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.”
“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.