Posted November 15, 2011on:
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The verdict was Not Proven. A verdict that could only be given in Scotland. Not proven. It meant that the good men of the jury thought that I was guilty, but that they did not have enough evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, to send me to the hangman’s noose. For the rest of my days I would have to live under that intolerable question-mark. Until I was in my grave and beyond, the eternal question would be “did she, or didn’t she?” I was free to go home. Back to Blythswood Square. Back home to Father, and my blood ran cold at the thought of how he might greet me. I had single-handedly torn down his entire world, everything he had so painstakingly built up, and left it scattered at his feet. Rumours had reached my ears, whilst I was residing at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, that he was a broken man, emotionally broken. That during my incarceration and trial, he and Mama had taken themselves to bed. That they had refused to see any visitors, refused to read any newspapers. And this was all down to me. Now I was going home to them. Not even taking with me the cleansing satisfaction of a Not Guilty verdict, but the rather more suspicious and grubby Not Proven. I strongly believe this would give no more comfort to Papa than if I had actually been hanged by the neck until I was dead.
“Madeleine! Oh Madeleine!” she rustles towards me, holding a lace handkerchief to her nose as I’m some oderous guttersnipe.
“Hello Mama”, I said, stooping to dutifully kiss her cheek.
She seems smaller and more wizened than I remember, although that could be simply due to the strain of my trial.
“Madeleine”, she said “It’s been so awful, you have no idea!”
I had to gather all my patience around me. I had spent the past few weeks in a grim prison cell on trial for my very life, did she think I had been taking the waters at a health spa? I had had people hurling abuse at me outside the prison walls. I had had my most intimate letters read out in court, and printed in the gutter-press for everybody to gloat over. And I now had to face the fact that I would spend the rest of my days with people whispering behind my back. “There goes Madeleine Smith. She was put on trial for murder you know, poisoning her French lover. Quite shocking”.
“Madeleine!” his voice cut across my thoughts like the crack of a carriage-driver’s whip. He was walking towards me down the hallway. As usual his chest was puffed out like a rooster’s under his starched white shirt-front. My formidable father. Only he too seemed smaller. Cut down to size. Life had dealt him a terrible blow.
“So you are home at last”, he said.
“Yes Papa”, I replied. In spite of my recent ordeal I was still cowed in his presence.
“Hm”, he said, clearly struggling to think of something appropriate to say. What does one say to a daughter newly-released from prison?
“Perhaps you would like to have a little rest before supper, Madeleine”, said my fluttery Mama.
“I should like that very much, Mama”, I said “Am I still in my old room?”
“Of course”, said Papa, and for the merest moment there was a tiny glimmer of warmth in his stern voice. Dared I hope that he was pleased to see alive after all?
The two of them stepped back so that I could pass them in the hallway. As I walked towards the stairs my heart was pounding. Suddenly I felt afraid. Far removed from that ice-maiden whose glacial composure had so shocked the followers of my trial. They had all thought I was heartless, a modern-day Messalina, amoral, immoral, incapable of normal human feelings. But some of us who hide our feelings the most are the ones who feel most deeply.
I manoevered my stiff, heavy skirts down the narrow, twisting staircase. I could hear the servants whispering in the kitchen. They must know I was home by now. They would have seen the carriage pull up outside, heard the front door open and close. For the first time I wondered why our parlourmaid hadn’t opened the door to me. That I had had to do it myself. It had never struck me as odd until now. One gets used to the absence of parlourmaids in prison.
There, at the side of the house, was my old room. A large, basement room. It might seem an odd choice for many young women of my background, to sleep below-stairs, next to the kitchen area, amongst the servants as it were. But it had given me the freedom of movement I craved. Away from my parents. Upstairs I would not have been able to entertain Emile at the window so easily, to let him in surreptitiously through the area door. The servants had turned a blind eye to my business, as long as I accordingly turned a blind eye to theirs. It had been a most civilised arrangement.
My room was exactly as I had last seen it. I can’t imagine Mama had been in the right frame of mind to run the house in any efficient way in my absence, so the servants must have simply carried on as normal, operating as if by clockwork. There was no dust – I ran my hand along the washstand – everything was clean and tidy. I put down my gloves and reticule, and walked over to the window, pulling back the lace curtain to peer out. The pavement outside was level with my eyes. Here Emile had crouched down, exchanging whispered confidences with me, clutching my hand through the bars. I had felt like a princess in a fairy-tale, imprisoned in the family castle, waiting for her dashing lover to come and rescue her.
It astonished me now that I had ever once entertained such naive, romantic notions. What an empty-headed fool I must have been. I had given my heart so trustingly, with such innocence. Never suspecting for one moment that it would be abused, trampled upon. That my dashing, ardent prince would turn out to be nothing more than an ambitious social-climber, and a terrible hypercondriac to boot! I doubt I will ever be taken in by a man so fully ever again. The ice-maiden has locked up her heart, and will never expose herself to public humiliation again.
After a few days I knew I would never be able to resume my old life in Blythswood Square. I realised this with some sadness, but only a simpleton would have been surprised by the revelation. Too much had happened. I could no longer be regarded simply as Madeleine, the giddy high-society belle, a considerable catch on the matrimony market. I was now the notorious Madeleine Smith, a possible murderess, who had cold-bloodedly put arsenic into her lover’s cocoa, and watched him as he drank it. Even to those who might believe I was innocent, I was still tainted. My love letters had been read out in court. It had been revealed before a shocked public that I had had full carnal knowledge of a man who was not my wedded husband. I had lain with him, been his “wife” (in the Biblical sense), his beloved “Mimi”, like any common trollop from the streets.
I would not go to my future husband on my wedding night as an unsullied virgin. To put it coarsely, I was soiled goods. Shop-worn. I could no longer fetch a high price. I would have to be offered at a reduced rate. That’s if a buyer could be found at all. “No husband wants to know that his wife has had previous knowledge of a man”, isn’t that how the mantra goes? He doesn’t want to look at her and know that another man had caressed her smooth flesh, fondled her breasts, kissed her lips. And of course everybody knew the truth about me now. There wasn’t a man anywhere in the Kingdom who didn’t know that I had offered myself to Emile like a common whore. At my trial they had even suggested that Emile might have become poisoned after licking the arsenic off my skin! How preposterous can they be.
Everybody stares. It is wholly inevitable. They all know who I am. They have seen the sketches of me made by the artists in the court-room. One I have to say was not at all flattering. It depicted me as a stern, jaw-clenched witch-like crone in a veil. I was not at all pleased with that one. And to my disgust, it has been the one most commonly reproduced! And yet at the same time they claim I flirted outrageously with the judge. That I cast him imperious looks, coquettishly pulled my skirts up above my ankles. The hatchet-faced crone could also flirt, it seemed, like a seasoned temptress.
People will believe any nonsense that they want to believe. There is nothing I can do about it. Can they not see how cruel they are being? Can they not see that I have feelings too? But of course, I don’t have feelings. I am Madeleine Hamilton Smith, the murderess with the icy heart, and the steely composure. It is intolerable. All of it.
Poor Mama. She has tried so hard to turn the clock back, to put things back as they were. It is no use. One evening I went to talk to her as she sewed by the fire. Papa was out on business. My sisters were in bed. The servants downstairs, no doubt dozing by the kitchen fire. I knelt at her feet, my skirts billowing out on the hearth-rug around me.
“Mama, I must leave here”, I said.
“Leave here?” she put down her sewing and gently grasped my hands. Hers felt so frail and cold “But Madeleine, this is your home”.
“I cannot stay in Glasgow, Mama”, I said “It is intolerable. Everywhere I go people stare at me. They make no attempt to hide it. I am like a freak in a fairground sideshow”.
“Oh Madeleine, please don’t say that”, she cried.
“But it is true, Mama”.
“They will forget. In time”.
“They will never forget”, I said, bitterly “I will always be the notorious Madeleine Smith of Blythswood Square”.
“B-but”, her mouth shook as she struggled not to cry “Where will you go?”
“I thought perhaps London”, I said.
“But they will know you there too!” she said.
“At first. But it is a much more anonymous place than Glasgow”, I said “I will be a nine-day wonder, if that. No one will care there really”.
“But how will you live?”
“I don’t know. I’m not exactly trained for anything. What do disgraced daughters of wealthy, respectable merchants do?”
“Oh Madeleine, you have become so damaged”, she said, reaching out to touch my face.
“It is the only chance I have, Mama”, I said “The only chance I have to move on and live the rest of my life in peace. I need Papa’s help”.
“I will talk to him”, she said “He is a very wise man. I am sure he will do what he thinks is best”.
How she adores him. She accepts everything he says without question. To her Papa is a very Solomon amongst men. The most intelligent man in Christendom. I envy her her blind faith. I will never know it.
“Mama”, I said, awkwardly “About Emile …”
“You don’t have to tell me anything”, she said “What’s done is done”.
And I saw then that she would rather not know anything about any of it. To confide in her would almost be cruelty on my part. She had forgiven me, but she knows not what she has forgiven me for. And she would rather keep it that way. My mother has survived by letting others handle the truth.
And I was alone. Totally alone.
That night I lay in bed, with my little sister Janet curled up at my side. She was perhaps the only person who had accepted my homecoming without any difficulty. To her it was simply a case of “Maddy’s home again”. She told me she had missed my bedtime stories, and that she hoped the people in the court-room had admired my new dresses. But would she have to spend the rest of her life branded as the younger sister of Madeleine The Murderess? It seemed to me to be another argument for getting away. She wouldn’t be tainted by my presence as she grew up, guilty by association.
The little clock on my dressing-table chimed once. If Emile was still alive he would have visited by now. I would have been sitting in my armchair, obstensibly reading, but in reality listening out for his tread on the pavement outside. Emile swagging across Blythswood Square, twirling his cane in a jaunty manner. One thumb tucked into his waistcoat pocket, or fussily adjusting his cravat. A regular Beau Brummell. A dandy. A fop. A strutting little peacock of a man.
I should have been wise to all that vulgar display of male vanity from the start. Emile was very vain. He couldn’t abide the fact that there were men around who were perhaps better-looking than him, who had a better station in life. It always came back to that in the end. Emile wanted to climb up in the world. He wanted the life my father had I suppose. And myself? The silly, foolish, ever-so-romantic girl I was. At one time I was ready to throw it all in, and run away with him. To start a new life somewhere else. Disowned by my family. All so that I could be with him. I would sacrifice all for love.
Silly woman. He threw it all back in my face. Jeered that I could ever cope with a life of making-ends-meet, that I had no idea of the realities of living on a low income. Perhaps I didn’t. But I’m a quick learner. It would have been difficult no doubt, but I would have made the adjustments … for him. I was prepared to do that … for him.
He should have taken heed that I was offering my heart, my soul, my whole future to him. But he treated my sacrificial offering with contempt. And all because he wanted the lifestyle we had here in Blythswood Square.
“The trouble with people like you, Mimi”, he said “Is that you’ve always had comfort and luxury. You simply cannot comprehend what it is to live without those things. To go hungry. To have no fire in your room. To wear badly-mended clothes. You are a vain woman. How would you feel if you could o longer afford your expensive little toiletries? How devestated you would be if your looks began to go”.
So he painted a picture of me as some dowdy old fish-wife, with unkempt hair, bad skin, and unfashionable, badly-mended clothes. He gave a sarcastic sneer.
“You even put arsenic on your skin”, he said “Because you believe it helps to keep you beautiful”.
“But Emile”, I said “Is that any worse than you imbibing it because you believe it is good for your health?”
“That is neither here nor there!” he said, sharply. How like my father he seemed just then. They had more in common than they could ever have realised. Both puffed-up men, full of their own importance. Both wanting the unquestioning respect of other men, and the slavish adoration of women.
But Emile was not my father. He was a lowly-paid clerk. A man who sometimes did menial fetching and carrying work in his shirt-sleeves.
And I am not my mother. I don’t have her ability to hide from things, and to never question her man, or to accept that he was anything less than a god. I am cursed with the ability to see things too clearly. And yes, sometimes it is a curse.
An anonymous poison-pen letter was delivered to me in the post at breakfast this morning.
“‘HIS GHOST WILL COME BACK TO HAUNT YOU'”, it read “‘IT WILL HAUNT YOU FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, YOU WICKED, SINFUL GIRL, YOU JEZEBEL …'”
And more of the same. I don’t believe in ghosts, I don’t believe the dead come back to haunt the living, in spite of what the Spiritualists would have us believe, and the gothic writers. Emile is dead.
“‘THE HANGMAN WILL BE WAITING FOR YOU IN HELL'”, the letter concluded.
One trusts that the hangman would not be required in Hell, because I would already be dead by the time I reached that place! What hateful people they are. What must their lives be like that they feel compelled to write a letter such as that to a complete stranger?
But I’m not a stranger to them I suppose. They feel they know all about me. I’m almost public property. They have read about me in the newspapers, have no doubt followed my trial with avid interest. But even so, I still don’t understand.
I burnt the letter on the fire. I didn’t want Mama to see it. Like everyone else I had fallen into the habit of protecting her from everything, even at a cost to myself.
I have not mentioned Mr Minnoch yet, my fiance. Or to put it more accurately, he used to be my fiance. That is because there is nothing to say. He was a great support to me at first, but the trial became too much for him. The details of my assignations with Emile were too painful, intolerable for him, and I can fully understand that he didn’t want to sit and listen as my letters were read out in court.
I feel only great sympathy for him. I lied to him. But only because I had hoped that Emile would go away. If Emile hadn’t died it is unlikely that James would ever have had to know about him. My “Mimi” letters would have been returned to me, and I would have burnt them, as I burnt the poison pen letter.
It was all such a waste. Emile should have accepted that things were never going to work between us. He was an attractive man, I’m sure other women would have soon fallen for his smooth-talking Gallic charm, as I had done. And James and I would have been happy together. I know we would. We always had such wonderfully pleasent conversations together. He is such an affable, genial man, so gentle and modest in his ways. So unlike Emile and my father, with their constant posturing. I would not have had to spend my time smoothing over his jagged edges, massaging his ego. And our marriage would have made everybody else happy as well. Papa was full of approval for it. And Mama had been delighted at the prospect of organising our wedding.
But it was not to be, because (and I have to say this) Emile had died. That had changed … ruined everything.
Mama didn’t come to see me off at the station, but I didn’t expect she would. She did exactly what I thought she’d do, she took to her bed witha goodly supply of handkerchiefs. No doubt once I was gone, she would eventually rise again and tell everyone that “Madeleine has gone away on a little holiday, for the good of her health. She’s not been at all well you know, not for some while”.
The truth of course was that I was as fit as a fiddle. Everyone expected that my spell in prison would have placed a great strain on a genteel, refined lady such as myself. It hadn’t. When I wasn’t in the court-room I had sat isolated in my cell, drinking tea and reading, plus occasionally receiving visitors. With the exception of the bare brick walls and the constant clanging of iron doors and the rattle of keys, I could have been at home really.
To my surprise though Papa did accompany me to the station. He strode through the concourse, his top hat proudly atop his head. Anybody who didn’t know him would have taken him for exactly what he was: a prosperous man of the town. I knew it was a facade though. There was a slightly trembling quality to him now. He would never be complacent again.
“Well Madeleine”, he said.
And in that brief statement there was (very fleetingly) almost a rogue-ish quality to him.
“Papa”, I began, awkwardly pulling at the fingers of my gloves “I want to thank you for helping me in this way”.
“It was more to help your mother”, he said “All this …. ‘business’ has been a terrible strain on her nerves”.
“Yes of course”, I said, bending my head in what I hoped was a meek gesture.
“Madeleine d-did …” he looked around him at the busy concourse. It was chaos. People rushing everywhere. Porters pushing trolleys laden with luggage. The hiss of the steam from the trains. The rustle of skirts, the click of heels on the floor. But it was that organished chaos which gave him the privacy to speak.
“Madeleine, did you …?” he asked.
“No Papa”, I said “I did not. Emile did it to himself. He was always dosing himself with various dubious concoctions”.
“Yes, quite”, he said, coughing with embarrassment “Not uncommon with that sort of course. Weak-willed, no backbone. Low-class stock”.
I suddenly felt very tired. I wanted to find my compartment on the train and sleep. My energy and composure, which had seen me through the trial so well, suddenly deserted me. I felt deflated, the life sucked out of me. More than ever before, I wanted to get away.
Papa and I parted with a chilly cordiality. I was relieved that he asked me no more about Emile. I was tired of Emile. He had dominated my life for too long. In his refusal to cut his losses and let me go, he had nearly succeeded in putting a hangman’s noose around my neck.
As I walked away, I made a solemn vow to myself that never again, for as long as I lived, would the name of Emile l’Angelier ever pass my lips.