“Where is he now?” I asked.
We eyed each other across the vast expanse of the worn wooden kitchen table, a chasm made wider by our mutual pain and mistrust. I had not bothered to cover it with a table cloth. Why worry with niceties when your rival is sitting across from you? The surface was crossed by knife gouges and my fingers traced the marks absently as I watched her face. Her eyes clouded with something… Anger? Pain? A secret perhaps? Then it disappeared, hidden.
Finally, she spoke. “He is in Edinburgh. Probably drunk.”
We sat in silence again.
“Do you still love him?”
“Yes.” She smiled slightly. She was beautiful. “But not as before, not in the same way. I want him to find the happiness he could not find with me.” She seemed earnest, though I wondered. Who could be human and yet so magnanimous?
“And your daughters?”
She sighed. “With him.” She saw my concern and hurriedly added, “They have a governess. An old, ugly governess. No sense tempting fate.” A bitter laugh escaped from her red lips.
“What do you intend to do?” I watched her face again. There was resignation this time.
“I will go back. I have no choice. I have no money of my own and no means or skills by which to support two daughters.” She stared at me, pointedly. “What do you intend to do?”
What could I do?
“I will continue to go on as I have.” I shrugged. “No choice but to keep going forward.” I stopped as realized her intent. “If you are worried that I will attempt to take him from you, I can assure you that I will not.” She nodded solemnly.
Shame and pity washed over me.
I held out my hand to her.
She hesitated but took it. I squeezed. We had made a pact, she and I, two women hurt beyond recognition by love. How happy would we be if he had never crossed into our lives? We would never know. There was nothing to be done about it now.
“I am sorry, you know.”
“I am, too,” she whispered softly.
She gripped my hand tighter.
“I know of another way.” She rushed through the whispered words.
My heart pounded. “What?” Did I hear her correctly? Surely not.
“I know of another way,” she said, this time louder. “We can both have what we want. You want him. I want freedom. I know of a way but I need your help.”
“You know of a way?” My voice sounded incredulous. I cleared my throat and tried again, this time without the edginess. “You know of a way?”
“I cannot tell you just yet.” She stood, still holding my hand. “Give me one year to make the preparations. I will send you a letter with instructions.” She was squeezing harder.
“One year.” She spoke with urgency and determination. “You promise to help me?” Her grip was beginning to hurt.
“Yes.” I stood up. “Yes, I will help you.”
“You will raise my daughters as your own?” I nodded. “Say it! Say you will do it!” She grabbed my other hand and we stood facing each other, her eyes searching mine, looking for some clue. Could I be trusted?
She let go of my hands. She gave me a tight, quick hug and then held me out at arms length, joyful.
And then? Then she was gone.
She walked out of my house. I watched her red dress fade into the distance from the parlor window as Anne began to fuss from the nursery, letting me know she was hungry.