Friday, June 30, 2017

A Surprising Cure by Cynthia Haggard

In 19th century Bristol, hard working solicitor Edward longs to see his wife after she has spent three years on a medical retreat in Edinburgh - but what else has she been up to? By Cynthia Haggard.

Bristol, England
September 1889

I had been forbidden from knowing my wife for three long years. The doctor had been most emphatic on that point. Of course I objected, and in the strongest possible terms. But Miss Jex-Blake fixed her small brown eyes on mine, telling me that my wife had a terrible disease, that those charming little warts I used to call my 'love buttons' that my Miriam had in her most intimate place were the signs of cancer. I shivered inwardly. How could something so lovely be so poisonous? And if she had it, did I? Miss Jex-Blake continued that it was my fault my wife had such a condition, and that she was going to operate. I fled, hurrying through the streets so fast I almost knocked someone down. Three doctors pronounced me healthy.

But Miriam's condition persisted. When I pressed her, she reluctantly complained of burning sensations down there. Every summer she visited Edinburgh to "take the air," as we told all of our acquaintances. No-one knew what was wrong with her except myself, my consulting physician, Miriam, and her lady doctor. Unless, of course, Miriam chose to confide in Helena Born, her bosom friend. But surely, even she wouldn't do such a thing.

I picked up a Dresden Shepherdess. Her tiny waist and diminutive grace reminded me of my wife. She had been only nineteen when we married eight years ago. Her family, the Wheelers, were solidly respectable, with enough money to acquire a governess from Zurich, to bring up their four daughters in an atmosphere of continental refinement. My lovely Miriam could speak French, play the pianoforte, and paint with glowing colors. To-day, she was returning home from Edinburgh.

A rumble of wheels alerted me to her arrival. Straightening my cravat I hurried forward. She ran into the house in a swirl of sky blue silk, her skirts drawn back into a fashionably large bustle, which was without the usual adornments of tassels or flounces. On her head perched a plain straw hat decorated with a bow in matching sky-blue silk. She rose on the tips of her toes, and gave me a peck on the cheek.

I studied my wife in silence. Miriam looked healthy, her cheeks showing a faint pink, her dark blue eyes clear. I caught my breath. Was she cured? Something surged forth. I had not known the meaning of the word 'hunger' until now. I crushed Miriam to my chest, my lips seeking hers. But she pushed me away gently.

"Edward, I want you to meet my new friend."

I looked up. A tall youth with dark auburn hair and fierce blue eyes stood beside her.

"Robert Allan Nicol at your service, sir."

His words were servile, his manner was not. As he pronounced them his eyelids half-lowered so that his smile, when it came, conveyed an attitude of arrogant disdain. He glanced at Miriam.

"You'll be wanting to spend some time with your husband." His soft Scotch burr lingered over each word, slowly and insolently.

My wife flapped a hand at him. "Don't be silly, Robert dear. I want to show you around." And taking his arm, she steered him firmly into the middle of the Drawing Room, pointing out our paintings, our photographs, our books, indeed enumerating everything we owned.

I trailed behind, cracking my knuckles. Then I rang the bell and ordered tea, sitting in my high-backed chair as I invited my wife and her new friend to join me.

Mr. Nicol flung himself onto the sofa and sprawled there with his knees apart, his hands in his pocket. I expected my wife to take her place next to mine and pour the tea. Instead, she rang the bell and summoned the maid to do it. While Daisy fussed over the tea cups and saucers, the cutting of the cake and the pouring of the tea, Miriam wandered over to our well-stocked bookshelves, running her fingers along the spines.

"Ah! Here it is!" She picked up Walter Pater's Renaissance.

"Miriam, dear," I interposed. "Why don't you sit down and take off your hat? I haven't heard anything about your journey, or your stay in Edinburgh."

"Of course, my dear." She seated herself beside me, and sipped her tea.

Mr. Nicol fished around in his pockets and brought out a packet of cigarettes. He offered one to Miriam, and glanced at me, one eyebrow raised.

I shook my head. I regarded smoking as a dirty habit, it was the sort of thing office boys would do. To my dismay, I had noticed young women beginning to take up the habit. I really must remember to mention to Miriam that this new enthusiasm she was acquiring was unladylike.

He lit up and they puffed away.

There was an awkward silence. Finally I put my cup down. "It is growing late," I remarked. "No doubt you would like me to see you to your lodgings."

"Robert's staying here!" exclaimed Miriam, putting her hand on his arm.

"Indeed. And may I enquire, young man, how long you intend to stay?"

He half-closed his eyes. "As yet, that remains to be determined." Again he let his tongue linger over each word, giving his remark a sarcastic edge.

"And may I enquire what that determination is?"

"Och. Ye may enquire." He kept his lids half lowered and smiled slowly.

Miriam exploded into a peal of laughter. "Robert!" She nudged him with her elbow, then turned to me. "We haven't made plans yet."

"We?" My eyebrows rose. But Miriam ignored me.

"I'm going to show Robert around. I want him to meet all of our friends and acquaintances."

"Indeed," I said again, wondering how I was going to explain this new enthusiasm of Miriam's.

"You don't mind, do you?" Miriam beamed at me. "Robert has a great future ahead of him, in politics. He is so concerned about the poor."

"You have been to university, young man?"

"The University of Edinburgh. I was a medical student."

A medical student. Was that how they had met? In a hospital? Surely he hadn't been examining my wife. "Are you a qualified doctor?"

Mr. Nicol stared at me for a moment, as if trying to decide what further ways he could torment me. "No," he said at last. "Not actually qualified."

Miriam patted my hand. "He quit medicine after he fell in love with Socialism."

"I see." Through long practice, I kept my countenance under control.

"Edward," said Miriam. "Don't you remember how we collected all those boots and shoes to help the flood victims earlier this year? That's the kind of thing Robert is passionate about -"

"So you do not actually have a degree."

He exhaled so that smoke curled out from his mouth and nostrils. "Not actually. No."

I gazed at him for a long moment expecting more. But he continued to give me his half-lidded stare as he sat there smoking. I turned to Miriam. "We need to talk."

"Not now. I've only just got here, I need to get settled." She unpinned her hat.

"Miriam," I said.

"Oh, all right." She turned to her friend. "I won't be long, dear."

"Don't mind me," he remarked, fishing out another cigarette and lighting up. As he did so, he shifted position so that both long legs hung over the arm of the sofa. He gathered up a couple of plush cushions, put them against the other arm, leaned his long frame back against them, and closed his eyes.

Leaving him in that attitude, I followed my wife upstairs.

"Who is he?" I hissed as I shut the door of my room quietly behind me. Then I wondered why I was whispering. This was our home, after all. But there was something about having this alien presence downstairs that put me on edge, almost as if our words could permeate the thick brick walls and waft their way downstairs.

"His family are hatters from Dunfermline."

"Have you met them?"

She shook her head and turned away. For the rest of the conversation, I was talking to the back of her head.

"How did you meet him?"

"At the Women's Liberal Association in Edinburgh. He was giving a speech. He's so good with words." There was a pause as she gazed out of the window for a moment. "Do you know," she said softly, "I think he's the most interesting person I've ever met."

She seemed to have forgotten that her husband of eight years was in the room.

"How old is he?"

"About twenty."

"Miriam! Don't you worry about what people might think?

She turned to look at me, flashing a dimpled smile. "Of course I've considered that. But what he's doing - what we're doing is more important than that."

What could I say? Miriam had always been strong-willed, but she'd become increasingly headstrong and unconventional as the years passed. She never did anything by halves. Her restless energy propelled her to grasp at one enthusiasm after another.

"I do not doubt your purity of motive, my dear, but you must have some idea of where these kinds of sentimental friendships may lead."

She made an impatient gesture. "Oh you and your respectability! I never should have come back -"

"You're not going away? Miriam, you've only just arrived. You don't know how much I've missed you."

Her eyes softened as she allowed her gaze to drift over me.

I cleared my throat. I knew that what I was about to say would annoy her, but nevertheless it was my moral duty as her husband to tell her about the consequences of her actions.

"Miriam," I said after a pause. "People are not going to understand. They will see you with a much younger man and they may draw the worst sort of inference."

"Let them! I don't care."

"You should care, Miriam. People will not forgive moral lapses. You will not be received."

"What you mean is that you're afraid my friendship with Robert is going to cast doubt upon you."

"Miriam! That's unfair."

"It's true," she shot back. "All you care about is being a high-class solicitor with a book full of well-heeled clients. You don't want to help the poor because you're terrified that your clients wouldn't like it."

Miriam had no idea that I took a great interest in helping the poor, because I made nearly all of my bequests anonymously. How could I make her understand? But before I could form a coherent sentence she had slammed the door, and rustled downstairs towards her friend. I stood there, my hands balled into fists, How could she be so cruel?



Like a magpie, that fellow Nicol made his nest in our home. In the long month that followed, I realized there was no way of getting him to leave without annoying my wife. Matters were not helped by the fact that Miriam avoided me. I breakfasted alone, early, before walking to the office whereas Miriam and her friend both rose late. Once they left the house, they stayed out until late. The only time, therefore, when I actually saw them was during the weekend.

On this particular occasion, they were more animated than usual. As I helped myself to scrambled eggs and kippers I could hear their voices coming from the Drawing Room next door.

"It's got to be provocative so that people will read it," he remarked.

There was a rustling sound as Miriam paced across the room."Let's call it The Truth About Chocolate Factories."

I raised my head. One of my clients, Fry's, was a Quaker family who owned chocolate shops and factories in Bristol.

"That's a good start. But how about The Truth About Chocolate Factories: Or Modern White Slavery, Its Cause and Cure. By Miriam Daniell and Robert Nicol."

"That's splendid, Robert. And my name is first. How thrilling!"

"I'd love to be in the Board Room when Fry's see this."

I went to the door and opened it. Mr. Nicol had one long leg crossed over the other and was leaning back against the plush cushions of the sofa with both hands cradling his head. Miriam stood, gesturing with a long cigarette holder in her right hand.

"Excuse me," I said, "but am I to understand that you are writing a pamphlet about Fry's?"

He gave me his half-lidded look. "Yes," he drawled.

"May I see what you've written?"

"Certainly." He handed over a sheaf of paper covered in a barely legible scrawl.

It only took a page and a half for me to catch the gist of his socialist tirade against, as he termed it, Fry's 'exploitative' practices against their own workers. I put the pages down.

"Fry's is my client," I remarked. "And I object in the strongest possible terms to this - this tract."

He folded his arms, placed his left foot just above his right knee and smiled. "Do you indeed?"

"You must be aware of the industrial strife that is now sweeping England."

"Aye. We know."

"This is an incitement to violence. Your overly inflated language is going to stir up trouble."

"Edward," said Miriam. "Don't be so prissy. You've no idea about the lives of the poor."

I stared at her in astonishment. Had she forgotten about my own poverty-stricken past? Had my monetary success as a solicitor to Bristol's wealthy elite erased that fact from her mind?

"You've no imagination," remarked Miriam, letting out an exasperated puff of smoke. "You should go and live in the slums of Bristol."

"Miriam," I remarked. "I think it is you who do not understand. You have never actually experienced poverty. Your father was always able to provide for you. You do not know what it is like to be hungry."

"How like you to throw that at me," she cried.

I held up my hands. "Miriam, let me finish. I think you have forgotten that my family was left destitute when my father died. As a boy, I had to witness the shame of my own mother going to work as a housekeeper."

She puffed on her cigarette, her eyes hard.

"What I want you to understand, both of you," I let my gaze sweep over that arrogant youth, "is that I will not countenance this tract. If you persist in your plans to publish it -"

"- you'll throw us out?" he drawled.

Miriam stopped smoking and glared at me, her features hardening into a kind of bulldog mulishness. "Fine. I don't care. Come, Robert." He disappeared with her.

"Miriam." I came to the bottom of the stairs just as she was halfway up. "What are you doing?"

"I'm leaving."

"Please don't do that."

She turned, holding her skirts up with one hand. "The situation here is quite intolerable. I will not have you dictate my life to me. You've just said that you object to our pamphlet. As long as I stay under your roof I have to abide by your rules because you're my husband. Isn't that what society demands of wives?"

I nodded miserably.

"Well, I don't care to do that, so I'm leaving."

"Miriam," I said again. But she had gone, Robert following. I could hear bumping and thumping coming from up above as I stood at the bottom of the stairs.

Eventually, Robert came downstairs, a small bag in his hand. "I'll make sure she sends our new address."

"There is no need," I remarked stiffly.

"I personally have no objection to your visiting," he said, lighting another cigarette. "That is, if you'd care to." He gave me his half-lidded smile.



I could not forget my wayward wife. Every once in a while, I would go to visit her in St Philip's Marsh, a low-lying area across the canal from the cotton works, and quietly offered her monetary assistance in the form of a pound a week. She always refused. Inevitably, disaster struck and she was obliged to leave for the United States. Even defiant Miriam knew that the birth of an illegitimate child would mean ostracism from Bristol society.

I confess I was very hurt by this news. I believed Miriam's relationship with Mr. Nicol to be entirely Platonic, assuring myself that her condition would prevent her from straying. Now I realized that I was done a great wrong by Miriam's lady doctor. How convenient to tell an overly amorous husband, whose attentions were not appreciated, that his wife's cancer precluded marital relations. That Nicol fellow obviously had no qualms, but he had studied medicine at university.

When I think of those long dreary years of marriage when I was kept apart from my Miriam, I cannot help feeling bitter. I believe to this day that had we shared the same bed, had Miriam borne me a child, that our marriage could have been saved.

4 comments:

  1. This story has elements of dark farce threaded through it- entertaining and sad. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. i really like the style of writing in this story, the ending completely surprised me, definitely no bad thing!, and very well drawn characters.

    Mike McC

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  3. Ooooh, social nightmares abound! Is it a feminist conspiracy? One can't help identifying with the cuckolded Edward, but at the same time one has sympathy with Miriam, repressed by the male-dominated laws of the day. Edward appears to have secretly accepted blame for the implied STD, after all thousands of middle class professional men were using prostitutes at that time. His acceptance of that points to the probability that he too is one of that statistic. A 'thwarted king' indeed! I loved the formal language.
    B r o o k e

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  4. An interesting story. Edward is revealed only gradually as an unreliable narrator. And he is complex, being both admirable for his continued affection for Miriam, but blinded by the societal conventions to which he subscribes.

    ReplyDelete