Madeline had been coming to see me for almost 12 months by then. I appreciated her trust and she my candour. I managed to impress upon her my belief that a woman’s monthly blood loss was a natural phenomenon, ascribed by nature, and in no way inferring weakness or relating to her state of mental health: a merely biological function. In my work at the apothecary I had come to believe that women were in no way inferior to men, but could think and reason as well as any man I had met. It was this belief, and Madeline’s eagerness, that persuaded me to train her in the apothecary’s art. In secret, of course. I had no son to pass my business on to and my apprentice, Edgar, was a lazy dullard.
She came onthe pretext of having women’s ailments, and this was true as far as it went. I had my own herbal preparation of St John’s Wort, Evening Primrose and Feverfew, infused and taken as a tisane, that eased the pain of menses, and it became quite popular with the ladies of the district. Madeline took a keen interest in the herbs and flowers of my trade and would walk with me on my trips to the physic garden. As a widower, it harmed me no great deal to walk with a lady, but as a woman her reputation could be marred, so were careful to avoid the public glare, and became more clandestine with our meetings.
I enjoyed explaining my craft to someone who took an interest and who showed exceptional skill in grinding and blending herbs and flowers into healing concoctions. I began to rely on Madeline as my assistant and took less interest in what Edgar was up to and by turn he was happy to be side-lined, still getting his food and lodging for doing nothing more than running a few errands.
The moment when I realised I loved Madeline is unclear to me now. She became indispensable – a friend and confidant- very quickly; we became lovers a little later on. How I rued the fact that she was a married women, but alas, there was nothing to be done. She was sure her husband would not countenance divorce, even based on her adultery, or any other cause, and I was sure he would ruin me if he knew.
When Madeline was away I longed for her companionship; at night I would dream of her. I have no idea what she saw in me: Josiah Miller, bland, balding and middle-aged – for I was 30 by then. I knew her passion for me was ardent and her desire to be parted from her husband equally intense, but I never understood how desperate that longing really was.
The penultimate time I saw her, I might have said she was somewhat mad, but she was calm and focused and displayed none of the symptoms of hysteria. She was grinding the pestle hard into the mortar with the vigour of youth, her hips swaying hypnotically in that way of hers which I found irresistible. I stood behind her and wrapped my arms around her insubstantial form, squeezing her lightly. She rebuffed me, but only gently.
‘Josiah my love, let me finish this potion for my dear husband.’
‘What ails him Madeline? Would you like me to assist you?
She was sharp in her retort, and pushed me away with her eyes as well as her voice.
‘I have it organised well enough, Josh. Am I not your competent apprentice?’
I could only agree, for she had learnt much of the skill in only one year that had taken me five. She added liquid to her powdered compound and carefully blended the mixture. She took a plain brown bottle from her skirt pocket, ignoring the stock of them on the shelf, and perched the funnel in its short neck, holding it firmly whilst she judiciously poured the substance in. She stoppered the bottle with a cork and rammed it home with the handheld corking press. Wiping her hands down her sides, and removing her apron. She seemed pleased with her work.
‘That will sort him out good and proper’
She smiled at me fondly as she placed her finished concoction on the end of the bench.
We made love then, in my small bedroom above the shop, and I implored her not to go for the hundredth time. As she parted from me that evening she whispered in my ear that we would be together one day soon, and I thrilled with excitement at the thought of it, though in considering her words I knew not how they could come to pass.
I was at the hospital a great deal the following day and my customers had to do without me. When I arrived home, well after 4, I expected to see Madeline within the hour, for she kept a keen eye on my comings and goings through her house boy John. A rattle at the back door roused me, but it was only Edgar. He seemed agitated.
‘Sir, Sir. Mr Miller, Sir. You must come, quickly’
‘What is up with you boy?’
‘It’s the missus, sir. A policeman has come to arrest her.’
‘What are you talking about, Edgar Anderson?
‘Missus Smith, Sir. The policeman has come to take her to the jail’
I tried to stand then, but my legs gave way under me. Edgar held me up, his hand underneath my armpit, but I was too shocked to stand. I sat back down. The lad made me a draught and I tried to wrack my brains about what was happening and what to do.
I have never forgiven myself for the impotence of that moment. In truth I’m not sure what I could have done, but I should have done something.
The last time I saw Madeline Smith was at the gallows. There was no one to witness her end and I bribed my way into the new prison’s hanging shed. There was a constable, two warders, a priest, the sheriff and I. No friends or family to mourn her demise. She was calm. She even tried to smile at me. I said nothing. Acknowledged nothing. I could barely contain my grief and it took all my willpower not to breakdown.
It is 3 weeks hence. No constabulary officer has darkened my threshold as I feared. The papers carry the news that Madeline poisoned her husband’s cocoa and killed him dead. It also says that she carried a child. A boy. I believe he would have been my son. And now she is dead. And he is dead too. She used the skill I taught her to end my rival, and for my part I am in purgatory.
I do not know what lies beyond this world, but my only hope lies in this little brown bottle. I press it to my lips and pray that we may be together in the end.