My bleeding did come, eventually, when I was almost driven mad with fear. I had begged God, pleaded with Him, bargained with Him. I sang silent songs of rejoicing for days after and my heart soared with delight and freedom. Dues had been paid, God and the powers were sated. I could move on with my life and almost try to forget that night. Maybe.
Mr. Aspern continued to court me throughout the remaining few months. My mother was proud of the reserve and decorum I maintained in public with him, after my earlier dealings. I took to shutting her out of my heart and my life, building walls that I had no intention of ever taking down. I did it gradually, almost imperceptibly, but I was aware that she knew and understood, even if she was not entirely pleased.
The fact was, however, that I could not show affection to any other man, even if I had felt it, when there was a possibility of that action returning somehow to the eyes or ears of Nathaniel. What if he were still here in Edinburgh? Indeed, I searched for his face everywhere, hoping that he would rescue me at any minute. How could he profess love and then disappear? Perhaps his absence had allowed me to grant him sainthood, to rewrite what little history we had together?
When the proposal came, I was not entirely prepared. How is that, you may wonder? It is something that is expected a normal course of courting, and yet, I had chosen to ignore it as an eventuality. I had enjoyed the attention, it was preferable to being alone, but I had not allowed myself to spend much time pondering a marriage proposal. Who wants to spend time thinking on something undesirable?
William had requested a walk with me in the Princes Street Gardens on a bright August Sunday afternoon. The gardens had been built in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle over 20 years ago after the filling in of the Nor Loch, a former lake that had become a cesspool of waste and filth as the city had grown. Although it had been drained in the 1750’s, it had not been filled in with earth and had consistently threatened to return to its former state. Now, however, it was a lush green space with winding pathways. It was a warm day, but was much cooler in the stippled shadows of the trees. We had stopped for a moment beneath a particularly large, gnarled oak with twisted branches that dipped to the ground in a strangely gracious way. It must have been there long before the park was built, as the surrounding trees were much younger. After a furtive glance to assure himself that no one was looking, he took my hand and held it to his chest. He would not have dared to act so familiar had we not been partially hidden from view by foliage.
“Ms. Douglas,” he announced. He cleared his throat officially, a look of discomfort crossing his face. My heart began to pound, please no, no, no…
“Yes, Mr. Aspern?” I smiled ever so slightly at him, trying not to make eye contact, willing myself to maintain composure. I tried to take a step forward, hoping to continue walking and thus distract him from what was to follow, however he stood in my way and did not budge. He took a deep breath.
“I have not dreamed that I would ever meet a woman as accomplished as I have found you to be. I have spent my life thinking of ladies more as entertainment than as a worthy partner. That fact alone makes you even more beautiful to my eyes and more dear to my heart than you could ever imagine. However, I recognize that there is much more to you and I am intrigued, fascinated. It will take me years to know you completely. I hope that you have something in your heart for me because I have concluded that I myself could not go on through the rest of my life without you by my side.” His eyes searched mine imploringly, hopefully.
“What are you saying, Mr. Aspern?” My nervous heart was attempting to beat itself out of my chest. It was cruel of me to toy with him in this way, to force him to spell it out, but I did it anyway. He cleared his throat again.
“I am asking you to marry me…”
We stood there like that, under the tree, with time paused in the way that seems to make the slightest hesitation seem like an eternity. My mind ticked through the pros and cons, weighing the consequences of a “yes” or “no”. Was I not in love with Nathaniel Brierly? What was my future going to entail if I were not married? I had no family upon which to rely for support if my father were to die. I could not, as a woman, run any sort of business in my father’s place. I would end up making hats in some milliner’s shop somewhere, living in poverty.
Should I wait, in the name of love, for Mr. Brierly? What if his leaving was not truly out of concern for me, but rather because of his stronger love for someone else? If he truly had loved me, wouldn’t he want me cared for, even if he could not provide for it himself? Yes, he had said that hadn’t he? Why had I not fought him harder? Why had I turned and walked away from him when he told me to go? What if it had only been a test? If I had only refused, he would have relented and we would be together right now. Or, if not a test, but he had still loved me, would it really have made a difference for me to try to fight it out with him? Could I ever bend him to my will? No. That was part of his charm. I held no power over his thoughts, feelings, actions…not to change them at any rate.
If I say yes to this man and tie myself to him forever, do I tell him the honest truth? That I cannot love him completely? At least not right now? Is that kind of cruelty better than the cruelty that comes from playing charades every night in order to make him believe that I love him? Is it selfish to marry him myself and rob him of a match with a woman who would truly care for him? Can I grow to love him that way? I looked carefully at this man before me. I could not imagine making children with him. I was not sure that there was any other man alive for whom I would suffer in that way in order to create offspring, even if that suffering were to be my salvation in God’s eyes as the priest had pronounced from the podium several Sundays ago.
“I must ask that you allow me some time to consider your proposal, Mr. Aspern.” I squeezed his hand quickly and then tried to pull my hand away, but failed. He held it even tighter. He stared at me intently. His mouth opened as if he were about to say something, but after a hesitation, he promptly closed it. He was silent for what seemed like an eternity.
“Alright, then,” he replied finally. A look of pain crossed his face and at that moment, I ached for him. I knew what he was feeling.
“Would you please escort me home, Mr. Aspern?”
“Certainly,” he nodded, curtly. He placed my hand on his arm and we turned toward home. In kindness, I left it there.
We began back down the path, looking toward Edinburgh Castle on top of its rocky, volcanic crag and walked together in stony silence ourselves, nodding at the occasional family or couple as they passed.
“Tell me something,” I said.
“Yes?” he replied.
“Why do you want a wife who is spoiled by knowledge and her own opinions?”
“I would not say that a woman is spoiled by those things.”
“Why not, Mr. Aspern?”
“When a woman is educated as you have been, the world you are in becomes too small for you. You can think and judge for yourself the justness of the role you have been given. One of two things happens in those women. They become angry and embittered or they are ruled by grace and profound dignity. You are the latter. It takes great control and presence of mind to make it appear that you do not care that the world is unjust when you know so well that it is.”
His words made my breath catch in my chest. How did this man know me when I had so pointedly not told him anything that had really mattered to me? I felt my face flush. I had spent much time arguing and debating with him, even about silly, unimportant things just to argue.
“So, in short, it is your strength that I admire most of all.”
We went on in silence for some distance.
“I am not all that you think I am,” I said softly.
“On the contrary, I believe that you are.”
“I am not perfection.”
“You misunderstand me, then. I do not believe you to be perfect, Ms. Douglas. I believe that you are an extraordinary young woman who has demonstrated her ability to live well, beyond her flaws.”
The last part of our trek was made wordlessly. As we mounted the white stone steps at the front door, William once again took my hand, this time bowing slightly as he pressed my fingertips to his lips. Then, he turned to leave. I was struck at that moment with a certain urgency. I needed to make sure that he understood what he was asking for.
“Wait, Mr. Aspern.” I reach out my hand to grab the sleeve of his coat. Speaking of what I was about to say to someone like this was a terrible risk, but I had to make myself plain on this one point before I could ever agree.
He turned back, a single brow arched quizzically. “Yes?”
“You should know… You should know that I am terrified of having children. Terrified. I know that that is what is expected of me…as…as a wife. But I must tell you that I am terrified.” Terrified of the pain. Terrified of the loss. Terrified of that kind of love.
He nodded quietly, though his face betrayed his discomfort. He put his hand firmly on top of mine as it rested on his sleeve. I could see him weighing, balancing the choices. Was I worth enough to him to agree to this? “There are ways to avoid pregnancy. I give you my word that if you choose me, you will not be pressured or forced. There will be no children unless you are ready.”
He patted my hand, then lifted it off of his arm, kissed the fingers again, then turned back to the street and started down the steps.
I entered the house, pulling off my bonnet.
“Ah, Ms. Evelyn!” Agness took the hat from my hands, squinting at me suspiciously. “You look disconcerted, Miss.”
“I am,” I admitted. “Mr. Aspern proposed marriage this afternoon.”
“And how are we feeling about this?” she asked, her head tilted inquisitively. I don’t believe she expected an answer so much as she wanted to read my face. She carried the bonnet away as I started up the stairs to my room.
“Strangely, I am feeling at peace,” I replied, not for her ears. Agnes would be on her way to my mother now.
This man was not simply a love struck puppy, with stars in his eyes and pathetic, romantic drivel to spout. I had to respect his integrity, his honestly. There were depths to him that had not yet been plumbed. He was not particularly handsome.He was not gregarious and outgoing. He did not seem particularly driven to achieve any greatness at all. Still, if I must marry, this seems a safe alternative. He had a fair income, though no title to speak of. Yet in Massachusetts would Scottish title matter any whit? Reasonably speaking, Father would like him as he was level headed and had few permanent ties that would keep him here. Furthermore, Mr. Aspern was not the philandering type. I would not have to worry about his fidelity. I could do worse, much worse.
By the time I had reached the topmost stair, I had virtually made my decision. I entered my room and settled myself at my writing desk. Should I discuss it with mother first? No. I opened the ink jar and sat quietly for a few minutes, pen in hand.
Agnes appeared, asking if I required assistance with my clothing. When I told her no, she removed a few spoiled flowers from the vase on the mantle, and excused herself. I pulled out a sheet of crisp white paper. I could hear the noise of the street through the open windows, the clatter of carriage wheels and horses’ hooves on the pavement below. My hand was poised over the pristine white sheet before me, my future. Was I acting too hastily, replying to Mr. Aspern so quickly? And what of Nathanial Brierly? It would always come back to him, I realized. My whole life would always come back to him in one way or another. I hated him for that. Some part of me would always long for that excitement, that intensely romantic excitement that comes from being pursued by passion.
I looked up into my painted companion’s eyes. I had always felt there had been a certain sadness in those eyes. I had found through my questioning that she was Elizabeth MacKenzie the eldest daughter of the last owner of this house. She had died in a train accident on her way back to Edinburgh almost five years previously. She had never married, instead choosing to write novels under a male nom deplume for decades. Her legacy was the power of words. Would you think I was compromising myself? Yes, I am certain that you would. I took a deep breath and penned my answer.
8th August, 1847
My Dear William:
I was rather startled and yet honored by your proposal this afternoon.After carefulconsideration, I recognize that I must accept your offer.
I remain faithfully yours,
I folded the note carefully, placed it in an envelope, addressed it to Mr. Aspern and sealed it with wax. I remained seated there with the note in my hand, feeling the breeze through the window. My nerves were on edge. Did every woman feel this uncertainty somewhere deep within them? If I tie myself to this person, I am saying goodbye to Mr. Brierly forever. I was exchanging the unknown potential for perfect bliss loving some conjured visage for something safe, hardly spectacular, and somehow less perfect. Perhaps the imagination created dreams that could never be lived up to? Perhaps adulthood was learning to accept that dreams were merely dreams, ephemeral wastes of time. A woman longs to align herself with an extraordinary man, will sacrifice herself in order to do so. Why? To feel safe? To belong to a cause? Would Mr. Aspern’s clear devotion to me and acceptance of my psyche make up for my heart’s longing to be aligned with the extraordinary? I could not know what my future would hold. I only knew that this was the only option that remained before me.