Time moved on. I had learned from the death of my father and my mother that this was always the case. It is amazing how quickly the mind deconstructs and reconstructs events to preserve a degree of self. I spent several days in self loathing before my conscience found a way to liberate me: It simply stopped thinking about the fact of the infidelity. Rather, I managed to wrap that fact into a tiny kernel and bury it into a narrow recess, glued shut to prevent escape.
In the weeks that followed, William and I attended several dinner parties and balls. I learned quickly the great skill my mother had displayed so well, acting. I planned out meals, ran the household, made social calls. I read Vanity Fair by Thackeray and A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift. It was difficult to remain focused on the words and for the most part, I simply stared fixedly at the pages, letting my mind wander to Nathanial in some form or another. I would have been bored senseless had I not had my fantasies to occupy my mind. Days passed one by one. I ventured out one day along the river bed but stopped short of the woods themselves, afraid that entering that place without him would destroy the mystical spell of the memory, replacing it with empty ordinariness.
The sickness came on suddenly one morning. The nausea washed over me, swelling in waves as I vomited over and over again, heaving while kneeling over the chamber pot. Each day it was the same. I found myself praying that God would heal me or take my life. I did not care which, so long as it was quick. It went on for days. No fevers. Just the overwhelming nausea. I could hold nothing down it seemed. The housekeeper made chamomile teas and poultices. They did not help. She brought magnesia in milk, and magnesia in tincture of Columba with distilled peppermint water. It was no help. Lemon juice in water. No help. William was beside himself. Like the man he was, he needed to fix whatever was wrong. But he could not. More days passed. The doctor was called.
Dr. Edward Quince was a tiny, wizened old man with spectacles that he never actually looked through, only over. His dour face made it appear that he had been sucking on the fruit which also bore his name. He never smiled, but rather spoke with a high pitched voice that was punctuated by a series of characteristic, “Hmmm’s.” Sometimes it was a question: “Hmmmm?” Sometimes it was a long, drawn out, puzzled sound that signified pondering: “Hmmmmmm….” Often it was accompanied by an uncomfortable clearing of the throat, meant to bridge the silence after an awkward question to a female patient: “Hrummmmph!”
Never one to actually examine a patient, Dr. Quince prided himself on diagnoses by history alone. This seems an odd thing now, but the man was educated in the time when stethoscopes were unheard of, and he regarded them with suspicion. One might examine the urine or feces, but touching a patient was considered unnecessary. Certainly to touch a woman was not only unnecessary, it was also indelicate.
Upon entering my chamber, escorted by William, Dr. Quince approached my bed and made his uncomfortable, “Hrummmmph!” followed by a little cough. He walked around me, then stopped.
“How long?” he asked. The question was addressed to William, as if I were not actually in the room and able to speak for myself. Perhaps it was his way of acknowledging that I did not feel well and may not wish to answer? I resolved to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Uh, twelve…fourteen days…?”
“Hmmmm…. I see.” He walked around the bed to the other side.
“When was her last menses?” He was again looking at William.
“Oh! Well, I….uh, I….not sure….really,” he trailed off, then shrugged.
“Hrummmmph!” He stood waiting expectantly. “In that case, please ask her, sir.”
Before William could speak, I answered. “Please tell the good doctor that I am NOT with child. If he cannot actually give me a workable diagnosis and something that can help, he may leave.”
Dr. Edward Quincy slowly turned his disdainful gaze upon me, peering through squinted eyes over his lenses. There was a long silence. At long last he addressed me.
“Madame, if you do not wish to accept the inevitable, then fine. Hmmm? We will discuss that no further. In lieu of an acceptable diagnosis, let us focus on curing your symptom of hyperemesis. That is agreeable, is it not?” He turned to William. “She will need leeches applied to her lower abdomen and laudanum.”
Leeches have largely gone out of fashion now. I cannot describe the sensation of having six leeches sucking away on my abdomen until they gorged themselves and fell off, sated. There was no pain or sucking sensation, merely an awareness of their slimy presence. The laudanum doses left me sedated, unable to feel nausea because I was unable to register the feeling…or anything else for that matter. I could not focus my vision to read. I could do nothing but lie in bed in a stupor sipping broths. I lost two weeks like this until finally it was felt safe to take away the opiate. My dose was decreased gradually until at last I emerged from the fog. William had insisted on sitting with me almost exclusively. He had kept me dosed, fed, and bathed. I vaguely remembered his voice reading aloud to me as I drifted in and out of consciousness, though I cannot remember what words he read.
Had the nausea left me? Yes, for the most part. Now and again I felt the same queasiness creeping up, but managed to push it back somehow. I was reluctant to admit that I felt better. Dr. Quince had succeeded in that, even if he had been wrong about pregnancy. My eyes were sunken. I had lost a considerable amount of weight and what little muscle I had was largely wasted away. But…I was still living.
I slowly resumed my activities managing the household, gradually regaining strength and weight. The month of December arrived cold and icy, and with it came Christmas. We held our typical celebration, complete with roast goose, oyster stuffing, figgy pudding, and even a tree decorated with nuts and sweetmeats. This was the one time of year that I felt a hollow realization of the emptiness of our lives without children, for what is Christmas and Saint Nicholas without children? It had been over five years that William and I had been married. I knew the lack of children had been whispered about extensively. But I was not ready. I was not ready.
Hogmanay would have been celebrated next had we been in Scotland. William missed its traditions. He sang Auld Lang Syne at every opportunity. If he could have gotten away with it, he would have burned juniper branches throughout the house until we all choked to death, then had all of the windows thrown open to allow in the fresh, cold air of the new year. A new beginning.
After the new year, I felt a fluttering deep within. At first I thought that it was constipation or gas. But more and more it occurred until at last I could no longer ignore it. The nausea, the painful breasts, the swelling abdomen. The truth dawned like a horror.
I had a tumor.
I kept it secret from William for a few more weeks, until I could no longer hide my increasing girth. When I confided my fears to him, William called again for Dr. Quince and again the dour faced man looked over his wire rimmed spectacles at me and “Hmmmm’d,” as he circled my chaise. He stopped and looked across me to William.
“Sir, she is not dying from a tumor.
“From what then?” William asked. The fear had not left his face.
“She is not dying at all.”
“Not dying?” He sounded hopeful.
“Hmmmm…” The doctor nodded thoughtfully. “She is with child.”
There was silence. William and I stared at each other. He took my hand.
“Impossible,” I said.
“Are you certain?” William smiled.
“Impossible!” I said again.
We had been married for years with regular encounters in my bedroom, and had no children to show for it. The old women had stopped asking when I would become pregnant, instead a look of pity washed over their faces whenever they looked upon me. They, and I, had assumed that it would never happen, a fact that had allowed me much comfort in the end even as it brought them a subject of scornful gossip.
Dr. Quince turned his gaze upon me once more. His spectacles slid further down his nose as he did so.
“Hmmm.” He snorted. “You will remember, madam, that I said as much a number of months ago.” He paused to let that sink in. “Your confinement will be in early May.” It was said with finality, like a sentence of death. I felt William squeeze my hand, lingering there, then he let go and led the doctor out. He returned some minutes later.
“Evelyn?” He put his hand on my shoulder then sat down next to me.
I felt panic welling up from within. If this were something that I could run from, I would be running, running fast and hard. Doing the calculations in my head it was clear that I had conceived in August. In August!
“Is it so bad to have a child that you would rather have a tumor?” There was laughter in his eyes.
“Please do not make fun of me, William. I am afraid.” And I was. I was terrified. I had seen so much death and suffering attached to childbirth. Why would it be any different for me? And, there was the fear, or was it hope, that this was not William’s child after all.
The days and weeks passed. There was something wrong. I could feel it. I heard women speak of their baby’s movements, and this baby did not move as I had expected. The nausea never left completely. I had a deep set and abiding fear that dwelled within me. I was told that this was normal, that having a child changed your outlook and created fears that you never knew existed. But this was different. I knew it.
My ankles and fingers swelled. I was a bloated whale and it seemed my girth was even greater than I was expecting and there were murmurs about the possibility of twins. Dark patches appeared across my swollen face, affectionately referred to by older women as the “pregnancy mask”. When I looked in the mirror, I was horrified by what I saw. And the fear grew.
For William, it was as if a light had been switched on. As if becoming a father was the one thing that God had set him on this earth to do. He made sure that I wanted for nothing, doting on me to the point of smothering suffocation. He ensured that the nursery was appointed with the best that money could buy…a lovely bassinet, toys, a nurse. He was clearly filled with joy and anticipation and I worked hard to hide my trepidation from him. Years of marriage, however, had allowed him to understand every subtle nuance of emotion from me, and ultimately I am afraid, I was unable to conceal the truth sufficiently. Still, he was kind enough not to speak to me about it, rather working to distract me from my anxieties. That intense need that men have to fix everything and make it right, often times only serves to make things worse. It was his way of coping, so I bore it silently.