Pearls: A Story for Mothers' Day
It's three months now since Jack Farrar left for America. His brother wrote to say that there was good work to be had in New York and no one cared where you said your Sunday prayers, so as soon as Jack got his half year pay he was off. 'Come with me,' he said. But how could I, placed as I am? And he has been much missed. We’ve been good company since he came to work here two years ago from his lordship's Killarney estates, having fallen out with the steward there.
Jack was not approved here either, though he worked hard. I heard Mr Lines tell him that he served with a bad grace and should show more gratitude, though what Jack should have been grateful for he didn't say. Jack made some retort I couldn't hear and Mr Lines rebuked him in a tight voice, saying that he should keep his politics to himself.
Jack gave me some hard words too before he left. 'You're a fool Katy,' he told me, 'Save yourself while you still can, for no-one else will. Not almighty God and certainly not that bag of shite on his gilded throne upstairs.'
His lordship's not a bad man, I think, but just what men are, and as much a slave of what he was born to as Jack Farrar. And not as free, for he can't take ship and sail away from his great estates and his many relations and their demands. For myself, if I had his advantages, I would get rid of the Lady Margaret, but he dotes on his mother more than he does his wife, who is a pale, limp thing with more pedigree than purpose. This phrase, springing so readily to my mind, gives me a pang, for it is stable-talk and one of Jack's expressions.
Vanity is a venial sin, but in the cracked mirror above the chest of drawers, when I take off my shift to go to bed, I am sometimes tempted to look at my breasts and hold the weight of them in my cupped hands. They're swollen now, veined with blue, the nipples dark and thick as thumbs. I can feel my breasts ache at the thought of his soft fingers at my bodice, his tongue's flutter against the hard nipple. A drop of milk oozes from one breast at the memory of it and hangs from the teat like a small pearl - the jewel that is both my shame and my keep. It purchases the fine linen shift I put over my head and the Indian muslins I wear in summer weather, that are the envy of the laundry maid. I dine well, for I must eat for two and his lordship's child must not go hungry. For the same reason I am fed from my lady's table and - because I am not fit to dine with her - I take my trays in my room. Last night it was potted trout and roast chicken with a baked custard to follow. I ate, I'll wager, more than she did, for her face is as thin as a twelve year old girl and her wrists like wish-bones.
When she was heavy with the child, she glowed with her own importance - pampered, fed by her husband's hand. The same fingers that stroked my breasts, plucked grapes and peeled apricots for her as she lay on the sofa, her cheeks flushed, her eyes full of light, her hair a glossy brown coil. And when I was laid low with disgrace, she was proud and joyous from the same cause. Our fates have stayed in equal opposition since.
I buried my daughter in the same month she was born and now it is my lady's child that I hold in my arms - her son whose eyes hold mine, who tugs on the nipple and then slackens his grip to smile at me with dark eyes like his father's. And when he sucks, with such a strong pull, I feel that sweet ache in my stomach that is so sinful a girl can lose her virtue for it.
There are still those who say the child was Jack's, but he has never touched me. All we ever did was talk, and - though it would seem strange to others - that conversation was of more importance to me than anything I have ever done with another.
My mistress visits my room sometimes, coming through the door hesitantly as if needing permission and then sitting silently on the hard chair beneath the window to watch. She had begged, they say, to suckle her own child, but the Lady Margaret forbade it. Only peasant women stoop so low; a fine lady must not behave like a cow or a goat - her body must be a thing of beauty, reserved for her husband's pleasure. So I nurse her child, his tiny fingers curled round mine, his face gazing into mine and it is my blood that feeds him, flesh of my flesh that he becomes day after day, as he grows fat with my good milk. If it were me in that chair, I could not sit so still; I would claw my child from the arms of any woman who held him.
They tell me I had to be pulled from throwing myself into the grave with my own babe, though I do not remember much of it now. The priest said it was more a sin to embrace death of my own will than it was to have a child out of wedlock.
But no drop of family milk must be wasted. The Lady Margaret came herself to fetch me from the nuns, for the woman they had engaged to nurse proved dry and their son and heir was crying night and day. At first I could not bear to think of another's baby at my breast while my own daughter lay cold in her swaddling bands, but, when I heard the child sobbing, my swollen, tender, traitorous breasts dripped milk of their own accord, soaking the front of my gown as I stood there, and I could see my Lady Margaret smile.
They were cruel, those first days - the child's greedy sucking hour after hour, my breasts engorged and my nipples so sore I couldn't bear even the touch of my clothes against them. And in my heart - that pain was worse to suffer.
Once, nursing the babe beside the fire, I looked down at him drawing hard on the teat in spite of my agony and it was all I could do not to throw him in the flames and run out into the night. Why should her child live and mine perish? The feeling was so urgent that I must get up and walk away to the end of the room, clutching the child to me, my legs trembling and my stomach weak. I must be very sinful to fall so low and have such wicked thoughts.
I once heard my lady talking to her husband about the moral danger of my employment - that the child might imbibe my moral laxity with the milk. Little does she know that the blessed babe suckles at the same teat as his father did, though the Lady Margaret is not so stupid. And it is not only my morals they fear he might swallow, but my religion also. I have not taken mass or made my confession since I returned here. The priest asks to see me when he comes to the servants' hall for his fish supper on a Friday night, but he is forbidden to come upstairs. Which is a blessing since I have little taste for priests these days.
It's the night feeds that are the best, when the house is still and the babe warm against my stomach, his dark head in the crook of my elbow. I can feel his breath on my skin as he sucks and I am drowsy with pleasure. Just the babe and I in the darkness beyond the yellow circle of the candle flame. They make me leave the door ajar so that they can be sure I don't take him to bed and overlay him, though the old nurse snoring in her bed next door would never know, she sleeps so deep.
In the beginning when the child cried, the Lady Margaret used to appear suddenly, her cap strings dangling, and her candle held high so's not to drip wax on her robe of red brocade, and she would stand in the doorway and watch me settle him before padding back down the stairs to her own room. She does not come now, but sometimes I can sense a presence in the darkness and I know that someone else is watching through the gap in the door. It must be, I think, a touching picture. I am the Madonna of the night - a girl with loose hair in a cotton shift, unbuttoned, suckling a seven month child. But when he is back in his crib, it is not the babe who is in danger of being overlaid, and I am full of fear, for there are some sins too terrible to be forgiven.
The mistress came again today to watch me feed her son. Her face grows thinner as her belly swells. Her eyes, like her hair, are dull. Today she told me that she is mortally afraid of another confinement. I could see that she did not mean to tell me and was sorry straight away. Such confidences are meant for woman friends, not servants.
'I almost died having him,' she said, by way of excuse. 'He was such a big baby and I'm so small.'
'You'll be just fine,' I said. 'Don't you have the best doctors? And a lying-in nurse from London?' I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice, remembering my own birthing, left in the straw to manage as best I could by myself, taking Eve's punishment for her sin. But what would my lady know of that?
'I feel so pulled down. If only I'd been given more time ....... ' She lowered her head and chewed her lips, having said too much. But she's right, he must have had her on her back between the sheets before the monthly nurse had boarded the Liverpool ferry. And there will be another child for me to feed before this one is weaned.
Some nights if the child is slow to go down, I take my candle and go walking with him through the silent house. My bare feet make no more noise on their thick carpets than the housekeeper's cat. And I wander through the rooms I am forbidden by day, the little lordship on my shoulder, showing him his inheritance. I know every corner of these grand rooms, every lacquered table, every porcelain bowl and silver sconce, for wasn't it me that polished and dusted them in another life? I know something of the paintings too, the sombre ancestors in their elaborate frames - people that only Mr Lines can put a name to, his family having been stewards here for three generations. And there are women in silks and ribbons with long noses and powdered hair three feet high in the manner of the unfortunate French Queen. The Lady Margaret is one of them, with a strange affair of flowers and feathers perched on top of her wig and an indecent amount of flesh over the top of her bodice. She does not look like that now.
In the gallery at the top of the stairs is the painting his lordship brings everyone to see, for it is Italian, brought back by his grandfather from the grand tour. When I first came here it was not to my taste, for it reminded me of the church; a sour-faced Madonna with an oversized child at her breast and a landscape of rocky shores and sailing ships over her shoulders. Now, as I stand there, holding up my candle, with the child growing hot and sleepy against my neck, I think that perhaps she is sad. There is something in her eyes as she looks at her infant that any mother would know.
When the library door is closed I don't go in. But some nights, if it's unlocked, I push it open and walk inside. It smells of himself - a cold, sharp smell like water thrown on a peat fire to damp it down, and the scent of the tobacco which he keeps in blue porcelain jars on the corner of the desk. I run my finger over the leather spines of the books, and sometimes, if I take a fancy to the title, I borrow one of them, for I can read at least better than her ladyship. My mother taught me that.
When they are away in Dublin I sometimes take the key from the drawer where he hides it, pull aside the shelf of almanacs and open the safe where he keeps his private papers and my lady's jewels. I like to open the boxes and try them in the mirror. This case of red morocco holds the diamonds he bought her when the child was born, which she is very proud of, though they are not to my taste, for they are hard and cold against the skin. And this is the collar of sapphires, blue as the Madonna's gown, that was the Lady Margaret's wedding gift. He let me try it once, when my lady was visiting her mother and he gave me a glass of Spanish wine in front of the fire, loosening my bodice and fastening the gems around my neck. They looked very pretty in the mirror, glinting in the firelight. But my favourites are the pearls, nested in blue velvet, a thick strand, given to my lady as a birthday gift before they were married, and which she does not like. She will wear neither pearls nor rubies, he told me, for they signify blood and tears. The pearls lie warm around my throat, the colour of milk.
'They become you,' he said, putting his hand on my shoulder and lifting my hair to caress my neck. If my child was a son, he told me, he would see me right. But he made no promises for a girl.
My mother worked here once - 'An excellent domestic,' Mr Lines called her - but she left when I was born and went to keep house for the priest. Of my father she never spoke - it was a question that could not be asked. And when she died of a wasting sickness when I was but eleven, the Lady Margaret sent Mr Lines' wife to fetch me here in memory of my mother, though it is not the life my mother wanted for me. To hear my mother talk, this house was Babylon and the Lady Margaret the great Queen Jezebel herself. She would rather have burned in hell than see me walk through its gates. I could not see, when I first came, what it was she hated so, but five years later when I walked down the drive with his lordship's child in my belly and no character but the one I'd made for myself, I understood better.
This morning when I got out of bed my stomach was so disordered I sent my breakfast back uneaten - an event so original even the kitchen maid remarked on it when she came to take my tray. I have been nauseous all day, but more with anxiety than sickness. This is the third occasion in a week and I greatly fear the cause of it. Every woman knows you can't be caught while you are feeding. But could it be? I have seen no monthly blood since my daughter's birth, so there is no other sign to guide me. But now this thought is in my mind. If it happens tomorrow I must give my breakfast to the dogs or the servants' hall will have it for a fact.
After I had fed the child and given him to his nurse I went for a walk through the gardens down to the river, not caring who saw me go. It was a good day, with flying cloud and a bit of sun to warm the wind. I had Jack Farrar's letter in my pocket. He has a good job already, labouring on a bridge - he says New York is all building and there are plenty of openings even for a woman. He is lodging with another Irish woman called Mary Hogan who can neither read nor write. I could get good trade, Jack says, in penning letters for the people here, and there are those who would pay just to learn their ABC. And there is other, more humble employment in keeping the men fed and their clothes clean. 'The work is hard, but honest, and your soul is your own. Will you not come?' Jack writes.
The surface of the river puckers as a salmon rises to a fly that has flown too near the surface. I can see my future in front of me very clear. If I am not caught now, then I will be again, for I cannot get free of him as long as I am here. And then I will be at the mercy of the priests who will put my child in the orphan house and me to work in the convent laundry. I have had a taste of it and will not go there again, but I am so mired in sin I do not know how to get out.
It has been more than a week since Jack's letter and I haven't stopped thinking about how it might be managed. Then yesterday my lady had a whim to go up to Dublin to buy some new linen for her lying in. His lordship never passes the chance to spend time and money in the city, so he must go too, and I could scarcely believe my fortune when the Lady Margaret said that she would go with them to see her sister.
So tonight the house is empty and everyone asleep but me. I waited until the clock chimed ten and I heard Mr Lines lock the front door. Then I went down to take the pearls from the safe. When I turned the key and pulled the door open, there was a leather pouch just at the front, which almost fell out, as if it had been pushed in hurriedly. When I peered inside there were the sovereigns his lordship had got from Lord Annesley two days ago for a mare. I took four of them and, together with the pearls, became a common thief. But such thievery is a small thing in the list of sins I have committed. And I must not think of it as stealing. These coins are my wages, rightfully due, and will buy me a passage to America. And the pearls I will think of as a present from his lordship, to 'see me right' in my new life. I can sell them one by one if I have the need to, and if not I shall keep them as an heirloom.
But as I was taking the pearls from the safe I heard footsteps in the hallway and straight put out the candle and swung the shelf to and slipped down onto the floor behind his lordship's chair. The steps came closer and then I heard the door open and a pool of light spilled across the carpet. I could see by the old black shoes poking from under the hem of the brown woolsey, that it was Mrs Lines and knew then that my fortune had not changed and all my plans must miscarry. She held the candle high, staying very quiet for a moment as if to listen. My heart was thundering in my breast, my breathing very fast, and it seemed impossible for her not to hear it, or to smell the smoke from the candle wick. She advanced two steps into the room, so that I knew I was undone.
But then she stopped and turned and went out again, closing the door behind her. I was praying, do not lock it, I pray you, do not turn the key! And, thanks be to whatever gods watch over thieves and fornicators, it stayed on the inside of the door and I heard her feet going down the corridor and then the quiet thud of the baize door. My legs shook so much I could hardly stand up and my hands trembled so that I fumbled the key in the safe and made so much noise putting it in the drawer, I thought it must surely fetch her back.
The child was stirring when I came upstairs and I picked him up and put him to my breast, still shaking from the fright. He smiled at me, such a sweet smile as I put him down in the crib, that I was provoked to a storm of weeping and almost persuaded to change my mind. I am calmer now, having put my best clothes in a bag and sewn the pearls into my bodice. I will wait until midnight and then slip out of the side door. I can walk fast and by morning, when the child wakes, I will be well along the Dublin road, beyond the reach of anyone who knows me, and can hitch a ride on a wagon going north to Belfast. I will tell the carrier I have been turned off by my employer and am going to my sister in Larne. The babe will cry and cry for me, but I must not think of that now, or of his dear face at the breast. For I know for certain that I will never feed another child of hers.
© Kathleen Jones 2013
More Fiction by Kathleen:
The Sun's Companion - historical novel
Three - short fiction, Amazon Triplet
Painting possibly by Eugene de Blaas