It was the February of 1909 when I came to the tenement building in Phillip Street. Though it was little more than two low-ceilinged rooms 10 feet square — the sole entrance a narrow, dingy hallway that led from a “poor man’s road” to the rear tenement-house — it was the best I could afford, and possibly more than I could expect considering the ill-found fate I had so far incurred.
I had been the mother of two healthy, fit boys — the eldest a sanguine child of two years and seven months, the other a darling baby boy of eight months — but, on April 3rd, I noticed my little baby had died. He was a lovely, chubby baby, with a dimple in its chin and a dimple to mark each knuckle in its tiny fingers — a sweet a baby as ever was mourned by an agonised mother. And he, having given up life’s struggle after such a short time in this world, lay there, waiting next to me for someone to come and take his little body away. Sympathetic neighbours huddled in the little room and about the door, but they were as poor as I and could extend no helping hand. My eldest, round-faced but now so pale, stood by the cot and gazed first at his baby brother lying so still there, with a dainty sweet violet in his marble hand, and then at me, wonderingly.
The baby had been very sick, but the doctor, a good man, had tended him and he was all well till Sunday. Then his breathing appeared to take on an agonising tone, the air here being so bad. So, I took him down to the park, by the river, where he could get fresher air. We sat there on the bench for such a long time, baby sleeping on my lap.
Then, first I knew, he gave a cry, his little arms and legs drew up and I knew he was in a fit. I rushed him back home but I could not do anything, my baby was dead.
When it came to the funeral, a small number gathered with bowed heads, tears streaming from their eyes. I knelt, resting my head on the foot of the tiny coffin, the frame shaking with my emotion while the vicar spoke the words of the service.
The following days and nights I spent in the depths of despair and unable to repress my grief, I went to the cemetery four days after the burial. It was about eight o’clock in the morning. What added to my discomfort was that towards daybreak a disagreeable drizzle set in, one of those hideous rains, which dampens the very soul and makes one an easy prey to every gloomy foreboding. I stood just a short distance from the grave, when I was seized by a terrible coldness, and, in that instant, I became aware that at the edge of the plot was an object shifting to-and-fro upon its own weight. I stepped a little closer and saw it to be a cradle nestled within the boundary stone. At first I was horror-struck, but maternal affection getting the upper hand, I approached the grave. When I came upon the white stone, there was nothing of the cradle just the circulating pools of rainwater collecting upon its surface.
A wave of black depression fell upon me and, sinking to my knees, I was possessed to begin scraping at the soil. It was as if the physical separation of my hands from my mind gave unconscious animation to my clawing fingers and, with increasing ferocity, I attacked the loosening soil with an ever tightening resolve to find my baby. Finally, I had cleared the layers of earth and punctured the flimsy strips of coffin wood, and stripping back the sod-stained linen I exposed the tiny bundle of flesh. With my baby restored to my arms, I tried to give life back by massaging its face with my hands. The last thing I remember before the shadow of unconsciousness descended was the hard thud of a body pressing against me, wrestling the child from my arms.
I awoke several hours later, having been looked after by a kind neighbour. The lady had such sympathy for my plight and told me that she herself had lost several babies. She spoke of how such grief can turn one’s mind, to the point where it loses all proportion of rationality and craves to attempt the resurrection of what is lost.
It was a year later when my surviving son David began to act in a most peculiar way.
One night, David came toddling to me, and sent a shiver through me by staring at me earnestly, and saying, “Mamma, baby back. Baby… Baby calls David!” My immediate reaction was to reassure him and place him back in his own bed. In the short walk to his room, I told him that with such great sadness in our hearts it was understandable that we longed for our baby boy to be back with us, but he continued to say, almost with a chant-like quality in his voice, that “Baby always come back. Baby happy. Baby always—”
After that, every day, and I may confidently say almost every hour of the day, David would leave his play and come running to me with “Mamma, baby back. Look —”
He would awaken me out of my sleep at night with the same story. And as the weeks went by his language became more descriptive, “Mamma, baby calls all the time. He wants David to come where he is. You mustn’t cry when David goes, mamma, for baby wants David.”
One morning I was sweeping the sitting-room, when he came running as fast as he could through the dining-room, where stood the table, with baby’s high-chair, which David now used, at the side of it. I never saw the child so wild. He grasped my dress, and pulled me to the dining-room door. David pulled it open, gasping, ” Oh, mamma, mamma, come quick ! Baby’s sitting in his high chair.”
“As he swung the door open eagerly, and looked at the chair, he cried, with tears in his little voice, “Oh, mamma, you needed to hurry. Now he’s gone — baby’s gone.”
I seized him by the shoulders and begged him to stop but through his tears he said, “Baby laughed at David when he passed the chair. He touched me with his little fingers. Oh, he laughed at David so nice.” Then he pointed to his neck.
“I am going with baby — but you mustn’t cry, mamma.”
For the sake of my child and, indeed, my own sanity, I resolved to seek help, to calm our deteriorating mental conditions; but with the little money we had, however, it was more important to protect ourselves from the hells of the workhouse. The small amount my husband had left us was only enough to pay the rent and charity, as it was, would only come to the palms of the ‘deserving’ poor.
So, it was to an alternative source of help that I went:—
I climbed the long flight of stairs to the fourth floor and woke a hundred echoes in the dark and dismal passageway by knocking at the door. A rusty tin sign, inscribed “Ashe” adorned the room door, and just beneath was a small round hole, covered on the inside by one end of a baby’s tin rattle. I had been instructed that only women bearing babies and young children in their arms would be welcome visitors to the small front room, and so I stood outside the door holding David as if a sort of animated admission pass.
In an instant, the bit of tin rattle was supplanted by a large, keen grey eye. The scrutinizing orb shifted nervously in its spy-hole, then disappeared, and I became concerned that even the most persistent knocking would not elicit another sign of life from the mysterious room.
Then suddenly the door flew open and I was shown into a small, dingily carpeted room, around which were scattered hundreds of broken rattles, feeding bottles, stone crosses and leaves from a big Bible, soap boxes, half full of rags and raw cotton, suggesting the idea of miniature beds. Over the mantelpiece was a picture, inscribed ” Jesus said, ‘Suffer little children to come onto Me.”’ The occupant of the curious apartment was a white-haired old woman of seventy, or thereabouts, and she spoke in words of broken English. She wore a neat calico wrapper and an enormous crucifix as a breastpin. We exchanged only a few words before a palm was stretched before me, and the widow quickly pocketed the sum required. I was asked to remove my child’s clothing and then to place him in the arms of the old woman. One of the soap boxes was then dragged into the centre of the floor, and little David placed inside. The white-haired hostess glanced at a relic of a clock on the wall, and then knelt beside the naked child, while I took a like position on the other side. The widow, with a cross in one hand, immediately began to pray, in broken English, for its health. When the prayer finished, the old supplicant took a few moments’ rest, and then started in on a prayer in a language I did not understand, also of a half hour’s duration. At frequent intervals during the praying the old woman made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead.
I have to say that I grew very apprehensive during the process; and wondered where God was in all of these words — for I did not recognise them as His.
A final “Amen” arrived just at the expiration of the hour. The widow came soon to her feet and then commenced to congratulate me upon the improved appearance of my child, and offered to pray over it for another hour on the same terms. When I informed her that I did not have the amount due she offered to write a charm to put around my child’s neck for a smaller sum, for which I did accept.
As I made my way out of the house, I dwelt on the nature of her business and what neighbours had said. It was only the old inhabitants in the tenement who could recall the time when the widow had started her business, but everybody knew about her more recent transactions. She was greatly respected by the class of people in the vicinity, and for years she has made a comfortable living by sending up prayers for ailing little ones. In these testimonies I had placed my trust.
That night, I woke up to the most awful of visions. Sleep had taken a tight hold and drawn me into a cavernous world of earthen tunnels and twisted tree roots. Amongst them, I had seen the pale corpse of my child bound in woody tendrils, writhing and shifting in slow, tortuous rhythm through the earth, upwards. Then, as the roots pushed forth into misted daylight I awoke and saw with stark and terrible consciousness that the child had awoken from its eternal slumber and slipped beyond the veil. Presently, it rested against the frame of my bed, half clutching the baseboard, half reaching out towards the sheets with open hand. Then, by slow and awful degrees the baby moved and grew more ghastly with each cycle of its crawl. I could see its mouth open revealing a rasping tongue as if to speak but unable to, instead delivering a series of hideous gurgles as if the throat was being choked.
I sank back upon my pillow and drew the sheet about my head, and remained thus until a tugging forced its removal. Standing beside the bed was David, in tears, saying that something had woken him in the night. I started up, trembling, and with an algid perspiration breaking out on my forehead, reached for a match and lamp and tried to strike a light, but in vain. I had but one or two matches left, and dropping the last in despair, I grabbed hold of my son and sprang forth from the bedroom.
I sat shivering in a chair holding my son, lost in a dreadful speculation. I was afraid to move, lest the very act itself would bring about some terrible climax. The lamp sent out a thin, uncanny light, which did not quite reach into the corners, so that my little sitting room bore to my disordered mind the aspect of a prison cell. I don’t know how long I might have sat there, chilled to the bone, but at last a faint streak of dawn gleaming through the window reassured me in a measure. Whatever darkness lay amongst the filth and squalor had set its mind on finding a home; but though I had accepted that what I saw was something of the night I did not recognise the phantom as my own flesh and blood— not for one moment did I believe that an innocent child could be possessed of such evil.
It was only a matter of weeks after these events when David was put to bed, laid up with a terrible fever and sore throat, and was daily growing worse. I had asked a neighbour to attend my son but immediately they recognised that it was a strangling disease and told me to seek the help of a physician. I had no money and nothing that could be sold to pay for medical care, and I had promised myself that I would never again make use of the harridan on the fourth floor. The following morning I was woken in the early hours by choking cries. David was grasping at his throat unable to breathe. I picked him up and walked about the room in blind panic trying to loosen his garments.
It was then that a loud knocking came upon the door. The sharp taps were insistent and despite the cries of my child I was obliged to open the door. To my complete surprise, a neighbour escorted a doctor into my house explaining that he had entered the premises to enquire if anyone in the tenement knew of a mother who had had a baby recently. She told him that she knew only of one person but evidently had no idea that my baby had since died. On hearing of my loss, the doctor offered his apologies and was just about to leave when he heard the painful cries of my son.
“May I take a look at him, madam?” he asked.
I informed the doctor that I had no means to pay him, but he insisted that I need not trouble myself with such matters as he could see that my son was obviously very ill.
Upon examination, the physician revealed to me that David was suffering from diphtheria. The disease was in a heightened state and would likely lead to death if not treated immediately. I gave him my permission to act as he saw fit. He loosened the area around his neck and then proceeded to force a tube into his mouth and down his throat. At this, I could not bear to watch. He told me that the purpose of the tube was to keep the passage from closing and give enough space for the child to breathe comfortably. Within the space of minutes, David was able to breathe normally and a calmness descended upon him. I could not thank the doctor enough; and then it occurred to me to ask him how he came to call upon the tenement block, for I had assumed that he was here attending a patient.
It was then that he told me of the strange set of circumstances that had brought him to my door.
“Well, madam, it is a most peculiar tale,” he began. “Last night, I went to my solitary abode in an unusually agitated state, for which I could not account. I could not shake it off. My beloved books brought no acceptable temptation ; even my pipe was miserable comfort. A fellow is in a bad way when he loses contentment in his trusted pipe. Manifestly bed was the only place for me; so into it I got and very soon drifted off to sleep. I slept the sleep of the weary, to be woken suddenly by hearing the crash of something which sounded like a delicate thing flung from the ceiling to the floor and smashed. Then, as strange as it was, I could swear that I heard the sound of a baby crying—”
“I was appreciably startled, got up hurriedly and struck a match to find that my alarm clock had fallen off the mantel piece ; that the crystal had shattered, and that the hands pointed to 5.20 a.m. I lit the lamp, sat on the side of the bed, and wondered how that clock got off the mantelpiece—surely a particularly singular thing. I spent a half-hour’s thought upon the subject, finally getting round to the conclusion that, probably, a mouse had run across the shelf and thrown it down. As I had to get to the office at 7 a.m. I decided that I would leave earlier than usual and take a longer walk to the surgery, hoping that it would clear my senses of this disturbance. I got into my clothes, and after fooling about a short time went on down to the office.”
“Somehow I could not get rid of the idea that it really was, after all, an odd thing how that clock got off that shelf. By this time I had given over the mouse theory. For the entire duration of the walk this matter remained in my mind, so that by the time I had turned onto Phillip Street, I had worked myself into quite a state about it.”
“It was then that the strangest sight greeted me. I saw a baby lying upon the steps; it was naked and writhing around as if gasping for air. As soon as I approached it, the main door into the tenement flew open and my attention was drawn away from the child. When, again, I looked to the steps there was no trace of the infant — it had simply vanished! I came inside immediately and set to find someone who may have left the baby outside. That is when I knocked upon the door of your neighbour.”
David sits to my right playing with a toy train. He is almost recovered. The contraption has been used several times since to clear his airways and I am indebted to the kindly physician for his regular calls. Even today, he insists on not accepting a single penny for his services.
I do not hesitate to find in these events the effect of a supernatural intervention of divine providence and if it were not for the powerful and all-sustaining grace of God I would have lost a second child. It is surely this arcane working that must continue to trouble us and shake our beliefs – for each day we have so many taken from us – but it is also by His hand that I hold that of my child and in this I remain eternally thankful.