Her voice is fading. I press my ear to the wood, hear her feet, the opening and swinging back of the kitchen door.—I slide the bolt and run. I run out of the passage and into the court—I remember this, I remember the nettles, the bricks. Which way from here? There are high walls all about me. But I run further, and the walls give way. There’s a dusty path—it was slick with mud, when I came down it before; but I see it, and know it—I know it!—it leads to an alley and this, in turn, leads to another path, which crosses a street and leads me—where? To a road I do not recognise, that runs under the arches of a bridge. I recall the bridge, but remember it nearer, lower. I recall a high, dead wall. There is no wall here.
No matter. Keep going. Keep the house at your back, and run. Take wider roads now: the lanes and alleys twist, and are dark, you must not get caught in them. Run, run. No matter that the sky seems vast and awful to you. No matter that London is loud. No matter that there are people here—no matter that they stare—no matter that their clothes are worn and faded, and your gown bright;
that their heads are covered, yours bare. No matter that your slippers are silk, that your feet are cut by every stone and cinder—
So I whip myself along. Only the traffic checks me, the rushing horses and wheels: at every crossing I pause, then cast myself into the mass of cabs and waggons; and I think it is only my haste, my distraction—that, and perhaps the vividness of my dress—that makes the drivers pull at their reins and keep from running me down. On, on, I go. I think once a dog barks at me, and snaps at my skirt. I think boys run beside me, for a time—two boys, or three— shrieking to see me stagger. ‘You,’ I say, holding my hand against my side, ‘will you tell me, where is Holywell Street? Which way, to Holywell Street?’—but at the sound of my voice, they fall back.
I go more slowly then. I cross a busier road. The buildings are grander here—and yet, two streets beyond them the houses are shabby. Which way must I go? I will ask again, I will ask in a moment; for now, I will only walk, put streets and streets between myself and Mrs Sucksby, Richard, Mr Ibbs. What matter if I grow lost? I am lost already . . .
Then I cross the mouth of a rising passage of yellow brick and see at the end of it, dark and humped above the tips of broken roofs, its gold cross gleaming, the church of St Paul’s. I know it, from illustrations; and I think Holywell Street is near it. I turn, pick up my skirts, make for it. The passage smells badly; but the church seems close. So close, it seems! The brick turns green, the smell grows worse. I climb, then suddenly sink, emerge in open air and almost stumble. I have expected a street, a square. Instead, I am at the top of a set of crooked stairs, leading down to filthy water. I have reached the shore of the river. St Paul’s is close, after all; but the whole of the width of the Thames is flowing between us.
I stand and gaze at it, in a sort of horror, a sort of awe. I remember walking beside the Thames, at Briar. I remember seeing it seem to fret and worry at its banks: I thought it longed—as I did—to quicken, to spread. I did not know it would spread to this. It flows, like poison. Its surface is littered with broken matter—with hay, with wood, with weed, with paper, with tearings of cloth, with cork
and tilting bottles. It moves, not as a river moves, but as a sea: it heaves. And where it breaks, against the hulls of boats, and where it is thrown, upon the shore, and about the stairs and the walls and wooden piers that rise from it, it froths like sour milk.
It is an agony of water and of waste; but there are men upon it, confident as rats—pulling the oars of rowing-boats, tugging at sails. And here and there, at the river’s edge—bare-legged, bent-backed—are women, girls and boys, picking their way through the churning litter like gleaners in a field.
They don’t look up, and do not see me, though I stand for a minute and watch them wade. All along the shore I have come to, however, are warehouses, with working men about them; and presently, as I become aware of them, they also spot me—spot my gown, I suppose—first stare, then signal and call. That jerks me out of my daze. I turn—go back along the yellow passage, take up the road again. I have seen the bridge that I must cross to reach St Paul’s, but it seems to me that I am lower than I ought to be, and I cannot find the road that will lead me up: the streets I am walking now are narrow, unpaved, still reeking of dirty water. There are men upon them, too—men of the boats and warehouses, who, like the others, try to catch my eye, whistle and sometimes call; though they do not touch me. I put my hand before my face, and go on faster. At last I find a boy, dressed like a servant. ‘Which way is the bridge,’ I say, ‘to the other shore?’ He points me out a flight of steps, and stares as I climb them.
Everybody stares—men, women, children—even here, where the road is busy again, they stare. I think of tearing off a fold of skirt to cover my naked head. I think of begging a coin. If I knew what coin to beg for, how much a hat would cost me, where it might be bought, I would do it. But I know nothing, nothing; and so simply walk on. The soles of my slippers I think are beginning to tear. Don’t mind it, Maud. If you start to mind it, you will weep. Then the road ahead of me begins to rise, and I see again the gleam of water. The bridge, at last!—that makes me walk quicker. But walking quicker makes the slippers tear more; and after a moment, I am obliged to stop. There is a break in the wall at the start of the bridge
with, set into it, a shallow stone bench. Hung up beside it is a belt of cork—meant for throwing, it says upon a sign, to those in difficulties upon the river.
I sit. The bridge is higher than I imagined it. I have never been so high! The thought makes me dizzy. I touch my broken shoe. May a woman nurse her foot on a public bridge? I do not know. The traffic passes, swift and unbroken, like roaring water. Suppose Richard should come? Again, I cover my face. A moment, and I’ll go on. The sun is hot. A moment, to find my breath. I close my eyes. Now, when people stare, I cannot see them.
Then someone comes and stands before me, and speaks. ‘I’m afraid you’re unwell.’
I open my eyes. A man, rather aged. A stranger to me. I let my hand fall.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says. Perhaps I look bewildered. ‘I didn’t mean to surprise you.’
He touches his hat, makes a sort of bow. He might be a friend of
my uncle’s. His voice is a gentleman’s voice, and his collar is white.
He smiles, then studies me closer. His face is kind. ‘Are you unwell?’
‘Will you help me?’ I say. He hears my voice and his look
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘What is it? Are you hurt?’ ‘Not hurt,’ I say. ‘But I have been made to suffer dreadfully. I—’ I cast a look at the coaches and waggons upon the bridge. ‘I’m afraid,’ I say, ‘of certain people. Will you help me? Oh, I wish you would say you will!’
‘I have said it, already. But, this is extraordinary! And you, a lady— Will you come with me? You must tell me all your story; I shall hear it all. Don’t try to speak, just yet. Can you rise? I’m afraid you’re injured about the feet. Dear, dear! Let me look for a cab. That’s right.’
He gives me his arm, and I take it and stand. Relief has made me weak. ‘Thank God!’ I say. ‘Oh, thank God! But, listen to me.’ I grip him harder. ‘I have nothing—no money to pay you with—’
‘Money?’ He puts his hand over mine. ‘I should not take it. Don’t think of it!’
‘—But I have a friend, who I think will help me. If you’ll take me
‘Of course, of course. What else? Come, look, here’s what we need.’ He leans into the road, raises his arm: a cab pulls out of the stream of traffic and halts before us. The gentleman seizes the door and draws it back. The cab is covered, and dark. ‘Take care,’ he says. ‘Can you manage? Take care. The step is rather high.’
‘Thank God!’ I say again, lifting my foot. He comes behind me
as I do it.
‘That’s right,’ he says. And then: ‘Why look, how prettily you
I stop, with my foot upon the step. He puts his hand upon my waist. ‘Go on,’ he says, urging me into the coach.
I step back.
‘After all,’ I say quickly, ‘I think I should walk. Will you tell me the way?’
‘The day is too hot to walk. You are too weary. Go on.’
His hand is upon me still. He presses harder. I twist away and we almost struggle.
‘Now, then!’ he says, smiling.
‘I have changed my mind.’
‘Let go of me.’ i
‘Do you wish to cause a fuss? Come, now. I know a house—’
‘A house? Haven’t I told you that I want only to see my friend?’
‘Well, he’ll like you better, I think, when you have washed your hands and changed your stockings and taken a tea. Or else—who knows?—when you have done those things you may find you like me better.—Hmm?’
His face is still kind, he still smiles; but he takes my wrist and moves his thumb across it, and tries, again, to hand me into the coach. We struggle properly, now. No-one tries to intervene. From the other vehicles in the road I suppose we are quite hidden. The men and women passing upon the bridge look once, then turn their heads.
There is the driver, however. I call to him. ‘Can’t you see?’ I call.
‘There’s been a mistake here. This man is insulting me.’—The man lets me go, then. I move further about the coach, still calling up. ‘Will you take me? Will you take me, alone? I shall find someone to pay you, I give you my word, when we arrive.’
The driver looks me over blankly as I speak. When he learns I have no money, he turns his head and spits. ‘No fare, no passage,’ he says.
The man has come close again. ‘Come on,’ he says—not smiling, now. ‘There’s no need for this. What are you playing at? It’s clear you’re in some sort of fix. Shouldn’t you like the stockings, the tea?’
But I still call up to the driver. ‘Will you tell me, then,’ I say, ‘which way I must walk? I must reach Holywell Street. Will you tell me, which way I must take, for there?’
He hears the name and snorts—in scorn, or laughter, I cannot tell. But he raises his whip. ‘That way/ he says, gesturing over the bridge; ‘then westwards, by Fleet Street.’
‘Thank you.’ I begin to walk. The man reaches for me. ‘Let go of me,’ I say.
‘You don’t mean it.’ ‘Let go!’
I almost shriek it. He falls back. ‘Go on, then!’ he says. ‘You damn little teaser.’
I walk, as quickly as I can. I almost run. But then, after a moment, the cab comes beside me and slows to match my pace. The gentleman looks out. His face has changed again.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, coaxingly. ‘Come up. I’m sorry. Will you come? I’ll take you to your friend, I swear it. Look here. Look here.’ He shows me a coin. ‘I’ll give you this. Come up. You mustn’t go to Holywell Street, they are bad men there—not at all like me. Come now, I know you’re a lady. Come, I’ll be kind …”
So he calls and murmurs, half the length of the bridge; until finally a line of waggons forms behind the crawling cab, and the driver shouts that he must go on. Then the man draws back, puts up his window with a bang; the cab pulls away. I let out my breath. I have begun to shake. I should like to stop, to rest; I dare not, now.
T leave the bridge: here the road meets another, more busy than those on the southern shore; but more anonymous too, I think. I am grateful for that, though the crowds—the crowds are terrible. Never mind, never mind, push through them. Go on. Westwards, as the driver directed.
Now the street changes again. It is lined with houses with bulging windows—shops, I understand them to be, at last: for there are goods on show, marked up with prices on cards. There are breads, there are medicines. There are gloves. There are shoes and hats.—Oh, for a little money! I think of the coin the gentleman offered, from the window of the coach: should I have seized it, and run? Too late to wonder it now. No matter. Go on. Here is a church, parting the road like the column of a bridge parts water. Which side ought I to take? A woman passes, bare-headed like me: I catch her arm, ask her the way. She points it out and then, like everyone else, stands staring as I take it.
But here is Holywell Street at last!—Only, now I hesitate. How have I imagined it? Not like this, perhaps—not so narrow, so crooked, so dark. The London day is still hot, still bright; in turning into Holywell Street, however, I seem to step into twilight. But the twilight is good, after all: it hides my face, and robs my gown of its colours. I walk further. The way grows narrower. The ground is dusty, broken, unpaved. There are shops, lit up, on either side of me: some with lines of tattered clothes hung before them, some with broken chairs and empty picture-frames and coloured glasses spilling from them, in heaps; the most, however, selling books. I hesitate again, when I see that. I have not handled a book since I left Briar; and now, to come so suddenly upon them, in such numbers; to see them laid, face-up, like loaves in trays, or piled, haphazardly, in baskets; to see them torn, and foxed, and bleached—marked up 2d., 3d., This Box Is.—quite unnerves me. I stop, and watch as a man picks idly through a box of coverless volumes and takes one up. The Mousetrap of Love.—I know it, I have read that title so many times to my uncle I know it almost by heart!
Then the man lifts his head and finds me watching; and I walk on. More shops, more books, more men; and finally a window, a
little brighter than the rest. The display is of prints, hung up on strings. The glass has Mr Hawtrey’s name upon it, in letters of flaking gold. I see it, and shake so hard I almost stumble.
Inside, the shop is small and cramped. I have not expected that. The walls are all given over to books and prints, and there are cabinets, besides. Three or four men stand at them, each leafing rapidly and intently through some album or book: they don’t look up when the door is opened; but when I take a step and my skirts give a rustle, they all turn their heads, see me, and openly stare. But I am used to stares, by now. At the rear of the shop is a little writing-table, with a youth sitting at it, dressed in a waistcoat and sleeves. He stares, as they do—then, when he sees me advancing, gets up. ‘What are you looking for?’ he says. I swallow. My mouth is dry.
I say, quietly, ‘I’m looking for Mr Hawtrey. I wish to speak with Mr Hawtrey.’
He hears my voice, and blinks; the customers shift a little, and look me oVfer again. ‘Mr Hawtrey,’ he says, his tone a little changed. ‘Mr Hawtrey doesn’t work in the shop. You oughtn’t to have come to the shop. Have you got an appointment?’
‘Mr Hawtrey knows me,’ I say. ‘I don’t need an appointment.’ He glances at the customers. He says, ‘What’s your business with him?’
‘It’s private,’ I say. ‘Will you take me to him? Will you bring him to me?’
There must be something to my look, however, or my voice. He grows more guarded, steps back.
‘I’m not sure, after all, if he’s in,’ he says. ‘Really, you oughtn’t to have come to the shop. The shop is for selling books and prints—do you know what kind? Mr Hawtrey’s rooms are upstairs.’
There’s a door, at his back. ‘Will you let me go to him?’ I say. He shakes his head. ‘You may send up a card, something like that.’
‘I don’t have a card,’ I say. ‘But give me a paper, and I’ll write him out my name. He’ll come, when he reads it. Will you give me a paper?’
fie does not move. He says again, ‘I don’t believe he’s in the
‘Then I’ll wait, if I must,’ I say.
‘You cannot wait here!’
‘Then I think,’ I answer, ‘you must have an office, some room like that; and I will wait there.’
He looks again at the customers; picks up a pencil and puts it
‘If you will?’ I say.
He makes a face. Then he finds me a slip of paper and a pen. ‘But you shan’t,’ he says, ‘be able to wait, if it turns out he’s not in.1 I nod. ‘Put your name on there,’ he says, pointing.
I begin to write. Then I remember what Richard told me once— how the booksellers speak of me, in the shops of London. I am afraid to write, Maud Lilly. I am afraid the youth will see. At last— remembering something else—I put this: Galatea.
I fold it, and hand it to him. He opens the door, whistles into the passage beyond. He listens, then whistles again. There come footsteps. He leans and murmurs, gestures to me. I wait.
And, as I do, one of the customers closes his album and catches my eye. ‘Don’t mind him,’ he says softly, meaning the youth. ‘He supposes you gay, that’s all. Anyone can see, though, that you’re a lady . . .’ He looks me over, then nods to the shelves of books. ‘You like them, hmm?’ he says, in a different tone. ‘Of course you do. Why shouldn’t you?’
I say nothing, do nothing. The youth steps back.
‘We’re seeing,’ he says, ‘if he’s in.’
There are pictures behind his head, pinned to the wall in wax-paper wrappers: a girl on a swing, showing her legs; a girl in a boat, about to slip; a girl falling, falling from the breaking branch of a tree … I close my eyes. He calls to one of the men: ‘Do you wish to buy that book, sir—?’
Presently, however, there come more footsteps, and the door is opened again.
It is Mr Hawtrey.
He looks shorter, and slighter, than I remember him. His coat
and trousers are creased. He stands in the passage in some agitation, does not come into the shop—meets my gaze, but does not smile— looks about me, as if to be sure I am alone; then beckons me to him. The youth steps back to let me pass. ‘Mr Hawtrey—’ I say. He shakes his head, however; waits until the door is closed behind me before he will speak. What he says then—in a whisper so fierce it is almost a hiss—is:
‘Good God! Is it you? Have you really come here, to me?’
I say nothing, only stand with my eyes on his. He puts his hand, in distraction, to his head. Then he takes my arm. ‘This way,’ he says, leading me to a set of stairs. The steps have boxes upon them. ‘Be careful. Be careful,’ he says, as we climb them. And then, at the top: ‘In here.’
There are three rooms, set up for the printing and binding of books. In one, two men work, loading type; another, I think, is Mr Hawtrey’s own office. The third is small, and smells strongly of glue. It’s in there that he shows me. The tables are piled with papers—loose papers, ragged at the edges: the leaves of unfinished books. The floor is bare and dusty. One wall—the wall to the typesetters’ room—has frosted glass panels in it. The men are just visible, bending over their work.
There is a single chair, but he does not ask me to sit. He closes the door and stands before it. He takes out a handkerchief and wipes his face. His face is yellowish-white.
‘Good God,’ he says again. And then: ‘Forgive me. Forgive me. It’s only the surprise of the thing.’
He says it, more kindly; and I hear him and half turn away.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. My voice is not steady. ‘I’m afraid I will weep. I have not come to you to weep.’
‘You may weep, if you like!’ he says, with a glance at the frosted glass.
But I will not weep. He watches me struggling against my tears for a moment, then shakes his head.
‘My dear,’ he says gently at last. ‘What have you done?’
‘Don’t ask me.’
‘You have run away.’
‘From my uncle, yes.’
‘From your husband, I think.’
‘My husband?’ I swallow. ‘Do you know, then, of that?’
He shrugs, colours, looks away.
I say, ‘You think me wrong. You do not know what I have been made to suffer! Don’t worry’—for he has lifted his eyes to glance, again, at the panels of glass—’don’t worry, I shan’t grow wild. You may think what you like of me, I don’t care. But you must help me.
‘You will. You must. I have nothing. I need money, a house to stay in. You used to like to say you would make me welcome—’
Despite myself, my voice is rising.
‘Be calmer,’ he says—lifting his hands as if to soothe me; but not moving from his place at the door. ‘Be calmer. You know how queer this will look? Do you? What are my staff to think? A girl comes asking for me urgently, sending up a riddling name . . .’ He laughs, not happily. ‘What would my daughters say, my wife?’
‘I am sorry.’
Again he wipes his face. He lets out his breath. ‘I wish you would tell me,’ he says, ‘why you have come, to me. You mustn’t think I will take your part against your uncle. I never liked to see him keep you so meanly, but he mustn’t know you’ve come here. Nor must you think—is it what you are hoping?—that I’ll help you back into his favours. He has quite cast you off, you know. Besides that, he is ill—seriously ill—over this business. Did you know that?’
I shake my head. ‘My uncle is nothing to me, now.’
‘But he is something to me, you understand. If he should hear of your coming—’
‘He will not.’
‘Well.’ He sighs. Then his face grows troubled again. ‘But to come to me! To come here!’ And he looks me over, takes in my gaudy dress and gloves—which are filthy; my hair—which I think is tangled; my face—which must be dusty, lustreless, white. ‘I should hardly have known you,’ he says, still frowning, ‘you seem so changed. Where is your coat, and your hat?’
‘There was not time—’
He looks appalled. ‘Did you come, like this?’ He squints at the hem of my skirt; then he sees my feet, and starts. ‘Why, look at your slippers! Your feet are bleeding! Did you leave, without shoes?’
‘I must. I have nothing!’
‘No. Not so much as that.’
‘Rivers keeps you without shoes?’
He does not believe it. ‘If I might only,’ I say, ‘make you know—’ But he is not listening. He is looking about him, as if seeing for the first time the tables, the piles of paper. He takes up a few blank sheets, begins hurriedly to cover up the naked print.
‘You oughtn’t to have come here,’ he says, as he does it. ‘Look at this! Look at this!’
I catch sight of a line of print. ‘—you shall have enough, I warrant you, and I shall whip, whip—’ ‘Do you try and hide it,’ I say, ‘from me? I have seen worse at Briar. Have you forgotten?’
‘This is not Briar. You don’t understand. How could you? You were among gentlemen, there. It is Rivers I blame for this. He ought—having taken you—at least to have kept you closer. He saw what you were.’
‘You don’t know,’ I say. ‘You don’t know how he’s used me!’
‘I don’t want to know! It is not my place to know! Don’t tell me.—Oh, only look at yourself! Do you know how you will have seemed, upon the streets? You can’t have come unnoticed, surely?’
I gaze down at my skirt, my slippers. ‘There was a man,’ I say, ‘upon the bridge. I thought he meant to help me. But he meant only—’ My voice begins to shake.
‘You see?’ he says then. ‘You see? Suppose a policeman should have seen you, and followed you here? Do you know what would happen to me—to my staff, to my stock—if the police were to come down heavily upon us? They might, for such a matter as this.—Oh, God, only look at your feet! Are they bleeding, truly?’
He helps me into the chair, then gazes about him. ‘There’s a sink,’ he says, ‘next door. Wait here, will you?’ He goes off, to the room with the typesetters in it. I see them lift their heads, hear his
nice.—I don’t know what he must tell them. I don’t care. In sitting, I have grown tired; and the soles of my feet, which until now have been almost numb, have begun to smart. The room has no window of its own, and no chimney, and the smell of glue seems stronger. I have come close to one of the tables: I lean upon it, and gaze across it—at the piles of pages, untrimmed, unsewn, some of them disturbed or concealed by Mr Hawtrey.’—and I shall whip, whip, whip, your backside till the blood runs down your heels—’ The print is new, and black; but the paper is poor, the ink has feathered. What is the fount? I know it, but—it troubles me—I cannot name it.
‘—so, so, so, so, so, you like the birch, do you?’
Mr Hawtrey returns. He has a cloth, and a bowl, half-filled with water; also a glass, with water for me to drink.
‘Here you are,’ he says, putting the bowl before me, wetting the cloth and handing it to me; then glancing nervously away. ‘Can you do it? Just enough to take the blood away, for now
The water is cold. When I have wiped my feet I wet the cloth again and, for a second, sit and hold it to my face. Mr Hawtrey looks round and sees me do it. ‘You’re not feverish?’ he says. ‘You’re not ill?’—’I am only warm,’ I say. He nods, and comes and takes the bowl. Then he gives me the glass, and I drink a little of it. ‘Very good,’ he says.
I look again at the leaves of print upon the table; but the name of the fount escapes me, still. Mr Hawtrey checks his watch. Then he puts his hand to his mouth and bites at the skin of his thumb, and frowns.
I say, ‘You are good, to help me. I think other men would blame me.’
‘No, no. Haven’t I said? It is Rivers I blame. Never mind. Tell me, now. Be honest with me. What money have you, upon you now?’
‘I have none.’
‘No money at all?’
‘I have only this gown. But we might sell it, I think? I should sooner take a plainer one, anyway.’
‘Sell your gown?’ His frown grows deeper. ‘Don’t speak so oddly, will you? When you go back—’
‘Go back? To Briar?’
‘To Briar? I mean, to your husband.’
‘To him?’ I look at him in amazement. ‘I cannot go back to him! It has taken me two months to escape him!’
He shakes his head. ‘Mrs Rivers—’ he says. I shudder.
‘Don’t call me that,’ I say, ‘I beg you.’
‘Again, so odd! What ought I to call you, if not that?’
‘Call me Maud. You asked me, just now, what I have that is mine. I have that name; that, and nothing else.’
He makes some movement with his hand. ‘Don’t be foolish,’ he says. ‘Listen to me, now. I am sorry for you. You have had some quarrel, haven’t you—?’
I laugh—so sharply, he starts; and the two typesetters look up. He sees them do it, then turns back to me.
‘Will you be reasonable?’ he says quietly, warningly.
But how can I be that?
‘A quarrel,’ I say. ‘You think it a quarrel. You think I have run on bleeding feet, half-way across London, for that? You know nothing. You cannot guess what danger I am in, what coils—! But, I can’t tell you. It’s too great a thing.’
‘A secret thing. A scheme. I cannot say. I cannot— Oh!’ I have lowered my gaze, and it has fallen again upon the pages of print. ‘you like the birch, do you?’ ‘What is this type?’ I say. ‘Will you tell me?’
He swallows. ‘This type?’ he says, his voice quite changed.
For a second he does not answer. Then: ‘Clarendon,’ he says, quietly.
Clarendon. Clarendon. I knew it, after all. I continue to gaze at the paper—I think I put my fingers to the print—until Mr Hawtrey comes and places a blank sheet upon it, as he did with the others.
‘Don’t look there,’ he says. ‘Don’t stare so! What is the matter with you? I think you must be ill.’
‘I am not ill,’ I answer. ‘I am only tired.’ I close my eyes. ‘I wish I might stay here, and sleep.’
‘Stay here?’ he says. ‘Stay here, in my shop? Are you mad?’ At sound of that word I open my eyes, and meet his gaze; he colours, looks quickly away. I say again, more steadily, ‘I am only tired.’ But he does not answer. He puts his hand to his mouth and begins to bite, again, at the skin of his thumb; and he watches me, carefully, cautiously, from the side of his eye. ‘Mr Hawtrey—’ I
‘I wish,’ he says suddenly then, ‘I just wish you would tell me what it is you mean to do. How am I even to get you from the shop? I must bring a cab, I suppose, to the back of the building.’
‘Will you do that?’
‘You have somewhere to go, to sleep? To eat?’
‘I have nowhere!’
‘You must go home, then.’
‘I cannot do that. I have no home! I need only a little money, a little time. There is a person I mean to find, to save—’
‘To find. To find. And, having found her, then I may need help again. Only a little help. I have been cheated, Mr Hawtrey. I have been wronged. I think, with a lawyer—if we might find an honest man— You know I am rich?—or, ought to be.’ Again, he watches but does not speak. I say, ‘You know I am rich. If you’ll only help me, now. If you’ll only keep me—’
‘Keep you! Do you know what you are saying? Keep you, where?’
‘Not in your own house?’
‘My house? With my wife and daughters? No, no.’ He has begun to pace.
‘But at Briar you said, many times—’
‘Haven’t I told you? This is not Briar. The world is not like Briar. You must find that out. How old are you? You are a child. You cannot leave a husband, as you may leave an uncle. You cannot live, in London, on nothing. How do you think you will live?’
I do not know. I supposed—’ I supposed you would give me money,
I want to say. I look about me. Then I am struck with an idea. ‘Might I not,’ I say, ‘work for you?’
He stands still. ‘For me?’
‘Might I not work here? In the putting together of books?—the writing, even? I know that work. You know how well I know it! You may pay me a wage. I shall take a room—I need only one room, one quiet room!—I shall take it secretly, Richard shall never know, you shall keep my secret for me. I shall work, and earn a little money— enough to find out my friend, to find out an honest lawyer; and then—What is it?’
He has kept still, all this time; but his look has changed, is odd.
‘Nothing,’ he says, moving. ‘I— Nothing. Drink your water.’
I suppose I am flushed. I have spoken rapidly, and grown warm: I swallow, and feel the chill descent of the water inside my breast, like a sword. He moves to the table and leans upon it, not looking at me, but thinking, thinking. When I set down the glass he turns back. He does not catch my eye.
‘Listen to me,’ he says. He speaks quietly. ‘You cannot stay here, you know that. I must send for a cab, to take you. I— I must send for some woman, also. I will pay for a woman to go with you.’
‘Go with me, where?’
‘To some—hotel.’ Now he has turned again, has taken up a pen—looks in a book, begins to set down a direction upon a slip of paper. ‘Some house,’ he says, as he does it, ‘where you may rest and take a supper.’
‘Where I may rest?’ I say. ‘I don’t think I shall rest, ever again! But a room! A room!—And will you come to me there? Tonight?’ He does not answer. ‘Mr Hawtrey?’
‘Not tonight,’ he says, still writing. ‘Tonight I cannot.’
He waves the paper, to dry it; then folds it. ‘Tomorrow,’ he says. ‘If I can.’
‘And the work—my working for you. You’ll consider that? Say you will!’
‘Hush. Yes, I’ll consider it. Yes.’
I put my hand before my eyes. ‘Stay here,’ he says. ‘Will you? Don’t go from here.’
I hear him step, then, to the room next door; and when I look, I see him speaking quietly to one of the typesetters—see the man draw on his jacket, then go. Mr Hawtrey comes back. He nods to my feet.
‘Put your shoes on, now,’ he says, turning away. ‘We must be
‘You are kind, Mr Hawtrey,’ I say, as I lean to tug on my broken slippers. ‘God knows, no-one has been so kind to me, since—’ My voice is lost.
‘There, there,’ he says, distractedly. ‘Don’t think of it, now . . .’
Then I sit in silence. He waits, takes out his watch, goes now and then to the top of the stairs, to stand and listen. At last he goes and comes quickly back.
‘They are here,’ he says. ‘Now, have you everything? Come this way, carefully.’
He takes me down. He takes me through a set of rooms, piled high with crates and boxes, and then through a sort of scullery, to a door. The door leads to a little grey area: there are steps from this, to an alley. A cab waits there with, beside it, a woman. She sees us and nods.
‘You know what to do?’ Mr Hawtrey says to her. She nods again. He gives her money, wrapped in the paper on which he has written. ‘Here is the lady, look. Her name is Mrs Rivers. You are to be kind to her. Have you some shawl?’
She has a plaid wool wrap, which she puts about me, to cover up my head. The wool is hot against my cheek. The day is still warm, though it is almost twilight. The sun has gone from the sky. I have been three hours from Lant Street.
At the door to the cab, I turn. I take Mr Hawtrey’s hand.
‘You will come,’ I say, ‘tomorrow?’
‘You won’t talk of this, to anyone? You’ll remember the danger I spoke of?’
He nods. ‘Go on,’ he says quietly. ‘This woman will care for you now, better than I.’ •
‘Thank you, Mr Hawtrey!’
He hands me into the cab—hesitates, before lifting my fingers to his mouth. The woman comes next. He closes the door at her back, then moves off, out of the path of the turning wheel. I lean to the glass and see him take out his handkerchief, wipe his face and neck; then we turn, pull out of the alley, and he is gone. We drive away from Holywell Street—northwards, so far as I can tell; for I know— I am almost certain—that we do not cross the river.
We go very fitfully, however. The traffic is thick. I keep with my face at the window at first, watching the crowds upon the streets, the shops. Then I think, Suppose I see Richard?—and I fall back against the leather seat and study the streets from there.
Only after some time of this do I look again at the woman. She has her hands in her lap: they are gloveless, and coarse. She catches my eye.
‘All right, dearie?’ she says, not smiling. Her voice is rough as her fingers.
Do I begin, then, to feel wary? I am not sure. I think, After all, Mr Hawtrey had not the time to be careful, in his finding of a woman. What matter if she’s not kind, so long as she’s honest? I look more closely at her. Her skirt is a rusty black. Her shoes are the colour and texture of roasted meat. She sits placidly, not speaking, while the cab shudders and jolts.
‘Must we go far?’ I ask her at last.
‘Not too far, dearie.’
Her voice is still rough, her face without expression. I say, fretfully, ‘Do you call me that? I wish you wouldn’t.’
She shrugs. The gesture is so bold and yet so careless, I think I do then grow uneasy. I put my face again to the window, to try to draw in air. The air will not come. Where is Holywell Street, I think, from here?
‘I don’t like this,’ I say, turning back to the woman. ‘May we not walk?’
‘Walk, in them slippers?’ She snorts. She looks out. ‘Here’s
Camden Town,’ she says. ‘We’ve a fair way, yet. Sit back and be
‘Will you talk to me, so?’ I say again. ‘I am not a child.’
And again, she shrugs. We drive on, more smoothly. We drive for perhaps, half an hour, up a rising road. The day is darker now. I am tenser. We have left the lights and shops, and are in some street—some street of plain buildings. We turn a corner, and the buildings grow plainer still. Presently we draw up before a great, grey house. There is a lamp, at the foot of its steps. A girl in a ragged apron is reaching with a taper to light it. The glass of its shade is cracked. The street is perfectly silent.
‘What’s this?’ I say to the woman, when the coach has stopped and I understand it will not go on.
‘Here’s your house,’ she says.
‘Hotel?’ She smiles. ‘You may call it that.’ She reaches for the latch on the door. I put my hand on her wrist.
‘Wait,’ I say—feeling real fear now, at last. ‘What do you mean? Where has Mr Hawtrey directed you to?’
‘Why, to here!’
‘And what is here?’
‘It’s a house, ain’t it? What is it to you, what sort? You shall get your supper all the same.—You might leave off gripping me, mind!’
‘Not until you tell me where I am.’
She tries to pull her hand away, but I will not let her. Finally, she sucks her teeth.
‘House for ladies,’ she says, ‘like you.’
‘Like you. Poor ladies, widow ladies—wicked ladies, I shouldn’t wonder.—There!’
I have thrust her wrist aside.
‘I don’t believe you,’ I say. ‘I am meant to come to an hotel. Mr Hawtrey paid you for that—’
‘Paid me to bring you here, and then to leave you. Most particular. If you don’t like it—’ She reaches into her pocket. ‘Why, here’s his very hand.’
She has brought out a piece of paper. It is the paper that Mr Hawtrey put about the coin. It has the name of the house upon it__
A home, he calls it, for destitute gentlewomen. For a moment I gaze at the words in a sort of disbelief: as if my gazing at them will change them, change their meaning or shape. Then I look at the woman. ‘This is a mistake,’ I say. ‘He didn’t mean
this. He has misunderstood, or you have. You must take me back__’
‘I’m to bring you, and leave you, most particular,’ she says stubbornly again. ‘”Poor lady, weak in her head, needs taking to a charity place.” There’s charity, ain’t it?’
She nods again to the house. I do not answer. I am remembering Mr Hawtrey’s look—his words, the odd tone of his voice. I think, / must go back! I must go back to Holywell Street!—and yet, even as I think it, I know, with a dreadful chill contraction of my heart, what I will find there if I do: the shop, the men, the youth; and Mr Hawtrey gone, to his own home—his home, which might be anywhere in the city, anywhere at all… And after that, the street—the street in darkness.—How shall I manage it? How shall I live a night, in London, on my own?
I begin to shake. ‘What am I to do?’ I say.
‘What, but go over,’ says the woman, nodding again to the house. The girl with the taper is gone, and the lamp burns feebly. The windows are shuttered, the glass above them black, as if the rooms are filled with darkness. The door is high—divided in two, like the great front door at Briar. I see it, and am gripped by panic.
‘I cannot,’ I say. ‘I cannot!’
Again the woman sucks her teeth. ‘Better that than the road— ain’t it? It’s one or the other. I am paid to bring you here and leave you, that’s all. Go on out, now, and let me get home.’
‘I cannot,’ I say again. I grab at her sleeve. ‘You must take me, somewhere else.’
‘Must I?’ She laughs—does not shake me off, however. Instead, her look changes. ‘Well, I will,’ she says; ‘if you’ll pay me.’
‘Pay you? I have nothing to pay you with!’
She laughs again. ‘No money?’ she says. And a dress like that?’
She looks at my skirt.
‘Oh, God,’ I say, plucking at it in desperation. ‘I would give you the gown, if I might!’
‘Take the shawl!’
‘The shawl’s my own!’ She snorts. She still looks at my skirt. Then she tilts her head. ‘What you got,’ she says more quietly, ‘underneath?’
I shudder. Then slowly, shrinkingly, I draw up my hem, show her my petticoats—two petticoats there are, one white and one crimson. She sees them, and nods.
‘They’ll do. Silk, are they? They’ll do.’
‘What, both?’ I say. ‘Will you take both?’
‘There’s the driver needs his fare, ain’t there?’ she answers. ‘You must pay me, once for myself; and once for him.’
I hesitate—but what can I do? I lift my skirt higher, find out the strings at my waist and pull them loose; then, modestly as I can, draw the petticoats down. She does not look away. She takes them from me and tucks them swiftly under her coat.
‘What the gentleman don’t know, eh?’ she says, with a chuckle; as if we are close conspirators now. She rubs her hands. ‘Where to, then? Eh? Where must I tell the driver?’
She has opened the window, to call. I sit with my arms about myself, feeling the prickle of the fabric of my gown against my bare thighs. I think I would colour, I think I would weep, if I had life enough.
‘Where to?’ she asks again. Beyond her head, the street is filled with shadow. A moon has risen—a crescent, slender, filthy-brown.
I bow my head. With this last, awful bafflement of my hopes, I have only one place to go. I tell her, she calls it, and the coach starts up. She settles herself more comfortably in her seat, rearranges her coat. She looks at me.
All right, dearie?’ she says. I do not answer, and she laughs. She turns away. ‘Don’t mind it now, does she?’ she says, as if to herself. ‘Don’t mind it, now.’
Lant Street is dark when we reach it. I know the house to stop at,
from the house which faces it—the one with the ointment-coloured shutters, that I have gazed at so hard from Mrs Sucksby’s window John answers my knock. His face is white. He sees me, and stares ‘Fuck,’ he says. I go past him. The door leads into what I suppose is Mr Ibbs’s shop, and a passage from that takes me directly into the kitchen. They are all there, apart from Richard. He is out in search of me. Dainty is weeping: her cheek is bruised, worse than before, her lip split and bleeding. Mr Ibbs paces in his shirt-sleeves, making the floorboards jump and creak. Mrs Sucksby stands, her eyes on nothing, her face white as powder, like John’s. She stands still. But when she sees me come she folds and winces—puts her hand to her heart as if struck.
‘Oh, my girl,’ she says.
I don’t know what they do after that. Dainty screams, I think. I go by them, not looking. I go up the stairs to Mrs Sucksby’s room— my room, our room, I suppose I must call it now—and I sit upon the bed, my face to the window. I sit with my hands in my lap, my head bowed. My fingers are marked with dirt. My feet have begun, again, to bleed.
She gives me a minute, before she comes. She comes quietly. She closes the door and locks it at her back—turning the key gently in the lock, as if she thinks me sleeping and fears to wake me. Then she stands at my side. She does not try to touch me. I know, however, that she is trembling.
‘Dear girl,’ she says. ‘We supposed you lost. We supposed you drowned, or murdered—’
Her voice catches, but does not break. She waits and, when I do nothing, ‘Stand up, sweetheart,’ she says.
I do. She takes the gown from me, and the stays. She does not ask what has become of my petticoats. She does not exclaim over my slippers and feet—though she shudders, as she draws off my stockings. She puts me, naked, into the bed; draws up the blanket to my jaw; then sits beside me. She strokes my hair—teases out the pins and tangles with her hands. My head is loose, and jerks as she tugs. ‘There, now,’ she says.
The house is silent. I think Mr Ibbs and John are talking, but
talking in whispers. Her fingers move more slowly. ‘There, now,’ she ays again; and I shiver, for her voice is Sue’s.
Her voice is Sue’s, but her face— The room is dark, however, she has not brought a candle. She sits with her back to the window. But I feel her gaze, and her breath. I close my eyes.
‘We thought you lost,’ she murmurs again. ‘But you came back. Dear girl, I knew you should!’
‘I have nowhere else,’ I answer, slowly and hopelessly. ‘I have nowhere and no-one. I thought I knew it; I never knew it till now. I have nothing. No home—’
‘Here is your home!’ she says.
‘Here are your friends!’
She draws in her breath; then speaks, in a whisper.
‘Dear girl, don’t you know? Ain’t I said, a hundred times—?’
I begin to weep—in frustration, exhaustion. ‘Why will you say it?’ I cry, through my tears. ‘Why will you? Isn’t it enough, to have got me here? Why must you also love me? Why must you smother and torment me, with your grasping after my heart?’
I have raised myself up; but the cry takes the last of my strength and soon, I fall back. She does not speak. She watches. She waits, until I have grown still. Then she turns her head and tilts it. I think, from the curve of her cheek, that she is smiling.
‘How quiet the house is,’ she says, ‘now so many infants are gone! Ain’t it?’ She turns back to me. I hear her swallow. ‘Did I tell you, dear girl,’ she says softly, ‘that I once bore an infant of my own, that died? Round about the time that that lady, Sue’s mother, came?’ She nods. ‘So I said. So you’ll hear it told, round here, if you ask. Babies do die. Who’d think that queer . . .?’
There is something to her voice. I begin to shake. She feels it, and reaches again to stroke my tangled head. ‘There, now. Hush, now. You are quite safe, now . . .’ Then the stroking stops. She has caught up a lock of hair. She smiles again. ‘Funny thing,’ she says, in a different tone, ‘about your hair. Your eye I did suppose brown, and your colour white, and your waist and hands I knew would be
slender. Only your hair come out rather fairer than I had it pictured
The words drop away. In reaching, she has moved her head: the light from the street-lamp, and from the sliver of tarnished moon, falls full upon her, and all at once I see her face—the brown of her own eye, and her own pale cheek—and her lip, that is plump and must, I understand suddenly, must once have been plumper . . . She wets her mouth. ‘Dear girl,’ she says. ‘My own, my own dear girl—’
She hesitates another moment; then speaks, at last.
I shrieked. I shrieked and shrieked. I struggled like a fiend. But the more I twisted, the tighter I was held. I saw Gentleman fall back in his seat and the coach start up and begin to turn. I saw Maud put her face to the window of cloudy glass. At sight of her eyes, I shrieked again.
‘There she is!’ I cried, lifting my hand and pointing. ‘There she is! Don’t let her go! Don’t you fucking let her go—!’
But the coach drove on, the wheels throwing up dust and gravel as the horse got up its speed; and the faster it went, the harder I think I fought. Now the other doctor came forward, to help Dr Christie. The woman in the apron came, too. They were trying to pull me closer to the house. I wouldn’t let them. The coach was speeding, growing smaller. ‘They’re getting away!’ I cried. Then the woman got behind me and seized my waist. She had a grip on her like a man’s. She lifted me up the two or three steps that led to the house’s front door, as if I might be so many feathers in a bag.
‘Now then,’ she said as she hauled me. ‘What’s this? Kick your legs, will you, and trouble the doctors?’
Her mouth was close to my ear, her face behind me. I hardly knew what I was doing. All I knew was, she had me there, and Gentleman and Maud were escaping. I felt her speak, bent my head forward, then took it sharply back.
‘Oh!’ she cried. Her grip grew slack. ‘Oh! Oh!’
‘She’s becoming demented,’ said Dr Christie. I thought he was talking about her. Then I saw he meant me. He took a whistle from his pocket and gave it a blow.
‘For God’s sake,’ I cried, ‘won’t you hear me? They have tricked me, they have tricked me—!’
The woman grabbed me again—about the throat, this time; and as I turned in her arms she hit me hard, with the points of her fingers, in my stomach. I think she did it in such a way, the doctors did not see. I gave a jerk, and swallowed my breath. Then she did it again. ‘Here’s fits!’ she said.
‘Watch your hands!’ called Dr Graves. ‘She may snap.’
Meanwhile, they had got me into the hall of the house and the sound of the whistle had brought another two men. They were pulling on brown paper cuffs over their coat-sleeves. They did not look like doctors. They came and caught hold of my ankles.
‘Keep her steady,’ said Dr Graves. ‘She’s in a convulsion. She may put out her joints.’
I could not tell them that I was not in a fit, but only winded; that the woman had hurt me; that I was anyway not a lunatic, but sane as them. I could not say anything, for trying to find my breath. I could only croak. The men drew my legs straight, and my skirts rose to my knees. I began to be afraid of the skirts rising higher. That made me twist about, I suppose.
‘Hold her tight,’ said Dr Christie. He had brought out a thing like a great flat spoon, made of horn. He came to my side and held my head, and put the spoon to my mouth, between my teeth. It was smooth, but he pushed it hard and it hurt me. I thought I should be choked: I bit it, to keep it from going down my throat. It tasted bad.
I still think of all the other people’s mouths it must have gone in, before mine.
He saw my jaws close. ‘Now she takes it!’ he said. ‘That’s right. Hold her steady.’ He looked at Dr Graves. ‘To the soft room? I think so. Nurse Spiller?’
That was the woman that held me by the throat. I saw her nod to him, and then to the men in the cuffs, and they turned so that they might walk with me, further into the house. I felt them do it and began to struggle again. I was not thinking, now, of Gentleman and Maud. I was thinking of myself. I was growing horribly afraid. My stomach ached from the nurse’s fingers. My mouth was cut by the spoon. I had an idea that, once they got me into a room, they would kill me.
‘A thrasher, ain’t she?’ said one of the men, as he worked for a better grip on my ankle.
‘A very bad case,’ said Dr Christie. He looked into my face. ‘The convulsion is passing, at least.’ He raised his voice. ‘Don’t be afraid, Mrs Rivers! We know all about you. We are your friends. We have brought you here to make you well.’
I tried to speak. ‘Help! Help!’ I tried to say. But the spoon made me gobble like a bird. It also made me dribble; and a bit of dribble flew out of my mouth and struck Dr Christie’s cheek. Perhaps he thought I had spat it. Anyway, he moved quickly back, and his face grew grim. He took out his handkerchief.
‘Very good,’ he said to the men and the nurse, as he wiped his cheek. ‘That will do. Now you may take her.’
They carried me along a passage, through a set of doors and a room; then to a landing, another passage, another room—I tried to study the way, but they had me on my back: I could make out only so many drab-coloured ceilings and walls. After about a minute I knew they had got me deep into the house, and that I was lost. I could not cry out. The nurse kept her arm about my throat, and I still had the spoon of horn in my mouth. When we reached a staircase they took me down it, saying, ‘To you, Mr Bates,’ and, ‘Watch this turn, it’s a tight one!’—as if I might be, not a sack of feathers
now, but a trunk or a piano. Not once did they look me in the face. Finally, one of the men began to whistle a tune, and to beat out the time of it, with his finger-ends, on my leg.
Then we reached another room, with a ceiling of a paler shade of drab; and here they stopped. ‘Careful, now,’ they said.
The men put down my legs. The woman took her arm from my neck and gave me a push. It was only a little push and yet, they had so pulled and shaken me about, I found I staggered and fell. I fell upon my hands. I opened my mouth and the spoon fell out. One of the men reached, quick, to take it. He shook the spit from it. ‘Please,’ I said.
‘You may say please, now,’ said the woman. Then she spoke to the men. ‘Gave me a crack with her head, upon the steps. Look here. Am I bruised?’ ‘I believe you shall be.’ ‘Little devil!’
She put her foot to me. ‘Now, does Dr Christie have you here to give us all bruises? Eh, my lady? Mrs What-is-your-name? Mrs Waters, or Rivers? Does he?’
‘Please,’ I said again. ‘I ain’t Mrs Rivers.’ ‘She ain’t Mrs Rivers? Hear that, Mr Bates? And I ain’t Nurse Spiller, I dare say. And Mr Hedges ain’t himself. Very likely.’
She came closer to me, and she picked me up about my waist; and she dropped me. You could not say she threw me, but she lifted me high and let me fall; and me being just then so dazed and so weak, I fell badly.
‘That’s for cracking my face,’ she said. ‘Be glad we ain’t on stairs, or a roof. Crack me again—who knows?—we might be.’ She pulled her canvas apron straight, and leaned and caught hold of my collar. ‘Right, let’s have this gown off. You may look like thunder, too. That’s nothing to me. Why, what small little hooks! And my hand’s hard, is it? Used to better, are you? I should say you are, from what I’ve heard.’ She laughed. ‘Well, we don’t keep ladies’ maids, here. We has Mr Hedges and Mr Bates.’ They still stood, watching, at the door. ‘Shall I call them over?’
I supposed she meant to strip me bare; which I would rather die first, than endure. I got on to my knees and twisted from her.
‘You may call who you like, you great bitch,’ I said, in a pant. ‘You ain’t having my dress.’
Her face grew dark. ‘Bitch, am I?’ she answered. ‘Well!’
And she drew back her hand and curled her fingers into a fist, and she hit me.
I had grown up in the Borough, surrounded by every kind of desperate dodger and thief; but I had had Mrs Sucksby for a mother, and had never been hit. The blow knocked me almost out of my head. I put my hands to my face, and lay down in a crouch; but she got the gown off me anyway—I suppose she was used to getting gowns off lunatics, and had a trick for it; and next she got hold of my corset and took that. Then she took my garters, and then my shoes and stockings, and finally my hair-pins.
Then she stood, darker-faced than ever, and sweating.
‘There!’ she said, looking me over in my petticoat and shimmy. ‘There’s all your ribbons and laces gone. If you chokes yourself now, it’ll be no business of ours. You hear me? Mrs Ain’t-Mrs-Rivers? You sit in the pads for a night, and stew. See how you care for that. Convulsions? I think I know a temper from a fit. Kick all you like in here. Put out your joints, chew your tongue off. Keep you quiet. We prefers them quiet, makes our job nicer.’
She said all that, and she made a bundle of my clothes and swung them over her shoulder; and then she left me. The men went with her. They had seen her hit me, and done nothing. They had watched her take my stockings and stays. I heard them pull off their paper cuffs. One began to whistle again. Nurse Spiller closed the door and locked it, and the whistling grew very much fainter.
When it had grown so faint I could no longer hear it, I got to my feet. Then I fell down again. My legs had been pulled so hard they shook like things of rubber, and my head was ringing, from the punch. My hands were trembling. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, properly funked. I went, on my knees, to the door, to look at the key-hole. There was no handle. The door itself was covered in a dirty canvas, padded with straw; the walls were covered in padded
canvas, too. The floor had oil-cloth on it. There was a single blanket, very much torn and stained. There was a little tin pot I was meant to piddle in. There was a window, high’ up, with bars on. Beyond the bars were curling leaves of ivy. The light came in green and dark, like the water in a pond.
I stood and looked at it all, in a sort of daze—hardly believing, I think, that those were my cold feet on the oil-cloth floor; that it was my sore face, my arms, that the green light struck. Then I turned back to the door and put my fingers to it—to the key-hole, to the canvas, to the edge, anywhere—to try and pull it. But it was tight as a clam—and, what was worse, as I stood plucking at it I began to make out little dints and tears in the dirty canvas—little crescents, where the weave was worn—that I understood all at once must be the marks left by the finger-nails of all the other lunatics—all the real lunatics, I mean—who had been put in that room before me. The thought that I was standing, doing just what they had done, was horrible. I stepped away from the door, the daze slipped from me, and I grew wild with fright. I flung myself back, and began to beat at the padded canvas with my hands. Each blow made a cloud of dust.
‘Help! Help!’ I cried. My voice sounded strange. ‘Oh, help! They have put me in here, thinking I’m mad! Call Richard Rivers!’ I coughed. ‘Help! Doctor! Help! Can you hear me?’ I coughed again. ‘Help! Can you hear me—?’
And so on. I stood and called, and coughed, and beat upon the door—only stopping, now and then, to put my ear to it, to try to tell if there might be anyone near—for I can’t say how long; and no-one came. I think the padding was too thick; or else, the people that heard me were used to lunatics calling, and had learned not to mind. So then I tried the walls. They were also thick. And when I had given up banging and shouting, I put the blanket and the little tin pot together in a heap beneath the window, and climbed on them, trying to reach the glass; but the tin pot buckled, and the blanket slithered and I fell.
At last I sat on the oil-cloth floor and cried. I cried, and my own tears stung me. I put my finger-tips to my cheek and felt about my
swelling face. I felt my hair. The woman had pulled it to take the pins out, and it lay all about my shoulders; and when I took up a length of it, meaning to comb it, some of it came away in my hands. That made me cry worse than ever. I don’t say I was much of a beauty; but I thought of a girl I knew, who had lost her hair to a wheel in a workshop—that hair had never grown back. Suppose I should be bald? I went over my head, taking out the hair that was loose, wondering if I ought to keep it, perhaps for making a wig with later; but there was not much of it, after all. In the end I rolled it up and put it in a corner.
And as I did that, I saw something, pale upon the floor. It looked like a crumpled white hand, and it gave me a start, at first; then I saw what it was. It had fallen out of my bosom when the nurse had got the gown off me, and been kicked out of sight. There was the mark of a shoe upon it, and one of its buttons was crushed.
It was that glove of Maud’s, that I had taken that morning from her things and meant to hold on to, as a keepsake of her.
I picked it up and turned it over and over in my hands. If I had thought myself funked, a minute before—well, that funking was nothing to what I felt now, looking at that glove, thinking of Maud, and of the awful trick that she and Gentleman had played me. I hid my face in my arms, for very shame. I walked, from one wall to another, and from that to another: if I once tried to be still, it was as if I was resting on needles and pins—I started up, crying out and sweating. I thought of all my time at Briar, when I had supposed myself such a sharper, and been such a simpleton. I thought of the days I had spent, with those two villains—the looks the one must have given the other, the smiles. Leave her alone, why don’t you? I had said to him, feeling sorry for her. And then, to her: Don’t mind him, miss. He loves you, miss. Marry him. He loves you.
He will do it like this . . .
Oh! Oh! I feel the sting of it, even now. Then, I might really have been demented. I walked, and my bare feet went slap, slap, slap on the oil-cloth; and I put the glove to my mouth and I bit it. Him I suppose I expected no better of. It was her I thought of most—that
bitch, that snake, that— Oh! To think I had ever looked at her and taken her for a flat. To think I had laughed at her. To think I had loved her! To think I had thought she loved me! To think I had kissed her, in Gentleman’s name. To think I had touched her! To think, to think—!
To think I lay on the night of her wedding with a pillow over my head, so I should not hear the sound of her tears. To think that, if I had listened, I might have heard—might I? might I?—the sound of her sighs.
I could not bear it. I forgot, for the moment, the little detail of how, in swindling me, she had only turned my own trick back on myself. I walked, and moaned, and swore, and cursed her; I gripped and bit and twisted that glove, until the light beyond the window faded, and the room grew dark. No-one came to look at me. No-one brought me food, or a gown, or stockings. And though I was warm at first, from all the walking, when at last I grew so tired I found I must lie upon the blanket or drop, I became cold; and then I could not get warm again.
I did not sleep. From the rest of the house there came, every so often, queer noises—shouts, and running feet and, once, the blowing of the doctor’s whistle. At some hour of the night it began to rain, and the water went drip against the window. In the garden, a dog barked: I heard that and began to think, not of Maud, but of Charley Wag, of Mr Ibbs and Mrs Sucksby—of Mrs Sucksby in her bed, the empty place beside her, waiting for me. How long would she wait?
How soon would Gentleman go to her? What would he say? He might say I was dead. But then, if he said that, she would ask for my body, to bury.—I thought of my funeral, and who would cry most. He might say I was drowned or lost in marshes. She would ask for the papers to prove it. Could those papers be faked? He might say I had taken my share of the money, and cut.
He would say that, I knew it. But Mrs Sucksby wouldn’t believe him. She would see through him like he was glass. She would hunt me out. She had not kept me seventeen years to lose me now, like this! She would look in every house in England, until she found me!
That’s what I thought, as I grew calmer. I thought I must only speak with the doctors and they would see their mistake and let me go; but that anyway, Mrs Sucksby would come, and I should get out like that.
And when I was free, I would go to wherever Maud Lilly was, and—wasn’t I my mother’s own daughter, after all?—I would kill her.
You can see what little idea I had of the awfulness of the fix I was really in.
Next morning, the woman who had thrown me about came back for me. She came, not with the two men, Mr Bates and Mr Hedges, but with another woman—nurses, they called them there; but they were no more nurses than I was, they only got that work through being stout and having great big hands like mangles. They came into the room and stood and looked me over. Nurse Spiller said,
‘Here she is.’
The other, who was dark, said,
‘Young, to be mad.’
‘Listen here,’ I said, very carefully. I had worked this out. I had heard them coming, and had got to my feet and put my petticoat straight, and tidied my hair. ‘Listen here. You think I am mad. I am not. I am not the lady you and the doctors suppose me to be, at all. That lady, and her husband—Richard Rivers—are a pair of swindlers; and they have swindled you, and me, and just about everybody; and it is very important that the doctors know it, so I may be let out and those swindlers caught. I—’
‘Right in the face,’ said Nurse Spiller, speaking across my words. ‘Right here, with her head.’
She put her hand to her cheek, close to her nose, where there was the smallest, faintest mark of crimson. My own face, of course, was swollen like a pudding; and I dare say my eye was almost black. But I said, still carefully,
‘I am sorry I hurt your face. I was only so thrown, to be brought in here, as a lunatic; when all the time it was the other lady, Miss Lilly—Mrs Rivers—that was meant to come.’
Again they stood and looked me over.
‘You must call us nurse when you speak to us,’ the dark one said at last. ‘But between you and me, dear, we would rather you didn’t speak to us at all. We hear that much nonsense—well. Come along. You must be bathed, so that Doctor Christie may look at you. You must be put in a gown. Why, what a little girl! You must be no more than sixteen.’
She had come close, and made to catch at my arm. I drew away from her.
‘Will you listen to me?’ I said.
‘Listen to you? La, if I listened to all the rubbish I heard in this house, I should go mad myself. Come on, now.’
Her voice, that had started off mild, grew sharper. She took hold of my arm. I flinched from the feel of her fingers. ‘Watch her,’ said Nurse Spiller, seeing me twitch.
I said, ‘If you’ll only not touch me, I’ll go with you, wherever you want.’
‘Ho!’ said the dark nurse then. ‘There’s manners. Come with us, will you? Very grateful, I’m sure.’
She pulled me and, when I tugged against her grip, Nurse Spiller came to help her. They got their hands beneath my arms and more or less lifted me, more or less dragged me, out of the room. When I kicked and complained—which I did, from the shock of it—Nurse Spiller got those great hard fingers of hers into my arm-pit, and jabbed. You can’t see bruises in an arm-pit. I think she knew it. ‘She’s off!’ she said, when I cried out.
‘That’s my head ringing for the rest of the day,’ said the other. And she gripped me tighter and shook me.
Then I grew quiet. I was afraid I should be punched again. But I was also looking hard at the way we were taking—at the windows and the doors. Some doors had locks. All the windows had bars on. They looked over a yard. This was the back part of the house— what should have been, in a house like Briar, the servants’ part. Here it was given over to nurses. We met two or three of them as we walked. They wore aprons and caps, and carried baskets, or bottles, or sheets.
‘Good morning,’ they all sang out.
‘Good morning,’ my nurses answered.
‘New ‘un?’ one asked at last, with a nod at me. ‘Come up from the pads? Is she bad?’
‘Cracked Nancy on the cheek.’
She whistled. ‘They should bring ’em in bound. Young, though, ain’t she?’
‘Sixteen, if she’s a day.’
‘I’m seventeen,’ I said.
The new nurse looked at me, in a considering sort of way.
‘Sharp-faced,’ she said, after a minute.
Ain’t she, though?’
‘What’s her trouble? Delusions?’
And the rest,’ said the dark nurse. She dropped her voice. ‘She’s the one—you know?’
The new nurse looked more interested. ‘This one?’ she said. ‘Looks too slight for that.’
‘Well, they come in all sizes . . .’
I didn’t know what they meant. But being held up for strangers to study, and talk and smile over, made me ashamed, and I kept silent. The woman went off on her way and my two nurses gripped me tight again and took me, down another passage, to a little room. It might have once been a pantry—it was very like Mrs Stiles’s pantry, at Briar—for there were cupboards, with locks upon them, and an arm-chair and a sink. Nurse Spiller sat down in the chair, giving a great sigh as she did so. The other nurse put water in the sink. She showed me a slip of yellow soap and a dirty flannel.
‘Here you are,’ she said. And then, when I did nothing: ‘Come on. You’ve hands, haven’t you? Let’s see you wash.’
The water was cold. I wet my face and arms, then made to wash my feet.
‘That will do,’ she said, when she saw me do that. ‘Do you think Dr Christie cares how dusty your toes are? Here, now. Let’s see your linen.’ She caught hold of the hem of my shimmy, then turned her head to Nurse Spiller, who nodded. ‘Good, ain’t it? Too good for
this house. That’ll boil up to nothing, that will.’ She gave it a tug. ‘You take that off, dear. We shall keep it, quite safe, against the day you leave us.—What, are you shy?’
‘Shy?’ said Nurse Spiller, yawning. ‘Don’t waste our time. And you, a married lady.’
‘I ain’t married,’ I said. ‘And I’ll thank you both to keep your hands off my linen. I want my own gown back, and my stockings and shoes. I need only speak with Dr Christie, and then you’ll be sorry.’
They looked at me and laughed.
‘Hoity-toity!’ cried the dark nurse. She wiped her eyes. ‘Dear me. Come, now. It’s no use growing sulky. We must have your linen—it’s nothing to me and Nurse Spiller, it’s the rules of the house. Here’s a new set, look, and a gown and—look here—slippers.’
She had gone to one of the cupboards and brought out a set of greyish underthings, and a wool gown, and boots. She came back to me, holding them, and Nurse Spiller joined her; and it was no good then how hard I argued and cursed, they got hold of me and stripped me bare. When they took off my petticoat, that glove of Maud’s fell out. I had had it under the waistband. I bent and caught it up. ‘What’s that?’ they said at once. Then they saw it was only a glove. They looked at the stitching inside the wrist.
‘Here’s your own name, Maud,’ they said. ‘That’s pretty work, that is.’
‘You shan’t have it!’ I cried, snatching it back. They had taken my clothes and my shoes; but I had walked and torn and bitten that glove all night, it was all I had to keep my nerve up. I had the idea that, if they were to take it, I should be like a Samson shorn. Perhaps they noticed a look in my eye.
‘One glove’s no use, after all,’ said the dark nurse to Nurse Spiller, quietly. ‘And remember Miss Taylor, who had the buttons on a thread that she called her babies? Why, she’d take the hand off, that tried to get a hold of one of those!’
So they let me keep it; and then I stood limp and let them dress me, through fear they would change their minds. The clothes were
all madhouse things. The corset had hooks instead of laces, and was too big for me.—’Never mind,’ they said, laughing. They had chests like boats. ‘Plenty of room for growing in.’ The gown was meant to be a tartan, but the colours had run. The stockings were short, like a boy’s. The shoes were of india-rubber.
‘Here you are, Cinderella,’ said the dark nurse, putting them on me. And then, looking me over: ‘Well! You shall bounce like a ball all right, in those!’
They laughed again then, for quite a minute. Then they did this. They sat me in the chair and combed my hair and made it into plaits; and they took out a needle and cotton, and sewed the plaits to my head.
‘It’s this, or cut it,’ the dark nurse said when I struggled; ‘and no skin off my nose either way.’
‘Let me see to it,’ said Nurse Spiller. She finished it off—two or three times, as if by accident, putting the point of the needle to my scalp. That is another place that don’t show cuts and bruises.
And so, between the two of them, they got me ready; and then they took me to the room that was to be mine.
‘Mind, now, you remember your manners,’ they said as we walked. ‘Start going off your head again, we shall have you back in the pads, or plunge you.’
‘This ain’t fair!’ I said. ‘This ain’t fair, at all!’
They shook me, and did not answer. So then I fell silent and, again, tried hard to study the way they took me. I was also growing afraid. I had had an idea in my head—that I think I had got from a picture, or a play—of how a madhouse should be; and so far, this house was not like it. I thought, ‘They have got me in the place where the doctors and nurses live. Now they’ll take me to the mad bit.’—I think I supposed it would be something like a dungeon or a gaol. But we walked only down more drab-coloured corridors, past door after drab-coloured door, and I began to look about me and see little things—such as, the lamps being ordinary brass ones, but with strong wire guards about the flames; and the doors having fancy latches, but ugly locks; and the walls having, here and there, handles, that looked as though they might, if you turned them,
ring bells. And finally it broke upon me that this was the madhouse after all; that it had once been an ordinary gentleman’s house; that the walls had used to have pictures and looking-glasses on them, and the floors had used to have rugs; but that now, it had all been made over to madwomen—that it was, in its way, like a smart and handsome person gone mad itself.
And I can’t say why, but somehow the idea was worse and put me in more of a creep than if the place had looked like a dungeon after all.
I shuddered and slowed my step, then almost stumbled. The india-rubber boots were hard to walk in.
‘Come on,’ said Nurse Spiller, giving me a prod.
‘Which do we want?’ asked the other nurse, looking at the doors.
‘Fourteen. Here we are.’
All the doors had little plates screwed to them. We stopped at one of them, and Nurse Spiller gave a knock, then put a key to the lock and turned it. The key was a plain one, shined from use. She kept it on a chain inside her pocket.
The room she took us into was not a proper room, but had been made, by the building of a wooden wall, inside another.—For, as I said, that house had been all chopped up and made crazy. The wooden wall had glass at the top, that let in light from a window beyond it, but the room had no window of its own. The air was close. There were four beds in it, along with a cot where a nurse slept. Three of the beds had women beside them, getting dressed. One bed was bare.
‘This is to be yours,’ said Nurse Spiller, taking me to it. It was placed very near the nurse’s cot. ‘This is where we puts our questionable ladies. Try a queer trick here, Nurse Bacon shall know all about it. Shan’t you, Nurse Bacon?’
This was the nurse of that room. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said. She nodded and rubbed her hands. She had some ailment that made her fingers very fat and pink, like sausages—an unlucky ailment, I suppose, for someone with a name like hers—and she liked to rub them often. She looked me over in the same cool way that all the other nurses had, and she said, as they had,
‘Young, ain’t you?’
‘Sixteen,’ said the dark nurse.
‘Seventeen,’ I said.
‘Sixteen? We should call you the child of the house, if it weren’t for Betty. Look here, Betty! Here’s a fresh young lady, look, almost your age. I should say she can run very quick up and down a set of stairs. I should say she’s got neat ways. Eh, Betty?’
She had called to a woman who stood at the bed across from mine, pulling a gown on over a great fat stomach. I thought her a girl at first; but when she turned and showed her face, I saw that she was quite grown-up, but a simpleton. She looked at me in a troubled sort of way, and the nurses laughed. I found out later that they used her more or less as they would a servant, and had her running every sort of chore; though she was—if you could believe it—the daughter of a very grand family.
She ducked her head while the nurses laughed, and cast a few sly looks at my feet—as if to see for herself how quick they might be, really. At last one of the other two women said quietly,
‘Don’t mind them, Betty. They seek only to provoke you.’
‘Who spoke to you?’ said Nurse Spiller at once.
The woman worked her lips. She was old, and slight, and very pale in the cheek. She caught my eye, then glanced away as if ashamed.
She seemed harmless enough; but I looked at her, and at Betty, and at the other woman there—a woman who stood, gazing at nothing, pulling her hair before her face—and I thought that, for all I knew, they might be so many maniacs; and here was I, being obliged to make a bed among them. I went to the nurses. I said,
‘I won’t stay here. You can’t make me.’
‘Can’t we?’ said Nurse Spiller. ‘I think we know the law. Your order’s been signed, ain’t it?’
‘But this is all a mistake!’
Nurse Bacon yawned and rolled her eyes. The dark nurse sighed. ‘Come, Maud,’ she said. ‘That’s enough.’
‘My name ain’t Maud,’ I answered. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? It ain’t Maud Rivers!’
She caught Nurse Bacon’s eye. ‘Hear that? She will speak like that, by the hour.’
Nurse Bacon put her knuckles to her hips and rubbed them.
‘Don’t care to speak nicely?’ she said. Ain’t that a shame! Perhaps she’d like a situation as a nurse. See how she’d like that. Spoil her white little hands, though.’
Still rubbing her own hands against her skirt, she gazed at mine. I gazed with her. My fingers looked like Maud’s. I put them behind my back. I said,
‘I only got hands so white through being maid to a lady. It was that lady that tricked me. I—’
‘Maid to a lady!’ The nurses laughed again. ‘Well, don’t that take the cake! We got plenty girls suppose themselves duchesses. I never met one that thought herself a duchess’s maid! Dear me, that’s novel, that is. We shall have to put you in the kitchen, give you polish and a cloth.’
I stamped my foot.
‘For fuck’s sake!’ I cried.
That stopped them laughing. They caught hold of me, and shook me; and Nurse Spiller hit me again about the face—upon the same spot as before—though not so hard. I suppose she thought the old bruise would cover up the new. The pale old woman saw her do it and gave a cry. Betty, the idiot girl, began to moan.
‘There, now you’ve set them off!’ said Nurse Spiller. ‘And here’s the doctors due, any minute.’
She shook me again, then let me stagger away so she might put straight her apron. The doctors were like kings to them. Nurse Bacon went to Betty, to bully her out of her tears. The dark nurse ran to the old woman.
‘You finish fastening your buttons, you creature!’ she said, waving her arms. And you, Mrs Price, you take your hair from out your mouth this instant. Haven’t I told you a hundred times, you shall swallow a ball of it, and choke? I’m sure I don’t know why I warn you, we should all be glad if you did . . .’
I looked at the door. Nurse Spiller had left it open, and I wondered if I might reach it if I ran. But from the room next to
ours—and then, from all down the corridor, from all the other rooms we had passed—there came, as I wondered, the sound of doors being unlocked and opened; and then the grumbling voices of nurses, the odd shriek. Somewhere, a bell was rung. That was the signal that meant the doctors were coming.
And I thought, after all, that I should make a far better case for myself in standing and talking quietly with Dr Christie, than in running at him in a pair of rubber boots. I moved close to my bed, putting my knee to it to keep my leg from trembling; and I felt for my hair, meaning to tidy it—forgetting, for the moment, that they had stitched it to my head. The dark nurse went off, running. The rest of us stood in silence, listening out for the sound of the doctors’ footsteps. Nurse Spiller shook her finger at me.
‘You watch your filthy tongue, you trollop,’ she said.
We waited for about ten minutes, then there was a stir in the passage and Dr Christie and Dr Graves came walking very quickly into the room, their heads bent over Dr Graves’s note-book.
‘Dear ladies, good morning,’ said Dr Christie, looking up. He went first to Betty. ‘How are you, Betty? Good girl. You want your medicine, of course.’
He put his hand to his pocket and brought out a piece of sugar. She took it, and curtseyed.
‘Good girl,’ he said again. Then, moving past her: ‘Mrs Price. The nurses tell me you have been giving in to tears. That is not good. What will your husband say? Shall he be pleased to think you melancholy? Hmm? And all your children? What shall they think?’
She answered in a whisper: ‘I don’t know, sir.’
He took her wrist, all the time murmuring to Dr Graves, who finally made some note in his book. Then they walked to the pale old lady.
‘Miss Wilson, what complaints have you for us today?’ asked Dr Christie.
‘None but the usual ones,’ she answered.
‘Well, we have heard them many times. You need not repeat them.’
‘The want of pure air,’ she said quickly.
‘Yes, yes.’ He looked at Dr Graves’s book.
‘And of wholesome food.’
‘You will find the food wholesome enough, Miss Wilson, if you will only sample it.’
‘The frigid water.’
‘A tonic, for shattered nerves. You know this, Miss Wilson.’
She moved her lips, and swayed on her feet. Then all at once she cried out: Thieves!’
I jumped at the sound. Dr Christie looked up at her. ‘That’s enough,’ he said. ‘Remember your tongue. What have you upon it?’
‘Your tongue, Miss Wilson! What do we keep upon it? Hmm?’
She worked her mouth; then said, after a minute:
‘That is right. A curb. Very good. Draw it tight. Nurse Spiller—’ He turned and called the nurse to him, and spoke to her quietly. Miss Wilson put her hands to her mouth, as if to feel for a chain; and again, she caught my eye, and her fingers fluttered, and she seemed ashamed.
I should have been sorry for her, at any other time; but for now, if they had laid her and ten more ladies like her down upon the floor and told me my way out was across their backs, I’d have run it with clogs on. I waited only until Dr Christie had finished giving his instructions to the nurse, and then I licked my mouth and leaned and said,
‘Dr Christie, sir!’ He turned and came towards me.
‘Mrs Rivers.’ He took my hand about the wrist, not smiling. ‘How are you?’
‘Sir,’ I said. ‘Sir, I—’
‘Pulse rather rapid,’ he said quietly, to Dr Graves. Dr Graves made a note of it. He turned back to me. ‘You have hurt your face, I am sorry to see.’
Nurse Spiller spoke before I could.
‘Cast herself to the floor, Dr Christie,’ she said, ‘while in the grip of her fit’
‘Ah, yes. You see, Mrs Rivers, the violence of the condition in which you arrived here. I hope you slept?’
‘Slept? No, I—’
‘Dear, dear. We cannot have that. I shall have the nurses give you a draught. You shall never grow well, without slumber.’
He nodded to Nurse Bacon. She nodded back.
‘Dr Christie,’ I said, more loudly.
‘Pulse quickening, now,’ he murmured.
I pulled my hand away. ‘Will you listen to me? You have got me here, by mistake.’
‘Is that so?’ He had narrowed his eyes and was looking into my mouth. ‘Teeth sound enough, I think. Gums may be putrid, however.—You must tell us, if they start troubling you.’
Tm not staying here,’ I said.
‘Not staying, Mrs Rivers?’
‘Mrs Rivers? For God’s sake, how can I be her? I stood and saw her married. You came to me, and heard me speak. I—’
‘So I did,’ he said slowly. And you told me how you feared for your mistress’s health; how you wished she might be kept quiet and free from harm. For sometimes it is easier—is it not?—to ask for assistance in behalf of another, than for ourselves? We understand you, Mrs Rivers, very well.’
‘I am not Maud Rivers!’
He raised a finger, and almost smiled.
‘You are not ready to admit that you are Maud Rivers. Hmm? That is quite a different thing. And when you are ready to admit to it, our work shall be done. Until then—’
‘You shan’t keep me here. You shan’t! You keep me, while those swindling villains—’
He folded his arms. ‘Which swindling villains, Mrs Rivers?’
‘I am not Maud Rivers! My name is Susan—’
But here, for the first time, I faltered.
‘Susan Smith,’ I said finally.
‘Susan Smith. Of—where was it, Dr Graves? Of Whelk Street, Mayfair?’
I did not answer.
‘Come, come,’ he went on. ‘That is all your fancy, is it not?’
‘It was Gentleman’s fancy,’ I said, thrown off. ‘That devil—!’
‘Which gentleman, Mrs Rivers?’
‘Richard Rivers,’ I answered.
‘Her husband, I tell you! I saw them married. You may find out the vicar that did it. You may bring Mrs Cream!’
‘Mrs Cream, the lady you lodged with? We spoke at length with her. She told us, very sadly, of the melancholy temper that stole upon you, in her house.’
‘She was speaking of Maud.’
‘She was speaking of Maud, not me. You bring her here. You show her my face, see what she says then. Bring anyone here that has known Maud Lilly and me. Bring Mrs Stiles, the housekeeper at Briar. Bring old Mr Lilly!’
He shook his head. ‘And don’t you think,’ he said, ‘your own husband might be supposed to know you, as well as your uncle? And your maid? She stood before us, and spoke of you, and wept.’ He lowered his voice. ‘What had you done to her, hmm, to make her do that?’
‘Oh!’ I said, twisting my hands together. (‘See her colour change now, Dr Graves,’ he said softly.) ‘She wept, to trick you! She’s nothing but an actress!’
An actress? Your maid?’
‘Maud Lilly! Don’t you hear me? Maud Lilly and Richard Rivers. They have put me here—they have cheated and tricked me—they have made you think me her, and her me!’
He shook his head again, and drew close his brows; and again, he almost smiled. Then he said, slowly and very easily:
‘But, my dear Mrs Rivers, why should they go to the trouble of doing that?’
I opened my mouth. Then I closed it. For, what could I say? I still supposed that if I only told him the truth, he would believe it. But the truth was I had plotted to steal a lady’s fortune; that I had made myself out a servant, when I was really a thief. If I had not been so afraid, and so tired, and so bruised from my night in the pads, I might have thought up a clever story. Now I could not think, at all. Nurse Bacon rubbed her hands and yawned. Dr Christie still watched me, with a humouring expression on his face.
‘Mrs Rivers?’ he said.
‘I don’t know,’ I answered at last.
He nodded to Dr Graves, and they began to move off.
‘Wait! Wait!’ I cried.
Nurse Spiller came forward. ‘That’s enough from you,’ she said. ‘You are wasting the doctors’ time.’
I did not look at her. I watched Dr Christie turn from me, and saw beyond him the pale old lady, her fingers still chafing at her mouth; and the sad-faced woman with her hair pulled all before her eyes; and Betty, the idiot girl, her lip gleaming with sugar; and I grew wild again. I thought, ‘I don’t care if they put me in a prison for it! Better a prison, with thieves and murderesses, than a madhouse!’ I said,
‘Dr Christie, sir! Dr Graves! Listen to me!’
‘That’s enough,’ said Nurse Spiller again. ‘Don’t you know what busy men the doctors are? Don’t you think they got better things to do than hear all your nonsense? Get back!’
I had stepped after Dr Christie and was reaching for his coat.
‘Please, sir,’ I said. ‘Listen to me. I haven’t been perfectly straight with you. My name ain’t Susan Smith, after all.’
He had made to shake me off. Now he turned a little to me.
‘Mrs Rivers,’ he began.
Susan Trinder, sir. Sue Trinder, of—’ I was about to say, Lant Street; then knew that of course I must not say it, for fear it should lead the police to Mr Ibbs’s shop. I closed my eyes and
shook my head. My brain felt hot. Dr Christie drew himself from my hand.
‘You must not touch my coat,’ he said, his voice grown sterner.
I clutched it again. ‘Only hear me out, I beg you! Only let me tell you of the terrible plot I was made to be part of, by Richard Rivers. That devil! He is laughing at you, sir! He is laughing at all of us! He has stolen a fortune. He has fifteen thousand pounds!’
I would not let go of his coat. My voice was high, like the yelp of a dog. Nurse Spiller got her arm about my neck, and Dr Christie put his hands over mine and worked free my fingers. Dr Graves came to help him. At the feel of their hands, I shrieked. I suppose I really seemed mad, then; but it was only through the awfulness of having said nothing but the truth, and being thought to be deluded. I shrieked, and Dr Christie got out his whistle, just like before. There was a bell rung. Mr Bates and Mr Hedges came running, in their brown-paper cuffs. Betty bellowed.
They put me back in the pads. They let me wear the gown and boots, however; and they gave me a basin of tea.
‘When I get out, you’ll be sorry!’ I said, as they closed the door on me. ‘I got a mother in London. She is looking for me, in every house in the land!’
Nurse Spiller nodded. ‘Is she?’ she said. ‘That’s yours, and all our other ladies’, then’; and she laughed.
I think the tea—which tasted bitter—must have had a draught in it. I slept through a day—or it might have been two days; and when I finally came to myself, I came to stupid. I let them take me, stumbling, back to the room with the beds. Dr Christie made his tour, and held my wrist.
‘You are calmer today, Mrs Rivers,’ he said; and my mouth being dry, from the draught and from sleeping, it was as much as I could do to unstick my tongue from my gums, to answer,
‘I ain’t Mrs Rivers!’
And he had gone, before I said it.
My head grew clearer as the day wore on, though. I lay on my bed and tried to think. They made us keep to our rooms in the
morning, and we were meant to sit and be silent—or to read, if we liked—while Nurse Bacon watched. But I think what books there were in the house, the ladies had already read; for they only, like me, lay upon their beds, doing nothing, and it was Nurse Bacon who sat, with her feet put up on a stool, looking over the pages of a little magazine—now and then licking one of her fat red fingers, to turn a page; and now and then chuckling.
And then, at twelve, she put the magazine away and gave a great yawn, and took us downstairs for our dinners. Another nurse came to help her. ‘Come on, come on,’ they said. ‘No dawdling.’
We walked in a line. The pale old lady—Miss Wilson—pressed close at my back.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ she said, ‘of— Don’t turn your head! Hush! Hush!’ I felt her breath on my neck. ‘Don’t be frightened,’ she said, ‘of your soup.’
Then I walked faster, to be nearer Nurse Bacon.
She led us to the dining-room. They were ringing a bell there, and as we went our line was joined by other nurses, with ladies from the rooms they watched in. I should say there were sixty or so ladies kept in that house; and they seemed to me now, after my spell in the pads, a vast and horrible crowd. They were dressed as I was—I mean badly, in all sorts of fashions; and this—and the fact that some had had their hair cut to their heads; and some had lost teeth, or had their teeth taken from them; and some had cuts and bruises, and others wore canvas bracelets or muffs—this made them look queerer than perhaps they really were. I’m not saying they weren’t all mad, in their own fashions; and to me, just then, they looked mad as horse-flies. But there are as many different ways of being mad, after all, as there are of being crooked. Some were perfect maniacs. Two or three, like Betty, were only simpletons. One liked to shout bad words. Another threw fits. The rest were only miserable: they walked, with their eyes on the floor, and sat and turned their hands in their laps, and mumbled, and sighed.
I sat among them, and ate the dinner I was served. It was soup, as Miss Wilson had said, and I saw her looking at me, nodding her
head, as I supped it; but I would not catch her eye. I would not catch anyone’s eye. I had been drugged and stupid, before; now I was back in a sort of fright—a sort of fever of fright—sweating, and twitching, and wild. I looked at the doors and windows—I think, if I had seen a window of plain glass, I should have run through it. But the windows all had bars on. I don’t know what we should have done in a fire. The doors had ordinary locks, and with the right sort of tools I suppose I might have picked them. But I hadn’t any kind of tool—not so much as a hair-pin—and nothing to make one with. The spoons we ate our soup with were made of tin, and so soft, they might have been rubber. You could not have picked your nose with them.
Dinner lasted half an hour. We were watched by the nurses and a few stout men—Mr Bates and Mr Hedges, and one or two others. They stood at the side of the room, and now and then walked between the tables. When one drew close I twitched and lifted up my hand and said,
‘Please, sir, where are the doctors? Sir? May I see Dr Christie, sir?’
‘Dr Christie is busy,’ he said. ‘Be quiet.’ He walked on.
A lady said, ‘You shan’t see the doctors now. They come only in the mornings. Don’t you know?’
‘She is new here,’ said another.
‘Where are you from?’ asked the first.
‘From London,’ I said, still looking after the man. ‘Though here they think I come from somewhere else.’
‘From London!’ she cried. Some of the other ladies said it, too: ‘London!’ ‘Ah! London! How I miss it!’
‘And the season just beginning. That is very hard for you. And so young! Are you out?’
I said, ‘Out?’
‘Who are your people?’
‘What?’ The stout man had turned and was walking back towards us. I lifted my hand again, and waved it. ‘Will you tell me,’ I said to him, ‘where I can find Dr Christie? Sir? Please, sir?’
‘Be quiet!’ he said again, moving past.
The lady beside me put her hand upon my arm. ‘You must be familiar,’ she said, ‘with the squares of Kensington.’
‘What?’ I said. ‘No.’
‘I should say the trees are all in leaf.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I never saw them.’
‘Who are your people?’
The stout man walked as far as the window, then turned and folded his arms. I had raised my hand again, but now let it droop.
‘My people are thieves,’ I said miserably.
‘Oh!’ The ladies made faces. ‘Queer girl. . .’
The woman beside me, however, beckoned me close.
‘Your property gone?’ she said, in a whisper. ‘Mine, too. But see here.’ She showed me a ring that she wore, on a string, around her neck. It was gilt, and wanted stones. ‘Here’s my capital,’ she said. ‘Here’s my security.’ She tucked the ring beneath her collar, and touched her nose, and nodded. ‘My sisters have taken the rest. They shan’t have this, however! Oh, no!’
I spoke to no-one, after that. When dinner was ended the nurses took us to a garden and made us walk about it for an hour. The garden had walls on every side, and a gate: the gate was locked, but you could see through its bars to the rest of the park that the house was set in. There were many trees there, some of them close to the great park wall. I made a note of that. I had never climbed a tree in my life, but how hard could it be? If I might get to a high enough branch I would risk breaking both my legs in a jump, if the jump meant freedom.
If Mrs Sucksby didn’t come first.
But then, I still supposed, too, that I should make my case with Dr Christie. I meant to show him how sane I was. At the end of our hour in the garden a bell was rung, and we were taken back to the house and made to sit, until tea-time, in a great grey room that smelt of leaking gas, that they called the drawing-room; and then we were locked back in our bedrooms. I went—still twitching, still sweating—and said nothing. I did all that the other ladies—sad Mrs Price, and pale Miss Wilson, and Betty—did: I washed my face
and hands, at the wash-stand, when they were finished with the water; and cleaned my teeth, when they had all used the brush; and put my hateful tartan gown in a tidy heap, and pulled on a night-gown; and said Amen, when Nurse Bacon mumbled out a prayer. But then, when Nurse Spiller came to the door with a can of tea and gave me a basin of it, I took it, but did not drink it. I tipped it on the floor, when I thought no-one was looking. It steamed for a second, then seeped between the boards. I put my foot on the place I had tipped it. I looked up, and saw Betty watching.
‘Made a mess,’ she said loudly. She had a voice like a man’s. ‘Bad girl.’
‘Bad girl?’ said Nurse Bacon, turning round. ‘I know who’s one of them, all right. Into your bed. Quick! quick! all of you. God bless me, what a life!’
She could grumble like an engine. All the nurses there could. We had to be quiet, however. We had to lie still. If we didn’t, they came and pinched or smacked us.—’You, Maud,’ said Nurse Bacon, that first night, when I turned and trembled. ‘Stop moving!’
She sat up, reading, and the light of her lamp shone in my eyes. Even when, after hours and hours, she put down her magazine and took off her apron and gown and got into her bed, she left a light still burning, so she could see us if we stirred in the night; and then she went straight to sleep and started snoring. Her snores were like the sound of a file on iron; and made me more homesick than ever.
She took her chain of keys to bed with her, and slept with it about her neck.
I lay with Maud’s white glove in my fist, and now and then put the tip of one of its fingers to my mouth, imagining Maud’s soft hand inside it; and I bit and bit.
But I slept, at last; and when next morning the doctors came back on their round with Nurse Spiller, I was ready.
‘Mrs Rivers, how are you?’ said Dr Christie, after he had given Betty her sugar and spent a minute looking over Mrs Price and Miss Wilson.
‘I am perfectly clear in my head,’ I said.
He looked at his watch. ‘Splendid!’
‘Dr Christie, I beg you—!’
I dipped my head and caught his eye, and I told him my story, all over again—how I was not Maud Rivers, but had only been put in his house through a terrible trick; how Richard Rivers had had me at Briar as Maud Lilly’s servant, so I might help him marry her and, afterwards, make her out to be mad. How they had swindled me and taken her fortune, all for themselves.
‘They have played me false,’ I said. ‘They have played you false! They are laughing at you! You don’t believe me? Bring anyone from Briar! Bring the vicar of the church they were married in! Bring the great church book—you’ll see their names put there, and next to them, my own!’
He rubbed his eye. ‘Your name,’ he said. ‘Susan—what are you calling it, now?—Trinder?’
‘Susan— No!’ I said. ‘Not in that book. It is Susan Smith, in there.’
‘Susan Smith, again!’
‘Only in there. They made me put it. He showed me how! Don’t you see?’
But now I was almost weeping. Dr Christie began to look grim. ‘I have let you say too much,’ he said. ‘You are growing excited. We cannot have that. We must have calm, at all times. These fancies of yours—’
‘Fancies? God help me, it’s the plainest truth!’
‘Fancies, Mrs Rivers. If you might only hear yourself! Terrible plots? Laughing villains? Stolen fortunes and girls made out to be mad? The stuff of lurid fiction! We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to overindulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy.’
‘Inflamed?’ I said. ‘Over-indulge? Literature?’
‘You have read too much.’
I looked at him and could not speak.
‘God help me,’ I said at last, as he turned away, ‘if I can read two words in a row! As for writing—give me a pencil, and I’ll put you
down my name; and that’s as much as I should ever be able to put, though you sit me down and make me try it for a year!’
He had begun to walk to the door of the room, with Dr Graves close behind him. My voice was broken, for Nurse Spiller had caught hold of me to keep me from following after. ‘How dare you speak,’ she said, ‘to the doctors’ backs! Don’t pull from me! I should say you’re wild enough to be put back in the pads. Dr Christie?’
But Dr Christie had heard my words and had turned at the door and was looking at me in a new sort of way, his hand at his beard. He glanced at Dr Graves. He said quietly,
‘It would show us, after all, the extent of the delusion; and may even serve to startle her out of it. What do you say? Yes, give me a page from your note-book. Nurse Spiller, let Mrs Rivers go. Mrs Rivers—’ He came back to me and gave me the little piece of paper that Dr Graves had torn from his book. Then he put his hand to his pocket and brought out a pencil, and made to give me that.
‘Watch her, sir!’ said Nurse Spiller, when she saw the pencil’s point. ‘She’s a sly one, this one!’
‘Very good, I see her,’ he answered. ‘But I do not think she means us any harm. Do you, Mrs Rivers?’
‘No, sir,’ I said. I took the pencil in my hand. It trembled. He watched me.
‘You may hold it better than that, I think,’ he said.
I moved it in my fingers, and it fell. I picked it up. ‘Watch her! Watch her!’ said Nurse Spiller again, ready to make another grab at me.
‘I am not used to holding pencils,’ I said.
Dr Christie nodded. ‘I think you are. Come, write me a line upon this paper.’
‘I can’t,’ I said.
‘Of course you can. Sit neatly on the bed and rest the paper on your knee. That is how we sit to write, is it not? You know it is. Now, write me your name. You can do that, at least. You have told us so. Go on.’
I hesitated, then wrote it. The paper tore beneath the lead. Dr
Christie watched and, when I had finished, took the sheet from me and showed it to Dr Graves. They frowned.
‘You have written Susan,’ said Dr Christie. ‘Why is that?’
‘It is my name.’
‘You have written badly. Did you do so on purpose? Here.’ He gave me the paper back. ‘Write me out a line, as I requested first.’
‘I can’t. I can’t!’
‘Yes, you can. Write a single word, then. Write me this. Write: speckle.’
I shook my head.
‘Come, come,’ he said, ‘this word is not difficult. And you know the first letter of it, we have seen you write that already.’
Again, I hesitated. And then, because he watched so closely— and because, beyond him, Dr Graves and Nurse Spiller and Nurse Bacon, and even Mrs Price and Miss Wilson, also tilted their heads to see me do it—I wrote an S. Then I made a hazard at the other letters. The word went on and on, and grew larger as I wrote.
‘You still press hard,’ Dr Christie said.
‘You know you do. And your letters are muddled, and very ill-formed. What letter is this? It is one of your own imagining, I think. Now, am I to understand that your uncle—a scholar, I believe?—would countenance work like this, from his assistant?’
Here was my moment. I quivered right through. Then I held Dr Christie’s gaze and said, as steadily as I could:
‘I haven’t an uncle to my name. You mean old Mr Lilly. I dare say his niece Maud writes neatly enough; but you see, I ain’t her.’
He tapped at his chin.
‘For you,’ he said, ‘are Susan Smith, or Trinder.’
I quivered again. ‘Sir, I am!’
He was silent. I thought, That’s it! and almost swooned, with relief. Then he turned to Dr Graves and shook his head.
‘Quite complete,’ he said. ‘Isn’t it? I don’t believe I ever saw a case so pure. The delusion extending even to the exercise of the motor faculties. It’s there we will break her. We must study on this,
until our course of treatment is decided. Mrs Rivers, my pencil if you please. Ladies, good-day.’
He plucked the pencil from between my fingers, and turned, and left us. Dr Graves and Nurse Spiller went with him, and Nurse Bacon locked the door at their backs. I saw her turn the key, and it was just as if she had struck me or knocked me down: I fell upon my bed and broke out crying. She gave a tut—but they were too used to tears in that house, it was nothing to see a woman sitting at dinner, weeping into her soup, or walking about the garden crying her head off. Her tut turned into a yawn. She looked me over, then looked away. She sat in her chair and rubbed her hands, and winced. ‘You think you’ve torments,’ she said, to me or to all of us. ‘Have these knuckles for an hour—have these thumbs. Here’s torments, with mustard on. Here’s torments, with whips. Oh! Oh! God bless me, I think I shall die! Come, Betty, be a good girl to your poor old nurse. Fetch out my ointment, will you?’
She still held her chain of keys. The sight of them made me cry worse. She shook one free, and Betty took it to the nurse’s cupboard, unlocked the door, and brought out a jar of grease. The grease was white and hard, like lard. Betty sat, took a handful of it, and began to work it into Nurse Bacon’s swollen fingers. Nurse Bacon winced again. Then she sighed, and her face grew smooth.
‘That finds the mark!’ she said; and Betty chuckled.
I turned my head into my pillow and closed my eyes. If the house had been hell, and Nurse Bacon the Devil, and Betty a demon at her side, I could not have been more wretched. I cried until I could cry no more.
And then there came a movement beside my bed, and then a voice, very gentle.
‘Come, my dear. You must not give in to tears.’
It was the pale old lady, Miss Wilson. She had put out her hand to me. I saw it, and flinched.
‘Ah,’ she said then. ‘You shrink from me. I don’t wonder at it. I am not quite in my right mind. You will grow used to that, here. Hush! Not a word. Nurse Bacon watches. Hush!’
She had taken a handkerchief from her sleeve, and made signs that I should dry my face. The handkerchief was yellow with age, but soft; and the softness of it, and the kindness of her look— which, for all that she was mad, was the first piece of kindness that anyone had shown me since I came to the house—made me begin to cry again. Nurse Bacon looked over. ‘I’ve got my eye on you,’ she said to me. ‘Don’t think I haven’t.’ Then she settled back in her chair. Betty still worked grease into her fingers.
I said quietly,
‘You mustn’t think I cry so easily as this, at home.’
‘I am sure you do not,’ answered Miss Wilson.
‘I’m only so frightened they will keep me here. I have been done very wrong. They say I am mad.’
‘You must keep your spirit. This house is not so hard as some others. But nor is it perfectly kind. The air of this room, for example, that we must breathe, like oxen in a stall. The suppers. They call us ladies, yet the food—the merest pap!—I should blush to see it served to a gardener’s boy.’
Her voice had risen. Nurse Bacon looked over again, and curled her lip.
‘I should like to see you blush, you phantom!’ she said.
Miss Wilson worked her mouth and looked embarrassed.
‘A reference,’ she said to me, ‘to my pallor. Will you believe me if I tell you, there is a substance in the water here, related to chalk—? But, hush! No more of that!’
She waved her hand, and looked for a moment so mad, my heart quite sank.
‘Have you been here very long?’ I asked, when her fluttering hand had fallen.
‘I believe—let me see—we know so little of the passing seasons … I should say, many years.’
‘Two-and-twenty,’ said Nurse Bacon, still listening. ‘For you were quite an old hand—were you not?—when I first come in as a young one. And that was fourteen years, this autumn.—Ah, press harder, Betty, there! Good girl.’
She pulled a face, let out her breath, and her eyes closed. I
thought in horror, Two-and-twenty years!—and the thought must have shown on my face, for Miss Wilson said,
‘You must not think you shall stay so long as that. Mrs Price comes, every year; but her husband has her home again, when the worst of her spells are past. It was a husband, I think, who signed your order? It is my brother who keeps me here. But men want wives, when they may do without their sisters.’ Her hand rose. ‘I would speak plainer, if I could. My tongue— You understand.’
‘The man,’ I said, ‘that has put me here, is a dreadful villain; and only pretends to be my husband.’
‘That is hard for you,’ said Miss Wilson, shaking her head and sighing. ‘That is the worst of all.’
I touched her arm. My heart, that had sunk, now rose like a float—so hard, it hurt me.
‘You believe it,’ I said. I looked at Nurse Bacon; but she had heard me and opened her eyes.
‘Don’t make anything of that,’ she said, in a comfortable voice. ‘Miss Wilson believes all sorts of nonsense. Only ask her, now, what creatures live in the moon.’
‘Curse you!’ said Miss Wilson. ‘I told you that as a confidence!— You may see, Mrs Rivers, how they work to diminish my standing.—Does my brother pay a guinea a week for you to abuse me? Thieves! Devils!’
Nurse Bacon made a show of rising from her chair and making her hands into fists; and Miss Wilson grew quiet again. I said, after a moment,
‘You may think what you like about the moon, Miss Wilson. Why shouldn’t you? But when I tell you I have been put in here by swindlers and am perfectly right in my head, I say no more than the truth. Dr Christie shall find it out, in time.’
‘I hope he will,’ she answered. ‘I am sure he will. But you know, it is your husband who must sign you out.’
I stared at her. Then I looked at Nurse Bacon. ‘Is that true?’ I asked. Nurse Bacon nodded. I began to weep again. ‘Then, God help me, I’m done for!’ I cried. ‘For that shyster never, never will!’
Miss Wilson shook her head. ‘So hard! So hard! But perhaps he
ill visit, and take a change of heart? They must let us see our vis-tors, you know; that is the law.’
I wiped my face. ‘He won’t come,’ I said. ‘He knows that, if he did, I would kill him!’
She looked about her, in a sort of fear. ‘You must not say such things, in here. You must be good. Don’t you know, that they have ways of taking you, of binding you— That they have water—’
‘Water,’ murmured Mrs Price, in a shuddering way.
‘That’s enough!’ Nurse Bacon said. ‘And you, Miss Muffet’—she meant me—’stop stirring up the ladies.’
And again, she showed her fist.
So then we all fell silent. Betty worked the grease in for another minute or two, then put the jar away and went back to her bed. Miss Wilson bent her head and her gaze grew dark. Mrs Price now and then let out a murmur or a moan from behind her veil of hair. From the room next door there came a burst of ragged shrieking. I thought of Mr Ibbs’s sister. I thought of all my home, and all the people in it. I began, again, to sweat. I felt suddenly I think as a fly must feel, when wrapped in the thread of a spider. I got to my feet and walked from one wall of the room to the other, and back.
‘If only there was a window!’ I said. ‘If only we might see out.’ And then: ‘If only I had never left the Borough!’
‘Will you sit down?’ said Nurse Bacon.
Then she cursed. There had come a knocking at the door, and she must get up from her chair to answer it. It was another nurse, with a paper. I waited until their heads were close together, then stole back to Miss Wilson. Desperation was beginning to make me sly.
‘Listen to me,’ I said quietly. ‘I must get out of here, quick as I can. I have people in London, with money. I’ve a mother. You’ve been here so long, you must know of a way. What is it? I’ll pay you fork, I swear.’
She looked at me, and then drew back. ‘I hope,’ she said, in an ordinary tone, ‘I hope you don’t suppose that I was the kind of girl brought up to speak in whispers?’
Nurse Bacon looked round and stared.
‘You, Maud,’ she said. ‘What are you doing now?’
‘Whispering,’ said Betty, in her gruff voice.
‘Whispering? I’ll whisper her, all right! Get back to your bed and leave Miss Wilson alone. Can’t I turn my back a minute without you start up trying to tamper with the ladies?’
I supposed she guessed I had been trying to escape. I went back to my bed. She stood at the door with the other nurse, and said something to her in a murmur. The other nurse wrinkled her nose. Then they looked me over in the same cool, nasty way that I had seen other nurses look at me, before.
I was still too ignorant then, of course, to know what the nasty look meant. God help me, though!—for I was to find out, soon enough.
Until then, however, I didn’t trouble myself to wonder; for I still supposed I should get out. Even when a week went by, and then another, I supposed it. I only understood at last that I must give up my idea that Dr Christie would be the man to release me— for if he believed that I was mad when I went in, then everything I said as time went on only seemed to serve to make him think me madder. Worse than that, he still held firm to his idea that I should be cured, and know myself again, if I might only be made to write. ‘You have been put too much to literary work,’ he said on one of his visits, ‘and that is the cause of your complaint. But sometimes we doctors must work by paradoxical methods. I mean to put you to literary work again, to restore you. Look here.’ He had brought me something, wrapped in paper. It was a slate and chalk. ‘You shall sit with this blank slate before you,’ he said, ‘and before this day is done, you shall have written me out—neatly, mind!—your name. Your true name, I mean. Tomorrow you shall write me the start of
an account of your life; and you shall add to it, on each day that follows. You shall recover the use of your faculty of reason, as you recover your facility with the pen
And so he made Nurse Bacon keep me sitting with the chalk in my hand, for hours at a stretch; and of course, I could write nothing, the chalk would crumble to a powder—or else, grow damp and slippery from the sweating of my palm. Then he’d come back and see the empty slate, and frown and shake his head. He might have Nurse Spiller with him. ‘Ain’t you wrote a word?’ she’d say. And here’s the doctors spending all their time to make you well. Ungrateful, I call that.’
When he’d gone, she’d shake me. And when I’d cry and swear, she’d shake me harder. She could shake you so, you thought your teeth were being rattled out of your head. She could shake you until you were sick.—’Got the grips,’ she’d tell the other nurses then, with a wink; and the nurses would laugh. They hated the ladies. They hated me. They thought that when I spoke in the way that was natural to me, I did it to tease them. I know they put it out that I got special attentions from Dr Christie, through pretending to be low. That made the ladies hate me, too. Only mad Miss Wilson was now and then kind to me. Once she saw me weeping over my slate and, when Nurse Bacon’s back was turned, came over and wrote me out my name—Maud’s name, I mean. But, though she meant it well, I wished she hadn’t done it; for when Dr Christie came and saw it, he smiled and cried, ‘Well done, Mrs Rivers! Now we are half-way there!’ And when, next day, I again could make nothing but scribbles, of course he thought me shamming.
‘Keep her from her dinner, Nurse Bacon,’ he said sternly, ‘until she writes again.’
So then, I wrote out: Susan, Susan—I wrote it, fifty times. Nurse Bacon hit me. Nurse Spiller hit me, too. Dr Christie shook his head. He said my case was worse than he had thought, and needed another method. He gave me drinks of creosote—had the nurses hold me, while he poured it into my mouth. He talked of bringing a leech-man in, to bleed my head. Then a new lady came to the house, who would speak nothing but a made-up language she said
was the language of snakes; and after that he passed all his time with her, pricking her with needles, bursting paper bags behind her ear, scalding her with boiling water—looking for ways to startle her into speaking English.
I wished he would go on pricking and scalding her for ever. The creosote had almost choked me. I was frightened of leeches. And his leaving me alone, it seemed to me, would give me more time for sitting and planning my escape in. For I still thought of nothing but of that. It got to June. I had gone in there some time in May. But I still had spirit enough to learn the lie of the house, to study the windows and doors, looking out for weak ones; and every time Nurse Bacon took out her chain of keys, I watched, and saw which did what. I saw that, as far as the locks on the bedroom and passage doors went, one key worked them all. If I could slip that key from a nurse’s chain, I could make my escape, I was certain of it. But those chains were stout; and each nurse kept her keys very close; and Nurse Bacon—who was warned I might be crafty—kept hers closest of all. She gave them up only to Betty when she wanted something got out from her cupboard; and then she took them back at once, and dropped them into her pocket.
I never saw her do it, without trembling in a hopeless rage. It seemed too hard that I—of all people in the world!—should be kept so low, so long, from everything that was mine, by a single key—a single, simple key! not even a fancy key, but a plain one, with four straight cuts upon it that, given the right kind of blank and file, I knew I should have been able, in half a moment, to fake up. I thought it, a hundred times a day. I thought it as I washed my face, and as I took my dinner. I thought it as I walked the little garden; as I sat in the drawing-room, hearing ladies mumble and weep; as I lay in my bed, with the nurse’s lamp blazing in my eyes. If thoughts were hammers or picks I should have been free, ten thousand times over. But my thoughts were more like poisons. I had so many, they made me sick.
It was a dull sort of sickness, not like the sharp panic that had gripped me and made me sweat, in my first days there. It was a kind
of creeping misery, that crept so slow, and was so much a part of the habits of the house—like the colour of the walls, the smell of the dinners, the sound of weeping and shrieks—I did not know it had gained upon me, until too late. I still said, to everyone who spoke to me, that I was quite in my right mind—that I was there, through a mistake— that I was not Maud Rivers, and must be let out at once. But I said it so often, the words grew soft—like coins losing their faces through being too much spent. One day at last, I walked with a lady in the garden and said it again; and the lady looked at me in pity.
‘I thought the same thing, once,’ she said kindly. ‘But you see, I’m afraid you must be mad, since you are here. There is something queer about us all. You need only look about you. You need only look at yourself.’
She smiled—but, as before, she smiled in a kind of pity; then she walked on. I stopped, however. I had not thought, I could not say in how long, of how I must look, to others. Dr Christie kept no looking-glasses, for fear they should get smashed, and it seemed to me now that the last time I had gazed at my own face was at Mrs Cream’s—was it at Mrs Cream’s?—when Maud had made me put on her blue silk gown—was it blue? or had it been grey?—and held up the little mirror. I put my hands to my eyes. The gown was blue, I was certain of it. Why, I had been wearing it when they got me into the madhouse! They had taken it from me—and they had taken, too, Maud’s mother’s bag, and all the things that were in it—the brushes and combs, the linen, the red prunella slippers—I never saw those again. Instead— I looked down at myself, at the tartan dress and rubber boots. I had grown almost used to them. Now I saw them again for what they were; and wished I might see them better. The nurse who had been set to watch us was sitting with her eyes closed, dozing in the sun, but a little to the left of her was the window that looked into the drawing-room. It was dark, and showed the line of circling ladies, clear as a mirror. One of them had stopped, and had her hand at her face.—I blinked. She blinked. She was me.
I went slowly towards her, and looked myself over, in horror.
I looked, as the lady had said, like a lunatic. My hair was still
sewn to my head, but had grown or worked loose from its stitches, and stood out in tufts. My face was white but marked, here and there, with spots and scratches and fading bruises. My eyes were swollen—from want of sleep, I suppose—and red at the rims. My face was sharper than ever, my neck like a stick. The tartan gown hung on me like a laundry bag. From beneath its collar there showed the dirty white tips of the fingers of Maud’s old glove, that I still wore next to my heart. You could just make out, on the kid-skin, the marks of my teeth.
I looked, for perhaps a minute. I looked, and thought of all the times that Mrs Sucksby had washed and combed and shined my hair, when I was a girl. I thought of her warming her bed before she put me in it, so I should not take chills. I thought of her putting aside, for me, the tenderest morsels of meat; and smoothing my teeth, when they cut; and passing her hands across my arms and legs, to be sure that they grew straight. I remembered how close and safe she had kept me, all the years of my life. I had gone to Briar, to make my fortune, so I might share it with her. Now my fortune was gone. Maud Lilly had stolen it and given me hers. She was supposed to be here. She had made me be her, while she was loose in the world, and every glass she gazed at—as say, in milliners’ shops, while she was fitted with gowns; or in theatres; or in halls, as she went dancing—every glass showed her to be everything I was not— to be handsome, and cheerful, and proud, and free—
I might have raged. I think I began to. Then I saw the look in my eye, and my face frightened me. I stood, not knowing what I should do, until the nurse on duty woke up, and came and jabbed me.
‘All right, Miss Vanity,’ she said with a yawn. ‘I dare say your heels are worth looking at, too. So let’s see ’em.’ She pushed me back into the middle of the turning line; and I bowed my head and walked, watching the hem of my skirt, my boots, the boots of the lady in front—anything, anything at all, to save me from lifting my gaze to the drawing-room window and seeing again the look in my own mad eye.
That, I suppose, was at the end of June. It might have been sooner,
though. It was hard to know what dates were what. It was hard to tell so much as the day—you only knew another week had gone by when, instead of spending all morning on your bed, you were made to stand in the drawing-room and listen while Dr Christie read prayers; then you knew it was a Sunday. Perhaps I ought to have made a mark, like convicts do, for every Sunday that came round; but of course, for many weeks there seemed no point—each time one came I thought that, by the next, I should have got out. Then I began to grow muddled. It seemed to me that some weeks had two or three Sundays in them. Others seemed to have none. All we could tell for certain was, that spring had turned to summer: for the days grew long, the sun grew fiercer; and the house grew hot, like an oven.
I remember the heat, almost more than anything. It was enough to make you mad all by itself. The air in our rooms, for instance, became like soup. I think one or two ladies actually died, through breathing that air—though of course, being medical men, Dr Graves and Dr Christie were able to pass off their deaths as strokes. I heard the nurses say that. They grew bad-tempered as the days grew warm. They complained of headaches and sweats. They complained of their gowns. ‘Why I stay here, looking after you, in wool,’ they’d say, pulling us about, ‘when I might be at Tunbridge Asylum, where the nurses all wear poplin—!’
But the fact of it was, as we all knew, no other madhouse would have had them; and they wouldn’t have gone, anyway. They had it too easy. They talked all the time of how troublesome and sly their ladies were, and showed off bruises; but of course, the ladies were far too dazed and miserable to be sly, the trouble came all from the nurses when they fancied some sport. The rest of the time their job was the slightest one you can imagine, for they got us in bed at seven o’clock—gave us those draughts, to make us sleep—then they sat till midnight reading papers and books, making toast and cocoa, doing fancy-work, whistling, farting, standing at the door and calling down the hall to each other, even slipping in and out of each other’s rooms when they were especially bored, leaving their ladies locked up and unguarded.
And in the mornings, when Dr Christie had made his round, they would take off their caps, unpin their hair, roll down their stockings and lift their skirts; and they gave us newspapers and made us stand beside them and fan their great white legs.
Nurse Bacon did, anyway. She complained of the heat more than anyone, because of the itch in her hands. She had Betty rubbing grease into her fingers ten times a day. Sometimes she would scream. And when the weather was at its warmest she put two china basins beside her bed and slept with her hands in water. That gave her dreams.
‘He’s too slippy!’ she cried one night. And then, in a mumble: ‘There, I’ve lost him …”
I also dreamed. I seemed to dream every time I closed my eyes. I dreamed, as you might suppose I would, of Lant Street, of the Borough, of home. I dreamed of Mr Ibbs and Mrs Sucksby.— Those were troubling dreams, however; often I woke weeping from dreams like that. Now and then I dreamed only of the madhouse: I would dream I had woken and had my day. Then I really would wake, and have the day still to do—and yet, the day was so like the day I had dreamed, I might as well have dreamed them both.— Those dreams bewildered me.
The worst dreams of all, however, were the dreams I began to have as the weeks slipped by and the nights grew hotter and I began to get more and more muddled in my mind. They were dreams of Briar, and of Maud.
For I never dreamed of her as I knew she really was—as a viper or a thief. I never dreamed of Gentleman. I only ever used to dream that we were back in her uncle’s house, and I was her maid. I dreamed we walked to her mother’s grave, or sat by the river. I dreamed I dressed her and brushed her hair. I dreamed—you can’t be blamed, can you, for what you dream?—I dreamed I loved her. I knew I hated her. I knew I wanted to kill her. But sometimes I would wake, in the night, not knowing. I would open my eyes and look about me, and the room would be so warm everyone would have turned and fretted in their beds—I would see Betty’s great bare leg, Nurse Bacon’s sweating face, Miss Wilson’s arm. Mrs
Price put back her hair as she slept, rather in the way that Maud had used to do: I would gaze at her in my half-sleep and quite forget the weeks that had passed, since the end of April. I would forget the flight from Briar, forget the wedding in the black flint church, forget the days at Mrs Cream’s, the drive to the madhouse, the awful trick; forget I meant to escape, and what I planned to do when I had done it. I would only think, in a kind of panic, Where is she? Where is she?—and then, with a rush of relief: There she is . . .1 would close my eyes again and, in an instant, be not in my bed at all but in hers. The curtains would be let down, and she would be beside me. I would feel her breath. ‘How close the night is, tonight!’ she would say, in her soft voice; and then: ‘I’m afraid! I’m afraid—!’
‘Don’t be frightened,’ I would always answer. ‘Oh, don’t be frightened.’—And at that moment, the dream would slip from me and I would wake. I would wake in a kind of dread, to think that, like Nurse Bacon, I might have said the words aloud—or sighed, or quivered. And then I would lie and be filled with a terrible shame. For I hated her! I hated her!—and yet I knew that, every time, I secretly wished that the dream had gone on to its end.
I began to be afraid I would rise in my sleep. Say I tried to kiss Mrs Price, or Betty? But if I tried to stay awake, then I grew bewildered. I imagined fearful things. Those nights were queer nights. For though the heat made us all grow stupid, it also now and then sent ladies—even quiet, obedient ladies—into fits. You caught the commotion of it from your bed: the shrieking, the ringing of bells, the pounding of running feet. It broke into the hot and silent night, like a clap of thunder; and though you knew, each time, what it was, still the sounds came so strangely—and sometimes one lady would set off another; and then you would lie and wonder whether that mightn’t set off you, and you would seem to feel the fit gathering inside you, you would start to sweat, perhaps to twitch—oh, those were dreadful nights! Betty might moan. Mrs Price would start to weep. Nurse Bacon would rise: ‘Hush! Hush!’ she’d say. She would open the door, lean out and listen. Then the shrieking would stop, the footsteps begin to fade. ‘That’s got her,’ she’d say. ‘Now, will they pad her, I wonder, or plunge her?’—and at that word, plunge,
Betty would moan again, and Mrs Price and even old Miss Wilson would shudder and hide their heads. I didn’t know why. The word was a peculiar one and no-one would explain it: I could only suppose it must involve being pumped, like a drain, with a black rubber sucker. That thought was so horrible that soon whenever Nurse Bacon said it I began to shudder, too.
‘I don’t know what you’re quaking at,’ she would say to all of us, nastily, as she went back to her bed. ‘Wasn’t one of you that went off, was it?’
But then, one time, it was. We woke to the sound of choking and found sad Mrs Price on the floor beside her bed, biting her fingers so hard she was making them bleed. Nurse Bacon went for the bell, and the men and Dr Christie came running: they bound Mrs Price and carried her off downstairs, and when they brought her back, an hour later, her gown and her hair were streaming water and she looked half-drowned.—I learned then that being plunged meant being dropped in a bath. That gave me some comfort, at least; for it seemed to me that being bathed could not be nearly so bad as being suckered and pumped . . .
I still knew nothing, nothing, nothing at all.
Then something happened. There came a day—I think it was the hottest day of all that stifling summer—that turned out to be Nurse Bacon’s birthday; and on the night of it, she had some other nurses come secretly to our room, to give them a party. They did this, sometimes, as I think I have said. They weren’t allowed to, and their talking made it harder than ever for the rest of us to sleep; but we should never have dared tell a doctor—for then the nurses would have put it down to delusions and, after, hit us. They made us lie very still, while they sat about playing cards or dominoes, drinking lemonade and, sometimes, beer.
They had beer on this night, on account of it being Nurse Bacon’s birthday night; and because it was hot they took too much of it and got drunk. I lay with the sheet across my face, but kept my eyes half open. I dared not try to sleep while they were there, in case I dreamed of Maud again; for it had got with me what you might call—or what Dr Christie, I suppose, might call—a morbid fear, of
giving myself away. And then again, I thought I ought to keep awake, in case they drank so much they drank themselves into a stupor; for then I could rise and steal their keys . . .
They did not, however. Instead, they grew livelier and more noisy and red in the face, and the room grew hotter. I think that now and then I did fall into a doze: I began to hear their voices like the far-off, hollow voices you hear in dreams. Then, every so often one of them would give a shout, or snort with laughter; the others would shush her, then snort with laughter themselves—that would bring me back to myself, with a horrible jolt. At last I looked at their fat red sweating faces and their great wet open mouths, and wished I had a gun and could shoot them. They sat boasting of which ladies they had recently hurt, and how they had done it. They fell to comparing grips. They put their hands to one another’s, palm to palm, to see who had the biggest. Then one of them showed her arm.
‘Let us see yours, Belinda,’ another cried then. Belinda was Nurse Bacon. They all had dainty names like that. You could imagine their mothers looking at them when they were babies, thinking they would grow up ballerinas. ‘Go on, let us see it.’
Nurse Bacon pretended to look modest; then she put back her cuff. Her arm was thick as a coal-whipper’s, but white. When she bent it, it bulged. ‘That’s Irish muscle,’ she said, ‘come down on my grandmother’s side.’ The other nurses felt it, and whistled. Then one of them said,
‘I should say, with an arm like that, you’re almost a match for Nurse Flew.’
Nurse Flew was a swivel-eyed woman with a room on the floor below. She was said to have once been a matron in a gaol. Now Nurse Bacon coloured up. ‘A match?’ she said. ‘I should like to see her arm beside mine, that’s all. Then we’d see whose was the greater. A match? I’ll match her, all right!’
Her voice woke Betty and Mrs Price. She looked, and saw them stirring. ‘Get back to sleep,’ she said. She did not see me, watching her and wishing her dead through half-closed eyes. She showed her arm again, and again made the muscle bulge. ‘A match, indeed,’ she
grumbled. She nodded to one of the nurses. ‘You fetch Nurse Flew up here. Then we’ll see. Margaretta, you get a string.’
The nurses rose, and swayed, and tittered, and then went off. The first came back after a minute with Nurse Flew, Nurse Spiller, and the dark-headed nurse that had helped to undress me on my first day. They had all been drinking together, downstairs. Nurse Spiller looked about her with her hands on her hips and said,
‘Well, if Dr Christie could see you!’ She belched. ‘What’s this about arms?’
She bared her own. Nurse Flew and the dark nurse bared theirs. The other nurse came back with a length of ribbon and a ruler, and they took it in turns to measure their muscles. I watched them do it, as a man in a darkened wood might, disbelieving his own eyes, watch goblins; for they stood in a ring and moved the lamp from arm to arm, and it threw strange lights and cast queer shadows; and the beer, and the heat, and the excitement of the measuring made them seem to lurch and hop.
‘Fifteen!’ they cried, their voices rising. Then: ‘Sixteen!— Seventeen!—Eighteen-and-a-half!—Nineteen! Nurse Flew has it!’
They broke their circle then, and put down the light, and fell about quarrelling—not so much like goblins, suddenly, as like sailors. You half expected them to have tattoos. Nurse Bacon’s face was darker than ever. She said sulkily,
‘As to arms, well, I’ll let Nurse Flew take it this time; though I’m sure fat oughtn’t to count the same as muscle.’ She rubbed her hands across her waist. ‘Now, what about weight?’ She put up her chin. ‘Who here says they’re heavier than me?’
At once, two or three of them got up beside her and said they were. The others tried to pick them up, in order to prove it. One of them fell down.
‘It’s no good,’ they said. ‘You wriggle about so, we can’t tell. We need another way. What say you stand upon a chair and jump? We’ll see who makes the floor creak most.’
‘What say,’ said the dark-haired nurse with a laugh, ‘you jump on Betty? See who makes her creak.’
‘See who makes her squeak!’
They looked at Betty’s bed. Betty had opened her eyes at the sound of her name—now she shut them and began to shake.
Nurse Spiller snorted. ‘She’d squeak for Belinda,’ she said, ‘every time. Don’t make it her, that ain’t fair. Make it old Miss Wilson.’
‘She’d squeak all right!’
‘Or, Mrs Price.’
‘She’d cry! Crying’s no—’
‘Make it Maud!’
One of them said it—I don’t know who—and, though they had all been laughing, now their laughter died. I think they looked at each other. Then Nurse Spiller spoke.
‘Pass a chair,’ I heard her say, ‘for standing on—’
‘Wait! Wait!’ cried another nurse. ‘What are you thinking of? You can’t jump on her, it’ll kill her.’ She paused, as if to wipe her mouth. ‘Lie on her, instead.’
And at that, I put back the sheet from my face and opened my eyes up wide. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done it, just then. Perhaps, after all, they had only been larking. But I put back the sheet, and they saw me looking; and then they all started laughing again and came towards me in a rush. They plucked the blankets off me and took the pillow from under my head. Two of them leaned on my feet, and another two caught my arms. They did it in a moment. They were like one great hot sweating beast with fifty heads, with fifty panting mouths and a hundred hands. When I struggled, they pinched me. I said,
‘You leave me alone!’
‘Shut up,’ they said. ‘We aren’t going to hurt you. We only want to see who’s heaviest out of Nurse Bacon, Nurse Spiller and Nurse Flew. We only want to see which of them will make you squeak most. Are you ready?’
‘Get off me! Get off me! I’ll tell Dr Christie!’
Someone hit me in the face. Someone else jerked my leg. ‘Spoilsport,’ they said. ‘Now, who’s to go on her first?’
‘I will,’ I heard Nurse Flew say, and the others moved back a little for her to come forward. She was smoothing down her gown. ‘Have you got her?’ she said.
‘We’ve got her.’
‘Right. Hold her still’
Then they pulled me tight, as if I were a wet sheet and they meant to wring me. My thoughts, at that moment, aren’t fit to be described. I was sure they would tear the arms and legs off me. I was sure they would snap my bones. I started to shout and, again, I was struck in the face and jerked about; so then I fell silent. Then Nurse Flew got on to the bed and, lifting up her skirt, knelt astride of me. The bed gave a creak. She rubbed her hands and fixed me with her swivel-eye. ‘Here I come!’ she said, making to fall upon me. But the fall never came, though I screwed up my face and drew in my breath, to take it. Nurse Bacon had stopped her.
‘No dropping,’ she said. ‘Dropping won’t be fair. Go down slowly, or not at all.’
So Nurse Flew moved back, then came slowly forward, and lowered herself down by her hands and knees until her weight was all upon me. The breath I had drawn in was all squeezed out. I think, if I had had a floor underneath me instead of a bed, she would have killed me. My eyes, my nose and mouth, began to run. ‘Please—!’ I said.
‘She cries Please!’ said the dark-haired nurse. ‘That means five points to Nurse Flew!’
They eased off tugging me, then. Nurse Flew kissed my cheek and got off me, and I saw her stand with her hands above her head, like the winner of a boxing match. I sucked in my breath, I spluttered and coughed. Then they drew me tight again, for Nurse Spiller’s turn. She was worse than Nurse Flew—not heavier, but more awkward, for she lay with the points of her limbs, her knees and her elbows and her hips, pressing hard into mine; and her corset was a stiff one, with edges that seemed to cut me like a saw. Her hair had an oil upon it and smelt sour, and her breath was loud, like thunder, in my ear. ‘Come on, you little bitch,’ she said to me, ‘sing out!’—but I had some pride, even then. I closed my jaws and wouldn’t, though she pressed and pressed; at last the nurses cried, Oh, shame! No points for Nurse Spiller at all!’—and she gave a final grind to her knees, and swore, and got off. I lifted my head
from the mattress. My eyes were streaming water, but beyond the circle of nurses I could see Betty and Miss Wilson and Mrs Price, looking on and shaking but pretending to sleep. They were afraid of what might be done to them. I don’t blame them. I let my head fall back, and again shut tight my jaws. Now came Nurse Bacon. Her cheeks were still flushed, and her swollen hands so red against the white of her arms, she might have had gloves on.
She sat astride of me as Nurse Flew had, and flexed her fingers.
‘Now, Maud,’ she said. She caught hold of the hem of my nightgown, and pulled it and made it tidy. She patted my leg. ‘Now then, Miss Muffet. Who’s my own good girl?’
Then she came upon me. She came faster than the others, and the shock and the weight of her was awful. I cried out, and the nurses clapped. ‘Ten points!’ they said. Nurse Bacon laughed. I felt the shudder of it, like rolling-pins; and that made me screw up my eyes and cry out louder. Then she shuddered again, on purpose. The nurses cheered. Then she did this. She pushed herself up on her hands, so that her face was above me but her bosom and stomach and legs still hard on my own; and she moved her hips. She moved them in a certain way. My eyes flew open. She gave me a leer.
‘Like it, do you?’ she said, still moving. ‘No? We heard you did.’
And at that, the nurses roared. They roared, and I saw on their faces as they gazed at me that nasty look I had seen before but never understood. I understood it now, of course; and all at once I guessed what Maud must have said to Dr Christie, that time at Mrs Cream’s. The thought that she had said it—that she had said it, before Gentleman, as a way of making me out to be mad—struck me like a blow to the heart. I had had many such blows, since I left Briar; but this, just then, seemed like the worst. It was as if I were filled with gunpowder, and had just been touched with a match. I began to struggle, and to shriek.
‘Get off me!’ I shrieked. ‘Get off me! Get off me! Get off!’
Nurse Bacon felt me wriggle, and her laughter died. She pushed again upon me, harder, with her hips. I saw her hot red face above my own and butted it with my head. Her nose went crack. She gave a cry. There came blood on my cheek.
Then, I can’t quite say what happened. I think the nurses that were holding me let go; but I think I kept on struggling and shrieking, as if they had me still. Nurse Bacon rolled from me; I think that someone—probably, Nurse Spiller—hit me; yet still my fit kept on. I have an idea that Betty started up bellowing—that other ladies, in rooms close by, took up the screams and shouts from ours. I think the nurses ran. ‘Catch up these bottles and cups!’ I heard one of them say, as she flew off with the others. Then someone must have taken fright and caught hold of one of the handles in the hall: there came a bell. The bell brought men and then, after another minute, Dr Christie. He was pulling on his coat. He saw me, still kicking and thrashing on the bed, with the blood from Nurse Bacon’s nose upon me.
‘She’s in a paroxysm,’ he cried. ‘A bad one. Good Lord, what was it set her off?’
Nurse Bacon said nothing. She had her hand at her face, but her eyes were on mine. ‘What was it?’ Dr Christie said again. ‘A dream?’
A dream,’ she answered. Then she looked at him, and started into life. ‘Oh, Dr Christie,’ she said, ‘she was saying a lady’s name, and moving, as she slept!’
That made me shriek all over again. Dr Christie said, ‘Right. We know our treatment for paroxysms. You men, and Nurse Spiller. Cold water plunge. Thirty minutes.’
The men caught hold of me by the arms and picked me up. I had been pressed so hard by the nurses that it seemed to me now, as they set me upright, that I was beginning to float. In fact, they dragged me: I found the grazes upon my toes, next day. But I don’t remember, now, being taken down from that floor, to the basement of the house. I don’t remember passing the door to the pads—going on, down that dark corridor, to the room where they kept the bath. I remember the roaring of the faucets, the chill of the tiles beneath my feet—but, only dimly. What I recall most is the wooden frame they fixed me to, at the arms and legs; and then, the creaking of it, as they winched it up and swung it over the water; the swaying of it, as I pulled against the straps.
Then I remember the drop, as they let fly the wheel—the shock,
as they caught it—the closing of the icy water over my face, the rushing of it into my mouth and nose, as I tried to gasp—the sucking of it, when I spluttered and coughed.
I thought they had hanged me.
I thought I had died. Then they winched me up, and dropped me again. A minute to winch me, and a minute to plunge. Fifteen plunges in all. Fifteen shocks. Fifteen tugs on the rope of my life.
After that, I don’t remember anything.
They might have killed me, after all. I lay in darkness. I did not dream. I did not think. You could not say I was myself, for I was no-one. Perhaps I never was to be quite myself, again. For when I woke, everything was changed. They put me back in my old gown and my old boots and took me back to my old room, and I went with them just like a lamb. I was covered in bruises and burns, yet hardly felt them. I did not weep. I sat and, like the other ladies, looked at nothing. There was talk of putting canvas bracelets on me, in case I should break out in another fit; but I lay so quietly, they gave the idea up. Nurse Bacon spoke with Dr Christie, in my behalf. Her eye was black where I had butted it, and I supposed that, getting me alone, she would knock me about—I think that, if she had, I would have taken the blows, unflinching. But it seemed to me that she was changed, like everything else. She looked at me oddly; and when that night I lay in bed and the other ladies had closed their eyes, she caught my gaze. ‘All right?’ she said softly. She glanced at the other beds, then looked back at me. ‘No harm—eh, Maud? All fun, ain’t it? We must have our bit of fun, mustn’t we? or we should go mad . . .’
I turned my face away. I think she still watched me, though. I did not care. I cared for nothing, now. I had kept up my nerve and my spirit, all that time. I had waited for my chance of escaping and got nowhere. Suddenly, my memories of Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs, of Gentleman, even of Maud, seemed to grow dim. It was as if my head were filled with smoke, or had a fluttering curtain across it. When I tried to go over the streets of the Borough in my mind, I found I lost my way. No-one else in that house knew those streets. If
the ladies spoke of London ever, they spoke of a place they remembered from when they were girls, in Society—a place so different from the city I knew, it might as well have been Bombay. No-one called me by my own name. I began to answer to Maud and Mrs Rivers; sometimes it seemed to me I must be Maud, since so many people said I was. And sometimes I even seemed to dream, not my own dreams, but hers; and sometimes to remember things, from Briar, that she had said and done, as if I had said and done them.
The nurses—all except Nurse Bacon—grew cooler than ever with me, after the night I was plunged. But I got used to being shaken and bullied and slapped. I got used to seeing other ladies bullied in their turn. I got used to it all. I got used to my bed, to the blazing lamp, to Miss Wilson and Mrs Price, to Betty, to Dr Christie. I should not, now, have minded a leech. But he never brought one. He said my calling myself Maud showed, not that I was better, but only that my malady had taken a different turn, and would turn back. Until it did, there was no point in trying to cure me; so he stopped trying. I heard, however, that the truth was he had gone off cures altogether: for he had cured the lady who had spoken like a snake, and done it so well her mother had taken her home; and what with that, and the ladies who had died, the house had lost money. Now, each morning, he felt my heart-beat and looked into my mouth, and then moved on. He did not stay long in the bedrooms at all, once the air grew so close and so foul. We, of course, spent most of our time there; and I even got used to that.
God knows what else I might have got used to. God knows how long they would have kept me in that place—maybe, years. Maybe as long as poor Miss Wilson: for perhaps she—who knows?—was as sane as I had been, when her brother first put her in. I might be there, today. I still think of that and shudder. I might never have got out; and Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs, and Gentleman, and Maud— where would they be, now?
I think of that, too.
But then, I did get out. Blame Fortune. Fortune’s blind, and works in peculiar ways. Fortune sent Helen of Troy to the Greeks—didn’t
it?—and a prince, to the Sleeping Beauty. Fortune kept me at Dr Christie’s nearly all that summer long; then listen to who it sent me.
This was five or six weeks, I suppose, after they had plunged me—some time in July. Think how stupid I had got by then. The season was still a warm one, and we had all begun to sleep, all the hours of the day. We slept in the mornings, while we waited for the dinner-bell to be rung; and, in the afternoons, you would see ladies all over the drawing-room, dozing, nodding their heads, dribbling into their collars. There was nothing else to do. There was nothing to stay awake for. And sleeping made time pass. I slept as much as anyone. I slept so much that when Nurse Spiller came to our room one morning and said, ‘Maud Rivers, you’re to come with me, you’ve a visitor’, they had to wake me up and tell me again; and when they had, I didn’t know what they meant.
‘A visitor?’ I said.
Nurse Spiller folded her arms. ‘Don’t want him, then? Shall I send him home?’ She looked at Nurse Bacon, who was still rubbing her knuckles and wincing. ‘Bad?’ she said.
‘Like scorpions’ stings, Nurse Spiller.’
Nurse Spiller tutted. I said again,
‘A visitor? For me?’
She yawned. ‘For Mrs Rivers, anyway. Are you her today, or not?’
I did not know. But I rose, on shaking legs, feeling the blood rush from my heart—for if the visitor was a man then I could only think that, whether I was Maud, or Sue, or whoever I was, he must be Gentleman. My world had shrunk to that point, that I only knew that I had been harmed, and that he had done it. I looked at Miss Wilson. I had an idea that I had said to her, three months before, that if Gentleman came I would kill him. I had meant it, then. Now the thought of seeing his face was so unexpected, it made me sick.
Nurse Spiller saw me hesitate. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘if you are coming! Don’t mind your hair.’—I had put my hand to my head. ‘I’m sure, the madder he knows you to be, the better. Saves disappointment, don’t it?’ She glanced at Nurse Bacon. Then: ‘Come on!’
she said again; and I gave a twitch, then stumbled after her into the passage and down the stairs.
It was a Wednesday—that was luck, though I did not know it yet, for on Wednesdays Dr Christie and Dr Graves went off in their coach to drum up new lady lunatics, and the house was quiet. Some nurses, and one or two men, were standing about in the hall, taking breaths from the open door; one of the men held a cigarette and, when he saw Nurse Spiller, he hid it. They did not look at me, however, and I hardly looked at them. I was thinking of what was to come, and feeling sicker and stranger by the second.
‘In here,’ said Nurse Spiller, jerking her head towards the door of the drawing-room. Then she caught my arm and pulled me to her. And you remember: none of your fibs. The pads are nice and cool, on a day like this. Ain’t been used in a while. My word’s as good as a man’s, while the doctors are away. You hear me?’
She shook me. Then she pushed me into the room. ‘Here she is,’ she said, in a different voice, to the person waiting there.
I had expected Gentleman. It wasn’t him. It was a fair-haired, blue-eyed boy in a blue pea-jacket, and in the first second of my seeing him I felt a rush of mixed relief and disappointment so sharp, I almost swooned away; for I thought him a stranger, and supposed that there had been a mistake, he must have come for someone else. Then I saw him looking over my features in a bewildered sort of way; and then at last, at last—as if his face and name were slowly rising to the surface of my brain, through mists or cloudy water—at last I knew him, even out of his servant’s suit. He was Charles, the knife-boy from Briar. He looked me over, as I have said; then he tilted his head and looked past me, and past Nurse Spiller, as if he thought that Maud must be coming along behind. Then he looked at me again, and his eyes grew wide.
And it was that, that saved me. His were the first two eyes, in all the time that had passed since I left Mrs Cream’s, that had looked at me and seen, not Maud, but Sue. They gave me back my past. They gave me my future, too—for in the second of standing in the doorway, meeting his gaze, seeing it slip from me and then come
back baffled, my own confusion began to leave me and I formed a plan. I formed it whole, complete in every part.
It was desperate.
‘Charles!’ I said. I was not used to speaking, and it came out like a croak. ‘Charles, you hardly know me. I think— I think I must be very changed. But oh, how good of you to come and make a visit to your old mistress!’
And I went to him and caught hold of his hand, not taking my eyes away from his; and then I pulled him to me and I whispered, almost weeping, in his ear:
‘Say I’m her, or I’m done for! I’ll give you anything at all! Say I’m her! Oh, please say I’m her!’
I kept hold of his hand, and wrung it. He stepped back. He had been wearing a cap, that had left a scarlet line across his brow. Now his face grew scarlet all over. He opened his mouth. He said,
‘Miss, I— Miss—’
Of course, he called me that, at Briar. Thank God he did! Nurse Spiller heard him and said, in a sort of nasty satisfaction, ‘Well, ain’t it marvellous how quick a lady’s head will clear, when she sees a dear face from home? Shan’t Dr Christie be pleased?’
I turned and caught her eye. She looked sour. She said, ‘Will you keep your young man standing? That have come all this way? That’s right, you sit. Not too close, though, young sir, if I was you. We can’t say when they won’t fly off and start clawing; even the meek ones. That’s better. Now, I’ll keep over here, by the door, and if she starts kicking up, you sing out—all right?’
We had sat, in two hard chairs, close to the window. Charles still looked bewildered; now he also began to wink and look afraid. Nurse Spiller stood in the open doorway. It was cooler there. She folded her arms and watched us; but she also, now and then, turned her head into the hall, to nod and murmur to the nurses beyond.
I still held Charles’s hand in both of mine. I could not give it up. I leaned towards him, trembling, and spoke in a whisper. I said,
‘Charles, I— Charles, I never was so glad to see anyone, anyone in all my life! You have— You have to help me.’
He swallowed. He said, in the same low voice,
‘You are Miss Smith?’
‘Hush! Hush! I am. Oh, I am!’ My eyes began to water. ‘But you mustn’t say it here. You must say—’ I glanced at Nurse Spiller, then spoke more quietly still. ‘You must say I’m Miss Lilly. Don’t
ask me why.’
What was I thinking of? Well, the fact was I was thinking of the lady who had spoken like a snake, and the two old ladies that had died. I was thinking of what Dr Christie had said, about my malady having taken a different turn, but being sure, in time, to turn back. I was thinking that if he heard Charles say that I was Sue not Maud, he might find a way to keep me closer—perhaps bind me, pad me, plunge me, plunge Charles too.—In other words, terror had turned my brain. But I also had that plan. It was growing clearer by the second.
‘Don’t ask me why,’ I said again. ‘But, oh, what a trick has been played on me! They have made out I’m mad, Charles.’
He looked about him. ‘This house is a house for mad people?’ he said. ‘I supposed it a great hotel. I supposed I should find Miss Lilly here. And—and Mr Rivers.’
‘Mr Rivers,’ I said. ‘Oh! Oh! That devil! He has swindled me, Charles, and gone to London with money that was to be mine. Him and Maud Lilly! Oh! What a pair! They have left me here, to die—!’
My voice had risen, I could not help it: someone else—someone really mad—might have been speaking out of my mouth. I squeezed Charles’s fingers, to keep from talking louder. I squeezed them, almost out of their joints. And I glanced fearfully towards Nurse Spiller at the door. Her head was turned. She had her back to the doorpost and was laughing with the nurses and the men. I looked back at Charles, meaning to speak again. But his face had changed, and stopped me. His cheek had turned from flaming scarlet, to white. He said, in a whisper,
‘Mr Rivers, gone to London?’
‘To London,’ I said, ‘or to heaven knows where. To hell, I shouldn’t wonder!’
He swallowed. He twitched. Then he tore his fingers from mine and covered his face with his hands.
‘Oh! Oh!’ he said, in a shaking voice—just as I had. ‘Oh, then I’m ruined!’
And to my very great astonishment, he began to cry.
His story came leaking out, then, along with his tears. It turned out that—just as I had guessed, months before—a life spent sharpening knives at Briar seemed a life not worth having, once Gentleman had gone. Charles had felt it so hard, he had begun to mope. He had moped so long, Mr Way the steward had taken a whip to him.
‘He said he would whip me raw,’ he said; ‘and he did. Lord, how he made me shriek! But that whipping was nothing—I should say, a hundred whippings would be nothing!—compared to the smarting, miss, of my disappointed heart.’
He said that, in a way that made me think he had practised it; then he held himself stiff, as if he imagined I would hit him, or laugh, and was ready to suffer any blow. But what I said—bitterly— was, ‘I believe you. Mr Rivers makes hearts do that.’
I was thinking of Maud’s. Charles seemed not to notice. ‘He does!’ he said. ‘What a gentleman! Oh, but ain’t he?’
His face grew shiny. He wiped his nose. Then he started crying again. Nurse Spiller looked over and curled her lip. But that was all she did. Perhaps people cried a lot, when they came to see their lady relatives, at Dr Christie’s.
When she had looked into the hall again, I turned back to Charles. Seeing him so miserable made me calmer in my own head. I let him shake a little longer and, as he did it, studied him closer. I saw, what I had not seen at first—that his neck was dirty, and his hair was strange—here pale and fluffy as feathers, here dark and stiff where he had wet it to make it lie smooth. There was a twig caught up in the wool of the sleeve of his jacket. His trousers were marked with dust.
He wiped his eyes and saw me looking, and blushed harder than ever. I said quietly,
‘Be a good boy now, and tell me the truth. You’ve run off, haven’t you, from Briar?’
He bit his lip, then nodded. I said, ‘And all for Mr Rivers’s sake?’ He nodded again. Then he drew in a shuddering breath.
‘Mr Rivers used to say to me, miss,’ he said, ‘that he would take me on to man for him, if only he’d the money for a proper man’s wages. I thought, I would rather work for him for no wages at all, than stay at Briar. But how was I to find him out, in London? Then came all that stir, with Miss Lilly taking off. The house’ve been on its head since then. We did suppose her flown after him, but np-one was quite sure. They are calling it a scandal. Half the girls have gone. Mrs Cakebread’ve gone, to another man’s kitchen! Now Margaret cooks. Mr Lilly ain’t in his right mind. Mr Way has to feed him his dinners off a spoon!’
‘Mrs Cakebread,’ I said, frowning. ‘Mr Way.’ The names were like so many lights: each time one was lit, another part of my brain grew brighter. ‘Margaret. Mr Lilly.’ And then: ‘Off a spoon! And all— And all from Maud’s running off with Mr Rivers?’
‘I don’t know, miss.’ He shook his head. ‘They say it took him a week to feel it. For he was calm at first; then he found some harm had been done to some of his books—or, something like that. Then he fell in a fit on his library floor. Now he can’t hold a pen or anything, and forgets his words. Mr Way made me push him about, in a great wheeled chair; but, I could hardly go ten yards—I could hardly do anything!—for breaking out crying. In the end I got sent to my aunty’s, to look at her black-faced pigs. They do say’—he wiped his nose again—’they do say that watching pigs cures melancholy. It never cured mine, though …”
I had stopped listening. There had come on a light in my head, that was brighter than all the rest. I took his hand again. ‘Black-faced pigs?’ I said, screwing up my eyes. He nodded.
His aunty was Mrs Cream.
I suppose it’s like that in the country. I had never thought to ask him his last name. He had slept in the very same room as me, on the same straw mattress, that was filled with bugs. When his aunty had begun to talk of the gentleman and lady that had come and been secretly married, he had guessed at once who they were but, hardly believing his own luck, had said nothing. He found out they’d gone off together in a coach; and from his cousin—Mrs Cream’s eldest son, who had talked with the
coachman—he had got the name of Dr Christie’s house, and where it was.
‘I supposed it a great hotel,’ he said again—again looking fearfully about him, at the wire on the lamps, the bare grey walls, the bars on the windows. He had run off from Mrs Cream’s three nights before, and had slept in ditches and hedges since then.—’Too late,’ he said, ‘to turn back, when I got here. I asked at the gate for Mr Rivers. They looked in a book, and said I must mean his wife. Then I remembered what a kind lady Miss Maud always was; and that if anyone should talk Mr Rivers round to taking me on, she should. And now—!’
His lip began again to tremble. Really, Mr Way was right: he was far too big a boy to be so tearful, and at any other time, in any other, ordinary place, I should have hit him myself. But for now, I looked at his tears, and to my bruised and desperate eyes they were like so many pick-locks and keys.
‘Charles,’ I said, leaning closer to him and nerving myself to seem calm. ‘You can’t go back to Briar.’
‘I can’t, miss,’ he said. ‘Oh, I can’t! Mr Way would skin me alive!’
‘And I dare say your aunty don’t want you.’ He shook his head. ‘She would call me a fool, for running off.’ ‘It’s Mr Rivers you’re after.’ He bit his lip, and nodded, still crying.
‘Then listen to me,’ I said—barely speaking at all, barely whispering now, only breathing the words, for fear Nurse Spiller would catch them. ‘Listen to me. I can take you to him. I know where he is. I know the very house! I can take you to him. But first, you must help me out of here.’
If it wasn’t quite true that I knew where Gentleman was, then it wasn’t quite a lie, either; for I was pretty certain that, once I reached London and got help from Mrs Sucksby, I should find him. But I would have lied anyway, just then. I dare say you would have, too. Charles stared at me, and wiped his face with the heel of his hand. ‘Help you out of here, how?’ he said. ‘Why mayn’t you walk out, miss, just whenever you please?’
I swallowed. ‘They think I’m mad, Charles. There’s an order been signed—well, never mind by who—that keeps me here. It’s the law See that nurse? See her arm? They’ve got twenty nurses with arms like that; and they know how to use ’em. Now, look at my face. Am I mad?’
He looked, and blinked. ‘Well—’
‘Of course I ain’t. But here, there are some lunatics so crafty, they pass as sane; and the doctors and nurses can’t see the difference between me, and one of them.’
Again he looked about him. Then he looked at me—just as, a moment before, I had looked at him—as if seeing me for the first time. He looked at my hair, my dress, my india-rubber boots. I drew my feet under my skirt.
‘I— I’m not sure,’ he said.
‘Not sure? Not sure of what? Of whether you want to go back to your aunty’s and live with the pigs? Or whether you want to go and be man to Mr Rivers, in London—London, mind! Remember them elephants a boy can ride on for a shilling? Tricky choice, I call that.’
He lowered his gaze. I looked at Nurse Spiller. She had glanced our way, was yawning, and had taken out a watch.
‘Pigs?’ I said quickly. ‘Or elephants? Which is it to be? For God’s sake, which?’
He worked his lips. v
‘Elephants,’ he said, after a terrible silence
‘Good boy. Good boy. Thank God. Now, listen. How much money have you got?’
He swallowed. ‘Five shillings and sixpence,’ he said.
‘All right. Here’s what you must do. You must go to any town, and find a locksmith’s shop; and when you find it you must ask them for—’ I pressed my hand to my eyes. I thought I felt that cloudy water rising again, that flapping curtain. I nearly screamed in fright. Then the curtain drew back—’for a ward key,’ I said, ‘a ward key, with a one-inch blank. Say your master wants it. If the man won’t sell it, you must steal one. Now, don’t look like that! We shall send the man another when we reach London. When you’ve got the blank, keep it safe. Go next to a blacksmith’s. Get a file—see
my fingers?—same width as this. Show me the width I mean. Good boy, you got it. Keep the file safe as the blank. Bring them back here, next week—next Wednesday, only Wednesday will do! do you hear me?—and slip them to me. Understand me? Charles?’
He stared. I had begun to grow wild again. But then he nodded. Then his gaze moved past me and he twitched. Nurse Spiller had left the door-place and was headed our way.
‘Time’s up,’ she said.
We stood. I kept hold of the back of my chair, to keep from sinking. I looked at Charles, as if my eyes could burn into his. I had let his hand fall, but now reached for it again.
‘You’ll remember, won’t you, what I’ve said?’
He nodded, in a frightened way. He dropped his gaze. He made to draw free his hand and step away. Then a queer thing happened. I felt his fingers move across my palm and found I could not let them go.
‘Don’t leave me!’ I said. The words came from nowhere. ‘Don’t leave me, please!’
‘Now then,’ said Nurse Spiller. ‘We’ve no time for this. Come on.’
She began to ungrip my fingers. It took her a moment or two. When his hand was free, Charles drew it quickly back and put his knuckles to his mouth.
‘Sad, ain’t it?’ Nurse Spiller said to him, her arms about my own. My shoulders jumped. ‘Don’t you mind it, though. It takes them all like this. Better not to come at all, we say. Better not to remind ’em of home. Whips ’em up.’ She drew me tighter. Charles shrank away. ‘You be sure now, to tell your people that, when you say what a sad way you found her in—won’t you?’
He looked from her to me, and nodded. I said,
‘Charles, I’m sorry’ My teeth were chattering about the words. ‘Don’t mind it. It’s nothing. Nothing at all.’
But I could see him looking at me now and thinking that I must be mad, after all; and if he thought that, then I was done for, I should be at Dr Christie’s house for ever, I should never see Mrs
Sucksby and never have my revenge on Maud.—That thought was sharper than my fear. I willed myself calm, and Nurse Spiller at last let me go. Another nurse came forward, to see Charles to the door: they let me watch him leave, and oh! it was all I could do to keep from running after. As he went, he turned, and stumbled, and met my gaze. Then he looked shocked again. I had tried to smile, and suppose the smile was dreadful.
‘You’ll remember!’ I called, my voice high and strange. ‘You’ll remember the elephants!’
The nurses shrieked with laughter then. One gave me a push. My strength was all gone, and the push knocked me over. I lay in a heap. ‘Elephants!’ they said. They stood and laughed at me, until they wept.
That week was a terrible one. I had got my own mind back, the house seemed crueller than ever, and I saw how far I had sunk before in growing used to it. Say I grew used to it again, in seven days? Say I grew stupid? Say Charles came back, and I was too funked to know him? The thought nearly killed me. I did everything I could to keep myself from slipping into a dream again. I pinched my own arms, until they were black with bruises. I bit my own tongue. Each morning I woke with a horrible sense that days had slipped away and I had not noticed. ‘What day is today?’ I’d ask Miss Wilson and Mrs Price. Of course, they never knew. Miss Wilson always thought, Good Friday. Then I’d ask Nurse Bacon.
‘What day is today, Nurse Bacon?’
‘Punishment Day,’ she’d answer, wincing and rubbing her hands.
Then there was the fear that, after all, Charles wouldn’t come— that I had been too mad—that he would lose his nerve, or be overtaken by disaster. I thought of all the likely and unlikely things that might keep him from me—such as, his being seized by gipsies or thieves; run down by bulls; falling in with honest people, who would persuade him to go back home. One night it rained, and I thought of the ditch he was sleeping in filling up with water and him being drowned. Then there came thunder and lightning; and I imagined him sheltering under a tree, with a file in his hand . . .
The whole week passed like that. Then Wednesday came. Dr Graves and Dr Christie went off in their coach and, late in the morning, Nurse Spiller arrived at the door to our room, looked at me and said, ‘Well, ain’t we charming? There’s a certain young shaver downstairs, come back for another visit. We shall be putting out the banns, at this rate …” She led me down. In the hall, she gave me a poke. ‘No monkeying about,’ she said.
This time, Charles looked more afraid than ever. We sat in the same two seats as before and, again, Nurse Spiller stood in the door-place and larked with the nurses in the hall. We sat for a minute in silence. His cheek was white as chalk. I said, in a whisper,
‘Charles, did you do it?’
He nodded again.
Another nod. I put my hand before my eyes.
‘But the blank,’ he said, in a complaining tone, ‘cost nearly all my money. The locksmith said that some blanks are blanker than others. You never told me that. I got the blankest he had.’
I parted my fingers, and met his gaze.
‘How much did you give him?’ I asked.
‘Three shillings, miss.’
Three shillings for a sixpenny blank! I covered my eyes again. Then, ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Never mind. Good boy . . .’
Then I told him what he must do next. I said he must wait for me, that night, on the other side of Dr Christie’s park wall. I said he must find the spot where the highest tree grew, and wait for me there. He must wait all night, if he had to—for I could not say, for sure, how long my escape would take me. He must only wait, and be ready to run. And if I did not come at all, he must know that something had happened to stop me; and then he must come back the next night and wait again—he must do that, three nights over.
‘And if you don’t come, then?’ he asked, his eyes wide.
‘If I don’t come then,’ I said, ‘you do this: you go to London, and you find out a street named Lant Street, and a lady that lives there,
named Mrs Sucksby; and you tell her where I am. God help me, Charles, that lady loves me!—and she’ll love you, for being my friend. She’ll know what to do.’
I turned my head. My eyes had filled with water. ‘You got it?’ I said at last. ‘You swear?’
He said he did. ‘Show me your hand,’ I said then; and when I saw how it shook, I dared not let him try and slip me the blank and file, for fear he would drop them. He kept them in his pocket, and I hooked them out just before I left him—while Nurse Spiller looked on, laughing to see him kiss my cheek and blush. The file went up my sleeve. The blank I held on to—then, as I went upstairs, I stooped as if to tug up a stocking, and let it fall into one of my boots.
Then I lay on my bed. I thought of all the burglars I had ever heard of, and all the burglars’ boasts. I was like them, now. I had my file, I had my blank. I had my pal on the other side of the madhouse wall. Now all I must do was get hold of a key, long enough to make my copy.
I did it like this.
That night, when Nurse Bacon sat in her chair and flexed her fingers, I said,
‘Let me rub your hands for you tonight, Nurse Bacon, instead of Betty. Betty doesn’t like it. She says the grease makes her smell like a chop.’
Betty’s mouth fell open. ‘Oh! Oh!’ she cried.
‘God help us,’ said Nurse Bacon. ‘As if this heat weren’t enough. Be quiet, Betty!—Like a chop, did you say? And after all my kindness?’
‘I never!’ said Betty. ‘I never!’
‘She did,’ I said. ‘Like a chop, done up for the pan. You let me do it instead. Look how neat and soft my hands are.’
Nurse Bacon looked, not at my fingers, but at my face. Then she screwed up her eyes. ‘Betty, shut up!’ she said. ‘What a row, and my flesh blazing. I’m sure I don’t care who does it; but I’d rather a quiet girl than a noisy one. Here.’ She put the tip of her thumb to the
edge of the pocket in her skirt and pulled it back. ‘Fetch ’em out,’ she said to me.
She meant her keys. I hesitated, then put in my hand and drew them up. They were warm from the heat of her leg. She watched me do it. ‘That littlest one,’ she said. I held it and let the others swing, then went to the cupboard and got out the jar of grease. Betty lay on her stomach and kicked up her heels, weeping into her pillow. Nurse Bacon sat back and put up her cuffs. I sat beside her and worked the ointment in, all about her swollen hands, just as I had seen it done a hundred times. I rubbed for half an hour. Now and then she winced. Then her eyes half closed and she gazed at me from beneath the lids. She gazed in a warm and thoughtful way, and almost smiled.
‘Not so bad, is it?’ she murmured. ‘Eh?’
I didn’t answer. I was thinking, not of her, but of the night and the work to come. If my colour was up, she must have taken it for a blush. If I seemed strange, and conscious of myself, what was that to her? We were all strange, there. When at last she yawned and drew her hands away, and stretched, my heart gave a thump; but she did not see it. I moved from her side, to take the ointment back to its cupboard. My heart thumped again. I had only a second to do what I needed to do. The loop of keys was hanging from the lock, the one I wanted—the one to the doors—hanging lowest. I did not plan to steal it, she would have noticed if I had. But men came all the time to Lant Street, with bits of soap, and putty, and wax … I caught the key up and quickly but very carefully pressed it into the jar.
The grease took the shape of the bitting, good as anything. I looked at it once, then screwed on the lid and set the jar back on its shelf. The cupboard door I closed, but only pretended to lock. The key I wiped on my sleeve. I took it back to Nurse Bacon, and she opened up her pocket with the tip of her thumb, like before.
‘Right in,’ she said, as I made to put in the keys. ‘All the way to the bottom. That’s right.’
I would not meet her eye. I went to my bed, and she yawned, and sat in her chair and dozed, as she always did, until Nurse Spiller brought round our draughts. I had got used to taking mine, along
with the other ladies, but tonight I tipped it away—into the mattress, this time—then gave back my empty bowl. Then I watched, in a sort of fever, to see what Nurse Bacon would do next. If she had gone to the cupboard—say, for a paper, or a cake, or a piece of knitting, or any small thing; if she had gone to the cupboard and found it open, and locked it, and spoiled my plan, I can’t say what I would have done. I really think I might have killed her. But anyway, she did not go. She only sat sleeping in her chair. She slept so long, I began to despair of her ever waking up again: I coughed; picked up my boot and dropped it; ground the legs of my bed against the floor—and still she slept on. Then some dream woke her. She got up, and put her nightgown on. I had my fingers across my face, and saw her do it, through the cracks: I saw her stand, rubbing her stomach through the cotton of her gown; and I saw her looking at all the ladies and then at me, seeming to turn some idea over in her mind . . .
But then, she gave the idea up. Perhaps it was the heat. She yawned again, put the chain of keys around her neck, got into her bed; and started snoring.
I counted her snores. When I had counted twenty I rose, like a ghost, crept back to the cupboard, and got out the jar of grease.
Then I cut my copy. I can’t say how long it took. I only know, it took hours—for of course, though the file was a fine one, and though I worked with the sheets and blankets bunched about my hands to muffle the sound, still the rasp of the iron seemed loud, and I dared only cut in time to Nurse Bacon’s snores. And I could not file too quickly even then, for I had always to be matching up the blank with the impression, making sure the cuts were right; then again, my fingers would ache, I would have to stop and flex them; or they’d grow wet, the blank would slip and swivel in my hands. It was terrible work to be doing in a desperate mood. I seemed to feel the night slipping away, like so much sand—or else, Nurse Bacon would fall silent, I would pause and look about me and be brought back to myself—to the beds, and the sleeping ladies—and the room would seem so still I feared that time had stopped and I should be caught in it for ever. No-one called out
that night, no-one had awful dreams, no bells were rung, everyone lay heavy in their beds. I was the only wakeful soul in the house— the only wakeful soul, I might as well have been, in all the world; except, that I knew that Charles was also wakeful—was waiting, on the other side of Dr Christie’s walls—was waiting for me; and that, beyond him, Mrs Sucksby was also waiting—perhaps, was sighing in her bed—or walking, wringing her hands and calling out my name … It must have been the thought of that, that gave me courage and made the file run true.
For at last there came a time when I put the blank to the jar, and saw that the cuts all matched. The key was finished. I held it, in a sort of daze. My fingers were stained from the iron, and grazed from the slipping of the file, and almost numb from gripping. I dared not stay to bind them up, though. Very carefully I rose, pulled on my tartan gown, and took up my rubber boots. I also took Nurse Bacon’s comb.—That was all, just that. I lifted it from off her table, and, as I did, she moved her head: I held my breath, but she did not wake. I stood quite still, looking into her face. And I was filled, suddenly, with guilt. I thought, ‘How disappointed she’ll be, when she finds how I’ve tricked her!’—I thought of how pleased she had got, when I’d said I would rub her hands.
Queer, the things you think at such times. I watched her another minute, then went to the door. Slowly, slowly, I put the key in the lock. Slowly, slowly, I turned it. ‘Please, God,’ I whispered, as it moved. ‘Dear God, I swear, I’ll be good, I’ll be honest the rest of my days, I swear—’ It caught, and stuck. ‘Fuck! Fuck!’ I said. The wards had jammed, I had not cut true after all: now it would not turn, either forwards or backwards. ‘Fuck! You fuckster! Oh!’ I gripped it harder, and tried again—still nothing—at last I let it go. I went silently back to my bed, got Nurse Bacon’s ointment jar, stole back with it to the door, put grease across the key-hole and blew it into the lock. Then, almost fainting with fear, I gripped the key again; and this time—this time, it worked.
There were three more doors to be got through, after that. The key did the same in all of them—got stuck, and must be greased— and every time, I shuddered to hear the grinding of the iron in the
lock, and went on faster. But no-one woke. The passages were hot and quiet, the stairs and hall quite still. The front door was bolted and latched, I didn’t need a key for that. I left it open behind me. It was as easy as the time that I had gone from Briar with Maud: only on the walk before the house did I get a fright, for as I made to cross the bit of gravel there, I heard a step, and then a voice. The voice called, softly, ‘Hey!’—I heard it, and almost died. I thought it was calling me. Then there came a woman’s laugh, and I saw figures: two men—Mr Bates, I think, and another; and a nurse—Nurse Flew, with the swivel-eye. ‘You’ll get your—’ one of them said; but that was all I heard. They went through bushes, at the side of the house. Nurse Flew laughed again. Then the laugh got stifled, and there came silence.
I did not wait to see what the silence would become. I ran— lightly, at first, across the strip of gravel—then fast and hard, across the lawn. I didn’t look back at the house. I didn’t think about the ladies, still inside it. I should like to say I went and threw my key into the little walled garden, for one of them to find; but I did not. I didn’t save anyone but myself. I was too afraid. I found the tallest tree: it took me another half-hour, then, to get myself up the knots in its trunk—to fall, to try again—to fall a second time, a third, a fourth—to heave myself finally on to its lowest branch—to climb from there to the branch above—to work my way across a creaking bough until I reached the wall . . . God knows how I did it. I can only say, I did. ‘Charles! Charles!’ I called, from the top of the bricks. There was no answer. But I did not wait. I jumped. I hit the ground and heard a yelp. It was him. He had waited so long, he had fallen asleep; and I almost struck him.
The yelp made a dog bark, back at the house. That dog set off another. Charles put his hand before his mouth.
‘Come on!’ I said.
I caught his arm. We turned our backs to the wall, and ran and ran.
We ran through grass and hedges. The night was still dark, the paths all hidden, and I was too afraid, at first, to take the time to
find them out. Every now and then Charles would stumble, or slow his step to press his hand to his side and find his breath, and then I’d tilt my head and listen; but there was nothing to hear but birds, and breezes, and mice. Soon the sky grew lighter, and we made out the pale strip of a road. ‘Which way?’ said Charles. I did not know. It had been months and months since I had stood on any kind of path and had to choose the way to take. I looked about me, and the land and the lightening sky seemed suddenly vast and fearful. Then I saw Charles looking, and waiting. I thought of London. ‘This way,’ I said, beginning to walk; and the fear passed from me.
It was like that, then, all the way: every time we met the crossing of two or three roads, I would stand for a minute and think hard of London; and just as if I were Dick Whittington, the idea would come to me which road we ought to take. When the sky grew even paler, we began to hear horses and wheels. We should have been glad of a lift, but I was afraid, each time, that the cart or coach might have been sent out after us, from the madhouse. Only when we saw an old farmer driving out of a gate in a donkey-cart, did I think we could be sure he was not one of Dr Christie’s men: we put ourselves in his way, and he slowed the donkey and let us ride beside him for an hour. I had combed out the plaits and stitches from my hair and it stood up like coir, and I had no hat, so put a handkerchief of Charles’s about my head. I said that we were brother and sister, and going back to London after a stay with our aunty.
‘London, eh?’ said the farmer. ‘They say a man can live forty years there and never meet his neighbour. Is that right?’
He put us down at the side of the road at the edge of a town, and showed us the way we must take from there. I guessed we had gone about nine or ten miles. We had forty more to do. This was still early morning. We found a baker’s shop, and bought bread; but the woman in the shop looked so queerly at my hair and my gown, and my rubber boots, I wished we had given up the bread and gone hungry. We sat in a church-yard, upon the grass, against two leaning stones. The church bell rang, and we both started.
‘Seven o’clock,’ I said. I felt suddenly gloomy. I looked at Nurse
Bacon’s comb. ‘They’ll be waking up now, and finding my empty bed; if they haven’t found it already’
‘Mr Way will be polishing shoes,’ said Charles. His lip began to
‘Think of Mr Rivers’s boots,’ I said quickly. ‘I bet they want a polish. London is awfully hard on a gentleman’s shoes.’
That made him feel better. We finished our bread, and then rose and brushed the grass off. A man went by with a shovel. He looked at us rather as the woman in the baker’s shop had.
‘They think we’re tinkers,’ said Charles, as we watched him pass.
But I imagined men coming from the madhouse, asking about after a girl in a tartan dress and rubber boots. ‘Let’s go,’ I said, and we left the road again and took a quiet path that went off across fields. We kept as much as we could to the hedges, though the grass was higher there, and harder and slower to walk on.
The sun made the air grow warm. There came butterflies, and bees. Now and then I stopped and untied the handkerchief from about my head, and wiped my face. I had never walked so far, so hard, in my life; and for three months I had not been further than round and round the little walled garden at the madhouse. There were blisters on my heels, the size of shillings. I thought, ‘We shall never get to London!’
But each time I thought it, I thought of Mrs Sucksby, and imagined the look upon her face when I turned up at the Lant Street door. Then I thought of Maud, wherever she was; and imagined her face.
Her face seemed dim to me, however. The dimness bothered me. I said,
‘Tell me, Charles, what colour are Miss Lilly’s eyes? Are they brown, or blue?’
He looked at me strangely.
‘I think they are brown, miss.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I think so, miss.’
‘I think so, too.’
But I was not sure. I walked a little faster. Charles ran beside me, panting.
Near noon that day we came across a row of little cottages, on the side of the path to a village. I made Charles stop, and we stood behind a hedge, and I watched the doors and windows. At one, a girl stood shaking cloths—though after a minute she went inside, and then the window was closed. At another, a woman with a bucket passed back and forth, not looking out. The windows of the next cottage down were all shut and dark; but I guessed there must be something behind them, worth stealing: I thought of going to the door and knocking and, if no-one came, trying the latch. But as I stood, working up my nerve, there came voices, from the very last house: we looked, and there at the garden gate was a woman and two little children. The woman was tying on a bonnet and kissing the children good-bye.
‘Now, Janet,’ she was saying to the biggest one, ‘mind you watch Baby nicely. I shall be back to give you your egg. You may hem your hankie if you like, if you’ll only be careful with the needle.’
‘Yes, Ma,’ said the girl. She put her face up to be kissed, then stood on the gate and swung it. Her mother walked quickly away from the cottage—past me and Charles, though she didn’t know it; for we were still hidden behind our hedge.
I watched her go. Then I looked from her to the little girl—who had left the gate now, and was walking back up the path, leading her brother towards the open cottage door. Then I looked at Charles. I said,
‘Charles, here’s Fate turned our way at last. Give me a sixpence, will you?’ He felt about in his pocket. ‘Not that one. Haven’t you got a brighter?’
I took the brightest he had, and gave it an extra shine on the sleeve of my gown.
‘What are you going to do, miss?’ he asked.
‘Never mind. Stay here. And if anyone comes, give a whistle.’
I stood and straightened my skirt; then I went out from behind the hedge and walked smartly over to the gate of the cottage, as if I
had come along the path. The little girl turned her head and saw
‘All right?’ I said. ‘You’ll be Janet. I just met your ma. Look here,
what she gave me. A sixpence. Ain’t it a nice one? She said, “Please give this sixpence to my little girl Janet, and tell her to please go quick to the shop and buy flour.” Said she forgot, just now. Know what flour is, don’t you? Good girl. Know what else your ma said? She said, “My girl Janet is such a good little girl, tell her she’s to have the half-penny left over, for sweets.” Ah. Like sweets, do you? So do I. Nice, ain’t they? But hard on your teeth. Never mind. I dare say you ain’t got all your teeth yet. Oh! Look at them dazzlers! Like pearls on a string! Better nip down the shop, before the rest come up. I’ll stay here and mind the house, shall I? Don’t that sixpence shine! And here’s your little brother, look. Don’t you want to take him with you? Good girl
It was the shabbiest trick there was, and I hated doing it; but what can I say? I had had a shabby trick played on me. All the time I spoke, I was glancing quickly about me, at the windows of the other cottages, and along the path; but no-one came. The little girl put the coin in the pocket of her apron and picked up her baby brother, and staggered away; and I watched her do it, then darted into the house. It was a pretty poor place, but in a trunk upstairs I found a pair of black shoes, more or less my size, and a print dress, put in paper. I thought the dress might have been the one that the woman was married in, and I swear to God! I almost didn’t take it; but in the end, I did.
And I also took a black straw bonnet, a shawl, a pair of woollen stockings, a pie from the pantry; and a knife.
Then I ran back to the hedge where Charles was hiding.
‘Turn round,’ I said, as I changed. ‘Turn round! Don’t look so frightened, you bloody big girl. Damn her! Damn her!’
I meant Maud. I was thinking of the little girl, Janet, coming back to the cottage with the flour and her bag of sweets. I was thinking of her mother, coming home in time for tea, and finding her wedding-gown gone.
I got hold of Maud’s glove, and ripped it till the stitches gave. Then I threw it to the ground and jumped on it. Charles watched, with a look of terror on his face.
‘Don’t look at me, you infant!’ I said. ‘Oh! Oh!’ But then I grew frightened of someone coming. I took the glove up again and put it back next to my bosom, and tied up the strings of the bonnet. I threw my madhouse gown and my rubber boots into a ditch. The blisters on my feet had opened, and were weeping like eyes; but the stockings were thick ones, and the black shoes were worn and soft. The dress had a pattern of roses on it, and the bonnet had daisies at the brim. I imagined how I must look—like a picture, I thought, of a milkmaid on a dairy wall.
But that was just the thing, I supposed, for the country. We left the fields and the shady paths and went back to the road; and after a time another old farmer came by, and he drove us another few miles; and then we walked again.
We still walked hard. Charles was silent all the way. Finally he broke out with:
‘You took them shoes and that gown, without asking.’ ‘I took this pie as well,’ I said. ‘Bet you’ll eat it, though.’ I said we would send the woman her clothes back, and buy her a brand-new pie, in London. Charles looked doubtful. We spent the night in the hay of an open barn, and he lay with his back to me, his shoulder-blades shaking. I wondered if he might run off to Briar while I slept; and I waited until he grew quiet, then tied the laces of one his boots to the laces of one of mine, so I should wake up if he tried to. He was an aggravating boy; but I knew I should do better with him than without him, just now—for Dr Christie’s men would be looking for a girl on her own, not a girl and her brother. I thought that if I had to, I would give him the slip once we reached London. But London still seemed far off. The air still smelled too pure. Some time in the night I woke, and the barn was full of cows: they stood in a circle and looked us over, and one of them coughed like a man. Don’t tell me that’s natural. I woke up Charles, and he was as frightened as I was. He got up and tried to run—of course, he fell down, and nearly took my foot off. I undid our laces. We went
backwards out of the barn, then ran, then walked. We saw the sun
rise over a hill.
‘That means east,’ said Charles. The night had been cold as winter, but the hill was a steep one and we grew warm as we climbed. Wrhen we got to the top, the sun was higher in the sky and the day was lightening up. I thought, The morning has broken.—I thought of the morning like an egg, that had split with a crack and was spreading. Before us lay all the green country of England, with its rivers and its roads and its hedges, its churches, its chimneys, its rising threads of smoke. The chimneys grew taller, the roads and rivers wider, the threads of smoke more thick, the farther off the country spread; until at last, at the farthest point of all, they made a smudge, a stain, a darkness—a darkness, like the darkness of the coal in a fire—a darkness that was broken, here and there, where the sun caught panes of glass and the golden tips of domes and steeples, with glittering points of light.
‘London,’ I said. ‘Oh, London!’
Still, it took all that day to reach it. We might have found out the railway station and taken a train: but I thought we ought to keep the little money we had left, for food. We walked for a while with a boy who had a great big basket on his back, that he had filled with onions: he showed us to a place where waggons came, to pick up vegetables for the city markets. We had missed the best of the traffic, but we got a ride, in the end, with a man with a slow horse, taking scarlet beans to Hammersmith. He said Charles made him think of his son—Charles had that sort of face—so I let them ride up front together, and sat in the back of the cart, with the beans. I sat with my cheek against a crate, my eyes on the road ahead, and now and then the road would rise and show us London again, grown a little nearer. I might have slept; but I couldn’t keep from watching. I watched as the roads began to be busier and the country hedges began to give way to palings and walls; I watched the leaf become brick, the grass become cinders and dust, the ditches
kerb-stones. When once the cart drew close to the side of a house that was pasted, two inches thick, with fluttering bills, I reached and tore free a strip of poster—held it for a second, then let it fly. It had a picture of a hand upon it, holding a pistol. It left soot on my fingers. Then I knew I was home.
From Hammersmith, we walked. That part of London was strange to me, but I found I knew my way all right—just as I had known, in the country, which road to take at a fork. Charles walked beside me, blinking, and sometimes catching hold of the cuff of my sleeve; in the end I took his hand to lead him across a street, and he let his fingers stay there. I saw us reflected in the glass of a great shop window—me in my bonnet, him in his plain pea-jacket—we looked like the Babes in the bloody Wood.
Then we reached Westminster, and got our first proper view of the river; and I had to stop.
‘Wait, Charles,’ I said, putting my hand to my heart and turning away from him. I did not want him to see me so stirred up. But then, the sharpest part of my feelings being over, I began to think.
‘We ought not to cross the water just yet,’ I said, as we walked on. I was thinking of who we might bump into. Suppose we chanced upon Gentleman? Or, suppose he chanced upon us? I did not think he would put a hand upon me, himself; but fifteen thousand pounds is a deal of money, and I knew he was up to hiring bullies to do his bad work for him. I had not thought of this, until now. I had thought only of reaching London. I began to look about me, in a new way. Charles saw me do it.
‘What is it, miss?’ he said.
‘Nothing,’ I answered. ‘Only, I’m afraid there may still be men, sent out by Dr Christie. Let’s cut down here.’
I took him down a dark and narrow street. But then I thought, a dark and narrow street would be the worst kind of street to be caught in. I turned instead—we were somewhere near Charing Cross now—into the Strand; and after a time we came to the end of a road that had one or two little stalls, selling second-hand clothes. I went to the first we came to, and bought Charles a woollen scarf. For myself, I got a veil. The man who sold it to me teased me.
‘Don’t care for a hat, instead?’ he said. ‘Your face is too pretty to hide.’
I held out my hand for my half-penny change. ‘All right,’ I said, impatient. ‘So’s my arse.’
Charles flinched. I did not care. I put on the veil and felt better. It looked badly above my bonnet and pale print gown, but I thought I might pass for a girl with scars, or with some kind of ailment of the face. I made Charles draw the woollen scarf about his mouth and pull down his cap. When he complained that the day was hot I said,
‘If I get taken by Dr Christie’s spies before I bring you to Mr Rivers, how hot do you think you’ll find it, then?’
He looked ahead, to the crush of coaches and horses at Ludgate Hill. It was six o’clock, and the traffic was at its worst.
‘Then when will you bring me to him?’ he said. ‘And how much further does he live?’
‘Not much at all. But, we must be careful. I have to think. Let us find somewhere quiet
We ended up at St Paul’s. We went in, and I sat in one of the pews while Charles walked about and looked at the statues. I thought, ‘I must only get to Lant Street, and then I shall be saved’; but what was worrying me was the thought of the story that Gentleman might have put about the Borough. Say all of Mr Ibbs’s nephews had had their hearts turned against me? Say I met John Vroom before I reached Mrs Sucksby? His heart did not need turning; and he would know me, even behind my veil. I must be careful. I should have to study the house—make my move only when I knew how the land lay. It was hard, to be cautious and slow; but I thought of my mother, who had not been cautious enough. Look what happened to her.
I shivered. St Paul’s was cold, even in July. The glass at the windows was losing its colours, as the afternoon turned to night. At Dr Christie’s, now, they would be waking us up to take us down to our suppers. We would have bread-and-butter, and a pint of tea . . . Charles came and sat beside me. I heard him sigh. He had his cap in his hands, and his fair hair shone. His lip was perfectly pink.
Three boys in white gowns went about with flames on sticks of brass, lighting more lamps and candles; and I looked at him and thought how well he would fit in among them, in a gown of his
Then I looked at his coat. It was a good one, though rather
marked by dust.
‘How much money have we now, Charles?’ I said.
We had a penny and a half. I took him to a pawn-shop on Watling Street, and we pledged his coat for two shillings.
He cried as he handed it over.
‘Oh, how,’ he said, ‘shall I ever see Mr Rivers now? He’ll never want a boy in shirt-sleeves!’
I said we would get the coat back in a day or two. I bought him some shrimps and a piece of bread-and-butter, and a cup of tea.
‘London shrimps,’ I said. ‘Yum, ain’t they lovely?’
He did not answer. When we walked on, he walked a step behind me with his arms about himself, his eyes on the ground. His eyes were red—from tears, and also from grit.
We crossed the river at Blackfriars, and from there, though I had been going so carefully, I went more carefully still. We kept away from the back lanes and alleys, and stuck to the open roads; and the twilight—which is a false light, and always a good light for doing any kind of shady business in, better even than darkness—helped to hide us. Every step we took, however, was taking me closer to home: I began to see certain familiar things—even, certain familiar people—and felt, again, a stir in my head and heart, that I thought would quite undo me. Then we reached Gravel Lane and the Southwark Bridge Road, turned up to the west end of Lant Street and stood looking along it; and my blood rushed so fast and my heart rose so high, I thought I should swoon. I gripped the brick wall we rested against and let my head drop, until the blood went slower. When I spoke, my voice was thick. I said,
‘See that black door, Charles, with the window in it? That’s the door to my own house. The lady lives there, that’s been like my mother. I should like more than anything now, to run to that door; but I shan’t. It ain’t safe.’
‘Not safe?’ he said. He gazed about him, fearfully. I suppose those streets—that looked so dear to my eyes I could have lain down and kissed them—might have looked rather low to his.
‘Not safe,’ I said again, ‘while Dr Christie’s men are still behind us.’
But I looked along the street, at Mr Ibbs’s door, and then at the window above it. It was the window to the room I shared with Mrs Sucksby, and the temptation to go closer to it was too great. I caught hold of Charles and pushed him before me, and we walked, then stood at a wall where there was a bit of shadow between two bulging bow-windows. Some kids went by, and laughed at my veil. I knew their mothers, they were neighbours of ours; and I began to be afraid again, of being seen, and recognised. I thought I was a fool, after all, to have come so far down the street; then I thought, ‘Why don’t I just make a run at the door, calling out for Mrs Sucksby?’ Maybe I’d have done it. I can’t say. For I had turned, as if to rearrange my bonnet; and while I was still making up my mind Charles put his hand to his mouth, and cried out, ‘Oh!’
The kids that had laughed at my veil had run far down the street, and then had parted, to let someone walk between them. It was Gentleman. He was wearing that old slouch hat, and had a scarlet cloth at his throat. His hair and whiskers were longer than ever. We watched him saunter. I think he was whistling. Then, at Mr Ibbs’s shop-door, he came to a stop. He put his hand to the pocket of his coat and drew out a key. He kicked his feet against the step—first the right, then the left—to knock the dust from them; then he fitted the key in the lock, glanced idly about, and went inside. He did it all, in the easiest and most familiar way you can imagine.
I saw him, and quivered right through. But my feelings were queer. ‘The devil!’ I said. I should like to have killed him, to have shot him, to have run at him and struck his face. But the sight of him had also made me afraid—more afraid than I ought to have been—as afraid as if I were still at Dr Christie’s and might at any moment be taken, shaken, bound and plunged in water. My breath came strangely, in little catches. I don’t think Charles noticed. He was thinking of his shirt-sleeves.—’Oh!’ he still said. ‘Oh! Oh!’
He was looking at his finger-nails, and at the smudges of dirt on his cuffs.
I caught hold of his arm. I wanted to run—back, the way we had come. I wanted to run, more than anything. I almost did. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Come, quick.’ Then I looked again at Mr Ibbs’s door— thought of Mrs Sucksby behind it—thought of Gentleman, cool and easy at her side. Damn him, for making me afraid of my own home! ‘I won’t be chased away!’ I said. ‘We’ll stay, but we’ll hide. Come, here.’ And I gripped Charles tighter and began to push him, not away from Lant Street, but further along it. There were rooming-houses, all along that side. We reached one, now. ‘Got beds?’ I said, to the girl at the door.—’Got half a one,’ she said. Half was not enough. We went to the next house, and then the next. They were both full. At last we reached the house right across from Mr Ibbs’s. There was a woman on the step with a baby. I did not know her. That was good.
‘Got a room?’ I said quickly.
‘Might have,’ she answered, trying to see beyond my veil.
‘At the front?’ I looked up and pointed. ‘That one?’
‘That one costs more.’
‘We’ll have it for the week. I’ll give you a shilling now, and pay you the rest tomorrow.’
She made a face; but she wanted gin, I knew it. All right,’ she said. She got to her feet, put the baby on the step, and took us up a slippery staircase. There was a man dead drunk on the landing. The door to the room she led us into had no lock to it, only a stone for propping it shut. The room was small and dark, with two low beds and a chair. The window had shutters closed before it, on the street-side, and there was a stick with a hook hung next to the glass, meant for opening them.
‘You do it like this,’ said the woman, beginning to show us. I stopped her. I said I had a weakness of the eye and didn’t care for sunlight.
For I had seen straight away that the shutters had little holes cut in them, that were more or less perfect for what I wanted; and when the woman had got our shilling off us and gone, I shut the door
behind her, took off my veil and bonnet, then put myself at the glass and looked out.
There was nothing to see, however. Mr Ibbs’s shop door was still shut, and Mrs Sucksby’s window dark. I watched for quite a minute before I remembered Charles. He was standing, gazing at me, squeezing his cap between his hands. In some other room a man gave a shout, and he jumped.
‘Sit down,’ I said. I put my face back^to the window.
‘I want my jacket,’ he said.
‘You can’t have it. The shop is closed. We shall get it tomorrow.’
‘I don’t believe you. You told a lie to that lady, about having a poor eye. You took that gown and those shoes, and that pie. That pie made me sick. You have brought me to a horrible house.’
‘I have brought you to London. Ain’t that what you wanted?’
‘I thought London would be different.’
‘You haven’t seen the best parts yet. Go to sleep. We’ll get your jacket back in the morning. You shall feel like a new man then.’
‘How shall we get it? You just gave our shilling to that lady’
‘I shall get us another shilling tomorrow.’
‘You mustn’t ask. Go to sleep. Ain’t you tired?’
‘This bed’ve got black hairs in it.’
‘Then take the other.’
‘That one has red hairs.’
‘Red hairs won’t hurt you.’
I heard him sit and rub his face. I thought he might be about to cry again. But then, after a minute he spoke, and his voice had changed.
‘Weren’t Mr Rivers’s whiskers long, though?’ he said.
‘Weren’t they,’ I answered, my eye at the shutter still. ‘I’d say he needs a boy to trim them.’
‘Don’t he just!’
He sighed then, and lay back upon the bed, putting his cap over his eyes; and I kept watch at the glass. I kept watch, like cats keep watch at mouse-holes—not minding the hours as they passed, not thinking of anything but what I gazed at. The night grew dark, and
the street—that was a busy street, in summer—grew empty and still, the kids all gone to their beds, the men and women come back from the public houses, the dogs asleep. In the other rooms in the house, people walked, pulled chairs across the floor; a baby cried. A
girl—she was drunk, I suppose—laughed, on and on. Still I
watched. Some clock struck off the hours. I could not hear bells without wincing, now, and felt every one of them: at last came the twelve, and then the half, and I was listening out for the three-quarters—still watching, still waiting; but beginning to wonder, perhaps, what it was I thought I would see—when this happened:
There came a light and a shadow, in Mrs Sucksby’s room; and then a figure—Mrs Sucksby herself! My heart nearly flew into bits. Her hair showed white, and she had her old black taffeta gown on. She stood with a lamp in her hand, her face turned from me, her jaw moving—she was talking to someone else farther back in the room, someone who now came forward, as she moved back. A girl. A girl, very slim at the waist … I saw her, and began to shake. She came on, while Mrs Sucksby moved about the room behind her, taking off her brooches and rings. She came right to the glass. She lifted her arm to rest it upon the bar of the window-sash, and then she stood with her brow upon her wrist, and grew still. Only her fingers moved, as they plucked idly at the lace across the window. Her hand was bare. Her hair was curled. I thought, It can’t be her.
Then Mrs Sucksby spoke again, the girl lifted her face, the light of the street-lamp fell full upon it; and I cried out loud.
She might have heard me—though I don’t think she can have—for she turned her head and seemed to look at me, to hold my gaze across the dusty street and the darkness, for quite a minute. I don’t think I blinked, in all that time. I don’t think she did, her eyes stayed open— I saw them, and remembered their colour at last. Then she turned back into the room, took a step away, caught up the lamp; and as she lowered the flame Mrs Sucksby went close to her, lifted her hands, and begin to unfasten the hooks at the back of her collar.
Then came darkness.
I moved back from the window. My own white face was reflected
there, the streetlight striking it—on the cheek, beneath my eye—in the shape of a heart. I turned from the glass. My cry had woken Charles, and I suppose my look was peculiar.
‘Miss, what is it?’ he said in a whisper.
I put my hand before my mouth.
‘Oh, Charles!’ I said. I took a couple of staggering steps towards him. ‘Charles, look at me! Tell me who I am!’
‘Not miss, don’t call me missl I never was a miss, though they made me out one.—Oh! She has taken everything from me, Charles. She has taken everything and made it hers, in spite. She has made Mrs Sucksby love her, as she made— Oh! I’ll kill her, tonight!’
I ran in a kind of fever, back to the shutter, to look at the face of the house. I said, ‘Now, might I climb to the window? I could force the bolt, creep in, and stab her as she lies sleeping. Where is that knife?’
I ran again, and caught it up and tried its edge. ‘Not sharp enough,’ I said. I looked about me, then picked up the stone that was used as a door-stop, and drew the blade across it. ‘Like this?’ I said to Charles. ‘Or like this? Which makes the best edge? Come on, come on. You’re the bloody knife-boy, aren’t you?’
He watched me in terror; then came and, with trembling fingers, showed me how. I ground the blade. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘That will feel good, with its point against her breast.’ Then I stopped. ‘But, don’t you think that, after all, a death by stabbing comes rather quick? Had I not ought to find a slower way?’—I thought of stifling, strangling, beating with a club.—’Have we a club, Charles? That will take longer; and oh! I should like to have her know me, as she dies. You shall come with me, Charles. You shall help.—What’s the matter?’
He had walked to the wall and stood with his back against it, and begun to quiver.
He said, ‘You ain’t— You ain’t the lady you seemed to be at Briar!’
I said, ‘Look at you. You ain’t the boy. That boy had nerve.’
‘I want Mr Rivers!’
I laughed, a mad laugh. ‘I’ve got news for you. Mr Rivers ain’t quite the gent you thought him, either. Mr Rivers is a devil and a rogue.’
He stepped forward. ‘He ain’t!’
‘He is, though. He ran off with Miss Maud, told everyone I was her and put me in a madhouse. Who else do you think it was, signed my order?’
‘If he signed it, it must have been true!’
‘He’s a villain.’
‘He’s a gem of a man! Everyone at Briar said so.’
‘They never knew him like I did. He’s bad, he’s rotten.’
He made his hands into fists. ‘I don’t care!’ he cried.
‘You want to man for a devil?’
‘Better that, than— Oh!’ He sat upon the floor and hid his face. ‘Oh! Oh! I was never more miserable, in all of my life. I hate you!’
‘And I hate you,’ I said, ‘you fucking nancy’
I still had the stone in my hand. I threw it at him.
It missed him by about a foot; but the sound of it striking the wall and floor was awful. I was shaking, now, almost as badly as he was. I looked at the knife I held, then put it from me. I touched my face. My cheek and brow were wet with a horrible sweat. I went to Charles and knelt beside him. He tried to push me away.
‘Get off me!’ he cried. ‘Or, kill me now! I don’t care!’
‘Charles, listen to me,’ I said, in a steadier voice. ‘I don’t hate you, truly. And you mustn’t hate me. I am all you’ve got. You have lost your place at Briar, and your aunty don’t want you. You can’t go back to the country now. Besides, you should never find your way out of Southwark, without my help. You should wander and grow bewildered; and London is full of cruel hard men who do unspeakable things to bewildered fair-haired boys. You might be taken by the master of a ship, and finish up in Jamaica. How should you like that? Don’t cry, for God’s sake!’—He had begun to sob.—’You think I shouldn’t like to cry? I have been dreadfully cheated, and the person that cheated me worst is lying at this moment in my own bed, with my own mother’s arms about her. This is a greater thing than you can understand. This is a matter of life and death. I was
foolish to say I would kill her tonight. But give me a day or two more, and let me think. There’s money over there and—I swear it, Charles!—there are people there too who, once they know how I’ve been wronged, will give any kind of sum to the boy that has helped me back to them …”
He shook his head, still crying; and now, at last, I began to cry, too. I put my arm about him and he leaned into my shoulder, and we shuddered and wailed until, finally, someone in the room next door began to bang on the wall and call out for us to stop.
‘There, now,’ I said, wiping my nose. ‘You’re not afraid, now? You’ll sleep, like a good boy?’
He said he thought he would, if I would keep beside him; and so we lay together on the bed with the red hairs in it, and he slept, with his pink lips parted, and his breaths coming even and smooth.
But I kept wakeful, all through that night. I thought of Maud, across the street, lying breathing in Mrs Sucksby’s arms, her mouth open like his, like a flower, her throat perfectly slender, and perfectly white and bare.
By the time the morning came, I had the beginnings of a plan worked out. I stood at the window and watched Mr Ibbs’s door for a time but then, seeing no-one stirring, gave it up. That could wait. What I needed now was money. I knew how to get it. I made Charles brush his hair and put a parting in it, then took him quietly from the house, by the back way. I took him to Whitechapel—a place, I thought, far enough from the Borough for me to risk going about without my veil. I found a spot on the High Street.
‘Stand here,’ I said. He did. ‘Now, remember how you cried so hard last night? Let’s see you do it again.’
I caught hold of his arm and pinched it. He gave a squeal, then began to snivel. I put my hand on his shoulder and looked up and down the street, in an anxious way. A few people gazed curiously at us. I beckoned them over.
‘Please, sir, please, lady,’ I said. ‘I just come upon this poor boy, he’s come in from the country this morning and has lost his master.
Can you spare a couple of farthings, set him back upon his way? Can you? He’s all alone and don’t know no-one, don’t know Chancery Lane from Woolwich. He has left his coat in his master’s
cart. —__God bless you, sir! Don’t cry, mate! Look, this gentleman is
giving you twopence. Here comes some more! And they say Londoners’ hearts is hard, in the country—don’t they . . .?’
Of course, the idea of a gentleman giving him money made Charles cry worse than ever. His tears were like so many magnets. We made three shillings, that first day—which paid for our room; and when we tried the same dodge the day after, on a different street, we made four. That got us our suppers. The money that was left over after that I kept, along with the ticket to Charles’s coat, in my shoe. I wore my shoes, even in bed. ‘I wantmy jacket,’ Charles would say, a hundred times an hour; and every time I’d answer, ‘Tomorrow. I swear. I promise. Just one more day . . .’
And then, all day, I would stand at the shutters, my eye at the heart-shaped hole. I was watching the house, figuring out its habits. I was marking it, patient as a cracksman. I saw thieves come, bringing pieces of poke to Mr Ibbs: I saw him turn the lock on his door, pull down his blind. The sight of his hands, of his honest face, made me want to weep. I’d think, ‘Why can’t I go to him?’ Then, a little later, I’d see Gentleman, and be filled again with fear. Then I’d see Maud. I’d see her at the window. She liked to stand there, with her face against the sash—as if she knew I was watching, and mocked me! I saw Dainty, helping her dress in the mornings, fastening up her hair. And I saw Mrs Sucksby, at night, letting it down.—Once I saw her lift a tress of it to her mouth, and kiss it.
With each new thing, I would press my faqe so hard against the glass I stood at, it would groan in its frame. And at night, when the house was dark, I would take up my candle and walk, back and forth, back and forth, from one wall to another.
‘They have got them all in their power,’ I’d say. ‘Dainty, and Mr Ibbs, and Mrs Sucksby; and I dare say John and even Phil. Like two great spiders, they have spun their web. We’ve got to be careful, Charles. Oh, haven’t we! For say they know, through Dr Christie, that I’ve escaped? They must know by now! They are waiting,
Charles. They are waiting for me. She never leaves the house— that’s clever!—for, in keeping there, she keeps near Mrs Sucksby. He goes, however. I’ve seen him. I’ve been waiting, too. They don’t know that. He goes. We’ll make our move, next time he does. I’m the fly they want. They shan’t get me. We’ll send them you. They won’t have thought of that! Hey, Charles?’
Charles never answered. I had kept him so long in that dark room, doing nothing, his face had got pale, and his eyes had begun to grow glassy, like a doll’s. ‘I want my jacket,’ he still said, now and then, in a feeble sort of bleat; but I think he had almost forgotten what it was he wanted it for. For at last there came a time when he said it, and I answered: ‘All right. Today you’ll get it. We’ve waited long enough. Today’s our day’; and instead of looking pleased, he stared and looked frightened.
Perhaps he thought he saw a certain feverish something in my eye. I don’t know. It seemed to me I was thinking like a sharper, for the first time in my life. I took him back to Watling Street and got his jacket out of pawn. But I kept hold of it. Then I took him on a ‘bus.—’For a treat,’ I said. ‘Look out the window, at the shops.’
I found us places next to a woman holding a baby. I sat with the coat across my lap. Then I looked at the baby. The woman caught my eye, and I smiled.
‘Pretty boy,’ she said. ‘Isn’t he? Won’t sleep for his mother, though. I bring him on the ‘buses and the bumping sends him off. We’ve been from Fulham to Bow; now we’re on our way back.’
‘He’s a peach,’ I said. I leaned in and stroked his cheek. ‘Look at them lashes! He’ll break hearts, he will.’ ‘Won’t he!’
Then I leaned back. When the next stop came, I made Charles get off. The woman said good-bye, and from the window, as the ‘bus moved away, she waved. But I didn’t wave back. For, under cover of Charles’s coat, I had had a feel about her waistband; and had prigged her watch. It was a nice little ladies’ watch, and just what I needed. I showed it to Charles. He looked at it as though it were a snake that might bite him. ‘Where did you get that?’ he said.
‘Someone gave it to me.’ ‘I don’t believe you. Give me my jacket.’ ‘In a minute.’ ‘Give me my coat!’
We were walking on London Bridge. ‘Shut up,’ I said, ‘or I’ll throw it over the side.—That’s better. Now, tell me this: can you
He would not answer until I had gone to the wall of the bridge and dangled his jacket over; then he began to cry again, but said that he could. ‘Good boy,’ I said. I made him walk a little further, until we found a man hawking papers and inks. I bought a plain white sheet, and a pencil; and I took Charles back to our room and had him sit and write out a letter. I stood with my hand on the back of his neck, and watched.
‘Write, Mrs Sucksby,’ I said.
He said, ‘How do you spell it?’
‘Don’t you know?’
He frowned, then wrote. It looked all right to me. I said,
‘Now you write this. Write: / was put in the madhouse by that villain your friend—so called!—Gentleman—’
‘You are going too fast,’ he said, as he wrote. He tilted his head. ‘By that villain your friend—’
‘—so called!—Gentleman; and that bitch Maud Lilly.—You must make those names stand out.’
The pencil moved on, then stopped. He blushed.
‘I won’t write that word,’ he said.
‘Before Miss Lilly.’
I pinched his neck. ‘You write it,’ I said. ‘You hear me? Then you write this, nice and big: PIGEON MY ARSE! She is WORSE THAN HIM!’
He hesitated; then bit his lip and wrote.
‘That’s good. Now this. Put: Mrs Sucksby, I have escaped and am close at hand. Send me a signal by this boy. He is a friend, he is writing
this, his name is Charles. Trust him, and believe me—oh! if this fails, I’ll die!—believe me as ever as good and as faithful as your own daughter— There you must leave a space.’
He did. I took the paper from him and wrote, at the bottom, my name.
‘Don’t look at me!’ I said, as I did it; then I kissed where I had written, and folded the paper up.
‘Here’s what you must do next,’ I said then. ‘Tonight, when Gentleman—Mr Rivers—leaves the house, you must go over, and knock, and ask to see Mr Ibbs. Say you’ve got a thing to sell him. You’ll know him straight off: he’s tall, and trims his whiskers. He’ll ask if you’ve been followed; and you must be sure, when he does, to say you got away clean. Then he’ll ask what brought you to him. Say you know Phil. If he asks how you know him you’re to say, “Through a pal named George.” If he asks which George you must say, “George Joslin, down Collier’s Rents.” George who, down where?’
‘George Joslin, down— Oh, miss! I should rather anything than this!’
‘Should you rather the cruel hard men, the unspeakable things, Jamaica?’
He swallowed. ‘George Joslin, down Collier’s Rents,’ he said.
‘Good boy. Next you hand him the watch. He will give you a price; but whatever price he gives you—if it be, a hundred pounds, or a thousand—you must say it ain’t enough. Say the watch is a good one, with Geneva works. Say—I don’t know—say your dad done watches, and you know them. Make him look a bit harder. Any luck, he’ll take the back off—that will give you the chance to look about. Here’s who you’re looking for: a lady, rather old, with hair of silver—she’ll be sitting in a rocking-chair, perhaps with a baby in her lap. That’s Mrs Sucksby, that brought me up. She’ll do anything for me. You find a way to reach her side, and pass this letter to her. You do it, Charles, and we’re saved. But listen here. If there’s a dark-faced, mean-looking boy about, keep clear of him, he’s against us. Same goes for a red-headed girl. And if that viper Miss Maud Lilly is anywhere near, you hide your face. Understand
me? If she sees you—more even than the boy—then we are done
He swallowed again. He put the note on the bed, and sat and
looked fearfully at it. He practised his piece. I stood at the window, and watched, and waited. First came twilight, then came dark; and with the dark came Gentleman, slipping from Mr Ibbs’s door with his hat at an angle and that scarlet cloth at his throat. I saw him go; gave it another half-an-hour, to be sure; then looked at Charles.
‘Put your coat on,’ I said. ‘It’s time.’
He grew pale. I gave him his cap and his scarf, and turned up his
‘Have you got the letter? Very good. Be brave, now. No funny
stuff. I’ll be watching, don’t forget.’
He did not speak. He went, and after a moment I saw him cross the street and stand before Mr Ibbs’s. He walked like a man on his way to the rope. He pulled his scarf a little higher about his face, then he looked round, to where he knew I stood behind the shutter.—’Don’t look round, you fool!’ I thought, when he did that. Then he plucked at his scarf again; and then he knocked. I wondered if he might run from the step. He looked as though he would like to. But before he could, the door was opened, by Dainty. They spoke, and she left him waiting while she went in to Mr Ibbs; then she came back. She glanced up and down the street. Like a fool, he glanced with her, as if to see what she looked for. Then she nodded, and stepped back. He went in, and the door was closed. I imagined her turning the latch with her neat white hand. Then I waited.
Say five minutes passed. Say ten.
What did I suppose would happen? Perhaps, that the door would open, Mrs Sucksby come flying out, with Mr Ibbs behind her; perhaps only that she’d go to her room—show a light, make a sign—I don’t know. But the house stayed quiet, and when at last the door did open, there came only Charles again, with Dainty still behind him; and then again, the door was shut. Charles stood, and quivered. I was used by now to his quivers, and think I knew from the look of this one that things were bad. I saw him look up at our
window and think about running.—’Don’t you run, you fuckster!’ I said, and hit the glass; and perhaps he heard it, for he put down his head and came back across the street and up the stairs. By the time he reached the room his face was crimson, and slick with tears and snot.
‘God help me, I didn’t mean to do it!’ he said, bursting in. ‘God help me, she found me out and made me!’
‘Made you what?’ I said. ‘What happened? What happened, you little tick?’
I got hold of him and shook him. He put his hands before his face.
‘She got the letter off me and read it!’ he said. ‘Who did?’
‘Miss Maud! Miss Maud!’
I looked at him in horror. ‘She saw me,’ he said, ‘and she knew me. I did it all, just as you said. I gave the watch, and the tall man took it and opened its back. He thought my scarf was queer, and asked if I’d the toothache. I said I did. He showed me a pair of nippers, that he said were good for drawing teeth. I think he was teasing. The dark boy was there, burning paper. He called me a—a pigeon. The red-headed girl didn’t give me a look. But the lady, your ma, was sleeping; and I tried to reach her side, but Miss Maud saw the letter in my hand. Then she looked at me, and knew me. She said, “Come here, boy, you’ve hurt your hand,” and she got hold of me before the others could see. She had been playing cards at a table, and she held the letter under the table and read it, and she twisted my fingers so hard—’
His words began to dissolve, like salt in the water of his tears.
‘Stop crying!’ I said. ‘Stop crying for once in your life, or I swear, I’ll hit you! Tell me now, what did she do?’
He took a breath, and put his hand to his pocket, and brought something out.
‘She did nothing,’ he said. ‘But she gave me this. She took it from the table where she sat. She gave it to me, as if it might be a secret; and then the tall man closed the watch up and she pushed me away. He gave me a pound, and I took it, and the red-headed girl let me
out. Miss Maud watched me go, and her eyes were like eyes on fire; but she never said a word. She only gave me this, and I think she must have meant it for you but, oh, miss! you can call me a fool, but God help me if I know what it’s for!’
He handed it over. She had made it very small, and it took me a moment to unfold it and know what it was. When I did, I held it, and turned it, then turned it again; then I stood gazing stupidly at
‘Just this?’ I said. Charles nodded.
It was a playing card. It was one of the playing cards from her old French deck at Briar. It was the Two of Hearts. It had got greasy, and was marked by the folds she had put in it; but it still had that crease, in the shape of her heel, across one of its painted red pips.
I held it, and remembered sitting with her in her parlour, springing the pack to tell her fortune. She had worn her blue gown. She had put her hand before her mouth. Now you are frightening me! she had said.
How she must have laughed about it, later!
‘She’s making game of me,’ I said, my voice not perfectly steady. ‘She has sent me this—you’re sure there’s no message on it, no mark or sign?—she has sent me this, to tease me. Why else?’
‘Miss, I don’t know. She took it from the table-top. She took it quick, and there was a—a wildness, about her eye.’
‘What sort of a wildness?’
‘I can’t say. She looked, not like herself. She wore no gloves. Her hair was curled and queer. There was a glass beside her place—I don’t like to say—I think it had gin in it.’
We looked at each other.
‘What shall we do?’ he asked me.
I did not know.
‘I must think,’ I said, beginning to walk about. ‘I must think what she’ll do. She’ll tell Gentleman—won’t she?—and show him our letter. Then he’ll move, very quick, to find us. They didn’t see you come back here? Someone else might’ve, though. We can’t be sure. We’ve had luck on our side, so far; now our luck’s turning. Oh,
if only I’d never taken that woman’s wedding-gown!—I knew it would make a bad fortune. Luck’s like the tide: it turns, then gets faster and can’t be stopped.’
‘Don’t say it!’ cried Charles. He was wringing his hands. ‘Send the lady her gown back, can’t you?’
‘You can’t cheat luck like that. The best you can do is, try and outface it.’ ‘Outface it?’
I went to the window again, and gazed at the house. ‘Mrs Sucksby is in there now,’ I said. ‘Won’t one word from me do it? When did I ever let myself be frightened by John Vroom? Dainty I think won’t harm me; nor Mr Ibbs. And Maud sounds muddled by gin. Charles, I’ve been a fool to wait at all. Give me my knife. We are going over.’
He stood, open-mouthed, and did nothing. I got the knife myself, then took him by his wrist and led him from the room, down the slippery staircase. A man and a girl stood at the bottom, quarrelling; but their voices faded and they turned their heads to watch us as we went by. Perhaps they saw my knife. I had nowhere to hide it. The street was blowing about with gusts of grit and paper, the night still hot. My head was bare. Anyone who saw me now would know me for Susan Trinder; but it was too late to care. I ran with Charles to Mr Ibbs’s door, knocked on it, then left him on the step while I stood aside with my back to the wall. The door was opened after a minute, just an inch.
‘You’ve come too late.’ It was Dainty’s voice. ‘Mr Ibbs says— Oh! It’s you again. What now? Changed your mind?’
The door was opened a little further. Charles stood, and licked his mouth, his eyes on Dainty’s. Then he looked at me; and when she saw him do that, she put out her head and also looked. Then she screamed.
‘Mrs Sucksby!’ I cried. I made a charge at the door, and Dainty went flying. I caught Charles’s arm and pulled him into the shop. ‘Mrs Sucksby!’ I shouted again. I ran to the hanging baize curtain and knocked it back. The passage beyond was dark, and I stumbled, and Charles stumbled with me. Then I reached the door at the end,
and threw it open. There came heat, and smoke, and light, that made me wink. I saw Mr Ibbs first. He had come half-way to the door, hearing all the shouting. When he saw me he stopped, and flung up his hands. Behind him was John Vroom, in his dog-skin coat; behind John Vroom—I saw her, and could have cried like a girl—was Mrs Sucksby. At the table, in Mrs Sucksby’s great chair, was Maud.
Beneath the chair was Charley Wag. He had begun to bark at the commotion. Now, seeing me, he barked more wildly and beat his tail, then came and rose up before me to give me his paws. The row was awful. Mr Ibbs reached forward and seized his collar and quickly jerked it back. He jerked so hard, Charley was almost throttled. I flinched away and lifted my arms. The others all watched me. If they had not seen my knife before, they saw it now. Mrs Sucksby opened her mouth. She said,
‘Sue, I— Sue—’
Then Dainty came running in behind me, from Mr Ibbs’s shop.
‘Where is she?’ she cried. She had made her hands into fists. She pushed Charles aside, saw me, and stamped. ‘You’ve got some cheek, coming.back here. You bitch! You have just about broke Mrs Sucksby’s heart!’
‘Keep off me,’ I said, waving my knife. She looked at it in astonishment, then fell back. I wished she hadn’t; for there was something awful about it. She was only Dainty, after all. The knife began to shake.
‘Mrs Sucksby,’ I said, turning to her. ‘They have told you lies. I never— They had me—him and her—locked up! And it has taken me all this time—all this time, since May!—to get back to you.’
Mrs Sucksby had her hand at her heart. She looked so surprised and afraid, it might have been her I was pointing the knife at. She looked at Mr Ibbs, and then she looked at Maud. Then she seemed to come to herself. She took two or three nimble steps across the kitchen and put her arms about me, tight.
‘Dear girl,’ she said.
She pressed my face against her bosom. Something hard struck my cheek. It was Maud’s diamond brooch.
‘Oh!’ I cried, when I felt it. And I struggled away. ‘She has taken you from me, with jewels! With jewels and lies!’
‘Dear girl,’ said Mrs Sucksby again.
But I looked at Maud. She had not flinched, or started, at sight of me, as the others all had; she had only—just like Mrs Sucksby— lifted her hand to her heart. She was dressed like a girl of the Borough, but her face was put back from the light, her eyes in shadow—she looked handsome and proud. Her hand was trembling, though.
‘That’s right,’ I said, when I saw that. ‘You shake.’
She swallowed. ‘You had much better not have come here, Sue,’ she said. ‘You had much better have stayed away’
‘You can say so!’ I cried. Her voice was clear, and sweet. I remembered hearing it, now, in my dreams at the madhouse. ‘You can say so, you cheat, you snake, you viper!’
‘Girl-fight!’ cried John, with a clap of his hands.
‘Hey! hey!’ said Mr Ibbs. He had taken out a handkerchief and was wiping his brow. He looked at Mrs Sucksby. She still had her arms about me, and I could not see her face. But I felt her grip grow slack as she reached to take the knife from my hands. ‘Why, he’s a sharp one, ain’t he?’ she said, with a nervous laugh. She put the knife gently on the table. I leaned and snatched it up again.
‘Don’t leave it,’ I said, ‘where she might get it! Oh, Mrs Sucksby, you don’t know what a devil she is!’
‘Sue, listen to me,’ said Maud.
‘Dear girl,’ said Mrs Sucksby again, over her words. ‘This is so astonishingly queer. This is so— Only look at you! Like a regular— ha, ha!—soldier.’ She wiped her mouth. ‘What say you sit down, now, and be nice? What say we send Miss Lilly upstairs, if looking at her upsets you? Eh? And there’s John and Dainty: let’s ask them, shall we?’—she jerked her head—’to slip upstairs, too?’
‘Don’t let them go!’ I cried, as Dainty began to move. ‘Not her, not them!’ I waved the knife. ‘You, John Vroom, stay,’ I said. And then, to Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs: ‘They’ll go for Gentleman! Don’t trust them!’
‘She’s lost her mind,’ said John, rising from his chair. I made a swipe at the sleeve of his coat.
‘I said, stay!’ I cried.
He looked at Mrs Sucksby. She looked at Mr Ibbs.
‘Sit down, son,’ Mr Ibbs said quietly. John sat. I nodded to Charles.
‘Charles, stand behind me, by the door to the shop. Keep them from running to it, should they try’
He had taken off his cap, and was biting the band of it. He went to the door, his face so pale, in the shadows, it seemed to glow.
John looked at him and laughed.
‘You leave him alone,’ I said at once. ‘He has been a friend to me, more ever than you were. Mrs Sucksby, I should never have got back to you, without him. I should never have got free of—of the madhouse.’
She put her fingers to her cheek. ‘Helped you so far as that, did he?’ she said, with her eyes on Charles. She smiled. ‘Then he’s a dear boy; and we shall be sure to pay him out. Shan’t we, Mr Ibbs?’
Mr Ibbs said nothing. Maud leaned from her chair.
‘You must go, Charles,’ she said, in her clear, low voice. ‘You must go from here.’ She looked at me. The look was strange. ‘You must both go, before Gentleman comes back.’
I curled my lip at her. ‘Gentleman,’ I said. ‘Gentleman. You have learned Borough habits very quick.’
The blood rose in her cheek. ‘I am changed,’ she murmured. ‘I am not what I was.’
‘You are not,’ I said.
She lowered her eyes. She looked at her hands. And then, as if seeing that they were bare—and as if one could cover the bareness of the other—she put them awkwardly together. There came the faint jingle of metal: she had, upon her wrist, two or three thin silver bangles, of a kind I had used to like to wear. She held them, to make them be still; then lifted her head again and caught my gaze. I said, in a hard, steady voice:
‘Was being a lady not enough for you, that you must come to the Borough and take the things that were ours?’
She did not answer.
‘Well?’ I said.
She began to try to draw free the bangles. ‘Take them,’ she said. ‘I don’t want them!’
‘You think / want them?’
Mrs Sucksby stepped forward, her own hands darting towards Maud’s.
‘Let them stay!’ she cried.
Her voice was hoarse. She looked at me, then gave an awkward sort of laugh. ‘Dear girl,’ she said, moving back, ‘what’s silver, in this house? What’s silver, compared with the joy of seeing your face?’ She put one hand to her throat, and leaned with the other upon the back of a chair. She leaned heavily, and the chair-legs grated on the floor. ‘Dainty,’ she said, ‘fetch me out a tumbler of brandy, will you? This turn of things’ve quite undone me.’
Like Mr Ibbs, she took out a handkerchief and passed it over her face. Dainty gave her her drink, and she sipped it, and sat.
‘Come beside me,’ she said to me. ‘Put down that old knife, won’t you?’ And then, when I hesitated: ‘What, afraid of Miss Lilly? With me and Mr Ibbs—and your own pal Charles—to mind you? Come, sit.’
I looked again at Maud. I had thought her a viper, but, in the bringing and pouring of the brandy the lamp had got moved about, and I saw in the light of it how slight and pale and tired she was. At Mrs Sucksby’s cry, she had fallen still; her hands still shook, however, and she rested her head against the high back of her chair, as if the weight of it hurt her. Her face was damp. A few strands of hair clung to it. Her eyes were darker than they ought to have been, and seemed to glitter.
I sat, and put the knife before me. Mrs Sucksby took my hand. I said,
‘I have been done very wrong, Mrs Sucksby.’
Mrs Sucksby slowly shook her head. ‘My dear, I begin to see it,’ she said.
‘God knows what lies they’ve told you! The truth is, she was in it with him from the start. They set me up, between them, to take her place; and they put me in the madhouse, where everyone supposed me to be her—’
John whistled. ‘Double-cross,’ he said. ‘Nice work but—oh!’ He laughed. ‘You pigeon!’
Which is what I had known, all along, he would say; though now, it did not seem to matter. Mrs Sucksby looked, not at me, but at our joined hands. She was smoothing her thumb upon mine. I thought the news had stunned her.
‘A bad business,’ she said quietly.
‘Worse than that!’ I cried. ‘Oh, much, much worse! A madhouse, Mrs Sucksby! With nurses, that hurt and starved me! I was hit one time, so hard—! I was dropped—I was dropped in a bath—!’
She drew free her hand and raised it before her face.
‘No more, dear girl! No more. I can’t bear to hear it.’
‘Did they torture you, with tongs?’ asked John. ‘Did they put you in a strait-coat?’
‘They put me in a tartan gown, and boots of—’
I hesitated, then glanced at Charles.
‘Boots without laces,’ I said. ‘They thought that, if they gave me laces, I should hang myself. And my hair—’
‘Did they cut it?’ said Dainty, sitting, putting a hand before her mouth. Her mouth had a fading bruise beside it—from John, I suppose. ‘Did they shave it off?’
I hesitated again, then said, ‘They sewed it to my head.’
Her eyes filled with tears. ‘Oh, Sue!’ she said. ‘I swear, I never meant it when I called you a bitch just now!’
‘That’s all right,’ I said. ‘You weren’t to know.’ I turned again to Mrs Sucksby, and touched the skirt of my dress. ‘This gown I stole,’ I said. ‘And these shoes. And I walked, nearly all the way to London. My only thought was to get back here to you. For worse than all the cruel things that were done to me in the madhouse was the thought of the lies that Gentleman must have told you, about where I had gone. I supposed at first, he would have said that I had died.’
She took my hand again. ‘He might,’ she said, ‘have thought of it.’
‘But I knew you would ask for my body.’
‘Wouldn’t I! Straight off!’
‘Then I guessed what he would say. He would say I had cut with the money, and cheated you all.’
‘He did,’ said John. He sucked his tooth. ‘I always said that you hadn’t the nerve.’
I looked into Mrs Sucksby’s face. ‘But I knew you wouldn’t believe it,’ I said, ‘of your own daughter.’ Her grip on my hand grew tight. ‘I knew you would look for me, until you found me.’
‘Dear girl, I— Oh, I should have got you, too, in another month more!—only, you know, I kept my searching quiet from John and Dainty’
‘Did you, Mrs Sucksby?’ said Dainty.
‘My dear, I did. I sent out a man, confidentially’
She wiped her lips. She looked at Maud. But Maud had her eyes upon me. I suppose the lamp that lit her face also lit mine, for she said, softly and suddenly,
‘You look ill, Sue.’
It was the third time she had spoken my name. I heard it and— despite myself—I thought of the other times she had said it, so softly as that, and felt myself colour.
‘You do look done up,’ said Dainty. ‘You look like you ain’t slept in a week.’
‘I haven’t,’ I said.
‘Then why,’ said Mrs Sucksby, making to rise, ‘won’t you go upstairs now, and put your head down? And then tomorrow, me and Dainty will come and fix you up in one of your old gowns, and dress your hair—’
‘Don’t go to sleep here, Sue!’ said Maud, leaning from her chair and putting her hand towards me. ‘There’s danger here.’
I took up my knife again, and she drew her hand back. I said,
‘You think I don’t know danger? You think that, in looking at you, I’m not seeing danger with a face—a false face, with an actress mouth—with lying blushes, and two brown treacherous eyes?’
The words were like clinker on my tongue: they were awful, but I must spit them out or swallow them and choke. She held my gaze, and her eyes did not seem treacherous, at all. I turned the knife. The
blade took up the light of the lamp and sent it darting across her cheek.
‘I came here to kill you,’ I said.
Mrs Sucksby shifted in her seat. Maud kept her glittering gaze on mine.
‘You came to Briar,’ she said, ‘to do that. . .’
Then I looked away and let the knife fall. I felt suddenly tired, and sick. I felt all the walking I had done, and all the careful watching. Now nothing was as I had thought it would be. I turned to Mrs Sucksby.
‘Can you sit,’ I said, ‘and hear her tease me? Can you know the wicked trick she played me, and have her here, and not want to throttle her?’ I meant it; and yet it sounded like bluster, too. I looked around the room. ‘Mr Ibbs, can you?’ I said. ‘Dainty, shouldn’t you like to shake her to pieces, in my behalf?’
‘Shouldn’t I!’ said Dainty. She showed her fist. ‘Cheat my best pal, would you?’ she said to Maud. ‘Lock her up in a madhouse and sew up her hair?’ Maud said nothing, but slightly turned her head. Dainty shook her fist again, then let it sink. She caught my eye. ‘Seems an awful shame, though, Sue. Miss Lilly turning out to be such a sport, and all. And brave? I done her ears last week, and she never cried once. And then, she has took to taking stitches out, that natural—’
All right, Dainty,’ said Mrs Sucksby quickly.
I looked again at Maud—at her neat ear which, I now saw, had a crystal drop falling from it on a wire of gold; and at the curls in her fair hair; and at her dark eye-brows. They had been tweezered into two fine arches. Above her chair—I had not seen this before, either, but it seemed all of a piece with the drops, the curls and arches, the bangles on her wrist—above her chair there was hanging, from a beam, a little cage of wicker with a yellow bird in it.
I felt tears rise into my throat.
‘You have taken everything that was mine,’ I said. ‘You have taken it, and made it better.’
‘I took it,’ she answered, ‘because it was yours. Because I must!’
‘Why must you? Why?’
She opened her mouth to speak. Then she looked at Mrs Sucksby and her face changed.
‘For villainy’s sake,’ she said flatly. ‘For villainy’s sake. Because you were right, before: my face is a false one, my mouth is an actress mouth, my blushes tell lies, my eyes— My eyes—’ She looked away. Her voice had begun to rise. She made it flat again. ‘Richard found that, after all, we must wait for our money, longer than we thought.’
She took up her glass in both her hands, and swallowed what was left in it.
‘You haven’t got the money?’
She put the glass back down. ‘Not yet.’
‘That’s something, then,’ I said. ‘I shall want a share of that. I shall want half of it. Mrs Sucksby, do you hear? They shall give me half their fortune, at least. Not a stinking three thousand, but a half. Think what we shall do, with that!’
But I did not want the money; and when I spoke, my voice sounded hateful to me. Mrs Sucksby said nothing. Maud said,
‘You shall have what you like. I will give you anything, anything at all—if you will only go from here, now, before Richard comes back.’
‘Go from here? Because you tell me to? This is my home! Mrs Sucksby— Mrs Sucksby, will you tell her?’
Mrs Sucksby again passed a hand across her mouth.
‘There again, Susie,’ she said slowly, ‘Miss Lilly might be right. If there is the money to be thought of, you might do well, for now, to keep out of Gentleman’s way. Let me speak with him, first. I’ll give him a taste of my temper, though!’
She said it in a queer, half-hearted way, with a try at a smile—as she might have said it, I thought, if she had just found out that Gentleman had swindled her out of two or three shillings at cards. I guessed she was thinking about Maud’s fortune, and how it might be cut. I couldn’t help but wish that, after all, the money was nothing to her. I said,
‘Will you make me go?’ The words came out like a whisper. I looked away from her, about the kitchen—at the old Dutch clock on the shelf, and the pictures on the walls. On the floor by the door to
the stairs was the white china chamber-pot, with the dark eye in it, from my own room, that must have been brought down to be washed and then forgotten. I would not have forgotten it. On the table beneath my hand was a heart: I had scratched it into the wood, the summer before. I had been like a child still, then. I had been like an infant— I looked about me again. Why were there no babies? The kitchen was still. Everyone was still, and watching me.
‘Will you make me go,’ I said again to Mrs Sucksby, ‘and let her stay?’ Now my voice was broken as a boy’s. ‘Will you trust them, not to send Dr Christie to me? Will you— Will you take her gowns, will you take the pins from her head, will you kiss her, will you let her sleep beside you in my old place, while I lie in a bed with—with red hairs in it?’
‘Sleep beside me?’ said Mrs Sucksby quickly. ‘Who told you that?’
‘Red hairs?’said John.
But Maud had lifted her head, her gaze grown sharp. ‘You have watched us!’ she said. And then, when she had thought it through: At the shutter!’
‘I’ve watched you,’ I answered, more strongly. ‘I’ve watched you, you spider! taking everything of mine. You would rather do that— God damn you!—than sleep with your own husband!’
‘Sleep with—with Richard?’ She looked astounded. ‘You don’t suppose—?’
‘Susie,’ said Mrs Sucksby, putting her hand upon me.
‘Sue,’ said Maud at the same time, leaning across the table and also reaching for me. ‘You don’t suppose him anything to me? You don’t think him a husband to me, in anything but name? Don’t you know I hate him? Don’t you know I hated him, at Briar?’
‘Will you make out now,’ I said, in a kind of trembling scorn, ‘that you only did what you did because he made you?’
‘He did make me!—But, not in the way you mean.’
I said, ‘Will you pretend, that you aren’t a swindling cheat?’
She said, ‘Will you?’
And again, she held my gaze; and again, I was almost shamed by it, and looked away. Then after a moment I said, more quietly,
‘I hated it. I didn’t smile, with him, when your back was turned.’
‘You think I did?’
‘Why not? You are an actress.-You are acting now!’
She said it, still with her eyes on my face, still with her hand reaching for mine but falling short of taking it. The light was all upon us, the rest of the kitchen almost dark. I looked at her fingers. They were marked with dirt, or bruised. I said,
‘If you hated him, why did you do it?’
‘There was no other way,’ she said. ‘You saw my life. I needed you, to be me.’
‘So you might come here, and be me!1 She did not answer. I said, ‘We might have cheated him. If you had told me. We might have—’
‘Anything. Something. I don’t know what. . .’
She shook her head. ‘How much,’ she asked quietly, ‘would you have given up?’
Her gaze was so dark, yet so steady and true; but I grew aware, all at once, of Mrs Sucksby—of John and Dainty, Mr Ibbs—all of them, watching, silent and curious, thinking, What’s this . . .? And in that moment, I saw into my own cowardly heart and knew that I would have given up nothing for her, nothing at all; and that, sooner than be shamed by her now, I would die.
She reached again. Her fingers brushed my wrist. I took up the knife and jabbed at her hand.
‘Don’t touch me!’ I said, as I did it. I got to my feet. ‘Don’t any of you touch me!’ My voice was wild. ‘Not any of you! Do you hear me? I came back here, thinking this my home; now you want to cast me out again. I hate you all! I wish I had stayed in the country!’
I looked from face to face. Dainty had begun to cry. John sat, open-mouthed and astonished. Mr Ibbs had his hand at his cheek. Maud nursed her bleeding fingers. Charles shook. Mrs Sucksby said,
‘Sue, put down the knife. Cast you out? The idea! I—’
Then she stopped. Charley Wag had lifted his head. From Mr
Ibbs’s shop there came the sound of a key, turning in a lock. Then came the kicking of boots; then whistling.
‘Gentleman!’ she said. She looked at Maud, at Mr Ibbs, at me. She got up, and leaned to catch at my arm. ‘Sue,’ she said, as she did it. She spoke in a voice that was almost a whisper. ‘Susie, sweetheart, will you come upstairs . . .?’
But I did not answer, only gripped the knife more firmly. Charley Wag gave a feeble bark, and Gentleman heard him, and barked in reply. Then he whistled again, a lazy waltz tune, and we heard him stumbling along the passage and watched as he pushed at the door. I think he was drunk. His hat was crooked, his cheek quite pink, his mouth a perfect O. He stood, and slightly swayed, and looked about the room, squinting into the shadows. The whistle died. His lips grew straight, and he licked them.
‘Hallo,’ he said, ‘here’s Charles.’ He winked. Then he looked at me, and at my knife. ‘Hallo, here’s Sue.’ He took off his hat and began to unwind the scarlet cloth from his throat. ‘I supposed you might come. Had you left it another day, I should have been ready. I have just now collected a letter, from that fool Christie. He certainly dragged his heels, in letting me know of your escape! I think he planned to recapture you before he should have to. Bad publicity, when one’s lady lunatics run.’
He put the scarlet cloth inside the hat and let them drop. He took out a cigarette.
‘You’re fucking cool,’ I said. I was shaking. ‘Here’s Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs, know everything.’
He laughed. ‘I should say they do.’
‘Gentleman!’ said Mrs Sucksby. ‘Listen to me. Sue has told us terrible things. I want you to go.’
‘Don’t let him leave!’ I said. ‘He’ll send for Dr Christie!’ I waved my knife. ‘Charles, stop him!’
Gentleman had lit his cigarette, but apart from that had not moved. He turned to look at Charles, who had taken a couple of doubtful steps towards him. He put his hand to Charles’s hair.
‘So, Charley,’ he said.
‘Please, sir,’ said Charles.
‘You have found me out a villain.’
Charles’s lip began to tremble. ‘Honest to God, Mr Rivers, I never meant to!’
‘There, there,’ said Gentleman. He stroked Charles’s cheek. Mr Ibbs made a puffing sound with his lips. John got to his feet, then looked about him as if he did not know why he had done it. He blushed.
‘Sit down, John,’ said Mrs Sucksby.
He folded his arms. ‘I shall stand if I like.’
‘Sit down, or I’ll hit you.’
‘Hit me?’ His voice was hoarse. ‘Hit them two, there!’ He pointed to Gentleman and Charles. Mrs Sucksby took two quick steps, and struck him. She struck him hard. He put both his arms to his head and gazed at her from between his elbows.
‘You old cow!’ he said. ‘You been down on me since the day I was born. You touch me again, you’ll know it!’
His eyes blazed as he said it; but then, they filled with tears and he began to snivel. He walked to the wall, and kicked it. Charles shuddered and wept harder. Gentleman looked from one to the other, then gazed at Maud in pretend amazement.
‘Is it down to me,’ he said, ‘that small boys weep?’
‘Fuck you, I ain’t small!’ said John.
‘Will you be quiet?’ said Maud, in her low, clear voice. ‘Charles, that’s enough.’
Charles wiped his nose. ‘Yes, miss.’
Gentleman leaned against the post of the door, still smoking. ‘So, Suky,’ he said. ‘You know all now.’
‘I know you’re a filthy swindler,’ I said. ‘But I knew that, six months ago. I was a fool, that’s all, to trust you.’
‘Dear girl,’ said Mrs Sucksby quickly, with her eyes on Gentleman’s face. ‘Dear girl, the fools were me and Mr Ibbs, to let you.’
Gentleman had taken his cigarette from his mouth to blow against its tip. Now, hearing Mrs Sucksby and meeting her gaze, he stood quite still for a second with it held before his lips. Then he looked away and laughed—a disbelieving sort of laugh—and shook his head.
‘Sweet Christ,’ he said quietly.
I thought she had shamed him.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘All right.’ She lifted her hands. She stood, like a man on a raft—like she was afraid to make too sharp a move for fear of sinking. ‘Now, no more wildness. John, no more sulks. Sue, put that knife down, please, I beg you. No-one is to be harmed. Mr Ibbs. Miss Lilly. Dainty. Charles—Sue’s pal, dear boy—sit down. Gentleman. Gentleman.’
‘Mrs Sucksby,’ he said.
‘No-one to be harmed. All right?’
He glanced at me. ‘Tell it to Sue,’ he said. ‘She is looking at me with murder in her eyes. Under the circumstances, I don’t quite care for that.’
‘Circumstances?’ I said. ‘You mean, your having locked me up in a madhouse and left me to die? I should cut your bloody head off!’
He narrowed his eyes, made a face. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘you have a very whining tone to your voice at times? Has no-one told you that?’
I made a lunge at him with the knife; but the truth was, I was still bewildered, and sick, and tired, and the lunge was a feeble one. He watched, not flinching, as I stood with the point of the blade before his heart. Then I grew afraid that the knife would shake and he would see it. I put it down. I put it down on the table—at the edge of the table, just beyond the circle of light that the lamp threw there.
‘Now, ain’t that nicer?’ said Mrs Sucksby.
John’s tears had dried, but his face was dark—darker on one cheek than on the other, where Mrs Sucksby had hit him. He looked at Gentleman, but nodded to me.
‘She went for Miss Lilly just now,’ he said. ‘Said she’d come to kUl her.’
Gentleman gazed at Maud, who had bound up her bleeding fingers in a handkerchief. He said, ‘I should like to have seen it.’
John nodded. ‘She wants a half of your fortune.’
‘Does she?’ said Gentleman, slowly.
‘John, shut up,’ said Mrs Sucksby. ‘Gentleman, don’t mind him.
He is only making trouble. Sue said a half, but that was her passion talking. She ain’t in her right mind. She ain’t—’ She put a hand to her brow, and looked a little queerly about the room—at me, and at Maud. She pressed her fingers against her eyes. ‘If I might only,’ she said, ‘have a moment, for thinking in!’
‘Think away,’ said Gentleman easily, sourly. ‘I am longing to know what you will come up with.’
‘So am I,’ said Mr Ibbs. He said it quietly. Gentleman caught his eye, and raised a brow.
‘Sticky, wouldn’t you say, sir?’ ‘Too sticky,’ said Mr Ibbs. ‘You think so?’
Mr Ibbs gave a nod. Gentleman said, ‘You think perhaps I should go, make it simpler?’ ‘Are you mad?’ I said. ‘Can’t you see, he’ll still do anything for his money? Don’t let him go! He’ll send for Dr Christie.’ ‘Don’t let him go,’ said Maud, to Mrs Sucksby. ‘Don’t you think of going anywhere,’ said Mrs Sucksby, to Gentleman.
He shrugged, his colour rising. ‘You wanted me to leave, two minutes ago!’
‘I have changed my mind.’ She looked at Mr Ibbs; who looked away.
Gentleman took off his coat. ‘Fuck me,’ he said, as he did it; and he laughed, not nicely. ‘It’s too warm for work like this.’
‘Fuck you,’ I said. ‘You fucking villain. You do what Mrs Sucksby says, all right?’
‘Like you,’ he answered, hanging his coat on a chair. ‘Yes.’
He snorted. ‘You poor little bitch.’
‘Richard,’ said Maud. She had got to her feet and was leaning upon the table. She said, ‘Listen to me. Think of all the filthy deeds you’ve ever done. This will be the worst, and will gain you nothing.’ ‘What will?’ said John.
But Gentleman snorted again. ‘Tell me,’ he said to Maud, ‘when you first started learning to be kind. What’s it to you, what Sue
knows?—Dear me, how you blush! Not that thing, still? And do you look at Mrs Sucksby? Don’t say you care what she thinks! Why, you’re as bad as Sue. Look how you quake! Be bolder, Maud. Think of your mother.’
She had raised her hand to her hea_rt. Now she jumped as if he had pinched her. He saw it, and laughed again. Then he looked at Mrs Sucksby. She had also given a kind of start at his words; and she stood, with her hand, like Maud’s, at her bosom, beneath that diamond brooch. Then she felt him looking, glanced quickly at Maud, and let her hand fall.
Gentleman’s laughter died. He stood very still.
‘What’s this?’ he said.
‘What’s what?’said John.
‘Now then,’ said Mrs Sucksby, moving. ‘Dainty—’
‘Oh!’ said Gentleman. ‘Oh!’ He watched her as she stepped about the table. Then he looked from her to Maud, in an excited sort of way, his colour rising higher. He put his hand to his hair and tugged it back from his brow.
‘Now I see it,’ he said. He laughed; then the laugh broke off. ‘Oh, now I see it!’
‘You see nothing,’ said Maud, taking a step towards him, but glancing at me. ‘Richard, you see nothing.’
He shook his head at her. ‘What a fool I’ve been, not to have guessed it sooner! Oh, this is marvellous! How long have you known? No wonder you’ve kicked and cursed! No wonder you’ve sulked! No wonder she’s let you! I always marvelled at that. Poor Maud!’ He laughed, properly. And, oh, Mrs Sucksby, poor you!’
‘That’s enough!’ said Mrs Sucksby. ‘You hear me? I won’t have it spoke of!’
She also took a step towards him.
‘Poor you,’ he said again, still laughing. Then he called: ‘Mr Ibbs, sir, did you know of this, too?’
Mr Ibbs did not answer.
‘Know what?’ asked John, his eyes like two dark points. He looked at me. ‘Know what?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Know nothing,’ said Maud. ‘Know nothing, nothing!’ She was still moving slowly forward, her eyes—that seemed almost black, now, and glittered worse than ever—all the time on Gentleman’s face. I saw her put her hand upon the dark edge of the table, as if to guide herself about it. Mrs Sucksby saw it too, I think. Perhaps she also saw something else. For she started, and then spoke quickly.
‘Susie,’ she said, ‘I want you to go. Take your pal and go.’ ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ I said.
‘No Susie, you stay,’ said Gentleman, in a rich sort of voice. ‘Don’t mind Mrs Sucksby’s wishes. You have minded them too long. What are they to you, after all?’ ‘Richard,’ said Maud, almost pleading.
‘Gentleman,’ said Mrs Sucksby, her eyes still on Maud. ‘Dear boy. Be silent, will you? I am afraid.’
‘Afraid?’ he answered. ‘You? I should say you never knew fear, in all your life. I should say your hard old leathery heart is beating perfectly quietly now, behind your hard old leathery breast.’
At his words, Mrs Sucksby’s face gave a twitch. She raised a hand to the bodice of her dress.
‘Feel it!’ she said, moving her fingers. ‘Feel the motion here, then tell me I ain’t afraid!’
‘Feel that?’ he said, with a glance at her bosom. ‘I don’t think so.’ Then he smiled. ‘You may get your daughter to do it, however. She’s had practice.’
I cannot say for certain what came next. I know that, hearing his words, I took a step towards him, meaning to strike him or make him be silent. I know that Maud and Mrs Sucksby reached him first. I do not know if Mrs Sucksby, when she darted, darted at him, or only—seeing Maud fly—at her. I know there was the gleam of something bright, the scuffle of shoes, the swish of taffeta and silk, the rushing of someone’s breath. I think a chair was scraped or knocked upon the floor. I know Mr Ibbs called out. ‘Grace! Grace!’ he called: and even in the middle of all the confusion, I thought it a queer thing to call; until I realised it was Mrs Sucksby’s first name, that we never heard used.
And so, it was Mr Ibbs I was watching, when it happened. I didn’t see it when Gentleman began to stagger. But I heard him groan. It was a soft sort of groan.
‘Have you hit me?’ he said. His voice was strange.
Then I looked.
He supposed he had only been punched. I think I supposed it, too. He had his hands at his stomach and was leaning forward, as if nursing the pain of the blow. Maud stood a little before him, but now moved away; and as she did I heard something fall, though whether it fell from her hand, or from his—or from Mrs Sucksby’s—I cannot tell you. Mrs Sucksby was the closer to him. She was certainly the closer. She put her arm about him, and as he sagged she braced herself against his weight, and held him. ‘Have you hit me?’ he said again.
‘I don’t know,’ she said.
I don’t think anyone knew. His clothes were dark, and Mrs Sucksby’s gown was black, and they stood in the shadows, it was hard to see. But at last he took a hand away from his waistcoat and held it before his face; and then we saw the white of his palm made dark with blood.
‘My God!’ he said then.
‘Bring a light!’ said Mrs Sucksby. ‘Bring a light!’
John caught up the lamp and held it, shaking. The dark blood turned suddenly crimson. Gentleman’s waistcoat and trousers were soaked with it, and Mrs Sucksby’s taffeta gown was red and running where she had held him.
I had never seen blood run so freely. I had talked, an hour before, of murdering Maud. I had sharpened the knife. I had left the knife upon the table. It was not there now. I had never seen blood run, like this. I grew sick.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No, no!’
Mrs Sucksby gripped Gentleman’s arm. ‘Take your hand away,’ she said. He still clutched his stomach.
‘Take your hand away!’
She wanted to see how deep the wound went. He grimaced, then drew off his fingers. There came, from a gash in his waistcoat, a bubble—like a bubble of soap, but swirling red—and then a spurt of blood, that fell and struck the floor with a splash—an ordinary splash, like water or soup would make.
Dainty shrieked again. The light wobbled. ‘Fuck! Fuck!’ said John.
‘Set him down in a chair,’ said Mrs Sucksby. ‘Fetch a cloth, for the cut. Fetch something to catch this blood. Fetch something, anything—’
‘Help me,’ said Gentleman. ‘Help me. Oh, Christ!’
They moved him, awkwardly, with grunts and sighs. They sat him on a hard-backed chair. I stood and looked on, while they did it—held still, I suppose, by horror; though I am ashamed now, that I did nothing. Mr Ibbs plucked a towel from a hook on the wall and Mrs Sucksby knelt at Gentleman’s side and held it against the wound. Each time he moved or took his hand from his stomach, the blood spurted. ‘Fetch a bucket or a pot,’ she said again; and finally Dainty ran to the door, caught up the chamber-pot that had been left there, and brought it and set it down beside the chair. The sound of the blood striking the china—and the sight of the red of it, against the white, and against that great dark eye—was worse than anything. Gentleman heard it and grew frightened.
‘Oh, Christ!’ he said again. ‘Oh, Christ, I’m dying!’ In between the words, he moaned—a shuddering, chattering moan, that he could not help or stop. ‘Oh, Jesus, save me!’
‘There now,’ said Mrs Sucksby, touching his face. ‘There now. Be brave. I’ve seen women lose blood like this, from a baby; and live to tell of it.’
‘Not like this!’ he said. ‘Not like this! I’m cut. How badly am I cut? Oh, Christ! I need a surgeon. Do I?’
‘Bring him liquor,’ said Mrs Sucksby, to Dainty; but he shook his head.
‘No liquor. A smoke, though. In my pocket, here.’
He dipped his chin to his waistcoat, and John fished in the folds and brought out a packet of cigarettes, and another of matches.
Half of the cigarettes were soaked with blood, but he found one that was dry, lit it at his own mouth, then put it in Gentleman’s.
‘Good boy,’ said Gentleman, coughing. But he winced, and the cigarette fell. John caught it up in trembling fingers and set it back between his lips. He coughed again. More blood oozed up between his hands. Mrs Sucksby took the towel away and wrung it—wrung it as if it were filled with water. Gentleman began to shake.
‘How did this happen?’ he said. I looked at Maud. She had not moved since stepping from him as he began to fall. She had kept still as me, her eyes upon his face. ‘How can this be?’ He looked wildly about him—at John, at Mr Ibbs, at me. ‘Why do you stand and watch me? Bring a doctor. Bring a surgeon!’
I think Dainty took a step. Mr Ibbs caught her arm.
‘No surgeons here,’ he said firmly. ‘No men like that, to this
‘No men like that?’ cried Gentleman. The cigarette fell. ‘What are you saying? Look at me! Christ! Don’t you know a crooked man? Look at me! I’m dying! Mrs Sucksby, you love me. Bring a man, I beg you.’
‘Dear boy, be still,’ she said, still pressing the towel to the cut. He cried out in pain and fear.
‘Damn you!’ he said. ‘You bitches! John—’
John put down the lamp and raised his hand to his eyes. He was weeping and trying to hide it.
‘John, go for a surgeon! Johnny! I’ll pay you! Fuck!’ The blood spurted again. Now his face was white, his whiskers black but matted, here and there, with red, his cheek gleaming like lard.
John shook his head. ‘I can’t! Don’t ask me!’
Gentleman turned to me. ‘Suky!’ he said. ‘Suky, they’ve killed me—’
‘No surgeons,’ said Mr Ibbs again, when I looked at him. ‘Bring a man like that, and we’re done for.’
‘Take him to the street,’ I said. ‘Can’t you? Call a doctor to the street.’
‘He is cut too bad. Look at him. It would bring them here. There is too much blood.’
There was. It now almost filled the china pot. Gentleman’s moans had begun to grow fainter.
‘Damn you!’ he said softly. He had begun to cry. ‘Who is there who’ll help me? I’ve money, I swear it. Who is there? Maud?’
Her cheek was almost as pale as his, her lip quite white.
‘Maud? Maud?’ he said.
She shook her head. Then she said, in a whisper: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry.’
‘God damn you! Help me! Oh!’ He coughed. There came, in the spittle at his mouth, a thread of crimson; and then, a moment later, a gush of blood. He raised a feeble hand to it—saw the fresh red upon his lingers—and his look grew wild. He reached, out of the circle of lamp-light, and began to struggle, as if to raise himself from the chair. He reached for Charles. ‘Charley?’ he said, the blood bubbling and bursting about the word. He clutched at Charles’s coat and made to draw him closer. But Charles would not come. He had stood all this time in the shadows, a look of fixed and awful terror on his face. Now he saw the bubbles at Gentleman’s lips and whiskers, Gentleman’s red and slippery hand gripping the coarse blue collar of his jacket, and he twitched like a hare. He turned and ran. He ran, the way I had brought him—along the passage to Mr Ibbs’s shop. And before we could call to him or go to him to make him stop, we heard him tear open the door then shriek, like a girl, into Lant Street:
‘Murder! Help! Help! Murder!’
At that we all, save Mrs Sucksby and Maud, sprang back. John made for the shop.—’Too late!’ said Mr Ibbs. ‘Too late.’ He held up his hand. John stood and listened. There had come a swirl of hot wind from the open shop-door and it carried with it what I thought at first was the echo of Charles’s cry; then the sound grew stronger, and I understood it was an answering shout, perhaps from the window of a house nearby. In a second it was joined by another. Then it was joined by this—the worst sound of all, to us—the sound of a rattle, rising and falling on the gusting wind; and drawing nearer.
‘The blues!’ said John. He turned, and came to Dainty. ‘Dainty,
run!’ he said. She stood for a second, then went—the back way__
tearing the bolts from their cradles.—’Go on!’ he said, when she looked back. But he did not go with her. Instead, he went to Gentleman’s side.
‘We might take him,’ he said to Mrs Sucksby. He looked at me, and then at Maud. ‘We might take him between us, if we are quick.’
Mrs Sucksby shook her head. Gentleman’s own head hung low upon his breast. The blood still bubbled at his lip; burst, and bubbled again.
‘Save yourself,’ she said to John. ‘Take Sue.’
But he did not go; and I knew—and know, still—that I wouldn’t have followed, if he had. I was held there, as if by a charm. I looked at Mr Ibbs. He had run to the wall beside his brazier and, as I watched, he drew out one of the bricks. I only found out later that he kept money there, privately, in an old cigarette box. He put the box inside his waistcoat. Then he began to look about him, at the china, the knives and forks, the ornaments on the shelves: he was looking to see what there might be, that he could be done for. He did not look at Gentleman or Mrs Sucksby. He did not look at me— once he came near me, and thrust me aside, to reach past me for a porcelain cup; and when he had got it he dashed it to the floor. When Charley Wag rose up and gave a strangled sort of bark, he kicked him.
Meanwhile, the sound of shouts and rattles grew close. Gentleman lifted his head. There was blood on his beard, on his cheek, at the corner of his eye.
‘Do you hear that?’ he said weakly.
‘Dear boy, I do,’ said Mrs Sucksby. She still knelt at his side.
‘What sound is it?’
She put her red hands over his. ‘The sound of Fortune,’ she said.
She looked at me, and then at Maud. ‘You might run.’
I said nothing. Maud shook her head. ‘Not from this,’ she answered. ‘Not now.’
‘You know what follows?’
She nodded. Mrs Sucksby glanced again at me, and then again at Maud, then closed her eyes. She sighed, as if weary.
‘To have lost you once, dear girl,’ she said. ‘And now, to lose you again—’
‘You shall not lose me!’ I cried; and her eyes flew open, and she held my gaze for a second, as if not understanding. Then she looked at John. He had tilted his head.
‘Here they come!’ he said.
Mr Ibbs heard him, and ran; but he got no further than that dark little court at the back of the house before a policeman picked him up and brought him back again; and by then, two more policemen had made their way into the kitchen by the shop. They looked at Gentleman, and at the chamber-pot of blood, and—what we had not thought to look for or to hide—at the knife, which had got kicked into the shadows and had blood upon it; and they shook their heads.—As policeman tend to do when they see things like that, in the Borough.
‘This is nasty work, ain’t it?’ they said. ‘This is very bad. Let’s see how bad.’
They took hold of Gentleman’s hair and drew back his head, and felt for the pulse at his neck; and then they said,
‘This is filthy murder. Now, who done it?’
Maud moved, or took a step. But John moved quicker.
‘She done it,’ he said, without a hesitation. His cheek was darker than ever, where he had been struck before. He lifted his arm and pointed. ‘She done it. I saw her.’
He pointed at Mrs Sucksby.
I saw him, and heard him, but could not act. I only said, ‘What—?’ and Maud, I think, also cried out, ‘What—?’ or ‘Wait—!’
But Mrs Sucksby rose from Gentleman’s side. Her taffeta dress was soaked in his blood, the brooch of diamonds at her bosom turned to a brooch of rubies. Her hands were crimson, from fingertip to wrist. She looked like the picture of a murderess from one of the penny papers.
‘I done it,’ she said. ‘Lord knows, I’m sorry for it now; but I done it. And these girls here are innocent girls, and know nothing at all about it; and have harmed no-one.’
My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. Now those days all came to an end.
The police took every one of us, save Dainty. They took us, and kept us in gaol while they tore up the Lant Street kitchen, looking for clues, for stashes of money and poke. They kept us in separate cells, and every day they came and asked the same set of questions.
‘What was the murdered man, to you?’
I said he was a friend of Mrs Sucksby’s.
‘Been long, at Lant Street?’
I said I was born there.
‘What did you see, on the night of the crime?’
Here, however, I always stumbled. Sometimes it seemed to me that I had seen Maud take up the knife; sometimes I even seemed to remember seeing her use it. I know I saw her touch the table-top, I know I saw the glitter of the blade. I know she stepped away as Gentleman started to stagger. But Mrs Sucksby had been there,
too, she had moved as quick as anyone; and sometimes I thought it was her hand I remembered seeing dart and flash … At last I told the simple truth: that I did not know what I had seen. It didn’t matter, anyway. They had John Vroom’s word, and Mrs Sucksby’s own confession. They didn’t need me. On the fourth day after they took us, they let me go.
The others they kept longer.
Mr Ibbs was brought before the magistrate first. His trial lasted half-an-hour. He was done, after all, not on account of the poke left lying about the kitchen—he was too good at taking the seals and stampings off, for that—but for the sake of some of the notes in his cigarette box. They were marked ones. The police, it turned out, had been watching the business at Mr Ibbs’s shop, for more than a month; and in the end they had got Phil—who, you might remember, had sworn he’d never do another term in gaol, at any cost—to plant the marked notes on him. Mr Ibbs was found to have handled stolen goods: he was sent to Pentonville. Of course, he knew many of the men in there, and might be supposed to have had an easy time among them—except that, here was a funny thing: the fingersmiths and cracksmen who had been so grateful to get an extra shilling from him on the outside, now quite turned against him; and I think his time was very miserable. I went to visit him, a week after he went in. He saw me, and put his hands before his face, and was in general so changed and so brought down, and looked at me so queerly, I could not bear it. I didn’t go again.
His sister, poor thing, was found by the police in her bed at Lant Street, while they were going through the house. We had all forgotten her. She was put on the ward of a parish hospital. The move, however, was too great a shock for her; and she died.
John Vroom could not be pinned to any crime, save—through his coat—to that old one of dog-stealing. He was let off with six nights in Tothill Fields, and a flogging. They say he was so disliked in his gaol, the keepers played cards for who should be the one to flog him; that they flung in one or two extras above his twelve, for fun; and that after, he cried like a baby. Dainty met him at the prison
gate, and he punched her and blacked her eye. It was thanks to him, though, that she had got clean off from Lant Street.
I never spoke to him again. He took a room for him and Dainty in another house, and kept out of my way. I saw him, only once; and that was in the court-room, at Mrs Sucksby’s trial.
The trial came up very quick. I spent the nights before it at Lant Street, lying awake in my old bed; sometimes Dainty came back, to sleep beside me and keep me company. She was the only one, out of all my old pals, who would: for of course, everyone else supposed— from the story having been put about, before—that I was a cheat. It came out that I had taken that room, in the house across from Mr Ibbs’s; and had lived there, in what seemed a sneaking sort of way, for almost a week. Why had I done that? Then someone said they saw me running, on the night of the murder, with a look of wildness in my eye. They talked about my mother, and the bad blood that flowed in me. They didn’t say I was brave, now; they said I was bold. They said they wouldn’t have been surprised if it was me that had put the knife in, after all; and Mrs Sucksby—who still loved me like a daughter, though I had turned out bad—who had stepped forward and taken the blame . . .
When I walked out in the Borough, people cursed me. Once, a girl threw a stone at me.
At any other time it would have broken my heart. Now, I did not care. I had only one thought, and that was to see Mrs Sucksby as often as I could. They had her in the Horsemonger Lane Gaol: I spent all my days there—sitting on the step outside the gate, when it was too early to be let in; talking with her keepers, or with the man who was to plead her case in court. Some pal of Mr Ibbs’s had found him for us; he was said to have regularly saved the worst sort of villains from the rope. But he told me, honestly, that our case was a bad one. ‘The most we can hope,’ he said, ‘is that the judge show mercy, for the sake of her age.’
More than once I said, ‘Suppose it could be proved she never did it?’
He’d shake his head. ‘Where is the evidence?’ he’d say. ‘Besides, she has admitted to it. Why should she do that?’
I did not know, and could not answer. He would leave me then, at the gate of the gaol—going quickly off, stepping into the street and calling out for a cab-man; and I’d watch him go with my hands at my head, for his shout, and the rattle of hooves and wheels, the movement of people, the very stones beneath my feet, would seem harsh to me. Everything seemed harsh, and loud, and harder and faster than it ought to have been, just then. Many times I would stop, and remember Gentleman, gripping the wound in his stomach, looking disbelievingly at our own disbelieving faces. ‘How did this happen?’ he had said. I wanted to say it, now, to everyone I saw: How did this happen? How can this be? Why do you only stand and watch me . . .?
I would have written letters; if I had known how to write, and who to send them to. I would have gone to the house of the man who was to be judge; if I had known how to find it. But I did nothing like that. What little comfort I got, I got at Mrs Sucksby’s side; and the gaol, though it was so grim—so dark, and.bleak—at least was also quiet. I got to spend more time there than I ought to have, through the kindness of the keepers: I think they thought me younger and less of a sharper than I was. ‘Here’s your daughter,’ they’d say, unlocking the gate to Mrs Sucksby’s cell; and every time, she would quickly lift her head and study my face, or glance beyond my shoulder, with a troubled look—as if, I thought, not quite believing they had let me come again and meant to let me stay.
Then she’d blink, and try at a smile. ‘Dear girl. Quite alone?’
‘Quite alone,’ I’d answer.
‘That’s good,’ she’d say after.a moment, taking my hand. ‘Ain’t it? Just you and me. That’s good.’
She liked to sit with my hand in hers. She did not like to talk. When at first I’d weep, and curse, and beg her to take back her story, my words would so upset her I feared she’d grow ill.
‘No more,’ she’d say, very pale in the face and set about the mouth. ‘I done it, that’s all. I don’t want to hear no more about it.’
So then I’d remember that dander of hers, and keep silent, and only smooth her fingers in mine. They seemed to grow thinner, every time I saw her. The keepers said she left her dinners quite
untouched. The sight of the dwindling of those great hands upset me, more than I can say: it seemed to me that everything, that was so wrong, would be put right if only Mrs Sucksby’s hands could be made to be handsome again. I had spent what money there was in the house at Lant Street, on finding a lawyer; but all that I could make now through borrowing or pawning I put on little dishes to try and tempt her—on shrimps, and saveloys, and suet-puddings. Once I took her a sugar mouse, thinking she might remember the time she had put me in her bed and told me about Nancy from Oliver Twist. I don’t think she did, however; she only took it and set it distractedly aside, saying she would try it later, like she did with everything else. In the end her keepers told me to save my money. She had been passing the dishes to them.
Many times she held my face in her hands. Many times she kissed me. Once or twice she gripped me hard, and seemed about to speak on some awful matter; but always, at the last, she would turn the matter aside and it would be lost. If there were things I might have asked her—if I was troubled by queer ideas, and doubts—I kept quiet as she did. That time was bad enough; why make it worse? We talked instead of me—of how I should do now and in the future.
‘You’ll keep up the old place, at Lant Street?’ she’d say.
‘Won’t I!’ I’d answer.
‘You won’t think of leaving?’
‘Leaving? Why, I mean to keep it ready, against the day they let you out. . .’
I did not tell her how very changed the house was, now that she and Mr Ibbs, and Mr Ibbs’s sister, had gone. I did not tell her that neighbours had left off calling; that a girl threw a stone at me; that people—strangers—would come and stand, for hours at a time, at the doors and windows, hoping for a glimpse of the place where Gentleman had died. I did not say how hard I had worked, with Dainty, to take the blood-stain from the floor; how we had washed and washed; how many buckets of water we had carried off, crimson; how at last we had had to give it up, because the constant scrubbing began to lift the surface of the boards and turn the pale
wood underneath a horrible pink. I didn’t tell her of all the places— the doors, the ceiling—and all the things—the pictures on the walls, the ornaments upon the mantel, the dinner-plates, the knives and forks—that we found marked with streaks and splashes of Gentleman’s blood.
And I did not say how, as I swept and scrubbed the kitchen, I chanced on a thousand little reminders of my old life—dog-hairs, and chips of broken cups, bad farthings, playing cards, the cuts on the door-frame made by Mr Ibbs’s knife to mark my height as I grew up; nor how I covered my face and wept, at every one.
At night, if I slept, I dreamed of murder. I dreamed I killed a man, and had to walk the streets of London with his body in a bag too small to hold it. I dreamed of Gentleman. I dreamed I met him among the graves at the little red chapel at Briar and he showed me the tomb of his mother. The tomb had a lock upon it, and I had a blank and file and must cut the key to fit; and every night I would set to work, knowing I must work quickly, quickly; and every time, just as the job was almost done, some queer disaster would happen—the key would shrink or grow too large, the file would soften in my fingers; there would be a cut—the final cut—I could not make, never make in time . . .
Too late, Gentleman would say.
One time the voice was Maud’s.
I looked, but could not see her.
I had not seen her, since the night that Gentleman died. I didn’t know where she was. I knew the police had kept her longer than they kept me—for she gave them her name, and it got into the newspapers; and, of course, Dr Christie saw it. I heard it, from the keepers at the gaol. It had all come out, how she was Gentleman’s wife, and had supposedly been in a madhouse and had escaped; and how the police didn’t know what to do with her—whether to let her go, or lock her up as a lunatic, or what. Dr Christie said only he could decide; so they called him in to examine her. I nearly had a fit
when I heard that. I still couldn’t go near bath-tubs. But what happened, was this: he took one look at her, was seen to stagger and grow white; then declared himself only overcome with emotion, to find her so perfectly cured. He said this showed how good his methods were. He had the papers give details of his house. He got lots of new lady patients out of it, I think, and quite made his fortune.
Maud herself was set at liberty, then; and after that, she seemed to vanish. I guessed she had gone back home to Briar. I know she never came to Lant Street. I supposed her too afraid!—for of course, I would have throttled her if she had.
I did wonder if she might, however. I wondered it, every day. ‘Perhaps today,’ I would think each morning, ‘will be the day she’ll come.’ And then, each night: ‘Perhaps tomorrow . . .’
But, as I have said, she never did. What came instead, was the day of the trial. It came in the middle of August. The sun had kept on blazing all through that awful summer, and the court—being packed with watchers—was close: every hour a man was called to throw water on the floor to try and cool it. I sat with Dainty. I’d hoped I might sit in the box with Mrs Sucksby, and hold her hand; but the policemen laughed in my face when I asked it. They made her sit alone, and when they took her in and out of the room, they put cuffs on her. She wore a grey prison gown that made her face seem almost yellow, but her silver hair shone very bright against the dark wood walls of the court. She flinched when she first came up, and saw the crowd of strangers that had come to see her tried. Then she found out my face among them and grew, I thought, more easy. Her eye came back to mine, after that, as the day went on—though I saw her looking, too, about the court, as if in search of another. At the last, however, her gaze would always fall.
When she spoke, her voice was weak. She said she had stabbed Gentleman in a moment of anger, m a quarrel over money he owed for the renting of her room.
She earned her money from the letting of rooms? asked the prosecuting lawyer.
‘Yes,’ she said.
And not from the handling of stolen goods, or the unlicensed nursing—commonly known as farming—of orphaned infants?
Then they brought in men to say they had seen her, at different times, with different bits of poke; and—what was worse—found women who swore they had given her babies that had very soon afterwards died . . .
Then John Vroom spoke. They had put him in a suit like a clerk’s, and combed and shined his hair; he looked more like an infant than ever. He said he had seen everything that took place in the Lant Street kitchen, on the fatal night. He had seen Mrs Sucksby put in the knife. She had cried, ‘You blackguard, take that!’ And he had seen her with the knife in her hand, for at least a minute, before she did.
‘At least a minute?’ the lawyer said. ‘You are quite sure? You know how long a minute is? Look at that clock, there. Watch the movement of the hand …”
We all watched it sweep. The court fell still, to do it. I never knew a minute so long. The lawyer looked back at John.
As long as that?’ he said.
John began to cry. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said, through his tears.
Then they brought the knife out, for him to say it was the one. The crowd broke out in murmurs when they saw it; and when John wiped his eyes and looked, and nodded, a lady swooned. The knife was shown to all the men of the jury then, one by one, and the lawyer said they must be sure to note how the blade was sharpened, more than it naturally would have been for a knife of that kind— that it was the sharpening of it that made Gentleman’s wound so bad. He said that broke in pieces Mrs Sucksby’s story about the quarrel, by showing evidence of forethought—
I nearly started out of my seat, when I heard that. Then I caught Mrs Sucksby’s eye. She shook her head, and looked so pleadingly at me to be silent, I fell back; and it never came out that the knife was sharp not because she had sharpened it, but because I had. They never called me to the stand. Mrs Sucksby would not let them. They did call Charles; but he wept so hard, and shook so
badly, the judge declared him unfit. He was sent back to his aunty’s.
No-one was told about me, and Maud. No-one mentioned Briar or old Mr Lilly. No-one came forward to say that Gentleman was a villain—that he had tried to rob heiresses—that he had ruined people through the selling of counterfeit stock. They made out that he was a decent young man with a promising future; they said that Mrs Sucksby had robbed him of it through simple greed. They even found out his family, and brought his parents to the trial—and you’ll never believe it, but it turned out that all his tales of being a gentleman’s son were so much puff. His father and mother ran a small kind of draper’s shop, in a street off the Holloway Road. His sister taught piano. His real name was not Richard Rivers or even Richard Wells; it was Frederick Bunt.
They drew his picture in the papers. Girls all over England were said to have cut it out and worn it next to their hearts.
But when I looked at that picture—and when I heard people talk of the awful murder of Mr Bunt, and of vices, and sordid trades— it seemed to me as though they must be talking of something else, something else entirely, not of Gentleman, being hurt, by mistake, in my own kitchen, with my own people all about. Even when the judge sent off the jury, and we waited, and watched the newspapermen getting ready to run with the verdict as soon as it came; even when the jury, after an hour, returned, and one of them stood and gave back their answer in a single word; even when the judge covered up his horse-hair wig with a cloth of black, and hoped that God would have mercy on Mrs Sucksby’s soul—even then, I did not really feel it as you would suppose I might, did not believe, I think, that so many dark and sober gentlemen speaking so many grave and monotonous words could pinch out the spirit and the heat and the colour from the lives of people like me and Mrs Sucksby.
Then I looked at her face; and saw the spirit and heat and colour half-gone from it, already. She was looking dully about her, at the murmuring crowd—looking for me, I thought, and I rose, and lifted my hand. But she caught my eye, and her gaze, as it had before, moved on: I watched it roam about the room, as if looking for
someone or something else—finally it settled and seemed to clear, and I followed it and picked out, at the back of the rows of watchers, a girl dressed all in black, with a veil, that she was just putting down— It was Maud. I saw her, not expecting to see her: and I’ll tell you this, my heart flew open; then I remembered everything, and my heart flew shut. She looked miserable—that was something, I thought. She was sitting alone. She made no sort of sign—to me, I mean; and none to Mrs Sucksby.
Then our lawyer called me to him, to shake my hand and say he was sorry. Dainty was weeping and needed my arm to help her walk. When I looked at Mrs Sucksby again, her head was sunk upon her breast; and when I looked for Maud, she had gone.
The week that passed after that I remember, now, as not a week at all, but as a single great endless day. It was a day without sleep—for how could I sleep, when sleep might take away thoughts of Mrs Sucksby, who was so soon to die? It was a day, almost, without darkness—for they kept lights in her cell, that burned all through the night; and in the hours I could not be with her, I kept lights burning at Lant Street—every light I could find in the house, and every light I could borrow. I sat alone, with blazing eyes. I sat and watched, as though she might be ill at my side. I hardly ate. I hardly changed my clothes. When I walked, it was to walk quickly to Horsemonger Lane, to be with her; or to walk slowly back, having left her there.
They had her now, of course, in the condemned cell, and one or other of a pair of matrons was always with her. They were kind enough, I suppose; but they were great stout women, like the nurses at Dr Christie’s, and they wore similar canvas aprons, and carried keys: I would catch their eyes and flinch, and all my old bruises would seem to start up aching. Then again, I could never quite find it in my heart to like them, on their own accounts—for surely, if they were truly worth liking, they would open the door and let Mrs Sucksby go? Instead they were keeping her there, for men to come and hang her.
I tried not to think of that, however—or rather, like before, I
found I could not think of it, could not believe it. How much Mrs Sucksby brooded upon it, I can’t say. I know they sent the prison chaplain to her and she spent some hours with him; but she never told me what he said to her, or if it brought her any comfort. Now more than ever, she seemed to like not to speak at all, only to feel the gentle holding of my hand in hers; though now more than ever, too, her gaze as she looked at me would seem sometimes to grow cloudy, and she would colour, and struggle as if with the awful burden of things unsaid . . .
But she said only one thing to me, that she meant for me to remember; and that was on the day before her last—the final time I ever saw her. I went to her, with my heart almost breaking, and thought I should find her pacing her cell or plucking at the bars on her window—in fact, she was calm. It was me who wept, and she sat in her prison chair and let me kneel with my head in her lap, and she put her fingers to my hair—taking the pins from it and letting it fall, until it lay across her knee. I had not had the heart to curl it. It seemed to me that I should never have heart enough, ever again.
‘How shall I do, Mrs Sucksby, without you?’ I said.
I felt some tremor pass through her. Then: ‘Better, dear girl,’ she whispered, ‘than with me.’
She nodded. ‘Better, by far.’
‘How can you say it? When, if I had stayed with you—if I had never gone with Gentleman to Briar— Oh, I should never have left your side!’
I hid my face in the folds of her skirt, and wept again.
‘Hush, now,’ she said. She stroked my head. ‘Hush, now . . .’ Her gown was rough upon my cheek, the prison chair hard against my side. But I sat and let her soothe me, as though I might be a child; and at last we both fell silent. There was a little window, high in the wall of her cell, that let in two or three strips of sunlight: we watched them creep across the stone flags of the floor. I never knew light could creep like that. It crept, like fingers. And when it had crept almost from one wall to another, I heard a step, then felt the
matron lean to lay her hand upon my shoulder.—’It’s time,’ she murmured. ‘Say your good-byes, now. All right?’
We stood. I looked at Mrs Sucksby. Her gaze was clear still, but her cheek, in a moment, had changed—was grey, and damp, like clay. She began to tremble.
‘Dear Sue,’ she said, ‘you have been good to me—’ She drew me to her, and put her mouth against my ear. It was cold as the mouth on a corpse, already; but twitched, like it might have been palsied. ‘Dear girl—’ she began, in a broken whisper. I almost drew back. Don’t say it! I thought.—Though I do not know if I could have said what it was I wished she would not say; I only knew I was suddenly afraid. Don’t say it! She gripped me tighter. ‘Dear girl—’ Then the whisper grew fierce. ‘Watch me, tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Watch me. Don’t cover your eyes. And then, if you should ever hear hard things of me when I am gone, think back—’
‘I will!’ I said. I said it, half in terror, half in relief. ‘I will!’— Those were my last words to her. Then the matron I suppose must have touched me again; must have led me, stumbling, into the passage beyond the gate.—I don’t recall. What I remember next is passing through the prison yard, feeling the sun come upon my face—and giving a cry, turning away—thinking, how queer and wrong and awful it was, that the sun should shine, still shine, even now, even there . . .
There came a keeper’s voice. I heard the rumble of it, but not the words. He was asking something of the matron at my side. She nodded.
‘One of ’em,’ she said, with a glance at me. ‘The other came this morning
I only wondered later what she meant. For now, I was too dazed and miserable to wonder anything. I walked, in a sort of trance, back to Lant Street—only keeping, as much as I could, to the shadows, out of the blazing sun. At the door to Mr Ibbs’s shop I found boys, chalking nooses on the step—they saw me come and ran off, shrieking. I was used to that, however, and let them run; but kicked the nooses away. Inside, I stood a minute to get my breath, and to look about me—at the locksmith’s counter, streaked with dust; and
the tools and key-blanks, that had lost their shine; and the hanging baize curtain, that had got torn from its loops and was drooping. When I walked through to the kitchen, my footsteps crunched: for sometime—I couldn’t say when—the brazier had been knocked from its stand, and coals and cinders still lay scattered on the floor. It seemed too ordinary a thing to do, to sweep them up, set the brazier right; and anyway, the floor was ruined—broken and gaping, from where the police had torn up boards. Underneath it seemed dark, till you brought a light: then you could see earth, two feet below—damp earth, with bones and oyster shells in it, and beetles and wriggling worms.
The table had been pushed to the corner of the room. I went and sat at it, in Mrs Sucksby’s old chair. Charley Wag lay beneath it—poor Charley Wag, he had not barked since Mr Ibbs had jerked so hard on his collar: he saw me now, and beat his tail, and came and let me tug his ears; but then he slunk away and lay with his head on his paws.
I sat, as still and quiet as him, for almost an hour; then Dainty came. She had brought us a supper. I didn’t want it, and neither did she; but she had stolen a purse to buy it, and so I got out bowls and spoons and we ate it slowly, in silence, looking all the time, as we did, at the clock—the old Dutch clock on the mantel—that we knew was steadily ticking, ticking away the last few hours of Mrs Sucksby’s life … I meant to feel them, if I. could. I meant to feel each minute, each second. ‘Won’t you let me stay?’ said Dainty, when it came time for her to go. ‘It don’t seem right, you being here all on your own.’ But I said that that was how I wanted it; and finally she kissed my cheek and went; and then it was just me and Charley Wag again, and the house, growing dark about us. I lit more lights. I thought of Mrs Sucksby, in her bright cell. I thought of her, in all the ways I had seen her, not there, but here, in her own kitchen: dosing babies, sipping tea, lifting up her face so I might kiss it. I thought of her carving meat, wiping her mouth, and yawning . . . The clock ticked on—quicker, and louder, it seemed to me, than it had ever ticked before. I put my head upon the table, upon my arms. How tired I was! I closed my eyes. I could not help it. I meant to keep awake; but I closed my eyes, and slept.
I slept, for once, without dreaming; and I was woken by a curious sound: the tramping and scuffing of feet, and the rising and falling of voices, in the street outside. I thought, in my half-sleep: ‘It must be a holiday today, there must be a fair. What day is it?’—Then I opened my eyes. The candles I had lit had burned to puddles of wax, and their flames were like so many ghosts; but the sight of them made me remember where I was. It was seven o’clock in the morning. Mrs Sucksby was going to be hanged in three hours’ time. The people I could hear were on their way to Horsemonger Lane, to get their places for watching. They had come down Lant Street first, for a look at the house.
There came more of them, as the morning went on. ‘Was it here?’ I could hear them say. And then: ‘Here’s the very identical spot. They say the blood ran so fast and so hard, the walls were painted in it.’—’They say the murdered chap called out against heaven.’—’They say the woman stifled babies.’—’They say he’d bilked her of rent.’—’Puts you into a creep, don’t it?’— ‘Serves him right.’—’They say—’
They would come, and stop a minute, and then pass on; some found their way to the back of the house and rattled the kitchen door, stood at the window and tried to see through the chinks in the shutters; but I kept everything locked and fast. I don’t know if they knew I was inside. Now and then a boy would call: ‘Let us in! A shilling, if you’ll show us the room!’ and, ‘Hoo! hoo! I’m the ghost of the feller as was stabbed, come back to haunt you!’—but I think they did it to tease their friends, not to tease me. I hated to hear them, though; and Charley Wag, poor thing, kept close at my side, and shivered and started and tried to bark, with every call and rattle.—At last I took him upstairs, where the sounds were fainter. But then, after a while the sounds grew fainter still; and that was worse, for it meant that the people had all passed on, found their spots for watching from, and it was almost time. I left Charley then, and climbed the next set of stairs alone—climbed them slowly, like a girl with limbs of lead; then stood at the attic door, afraid to go in. There was the bed I had been born in. There was the wash-stand, the bit of oil-cloth tacked to the wall. The last time I had come here,
Gentleman had been alive and drunk and dancing with Dainty and John, downstairs. I had stood at the window, put my thumb to the glass, made the frost turn to dirty water. Mrs Sucksby had come and stroked my hair … I went to the window, now. I went, and looked, and almost swooned away, for the streets of the Borough, that had been dark and empty then, were bright, and filled with people—so many people!—people standing in the road, stopping the traffic; and besides them, people on walls, on sills, clinging to posts and trees and chimneys. Some were holding children up, some were craning for a better view. Most had their hands across their eyes, to keep the sun off. All had their faces turned one way.
They were looking at the roof of the gate of the gaol. The scaffold was up,’the rope already on it. A man was walking about, examining the drop.
I saw him do it, feeling almost calm, feeling almost sick. I remembered what Mrs Sucksby had asked, with her last words to me: that I should watch her. I had said I would. I had thought I should bear it. It seemed such a little thing to bear, compared with what she must suffer . . . Now the man had taken the rope in his hands and was testing the length of it. The people in the crowd stretched their necks further, so they might see. I began to be afraid. Still I thought, however, that I would watch, to the end. Still I said to myself, ‘I will. I will. She did it for my own mother; I’ll do it for her. What else can I do for her now, except this?’
But I said it; and then came the slow, steady striking of ten o’clock. The man at the rope stood down, the door to the prison steps was thrown open, the chaplain showed himself upon the roof, and then the first of the keepers.—I couldn’t do it. I put my back to the window and covered my face with my hands.
I knew what followed, then, from the sounds that rose up from the streets. The people had fallen silent at the striking of the clock, the coming of the chaplain; now I heard them all start up with hisses and with hoots—that, I knew, was for the hangman. I heard the very spreading of the sound about the crowd, like oil on water. When the hoots grew louder, I knew the hangman had made some sign or bow. Then, in an instant, the sound turned again, moved
faster, like a shiver, like a thrill, through the streets: the cry was sent out: ‘Hats off!’, and was mixed with bursts of dreadful laughter. Mrs Sucksby must have come. They were trying to see her. I grew sicker than ever, imagining all those strangers’ eyes straining out of their sockets to see what figure she would make, yet not being able to look, myself; but I could not, I could not. I could not turn, or tear the sweating hands from before my face. I could only listen. I heard the laughter change to murmurs and calls for hush: that meant the chaplain was saying prayers. The hush went on, and on. My own heartbeats seemed to fill it. Then the Amen was said; and even while the word was still travelling about the streets, other parts of the crowd—the parts that were nearest the gaol and could see best— broke out in an uneasy sort of murmur. The murmur grew louder, got taken up by every throat—then turned, to something more like a moan, or groan . . . And I knew that meant that they had led her up to the scaffold; that they were tying her hands, and covering up her face, and putting, about her neck, the noose . . .
And then, and then, there came a moment—just a single moment, less time than it takes to say it—of perfect, awful stillness: of the stopping of babies’ cries, the holding of breaths, the clapping of hands to hearts and open mouths, the slowing of blood, the shrinking back of thought: This cannot be, this will not be, they won’t, they can’t— And, next, too soon, too quick, the rattle of the drop, the shrieks, as it fell—the groaning gasp, when the rope found its length, as if the crowd had a single stomach and a giant hand had punched it.
Now I did open my eyes, just for a second. I opened them, and turned, and saw—not Mrs Sucksby, not Mrs Sucksby at all, but what might have been a dangling tailor’s figure, done up to look like a woman, in a corset and a gown, but with lifeless arms, and a drooping head like a bag of canvas stuffed with straw—-
I moved away. I did not weep. I went to the bed and lay upon it. The sounds changed again, as people found their breaths and voices—unstopped their mouths, unloosed their babies, shuffled and danced about. There came more hoots, more cries, more dreadful laughter; and finally, cheers. I think I had used to cheer myself,
at other hangings. I never thought what the cheering meant. Now I listened as those hurrahs went up, and it seemed to me, even in my grief, that I understood. She’s dead, they might as well have been calling. The thought was rising, quicker than blood, in every heart. She’s dead—and we’re alive.
Dainty came again that night, to bring me another supper. We didn’t eat any of it. We only wept together, and talked of what we had seen. She had watched with Phil and some other of Mr Ibbs’s nephews, from a spot close to the gaol. John had said only pigeons watched from there. He knew a man with a roof, he said; and went off to climb it. I wondered if he had watched at all; but didn’t say that to Dainty. She herself had seen everything, except the final drop. Phil, who had seen even that, said the fall was a clean one. He thought it was true, after all, what people said, about how the hangman put the knot, when it came to dropping women. Everyone agreed, anyway, that Mrs Sucksby had held herself very boldly, and died very game.
I remembered that dangling tailor’s figure, gripped tight in its corset and gown; and I wondered how, if she had shuddered and kicked, we ever should have known it.
But that was something not to be thought on. There were other things to see to, now. I had become an orphan again; and as orphans everywhere must, I began, in the two or three weeks that followed, to look about me, with a sinking heart; to understand that the world was hard and dark, and I must make my own way through it, quite alone. I had no money. The rent on the shop and house had fallen due in August: a man had come and banged on the door, and only gone because Dainty bared her arms and said she would hit him. He had left us alone since then. I think the house had got known as a murder-house, and no-one wanted to take it. But I knew they would, in time. I knew the man would come back one day, with other men, and break in the door. Where would I live, then? How should I do, on my own? I might, I supposed, take a regular job, at a dairy, a dyer’s, a furrier’s— The very thought of it, however, made
me want to be sick. Everybody in my world knew that regular work was only another name for being robbed and dying of boredom. I should rather stay crooked. Dainty said she knew three girls who worked, in a gang, as street-thieves, Woolwich-way, and wanted a fourth . . . But she said it, not quite catching my eye; for we both knew that street-thieving was a pretty poor lay, compared to what I was used to.
But it was all I had; and I thought it might as well do. I hadn’t the heart for finding out anything better. I hadn’t the heart or the spirit for anything at all. Bit by bit, everything that was left at Lant Street had gone—been pawned, or sold. I still wore the pale print dress I had robbed from the woman in the country!—and now it looked worse on me than ever, for I had grown thin at Dr Christie’s, and then thinner still. Dainty said I had got so sharp, if you could have found a way of threading me with cotton, you could have sewn with me.
And so, when I packed the bits of stuff I wanted to take with me to Woolwich, there was almost nothing. And when I thought of the people I ought to call on, to say good-bye to, I could not think of anyone. There was only one thing I knew I must do, before I went; and that was the picking up of Mrs Sucksby’s things, from Horsemonger Lane.
I took Dainty with me. I did not think that I could bear it all alone. We went, one day in September—more than a month after the trial. London had changed, since then. The season had turned, and the days grown cooler at last. The streets were filled with dust and straw, and curling leaves. The gaol seemed darker and bleaker than ever. But the porter there knew me, and let me through. He looked at me, I thought, in pity. So did the matrons. They had Mrs Sucksby’s things made ready for me, in a wax-paper parcel tied with strings. ‘Released, to Daughter,’ they said, as they wrote in a book; and they made me put my name there, underneath.—I could write my name quick as anyone now, since my time at Dr Christie’s . . . Then they led me back, across the yards, through the grey prison ground where I knew Mrs Sucksby was buried, with no stone upon her grave, so no-one could come and mourn her; and
they took me out under the gate, with its low, flat roof, where I had last seen the scaffold raised. They passed under that roof every day of their lives, it was nothing to them. When they came to say goodbye, they made to take my hand. I could not give it.
The parcel was light. I carried it home, however, in a sort of dread; and the dread seemed to make it heavy. By the time I reached Lant Street, I was almost staggering: I went quickly with it to the kitchen table, and set it down, and caught my breath and rubbed my arms. What I was dreading was having to open it and look at all her things. I thought of what must be inside: her shoes; her stockings, perhaps still in the shape of her toes and heels; her petticoats; her comb, perhaps with some of her hair in it— Don’t do it! I thought. Leave it! Hide it! Open it some other time, not today, not now—.’
I sat, and looked at Dainty.
‘Dainty,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can.’
She put her hand over mine.
‘I think you ought to,’ she said. ‘For me and my sister was the same, when we got our mother’s bits back from the morgue. And we left that packet in a drawer, and wouldn’t look at it for nearly a year; and when Judy opened it up the gown was rotted through, and the shoes and bonnet perished almost to nothing, from having gone so long with river-water on them. And then, we had nothing to remember Mother by, at all; save a little chain she always wore.— Which Pa pawned, in the end, for gin-money . . .’
I saw her lip begin to quiver. I could not face her tears.
All right,’ I said. ‘All right. I’ll do it.’
My hands were still shaking though, and when I drew the parcel to me and tried to undo its strings, I found the matrons had tied them too tight. So then Dainty tried. She couldn’t undo them either. ‘We need a knife,’ I said, ‘or a pair of scissors . . .’ But there was a time, after Gentleman died, when I hadn’t been able to look at any kind of blade, without wincing; and I had made Dainty take them all away, there wasn’t a single sharp thing—except me—in the whole of the house. I tugged and picked at the knots again, but now I was more nervous than ever, and my hands had got damp. At last,
I lifted the parcel to my mouth and took hold of the knots with my teeth: and finally the strings unravelled and the paper sprang out of its folds. I started back. Mrs Sucksby’s shoes, her petticoats and comb came tumbling out upon the table-top, looking just as I had feared. And across them, dark and spreading, like tar, came her old black taffeta gown.
I had not thought of that. Why hadn’t I? It was the very worst thing of all. It looked like Mrs Sucksby herself was lying there, in some sort of swoon. The gown still had Maud’s brooch pinned to its breast. Someone had prised the diamonds out—I didn’t care about that—but the silver claws that were left had blood in them, brown blood, so dried it was almost powder. The taffeta itself was stiff. The blood had made it rusty. The rust was traced about with lines of white: the lawyers had shown the gown in court, and had drawn around each stain with chalk.
They seemed to me like marks on Mrs Sucksby’s own body.
‘Oh, Dainty,’ I said, ‘I can’t bear it! Fetch me a cloth, and water, will you? Oh! How horrible it looks—!’ I began to rub. Dainty rubbed, too. We rubbed in the same grim, shuddering way that we had scrubbed the kitchen floor. The cloths grew muddy. Our breaths came quick. We worked first at the skirt. Then I caught up the collar, drew the bodice to me and began to work on that.
And, as I did, the gown made a curious sound—a creaking, or rustling, sound.
Dainty put down her cloth. ‘What’s that?’ she said. I did not know. I drew the dress closer, and the sound came again.
‘Is it a moth?’ said Dainty. ‘Is it flapping about, inside?’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t think so. It sounds like a paper. Perhaps the matrons have put something there
But when I lifted the dress and shook it, and looked inside, there was nothing, nothing at all. The rustling came again, however, as I laid the gown back down. It seemed to me that it came from part of the bodice—from that part of the front of the bodice that would have lain just below Mrs Sucksby’s heart. I put my hand to it, and felt about. The taffeta there was stiff—stiff not just from the staining of Gentleman’s blood, but from something else, something that
had got stuck, or been put, behind it, between it and the satin lining of the gown. What was it? I could not tell, from feeling. So then I turned the bodice inside-out, and looked at the seam. The seam was open: the satin was loose, but had been hemmed so as not to fray. It made a sort of pocket, in the gown. I looked at Dainty; then put in my hand. It rustled again, and she drew back.
Are you sure it ain’t a moth? Or a bat?’
But what it was, was a letter. Mrs Sucksby had had it hidden there—how long? I could not guess. I thought at first that she must have put it there for me—that she had written it, in gaol—that it was a message for me to find, after they had hanged her.—The thought made me nervous. But then, the letter was marked with Gentleman’s blood; and so must have lain inside the gown since the night he died, at least. Then again, it seemed to me that it must have lain there a good deal longer than that: for as I looked more closely at it I saw how old it was. The creases were soft. The ink was faded. The paper was curved, from where Mrs Sucksby’s taffeta bodice had held it, tight, against her stays. The seal—
I looked at Dainty. The seal was unbroken. ‘Unbroken!’ I said. ‘How is that? Why should she have carried a letter, so close, so carefully, so long—and yet not read it?’ I turned it in my hands. I gazed again at the direction. ‘Whose name is there?’ I said. ‘Can you see?’
Dainty looked, then shook her head. ‘Can’t you?’ she said. But I could not. Hand-writing was harder even upon my eye, than print; and this hand was small, and sloped, and—as I have said—was partly smeared and spotted with awful stains, I went to the lamp, and held the letter close to the wick. I screwed up my eyes. I looked and looked . . . And it seemed to me at last that if any name was written there, upon the folded paper, it was my own.—I was sure I could make out an S, and then the u that followed it; and then, again, an s—
I grew nervous again. ‘What is it?’ said Dainty, seeing my face.
‘I don’t know. I think the letter’s for me.’
She put her hand to her mouth. And then: ‘From your own mother!’ she said.
‘Who else? Oh, Sue, you got to open it.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But say it tells you— Say it tells you where treasure is! Say it’s a map!’
I didn’t think it was a map. I felt my stomach growing sour with fear. I looked again at the letter, at the S, and the u— ‘You open it,’ I said. Dainty licked her lips, then took it, slowly turned it, and slowly broke the seal. The room was so quiet, I think I heard the tumbling of the slivers of wax from the paper to the floor. She unfolded the page; then frowned. ‘Just words,’ she said.
I went to her side. I saw lines of ink—close, small, baffling. The harder I gazed, the more baffling they grew. And though I had got so nervous and afraid—so sure that the letter was meant for me, yet held the key to some awful, secret thing I should far rather never know—still, to have it open before me, not being able to understand what it said, was worse than anything.
‘Come on,’ I said to Dainty. I got her her bonnet, and found mine. ‘Come out to the street, and we’ll find someone to read it for us.’
We went the back way. I would not ask anyone I knew—anyone who had cursed me. I wanted a stranger. So we went north—went fast, towards the breweries up by the river. There was a man there on a corner. He had a tray on a string about his neck, full of nutmeg-graters and thimbles. But he wore eye-glasses and had—I don’t know what—an intelligent look.
I said,’He’ll do.’
He saw us coming and gave us a nod. ‘Want a grater, girls?’
I shook my head. ‘Listen here,’ I said—or tried to say, for the walk and my own feeling and fear had taken the breath quite from me. I put my hand to my heart. ‘Do you read?’ I asked him at last.
He said, ‘Read?’
‘Letters, in ladies’ hands? Not books, I mean.’
Then he saw the paper I held, pushed the glasses further up his nose, and tilted his head.
‘To be opened,’ he read, ‘on the eighteenth birthday—’ I shook right through when I heard that. He did not notice. Instead, he straightened his head, and sniffed. ‘Not in my line,’ he said. ‘Not worth my while to stand here and read out letters. That ain’t a-going to make the thimbles fly, is it. . .?’
Some people will charge you for taking a punch. I put my shaking hand in my pocket and brought out all it held. Dainty did the same.
‘Sevenpence,’ I said, when I had put the coins together. He turned them over. ‘Are they good?’ ‘Good enough,’ I said.
He sniffed again. All right.’ He took them, and hid them. Then he unhooked his glasses from about his ears, and gave them a rub. ‘Now then, let’s see,’ he said. ‘You hold it up, though. Looks legal, this does. I been stung by the law, before. I might not want it to come out later, as how I touched it. . .’ He put his glasses back on, and got ready to read.
All the words that are there,’ I said, as he did. ‘Every one. Do you hear?’
He nodded, and began. ‘To be opened on the eighteenth birthday of my daughter, Susan Lilly—’
I put the paper down. ‘Susan Trinder,’ I said. ‘Susan Trinder, you mean. You are reading it wrong.’
‘Susan Lilly, it says,’ he answered. ‘Hold it up, now, and turn it.’ ‘What’s the point,’ I said, ‘if you ain’t going to read what’s there . . .?’
But my voice had got thin. There seemed to have come, about my heart, a snake: it was coiling, tight.
‘Come on,’ he said. His look had changed. ‘This is interesting, this is. What is it? A will, is it, or a testament? The last statement— there you are—of Marianne Lilly, made at Lant Street, Southwark, on this day 18th of September 1844, in the presence of Mrs Grace Sucksby, of—’ He stopped. His face had changed again. ‘Grace Sucksby?’ he said, in a shocked sort of voice. ‘What, the murderess? This is stiff stuff, ain’t it?’
I did not answer. He looked again at the paper—at the stains.
Perhaps he had supposed them ink, before, or paint. Now he said, ‘I don’t know as I should …” Then he must have seen my face. ‘All right, all right,’ he said. ‘Let’s see. What’s here?’ He drew it closer. 7, Marianne Lilly, of—what is it? Bear House? Briar House?—of Briar House, Buckinghamshire— /, Marianne Lilly, being sound in mind though feeble in body, hereby commit my own infant daughter SUSAN— Now, will you shake it about? That’s better—hereby commit—hmm, hmm—to the guardianship of Mrs Grace Sucksby; and desire that she be raised by her in ignorance of her true birth. Which birth is to be made known to her on the day of her eighteenth birthday, 3rd August 1862; on which day I do also desire that there be made over to her one half of my private fortune.
‘In exchange for which, Grace Sucksby commits into my care her own dear daughter MAUD— Bless me, if you ain’t doing it again! Hold it nice, can’t you?—dear daughter MAUD, and does desire that she be raised similarly ignorant of her name and birth, until the aforementioned date; on which date it is my desire that there be made over to her the remainder of my fortune.
‘This paper to be a true and legally binding statement of my wishes; a contract between myself and Grace Sucksby, in defiance of my father and brother; which is to be recognised in Law.
‘Susan Lilly to know nothing of her unhappy mother, but that she strove to keep her from care.
‘Maud Sucksby to be raised a gentlewoman; and to know that her mother loved her, more than her own life.—Well!’ He straightened up. ‘Now tell me that wasn’t worth sevenpence. Papers get hold of it, mind, I should say it would be worth a lot more.—Why, how queer you look! Ain’t going to faint, are you?’
I had swayed and clutched at his tray. His graters went sliding. ‘Now take care, do!’ he said, in a peevish way. ‘Here’s all my stock, look, going to tumble and get mashed—’
Dainty came and caught me. ‘I am sorry,’ I said. ‘I am sorry.’
All right?’ he said, as he put the graters straight.
‘Come as a shock, has it?’
I shook my head—or perhaps I nodded, I don’t remember—and
gripped the letter, and stumbled from him. ‘Dainty,’ I said. ‘Dainty—’
She sat me down, against a wall. ‘What is it?’ she said. ‘Oh, Sue, what did it mean?’
The man still looked. ‘I should get her water,’ he called.
But I didn’t want water, and I wouldn’t let Dainty go. I clutched her to me and put my face against her sleeve. I began to shake. I began to shake as a rusted lock must shake, when the tumblers lift against their groaning springs, and the bolt is forced loose and flies. ‘My mother—’ I said. I could not finish. It was too much to say— too much, even, to know! My mother, Maud’s mother! I could not believe it. I thought of the picture of the handsome lady I had seen in the box at Briar. I thought of the grave that Maud had used to rub and trim. I thought of Maud, and Mrs Sucksby; and then, of Gentleman. Oh, now I see it! he had said. Now I saw it, too. Now I knew what Mrs Sucksby had longed but been afraid to tell me, at the gaol. If you should hear hard things of me— Why had she kept the secret so long? Why had she lied about my mother? My mother was not a murderess, she was a lady. She was a lady with a fortune, that she meant to be split . . .
// you should hear hard things of me, think back—
I thought, and thought; and began to grow sick. I put the letter before my face and groaned. The thimble man still stood a little way off, and watched me; soon other people gathered and stood watching, too. ‘Drunk, is she?’ I heard someone say. And, ‘Got the horrors?’ ‘Fallen in a fit, has she? Her pal should put a spoon in her mouth, she’ll swallow her tongue.’ I could not bear the sound of their voices, the feel of their eyes. I reached for Dainty and got to my feet; she put her arm about me and helped me stagger home. She gave me brandy to drink. She sat me at the table. Mrs Sucksby’s dress still lay upon it: I took it up and held it in my two fists, and hid my face in its folds; then I gave a cry like a beast, and cast it to the floor. I spread out the letter, and looked again at the lines of ink. SUSAN LILLY … I groaned again. Then I got to my feet and began to walk.
‘Dainty,’ I said in a sort of pant, as I did. ‘Dainty, she must have
known. She must have known it, all along. She must have sent me there, at Gentleman’s side, knowing he meant at last to— Oh!’ My voice grew hoarse. ‘She sent me there, so he would leave me in that place and bring her Maud. It was only ever Maud she wanted. She kept me safe, and gave me up, so Maud, so Maud—’
But then, I grew still. I was thinking of Maud, starting up with the knife. I was thinking of Maud, letting me hate her. I was thinking of Maud, making me think she’d hurt me, to save me knowing who had hurt me most… ‘
I put my hand across my mouth and burst out weeping. Dainty began to weep, too.
‘What is it?’ she said. ‘Oh, Sue, you look so queer! What is it?’
‘The worst thing of all,’ I said, through my tears. ‘The worst thing of all!’
I saw it, sharp and clear as a line of lightning in a sky of black. Maud had tried to save me, and I had not known. I had wanted to kill her, when all the time—
‘And I let her go!’ I said, getting up and walking about. ‘Where is she, now?’
‘Where’s whoV said Dainty, almost shrieking.
‘Maud!’I said. ‘Oh, Maud!’
‘Miss Sucksby, call her! Oh! I shall go mad! To think I thought she was a spider that had got you all in her web. To think there was once a time when I stood, pinning up her hair! If I had said— If she had turned— If I had known— I would have kissed her—’
‘Kissed her?’ said Dainty.
‘Kissed her!’ I said. ‘Oh, Dainty, you would have kissed her, too! Anyone would! She was a pearl, a pearl!—and now, and now I’ve lost her, I’ve thrown her away—!’
So I went on. Dainty tried to calm me, and could not. I would only walk and wring my hands, tear my own hair; or else I would sink to the floor and lie groaning. At last, I sank and would not rise. Dainty wept and pleaded—took up water and threw it in my face— ran down the street to a neighbour’s house, for a bottle of salts; but I lay, as if dead. I had got sick. I had got sick in a moment, like that.
She carried me up to my old room and put me to sleep in my own bed; when I opened my eyes again she says I looked at her and did not know her, says I fought her, when she tried to take my gown, says I talked like a madwoman, of tartan, and india-rubber boots, and—most especially—of something I said she had taken, that I should die without. ‘Where is it?’ she says I cried. ‘Where is it? Oh!’—She says I cried it so often, so pitifully, she brought me all my things and held them up before me, one by one; and that finally she found, in the pocket of my gown, an old kid glove, quite creased and black and bitten; and that when she held that up I took it from her and wept and wept over it as if my heart would break.
I don’t remember. I kept in a fever for nearly a week, and was after that so feeble I might as well have been in a fever still. Dainty nursed me, all that time—feeding me tea and soups and gruels, lifting me so I might use the chamber-pot, wiping off the horrible sweat from my face. I still wept, and cursed and twisted, when I thought of Mrs Sucksby and how she had tricked me; but I wept more, when I thought of Maud. For all this time I had had as it were a sort of dam about my heart, keeping out my love: now the walls had burst, my heart was flooded, I thought I should drown . .. My love grew level, though, as I grew well again. It grew level, and calm—it seemed to me at last that I had never been so calm in all my life. ‘I’ve lost her,’ I’d say again to Dainty; I’d say it, over and over. But I’d say it steadily—in a whisper, at first; then, as the days passed by and I got back my strength, in a murmur; finally, in my own voice. ‘I’ve lost her,’ I’d say, ‘but I mean to find her. I don’t care if it takes me all my life. I’ll find her out, and tell her what I know. She might have gone away. She might be on the other side of the world. She might be married! I don’t care. I’ll find her, and tell her everything …”
It was all I thought of. I was only waiting, to be well enough to start. And at last I thought I had waited enough. I rose from my bed, and the room—that had used to seem to tilt and turn, whenever I lifted my head—stayed still. I washed, and dressed, got the bag of things I had planned to take with me to Woolwich. I took up the letter, and tucked it into my gown. I think Dainty thought I
must have fallen back into my fever. Then I kissed her cheek, and my face was cool. ‘Keep Charley Wag for me,’ I said. She saw how grave and earnest I was, and began to cry.
‘How will you do it?’ she said. I said I meant to start my search at Briar. ‘But how shall you get there? How shall you pay?’ I said: ‘I’ll walk.’ When she heard that, she dried her eyes and bit her lip. ‘Wait here,’ she said. She ran from the house. She was gone for twenty minutes. When she came back, she was clutching a pound. It was the pound she had put, so long ago, in the wall of the starch-works, that she had said we must use to bury her when she had died. She made me take it. I kissed her again. ‘Shall you ever come back?’ she said. I said I did not know . . .
And so I left the Borough a second time, and made the journey down to Briar, over again. There were no fogs, this time. The train ran smooth. At Marlow, the same guard who had laughed at me when I’d asked for a cab, now came to help me from the coach. He didn’t remember me. He wouldn’t have known me if he had. I was so thin, I think he thought I was an invalid girl. ‘Come down from London to take the air, have you?’ he said kindly. He looked at the little bag I held. ‘Shall you manage it?’ And then, as he had last time: ‘Is no-one come to meet you?’
I said I would walk. I did walk, for a mile or two. Then I stopped to rest on a stile, and a man and a girl went by, with a horse and cart, and they looked at me and must have thought I was an invalid, too: for they pulled their horse up and gave me a ride. They let me sit on the seat. The man put his coat about my shoulders.
‘Going far?’ he said.
I said I was going to Briar, they could drop me anywhere near Briar—
‘To Briar!’ they said, when they heard that. ‘But, why ever are you going there? There’s nobody there, since the old man died. Didn’t you know?’
Nobody there! I shook my head. I said I knew Mr Lilly had been ill. That he had lost the use of his hands and voice, and had to be fed off a spoon. They nodded. Poor gentleman! they said. He
had lingered on in a very miserable sort of way, all summer long— in all that terrible heat. ‘They say he stank, in the end,’ they said, dropping their voices. ‘But though his niece—the scandalous girl, that run off with a gentleman—did you know about that?’—I didn’t answer—’though she come back to nurse him, he died, a month ago; and since then, the house’ve been quite shut up.’
So Maud had come, and gone! If I had only known … I turned my head. When I spoke, my voice had a catch. I hoped they would put it down to the jolting of the cart. I said,
And the niece, Miss Lilly? What happened— What happened to her?’
But they only shrugged. They did not know. Some people said she’d gone back to her husband. Some people said she had gone to France . . .
‘Planning on visiting one of the servants, were you?’ they said, looking at my print dress. ‘The servants’ve all gone, too.—All gone but one, who stays to keep thieves out. Shouldn’t like his job. They say the place is haunted, now.’
Here was a blow, all right. But I had expected blows, and was ready to suffer them. When they asked, Should they drive me back to Marlow? I said no, I would go on. I thought the servant must be Mr Way. I thought, ‘I’ll find him. He’ll know me. And oh! he’s seen Maud. He’ll tell me where she’s gone . . .’
So they put me down where the wall to the Briar park started; and from there, I walked again. The sound of the horse’s hooves grew faint. The road was lonely, the day was bleak. It was only two or three o’clock but the dusk seemed gathered in the shadows already, waiting to creep and rise. The wall seemed longer than when I had ridden past it in William Inker’s trap: I walked for what felt like an hour, before I saw the arch that marked the gate, and the roof of the lodge behind it. I quickened my step—but then, my heart quite sank. The lodge was all shut up and dark. The gates were fastened with a chain and lock, and piled about with leaves. Where the wind struck the iron bars it made a low sort of moaning sound. And when I stepped to the gates and pushed them, they creaked and creaked.
‘Mr Way!’ I called. ‘Mr Way! Anyone!’
My voice made a dozen black birds start out of the bushes and fly off, cawing. The noise was awful. I thought, ‘Surely that will bring someone.’ But it didn’t: the birds went cawing on, the wind moaned louder through the bars, I called another time; and no-one came. So then I looked at the chain and lock. The chain was a long one. It was only there, I think, to keep out cows, and boys. I was thinner than a boy, however, now. I thought, ‘It’s not against the law. I used to work here. I might work here, still. . .’ I pushed the gates again, as far as they would go: and they made a gap just wide enough for me to wriggle my way through.
They fell together, at my back, with a dreadful clash. The birds started up again. Still no-one came, though.
I gave it a minute, then began to walk.
It seemed quieter inside the walls, than it had been before— quieter, and queer. I kept to the road. The wind made the trees seem to whisper and sigh. The branches were bare. Their leaves lay thick upon the ground: they had got wet, and clung to my skirt. Here and there were puddles of muddy water. Here and there were bushes, overgrown. The grass in the park was overgrown too, and parched from the summer, but beaten about with rain. It was turning to slime at its tips, and smelt peculiar. I think there were mice in it. Perhaps there were rats. I heard them scurrying as I walked.
I began to go quicker. The road ran down, then began to climb. I remembered driving along it with William Inker, in the dark. I knew what was coming: I knew where it turned, and what I would see when it did … I knew it; but it still made me start, to come so suddenly upon the house again—to see it seem to rise out of the earth, so grey and grim. I stopped, on the edge of the walk of gravel. I was almost afraid. It was all so perfectly quiet and dark. The windows were shuttered. There were more black birds upon the roof. The ivy on the walls had lost its hold and was waving like hair. The great front door—that was always swollen, from the rain—bulged worse than ever. The porch was filled with more wet leaves. It seemed like a house not meant for people but for ghosts.
I remembered, suddenly, what the man and the girl had said, about it being haunted . . .
That made me shiver. I looked about me—back, the way I had come; and then, across the lawns. They ran into dark and tangled woods. The paths I had used to take with Maud, had disappeared. I put back my head. The sky was grey and spitting rain. The wind still whispered and sighed in the trees. I shivered again. The house seemed to watch me. I thought, ‘If I can only find Mr Way! Where can he be?’—and I began to walk, around to the back of the house, to the stables and yards. I went carefully, for my steps sounded loud. But here, it was just as quiet and empty as everywhere else. No dogs started barking. The stable doors were open, the horses gone. The great white clock was there, but the hands—this shocked me, more than anything—the hands were stuck, the hour was wrong. The clock had not chimed, all the time I had walked: it was that, I think, that had made the silence so strange. ‘Mr Way!’ I called—but I called it softly. It seemed wrong to call out, here. ‘Mr Way! Mr Way!’
Then I saw, rising up from one of the chimneys, a single thread of smoke. That gave me heart. I went to the kitchen door, and tapped. No answer. I tried the handle. Locked. Then I went to the garden door—the door that I had run from, that night, with Maud. That was also locked. So then I went around to the front again. I went to a window, drew back a shutter, and looked inside. I could not see. I put my hands and my face to the glass; and the window, as I pressed, seemed to give against its bolt… I hesitated for almost a minute; then the rain came, hard as hail. I gave a shove. The bolt flew from its screws and the window swung inwards. I lifted myself up on to the sill, and jumped inside.
Then I stood, quite still. The sound of the breaking bolt must have been awful. What if Mr Way had heard it and came with a gun, supposing me a burglar? I felt like a burglar, now. I thought of my mother— My mother was never a thief, however. My mother was a lady. My mother was the lady of this great house … I shook my head. I should never believe it. I began to walk softly about. The room was dark—the dining-room, I thought. I had never been in here before. But I had used to try and imagine Maud, as she sat,
with her uncle, at her supper; I had used to imagine the little bites she would take at her meat… I stepped to the table. It was still set, with candlesticks, a knife and a fork, a plate of apples; but it was covered all over with dust and cobwebs, and the apples had rotted. The air was thick. Upon the floor was a broken glass—a crystal glass, with gold at the rim.
The door was closed: I do not think it had been opened in many weeks. But still, when I turned the handle and pushed it, it moved perfectly silently. All the doors moved silently, in that house. The floor had a dusty carpet, that smothered my steps.
So when I went, I made no sound, and might have glided—as if / were a ghost. The thought was queer. Across from me was another door: the door to the drawing-room. I had never been there, either; so now I crossed to it and looked inside. That room was also dark and hung with cobwebs. There was ash spilling out from the grate. There were chairs, by the hearth, where I thought that Mr Lilly and Gentleman must once have sat, to listen while Maud read books. There was a hard little sofa, with a lamp beside it, that I imagined had been hers. I imagined her sitting there, now. I remembered her soft voice.
I forgot to think about Mr Way, remembering that. I forgot to think of my mother. What was she, to me? It was Maud I thought of. I had meant to go down to the kitchen. Instead I went slowly about the hall, by the swollen front door. I climbed the stairs. I wanted to go to her old rooms. I wanted to stand, where she had stood—at the window, at the glass. I wanted to lie upon her bed. I wanted to think how I had kissed her and lost her . . .
I walked, as I have said, as a ghost might walk; and when I wept, I wept as a ghost would: silently, not minding the tears as they came falling—as though I knew I had tears enough for a hundred years, and in time would weep them all. I reached the gallery. The door to the library was there, standing part-way open. The creature’s head still hung beside it, with its one glass eye and pointed teeth. I thought of how I had put my fingers to it, the first time I came for Maud. I had waited outside the door, I had heard her reading.— Again, I thought of her voice. I thought so fiercely of it, it seemed
to me at last that I could almost hear it. I could hear it as a whisper, as a murmur, in the stillness of the house.
I caught my breath. The murmur stopped, then started again. It was not in my own head, I could hear it—it came, from the library … I began to shake. Perhaps the house was haunted after all. Or perhaps, perhaps— I moved to the door and put a trembling hand to it, and pushed it open. Then I stood, and blinked. The room was changed. The paint had all been scraped from the windows, the finger of brass prised from the floor. The shelves were almost bare of books. A little fire burned in the grate. I pushed the door further. There was Mr Lilly’s old desk. Its lamp was lit.
And in the glow of it, was Maud.
She was sitting, writing. She had an elbow on the desk, a cheek upon her upturned hand, her fingers half-curled over her eyes. I saw her clearly, because of the light. Her brows were drawn into a frown. Her hands were bare, her sleeves put back, her fingers dark with smudges of ink. I stood and watched her write a line. The page was thick with lines already. Then she lifted the pen, and turned and turned it, as if not sure what to put next. Again she murmured, beneath her breath. She bit her mouth.
Then she wrote again; and then she moved to dip her pen in ajar of ink. And as she did that, she drew her fingers from her eyes, her face came up; and she saw me watching.
She did not start. She grew perfectly still. She did not cry out. She did not say anything, at first. She only sat with her eyes on mine, a look of astonishment on her face. Then I took a step; and as I did, she got to her feet, letting the pen with the ink upon it roll across the papers and desk and drop to the floor. Her cheek had grown white. She gripped the back of her chair, as if to take her hand from it might mean to fall, or swoon. When I took another step, she gripped it harder.
‘Have you come,’ she said, ‘to kill me?’
She said it, in a sort of awful whisper; and I heard her, and saw that her face was white, not just from astonishment, but also from fear. The thought was terrible. I turned away, and hid my own face
in my hands. It was still wet, from my falling tears. Now other tears came and made it wetter. ‘Oh, Maud!’ I said- ‘Oh, Maud!’
I had never spoken her name to her before like that, I had only ever said miss; and even now, even here, after everything, I felt the strangeness of it. I pressed my fingers hard into my eyes. I had been thinking, a moment ago, of how I loved her. I’d supposed her lost. I had meant to find her out, through years of searching. To come upon her now—so warm, so real—when I had ached and ached for her— It was too much.
‘I don’t—’ I said. ‘I can’t—’ She did not come. She only stood, still white, still gripping the back of the chair. So then I wiped my face upon my sleeve, and spoke more steadily. ‘There was a paper,’ I said. ‘I found a paper, hidden in Mrs Sucksby’s gown . . .’
I felt the letter, stiff, in my own gown, as I spoke; but she didn’t answer, and I guessed from that—and saw, by the look upon her face—that she knew what paper it was I meant, and what it said. Despite myself, I had a moment of hating bier then—just a single moment; and when it passed, it left me weak. I went to the window, so I might sit upon the sill. I said, ‘I paid sonoeone to read it to me. And then, I got sick.’
‘I am sorry,’ she said. ‘Sue, I am sorry.’
She still did not come to me, though. I wiped my face again.
I said, ‘I got a lift with a man and a girl. They said your uncle died. They said there was nobody here, save Mr Way—’
‘Mr Way?’ She frowned. ‘Mr Way is gone -‘
‘A servant, they said.’
‘William Inker, they must have meant. H e stays with me. And his wife cooks my meals. That’s all.’
‘Only them, and you? In this great house=-‘ I looked about me, and shivered. ‘Don’t you grow frightened?’
She shrugged, gazed down at her hands. Her look grew dark. ‘What have I,’ she said, ‘to be frightened of, rnow?’
There was so much to the words, and to trie way she said them, I did not answer at first. When I spoke again, I spoke more quietly.
‘When did you know?’ I said. ‘Whendid ^ou know everything, about us, about— Did you know, at the start?0’
She shook her head. She spoke quietly, too. ‘Not then,’ she said ‘Not until Richard took me to London. Then she—’ She coloured, but lifted her head. ‘Then I was told.’
‘Not before?’ I said.
‘They tricked you, too, then.’
I should have been glad to think it, once. Now it was all of a piece with every bleak and terrible thing I had suffered and seen and learned, in the past nine months. For a minute, we said nothing. I let myself sink against the window and put my cheek against the glass. The glass was cold. The rain fell hard, still. It struck the gravel before the house and made it churn. The lawn seemed bruised. Through the bare wet branches of the tangled wood I could just make out the shape of yews, and the pointed roof of the little red chapel.
‘My mother is buried there,’ I said. ‘I used to look at her grave, thinking nothing. I thought my mother was a murderess.’
‘I thought my mother was mad,’ she said. ‘Instead—’
She could not say it. Neither could I. Not yet. But I turned to look at her again, and swallowed, and said,
‘You went to see her, at the gaol.’ I had remembered the matron’s words.
She nodded. ‘She spoke of you,’ she said.
‘Of me? What did she say?’
‘That she hoped you never knew. That she wished they might hang her, ten times over, before you should. That she and your mother had been wrong. That they meant to make you a commonplace girl. That that was like taking a jewel, and hiding it in dust. That dust falls away
I closed my eyes. When I looked again, she had at last come closer.
‘Sue,’ she said.. ‘This house is yours.’
‘I don’t want it,’ I said.
‘The money is yours. Half of your mother’s money. All of it, if you wish. I have claimed none of it. You shall be rich.’
‘I don’t want to be rich. I never wanted to.be rich. I only want—
But I hesitated. My heart was too full. Her gaze was too close, too clear. I thought how I had seen her, last—not at the trial, but on the night that Gentleman died. Her eyes had glittered. They did not glitter now. Her hair had been curled. Now it was smooth, unpinned, she had put it back and tied it with a simple ribbon. Her hands did not tremble. They were bare, and marked, as I have said, with spots and smudges of ink. Her brow had ink upon it, too, from where she had pressed it. Her dress was dark, and long, yet fell not quite to the floor. It was silk, but fastened at the front. The highest hook was left undone. I saw the beating of her throat behind it. I looked away.
Then I looked back, into her eyes.
‘I only want you,’ I said.
The blood spread across her face. She unjoined her hands, took another step to me and almost, almost reached. But then she turned and lowered her gaze. She stood at the desk. She put her hand to the paper and pen.
‘You do not know me,’ she said, in a queer, flat voice. ‘You never did. There were things—’
She drew in her breath and would not go on. ‘What things?’ I said. She didn’t answer. I rose, and went closer to her. ‘What things?’
‘My uncle—’ she said, looking up fearfully. ‘My uncle’s books— You thought me good. Didn’t you? I was never that. I was—’ She seemed, for a moment, almost to struggle with herself. Then she moved again, went to the shelves behind the desk, and took up a book. She held it, tight to her breast; then turned and brought it to me. She opened it up in her hands. Her hands, I think, were shaking. ‘Here,’ she said, as she looked across the page. ‘Or, here.’ I saw her gaze settle. And then, in the same flat voice she had spoken in before, she began to read.
‘How delicious,’ she read, ‘was the glow upon her beauteous neck and bare ivory shoulders, as I forced her on her back on the couch. How luxuriously did her snowy hillocks rise against my bosom in wild confusion—’
‘What?’ I said.
She did not answer, did not look up; but turned that page and read from another.
‘I scarcely knew what I was about; everything now was in active exertion—tongues, lips, bellies, arms, thighs, legs, bottoms, every part in voluptuous motion.’
Now my own cheek coloured. ‘What?’ I said, in a whisper.
She turned more pages, read again.
‘Quickly my daring hand seized her most secret treasure, regardless of her soft complaints, which my burning kisses reduced to mere murmurs, while my fingers penetrated into the covered way of love—’
She stopped. Her heart was beating harder, though she had kept her voice so flat. My own heart was also beating rather hard. I said—still not quite understanding:
‘Your uncle’s books?’
‘All, like this?’
She nodded again.
‘Every one of them, like this? Are you sure?’
I took the book from her and looked at the print on the pages. It looked like any book would, to me. So I put it down, and went to the shelves and picked up another. That looked the same. Then I took up another; and that had pictures. You never saw any pictures like them. One was of two bare girls. I looked at Maud, and my heart seemed to shrink.
‘You knew it all,’ I said. That’s the first thing I thought. ‘You said that you knew nothing, when all the time—’
‘I did know nothing,’ she said.
‘You knew it all! You made me kiss you. You made me want to kiss you again! When all the time, you had been coming here and—’
My voice broke off. She watched my face. I thought of the times I had come to the library door, heard the smothered rising and falling of her voice. I thought of her reading to gentlemen—to Gentleman—while I sat, eating tarts and custards with Mrs Stiles and Mr Way. I put my hand to my heart. It had shrunk so small and tight, it hurt me.
‘Oh, Maud,’ I said. ‘If I had only known! To think, of you—’ I began to cry. ‘To think of your uncle— Oh!’ My hand flew to my mouth. ‘My uncle!’ That thought was queerer than anything. ‘Oh!’ I still held the book. Now I looked at it and let it drop as if it burned me. ‘Oh!’
It was all I could say. Maud stood very still, her hand upon the desk. I wiped my eyes. Then I looked again at the smears of ink on her fingers.
‘How can you bear it?’
She did not answer.
‘To think of him,’ I said, ‘that sod! Oh, stinking was too good for him!’ I wrung my hands. ‘And now, to look at you and see you here, still here, with his books about you—!’
I gazed across the shelves; and wanted to smash them. I went to her, and reached to draw her close. But she held me off. She moved her head, in a way that at any other time I should have called proud.
‘Don’t pity me,’ she said, ‘because of him. He’s dead. But I am still what he made me. I shall always be that. Half of the books are spoiled, or sold. But I am here. And look. You must know everything. Look how I get my living.’
She picked up a paper from the desk—the paper that I had seen her write on. The ink was still damp. ‘I asked a friend of my uncle’s, once,’ she said, ‘if I might write for him. He sent me to a home for distressed gentlewomen.’ She smiled, unhappily. ‘They say that ladies don’t write such things. But, I am not a lady
I looked at her, not understanding. I looked at the paper in her hand. Then my heart missed its beat.
‘You are writing books, like his!’ I said. She nodded, not speaking. Her face was grave. I don’t know how my face seemed. I think it was burning. ‘Books, like that!’ I said. ‘I can’t believe it. Of all the ways I thought I’d find you— And then, to find you here, all on your own in this great house—’
‘I am not alone,’ she said. ‘I have told you: I have William Inker and his wife to care for me.’
‘To find you here, all on your own, writing books like that?-V
Again, she looked almost proud. ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ she said.
I did not know. ‘It just don’t seem right,’ I said. ‘A girl, like you—’
‘Like me? There are no girls like me.’
I did not answer for a moment. I looked again at the paper in her hand. Then I said quietly,
‘Is there money in it?’
She blushed. A little,’ she said. ‘Enough, if I write swiftly.’
And you— You like it?’
She blushed still harder. ‘I find I am good at it. . .’ She bit her lip. She was still watching my face. ‘Do you hate me for it?’ she said.
‘Hate you!’ I said. ‘When I have fifty proper reasons for hating you, already; and only—’
Only love you, I wanted to say. I didn’t say it, though. What can I tell you? If she could still be proud, then so, for now, could I … I didn’t need to say it, anyway: she could read the words in my face. Her colour changed, her gaze grew clearer. She put a hand across her eyes. Her fingers left more smudges of black there. I still couldn’t bear it. I quickly reached and stopped her wrist; then wet my thumb and began to rub at the flesh of her brow. I did it, thinking only of the ink, and her white skin; but she felt my hand and grew very still. My thumb moved slower. It moved to her cheek. Then I found I had cupped her face in my hand. She closed her eyes. Her cheek was smooth—not like a pearl, warmer than pearls. She turned her head and put her mouth against my palm. Her lips were soft. The smudge stayed black upon her brow; and after all, I thought, was only ink.
When I kissed her, she shook. I remembered what it was, then, to make her shake by kissing her; and began to shake, too. I had been ill. I thought I might faint! We moved apart. She put her hand against her heart. She had still held the paper. Now it fluttered to the floor. I stooped and caught it up and smoothed the creases from it.
‘What does it say?’ I said, when I had.
She said, ‘It is filled with all the words for how I want you . . . Look.’
She took up the lamp. The room had got darker, the rain still beat against the glass. But she led me to the fire and made me sit, and sat beside me. Her silk skirts rose in a rush, then sank. She put the lamp upon the floor, spread the paper flat; and began to show me the words she had written, one by one.
Many books provided historical detail and inspiration. I’m particularly indebted to V.A.C. Gatrell’s The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford, 1994) and Marcia Hamilcar’s Legally Dead: Experiences During Seven Weeks’ Detention in a Private Asylum (London, 1910).
The index upon which Christopher Lilly is at work is based on the three annotated bibliographies published by Henry Spencer Ashbee under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi: Index Librorum Prohibitorum: being Notes Bio- Biblio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books (London, 1877); Centuria Librorum Absconditorum: being Notes Bio- Biblio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books (London, 1879); and Catena Librorum Tacendorum: being Notes Bio- Biblio- Icono- graphical and critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books (London, 1885). Mr Lilly’s statements on book-collecting echo those of Ashbee, but in all other respects he is entirely fictitious.
All of the texts cited by Maud are real. They include: The Festival of the Passions, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, The Curtain Drawn Up, The Bagnio Miscellany, The Birchen Bouquet, and The Lustful Turk. For publishing details of these see Ashbee, above.