I was twenty six when I became acquainted with madness. That same year I encountered the murderer, Mrs. Cotton, and learned that the evil ones among us mingle freely in the gilded drawing rooms of the respectable middle class, as well as in the filthy alleyways of abject poverty.
I’d always viewed the world with an artist’s eyes. Drawn to edges, angles, curves and textures. The way light plays with shade, casting surfaces into bold relief until their beautiful imperfections are revealed. But now I know this does not apply to people, whose flaws can be so loathsome – so entrenched that nothing can redeem them
And I fear the shadows now, for they conceal a small figure with a chequered shawl, blank eyes and a pitiless soul. She stands at the foot of my bed holding a cup out to me.
Drink, drink, she says, for two pennorth of arsenic dissolves nicely in a hot cup of tea.
My journey to Durham was long; a quiet struggle between body and will to maintain a modest demeanor. To pull my fingertips away from the window frame before their frenzied drumming drew the attention of my fellow passengers, to stop myself from tapping my feet in time to some imagined melody playing in my head. To remember Mrs. Parsons’ words in the final days at the Hoxton Private Asylum, that I should cultivate a gentle, rather timid manner which would go far to dispel the image of the wild, abandoned creature my husband, Henry, had encountered his early visits.
But I abandoned all self-restraint when the dull tree-lined riverbank suddenly slipped away and Durham City blazed out of nowhere – a gorgeous canvas unfurled across the sky. More lovely than Henry had described it. The lofty, grey towers and intricate spires of the ancient cathedral loomed above tree-lined riverbanks. And beside it, the Castle’s ornate turrets emerged through the clouds of steam, its base shrouded by trees, like an image from Tennyson or the scene of a Gothic mystery.
Henry had promised the fresh northern air would revive my tired body, and drive away the confusion and fear that had clouded my mind this past year. The memory of his words filled me with such hope and excitement, I sprang up from my seat to gaze out of the compartment window, much to the consternation of my fellow passengers, an elderly couple clad in worn, grey travelling clothes happily enjoying a peaceful nap. The shock of my sudden movement launched the whiskery old man into paroxysms of coughing. With a loud tut tutting, his wife fished in her reticule and produced a small flask of brandy, which he sipped like a suckling babe until his fit subsided.
They returned my apologies with only a stony glare. But my enthusiasm was not dulled. For the first time in a year I was finally free, released from the dull, empty void of the asylum.
I grasped the edges of the windowsill as my train, The Flying Scotsman, crossed into Durham over the new railway viaduct which, Henry informed me in his last letter, was certainly a miracle of modern engineering. My skin tingled and my heart beat so fast, I sat down again, to calm the violent flood of emotion that threatened imminent self-abandonment. The crisp edges of the guide book I had purchased in London did much to steady my breathing as I perused the description of my new home.
Durham is an ancient city situated on seven hills, in a beautiful winding of the River Wear along the banks of which are pleasant walks, covered with woods and edged with lofty crags. The cathedral is a fine building and the castle is a curious relic of antiquity.
I tried to concentrate on the fine descriptions but I kept returning to Henry’s recent letter in which he urged me not to dwell on the sad events of the past year. But in truth I could only clearly recall the last two months spent at Mrs. Parsons’ private asylum in Hoxton. The previous months remained hidden. A murky fog of memories that lured me towards a shadowy place I dared not enter. At night, half-formed, nightmarish images flickered into my dreams, and I would wake before dawn, afraid to close my eyes again.
Once in Durham, I resolved to take up my painting and writing again in the faint hope they might help me make sense of that lost time. Tears prickled the back of my eyes, and my hands still shook, but I concentrated on the rows of pretty red-roofed houses that clung to the hills surrounding the river and cathedral.
Perhaps Henry was right. A new beginning in this quiet Northern city, far away from the grime and smoke of London, would provide all the sustenance I needed to become happy and healthy again. To take my natural place again in our household. For Henry, this was also a new chapter as professor of Mathematics at Durham University, a fine historical institution with roots dating back to Medieval times. His recent letters were filled with earnest assurances:
I cannot tell you how refreshing it has been to get away from London’s crowded streets. Now I am absolutely sure this was a solid decision for many reasons, the most important being that you will find it far easier to fit in here, meet suitable new friends and thus recapture the essence of ideal womanhood that made you so dear to me before the troubling events of this year.
The conductor’s voice announced our arrival, so I hastened to make final preparations before leaving the train. I hoped my best navy woolen dress would protect me against the brisk northern winds. A brightly embroidered shawl wrapped around my shoulders was a daring touch though not too bohemian, I hoped, for the conservative north, and a black silk bonnet edged with mauve roses completed the picture. A quick glance in the mirror showed my face to be pale and a little drawn, so I pinched my cheeks until the colour returned, then applied a slight dab of rouge to my lips, much to the consternation of the old lady whose eyebrows rose to alarming heights.
Finally I fluffed the little curls peeping out from the front of my bonnet and arranged the thick coils of hair at the back so they would fall in loose waves to my shoulders, just the way Henry liked them. Steam hissed and the conductor’s whistle blew as the train doors slammed open and a flurry of porters entered the first class carriages.
“Ken I tek yer bags mum,” said a short red-haired young man with the most musical accent I had ever heard, and I felt a rush of tenderness for this place and its honest people. With only one trunk and two hatboxes, mine was a modest load. And although the life of an assistant professor was not an affluent one, Henry’s new position would mean a small but welcome increase in our household budget. We would not have to approach my grandmother – fondly known as Gammie – or Henry’s parents for help any more. And since Gammie was gone for several more months, her secret occasional gifts would cease for now.
Besides, the memory of my mother-in-law only served to remind me of my failure as a woman. She’d appeared only once in my humble room at Hoxton, glaring when I pulled the bed sheets to my chin to escape her scrutiny. Nothing less than successful motherhood would change her impression of me as an unbalanced and sickly failure. A dead weight dragging her son into obscurity rather than spurring him towards success. Time and distance would provide a welcome break from her grim disparagement, and perhaps allow Henry and I to try again for a child.
Finally I stepped down onto the platform and looked around at the bustling station. The air was moist and cool, unlike the cloying heat of London, so I closed my weary eyelids for one blissful moment.
“Lost in thought as always,” said a familiar voice behind me. I turned and Henry stepped out from behind a pillar, his body stiff and awkward in a starched white shirt and black frock coat. A flicker of fear crossed his face for one tiny millisecond, like a cloud passing over the sun, then the warmth returned and his face beamed with a smile. I stood frozen by confusion, unable to take even a step forward.
Despite my reticence, he placed gloved hands on my shoulders and drew me to his chest. “You will get used to me again in no time, Clara” he said, his warm breath ruffling my hair. “The strangeness will pass.”
When I nestled against his jacket, the lemon scent of his shaving soap and the wiry coarseness of his beard awoke memories of another, happier time. I pulled away and studied his face. “You are changed. Your cheeks are so ruddy.”
“All due to the good, fresh air, my dear girl,” he said, looking down at my bags.
I continued staring, unable to shake the sensation that I had somehow stepped out of my body and could not direct my limbs to move, while his eyes scanned the crowded platform and he leaned close to whisper, “It is natural to feel at odds with everything, but you must know I will be patient with you as long as you are utterly committed to become well again.”
“Of course,” I said, trying to quell the fluttering in my stomach by smoothing out the wrinkles in my gloves. “I will try my best.”
“Then let us make a start on our new life. I have a carriage to take us to my rooms, which I must tell you are exceedingly handsome,” he said, offering his arm. I slipped my hand under his elbow as he guided me along the busy platform. “You must tell me all about your journey,” he said following the porter out of the station.
The coach trundled down the cobbled bank and I gazed at Henry’s profile, trying to reacquaint myself with this man who was my husband. The small bump on the bridge of his flared nose, the heavy eyelids with their slight droop at the corners, the pale lashes, the curled reddish beard and wheat coloured hair. I knew that face so well, but when he glanced down at me with a solicitous smile, I felt a heaviness in my chest – a tightness – as if air was being pressed from my lungs. Not now I thought. Compose yourself. I rubbed my cheek against the roughness of his jacket sleeve and dug my fingernails into my palms until the trembling stopped.
“Your letters were so informative, so you must tell me all the stories you’ve learned about the city,” I said in a childish voice that seemed to come from somewhere outside of me.
“Then sit up like a good and attentive girl,” he quipped, “and open your eyes to the charms of Durham.”
First we drove along the bustling rows of shops that lined North Road, passing a grand domed building that Henry identified as The Miners’ Hall, then the coach turned left onto a wide stone bridge. All at once the cathedral loomed high above the river. Wreathed in an aura of mystery, the ancient, grey towers rose from a nest of trees whose muted, green leaves looked like brushstrokes in a watercolor painting. Beneath, the brownish waters of the river flowed under the great arches of the bridge, upon which people strolled back and forth taking in the summer sunshine.
“Durham on the Wear,” Henry announced proudly. “This sight of the cathedral nestled among the trees and set in the oxbow bend of the river has been named as superior to Pisa on the Arno.” He surveyed the scene outside the carriage with the pride of a native son, holding his body more erect than before. “And the people, Clara – so honest and unsullied by arrogance – they have a true sense of respect for my talents. In London one is merely another anonymous face among the milling crowds.”
Suddenly the carriage emerged from the narrow cobbled lane into a wide open market place, at the centre of which was a large circular structure with a figure of Neptune standing atop its dome.
“That my dear is called The Pant and has been a source of water since medieval times though I believe there was some concern as to the purity of …”
Henry’s words faded to a low-pitched drone when I spied a huge copper statue of a swaggering Hussar astride a gigantic horse. Tennyson’s rousing words sprang into my head: Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death rode the six hundred. I imagined the sweating flanks of the horses, flinty hooves churning up clouds of dust, the trumpets blasting, the clank of swords pulled from sheaths, while the specter of death lurked behind every man.
“My dear – I’m afraid you find my description lacking in lyricism, perhaps,” he said, in a wounded voice. “I apologize if I bore you.”
My mind snapped out of the fog. Simple dialogue was proving difficult. The doctor had warned me of this. “I’m sorry, Henry. I was merely curious about that wonderful statue.”
He leaned back against the seat, smiling. “Ah – of course. Well that, my dear is the great Charles William Vane Stewart, 3rd Marquis of Londonderry and founder of Seaham Harbor.”
“Most impressive,” I said, choosing my words with care. “He must have been a great soldier.”
“I have taken it upon myself to learn all that I can about our new home,” he said, his face flushed with the exhilaration of new discovery. “And that statue holds a fascinating story.”
I tried to focus on the movement of his mouth. Anything that would help me to stay anchored to the present. “Tell me please.”
“Well – it’s said that when the sculptor built the horse, he forgot to shape its tongue. Annoyed at the omission, the Bishop of Durham complained about the deficient animal. Of course the sculptor was distraught and challenged any of the townspeople to discover the defect. For weeks every able-bodied man and child investigated the statue but could not discover the secret until a blind man climbed to the top and felt the horse’s head. He announced his findings and became something of a legend in these parts.”
I felt a flicker of hope. Perhaps the joy of uncovering ancient mysteries would distract me from the buried memories of the past. “Perhaps I shall take walks by the river, and unpack my watercolors again to paint some scenes of the cathedral.”
“All in good time,” he said, lurching forward suddenly as the coach came to an abrupt halt. My reticule fell to the floor, and in the confusion of trying to rescue it, I heard yelling and jeering and the clatter of many footsteps on the street. Henry slammed the window open.
“What the devil is going on?” he shouted to the driver.
A crowd of people streamed up the street; young, old, able-bodied and crippled, walked, ran, hobbled in the same direction – surging forward as if to witness some marvel.
The coachman yelled above the noise of the crowd. “It’s the Mariah – tekking some poor soul up to the prison.”
“But who would attract so much attention?” asked Henry, craning his neck to see the square, black wagon up ahead, now reduced to crawling through the crowd.
The coachman tapped a skinny young lad on the shoulder with his crop. The boy cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted something before being jostled ahead by the crowd who surged towards the wagon in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the prisoner cowering behind its tiny windows.
The coachman leaned down towards us, his face gleaming with sweat. “It’s Mrs. Cotton, the Auckland poisoner – they’re fetching her from the Assizes at Bishop Auckland.”
When I tried to crane my head out of the window, Henry’s strong hands jerked me back inside the cab. But I had already smelled the stench of sweat and unwashed clothing from the crowd outside and spied the black wagon with its tiny barred window.
Henry reached across me to secure the window catch. “Take care, Clara. Someone may throw stones or attack us. A mob like this is worse than a pack of wild animals.”
I plumped back against the cushions to regain my breath and Henry called out to the driver again. “Can you get the coach through the mob?”
“I’ll force my way through the scoundrels,” roared the coachman.
I shrank back into the plush upholstery as the crowd swarmed by. You are safe inside the coach, I told myself until a white face pressed against the window, the mouth forming a damp circle on the glass. The coachmen took a swipe with his whip and the body was swept into the milling crowd.
“We’re close to the jail,” shouted the coachman. “Mebbe we’ll lose them then.”
“Who is this woman?” asked Henry.
“Why – she’s accused of murdering her lover and her step-son, but some say she killed her mother and even her own babies...”
A flame licked through my insides, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. Killed her baby, killed her babies. Henry sat back staring at me in wide-eyed panic.
“Oh Clara,” he whispered, the colour drained from his face.
Though the driver was flicking his whip to try and direct the horses into a smaller alleyway, the wagon was stuck fast among the bodies. A line of uniformed constables, their brass buttons glinting in the sun, marched in from the other direction just as a chant rose up from the crowd. It began as a high-pitched childish rhyme.
Mary Anne Cotton, Mary Anne Cotton
The rope will break yer neck
And yer’ll be dead and buried and rotten
As the rhyme reached its crescendo, a woman from the crowd rushed forward and rocked the Black Mariah, shouting, “Baby killer.” Two men from the crowd hauled the woman back as she writhed like a wild cat, causing another bigger, red-faced woman to launch herself onto the back of one of the men, and commence tugging at his hair. Another bystander hooted with laughter and tried to drag her off his friend, ripping her clothing in the process to reveal a huge and pendulous breast. The noise of the crowd rose to such a height that one of the constables charged at the man, truncheon raised, and cracked him across the head so hard that blood splattered across the faces of horrified onlookers. He crumpled to the floor, his legs folding under him like a marionette’s. That was enough to incense the crowd, which surged from behind us like a flood tide, jostling the coach until it jerked forward so abruptly, I fell headlong into the opposite wall and darkness engulfed me.