Where was God?
William Aspern was dead.
I bathed his body and dressed him in his burial suit. Perhaps the servants should have performed the task, but I could not bear it, his secret places open to their eyes. He was mine.
William’s close business friend, Jonathan Hedgerly, a tall, gangly and somber fellow, came to offer his services. His quiet way was comforting. He assisted with all of the arrangements and I was grateful. William would be buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, the first cemetery of its kind in the United States to combine a picturesque, rugged landscape with burial. More like a garden than a cemetery, really. Mr. Hedgerly had selected a plot on a hill overlooking the river. It was beautiful, he said, and was exactly what William would have wanted for himself, not the rows and rows of tombstones found in the traditional graveyards.
His body was laid out in the grand parlor and close friends and family filed by to pay their respects. I was surprised by the degree of respect he had achieved, the number of people that filled our house over the ensuing days after the funeral. Thankfully, I was not expected to meet any of them and I remained secluded in the back rooms of the house. Yet another wardrobe of black appeared, this time is was my turn to wear the mourning bonnet. Its long, flowing black veil left me in a dark shadow to my ankles. The door to our house was again covered in black crepe and tied with a white ribbon. Funeral invitations had to be written. And I needed to write a letter to his parents detailing his death.
I steeled myself. Two years, isolated. This was considered the proper sign of respect for the man whose name I carried, to live in perpetual companionship with my deceased husband for at least the next two years. I knew that my grieving would last much longer than that, but the rituals themselves seemed so empty that I felt myself resenting them. I resolved to not allow my resenting of the trappings and etiquette cause me to resent him. I owed him at least this. If I had not been faithful to him before, I should be faithful now.
The day of the funeral dawned hot and oppressive, the bright sun beating down. Beads of sweat ran down my scalp, neck, and back. I had applied lemon juice to my armpits prior and let it dry, hoping to not end up smelling like a goat by the end of the procession with all of my black layers absorbing the heat of the sun. Six pallbearers carried William’s body to the horse drawn hearse and then on to the graveside. While William had seemed to not be aware of his impending death on the surface, he had actually prepared for it in great detail privately. In addition to making arrangements for the sale of the factory and a trust for me, he had left instructions regarding his funeral. He had been specific that there not be anything more than a simple graveside service and Mr. Hedgerly had been specific in carrying out the wish.
I felt suffocated beneath the hot veil, the dust from the dyed cloth filling my lungs as I followed, alone, in the next carriage. I now understood why women remained secluded in their homes during mourning. If I were required to wear this miserable get-up out of doors I intended to stay locked up, too. At the graveyard, I stood silently beside the priest as he gave the brief eulogy. I was a black, shapeless ghost. Acquaintances nodded as they filed past me afterward. Sometimes a woman would pause and give me a reassuring or sympathetic hand squeeze. There would be no meal. No gathering. Nothing more than this. I stood there, beside William’s coffin until everyone had left aside from the priest and Mr. Hedgerly. I did not want to leave him there.
There was an awkward clearing of the throat. “Mrs. Aspern.” It was Mr. Hedgerly’s deep, soft voice.
I looked up at him through the black haze of the veil. He held a small, white envelope in his hand, addressed to me. He was almost apologetic as he held it out to me. I started at it.
“William had this in his papers with the instruction that it was to be given to you after the funeral. He did not say more specifically than that, so I felt it should not wait any longer than necessary.”
I stretched out a black gloved hand, noticing my fingers trembling as they touched the crisp paper.
“Thank you, Mr. Hedgerly.” I replied. “I would like to read it here with him, please?”
“Certainly,” the priest said in response to Mr. Hedgerly’s quizzical look and turned away immediately, hurrying back down the path visibly relieved to not have to linger in order to console the bereaved widow.
“I will wait for you at the carriages,” Mr. Hedgerly said softly.
“Thank you.” I nodded and waited until he had turned to tear open the envelop. I could see the dirty, sweaty grave diggers standing in a grove of trees several paces away, hovering, hoping to pile the dirt onto the black casket as quickly as possible so that they could return home. They were paid for the job, not by the hour. However undignified, I sat down on the ground beside William and unfolded the letter. In spite of the heat, I felt gooseflesh rise on my arms as if chilled.
My dearest Evelyn,
You already know that I have made arrangements through my friend, Mr. Hedgerly to sell the factory and all of my business assets and to place the proceeds into a trust for you. I am told that it will be a substantial sum, the interest of which will enable to you live comfortably and independently for the rest of your time on this earth. I do this for two reasons. First, because I love you. Above all else, I love you. Second, because I do not desire you to be tied to this place of death. The house will be sold in two year’s time. You have too much to offer this world to be tied to memories that no longer exist. Your life is yours.
I remain therefore forever in your keeping,
William Jamison Aspern
I reread the letter several times. Mr. Aspern, plain Mr. Aspern. My Mr. Aspern, with his secrets and hiding places. How much of his life was a veil which he had hidden behind? How would I ever really know him? I was not sure whether to be angry or elated about the house being sold, but at least I had two years. Some time to make plans. The size of the income was a relief, as I had already spent many sleepless nights wondering what was to become of me in that respect. I knew that I could learn to run a mill, but I had not relished the task in any way. Actual dollar amounts and business details had not been shared with me and I had been afraid to ask. In the end, William had been wise in all things.
But one last question remained. Where was God? I was not entirely sure that I had any kind of faith left in me. He had not heard my cries. I had not felt his comforting presence at any point along this journey. My heart was full of anger and hurt. As I sat on the ground, alone aside from the coffin and the grave diggers, I screamed out for God to hear. I railed against him, letting all of the hate and sadness pour from my soul and out of my mouth. I did not want to keep it with me any longer. He could have it, have it all, if he existed.
Mr. Hedgerly must have heard, too. Perhaps he had stayed nearby, hidden within earshot in case he was needed. Within a minute he was kneeling beside me, hushing me. When I would not be hushed, he stood, lifting me up by the elbows until I was standing before him. He must have thought that I was screaming at William.
“Hush! You do not want anyone else to hear.” He shook me gently. “Look at me, Evelyn!”
I did look at him. And I was quiet.
“Yelling at him will do no good. He cannot hear you. Come.” He put my black gloved hand on his arm and covered it with his own hand, clearly to prevent my escape. He led me away.
But now God knew the score. I dared the bastard to take me next. I would not go without a fight.