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The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922)
by May Sinclair

Chapter XV

FE Index MS Index

THE door of the specialist's house had shut      [FE]   [MS]
behind them with a soft, respectful click.
  Lizzie Pierce and Harriett sat in the
taxi-cab, holding each other's hands.
Harriett spoke.
  'He says I've got what Mamma had.'
  Lizzie blinked away her tears; her
hand loosened and tightened on Harriett's
with a nervous clutch.
  Harriett felt nothing but a strange,
solemn excitement and exaltation. She was
raised to her mother's eminence in pain.
With every stab she would live again in her
mother. She had what her mother had.
  Only she would have an operation. This
different thing was what she dreaded, the        [FE]
thing her mother hadn't had, and the going
away into the hospital, to live exposed
in the free ward among other people.
That was what she minded most. That and
leaving her house, and Maggie's leaving.
  She cried when she saw Maggie standing
at the gate in her white apron as the taxi-
cab took her away. She thought, 'When
I come back again she won't be there.'
Yet somehow she felt that it couldn't
happen; it was impossible that she should               [MS]
come back and not find Maggie there.

  She lay in her white bed in the white-
curtained cubicle. Lizzie was paying for
the cubicle. Kind Lizzie. Kind. Kind.
  She wasn't afraid of the operation. It
would happen in the morning. Only
one thing worried her. Something Connie          [FE]
had told her. Under the anaesthetic you
said things. Shocking, indecent things.
But there wasn't anything she could say.
She didn't know anything.... Yes.
She did. There were Connie's stories.
And Black's Lane. Behind the dirty
blue palings in Black's Lane.
  The nurses comforted her. They said
if you kept your mouth tight shut, up to
the last minute before the operation, if you
didn't say one word you were all right.
  She thought about it after she woke in
the morning. For a whole hour before
the operation she refused to speak, nodding
and shaking her head, communicating by
gestures. She walked down the wide
corridor of the ward on her way to the
theatre, very upright in her white flannel
dressing-gown, with her chin held high           [FE]   [MS]
and a look of exaltation on her face.
There were convalescents in the corridor.
They saw her. The curtains before some
of the cubicles were parted; the patients
saw her; they knew what she was going
to. Her exaltation mounted.
  She came into the theatre. It was all
white. White. White tiles. Rows of
little slender knives on a glass shelf, under
glass, shining. A white sink in the
corner. A mixed smell of iodine and
ether. The surgeon wore a white coat.
Harriett made her tight lips tighter.
  She climbed on to the white enamel
table, and lay down, drawing her dressing-
gown straight about her knees. She had
not said one word.
  She had behaved beautifully.                   [FE]

  The pain in her body came up, wave  
after wave, burning. It swelled, tighten-
ing, stretching out her wounded flesh.
  She knew that the little man they
called the doctor was really Mr Hancock.
They oughtn't to have let him in. She
cried out, 'Take him away. Don't let him                [MS]
touch me '; but nobody took any notice.
  'It isn't right,' she said. 'He oughtn't
to do it. Not to any woman. If it was
known he would be punished.'
  And there was Maggie by the curtain,
  'That's Maggie. She's crying because
she thinks I killed her baby.'
  The ice-bag laid across her body stirred
like a live thing as the ice melted, then
it settled and was still. She put her hand       [FE]
down and felt the smooth, cold oilskin
distended with water.
  'There's a dead baby in the bed. Red
hair. They ought to have taken it away,'
she said. 'Maggie had a baby once.
She took it up the lane to the place where
the man is; and they put it behind the
palings. Dirty blue palings.
  . . . Pussycat. Pussycat, what did you
there? Pussy. Prissie. Prissiecat. Poor
Prissie. She never goes to bed. She can't
get up out of the chair.'
  A figure in white, with a stiff white
cap stood by the bed. She named it,
fixed it in her mind. Nurse. Nurse
that was what it was. She spoke to it.
  'It's sadsad to go through so much pain
and then to have a dead baby.'                          [MS]
  The white curtain walls of the cubicle         [FE]
contracted, closed in on her. She was
lying at the bottom of her white-curtained
nursery cot. She felt weak and diminished,
small, like a very little child.
  The front curtains parted, showing the
blond light of the corridor beyond. She
saw the nursery door open and the light
from the candle moved across the ceiling.
The gap was filled by the heavy form,
the obscene yet sorrowful face of Connie
  Harriett looked at it. She smiled with
a sudden ecstatic wonder and recognition.
  ' Mamma--'

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