London, June 1880.
The summer sun played around gaily with the honeysuckles and the forget-me-nots. The lilac cornflowers seemed to dance around in the warm sunshine, happily. The English Foxhound barked and frolicked, enjoying the warm summer breeze. The world seemed a bright and agreeable place.
Everything was in full bloom, except for me, Mary Edwards. There was nothing that could lift up my spirits. He had left me, he had gone. My Henry, the love of my life, had been taken from me by the evil hand of Fate. How cruel of Fate, to take my one love away from me. The reason for my breath, the reason for my life.
It had been a heart ailment, that had snatched him from me. There had been not an inkling of an illness prior to his demise. We were both barely 20 years when we were wed. We would have completed 25 years of wedded life, when Fate in the form if an illness, intervened. I was never able to bear him a child, an heir to the mighty Edwards Empire. And now I was left all alone, with nothing but his memories to keep me company.
‘Come on, Patsy,’ I called out to our Foxhound. She strolled over to me, gingerly, wagging her tail. The promise of a walk in the sunshine was too tempting for her to resist. The walk to St. Thomas Church would be a good three quarters of an hour. Enough to tire the ever energetic Patsy, thought I. I picked up some lilies from our garden and set off on foot.
The church bells began to peal just as I entered the gates of St. Thomas Church. In the cemetery lay Henry Edwards, my beloved. I mustered up all my courage and went to his graveside. It had been but ten days since he had been laid to rest. I lay the lilies on the cold, dark marble stone.
Tears began streaming afresh. It was like a wound being ripped open each time I visited his grave. The day suddenly seemed overcast. I felt like I was being watched. A deep sense of foreboding overcame me.
Patsy began to get agitated. She started with a low growl and then just wouldn’t stop barking. I wiped my tears and looked in the direction of her barks. There stood a figure, dressed in white, a girl, apparently. Upon venturing nearer, I noticed her head bereft of any sort of covering. Her dress was in tatters. Her skin was of ebony colour and her hair consisted of the spiral, rough curls, the unruly hairdo of the *Negroes.
Patsy immediately leapt upon her. She fell down, apparently shocked. She beckoned me to approach her. ‘Mmm…M’ Lady ..p..pl..please….help!’ I did rush towards her and manage to contain Patsy, who kept on furiously snarling, nevertheless.
‘Who are you and what are you doing here? Where is your Master or Mistress?’ I enquired of her.
The unfortunate girl did not utter a word. I prodded her once more with the same question.
Silence again. ‘Why are you here, unescorted? Have you deserted your Master?,’ I once more pressed her for a reply.
‘M’ Lady, me Master lies here, in here, in grave. Mr. Henry Edwards. Me Master and.. me lov..lover, Mr. Henry!,’ came a weak reply.
The earth appeared to disappear from beneath my feet. I felt a surge of colour fill my cheeks and then I spoke. ‘Have you lost your senses, you wench? What is it that you are saying? He may well be your Master as we have farming interests in Dunsfold and Farnham. But to mention that he was your lover! That is preposterous.’ With this, I bent over and slapped her hard across the face.
‘Remember your station in life!’ I cautioned her. She began to wail, cry out, all the time beating her chest and creating a ferocious din. Then she began coughing, a deep, phlegm filled cough. She continued to cough as I turned my back on her and walked out of the cemetery. Patsy was at my heels, still snarling.
I reached our home but spent a sleepless night. I tossed and turned as images floated in my head. Memories of my first meeting with Henry. His smile, his eyes, his manner.
I pined for Henry’s warmth. Granted, we had not maintained the relationship of man and wife for a good many years. After we stopped trying for a child, I felt we both needed the companionship of each other and nothing else. Two and a half decades and we were comfortable in each other’s presence. Nothing else was needed and he had never complained!
The next morning, I set out for the cemetery once more. This time I left Patsy at home. She looked at me with reproachful eyes.
Something had been troubling me all night. I could not fathom what it was, but I felt I had to be close to Henry.
As I neared the grave, I noticed her! The very same girl, clothed in the soiled, white garment was slumped down on the headstone of Henry’s grave. I cautiously approached her, unsure of her state of mind. The moment she felt someone approach she stood up. Her eyes were swollen, lips parched. She saw me and looked afraid and cast her eyes downwards.
‘M’ Lady, please help me. I’ve nowhere to go. Me Pa no want me. Me no have anyone else. Me not go back to Dunsfold. Me stay here with Master.’
I recollected I visited our Dunsfold homestead but once. The commute from London to the country area never agreed with me. Either the chill in the wind or the horses rousing up the earth inevitably caused me to take ill. Severe bronchitis plagued me. And hence for four months of the year my Henry saw to the running of our farmlands outside London while I took care of affairs in London. I had never even met the help that he had hired, as he handled all of that entirely by himself. The rest of the time when he was by my side in London, it was the help from Africa that tended to the farm. Could it be possible that my love for him, made me overlook signs of his deception? He always returned from Dunsfold in the pink of health and content. I had put it down to the erstwhile country air.
A racking noise broke my thoughts. The girl had begun coughing once more. The sound was earth- shattering. I almost felt sorry for her.
‘I have no recourse but to send you back to Dunsfold. I have no use of you here in London,’ I told her. ‘What is your name?’, I continued.
‘Eeda’, she answered. She suddenly threw herself at me, grasped my feet and begged. ‘Have mercy M’ Lady. Me is unwell and with child!’
Time seemed to stop. I felt faint and it was difficult to breathe. Something was constricting my chest. I feared my heart was failing me. Gathering my wits I enquired of her, ‘And who may I ask has sired this child?’ There ensued a stony silence.
This time I could have no power over my emotions and I flew at her like a madwoman. I beat her, mercilessly, I confess. Possibly I was just pouring out all my frustration on her.
‘M’Lady…p..p…please, st…stop,’ she begged.
The racking cough was back again. I did not relent and kept raining blows on her wretched hands and legs. At last, spent, I stopped and noticed there was blood in the phlegm she was coughing out. It ought to have disgusted me further, but for some reason something in me just snapped.
I sat down and composed myself. Sweat beads dripped down my neck and back and I tried to think clearly. I dabbed my forehead with my beautifully embroidered handkerchief and then cast a glance upon Eeda. She sat there, almost hugging the cold marble of the grave.
Tears began streaming down my face and as I glanced at Eeda, her face had moistened with tears, subsequently. Here we were, two women, in love with the same man. One woman in this cemetery, was a woman in love, deceived. The other, a servant girl, a victim of circumstance. Two strangers, joined by a man who was no more.
Could it be that she carried Henry’s child within her womb? The doctors had given up after suggesting various concoctions for me to drink, in order to bear Henry a child. There was no questioning my Henry’s masculinity! That would be a preposterous accusation.
Once more I made my way home, this time with a heart as heavy as lead. I was in a dilemma. Random thoughts kept running through my mind. Sleep came in fits and starts. There were dreams, disturbing ones. Henry appeared, but his face was hard as stone. In his arms was another woman. He seemed to be avoiding me and when I approached him, he evaporated into thin air!
My eyes were sore and throat inflamed the next morning. More than my body my mind was in turmoil. So I rested for two whole days, dining on soup and gruel.* I used the time to collect my thoughts. My thoughts shifted to Eeda, who might not have had access to even this simple meal.
I fastened my corset, put on a dress and bonnet. There was a nip in the air. Patsy ambled towards me good naturedly, but this time I chained her near the stables. Taking my stallion I rode all the way to the cemetery.
I approached the gates of St. Thomas Church and looked out for the unfortunate girl. She didn’t appear to be near the gravesite. I took a walk through the garden near the church. Beautiful lilies were in bloom. The beauty of the day was not lost on me. The sunshine filled my being and I felt immensely better, compared to the last two days.
I finally spotted Eeda having a drink of water from the hand pump in the garden area. Upon seeing me approach her, she appeared pale and began to move away. ‘Hush, girl, come here!’, I bade her to come to me, and she did so, hesitantly. ‘Have you been surviving on water, all this while, with a child in your womb? Have you been staying here the whole time?’ I asked her. She nodded her head. A blight on the church Pastor, thought I, who didn’t seem to care for this helpless girl, maybe because she was a Negress. I swore right then, whether the child was Henry’s or not, Eeda needed somewhere to rest and deliver her child.
Putting her astride my stallion, I rode along with her straight to my home. I knew this much about myself, that whenever I set my mind to a task, I would ensure that it is completed. The time had come to desist from nursing a broken heart. The hapless Eeda needed care.
I endeavoured to cure her of her dreaded cough but it was to no avail. The next six months passed in the blink of an eye. One fateful night in cold December, just after Christmas, Eeda was in a terrible state. The dreaded whooping cough never left her. I rode my stallion to summon the midwife. The weather was plainly wretched.
The midwife arrived just in the nick of time. Eeda was breathing laboriously while I got to work sterilising the equipment the midwife bade me to. The entire long, cold night, Eeda laboured and screamed and finally I heard the much-awaited wail of an infant. Unfortunately, the strain of childbirth proved too much for Eeda, who had already been rendered weak with the cough.
A few minutes before she passed away, she beckoned me to her side. ‘M’ Lady, he is yours!’ I glanced upon the little angel. Eyes bright blue, just as our Henry had had. His head was adorned with curls just like Henry’s, but instead of pale blond they were of ebony. His skin tone was neither fair nor dark. I sighed.
Word was sent immediately to Dunfold, to Eeda’s Pa to inform him of the birth of his grandchild. I was told he politely declined to utter a word in this regard. He had washed his hands when it came to the child. The road ahead was clear to me. It might be a difficult road with a child of mixed origin, but I felt I had a duty and a responsibility towards him. Besides, who could resist those piercing blue eyes! Those were the eyes that had drawn me to Henry.
A warm fireplace, a cherubic boy of 10 sat by my side. My son. The child I had longed for, during the 25 years of my wedded life. I had named him Evan and I had home-schooled him myself. A boy of mixed race would be taunted at the English schools, felt I. But I had plans for him. Probably Henry would have liked what I had in mind for the boy. I had ultimately forgiven Henry and I prayed for Eeda, daily.
After all, life comes full circle and in various colours. Nothing is simply black and white.
- The British Slave Trade Act of 1843 and 1873 prohibited British citizens from transporting slaves to America for the purpose of sale. Nevertheless, slavery still existed in Britain as the abolition of Slavery still left 8,00,000 Africans as property of the British population. ( Wikipedia)
- The author would like to mention that the story is written from the point of view of the narrator and hence some of the words and phrases may appear contemporary/archaic. It is done in keeping with the period mentioned in the story.
- The language used by Eeda is coarse as she would have learnt English only by listening to her superiors. Otherwise she would be speaking an African dialect/ language with the Pa/ father.
*Negroes- Negro is a term historically used to denote persons considered to be of African heritage. The term can be construed as offensive, inoffensive or completely neutral depending on the region/ country. The term is not used in current times.
*gruel- a simple dish made my boiling cereal or oats, in milk or water, especially in the past, eaten by the poor or when ill.
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