The Fourteenth Child
My eyes, now watered by regret, find little pleasure sketching. The last time I tried my fountain pen punctured my drawing sending tears of black ink streaming down the page. I must tell this story without the forgiveness of an artist’s eye that sees only what it wants. I, Amelia Elizabeth Davis betrayed Colleen McDougall’s friendship resulting in her leaving not only Lancashire County but my country of England. The fact that I believed I once loved her—almost like my own child—assuages nothing.
On a spring day in 1904, I had been waiting for Colleen, our new nanny, to arrive. I was sitting in my formal garden sketching crocuses with my straw bonnet shielding me from the late afternoon sun. When I heard the whirl of bicycle tires and crunching gravel along our country road, I turned to see the girl’s shoulders hunched down as she pedaled fast along the road’s ascent. Her solid, dark blue ankle-length dress hitched up and fluttering in her wake revealed thick, black stockings. I must admit I admired her speed, fueled by a fierce determination or so it seemed; though, I didn’t know whether that doggedness was to be welcomed or warned against. First impressions, my mother-in-law had taught me, were the most crucial.
I knew my young children huddled together peering out one of the two dormer windows were also curious about this potential new hire. As I rose, I tugged on the ruffled cuffs of my blouse, removed my bonnet, and tucked an errant strand of hair back into my bun as if I were the one being interviewed for the position.
When she was three feet away, she hopped off the bicycle, laid it on the grass, and straightened her skirt, part of which clung to her stockings as if refusing to fall into place. The agency had informed me she was seventeen. But with her wiry frame, small chest and unadorned face, if you didn’t count a smudge of dirt along one cheekbone, she could pass for someone much younger. My first inclination was to send her back. Demand someone older, more experienced in caring for young children. But the agency had said this girl had worked at Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital, which had highly recommended her. And with Margo, our previous nanny, suddenly gone, we needed someone now.
As this girl straightened her skirt, I wondered, did she see me as my husband Jonathan did? “Like an obelisk,” he once remarked after returning from a business trip to America where he told me all about their Washington Monument. I had to remind him the U.K. has a very nice one in Ripon’s market square. “You think I’m unyielding?” I asked. Rightly, he said “no,” and that his comment was meant only to compliment my straight posture, my marble-white skin, and my cheekbones that jut out from my narrow face.
This girl and I looked nothing alike. Her face freckled, auburn hair askew, and a casual stance with feet planted wide as if ready to sprint in either direction should the need arise. It was her unflinching eyes, I must say, that drew me nearer. Not because they were hazel, and I could not decipher whether they were more green than blue, but because something was disconcerting about them—as if they’d seen more in her young life than they should have.
“I’m Mrs. Davis,” I said, adjusting my lace collar to lay it flat.
“Please,” I said, my outstretched arm indicating for her to join me in entering my modest stone cottage. I followed her gaze as she took in the parlor furnishings: faded maroon velvet drapery opened to the afternoon light, a slate fireplace with ashes, two worn paisley armchairs, and an inlaid wooden table topped with a tray of tea and lemon scones. I couldn’t tell whether she approved as I recalled admonishments from my always disapproving mother-in-law.
Jonathan and I were not exactly upper class though we were hardly lower class either. In this Edwardian industrial age, we were what he liked to call “modern” without need or desire for servants. Another aspect he admired about the Americans, though I suspected the Socialist Labor Party members he’d met there were not wealthy enough to have them. In any case, when Timothy was born, and when Jonathan’s mother, who had lived with us, died, we agreed to hire a nanny.
Once seated, I poured us Darjeeling tea and leaned back to sip mine. She wiped her hands on her skirt and was about to grab a scone when she noticed a linen napkin on the tray. She sheepishly folded it over her lap before taking the larger scone.
“I take it that you’re good with children,” I said, looking for an inconspicuous way to begin. The hospital’s reference letter stated she was a “brilliant, yes, a brilliant choice!” The use of the word “brilliant” twice along with the exclamation point seemed excessively enthusiastic as if they had a particular interest in securing her employment. My husband countered that I was once again reading too much into things. This, I admit, can be true.
“Yes, ma’am, I’ve cared for all ages,” she said, between rather large bites.
“You’ve worked for Saint Bartholomew’s how long?”
“Did they say I worked there? I think they’d have to pay me for that. No, ma’am, I volunteered. In the nursery. Me mum was in the hospital a lot with her pregnancies. I helped when they were short staffed.”
“They let you?”
“Like I said, me mum was there a lot. They got to know me.”
“Not easy anymore. Not with the government saying who can and can’t be one. I heard one woman was fined and jailed for not having the right papers. Besides, need money for a proper midwife, ma’am. Me mum goes to the charity laying-in-waiting part of the hospital.”
“I see,” I said. Though I didn’t. Not then.
When we’d finished our scones, I led Colleen up to the nursery. My daughter Emma, now seven, had been three when Jonathan had painted the room robin’s egg blue and she had insisted upon helping him. Today, her tiny hand-prints are still visible parading three feet up along the walls beneath a sparse coat of paint. A welcoming hand, she’d said, for her new baby brother. Now, four years later, I was sure Emma didn’t even notice them, absorbed as she was holding her cloth doll by its tiny hands and making it dance in front of her brother, Timothy, who looked only mildly amused. This would be the moment the other nannies I’d interviewed would coo and ah over his thick curly brown hair and dimples and kneel down to him while speaking softly to gain his confidence.
Ins Instead, Colleen snatched Timothy and held him up in the air inspecting him like something to be purchased.
“What are you doing? You’ll scare him!”
“Nonsense, he’s a boy,” Colleen said as she held him in her arms and left the room.
“Where are you going?” I said, grabbing Emma’s hand as we followed her down the narrow staircase.
“It was stuffy in there and he shouldn’t be playing with dolls.”
Stuffy? Who was she to say this?
Once outside, my son cried, “up, up,” smiling in Colleen’s grasp as she raised him higher and higher until her outstretched arms were as straight as they could go.
While I was ill at ease with the abruptness of this girl, I could not mistake my son’s joy; giggling and all smiles as she brought him down and up again. Still, I needed to regain my stature. She would, after all, be working for me. My daughter and I followed behind as Colleen carried my son along the garden path outlined with low-cropped boxwoods. As we passed the section with my Emperor’s Crown tulips, I called out to Colleen that I’d won a ribbon for them from the Horticultural Society of London.
She turned to me and said, “If God gave you green fingers, you should grow something to eat, not something to look at. What good are flowers, ma’am, to the starving?”
I was afraid to tell her that not only had we never starved but, of all things, I sketched them. It was an awkward moment, and I desperately wanted my son’s soft breaths against my neck and his fast-beating heart next to mine. I was about to reach for him when she gently placed him into my arms as if she could read my thoughts. Which, of course, she could not, because I was about to dismiss her before she abruptly turned her back to leave, calling out over her shoulder she’d start the next day. I stood too stunned to speak as I watched her departing gangly, long-strides spook a rabbit that had been hiding in the bushes.
“There’s nothing wrong with growing vegetables, now is there?” Jonathan stated more than asked, stabbing a chunk of carrot from the stew I’d made for our late meal.
“That’s not the point,” I said, glancing at my framed sketch of fruit hanging next to the sideboard.
“Try not to be too hard on her.”
“That is not why Margo left if that’s what you’re implying,” I said straining to keep my voice low so as not to wake the children. “Besides, this girl is plain. I don’t imagine her running away with some handsome young man.”
“You don’t know that’s what happened.”
“It’s a likely assumption, and many assumptions turn out to be true.”
“And many turn out not to be.”
“Must you always be the solicitor? Margo was pretty.”
“That, my dear, I’ll grant you.”
The next day after a hectic morning with me and the children getting ready for Colleen’s arrival, I watched my two exhausted children peacefully napping. Emma lying on her side with her bony knees bent and one skinny arm draped over Timothy. Even at seven, she was still ever protective of her four-year-old brother, insisting on cat-napping next to him.
Emma heard the faint knock at the front door before I did.
“Is that her?” Emma said, rolling over and stretching her long limbs.
“No need to hurry,” I said, not ready to accept that our lives were about to change.
“I’m up!” Timothy said, leaping out of bed.
Before they burst from the room, I gathered them into my arms and whispered, “Let’s not rush at her like wild animals. She needs to like us as much as we need to like her.”
As the three of us descended the stairs, I thought what did it matter if Colleen liked me? Margo and I had certainly not become friends. “When I’m gone,” my mother-in-law had said, “don’t listen to my socialist son about welcoming the help into the family. They’re servants plain and simple.” Living in the country, though, there weren’t many friends around.
Colleen’s knocking soon turned into a percussionist’s beat. We opened the door to find her small fists suspended in the air. She smiled as she brought them to her side and then crouched to Timothy’s height and asked, “Do you like marching bands? Maybe you’ll grow up to be a drummer in a marching band.”
“I’m afraid not—” I proclaimed.
“—Oh, Mummy, can I?” he pleaded as he tugged on my skirt. Turning to Colleen, he confided, “I wanted to be a Bobby, but Mummy said no.” Looking back to me he said, “Mummy, a drummer? Can I, can I?”
“We’ll see. Emma, take your brother inside. Colleen and I need to talk.” I stepped outside and closed the door behind me.
“First, some basic rules. Timothy is an excitable child and needs a calm environment. Frequent naps. Soothing voices. No running, inside or out.”
“Ma’am, God made boys with more energy than they know what to do with. Don’t know why. Maybe they need more of a fighting chance to make it in this world. The babies me mum lost were all boys. Not to worry, ma’am, I’ll help him run off that energy before bedtime,” she said, tossing her red cloth satchel over her shoulder before entering my home.
“Come, let me take you to your room,” Emma said, having waited for us to return. She took Colleen’s hand and led her up the stairs, while I went into the kitchen to prepare our meal. From overhead, I soon heard wooden blocks scatter across Timothy’s floor, laughter rise and fall, and blocks crash down to squeals of delight. Sometime later, Jonathan’s motorcar—our one extravagance—rumbled up the driveway and sputtered to a stop. The car door slammed shut followed by thundering tiny footsteps descending the stairs with cries of “daddy, daddy” filling the air. Oh, how he loved and encouraged such un-English-like exuberant. He also loved to wear his Bowler roguishly cocked to one side, which, I admit, I quite fancy.
After a muffled commotion of greetings, three sets of footsteps ascended the stairs and Jonathan entered the kitchen warmed by the cast-iron stove. He slid his arms around my waist from behind and kissed my neck before whispering in my ear, “He seems happy with her.”
“We’ll see,” I said, turning to face him.
“Don’t be pessimistic,” he said. Then he spied the jam-filled sponge cake and lifted the glass dome.
“No, you don’t. Now, go get the children and ask Colleen to come here.”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure, madam,” he said as he bowed.
“Now Jonathan,” I said before smiling.
“Now Amelia,” he responded before kissing me. I’d made his favorite dessert.
From the kitchen, Colleen carried out the first two plates of food to me and Jonathan and the second two plates to Emma and Timothy. Then the four of us waited for Colleen to bring in hers and join us.
“What’s keeping her?” Jonathan asked.
“Maybe she’s dumping the carrots,” Timothy piped in.
“Emma, you told her to join us, didn’t you?” I asked.
“I forgot,” Emma said.
When I opened the kitchen door, I found Colleen seated at the kitchen table slicing into her roast chicken. Her eyes widened in surprise, but I could have sworn I witnessed something else as if I’d caught her doing something she shouldn’t have. Seconds later, her composure made me question whether I’d seen anything of the sort.
“Can I get you something?” she asked.
“We’d like you to join us,” I said.
“But that’s not proper, ma’am. Me sitting with you.”
“It is in this house. It’s what my husband…and I…want.”
As soon as Colleen took her seat, I nodded for Emma to say grace.
“Bless our food—”
“—don’t bless our carrots,” Timothy mumbled, pushing them around his plate.
“And bless Colleen,” Emma said.
“Amen!” chimed in Timothy.
“Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?” Jonathan asked Colleen.
Her jaw tightened and relaxed for a fraction of a second. Jonathan had to have seen that. That was not my imagination.
“Someday I plan to go to America,” she said.
“Why would anyone want to leave Britain for that upstart country?” I said.
“Can I go to America?” Timothy asked.
“You certainly may not,” I stated. “Enough of this nonsense, let’s eat.”
For the rest of the meal, we ate in silence. I let Colleen help me clear the dishes, but insisted that she rejoin the family while I sliced the cake. While I spooned extra raspberry jam on each dessert plate, I heard laughter in the other room.
“What’s so funny?” I asked as I brought in three plates.
“Colleen was telling us a joke,” Jonathan said.
“I see,” I said, departing to retrieve two more plates. Once seated again, I said, “Well, tell us another one.”
“Are you sure, ma’am?”
“Of course, I have a very good sense of humor.”
“An Irish priest is walking down the road with a bottle in his hand. An officer sees that the priest is swaying, so the officer goes up to him and smells his breath. ‘Have you been drinking?’ the officer asks. ‘Just water,’ the priest says. ‘Then why do I smell wine?’ The priest looks at the bottle and says: ‘Good Lord! He’s done it again!’”
Jonathan laughed louder than I thought necessary.
“Why is everyone laughing?” Timothy asked.
“Some things are not for children,” I said.
“I thought it was funny,” Emma said.
“I like her,” Jonathan said as he got into bed.
“Of course you do. She mentioned wanting to travel to America, and I know you admire Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive stance. But don’t forget, I’ve met an American, and she was brash and boastful. I don’t know if Colleen is right for our family. Remember Deirdre?”
“How can you compare Colleen with our first nanny? Deirdre was ancient.”
“She didn’t do as she was told.”
“She was practically deaf. Really, Amelia, didn’t you see how the children like her? Give her time.”
“I guess, but the hospital seemed too keen on her if you ask me.”
“If it will make you happy, I’ll talk to them. Now, darling, come to bed.”
As I slipped under our blankets, I said, “I can’t sleep.”
“Me neither,” he said with an alluring grin.
“Now Jonathan,” I said unable to resist his charm.
I woke refreshed and to a cloudless day. I came downstairs and discovered Colleen had already prepared the children’s meals, and laughter circled the table as if she was now an official member of the family. Impressed, I thought, perhaps Jonathan had been right when he called her a “breath of fresh air,” as he left for the day, looking rather dapper in his three-piece tweed suit. Later, I would tell him he needn’t bother to call the hospital regarding her reference.
“Colleen makes rabbits disappear,” Timothy said.
“Well, this I shall have to see,” I said.
Colleen walked to the window where a ray of sunlight streamed across the dining room wall. With her hands intertwined in front of the light, she cast the shadow of a rabbit wiggling its ears on the wall which I had to agree was quite clever. Then, true to Timothy’s words, she made the rabbit disappear when her hands slipped behind her back.
“I’m going to sketch today. Perhaps I’ll even sketch a rabbit.”
“But you can’t make a rabbit disappear,” Timothy said. “Colleen, do it again. Do it again!”
“I’ll be outside,” I said, suddenly feeling usurped in my own home.
The sun was already hot and Colleen annoyed me, what with her ability to tell jokes and make rabbits disappear. I kept whipping off my large-brimmed hat to wipe my sweating brow.
Then I heard something fall and my son scream. I ran inside to see Timothy on the floor and an overturned chair.
“What happened?” I said to Colleen, as I pulled Timothy into my arms.
“He wanted to make his own rabbits.”
“And he needed to make them by standing on a chair?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I—”
“Timothy, are you all right?” I asked.
“Yes, Mummy, I just—.”
“—I trust you will find a more suitable activity for my children. Really, Colleen, one must think of the consequences of one’s actions.”
I returned to my sketch and focused on its composition. While motherhood was my job, drawing had become my passion when we moved to the country. I loved capturing nature, its order, its simplicity. Sometimes I managed this in just a few strokes, other times I drew layers upon layers of delicate lines, playful dots, abundant swirls, all punctuated with light smudges. Hours could pass without a lot of changes on the page, but a change in me, a softening, always occurred. My garden, my sketching, was my sanctuary.
While I was pondering the drawing, Colleen came outside with a cup of tea.
“I thought you’d like this,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, realizing Colleen, though impetuous, had meant no harm earlier. Jonathan was right, we just needed time to get to know one another.
“So what do you think?” I asked, rather pleased at my rendition of a butterfly in mid-flight.
“Ma’am, why don’t you paint?”
“A sketch doesn’t look finished.”
“Oh, but it is, and it isn’t at the same time. That’s its beauty. A sketch needs you—your eyes and imagination—to fill in what’s missing. Take this butterfly. Will it land safely? Or will the wind, see the bent leaves in the distance, take it far away? Yes, yes, a painting could capture this too, but a sketch requires more of your imagination to complete the picture or the story for yourself.”
“But, ma’am, I see nothing more than what’s on the page.”
“What if I sketch you? Surely you’d be able to fill in what’s missing then.”
“No. I mean no thank you, ma’am. Sometimes what you don’t see is supposed to stay that way.”
In the months that followed, I tried in vain to get Colleen to appreciate the subtlety of my drawings. Then I switched to explaining plant names such as my Achillea ptarmica, which I told her thrives in full sun. “Of course, a chilly plant would like the sun,” she said as if I had said ‘chilly’ instead of ‘Achillea.’” Then I told her that its common name is Sneezewort, and we both had a good laugh.
Sunday was Colleen’s day off. From my parted bedroom curtains, I watched her bicycle tires spin hard against the gravel and birds clamor and scatter. As Colleen retreated into the distance, I realized I’d grown rather fond of her. I already missed her Sunday ritual where she’d pretend to want to tickle Timothy if he didn’t eat his pancakes, while he’d pretend not to want to eat them before taking a bite. While she didn’t exactly have a calming influence on Timothy, which I would have preferred, he seemed to be more talkative, more lively, and I knew I had her to thank for that.
This Sunday was the first time she’d told us she’d be staying overnight at her mum’s house. I had often wondered why she didn’t see her more often. I sensed something had happened between them, but I didn’t want to pry. With the sky brooding, I fretted about a storm. Jonathan said I was once again worrying unnecessarily. But as the day wore on, it rained hard, as if thrown from a vengeful sky; my flowers and bushes bent as if huddled down for cover.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Jonathan said that night as we readied ourselves for bed and after my reading two more bedtime stories than usual to the children who also worried about Colleen.
“But what if she isn’t?” I asked, more like a distraught mother than her employer.
“My dear, she’s a very capable young woman.”
“More capable than I am?”
“Why would you even ask that?
“Because when I first discussed getting a nanny, you said I was acting frivolously.”
“Yes, but you convinced me otherwise—and rightly so. Now, why are we even talking about this? I’m simply telling you she’s competent. I spoke with the hospital, and they said she’s a very resourceful young woman.”
“You never told me that. What else did they say?”
“If you must know, they told me her life hadn’t been easy, and they wanted to help her. They said she has a good heart and deserves to be around good people. Really, Amelia, there is no big mystery here. She’s good for us, and we’re good for her. Now I need to sleep.”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or not. Lately, I was increasingly irritable and moody, and I wasn’t sure why.
The next day, after the storm, the sky displayed no sign of its initial outrage, as if all had been forgiven. Even my peonies stood upright as if trying to restore order. The children and I played dominoes to pass the time—me teaching Emma to count while teaching Timothy not to put the pieces in his mouth. But I could sense each of us still worrying about when Colleen would return.
“Maybe she won’t come back,” Emma said.
“Of course, she will,” I said. “Surely she thinks of herself as part of our family now.”
“Is that what you think too?” Emma asked.
“What a silly question,” I said. But it wasn’t until Emma had asked me this that I realized that, yes, I had begun to think of her that way. Perhaps we were even becoming friends despite our ten-year age difference.
By late afternoon, we heard the slow approach of bicycle tires. The children rushed down the stairs while I peered out a dormer window. Then I ran down the steps and outside.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I skidded on some wet leaves and fell is all.”
Her white blouse ripped and bloodied at the elbows, her torn stockings revealing a gash filled with dried blood and dirt. She felt feverish.
“Ma’am, I’m fine.”
“You certainly are not. Children, hold open the door, I’m taking Colleen to her room.”
That night, I fed her barley and carrots in beef broth as she sat up in bed with a propped-up pillow, but she managed only a few spoonfuls.
“Ma’am, why are you so good to me?”
“Shh,” I said. “If you’re not going to eat, then you need to sleep.”
I removed the extra pillow, tucked in the blankets, placed a cold cloth on her forehead and replaced it each time it heated through, the same way I would if she were my own child.
In the hours that followed, she slept restlessly, as if the fever was a demon trying to escape. She mumbled something about Sam. I fell asleep in the chair by the window and then woke to the words, “I’m starving,” knowing she’d be fine. My hand on her forehead confirmed that her fever had broken.
“Really, ma’am,” Colleen said, “no need to make such a fuss over me.”
“Someday,” I said, “I may need you to do the same thing for me,” and laughed.
“Are you sure?” Jonathan asked me.
“Sure as I’ve been with the other pregnancies,” I said.
“This is great news,” he said, picking me up and then cautiously setting me back down.
“I won’t break,” I laughed.
However, the next week, I would find out how wrong I was. There was spotting, and Jonathan had our family doctor come. While I sat up in bed, I heard my husband and the doctor talking outside the door. Then Jonathan opened the door, the doctor at his side, and said, “Darling, you will be fine.”
“But?” I asked, feeling unspoken words lurking.
“Constant bedrest. That’s all. Right, Dr. Phelps?”
“Yes. Nothing to worry about. Jonathan says you have a nice girl who lives here and can watch over you.”
“But what’s wrong?”
“Your baby is anxious is all. Your last two labors were fast, and this one is likely to be more so. We just need to keep that baby inside growing safely.”
“Maybe I should go to the hospital this time?”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” Dr. Phelps said.
“But why?” Jonathan asked. “I’ve seen hospitals advertising highly advanced techniques.”
“Yes, well, Saint Bartholomew’s has their own doctors who believe in those specialized techniques and tools, such as episiotomies and forceps. But, if you ask me, they do more harm than good. I also know too many cases where mothers who gave birth in hospitals later come down with Puerperal Sepsis and died. No, you’re safer giving birth at home. Now I really must run. Look after yourself Amelia and let…”
“…Colleen,” Jonathan added.
“Yes, yes, let her take care of you.”
Over the following long, dull months of my bedrest, we paid Colleen more to manage me, the children, and the house. It was a lot to ask, but she seemed to relish the role, and my children appeared jollier than I’d ever seen them. Timothy even began calling her “Mummy Two,” which I found amusing. Whenever he’d say it, he’d always kiss my cheek and say, “Don’t worry, you’ll always be Mummy One.”
On a table near my bedroom window, Colleen would place fresh cuttings from my garden and then dried flowers as the seasons changed so I could continue sketching. One day, when she was sitting with me, I tried to hand her my sketch pad.
“Would you like to try it?”
“No, ma’am. Just here to keep you company.”
“But you like what I’m drawing, don’t you?”
“No disrespect, ma’am, but black and white drawings seem lifeless. And I don’t understand why it’s called a still life. Yes, what you’re drawing is still, but there’s no life in it.”
How little I understood her.
While Colleen was spending a lot of time with me, I realized I still didn’t know who Sam was, the name she’d called out when she was feverish. One evening when Jonathan was in London on business, the children asleep, and Colleen ready to remove my evening dishes, I asked her to set down the tray and sit with me.
After a few minutes, I asked, “Who’s Sam?”
She looked startled for a moment the way she had that first night I’d found her eating alone in my kitchen. But instead of clamming up or acting dodgy, she said, “Sam? He was me mum’s fourteenth child. He died.”
“Fourteenth? Oh, my,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“No need, ma’am. None of us come easy into this world. And life’s a struggle to survive. Always been that way.”
“How old was he?”
“Never lived long enough to take a breath.”
“But your mum named him? Before he was born? How in heaven did she know it was a boy?”
“Me mum’s miscarriages made her superstitious. Thought the good Lord wouldn’t take a child that had been named. So she started giving her babies a name should it be a boy or a girl. Sam could be Samantha. Harry, Harriet. Will, Wilma. Mum had her names ready, and Sam was the last. Now, ma’am, this isn’t proper talk what with you—”
“—No, no, go on. You can tell me. What happened?”
Colleen pushed herself up from the chair as if weary. She walked to my bedroom window, partially opened to let in some fresh air, and pushed aside the curtain to reveal a moonless night. Her eyes starred out as if to tell this story to someone outside. Someone who could forgive her, I thought, sensing that that someone might be herself, the window reflecting her face like a mirror.
“I was the one. The one who was at the hospital. Me older sister was sick, but she’d been the one who had given her the Ergot.”
“Mold. Found on grains of rye. Helps to bring on the labor. Mum was past nine months. But me sister must have given her too much because me mum went into hard labor too soon.”
“But you were at the hospital. Surely they—”
“The charity part of the hospital isn’t like the part you know. Doctors go from room to room, if you want to call them that, nothing but a dirty sheet hanging between the wailing. Bed pans on the floor. That night it was Dr. Whirling.”
Colleen paused as if seeing something that I couldn’t.
“I’d heard horror stories about him. How he’d get the stubborn babies out and what that did to the mothers. By the sound of me mum’s cries, I knew something was wrong. At first, I thought maybe the baby hadn’t turned right. The summer I’d spent at my uncle’s farm, I saw him birth a calf that had twisted. He’d said, ‘Birthing is the most natural thing in the world, but that don’t mean unnatural things can’t happen.’ The calves had wanted to come out first, but he got ‘em turned around.
“But that wasn’t what was happening to me mum. The top of the baby’s head was trying to push its way out too soon and her body wasn’t ready. The nurse told mum to relax, but me mum kept letting out horrific screams what with the Ergot twisting and cramping her insides. Dr. Whirling rushed in covered in blood from delivering a baby and yelled at the nurse that me mum was scaring the other women. Then he ordered the nurse to leave with him. That’s when me mum grabbed my arm, pulled me close, and begged me over and over again to help her. But I didn’t know how. I’d seen babies born but nothing like this. Then the doctor and his nurse returned and unrolled a cloth revealing metal tools of all different shapes and sizes: curved, hooked, small, long. Dr. Whirling took me aside. Told me he was sorry. Said at least he could save the baby. Then he told the nurse to take me out of the room because he needed to break me mum’s pubic bone. That’s when I knew what he was going to do. He was going to kill me mum. I pounded on his chest and kept screaming ‘Get out! Get out!’ until they both did. I went to me mum, and she grabbed my hand; her face tight in pain as she tried not to scream as if trying to be brave for me what with her knowing what was coming.”
Then Colleen faced me as if somehow I could save her, and said, “I didn’t have a choice, ma’am. I didn’t. I couldn’t lose her.”
When I didn’t react, too shocked to know what to say, she returned to face the night’s blackness.
“Me mum’s fingers squeezed mine so tight that when the pain shot through her, I thought she’d crush my hand. I hated Sam. Hated what he was doing to her. I knew what those tools were used for. I’d heard about how some doctors would save the mother, others the baby. I peeled back her fingers and picked up one of the tools. Then the doctor and two nurses came in, saw me with it, and rushed toward me—but I swung it like a hammer at the baby’s head before they could grab it from me.”
A light breeze fluttered the curtain, and she turned around and said, “I shouldn’t have told you, ma’am. Please, please, don’t tell anyone.”
“No, no, of course not,” I said. “You can trust me. We’re friends. You saved your mother’s life.” Those words seemed right at the time; though, in truth, I was too stunned to know what to say. Part of me was now scared of her, of what she had done—and yet another part of me ached for her. I was torn between two extremes: wanting to put my arms around her to comfort her, as if I were her mother, as well as wanting her to leave my home immediately to protect my children. For if she was capable of this, what else might she be capable of?
The next day, Jonathan returned home from his London trip excited to tell me all about it as he rushed to unpack and get ready for dinner.
“I think we’re making progress with the rights of the unions here. James Connolly’s been impressed by Daniel De Leon, the head of the Socialist Labor Party of America, and starting to incorporate some of his language into our proposed bills.”
As he rattled on about union rights, I wanted to talk to him about what Colleen thought she had the right to do. This must have been why the hospital had been so anxious to have her gone. Though why she hadn’t been arrested was beyond my comprehension.
“Jonathan, I need to talk to you about Colleen.”
“Yes, isn’t she wonderful,” he said, as he tucked his suitcase into the closet. “The house is tidy. The kids are happy. And you, my dear, are getting the rest you need,” he said kissing the top of my head before heading out the bedroom door.
“That’s it? That’s all the love you have for your plump, pregnant wife?”
“What are you talking about? I’ve been traveling. I’m tired. And right now I’m hungry. All you do is rest all day, which apparently gives you nothing to do but worry about things one shouldn’t be worrying about at all. You know I love you, and that’s that. Really, Amelia, you haven’t been yourself. I’ll have Colleen bring you an extra plate of dessert.”
“That’s not what I want,” I yelled to the now closed door.
And what did he mean saying the house is tidy? Didn’t I keep a tidy house before Colleen? Weren’t the children happy before she came into our lives?
Over the following weeks, I was bloody irritable and angry at being confined to bed while I had to listen to Jonathan’s rubbish about how dandy life was with Colleen. I believed if I told him about her he’d say I was exaggerating or misinterpreting what she’d said. I felt alone and confused. I’d stopped sketching because Colleen had been right. My still life drawings were lifeless.
One day, Timothy entered my room with Colleen excited about the paper airplane they’d made together. He ran around the room with it pretending it was flying. Colleen and Timothy looked so happy together I just snapped.
“Timothy, how dare you use my good drawing paper for that!”
“I like Mummy Two better,” Timothy said running out of the room crying.
“Don’t listen to him, ma’am, he didn’t mean it,” Colleen said.
But I knew differently.
“Go,” I said to Colleen.
After she left, I asked myself: What, are you mad? Much later I would look back and think, yes!, yes!, maybe I was mad as if that could justify the actions that followed. The awful truth is that my life was in shambles. I couldn’t bear losing control of everything: my body, my husband, my children, my drawings—my whole life before Colleen—and I desperately wanted it all back.
Late that night I heard Timothy crying. I needed to reach him, despite the doctor’s orders of bedrest, before his cries woke Colleen or Jonathan.
“What’s wrong?” I said as I waddled to his bed making him scoot over to accommodate my ample frame.
“Bad dream,” he said rubbing his eyes.
“I want Colleen,” he whined.
I wanted Colleen out of our lives.
“Colleen is sleeping. You don’t want to wake her now, do you?” He shook his head “no.”
“You’re not nice,” he said.
“People aren’t always what they appear to be. Take Colleen…” I said.
Now, I should have stopped myself. Right there. Right after I spoke her name. But it was as if I was already on a fast-moving train headed in the wrong direction. I needed my son, my son—before there ever was a Mummy Two.
“What about Colleen?” he asked.
“She killed her baby brother.”
There. It was out. The perfect Colleen that my husband and children thought so highly of wasn’t so perfect after all. It felt liberating to say it.
I pulled Timothy into my arms and held him close.
“Never mind what Mummy said,” I whispered. “You just had a frightful dream. Everything will be fine.”
I tucked Timothy in, shuffled back to my room, rolled into bed without waking Jonathan, and for a blissful night believed no harm had been done.
In the morning, however, regret surfaced, and I hoped Timothy had been too sleepy to remember any of this. When Colleen burst into my room before breakfast, I knew I was wrong.
“Ma’am, something’s not right. Timothy won’t let me go near him. He said something about a bad dream last night and that you talked with him.”
“Really, Colleen, you know how excitable he can be. I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said.
All day, though, I struggled from my bedridden position to figure out how to undo what I’d done. Did Timothy really remember? Or was it only a vague recollection of something disturbing the way monsters from dreams lose their form in daylight, but still cast a shadow of a doubt? I needed to do something. But what?
That night, I decided to join my family for our evening meal. I needed to reinstate my position as the matriarch of this family. I had been absent for too long.
“Amelia, you shouldn’t—” Jonathan said when he saw me descend the stairs.
“I should and I will,” I said when I reached the last stair ignoring my ever increasing lower back pain, which I attributed to too much bed rest. “I’m tired of being an invalid. Tired of being treated like I’m not part of this family.”
“I’ll get you a plate, ma’am,” said Colleen.
“Mummy we already said grace,” Emma said, “but we can say it again.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
My return stunted whatever meal-time conversations they had engaged in. We all ate in silence except for Timothy whose fork clanked against the porcelain plate as he repeatedly stabbed his potatoes as if decimating them for crimes unknown. Everyone noticed, but no one said a word. Colleen turned to me as if wondering which of us should intervene. I said nothing.
“Timothy,” Colleen said, “don’t you like the potatoes?”
Timothy stabbed the cabbage.
“There’s no carrots,” Colleen said touching Timothy’s arm.
“I hate you,” Timothy screamed, as he swept his arm across the table and the plate crashed to the floor, splattering clumps of food everywhere. Then he ran from the table and up the stairs. Emma looked at me in dismay and ran after her baby brother.
“What’s going on?” Jonathan demanded.
“He was fine until last night,” Colleen said.
“What happened?” Jonathan asked.
“Mrs. Davis said he’d had a bad dream,” Colleen replied.
“Amelia?” Jonathan asked.
“Well, yes, I heard him cry out, and I went to comfort him.”
“You should have asked me,” Jonathan said, “you know what the doctor said about moving around too much.”
“He’s my son and if I want to comfort him I will.”
“Well whatever you said didn’t work,” Jonathan said.
“He can be an excitable boy, you both know that.”
“But this is more than that, ma’am. And I never did anything to him, I swear.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll talk with him,” I said, about to get up.
“Amelia, you sit right there, I’ll take care of it,” Jonathon said.
“No!” I said. “He’ll be fine. I know my own son, don’t I?”
“Colleen, are you sure you can’t think of any reason?”
“No, sir. I swear I never said or did anything. He was fine until last night.”
“Really, you’re both making too much of this. He had a bad dream. That’s all. Why won’t you both just believe me? Bad dreams are the most natural thing in the world.”
“Maybe so, but his behavior is not.”
“Ma’am, you didn’t…I mean you wouldn’t have, would you? You didn’t tell him about Sam, did you?”
“Haven’t we all talked about this enough? Timothy will be fine. Let’s just eat.”
“Sam, who is Sam?” Jonathan asked.
“No one to be concerned with,” I said, cutting my carrots.
“No one?” Colleen said. “Sam now means nothing to you?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You told him, didn’t you?” Colleen said.
“I didn’t say that,” I said.
“I trusted you! How could you?” Colleen said, throwing her napkin on the table.
“Will someone please tell me who Sam is?” Jonathan asked.
“Just another unwanted Irish soul,” Colleen said as she dashed from the table and ran out the front door.
“Amelia?” Jonathan said.
Then Jonathan ran after Colleen.
“Jonathan, come back!” I thrust myself up from the table to go after them, but a severe cramp bent me in half. I grabbed my stomach while clutching the table for balance. Then a sharper pain came and water leaked out of me. “No!” This baby must not come now! I lost my grip and fell to the floor as I screamed, “Jonathan.”
When Jonathan came running in, I seized his pant leg before he could crouch down next to me. I pleaded with him to get our doctor. I said, “I didn’t mean any harm. Not really.” In his distant eyes, though, I could see he didn’t believe me. Colleen stood in the doorway calling out, “might be too late for a doctor. I can….” I grabbed Jonathan’s arm, sensing the bond between us weakening. “Please Jonathan, not Colleen.” I needed our doctor. I needed Jonathan to understand. I couldn’t bear the thought of Colleen delivering my baby. I’d see her face every time I looked at my child. “Please, Jonathan!” Then my stomach muscles squeezed harder and harder until they broke my resolve, and all I wanted was my baby to be born.
I had been wrong to think that I would cringe at the thought of Colleen having delivered my baby. That night in my bedroom with my newborn son in my arms, it was as if the whole world had been born clean again. His innocence was a blessing signaling that all should be forgiven. As my child nursed, all I felt was love. I slept well assured that Colleen would forgive me. All I needed to do was ask.
My joy vanished in the morning light when Jonathan opened the bedroom door without entering and said, “She’s gone. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I drove Colleen to her mother’s.”
“Before you woke.”
“But I need to talk with her. You’ll take me to her, won’t you?”
“Amelia, she doesn’t want to see you. I have to take care of some things. I’ll be back later.”
“Where are you going?”
The door shut before he could answer.
I would go to Colleen. Explain how being pregnant makes one crazy. We were still friends, weren’t we? Surely if anyone could understand making a mistake she could. Jonathan must understand this, too. I was too tired to think clearly, drifting in and out of sleep and smiling whenever I woke at the sight of my son, whom I named, Colin.
When Jonathan returned to our bedroom, the late afternoon sun had edged along the bottom of my bedroom window. He opened the chest of drawers and pulled out his pajamas.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m moving down the hall. When the baby wakes, it will keep me up.”
“—Amelia, when I see something’s not right, I need to fix it. That’s why I got into law. To help men fight for their rights. After Colleen delivered our child, she told me about Sam and how those doctors play god by choosing whose life to save without the mother’s consent. I convinced Colleen to go with me to Judge Daniels to see what could be done.”
“That’s what I thought, but the Judge said if I did anything Colleen would surely go to prison even though she did the same as them.”
“Because I can’t expose the hospital—as much as I want to—without implicating Colleen and causing her mother more pain. That’s the reason the hospital never pressed charges. They didn’t want anyone to know about how they operate. But, Amelia, the hospital did think they were doing the right thing by securing a nanny position for her in a good home.”
“So what happened? Can I see her? I need to make things right between us.”
“Amelia, Colleen had to be charged. Once the Judge knew about this crime, he had no other choice.”
“The Judge and I, though, made a deal. He said if I could secure her safe passage to Australia then no time would be served.”
“Australia? But she wanted to go to America.”
“I know. She cried when I told her this. But she can’t go to America with a felony. Rumors are they’re going to enact new immigration restrictions stricter than the ones they initiated last year. It’s too risky. She could end up in jail there. The Judge has friends in Australia who will help her.”
“She hasn’t left yet, has she? Please, I need to ask her to forgive—”
“It’s too late. She’s on her way to London where a union friend is will secure her safe passage on a cargo ship to Australia.”
“But, Jonathan, I need to talk with her. You must be able to arrange that.”
“Amelia, you’re the last person she wants to talk to. You’re going to have to forget about her.”
“But I can’t. Don’t you see? She and I are the same. Both of us willing to go to any extreme to hold on to the person we love. I was afraid of losing Timothy.”
“No, Amelia. You weren’t. You were jealous of her, and you betrayed her trust,” Jonathan said, as he started to leave the bedroom.
“Jonathan, please tell me you forgive me.”
“I need more time. I think you need to admit you were wrong. Then learn to forgive yourself,” he said before heading down the hall into what had once been Colleen’s room. His footsteps faded in the distance until only silence was my companion.
How could he feel that way? How could everything have happened so fast? My hands shook. I needed something to calm my nerves. I would be okay. I would. I gently got out of bed so as not to wake Colin and pulled out my drawing paper. All I needed was to sketch again. To see the world as it should be and to set things right. I would draw Colleen. I would capture her essence the way I’d been able to capture that butterfly in mid-flight. To the casual observer, that sketch appeared as if that butterfly could either land or fly away. But I’d drawn the wings angled ever so slightly downward for I was as certain of that butterfly’s safe landing as I was now certain that sketching Colleen would allow me to see her, to see her forgive me.
However, each time my pen ran across the page with a faint line here or a heavy line there, doubt intruded until I questioned who Colleen really was. Was she the bold girl I first met with boundless energy riding her bicycle up to my cottage and questioning why I grew flowers instead of food? Or the timid child who thought she was to stay in the kitchen like a servant instead of joining us as a family? Or the playful adolescent who scooped my delighted son into the air, made rabbits disappear, and built paper airplanes? Or the frightened, young woman who made the hard choice to kill her mother’s unborn child to save her mother’s life?
Or, as my pen lingered upon the page, was she now—and forever—an embittered adult betrayed by someone she trusted, someone she thought she once knew? I drew and drew and drew until the force of my fountain pen punctured my drawing sending tears of black ink mixed with my tears streaming down the page.