks my uncle.
‘I confess, sir, I do.’
‘Well, so do many men; though I fear it is hardly to my taste. Still, I am glad to note your interest. I address the subject fully, of course, in my Index. Read on, Maud. Read on.’
I do. And despite myself—and in spite of Richard’s dark, tormenting gaze—I feel the stale words rouse me. I colour, and am ashamed. I am ashamed to think that what I have supposed the secret book of my heart may be stamped, after all, with no more miserable matter than this—have its place in my uncle’s collection. I leave the drawing-room each night and go upstairs—go slowly, tapping the toes of my slippered feet against each step. If I strike them equally, I shall be safe. Then I stand in darkness. When Sue comes to undress me I will myself to suffer her touch, coolly, as I think a mannequin of wax might suffer the quick, indifferent touches of a tailor.
And yet, even wax limbs must yield at last, to the heat of the hands that lift and place them. There comes a night when, finally, I yield to hers.
I have begun, in sleeping, to dream unspeakable dreams; and to wake, each time, in a confusion of longing and fear. Sometimes she stirs. Sometimes she does not. ‘Go back to sleep,’ she will say, if she does. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I rise and go about the room; sometimes, take drops. I take drops, this night; then return to her side; but sink, not into lethargy, but only into more confusion. I think of the books I have lately read, to Richard and to my uncle: they come back to me, now, in phrases, fragments—pressed her lips and tongue—takes hold of my hand—hip, lip and tongue—forced it half-strivingly—took hold of my breasts—opened wide the lips of my little—the lips of her little cunt—
I cannot silence them. I can almost see them, rising darkly from their own pale pages, to gather, to swarm and combine. I put my hands before my face. I do not know how long I lie for, then. But I must make some sound, or movement; for when I draw my hands away, she is awake, and watching. I know that she is watching, though the bed is so dark.
‘Go to sleep,’ she says. Her voice is thick.
I feel my legs, very bare inside my gown. I feel the point at which they join. I feel the words, still swarming. The warmth of her limbs comes inching, inching through the fibres of the bed.
I say, ‘I’m afraid . . .’
Then her breathing changes. Her voice grows clearer, kinder. She yawns. ‘What is it?’ she says. She rubs her eye. She pushes the hair back from her brow. If she were any girl but Sue! If she were Agnes! If she were a girl in a book—!
Girls love easily, there. That is their point.
Hip, lip and tongue—
‘Do you think me good?’ I say.
She does. It felt like safety, once. Now it feeis like a trap. 1 say, ‘I wish— I wish you would tell me—’
‘Tell you what, miss?’
Tell me. Tell me a way to save you. A way to save myself. The room is perfectly black. Hip, lip—
Girls love easily, there.
‘I wish,’ I say, ‘I wish you would tell me what it is a wife must do, on her wedding-night
And at first, it is easy. After all, this is how it is done, in my uncle’s books: two girls, one wise and one unknowing . .. ‘He will want,’ she says, ‘to kiss you. He will want to embrace you.’ It is easy. I say my part, and she—with a little prompting—says hers. The words sink back upon their pages. It is easy, it is easy .. .
Then she rises above me and puts her mouth to mine.
I have felt, before, the pressure of a gentleman’s still, dry lips against my gloved hand, my cheek. I have suffered Richard’s wet, insinuating kisses upon my palm. Her lips are cool, smooth, damp: they fit themselves imperfectly to mine, but then grow warmer, damper. Her hair falls against my face. I cannot see her, I can only feel her, and taste her. She tastes of sleep, slightly sour. Too sour. I part my lips—to breathe, or to swallow, or perhaps to move away; but in breathing or swallowing or moving I only seem to draw her into my mouth. Her lips part, also. Her tongue comes between them and touches mine.
And at that, I shudder, or quiver. For it is like the finding out of something raw, the troubling of a wound, a nerve. She feels me jolt, and draws away—but slowly, slowly and unwillingly, so that
our damp mouths seem to cling together and, as they part, to tear. She holds herself above me. I feel the rapid beating of a heart, and suppose it my own. But it is hers. Her breath comes, fast. She has begun, very lightly, to tremble.
Then I catch the excitement of her, the amazement of her.
‘Do you feel it?’ she says. Her voice sounds strangely in the absolute darkness. ‘Do you feel it?’
I do. I feel it as a falling, a dropping, a trickling, like sand from a bulb of glass. Then I move; and I am not dry, like sand. I am wet. I am running, like water, like ink.
I begin, like her, to shake.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ she says. Her voice has a catch. I move again, but she moves, too, she comes nearer to me, and my flesh gives a leap, to hers. She is trembling, worse than before. She is trembling, from the closeness of me! She says, ‘Think more of Mr Rivers.’—I think of Richard, watching. She says again, ‘Don’t be frightened.’—But it is she who seems frightened. Her voice still has its catch. She kisses me again. Then she raises her hand and I feel the tips of her fingers flutter against my face.
‘Do you see?’ she says. ‘It is easy, it is easy. Think more of him. He will want— He will want to touch you.’
‘To touch me?’
‘Only touch you,’ she says. The fluttering hand moves lower. ‘Only touch you. Like this. Like this.’
When she puts up my nightgown and reaches between my legs, we both grow still. When her hand moves again, her fingers no longer flutter: they have grown wet, and slide, and in sliding seem, like her lips as they rub upon mine, to quicken and draw me, to gather me, out of the darkness, out of my natural shape. I thought I longed for her, before. Now I begin to feel a longing so great, so sharp, I fear it will never be assuaged. I think it will mount, and mount, and make me mad, or kill me. Yet her hand moves slowly, still. She whispers. ‘How soft you are! How warm! I want—’ The hand moves even slower. She begins to press. I catch my breath. That makes her hesitate, and then press harder. At last she presses so hard I feel the
giving of my flesh, I feel her inside me. I think I cry out. She does not hesitate now, however, but comes nearer to me and puts her hips about my thigh; then presses again. So slight she is!—but her hip is sharp, her hand is blunt, she leans, she pushes, she moves her hips and hand as if to a rhythm, a time, a quickening beat. She reaches. She reaches so far, she catches the life, the shuddering heart of me: soon I seem to be nowhere but at the points at which my flesh is gripped by hers. And then, ‘Oh, there!’ she says. ‘Just there! Oh, there!’—I am breaking, shattering, bursting out of her hand. She begins to weep. Her tears come upon my face. She puts her mouth to them. You pearl, she says, as she does it. Her voice is broken. You pearl.
I don’t know how long we lie, then. She sinks beside me, with her face against my hair. She slowly draws back her fingers. My thigh is wet from where she has leaned and moved upon me. The feathers of the mattress have yielded beneath us, the bed is close and high and hot. She puts back the blanket. The night is still deep, the room still black. Our breaths still come fast, our hearts beat loud—faster, and louder, they seem to me, in the thickening silence; and the bed, the room—the house!—seem filled with echoes of our voices, our whispers and cries.
I cannot see her. But after a moment she finds my hand and presses it, hard, then takes it to her mouth, kisses my fingers, lies with my palm beneath her cheek. I feel the weight and shape of the bones of her face. I feel her blink. She does not speak. She closes her eyes. Her face grows heavy. She shivers, once. The heat is rising from her, like a scent. I reach and draw the blanket up again, and lay it gently about her.
Everything, I say to myself, is changed. I think I was dead, before. Now she has touched the life of me, the quick of me; she has put back my flesh and opened me up. Everything is changed. I still feel her, inside me. I still feel her, moving upon my thigh. I imagine her waking, meeting my gaze. I think, ‘I will tell her, then. I will say, “I meant to cheat you. I cannot cheat you now. This was Richard’s plot. We can make it ours.'”—We can make it ours, I think; or else, we can give it up entirely. I need only escape from Briar: she can
help me do that—she’s a thief, and clever. We can make our own secret way to London, find money for ourselves . . .
So I calculate and plan, while she lies slumbering with her face upon my hand. My heart beats hard again. I am filled, as with colour or light, with a sense of the life we will have, together. Then I also sleep. And in sleeping I suppose I must move away from her—or she must move, from me—and then she must wake, with the day, and rise: for when I open my eyes she has gone, the bed is cool. I hear her in her own room, splashing water. I rise up from my pillow, and my nightgown gapes at my breast: she has undone the ribbons, in the dark. I move my legs. I am wet, still wet, from the sliding and the pressing of her hand.
You pearl, she said.
Then she comes, and meets my gaze. My heart leaps within me.
She looks away.
I think her only awkward, at first. I think her shy and self-conscious. She goes silently about the room, taking out my petticoats and gown. I stand, so she may wash and dress me. Now she will speak, I think. But, she does not. And when she sees the blush upon my breast, the marks left by her mouth, the dampness between my legs, it seems to me that she shudders. Only then do I begin to grow afraid. She calls me to the glass. I watch her face. It seems queer in reflection, crooked and wrong. She puts the pins to my hair, but keeps her eyes all the time on her own uncertain hands. I think, She is ashamed.
So then, I speak.
‘What a thick sleep I had,’ I say, very softly. ‘Didn’t I?’
Her eyelids flutter. ‘You did,’ she answers. ‘No dreams.’
‘No dreams, save one,’ I say. ‘But that was a—a sweet one. I think you were in it, Sue . . .’
She colours; and I watch her rising blush and feel, again, the pressure of her mouth against mine, the drawing of our fierce, imperfect kisses, the pushing of her hand. I meant to cheat her. I cannot cheat her, now. ‘I am not what you think,’ I will say. ‘You think me good. I am not good. But I might, with you, begin to try to be. This was his plot. We can make it ours—’
‘In your dream?’ she says at last, moving from me. ‘I don’t think so, miss. Not me. I should say, Mr Rivers. Look! There he is. His cigarette almost smoked. You will miss him—’ She falters once; but then goes on, ‘You will miss him, if you wait.’
I sit dazed for a moment, as if struck by her hand; then I rise, go lifelessly to the window, watch Richard walk, smoke his cigarette, put back the tumbling hair from his brow. But I keep at the glass, long after he has left the lawn and gone in to my uncle. I would see my face, if the day were dark enough; I see it anyway, though: my hollowing cheek, my lips, too plump, too pink—plumper and pinker than ever now, from the pressing of Sue’s mouth. I remember my uncle—’I have touched your lip with poison, Maud’—and Barbara, starting away. I remember Mrs Stiles, grinding lavender soap against my tongue, then wiping and wiping her hands upon her apron.
Everything has changed. Nothing has changed, at all. She has put back my flesh; but flesh will close, will seal, will scar and harden. I hear her go to my drawing-room; I watch her sit, cover up her face. I wait, but she does not look—I think she will never look honestly at me, again. I meant to save her. Now I see very clearly what will happen, if I do—if I draw back from Richard’s plot. He will go from Briar, with her at his side. Why should she stay? She will go, and I shall be left—to my uncle, to the books, to Mrs Stiles, to some new meek and bruisable girl … I think of my life—of the hours, the minutes, the days that have made it up; of the hours, the minutes and days that stretch before me, still to be lived. I think of how they will be—without Richard, without money, without London, without liberty. Without Sue.
And so you see it is love—not scorn, not malice; only love—that makes me harm her, in the end.
We leave, just as we have planned, on the last day of April. /y 1/ Richard’s stay is complete. My uncle’s prints are mounted and bound: he takes me to view them, as a sort of treat.
‘Fine work,’ he says. ‘You think, Maud? Hmm?’
‘Do you look?’
‘Yes. Fine work. I believe I shall send for Hawtrey and Huss. I shall have them come—next week? What do you say? Shall we make an occasion of it?’
I do not answer. I am thinking of the dining-room, the drawing-room—and me, in some other shadowy place, far off. He turns to Richard.
‘Rivers,’ he says, ‘should you like to come back, as a guest, with Hawtrey?’
Richard bows, looks sorry. ‘I fear, sir, I shall be occupied elsewhere.’
‘Unfortunate. You hear that, Maud? Most unfortunate . . .’
He unlocks his door. Mr Way and Charles are going about the gallery with Richard’s bags. Charles is rubbing his eyes with his sleeve.—’Get on with you!’ says Mr Way savagely, kicking out with his foot. Charles lifts his head, sees us emerging from my uncle’s room—sees my uncle, I suppose—and shakes in a sort of convulsion, and runs. My uncle also shakes, then.
‘Do you see, Rivers, the torments to which I am exposed? Mr Way, I hope you will catch that boy and whip him!’
‘I will, sir,’ says Mr Way.
Richard looks at me, and smiles. I do not smile back. And when, at the steps, he takes my hand, my fingers sit quite nervelessly against his own. ‘Good-bye,’ he says. I say nothing. He turns to my uncle: ‘Mr Lilly. Farewell to you, sir!’
‘A handsome man,’ my uncle says, as the trap is drawn from sight. ‘Hmm, Maud? What, are you silent? Shan’t you like it, to have to return to our solitary ways?’
We go back into the house. Mr Way pulls closed the swollen door, and the hall grows dark. I climb the stairs at my uncle’s side, as I once, as a girl, climbed them with Mrs Stiles. How many times, I think, have I mounted them, since then? How many times has my heel struck this spot, that spot? How many slippers, how many strait gowns, how many gloves, have I outgrown or outworn? How many voluptuous words have I silently read?—how many mouthed, for gentlemen?
The stairs, the slippers and gloves, the words, the gentlemen, will all remain, though I escape. Will they? I think again of the rooms of my uncle’s house: the dining- and drawing-room, the library. I think of the little crescent I once picked out in the paint that covers the library windows: I try to imagine it, eyeless. I remember how once I woke and watched my room seem to gather itself together out of the dark, and thought, / shall never escape! Now I know that I shall. But I think that Briar will haunt me, too.— Or else, I will haunt it, while living out some dim and partial life beyond its walls.
I think of the ghost I shall make: a neat, monotonous ghost,
walking for ever on soft-soled feet, through a broken house, to the pattern of ancient carpets.
But perhaps, after all, I am a ghost already. For I go to Sue and she shows me the gowns and linens she means for us to take, the jewels she means to shine, the bags she will fill; but she does it all without meeting my gaze; and I watch, and say nothing. I am more aware of her hands than of the objects she takes up; feel the stir of her breath, see the movement of her lip, but her words slip from my memory the moment she has said them. At last she has nothing more to show. We must only wait. We take our lunch. We walk to my mother’s grave. I stare at the stone, feeling nothing. The day is mild, and damp: our shoes, as we walk, press dew from the springing green earth and mark our gowns with streaks of mud.
I have surrendered myself to Richard’s plan, as I once gave myself to my uncle. The plot, the flight—they seem fired, now, not so much by my wants as by his. I am empty of want. I sit at my supper, I eat, I read; I return to Sue and let her dress me as she likes, take wine when she offers it, stand at the window at her side. She moves fretfully, from foot to foot. ‘Look at the moon,’ she says softly, ‘how bright it is! Look at the shadows on the grass.—What time is it? Not eleven, yet?—To think of Mr Rivers, somewhere upon the water, now …”
There is only one thing I mean to do, before I go: one deed—one terrible deed—the vision of which has risen, to goad and console me, through all the bitten-down rages, the dark and uneasy sleeps, of my life at Briar; and now, as the hour of our flight nears, as the house falls silent, still, unsuspecting, I do it. Sue leaves me, to look over our bags. I hear her, unfastening buckles.—That is all I wait for.
I go stealthily from the room. I know my way, I do not need a lamp, and my dark dress hides me. I go to the head of the stairs, cross quickly the broken carpets of moonlight that the windows there throw upon the floor. Then I pause, and listen. Silence. So then I go on, into the corridor which faces mine, along a path which is the mirror of the path that has led from my own rooms. At the first door I pause again, and listen again, to be sure that all is still within.
This is the door to my uncle’s rooms. I have never entered here, before. But, as I guess, the handle and hinges are kept greased, and turn without a sound. The rug is a thick one, and makes a whisper of my step.
His drawing-room is even darker, and seems smaller, than mine: he has hangings upon the walls, and more book-presses. I don’t look at them. I go to his dressing-room door, put my ear to the wood; take the handle and turn it. One inch, two inches, three.—I hold my breath, my hand upon my heart. No sound. I push the door further, stand and listen again. If he stirs, I will turn and go. Does he move? For a second there is nothing. Still I wait, uncertain. Then comes the soft, even rasp of his breathing.
He has his bed-curtains pulled close but keeps a light, as I do, upon a table: this seems curious to me, I should never have supposed him to be nervous of the dark. But the dim light helps me. Without moving from my place beside the door, I look about me; and at last see the two things I have come to take. On his dressing-stand, beside his jug of water: his watch-chain with, upon it, the key to his library, bound in faded velvet; and his razor.
I go quickly and take them up—the chain uncurling softly, I feel it slither against my glove. If it should fall—! It does not fall. The door-key swings like a pendulum. The razor is heavier than I expect, the blade is free of its clasp, at an angle, showing its edge. I pull it a little freer, and turn it to the light: it must be sharp, for what I want it for. I think it is sharp enough. I lift my head. In the glass above the mantel, picked out against the shadows of the room, I see myself—my hands: in one a key, in the other a blade. I might pass for a girl in an allegory. Confidence Abused.
Behind me, the drapes to my uncle’s bed do not quite meet. In the space between them a shaft of light—so weak it is hardly light, but rather a lessening of darkness—leads to his face. I have never seen him sleep before. In form he seems slight, like a child. The blanket is drawn to his chin, uncreased, pulled tight. His lips let out his breath in a puff. He is dreaming—black-letter dreams, perhaps, or pica, morocco, calf. He is counting spines. His spectacles sit neatly, as if with folded arms, on the table beside his head. Beneath
the lashes of one of his soft eyes there is a gleaming line of moisture. The razor is warming in my hand . . .
But this is not that kind of story. Not yet. I stand and watch him sleep for almost a minute; and then I leave him. I go as I have come—carefully, silently. I go to the stairs, and from there to the library, and once inside that room I lock the door at my back and light a lamp. My heart is beating hardest, now. I am queasy with fear and anticipation. But time is racing, and I cannot wait. I cross to my uncle’s shelves and unfasten the glass before the presses. I begin with The Curtain Drawn Up, the book he gave me first: I take it, and open it, and set it upon his desk. Then I lift the razor, grip it tight, and fully unclasp it. The blade is stiff, but springs the last inch. It is its nature to cut, after all.
Still, it is hard—it is terribly hard, I almost cannot do it—to put the metal for the first time to the neat and naked paper. I am almost afraid the book will shriek, and so discover me. But it does not shriek. Rather, it sighs, as if in longing for its own laceration; and when I hear that, my cuts become swifter and more true.
When I return to Sue she is at the window, wringing her hands. Midnight has sounded. She supposed me lost. But she is too relieved to scold me. ‘Here’s your cloak,’ she says. ‘Fasten it up now, quick. Take your bag.—Not that one, that one’s too heavy for you. Now, we must go.’ She thinks me nervous. She puts her finger to my mouth. She says, ‘Be steady’ Then she takes my hand and leads me through the house.
Soft as a thief, she goes. She tells me where I may walk. She does not know that I have recently stood, light as a shadow, and watched my uncle sleep. But then, we go by the servants’ way, and the naked passages and stairs are strange to me, all this part of the house is strange to me. She keeps her hand in mine until we reach the basement door. Then she sets down her bag, so she may smear the key and the bolts with grease, to make them turn. She catches my eye and winks, like a boy. My heart aches in my breast.
Then the door is opened and she takes me into the night; and the park is changed, the house seems queer—for of course, I have never
before seen it at such an hour as this, I have only stood at my window and gazed out. If I stood there now, would I see myself running, Sue tugging my hand? Would I seem so bleached of depth and colour, like the lawn, the trees, the stones and stumps of ivy? For a second I hesitate, turn and watch the glass, quite sure that, if I only wait, I will see my face. Then I look at the other windows. Will no-one wake, and come, and call me back?
No-one wakes, no-one calls. Sue pulls at my hand again, and I turn and follow. I have the key to the gate in the wall: when we are through and the lock is fast again I let it fall among the rushes. The sky is clear. We stand in shadow, saying nothing—two Thisbes, awaiting a Pyramus. The moon makes the river half silver, half deepest black.
He keeps to the black part. The boat sits low upon the water—a dark-hulled boat, slender, rising at the prow. The dark boat of my dreams. I watch it come, feel Sue’s hand turn in mine; then step from her, take the rope he casts, let him guide me to my seat, unresisting. She comes beside me, staggering, her balance all gone. He braces the boat against the bank with a single oar, and as she sits, we turn, and the current takes us.
No-one speaks. No-one moves, save Richard as he rows. We glide, softly, in silence, into our dark and separate hells.
What follows? I know that the journey upon the river is a smooth one: that I should like to keep upon the boat, but am made to leave it and mount a horse. I should be afraid of the horse, at any other time; but I sit lifelessly upon it now, letting it bear me—as, I think, I would let it throw me, if it chose to. I remember the church of flint, the stalks of honesty, my own white gloves—my hand, that is bared then passed from one set of fingers to another, then bruised by the thrusting of a ring. I am made to say certain words, that I have now forgotten. I remember the minister, in a surplice smudged with grey. I do not recall his face. I know that Richard kisses me. I remember a book, the handling of a pen, the writing of my name. I do not remember the walk from the church: what I recall next is a room, Sue loosening my gown; and then a pillow, coarse against my
cheek; a blanket, coarser; and weeping. My hand is bare and has that ring upon it, still. Sue’s fingers slip from mine.
‘You must be different now,’ she says, and I turn my face.
When I look again, she has left me. In her place stands Richard. He keeps for a second before the door, his eyes on mine; then he lets out his breath, puts the back of his hand to his mouth to stifle laughter.
‘Oh, Maud,’ he says quietly, shaking his head. He wipes his beard and lips. ‘Our wedding-night,’ he says; and laughs again.
I watch him and do not speak, the blankets pulled high before my breast. I am sober, now. I am quite awake. When he falls quiet, I hear the house beyond him: the stairs expand, throw off the pressure of his step. A mouse, or bird, moves in the space above the rafters. The sounds are wrong. The thought must show in my face.
‘It’s queer for you, here,’ he says, coming closer to me. ‘Don’t mind it. You shall be at London soon. There’s more life there. Think of that.’ I say nothing. ‘Will you speak? Hmm, Maud? Come, you needn’t be fey; not now, with me. Our wedding-night, Maud!’ He has come to my side. He raises his hand and grips the head-board above my pillow and shakes it, hard, until the legs of the bed lurch and grind against the floor.
I close my eyes. The shuddering continues another moment, then the bed grows still. But he keeps his arm above me, and I feel him watching. I feel the bulk of him—seem to see the darkness of him, even through my eyelids. I sense him change. The mouse or bird still moves in the ceiling of the room, and I think he puts back his head, to follow its path. Then the house falls quiet, and he studies me again.
And then his breath comes, quick, against my cheek. He has blown in my face. I open my eyes. ‘Hey,’ he says softly. His look is strange. ‘Don’t say you’re afraid.’ He swallows. Then he brings back his arm from the head-board, slowly. I flinch, thinking he might strike me. But he does not do that. His gaze moves over my face, then settles at the hollow of my throat. He looks, as if fascinated. ‘How fast your heart beats,’ he whispers. He lowers his hand, as if he means to test, with his finger, the racing of my blood.
‘Touch it,’ I say. ‘Touch it, and die. I have poison in me.’
His hand stops, an inch from my throat. I hold his gaze, not blinking. He straightens. His mouth gives a twitch, then curls in scorn.
‘Did you think I wanted you?’ he says. ‘Did you?’ He almost hisses the words—for of course, he cannot speak too loudly, in case Sue should hear. He moves away, agitatedly smoothing his hair behind his ears. A bag lies in his path, and he kicks it. ‘God damn it,’ he says. He takes off his coat, then tugs at the link in a cuff, begins to work savagely at one of his sleeves. ‘Must you stare so?’ he says, as he bares his arm. ‘Haven’t I already told you, you are safe? If you think I am any gladder than you, to be married—’ He comes back to the bed. ‘I must act glad, however,’ he says moodily. ‘And this is a part of what passes for gladness, in marriage. Had you forgotten?’
He has drawn back the blanket, exposing the sheet that covers the mattress, at the level of my hips. ‘Move over,’ he says. I do. He sits, and awkwardly turns. He reaches into the pocket of his trousers and draws something out. A pen-knife.
I see it, and think at once of my uncle’s razor. It was in a different life, however, that I went stealthily through that sleeping house, cut the pages of books. Now I watch as Richard puts his nail to the groove of the knife and eases free the blade. It is spotted black. He looks distastefully at it, then lays it against his arm. But he does it uncertainly, flinching when the metal touches. Then he lowers the knife.
‘God damn it,’ he says again. He smooths his whiskers, his hair. He catches my eye. ‘Don’t look, so uselessly. Have you no blood about you, to save me the pain? None of those—courses, that women suffer?’ I say nothing. His mouth twists again. ‘Well, that is like you. I should have thought that, being obliged to bleed, you might as well bleed to some advantage; but, no . . .’
‘Do you mean,’ I say, ‘to insult me, in every possible way?’
‘Be quiet,’ he answers. We are still speaking in whispers. ‘This is for both our good. I don’t see you offering up your arm to the knife.’ At once, I offer it. He waves it away. ‘No, no,’ he says. ‘I shall do it,
in a moment.’ He draws in his breath, moves the blade further down his arm, rests it in one of the creases at the base of his palm, where the flesh is hairless. He pauses again, takes another breath; slices, quickly. ‘Good Christ!’ he says, wincing. A little blood springs to the cut—it seems dark, in the candle-light, upon the white heel of his hand. He lets it fall to the bed. There is not much of it. He presses with his thumb at the skin of his wrist and palm, and then it falls faster. He does not catch my eye.
After a moment, however, he says quietly: ‘Do you suppose that enough?’
I study his face. ‘Don’t you know?’ ‘No, I do not know.’ ‘But—’
‘But what?’ He blinks. ‘You mean Agnes, I suppose. Don’t flatter her. There are more ways of shaming a virtuous girl, than that one. You ought to know.’
The blood still feebly runs. He curses. I think of Agnes, showing me her red and swollen mouth. I turn away from him, in a sort of sickness. ‘Come, Maud,’ he says then, ‘tell me before I fall in a swoon. You must have read of such things. I am sure your uncle must have some entry on it in his damn Index—doesn’t he? Maud?’ I look again, reluctantly, at the spreading drops of blood; and I nod. As a final gesture he puts his wrist to them, and smears them. Then he frowns at his cut. His cheek is quite white. He makes a face. ‘How ill a man may grow,’ he says, ‘from the sight of the spilling of a little of his own blood. What monsters you females must be, to endure this, month upon month. No wonder you are prone to madness. See how the flesh parts?’ He shows me his hand. ‘I think after all I cut too deep. That was your fault, provoking me. Have you brandy? I think a little brandy would restore me.’
He has drawn out his handkerchief, and now presses it to his arm. I say, ‘I have no brandy.’
‘No brandy. What have you, then? Some draught or other? Come, I see by your face that you do.’ He looks about him. ‘Where is it kept?’
I hesitate; but now he has named it, the desire for drops begins to
rnake its creeping way about my heart and limbs. ‘In my leather bag,’ I say. He brings the bottle to me, draws out its stopper, puts his nose to it, grimaces. ‘Bring me a glass, also,’ I say. He finds a cup, adds a little dusty water.
‘Not like that, for me,’ he says, as I let the medicine slip. ‘That will serve for you. I want it quicker.’ He takes the bottle from me, uncovers his cut, lets a single drop fall into the parted flesh. It stings. He winces. Where it runs, he licks it. Then he sighs, half closing his eyes, watching me as I drink then shiver then lean back upon my pillow, the cup at my breast.
At length, he smiles. He laughs. ‘”The Fashionable Couple on their Wedding-Night,'” he says. ‘They would write a column on us, in the London papers.’
I shiver again, draw the blankets higher; the sheet falls, covering the smears of blood. I reach for the bottle. He reaches it first, however, and puts it out of my grasp.
‘No, no,’ he says. ‘Not while you keep so contrary. I shall have it, tonight.’ He puts it in his pocket, and I am too weary to try to take it from him. He stands and yawns, wipes his face, rubs hard at his eyes. ‘How tired I am!’ he says. ‘It is past three o’clock, do you know?’ I say nothing, and he shrugs. But he lingers at the foot of the bed, looking down, in a hesitating manner, at the place at my side; then he sees my face, and pretends to shudder.
‘I should not be astonished, after all,’ he says, ‘to wake to the grip of your fingers at my throat. No, I shall not risk it.’
He steps to the fire, wets his thumb and finger upon his tongue, puts out the candle; then he sits in a huddle in the arm-chair and makes a blanket of his coat. He swears against the cold, the pose, the angles of the chair, for perhaps a minute. But he sleeps, sooner than I do.
And when he does, I rise, go quickly to the window, put the curtain back. The moon is still bright, and I don’t want to lie in darkness. But after all, every surface that takes up the silver light is strange to me; and when once I reach, to put my fingers to some mark upon the wall, the mark and the wall in taking my touch seem only to grow stranger. My cloak and gown and linen are closed in
the press. My bags are shut. I look, and look, for something of mine; and see only at last, in the shadow of the wash-hand stand, my shoes. I go to them, and stoop, and place my hands upon them. Then I draw back and almost straighten; then touch them again.
Then I lie in the bed, and listen hard for the sounds I am used to—for bells and growling levers. There are only those meaningless noises—the yawning boards, the creeping bird or mouse. I put back my head and gaze at the wall behind me. Beyond it lies Sue. If she turned in her bed, if she said my name, I think I would hear it. She might make any sound, any at all—I would catch it, I am certain I would.
She makes no sound. Richard shifts in his chair. The moonlight creeps across the floor. In time, I sleep. I sleep and dream of Briar. But the passages of the house are not as I recall them. I am late for my uncle, and lost.
She comes each morning, after that, to wash me, to dress me, to set food before me, to take away my untouched plate; but, as in the last of our days at Briar, she never meets my gaze. The room is small. She sits near me, but rarely do we speak. She sews. I play at cards— the two of hearts with the crease of my heel upon it, rough beneath my naked finger. Richard keeps all day from the room. At night, he curses. He curses the filthy lanes of the country, that muddy his boots. He curses my silence, my strangeness. He curses the wait. Above all, he curses the angular arm-chair.
‘See here,’ he says, ‘my shoulder. You see it? It is rising from its socket—it is quite thrown out. I shall be deformed, in a week. As for these creases—’ He angrily smooths his trousers. ‘I should have brought Charles, after all. At this rate I shall arrive at London only to be laughed off its streets.’
London, I think. The word means nothing to me now.
He rides out, every other day, for news of my uncle. He smokes so many cigarettes the stain on his scorched forefinger spreads to the finger beside it. Now and then he lets me take a dose of my draught; but he always keeps hold of the bottle.
‘Very good,’ he says, watching me drink. ‘Not much longer, now.
Why, how thin and pale you’ve grown!—and Sue grows sleeker by the hour, like one of Mother Cream’s black-faced sows. Get her into your best gown tomorrow, will you?’
I do. I will do anything, now, to bring an end to our long wait. I will pretend fear, and nervousness, and weeping, while he leans to caress or chide me. I will do it, not looking at Sue—or else, looking at her slyly, desperately, to see if she colours or seems ashamed. She never does. Her hands, that I remember sliding upon me, pressing, turning, opening me up—her hands, when they touch me now, are perfectly lifeless and white. Her face is closed. She only waits, as we do, for the coming of the doctors.
We wait—I cannot say how long. Two weeks, or three. At last: ‘They come tomorrow,’ Richard tells me one night; and then, next morning: ‘They come today. You remember?’
I have woken from terrible dreams.
‘I cannot see them,’ I say. ‘You must send them back. They must come another time.’
‘Don’t be tiresome, Maud.’
He stands and dresses, fastening his collar, his neck-tie. His coat lies neatly on the bed.
‘I won’t see them!’ I say.
‘You will,’ he answers; ‘for in seeing them you bring this thing to completion. You hate it here. Now is our time to leave.’
‘I am too nervous.’
He does not answer. He turns, to raise a brush to his head. I lean and seize his coat—find the pocket, the bottle of drops—but he sees, comes quickly to me and plucks it from my hand.
‘Oh, no,’ he says, as he does it. ‘I won’t have you half in a dream—or risk you muddling the dose, and so spoiling everything! Oh, no. You must be quite clear in your mind.’
He returns the bottle to the pocket. When I reach again, he dodges.
‘Let me have it,’ I say. ‘Richard, let me have it. One drop only, I swear.’ My lips jump about the words. He shakes his head, wipes at the nap of the coat to remove the impression of my fingers.
‘Not yet,’ he says. ‘Be good. Work for it.’
‘I cannot! I shan’t be calm, without a dose of it.’
‘You shall try, for my sake. For our sake, Maud.’
‘Yes, yes, damn us all, damn us all.’ He sighs; then returns to the
brushing of his hair. When after a moment I sink back, he catches
‘Why throw such a tantrum, hey?’ he says, almost kindly. And then: ‘You are calmer, now? Very good. You know what to do, when they see you? Have Sue make you neat, no more than that. Be modest. Weep if you must, a little. You are sure what to say?’
I am, despite myself; for we have planned this, many times. I wait, then nod. ‘Of course,’ he says. He pats at his pocket, at the bottle of drops. ‘Think of London,’ he says. ‘There are druggists on every street corner, there.’
My mouth trembles in scorn. ‘You think,’ I say, ‘I shall still want my medicine, in London?’
The words sound weak, even to my ears. He turns his head, saying nothing, perhaps suppressing a smile. Then he takes up his pen-knife and stands at the fire and cleans his nails—now and then giving a flick of the blade, to cast slivers of dirt, fastidiously, into the flames.
He takes them first to talk with Sue. Of course, they suppose her his wife, turned mad, thinking herself a servant, speaking in the manner of a maid, keeping to a maid’s room. I hear the creaking of the stairs and floorboards beneath their boots. I hear their voices— low, monotonous—but not their words. Sue’s voice I do not hear at all. I sit upon the bed until they come, and then I stand and curtsey. ‘Susan,’ says Richard quietly. ‘My wife’s maid.’ They nod. I say nothing, yet. But I think my look must be strange. I see them studying me. Richard also watches. Then he comes close.
‘A faithful girl,’ he says to the doctors. ‘Her strength has been sadly over-taxed, these past two weeks.’ He makes me walk from the bed to the arm-chair, puts me in the light of the window. ‘Sit here,’
he says gently, ‘in your mistress’s chair. Be calm, now. These gentlemen only wish to ask you a number of trifling questions. You must answer them honestly.’
He presses my hand. I think he does it to reassure or to warn me; then I feel his fingers close about one of mine. I still wear my wedding-ring. He draws it free and holds it, hidden, against his palm.
‘Very good,’ says one of the doctors, more satisfied now. The other makes notes in a book. I watch him turn a page and, suddenly, long for paper. ‘Very good. We have seen your mistress. You do well to think of her comfort and health for—I am sorry to tell you this— we fear she is ill. Very ill indeed. You know she believes her name to be your name, her history one that resembles yours? You know that?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I say, in a whisper.
And your name is Susan Smith?’
And you were maid to Mrs Rivers—Miss Lilly, as was—in her uncle’s house, of Briar, before her marriage?’
And before that—where was your place? Not with a family named Dunraven, at the supposed address of Whelk Street, Mayfair?’
‘No, sir. I never heard of them. They are all Mrs Rivers’s fancy.’
I speak, as a servant might. And I name, reluctantly, some other house and family—some family of Richard’s acquaintance, who might be relied on to provide the history we need, if the doctors think to seek them out. We do not think they will, however.
The doctor nods again. And Mrs Rivers,’ he says. ‘You speak of her “fancy”. When did such fancies begin?’
I swallow. ‘Mrs Rivers has often seemed strange,’ I say quietly. ‘The servants at Briar would speak of her as of a lady not quite right, in the brain. I believe her mother was mad, sir.’
‘Now, now,’ says Richard smoothly, interrupting. ‘The doctors don’t want to hear the gossip of servants. Go on with your observations, only.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I say. I gaze at the floor. The boards are scuffed, there are splinters rising from the wood, thick as needles.
‘And Mrs Rivers’s marriage,’ says the doctor. ‘How did that affect her?’
‘It was that, sir,’ I say, ‘which made the change in her. Before that time, she had seemed to love Mr Rivers; and we had all at Briar supposed his care, which was’—I catch Richard’s eye—’so good, sir!—we had all supposed it would lift her out of herself. Then, since her wedding-night, she has started up very queer …”
The doctor looks at his colleague. ‘You hear,’ he says, ‘how well the account matches Mrs Rivers’s own? It is quite remarkable!—as if, in making a burden of her life, she seeks to hand that burden to another, better able to bear it. She has made a fiction of herself!’ He returns to me. ‘A fiction, indeed,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘Tell me this, Miss Smith: does your mistress care for books? for reading?’
I meet his gaze, but my throat seems to close, or be splintered, like the boards on the floor. I cannot answer. Richard speaks in my behalf. ‘My wife,’ he says, ‘was born to a literary life. Her uncle, who raised her, is a man dedicated to the pursuit of learning, and saw to her education as he might have seen to a son’s. Mrs Rivers’s first passion was books.’
‘There you have it!’ says the doctor. ‘Her uncle, an admirable gentleman I don’t doubt. But the over-exposure of girls to literature— The founding of women’s colleges—’ His brow is sleek with sweat. ‘We are raising a nation of brain-cultured women. Your wife’s distress, I’m afraid to say, is part of a wider malaise. I fear for the future of our race, Mr Rivers, I may tell you now. And her wedding-night, you say, the start of this most recent bout of insanity? Could that’—he drops his voice meaningfully, and exchanges a glance with the doctor who writes—’be plainer?’ He taps at his lip. ‘I saw how she shrank from my touch, when I felt for the pulse at her wrist. I noted, too, that she wears no marriage ring.’
Richard starts into life at the words, and pretends to draw something from his pocket. They say fortune favours villains.
‘Here it is,’ he says gravely, holding out the yellow band. ‘She put
it from her, with a curse.—For she speaks like a servant now, and thinks nothing of mouthing filthy words. God knows where she learned them!’ He bites at his lip. ‘You might imagine the sensations that produced, sir, in my breast.’ He puts his hand to his eyes, and sits heavily upon the bed; then rises, as if in horror. ‘This bed!’ he says hoarsely. ‘Our marriage-bed, I thought it. To think my wife would rather the room of a servant, a pallet of straw—!’ He shudders. That’s enough, I think. No more. But he is a man in love with his own roguery.
‘A wretched case,’ says the doctor. ‘But we will work on your wife, you may be sure, to shake her of her unnatural fancy—’
‘Unnatural?’ says Richard. He shudders again. His look grows strange. ‘Ah, sir,’ he says, ‘you don’t know all. There is something else. I had hoped to keep it from you. I feel now, I cannot.’
‘Indeed?’ says the doctor. The other pauses, his pencil raised.
Richard wets his mouth; and all at once I know what he means to say, and quickly turn my face to his. He marks it. He speaks, before I can.
‘Susan,’ he says, ‘you do well to feel shame in behalf of your mistress. You need feel none, however, in behalf of yourself. No guilt attaches to you. You did nothing to invite or encourage the gross attentions my wife, in her madness, attempted to force on you—’
He bites at his hand. The doctors stare, then turn to gaze at me.
‘Miss Smith,’ says the first, leaning closer, ‘is this true?’
I think of Sue. I think of her, not as she must be now, in the room beyond the wall—satisfied to have betrayed me, glad to suppose herself about to return at last to her home, the dark thieves’ den, in London. I think of her holding herself above me, her hair let down, You pearl. . .
I have begun to weep.
‘Surely,’ says Richard, coming to me, putting his hand heavily upon my shoulder, ‘surely these tears speak for themselves? Do we need to name the unhappy passion? Must we oblige Miss Smith to rehearse the words, the artful poses—the caresses—to which my distracted wife has made her subject? Aren’t we gentlemen?’
‘Of course,’ says the doctor quickly, moving back. ‘Of course. Miss Smith, your grief does you credit. You need not fear for your safety, now. You need not fear for the safety of your mistress. Her care will soon be our concern, not yours. Then we shall keep her, and cure her of all her ills. Mr Rivers, you understand—a case such as this—the treatment may well be a lengthy one . . .?’
They rise. They have brought papers, and look for a surface on which to put them out. Richard clears the dressing-table of brushes and pins and they lay them there, then sign: a paper each. I don’t watch them do it, but hear the grinding of the pen. I hear them moving together, to shake each other’s hands. The staircase thunders as they go down. I keep in my seat beside the window. Richard stands in the path to the house while they drive off.
Then he comes back. He closes the door. He steps to me and tosses the wedding-ring into my lap. He rubs his hands together and almost capers.
‘You devil,’ I say, without passion, wiping the tears from my cheek.
He snorts. He moves to the back of my chair and puts his hands to my head, one hand to either side of my face; then tilts it back until our gazes meet. ‘Look at me,’ he says, ‘and tell me, honestly, that you don’t admire me.’
‘I hate you.’
‘Hate yourself, then. We’re alike, you and I. More alike than you know. You think the world ought to love us, for the kinks in the fibres of our hearts? The world scorns us. Thank God it does! There was never a profit to be got from love; from scorn, however, you may twist riches, as filthy water may be wrung from a cloth. You know it is true. You are like me. I say it again: hate me, hate yourself.’
His hands are warm upon my face, at least. I close my eyes.
I say, ‘I do.’
Then Sue comes from her room, to knock upon our door. He keeps his pose, but calls for her to enter.
‘Look here,’ he says when she does, his voice quite changed, ‘at your mistress. Don’t you think her eyes a little brighter . . .?’ We leave next day, for the madhouse.
She comes to dress me, for the final time.
‘Thank you, Sue,’ I say, in the old soft way, each time she hooks a button or draws a lace. I wear, still, the gown in which I left Briar, that is spotted with mud and river-water. She wears my gown of silk—blue silk, against which the white of her wrists and throat is turned to the colour of cream, and the browns of her hair and eyes are made rich. She has grown handsome. She moves about the room, taking up my linen, my shoes, my brushes and pins, and putting them carefully in bags. Two bags, there are: one destined for London, the other for the madhouse—the first, as she supposes, for herself; the second for me. It is hard to watch her make her choices—to see her frown over a petticoat, a pair of stockings or shoes, to know she is thinking, These will surely be good enough for mad people and doctors. This she ought to take, in case the nights are cool. Now, that and those (the bottle of drops, my gloves) she must have.—I move them, when she leaves me, and place them deep in the other bag.
And one other thing I put with them, that she does not know I keep: the silver thimble, from the sewing-box at Briar, with which she smoothed my pointed tooth.
The coach comes, sooner than I think it will. ‘Thank God,’ says Richard. He carries his hat. He is too tall for this low and tilting house: when we step outside, he stretches. I have kept to my room so long, however, the day feels vast to me. I walk with Sue’s arm gripped in mine, and at the door of the coach, when I must give it up—give it up, for ever!—I think I hesitate.
‘Now, now,’ says Richard, taking my hand from her. ‘No time for sentiment.’
Then we drive. I feel it, as more than a matter of galloping horses and turning wheels. It is like an undoing of my first journey, with Mrs Stiles, from the madhouse to Briar: I put my face to the window
as the carriage slows, and almost expect to see the house and the mothers I was snatched from. I should remember them still, I know it. But, that house was large. This one is smaller, and lighter. It has rooms for female lunatics, only. That house was set in bare earth. This one has a bed of flowers beside its door—tall flowers, with tips like spikes.
I fall back in my seat. Richard catches my eye.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says.
Then they take her. He helps her into their hands, and stands before me at the door, looking out.
‘Wait,’ I hear her say. ‘What are you doing?’ Then: ‘Gentlemen! Gentlemen!’—an odd and formal phrase.
The doctors speak in soothing tones, until she begins to curse; then their voices grow hard. Richard draws back. The floor of the carriage tilts, the doorway rises, and I see her—the two men’s hands upon her arms, a nurse gripping her waist. Her cloak is falling from her shoulders, her hat is tilted, her hair is tearing from its pins. Her face is red and white. Her look is wild, already.
Her eyes are fixed on mine. I sit like a stone, until Richard takes my arm and presses, hard, upon my wrist.
‘Speak,’ he whispers, ‘damn you.’ Then I sing out, clear, mechanically:
‘Oh! My own poor mistress!’ Her brown eyes—wide—with that darker fleck. Her tumbling hair. ‘Oh! Oh! My heart is breaking!’
The cry seems to ring about the coach, even after Richard has swung closed the door and the driver whipped the horse into life and turned us. We do not speak. Beside Richard’s head is a lozenge-shaped window of milky glass, and for a moment I see her again: still struggling, lifting her arm to point or reach— Then the road makes a dip. There come trees. I take off my wedding-ring and throw it to the floor. I find, in my bag, a pair of gloves, and draw them on. Richard watches my trembling hands.
‘Well—’ he says.
‘Don’t speak to me,’ I say, almost spitting the words. ‘If you speak to me, I shall kill you.’
He blinks, and attempts to smile. But his mouth moves strangely and his face, behind his beard, is perfectly white. He folds his arms. He sits, first one way and then another. He crosses and uncrosses his legs. At length he takes a cigarette from his pocket, and a match, and tries to draw down the carriage window. It will not come. His hands are damp, grow damper, and finally slide upon the glass. ‘Damn this!’ he cries then. He rises, staggers, beats upon the ceiling for the driver to stop the horse, then fumbles with the key. We have gone no more than a mile or two, but he jumps to the ground and paces, coughs. He puts his hand to the lock of springing hair at his brow, many times. I watch him.
‘How like a villain,’ I say, when he takes his seat again, ‘you are now.’
‘And how like a lady, you!’ he answers, with a sneer.
Then he turns his face from me, rests his head against the jolting cushion; and pretends, with twitching eye-lids, to sleep.
My own eyes stay open. I gaze through the lozenge of glass at the road we have travelled—a winding red road, made cloudy by dust, like a thread of blood escaping from my heart.
We make part of our journey like this, but then must give up the asylum carriage and take a train. I have never ridden a train before. We wait at a country station. We wait at an inn, since Richard is still afraid that my uncle will have sent out men to watch for us. He has the landlord put us in a private room and bring me tea and bread-and-butter. I will not look at the tray. The tea grows brown and cool, the bread curls. He stands at the fire and rattles the coins in his pocket, then bursts out: ‘God damn you, do you think I take food for you, for free?’ He eats the bread-and-butter himself. ‘I hope I see my money soon,’ he says. ‘God knows I need it, after three months with you and your uncle, doing what he calls a gentleman’s labour, receiving wages that would barely keep a proper gentleman in cuffs. Where’s that damn porter? How much do they mean to swindle me of for our tickets, I wonder?’
At last a boy appears to fetch us and take our bags. We stand on the station platform and study the rails. They shine, as if polished.
In time they begin to purr, and then—unpleasantly, like nerves in failing teeth—to hum. The hum becomes a shriek. Then the train comes hurtling about the track, a plume of smoke at its head, its many doors unfolding. I keep my veil about my face. Richard hands a coin to the guard, saying easily: ‘You’ll see to it, perhaps, that my wife and I are kept quite private, till London?’ The guard says he will; and when Richard comes and takes his place in the coach across from me he is more peevish than ever.
‘That I must pay a man to think me lewd, so I may sit chastely, with my own little virgin of a wife! Let me tell you now, I am keeping a separate account of the costs of this journey, to charge against your share.’
I say nothing. The train has shuddered, as if beaten with hammers, and now begins to roll upon its tracks. I feel the growing speed of it, and grip the hanging strap of leather until my hand cramps and blisters in its glove.
So the journey proceeds. It seems to me that we must cross vast distances of space.—For you will understand that my sense of distance and space is rather strange. We stop at a village of red-bricked houses, and then at another, very similar; and then at a third, rather larger. At every station there is what seems to me a press of people clamouring to board, the thud and shake of slamming doors. I am afraid the crowds will overburden the train—perhaps overturn it.
I think, I deserve to be crushed in the wreck of a train; and almost hope they do.
They do not. The engine speeds us onward, then slows, and again there are streets and the spires of churches—more streets and spires than I have yet seen; more houses, and between them a steady traffic of cattle and vehicles and people. London! I think, with a lurch of my heart. But Richard studies me as I gaze, and smiles unpleasantly. ‘Your natural home,’ he says. We stop at the station and I see the name of it: MAIDENHEAD.
Though we have come so swiftly we have travelled no more than twenty miles, and have another thirty to go. I sit, still gripping the strap, leaning close to the glass; but the station is filled with men and women—the women in groups, the men idly walking; and from
them I shrink. Soon the train gives a hiss, and gathers its bulk, and shudders back into terrible life. We leave the streets of Maidenhead. We pass through trees. Beyond the trees there are open parklands, and houses—some as great as my uncle’s, some greater. Here and there are cottages with pens of pigs, with gardens set with broken sticks for climbing beans, and hung with lines of laundry. Where the lines are full there is laundry hung from windows, from trees, on bushes, on chairs, between the shafts of broken carts—laundry everywhere, drooping and yellow.
I keep my pose and watch it all. Look, Maud, I think. Here is your future. Here’s all your liberty, unfolding like a bolt of cloth . . .
I wonder if Sue is very much injured. I wonder what kind of place they have her in, now.
Richard tries to see beyond my veil. ‘You’re not weeping, are you?’ he says. ‘Come on, don’t trouble over it still.’
I say, ‘Don’t look at me.’
‘Should you rather be back at Briar, with the books? You know you should not. You know you have wanted this. You’ll forget, soon, the manner in which you got it. Believe me, I know these things. You must only be patient. We must both be patient now. We have many weeks to pass together, before the fortune becomes ours. I am sorry I spoke harshly, before. Come, Maud. We shall be at London, soon. Things will seem different to you there, I assure you …”
I do not answer. At last, with a curse, he gives it up. The day is darkening now—or rather, the sky is darkening, as we draw close to the city. There come streaks of soot upon the glass. The landscape is slowly growing meaner. The cottages have begun to be replaced by wooden dwellings, some with broken windows and boards. The gardens are giving way to patches of weed; soon the weed gives way to ditches, the ditches to dark canals, to dreary wastes of road, to mounds of stones or soil or ashes. Still, Even ashes, I think, are a part of your freedom—and I feel, despite myself, the kindling in me of a sort of excitement. But then, the excitement becomes unease. I have always supposed London a place, like a house in a park, with walls: I’ve imagined it rising, straight and clean and solid. I have not
supposed it would sprawl so brokenly, through villages and suburbs. I’ve believed it complete: but now, as I watch, there come stretches of wet red land, and gaping trenches; now come half-built houses, and half-built churches, with glassless windows and slateless roofs and jutting spars of wood, naked as bones.
Now there are so many smuts upon the glass they show like faults in the fabric of my veil. The train begins to rise. I don’t like the sensation. We begin to cross streets—grey streets, black streets—so many monotonous streets, I think I shall never be able to tell them apart! Such a chaos of doors and windows, of roofs and chimneys, of horses and coaches and men and women! Such a muddle of hoardings and garish signs: Spanish blinds.—Lead Coffins.—Oil Tallow & Cotton Waste. Words, everywhere. Words, six-feet high. Words, shrieking and bellowing: Leather and Grindery.—Shop To Let.—Broughams & Neat Carriages.—Paper-Stainers.—Supported Entirely.—To Let!— To Let!—By Voluntary Subscription.—
There are words, all over the face of London. I see them, and cover my eyes. When I look again we have sunk: brick walls, thick with soot, have risen about the train and cast the coach in gloom. Then comes a great, vast, vaulting roof of tarnished glass, hung about with threads of smoke and steam and fluttering birds. We shudder to a frightful halt. There is the shrieking of other engines, a thudding of doors, the pressing passage—it seems to me—of a thousand, thousand people.
‘Paddington terminus,’ says Richard. ‘Come on.’
He moves and speaks more quickly here. He is changed. He does not look at me—I wish he would, now. He finds a man to take our bags. We stand in a line of people—a queue, I know the word—and wait for a carriage—a hackney, I know that word also, from my uncle’s books. One may kiss in a hackney; one may take any kind of liberty with one’s lover; one tells one’s driver to go about the Regent’s Park. I know London. London is a city of opportunities fulfilled. This place, of jostling and clamour, I do not know. It is thick with purposes I do not understand. It is marked with words, but I cannot read it. The regularity, the numberless repetition, of
brick, of house, of street, of person—of dress, and feature, and expression—stuns and exhausts me. I stand at Richard’s side and keep my arm in his. If he should leave me—! A whistle is blown and men, in dark suits—ordinary men, gentlemen—pass by us, running-
We take our place in the hackney at last, and are jerked out of the terminus into choked and filthy roads. Richard feels me tense. ‘Are you startled, by the streets?’ he says. ‘We must pass through worse, I’m afraid. What did you expect? This is the city, where respectable men live side by side with squalor. Don’t mind it. Don’t mind it at all. We are going to your new home.’
‘To our house,’ I say. I think: There, with the doors and windows shut, I will grow calm. I will bathe, I will rest, I will sleep.
‘To our house,’ he answers. And he studies me a moment longer, then reaches across me. ‘Here, if the sight troubles you—’ He pulls down the blind.
And so once again we sit, and sway to the motion of a coach, in a kind of twilight; but we are pressed about, this time, by all the roar of London. I do not see it when we go about the park. I do not see what route the driver takes, at all: perhaps I should not know it, if I did, though I have studied maps of the city, and know the placing of the Thames. I cannot say, when we stop, how long we have driven for—so preoccupied am I with the desperate stir of my senses and heart. Be bold, I am thinking. God damn you, Maud! You have longed for this. You have given up Sue, you have given up everything, for this. Be bold!
Richard pays the man, then returns for our bags. ‘From here we must walk,’ he says. I climb out, unassisted, and blink at the light— though the light here is dim enough: we have lost the sun, and the sky is anyway thick with cloud—brown cloud, like the dirty fleece of a sheep. I have expected to find myself at the door to his house, but there are no houses here: we have entered streets that appear to me unspeakably shabby and mean—are hedged on one side by a great, dead wall, on the other by the lime-stained arches of a bridge. Richard moves off. I catch at his arm.
‘Is this right?’ I say.
‘Quite right,’ he answers. ‘Come, don’t be alarmed. We cannot live grandly, yet. And we must make our entrance the quiet way, that’s all.’
‘You are still afraid that my uncle may have sent men, to watch
He again moves off. ‘Come. We can talk soon, indoors. Not here. Come on, this way. Pick up your skirts.’
He walks quicker than ever now, and I am slow to follow. When he sees me hanging back he holds our bags in one hand and, with the other, takes my wrist. ‘Not far, now,’ he says, kindly enough; his grip is tight, however. We leave that road and turn into another: here I can see the stained and broken face of what I take to be a single great house, but which is in fact the rear of a terrace of narrow dwellings. The air smells riverish, rank. People watch us, curiously. That makes me walk faster. Soon we turn again, into a lane of crunching cinders. Here there are children, in a group: they are standing idly about a bird, which lurches and hops. They have tied its wings with twine. When they see us, they come and press close. They want money, or to tug at my sleeve, my cloak, my veil. Richard kicks them away. They swear for a minute, then return to the bird. We take another, dirtier, path—Richard all the time gripping me harder, walking faster, faster, certain of his way. ‘We are very close now,’ he says. ‘Don’t mind this filth, this is nothing. All London is filthy like this. Just a little further, I promise. And then you may rest.’
And at last, he slows. We have reached a court, with a thick mud floor and nettles. The walls are high, and running with damp. There is no open route from here, only two or three narrow covered passages, filled with darkness. Into one of these he makes to draw me, now; but, so black and foul is it, I suddenly hesitate, and pull against his grip.
‘Come on,’ he says, turning round, not smiling.
‘Come to where?’ I ask him.
‘To your new life, that has waited for you to start it, too long. To our house. Our housekeeper expects us. Come, now.—Or shall I leave you here?’
His voice is tired, hard. I look behind me. I see the other pas-
sages, but the muddy path he has led me down is hidden—as if the glistening walls have parted to let us come, then closed to trap me.
What can I do? I cannot go back, alone, to the children, the labyrinth of lanes, the street, the city. I cannot go back to Sue. I am not meant to. Everything has been impelling me here, to this dark point. I must go forward, or cease to exist. I think again of the room that is waiting for me: of the door, with its key that will turn; of the bed, on which I shall lie and sleep, and sleep—
I hesitate, one second more; then let him draw me into the passage. It is short, and ends with a flight of shallow stairs, leading downwards; and these, in turn, end at a door, on which he knocks. From beyond the door there comes at once the barking of a dog, then soft, quick footsteps, a grinding bolt. The dog falls silent. The door is opened, by a fair-haired boy—I suppose, the housekeeper’s boy. He looks at Richard and nods.
‘All right?’ he says.
‘All right,’ answers Richard. ‘Is Aunty home? Here’s a lady, look, come to stay.’
The boy surveys me, I see him squinting to make out the features behind my veil. Then he smiles, nods again, draws back the door to let us pass him; closes it tightly at our backs.
The room beyond is a kind of kitchen—I suppose, a servants’ kitchen, for it is small, and windowless, dark and unwholesome, and chokingly hot: there is a good fire lit, and one or two smoking lamps upon a table and—perhaps, after all, these are the grooms’ quarters—a brazier in a cage, with tools about it. Beside the brazier is a pale man in an apron who, on seeing us come, sets down some fork or file and wipes his hands and looks me over, frankly. Before the fire sit a young woman and a boy: the girl fat-faced, red-haired, also watching me freely; the boy sallow and scowling, chewing with broken teeth on a strip of dry meat, and dressed—I notice this, even in my confusion—in an extraordinary coat, that seems pieced together from many varieties of fur. He holds, between his knees, a squirming dog, his hand about its jaws to keep it from barking. He looks at Richard and then at me. He surveys my coat and gloves and bonnet. He whistles.
‘What price them togs,’ he says.
Then he flinches as, from another chair—a rocking chair, that creaks as it tilts—a white-haired woman leans to strike him. I suppose her the housekeeper. She has watched me, more closely and more eagerly than any of the others. She holds a bundle: now she puts it down and struggles from her seat, and the bundle gives a shudder. This is more astonishing than the lighted brazier, the coat of fur—it is a sleeping, swollen-headed baby in a blanket.
I look at Richard. I think he will speak, or lead me on. But he has taken his hand from me and stands with folded arms, very leisurely. He is smiling, but smiling oddly. Everyone is silent. No-one moves save the white-haired woman. She has left her chair and comes about the table. She is dressed in taffeta, that rustles. Her face has a blush, and shines. She comes to me, she stands before me, her head weaves as she tries to catch the line of my features. She moves her mouth, wets her lips. Her gaze is still close and terribly eager. When she raises her blunt red hands to me, I flinch.—’Richard,’ I say. But he still does nothing, and the woman’s look, that is so awful and so strange, compels me. I stand and let her fumble for my veil. She puts it back. And then her gaze changes, grows stranger still, when she sees my face. She touches my cheek, as if uncertain it will remain beneath her fingers.
She keeps her eyes on mine, but speaks to Richard. Her voice is thick with the tears of age, or of emotion.
‘Good boy,’ she says.
Then there comes a kind of chaos.
The dog barks and leaps, the baby in its blanket gives a cry; another baby, that I have not noticed—it lies in a tin box, beneath the table—begins to cry also. Richard takes off his hat and his coat, sets down our bags, and stretches. The scowling boy drops open his mouth and shows the meat within.
‘It ain’t Sue,’ he says.
‘Miss Lilly,’ says the woman before me, quietly. ‘Ain’t you just the darling. Are you very tired, dear? You have come quite a journey’
‘It ain’t Sue,’ says the boy again, a little louder.
‘Change of plan,’ says Richard, not catching my eye. ‘Sue stays °n behind, to take care of a few last points.—Mr Ibbs, how are you, sir?’
‘Sweet, son,’ the pale man answers. He has taken off his apron and is quieting the dog. The boy who opened the door to us has
gone. The little brazier is cooling and ticking and growing grey. The red-haired girl bends over the screaming babies with a bottle and a spoon, but is still stealing looks at me.
The scowling boy says, ‘Change of plan? I don’t get it.’ ‘You will,’ answers Richard. ‘Unless—’ He puts his finger against his mouth, and winks.
The woman, meanwhile, is still before me, still describing my face with her hands, telling off my features as if they were beads upon a string. ‘Brown eyes,’ she says, beneath her breath; her breath is sweet as sugar. ‘Pink lips, two pouters. Nice and dainty at the chin. Teeth, white as china. Cheeks—rather soft, I dare say? Oh!’
I have stood, as if in a trance, and let her murmur; now, feeling her fingers flutter against my face, I start away from her.
‘How dare you?’ I say. ‘How dare you speak to me? How dare you look at me, any of you? And you—’ I go to Richard and seize his waistcoat. ‘What is this? Where have you brought me to? What do they know of Sue, here?’
‘Hey, hey,’ calls the pale man mildly. The boy laughs. The woman looks rueful.
‘Got a voice, don’t she?’ says the girl.
‘Like the blade on a knife,’ says the man. ‘That clean.’
Richard meets my gaze, then looks away. ‘What can I say?’ He shrugs. ‘I am a villain.’
‘Damn your attitudes now!’ I say. ‘Tell me what this means. Whose house is this? Is it yours?’
‘Is it his!’ The boy laughs harder, and chokes on his meat.
‘John, be quiet, or I’ll thrash you,’ says the woman. ‘Don’t mind him, Miss Lilly, I implore you now, don’t!’
I can feel her wringing her hands, but do not look at her. I keep my eyes upon Richard. ‘Tell me,’ I say.
‘Not mine,’ he answers at last.
‘Not ours?’ He shakes his head. ‘Whose, then? Where, then?’
He rubs at his eye. He is tired. ‘It is theirs,’ he says, nodding to the woman, the man. ‘Their house, in the Borough.’
The Borough … I have heard him say the name, once or twice before. I stand for a moment in silence, thinking back across his
words; then my heart drops. ‘Sue’s house,’ I say. ‘Sue’s house, of thieves.’
‘Honest thieves,’ says the woman, creeping closer, ‘to those that know us!’
I think: Sue’s aunt! I was sorry for her, once. Now I turn and almost spit at her. ‘Will you keep from me, you witch?’ The kitchen grows silent. It seems darker, too, and close. I still have Richard gripped by the waistcoat. When he tries to pull away, I hold him tighter. My thoughts are leaping, fast as hares. I think, He has married me, and has brought me here, as a place to be rid of me. He means to keep my money for himself. He means to give them some trifling share for the killing of me, and Sue—even in the midst of my shock and confusion, my heart drops again, as I think it—Sue they will free. Sue knows it all.
‘You shan’t do it!’ I say, my voice rising. ‘You think I don’t know what you mean to do? All of you? What trick?’
‘You don’t know anything, Maud,’ he answers. He tries to draw my hands from his coat. I will not let him. I think, if he does that, they will certainly kill me. For a second we struggle. Then: ‘The stitching, Maud!’ he says. He plucks my fingers free. I catch at his arm instead.
‘Take me back,’ I say. I say it, thinking: Don’t let them see you are afraid! But my voice has risen higher and I cannot make it firm. ‘Take me back, at once, to the streets and hackneys.’
He shakes his head, looks away. ‘I can’t do it.’
‘Take me now. Or I go, alone. I shall make my way—I saw the route! I studied it, hard!—and I shall find out a—a policeman!’
The boy, the pale man, the woman and girl, all flinch or wince. The dog barks.
‘Now now,’ says the man, stroking his moustache. ‘You must be careful how you talk, dear, in a house like this.’
‘It is you who must be careful!’ I say. I look from one face to another. ‘What is it you think you shall have from this? Money? Oh, no. It is you who must be careful. It is all of you! And you, Richard—you—who must be most careful of all, should I once find a policeman and begin to talk.’
But Richard looks and says nothing. ‘Do you hear me?’ I cry.
The man winces again, and puts his finger to his ear as if to clear it of wax. ‘Like a blade,’ he says, to no-one, to everyone. ‘Ain’t it?’
‘Damn you!’ I say. I look wildly about me for a moment, then make a sudden grab at my bag. Richard reaches it first, however, he hooks it with his long leg and kicks it across the floor, almost playfully. The boy takes it up, and holds it in his lap. He produces a knife and begins to pick at the lock. The blade flashes.
Richard folds his arms. ‘You see you cannot leave, Maud,’ he says simply. ‘You cannot go, with nothing.’
He has moved to the door, to stand before it. There are other doors, that lead, perhaps to a street, perhaps only into other dark rooms. I shall never choose the right one. ‘I am sorry,’ he says.
The boy’s knife flashes again. Now, I think, they will kill me. The thought itself is like a blade, and astonishingly sharp. For haven’t I willed my life away, at Briar? Haven’t I felt it rising from me, and been glad? Now I suppose they mean to kill me; and I am more afraid than I have imagined it possible to be, of anything, anything at all.
You fool, I say to myself. But to them I say: ‘You shan’t. You shan’t!’ I run one way, and then another; finally I dart, not for the door at Richard’s back, but for the slumbering, swollen-headed baby. I seize it, and shake it, and put my hand to its neck. ‘You shan’t!’ I say again. ‘Damn you, do you think I have come so far, for this?’ I look at the woman. ‘I shall kill your baby first!’—I think I would do it.—’See, here! I shall stifle it!’
The man, the girl, the boy, look interested. The woman looks sorry. ‘My dear,’ she says, ‘I have seven babies about the place, just now. Make it six, if you want. Make it’—with a gesture to the tin box beneath the table—’make it five. It is all the same to me. I fancy I am about to give the business up, anyway.’
The creature in my arms slumbers on, but gives a kick. I feel the rapid palpitation of its heart beneath my fingers, and there is a
fluttering at the top of its swollen head. The woman still watches. The girl Puts ^er hand to her neck, and rubs. Richard searches in his pocket for a cigarette. He says, as he does it, ‘Put the damn child down, Maud, won’t you?’
He says it mildly; and I become aware of myself, my hands at a baby’s throat. I set the child carefully down upon the table, among the plates and china cups. At once, the boy takes his knife from the lock of my bag and waves it over its head.
‘Ha-ha!’ he cries. ‘The lady wouldn’t do it. John Vroom shall have him—lips, nose and ears!’
The girl squeals, as if tickled. The woman says sharply, ‘That’s enough. Or are all my infants to be worried out of their cradles, into their graves? Fine farm I should be left with then. Dainty, see to little Sidney before he scalds himself, do. Miss Lilly will suppose herself come among savages. Miss Lilly, I can see you’re a spirited girl. I expected nothing less. But you don’t imagine we mean to hurt you?’ She comes to me again. She cannot stand without touching me—now she puts her hand upon me and strokes my sleeve. ‘You don’t imagine you ain’t more welcome here, than anyone?’
I still shake, a little. ‘I can’t imagine,’ I say, pulling myself away from her hands, ‘that you mean me any kind of good, since you persist in keeping me here, when I so clearly wish to leave.’
She tilts her head. ‘Hear the grammar in that, Mr Ibbs?’ she says. The man says he does. She strokes me again. ‘Sit down, my darling. Look at this chair: got from a very grand place, it might be waiting for you. Won’t you take off your cloak, and your bonnet? You shall swelter, we keep a very warm kitchen. Won’t you slip off your gloves?—Well, you know best.’
I have drawn in my hands. Richard catches the woman’s eye. ‘Miss Lilly,’ he says quietly, ‘is rather particular about the fingers. Was made to wear gloves, from an early age’—he lets his voice drop still further, and mouths the last few words in an exaggerated way— ‘by her uncle.’
The woman looks sage.
‘Your uncle,’ she says. ‘Now, I know all about him. Made you look at a lot of filthy French books. And did he touch you, dear,
where he oughtn’t to have? Never mind it now. Never mind it, here. Better your own uncle than a stranger, I always say.—Oh, now ain’t that a shame?’
I have sat, to disguise the trembling of my legs; but have pushed her from me. My chair is close to the fire and she is right, it is hot, it is terribly hot, my cheek is burning; but I must not move, I must think. The boy still picks at the lock. ‘French books,’ he says, with a snigger. The red-haired girl has the fingers of the baby’s hands in her mouth and is sucking on them, idly. The man has come nearer. The woman is still at my side. The light of the fire picks out her chin, her cheek, an eye, a lip. The lip is smooth. She wets it.
I turn my head, but not my gaze. ‘Richard,’ I say. He doesn’t answer. ‘Richard!’ The woman reaches to me and unfastens the string of my bonnet and draws it from my head. She pats my hair, then takes up a lock of it and rubs it between her fingers.
‘Quite fair,’ she says, in a sort of wonder. ‘Quite fair, like gold almost.’
‘Do you mean to sell it?’ I say then. ‘Here, take it!’ I snatch at the lock she has caught up and rip it from its pins. ‘You see,’ I say, when she winces, ‘you cannot hurt me as much as I can hurt myself. Now, let me go.’
She shakes her head. ‘You are growing wild, my dear, and spoiling your pretty hair. Haven’t I said? We don’t mean to harm you. Here is John Vroom, look; and Delia Warren, that we call Dainty: you shall think them cousins, I hope, in time. And Mr Humphry Ibbs: he has been waiting for you—haven’t you, Mr Ibbs? And here am I. I’ve been waiting for you, hardest of all. Dear me, how hard it has been.’
She sighs. The boy looks up at her and scowls. ‘Jigger me,’ he says, ‘if I know which way the wind is blowing now.’ He nods to me. ‘Ain’t she meant to be’—he hugs his arms about himself, shows his tongue, lets his eyes roll—’on a violent ward?’
The woman lifts her arm, and he winks and draws back. ‘You watch your face,’ she says savagely. And then, gazing gently at me: ‘Miss Lilly is throwing in her fortunes with ours. Miss Lilly
don’t know her own mind just yet—as who would, in her place? Miss Lilly, I daresay you ain’t had a morsel of food in hours. What we got, that will tempt you?’ She rubs her hands together. ‘Should you care for a mutton chop? A piece of Dutch cheese? A supper of fish? We got a stall on the corner, sells any kind of fish—you name me the breed, Dainty shall slip out, bring it back, fry it up, quick as winking. What shall it be? We got china plates, look, fit for royalty. We got silver forks— Mr Ibbs, pass me one of them forks. See here, dear. A little rough about the handle, ain’t it? Don’t mind it, darling. That’s where we takes the crest off. Feel the weight of it, though. Ain’t them prongs very shapely? There’s a Member of Parliament had his mouth about those. Shall it be fish, dear? Or the
She stands, bending to me, with the fork close to my face. I push
‘Do you suppose,’ I say, ‘I mean to sit and eat a supper with you? With any of you? Why, I should be ashamed to call you servants! Throw in my fortunes with yours? I should rather be beggared. I should rather die!’
There is a second of silence; then: ‘Got a dander,’ says the boy. ‘Don’t she?’
But the woman shakes her head, looks almost admiring. ‘Dainty’s got a dander,’ she answers. ‘Why, I’ve got one myself. Any ordinary girl can have one of them. What a lady has, they call something else. What do they call it, Gentleman?’ She says this to Richard, who is leaning tiredly to tug upon the ears of the slavering dog.
‘Hauteur,’ he answers, not looking up.
‘Hauteur,’ she repeats.
‘Mersee,’ says the boy, giving me a leer. ‘I should hate, after all, to have mistook it for common bad manners, and punched her.’
He returns to the clasp of my bag. The man watches, and winces. ‘Ain’t you learned yet,’ he says, ‘the handling of a lock? Don’t prise it, boy, and mash the levers. That’s sweet little work. You are just about to bust it.’
The boy makes a final stab with his knife, his face darkening, ruck!’ he says.—The first time I have ever heard the word used as
a curse. He takes the point of the blade from the lock and puts it to the leather beneath, and before I can cry out and stop him he slices it, swiftly, in one long gash.
‘Well, that’s like you,’ says the man complacently.
He has taken out a pipe, and lights it. The boy puts his hands to the slit in the leather. I watch him do it and, though my cheek is still burning from the heat of the fire, I grow cold. The cutting of the bag has shocked me, more than I can say. I begin to tremble.
‘Please,’ I say. ‘Please give me back my things. I shall not trouble about the policeman, if you will only give back what is mine, and let me go.’
I suppose my voice has some new, piteous note to it; for now they all turn their heads and study me, and the woman comes close again and again strokes my hair.
‘Not frightened, still?’ she says amazedly. ‘Not frightened, of John Vroom? Why, he is just being playful.—John, how dare you? Put your knife away and pass me Miss Lilly’s bag.—There. Are you sorry for it, dear? Why, it’s a creased old thing, that looks like it ain’t been used in fifty years. We shall get you a proper one. Shan’t we, though!’
The boy makes a show of grumbling but gives up the bag; and when the woman hands it to me I take it and hug it. There are tears, rising in my throat.
‘Boo-hoo,’ says the boy in disgust, when he sees me swallow. He leans and leers at me again. ‘I liked you better,’ he says, ‘when you was a chair.’
I am sure he says that. The words bewilder me, and I shrink away. I twist to look at Richard. ‘Please, Richard,’ I say. ‘For God’s sake, isn’t it enough to have tricked me? How can you stand so coolly while they torment me?’
He holds my gaze, stroking his beard. Then he says to the woman: ‘Haven’t you a quieter place, for her to sit in?’
‘A quieter place?’ she answers. ‘Why, I have a room made ready. I only supposed Miss Lilly should like to warm her face first down here. Should you like to come up, dear, now? Make your hair neat? Wash your hands?’
‘I should like to be shown to the street, and a hackney,’ I answer. ‘Only that, only that.’
‘Well, we shall put you at the window; and you shall see the street from there. Come up, my darling. Let me take that old bag.— Want to keep it? All right. Ain’t your grip a strong one! Gentleman, you come along, too, why don’t you? You’ll take your old room, at the top?’
‘I will,’ he answers, ‘if you’ll have me. For the wait.’
They exchange a glance. She has put her hands upon me and, in drawing from her grasp, I have risen. Richard comes and stands close. I shrink from him, too, and between them—as a pair of dogs might menace a sheep into a pen—they guide me from the kitchen, through one of the doors, towards a staircase. Here it is darker and cooler, and I feel the draught perhaps of a street-door, and slow my steps; but I think, too, of what the woman has said, about the window: I imagine I might call from it, or drop from it—or fling myself from it—should they try to hurt me. The staircase is narrow, and bare of carpet; here and there, on the steps, are chipped china cups half-filled with water, holding floating wicks, casting shadows.
‘Lift your skirts, dear, above the flames,’ says the woman, going up before me. Richard comes, very close, behind.
At the top there are doors, all shut: the woman opens the first, and shows me through it to a small square room. A bed, a wash-hand stand, a box, a chest of drawers, a horse-hair screen—and a window, to which I instantly cross. It is narrow, and has a bleached net scarf hung before it. The hasp has been broken long ago: the sashes are fixed together with nails. The view is of a slip of muddy street, a house with ointment-coloured shutters with heart-shaped holes, a wall of brick, with loops and spirals marked upon it in yellow chalks.
I stand and study it all, my bag still clutched to me, but my arms growing heavy. I hear Richard pause, then climb a second set of stairs; then he walks about the room above my head. The woman crosses to the wash-hand stand and pours a little water from the jug mto the bowl. Now I see my mistake, in coming so quickly to the window: for she stands between me and the door. She is stout, and
her arms are thick. I think I might push her aside, however, if I was to surprise her.
Perhaps she is thinking the same thing. Her hands are hovering about the wash-hand stand, her head is tilted, but she is watching me, in the same close, eager, half-awed, half-admiring way as before.
‘Here’s scented soap,’ she says. ‘And here’s a comb. Here’s a hairbrush.’ I say nothing. ‘Here’s a towel for your face. Here’s eau-de-Cologne.’ She draws the stopper from the bottle and the liquid slops. She comes to me, her wrist bared and made wet with a sickening perfume. ‘Don’t you care,’ she says, ‘for lavender?’
I have stepped away from her, and look at the door. From the kitchen, the boy’s voice comes very clearly: ‘You tart!’ ‘I don’t care,’ I say, taking another step, ‘to be tricked.’ She steps, too. ‘What trickery, darling?’
‘Do you think I meant to come here? Do you think I mean to stay?’
‘I think you are only startled. I think you ain’t quite yourself.’ ‘Not quite myself? What’s myself to you? Who are you, to say how I might or might not be?’
At that, her gaze falls. She draws her sleeve over her wrist, returns to the wash-hand stand, touches again the soap, the comb, the brush and towel. Downstairs, a chair is drawn across the floor, something is thrown or falls, the dog barks. Upstairs, Richard walks, coughs, mutters. If I am to run, I must do it now. Which way shall I go? Down, down, the way I have come. Which was the door, at the bottom, that they led me through?—the second, or the first? I am not sure. Never mind, I think. Go now! But I do not. The woman lifts her face, catches my eye, I hesitate; and in the moment of that hesitation Richard crosses his floor and steps heavily down the stairs. He comes into the room. He has a cigarette behind his ear. He has rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, and his beard is dark with water.
He closes the door, and locks it. ‘Take your cloak off, Maud,’ he says. I think: He is going to strangle me.
T keep my cloak quite fastened, and move backwards, slowly, from him and from the woman, back to the window. I will
ash it with my elbow if I must. I will shriek into the street. Richard watches me and sighs. He makes his eyes wide. ‘You need
t’ he says, ‘look so like a rabbit. Do you think I would bring you all this way, to hurt you?’
‘And do you think,’ I answer, ‘I will trust you not to? You told me vourself, at Briar, what lengths you will go to, for money’s sake. I wish I had listened harder, then! Tell me now you don’t mean to cheat me of all my fortune. Tell me you shan’t get it, through Sue. I suppose you will fetch her, after some slight delay. She will be cured, I suppose.’ My heart contracts. ‘Clever Sue. Good girl.’
‘Shut up, Maud.’
‘Why? So you may kill me in silence? Go on and do it. Then live with the deed upon your conscience. I suppose you have one?’
‘Not one,’ he says, quickly and lightly, ‘that would be troubled by the murder of you, I assure you.’ He presses his fingers to his eyes. ‘Mrs Sucksby, however, would not like it.’
‘Her,’ I say, with a glance at the woman. She is still gazing at the soap, the brush, not speaking. ‘You do everything, at her word?’
‘Everything in this case.’ He says it meaningfully; and when I hesitate, not understanding, he goes on: ‘Listen to me, Maud. The scheme was hers, all of it. From start to finish, hers. And, villain that I am, I am not so great a swindler that I would swindle her of that.’
His face seems honest—but then, it has seemed honest to me before. ‘You are lying,’ I say.
‘No. This is the truth.’
‘Her scheme.’ I cannot believe it. ‘She that sent you to Briar, to my uncle? And before that, to Paris? To Mr Hawtrey?’
‘She that sent me to you. No matter all the twisting paths I took to reach you. I might have taken them anyway, and not known what lay at the end of them. I might have passed you by! Perhaps many men have. They have not had Mrs Sucksby, guiding their steps.’
I glance between them. ‘She knew of my fortune, then,’ I say after a moment. ‘So anyone might, I suppose. She knew—who? My uncle? Some servant of the house?’
‘She knew you, Maud, you; before almost anyone.’
The woman lifts her eyes to mine again at last, and nods. ‘I knew your mother,’ she says.
My mother! My hand goes to my throat—a curious thing, for my mother’s portrait lies with my jewels, its ribbon fraying, I have not worn it in years. My mother! I came to London to escape her. Now, all at once, I think of her grave in the park at Briar—untended, untrimmed, its white stone creeping with grey.
The woman still watches. I let my hand drop.
‘I don’t believe you,’ I say. ‘My mother? What was her name?__
tell me that.’
She begins to look sly. ‘I know it,’ she says, ‘but won’t say it just yet. I’ll tell you the letter that started it, though. That was a M, like what starts your name. I’ll tell you the second letter. That was a I A.—Why, that’s like your name, too! The next letter, though, is where they runs off different. That was aR . . .’
She knows it, I know she knows it. How can she? I study her face—her eye, her lip. They seem familiar to me. What is it? Who is she?
‘A nurse,’ I say. ‘You were a nurse—’
But she shakes her head, almost smiles. ‘Now, why should I have been that?’
‘You don’t know everything, then!’ I say. ‘You don’t know that I was born in a madhouse!’
‘Was you?’ she answers quickly. ‘Why do you say so?’
‘You think I don’t remember my own home?’
‘I should say you remember the place you lived in when you was little. Why, so do we all. Don’t mean we was born there.’
‘I was, I know it,’ I say.
‘You was told it, I expect.’
‘Every one of my uncle’s servants knows it!’
‘They was told it, too, perhaps. Does that make it true? Maybe, j Maybe not.’
As she speaks, she moves from the wash-hand stand to the bed, and sits upon it, slowly and heavily. She looks at Richard. She puts her hand to her ear, and strokes the lobe. With a show of lightness
she says, ‘Find your room all right, Gentleman?’—I have guessed at last that this is some name he goes by here, among the thieves. ‘Find your room all right?’ He nods. She gazes at me again. ‘We keeps that room,’ she goes on, in the same light, friendly, dangerous tone, ‘for Gentleman to kip in when he comes. A very high, out-of-the-way sort of room it is, I can tell you. Seen all manner of business up there; all sorts of tricks. People been known to come here, rather quiet’—she pretends surprise—’why, just as you have come!—to spend a day, two days, two weeks, who knows how long? tucked away up there. Chaps, maybe, that the police would like a word with. Can’t be found—do you see?—when they come here. Chaps, girls, kids, ladies
After this last word she pauses. She pats the space at her side. ‘Won’t you sit, dear girl? Don’t care to? Hmm? Perhaps in a minute, then.’ The bed has a blanket upon it—a quilt of coloured squares, roughly knitted, and roughly sewn together. She begins to pluck at one of its seams, as if in distraction. ‘Now, what was I speaking of?’ she says, her eyes on mine.
‘Of ladies,’ says Richard.
She moves her hand, lifts her finger. ‘Of ladies,’ she says. ‘That’s right. Of course, there come so few true ladies, you find they rather sticks in the mind. I remember one, particular, that came—oh, how long ago? Sixteen years? Seventeen? Eighteen . . .?’ She watches my face. ‘Seems a long time to you, sweetheart, I dare say. Seems a lifetime, don’t it? Only wait, dear girl, till you are my age. The years all run together, then. All run together, like so many tears . . .’ She gives a jerk of her head, draws in her breath in a backwards sigh, quick and rueful. She waits. But I have grown still, and cold, and cautious, and say nothing. So then she goes on.
‘Well, this particular lady,’ she says, ‘she wasn’t much older than you are now. But wasn’t she in a fix? She had got my name from a woman in the Borough, that did girls and their complaints. You know what I am saying, dear? Made girls be poorly, in the regular way, when their poorliness had stopped?’ She moves her hand, makes a face. ‘I never bothered with that. That was out of my line. My idea was, if it wasn’t going to kill you on its way out, then have
it, and sell it; or what’s better, give it to me and let me sell it for you!—I mean, to people that want infants, for servants or apprentices, or for regular sons and daughters. Did you know, dear girl, that there were people in the world, like that?—and people like me, providing the infants? No?’ Again, I make no answer. Again she moves her hand. ‘Well, perhaps this lady I am speaking of now didn’t know it either, till she came to me. Poor thing. The Borough woman had tried to help her, but she was too far on, she had only got sick. “Where’s your husband?” I said, before I took her in. “Where’s your ma? Where’s all your people? Won’t follow you here, will they?” She said they wouldn’t. She had no husband—that was her trouble, of course. Her mother was dead. She had run away from a great, grand house, forty miles from London—up-river, she said …” She nods, still keeping her eyes on mine. I have grown colder than ever. ‘Her father and her brother were looking for her, and seemed likely to just about kill her; but would never find their way to the Borough, she swore it. As for the gentleman that had started her troubles all off, by saying he loved her—well, he had a wife and a kiddie of his own, and had given her up as ruined, and washed his hands.—As gentlemen, of course, will do.
‘Which, in a line like mine, you say thank heavens for!’ She smiles, almost winks. ‘This lady had money. I took her, and put her upstairs. Perhaps I oughtn’t to have done it. Mr Ibbs did say I oughtn’t to. For I had five or six babies in the house already, and was worn out and fretful—more fretful, through having just borne a little infant of my own, that had died—’ Here her look changes, and she waves a hand before her eyes. ‘I won’t talk of that, however. I won’t talk of that.’
She swallows and looks about her for a moment, as if in search of the fallen threads of her story. Then she seems to find them. The confusion passes from her face, she catches my eye again, then gestures upwards. I glance, with her, at the ceiling. It is a dirty yellow, marked grey with the smoke of lamps.
‘Up there we put her,’ she says, ‘in Gentleman’s room. And all day long I would sit beside her and hold her hand, and every night I would hear her turning in her bed, and crying. Nearly broke your
heart. She had no more harm in her than milk does. I supposed she might die. Mr Ibbs supposed it. I think even she supposed it, for she was meant to go another two months, and anyone could see that she wouldn’t have the strength to go half that time. But maybe the baby knew it, too—they do know, sometimes. For we only have her here a week, before her water busts and it starts coming. Takes a day and a night. Means to come, all right! Even so, it’s a shrimp of a thing, but the lady—being so poorly already—is quite made rags of. Then she hears her baby cry, and picks up her head from her pillow. “What’s that, Mrs Sucksby?” she says. “That’s your baby, my dear!” I tell her. “My baby?” says she. “Is my baby a boy, or a girl?” “It’s a girl,” I say. And when she hears that she cries out with all her lungs: “Then God help her! For the world is cruel to girls. I wish she had died, and me with her!'”
She shakes her head, lifts her hands, lets them fall upon her knees. Richard leans against the door. The door has a hook, with a silk dressing-gown hanging from it: he has taken up the belt of the gown and is idly passing it across his mouth. His eyes are on mine, their lids a little lowered; his look is unreadable. From the kitchen below us there comes laughter and a ragged shrieking. The woman listens, gives another of those backwards, rueful sighs.
‘There’s Dainty, crying again . . .’ She rolls her eyes. ‘But how I have run on!—haven’t I, Miss Lilly? Not finding me tiresome, dear? Ain’t much to hold the interest, perhaps, in these old tales …”
‘Go on,’ I say. My mouth is dry, and sticks. ‘Go on, about the woman.’
‘The lady, what had the little girl? Such a slight little scrap of a girl, she was: fair-haired, blue-eyed—well, they all come out blue, of course; and brown up, later . . .’
She looks, meaningfully, into my own brown eyes. I blink, and colour. But my voice I make flat. ‘Go on,’ I say again. ‘I know you mean to tell me. Tell me now. The woman wished her daughter dead. What then?’
‘Wished her dead?’ She moves her head. ‘So she said. So women do say, sometimes. And sometimes they mean it. Not her, though. That child was everything to her, and when I said she had much
better give her up to me, than keep her, she grew quite wild. “What, you don’t mean to raise her yourself?” I said. “You, a lady, without a husband?” She said she would pass herself off as a widow—meant to go abroad, where no-one knew her, and make her living as a seamstress. “I’ll see my daughter married to a poor man before she knows my shame,” she said. “I’m through with the quality life.” That was her one thought, poor thing, that no amount of sensible talking from me could shake her of: that she would sooner see her girl live low but honest, than give her back to the world of money she come from. She meant to start for France so soon as her strength was all back—and I’ll tell you this now, I thought she was a fool; but I would have cut my own arm to help her, she was that simple and good.’
She sighs. ‘But it’s the simple and the good that are meant to suffer in this world—ain’t it, though! She kept very weak, and her baby hardly grew. Still she talked, all the time, of France, it was all she thought of; until one night, I was putting her into her bed when there comes a knocking on our kitchen door. It’s the woman, from the Borough, what first put her on to me: I see her face, and know there’s trouble. There is. What do you think? The lady’s pa and brother have tracked her down after all. “They’re coming,” says the woman. “Lord help me, I never meant to tell them where you was; but the brother had a cane, and whipped me.” She shows me her back, and it’s black. “They’ve gone for a coach,” she says, “and a bully to help them. I should say you’ve an hour. Get your lady out now, if she means to go. Try to hide her and they’ll pull your house apart!”
‘Well! The poor lady had followed me down and heard it all, and started shrieking. “Oh, I’m done for!” she said. “Oh, if I might only have got to France!”—but the trip downstairs had half-killed her, she was so weak. “They’ll take my baby!” she said. “They’ll take her and make her theirs! They’ll put her in their great house, they might as well lock her into a tomb! They’ll take her, and turn her heart against me—oh! and I haven’t even named her! I haven’t even named her!” That’s all she would say. “I haven’t even named her!”—”Name her now, then!” I said, just to make her be quiet. “Name her quick, while you still got the chance.” “I will!” she said.
“But, what name shall I give her?” “Well,” I said, “think on: she’s to be a lady after all, there’s no helping it now. Give her a name that’ll fit her. What’s your own name? Give her that.” Then she looked dark. She said, “My name’s a hateful one, I’d sooner curse her before I let anyone call her Marianne—'”
She stops, seeing my face. It has jumped, or twisted—though I have known that the story must reach this point, and have stood, feeling my breath come shorter, my stomach grow sourer, as the tale proceeds. I draw in my breath. ‘It’s not true,’ I say. ‘My mother, coming here, without a husband? My mother was mad. My father was a soldier. I have his ring. Look here, look here!’
I have gone to my bag, and I stoop to it, and pull at the torn leather and find the little square of linen that holds my jewels. There is the ring that they gave me in the madhouse: I hold it up. My hand is shaking. Mrs Sucksby studies it and shrugs.
‘Rings may be got,’ she says, ‘from just about anywhere.’
‘From him,’ I say.
‘From anywhere. I could get you ten like that, have them stamped V.R.—Would that make them the Queen’s?’
I cannot answer. For what do I know about where rings come from and how they may be stamped? I say again, more weakly, ‘My mother coming here, without a husband. Ill, and coming here. My father— My uncle—’ I look up. ‘My uncle. Why should my uncle lie?’
‘Why should he tell the truth?’ says Richard, coming forward, speaking at last. ‘I dare swear his sister was honest enough, before her ruin, and only unlucky; but that’s the sort of unluckiness— well, that a man doesn’t care to talk about too freely . . .’
I gaze again at the ring. There is a cut upon it I liked, as a girl, to suppose made by a bayonet. Now the gold feels light, as if pierced and made hollow.
‘My mother,’ I say, doggedly, ‘was mad. She bore me, strapped to a table.—No.’ I put my hands to my eyes. ‘That part, perhaps, was my own fancy. But not the rest. My mother was mad—was kept in the cell of a madhouse; and I was made to be mindful of her example, lest I should follow it.’
‘She was certainly, once they had got her, put in a cell,’ says Richard; ‘as we know girls are, from time to time, for the satisfaction of gentlemen.—Well, no more of that, just yet.’ He has caught Mrs Sucksby’s eye. ‘And you were certainly kept in fear of following her, Maud. And what did that do to you?—save make you anxious, obedient, careless of your own comforts—in other words, exactly fit you to your uncle’s fancy? Didn’t I tell you once, what a scoundrel he was?’
‘You are wrong,’ I say. ‘You are wrong, or mistaken.’
‘No mistake,’ answers Mrs Sucksby.
‘You may be lying, even now. Both of you!’
‘We may be.’ She taps her mouth. ‘But you see, dear girl, we ain’t.’
‘My uncle,’ I say again. ‘My uncle’s servants. Mr Way, Mrs Stiles . . .’
But I say it, and I feel—the ghost of a pressure—Mr Way’s shoulder against my ribs, his finger in the crook of my knee: Fancy yourself a lady, do you?—And then, and then, Mrs Stiles’s hard hands on my pimpling arms and her breath against my cheek:
Why your mother, with all her fortune, should have turned out trash—/
I know it, I know it. I still hold the ring. Now, with a cry, I throw it to the floor—as I once, as a furious child, threw cups and saucers.
‘Damn him!’ I say. I think of myself at the foot of my uncle’s bed, the razor in my hand, his unguarded eye. Confidence Abused. ‘Damn him!’ Richard nods. I turn upon him, then. And damn you, with him! You knew this, all along? Why not tell me, at Briar? Don’t you think it would have made me the likelier to go with you? Why wait, and bring me here—to this foul place!—to trick and surprise me?’
‘Surprise you?’ he says, with a curious laugh. ‘Oh, Maud, sweet Maud, we haven’t begun to do that.’
I don’t understand him. I hardly try to. I am thinking still of my uncle, my mother—my mother, ill, ruined, coming here . . . Richard puts his hand to his chin, works his lips. ‘Mrs Sucksby,’ he says, ‘do you keep any drink up here? I find myself rather dry about the
mouth. It’s the anticipation, I think, of sensation. I am the same at the casino, at the spinning of the wheel; and at the pantomime, when they’re about to let fly the fairies.’
Mrs Sucksby hesitates, then goes to a shelf, opens a box, lifts out a bottle. She produces three short tumblers with gold about the rim- She wipes them, on a fold of her skirt.
‘I hope, Miss Lilly, you won’t suppose this sherry,’ she says, as she pours. The scent of the liquid comes sharp and sickly upon the close air of the room. ‘Sherry in a lady’s chamber I could never agree to; but a bit of honest brandy, meant for use now and then as a bracer—well, you tell me, where’s the harm in that?’
‘No harm at all,’ says Richard. He holds a glass to me and, so confused am I—so dazed and enraged—I take it at once, and sip it as if it were wine. Mrs Sucksby watches me swallow.
‘Got a good mouth for spirits,’ she says approvingly.
‘Got a mouth for them,’ says Richard, ‘when they’re marked up, Medicine. Hey, Maud?’
I will not answer. The brandy is hot. I sit, at last, upon the edge of the bed and unfasten the cord of my cloak. The room is darker than before: the day is turning into night. The horse-hair screen looms black, and casts shadows. The walls—that are papered here in a pattern of flowers, there in muddy diamonds—are gloomy and close. The scarf stands out against the window: a fly is caught behind it, and buzzes in hopeless fury against the glass.
I sit with my head in my hands. My brain, like the room, seems hedged about with darkness; my thoughts run, but run uselessly. I do not ask—as I would, I think, if this were some other girl’s story and I was only reading it or hearing it told—I do not ask why they have got me here; what they mean to do with me now; how they plan to profit from the cheating and stunning of me. I only rage, still, against my uncle. I only think, over and over: My mother, ruined, shamed, coming here, lying bleeding in a house of thieves. Not mad, not mad . . .
I suppose my expression is a strange one. Richard says, ‘Maud, look at me. Don’t think, now, of your uncle and your uncle’s house. Don’t think of that woman, Marianne.’
‘I shall think of her,’ I answer, ‘I shall think of her as I always have: as a fool! But, my father— You said, a gentleman? They have made me out an orphan, all these years. Does my father still live? Did he never—?’
‘Maud, Maud,’ he says, sighing, moving back to his place at the door. ‘Look about you. Think how you came here. Do you suppose I snatched you from Briar, did the deed I did this morning—ran the risks I have run—so that you might learn family secrets, no more than that?’
‘I don’t know!’ I say. ‘What do I know, now? If you will only give me a little time, to think in. If you will only tell me—’
But Mrs Sucksby has come to me, and lightly touches my arm.
‘Wait up, dear girl,’ she says, very gently. She puts a finger to her lip, half closes one eye. ‘Wait up, and listen. You ain’t heard all my story. The better part’s to come. For there’s the lady, you remember, that’s been made rags of. There’s the father and the brother and the bully, due in one hour’s time. There’s the baby, and me saying, “What’ll we name her? What about your own name, Marianne?”, and the lady saying as how she’d sooner curse her, than call her that. You remember, my dear? “As for being the daughter of a lady,” says the poor girl next, “you tell me this: what does being a lady do for you, except let you be ruined? I want her named plain,” she says, “like a girl of the people. I want her named plain.” “You name her plain, then,” I say—still meaning, as it were, to humour her. “I will,” she says. “I will. There was a servant that was kind to me once—kinder than ever my father or my brother was. I want her named for her. I shall call her for her. I shall call her—'”
‘Maud,’ I say, wretchedly. I have lowered my face again. But when Mrs Sucksby is silent, I lift it. Her look is strange. Her silence is strange. She slowly shakes her head. She draws in her breath— hesitates, for another second—and then says:
Richard watches, his hand before his mouth. The room, the house, is still. My thoughts, that have seemed to turn like grinding wheels, now seem to stop. Susan. Susan. I will not let them see how the word confounds me. Susan. I will not speak. I will not move, for
fear I should stumble or shake. I only keep my eyes upon Mrs Sucksby’s face. She takes another, longer sip from her glass of brandy, then wipes her mouth. She comes and sits again, beside me, upon the bed.
‘Susan,’ she says again. ‘That’s what the lady named her. Seems a shame to have named that baby for a servant, don’t it? So I thought, anyway. But what could I say? Poor girl, she was quite off her head—still crying, still shrieking, still saying as how her father would come, would take the child, would make her hate her own mother’s name. “Oh, how can I save her?” she said. “I would rather anyone got her, than him and my brother! Oh, what can I do? How can I save her? Oh, Mrs Sucksby, I swear to you now, I would rather they took any other poor woman’s baby, than mine!'”
Her voice has risen. Her cheek is flushed. A pulse beats, briefly—very fast—in the lid of her eye. She puts her hand to it, then drinks again, and again wipes her mouth.
‘That’s what she said,’ she says, more quietly. ‘That’s what she said. And as she says it, all the infants that are lying about the house seem to hear her, and all start up crying at once. They all sound the same, when you ain’t their mother. They all sounded the same to her, anyway. I had got her to the stairs, just outside that door’—she tilts her head, Richard shifts his pose and the door gives a creak—’and now, she stops. She looks at me, and I see what she’s thinking, and my heart goes cold. “We can’t!” I say. “Why can’t we?” she answers. “You have said yourself, my daughter shall be brought up a lady. Why not let some other little motherless girl have that, in her place—poor thing, she shall have the grief of it, too! But I swear, I’ll settle a half my fortune on her; and Susan shall have the rest. She shall have it, if you’ll only take her for me now, and bring her up honest, and keep her from knowing about her inheritance till she has grown up poor and can feel the worth of it! Don’t you have,” she says, “some motherless baby we can give to my father in Susan’s place? Don’t you? Don’t you? For God’s sake, say you do! There’s fifty pounds in the pocket of my gown. You shall have it!— I shall send you more!—if you’ll only do this thing for me, and not tell a living soul you’ve done it.'”
Perhaps there is movement in the room below, in the street—I do not know, I do not hear it if there is. I keep my gaze on Mrs Sucksby’s flushed face, on her eyes, her lips.—’Now, here was a thing,’ she is saying, ‘to be asked to do. Wouldn’t you say, dear girl? Here was a thing, all right. I think I never thought harder or quicker before in all my life. And what I said at last was: “Keep your money. Keep your fifty pounds. I don’t want it. What I want, is this: Your pa is a gentleman, and gents are tricky. I’ll keep your baby, but I want for you to write me out a paper, saying all you mean to do, and signing it, and sealing it; and that makes it binding.” “I’ll do it!” she says, straight off. “I’ll do it!” And we come in here, and I fetch her a bit of paper and ink, and she sets it all down—just as I have told you, that Susan Lilly is her own child, though left with me, and that the fortunes are to be cut, and so on—and she folds it and seals it with the ring off her finger, and puts on the front that it ain’t to be opened till the day her daughter turns eighteen. Twenty-one, she wanted to make it: but my mind was running ahead, even as she was writing, and I said it must be eighteen—for we oughtn’t to risk the girls taking husbands, before they knew what was what.’ She smiles. ‘She liked that. She thanked me for it.
And then, no sooner had she sealed it than Mr Ibbs sends up a cry: there’s a coach, pulled up at his shop door, with two gents—an old one, and a younger—getting out, and with them, a bully with a club. Well! The lady runs shrieking to her room and I stand, tearing the hair out of my head. Then I go to the cribs, and I fetch up this one particular baby that is there—a girl, same size as the other, looks to turn out fair, like her—and I carry her upstairs. I said, “Here! Take her quick, and be kind to her! Her name’s Maud; and that’s a name for a lady after all. Remember your word.” “Remember yours!” the poor girl cries; and she kisses her own baby, and I take it, and bring it down and lay it in the empty cot. . .’
She shakes her head. ‘Such a trifling little thing it was to do!’ she says.’—And done in a minute. Done, while the gentlemen are still hammering at the door. “Where is she?” they’re crying. “We know you’ve got her!” No stopping them, then. Mr Ibbs lets them in, they fly through the house like furies—see me and knock me down, next
thing I know, there’s the poor lady being dragged downstairs by her
pa—her gown all flapping, her shoes undone, the mark of her
brother’s stick on her face—and there’s you, dear girl—there’s you in her arms, and nobody thinking you was anyone’s but hers.— Why should they? Too late to change it, then. She gave me one quick look as her father took her down, and that was all; I fancy she watched me, though, from the window of the coach. But if she was ever sorry she done it, I can’t tell you. I dare say she thought often of Sue; but no more than— Well, no more than she ought.’
She blinks and turns her head. She has placed her glass of brandy upon the bed between us; the seams in the quilt keep it from spilling. Her hands she has clasped: she is stroking the knuckles of one with the blunt red thumb of the other. Her foot in its slipper goes tap upon the floor. She has not taken her eyes from my face, all the time she has spoken, until now.
My own eyes I close. My hands I place before them, and I gaze into the darkness that is made by my palms. There is a silence. It lengthens. Mrs Sucksby leans closer.
‘Dear girl,’ she murmurs. ‘Won’t you say a word to us?’ She touches my hair. Still I will not speak or move. Her hand falls. ‘I can see this news’ve dashed your spirits, rather,’ she says. Perhaps she gestures then to Richard, for he comes and squats before me.
‘You understand, Maud,’ he says, trying to see about my fingers, ‘what Mrs Sucksby has told you? One baby becomes another. Your mother was not your mother, your uncle not your uncle. Your life was not the life that you were meant to live, but Sue’s; and Sue lived yours …”
They say that dying men see, played before their eyes with impossible swiftness, the show of their lives. As Richard speaks, I see mine: the madhouse, my baton of wood, the gripping gowns of Briar, the string of beads, my uncle’s naked eyes, the books, the books … The show flickers and is gone, is lost and useless, like the gleam of a coin in murky water. I shudder, and Richard sighs. Mrs Sucksby shakes her head and tuts. But, when I show them my face they both start back. I am not weeping, as they suppose. I am laughing—I am gripped with a terrible laughter-—and my look must be ghastly.
‘Oh, but this,’ I think I say, ‘is perfect! This is all I have longed for! Why do you stare? What are you gazing at? Do you suppose a girl is sitting here? That girl is lost! She has been drowned! She is lying, fathoms deep. Do you think she has arms and legs, with flesh and cloth upon them? Do you think she has hair? She has only bones, stripped white! She is as white as a page of paper! She is a book, from which the words have peeled and drifted—’
I try to take a breath; and might as well have water in my mouth: I draw at the air, and it does not come. I gasp, and shake and gasp again. Richard stands and watches.
‘No madness, Maud,’ he says, with a look of distaste. ‘Remember. You have no excuse for it now.’ ‘I have excuse,’ I say, ‘for anything! Anything!’ ‘Dear girl—’ says Mrs Sucksby. She has caught up her tumbler of liquor and is waving it close to my face. ‘Dear girl—’ But I shudder with laughter still—a hideous laughter—and I jerk, as a fish might jerk on the end of a line. I hear Richard curse; then I see him go to my bag and grope inside it, bring out my bottle of medicine: he lets the liquid drop, three times, into the glass of brandy, then seizes my head and presses the glass to my lips. I taste it, then swallow and cough. I put my hands to my mouth. My mouth grows numb. I close my eyes again. I do not know how long I sit, but at length I feel the blanket that covers the bed come against my shoulder and cheek. I have sunk upon it. I lie—still twitching, from time to time, in what feels like laughter; and again Richard and Mrs Sucksby stand, in silence, and watch me.
Presently, however, they come a little nearer. ‘Now,’ says Mrs Sucksby softly, ‘are you better, darling?’ I do not answer. She looks at Richard. ‘Oughtn’t we to go, and let her sleep?’
‘Sleep be damned,’ he answers. ‘I still believe she thinks we have brought her here for her own convenience.’ He comes, and taps my face. ‘Open your eyes,’ he says.
I say, ‘I have no eyes. How could I? You have taken them from me.’
He catches hold of one of my lids and pinches it hard. ‘Open your damn eyes!’ he says. ‘That’s better. Now, there is a little more
for you to know—just a little more, and then you may sleep. Listen to me. Listen! Don’t ask me, how you are meant to, I shall cut the fucking ears off the sides of your head if you do. Yes, I see you hear that. Do you feel this, also?’ He strikes me. ‘Very good.’
The blow is not so hard as it might have been: Mrs Sucksby has seen him lift his arm and tried to check it.
‘Gentleman!’ she says, her cheek growing dark. ‘No call for that. No call at all. Hold your temper, can’t you? I believe you’ve bruised her. Oh, dear girl.’
She reaches towards my face. Richard scowls. ‘She ought to be grateful,’ he says, straightening, putting back his hair, ‘that I have not done worse, any time in the past three months. She ought to know I will do it again, and count it nothing. Do you hear me, Maud? You have seen me at Briar, a sort of gentleman. I make a holiday from gallantry, however, when I come here. Understand?’
I lie, nursing my cheek, my eyes on his, saying nothing. Mrs Sucksby wrings her hands. He takes the cigarette from behind his ear, puts it to his mouth, looks for a match.
‘Go on, Mrs Sucksby,’ he says as he does it. ‘Tell the rest. As for you, Maud: listen hard, and know at last what your life was lived for.’
‘My life was not lived,’ I say in a whisper. ‘You have told me, it was a fiction.’
‘Well’—he finds a match, and strikes it—’fictions must end. Hear now how yours is to.’
‘It has ended already,’ I answer. But his words have made me cautious. My head is thick with liquor, with medicine, with shock; but not so thick that I cannot, now, begin to be fearful of what they will tell me next, how they plan to keep me, what they mean to keep me for …
Mrs Sucksby sees me grow thoughtful, and nods. ‘Now you start to get it,’ she says. ‘You are starting to see. I got the lady’s baby and, what’s better, I got the lady’s word.—The word’s the thing, of course. The word’s the thing with the money in—ain’t it?’ She smiles, touches her nose. Then she leans a little closer. ‘Like to see it?’ she says, in a different sort of voice. ‘Like to see the lady’s word?’
She waits. I do not answer, but she smiles again, moves from me, glances at Richard, then turns her back to him and fumbles for a second with the buttons of her gown. The taffeta rustles. When the bodice is part-way open she reaches inside—reaches, it seems to me, into her very bosom, her very heart—and then draws out a folded paper. ‘Kept this close,’ she says, as she brings it to me, ‘all these years. Kept this closer than gold! Look, here.’
The paper is folded like a letter, and bears a tilting instruction: To Be Opened on the Eighteenth Birthday of My Daughter, Susan Lilly.—I see that name, and shudder, and reach, but she holds it jealously and, like my uncle—not my uncle, now!—with an antique book, won’t let me take it; she lets me touch it, however. The paper is warm, from the heat of her breast. The ink is brown, the folds furred and discoloured. The seal is quite unbroken. The stamp is my mother’s—Sue’s mother’s, I mean; not mine, not mine—
‘You see it, dear girl?’ Mrs Sucksby says. The paper trembles. She draws it back to herself, with a miser’s gesture and look—lifts it to her face and puts her lips to it, then turns her back and restores it to its place inside her gown. As she buttons her dress, she glances again at Richard. He has been watching, closely, curiously; but says nothing.
I speak, instead. ‘She wrote it,’ I say. My voice is thick, I am giddy. ‘She wrote it. They took her. What then?’
Mrs Sucksby turns. Her gown is closed and perfectly smooth again, but she has her hand upon the bodice, as if nursing the words beneath. ‘The lady?’ she says, distractedly. ‘The lady died, dear girl.’ She sniffs, and her tone changes. ‘Bust me, however, if she didn’t linger on another month before she done it! Who would have thought? That month was against us. For now her pa and her brother, having got her home, made her change her will.—You can guess what to. No penny to go to the daughter—meaning you, dear girl, so far as they knew—till the daughter marries. There’s gentlemen for you—ain’t it? She sent me a note to tell me, by a nurse. They’d got her into the madhouse by then, and you alongside her— well, that soon finished her off. It was a puzzle to her, she said, how things might turn out now; but she took her consolation from the
thought of my honesty. Poor girl!’ She seems almost sorry.’—That was her slip.’
Richard laughs. Mrs Sucksby smooths her mouth, and begins to look crafty. ‘As for me,’ she says, ‘—well, I had seen from the first that the only puzzle was, how to get the whole of the fortune when I was only due to have half. My comfort must be, that I had eighteen years for figuring it out in. I thought many times of you.’
I turn my face. ‘I never asked for your thoughts,’ I say. ‘I don’t want them now.’
‘Ungrateful, Maud!’ says Richard. ‘Here has Mrs Sucksby been, plotting so hard in your behalf, so long. Another girl—don’t girls seek only to be the heroines of romance?—another girl might fancy herself distinguished.’
I look from him back to Mrs Sucksby, saying nothing. She nods. ‘I thought often of you,’ she says again, ‘and wondered how you got on. I supposed you handsome. Dear girl, you are!’ She swallows. ‘I had two fears, only. The first was, that you might die. The second was, that your grand-dad and uncle should take you away from England and have you married before the lady’s secret come out. Then I read in a paper that your grand-dad died. Then I heard how your uncle lived quietly, in the country; and had you with him, and kept you in a quiet way, too. There’s my two fears both gone!’ She smiles. ‘Meanwhile,’ she says—and now her eyelids flutter—’Meanwhile, here’s Sue. You have seen, dear girl, how close and quiet I have kept the lady’s word.’ She pats her gown. ‘Well, what was the word to me, without Sue to pin it to? Think how close and quiet I have kept her. Think how safe. Think how sharp such a girl might have grown, in a house like this one, in a street like ours; then think how hard Mr Ibbs and me have worked to keep her blunt. Think how deep I puzzled it over— knowing I must use her at the last, but never quite knowing how. Think how it begins to come clear, when I meets Gentleman— think how quick my fear that you might be secretly married, turns into my knowing that he is the chap that must secretly marry you . . . It’s the work of another minute, then, to look at Sue and know what ought to be done with her.’ She shrugs. ‘Well, and
now we’ve done it. Sue’s you, dear girl. And what we brought you here for is—’
‘Listen, Maud!’ says Richard. I have closed my eyes and turned my head. Mrs Sucksby comes to me, lifts her hand, begins to stroke my hair.
‘What we brought you here for,’ she goes on, more gently, ‘is for you to start being Sue. Only that, dear girl! Only that.’
I open my eyes, and suppose look stupid.
‘Do you see?’ says Richard. ‘We keep Sue as my wife in the madhouse, and with the opening of her mother’s statement, her share of the fortune—Maud’s share, I mean—comes to me. I should like to say I will keep every cent of it; but the scheme was Mrs Sucksby’s after all, and half goes to her.’ He makes a bow.
‘That’s fair, ain’t it?’ says Mrs Sucksby, still stroking my hair.
‘But the other share,’ Richard goes on, ‘—which is to say, Sue’s real share—Mrs Sucksby stands also to get. The statement names her Sue’s guardian; and guardians, I am afraid, are often less than scrupulous in the handling of their wards’ fortunes . . . That all means nothing, of course, if Sue herself has vanished. But then, it’s Maud Lilly—the true Maud Lilly’—he blinks—’by which I mean of course, the false Maud Lilly—who has vanished. Isn’t that what you wanted? To vanish? You said, a minute ago, that you have excuse for anything now. What will it hurt you, then, to be passed off as Sue, and so make Mrs Sucksby rich?’
‘Make us both rich, darling,’ Mrs Sucksby says quickly. ‘I ain’t so heartless, dear, as to rob you quite of everything! You’re a lady, ain’t you, and handsome? Why, I shall need a handsome lady, to show me what’s what when I comes into my fortune. I got plans for us both, sweetheart, that grand!’—She taps her nose.
I push myself up, away from her; but am too giddy, still, to stand. ‘You are mad,’ I say to them both. ‘You are mad! I— Pass me off as Sue?’
‘Why not?’ says Richard. ‘We need only convince a lawyer. I think we shall.’
‘Convince him, how?’
‘How? Why, here are Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs—that have been
like parents to you, and so might be supposed, I think, to know you, if anyone might. And here are John and Dainty, too—they’ll swear to any kind of mischief with money in, you may be sure. And here am I—that met you at Briar, when you were maid to Miss Maud Lilly, later my wife. You’ve seen, haven’t you, what gentlemen’s words are worth?’ He pretends to be struck with the thought. ‘But of course you have! For in a madhouse in the country are a pair of doctors—they’ll remember you, I think. For didn’t you, only yesterday, give them your hand and make them a curtsey, and stand in a good light before them, for quite twenty minutes, answering questions to the name of Susan?’
He lets me consider that. Then he says, ‘All we ask is that, when the moment arrives, you give the performance over again, before a lawyer. What have you to lose? Dear Maud, you have nothing: no friends in London, no money to your name—why, not so much as a name!’
I have put my fingers to my mouth. ‘Suppose,’ I say, ‘I won’t do it? Suppose, when your lawyer comes, I tell him—’
‘Tell him what? Tell him how you plotted to swindle an innocent girl?—looked on, while the doctors dosed her and carried her off? Hmm? What do you think he will make of that?’
I sit and watch him speak. At last I say, in a whisper: ‘Are you truly so wicked as this?’ He shrugs. I turn to Mrs Sucksby. ‘And you,’ I say. ‘Are you so wicked? To think, of Sue— Are you so vile?’
She waves her hand before her face, says nothing. Richard snorts. ‘Wickedness,’ he says. ‘Vileness. What terms! The terms of fiction. Do you think, that when women swap children, they do it, as nurses do it in the operettas—for comedy’s sake? Look about you, Maud. Step to the window, look into the street. There is life, not fiction. It is hard, it is wretched. It would have been yours, but for Mrs Sucksby’s kindness in keeping you from it.—Christ!’ He moves from the door, puts his arms above his head and stretches. ‘How tired I am! What a day’s work I have done today—haven’t I? One girl pressed into a madhouse; another— Well.’ He looks me over, nudges my foot with his. ‘No arguments?’ he says. ‘No bluster? That may come later, I suppose. No matter if it does. Sue’s birthday
falls at the start of August. We have more than three months, to persuade you into our plot. I think three days—of Borough living, I mean—will do that.’
I am gazing at him, but cannot speak. I am thinking, still, of Sue. He tilts his head. ‘Don’t say we have broken your spirit, Maud,’ he says, ‘so quickly? I should be sorry to think it.’ He pauses. Then: ‘Your mother,’ he adds, ‘would have been sorry, also.’
‘My mother,’ I start to say.—I think of Marianne, with lunacy in her eye. Then I catch my breath. Through all of it, I have not thought of this. Richard watches, looks sly. He puts his hand to his collar and stretches his throat, and coughs, in a feeble, girlish and yet deliberate kind of way.
‘Now, Gentleman,’ says Mrs Sucksby anxiously as he does it, ‘don’t tease her.’
‘Tease her?’ he says. He still pulls at his collar as if it chafes him. ‘I am only dry about the throat, from talking.’
‘You have said too much, that’s why,’ she answers. ‘Miss Lilly—I’ll call you that, shall I, my dear? Seems natural, don’t it?—Miss Lilly, don’t mind him. We’ve plenty of time for talking of that.’
‘Of my mother, you mean,’ I say. ‘My true mother, that you made out to be Sue’s. That choked—you see, I know something!— that choked, on a pin.’
‘On a pin!’ says Richard, laughing. ‘Did Sue say that?’ Mrs Sucksby bites her mouth. I look from one to the other of them.
‘What was she?’ I ask wearily. ‘For God’s sake, tell me. Do you think I have it in me, now, to be astonished? Do you imagine I care? What was she? A thief, like you? Well, if I must lose the madwoman, a thief I suppose will do . . .’
Richard coughs again. Mrs Sucksby looks away from me, and joins and works her hands. When she speaks, her voice is quiet, grave. ‘Gentleman,’ she says, ‘you ain’t got nothing more to tell Miss Lilly, now. I have some words, however. The sort of words a lady likes to say to a girl in private.’
He nods. ‘I know,’ he says. He folds his arms. ‘I am dying to hear them.’
She waits, but he will not leave. She comes and, again, sits beside me; again, I flinch away.
‘Dear girl,’ she says. ‘The fact of it is, there ain’t a pleasant way to tell it; and I ought to know, if anyone ought!—for I told it once already, to Sue. Your mother—’ She wets her lips, then looks at Richard.
‘Tell her,’ he says. ‘Or I will.’
So then she speaks again, more quickly. ‘Your mother,’ she says, ‘was took before the courts, not just for thieving, but for killing a man; and—oh, my dear, they hanged her for it!’
‘A murderess, Maud,’ says Richard, with relish. ‘You may see the place they hanged her, from the window of my room—’
‘Gentleman, I mean it!’
He falls silent. I say again, ‘Hanged!’
‘Hanged game,’ says Mrs Sucksby—as if this, whatever it means, will make me bear it better. Then she studies my face. ‘Dear girl, don’t think of it,’ she says. ‘What does it matter now? You’re a lady, ain’t you? Who’ll trouble with where you come from? Why, look about you here.’
She has risen, and lights a lamp: a score of gaudy surfaces—the silk dressing-gown, the cloudy brass of the bedstead, china ornaments upon the mantel-shelf—start out of the darkness. She goes again to the wash-hand stand, and again she says: ‘Here’s soap. What soap! Got from a shop up West. Come in a year ago—I saw it come and thought, “Now, shan’t Miss Lilly like that!” Kept it wrapped in paper, all this time. And here’s a towel, look—got a nap like a peach. And scent! Don’t care for lavender, we’ll get you one of rose. Are you looking, dear?’ She moves to the chest of drawers, pulls the deepest drawer open. ‘Why, what have we here!’ Richard leans to see. I also look, in a kind of horrified wonder. ‘Petticoats, and stockings, and stays! Bless me, here’s pins for a lady’s hair. Here’s rouge for a lady’s cheek. Here’s crystal drops— one pair of blue, one red. That comes of my not knowing, darling, the shade of the eyes they was to match! Well, Dainty shall have the blue pair . . .’
She holds the gaudy beads up by their wires, and I watch the crystals turn. The colour seems to blur. I have begun, in hopelessness, to weep.
As if weeping could save me.
Mrs Sucksby sees me, and tuts. ‘Oh, now,’ she says, ‘ain’t that a shame! Crying? And all these handsome things? Gentleman, you see her? Crying, and for what?’
‘Crying,’ I say bitterly, unsteadily, ‘to find myself here, like this! Crying to think of the dream I lived in, when I supposed my mother only a fool! Crying in horror at the closeness and foulness of you!’
She has stepped back. ‘Dear girl,’ she says, dropping her voice, gazing quickly at Richard, ‘do you despise me so, for letting them take you?’
‘I despise you,’ I say, ‘for bringing me back!’
She stares, then almost smiles. She gestures about the room. ‘Don’t think,’ she says, with a look of amazement, ‘I mean for you to keep at Lant Street! Dear girl, dear girl, you was taken from here so they might make a lady of you. And a lady they’ve made you— a perfect jewel! Don’t think I shall have you wasting your shine in this low place. Haven’t I said? I want you by me, dear, when I am rich. Don’t ladies take companions? Only wait till I have got my hands on your fortune; then see if we don’t take the grandest house in London! See what carriages and footmen we’ll have then!—what pearls, what dresses!’
She puts her hands on me again. She means to kiss me, to eat me. I rise and shake her off. ‘You don’t think,’ I say, ‘I shall stay with you, when your wretched scheme is done?’
‘What else?’ she says. ‘Who ought to have you, if not me? It was fortune took you; it is me that has got you back. I been working it over for seventeen years. I been plotting and thinking on this, every minute since I first laid you in the poor lady’s arms. I been looking at Sue—’
She swallows. I cry still harder. ‘Sue,’ I say. ‘Oh, Sue . . .’
‘Now, why look like that? Didn’t I do everything for her, just as her mother wanted?—kept her safe, kept her tidy, made a commonplace
girl of her? What have I done, but give her back the life you had from
‘You have killed her!’ I say.
‘Killed her? When there’s all those doctors about her, all sup-nosing her a lady?—And that don’t come cheap, I can tell you.’
‘It certainly doesn’t,’ says Richard. ‘You’re paying for that, don’t forget. I should have had her in the county asylum, were it down to
‘You see, dear girl? Killed her! Why, she might have been killed any day of her life, but for me! Who was it nursed her, when she took sick? Who kept the boys off her? I should have given my hands, my legs, my lungs, for the saving of hers. But do you think, that when I did those things I was doing them for her? What use will a commonplace girl be to me, when I am rich? I was doing them for you! Don’t think of her. She was water, she was coal, she was dust, in comparison with what’s been made of you.’
I stare at her. ‘My God!’ I say. ‘How could you? How could you?’
Again, she looks amazed. ‘How could I not?’
‘But, to cheat her! To leave her, there—!’
She reaches, and pats my sleeve. ‘You let them take her,’ she says. Then her look changes. She almost winks. ‘And oh, dear girl, don’t you think you was your mother’s daughter, then?’
From the rooms below there come again shrieks, and blows, and laughter. Richard stands watching, with folded arms. The fly at the window still buzzes, still beats against the glass. Then the buzzing stops. As if it is a signal, I turn, and sink out of Mrs Sucksby’s grasp. I sink to my knees at the side of the bed, and hide my face in the seams of the quilt. I have been bold and determined. I have bitten down rage, insanity, desire, love, for the sake of freedom. Now, that freedom being taken from me utterly, is it to be wondered at if I fancy myself defeated?
I give myself up to darkness; and wish I may never again be required to lift my head to the light.
The night which follows I remember brokenly. I remember that I keep at the side of the bed with my eyes quite hidden, and will not rise and go down to the kitchen, as Mrs Sucksby wishes. I remember that Richard comes to me, and again puts his shoe to my skirts, to nudge me, then stands and laughs when I will not stir, then leaves me. I remember that someone brings me soup, which I will not eat. That the lamp is taken away and the room made dark. That I must rise at last, to visit the privy; and that the red-haired, fat-faced girl—Dainty—is made to show me to it, then stands at the door to keep me from running from it into the night. I remember that I weep again, and am given more of my drops in brandy. That I am undressed and put in a night-gown not my own. That I sleep, perhaps for an hour—that I am woken by the rustling of taffeta— that I look in horror to see Mrs Sucksby with her hair let down, shrugging off her gown, uncovering flesh and dirty linen, snuffing out her candle, then climbing into the bed beside me. I remember
that she lies, thinking me sleeping—puts her hands to me, then draws them back—finally, like a miser with a piece of gold, catches up a lock of my hair and presses it to her mouth.
I know that I am conscious of the heat of her, the unfamiliar bulk and sour scents of her. I know that she falls swiftly into an even sleep, and snores, while I start in and out of slumber. The fitful sleeping makes the hours pass slowly: it seems to me the night has many nights in it—has years of nights!—through which, as if through drifts of smoke, I am compelled to stumble. I wake now, believing I am in my dressing-room at Briar; now, in my room at Mrs Cream’s; now, in a madhouse bed, with a nurse vast and comfortable beside me. I wake, a hundred times. I wake to moan and long for slumber—for always, at the last, comes the remembrance, sharp and fearful, of where I truly lie, how I arrived there, who and what I am.
At last I wake and do not sleep again. The dark has eased a little. There has been a street-lamp burning, that has lit the threads of the bleached net scarf hung at the window; now it is put out. The light turns filthy pink. The pink gives way, in time, to a sickly yellow. It creeps, and with it creeps sound—softly at first, then rising in a staggering crescendo: crowing cocks, whistles and bells, dogs, shrieking babies, violent calling, coughing, spitting, the tramp of feet, the endless hollow beating of hooves and the grinding of wheels. Up, up it comes, out of the throat of London. It is six or seven o’clock. Mrs Sucksby sleeps on at my side, but I am wide awake now, and wretched, and sick at my stomach. I rise, and— though it is May, and milder here than at Briar—I shiver. I still wear my gloves, but my clothes and shoes and leather bag Mrs Sucksby has locked in a box—’In case you should wake bewildered, darling, and, thinking you was at home, get dressed, walk off and be lost.’— I remember her saying it, now, as I stood dosed and dazed before her. Where did she put the key?—and the key to the door of the room? I shiver again, more violently, and grow sicker than ever; but my thoughts are horribly clear. I must get out. I must get out! I must get out of London—go anywhere—back to Briar. I must get money. / must, I think—this is the clearest thought of all—/ must get
Sue! Mrs Sucksby breathes heavily, evenly. Where might she have put the keys? Her taffeta gown is hanging from the horse-hair screen: I go silently to it and pat the pockets of its skirt. Empty. I stand and study the shelves, the chest of drawers, the mantelpiece— no keys; but many places, I suppose, where they might be concealed.
Then she stirs—does not wake, but moves her head; and I think I know—think I begin to remember . . . She has the keys beneath her pillow: I recall the crafty movement of her hand, the muffled ringing of the metal. I take a step. Her lips are parted, her white hair loose upon her cheek. I step again, and the floorboards creak. I stand at her side—wait a moment, uncertain; then put my fingers beneath the edge of pillow and slowly, slowly, reach.
She opens her eyes. She takes my wrist, and smiles. She coughs.
‘My dear, I loves you for trying,’ she says, wiping her mouth. ‘But the girl ain’t been born that’s got the touch that will get past me, when I’ve a mind to something.’ Her grip is strong about my arm; though turns to a caress. I shudder. ‘Lord, ain’t you cold!’ she says then. ‘Here, sweetheart, let us cover you up.’ She pulls the knitted quilt from the bed and puts it about me. ‘Better, dear girl?’
My hair is tangled, and has fallen before my face. I regard her through it.
‘I wish I were dead,’ I say.
‘Oh, now,’ she answers, rising. ‘What kind of talk is that?’
‘I wish you were dead, then.’
She shakes her head, still smiles. ‘Wild words, dear girl!’ She sniffs. There has come, from the kitchen, a terrible odour. ‘Smell that? That’s Mr Ibbs, a-cooking up our breakfasts. Let’s see who wishes she was dead, now, that’s got a plate of bloaters before her!’
She rubs her hands again. Her hands are red, but the sagging flesh upon her arms has the hue and polish of ivory. She has slept in her chemise and petticoat; now she hooks on a pair of stays, climbs into her taffeta gown, then comes to dip her comb in water and brush her hair. ‘Tra la, hee hee,’ she sings brokenly, as she
does it. I keep my own tangled hair before my eyes, and watch her. Her naked feet are cracked, and bulge at the toe. Her legs are almost hairless. When she bends to her stockings, she groans. Her thighs are fat and permanently marked by the pinch of her garters.
‘There, now,’ she says, when she is dressed. A baby has started crying. ‘That will set my others all off. Come down, dear girl—will you?—while I give ’em their pap.’
‘Come down?’ I say. I must go down, if I am to escape. But I look at myself. ‘Like this? Won’t you give me back my gown, my shoes?’
Perhaps I say it too keenly, however; or else my look has something of cunning, or desperation, in it. She hesitates, then says, ‘That dusty old frock? Them boots? Why, that’s walking-gear. Look here, at this silken wrapper.’ She takes up the dressing-gown from the hook on the back of the door. ‘Here’s what ladies wear, for their mornings at home. Here’s silken slippers, too. Shan’t you look well, in these? Slip ’em on, dear girl, and come down for your breakfast. No need to be shy. John Vroom don’t rise before twelve, there’s only me, and Gentleman—he’s seen you in a state of dishabilly, I suppose!—and Mr Ibbs. And him, dear girl, you might consider now in the light of—well, let’s say an uncle. Eh?’
I turn away. The room is hateful to me; but I will not go with her, undressed, down to that dark kitchen. She pleads and coaxes a little longer; then gives me up, and goes. The key turns in the lock.
I step at once to the box that holds my clothes, to try the lid. It is shut up tight, and is stout.
So then I go to the window, to push at the sashes. They will lift, by an inch or two, and the rusting nails that keep them shut I think might give, if I pushed harder. But then, the window frame is narrow, the drop is great; and I am still undressed. Worse than that, the street has people in it; and though at first I think to call to them—to break the glass, to signal and shriek—after a second I begin to look more closely at them, and I see their faces, their dusty clothes, the packets they carry, the children and dogs that run and tumble at their sides. There is life, said Richard, twelve hours ago. It
is hard, it is wretched. It would have been yours, but for Mrs Sucksby’s kindness in keeping you from it. . .
At the door to the house with the shutters with the heart-shaped holes, a girl in a dirty bandage sits and feeds her baby. She lifts her head, catches my gaze; and shakes her fist at me.
I start back from the glass, and cover my face up with my hands.
When Mrs Sucksby comes again, however, I am ready.
‘Listen to me,’ I say, going to her. ‘You know that Richard took me away from my uncle’s house? You know my uncle is rich, and will seek me out?’
‘Your uncle?’ she says. She has brought me a tray, but stands in the door-place until I move back.
‘Mr Lilly,’ I say, as I do it. ‘You know who I mean. He still thinks me his niece, at least. Don’t you suppose he will send a man, and find me? Do you think he will thank you, for keeping me like this?’
‘I should say he will-—if he cares so much about it. Ain’t we made you cosy, dear?’
‘You know you have not. You know you are keeping me here against my will. For God’s sake, give me my gown, won’t you?’
All right, Mrs Sucksby?’—It is Mr Ibbs. My voice has risen, and has brought him out of the kitchen to the foot of the stairs. Richard, too, has stirred in his bed: I hear him cross his floor, draw open his door, and listen.
All right!’ calls Mrs Sucksby lightly. ‘There, now,’ she says to me. And here’s your breakfast, look, growing chilly.’
She sets the tray upon the bed. The door is open; but I know that Mr Ibbs still stands at the foot of the stairs, that Richard waits and listens at the top. ‘There, now,’ she says again. The tray has a plate and a fork upon it, and a linen napkin. Upon the plate there are two or three amber-coloured fish in a juice of butter and water. They have fins, and faces. About the napkin there is a ring of polished silver, a little like the one that was kept for my especial use at Briar; but without the initial.
‘Please let me go,’ I say.
Mrs Sucksby shakes her head. ‘Dear girl,’ she says, ‘go where?’
She waits and, when I do not answer, leaves me. Richard closes his door and goes back to his bed. I hear him humming.
I think of taking up the plate, hurling it against the ceiling, the window, the wall. Then I think: You must be strong. You must be strong and ready to run. And so I sit and eat—slowly, wretchedly, carefully picking out the bones from the amber flesh. My gloves grow damp and stained; and I have none with which to replace them.
After an hour, Mrs Sucksby comes back, to take the empty plate. Another hour, and she brings me coffee. While she is gone I stand, again, at the window, or press my ear to the door. I pace, and sit, and pace again. I pass from fury to maudlin grief, to stupor. But then Richard comes. ‘Well, Maud—’ is all he says. I see him, and am filled with a blistering rage. I make a run at him, meaning to strike his face: he wards off the blows and knocks me down, and I lie upon the floor and kick, and kick—
Then they dose me again with medicine and brandy; and a day or two passes in darkness.
When I wake next, it is again unnaturally early. There has appeared in the room a little basket chair, painted gold, with a scarlet cushion on it. I take it to the window and sit with the dressing-gown about me, until Mrs Sucksby yawns and opens her eyes.
‘Dear girl, all right?’ she says, as she will say every day, every day; and the idiocy or perversity of the question—when all is so far from being right, as to be so wrong I would almost rather die than endure it—prompts me to grind my teeth or pull at my hair, and gaze at her in loathing. ‘Good girl,’ she says then, and, ‘Like your chair, do you, dear? I supposed you would.’ She yawns again, and looks about her. ‘Got the po?’ she says. I am used in my modesty to taking the chamber-pot behind the horse-hair screen. ‘Pass it over, will you, sweetheart? I’m ready to bust.’
I do not move. After a second she rises and fetches it herself. It is a thing of white china, dark inside with what, when I saw it first, in the half-light of morning, I queasily took to be clumps of hair; but
which proved to be decoration merely—a great eye with lashes, and about it, in a plain black fount, a motto:
use me well and keep me clean and i’ll not tell of what i’ve seen!
a present from wales
The eye gives me, always, a moment or two of uneasiness; but Mrs Sucksby sets the pot down and carelessly lifts her skirt, and stoops. When I shudder, she makes a face.
‘Not nice, is it, dear? Never mind. We shall have you a closet, in our grand house.’
She straightens, pushes her petticoat between her legs. Then she rubs her hands.
‘Now, then,’ she says. She is looking me over, and her eyes are gleaming. ‘What do you say to this? How about we dress you up today, make you look handsome? There’s your own gown in the box. But, it’s a dull old thing, ain’t it? And queer and old-fashioned? How about we try you in something nicer. I got dresses saved for you—got ’em wrapped in silver-paper—that fine, you won’t believe it. What say we bring Dainty in and get ’em fitted up? Dainty’s clever with a needle, though she seems so rough—don’t she? That’s just her way. She was what you would say, not brought up, but dragged up. But she is kind at her heart.’
She has my attention, now. Dresses, I think. Once I am dressed, I might escape.
She sees the change in me, and is pleased. She brings me another breakfast of fish, and again I eat it. She brings me coffee, sweet as syrup: it makes my heart beat hard. Then she brings me a can of hot water. She wets a towel and tries to wash me. I will not let her, but take the towel from her, press it against my face, under my arms, between my legs.—The first time, in all my life, that I washed myself.
Then she goes off—locks the door, of course, behind her—comes back with Dainty. They are carrying paper boxes. They set them
down upon the bed, untie their strings and draw out gowns. Dainty sees them, and screams. The gowns are all of silk: one of violet, with yellow ribbon trimming it, another of green with a silver stripe, and a third of crimson. Dainty takes up an edge of cloth and strokes it.
‘Pongee?’ she says, as if in wonder.
‘Pongee, with a foulard rouche,’ says Mrs Sucksby—the words coming awkwardly, fleshily out of her mouth, like cherry stones. She lifts the crimson skirt, her chin and cheeks as red in the reflected light of the silk as if stained with cochineal.
She catches my eye. ‘What do you say, my dear, to these?’
I have not known such colours, such fabrics, such gowns, exist. I imagine myself in them, upon the streets of London. My heart has sunk. I say, ‘They are hideous, hideous.’
She blinks, then recovers. ‘You say that now. But you been kept too long in that dreary great house of your uncle’s. Is it to be wondered at if you’ve no more idea of fashion, than a bat? When you makes your debut, dear girl, upon the town, you shall have a set of dresses so gay, you shall look back on these and laugh your head off to think you ever supposed ’em bright.’ She rubs her hands. ‘Now, which best takes your fancy? The arsenic green and the silver?’
‘Haven’t you a grey,’ I say, ‘or a brown, or a black?’
Dainty looks at me in disgust.
‘Grey, brown or black?’ says Mrs Sucksby. ‘When there’s silver here, and violet?’
‘Make it the violet, then,’ I say at last. I think the stripe will blind me, the crimson make me sick; though I am sick, anyway. Mrs Sucksby goes to the chest of drawers and opens it up. She brings out stockings, and stays, and coloured petticoats. The petticoats astonish me: for I have always supposed that linen must be white—just as, when I was a child, I thought that all black books must turn out Bibles.
But I must be coloured now, or go naked. They dress me, like two girls dressing a doll.
‘Now, where must we nip it?’ says Mrs Sucksby, studying the gown. ‘Hold still, my dear, while Dainty takes her measure. Lord,
look at your waist.—Hold steady! A person don’t want to wriggle while Dainty’s by with a pin in her hand, I can tell you.—That’s better. Too loose, is it? Well, we can’t be particular about the size— ha, ha!—the way we gets ’em.’
They take away my gloves; but bring me new ones. On my feet they put white silk slippers. ‘May I not wear shoes?’ I say, and Mrs Sucksby answers: ‘Shoes? Dear girl, shoes are for walking in. Where’ve you got to walk to . . .?’
She says it distractedly. She has opened up the great wooden box and brought out my leather bag. Now, as I look on, and while Dainty stitches, she goes with it to the light of the window, makes herself comfortable in the creaking basket chair, and begins to sort through the items inside. I watch as she fingers slippers, playing-cards, combs. It’s my jewels she wants, however. She finds in time the little linen packet, unwraps it and tips the contents into her lap.
‘Now, what’s here? A ring. A bangle. A lady’s picture.’ She gazes at this in an assessing way; then all at once her expression changes. I know whose features she is seeing there, upon the face where once I looked for mine. She puts it quickly aside. ‘A bracelet of emeralds,’ she says next, ‘in fashion at the time of King George; but with handsome stones. We shall find you a nice price for those. A pearl on a chain. A ruby necklace—that’s too heavy, that is, for a girl with your looks. I got you a nice set of beads—glass beads, but with such a shine, you’d swear they was sapphires!—suit you much better. And— Oh! What’s this? Ain’t that a beauty? Look Dainty, look at the stunning great stones in that!’
Dainty looks. ‘What a spanker!’ she says.
It is the brooch of brilliants I once imagined Sue breathing upon, and polishing, and gazing at with a squinting eye. Now Mrs Sucksby holds it up and studies it with her own eye narrowed. It sparkles. It sparkles, even here.
‘I know the place for this,’ she says. ‘Dear girl, you won’t mind?’ She opens its clasp and pins it to the bosom of her gown. Dainty lets fall her needle and thread, to watch her.
‘Oh, Mrs S!’ she says. ‘You looks like a regular queen.’
My heart beats hard again. ‘The Queen of Diamonds,’ I say. She eyes me uncertainly—not knowing if I mean to compliment or mock. I do not know, myself.
For a time, then, we say nothing. Dainty finishes her work, then combs my hair and twists and pins it into a knot. Then they make me stand, so they might survey me. They look expectant, tilt their heads; but their faces fall. Dainty rubs her nose. Mrs Sucksby drums her fingers across her lips, and frowns.
There is a square of glass upon the chimney-piece, with plaster hearts about it: I turn, and see what I can of my face and figure, in that. I barely recognise myself. My mouth is white. My eyes are swollen and red, my cheeks the texture and colour of yellowing flannel. My unwashed hair is dark with grease at the scalp. The neck of the gown is low, and shows the lines and points of the bones about my throat.
‘Perhaps violet, after all,’ says Mrs Sucksby, ‘ain’t the colour for you, dear girl. Brings out the shadows under your eyes and makes ’em seem rather too like bruises. And as for your cheek—what say you give it a bit of a pinch, put the roses back in it? No? Let Dainty try for you then. She’s got a grip like thunder, she has.’
Dainty comes and seizes my cheek, and I cry out and twist from her grasp.
‘All right, you cat!’ she says, tossing her head and stamping. ‘I’m sure, you can keep your yellow face!’
‘Hi! Hi!’ says Mrs Sucksby. ‘Miss Lilly is a lady! I want her spoke to like one. You put that lip in.’ Dainty has begun to pout. ‘That’s better. Miss Lilly, how about we take the gown off and try the green and silver? Only a touch of arsenic in that green—won’t harm you at all, so long as you keep from sweating too hard in the bodice.’
But I cannot bear to be handled again, and will not let her unfasten the violet dress. ‘You like it, dear girl?’ she says then, her face and voice grown softer. ‘There! I knew the silks would bring you round at last. Now, what say we go down and stun the gents? Miss Lilly?—Dainty, you go on first. Them stairs are tricky, I should hate for Miss Lilly to take a tumble.’
She has unlocked the door. Dainty passes before me and, after a second, I follow. I still wish I had shoes, a hat, a cloak; but I will run, bare-headed, in silken slippers, if I must. I will run, all the way to Briar. Which was the door, at the foot of the stairs, that I ought to take? I am not sure. I cannot see. Dainty walks ahead of me, and Mrs Sucksby follows anxiously behind. ‘Find your step, dear girl?’ she says. I do not answer. For there has come, from some room close by, an extraordinary sound—a sound, like the cry of a peahen, rising, then trembling, then fading to silence. I start, and turn. Mrs Sucksby has also turned. ‘Go on, you old bird!’ she cries, shaking her fist. And then, to me, more sweetly: ‘Not frightened, dear? Why, that’s only Mr Ibbs’s aged sister, that is kept to her bed, poor thing, and prone to the horrors.’
She smiles. The cry comes again, I hear it and hasten down the shadowy stairs—my limbs aching and cracking as I do it, and my breath coming quick. Dainty waits at the bottom. The hall is small, she seems to fill it. ‘In here,’ she says. She has opened the door to the kitchen. There is a street-door behind her, I think, with bolts across it. I slow my step. But then Mrs Sucksby comes and touches my shoulder. ‘That’s right, dear girl. This way.’ I step again, and almost stumble.
The kitchen is warmer than I recall, and darker. Richard and the boy, John Vroom, are sitting at the table playing at dice. They both look up when I appear, and both laugh. John says, ‘Look at the face on that! Who bruised the eyes, then? Dainty, say it was you and I’ll kiss you.’
‘I’ll bruise your eyes, get my hands on you,’ says Mrs Sucksby. ‘Miss Lilly is only tired. Get out of that chair, you little waster, and let her sit down.’
She says this, locking the door at her back, pocketing the key, then crossing the kitchen and trying the other two doors, making sure they are fast.—’Keep the draughts out,’ she says, when she sees me watching her.
John throws the dice again, and reckons up his score, before he rises. Richard pats the empty seat. ‘Come, Maud,’ he says. ‘Come, sit beside me. And if you will only promise not to fly at my eyes—
as you did, you know, on Wednesday—then I shall swear, on Johnny’s life! not to knock you down again.’
John scowls. ‘Don’t you make so free with my life,’ he says; ‘else, I might make free with yours—you hear me?’
Richard does not answer. He holds my gaze, and smiles. ‘Come, let us be friends again, hmm?’
He puts his hand to me, and I dodge it, drawing my skirts away. The fastening of the doors, the closeness of the kitchen, has filled me with a kind of bleak bravado. ‘I don’t care,’ I say, ‘to be thought a friend of yours. I don’t care to be thought a friend to any of you. I come among you because I must; because Mrs Sucksby wills it, and I haven’t life left in me to thwart her. For the rest, remember this: I loathe you all.’
And I sit, not in the empty place beside him, but in the great rocking-chair, at the head of the table. I sit in it and it creaks. John and Dainty gaze quickly at Mrs Sucksby, who blinks at me, two or three times.
And why not?’ she says at last, forcing a laugh. ‘You make y6ur-self comfy, my dear. I’ll take this hard old chair here, do me good.’ She sits and wipes her mouth. ‘Mr Ibbs not about?’
‘Gone off on a job,’ says John. ‘Took Charley Wag.’
She nods. And all my infants sleeping?’
‘Gentleman give ’em a dose, half an hour ago.’
‘Good boy, good boy. Keep it nice and quiet.’ She gazes at me. All right, Miss Lilly? Like a spot of tea, perhaps?’ I do not answer, but rock in my chair, very slowly. ‘Or, coffee?’ She wets her lips. ‘Make it coffee, then. Dainty, hot up some water.—Like a cake, dear girl, to chase it down with? Shall John slip out and fetch one? Don’t care for cakes?’
‘There’s nothing,’ I say slowly, ‘that could be served to me here, that wouldn’t be to me as ashes.’
She shakes her head. ‘Why, what a mouth you’ve got, for poetry! As for the cake, now—?’ I look away.
Dainty sets about making the coffee. A gaudy clock ticks, and strikes the hour. Richard rolls a cigarette. Tobacco smoke, and smoke from the lamps and spitting candles, already drifts from wall
to wall. The walls are brown, and faintly gleam, as if painted with gravy; they are pinned, here and there, with coloured pictures—of cherubs, of roses, of girls on swings—and with curling paper clippings, engravings of sportsmen, horses, dogs and thieves. Beside Mr Ibbs’s brazier three portraits—of Mr Chubb, Mr Yale and Mr Bramah—have been pasted to a board of cork; and are much marked by dart-holes.
If I had a dart, I think, I might threaten them with it, make Mrs Sucksby give up her keys. If I had a broken bottle. If I had a knife.
Richard lights his cigarette, narrows his eyes against the smoke and looks me over. ‘Pretty dress,’ he says. ‘Just the colour for you.’ He reaches for one of the yellow ribbon trimmings, and I hit his hand away. ‘Tut, tut,’ he says then. ‘Temper not much improved, I fear. We were in hopes that you would sweeten up in confinement. As apples do. And veal-calves.’
‘Go to hell, will you?’ I say.
He smiles. Mrs Sucksby colours, then laughs. ‘Hark at that,’ she says. ‘Common girl says that, sounds awfully vulgar. Lady says it, sounds almost sweet. Still, dear’—here she leans across the table, drops her voice—’I wish you mightn’t speak so nasty.’
I hold her gaze. ‘And you think,’ I answer levelly, ‘your wishes are something to me, do you?’
She flinches, and colours harder; her eyelids flutter and she looks away.
I drink my coffee, then, and don’t speak again. Mrs Sucksby sits, softly beating her hands upon the table-top, her brows drawn together into a frown. John and Richard play again at dice, and quarrel over the game. Dainty washes napkins in a bowl of brown water, then sets them before the fire to steam and stink. I close my eyes. My stomach aches and aches. If I had a knife, I think again. Or an axe . . .
But the room is so stiflingly hot, and I am so weary and sick, my head falls back and I sleep. When I wake, it is five o’clock. The dice are put away. Mr Ibbs is returned. Mrs Sucksby is feeding babies, and Dainty is cooking a supper. Bacon, cabbage, crumbling pota-
toes and bread: they give me a plate and, miserably picking free the strips of fat from the bacon, the crusts from the bread, as I pick bones from my breakfasts of fish, I eat it. Then they put out glasses. ‘Care for some tipple, Miss Lilly?’ Mrs Sucksby says. A stout, or a
A gin?’ says Richard, some look of mischief in his eye.
I take a gin. The taste of it is bitter to me, but the sound of the silver spoon, striking the glass as it stirs, brings a vague and nameless comfort.
So that day passes. So pass the days that follow. I go early to bed— am undressed, every time, by Mrs Sucksby, who takes my gown and petticoats and locks them up, then locks up me. I sleep poorly, and wake, each morning, sick and clear-headed and afraid; and I sit in the little gold chair, running over the details of my confinement, working out my plan of escape. For I must escape. I will escape. I’ll escape, and go to Sue. What are the names of the men who took her? I cannot remember. Where is their house? I do not know. Never mind, never mind, I shall find it out. First, though, I will go to Briar, beg money from my uncle—he’ll still believe himself my uncle, of course—and if he’ll give me none, I’ll beg from the servants! I’ll beg from Mrs Stiles! Or, I’ll steal! I’ll steal a book from the library, the rarest book, and sell it—!
Or, no, I won’t do that.—For the thought of returning to Briar makes me shudder, even now; and it occurs to me in time that I have friends in London, after all. I have Mr Huss and Mr Hawtrey. Mr Huss—who liked to see me climb a staircase. Could I go to him, put myself in his power? I think I could, I am desperate enough . . . Mr Hawtrey, however, was kinder; and invited me to his house, to his shop on Holywell Street.—I think he’ll help me. I am sure he will. And I think Holywell Street cannot be far—can it? I do not know, and there are no maps here. But I shall find out the way. Mr Hawtrey will help me, then. Mr Hawtrey will help me find Sue . . .
So my thoughts run, while the dawns of London break grubbily about me; while Mr Ibbs cooks bloaters, while his sister screams,
while Gentleman coughs in his bed, while Mrs Sucksby turns in hers, and snores, and sighs.
If only they would not keep me so close! One day, I think, each time a door is made fast at my back, one day they’ll forget to lock it. Then I’ll run. They’ll grow tired of always watching.—But, they do not. I complain of the thick, exhausted air. I complain of the mounting heat. I ask to go, oftener than I need, to the privy: for the privy lies at the other end of that dark and dusty passage at the back of the house, and shows me daylight. I know I could run from there to freedom, if I had the chance; but the chance does not come: Dainty walks there with me every time, and waits until I come out.—Once I do try to run, and she easily catches me and brings me back; and Mrs Sucksby hits her, for letting me go.
Richard takes me upstairs, and hits me.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, as he does it. ‘But you know how hard we have worked for this. All you must do is wait, for the bringing of the lawyer. You are good at waiting, you told me once. Why won’t you oblige us?’
The blow makes a bruise. Every day I see how it has lightened, thinking, Before that bruise quite fades, I will escape!
I pass many hours in silence, brooding on this. I sit, in the kitchen, in the shadows at the edge of lamp-light—Perhaps they’ll forget me, I think. Sometimes it almost seems that they do: the stir of the house goes on, Dainty and John will kiss and quarrel, the babies will shriek, the men will play at cards and dice. Now and then, other men will come—or boys, or else, more rarely, women and girls—with plunder, to be sold to Mr Ibbs and then sold on. They come, any hour of the day, with astonishing things—gross things, gaudy things—poor stuff, it seems to me, all of it: hats, handkerchiefs, cheap jewels, lengths of lace—once a hank of yellow hair still bound with a ribbon. A tumbling stream of things—not like the books that came to Briar, that came as if sinking to rest on the bed of a viscid sea, through dim and silent fathoms; nor like the things the books described, the things of convenience and purpose—the chairs, the pillows, the beds, the curtains, the ropes, the rods . . .
There are no books, here. There is only life in all its awful chaos. And the only purpose the things are made to serve, is the making of money.
And the greatest money-making thing of all, is me.
‘Not chilly, dear girl?’ Mrs Sucksby will say. ‘Not peckish? Why, how warm your brow is! Not taking a fever, I hope? We can’t have you sick.’ I do not answer. I have heard it all before. I let her tuck rugs about me, I let her sit and chafe my fingers and cheek. ‘Are you rather low?’ she’ll say. ‘Just look at them lips. They’d look handsome in a smile, they would. Not going to smile? Not even’—she swal-lows—’for me? Only glance, dear girl, at the almanack.’ She has scored through the days with crosses of black. ‘There’s a month nearly gone by already, and only two more to come. Then we know what follows! That ain’t so long, is it?’
She says it, almost pleadingly; but I gaze steadily into her face— as if to say that a day, an hour, a second, is too long, when passed with her.
‘Oh, now!’ Her fingers clench about my hand; then slacken, then pat. ‘Still seems rather queer to you, does it, sweetheart?’ she says. ‘Never mind. What can we get you, that will lift your spirits? Hey? A posy of flowers? A bow, for your pretty hair? A trinket box? A singing bird, in a cage?’ Perhaps I make some movement. Aha! Where’s John? John, here’s a shilling—it’s a bad one, so hand it over fast—nip out and get Miss Lilly a bird in a cage.—Yellow bird, my dear, or blue?—No matter, John, so long as it’s pretty . . .’
She winks. John goes, and returns in half an hour with a finch in a wicker basket. They fuss about that, then. They hang it from a beam, they shake it to make it flutter; Charley Wag, the dog, leaps and whines beneath it. It will not sing, however—the room is too dark—it will only beat and pluck at its wings and bite the bars of its cage. At last they forget it. John takes to feeding it the blue heads of matches—he says he plans, in time, to make it swallow a long wick, and then to ignite it.
Of Sue, no-one speaks at all. Once, Dainty looks at me as she puts out our suppers, and scratches her ear.
‘Funny thing,’ she says, ‘how Sue ain’t come back from the country, yet. Ain’t it?’
Mrs Sucksby glances at Richard, at Mr Ibbs, and then at me. She wets her mouth. ‘Look here,’ she says to Dainty, ‘I haven’t wanted to talk about it, but you might as well know it, now. The truth is, Sue ain’t coming back, not ever. That last little bit of business that Gentleman left her to see to had money in. More money than was meant for her share. She’s up and cut, Dainty, with the cash.’
Dainty’s mouth falls open. ‘No! Sue Trinder? What was like your own daughter?—Johnny!’ John chooses that moment to come down, for his supper. ‘Johnny, you ain’t going to guess what! Sue’s took all of Mrs Sucksby’s money, and that’s why she ain’t come back. Done a flit. Just about broke Mrs Sucksby’s heart. If we see her, we got to kill her.’
‘Done a flit? Sue Trinder?’ He snorts. ‘She ain’t got the nerve.’
‘Well, she done it.’
‘She done it,’ says Mrs Sucksby, with another glance at me, ‘and I don’t want to hear her name said in this house. That’s all.’
‘Sue Trinder, turned out a sharper!’ says John.
‘That’s bad blood for you,’ says Richard. He also looks at me. ‘Shows up in queer ways.’
‘What did I just say?’ says Mrs Sucksby hoarsely. ‘I won’t have her name said.’ She lifts her arm, and John falls silent. But he shakes his head and gives a whistle. Then after a moment, he laughs.
‘More meat for us, though, ain’t it?’ he says, as he fills his plate. ‘—Or would be, if it wasn’t for the lady there.’
Mrs Sucksby sees him scowling at me; and leans and hits him.
After that, if the men and women who come to the house ask after Sue, they are taken aside and told, like John and Dainty, that she has turned out wicked, double-crossed Mrs Sucksby and broken her heart. They all say the same: ‘Sue Trinder? Who’d have thought her so fly? That’s the mother, that is, coming out in the child . . .’ They shake their heads, look sorry. But it seems to me, too, that they forget her quickly enough. It seems to me that even John and Dainty forget her. It is a short-memoried house, after all. It is a
short-memoried district. Many times I wake in the night to the sound of footsteps, the creak of wheels—a man is running, a family taking flight, quietly, in darkness. The woman with the bandaged face, who nurses her baby on the step of the house with the shutters with the heart-shaped holes, disappears; her place is taken by another—who, in her turn, moves on, to be replaced by another, who drinks. What’s Sue, to them?
What’s Sue, to me? I’m afraid, here, to remember the pressing of her mouth, the sliding of her hand. But I’m afraid, too, of forgetting. I wish I could dream of her. I never do. Sometimes I take out the picture of the woman I supposed my mother, and look for her features there—her eyes, her pointed chin. Mrs Sucksby sees me do it. She watches, fretfully. Finally she takes the picture away.
‘Don’t you be thinking,’ she says, ‘on things that are done and can’t be changed. All right, dear girl? You think of the time to come.’
She imagines I brood upon my past. But I am still brooding on my future. I am still watching keys as they are turned—soon one will be left in a lock, I know it. I am watching Dainty and John, Mr Ibbs— they are growing too used to me. They’ll turn careless, they’ll forget. Soon, I think. Soon, Maud.
So I think; until this happens.
Richard takes to leaving the house each day, not saying where he is going. He has no money, and will have none until the bringing of the lawyer: I think he goes only to walk the dusty streets, or to sit in the parks; I think the heat and the closeness of the Borough kitchen stifles him as much as it stifles me. One day, however, he goes, but returns in an hour. The house is quiet, for once: Mr Ibbs and John are out, and Dainty is sleeping in a chair. Mrs Sucksby lets him into the kitchen, and he throws off his hat and kisses her cheek. His face is flushed and his eyes are gleaming.
‘Well, what do you think?’ he says.
‘Dear boy, I can’t imagine! Have all your horses come up at once?’
‘Better than that,’ he says. He reaches for me. ‘Maud? What do you think? Come, out of the shadows. Don’t look so fierce! Save that, till you’ve heard my news. It concerns you, rather.’
He has seized my chair and begun to haul me closer to the table. I shake him off. ‘Concerns me, how?’ I say, moodily. I have been sitting, thinking over the shape of my life.
‘You’ll see. Look here.’ He puts his hand to his waistcoat pocket and draws something out. A paper. He waves it.
‘A bond, dear boy?’ says Mrs Sucksby, stepping to his side.
‘A letter,’ he says, ‘from—well, guess who? Will you guess, Maud?’ I say nothing. He pulls a face. ‘Won’t you play? Shall I give you a clue? It is someone you know. A friend, very dear.’
My heart gives a lurch. ‘Sue!’ I say at once. But he jerks his head, and snorts.
‘Not her. You think they give them paper, where she is?’ He glances at Dainty; who opens and closes her eyes, and then sleeps on. ‘Not her,’ he says again, more quietly. ‘I mean, another friend of yours. You won’t guess?’
I turn my face. ‘Why should I? You mean to tell me, don’t you?’
He waits another moment; then: ‘Mr Lilly,’ he says. ‘Your uncle, that was.—Aha!’ I have started. ‘You are interested!’
‘Let me see,’ I say. Perhaps my uncle is searching for me, after all.
‘Now, now.’ He holds the letter high. ‘It has my name upon it, not yours.’
‘Let me see!’
I rise, pull down his arm, see a line of ink; then push him away.
‘That’s not my uncle’s hand,’ I say—so disappointed, I could strike him.
‘I never said it was,’ says Richard. ‘The letter’s from him, but sent by another: his steward, Mr Way.’
‘More curious still, hmm? Well, you shall understand that, when you read it. Here.’ He unfolds the paper and hands it to me. ‘Read this side, first. It’s a postscript; and explains, at least—what I’ve always thought so queer—why we’ve heard nothing from Briar, till now . . .’
The hand is cramped. The ink is smeared. I tilt the paper to catch what light I can; then read.
Dear Sir.—I found today among my master’s private papers, this letter, & do suppose he meant it to be sent; only, he fell into a grave indisposition shortly after having wrote it, sir, which indisposition he continues in to this day.—Mrs Stiles & me did think at first, that this was through his niece having run off in such a scandalous manner; though we beg leave to notice, sir, that his words herein suggest him not to have been overly astonished by that deed; as, begging leave again sir, no more were we.—We send this respectfully, sir, and presume to hope it finds you cheerful.—Mr Martin Way, Steward of Briar.
I look up, but say nothing. Richard sees my expression and smiles. ‘Read the rest,’ he says. I turn the paper over. The letter is short, and dated 3rd of May—seven weeks ago, now. It says this.
To Mr Richard Rivers, from Christopher Lilly, Esq.—Sir. I suppose you have taken my niece, Maud Lilly. I wish you joy of her! Her mother was a strumpet, and she has all her mother’s instincts, if not her face. The check to the progress of my work will be severe; but I take comfort in my loss, from this: that I fancy you, sir, a man who knows the proper treating of a whore.—C.L.
I read it, two or three times; then read it again; then let it fall. Mrs Sucksby instantly takes it up, to read herself. As she labours over the words, she grows flushed. When she has finished, she gives a cry:
‘That blackguard! Oh!’
Her cry wakes Dainty. ‘Who, Mrs Sucksby? Who?’ she says.
‘A wicked man, that’s all. A wicked man, who is ill, as he ought to be. No-one you know. Go back to sleep.’ She reaches for me. ‘Oh, my dear—’
‘Leave me alone,’ I say.
The letter has upset me, more than I should have believed. I
don’t know if it is the words that have wounded me most; or the final proof they seem to give, to Mrs Sucksby’s story. But I cannot bear to be watched by her, and by Richard, with my feelings in such a stir. I walk as far from them as I may—some two or three steps-— to the brown kitchen wall; then I walk from there to another wall and from there to a door; and I seize and vainly turn the handle.
‘Let me out,’ I say.
Mrs Sucksby comes to me. She makes to reach, not for the door, but for my face. I push her off—go quickly, to the second door, and then the third.—’Let me out! Let me out!’ She follows.
‘Dear girl,’ she says, ‘don’t let yourself be upset by that old villain. Why, he ain’t worth your tears!’
‘Will you let me out?’
‘Let you out, to where? Ain’t everything here, that you need now? Ain’t everything here, or coming? Think of them jewels, them gowns—’
She has come close again. Again, I push her away. I step back to the gravy-coloured wall, and put my hand to it—a fist—and beat and beat it. Then I look up. Before my eyes is the almanack, its pages swarming with crosses of black. I catch hold of it, and pluck it from its pin. ‘Dear girl—’ Mrs Sucksby says again. I turn and throw it at her.
But afterwards, I fall weeping; and when the fit of tears has passed, I think I am changed. My spirit has gone. The letter has taken it from me. The almanack goes back upon the wall, and I let it stay there. It grows steadily blacker, as we all inch nearer to our fates. The season advances. June grows warm, then even warmer. The house begins to be filled with flies. They drive Richard to a fury: he pursues them with a slipper, red-faced and sweating.—’You know I am a gentleman’s son?’ he will say. ‘Would you think it, to look at me now? Would you?’
I do not answer. I have begun, like him, to long for the coming of Sue’s birthday in August. I will say anything they wish, I think, to any kind of solicitor or lawyer. But I pass my days in a sort of restless lethargy; and at night—for it is too hot to sleep—at night I
d at the narrow window in Mrs Sucksby’s room, gazing blankly
at the street.
Tome away from there, sweetheart,’ Mrs Sucksby will murmur f he wakes. They say there is cholera in the Borough. ‘Who knows but you won’t take a fever, from the draught?’
May one take a fever, from a draught of foetid air? I lie down at her side until she sleeps; then go back to the window, press my face to the gap between the sashes, breathe deeper.
I almost forget that I mean to escape. Perhaps they sense it. For at last they leave me, one afternoon—at the start of July, I think— with only Dainty to guard me.
‘You watch her close,’ Mrs Sucksby tells her, drawing on gloves. ‘Anything happen to her, I’ll kill you.’ Me, she kisses. All right, my dear? I shan’t be gone an hour. Bring you back a present, shall I?’
I do not answer. Dainty lets her out, then pockets the key. She sits, draws a lamp across the table-top, and takes up work. Not washing napkins—for there are fewer babies, now: Mrs Sucksby has begun to find homes for them, and the house is daily growing stiller—but the pulling of silk stitches from stolen handkerchiefs. She does it listlessly, however. ‘Dull work,’ she says, seeing me look. ‘Sue used to do this. Care to try?’
I shake my head, let my eyelids fall; and presently, she yawns. I hear that; and am suddenly wide awake. If she will sleep, I think, I might try the doors—steal the key from her pocket! She yawns again. I begin to sweat. The clock ticks off the minutes—fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. Half an hour. I am dressed in the violet gown and white silk slippers. I have no hat, no money—never mind, never mind. Mr Hawtrey will give you that.
Sleep, Dainty. Dainty, sleep. Sleep, sleep . . . Sleep, damn you!
But she only yawns, and nods. The hour is almost up.
‘Dainty,’ I say.
She jumps. ‘What is it?’
‘I’m afraid— I’m afraid I must visit the privy.’
She puts down her work, pulls a face. ‘Must you? Right now, this minute?’
Yes.’ I place my hand on my stomach. ‘I think I am sick.’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Never knew a girl for sickness, like you. Is th what they call a lady’s constitution?’
‘I think it must be. I’m sorry, Dainty. Will you open the door5’
‘I’ll go with you, though.’
‘You needn’t. You might stay at your sewing, if you like …”
‘Mrs Sucksby says I must go with you, every time; else I’ll catch it. Here.’
She sighs, and stretches. The silk of her gown is stained beneath the arms, the stain edged white. She takes out the key, unlocks the door, leads me into the passage. I go slowly, watching the lurching of her back. I remember having run from her before, and how she caught me: I know that, even if I might hit her aside now, she would only rise again at once and chase me. I might knock her head against the bricks . . . But I imagine doing it, and my wrists grow weak, I don’t think I could.
‘Go on,’ she says, when I hesitate. ‘Why, what’s up?’
‘Nothing.’ I catch hold of the privy door and draw it to me, slowly. ‘You needn’t wait,’ I say.
‘No, I’ll wait.’ She leans against the wall. ‘Do me good, take the air.’
The air is warm and foul. In the privy it is warmer, and fouler. But I step inside and close the door and bolt it; then look about me. There is a little window, no bigger than my head, its broken pane stopped up with rag. There are spiders, and flies. The privy seat is cracked and smeared. I stand and think, perhaps for a minute. All right?’ calls Dainty. I do not answer. The floor is earth, stamped hard. The walls are powdery white. From a wire hang strips of news-print. Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Cast-off Clothing, in Good or Inferior Condition, Wanted for— Welsh Mutton & New-laid Eggs—
I turn to face the door, put my mouth to a gap in the wood.
‘Dainty,’ I say quietly.
‘What is it?’
‘Dainty, I am not well. You must fetch me something.’
‘What?’ She tries the door. ‘Come out, miss.’
I can’t. I daren’t. Dainty, you must go to the drawer, in the chest
in my room upstairs. Will you? There is something there. Will
you? Oh, I wish you would hurry! Oh, how it rushes! I am afraid of
the men coming back—’
‘Oh, ‘ she says, understanding me at last. She drops her voice. ‘Caught you out has it?’
‘Will you go for me, Dainty?’ ‘But I’m not to leave you, miss!’
‘I must keep here, then, until Mrs Sucksby comes! But say that John, or Mr Ibbs, should come first! Or say I swoon? And the door
is bolted! What will Mrs Sucksby think of us, then?’ ‘Oh Lord,’ she mutters. And then: ‘In the chest of drawers, you
‘The top-most drawer, on the right. Will you hurry? If I might
ust make myself neat, and then lie down. I always take it so