The rain had cleared some of the thick soot from the air of Seven Dials, but it had done nothing to reduce the stench from the streets. The man scraped mud, rancid pig intestines and human shit off his boots, before slipping into the back door of the tavern. He didn’t want to be seen, and not being seen often meant walking through the worst of the back alleys, ignoring the smell and the slime. He was momentarily blinded by the thick layers of tobacco smoke that hung in the stagnant air. It was of no matter, for his ears soon located his prey, the thick Scottish accents leading him to their table, tucked as far back as possible from any door way. He seated himself without invite.
The two men nodded greeting but the newcomer said nothing in return. For a moment, silence fell between them. The older Scot nudged the younger one, who rose and went to find service. The silence remained until he returned and placed a pint pot of gin down on the rough wood of the bench that served as table.
The newcomer lifted the pot up, and drank deeply, before saying ‘Thankin’ ye both kindly.’
They both nodded their own reply, and waited out the other’s pleasure. He drank half way down the pot, and then fumbled in his pockets, drawing out a pipe. A few moments of searching revealed no tobacco. Once again, the older man prompted the younger.
‘John, offer our friend here some o’yer baccy.’
The younger man sighed, and fished out his leather pouch. Faced with handing over the contents in a lump, or just handing over the pouch, he chose the latter, resigned to never seeing it again. As he suspected, the man filled his pipe, tapped it, and pocketed the pouch. John attended to taking a long draught of ale in order to cool his temper.
The visitor filled the air up between them with thick streams of smoke. It helped make them even more invisible, not that anyone else in the tavern was paying them the slightest attention. You didn’t come in here if you required anyone to notice you. The silence held until the newcomer leaned forward, encouraging the other two to lean in to attend to his words.
‘She be near her time, like I said. Ahv spoked to the Mother, right, and she’s in agreement, for the right amount.’ He rubbed his fingers together for emphasis. ‘And she is happy to go somewhere special, since there’s two o’them.’
The older man leaned in closer. ‘Yer sure, o’ the two?’
‘Aye. No bother aboot it. Ahv no seen her m’sel, mind, but the Mother says she’s seen twins afore, and it’s for sure.’ He sat back, content to have unloaded his information.
The two Scots also sat back, in unison. The younger attempting to swallow down a smug grin. The older and more business hardened needed no effort to maintain his stone face, or the silence. After several moments of drinking, and contemplating the streams of smoke, the elder spoke.
The silence returned again. The newcomer had slowed down his drinking, to make sure there was still some left to finish upon. There would be no more free drinks, he was sure.
It was more than he’d expected, and it caught him on the hop. ‘There’s the Mother, she’ll need her share.’
‘Four. And we pay the carriage to and fro, and hire the man.’
He was caught and he knew it. He nodded, and drained his pot, then slammed it down. ‘Right, four it is.’ He rose and shambled out of the tavern, the way he’d come, taking a second to adjust to the street’s light, before moving off to disappear in a growing fog.
A fog that helped the two Scots mightily in their unseen and un-noted journey back to more affluent streets, the older man refusing to allow the younger to speak his excitement whilst they were in public.
Eliza Jennings shifted her bulk on the thin straw mattress, feeling the strain as she heaved her hips round to the other side, trying to gain some relief from the pain. The straw did little but hold the dirt to the wooden boards she rested on. Her thin bones were not grateful for the wood’s embrace. No matter how she turned, no matter how many times she turned, all she gained was a few moments’ relief before the bones started up their ache once more. This time, in response to her efforts, her swollen stomach started up a drum beat of protest.
‘There, there, settle down now...’ she spoke absentmindedly to the babies inside her, smoothing her hand down over the taut skin that stretched over them. So thin at times, she could see a tiny hand, or footprint, pushed out from under. ‘There... there...’ she patted them down, willing them to settle.
Speaking to the babies was automatic, she’d discovered, in the long weeks she’d spent lying upstairs in the attics. It wasn’t just that there wasn’t much opportunity for chat, the other girls who’d run up with food and drink, and to take her chamber pot away, would idle sometimes, and other times not... depended if there were clients downstairs. She hadn’t wanted to attend to her stomach at all and the frightening rate at which it had grown, causing her to move to hide upstairs very early on. She hadn’t wanted to... but feeling the baby, or as it then became obvious, babies... move around and jump and sometimes, she could swear, hiccup inside her... it had been natural to start to talk to them, to soothe them and hush them. Sometimes, when they were restless, she’d sing to them, softly, gently, so her voice didn’t carry. Sing the same songs her Mam had sung to her, as the tears flowed down her face and dripped onto her belly.
Eliza had had plenty of time to observe her ruin. To torment herself with self loathing and to dwell on the horror that she’d brought upon herself, and her babes.
She didn’t like to think of them as hers, she didn’t want them attached to her, or part of her, in that sense. She wanted them free; free of her shame, and her sin, and her desperation. She wanted better for them.
As her belly had started to grow, and it had become obvious to all, she’d been grateful she was here, in Ma Belcher’s house. Grateful that Ma had found her, and saved her from the streets, and had been grateful there were attics to hold her, and any other like her, until her time. Ma Belcher had been kind to her, and allowed her to work as long as she could, in order to pay for her confinement. She’d talked it through with her, and offered to try and find a home for the babes, outside London, outside in the country. Eliza had been, was, so grateful. She knew the babies would die if they were left as foundlings. In her own village, a woman had had twins, and one had died before she could draw air. Everyone had said it was for the best, as twins often meant both babies died at the breast soon after birth. The baby left had survived. When Eliza had realised she had two sets of limbs growing inside her, she’d been haunted by the dead baby, and haunted by her own stupidity at finding herself here. She’d even considered trying to go home, and ask for help. Surely her Da would let her back, to save the babies inside her?
It was an orphan thought trying to find a home. She knew he was more likely to beat her to down for bringing shame on him. His new wife, married before the year was out on her own mother’s death, would hold her down to help him beat her harder. She’d done that once or twice as it was. Before she’d left, before she’d stolen out and made off to London where the streets were paved with gold.
As it was; if shit was gold.
Eliza turned her head back to the grease stained pillow she was grateful she had, and cried more salt into it. It would not be long now, she knew, not long at all...
It was only two days later that Ma Belcher came to her in the last throes of the night, and told her to dress, quickly. The business from down stairs had died, and the house was asleep. Eliza had walked the attic room for hours, whilst the drunken revelry had gone on, feeling restless and on edge. Wondering if the first pulse of labour was going to ripple across her body. She’d just settled to sleep when Ma came in, urging her to rise, to dress, to wash her face in cold water and to come, now!
Ma had helped her lumber down the creaking steps, down down to the ground floor, with the sleeping house around them, snores and belches serenading their passage. Outside, the soil men were carrying away their final loads and the streets were as clear as they ever got. A cab awaited them, and Eliza took a moment to marvel that she was to enter one, before she and Ma Belcher pushed and pulled her bulk into the darkness.
The journey was short, and Ma was explaining in her ear the whole time. The family who wanted her babies were paying for her to deliver with a doctor, here in London, and then when she and the babies were safe, she’d travel on with them to the country estate. She’d be wet nurse to her own babes, just like Moses had been wet nursed by his mother in the bible. There was another wet nurse already there, awaiting. Wasn’t that good? Eliza was unsure about being delivered by a man midwife, and not a woman, would Ma Belcher stay with her? Ma Belcher silenced her with a look. Who was she to be asking for more, when she’d been given so much? Was she not the luckiest whore in London, for Ma Belcher to have found a decent family to take her bastards? To have them cleansed of sin at the baptism font, and them given a name? And she’d see them raised? What more did she want, gold?
Eliza silenced her fears, and prayed instead that it was all true; she would deliver both babes and she herself would be spared. She’d thought for the longest time it would be best if she died bearing them, rather than see them taken from her. Now, there was a chance she could both live and see them grow. She was in a cab after all: someone had paid for that.
Getting out of the cab in the frigid gray dawn was more effort than getting in. Eliza was in great pain by the time she’d been ushered into the back door of a big house. Concentrating hard on not falling over and being beached upon the hard streets, she’d taken little notice of where she was. Ma Belcher led her into a small room, shown the way by a kindly gentleman with a warm Scottish accent. Eliza’s breath had been robbed, and her heart had trammelled as she’d seen the luxury of the surroundings. There was an iron bedstead with proper mattress and ticking, and clean cotton sheets. A small rug on the floor, a washstand beside, as well as curtains on the high windows. They were closed and the room was lit by wax candles that did not splutter and smoke.
‘Settle yourself in now lass, and I’ll send someone in to you, my assistant.’
Eliza gave Ma Belcher a fearful look, but the older woman hushed her. All would be well, would it not?
Eliza settled down on the soft clean mattress as the tears cascaded down. Ma Belcher patted her once on the shoulder then departed. A young man came in and introduced himself as a doctor, and he was called John, and did she need any help getting undressed and into bed? Eliza was too afraid to meet his gaze, and shook her head violently, hoping he would retire. He did, leaving behind the soft cotton chemise that he’d held as he came in.
Eliza had taken off her filthy and smelly clothes, which she’d not known were that filthy, or that smelly, until she’d stood in a clean room with clean clothing in her hands, and was almost too afraid to her take dirty smelly body into the bed. The lice had dropped from her body and her clothing, and were scrabbling on coverings as she watched. She pulled the chemise over her head, grateful it was full enough to cover her belly, and took her soiled garments and left them by the door. There was warm water in the jug that she poured into the washbasin, and she rubbed a damp cloth over her body as best she could under the protection of the chemise. The man was outside, as she could see by the candlelight under the door way. The sound of the bed creaking under her gave him permission to enter again.
She swallowed up her fears as the soft, gentle caress of the bed took her. The proper mattress held up the weight of her hips and belly in such a way that she was out of pain. She could smell hope in the clean cotton of the pillows that supported her aching head. The promise of salvation was in the faint trace of lavender that drifted off the bed linen. She had once washed sheets clean, and had spread them over the lavender bushes to dry in the warm sun. She would do so again, she was sure. So she endured.
She endured the two doctors, Dr John and Dr Colin, examining her body. They both agreed she was near to birth. She endured the leaking from her breasts that stained and stuck to the clean chemise. She endured the cramping and pains from her groin and her lower back. She endured the feeling of being small and filthy and unworthy as the two gentlemen calmed her tears and attended to her with gentle hands and hushed tones. She supped the soup and bread brought to her, and drank the hot sweet tea they gave her in abundance. She fell asleep, sated and warm and hopeful for her babes: her arms cupped around her belly, keeping them safe.
As she slept, in another room at the furthest end of the hall, Colin MacKenzie and John Hunter were finishing setting up the scene. William Smellie, whose house they were in, brought in all the lanterns he had, fully filled and trimmed It was important to make sure there would be enough light, in case it took longer than they expected. A messenger had been dispatched to the artist who was to record the affair, telling him of the fortuitous arrival, and instructing him to come at once. William had made sure he would be free, by checking on his plans earlier that week, not mentioning why. The lamps full, the drawing area clear, he turned to the men laying out the instruments:
‘I’ll be going upstairs, to rest. Call me down.’
‘Aye, that’ll be best.’ Colin Mackenzie replied, as he set up beakers of wax. ‘Knock the floor when he arrives.’
William nodded as he left. Colin glanced over at John.
John, who was pale and sweating, nodded.
‘Fine. Just gie us a minute then.’
Colin finished with the wax pellets, and set a flame under the cauldron that was to melt them. Satisfied, he wiped his hands down and checked his handwork. All was set.
They entered the room where Eliza slept. Colin signalled John to the foot of the bed, where he grasped strong hold of her swollen ankles. Eliza stirred, and turned her head upwards, to be met by the strength of Colin’s hands bearing a pillow down on her face. She struggled, her cries muffled, her hands came up to try and wrestle his off her face. John kept his weight down on her ankles as Colin placed his all on her face. She wrenched under them, her body buckling and one ankle almost pulled free. She scratched at Colin’s forearms but found no purchase with her broken, bitten down nails. A massive buck of her back, the sheets falling from her body, as her huge belly rose up in the air, her hips twisting and turning: to no avail. Her ankles caught, she could not find traction and the strength ebbed, faded. She fell still, silent. Colin and John kept her there for another few moments until they were both satisfied she was dead. Colin went for the gurney as John slipped off the chemise and they moved her body on to it the way they have killed her, by her ankles and her head.
Wheeling her into the theatre, John saw the stomach bulge and move, as a tiny hand fought desperately for release. He reached for a scalpel from the gleaming tray.