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.