Excerpt from The Tomorrow Country
The curate stood just inside the door of the Infant’s Asylum, clutching the newborn he had rescued from a gutter. Mr. Jenks paused, pocketed the curate’s money, then bellowed over his shoulder.
“Mary! Get out here at once!”
The shadow that scurried out of the back appeared to be an old woman until the curate was astonished to see a fresh face of about fourteen attached to the bent, humped shape. The features, vigorously scrubbed, were plain and heavy as half risen dough with the thickened brow that proclaimed slow wits. Brown hair was scraped into a scanty knot. A full fronted apron was tied close under the chin like a vast bib meant to shroud her deficiencies.
“Take this infant and clean it and feed it,” Mr. Jenks commanded. “And look smart about it.”
Mary opened her eyes very wide. Blue eyes, they were, the only pretty, lively part of her.
“Oh, has Miss Radmore…”
“Ask no questions! We’re taking this one in. You, my girl, are charged with its care. If there’s trouble, the trouble will be all yours, I guarantee!”
This was for the curate’s benefit. Mary flinched slightly, as if from habit, then hurried, with her curious gait, to take the child.
“Oh,” she breathed. “Oh, oh my!”
Mr. Jenks gestured toward the door, expecting the curate to leave, but the young man insinuated himself fully into the room, feeling bolder now that the abandoned waif was out of his arms.
He found himself in a large low chamber lit by a parsimonious fire burning in a large grate. The floor was stone, scrubbed to its grain, gray and clammy. The walls were white-washed and a few pieces of heavy furniture sat about, contrasting oddly with the tiny chairs at the far end, rigidly aligned as conscript soldiers. The cleanliness and order was so welcome after the reeking streets that the curate drank it in gratefully before he noticed that it was of the carbolic, threatening kind surpassing anything even his vicar’s wife could produce.
The building was, in fact, an old converted soap works and the fireplace one of those formerly used to boil cauldrons of fat and lye. Upstairs, some thirty infants and toddlers were asleep in rows, all dosed with Godfrey’s cordial, an opium mixture heavily used among the poor to keep their children unconscious in unattended rooms until the parents could struggle home at night. The downstairs, besides this main room, contained the parlor and bedroom of the Jenks. In the cellar was a cramped steaming kitchen. Mary slept on a bench under the stairs.
Mary retrieved a basin from the passageway and filled it from a water jug. As she did so, sudden chimes sounded the hour. Curate Banning was startled to see, against the rough plaster, an incongruously ornate clock of carved walnut with a filigreed face and a free-standing skeletal figure, presumably Father Time, swing a scythe at the room.
“Ah, that’s our timepiece,” supplied Mr. Jenks piously. “Given here from a fine house, it is, to make the little children think upon their souls.”
Mary unwrapped the infant from the curate’s much-abused coat. Carefully, with surprising skill, she washed off the dried mucus of birth and the ashy street filth which floated free in the water.
All the while, the curate stood watching her with half appalled fascination. Her entire back curved as if a giant hand had squeezed it. In the middle, the tortured vertebrae showed through the fabric of her dress in a row of blunt, erratic knobs. Her walk was a curious shuffle and her chest a concave shadow between her forward pointing shoulders, one of which dropped lower than the other, looking viciously dragged down. Jenks, perhaps wanting to keep his visitor from further examining the establishment, nodded towards Mary.
“Out of the mines up north, she is,” he informed the curate as if Mary were an exhibit on a shelf. “Hauled carts of coal up the tunnels till her back got turned down like that. Ain’t supposed to be girls in the pits these days but lots are made to go down on the sly. Especially the old pits, back of the hills, that can’t afford machinery. Ran away, finally, and found her way here to work. Miss Radmore takes special interest in her. How’s that for luck!”
“Who is Miss Radmore,” the curate inquired, not taking his eye from the baby.
“Why, our benefactress,” Mr. Jenks intoned, bobbing his head automatically. “Miss Radmore sent the clock down special as well as a good many of the other bits and pieces you see about. She oversees the money to support the little ones. I’ll make the child right with her,” he added, dropping a confidential wink.
The curate watched Mary produce a bottle attached to a much-gnawed nipple and filled with weak looking watered down milk. Mr. Jenks shifted from foot to foot in fear that the baby would expire before their eyes and the visitor demand his money back.
To the amazement of all, the infant emerged from he bath faintly rosy. The curate, forgetting that the baby was naked, leaned forward as Mary dribbled liquid into the child’s throat. Instead of choking, the throat worked and the chest began to heave in a renewed tumult for survival. When the nipple was tried, the small mouth clamped around it, struggling after the milk with a disconcerting ferocity of spirit.
In the firelight, a delicate fringe of hair fluffed as it dried over the round little skull. Even the lumpy face of the newborn seemed to smooth into finer proportions and take on an expression of intense concentration. At last, after some erratic suckling, the tiny fists waved as if in jubilation.
The thread of life, shredded down to its last strand, had been miraculously knit up again.
The curate so far forgot modesty as to assume the tiny fists waved gratefully to him. Exultant warmth bloomed inside him. Recklessly, he imagined himself and the Good Samaritan colleagues in the matter. He had given the child its life–and in return, the child had granted him a gift far beyond his own humble powers of estimation. The gift of simple courage.
The curate released a breath full of trusting happiness and took his leave.
Instantly, civility vanished. Mr. Jenks bolted the door and turned back to Mary.
“That’s enough coddling. Put the brat down and get on with your jobs.”
Rousing a little out of her stolidity, Mary pulled the baby closer to her breast. “It ain’t had enough ter eat yet. It ‘s got ter have more or t’won’t live.”
She spoke slowly, with an awkwardness that always irritated Mr. Jenks. They employed her because she would work twenty-four hours out of the day if ordered, and was considered too dim-witted to notice Jenks’ fraudulent tricks. Now, contrarily, she dropped her head and kept on feeding the baby.
“Put it down!”
Mary’s blue eyes flew wide at the menace. She could feel the baby moving against her, wanting to butt the bottle like a hungry lamb. Oh shame! And the tyke such a fighter too!
Stubbornly, her head sank lower yet over her concave chest. Mr. Jenks pulled his jaws together, took a single step and clouted Mary heavily on the side of the head.
The blow knocked the girl off the stool she was seated upon. She slid sideways to the floor, flinging out one arm to save herself as she did so, barely managing to keep hold of the child with the other. The bottle clattered across the flagstones but did not break. The baby set up a hiccoughing wail.
“Get along with you, I said,” growled Jenks, towering over her.
For a moment, Mary cowered, then lifted herself to a half-sitting position. She was a plodding creature who had borne much in life. Her childhood had been crushed and her mind narrowed but inside her resided a spirit that the trials of her existence had not been able to extinguish. To be sure, it was a slow spirit, and blind. It had taken the ruin of her body and near death from maltreatment in the mines to finally rouse it and prompt Mary to plunge away over the dark moors in search of respite. Yet once quickened, it could never forget the lesson. It lay like a clumsy beast, no longer unconscious, but only asleep. This blow, as so many others had not, jarred it again awake. Instantly, it fastened itself, with all its latent tenacity, upon the child.
“I seen the money that gintlemun give you! I seen how much!” she declared, in her thick north country accent. “It’s for this tyke, it is and not yer own pockets. Soon’s Miss Radmore comes, I’m agoin’ ter tell so’s she can put it down in the book.”
Mr. Jenks halted as though the doorpost had threatened him. It was the longest speech he had heard from Mary and he was astounded at how much she understood. Astounded and enraged.
And, damn it, how had she seen the cash!
“I’ll see you out on the streets where you belong, Miss Humpback. You’d starve in a week!”
Mary tucked the baby tighter against her side so that the tiny warm thing felt as if it were burrowing into her. Her head drew in between the points of her shoulders against the expected blow but her eyes didn’t waver.
“Miss Radmore’d see me by the door,” she answered, taking his threat literally and announcing her own equally literal contingency plan. She would, indeed, sit by the door until Miss Radmore visited, even if it took three months and Jenks knew it.
Jenks let out a choking exclamation and swung his big fist. Mary drew swiftly back and curled herself into a ball about the baby, eyes shut, head drawn in as far as it would go. It was clear no physical violence could budge her. She’d known all there was to know of that down in the mine.
Jenks stood over her, breathing heavily. Oh, to flatten this misshapen toad. But Miss Radmore had fixed upon Mary as her especial pet. Amelia Radmore would not take quietly to Mary’s disappearance.
Jenks swelled painfully as greed and fear fought out a gritty battle in his breast. The curate’s money lay in his hand, enough, with what he was laying by, to make his escape in two or three year’s time. A pub! That’s what he dreamed of. A nice dark pub where he could fix bets and skim the wages of working men. However, he was not fool enough to run without money. Weren’t there enough broken down tramps and famished labourers to prove the pitfalls of that.
Now that this moon calf had noticed the cash, how could it be kept secret! No, no! Better to virtuously pass the money to Amelia Radmore. At least, he’d have a chance to cheat a good deal of it back. He ran a violent hand over his skull and glowered at Mary.
“I’ll see to you later!”
He strode out, leaving Mary sprawled in the firelight, frozen with astonishment.
For the first time in her life, she had scored a victory.
Stunned, she retrieved the bottle, hoisted herself back onto the stool, and commenced feeding the baby again.
Mary worked uncomplainingly and without expression, for the pit had hammered all emotion out of her save what it took to keep on living. Mary’s face, like her rigid body, never changed. She hoarded only two things to her bosom–those light, smiling touches of Miss Radmore and the memory that once, long ago before the mines, she’d had a mother of her own.
Perhaps these humble treasures had worked more life back into her than she knew, for the stinging welt on the side of her face burned all the way through her body. Her inner self, stirred with such difficulty, showed no inclination to subside. Never had Mary seen a baby so frail and weak and yet so ravenous for life. It suckled noisily, often losing the nipple, often pausing to gather strength for its next onslaught where many a stronger infant had simply shut its eyes and died. If there was anything Mary admired, it was tenacity.
And I saved yer, she thought in a rush. Me!
Wonderment bloomed through her slow mind, like a brilliant flower unfurling on previously dark and sterile ground. Her eyebrows lifted higher and wider apart as if the idea were physically forcing itself between them that she, humpbacked Mary, had done this thing. The bruise on her cheek rang like a battle scar.
For several minutes, she sat stock still, just looking down at the fluff of hair and the eyes shut tight while it fed. After a moment, a new, unheard-of sound issued from her.
Mary began to hum.
To hum very softly over the small head cradled against her–an old, north country lullaby, shaky at first, and in fragments, but growing stronger as the dim, nearly lost notes crept back. Out of her hard, unloved life, the first seeking tendril of emotion curled toward the child, a tendril that promised to grow into a protecting vine so tough that only grim death would be strong enough to tear it away again.
Far away and a great many hours later, Curate Banning beheld the sunset from the jouncing back of a turnip cart. His impulsive gift had not even left him the price of a railway ticket, forcing him to hitch rides on passing wagons and to walk in between. His feet were blistered inside his ruined footwear and his young body fearfully jolted from the rude conveyances he had been forced to flag down. In fact, he was exhausted and disheveled almost beyond recognition. At the village, the wrath of his vicar awaited him, for Banning’s inheritance, so impetuously given away, had been pledged to the missionary fund.
Another time the young man would have quaked with trepidation and despair. Today, fear of the vicar failed to move him. When rain began at the crossroads and he was again put down to walk, he glanced back at the sooty haze of London staining the horizon.
His breast puffed out. Striding homeward, he began to grin.
“Onward to Jerusalem, ” he belted out, bursting into a joyful hymn. At last, oh, at long long last, he felt a worthy soldier in the armies of the Lord!
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