“I would like to take meals in my stateroom.” I was pacing the dark wood paneled sitting room in my cabin, agitated. “Is that possible?”
The steward nodded solemnly.
“And I would like a glass of claret.” He raised a single eyebrow as if to say, surely not at this hour. “Now,” I added in case there was some degree of doubt in his mind.
“As you wish.” He smiled wryly. “Is there anything else with which I may be of assistance?” There was an edge to his voice now.
I realized I must have barked the order. I cringed inwardly. Giving orders came so easily when there was someone now to receive them.
I whispered an apology with my eyes.
“Yes. Please. I…I would like something to read. A book. Is there….?” I trailed off.
It seemed a ridiculous question. Of course there would not be a book store or lending library in the middle of the ocean, on a ship full of returning wounded, the bits and pieces left over from the Crimean War. This was the closest I had come to a luxury liner in over year but it was still a far cry from ships I had been on before. I cursed myself daily for not bringing one or two of the books from my trunk. The hours of idleness were affecting my mind and now threatened my very soul.
“Madame, there are some books available from the captain’s personal library. Is there a particular genre you are interested in? Generally, he does not lend out, but we have had precious few women on this ship of late. I am certain he would make an exception for you.”
I sighed in relief. “No, no particular interests. Surprise me.”
In short order he returned with a tea tray, a bottle of deep red claret, and several books. As he left I turned the musty books over in my hands. They appeared to have never been read, stiff bindings and crisp pages in leather bindings with gilded edges. I settled on one, The Lottery of Marriage by Frances Trollope and lost myself for several hours.
I became vaguely aware of an urgent pounding somewhere far away. It occurred again, drawing me further from the words on my page and as the sound came further into focus, I realized it was a pounding at (my) door.
I looked up from my book, irritated that something was pulling me back to reality.
Go away. Silence. I returned to the book.
More pounding. I sighed.
Fine. Perhaps it was dinner. I was hungry after all, having skipped lunch in the dining room earlier, too afraid of running into him, of having to continue the exhausting pretense of happiness, pretending not to care. I placed my book open and face down on the floor. The stiff binding groaned softly in protest.
Rising from the soft, upholstered chair in the sitting room of my cabin, I stretched my joints, stiffened from the lack of use, and made my way to the door. I cracked it open.
A steward was standing there, not the same one from earlier. This one was crumpled though not dirty, his left hand raised, poised to rap at the door again. When he saw the sliver of face peering out from the cracked door he lowered the arm slowly.
He had a pinched, apologetic look. “I am so sorry to interrupt, Madame. A man gave this to me, said it was a matter of some urgency and asked that I wait for a reply.”
I blinked. I opened the door wider.
There was only one man who knew I was here.
I was not sure I wanted to take the sealed envelope on the somewhat tarnished tray held out before me. His handwriting was on the envelope, addressed to Mrs. William Aspern. The bastard. Using my dead husband’s name as if it would keep us a safe distance apart. No. I would take the note. I would stab it through the heart and hand it back as my answer.
But wait. I did not even know what he was asking. I stepped back.
The steward stared at me, puzzled. “Missus?” He took the envelope off the tray himself, handing it to me.
I came back to my senses. I grabbed the note, tearing it open unceremoniously as I lacked a letter opener, and quickly read the contents. My face flushed. I put a hand to my chest. My heart. Where was my heart?
My dearest Evelyn,
I realize it is out of place for me to ask… completely out of line and disrespectful of me. But I am compelled. May we have dinner together tonight?
Faithfully his? What was he trying to say? And it was disrespectful. Of me. Of our past. Of his wife and his child and his future. I loved him and I hated him. I wondered silently which emotion was the strongest, which would win out. Dinner did not have to be a betrayal. It was a long leap from dinner to something unholy, wasn’t it?
There was no pen or ink or paper. I had brought none and I had found none in my rooms. I glanced up at the steward, now standing expectantly waiting for my answer.
“I have nothing with which to write,” I told him.
He nodded silently, disappearing for a few minutes. I found myself pacing back and forth as I had been earlier, trying to clear my thoughts.
A soft rap at the door signaled he was back; this time with a small writing desk, the portable kind that is neatly tucked away in a lovely wooden box. I laid it on a small side table. Inside I found thick cream colored stationary and everything else I needed. I ran my hand over the soft surface of a blank page, admiring the purity before I marred it.
I sat down, hastily penning my answer. Sealing an envelop was too much trouble, particularly given the fact that I had nothing to seal it with. No wax. I handed the folded paper with the single word etched in black ink to the steward.
He gave a slight bow and was gone.
I closed the door behind him and leaned against the cool wood.
What had I done? I knew that I would regret that answer for the rest of my lonely life. But once said, never unsaid. Always unsaid.