Chapter 9 – The “light-skinned” father …
Several months passed with no further word about the dreaded subject when, one Tuesday night, a young woman about her age or a little older was admitted to the maternity ward of the hospital. Nowadays all personal information about such patients are recorded when they attend the free pre-natal clinic; but during those times patients could just appear at the hospital with their bundle or suitcase and a file was created on the spot by the Admissions section.
The form the young woman had filled out contained the usual personal details as well as those of the child. There was a blank next to “Father’s Name,” but this was not unusual then as now, and did not affect the treatment given to the patient. After several hours of labour a baby boy of light brown complexion had been delivered to the dark-skinned young mother.
Patients spent nine days in hospital after delivery and during that period there was ample time for speculation by some members of Staff or other idle minds as to who the light-skinned father might be. None of this activity caught Matron’s attention, however, as she was serving in the Casualty Department which, to a great extent, was self-contained and the busiest area of the hospital.
It wasn’t until several weeks later, when the baby boy’s vaccination for smallpox turned “bad,”causing a high fever, that the mother and child had appeared at the Casualty Department when Matron was on duty there. Even then she took no particular notice of the case until her original informant commented to her from nearby that it seemed that “where there was smoke, there was fire,” with a nod towards the baby’s complexion.
With one look at the baby’s face she knew, with shocked certainty, that Reginald could well be the father. She forced a blank expression on her face and continued her work as if nothing had happened, but when she got off duty she went straight to Mama about her discovery, relating the incident and remarking that she had no choice now but to speak to Mr. Reg about the situation. Uncertain how to proceed, she waited until the next Sunday when he came to visit and told him that she would not be attending the service that morning but would like to speak to him about something. That day Mama went to Church, alone leaving Mr. Reg and Matron together in the small parlour.
As soon as Mama had left, Mr. Reg turned to Matron questioningly and, as was her style, she went forward immediately with the matter on her mind, starting with the question: “Do you see me as a good friend, Mr. St. John?” At his reply of: “Certainly,” she had continued with: “Then I have a question I would like to ask you. I believe it might give offense, which is not my intention, but I can’t be silent about it any longer.” At this he had said quietly: “You can ask me whatever you want to, Miss Octavia, and I assure you I could never take offense at anything coming from you.”
“Some months ago,” she had started, “someone I work with at the hospital asked me if you weren’t a friend of mine, and I asked the reason for her question? She replied that there was a rumour that your housekeeper’s daughter was expecting a baby for you. I made no comment and she dropped the subject.
“When I went home I confided in Eileen and asked if she had any knowledge of such a rumour? She replied that she also had heard it but paid it no attention, as people with “bad mind” liked to speculate about things like these. Time passed and I heard nothing more; but one evening last week, while I was working in Casualty, a young woman about my complexion brought in a brown-skinned baby with a fever, its arm inflamed from his vaccination.
“While I was attending to him my original informant again repeated a remark about ‘smoke and fire’ which caused me to look at the baby more closely. It was then that I noticed a resemblance to you – so I made up my mind to ask you about it. If you don’t care to discuss the subject with me I will have to respect your decision; and I only bring it up as a friend who cares about your good name.”
“I have been puzzled for many months now over whether I should confide in you about the dilemma in which I find myself,” Mr. Reg had started, and continued, “but I kept putting it off as I didn’t know how to broach the subject,” he had replied.
Continuing, he had related: “My housekeeper, whose daughter is the mother of the child she claims I fathered, informed me of what her daughter told her. I haven’t seen the child, but I now realize that there is a possibility that what she claims could be true. That may sound evasive, if you are unaware of the circumstances, but, without dodging responsibility I must explain my reason for the delay.”
“It is painful for me to talk about this but, many months ago while I was taking a bath, I heard the sound of movement outside in the bedroom and wondered who it could be. I had not locked the connecting door, not expecting anyone to be in my bedroom. When I got out of the tub and reached for the towel it wasn’t on the peg. Thinking I must have left it on a chair outside, I stepped through the bathroom door into the bedroom, where I saw Elaine, that’s her name, with the towel in her hand. Offended, I reached out to take it from her, but she swung around moving it out of my reach. I’m afraid I cursed her and tried to get hold of her to wrench the towel from her hand, but she jumped back, starting a little game.
“There I was, standing like a fool, stark naked, while she danced around clowning me. She had taken the precaution of locking the bedroom door, so that no one could hear anything or enter the room. I stood still, glaring at her, while she just kept up her game of teasing me. When she saw that I wouldn’t move, she jumped forward, put the towel around me and tried to dry me off while she started a sing-song taunt questioning my . . . manhood. I tried but couldn’t get rid of her and finally attacked her angrily. We became entangled and I fell into her trap . . . you know what I mean. Afterwards, I wrapped myself in the towel and chased her out of the house. She must have planned carefully for when her mother would be out, as not a soul had come in the whole time she was there carrying out what she had obviously carefully staged. When she left I went back into the bath and took another shower, dressed and went for a long walk trying to calm myself down.
“In thinking it over afterwards I cursed myself for having allowed her to outwit me and tried to figure out what might have caused her brazen action. I was certain that I had made no advances that she could have misinterpreted. I always kept her at a distance. Maybe she resented this, I don’t know; but my mother was so strict about loose behaviour that I never joked or smiled with female servants, to avoid their getting any wrong ideas. My parents would not allow indulgence in the common practice of taking advantage of servants in this way. They said that some men excuse that kind of behaviour by claiming that the women welcomed or wanted that kind of attention, but that this should never take place in our home. This girl always spoke with her mother at the gate, so there was never any need for her to enter the house – and it was the last thing I expected. Now I’m not sure what my next step should be.
“I hope you will not think badly of me for the way I have handled the situation so far, but I was caught off guard and was confused about how to sort my way out,” Mr. Reg had ended his defence.
“One thing does puzzle me somewhat, Mr. St. John,” had been Matron’s first reaction. “I don’t really understand why you have made no effort to see the child. After all, he is innocent of any wrongdoing. Neither you nor he can be blamed for what his mother did.”
“Now that you have mentioned the resemblance I will ask Miss Olivia to bring him to the house, of course,” Mr. Reg had continued. “I was uncertain before as to whether this was just a ploy on her part to claim maintenance, since there was only that one occasion . . . you know . . . and she may have been impregnated by someone else. I made certain that I was never again caught in a situation like that with her or anyone else.”
Matron spoke sympathetically to Mr. Reg, confirming that she believed him and knew he would deal with his problem in an honourable way, affirming her continued friendship but telling him that, in view of the conventions of those times, she thought it wise to protect her good name by ending their close association.
Mr. Reg, for his part, accepted the practical wisdom of her decision regarding their association, as he knew how their society tended to view young women, especially those of colour, who kept company with young men who had fathered illegitimate children. He was grateful for her understanding and generosity and told her so, then left before Mama returned from Church.
Matron gave my grandmother a synopsis of the story, once Mr. Reg had left, and she commended her mature handling of the problem. Matron confided in Mama that even though she knew she had done the right thing, she felt very sad at the thought of the change in her relationship with Mr. Reg, whom she respected and admired and whose company she enjoyed.
(Chapter 10 in next Tuesday’s issue of Amandala.)