The body was shrouded in white linen, lying in state on the wooden table at the center of the lecture theater. Rows and rows of seats rose up into the darkness over our heads. As we circled the table, floorboards popped or groaned softly beneath our feet with each step. He drew the cloth back slowly across the form and eyed me intently, watching for any sign of the squeamishness for which my sex was so notorious. My nostrils filled with the acrid smell of mysterious chemicals and decaying flesh. I nodded somberly to him. By the dim light of the single candle he had lit, he began to unravel the mysteries of the sinews and muscles and organs, the excitement rising in his voice as he spoke. I pulled off my gloves. My hand was drawn almost unconsciously to the pale, silky skin that was still intact over the body’s left shoulder. It felt cold and waxy beneath my fingertips. So this was what death felt like. The chest cavity lay open, the entire anterior portion removed, no doubt to a furnace somewhere.
“Here is the heart and here, the lungs,” he was saying, demonstrating for me the springy, spongy nature of the lung tissue itself. The top of the skull had been removed, exposing the two hemispheres of the brain. The face had been completely dissected, rendering the body something less than human.
“Was it once a man or a woman?” He paused and looked up at me again.
“A woman,” he replied simply.
“Who was she?” He searched my eyes carefully, a look of warning on his face, as if to say don’t make her into a person again, not after all of this.
“She was one of the nameless poor. Her family, no doubt, could not afford a burial.”
“One of the nameless, faceless poor, then?” I winced at my sad attempt at humor, but he seemed to understand.
“Yes.” He grinned. I wanted to ask if she had any children, a husband, where she had grown up and how had she died, but I did not dare. He would not know the answers anyway.
“What will happen to her after this?”
“The law requires that her parts be saved and that she be buried in a common grave somewhere.”
“Do they really do that?”
“I would have no way of knowing for sure.”
“What do you think about the resurrection of her body on Judgment Day? Do you believe she will be whole again?”
“I do not know.” He was as aware as I that the general public feeling was that her body would not be whole, whether it was well founded on sound theology or not was irrelevant on the stage of public opinion. It was one of many reasons why this whole subject was dreadful to anyone, but especially to the poor as they essentially supplied these rooms. It was not that very long ago, either, that Burke and Hare had murdered dozens of victims and sold them for dissection on this very table. After a few moments, he added, “I am not sure that I believe in a Judgment Day.” No judgment day? Did that mean that he did not believe in God? How could he not believe in God? This was not the time or the place for such a discussion, but I made a mental note to bring it up on one of our walks.
He drew the shroud back over what remained of her upper body, then blew out the candle and slipped it into his pocket. He cleaned his hands on an old handkerchief. I could not see what he did with it after. In the dark, his hand rested at the small of my back and guided me firmly to the door where he then used the key to turn the lock. I pulled Emma’s borrowed cloak tighter around me, attempting to hide my own face. The hope had been that her coarser cloak would be less likely to raise eyebrows if seen on the streets at this late hour. As we stepped out into the damp night of the alleyway, he removed his hand. His touch, however, burned there still so intensely that I felt all of my blood flow reverse and rush to that single point, leaving me suddenly lightheaded. Sensing my faltering step, he steadied my arm and pulled me against his chest. Surely he thought I was finally overcome from the experience. But don’t you worry, Mr. Brierly, I am quite callous when it is required of me. I could feel his heart pounding. I tried instantly to imagine what that heart inside looked like as it moved inside of his own chest.
“Wait here for a moment,” he whispered. We stood there together, cloaked and safe in the cool night air. Finally, he spoke.
“What I have to say I could not do in there and I fear I will have no further opportunities in the near future. I have examined this problem in a million different ways and from all possible angles, but the conclusion that I must reach never changes.”
I waited, an unknown source of dread welling up from within.
“I cannot give you what you deserve in life.”
There it was. The truth of the moment.
“I will never be approved by your father as I am. My life’s work is science, not industry. I will someday have a modest living but not to the degree to which you are accustomed. I do not have the inheritance and income that everyone has been led to believe. I am guilty of that fabrication. Any choice that you make with me will guarantee your family’s wrath and society’s scorn. You have my life, its body and soul, Ms. Douglas, but I can give you nothing aside from that and perhaps knowledge, like this.” Here he gestured toward the lecture hall. “But these few things, while they seem enough now, will not content you for long.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but his raised hand stopped me.
“They will not content me for you, then. I am not selfish enough to presume that your hurt will not be my hurt. I lie awake at night and ache for you in ways that a man should not speak of to a woman. Before I do something that will curse you forever, I must leave while I still have control enough over my faculties to do so.” He paused here for a moment. I could feel his breath at my ear, strong and deliberate. I turned to face him.
“You do not understand. I spent the entire voyage here knowing what was expected of me, but not knowing how I would ever be able to consciously choose to marry, realizing that marriage means intercourse and intercourse mean pregnancy and pregnancy means childbirth. I cannot put into words the suffering I have witnessed. How could any man be worthy of that?
“Therefore, you must understand that when I choose to say the word ‘love’ to a man, I am not simply speaking of some young girl’s trifling. For me, love is the realization that I am willing to suffer, to die if need be, in order to be touched by you. Scorn does not scare me in the slightest because quite honestly, I love you Mr. Brierly.” His grip on my arm tightened. I wished I could see his face.
“Evelyn, I do not wish you to believe that I belittle your sentiments, but there will be others for whom you will feel the same.”
“What if there is not?” I whispered harshly. “Are you prepared to leave me tonight to face the rest of my life alone, without love?”
“Do you understand that I have no choice?” He said it slowly, deliberately. I left him with the sound of the rustling of unseen leaves for a moment before I replied.
“Yes.” And with that, there was nothing more left to say. I did not want to understand it, but I did. He believed he was doing his best by me and I would be unable to convince him otherwise now that he had made up his mind. He must have believed it was his penance in some way, perhaps for lying about his wealth?
“Thank you,” he said. He pulled me tighter, pressing me against his chest again. He held me there for some time. At last, he kissed the hair that lay on my forehead, then quickly and silently turned to lead me back to my mother.
After winding through dark alleyways and vacant streets, he stopped at the back gate of the garden. Crazy thoughts were crashing through my mind. I could not let him go without some sort of fight.
“Some day you will regret this, Mr. Brierly.”
“I already do,” he replied.
“Please…” I began, but his lips on mine both silenced me and sealed our fate. I could feel his longing and desire and willed with every fiber of my being that he could feel mine, that he would remember it somehow and carry it with him, a stake through his heart.
He pulled away suddenly and motioned with his head toward the door of the house.
“Go,” he insisted, the word forceful and sharp, a harsh whisper emanating from his shadowy form. Anger welled up within me and boiled over, red hot and dangerous. I wanted to hurt him as he was hurting me. I had no conscious control of my arm as it lifted, the palm of my hand connecting with his cheek with a force that staggered even me. The noise caused me to recoil and I heard his breath suck in sharply. There was the strange sensation of having no feeling aside from the hundreds of needles that spread along my fingers in the seconds after the impact. I regretted it instantly but did not know how to take it back. I could see the dim outline of his hand moving along the place at his face that my hand had just left.
“Go,” he rasped through clenched teeth. “Go.” I could hear the anger in his voice.
I turned and obeyed.