That evening, dinner conversation was dominated by William asking for any news from Edinburgh. I had not realized how much he had missed the city until then. It had been his home, after all, I supposed. After the meal, I retired to my chamber, leaving the men to their cigars and scotch. I was weary but could not focus on sleep. As I dressed for bed with the assistance of the maid, and then brushed out my hair, I realized that I was not feeling that feverish longing that I had carried around with me for so long. It was replaced by a calmness, a peace. Strength. Could it be that meeting again had cured me? I sat in my nightgown for an hour or two, reading the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe. I was on his short story “The Masque of the Red Death” and read until I had finished it, my eyelids eventually leaden with sleep.
I had just crawled beneath the covers and reached to blow out the flickering flame of the lamp when I heard the familiar tapping on the door. I sighed.
When the door opened, I was startled to see Nathaniel standing there. He closed the door quietly behind him and stood leaning on the door. Suddenly, I was no longer sleepy. I sat up in the bed, careful to keep the bedclothes pulled up to my shoulders.
“I beg your pardon!”
He was clearly bleary-eyed drunk. “Your husband toasted your skillful response this afternoon one too many times. I believe he is passed out cold in the floor of the library.” He laughed, then swayed ever so slightly. Nathaniel did not seem that far away from passing out in the floor himself.
“I see,” was all I could manage.
“Evelyn. I…” There was a long pause. He took an inebriated step forward. “I am…sorry…I will leave,” he said hurriedly, his face flushed. He stumbled a bit as he stepped back and reached behind with his left hand to grab the doorknob. There was another moment’s hesitation, then he opened the door and started to back out. I did not know what to say, so I let him go despite wanting to plead with him to stay. I sat there a moment after the door clicked shut, listening to him enter his own room down the hall, then blew out the light.
The next morning at breakfast, William was chipper as ever. If he had been unconscious in the floor of the library from injudicious use of alcohol the night before, one could not tell. I had no idea how he could do it. Perhaps it was his Scottish blood?
“Good morning, my dear!”
“Good morning. How was the remainder of your evening?”
“Have you seen our guest this morning?”
“Ah, yes! He was up quite early, said that he was going to take a stroll around the park.”
“What are his plans?” I was ready for him to be gone.
“He is to be here for the next week, then on to Hartford.”
“Seven days?” I buttered my toast, incredulous.
“Certainly. I thought I might show him the factory this morning, though if he does not return soon, I will have to leave without him…” He took a last bite of fried egg and swig of hot tea with milk, then jumped up. “I’m off, my darling!” He kissed me on the cheek. “Have a good day, do not get into any trouble…”
“What do you mean?” I asked, surprised, a sudden panic washing over me.
He laughed. “I mean to say, be careful about mentioning foreskins in sensitive company today!” Then he was out the door.
I ate the rest of my breakfast in relative silence then met with the cook about the remainder of the meals for the week, since we would have the extra guest. Midmorning, Dr. Brierly had returned, according to the rotund, red-faced housekeeper, Ethel, but I believe that he was avoiding me as I saw no trace of him. I was not sure whether to be flattered by his actions last night or offended by the assumptions that that action had made about my character showing up in my room while I was dressed only in a nightgown, so to be honest I was happy with this arrangement for the time being.
Lunch was taken on the terrace. It was a glorious day, the crisp breeze just cool enough to stimulate but not biting enough to be prohibitive. The bright sun beat down at the same time, seeming to warm the skin from within. Dr. Brierly did not appear so a tray was taken up to him by the staff. I read the remainder of Poe while enjoying a curried chicken salad, my favorite luncheon fare, that I was assured by the cook was prepared from the same recipe as one would find in India. The china had intricate brown designs traced on the surfaces, scenes of birds and trees and castles. I did not believe people in India ate cold chicken salad off of china plates, but it was tasty nonetheless. After the dishes were cleared, I moved out to the grounds for a walk of my own and resolved to stay out until late afternoon when I was sure William would have returned. I hoped to be spared any awkward moments with Nathaniel.
In fact, several days passed in this way, our only coming together occurring in the evenings across the deep, rich mahogany dinner table with me retiring early to leave the gentlemen to their play. One day, William took him hunting, the next day to the cotton mill. Another was spent by Dr. Brierly walking the countryside alone again.
It was not until the day before he left that he broke his silence about the incident in my bedroom. I had secretly been hoping that he had been so blessedly tipsy that he could not remember the exchange. We passed each other on the wallpapered landing. I was going upstairs, he was going down.
“Evelyn?” he asked. I stopped, my foot hung in the air above the next step, frozen.
“Yes.” I looked back over my shoulder as I pulled my foot back and stood firmly upon it again. He was still there with his back to me.
“I must apologize to you. My intoxication got the better of good judgment the other night.”
“Well, yes, I would agree.”
“I was thinking that it might be better for me to simply ignore the episode since you did not say anything to your husband and perhaps we could put it behind us, but I do not feel that we can.” He turned at this point, but still did not make eye contact, his gaze focused on a point just beyond my right shoulder. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Or rather, I cannot.” His brow was furrowed and he almost scowled, finally drawing up his eyes to mine.
“So, what does that mean, really?” I asked genuinely. I rested my hand on the balustrade hoping to draw support from the cool wood beneath my fingertips. How do you respond to a man who says this? I had no practice. I could feel heat rising up in my cheeks.
“I am not sure,” he replied and shrugged.
There was silence for a time. He spoke again just as I was on the verge of deciding to return to my sojourn up the stairs.
“Would you perhaps do me the honor of taking a walk with me to the river?” he asked at last. He held out his hand and gave a great chivalric bow at the waist.
It would be a long walk, but I realized that I longed to spend time with him, that delicious tingle of daring rippling over my skin. Where did that earlier feeling of peace and strength run off to, I wondered? Technically, as his hostess, it was reasonable for me to take a walk with him wasn’t it?
I took his hand and dipped ever so slightly in a mock curtsey. He stepped aside and gestured me to lead the way back down the stairs. I did obediently and he followed close behind. I paused at the parlor as I tied on my bonnet and wrapped up in my shawl in order to tell the housekeeper where I was going and with whom. I watched her face for any signs of reproach, perhaps put there by my own hypersensitive guilty conscience, but there were no shadows that passed over her features. I was not sure at the time why I should feel such disquiet, as I had not done anything untoward myself, nor was I sure that I would even if presented with the opportunity. I have since learned that one’s conscience often times knows things about one’s character that we ourselves do not even realize.
The September day was pleasant enough. The sun shone brightly, large cotton-filled clouds lolled overhead. A stiff breeze rustled the leaves in the trees, their colors had only just started to turn their bright oranges and burgundies and all of the shades of gold. I kept my arms crossed and folded across my chest as we walked unless I needed to swipe strands of hair out of my eyes as they whipped about in the wind. No chance of awkward touching that way. There was also the safety of the illusion of an impregnable wall that separated my heart within and the man walking beside me. The sun glinted off of his hair shooting golden lights along the strands. Up close, I could see that he did have more wrinkles framing his eyes and I caught a glimpse of a few gray strands in the hair at his temples. That was oddly reassuring.
We chatted about all manner of safe topics for over an hour until we reached the bank of the Charles River. We stood at the water’s edge, with the green-tinged water racing past us at our feet.
“Are you happy?” he asked as he looked down at me.
I shrugged. “I have no choice, really. William is good to me.”
“That does not really answer the question.”
“You…are right.” I sighed. “Am I as happy as I would have been had I been with you? No. Am I happier than I would be that if I were married to most of the men in this world? Yes. How is that for an answer?”
“Do you love him?”
“Honestly, I do not believe that is a fair question.”
“Because you don’t have the right to ask it.” The sun peeked from behind a cloud, forcing me to squint. The sudden warmth made gooseflesh rise on my arms.
“Alright.” His hand between my shoulder blades sent electrical shocks down both of my arms as he used it to guide me north along the bank.
I waited what seemed like a polite period of time, then asked, “You said you are not married? I do not see a ring.”
“No, I am not.”
“Are you betrothed?”
“Yes. Yes…I am.” My heart sank a degree. More wordless silence. Ahead and to the left I could see a dense cluster of trees: birch, red maple, and ash. We continued until we found ourselves deep enough in it that I could no longer hear the river. Grass was replaced by earth beneath our feet since the floor of the small wood was too dark to allow much green growth.
“With whom?” I could not help myself.
“That, my dear, is a silly question.” He continued to walk.
Here he stopped. We were in a rather isolated area, no boats or houses or people nearby. I turned to face him, saddened. As sentimental and silly as it may sound, his hand was suddenly touching my face. Then I found that he was kissing me and in short order, I realized that I was kissing him back. I knew that he had probably searched for this exact spot during his long walks the days before. Somehow, I realized, this moment had been planned out in every detail. But it did not change the magic of the moment, or change the relief that I felt in the knowing that I still held power over him in some way. His lips sought out mine hungrily, with the confidence one can achieve only from having more than one love affair. Logic told me that I had not been the last woman he had kissed or touched. I certainly had not been the first. I knew in my subconscious that there had probably been several women that he had had intercourse with over the intervening years. At any other time, I would have found these facts very disturbing. Now, however, I felt calm with the knowledge that I was in good hands.
He dropped the overcoat that he had removed earlier. My fingertips traced the muscular jaw line with its stiff whiskers, the base of his neck, the hollow just above his breast bone beneath his white shirt. The sapphire ring on my finger caught a glint of sunlight and I wondered if I should remove it. What was the standard protocol for something like this? I did not know. Instead I left the ring on my finger. It was who I was right now and removing it would not change the fact of my marriage, would not make this act any more or less immoral.
I curled up my arms beside each other at my chest and let him hold me close and tight to him. There was his heart beat again. I rested there, enjoying his scent mingled with that of the damp, mossy ground. I longed to rest eternally here…to go to sleep and to not wake up.
As you well know, there is nothing romantic or sweet about hurried, nervous love making…too much fumbling. Now that I have seen dress styles change over the decades, I think that while women may have gained some comfort, they have at the same time lost something more than just their dignity. The petticoats that were required to create the bell shaped skirt that was so in fashion in the 1850’s, the bloomers and corsets and countless under things…all of these prevented hurrying. A gentleman could not count on a quick tumble from anyone other than a professional whore. With this many complicated layers, love required some work, focus, and wooing. I have over the years replayed the steps again and again, grateful for every second that passed between us. There is nothing more arousing than to be slowly undressed layer by layer until ultimately you stand bare, hiding nothing from him.
I had never found lovemaking to be all that earth shattering up to this point. The prelude could be fun, but the act itself was always so rote and in the end unpleasantly sweaty and sticky. However, at this point I will admit that I wept as I felt my body yield to his. If there were music to accompany this moment, it would have been Beethoven’s Symphony number nine, “Ode to Joy”. The complicated emotions and sensations crashed at once upon me, instrumental swells and crescendos. He could not have known what all I was feeling.
He whispered, “It is OK to cry,” as he held my head to his now damp chest. My tears mingled with his sweat. “I will not lose you again. Do you understand me?” he said gently.
I could do nothing but sob silently still. I mourned the loss of my innocence. I mourned all of the years I had spent without him. I mourned for William and for all of the pain this would cause him if he knew. I laid there until I could no longer feel Nathaniel inside of me. I knew that all of the time we could spare had now passed and I began to stir, to put myself back together. I could feel the wetness of him left behind, and I am ashamed to say that I longed to feel it again and again.
“Evelyn?” He put his hands on my shoulders, then moved them to my face and kissed me full on the lips, deeply. “Thank you.” He stood and reached for his pile of clothing. I watched the muscles rippling beneath his skin as he moved, knowing what that would look like in the flesh, beneath his skin where it removed.
I had enjoyed the kiss. I had enjoyed everything that had passed between us. But I knew that on the other side of that, everything was changed. I was not the same woman he had loved before. He would not realize it yet, but he was certain to in a few days or weeks. I was compromised. The infatuation would wear off, and the panic welled up within me.
“What have I become?” I said softly.
He had begun to put on his shirt, but paused. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” I replied. I stood up and stepped into my bloomers. I pulled the heavily ruffled and laced petticoat over my head and over my corset, which had stayed on my person throughout as it was too complicated to remove. If I had known what would transpire today, I would have put on my new, beautifully embroidered pieces this morning. I was surprised at how easy such a grave act had been in the end.
An adulteress. I could imagine a scarlet “A” emblazoned upon my chest like Hester’s, a mark that would follow me forever now, a mark that could not be undone.
Nathaniel helped with the rest of my getting dressed once he had pulled on his pants, shirt, and black riding boots. I wrapped up in my shawl.
“Thank you.” I said as I tried to tuck stray hairs back into place.
“Listen, Evelyn.” He made me look up at him. “I cannot tell you how much I have longed for you, will long for you. I love you in a way that I never thought was possible. Never.” He kissed me again, hard. “Please come with me, back to Edinburgh.” His eyes pleaded.
I was at a loss for words. Leave William? Yes, that was the only way. Oh, God! What had we done? I turned suddenly and fled. I walked as fast as I could back along the path we had made into the woods and headed back to the river. I could hear him start after me, so I walked even faster. A sprint, unfortunately, was out of the question.
“Evelyn!” he called. I held up my hand to silence him and kept walking, hoping that it would clear my head and allow a reasonable answer to surface. I could not live without Nathaniel now. I knew this.
The sun was low on the horizon and the air quite a bit crisper. I could even see a puff of my breath if I exhaled deeply. My lips burned from the friction of his whiskers. There was a rawness below that I would remember him by for a day or two at least. I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with him and his brilliant mind and ambitious drive. But while he would love me and challenge me, he would not worship me the way William did. I am safe here. And to get to Nathaniel, I would have to trample on William. I knew enough about human nature to know that the pain would destroy William. It would not destroy Nathaniel. It would not destroy me. Not the way it would destroy William.
The crunch of footsteps behind me signaled that he had begun a short run to catch up. His hand on my shoulder pulled me back.
“I can’t. I should have thought about it before…before I even walked with you…where that road might lead. But I didn’t. I cannot leave now. I cannot.”
My damp cheeks seemed to surprise him and he drew back.
“William is a good man.”
“He is not a great man, Evelyn.”
“I am great-er, yes…”
“But are you a good man?”
“I wanted passion and love and romance like the next woman. You have experienced…things. You know how to manipulate that to your advantage. An honorable man would not have allowed me to…to do this.” I was angry, I realized.
He looked stunned. It was not entirely fair to lash out at him, I recognized. I never actually said the word No. Still, if I could make him admit that it was his fault, even partially, then I could carry less guilt myself.
“I…” he stopped. “I would say that I am sorry, but there is that selfish part of me that is not sorry, not really, not about this.” Here he gestured broadly. His eyes flitted away to some far off scene, focused there, then looked back again. “One morning I woke and I realized that I could not remember your face…”
In the quiet moments that followed as we stared at each other, the breeze stirred again with its hint of chill.
“Come,” he said finally. “I will get you home.”
We walked wordlessly along the countryside, to the outskirts of town, until we arrived at the estate. The sun was hovering on the horizon but William had not yet returned. In the fading light, the fireflies danced thickly in the trees and underbrush. I knew that it would not be long before his arrival, as he never stayed away beyond a reasonable hour unless for specific social engagements that I always knew of well ahead of time.
I passed my bonnet and wrap to the hefty housekeeper who dipped her head quickly, took Nathaniel’s long coat and hat, and carried off our things. We were left standing together in the dimly lit foyer, an awkward distance left now between us.
“Tell him the truth, Evelyn,” he spoke softly.
“He deserves the truth. There is no point to both of you being alone together.”
“What you ask me to do is like knowingly putting my own hand into a roaring fire and watching it burn to charcoal…even if I know that the act itself will prevent me from being thrown into the fire and consumed entirely body and soul…to do it of my own volition, purposefully? I do not know how. Do you understand? I am not that person, Mr. Brierly.”
He did not answer. Finally, there was a slight nod. Was he dismissing me or indicating that he understood?
Not knowing what else to say, I advised Nathaniel that I would be going upstairs to dress for dinner. We did not dare to touch. He did not reply beyond that of another silent nod and I felt his eyes follow me as I ascended the stairs.
Once I had reached my room and stood naked aside from my corset and chemise, I prepared to wash quickly with cool water from the basin but I found myself hesitating. While I had initially thought that I would attempt to wash off my guilt, I found that I could still smell him on my skin. I realized that I did not want to wash that away. My mind replayed the events, his lips on my breasts, his fingers probing gently below, and shockwaves moved through my body from my womb. Not like an orgasm. No, something even more powerful, more dangerous, that threatened to bring me to my knees.
Instead, I resolved to wear my most delicious dinner gown, a copper colored silk with full skirt and ivory lace appliqué. It is difficult to communicate the complicated mixture of shame, guilt, and lustful longing that now owned me. I grieved the lost innocence, and at the same time shamelessly plotted my next encounter, made all the more desperate by the fact that Nathaniel was leaving in the morning for Baltimore.
I descended the stairs to hear the voices of William and Dr. Brierly in the drawing room. William had also brought his factory assistant, Elijah Goodsill, a rather unpleasant wiry fellow with a sallow complexion and stringy black hair that always seems to stick in odd ways to his forehead. Despite his unpleasant personal appearance, he was always impeccably well dressed. They each rose from their respective seats as I entered, giving their little bows.
“Dinner is served, my dear, if you are ready?” William said, offering his arm.
“Oh, yes! Mr. Goodsill it is so nice to have you in our home again. You have met Dr. Brierly at this point, have you not?” I asked.
“Indeed,” he replied.
“Well, Mr. Goodsill, Dr. Brierly, shall we eat?” I moved, taking William’s proffered elbow.
Nathaniel’s face remained impassive and expressionless.
“Certainly, if you will lead the way, Mrs. Aspern.” He stepped aside and bowed slightly again.
This being Nathaniel’s last night with us I had sat down with the cook to plan something special. Scallops in a cream sauce. Garlic soup. Roast duck. A custard with brandied figs. The best wines. Each course a masterpiece, paraded out one by one.
He pointedly ignored me the entire evening. I sat in silence, staring at the crystal, again thinking about the implications of what had passed between us this day. I longed so to leave with him. I realized at that moment that his very existence, the very fact that I had loved him, had taught me to despise my husband.
I excused myself after dessert and retired to bed. I had hoped that Nathaniel would pop into my room again this night, but he did not. As a matter of fact, William did not, either. I was left to my own thoughts, replaying the day’s events until I cringed. At some point, I fell asleep, fitful though it was. When I awoke to tiny chinks of sunlight creeping through the heavy curtains and stretched, I found a piece of paper in my left hand. A note addressed to me. My heart stopped dead in my chest.
I hesitate to write but feel I must or the swell of words will cause me to be swept away. I wanted to hold you for all time. More than that, I will admit, I wanted you come out of your own need for me. We are doubly wounded by our sense of honor now and I sadly find that you pierce my soul all the more. I will now say adieu.
I threw on a dressing gown, crumpling the paper into a pocket, and tore downstairs at breakneck speed. I had to reach him before he left. Surely he had not yet departed. In the kitchen, I found the cook preparing breakfast.
“Dr. Brierly,” I gasped breathlessly, “Is he still here?”
The cook looked up, surprised, arching an eyebrow at me. “No, ma’am. He left over two hours ago, before the sun was even up.” She threw me an odd look and her mouth opened as if to say more, but was given pause by my glare and instead went silently went back to her bread and sausages.
The knot in the pit of my stomach wound tighter. I ran back up the stairs to my bedroom, turning the lock quietly behind me. I sat on the floor by the fire and read and reread the note, tracing each word, memorizing. Knowing that I could not keep it myself without risking discovery, I eventually tossed the paper into the coals and watched the edges flame. The whole piece glowed orange for a few seconds with a burst of bright flame, then faded into ash. The tears did not come that day, or the next.