I dozed off in a shaded chaise on one of the several decks of this vast, stream powered ship. It was two days into the voyage, bound for England.
I dreamed of walking in a vast green field, the tall grass tickling my fingertips as I walked. The smell of the damp dew wafted through the morning air, the drops of which collected on the hem of my skirt, making it heavier and deepening the red color as it soaked in. A cool breeze brushed over my skin.
This must be what peace felt like.
I headed for the cluster of trees on the horizon.
My subconscious became dimly aware of a sensation that I was being watched. I looked around. There was no one. I could hear birds twittering merrily but could not see them or anyone else.
Suddenly I felt that I was falling. Down, down, down into a deep abyss. I clutched around at the clods of dirt as they passed by at lightening speed, but they only dissentigrated in my fingers. I sensed that if I did not wake, if I hit the bottom, I was dead. I struggled to rise out of sleep. It was the only way to save myself.
Blinking, I saw a man come into focus before me. He was standing there, no longer in a worn and filthy uniform, leaning on a cane. Instead he wore a dark suit with an overcoat and matching hat. He had a startled look of disbelief on his face.
Here? On this ship? Now? How?
“Oh, God.” I sat up straight instantly wide awake.
We said nothing more. Neither of us moved. It could not be real. God would not do this to me, surely.
Time passed. It became evident that indeed this was real and not my imagination playing tricks on me as it had before many more times than I cared to admit.
Nathaniel took a seat on the edge of the adjacent chaise, resting his cane beside him.
“How are you?” he asked softly.
“Fine,” I replied warily.
A steward passed by with a tray on his shoulder. Nathaniel followed him with his eyes, silent. When the steward was far away and out of earshot, Nathaniel turned back to me.
He looked around again, furtively. Noting that no one was nearby, he leaned across and took my left hand in his. An intimate gesture. I had hidden my right hand beneath my skirt so no one could not see it, and even though he held out his other hand expectantly waiting for me to take it, I could not. I could not bring myself to put it on display even for him. He recognized that I was holding back and seemed hurt.
Finally, he said, “Thank you for what you did to save me. I do not have any idea how you would have known about the carbolic acid. I did not even know what it would do. It was tossed around at school in Edinburgh but it was equally ridiculed.”
“If you knew how I had learned of it, you would not want to hold that hand.” I withdrew from his grasp.
“Let me see your other hand,” he commanded. I made no move to expose it. “Evelyn, please?” He reached across and grabbed the arm, pulling it free of the cloth. He held it and studied it. What I hated most about it was that I could not feel much of his touch with it. Some. But not much. Eventually, he looked up.
“Walk with me?” He stood and deftly picked up his cane. I remained seated staring up at him “Please?”
In a matter of seconds, I managed to quickly weigh the pros and cons. Every facet of every scenario was considered. What was honorable? What did my heart want? What did my heart need?
Finally I settled on walking with him being both needed and wanted and if it remained only walking and only in public then it would be honorable to do so.
I stood and took the proffered elbow.
We walked in silence for some time. Being close to him I felt safe. The nearness was reassuring.
“Evelyn?” he said when no one was within audible distance.
“Yes?” I looked up at him.
“I have something that I need to disclose to you.”
I sighed. I had wanted to ignore it, to not speak her into existence. To know and to acknowledge are two very separate things.
“Tell me about her, Dr. Brierly.”
He stopped and we stood together at the rail. He looked out over the vast, unbroken sea as he told me of his wife and daughter in Edinburgh.
He pulled a photograph from his coat. I could see their smiles and hear their laughter and it hurt more than words could say.
Tears began to fall, welling up from my aching soul. He quickly folded the picture, closing the case and tucking it back into his breast pocket. He pulled out a handkerchief and passed it to me.
“Evelyn, I have and always will love you. You occupy that special place in my heart that only a first love can and you will never be displaced.”
I did not want to be his first love. I wanted to be his only love.
Here on the ocean, surrounded by acres and acres of nothing, I wanted to succumb to that very natural, very human emotion. I wanted to hate her. Hate them both, really. I wanted on some level to hear him say that he hated her himself and in another I wished him joy even if it was with her. I wanted him happy as I had never been. Someone needed to have happiness.
“Thank you. Thank you for sharing her with me.” I gave his arm a squeeze with my good hand. I offered back the handkerchief, but he waved me off. “I think I will retire now.”
“May I have the honor of escorting you to dinner?” he asked hopefully.
“No, thank you. I have not much of an appetite.”
“Will you walk with me again tomorrow, then?”
“Very well.” He understood. He touched the brim of his hat and bowed slightly.
He did not attempt to follow me, instead turning back to the sea. I left him there, holding my heart even still. There would be no peace for me. Not in this lifetime.