Chapter Twenty-one: The End of Me

The morning dawned clear and crisp.  It was the Wednesday,  2 November, 1847 to be exact.  My wedding day.  Here I was, now seventeen years old.  I felt like I was in my thirties.  The ivory gown was laid out on a nearby chair and I had stared at its shadow all night long from my bed between fitful sleeps.

I dressed hurriedly, refusing assistance from anyone aside from Agnes and I sent her away as soon as I could.  I did not wish to see my mother, or anyone else for that matter.  It would require me to seem happy and excited, a pretense that I knew I would not be able to maintain for long.  This process was one that must be endured.  I was irritated with myself, but little could be done about that now.

For an hour I sat staring at my reflection in the hazy mirror.  People over the years had complimented me on my eyes or sometimes for my skin and figure.  I did look pretty with my hair done up, the jewels that were William’s gift to me around my neck.  Was it sinful to think I was beautiful, I wondered?  Pride.  Clearly, what I possessed had not been enough to keep Mr. Brierly.  Perhaps this perceived beauty was really nothing at all.

“Miss Evelyn?” the maid said softly at the door, followed by a sharp tapping.

“Yes,” I sighed, knowing what she would say next.

“They are ready for you.  Downstairs.”  She turned the knob on the door, but it was locked.

I sat quietly.


I could climb out this window…

I would lose everything.

“I will be down in a moment, thank you.”  She hesitated for a minute or two, unsure what to do.  Eventually, she left.  I could hear her footfalls on the stairs.  Let them wait.  It could not go on without me anyway.

Standing, I quickly pinched my cheeks, straightened my petticoats and fluffed out my skirts.  I took a last look at my image in the glass, my last look at the only me that I had known.  Who was this Evelyn Aspern?  It was time to find out.

I unlocked the door and stepped into the hallway.  I felt my legs taking me downstairs where my mother was waiting.  I nodded coldly as I passed her at the door to the parlor.  Once she was at my back, I put on the demure, pleasant smile that I had rehearsed upstairs.  Mrs. Eggleston was in attendance, as were a William’s parents and about a half dozen of my mother’s other acquaintances.  The room was filled with white flowers of every type imaginable tied with mulberry ribbons.  A wishbone was hanging from the ceiling above the priest’s head, an odd touch that I had seen at weddings as a child back home.  It seemed out of place here.

My father, of course, would not be giving me away.  We had discussed at length who would present me to my future husband, but in the end, I elected to walk alone.  My mother frowned, as she usually did at unconventional things, but at last agreed.  Her charge had been to get me married and if that was what it took, so be it.  The gossip potential at this point was minimal, since she would be leaving in short order for Cambridge and it was likely that I would never set foot in Edinburgh again.  William did not care, so long as I was happy, even if his parents considered it to be bordering on scandalous.

William was standing before the mantelpiece, dressed in a frock coat of deep mulberry, the noontime sun glinted off of his dark brown hair.  His full beard was impeccably well groomed.  He positively beamed with pride.  His best man, Alfred MacDermot, stood to his left and was dressed in a similarly cut blue frock coat.  His countenance was much more somber.  What was he thinking, I wondered?  All eyes were on me as I progressed from the doorway to stand with William.  I focused on my feet to keep from tripping or thinking.

There was no organ march.  No cheering.  No crowd.  I felt a hollow emptiness.  I wondered if I would miss all of that more acutely in later years.

I took William’s left hand and stood beside him as we exchanged our vows.  It only took a few short minutes.  Will you promise to honor and obey…?  I will.  He placed the narrow gold band on my ring finger.  There, it was done.  We turned back to face the room.  William leaned close to whisper, “Thank you,” softly in my ear.  I squeezed his hand in acknowledgement.

“May I present Mr. and Mrs. William Aspern!”  There was light applause, muted by gloved hands.  I marveled briefly at the sound of my existence being whittled down into three little letters and a period uttered by someone else’s lips.  My mother hugged me and I felt the tears welling up in my throat.  I forced them back.  Other individuals filed past, congratulating William.  The bride was never congratulated herself, as it was implied that the honor was already granted her in marrying the groom, which meant that I stood by him awkwardly, not sure what to say or do.

Eventually, everyone filed out of the room migrating to the breakfast table.  William offered his arm.  “Mrs. Aspern, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to breakfast?”  He smiled at me.

I was now to embark on the perpetual charade that was to be my life.  I prayed silently that God would somehow give me peace.

“Certainly, Mr. Aspern.”  I took his arm, smiling back at him.

Chapter Twenty: Preparations

My acceptance letter was delivered and within the day a note from Mr. Aspern arrived, addressed to my mother, requesting an appointment with her.  There was a second note from him, addressed to me, which simply read:  “Thank you for your answer.  I will endeavor to ensure that your life is not simply wasted on me.  Yours as always, William.” 

Agnes had indeed already announced the proposal but mother wanted to hear of the details from me.  She had already done some research of her own into the state of Mr. Aspern’s family and affairs and felt that she could accept his offer of marriage. 

The meeting between my mother and Mr. Aspern did not occur until that Friday.  There was a full hours worth of deliberations in the drawing room of which I was not privy, but which sealed my fate nonetheless.  I could hear the voices rising and falling behind the closed pocket doors as I sat on the hard wooden bench in the hallway.  They were not always friendly in tone.

At long last they both emerged.  My mother was smiling, clearly satisfied.  Mr. Aspern winked and bowed at the waist, taking my hand and kissing it.

“My dear, it is arranged!”  He was overjoyed.

“We will send for your father immediately, the wedding will take place in three months time here in Edinburgh,” my mother purred.

Three months!  That was all the time I had left?

My mother misread the concern on my face and hastily added, “I am certain that you would like to be married sooner, but…”

“No.  No, mother,” I interrupted.  “Three months is just fine.”

“We will make the formal announcement in two weeks time,” my mother continued.  She went on further with the details of the time line but I was no longer listening.  The wheels had been pressed into motion and could not be stopped.  I feared I would be crushed beneath the weight. What had I done?

A letter was dispatched to father.  We were invited to the Aspern estate to meet William’s parents.  The fowl and the reception were somewhat cold.  I could see that his mother was not happy that I was taking away her eldest son to some foreign country across the Atlantic. 

Meanwhile, my trousseau was assembled.  The wedding dress was a stunning ivory silk that had cost well over five hundred pounds, an ungodly sum considering so few people would ever see it. 

We would marry on a Wednesday at noon in November.  All if my life when I had thought about my wedding, I had dreamed of a huge church with hundreds of onlookers and well-wishers.  My dress was embroidered with crystals and pearls.  Bells tolled, doves were in attendance, beams of colored sunlight poured through the stained glass windows, a huge feast followed afterwards…it was magical.  Reality, however, was nothing like this.  Now I insisted on not having a church ceremony as I did not intend to have God watching over my shoulder as I took my vows.  I begged, pleaded, and threatened until my mother agreed to make it a private ceremony in the parlor of our rented house with a small party of close friends.  The weather would be quite cold and a garden wedding was out of the question.  A meal would be served immediately after, a late breakfast of sorts. 

As the ceremony was to be at home, I had no veil, only orange blossoms, which like the dress were a symbol of purity, and ribbons to wear in my hair.  I also would have no attendants as there was no one that I was close enough with to ask to serve in that capacity.  We would leave for the honeymoon directly after eating.  William had not disclosed where we would go for the honeymoon, but had told me that we would be travelling for two months.  My mother would close up the house and move back to Massachusettes where we would meet.

In five weeks, rather than receiving my father, we received a letter stating in vague terms that my father was rather ill and unable to travel.  He begged my mother to continue with the wedding as planned and gave his blessing.

In response, my mother moved up the date of the wedding by two weeks.   

The anxiety within me mounted and I felt the need to run away.  Far away.  But I had no one with whom to discuss these things.  I was more isolated than I had ever been. I had attempted to tell William, but even the suggestion of anxiety on my part wounded him deeply and I knew I could not say anything further.  Everyone around me made light of the situation, referring to the proverbial wedding day jitters as if every bride wanted to flee in such a way.  I put up a brave front, not wanting anyone to think that I could possibly be bothered by such thoughts but even so, I found this hard to imagine.  Every woman feels this?  Perhaps I simply wanted my own angst to be special but how could every single woman feel so much fear and anxiety prior to their wedding?  Love was not supposed to be like this! 

My mother, attempting to be helpful, wanted to spend the night before the wedding discussing my duties as a wife.  I had been summoned to her room.  However, her Victorian sensibilities and societal taboos made such conversation difficult for her and she stumbled along.  I could feel my anger rising again, thinking of Emma. 

“I do not need your assistance in these matters, mother.”  I said coldly.

“But…,” she appeared confused, trying to absorb what that meant.  Then a look of suspicion crossed her face.  Had her daughter already experienced sexual relations?  My face turned red even though she never actually opened her mouth to make the accusation.

Embarrassment was mistaken for anger when the nerve was struck. I wanted to hide my pain, to bury it in her pain.  How dare you make accusations regarding my character! 

“You are not the one to be giving advice!  How long has it been since you were in father’s bed?” 

A flash of pain washed over her face for the briefest moment, then was hidden behind a mask as quickly as it had appeared.

“I have experienced a wedding night, something which you have not,” she replied calmly.  “I wish someone had told me the details of what to expect.”

“You have not kept your husband interested…how could you teach me anything about mine?”

“Enough!”  Her eyes flashed dangerously as her voice rose sharply.  

But I could not stop. 

“Tell me why! Why should I stop?”  I demanded, as if it really were my right to continue hurting her.

“There are things which you do not understand and which I will not explain to you.”

I stood.

“Then what are we talking about if you do not wish to explain?  I thought you wanted me to understand?”

“Then listen to me and listen well,” she hissed, also standing up.  “What little freedom you experience now, it is over.  You are chattel and you belong to your husband.  He is a man.  He is taught that relations with you are vital to his being and that it is his right as your husband to have those relations with you at any time, whether you want them or not.  You must submit to them because if you do not, he will take them from you by force.  You have no rights.  Your property and your person will be his forever, you can never have it back.  I have managed to save some small part of myself in spite of all of this and I will not be ashamed of that fact for you.”  She sank back down into her seat, brushing a wisp of gray hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear.

“I am glad to no longer be your charge, mother.  I am glad to be free of both you and father! If that means that I must prostitute myself, then so be it.”  I slowed my words, enunciating each one clearly, allowing my voice to grow ever so much deeper.  “I hope the both of you rot in hell.” 

I left her there, sitting on the emerald green divan in the corner.  Her face was drawn tight and her jaw clenched in anger.  She stared at some distant, dark memory, no longer seeing me.

Those were the last words that I spoke to her as Evelyn Claire Douglas.

Chapter Nineteen: A Proposal of Another Kind

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…”

“I see.”

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,

Evelyn Douglas

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.

Chapter Eighteen: Cultivation

It was a sunny afternoon and I had been sitting in the garden reading, enjoying the feeling of the warm sunlight on my face. I had the book of poetry by Robert Burns. It was my first physical gift from a man and such, symbolized power. My power over another human being. It was intoxicating.

I knew I could not be out for long before my mother would appear at my side urging me indoors lest I ruin my complexion. I paused a moment from the words on the page to look up at the flowers around me. It was a lovely warm summer day, the steaminess resulting from the rain the day before had burned off by mid morning. Several bees were busy exploring the hollyhocks and jasmine.

Footsteps appeared at my back and I quickly looked down again at my book, choosing to ignore her…hoping that she would leave me alone. I was not really reading. The letters were swimming in my vision as I focused on the crunch of shoes on grass.

The garden was not large. Five short steps later, and she had stopped behind me. I continued to pretend to read. She remained silent, unmoving. I grew annoyed. Minutes passed.

Finally, exasperated, I turned around.

Instead of my mother, Mr. Aspern was there, staring at me. The sun was just above his head and I found I could not see the the expression on his face. He cleared his throat.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Douglas.” He nodded solemnly.

“Mr. Aspern. How do you do? You surprised me! Won’t you have a seat?” I motioned to the bench beside me as I slid over to make more room. There could be no touching.

He remained standing.

I squinted up at him, expectantly. If he would not sit, then I would let him be the one to speak next. But he did not. The awkward silenced stretched on. Finally, my patience wore thin.

“Come, tell me about your inscription!” I insisted. He sighed, seemingly relieved and took a seat on the ledge beside me, not on the bench. I turned to Gaelic phrase written in his hand. He read them easily for me, the words sounding almost musical.

Chan ann leis a’chiad bhuille thuiteas a’chraobh.

“It means, ‘It is not with the first stroke that the tree falls.'”

True. Yes. He was right in this case.

He took the book from my hands, turning to the last poem. At the bottom of the page, also in his script was another phrase in Gaelic. I was afraid to attempt to speak the words, instead reading them silently to myself.

Is fheàrr teine beag a gharas na teine mòr a loisgeas.

“What does it mean?”

“Someday, I will tell you.” He smiled gently at me. “But not today.”  He closed the book and handed it back to me.  “May I call on you again, Ms. Douglas?”

There was only one answer to give, and I gave it. Yes. But it worried me. I recognized great kindness and love in this man, and I loved him somehow for that. But it was not the burning, flaming passion that I had felt before.  The feeling of power was exhilarating but it was not the same.  What if I could not return his feelings in kind in the end? I felt like an actress, hoping that the motions would eventually turn into real feelings.  And I fest dishonest, as if I should issue a disclaimer up front…I am not who you think I am. sir.

I worried that I was cheapening what I had felt before by even speaking to this man, that I was somehow unfaithful to Nathaniel’s memory. I hoped that I would be able to love like that again. Passionate. Consuming. Inexplicable, life altering love. If not with Mr. Brierly, then with someone.

A life without that kind of love would be too much to bear.

Chapter Seventeen: Waiting

Truth be told, I could not just rush out, find Mr. Aspern, and demand to know about the inscription. Instead, I penned a brief letter to him.

Mr. Aspern,
I am most grateful for your attention to my mother during her party and for the gift of poetry, particularly given the interesting reputation of Mr. Burns. I look forward to discussing the poetry and your inscription in the near future.
Ms. Evelyn Douglas

Now, I would have to wait until he felt a decent amount of time had passed to allow for complete recovery from my illness.

Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more anxious as each day passed. Not because I was waiting for Mr. Aspern. More because I was waiting for my menses. I was never one to chart it faithfully, and I was left wondering exactly when it was due and if it did not come, how I would be able to weather the storm. I began pouring over the Mariceau book again, looking for some clue but found nothing new. Ordering the pills was out of the question.

When my first period had come almost two years ago, I had no idea what was happening to my body. My mother had chosen to protect me from any inkling, lest I should be driven mad by the knowledge. In her defense, this has been advised by the family physician, as I discovered later. But why she thought watching parturition would be fine but knowing about my own menstruation was not, I will never comprehend. Granted, many physicians believed that the menstrual flow was tied to a woman’s psyche and any disruption during that time could result in psychosis. In fact, bathing was discouraged lest the young woman take cold and end up insane.

When I began bleeding, it started with uncomfortable cramping and then I noticed the dark stains on my drawers. At first I was worried that I was pregnant. But I did not have a belly. How could that be possible?

I realized then that I was dying. The icy grip of death was on my shoulder. It would be a beautiful death, I decided. I began fantasizing about the poignant moments I would share with my mother and father as the life ebbed from my poor body and I eagerly waited for further signs that the end was nigh. Those signs did not come.

Afraid to tell anyone quite yet, in case I was wrong, I began staunching the flow with rags I stole from the laundry. I took the soiled cloths to the field and hid them beneath rocks. Things went on like this for several days until one morning I awoke to realize that I had stained my nightgown and bed sheets. Those would be impossible to hide.

I sought out the laundress, a broad, red faced but kind hearted old woman and begged her to help me. She gasped, a hand coming up to her mouth. With fear in her eyes, she dashed off without even uttering a word.

Shortly, I was summoned to an audience with my mother. The laundress, her large nose even redder than usual, had been crying when she appeared to retrieve me. “Your mother would like a few words with you, Miss Evie.” I followed her with trepidation.

As I entered the drawing room, I observed my mother perched on the edge of the sofa, ensconced in the opulent room surrounded with velvet cushions and silk drapery. The bright patterns of the fabrics clashed with the scrolled wallpaper, the effect was always dizzying and disorienting. She was visibly shaken, dabbing at her eyes with a delicate lace handkerchief. When she caught sight of me, she quickly tried to compose herself, hiding the delicate square beneath the folds of her skirt.

As I approached my mother the laundress let out a small sob behind me. After a stern look from my mother, she whispered an apology, then she softly slid the pocket doors closed.

I hesitated.

“Come here, dear!” My mother beckoned to me, sadly. It was then that I realized that I did not want to die. I wanted to live. When I did not move, she stood, and drew me to her heaving bosom. I stood there awkwardly in her embrace as she cried, not sure what I should do. Console her? I am so sorry, Mother! I am sure I will not suffer long… Make a run for it? Her grip on me would prevent that.

At long last, she relaxed and held me out at arms length by my shoulders. Her tear stained face was contorted and dread filled my soul as I awaited the pronouncement of my fate.

“My little girl is growing up…”

I stood there in shock. At first relieved, then embarrassed, then angry that I had wasted so much time convinced of my demise…I wanted to cry, but if this was a rite of passage to womanhood, I did not feel I was allowed tears like that any longer. I wanted to ask questions, but I was not sure that was allowed either. So I just stood there. Waiting.

“Lavinia will help you with the proper accoutrement…” she said once she had composed herself. She gave me one more brief hug, then patted me on the shoulder. And with that, I was dismissed.

I ran up to my room and sobbed into the pillow for a good ten minutes before Lavinia knocked softly on the door.

She was a tall beanpole of a young lady with blond hair, freckles and an easy smile. She served as lady’s maid to my mother. She showed me the pads that she made for my mother, showed me how to pin them into my drawers, warning me to take care last I move in such a way that I stuck myself. She told me stories of what her own mother had used…pieces of sheepskin, greased with lard on the smooth side to prevent leakage. It sounded ingenious but she assured me that the smell was less than desirable. She let me ask questions, without passing judgement.

And now, here I was, with more anxiety about not having the flow than I ever had at having it, even that first time. But now I did not have Lavinia, or anyone else, to shoulder the burden with me.

So, I waited.

Chapter Sixteen: The Other Man

Somehow, my escapades at the hospital became known in society. Apparently, a lady attending the deathbed of a servant at a charity hospital was to be frowned upon, particularly if she were pregnant and unmarried. Invitations began to dwindle. My mother decided to combat this by holding a dinner party.

Handwritten invitations went out to a dozen key individuals, one of whom was Mr. William Aspern, my mother’s darling. Seven individuals accepted, leaving an eighth gentleman that had to be found at the last minute in order to round out the dinner. Mr. Aspern was prevailed upon to bring a male guest and the day was saved. Our cook had been instructed on the menu: Cucumber soup, Angels on Horseback, filet of sole, roast capon, croquets of fowl with piquant sauce, carrots in dilled cream sauce, and a dessert of nesselrode pudding…not necessarily in that order. The seating was arranged, everyone perfectly paired. Dinner would be served a la Russe, or rather served at the table by temporary wait staff, hired for the event, who would present each course sequentially as the previous one was cleared. An a la Francaise service, where dinner was served all at once on the table was the traditional dinner service dating from Medieval times, but a la Russe was more modern and more practical as courses would not get too cold while waiting to be served. I was to play the piano after dinner for entertainment, to showcase my skills. If there was one thing that my mother took pride in, it was her skill at executing the perfect dinner party back home, but this was her first attempt in Edinburgh and as such she was a tyrant during the preparations.

The evening of the party, I suddenly took ill thanks to a surreptitious dosing of syrup of ipecac… nasty, horrible stuff that induces the most violent vomiting imaginable. We kept it on hand as it was used in small amounts to make elixirs for coughs and colds when mixed with opium, wine, or other ingredients. Still, it was preferable to having to make nice to my enemies in intimate company and I was convinced that the mere lie of illness by itself would not be believed given recent circumstances. My mother was left to make the decision to cancel the gathering or to carry on by herself. In the end, rather than admit defeat, she shouldered the social responsibility herself and I could hear the hum of polite discourse and the ring of silver on china below between my own retches.

Agnes, the new maid, was suspicious. I caught her sniffing the spoon I had laid out on the dresser with the tea things. However, she said nothing. I had not known her long enough to understand her. She rarely spoke or looked anyone in the eye. She was efficient but there was no smiling, friendliness, or ease of manner. I felt on edge at home most days.

At one point, Agnes crept into my room with a marbled paper wrapped box. She held it out, just beyond my reach. I was afraid to move, in case it would trigger another wave of nausea. “From Mr. Aspern,” she whispered, holding it out a bit closer but still not close enough. “He was most insistent that you receive it even in your indisposed state.” The realization that I could not sit up to receive the gift slowly dawned on her. She put it on the pillow beside my head next to the currently empty vomit basin and retreated. The nausea kept my curiosity at bay and the package sat unopened all night even though I gazed at it periodically in the moonlight as I dozed fitfully.

By morning I was feeling much better. My entrails no longer felt the need to try to see the light of day. It had still been worth it in the end, I decided. My abdominal muscles were sore from the heaving and I winced as I pulled myself up to sitting on the pillows. I sat the basin on the floor and decided to have a look at the gift. I could tell now that it was a book. I tore the paper off. It was a copy of poems by Robert Burns. The frontispiece was inscribed with the words, Chan ann leis a’chiad bhuille thuiteas a’chraobh. Whatever did that mean? He had marked the poem, “John Anderson My Jo”.

John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonny brow was brent;
But now your brow is bled, John,
Your locks are like the straw,
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson my jo!
John Anderson my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither
And monie a cantie day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson my jo!

Hardly a romantic love poem. Or was it? I smiled. Clever, I would give him that. It would be certain to stand out, as it implied that I should marry him, grow old with him, and then I would hopefully still regard him affectionately as we tottered down the hill together to our graves.

I was not sure who to ask to translate the Gaelic inscription, however. Should I ask Agnes, in case she could read? Not my mother. None of the young ladies that I had made acquaintance with or it would be spoken to everyone in a matter of hours…risky prospect when I did not really know what it said in the first place. Perhaps he knew that I would burn with curiosity and that the only option for having that curiosity sated was to ask him? I groaned and fell back on the pillows, closing my eyes. What to do? Fine. I would play his game.

Chapter Fifteen: The Ressurection

It had taken several hours for Emma to pass. Her breath had become more shallow and irregular, her fingers grew a deep purple and were cold despite the fact that the rest of her body burned with fever.

Once she was gone, two orderlies had come to remove her body, transporting it to the morgue. She was unceremoniously rolled up in her bed linens and then rolled off of the bed onto a wooden gurney with a hollow thump. The wheels squeaked with each turn under the weight of her small body as it made its way out of the ward. Her path was traced by fearful eyes from each bed as it passed. You will be next, the wheels seemed to say.

I was not sure what to do beyond this point. When I asked the nursing staff, they stared at me, incredulously and shrugged. Coffin? Burial? Funeral? How would we collect the body? Being a servant in our household and not a family member, we would not be required to observe mourning rituals, but that seemed wrong somehow.

Placental presentation, or previa, meant that if she had gone through with the abortion it would have ended her life almost immediately. To bleed to death this early in the pregnancy was highly unusual, but perhaps it was more merciful in the end than what was to come? I tried to console myself with this thought as I tried to swallow the rock that seemed to be creeping up my throat. I knew that if it reached a certain point, I would not be able to hold back the tears. I was not yet ready to cry.

John had been waiting for me by the carriage all this time. The streets were crowded, everyone hurrying to some engagement, no one looking at the gray stone building. They were all oblivious to the fact that someone had just died within those walls. Or maybe they understood, but the dozens of other deaths that occurred every day in this city muted the poignancy of this one.

John opened his mouth to ask, but I shook my head and he remained silent. His jaw was clenched tight and I could see the sadness in his eyes. Emma had been a gentle soul. It would have been difficult for anyone to have disliked her. I took his hand as he helped me step into the carriage.

He leaned over and quietly whispered, “Thank you.” I turned to him, surprised.

“For what?” I felt in reality that much of this had been my fault, that somehow I should have been able to do more.

“For not letting her die alone.” With that, he closed the door of the coach firmly and climbed up himself to take the horse’s reigns.

When I arrived home, I found that my mother had collected herself. She was dressed in a lovely dark blue day dress and had been waiting on John to return home so that she could leave to attend a previously scheduled luncheon.

“Ah, Evelyn. You are back! You have just enough time to wash up and dress. Come along.” She appeared relieved. “I have hired a new ladies maid, she will attend to you.” There was a slight woman of about forty who appeared in the doorway. She kept her eyes focused on the floor, waiting.

“Mother, I am not going!” I almost yelled. She winced.

“What will I tell everyone?” She seemed shocked.

“You can tell them that I am indisposed. Tell the ladies that I am menstruating for all I care. But I am not going.”

I turned to retreat upstairs, expecting a battle. After two steps, I paused. “Who will take care of her body and where will she be buried?” I asked. I needed to know. I expected she would be given a pauper’s burial. A nameless, twisted, decomposing body entwined with the limbs of a dozen others in a trench somewhere. A nervous laugh escaped my mother’s lips.

“She will go to the anatomists!” There was satisfaction in her voice.


“The only way they would take a dying servant who was pregnant out of wedlock was if I would agree to have her body released to the anatomy department. I was not paying for a funeral for that harlot! And I did not want the stigma of her dying in this house. The Royal Infirmary is a teaching hospital for the University of Edinburgh. They were very grateful to have the opportunity of such a fresh body.” She met my gaze, daring me to challenge her.

There was nothing further I could do.

I suspect that there is the point in every child’s life when they realize their mothers are not the saints that they are held up to be. That one point when you see that their hearts are as human and as imperfect as everyone else’s…as imperfect as your own. This was that moment for me, and it left me feeling utterly alone. My respect for her had been eroding, to be sure, but here at this moment, she was at last merely mortal. I returned her gaze, telling her silently that she no longer held any power over me, that I knew her now. I stared until her own eyes faltered and she turned to cover her shoulders with the shawl she had carried in her hands. Then she was gone.

I imagined that she had already penned a letter to my father, taking great delight in relating all of the bloody details. I wondered if my father would feel any remorse. Fear perhaps, wondering what we knew? Or had my mother accused him? Maybe she had left him to the torture of his own imagination.

I resolved at that point to make myself my own woman. I would work tirelessly to ensure that I had control over my own life, so much as could be afforded to a woman in this age. Whatever lies or intrigue, whatever actions that I must take, I would do them to save myself.

But what was salvation?

Nathaniel had told me of the Anatomy Act of 1832, how it had stopped the grave robbers or resurrectionists. Prior to the Act, only condemned criminals were allowed to be dissected legally by the anatomists. There was an extreme shortage of suitable bodies. So to fill the void, bodies were stolen from graveyards or worse, sold after they were murdered. Watchmen would be paid to stand guard for days or weeks after a burial. Steel coffins, or mortsafes (cages that covered a freshly buried coffin) would be employed. Now, none of that was necessary since the Anatomy Act allowed for the selling of unclaimed bodies from hospitals and poorhouses. Emma had no family. No one to object. I imagined her body, dismembered on a wooden table in the anatomy theater. She would be highly prized, being pregnant. Dozens of greedy eyes would pour over her naked body, more exposed than she ever would have thought possible, as they took in all there was to learn about her most intimate parts.

Perhaps that was all we could hope for…any of us…to be useful somehow, even in death? If she must suffer a senseless death, at least there was some use to it in the end?

Chapter Fourteen: Hospital

The next morning, I found my mother sitting alone in the dining room.  She had changed clothes.  She looked tired and much, much older than she had appeared last night.  The table was bare.  No food had been prepared.  I asked her how Emma had faired.

“She is as good as dead,” she said flatly.

I sank into a chair.

“The baby?” I asked.

She looked up at me, surprised.  “You knew?”

“Yes.”  She asked for no further explanation and I did not offer any.

“Where is she?”

“She is at the Royal Infirmary.”  She had a vacant stare.  I was not sure what that meant.  Did she now know the truth, or was it simply from exhaustion?  “They did not want to take her, saying servants should be cared for in the home of their employer.  But money…I had to pay money.  Then they said that she was with child…that she tried to kill the child.”

“Mother, that is not true!”  She turned tired eyes to me.  She knew. Even if she had not been told, she knew.

No more words passed between us that morning.  We sat in silence for maybe a quarter of an hour until I finally stood and took leave.  I dressed and asked John to take me to the infirmary.  The early morning chill caused me to shiver despite the cloak.  We took the carriage.  It had not yet been cleaned, there was blood on the cushion and a large spot on the floor.

This was my first experience at a hospital.  Generally, admissions only occurred on one day of the week.  However this being an emergency, Emma had been accepted once payment had been guaranteed. 

I was met with an unpleasant odor at the door of the imposing stone edifice.  I had smelled it once before in the anatomy theater, the smell of rotting flesh.  I could hear moans and screams.  Suffering.  I shuddered.  There were many, many wards and I was not sure how to find Emma.  I stopped a dour faced, dark haired woman in her 40’s dressed in a white apron with a starched white cap who seemed to be in charge and asked her where I could find Emma.  When she stared at me blankly, I told her that she had been brought in the night before with bleeding.  Awareness rose on her face, followed by disdain. 

“Come with me,” she said curtly, followed by “Quickly!” over her shoulder when I did not immediately follow her. 

I sprung into action and followed her up a set of stairs and around a corner.  She walked quickly.  I was out of breath by the time she stopped.  It opened upon a large ward full of women.  Four rows of beds.  The room was dark, the windows small.  Some women appeared almost dead.  Some were writhing in pain.  In the shadows of the far corner, I could see Emma.  When I arrived at her bedside, I could see that she, too, suffered.  She did not recognize me.  She was in pain, writhing, feverish.  I lifted the sheets (at least they were clean) and saw that she was still bleeding.  Fresh rags had been placed between her legs but they had been soaked through with bright red blood. 

“Can you give her something for the pain?” I asked the nurse.

“Whatever for?” She replied, dubious.

“For the pain!”  I did not like this woman.

“Madame, I do not know how you have made the acquaintance of this girl, but she has tried to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy by artificial means and must therefore suffer the consequences to their fullest.  No laudanum, doctor’s orders.” 

I stood dumfounded.

“But she did no such thing!”

“She was bleeding profusely.  There is little doubt.  She is unmarried and young.  She is a servant and probably realized that she would be destitute.  She is sentenced to death by law, but God will exact the price before man.”  She seemed to relish this fact.

The woman in the next bed retched.  I grabbed the footboard to steady myself as I could feel bile rising into my own throat.  Recognizing that I may soon join in the vomiting, the woman hurriedly excused herself.  I took deep breaths, attempting to calm myself and looked around for a chair.  I found an unoccupied worn stool a few beds down and maneuvered it so that I could sit with Emma. 

A short, wiry man of about forty with black hair and a dark angry cloud that hung over him appeared at the entrance of the ward with an entourage of half a dozen nurses and orderlies and began making the rounds.  Sometimes he would percuss.  Sometimes he would use a foot long wooden tube at one ear, pressed to the chest or abdomen to listen to the heart or lungs.  Often, he raised his voice with profanity and one of the nurses would scurry off with a frightened look in her eye, returning a few moments later with an ointment or tincture.  I had not planned to stay long, but now resolved to wait until he had made his way to Emma.  She let out another agonizing groan and shifted in the bed, her eyes open but unseeing.

Forty-five minutes later, the doctor was at the retching woman’s bed.  Another round of profanity.  Another scurry.  After the appropriate medication had been administered, he turned and began to leave the ward.  The entourage followed.

Confused, I called out, “Excuse me!”  He stopped, paused as if considering, then slowly turned back to me.  Half a dozen frightened pairs of eyes turned to him.


“I…I beg your pardon.  Were you going to see her?”  I indicated Emma’s body.

“Certainly not!” He exclaimed indignantly.  The entourage winced.

I stood, dumbfounded.  Then realization dawned upon me.  “There is someone else that will be seeing her, then?”

“Absolutely not.”  He turned to go.

I felt the anger well up again.  I stood.  “And why not, sir?”

Without even turning to look me in the eye, he replied, “She should never have been admitted.  We only take treatable, lawful cases here.  She is not salvageable.”  He took a step.

“Has anyone examined her?  Or is everyone simply making assumptions of her clinical status based on suppositions about her private life?”

At that, he turned back to me, bristling.  “She did not have an abortion?  Who are you to turn her into a saint?  She is pregnant.  There is no father.  She is bleeding.  There is no more to be said on the matter.”

“She is employed by me!” 

He laughed at me, then.  Not a laugh of mirth, but rather a laugh of ridicule. “You are not but a few years older than she.  I highly doubt that you are solely responsible for her income.”

My father did this to her, sir.”  A look of shock crossed his face and then washed over the faces of the entourage.  My desire to be right, to win the argument, had clouded my judgment and it had just slipped out.  I clasped a hand to my mouth and cringed.  I could not undo it so I decided to drive the point home.  “She refused to get the abortion.”  No mention of who arranged it or why I would know.  “So, examine her for the love of God or I can assure you that YOU will be the one damned for eternity, not her!”  I wished the flames of hell to bore into him from my eyes and turn his worthless, tiny body into ash.

For whatever reason…perhaps it was my calling down divine condemnation upon his head…his face softened a bit.  He walked over to me, standing close enough that I could smell his unpleasant, fetid breath. 

“Fine,” he sighed. “I will examine her.” 

He began rolling up his sleeves and called for a fresh washbasin.  There was a scurry and one appeared.  He sat down on the stool I had vacated and lifted the bedsheet, placing his hands between Emma’s legs.  Without actually looking, he moved his hand and arm further up, exploring the area.  Her eyes registered her pain, but nothing more.  No embarrassment.  Nothing.  The doctor’s hand paused and the color drained from his face.  He withdrew, covered in blood, and stood to wash in the basin. 

“Well?” I demanded.

“She has a placenta previa.”  I knew what this meant.  I had watched another woman die while attending births with my mother.  The placenta grows over the lower portion of the uterus, covering the cervical opening and birth canal.  The only way to give birth with a complete previa is to tear through the placenta and most likely bleed to death.  There had been rare occasions that I had heard from the midwives of the placenta being delivered intact with the baby, but generally the medical attendant would try to push aside the placenta and turn the baby to put pressure on the placenta to prevent bleeding.  But Emma was far from term.  There would be no baby.  How Then could her life be saved?  “We could attempt a Cesarean, to remove the products of conception but the pain would be great and she would still likely not survive, particularly given the tremendous amount of blood loss she has already suffered.  A dilation and curettage would be impossible due to the position of the placenta.  And the fever…”  He toweled off and rolled down his sleeves.  “In short, there is nothing to be done but to make her comfortable.”

He took his leave more humbly this time, not that I could enjoy any satisfaction in that fact at this point.  At the very least, however, orders were given for treatment of her pain and it would now merely be a matter of time.  I stayed with her, holding her hand until it was over so she would not die alone in this place.

Chapter Thirteen: Blood

Several days passed.  Emma and I avoided eye contact, communicating only on the barest necessities.  Neither of us could request to be without the other’s presence without explaining why and that was impossible.  Finally, tired of feeling such anger and fear in my own home, I decided to broach the subject.  She had come to assist me in a bath and was pouring a large pot of burning hot water into the tub, steam billowing up toward the ceiling.  There would be another ball that evening. 

“Emma, why did you leave.”  She froze.

There was silence for several minutes.  I had almost given up on an answer.

“I was frightened.”  She stood and turned toward me.

“Of what, specifically?”  Stupid question.  She is fourteen.  Of course she was scared.  There were any number of things I was scared of myself.  I could not imagine facing what she was facing at age fourteen.

“I talk to him, sometimes…the baby…I…I know it is a boy.  I was afraid it would hurt him…those instruments.  I can feel him moving, Ms. Evelyn.  I realized that I wanted to protect him.”  Even if it hurt me.  She seemed as relieved as I was to get it out.

“Then you have my blessing, for what it is worth.”

“I don’t know what I will do.  Haven’t decided yet, beyond knowing that I just could not imagine being without him.”  She seemed calm and determined.  She, too, had found her strength.  Coming face to face with the devil will do that.  We grew silent again.  I was not sure that I wanted to offer assistance of any kind again.  I had paid my debt.

I undressed and climbed into the tub.  It was a small, metal tub with a high back that one would sit in almost like a chair.  Emma left.  I soaked for a good long while until the water turned cold, then scrubbed down with a bar of lavender scented soap.  I washed my hair with vinegar, then finished with a rosemary tea rinse to add shine and mask the acidic scent of the vinegar.  It would take the whole afternoon for my long hair to dry.  I toweled off as best I could and put on a lace dressing gown while I worked out the tangles with the heavy, engraved hairbrush.

The afternoon was spent reading in my room.  I had found a book in the library downstairs entitled The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion by Dr. A. M. Mauriceau.  A relatively small, black fabric bound, unobtrusive little manual but I had found it to be chock full of juicy tidbits on prevention of pregnancy, abortion, and treatment of menstruation. Someone who had let this house earlier this year
had hidden it at the end of a row of books where it seemed to be almost buried into
the end wooden shelf.  I did not know who this Dr. Mauriceau was, but I wished I had come across this book weeks ago.  Why, there was even an ad for pills that would take care of the whole “problem” for you with no side effect!  Or, there was something called the baudruche (the French Secret) that I could order by mail for $5 a dozen which piqued my curiosity.  I wondered what exactly that was, wishing there was some way I could get that sent to me without my mother or anyone else getting to it first. 

A tea tray was brought up at dinner time.  I ate a scone with clotted cream with my right hand, as I read on with my left.  I needed to eat enough that I would not pass out while dancing but not so much that I could not lace up my corset. 

This evening, I would be wearing a light blue gown with lace trimming across the neckline, sloping shoulders, narrow sleeves, and the customary petticoats and underclothes.  The bloomers, as usual, had a slit in the crotch.  Using the toilet (or rather chamber pot) was a difficult task in a ball gown, or any gown for that matter.  This way, one could squat down over the porcelain and do one’s business through the opening.  The hairdresser had again been engaged and would arrive in a few short hours to arrange my coiffure.  I would wear a simple, unfussy pair of pearl drop earrings, a gift from my father on my twelfth birthday when I was deemed “old enough to now own and care for real jewels”.  No other jewelry would be necessary.

The preparations went well.  My mother was quite pleased in the end but I was terribly uncomfortable.  My scalp hurt.  It was difficult to breath.  And there was this itch on the ride side of my mid back that no amount of scratching could manage reach through the reinforced whale bone corset, my chemise, and the gown itself.  That was going to drive me crazy unless I could find a knitting needle to slide down there….

We took the coach at the appointed hour of 8 o’clock.  I had few hopes for this dance.  My heart was still grieving the loss of Nathanial Brierly and consenting to engage further in this little charade was requiring a tremendous amount of self control.  Truthfully, I looked for him in the arriving crowd, but he was nowhere to be found.

After turning in our cloaks and other belongings, mother firmly steered me to the ballroom.  William Aspern was almost immediately at my side.  My mother poured out effusive greetings and praise, spilling it all over me and Mr. Aspern.  I felt dirty.

“Ms. Douglas, would you honor me with a dance?”  He looked terribly hopeful.  I gave him the first so that I could get it over with.  But then he wanted another. 

I put him down for the last, to make him wait.  A waltz.  That should help his standing with my mother.  I almost giggled out loud.

Periodically I could catch a glimpse of my reflection in the candlelit mirrors that stretched across the surface of the walls.  I have spent much of my life knowing that there were many women much more beautiful than I.  In fact, I felt downright ugly most of the time. But tonight, I felt beautiful and graceful.  It was magical.  But I stood there alone.  No other men came to request dances.  Women that passed me nodded sympathetically or whispered conspiratorially to their companions as they walked by.  I knew why.  Mr. Brierly was haunting me.  It had not gone unnoticed that we had been close.  Perhaps too close.  My mother had been livid on more than one occasion.  It was difficult to say no to him.  Now he was gone.  And I was not.

Awkwardly, I stood there alone as my mother began to make the rounds of the room, renewing acquaintances and attempting to stir up interest.

Through the evening, however, men started to show up, asking me to dance.  I recognized several as friends of Mr. Aspern and realized that he was sending them.  Part of me wanted to be indignant.  Instead, I was grateful.

At midnight, Mr. Aspern collected me for dinner.  This was a smaller ball and as such, a large meal was planned as a break.  There was turtle soup and pigeon pie.  Roast duck and pork with vegetables.  It went on and on.  My mother sat on my left.  Mr. Aspern was on my right and attempted to monopolize my attention.  Conversation was awkward at best as I had great difficulty finding any mutual topics of interest.  We did, however, discuss the weather at great length.

The remainder of the evening passed uneventfully.  I danced several more dances, including the final one with Mr. Aspern.  Notably my mother decidedly chose to ignore the fact that it was a waltz.  I could see that she was in love with the prospect of him as a son in law already.  I winced.  Evelyn Aspern?  Meh.  Still, he had shown me great kindness tonight and I felt that I owed him some consideration.  We would see.

Mother had much to discuss on the carriage ride home, mainly about how this woman or that was dressed.  Wasn’t the hot punch lovely?  Ms. Elizabeth someone or other was to be engaged to a Mr. Robert someone or other, had I heard?  No, I had not, but I was too tired to even care.  The carriage lamps did little to pierce the dense Scottish fog that had settled over Edinburgh.

When we arrived home at about 3 o’clock in the morning, mother and I went to the kitchen for our customary cup of tea before bed.  It was a tradition, despite the fact that I was always much more interested in sleep.  Emma always waited up for us and had a kettle steaming on the stove when we arrived.  However, this time there was no tea.  And no Emma.  My mother glanced at me, puzzled.

“I will look in on her,” I said.  “Perhaps she is not feeling well?”  Since I knew her condition, I wanted to shield her from the experienced, prying eyes of my mother for as long as I could.

I dragged myself upstairs to Emma’s room, quite the chore on legs that had danced all night in uncomfortable shoes.  I knocked on her door, gently, but there was no answer.  I cracked the door a bit, lamp light filtered into the hallway.  I could hear my mother’s steps on the landing.

Emma!” I whispered.  Still no answer.  I resolved to enter, pushing the door open further. 

There in the corner was Emma, lying unconscious, with more blood than I had ever seen in one place soiling her skirts and the floor around her.  I screamed for my mother, which also brought John in his night clothes.  He took one look at her in the floor and then ran back to his room to throw on some clothes.  My mother checked to see that she was still breathing and began to give orders.  I was commanded to stand back so as not to soil my gown.  Still unsure if I should divulge Emma’s secret, I remained silent even as she was lifted up and taken by carriage to the Royal Infirmary.

Chapter Twelve: Dissociation

Frantic, I spun around the room.  Where was she? 

I turned to him.  “What did you do?  Where did she go?” I demanded.  I wanted to choke him, but that would require touching him and I never wanted to have my skin on his in any way ever again.  An open mouthed shrug was his only response.  He seemed to be rather surprised himself.  Bastard.  I snatched up my cloak and other belongings, and flew out of the door, down the steps, onto the deserted street.  I paused for a few moments once I reached the sidewalk, searching for Emma’s shadowy figure.  It was nowhere to be found.

Where should I go?  Where would she go?  Would she head home or wander the streets or jump from a bridge or something else as dramatic and final?

I made my way back through the streets to our house, praying that she was safe but at the same time wishing death upon her for squandering what I had just endured.  I knew that I would be feeling the physical pain for days but the emotional and spiritual pain would endure much longer. 

I snuck quietly up to Emma’s room.  I cracked the door. I could see her huddled into a ball on the floor by the window.  She looked up.  I could see wet tears glisten on her face in the dim moonlight.  But I did not want to speak to her or try to comfort her.  I closed the door softly but firmly.  I did not know if she had any inkling of what had occurred behind that door in those rooms but we would not speak of it.  Ever.  She could explain herself in the morning.

There was no sleep for me that night.  No tears, either…I stayed true to my promise to myself on that point.  I washed myself over and over again in the wash basin, the soap burning, amplifying the rawness I felt in my heart.  I finally gave up, accepting that I would probably never feel clean again.  Somehow the white night gown I slipped over my head now seemed a lie.

I was no longer a virgin but I did not know what that meant for me now.  A wedding night charade?  Many a woman had faked virginity but secretly cutting themselves or other more elaborate deceptions.  This did not concern me.  But what did this mean from a purely religious standpoint?  If virginity was required of me by God until my wedding night, what was I now?  A harlot?  I had a hard time believing that.  Was this a sin?  And if so, how damning? 

My thoughts continued swimming through my brain as the dark wrapped itself around me.  I thought of the cadaver’s brain on the table in the auditorium.  I wish I had mustered the courage to touch that as I had touched her skin.  It is easy to assume the mystical, magical part of spirits and souls until you see the reality.  We are all just flesh and blood.  Where is the hope in that?  I was here, on the brink of something.  A fall into the abyss?  Or would I find strength, the will to survive this and everything else? 

A chink of sunlight peered through a crack in the drapery. 

I rose from the bed and threw open the curtains, catching the warm sunlight on my face.  There were people on the street below already.  I dressed for the morning by myself, wanting to complete the task before Emma arrived to assist me.  I was not yet ready to speak to her.