Good Reading : August 2001
bookbites Extract from In the Shadows by Margaret Scott (Vintage) Tasmanian poet Margaret Scott acquired cult status following her appearances as a panellist on Good News Week. Now one of her earlier novels, originally published as The Baby Farmer has been re-issued. Based on sinister real life events that emerged during a murder trial in the 1870s, it is a story of crime and greed in the Victorian tradition. come as a great shock to you. But if you are to help me in my trouble, I must speak.’ ‘Has this any connection with any member of my household?’ ‘I ‘It has, but you may be shocked to learn which member it is I mean.’ ‘Why did you leave our service? Were you wrongly dismissed?’ ‘I was not dismissed! I was not dismissed! I was given fifty pounds and smuggled away from sight. Did you never guess the truth? Did you never suspect?’ For a full minute Stephen sat quite motionless. Scenes and fragments of scenes rushed violently into his mind. He recalled the raised voices behind closed doors that he had heard when the pretty French governess left the house without warning; his mother’s decline into gentle obsession with headaches and health cures his father’s absences from home, and the sound of muffled laughter on the landings. His father’s image, massive, hard and glossy, with waxed moustache and a flower in his coat, came vividly before him. He saw the Colonel smoothing the nap on his hat with his sleeve, twirling his cane, bending his head to sniff the carnation in his button-hole. Stephen’s sense of outrage was curiously sharpened by the realisation that his father had never for an instant invited the complicity of his only son. Not by a nudge or a wink, by a sly joke or an invitation to his club had he ever suggested that his son should join with him in what he clearly saw as the proper affairs of manhood. ‘Are you telling me that you left our house because you 56 were with child by my father?’ ‘It’d come to the point where I thought everyone could see. I was over four months gone when he packed me off. Mr Triffitt knew and all the others, of course. Daisy and Sarah had enough trouble with him themselves.’ ‘It is incredible! It is abominable!’ ‘Your poor mother would have known too, I’m sure. But she never seemed to look at me. She’d go by me like this, with her hand always pressed against her head.’ ‘Let me think when this was. It is beyond belief that I could be so blind.’ ‘You were hardly there at all, sir, as it happens. I fell in the February when you were up at Cambridge. Then at Easter you went Scotland, I think it was. In the June you were home for a day or two but after you went away with Mr Sherwood.’ ‘That was to a reading party at Grasmere.’ ‘I dare say. But even if you’d been there, sir, I don’t think have something to tell you,’ said Martha in a low earnest voice, ‘which I do not think you can know and which may I’d have spoken. You were always good and kind, but we all knew you were strict in your ways. And in any case, it would hardly have been the thing. It does a girl no good to stir up trouble like that. I might have been pitched out with a flea in my ear and no fifty pounds if I’d made a row.’ ‘It’s intolerable,’ cried Stephen, jumping up and beginning to pace the floor. ‘The house is vile. A sink of iniquity. An open sewer, poisoning, violating my mother and sister. My father is a lecher and a tyrant. Did he give you no thought? Care nothing? Do nothing?’ ‘Well, he couldn’t do too much, you see, sir. He lives a bit beyond his means really. That’s why I didn’t go before. He’d tell me to wait a bit, that something would turn up. I think he meant to do more, but he gambles a lot, you see.’ ‘Gambles! Gambles!’ cried Stephen. ‘I have heard nothing of this. Nothing, nothing at all. Are you saying that my father is totally profligate, totally without a vestige of moral scruple or Christian feeling?’ ‘Well, he’s not such a bad man really. He’s more weak than anything else. He can’t seem to help himself. And I think he feels the shame too, sir.’ ‘It is filthy! It is disgusting! It is pitiful and vile! I feel myself infected by such blood. How can I honour the man as I am bidden to do? How can I forgive such foul, foul sin?’ ‘I would like to go on, if you don’t mind, sir. I haven’t come yet to the real trouble.’ ‘Can there be more? Can anything be more monstrous than what you have already disclosed?’ ‘Please sit down, sir. I’ll tell it all in order if you don’t mind so that you can understand. Well by July, you see, it couldn’t be hidden much longer, so the Colonel gave me the money and found me a place to stay in Gloucestershire. It was in a cottage with a gamekeeper and his wife. He paid them too, I suppose. It was nice there. I helped Mrs Green with the children and did a bit on the home farm. Then in November the baby was born.’ ‘The child!’ cried Stephen, looking wildly round. ‘Where is the child?’ ‘That’s just it. That’s it.’ Martha leaned her head on her hands and began to sob. At once, Stephen came to her again and tried to pull her hands away from her face. ‘Be calm. Be calm. You must tell me all.’ ‘Mrs Green saw to me all through my time and I hoped we might be able to stay on there. But the money stopped, I should think, and they couldn’t manage. I still had most of the fifty pounds left then, so I came back to London and wrote a ?