This is a bit of a departure for me in this blog, but I recently wrote a short story for the Historical Novel Society conference competition. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I’m quite proud of it, so wanted to share it here.
It’s called From Day to Day, and takes place over the disastrous weekend in September 1819 when the Bishop of Lincoln and his wife Eliza Tomline came to visit Lord and Lady Chatham at Abington Hall. If the title seems familiar, it’s because I wrote a post about the historical background to this story back in April.
Without further ado…
From Day to Day
I stand outside Abington Hall and watch for his return from the hunt. He is late and my anxiety rises when John is not beside me. I feel for the locket he gave me on our wedding day with a lock of his black hair inside. My fingers trace the filigree pattern, smoothed by daily wear and warm from the heat of my skin. I know he wants to send me to my family until I am better. I must show him I already am, for if I lose him I never will get well.
John comes home at dusk. Relief courses through me at the sight of his tall, straight form in the saddle, but the moment he sees me his expression changes. Once his heavy-lidded eyes rarely looked upon me with anything but affection. Now they are full of a suspicion I never saw there before I became ill.
‘What are you doing here?’ His voice is low but firm. He turns me away from the sight of the stable-hands. ‘You should be resting.’
I bite back tears of shame, for I know he does not mean to hurt me. Ever since he commanded that infernal expedition to Antwerp he has suffered humiliation upon humiliation: the “late Lord Chatham”, Mr Pitt’s useless elder brother. Even his valet damns him as “the hero of Walcheren” behind his back. If word spreads that Lady Chatham is insane, he will lose his last shreds of dignity. I love him too much to wish for that.
Once I am safely in my room John relaxes. He rings for Sally to undress me, then holds my hand while I take my laudanum. If I close my eyes I can pretend all is as it was before madness came between us.
‘What time do you expect the Bishop tomorrow?’ I ask.
His hand tightens round mine. He knows I hate the self-serving Bishop of Lincoln and his vapid wife. John tolerates them only because of his poor brother, for the Bishop was Mr Pitt’s intimate friend. ‘Are you certain you are equal to their visit?’
As much as I dislike the Tomlines, I want them to come. Receiving them will be a trial, but it will prove to John that I am well again. I will not let him send me away. ‘I will be happy to receive them. I feel better, my love. I am better.’
He smiles and kisses my forehead. The warmth of his love floods through me. For over a year we have lived from day to day, but now we can look forward to the future again. I know it.
I open my eyes. Slowly, the fog of misery descends. My husband is not beside me, and today the Tomlines will come.
A stranger stares at me from the mirror. I was beautiful once, but this disease ravages the face as much as the mind. Sally brushes out my hair. She snags at a stubborn knot and I raise my hand. In the mirror I see her shrink back. With effort I quash the instinct to strike her. If I can get through the Bishop’s visit I will show John that I truly am better, and perhaps then he will keep me by his side, where I belong.
The Tomlines arrive in the afternoon. I receive them in the Jacobean drawing room and try to ignore the openness with which they peer about in contempt. Abington must seem a small house for the son of the great Chatham and brother of Mr Pitt.
‘Our thanks for your hospitality, my lady,’ the Bishop says. ‘I am glad to find you so well.’ He is nearly seventy, fat and balding, with a broad face and tiny eyes like black pebbles. His wife is thin and shrivelled.
I want to recoil from them, but I smile politely. ‘Thank you. My health is much improved.’
I raise my eyes to my husband. He watches me anxiously, but his lips curve in response to my smile. In his relief he looks almost young again.
Sunday comes. We cross the bridge and walk to church. Rain falls in the long grass with a sound like a sustained sigh.
The villagers gawp at me and I want to sob into my Book of Common Prayer, but John holds my hand and his touch gives me confidence. He is my strength. With him I might conquer anything.
John takes the Bishop riding towards Cambridge. Mrs Tomline and I are alone. The thought of her revolts me, but the old Mary Chatham would not snub a guest.
Sally fetches my workbox. Mrs Tomline brings out her tambour frame. Rain drums against the window like nails.
‘The men will be soaked through,’ Mrs Tomline observes.
‘Lord Chatham is accustomed to riding in all weather.’ I wonder if he prefers being away from his sick wife, but such doubts belong to my malady and not to me.
‘You must speak more of your illness,’ Mrs Tomline says. I straighten. I do not wish to talk about what is past to anyone, least of all a woman for whom I have no regard. She frowns. ‘Keeping it shut up inside will make you worse. I am a friend. Your confidence will go no further.’
I burst into a bitter laugh. I am sure Mrs Tomline would be all too delighted to linger over every last detail. ‘It is of no interest to anyone but Lord Chatham and myself.’
Mrs Tomline purses her lips. ‘You cannot burden Lord Chatham with your ill health. Has he not suffered enough?’
The needle lies idle in my hand. She is more right than she knows. I am the reason we sit in Abington Hall’s tiny parlour in a Cambridgeshire exile. Had it not been for me and my wretched mind John might still be in government. He need not have accepted the commission to take Antwerp; his disastrous retreat before Walcheren would never have occurred. He would never have been mortified before army, Parliament and nation. A wave of isolation takes me unawares. ‘I know I must not give Lord Chatham a moment’s pain.’
‘I am glad you recognise his goodness towards you, but you do not fully comprehend the difficulty under which you put Lord Chatham when you are in this state. You must control yourself.’ I stare at her. Does she not see how hard I am trying? Does she not realise this is the best I can do? She leans forward and takes my hand. Her skin is as scaly as a lizard’s. ‘I know you can be well if you choose to be so.’
‘You know nothing of it,’ I snap, and whip my hand back.
‘Of course not, but it is not enough to control yourself for us. You must control yourself for the whole world, for Lord Chatham’s sake. Should your state become general knowledge–’
Does she think she is helping? Perhaps she wishes I would act more like a lunatic. Then she might fill her letters with accounts of a Countess raving and foaming at the mouth. Her gaze moves down and I become aware I am scratching at my hands, drawing blood.
‘Oh my dear Lady Chatham,’ she says, and I know if I remain a moment longer I will scream. My sewing falls to the floor and I flee.
I slam the door to the parlour. I clutch my head to stop it spinning.
‘Mary?’ It is my husband. Rain drips from his coat. He leaves the Bishop in the pillared hallway and rushes to my side, spurs clattering across the stone floor. He takes my hand. His fingers rub the bloodied scratchmarks and I see his dismay. No! I whip my hands out of his and bury them in my skirts.
I must not allow Mrs Tomline to discompose me. I must not let John see that she does, for I might lose him and his proximity is all that sustains me.
Dinner is served at six. The strain of pretence is beginning to tell. When I make my appearance I see the concern on my husband’s face. I make an effort so strong I can almost feel the earth shift beneath my feet and give him my arm. He looks doubtful but says nothing.
We dine in the largest room of the house, overlooking the lawn. The footmen lay the dishes on the table: roast beef, Cambridgeshire mutton, a venison pie. The Bishop and John talk about the reform meeting in St Peter’s Field and its terrible aftermath. ‘Mr Pitt would not have allowed matters to reach such an extremity,’ the Bishop says and my husband nods. I pick at my food and try not to listen. The Tomlines leave in the morning, and then I can concentrate on getting better.
I hear the Bishop say my name. ‘I fear we are tiring Lady Chatham with our talk.’
John stops chewing. I see wariness on his face, as though I am a loaded fowling piece on full cock.
The Bishop smiles at me. ‘My wife and I understand if you have not the strength to remain at table.’
‘I am quite equal to company,’ I say, but it is as if I have not spoken. Mrs Tomline looks across at her husband.
‘To tell the truth, my love, I wonder if we have imposed upon Lady Chatham by our visit and set back her convalescence.’
I glance desperately at my husband, willing him to leap to my defence. He still watches me with that strange expression.
The Bishop looks uncomfortable. ‘We are of course fully sensible of the honour you have done us in inviting us to Abington, but my wife is right. A little more rest will set you up, Lady Chatham.’
‘I am well now!’ I insist.
‘With God’s grace your ladyship will be so very soon,’ Mrs Tomline says.
John has not taken his eyes off me for a moment. I scratch at my hands. The pain is distracting and strangely comforting.
Mrs Tomline sees what I am doing. She whispers loudly, ‘Remember what I told you, my dear. You must control yourself.’
She reaches out and holds my arm. I do not know what angers me more, her familiarity or the implication that, once again, I have fallen short of expectations. I will not be scolded like a child. I am not an animal to be manhandled. She thinks I am not in control? Well then, I shall show her what happens when I give full rein to my madness.
I feel as though I am watching myself from a distance. I stand, grasp the gravy bowl in both hands, and throw its contents over Mrs Tomline.
She screams. I want to laugh at her for being so foolish– the gravy isn’t even hot. The Bishop leaps to his feet. The footmen stare.
Someone is shouting. ‘Bitch! You cannot understand! I despise you!’ Suddenly I realise the person shouting is me. I shut my mouth so sharply I feel the impact in the pit of my stomach, but it is too late.
My husband’s face is as hard and grey as stone, his mouth thin with dismay. He looks me in the eye and pushes his chair back. He pins my arms to my side and hurries me past the servants gathering outside the dining room, attracted by Mrs Tomline’s cry.
He enters the bedroom, rips back the hangings and throws me onto the bed. My head bounces off the bolster. When I open my eyes I see him leaning heavily against the bedpost. I can see every line on his face, scored deeply into his skin by strain, humiliation and disappointment.
Tears fill my eyes. ‘I am sorry. So sorry.’ I have failed him and I have failed myself. My limbs feel heavy, as though my self-hatred has turned them to lead.
‘Our guests,’ he says. He is too distraught to form a sentence. ‘Our guests. In front of the servants.’
‘I am trying,’ I manage. ‘I am trying so very hard to be well.’
‘I am beginning to doubt you will ever be well again,’ he says. I stare at him over my bent knees. His mouth curves downward and his hand against the bedpost tightens into a fist. ‘I will write to your brother next week. You must go to him at Frognal.’
‘No!’ I leap off the bed. He jumps back and I see, clearly, the fear in his eyes. Like Sally, he thinks I will strike him. I wonder how he can believe he is in the slightest danger from me, then I look down at my clenched fist and realise I am not fully in control of my own body. I want to laugh. How could I ever think I could conquer this malady? It knows me better than I know myself.
‘The change of air will make you better,’ he says.
I throw myself to the floor. He flinches. I grasp his knees and press my face against his fine cotton stockings. ‘Do you not understand, John? I can only get better if I am with you.’
He disengages himself and steps back. There is no response in his face to my plea. He knows he will be better off without me. He will send me away for his sake, not mine.
All my attempts to keep him by me have been useless. I might as well go to Frognal, for I see now that I lost my husband years ago.
The door closes behind him. For a moment I sit on the floor in uncomprehending silence, then panic spreads through me like a poison. My breath chokes in my throat. I claw at my neck and my fingers catch the chain of my locket. It flies through the air and bounces under the bed.
I pick it up with trembling fingers. It falls open in my hands. I see his black hair and our initials written in his hand. JC MEC. The locket slips through my fingers to the floor.
I fall back, put my hands to my face, and weep.