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.