William’s coughing took up final residence and was at long last diagnosed as consumption. Dr. Quincy, when William at last allowed his calling, advised in between his “Hmmmm’s!” that the disease was in an advanced stage and suggested retiring to a more favorable climate. Texas, perhaps. William, however, would hear nothing of it. Instead, he took drams of charcoal three times a day with doses of paregoric and rhubarb. That did not help.
He consulted with a Dr. William Cornell from Boston who claimed to be able to cure the disease. He insisted that William needed to travel North to a more favorable climate. Somewhere terribly cold and icy. William refused. Every five minutes during his waking hours, a “lotion” of one part alcohol and three parts water was applied to the chest. He took three grains of tartarized antimony, syrup of cloves, and a decoction of marsh mallows that was repeated until he vomited. That did not help.
Tincture of blood-root, twenty to thirty drops two to three times a day. Cod liver oil with anise and orange peel and oil of calamus. Inhalation of pulverized nitrate of silver. He took spirits. A half pint of rum a day. Drinking of alcohol was purported to help with lung attacks. He became a drunk under the auspices of “medicine”, a fact that would have made the temperance movement raging mad. None of that helped.
Pulverized capsicum, lobelia, and valerian in equal parts, made into a pill. Mandrake and dandelion for congestion. Sulfate of quinine, sulfuric acid and water to maintain strength. Prayer, special masses were arranged by friends, candles were lit, fasting…anything to catch God’s attention. Nothing helped.
Over the next months, William became further emaciated, racked by fits of coughing that produced larger and larger flecks of blood on his snow white handkerchiefs. His skin took on a pallor that rivaled that of the linens. Tuberculosis. The white plague. Fevers plagued him, the rigors preventing him from resting at all. He became short of breath even with speaking.
I took to sleeping with him every night, in an attempt to try to ease his suffering, but found that I had little to offer aside from companionship. Dr. Cornell was adamant that I not stay with William, as the disease was contagious and he had many cases of nursemaids that died within a year or two of taking care of a patient with consumption. The windows were left open to prevent the miasma from infecting me, but truthfully I dared it to touch me. I had had enough of death. Sometimes it seemed that the only way to escape it further was to die myself. I felt trapped by the same helplessness I had felt while attending to Emma, and when I was holding Levi, only this was seemingly never ending. I felt that I was engaged in a death watch of the worst kind. Months passed. Christmas came and went. Another year. Eventually, William was bedridden. Bathing him, I could see that he had become a skeleton. I knew in my heart that he would not recover. Well meaning acquaintances advised me to assemble my mourning wardrobe in preparation, but how can one be prepared for such a thing? Is it not the epitome of infidelity itself to be prepared for your husband’s death?
I attempted to make bargains with God, thinking that I could somehow save William’s life. Was not his illness a consequence of my own scorn for his value, his presence? I had lost my child, was I now to lose a husband? Could God be that cruel? How much penance must I pay? I cried out to Him. In the night alone in my room in my mother’s bed, I begged for His forgiveness over and over again.
God did not hear me as I wrestled with my guilt. Should I seal my forgiveness by a confession? Did I need to ask William for his confession? Did God demand it as payment for His mercy? Would the pain caused by the knowledge of the loss of my fidelity be less than the pain of death? Further, would he not ultimately know the truth from God himself when he reached heaven? Could I really think that I could keep secrets from this man? Should I just allow God to tell him then?
He sweated through the bedclothes, caught up in the rigors of fevers. I sat with him and held his hand or caressed his forehead. I read to him when he could listen, I was silent when he could not. The blood he coughed up became more and more red. His breath was rank. He could not eat.
One evening in the gloom of the candlelight, I could see that William seemed more peaceful than he had in weeks. If I could not feel the thready pulse through his pale, veiny hand I would have thought him dead. It was hard to watch him like this. I stood to stare out into the darkness beyond the open window. The cooler night air had replaced the stifling heat of midday. Crickets chirped outside.
“Evelyn?” he asked weakly. I stepped back across the room and sat on the mattress beside him.
“Yes, my darling, I am here…” I brushed his damp hair back from his forehead with the cool, damp rag I had just wrung out in the washbasin beside us.
“I am dying.” He had not acknowledged this before. I wanted to tell him that he was not, to stop all of this nonsense. But I did not.
“Yes,” I said gently.
“I am afraid to leave you, Evelyn.” He drew a short breath. “You will be alone.”
“No, William. You will be here with me.” I placed his hand on my heart.
“Somehow I have failed you.” My heart pounded.
“No. No you have not!”
He drew himself up on the pillows. “Yes, I have.”
“What do you mean?”
He did not answer. Instead, he turned his face away.
“William, what do you mean?” I asked again more insistently.
His breath was shallower still as he turned his head back to me.
“Your heart has not been here.” He nodded once to the hand I had pressed to my chest, placed it on his chest, then withdrew it. “I have always admired you. Your dignity. Your beauty. Your intelligence. Your fierce loyalty.” He paused to catch his breath again. “I knew you did not love me. Not the way I have loved you.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he motioned for me to remain silent. “It was enough for me, though, Evelyn. It was enough.” Another pause, another gasp for air.
“Forgive me…” I did not know what else to say.
“There is nothing to forgive.”
“Yes, there is…” I drew a breath and open my mouth again…I was on the verge of telling him everything.
He sat upright, coughing, interrupting me. More blood on the handkerchief, the size of a half dollar. It took him several minutes to catch his breath again.
“Listen to me,” he said firmly, pausing between each word. “I ask your forgiveness and release you from any obligation to me. You must find him when I am gone.”
“William…” I rasped, his name sticking in my throat, shock pouring through me. I was interrupted again by his coughing. I wiped the blood from his lips, then kissed him gently, the metallic iron taste lingered on my lips afterward. “I love you. I love you now. I know it is too late, but I love you with my whole heart.” He stared at me. There was no anger, no hate. Only understanding.
He lifted his hand to my face, his thumb brushed tenderly across my cheek.
“No, you don’t, but it is enough, nonetheless.”
This time, his coughing would not stop until blood poured from his mouth and down his chest in a great, sticky red river. I could see he was drowning in it, suffocating, and could see the panic in his eyes. I screamed for help. Servants scrambled into the room, the doctor following, but by then William’s eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, his head resting in a bloody coagulated pool in my lap. Grief welled up again from deep within my soul. A maid silently stopped the ticking clock over the mantle.
It was 11:30PM, July 23rd, 1853. I had no more tears to cry.