Emma shivered. The cold spell had been cruel. Very cruel. Yet the picture, framed by the window, had a stark beauty about it.
The fishing port, nestled in the valley below, was shrouded in white. Snow covered the docks and wharves, the sand flat -- Belle Island, and the hills and open moors beyond. Across the valley, the ruins of the old Benedictine abbey wore a vestal veil. Only the treacherous face of the crumbling East Cliff had escaped the winter mantle.
From the attic, Emma gazed down on the rooftops to the chimney stacks poking up from the snow like bare stumps awaiting spring, to the icicles hanging from the clay tiles resembling a line of glass organ pipes, and to the street below. White. Untrodden.
To the north, the sea was strangely still. There were no white caps on the water. No waves breaking along The Scaur. The grey sky and sea melded in a haze of mauve. There was no horizon.
Near the old lighthouse, half hidden by the pier wall, Emma could see the masts of a ship. It was moving slowly towards the fishing harbour, but it carried no sail.
A bird fluttered moth-like against the window and distracted her. It landed on the sill settling its claws into the mat of tangled snowflakes. She watched as it hopped to the end of the ledge and started pecking at the crack in the corner of the glass. She listened to it, tap-tapping on the window as if wanting to be invited in. Then she remembered the other sounds she had listened to in that room: the cough, the wheeze, the crackled breath. Now those sounds were gone and the room was silent save for the bird's beak tapping on the pane.
It regarded her, or appeared to, cocking its head from side to side. She wondered if it could see her. She thought not. Her dress was dark. Her shawl, spun from the fleece of a black sheep was even darker. And there was no lamp.
It seemed so long since the sun had warmed the town.
The bird fluffed out its rust-red chest feathers and stretched one of its wings.
Hearing the faint sound of stockinged feet padding up the staircase, she waited for the distinctive creak of the three steps outside the attic door. The latch clicked as it was lifted. The bird cocked its head and, when the door rasped on its hinges, it flew away.
She knew it was Joshua.
He moved close beside her at the window and waited for a few moments before speaking. 'Are you all right, Mama?'
'What are you looking at?'
'A ship,' she said quietly.
Joshua pressed his forehead against the glass and scanned the harbour. He could see the masts of the fishing fleet moored against the wharves, and counted several others tall ships anchored in deeper water their sails hanging lankly in the still air. To the right, three flat bottomed Whitby cats sat almost upright on the snowy sand waiting for the tide to refloat them. There would be other ships hidden by the houses, but there was no movement on the harbour.
'By the West Pier. See, the masts are moving very slowly.'
Joshua looked to the left. 'I see it. A brig, I think. Or a ketch, maybe. Hard to tell from this distance.' He slipped his hand into his mother's. 'You are cold, Mama,' he said. 'You must come downstairs. The kitchen is warm.'
'Seems strange to see a ship moving without sails,' Emma murmured.
Joshua looked at his mother. 'The men are warping her in.'
'Yes,' she whispered.
'Please, Mama, come down. Father is getting angry.' He rubbed her hand. 'Your fingers are frozen.'
'Look,' she said. 'Do you see it? On the roof near the chimney stack. A robin.'
Joshua glanced across as the bird fluttered from one sooty stack to another.
'I see him.'
They watched for a moment.
'Mama,' he said softly, 'there is nothing more you can do here.'
'I know.' Emma turned to her son and smiled. Something of her own pain was reflected in his hazel eyes. 'I will come in a moment. It will be dark soon. I must light a candle.'
'Let me do it.'
She watched as he lit the stump of tallow. Watched his movements, his easy gait, the movement of his wrist and hand. Considered his profile. How well he stood, she thought. How tall he had grown. Almost thirteen years old, and grown almost to a man.
He handed the holder to her.
The voice which bellowed up the stairwell startled them. 'Get down here, woman!'
'Mama, you must go down.'
'One last moment,' she said. Lifting her skirt, she held the candle towards the cradle nestled in the recess beside the fireplace. The flickering light wavered across the wooden headboard. The gossamer wings of the hand-painted fairies glimmered in the yellow light.
In the cot, the child lay swaddled in fresh linen. A bonnet, trimmed with white lace, framed the infant's ashen cheeks. Two bright new pennies rested on the tiny eyelids.
Leaning down, Emma loosened the bow under the baby's chin, then retied it neatly. She touched the lips. They were cold. Alabaster cold.
'Bessie! My lovely Bess!'
'Come down at once!' the voice demanded. 'Don't make me come up there to get you!'
'I hate him!' Joshua cried.
'You must not speak like that.'
His eyes were level with hers. 'But I hate him for what he does to you. It isn't right.'
'Enough, Josh! Now is not the time.'
'But he doesn't care for you!'
Emma turned towards the empty hearth and folded her arms across her chest. 'This house is cold, isn't it?'
'Please, Mama, go down. Please do what he says.'
Emma sighed. 'You go. I promise I will follow.'
The boy turned.
The top stairs groaned as Joshua stepped down slowly. Emma listened. Heard him stop for a while on the first-floor landing. Then heard his feet thumping down the bottom flight of stairs and the stairwell door close behind him.
Hot wax trickled over her fingers. The wick was almost spent. Carefully she placed the holder on the mantelshelf. The flame spluttered.
At the door, Emma stopped and looked back. Across the room the mouth of the fireplace gaped open, black and cold. Pockmarked grey cinders littered the grate and particles of white ash dotted the rug like flakes of newly fallen snow.
Emma knew it was time to leave -- to leave the cradle shrouded in the shadow. To leave the child she had failed to raise. To leave behind another splintered fragment of her life. So short. So precious.
She lifted her skirt and stepped down into the gloom. Within the stairwell the musty smell of lingering mould exuded from the faded roses peeling from the walls. Soon it would be mingled with the scent of death.
Sweet. Sour. Unforgettable.
'What have you been doing up there? Wasting time again, no doubt!'
Emma closed the door quietly.
'Now the child's dead you have no reason to go up there. You're like a rat in a barn, up and down the steps. I am sick and tired of it.'
Slipping the shawl from her shoulders, Emma folded it over the back of the chair and took an apron from the dresser drawer. The crease running down the bib and skirt was quite sharp. She must have folded it when it was still hot from the iron. As she smoothed the line with the palm of her hand she could feel his eyes on her.
'I am waiting for my tea! I am going out!'
She knew his routine well enough and knew where he went every day at this time.
'The snow is getting quite deep,' she said, not needing to look at his face to gauge his expression. 'There is a pot of broth on the stove. Sit at the table and I will get some for you.'
George shuffled from the fire where he had been toasting his back. He mumbled to himself as Emma lifted the vase of catkins from the table and slid the velvet cloth from under his elbows.
'Joshua! Put your book away and come to the table.'
From the pot, Emma ladled the broth into a china bowl. A few drops spilled and sizzled on the coals.
'Mutton,' she said, placing it on the table.
He sniffed, splayed his knees to accommodate his paunch and rested his forearms on the table.
'At least I will not need to waste any more money on medicines,' he announced, flicking the linen napkin and tucking it inside his collar. 'Dr Throstle will get nothing more from my pocket.'
''Twas only once I called the doctor.'
'Then why does he keep sending his bill!' He tore a chunk of bread from the cob and dipped it in the fluid.
'Perhaps if you would pay him...' she whispered.
George Quinlan glared as Emma tipped the contents of her bowl back into the pot. Her appetite was gone.
'You should eat something, Mama,' Joshua said.
As she lifted the kettle, she could sense her husband watching her, waiting for her to turn and look at him. But she kept her gaze to the fireplace, hiding her face, her frustrations, pain and resentment. After placing it back on the hob and moving the soup-pot away from the heat, Emma added another lump of coal to the fire.
'Didn't I tell you, that child would never thrive?' he said. 'Weakling from the start. I knew it all along.'
She knew he was goading her.
Joshua looked up at his mother. 'Are you all right, Mama?'
She nodded as she poked the fire.
'A waste of good money!' he announced.
Emma knew better than to be drawn into an argument. She dare not chance upsetting him. She could speak with Joshua when he had gone. She wanted to reassure him, tell him she was all right. She knew he was concerned.
George mopped his dish with the remaining bread. Broke the cheese into two large chunks and swilled them down with a pot of ale. After polishing the grease from his whiskers with the back of his hand, he dusted his chest, turned his chair from the table, stretched out his legs and belched loudly.
Joshua turned his face away. His cheeks were sallow. Thinner than she had ever seen them. His eyes red. The spark of youth was no longer there.
Emma fetched her husband's boots from the hall, knelt down on the mat beside the hearth and forced them over his swollen ankles. His face spoke of pain.
With the boots laced, George raised himself and stomped his feet on the floor.
Without a word, Emma fetched his coat and helped him into it, though her fingers struggled to squeeze the buttons through their matching holes.
'Have you sponged this again?'
'Only to wipe away some stains.'
'Haven't I told you before? Do not touch it! Don't you ever listen to me, woman? Can't you see you've shrunk it?'
Emma wound the knitted muffler firmly round his neck and tucked the ends under his coat lapels. She watched as he considered his figure in the hallstand mirror and slapped his hands onto his belly, signifying, as he did every morning, that he was satisfied with his reflection.
Emma opened the door and waited on the doorstep. The air was icy cold. In one hand she held his hat and gloves, in the other his walking cane.
'Do you think it wise to go out in this weather?' she asked quietly.
He looked at her scornfully but did not answer.
Snowflakes floating over the threshold melted into spots of wetness on the floor. Across the street, the gas lamp, lit earlier than usual, glowed through a halo of misty air. Seal Street's surface of grey cobbles had been replaced by a carpet of white almost six inches deep.
From the parlour, the clock chimed the half-hour.
'And I hope you don't expect me to pay for a funeral,' Quinlan added, as he stepped down the stone steps onto the street. 'Paid enough for the infant while it was alive. I'm not paying any more now that it's dead.'
Joshua's chair scraped noisily on the kitchen floor.
'Be careful not to slip,' Emma called, not expecting a reply. She got none.
As he walked awkwardly down the street, snowflakes settled on his hat and shoulders. A hungry dog sniffing at his boots received a stinging stroke of the cane for its trouble. It ran off, yelping.
Emma closed the door on the cold.
'I hate him,' Joshua said.