Hattie Morley's Difficult Leg

This is one of a series of short stories I had intended to record as a Podcast. Then I went and lost my voice, which is now reduced, temporarily, I hope, to a frog-like croak. So, Plan B, post them here. At some point, maybe, the voice will get better and I'll be able to go back to Plan A.

Hattie Morley’s Difficult Leg is a very old story, variations of which have probably been told ever since early cave dwellers first returned from the hunt with body parts missing.

Henry Morley lost both of his parents and an older brother when the Royal Adelaide was wrecked on the Tongue Sands, off Margate. This was, of course, a terrible tragedy, but it did make Henry, at the age of 23, a very wealthy man. He inherited the flourishing family business - Morley’s Fancy Brass - and a fine house in Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, just by the Bradford Arms. He had twelve servants, four horses in his stable and was driven to and from his factory in a barouche that had previously belonged to Viscount Daventry. You could still see the outline of his lordship’s coat-of-arms on the door where it had been painted over.

Less than a year after he lost his family, Henry fell in love with Hattie Catchpole, a lovely girl from Sutton Coldfield and she fell in love with him. The following June they got married.

Henry had a fierce heart and when he loved he loved with all his might and main. He’d do anything for Hattie. She became a noted Birmingham hostess who threw twinkling parties and charmed everybody. Twice she hosted charity balls for the orphans at the Town Hall attended by the landed gentry of six counties. She was a magnificent and tireless dancer who made even the most clay-footed partner look graceful.

This of course did Henry a lot of good. It brought business his way and influence. He got in on the ground floor of galvanisation and set up a factory in Lozells, then another making galvanised buckets in Nechells. For a time he pretty much cornered the market in Indian zinc.

Then a terrible thing happened. In the cold snap of 1858, Hattie slipped on some ice, fell down a bank and over a wall and broke her leg in three places. The surgeon did his best to set it, bound it tight and told her to take plenty laudanum for the pain. But a corruption set in. After a week, the leg had started to smell. When the surgeon took the bindings off he saw that it had turned black. He said that if they were going to avoid blood poisoning there was no time to lose, lay Hattie on the kitchen table, dosed her up with chloroform, went to work with his scalpel and saw, and had the leg off, cauterised, sewn up and bandaged in less than four minutes.

Hattie healed well and within six months was hopping around on crutches. She never went out, though. She said couldn’t abide the pity. The contrast between what she had been and what she’d become was too burdensome and too sudden. No matter how hard they tried, people did wince when they saw her, and when they thought her back was turned they would she silently mouth ‘Poor thing’ at each other. You don’t have to be unusually proud for that sort of thing to get you down. She didn’t want to go out and she didn’t want visitors coming to the house. The only person she wanted to see, other than Henry and the doctor, was Dora, her maid, who’d nursed her since the accident and kept her company and to whom she was particularly fond.

Henry went to see a man in Deritend who made wooden legs. He recommended that Hattie would be best off starting with something basic, like a peg-leg, and see how she got on with that before trying anything more complicated. He took measurements and carved her a peg out of some beautifully grained walnut.

For a while it brought hope. Hattie practiced hard with the ped and was eventually able to take several steps and to turn around without falling over. But the straps rubbed and the cup, lined with cork and leather, irritated her stump. They tried wrapping the straps and lining the cup with first linen, then cotton, wool and silk, but none of them made any difference.

The man in Deritend said that perhaps they should have gone for a more sophisticated design from the off. He recommended the Anglesey leg, so called because it was originally designed for the Marquess of Anglesey when his own leg was blown off at Waterloo. The Anglesey leg, the man in Deritend said, was constructed with a close understanding of balance and human anatomy. The flexible knee and ankle joints would help relieve the pressure on the cup and straps, especially if used in conjunction with an ointment containing oxyquinoline sulphate.

Hattie tried even harder with the Anglesey leg. She wore it uncomplaining every day, walked around the bedroom and even in the garden. .

But, after ten days of this, Dora, the maid, told Henry it would have to stop. The mistress wasn’t saying anything because she wanted it to work so badly, but the straps had raised weals and scabs on her sensitive skin and some of them had turned to abscesses.

The doctor was called again. He treated Hattie’s abscesses and told her she should stop using the leg.

This put Hattie in a terrible gloom. She was condemned, it seemed, to the life of a reclusive invalid. Some days she wouldn’t get out of bed or speak to anybody except the odd 'Yes' and 'No'. She wouldn’t eat.

People, Henry knew, could die of melancholy. He was desperate.

At a Civic Reception in the Town Hall, Henry came across a retired Major who’d lost a leg during the Khasi Wars in Northern India. He limped, but otherwise seemed quite nimble and when Henry told him about his ailing wife was glad to roll up his trousers and show off what he called his 'magic leg'. He, too, had tried the Anglesey and experienced the same problems as Hattie - the weals and abscesses and so on. Then he’d discovered a chap called Montague in Bond Street, London, who really knew his business, understood the importance of the big toe and used all sort of clever chemical processes which made the supporting structures lighter and stronger. On top of that he used the wool of the vicuna - the finest and softest in the world - for all the padding.

Excited, Henry made further enquiries and learned that Mr Montague was indeed the top false leg man in Europe and possibly the world. He’d made limbs for the crowned heads of Europe including the poor Czarevich of Georgia who had been born (the result many said of inbreeding) without any legs at all.

Henry took the railway to London and found the shop in Bond Street, hung with arms, legs, hands and noses of many designs all exquisitely fashioned. Some were of ebony, intricately inlaid with silver. Others of sandalwood and cedarwood, arranged in marquetry designs and delicately scented.

Mr Montague listened sympathetically to Henry’s tale. He told him - as if Henry didn’t already know - that his wife’s rare sensitivity was evidence of a precious and beautiful soul. Only a device fashioned with a true understanding of that soul would work. He showed Henry several designs: some looked like real legs, others were variations on the general theme of ‘leg’ rendered in the classical or gothic style.

Henry picked one of the real-looking ones and was told what the cost would be. He’d have to sell off two of the horses from his stables but it would be worth it. Montague also reassured him that if the leg failed to give full satisfaction, he’d refund every penny that Henry was paying.

They waited a month for delivery, and then a week to discover that the new leg was no better than the others. Dora reported that the abscesses were back.

Montague was as good as his word and refunded the money. He declared that Hattie’s was a rare case indeed. Only once had he come across a soul of such sensitivity and that was Augusta, Princess of Württemberg. A long process of experimentation in that case had resulted in the discovery that only one substance in the world could be put next to her skin without irritation resulting, and that substance was gold.

Accordingly he had made her a leg of solid gold.

'And could she walk?' Henry asked.

'The weight of the thing made any sort of movement impossible, but she could stand. And that, somehow was enough. The beauty of the leg brought the roses back to her cheeks and the light back to her eyes. She would sit on her throne, in skirts slightly shorter than is customary, gleefully receiving visitors all of whom stole glances at her ankle more admiring than any bestowed on her real ankles when she’d had them, or indeed anybody else’s real ankles.

Henry enquired about the price. God, he thought, even a princess would have had trouble raising that sort of money, but if there was a chance that the golden leg could bring the roses to Hattie’s cheeks and the light back to her eyes, then, somehow, the money would be found.

He had a little land that a local builder had expressed an interest in. He sold the other two horses and the barouche. He let all the servants go except those essential to survival. He sold the house and bought a smaller one in Erdington village. Most painful of all, he sold a majority interest in his fancy brass and galvanisation businesses. Henry loved his wife very much.

The leg came. Hattie was immediately entranced. As Mr. Montague had predicted, she could not walk with it, but, with help from Dora, she could stand.

The new house wasn’t as big as the old one, but it did have sizeable garden and they could just about afford to keep the gardener on part-time. He did a wonderful job and the lawn looked a treat. When the summer warmed up, Hattie asked to be taken outside. She sat in a great basket chair, her gold leg propped on an ottoman, glinting in the sunshine. She liked that. The roses came back to her cheeks and the light back to her eyes.

In July she threw a garden party. It was a modest affair with lemonade and cakes but so successful that two weeks later she threw another one, and after that it was open house every Saturday afternoon. The great and the good of the West Midlands were invited, and nobody ever refused an invitation because they all wanted to see Hattie’s glinting leg.

Then Autumn came and it was too cold for any more garden parties. Hattie tried one indoors, but it wasn’t the same. Her leg looked nowhere near as grand in a gloomy drawing room as it did in a sunlit garden.

In November she took sick with a fever that was going round.

By Christmas she was dead.

Thousands queued outside St Martin’s-in-the-Bull-Ring where her body lay in state, all wanting to see the golden leg even though only the foot was visible beneath the shroud.

For two years Henry was beside himself with grief. He rarely slept or ate. He abandoned his charitable interests and civic duties. He allowed those less scrupulous than himself to extract short-term profit from his factory by sacking half the workforce and cheapening the product to the point where the business went into steep decline.

He had to let the housemaid go, and the gardener and cook, until, in the end, it was just him and Dora in the Erdington house. Dora cooked and cleaned for him, and did her best to cheer him up, but it was a losing battle, and there was nothing she could do about the garden, which grew maliciously until its vines and creepers covered the windows and blocked out the light.

Then Henry’s cousin Edgar died and, since Edgar was one of Henry’s few remaining relatives, he felt obliged to take down his black suit and topper, hang them outside to get rid of the smell of mothballs and go to the funeral.

Mabel, Edgar’s widow, was a bright woman, down-to-earth and sensible. Henry paid his respects and muttered condolences, but Mabel was having none of it.

'How are you, Henry?’ she asked. 'Edgar, before he passed, told me he hadn’t seen you at the club in ages and you’ve stopped going to meetings of the orphans fund. I do hope you’ve not been hiding yourself away.’

But one look at his face and clothes was enough to tell her that he had been hiding himself away. Not to mention letting himself go. His face was drawn and grey. His hair needed cutting. He’d lost weight so that his funeral black was practically falling off him.

After the service, she spoke to him again. 'There are a few mementoes,' she said, 'that Edgar wanted you to have. Nothing important. There’s a silhouette of your grandma in a nice frame and some embroidery she did. And the family Bible with all the ancestors and everything written up in it. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. It’s not my family, is it?'

Henry was tempted to tell her he didn’t want the mementoes and she should give them to the rag and bone man or burn them, but you can’t tell people to burn a Bible, can you?

'I’ll pop ‘em round some time. I’ve got an auntie lives in Erdington village so I’m often over that way.'

And so it happened, Mabel came round and Dora made her some tea and found a bit of cake. After tea, Mabel opened the piano and played a tune so jolly that Henry found himself joining in the choruses.

The next week, she came again. She’d brought a big leather apron with her and a pair of shears. After tea, she went out and hacked at the undergrowth, bringing light again to the inside of the house.

She came every week, then twice a week, then three times.

One day, Henry poured out his heart to Dora and told her that during the time of his bereavement he had realised that what he missed most was not Hattie’s love for him so much as his love for Hattie. He had a great deal of love to give and felt lost when he didn’t have a special person - a wife - to give it to.

Dora's face lit up at this. She blushed a little and her lips parted in breathless expectation.

Henry continued. He said that he now found himself in a position where he wanted to give his love to Mabel ….

Dora's face fell and a tear rolled down her work-worn cheek.

Henry didn’t notice. He was worried, he said, that, with his reduced circumstances, that he had nothing to offer her except his love, which, he feared, could never be enough. Mabel was a beautiful woman who deserved the best of everything.

Dora wondered whether the solution to his problems might be found if he were to set his sights on a woman more modest in her expectations. Henry said that, although, theoretically, such a thing would perhaps be advantageous, the heart knows no reason. Rightly or wrongly, his heart had chosen Mabel.

Christmas came. Mabel cooked a goose, decorated a tree and brought presents - a beautiful silver watch for Henry and a very warm muffler for Dora. Henry gave Mabel some pretty but inexpensive amber beads. He felt ashamed.

He knew there was only one solution to his dilemma.

Hattie’s handwriting had been small and neat and not difficult to forge. He took the will he made to a lawyer, saying that it had only just come to light. In it Hattie (according to the forgery) declared a wish to be buried on her own family’s plot which was in the at Holy Trinity church in Sutton Coldfield. And she wanted to be buried without her false leg - she was most insistent on this point - so that she could meet her maker as she was and not, as she put it, 'as man had made her'.

The exhumation order was easily obtained and Henry thanked God he didn’t have to have anything to do with it. He even excused himself from the short burial service at the Holy Trinity on the grounds that he was prostrate with grief and guilt for having overlooked his wife’s wishes at the time of her death.

But he had the leg.

There were plenty of men in the jewellery quarter who could have cut it up and melted it down, but the discretion of local men could not be relied on. He didn’t want rumours and gossip to spread. He decided he would wait a while, then come up with some pretext for visiting Sheffield, perhaps, or London, where the leg could be turned into ingots and sold.

in the meantime he wrapped the thing in a bolster case and hid it at the back of the cupboard in his bedroom.

He found he couldn’t sleep. Not with that thing in the house. He had disturbed the bones of his beloved wife. He was a forger and a grave-robber. What if some anomaly was spotted. He paced the house all night, afraid that at any moment there would be a knock at the door followed by arrest, condemnation and prison.

On the second night he lay down for a while but each time he closed his eyes he thought he heard the clanging of a cell door.

On the third night, he at last fell asleep, but into a sleep so light that every creak of a floorboard and rattle of the wind outside woke him.

At around two in the morning he was awakened for what seemed the ninetieth time, but this time it was something different. And there it was again. Not a floorboard, not the wind, but a soft moaning. He opened his eyes, first just a crack then wide in absolute horror for there was Hattie, his wife, more than a year dead, hovering, it seemed, in the air, and shrouded in an unearthly mist. She wore not her grave clothes but the white dress with flowers she had worn for those happy garden parties. She did not speak, but merely pointed, with a bony finger, at the cupboard wherein the golden leg was hid.

Henry first cried out, then tried to stand in order to escape the horror, but fell again and fainted clean away.

He awakened some time later - perhaps a minute, perhaps several hours.

Dawn was breaking. The spirit was gone. So was the golden leg from the cupboard.

Hattie had come for the things she most loved - not Henry, how could she love the man who had so betrayed her even after death? And, as well as the leg, Henry discovered, Dora, whom she had also adored, was gone too, body and soul, never to be seen again.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All