Short story: A tale of two sisters

In which a young lady arrives from Ireland to be treated for the consumption

Hustle, bustle, silks and lace, corsets, petticoats, bonnets and boots. Pack, pack, hatboxes, trunks, faster, faster. Maids these days, all in a fluster. Little Miss Ellen, so sick, so sick. Oh, my melancholy fears. A mother’s heart will break.

The medical men of Dublin, what do they know with their stiff black coats and prognostications? I’ve lost so many babes. Five or six between Catherine and Ellen. Some little red nothings in the chamber pot, one such a perfect boy. Slipped out dead. White as a lily. Priest christened him, e’en though he ne’er drew breath. He’s with the angels. Two girls I grew beyond babyhood, fine young ladies. Breathless anxiety always, and now…

Ellen, my ewe lamb, last born. Consumption seized her and no cure. Hectic pink her cheeks like her proudly chosen petticoat. Oh, my lamb. Pinkish stains fade to brown on her lace-trimmed, linen handkerchiefs.

Then, I read of his book in the Dublin Mercury: miraculous cures for the consumption to be found in London Town – and order the single volume to be sent. Dr Long. Dr John St John Long of Harley Street. The doomed are flocking hither.

So many cures, such a wonderful secret treatment. Effected for Lady This-and-that. The Honourables restored to perfect health. What does the Dublin Faculty know? They just listen to her poor chest (a modesty piece across her little buds). Then sigh and shake their heads with me outside the door. And take my guineas. Labouring under a consumption. All human exertions will be to no avail. They try to stop me crossing the Sea. But it’s my only hope.

Better take Miss Catherine too, no use leaving her in Dublin all forlorn. Thank God, thank God for her health, my rosy first-born beauty. My Catherine. Twenty-four and should be wed. I was wed at 16, Ellen’s age. She loves her widowed mother and does not want to leave her bereft, with her sister so terribly ill. But, but. She must. In London, when Ellen’s better, we shall go into Society, and then. Grandchildren. Longing and longing for living babies in my arms again.

Eligible Englishmen or an Irishman living in London. Suitors galore for my pretty angel. Good position, money in the Bank. Pity Mr Cashin’s gone beyond. He would receive our Catherine’s suitors, question them about their prospects, and approve the engagement. Give her away, my darling, in the church. Long gone, no more man in my bed. No more warm feet, warm cheek, warm arms. All gone, with baby Patrick, and all those others. In heaven now with the angels. I see them take a dish of tay in a celestial parlour for ever and ever, Amen.

But not my Ellen. Not her, not my ewe lamb. She must stay with me, with me on earth.

Off we go. Off we go, taking the carriage to the packet out of Dublin. Maid on the box with James Coachman, clutching her bonnet as the horses take the weight with a jerk. On the sea rocking, seagulls screaming. Ellen turning pale for the first time for months. Sick with the motion of the sea.

Then on, post haste from Holyhead to London and Dr Long. Hope, hope. Kindly Mrs Roddis of Hampstead, we take her first floor. Can hardly wait for a hack to Harley Street. Deep breaths. Dr Long, a most gentlemanly looking person. But then he speaks his dismal verdict: O grief. Oh no. Ellen is alone with her fate, no answer, no cure. But he will proceed with treatment, do his best.

But what of Catherine? Oh, a desponding apprehension Dr Long does conjure there too! What if Miss Catherine too harbours the terrible canker of consumption? Unseen, unfelt, unperceived. Waiting like a dog behind the door to savage my last hopes.

I find myself speaking: ‘Devise a means, Dr Long, to prevent an impending mischief upon my one remaining child.’ O fateful words.

‘Dear Lady, I understand completely. Fear not, I am able perfectly to attain your object.’

Dr Long’s infallible remedy must be applied forthwith, to drain the poison via an external wound and carry off the malady. Ah! Thwart the death that stalks my girls. Hustle, bustle, the guinea leaves my reticule. Upon the instant, Catherine’s in the closet with the doctor’s assistant. Anxious, I hover outside. It feels cold and wet, she calls, rubbing and rubbing into my back and then it starts to burn. Catherine shy to show her skin to a stranger.

Miss Catherine back at the Hampstead lodgings cannot bear the pressure of her corsets. I tell Mrs Roddis, a new treatment, very efficacious. But why? enquires Mrs Roddis, bewildered. I thought Miss Catherine well, it is Miss Ellen for whom you seek treatment.

Mother, Mother! Screaming in the night. I hurry to her side, not troubling to put on my gown. She rolls to her front wrenching up her nightdress and crying out with pain.

What is it, my darling, what is it? Mrs Roddis called in to look with a candle. What is this upon her back? Horrified, hands up by her face, mouth gaping open. How did she come by this?

Weeping, peeling wound. Red striations radiate from a suppurating hole in the poor pet’s back.
Dr Long called out the next morning. Ha ha. Ha Ha. Going on very well. Remarkable, remarkable reaction. Give one hundred guineas to produce such favourable signs in my other patients. Most efficacious. Proves that she needs the treatment in order to avoid Ellen’s fate. Miss Catherine retching thin streams of acid vomit all the while.

Ten days since, she was perfect, in blooming health. Look at her now, prone and moaning, deadly sick. Overcome with grief and fear I fall to my knees and pray. Never worried for a moment about Catherine and now my precious healthy child penetrated by this fearful gaping hole, pus filled and stinking. Why?
Mulled port, just the thing, says Long. Have her right as a trivet in no time. Yes, another guinea for the visit. But the mulled port is already in the basin held by the frightened maid ere he has even left the house. Called him back. There, I cry, see the angry marks about the wound.

I can do no more, says he. Shrugs, takes his hat, moves too smartly through the door.
Now Mr Brodie, surgeon of Savile Row is here and looking very grave. Strips to his linen, rolls up his sleeves and by means of scalpel and hot cloths attempts to ameliorate the terrible damage. Catherine screams and screams again. Nothing avails. She gasps her last in my arms, and goes to join my Joseph and all the rest in that celestial parlour of my fond imaginings. How could you, God? Why have you forsaken me and mine? Mother of one, and that one doomed, that had such hopes.

Flaming August. They lift me away from her poor ravaged virgin body that was so springing and so sprightly. The undertaker, coldly kind, mutters that they must hurry the girl into the ground in this heat. Not a natural death. How could it be? I want to scream. The coroner’s court is instantly convened.

Must control the flow of tears and listen. Faithful Mrs Roddis, first to be questioned by Long’s weasel lawyer: ‘Did she not gorge herself with plums just prior to her death? Was not her greed the cause?’ I start up, poor doomed Ellen grasps my hand and settles me back upon the bench. Mrs Roddis has none of it, hands folded firmly under fichu, drawn to full five foot, sniffing with disgust. No indeed, Miss Catherine was in perfect health and behaved just as a maiden should.

Sloughing skin, suppurating wound, poison in her blood – that was the cause of the girl’s demise. Not plums, says Surgeon Brodie. But how? He had done everything he could, but with scant hope of success. ‘No idea, sir, none, why such a ghastly gaping damage could ever cure a consumption or prevent one.’ He hangs his head in grief at his failure to save the young lady’s life, and glares across the court at jaunty Long. ‘Murderer,’ he mutters sotto voce.

I feel my wits go straying as they order my darling to be dug up from the Moorfields burial ground. A post-mortem is a terrible thing to contemplate, but we must for certain know why she died. I accuse myself. I did it, her fond and foolish mother. Things hurry so, one upon the other; I cannot keep pace with unfolding horrors of head and spine, internal organs and the rest.

Long has summoned up his sycophants to attend the reconvened coroner’s court. A parade of pointless puffery. Sir Francis Burdett referred patients to the quack, though he himself has no idea about the treatment. Foolish Frank, he did not think it dangerous; had tried it himself upon a gout of the hand, did neither good nor harm. In my grief for Ellen’s fate, I had clung to any stupid thing; shame overwhelms me for what I did.

‘Twas a perfectly healthful subject, all these learned men are saying about my love. Beautiful in form, and free from all disease, save that occasioned by the wound in the back. That I had caused to be inflicted. How can I live? I feel my Ellen’s frail hand in mine. Must live for her now.

Few would recover, they continue, from such a local injury that appeared to have the character of a burn. And unjustifiable by any manner of means. And Long will not confess the means for this terrible injury, he is silent and without shame. He has made a wicked fortune from this liniment which professes to reveal a hid disease. His supporters are powerful; scorning and sneering in their landed glamour; the Marquess of Anglesea among them.

Now I must speak in court: I did not wish to accuse myself of any neglect towards my children. Long told me, as he took a golden guinea for each girl, that Catherine would be struck down too within two months, should I not allow the treatment. And then I signed his book, his dirty book, as a mere matter of form, promising not to tell. Why did I believe this filthy murderous charlatan?

A cure was brought into court. A Miss Matilda Christian whose medical attendants had despaired of her. Mr Long himself had rubbed her with a sponge soaked in his terrible poisons, but she had become well. The cruel favouritism of fate! Then it is five of the clock and the Jury files out to consider among themselves who is to blame for my darling’s death. Ellen, exhausted, leans upon my shoulder. I turn my head to kiss her hot and ruby cheek. How can I put her through this, whose last days should be so calm and free from worry?

Manslaughter! Oh faithful Jury. ‘Bravo’ and ‘Shame’ call persons present in equal measure. He is not here to hear the verdict, skulking off to inflict his torturing unguent upon unsuspecting others. Committed to trial, yes, but nothing will cure my everlasting grief and shame. Convicted, he is only fined £250. So much money has he made peddling quackery that he could pay upon the instant and stroll heedless out of court.

Anon, my poor Ellen follows her sister. Struck dumb with grief, I return to Dublin, abandoning my darlings to share a narrow London lodging. The Dublin Mercury is full of our case, and missives of comfort by the score bend the postman’s back. My hope had been that the court-inflicted Mark of Cain could halt Long’s terrible course. But no! Weeks later comes the news that he’s laid waste a certain Mrs Lloyd. The liniment worked through her skin to the breast bone; and she being found post mortem – like my Catherine (though a woman much covered in fat) – to be otherwise sound in wind and limb. Manslaughter again! But still he does not desist, as sundry others, previously despaired of, claim complete cures.

Not a pure and perfect knave then; to bamboozle others Long must deceive himself. Distinguished as he is from other knaves by the long parade of fashionables that pay his extortionate fees to itch and scorch – and die.

How long could the carnage have continued, if Long – a youngish man – had not himself been taken ill and perished just four years hence. To my horror, I hear his grand patients subscribe to a monument in his memory. I pray he finds himself not in the Blessed Realm, but in another place that burns like the sulphurous hell he dispensed to my daughters. And I live on, no grandchild to soothe my descent into the grave, and only the comfort of confession to heal my terrible guilt.