Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood)


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  About this time I began to notice a change in Mary. She was often late coming to bed; and when she did come, she no longer wanted to talk. She did not hear what I said to her, but appeared to be listening to something else; and she was constantly looking out through doorways, or windows, or over my shoulder. One night when she thought I was asleep, I saw her hiding something away in a handkerchief, under the floorboard where she kept her candle-ends and matches; and when I looked the next day, she being out of the room, I found that it was a gold ring. My first thought was that she had stolen it, which would be more than she'd ever stolen before, and very bad for her if she was caught; though there was no talk in the house of a missing ring.

But she did not laugh and fun as before, nor did she attend to her work in her usual brisk manner; and I became worried. But when I questioned her, and asked if there was some trouble, she would laugh, and say she did not know where I was getting such ideas. But her smell had changed, from nutmegs to salt fish.

The snow and ice began to melt, and a few birds returned, and they began to sing and call; so I knew it would soon be spring. And one day in late March, as we were carrying the clean wash up the back stairs in baskets, to hang it in the drying room, Mary said she was ill; and she ran downstairs and out into the back yard, behind the outbuildings. I set down my basket and followed her, just as I was, without my shawl; and I found her on her knees in the wet snow near the privy, which she had not had time to reach, as she had been overcome by a violent sickness.

I helped her up, and her forehead was damp and clammy, and I said she should be put to bed; but at that she became angry, and said it was something she'd eaten, it must have been yesterday's mutton stew, and now she was rid of it. But I'd eaten the very same thing myself, and felt perfectly well. She made me promise not to speak of it, and I said I would not. But when the same thing happened a few days later, and then again the next morning, I was truly alarmed; for I had seen my own mother in that condition very often, and I knew the milky smell of it; and I was well aware of what was wrong with Mary.

I thought it over, and turned it this way and that in my mind; and towards the end of April I taxed her with it, and swore very solemnly that if she would confide in me, I would not tell; for I believed she was in great need of confiding in someone, as she was restless at night, and had dark circles beneath her eyes, and was oppressed by the burden of her secret. Then she broke down and cried, and said my suspicions were all too true; and the man had promised to marry her, and had given her a ring, and for once in a way she'd believed him, as she'd thought he was not like other men; but he'd gone back on his promise, and now would not speak with her; and she was in despair and did not know what to do.

I asked her who the man was, but she would not tell me; and she said that as soon as it was known what sort of trouble she was in, she would be turned away, as Mrs. Alderman Parkinson held very strict views; and then what would happen to her? Some girls in her place would have gone back to their families, but she had none; and now no decent man would marry her, and she would have to go on the streets, and become a sailors' drab, as she would have no other way of feeding herself and the baby. And such a life would soon be the end of her.

I was very distressed on her behalf, and also on mine, for she was the truest and indeed the only friend I had in the world. I comforted her the best way I could, but I did not know what to say.

Throughout the month of May, Mary and I frequently talked about what she should do. I said there must be a workhouse or something of the sort that would take her in, and she said she knew of none, but even so, if young girls went to any such place they always died, as they got fever as soon as they were delivered; and she believed the babies in such places were secretly smothered, so as not to be a charge on the public purse; and she would sooner take her chances of dying elsewhere. We talked about some way of delivering the baby ourselves, and keeping it quiet, and giving it away as an orphan; but she said her condition would soon begin to show; and Mrs. Honey had very sharp eyes, and had already remarked that Mary was putting on flesh, and she could not hope to go long undetected.

I said she should try one last time to speak with the man in question, and appeal to his better nature. And she did so; but when she returned from the interview--which must have taken place nearby, as she was not gone long--she was angrier than she had ever been. She said he'd given her five dollars; and she'd said was that all his child was worth to him? And he said she would not catch him that way, and he doubted that it was even his own child, since she'd been so obliging with him, that he suspected she had been so for others; and if she threatened him with a scandal, or went to his family, he would deny it, and ruin whatever reputation she had left; and if she wanted a quick end to her troubles she could always drown herself.

She said she had once truly loved him, but did so no longer; and she threw the five dollars on the floor, and cried passionately for an hour; but I noticed her putting the money carefully away, under the loose board, afterwards.

The next Sunday she said she would not go to church, but for a walk by herself; and when she came back, she said she'd gone down to the harbour with the idea of throwing herself into the lake, and putting an end to her life. And I begged her with tears not to do such a wicked thing.

Two days later she said she'd been over to Lombard Street, and had heard there of a doctor who could help her; he was the doctor that the whores went to, when they needed it. I asked her in what way he might help, and she said I shouldn't ask; and I did not know what she meant, having never heard of such doctors. And she asked if I would lend her my savings, which amounted at that time to three dollars, which I'd been intending for a new summer dress. And I said I would lend it to her with all my heart.

She then brought out a piece of writing paper, which she'd obtained from the library downstairs, and a pen and ink, and she wrote: If I die, my things are to go to Grace Marks. And she signed it with her name. And then she said, Soon I may be dead. But you will still be alive. And she gave me a cold and resentful look, such as I'd seen her give to others behind their backs, but never to me.

I was much alarmed at this, and clutched her hand, and begged her not to go to this doctor, whoever he might be; but she said she must, and I was not to carry on, but I must put the pen and ink back secretly on the writing desk in the library, and go about my duties; and tomorrow she would steal away after the midday meal, and I was to say if asked that she'd just gone out to the privy, or that she was up in the drying room, or any excuse that came into my head; and then I was to slip away and join her, as she might be in difficulties coming home.

Neither one of us slept well that night; and the next day she did as she said she would, and managed to leave the house without detection, with the money knotted up in her handkerchief; and I followed soon after, and joined her. The doctor lived in a large-enough house, in a good neighbourhood. We went in by the servants' entrance; and the doctor himself met us. The first thing he did was to count the money. He was a big man in a black coat, and looked at us very severely; and he told me to wait in the scullery, and then said that if I told anything about it, he would deny ever having seen me. Then he took off his frock coat and hung it on a hook, and began rolling up his shirtsleeves, as if for a fight.

He looked very similar, Sir, to the head-measuring doctor that frightened me into a fit, just before you came here.

Mary went with him out of the room, her face as white as a sheet; and then I heard screams, and crying, and after a time the doctor pushed her in through the scullery door. Her dress was all damp, and clinging to her like a wet bandage, and she could scarcely walk; and I put my arms around her, and assisted her away from that place as best I could.

When we reached the house she was bent nearly double and holding her hands to her stomach; and said would I help her upstairs. Which I did, and she seemed very weak. I put her into her nightdress and into the bed, and she kept her petticoat on, crumpled up between her legs. And I asked her what had happened, and she said the doctor took a knife to her, and cut something inside; and he said there would be pain and bleeding, and it would last some hours, but that after this she would be all right again. And she'd given a false name.

It began to dawn on me that what the doctor had cut out of her was the baby, which I thought a most wicked thing; but I also thought it was either one corpse that way or two the other, because if not, she would certainly have drowned herself; so I could not find it within my heart to reproach her.

She was in great pain, and in the evening I warmed a brick and carried it upstairs; but she would not let me fetch anyone. And I said I would sleep on the floor, as she would be more comfortable that way; and she said I was the best friend she ever had, and that whatever happened she would never forget me. I rolled myself up in my shawl, with my apron for a pillow, and lay down on the floor, which was very hard; and what with that, and with Mary's groans of agony, I could not sleep at first. But after a time it grew quieter, and I fell asleep, and did not wake up until daybreak. And when I did, there was Mary, dead in the bed, with her eyes wide open and staring.

I touched her, but she was cold. I stood stock-still with fear; but then I roused myself, and went along the hall, and woke Agnes the chambermaid, and fell into her arms weeping; and she said, Whatever is the matter? I could not speak, but took her by the hand, and led her into our room, to where Mary was. Agnes laid hold of her, and shook her by the shoulder; and then she said, Good heavens, she is dead.

And I said, Oh Agnes, what shall I do? I did not know she was going to die, and now they will blame me, for not telling sooner that she was taken ill; but she made me promise not to. And I was sobbing, and wringing my hands.

Agnes lifted the bedcovers and looked beneath. The nightdress and petticoat were soaked through with blood, and the sheet was all red with it, and brown where it had dried. She said, This is a bad business, and she told me to stay there, and she went at once to fetch Mrs. Honey. I heard her footsteps going away, and it seemed to me she was gone a long time.

I sat on the chair in our room and looked at Mary's face; her eyes were open, and I could feel her looking back at me out of the corners of her eyes. I thought I saw her move, and I said, Mary, are you pretending? For she sometimes pretended she was dead, behind the sheets in the drying room, to frighten me. But she was not pretending.

Then I heard two sets of footsteps hurrying along the passage, and I was filled with dread. But I stood up. And Mrs. Honey came into the room; she did not look sad, she looked angry, and also disgusted, as if she could smell a bad smell. And there was indeed a smell in the room; it was the smell of wet straw, from the mattress, and also the salty smell of blood; you can smell something very similar in a butcher's shop.

And Mrs. Honey said, This is an outrage and a disgrace, I must go and tell Mrs. Parkinson. And we waited, and Mrs. Alderman Parkinson came, and said, Under my own roof, what a deceitful girl. And she looked straight at me, although she was talking about Mary. Then she said, Why did you not inform me of this, Grace? And I said, Please Ma'am, Mary told me not to. She said she would be better in the morning. And I started to cry, and I said, I did not know she was going to die!

Agnes, who was very pious as I have told you, said The wages of sin is death.

Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said, That was wicked of you, Grace, and Agnes said, She is only a child, she is very obedient, she was just doing as she was told.

I thought Mrs. Alderman Parkinson would scold her for interfering, but she did not. She took hold of my arm gently, and looked into my eyes, and said, Who was the man? The scoundrel should be exposed, and made to pay for his crime. I suppose it was some sailor, down at the harbour, they have no more conscience than a flea. Do you know, Grace?

I said, Mary did not know any sailors. She was seeing a gentleman, and they were engaged. Only he broke his promise, and would not marry her.

And Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said sharply, What gentleman?

I said, Please Ma'am, I don't know. Only she said you would not like it at all, if you found out who it was.

Mary had not said this, but I had my own suspicions.

At that Mrs. Alderman Parkinson looked thoughtful, and paced to and fro the length of the room; and then she said, Agnes and Grace, we will not discuss this further, as it will only lead to unhappiness and added misery, and there is no sense in crying over spilt milk; and out of respect to the dead we will not say what Mary died of. We will say it was a low fever. That will be best for all.

And she looked at both of us very hard, and we curtsied. And all the time Mary was there on the bed, listening to us, and hearing about our plans to tell these lies about her; and I thought, She will not be easy in her mind about it.

I didn't say anything about the doctor, and they did not ask. Perhaps they didn't even consider such a thing. They must have thought it was only a lost baby, as women frequently have; and that Mary had died of it, as women frequently did. And you are the first person I have told about the doctor, Sir; but it is my true belief that it was the doctor that killed her with his knife; him and the gentleman between them. For it is not always the one that strikes the blow, that is the actual murderer; and Mary was done to death by that unknown gentleman, as surely as if he'd taken the knife and plunged it into her body himself.

Mrs. Alderman Parkinson left the room, and after a while Mrs. Honey came, and said we were to take the sheet from the bed, and her nightdress and petticoat, and wash the blood out of them; and wash the body, and take the mattress to be burnt, and see to it ourselves; and there was another mattress cover beside where the quilts were stored, and we could stuff that with straw; and we were to fetch a clean sheet. She asked if there was another nightdress for Mary to be dressed in, and I said there was, because Mary had two; but the other one was in the wash. Then I said I would give her one of mine. She said we were not to tell anyone of Mary's death until we'd got her looking presentable, with the quilt pulled up over her and her eyes closed, and her hair combed down and tidy. Then she went out of the room, and Agnes and myself did as she said; and Mary was light to lift, but heavy to arrange.

Then Agnes said, There is more to this than meets the eye, and I wonder who the man was. And she looked at me. And I said, Whoever he is, he is still alive and well, and most likely enjoying his breakfast at this very moment, and not having any thoughts in his head about poor Mary, no more than if she was a carcass hung up at the butcher's.

Agnes said, It is the curse of Eve which we must all bear, and I knew Mary would have laughed at that. And then I heard her voice, as clear as anything, right in my ear, saying Let me in. I was quite startled, and looked hard at Mary, who by that time was lying on the floor, as we were making up the bed. But she gave no sign of having said anything; and her eyes were still open, and staring up at the ceiling.

Then I thought with a rush of fear, But I did not open the window. And I ran across the room and opened it, because I must have heard wrong and she was saying Let me out. Agnes said, What are you doing, it's cold as an icicle out there, and I said The smell is making me sick. And she agreed that the room should be aired. I was hoping Mary's soul would fly out the window now, and not stay inside, whispering things into my ear. But I wondered whether I was too late.

Finally we had all done, and I bundled the sheet and the nightdress together and took them down to the laundry, and pumped a tub full of cold water, because it's the cold water you need to get out the blood, as the hot will set it. By good fortune the laundress was not in the laundry but in the main kitchen, heating the irons for the ironing, and gossiping with Cook. And I scrubbed, and much of the blood came out, making the water all red; and I ran that down the drain and pumped another tubful, and left the things to soak, with some vinegar poured in to help with the smell. Whether from the cold or the shock, my teeth by now were chattering; and as I ran back up the stairs I felt quite dizzy.

Agnes had been waiting in the room with Mary, all nicely laid out now with her eyes closed as if sleeping, and her hands crossed on her breast. I told Agnes what I'd done, and she sent me to tell Mrs. Alderman Parkinson that all was ready. And I did, and went back upstairs, and pretty soon here came the servants to see, crying some of them, and sad-faced, as was fitting; but still there is always a strange excitement around a death, and I could see that the blood was flowing more strongly through their veins than on ordinary days.

Agnes did the talking, and said it was a sudden fever, and for a woman as pious as she was, she lied very well; and I stood by Mary's feet, keeping silent. And one said, Poor Grace, to wake up in the morning and find her cold and stark in the bed beside you, with no warning at all. And another said, It makes your flesh creep to think of it, my own nerves would never stand it.

Then it was as if that had really happened; I could picture it, the waking up with Mary in the bed right beside me, and touching her, and finding she would not speak to me, and the horror and distress I would feel; and at that moment I fell to the floor in a dead faint.

They said I lay like that for ten hours, and no one could wake me, although they tried pinching and slapping, and cold water, and burning feathers under my nose; and that when I did wake up I did not seem to know where I was, or what had happened; and I kept asking where Grace had gone. And when they told me that I myself was Grace, I would not believe them, but cried, and tried to run out of the house, because I said that Grace was lost, and had gone into the lake, and I needed to search for her. They told me later they'd feared for my reason, which must have been unsettled by the shock of it all; and it was no wonder, considering.

Then I fell again into a deep sleep. When I woke, it was a day later, and I knew again that I was Grace, and that Mary was dead. And I remembered the night we'd thrown the apple peelings over our shoulders, and Mary's had broken three times; and it had all come true, as she had not married anyone at all, and now never would.

But I had no memory of anything I said or did during the time I was awake, between the two long sleeps; and this worried me.

And so the happiest time of my life was over and gone.
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Excerpted from Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1996 by Margaret Atwood. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.