The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity was preceded by rattling hinges and a heavy pounding at the door.
“Do be gentler, Malcolm, dear heart. The door appears ready to crumble to pieces. And if Miss Edwards is in there, she’ll be frightened out of her wits.”
“It’s doubtful she is in there, Georgina. The place barely looks habitable.” The gentleness in the deep rumble of the man’s voice would have warded off any fear – if I had cared enough to be afraid. As it was, I could barely lift my head from my damp, musty pillow.
I could hear the couple murmuring and then the creaking of the rickety stairs outside my room as they started to turn away and descend.
That first ray of light was a spiritual one. It broke into my dark, numb mind. It was a wordless prompting that made me whimper in a voice raggedy from nonuse, “I’m in here. Please don’t go!” Then, somehow, I grasped enough spirit to cough and call louder, “I am here. Please don’t go!”
“Wait! I think she’s in there.” I heard light footsteps followed by heavier footsteps. I remember the sound of the doorknob being twisted and then a thudding at the door. I felt a glimmer of relief that all was not lost after all. And then I felt no more.
I awoke to sunlight on my face. I was warm and dry and surrounded by blankets on a mattress that must have been full of the finest of feathers. I knew I wasn’t in Heaven, but for the briefest moment, I was a cat, comfortably content with no comprehension that there are dogs, distress, or death in the world – until the moment it hears the growl.
The growl was a roar of children thundering down a stairwell with excited shouts and my voice calling across a darkened gallery, “Mary Jane! Barbara! Come back. There won’t be enough prizes for everyone!” And then my hands felt the emptiness of small hands tearing away, as in their excitement Barbara and Annie joined the mob trying to fight their way to Mr. and Mrs. Fay, each child desperate for a free trinket.
The growl turned to a unison of wails in my mind, me fearfully joining a parade of weeping mothers past a display of pale, broken children. Having to peer into little faces forever frozen in fear. Hoping not to claim any as my girls.
The torrent of remembering swept through me again, and I pressed my hands over my eyes as if I could somehow stop myself from seeing my most beloved students from Wearmouth Grammar School and Seminary on my last day as a schoolteacher.
“Now, now, lass. Do stop your weeping.” A warm arm curved around my back and pulled me into an embrace. The woman rocked me as though I was a child and hummed a soothing hymn that sounded familiar. Later, I was to discover it was Henry Francis Lyte’s “Abide with Me.” My mind quieted as I focused on the motherly contralto and then on identifying the cacophony of scents she carried on her person. Predominant were the typical lemon and bergamot, with a touch of garlic and rosemary and an undertone of warm, fruity pudding – as if the woman comforting me had just left a bakery.
I opened my eyes.
“Welcome to Birmingham Hall, Miss Edwards. I am Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper. And oh, but I am glad to see you are awake. You were close to having starved yourself to death when Lord Malcolm and Lady Georgina found you.”
I vaguely remembered seeing the marquess and his wife alongside the great reverend, Charles Spurgeon, on the day of the funeral. Mrs. Longford had discretely pointed toward them and mentioned that their large estate was less than an hour’s drive from Sunderland. More vividly, I remembered thinking, ‘How can she think peerage is important enough to mention as we watch dozens of children being laid to rest?’
“The marquess and his wife found me and brought me to their home?” I whispered.
Mrs. Hudson nodded proudly, “And Lady Georgina herself has been lifting your head and spooning broth into you. Ahh. I think I hear her making her way down the hall.”
The most beautiful woman I have ever seen entered the bedroom. She wore a velvet walking suit of pale green with ivory ribbon. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes bright, as though she had just come in from outdoors. “Oh, praise our Heavenly Father! She’s awake!” Her tone was a mix of joy and relief. She rushed to the bed and leaned over me as I remained partially draped on her housekeeper’s lap. A loose chestnut curl tickled my face as she felt my forehead. “Well, Mrs. Hudson, I do believe that Miss Ivy Edwards is going to be just fine,” she announced. Then, more quietly and firmly, she addressed me. “You will be just fine. It will take some time. However, surrendering to your grief is not an alternative.”
I can still hear Lady Georgina saying those same words in her pleasingly proper voice, “You will be just fine. It will take some time. However, surrendering to your grief is not an alternative.” And my mind was to hear those three sentences ofttimes throughout my time in Durham, during my journey to London, and amidst the uncertainties I was to face while working at the Stockwell Orphanage.
For three more days, all I did was rise to use the chamber pot, eat the light meals Mrs. Hudson or one of the maids brought me, and sleep. I barely had the energy to acknowledge Lady Georgina or the doctor who listened to my lungs each afternoon. I heard him say that I should have plenty of plums, apples, and pears as soon as I had the strength to sit. Not long after, Mrs. Hudson propped me up and spooned some tart, mashed fruit into my mouth.
On the fourth day, I woke to hear a child’s voice chattering. “Barbara!” I breathed. I lunged out of bed, and walked on trembling legs across the room. “Barbara! You’re alive, after all!” I threw open the door, only to see Lady Georgina holding a small boy in her arms.
She must have seen my face fall. “Go find your brothers in the nursery, Brian.” She tousled his hair, sent him on his way, and then turned back to me.
I was doing everything I could to keep my composure with the pain of realizing again that Barbara was indeed gone from this world. Barbara had been the youngest student at the seminary at only three years of age, her father being a widowed sea captain. She had so determinedly earned merits toward the excursion to see “The Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given” as advertised by the Fays. And I had been the cursed one to approach Mrs. Longford with the idea. As the proprietress, she hadn’t thought seeing conjuring, talking waxworks, living marionettes, or “The Great Ghost Illusion” was proper. However, when I told her that entire Sunday school classes were attending, she agreed that I could take the four girls with the most merits that week, provided I would pay the penny admission fee.
I started back into the bedroom, leaning against the wall to stop my wobbles. “No, Ivy.” Lady Georgina’s tone was kind, though her words were not exactly so. “It’s time you began to earn your keep. Mrs. Hudson has some mending to be done. I will send Ada, one of the girls from the village, to help you bathe and dress. And, then, she will help you down to the kitchen. There is a cozy chair near the fireplace there.”
I nodded, not insulted in the least – just grateful someone was telling me what to do.
Little by little, I regained my strength during my second week at Birmington Hall. Swallowed by Mrs. Hudson’s large chair in the kitchen, with scissors and a thimble-holder fastened to Mrs. Hudson’s spare chatelaine so I wouldn’t keep dropping them, I would doze off mid-stitch, weak from having nearly starved during those weeks after Mrs. Longford fired me, and I had run out of money to buy food after purchasing lodgings. I had been too despondent to look for another placement. And though it is hard to admit, I looked forward to relief from my mental anguish – even if that relief was death.
One day we had an unexpected visitor in the kitchen. Lord Malcolm certainly made the vast kitchen seem smaller. He was tall and broad, quite the tallest man I had ever seen, and one of the most handsome. He carried a tiny ball of fur in his large hands. He knelt on one knee in front of my chair and offered me a smokey grey kitten, and smiled gently, his kind brown eyes almost beseeching. “Do you think you could help nurse this little fellow back to health, Miss Ivy? The boys would be so happy. They’ve already named him Pigeon.”
“They name every stray!” Mrs. Hudson’s sputter held humor. “The Birmingham barns will be overrun with cats. Please tell Ivy what nursing a kitten entails before she makes a decision.”
“Hush now, Mrs. Hudson,” Lord Malcolm grinned at his housekeeper. “You know I am trying to save you work. If Miss Ivy doesn’t agree, you are certain to be the one playing mother to Pigeon.”
Mrs. Hudson lifted her arms as though admitting a failing. “Lord Malcolm tells the truth, Ivy. I cannot resist a kitten in need. But for three weeks or so, it is a burden. Several times a day, you must feed him and then rub his stomach as a mother cat would so that he can soil until his bowels work properly. Fortunately, I still have the small bottle Doctor Thompson gave me, so you won’t have to use a milk-drenched rag to feed him.”
I set my mending to the side and reached out to take the kitten from Lord Malcolm. Instead of curling up on my lap, Pigeon stood on wobbly legs. My heart melted as the creature opened his pink mouth to make more of a baby bird sound than a meow. His eyes peeked just enough for me to see they were a beautiful hazy blue.
“He seems quite healthy to me,” Mrs. Hudson observed as Pigeon squeaked and wobbled toward my stomach.
“Oh, he is. But his mother has six other kittens, and this one is the smallest by far.” Lord Malcolm was now standing, and I was almost certain that I saw him wink at Mrs. Hudson and then her nodding almost imperceptibly, but I couldn’t be sure. I never imagined that a marquis would banter with his housekeeper. But then, I could not imagine a marquis rescuing an impoverished former school teacher who had been like the Pied Piper leading students to their death either. Immediately after that dark thought, I wondered for the first time how it was this wealthy couple from near Durham had come to find me.
“Your Grace?” I began haltingly. “How… how… What led you to come to Sunderland for me?”
The large man pulled a chair from the table and drew it near mine. “It’s not a what, but a Who. You have a Heavenly Father, whom I am just beginning to get to know myself. I hope you know He loves you – though He isn’t quite ready to bring you Home yet. In the middle of the night, in London, a great man of God, Charles Spurgeon, was awoken with the impression that one of the Sunderland school teachers affected by the calamity was in great need. He sent us a telegram asking us to check on the teachers in Sunderland and later a letter explaining more fully. However, we had already found you. The Wearmouth Seminary was our very first stop, and the unremarkable Mrs. Longford was our first interviewee.”
“But how did you find me — for Mrs. Longford did not have my address?” Just as I asked that question I realized I didn’t care to hear the answer. I couldn’t grasp that the Creator of the Universe would care about an orphaned schoolteacher who had been fired for practically leading students to their death. If God did care, why hadn’t He saved the 182 children lost in Victoria Hall? Why hadn’t He kept someone from bolting the door at the bottom of a stairwell? Why hadn’t He kept the Fays from distributing trinkets in the lower part of the auditorium? Or the children on the balcony from coveting the toys?
Lord Malcolm must have seen the change in my demeanor. He stopped mid-stream of whatever he had been saying and said, “We will talk about how we found you another time. And eventually, I hope you will talk about that day with my beloved. She was there on the balcony too, you know.”
I shook my head numbly. No, I didn’t know.
“I almost lost her that day. And Henry and Timothy.” His voice was now hoarse. His eyes beautifully sad.
‘How Lady Georgina must love this man,’ I thought as he stood up, replaced the chair, and left the kitchen after giving Mrs. Hudson a soft smile.
Then I determinedly focused on feeding Pigeon his first bottle. At least perhaps I could make certain this little grey bundle would live to see another day.
Read the next episode here:
If you read A Misplaced Beauty, you experienced The Sunderland Calamity through Georgina’s eyes and saw Charles Spurgeon come to comfort the families who had lost beloved children. Charles Spurgeon had his own dark night of depression — again and again throughout his life, sometimes for weeks at a time. His first bout of despondency occurred when he was just married a year and a new father of twins.
Spurgeon was preaching to a huge crowd in the Surrey Gardens Music Hall when a group of troublemakers began shouting that there was a fire. In panic, people trampled over others to leave the building and several were killed. Read more about it here: https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/charles-haddon-spurgeon-and-his-struggle-with-depression
I have many well-loved resources for learning about the Spurgeons’ lives, including Charles’ sermons. Two books that I highly recommend are by Ray Rhodes Jr. I think his Yours Til Heaven should be required reading for any couple going into ministry. I had so many reminders of biblical priorities in my own marriage as I read it. Here is Ray’s author page: https://www.amazon.com/stores/Ray-Rhodes-Jr./author/B07H8KQJ43
Ivy’s journey has a dark start. But then like Charles Dicken’s wrote of the Victorian era,
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”A Tale of Two Cities
As we journey with Ivy we will experience the best and the worst, the foolishness and the wisdom, the belief and nonbelief, light and darkness, and spring and winter. Prepare for mysteries along the way, a dive into Victorian life, and eventually a sweet romance.
I hope you enjoyed the first edition of The Walshwick Papers and will come back for more!
When the first Victorian serial is over, there will be a GIVEAWAY of a chatelaine reproduction necklace. To enter, comment here on my blog. Each time you ask a question, share information, or let me know you have invited a friend to my author pages, your name will be entered into the running an additional time. (https://www.facebook.com/walshmountainpublishing and https://www.amazon.com/stores/Amy-Walsh/author/B08RRLKTXT )
Here is the link to subscribe to my newsletter so that you can read each chapter of Ivy’s story as soon as they release: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/k2a9n1