It had taken several hours for Emma to pass. Her breath had become more shallow and irregular, her fingers grew a deep purple and were cold despite the fact that the rest of her body burned with fever.
Once she was gone, two orderlies had come to remove her body, transporting it to the morgue. She was unceremoniously rolled up in her bed linens and then rolled off of the bed onto a wooden gurney with a hollow thump. The wheels squeaked with each turn under the weight of her small body as it made its way out of the ward. Her path was traced by fearful eyes from each bed as it passed. You will be next, the wheels seemed to say.
I was not sure what to do beyond this point. When I asked the nursing staff, they stared at me, incredulously and shrugged. Coffin? Burial? Funeral? How would we collect the body? Being a servant in our household and not a family member, we would not be required to observe mourning rituals, but that seemed wrong somehow.
Placental presentation, or previa, meant that if she had gone through with the abortion it would have ended her life almost immediately. To bleed to death this early in the pregnancy was highly unusual, but perhaps it was more merciful in the end than what was to come? I tried to console myself with this thought as I tried to swallow the rock that seemed to be creeping up my throat. I knew that if it reached a certain point, I would not be able to hold back the tears. I was not yet ready to cry.
John had been waiting for me by the carriage all this time. The streets were crowded, everyone hurrying to some engagement, no one looking at the gray stone building. They were all oblivious to the fact that someone had just died within those walls. Or maybe they understood, but the dozens of other deaths that occurred every day in this city muted the poignancy of this one.
John opened his mouth to ask, but I shook my head and he remained silent. His jaw was clenched tight and I could see the sadness in his eyes. Emma had been a gentle soul. It would have been difficult for anyone to have disliked her. I took his hand as he helped me step into the carriage.
He leaned over and quietly whispered, “Thank you.” I turned to him, surprised.
“For what?” I felt in reality that much of this had been my fault, that somehow I should have been able to do more.
“For not letting her die alone.” With that, he closed the door of the coach firmly and climbed up himself to take the horse’s reigns.
When I arrived home, I found that my mother had collected herself. She was dressed in a lovely dark blue day dress and had been waiting on John to return home so that she could leave to attend a previously scheduled luncheon.
“Ah, Evelyn. You are back! You have just enough time to wash up and dress. Come along.” She appeared relieved. “I have hired a new ladies maid, she will attend to you.” There was a slight woman of about forty who appeared in the doorway. She kept her eyes focused on the floor, waiting.
“Mother, I am not going!” I almost yelled. She winced.
“What will I tell everyone?” She seemed shocked.
“You can tell them that I am indisposed. Tell the ladies that I am menstruating for all I care. But I am not going.”
I turned to retreat upstairs, expecting a battle. After two steps, I paused. “Who will take care of her body and where will she be buried?” I asked. I needed to know. I expected she would be given a pauper’s burial. A nameless, twisted, decomposing body entwined with the limbs of a dozen others in a trench somewhere. A nervous laugh escaped my mother’s lips.
“She will go to the anatomists!” There was satisfaction in her voice.
“The only way they would take a dying servant who was pregnant out of wedlock was if I would agree to have her body released to the anatomy department. I was not paying for a funeral for that harlot! And I did not want the stigma of her dying in this house. The Royal Infirmary is a teaching hospital for the University of Edinburgh. They were very grateful to have the opportunity of such a fresh body.” She met my gaze, daring me to challenge her.
There was nothing further I could do.
I suspect that there is the point in every child’s life when they realize their mothers are not the saints that they are held up to be. That one point when you see that their hearts are as human and as imperfect as everyone else’s…as imperfect as your own. This was that moment for me, and it left me feeling utterly alone. My respect for her had been eroding, to be sure, but here at this moment, she was at last merely mortal. I returned her gaze, telling her silently that she no longer held any power over me, that I knew her now. I stared until her own eyes faltered and she turned to cover her shoulders with the shawl she had carried in her hands. Then she was gone.
I imagined that she had already penned a letter to my father, taking great delight in relating all of the bloody details. I wondered if my father would feel any remorse. Fear perhaps, wondering what we knew? Or had my mother accused him? Maybe she had left him to the torture of his own imagination.
I resolved at that point to make myself my own woman. I would work tirelessly to ensure that I had control over my own life, so much as could be afforded to a woman in this age. Whatever lies or intrigue, whatever actions that I must take, I would do them to save myself.
But what was salvation?
Nathaniel had told me of the Anatomy Act of 1832, how it had stopped the grave robbers or resurrectionists. Prior to the Act, only condemned criminals were allowed to be dissected legally by the anatomists. There was an extreme shortage of suitable bodies. So to fill the void, bodies were stolen from graveyards or worse, sold after they were murdered. Watchmen would be paid to stand guard for days or weeks after a burial. Steel coffins, or mortsafes (cages that covered a freshly buried coffin) would be employed. Now, none of that was necessary since the Anatomy Act allowed for the selling of unclaimed bodies from hospitals and poorhouses. Emma had no family. No one to object. I imagined her body, dismembered on a wooden table in the anatomy theater. She would be highly prized, being pregnant. Dozens of greedy eyes would pour over her naked body, more exposed than she ever would have thought possible, as they took in all there was to learn about her most intimate parts.
Perhaps that was all we could hope for…any of us…to be useful somehow, even in death? If she must suffer a senseless death, at least there was some use to it in the end?