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.