There was another knock. Dinner? This must be food at last!
I hurried to the door, opening it eagerly. There, on a cart, were many covered dishes, domed in silver. I could not see anything aside from my distorted reflections, but the smell made my stomach begin to gnaw on itself. Divine.
A dark bearded steward nodded silently rolling in the wooden cart. He began laying it out on the heavily carved, if not somewhat worn, table in the corner of the sitting room. He shook out a table cloth, covering the surface in white linen, then began laying out and uncovering the dishes. I could see it was too much food. I could never eat all of this. Roasted chicken with rosemary. Potatoes. Creamed spinach. A lovely cake.
Candles? He lit them.
“Sir, excuse me.” I put my hand on the steward’s arm to make him stop. He paused, confused. “There is only me tonight. Only me eating this. Not two.” A stab of guilt hit me, remembering what the hospital staff and patients were subsisting on. “I am sorry if I was not clear. Please take most of this away. Don’t waste it.”
He shook his head and went back to hurriedly laying out the dinner service for two. Silverware. Napkins. Crystal. Wine, poured from a sparkling decanter.
Another knock at the door.
Then I realized what was happening.
The steward was looking at me, expectantly but I was rooted to the spot. I could not open the door. I put a hand up to my hair. I must look dreadful. I smoothed my skirt down unconsciously, grateful that I had taught myself how to wriggle into a corset despite my crippled hand. Damn it!
“May I?” the steward asked. I glared at him, unmoving and silent. He shrugged and moved to the door, taking his cart with him. His work here was done.
And then there was Nathaniel, handing a wad of bills to the steward who bowed slightly and murmured his thanks as he closed the door behind him.
Silence as we stared at each other from across the room, taking measure. He leaning on his cane, me holding a chair with my good hand for support.
I spoke first. “I told you no,” my voice was shaking.
“I understand if you do not want to be seen publicly with me. I thought this might be an acceptable alternative. You must allow me to show my gratitude, to say thanks in some small way for saving my life.” His eyes pleaded with me.
“A note would have sufficed,” I said stiffly.
“Evelyn.” He sighed. “I do not wish to cause you pain. I will leave if you wish.”
I considered this for a moment.
No. The food must be eaten. Dinner does not constitute a betrayal. I did not speak or give him permission. I merely sat myself down in a chair, placing my napkin into my lap. He followed suit.
I served myself from the food and ate in silence that was punctuated only by the sound of silverware on the china and the ringing of crystal when it hit something else on the table. Sadness wrapped itself around my tongue, deadening the flavors. The only thing that tasted good was the wine. Eventually I gave up on the food, pouring myself a second glass.
He avoided my gaze, examining the room. I stared at my wine, the deep red seemed to glow from within. I could feel the alcohol recreating that tremulous feeling in my arms and legs…not the rubbery, off balanced kind of feeling one gets when seriously inebriated. It was the delicious alive feeling, almost bordering on joy, that comes more early on.
I searched my brain for something clever and biting to say, but there was nothing that came to me now. There would be later, surely. There were always plenty of words when there was no longer any opportunity to use them.
Instead, I settled on staring at him, looking him in the face. It gave me courage.
He was still so handsome. Was it the wine? The candlelight?
He looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back, wistfully.
“Would you care for some cake, Evelyn?”
“No. No, thank you.” We regarded each other for several minutes. A battle of wills to see who would blink first. Finally, he decided to allow me this one victory. He cleared his throat, dabbing at his whiskers with the linen napkin, placing it neatly beside his plate as a gentleman should. The war had not changed him in that way.
He stood, grabbing his cane. He opened his mouth as if to say something, and then closed it. I stood, taking his cue. He wanted to say goodbye, surely.
I crossed to the door, thinking that I would have a third glass of wine once he had gone. There would be no sleep without it.
He followed me across the small room, over the worn carpets. Those carpets had been something in their day, majestic even. One could tell in spite the shadows they had become.
At the door, he took my damaged hand, bringing it to his lips. My fingers were tickled by his facial hair, the parts that still had feeling. The old me would have giggled. Instead, I frowned, sadness welling up from within. No matter what happened from now on there would be pain, always pain.
How it happened next, I could never be sure no matter how many times I reviewed it in my head. In the end I knew Nathaniel was mine and mine alone, if only for this brief moment.