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  • Pamela Belle

MJ (9)

I have never known grief such as this. And I feel ashamed, for only six months ago my son, my sweet little baby, died one hot June night, as I held him in my arms and whispered loving words of comfort that did no good. It was not unexpected, for he had been born too soon, a small and sickly child who had failed to thrive and grow as he should, but still my Tom and I wept for him, and laid him in the vault in our church where his ancestors lie. My mother told me that we were still very young and there would certainly be many other children, and she should know, for she gave birth to thirteen – six boys, of whom only Precious Tom lived beyond infancy, and seven girls, of whom only Katherine and Isabella did not survive. And so it has proved, for already another baby grows and quickens within me, to be born in May.

But my mother will have no more children. And the tally of her grandchildren, growing ever longer – I make it seventeen now – does not console her, or my father, for the tragedy that has befallen our family.

My brother, Precious Tom, that sweet-natured, generous, lively boy, my parents’ hope for the future, is dead at the age of fifteen. And mingled with our grief is anger, for it was an accident that should never have happened. Dilly, the most forthright of all of us, speaks the words that the rest of us all think, but have been too polite to express. “How could he have been so stupid?”

For Tom, staying at Father’s house in London over Christmas, had given his tutor the slip and gone down to the Thames to look at the ships there. He had fallen in with a couple of other lads, and they had sneaked aboard a lighter moored at Beaufort stairs in the Strand. It was a windy day, and the seamen were struggling to lower the vessel’s mast: a rope gave way, and it crashed down, directly onto our beloved brother. He had died within the hour from a broken skull.

So of all the sons my parents had, none now remain. When my father dies, our name will cease. And we five daughters, his only heirs. All because Tom, precious, mischievous, spoilt Tom, decided that it would be fun to play on a boat rather than attend to his lessons.

Our mother is prostrate, our father little better. We cannot give them comfort, for there is no comfort to give. Nothing we can say will ease their pain, or ours, or bring our Precious Tom back to us.

He was buried last night, in darkness by torchlight, as the fashion is, and as is customary, his coffin was attended only by men, our father leading the mourners. So our husbands are amongst them, while we wait in the long gallery, and the servants prepare the funeral feast in the hall below. There is Mary, sweet and kind, her face puffy with weeping, and Harriet, dry-eyed, her mouth compressed either with anger, or to stop it trembling, and Dilly, her once slender figure still plump from the baby born only a few months ago: Pen, the only one of us still unwed, slim and radiant still, if there were not the tracks of copious tears on her cheeks: and I, my belly already rounded with the child within, whom I have already decided I will name Thomas, in honour of his father, his grandfather, and the young uncle he will never know.

“He is – was – only fifteen,” says Mary, her voice catching. “Please, Dilly, do not talk so loud, Mother will hear you, and so will the servants.”

Since our mother is asleep in her chamber, helped by a powerful dose of tincture of opium, this seems unlikely, but Dilly obviously realises that her sister is right. She says, much more quietly, “I am sorry. It just seems ... such a terrible needless stupid waste.”

Mary’s face quivers and she brings her hands up to her mouth, the tears beginning again. Harriet, who is the next in age, goes to her and puts her arms around her. After a moment of hesitation, Dilly joins them and they all stand close. Pen and I look at each other, and then we also embrace them. We are sisters, and although we may not always agree, although we often bicker and argue and tease each other, in our hearts we are together, we five, and will not be divided, especially at this dreadful time.

The next day, still raw with grief and weeping, my Tom and I return to our home. Since I am four months gone with child, we travel in the coach, though usually both of us would much rather ride. Words seem superfluous: we sit together in a sad silence, our hands clasped. It is only when we approach our destination that he asks, “What did your father give to you, just before we left?”

I have it in my purse, and show it to him. It is a plain gold locket, engraved with the initials TJ, and within it, some brief strands of light brown hair. My brother wore a fashionable wig only on formal occasions, so his own hair was not cut very short, as an adult’s would be. Tom looks at it solemnly, and then says, “That was a very kind and thoughtful gift. Now you will have something to remember him by.”

“Each of us sisters were given one,” I say. “It will remind us of him, and of what we have lost.”

When we reach home, I go straight away up to our chamber. My beautiful casket stands on the table by the window, where I write my letters and sew and read, for it faces south-west and always catches the last of the daylight, whatever the time of year. I take it out of the wooden box which hides it, and open the drawer at the front. There are my rings, my necklaces and other pieces of jewellery, some precious because they are valuable, others – like the silver bracelet my grandmother bestowed on me at my christening – precious because of the memories they evoke. I take out the drawer, and lift the small panel it sits upon. Within is the compartment where I keep those treasures most personal to me. A twist of tissue paper holds a lock of my dead baby’s hair, so fine and pale and downy it is almost invisible. There, too, are the letters Tom wrote to me, when he courted me during those warm spring days before our marriage. And also letters from my dearest and only brother, the first a painstaking brief scrawl he sent to me when he was six years old, and the last one written only a month ago, full of lively description of the sights he had seen in London, and with no intimation of his imminent death. How could he have known? He was fifteen years old, careless and carefree, beloved and much indulged by all his family, and death must have seemed so very distant.

At least it was quick, Father had said to us. It was quick and he did not suffer, or linger in agony. In that respect, at least, God was merciful. But as he said it, I could see the tears in his eyes, for his son was loved not only for his role as the future of our family and our name, but for himself.

I lay the locket on top of that last letter, replace the drawer, close up the lid. I think back to the days of my childhood, when I sat with Tom and we talked about the animals that I would embroider, and the scenes that would decorate the casket. But now he is dead, and we are all bereft, and our lives and our world have changed for ever. One impulsive act of disobedience, one joyful spurt of mischief, and he is gone. How sweet life is, how impermanent, and how cruel.

Before I put the casket back in its box, I touch the panel that represents Taste, for it is my brother who stands beside the apple tree with the fruit in his hand, and I feel in my heart that the figure I sewed with such love and care holds something of him still, and that while my casket exists, so will he, and my sisters, and my parents, and the young man who is now, to my great joy, my husband.

I have so much. I wish I had more. Is that a sin? I wish with all my heart that my brother had never gone down to the Strand that windy morning, only five days ago, to lark about in the boats. But if I wish thus, then I must also wish that Precious Tom was not himself, was not the spirited, mischievous boy who was always getting into trouble. And that I can never do.

“Goodbye, my dearest little brother,” I whisper, and close the lid.

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