Chapter Thirty-Seven: Pulling up Roots

My hand glided along the mahogany balustrades, the silky wood cool beneath my fingertips.  The furniture was covered with dust cloths and dotted the rooms of the house like forlorn ghosts.  The heavy drapes were drawn closed at the casements, but thin slivers of bright sunlight still managed to slip through, slicing their way across the floor.  The house would remain thus for several months before the new family would take possession, but I was moving on.

My life had been condensed into a single steamer trunk.  All other personal items had been sold, burned, or sent for safe keeping with Mr. Hedgerly. I felt light. And heavy.

“Are you ready miss?”  The coachman was standing silhouetted in the doorway, hat in his hands.

“Yes, yes…just a moment more….”

“As you wish, only…” 

“Just a moment, John.  I will be there in a moment,” I said sharply. He bowed his head and backed out of the room again.  I could hear him pacing in the hallway, cursing under his breath. 

My heart felt empty.   

One last sigh, a look around, and I walked out the front doors, closing them for the last time behind me. 

Chapter Thirty-Six: Darkness Descends

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.

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Reaper

William’s coughing took up final residence and was at long last diagnosed as consumption.  Dr. Quincy, when William at last allowed his calling, advised in between his “Hmmmm’s!” that the disease was in an advanced stage and suggested retiring to a more favorable climate.  Texas, perhaps.  William, however, would hear nothing of it. Instead, he took drams of charcoal three times a day with doses of paregoric and rhubarb. That did not help.

He consulted with a Dr. William Cornell from Boston who claimed to be able to cure the disease. He insisted that William needed to travel North to a more favorable climate.  Somewhere terribly cold and icy.  William refused.  Every five minutes during his waking hours, a “lotion” of one part alcohol and three parts water was applied to the chest.  He took three grains of tartarized antimony, syrup of cloves, and a decoction of marsh mallows that was repeated until he vomited. That did not help.

Tincture of blood-root, twenty to thirty drops two to three times a day. Cod liver oil with anise and orange peel and oil of calamus. Inhalation of pulverized nitrate of silver. He took spirits.  A half pint of rum a day.  Drinking of alcohol was purported to help with lung attacks. He became a drunk under the auspices of “medicine”, a fact that would have made the temperance movement raging mad. None of that helped.

Pulverized capsicum, lobelia, and valerian in equal parts, made into a pill. Mandrake and dandelion for congestion. Sulfate of quinine, sulfuric acid and water to maintain strength. Prayer, special masses were arranged by friends, candles were lit, fasting…anything to catch God’s attention. Nothing helped.

Over the next months, William became further emaciated, racked by fits of coughing that produced larger and larger flecks of blood on his snow white handkerchiefs.  His skin took on a pallor that rivaled that of the linens. Tuberculosis. The white plague. Fevers plagued him, the rigors preventing him from resting at all.  He became short of breath even with speaking. 

I took to sleeping with him every night, in an attempt to try to ease his suffering, but found that I had little to offer aside from companionship.  Dr. Cornell was adamant that I not stay with William, as the disease was contagious and he had many cases of nursemaids that died within a year or two of taking care of a patient with consumption.  The windows were left open to prevent the miasma from infecting me, but truthfully I dared it to touch me.  I had had enough of death.  Sometimes it seemed that the only way to escape it further was to die myself.  I felt trapped by the same helplessness I had felt while attending to Emma, and when I was holding Levi, only this was seemingly never ending.  I felt that I was engaged in a death watch of the worst kind.  Months passed.  Christmas came and went.  Another year.  Eventually, William was bedridden.  Bathing him, I could see that he had become a skeleton.  I knew in my heart that he would not recover.  Well meaning acquaintances advised me to assemble my mourning wardrobe in preparation, but how can one be prepared for such a thing?  Is it not the epitome of infidelity itself to be prepared for your husband’s death? 

I attempted to make bargains with God, thinking that I could somehow save William’s life.  Was not his illness a consequence of my own scorn for his value, his presence?  I had lost my child, was I now to lose a husband?  Could God be that cruel?  How much penance must I pay?  I cried out to Him. In the night alone in my room in my mother’s bed, I begged for His forgiveness over and over again. 

God did not hear me as I wrestled with my guilt.  Should I seal my forgiveness by a confession?  Did I need to ask William for his confession?  Did God demand it as payment for His mercy?  Would the pain caused by the knowledge of the loss of my fidelity be less than the pain of death?  Further, would he not ultimately know the truth from God himself when he reached heaven?  Could I really think that I could keep secrets from this man? Should I just allow God to tell him then?

He sweated through the bedclothes, caught up in the rigors of fevers. I sat with him and held his hand or caressed his forehead.  I read to him when he could listen, I was silent when he could not.  The blood he coughed up became more and more red.  His breath was rank.  He could not eat. 

One evening in the gloom of the candlelight, I could see that William seemed more peaceful than he had in weeks.  If I could not feel the thready pulse through his pale, veiny hand I would have thought him dead.  It was hard to watch him like this.  I stood to stare out into the darkness beyond the open window.  The cooler night air had replaced the stifling heat of midday.  Crickets chirped outside.

“Evelyn?” he asked weakly.  I stepped back across the room and sat on the mattress beside him.

“Yes, my darling, I am here…”  I brushed his damp hair back from his forehead with the cool, damp rag I had just wrung out in the washbasin beside us.

“I am dying.”  He had not acknowledged this before.  I wanted to tell him that he was not, to stop all of this nonsense. But I did not.

“Yes,” I said gently.

“I am afraid to leave you, Evelyn.”  He drew a short breath.  “You will be alone.”

“No, William.  You will be here with me.”  I placed his hand on my heart.

“Somehow I have failed you.”  My heart pounded.

“No.  No you have not!”

He drew himself up on the pillows.  “Yes, I have.”

“What do you mean?”

He did not answer.  Instead, he turned his face away.

“William, what do you mean?”  I asked again more insistently.

His breath was shallower still as he turned his head back to me. 

“Your heart has not been here.”  He nodded once to the hand I had pressed to my chest, placed it on his chest, then withdrew it.  “I have always admired you.  Your dignity.  Your beauty.  Your intelligence.  Your fierce loyalty.”  He paused to catch his breath again.  “I knew you did not love me.  Not the way I have loved you.”  I opened my mouth to protest, but he motioned for me to remain silent.  “It was enough for me, though, Evelyn.  It was enough.”  Another pause, another gasp for air. 

“Forgive me…” I did not know what else to say. 

“There is nothing to forgive.”

“Yes, there is…”  I drew a breath and open my mouth again…I was on the verge of telling him everything.

He sat upright, coughing, interrupting me.  More blood on the handkerchief, the size of a half dollar.  It took him several minutes to catch his breath again.

“Listen to me,” he said firmly, pausing between each word.  “I ask your forgiveness and release you from any obligation to me.  You must find him when I am gone.”

“William…”  I rasped, his name sticking in my throat, shock pouring through me.  I was interrupted again by his coughing.  I wiped the blood from his lips, then kissed him gently, the metallic iron taste lingered on my lips afterward.  “I love you.  I love you now.  I know it is too late, but I love you with my whole heart.”  He stared at me. There was no anger, no hate.  Only understanding.

He lifted his hand to my face, his thumb brushed tenderly across my cheek.

“No, you don’t, but it is enough, nonetheless.”

This time, his coughing would not stop until blood poured from his mouth and down his chest in a great, sticky red river.  I could see he was drowning in it, suffocating, and could see the panic in his eyes.  I screamed for help.  Servants scrambled into the room, the doctor following, but by then William’s eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, his head resting in a bloody coagulated pool in my lap.  Grief welled up again from deep within my soul.   A maid silently stopped the ticking clock over the mantle.  

It was 11:30PM, July 23rd, 1853.  I had no more tears to cry.

Chapter Thirty-Four: Change of Heart

Mourning for Levi was six weeks as he had died an infant.  I wished it to last longer.  I needed desperately to bring attention to the fact that my baby had died.  I wanted to hear condolences given. Wearing black gave me permission to cry if I needed to cry with no judgment passed.  But unlike mourning for a spouse, to carry this out longer in the end felt disrespectful to other women who had mourned the loss of their own children.  So I carried my grief hidden inside.  William and I never spoke of it again once I had burned my mourning dresses.

We settled back into our routines with some new modifications.

While William was kind and solicitous, he never came to my bed. We attended social functions together and played our parts well but behind closed doors he seemed distant and closed off. He still told me that he loved me. He still kissed me before leaving for work and before retiring to bed.  But there was no passion from him. I wanted to feel he was pursuing me. Instead he was slipping away.

I tried harder and harder to hold on. I found places for us to go, to be together. We attended dinner parties and concerts, operas and balls. I spent quite a bit of money on new wardrobe pieces, updating everything to the latest fashions. I did my best to be charming and flirtatious, to no effect.

A cold November evening, we were sitting in a balcony at the Boston Music Hall, fittingly listening to a performance of Mozart’s Requiem.  William had been coughing for months, but it had only been a mild annoyance.  This night, however, his cough was loud, persistent, and disruptive. 

I leaned over to him and whispered, “William, please!  Can you not stop coughing?”

He held up a hand and nodded his head.  We settled back as the strains of the Sanctus continued to play.  It was not long before the coughing started anew.  People were looking up from the seats below us, glaring.  I was annoyed.  I turned and glared at William.  He looked back at me with pained eyes.  I nodded my head to the door, indicating he should excuse himself.

William stood and quickly left.  Minutes passed.  I could hear him in the hallway still coughing, unable to catch his breath.  Annoyance changed to concern.  I realized something was wrong and rose to assist him.  I found him with a uniformed elderly usher with a long bushy mustache and bare chin.  He was sipping on a glass of water, his hand shaking.  There were large spots of blood on his handkerchief and flecks on his white gloves.  He handed the glass to the usher when he saw me and quickly pulled off the gloves, shoving them and the handkerchief back into his coat pocket. 

“I am sorry, Evelyn.  I am better now.  We can go back.” He was hoarse.

“William, we need to go.”

“No.  You enjoy this sort of thing so much.”

“No.  We must go,” I said firmly. The blood worried me. We needed to leave before the end of the music, before anyone else was able to stop us and ask what was wrong. The pain was there in his face again.  The usher looked exceedingly uncomfortable. “Thank you for your help, we are fine now,” I told him.  He nodded and gratefully left with the glass of water in hand.

“You stay, I will go home, Evelyn.”

“There is no point in staying if you are not here. It is only Mozart, William.”  He started to return to our box. I grew angry. Why won’t he listen to me? “William!” I hissed.

I had to grab his shoulder to make him stay, but I pulled my hand back quickly, alarmed. I had not realized how skeletal he had become. We sat next to each other, but we did not touch. We no longer saw each other naked. It was then that I realized he was terribly ill.

He turned back to me with the intent of arguing further but paused when he saw by my face that I understood. 

Chapter Thirty-Three: Wasting

“Please, William.”

We were standing in the dark dining room.  Dim light streamed in through the windows, a full moon’s blessing.  The candelabra cast fingerlike shadows across the polished tabletop. I took his hand.

I wanted him to come to me this night. 

“No.  I am sorry.” He stiffened.  “No.”  He shook his head, never making eye contact.  His breathing was heavy, deliberate.

I needed to show him love, to say thank you. It was the only way that I knew how…physically, offering my body to him. It was the one thing I knew that he wanted the most. He had been devoted and steadfast and strong, always my constant.  Even so, I had watched as he had lost weight, seemingly eaten away from the inside as baby Levi had died, the funeral, even now months later.

Please?”  I begged quietly.

“What if it happens again, Evelyn?”

I had no answer.  I could not tell him that Levi was not his, that he could not blame himself.  That Levi was my burden of conscience.  I lacked the courage.  Everything that I had done to this point had lacked courage and this instance was no different. He was afraid to touch me.

We parted ways; he to his room and me to mine. 

Chapter Thirty-Two: Payment

The pain washed over me and I could feel my insides splitting in two, tearing from the inside out.  I could not help but cry out.  There was no one in Cambridge or Boston that was willing to administer obstetrical anesthesia, despite Nathaniel’s lecture and the seemingly enthusiastic response.  The pain was more intense than I had ever imagined.  I was compelled to push over and over again.  Finally, the pain stopped.

There was a slurping gurgle and feeble cry and a hushed silence fell over the room.  By the time I was able to register my surroundings again, I saw the look of horror on the doctor’s face as he looked at my baby.  Fortunately, Dr. Quincy did not lower himself to the practice of obstetrics and we had enlisted the services of a Dr. Farber.  He was personable and reassuring and had assured me that things would go well.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked quietly.

There was no answer.

“IS IT A BOY OR A GIRL?”  I demanded.

“A…a boy,” the doctor finally replied.  Seeming to regain his senses, he quickly wrapped the baby up in a sheet and passed him off to Hannah, one of the maids who stared wide eyed at the child.  He nodded at her, motioning to dismiss her.  She made a few hesitating steps toward the door of the chamber.

“Wait!”  I said.  She stopped but did not turn.  

“Go,” the doctor said quietly, firmly.

“Let me see my baby.”  I was surprised by the level of force in my voice.  When no one moved and no one responded, indignation swelled up within.

“LET ME SEE MY BABY!” Hannah jumped as she heard my raised voice.  She slowly turned, compelled by a mother’s demand, but her eyes were pleading with me to let her take him away.  At that moment he began to cry, loud mournful wails.  I could see a little fist peak out from the blood smeared white sheeting.

Slowly, Hannah crept back across the room to my side and placed my son in my arms.  He stopped crying within seconds.  I pulled back the folds of the sheeting, my heart racing.  My breath caught in my chest as I stared at him.

He was beautiful. 

“Hello, Levi,” I whispered.  “Look at mommy.”

But I knew he could not see me.  His fused eyelids covered sunken holes where his eyes should have been.  His upper lip was missing as was the roof of his mouth and his nose was reduced to a fleshy mass.  I unwrapped him carefully.  There was a large translucent sac containing his intestines that was attached to his umbilical chord.  There was even an extra finger on his left hand. Who knew what else was wrong inside.  I sighed a breath of relief.  All of my fears for this child had come true…all except for the worst.  The most horrible thing I could imagine was that he would have something wrong with him that would keep me from loving him.  But I realized at that moment that would have been impossible. 

“He will not live long,” the doctor said flatly.

“How long?”  I asked.

“A few hours, perhaps.”

“I see.”  I wrapped him up again and held him.  “How do I feed him?”

“You cannot successfully.  His cleft lip and palate will prevent it.”

I felt another urge to push and the doctor delivered the placenta, afterward performing an exceedingly uncomfortable uterine massage to increase the cramping of the uterus and prevent further bleeding.

Levi was strong.  His color was pink.  He had a good cry.  I hoped for his sake that this would be quick, but I knew somewhere inside that it would not be.

“Where is William?”  I asked.  It was not long before he was at my side and the rest of the room emptied.          

“I am not sure I can do this,” he said as he examined the child he thought was his son. His ragged breath was tearing through his chest and a fit of coughing overwhelmed him.   I caught a glimpse of a fleck of bright red blood on his handkerchief, but I was unable to process the meaning.

“Please.  I need you.”  He caught his breath.  His eyes welled and overflowed as he put his arms around Levi and around me, wracked by silent sobs.  I could not help but cry out loud, crying for all of us.

It dragged on for three days.  It was supposed to be easier than this.  The doctor had said it would just take a few hours and I hated him for being wrong.  I prayed for God to take little Levi, begged Him to ease his suffering and ours.  There were times when his breath came fast and erratic and times when he stopped breathing altogether.  His skin would take on a bluish cast, then pink up again.  He always struggled back.  At times, he would seem hungry, fussing, and I would spoon feed him sugar water which choked him and never really seemed to help anyone but me.  My breasts ached, full, wanting him to suckle.  But he could not. 

William was always there, unfailing in his devotion.  I grew to love him during those days.  Perhaps not the romantic love he deserved, but a love that grew out of friendship and respect nonetheless. 

The end came at last after a seizure.  His little fists curled up tight and never let go.  His lungs filled only in gasps, strange whimpering sounds escaped from his lips.  Finally his breathing stopped and his skin turned first purple and then ashen.  He was gone.

It was a tragedy, and I cried and mourned as I had not cried or mourned before.  It seemed such a slap in the face that in the midst of this tragedy, this catastrophic event that would forever change our entire lives, the world continued on.  I wanted some recognition of the pain I was feeling, some hiccup in the routine of daily life around me.  But there was none.  The sun continued to rise and then fall.  Business went on as always.  Well meaning people told me that God needed a little angel in heaven but I wanted to scream at them that God could create any angels that he wanted, he did not have to rob me of mine.  He was God, wasn’t he?  Other people, including our pastor, told me that I must have some terrible sin in my life to have God allow this to happen, that I must figure out what that sin was and then repent of it in order to ensure that it never happened again.  I hated them, too.  I could not accept a God that would punish the innocent. 

Love had created Levi, right or wrong.  How could he be a punishment? 

Chapter Thirty-One: Confinement

Time moved on.  I had learned from the death of my father and my mother that this was always the case. It is amazing how quickly the mind deconstructs and reconstructs events to preserve a degree of self.  I spent several days in self loathing before my conscience found a way to liberate me:  It simply stopped thinking about the fact of the infidelity.  Rather, I managed to wrap that fact into a tiny kernel and bury it into a narrow recess, glued shut to prevent escape.

In the weeks that followed, William and I attended several dinner parties and balls.  I learned quickly the great skill my mother had displayed so well, acting.  I planned out meals, ran the household, made social calls.  I read Vanity Fair by Thackeray and A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift.  It was difficult to remain focused on the words and for the most part, I simply stared fixedly at the pages, letting my mind wander to Nathanial in some form or another.   I would have been bored senseless had I not had my fantasies to occupy my mind.  Days passed one by one.  I ventured out one day along the river bed but stopped short of the woods themselves, afraid that entering that place without him would destroy the mystical spell of the memory, replacing it with empty ordinariness.

The sickness came on suddenly one morning.  The nausea washed over me, swelling in waves as I vomited over and over again, heaving while kneeling over the chamber pot.  Each day it was the same.  I found myself praying that God would heal me or take my life.  I did not care which, so long as it was quick.  It went on for days.  No fevers.  Just the overwhelming nausea.  I could hold nothing down it seemed.  The housekeeper made chamomile teas and poultices.  They did not help.  She brought magnesia in milk, and magnesia in tincture of Columba with distilled peppermint water.  It was no help.  Lemon juice in water.  No help.  William was beside himself.  Like the man he was, he needed to fix whatever was wrong.  But he could not.  More days passed.  The doctor was called.

Dr. Edward Quince was a tiny, wizened old man with spectacles that he never actually looked through, only over.  His dour face made it appear that he had been sucking on the fruit which also bore his name.  He never smiled, but rather spoke with a high pitched voice that was punctuated by a series of characteristic, “Hmmm’s.”  Sometimes it was a question:  “Hmmmm?”  Sometimes it was a long, drawn out, puzzled sound that signified pondering:  “Hmmmmmm….”  Often it was accompanied by an uncomfortable clearing of the throat, meant to bridge the silence after an awkward question to a female patient:  “Hrummmmph!”

Never one to actually examine a patient, Dr. Quince prided himself on diagnoses by history alone.  This seems an odd thing now, but the man was educated in the time when stethoscopes were unheard of, and he regarded them with suspicion.  One might examine the urine or feces, but touching a patient was considered unnecessary.  Certainly to touch a woman was not only unnecessary, it was also indelicate.

Upon entering my chamber, escorted by William, Dr. Quince approached my bed and made his uncomfortable, “Hrummmmph!” followed by a little cough.  He walked around me, then stopped.

“How long?” he asked.  The question was addressed to William, as if I were not actually in the room and able to speak for myself.  Perhaps it was his way of acknowledging that I did not feel well and may not wish to answer?  I resolved to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Uh, twelve…fourteen days…?”

“Hmmmm….  I see.”  He walked around the bed to the other side.

“When was her last menses?”  He was again looking at William.

“Oh!  Well, I….uh, I….not sure….really,” he trailed off, then shrugged.

“Hrummmmph!”  He stood waiting expectantly.  “In that case, please ask her, sir.”

Before William could speak, I answered.  “Please tell the good doctor that I am NOT with child.  If he cannot actually give me a workable diagnosis and something that can help, he may leave.”

Dr. Edward Quincy slowly turned his disdainful gaze upon me, peering through squinted eyes over his lenses.  There was a long silence.  At long last he addressed me.

“Madame, if you do not wish to accept the inevitable, then fine.  Hmmm?  We will discuss that no further.  In lieu of an acceptable diagnosis, let us focus on curing your symptom of hyperemesis.  That is agreeable, is it not?”  He turned to William.  “She will need leeches applied to her lower abdomen and laudanum.”

Leeches have largely gone out of fashion now.  I cannot describe the sensation of having six leeches sucking away on my abdomen until they gorged themselves and fell off, sated.  There was no pain or sucking sensation, merely an awareness of their slimy presence.  The laudanum doses left me sedated, unable to feel nausea because I was unable to register the feeling…or anything else for that matter.  I could not focus my vision to read.  I could do nothing but lie in bed in a stupor sipping broths.  I lost two weeks like this until finally it was felt safe to take away the opiate.  My dose was decreased gradually until at last I emerged from the fog.  William had insisted on sitting with me almost exclusively.  He had kept me dosed, fed, and bathed.  I vaguely remembered his voice reading aloud to me as I drifted in and out of consciousness, though I cannot remember what words he read.

Had the nausea left me?  Yes, for the most part.  Now and again I felt the same queasiness creeping up, but managed to push it back somehow.  I was reluctant to admit that I felt better.  Dr. Quince had succeeded in that, even if he had been wrong about pregnancy.  My eyes were sunken.  I had lost a considerable amount of weight and what little muscle I had was largely wasted away.  But…I was still living.

I slowly resumed my activities managing the household, gradually regaining strength and weight.  The month of December arrived cold and icy, and with it came Christmas.  We held our typical celebration, complete with roast goose, oyster stuffing, figgy pudding, and even a tree decorated with nuts and sweetmeats.  This was the one time of year that I felt a hollow realization of the emptiness of our lives without children, for what is Christmas and Saint Nicholas without children?  It had been over five years that William and I had been married.  I knew the lack of children had been whispered about extensively.  But I was not ready.  I was not ready.

Hogmanay would have been celebrated next had we been in Scotland.  William missed its traditions.  He sang Auld Lang Syne at every opportunity.  If he could have gotten away with it, he would have burned juniper branches throughout the house until we all choked to death, then had all of the windows thrown open to allow in the fresh, cold air of the new year.   A new beginning.

After the new year, I felt a fluttering deep within.  At first I thought that it was constipation or gas.  But more and more it occurred until at last I could no longer ignore it.  The nausea, the painful breasts, the swelling abdomen.  The truth dawned like a horror.

I had a tumor.

I kept it secret from William for a few more weeks, until I could no longer hide my increasing girth.  When I confided my fears to him, William called again for Dr. Quince and again the dour faced man looked over his wire rimmed spectacles at me and “Hmmmm’d,” as he circled my chaise.  He stopped and looked across me to William.

“Sir, she is not dying from a tumor.

“From what then?”  William asked.  The fear had not left his face.

“She is not dying at all.”

“Not dying?”  He sounded hopeful.

“Hmmmm…”  The doctor nodded thoughtfully.  “She is with child.”

There was silence.  William and I stared at each other.  He took my hand.

“Impossible,” I said.

“Are you certain?”  William smiled.

“Most certain.”

“Impossible!” I said again.

We had been married for years with regular encounters in my bedroom, and had no children to show for it.  The old women had stopped asking when I would become pregnant, instead a look of pity washed over their faces whenever they looked upon me.  They, and I, had assumed that it would never happen, a fact that had allowed me much comfort in the end even as it brought them a subject of scornful gossip.

Dr. Quince turned his gaze upon me once more.  His spectacles slid further down his nose as he did so.

“Hmmm.”  He snorted.  “You will remember, madam, that I said as much a number of months ago.”  He paused to let that sink in.  “Your confinement will be in early May.”  It was said with finality, like a sentence of death.  I felt William squeeze my hand, lingering there, then he let go and led the doctor out.  He returned some minutes later.

“Evelyn?”  He put his hand on my shoulder then sat down next to me.

I felt panic welling up from within.  If this were something that I could run from, I would be running, running fast and hard.  Doing the calculations in my head it was clear that I had conceived in August.  In August!

“Is it so bad to have a child that you would rather have a tumor?”  There was laughter in his eyes.

“Please do not make fun of me, William.  I am afraid.”  And I was.  I was terrified.  I had seen so much death and suffering attached to childbirth.   Why would it be any different for me?  And, there was the fear, or was it hope, that this was not William’s child after all.

The days and weeks passed.  There was something wrong.  I could feel it.  I heard women speak of their baby’s movements, and this baby did not move as I had expected.  The nausea never left completely.  I had a deep set and abiding fear that dwelled within me.  I was told that this was normal, that having a child changed your outlook and created fears that you never knew existed.  But this was different.  I knew it.

My ankles and fingers swelled.  I was a bloated whale and it seemed my girth was even greater than I was expecting and there were murmurs about the possibility of twins.  Dark patches appeared across my swollen face, affectionately referred to by older women as the “pregnancy mask”.  When I looked in the mirror, I was horrified by what I saw.  And the fear grew.

For William, it was as if a light had been switched on.  As if becoming a father was the one thing that God had set him on this earth to do.  He made sure that I wanted for nothing, doting on me to the point of smothering suffocation.  He ensured that the nursery was appointed with the best that money could buy…a lovely bassinet, toys, a nurse. He was clearly filled with joy and anticipation and I worked hard to hide my trepidation from him.  Years of marriage, however, had allowed him to understand every subtle nuance of emotion from me, and ultimately I am afraid, I was unable to conceal the truth sufficiently.  Still, he was kind enough not to speak to me about it, rather working to distract me from my anxieties.  That intense need that men have to fix everything and make it right, often times only serves to make things worse.  It was his way of coping, so I bore it silently.

Chapter Thirty: Feeling Pain Again

That evening, dinner conversation was dominated by William asking for any news from Edinburgh.  I had not realized how much he had missed the city until then.  It had been his home, after all, I supposed.  After the meal, I retired to my chamber, leaving the men to their cigars and scotch.  I was weary but could not focus on sleep.  As I dressed for bed with the assistance of the maid, and then brushed out my hair, I realized that I was not feeling that feverish longing that I had carried around with me for so long.  It was replaced by a calmness, a peace. Strength. Could it be that meeting again had cured me?  I sat in my nightgown for an hour or two, reading the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe.  I was on his short story “The Masque of the Red Death” and read until I had finished it, my eyelids eventually leaden with sleep.

I had just crawled beneath the covers and reached to blow out the flickering flame of the lamp when I heard the familiar tapping on the door.  I sighed.


When the door opened, I was startled to see Nathaniel standing there.  He closed the door quietly behind him and stood leaning on the door.   Suddenly, I was no longer sleepy.  I sat up in the bed, careful to keep the bedclothes pulled up to my shoulders.

“I beg your pardon!” 

He was clearly bleary-eyed drunk.  “Your husband toasted your skillful response this afternoon one too many times.  I believe he is passed out cold in the floor of the library.”  He laughed, then swayed ever so slightly.  Nathaniel did not seem that far away from passing out in the floor himself.

“I see,” was all I could manage.

“Evelyn.  I…”  There was a long pause. He took an inebriated step forward. “I am…sorry…I will leave,” he said hurriedly, his face flushed.  He stumbled a bit as he stepped back and reached behind with his left hand to grab the doorknob.  There was another moment’s hesitation, then he opened the door and started to back out.  I did not know what to say, so I let him go despite wanting to plead with him to stay.  I sat there a moment after the door clicked shut, listening to him enter his own room down the hall, then blew out the light. 

The next morning at breakfast, William was chipper as ever.  If he had been unconscious in the floor of the library from injudicious use of alcohol the night before, one could not tell.  I had no idea how he could do it.  Perhaps it was his Scottish blood? 

“Good morning, my dear!”

“Good morning.  How was the remainder of your evening?”


“Have you seen our guest this morning?”

“Ah, yes!  He was up quite early, said that he was going to take a stroll around the park.”

“What are his plans?”  I was ready for him to be gone.

“He is to be here for the next week, then on to Hartford.”

“Seven days?”  I buttered my toast, incredulous.

“Certainly.  I thought I might show him the factory this morning, though if he does not return soon, I will have to leave without him…”   He took a last bite of fried egg and swig of hot tea with milk, then jumped up.  “I’m off, my darling!”  He kissed me on the cheek.  “Have a good day, do not get into any trouble…”

“What do you mean?” I asked, surprised, a sudden panic washing over me. 

He laughed.  “I mean to say, be careful about mentioning foreskins in sensitive company today!”  Then he was out the door.

I ate the rest of my breakfast in relative silence then met with the cook about the remainder of the meals for the week, since we would have the extra guest.  Midmorning, Dr. Brierly had returned, according to the rotund, red-faced housekeeper, Ethel, but I believe that he was avoiding me as I saw no trace of him.  I was not sure whether to be flattered by his actions last night or offended by the assumptions that that action had made about my character showing up in my room while I was dressed only in a nightgown, so to be honest I was happy with this arrangement for the time being. 

Lunch was taken on the terrace.  It was a glorious day, the crisp breeze just cool enough to stimulate but not biting enough to be prohibitive.  The bright sun beat down at the same time, seeming to warm the skin from within.  Dr. Brierly did not appear so a tray was taken up to him by the staff.  I read the remainder of Poe while enjoying a curried chicken salad, my favorite luncheon fare, that I was assured by the cook was prepared from the same recipe as one would find in India.  The china had intricate brown designs traced on the surfaces, scenes of birds and trees and castles.  I did not believe people in India ate cold chicken salad off of china plates, but it was tasty nonetheless.  After the dishes were cleared, I moved out to the grounds for a walk of my own and resolved to stay out until late afternoon when I was sure William would have returned.  I hoped to be spared any awkward moments with Nathaniel.

In fact, several days passed in this way, our only coming together occurring in the evenings across the deep, rich mahogany dinner table with me retiring early to leave the gentlemen to their play.   One day, William took him hunting, the next day to the cotton mill.  Another was spent by Dr. Brierly walking the countryside alone again. 

It was not until the day before he left that he broke his silence about the incident in my bedroom.  I had secretly been hoping that he had been so blessedly tipsy that he could not remember the exchange.   We passed each other on the wallpapered landing.  I was going upstairs, he was going down.

“Evelyn?” he asked.  I stopped, my foot hung in the air above the next step, frozen.

“Yes.”  I looked back over my shoulder as I pulled my foot back and stood firmly upon it again.  He was still there with his back to me.

“I must apologize to you.  My intoxication got the better of good judgment the other night.”

“Well, yes, I would agree.”

 “I was thinking that it might be better for me to simply ignore the episode since you did not say anything to your husband and perhaps we could put it behind us, but I do not feel that we can.”  He turned at this point, but still did not make eye contact, his gaze focused on a point just beyond my right shoulder.  He cleared his throat uncomfortably.  “Or rather, I cannot.”  His brow was furrowed and he almost scowled, finally drawing up his eyes to mine. 

“So, what does that mean, really?”  I asked genuinely.  I rested my hand on the balustrade hoping to draw support from the cool wood beneath my fingertips.  How do you respond to a man who says this?  I had no practice.  I could feel heat rising up in my cheeks.

“I am not sure,” he replied and shrugged. 

There was silence for a time.  He spoke again just as I was on the verge of deciding to return to my sojourn up the stairs.

“Would you perhaps do me the honor of taking a walk with me to the river?” he asked at last. He held out his hand and gave a great chivalric bow at the waist. 

It would be a long walk, but I realized that I longed to spend time with him, that delicious tingle of daring rippling over my skin.  Where did that earlier feeling of peace and strength run off to, I wondered? Technically, as his hostess, it was reasonable for me to take a walk with him wasn’t it?

I took his hand and dipped ever so slightly in a mock curtsey.  He stepped aside and gestured me to lead the way back down the stairs.  I did obediently and he followed close behind.  I paused at the parlor as I tied on my bonnet and wrapped up in my shawl in order to tell the housekeeper where I was going and with whom.  I watched her face for any signs of reproach, perhaps put there by my own hypersensitive guilty conscience, but there were no shadows that passed over her features.  I was not sure at the time why I should feel such disquiet, as I had not done anything untoward myself, nor was I sure that I would even if presented with the opportunity.   I have since learned that one’s conscience often times knows things about one’s character that we ourselves do not even realize.

The September day was pleasant enough.  The sun shone brightly, large cotton-filled clouds lolled overhead.  A stiff breeze rustled the leaves in the trees, their colors had only just started to turn their bright oranges and burgundies and all of the shades of gold.  I kept my arms crossed and folded across my chest as we walked unless I needed to swipe strands of hair out of my eyes as they whipped about in the wind.  No chance of awkward touching that way. There was also the safety of the illusion of an impregnable wall that separated my heart within and the man walking beside me.  The sun glinted off of his hair shooting golden lights along the strands.  Up close, I could see that he did have more wrinkles framing his eyes and I caught a glimpse of a few gray strands in the hair at his temples.  That was oddly reassuring. 

We chatted about all manner of safe topics for over an hour until we reached the bank of the Charles River.  We stood at the water’s edge, with the green-tinged water racing past us at our feet. 

“Are you happy?” he asked as he looked down at me.

I shrugged.  “I have no choice, really.  William is good to me.”

“That does not really answer the question.”

“You…are right.”  I sighed.  “Am I as happy as I would have been had I been with you?  No.  Am I happier than I would be that if I were married to most of the men in this world?  Yes.  How is that for an answer?”

“Do you love him?” 

“Honestly, I do not believe that is a fair question.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t have the right to ask it.”  The sun peeked from behind a cloud, forcing me to squint.  The sudden warmth made gooseflesh rise on my arms.

“Alright.”  His hand between my shoulder blades sent electrical shocks down both of my arms as he used it to guide me north along the bank. 

I waited what seemed like a polite period of time, then asked, “You said you are not married?  I do not see a ring.”

“No, I am not.”

“Are you betrothed?”


“In love?”

“Yes.  Yes…I am.”  My heart sank a degree.  More wordless silence.  Ahead and to the left I could see a dense cluster of trees:  birch, red maple, and ash.  We continued until we found ourselves deep enough in it that I could no longer hear the river.  Grass was replaced by earth beneath our feet since the floor of the small wood was too dark to allow much green growth.

“With whom?”  I could not help myself.

“That, my dear, is a silly question.”  He continued to walk. 

Here he stopped.  We were in a rather isolated area, no boats or houses or people nearby.  I turned to face him, saddened.  As sentimental and silly as it may sound, his hand was suddenly touching my face.  Then I found that he was kissing me and in short order, I realized that I was kissing him back.  I knew that he had probably searched for this exact spot during his long walks the days before.  Somehow, I realized, this moment had been planned out in every detail.  But it did not change the magic of the moment, or change the relief that I felt in the knowing that I still held power over him in some way.  His lips sought out mine hungrily, with the confidence one can achieve only from having more than one love affair.  Logic told me that I had not been the last woman he had kissed or touched.  I certainly had not been the first.  I knew in my subconscious that there had probably been several women that he had had intercourse with over the intervening years.  At any other time, I would have found these facts very disturbing.  Now, however, I felt calm with the knowledge that I was in good hands. 

He dropped the overcoat that he had removed earlier.  My fingertips traced the muscular jaw line with its stiff whiskers, the base of his neck, the hollow just above his breast bone beneath his white shirt.  The sapphire ring on my finger caught a glint of sunlight and I wondered if I should remove it.  What was the standard protocol for something like this?  I did not know.  Instead I left the ring on my finger.  It was who I was right now and removing it would not change the fact of my marriage, would not make this act any more or less immoral.

I curled up my arms beside each other at my chest and let him hold me close and tight to him.  There was his heart beat again.  I rested there, enjoying his scent mingled with that of the damp, mossy ground.  I longed to rest eternally here…to go to sleep and to not wake up. 

As you well know, there is nothing romantic or sweet about hurried, nervous love making…too much fumbling.   Now that I have seen dress styles change over the decades, I think that while women may have gained some comfort, they have at the same time lost something more than just their dignity.  The petticoats that were required to create the bell shaped skirt that was so in fashion in the 1850’s, the bloomers and corsets and countless under things…all of these prevented hurrying.  A gentleman could not count on a quick tumble from anyone other than a professional whore.  With this many complicated layers, love required some work, focus, and wooing.  I have over the years replayed the steps again and again, grateful for every second that passed between us.  There is nothing more arousing than to be slowly undressed layer by layer until ultimately you stand bare, hiding nothing from him.

I had never found lovemaking to be all that earth shattering up to this point.  The prelude could be fun, but the act itself was always so rote and in the end unpleasantly sweaty and sticky.  However, at this point I will admit that I wept as I felt my body yield to his.  If there were music to accompany this moment, it would have been Beethoven’s Symphony number nine, “Ode to Joy”.  The complicated emotions and sensations crashed at once upon me, instrumental swells and crescendos.  He could not have known what all I was feeling. 

He whispered, “It is OK to cry,” as he held my head to his now damp chest.  My tears mingled with his sweat.  “I will not lose you again.  Do you understand me?” he said gently. 

I could do nothing but sob silently still.  I mourned the loss of my innocence.  I mourned all of the years I had spent without him.  I mourned for William and for all of the pain this would cause him if he knew.  I laid there until I could no longer feel Nathaniel inside of me.  I knew that all of the time we could spare had now passed and I began to stir, to put myself back together.  I could feel the wetness of him left behind, and I am ashamed to say that I longed to feel it again and again.

“Evelyn?”  He put his hands on my shoulders, then moved them to my face and kissed me full on the lips, deeply.  “Thank you.”  He stood and reached for his pile of clothing.  I watched the muscles rippling beneath his skin as he moved, knowing what that would look like in the flesh, beneath his skin where it removed. 

I had enjoyed the kiss.  I had enjoyed everything that had passed between us.  But I knew that on the other side of that, everything was changed.  I was not the same woman he had loved before.  He would not realize it yet, but he was certain to in a few days or weeks.  I was compromised.  The infatuation would wear off, and the panic welled up within me. 

“What have I become?”  I said softly.

He had begun to put on his shirt, but paused.  “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I replied.  I stood up and stepped into my bloomers.  I pulled the heavily ruffled and laced petticoat over my head and over my corset, which had stayed on my person throughout as it was too complicated to remove.   If I had known what would transpire today, I would have put on my new, beautifully embroidered pieces this morning.  I was surprised at how easy such a grave act had been in the end. 

An adulteress.  I could imagine a scarlet “A” emblazoned upon my chest like Hester’s, a mark that would follow me forever now, a mark that could not be undone.

Nathaniel helped with the rest of my getting dressed once he had pulled on his pants, shirt, and black riding boots.  I wrapped up in my shawl.

“Thank you.”  I said as I tried to tuck stray hairs back into place.

“Listen, Evelyn.”  He made me look up at him. “I cannot tell you how much I have longed for you, will long for you.  I love you in a way that I never thought was possible.  Never.”  He kissed me again, hard.  “Please come with me, back to Edinburgh.”  His eyes pleaded.

I was at a loss for words.  Leave William?  Yes, that was the only way.  Oh, God!  What had we done?  I turned suddenly and fled.  I walked as fast as I could back along the path we had made into the woods and headed back to the river.  I could hear him start after me, so I walked even faster.  A sprint, unfortunately, was out of the question. 

“Evelyn!”  he called.  I held up my hand to silence him and kept walking, hoping that it would clear my head and allow a reasonable answer to surface.  I could not live without Nathaniel now.  I knew this.

The sun was low on the horizon and the air quite a bit crisper.  I could even see a puff of my breath if I exhaled deeply.  My lips burned from the friction of his whiskers.  There was a rawness below that I would remember him by for a day or two at least.  I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with him and his brilliant mind and ambitious drive.  But while he would love me and challenge me, he would not worship me the way William did.  I am safe here.  And to get to Nathaniel, I would have to trample on William.  I knew enough about human nature to know that the pain would destroy William.  It would not destroy Nathaniel.  It would not destroy me.  Not the way it would destroy William. 

The crunch of footsteps behind me signaled that he had begun a short run to catch up.  His hand on my shoulder pulled me back.

“Evelyn, please!”

“I can’t.  I should have thought about it before…before I even walked with you…where that road might lead.  But I didn’t.  I cannot leave now.  I cannot.”

My damp cheeks seemed to surprise him and he drew back.


“William is a good man.” 

“He is not a great man, Evelyn.”

“Are you?”

“I am great-er, yes…”

“But are you a good man?”


“I wanted passion and love and romance like the next woman.  You have experienced…things.  You know how to manipulate that to your advantage.  An honorable man would not have allowed me to…to do this.”  I was angry, I realized. 

He looked stunned.  It was not entirely fair to lash out at him, I recognized.  I never actually said the word No.  Still, if I could make him admit that it was his fault, even partially, then I could carry less guilt myself. 

“I…” he stopped.  “I would say that I am sorry, but there is that selfish part of me that is not sorry, not really, not about this.”  Here he gestured broadly.  His eyes flitted away to some far off scene, focused there, then looked back again.  “One morning I woke and I realized that I could not remember your face…”

In the quiet moments that followed as we stared at each other, the breeze stirred again with its hint of chill.

“Come,” he said finally.  “I will get you home.”

We walked wordlessly along the countryside, to the outskirts of town, until we arrived at the estate.  The sun was hovering on the horizon but William had not yet returned.  In the fading light, the fireflies danced thickly in the trees and underbrush.  I knew that it would not be long before his arrival, as he never stayed away beyond a reasonable hour unless for specific social engagements that I always knew of well ahead of time. 

I passed my bonnet and wrap to the hefty housekeeper who dipped her head quickly, took Nathaniel’s long coat and hat, and carried off our things.  We were left standing together in the dimly lit foyer, an awkward distance left now between us. 

“Tell him the truth, Evelyn,” he spoke softly.

“I cannot.”

“He deserves the truth.  There is no point to both of you being alone together.”

“What you ask me to do is like knowingly putting my own hand into a roaring fire and watching it burn to charcoal…even if I know that the act itself will prevent me from being thrown into the fire and consumed entirely body and soul…to do it of my own volition, purposefully?  I do not know how.  Do you understand?  I am not that person, Mr. Brierly.”

He did not answer.  Finally, there was a slight nod.  Was he dismissing me or indicating that he understood?

Not knowing what else to say, I advised Nathaniel that I would be going upstairs to dress for dinner.  We did not dare to touch.  He did not reply beyond that of another silent nod and I felt his eyes follow me as I ascended the stairs. 

Once I had reached my room and stood naked aside from my corset and chemise, I prepared to wash quickly with cool water from the basin but I found myself hesitating.  While I had initially thought that I would attempt to wash off my guilt, I found that I could still smell him on my skin.  I realized that I did not want to wash that away.  My mind replayed the events, his lips on my breasts, his fingers probing gently below, and shockwaves moved through my body from my womb.  Not like an orgasm.  No, something even more powerful, more dangerous, that threatened to bring me to my knees.

Instead, I resolved to wear my most delicious dinner gown, a copper colored silk with full skirt and ivory lace appliqué.  It is difficult to communicate the complicated mixture of shame, guilt, and lustful longing that now owned me.  I grieved the lost innocence, and at the same time shamelessly plotted my next encounter, made all the more desperate by the fact that Nathaniel was leaving in the morning for Baltimore. 

I descended the stairs to hear the voices of William and Dr. Brierly in the drawing room.  William had also brought his factory assistant, Elijah Goodsill, a rather unpleasant wiry fellow with a sallow complexion and stringy black hair that always seems to stick in odd ways to his forehead.  Despite his unpleasant personal appearance, he was always impeccably well dressed.  They each rose from their respective seats as I entered, giving their little bows.

“Dinner is served, my dear, if you are ready?” William said, offering his arm.

“Oh, yes!  Mr. Goodsill it is so nice to have you in our home again.  You have met Dr. Brierly at this point, have you not?”  I asked.

“Indeed,” he replied.

“Well, Mr. Goodsill, Dr. Brierly, shall we eat?” I moved, taking William’s proffered elbow.

Nathaniel’s face remained impassive and expressionless.

“Certainly, if you will lead the way, Mrs. Aspern.”  He stepped aside and bowed slightly again. 

This being Nathaniel’s last night with us I had sat down with the cook to plan something special.   Scallops in a cream sauce.  Garlic soup.  Roast duck.  A custard with brandied figs.  The best wines.  Each course a masterpiece, paraded out one by one.

He pointedly ignored me the entire evening.  I sat in silence, staring at the crystal, again thinking about the implications of what had passed between us this day.  I longed so to leave with him.  I realized at that moment that his very existence, the very fact that I had loved him, had taught me to despise my husband. 

I excused myself after dessert and retired to bed.  I had hoped that Nathaniel would pop into my room again this night, but he did not.  As a matter of fact, William did not, either.  I was left to my own thoughts, replaying the day’s events until I cringed.  At some point, I fell asleep, fitful though it was.  When I awoke to tiny chinks of sunlight creeping through the heavy curtains and stretched, I found a piece of paper in my left hand.  A note addressed to me.  My heart stopped dead in my chest. 

My dearest,

I hesitate to write but feel I must or the swell of words will cause me to be swept away.  I wanted to hold you for all time.  More than that, I will admit, I wanted you come out of your own need for me. We are doubly wounded by our sense of honor now and I sadly find that you pierce my soul all the more.  I will now say adieu.


I threw on a dressing gown, crumpling the paper into a pocket, and tore downstairs at breakneck speed.  I had to reach him before he left.  Surely he had not yet departed.  In the kitchen, I found the cook preparing breakfast. 

“Dr. Brierly,” I gasped breathlessly, “Is he still here?”

The cook looked up, surprised, arching an eyebrow at me.  “No, ma’am.  He left over two hours ago, before the sun was even up.”  She threw me an odd look and her mouth opened as if to say more, but was given pause by my glare and instead went silently went back to her bread and sausages.

The knot in the pit of my stomach wound tighter.  I ran back up the stairs to my bedroom, turning the lock quietly behind me.  I sat on the floor by the fire and read and reread the note, tracing each word, memorizing.  Knowing that I could not keep it myself without risking discovery, I eventually tossed the paper into the coals and watched the edges flame.  The whole piece glowed orange for a few seconds with a burst of bright flame, then faded into ash.  The tears did not come that day, or the next.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Anesthesia

Boston was bustling.  It was actually a short ride in an open carriage from our home in Cambridge over the West Boston Bridge to North Grove Street near the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  While only a few miles and the Charles River separated us, it seemed a world apart from the sleepy college town.  Boston had been slowly creeping into Cambridge over the past decade, but not enough to squelch its own character. 

The lecture hall on the ground floor of the medical school’s main building was to be the venue for this particular lecture series.  Generally women were not allowed to attend, however given the subject matter and my husband’s financing of the lectures, I was granted admission.  William had assented to my request to sit at the back of the room, nearest the exit, should I need an escape.  I had chosen an exceptional gown of deepest blue with the requisite full skirt, high neckline, and tight bodice accented with jet buttons, black braid, and many pleats and tucks.  I had ordered a new corset for the occasion, with exquisitely detailed embroidery that no one would ever see.  It had cost a fortune.  It gave me immense satisfaction to know that come what may, my undergarments were more costly than anything else anyone was wearing.  The chemise and underpinnings all had matching embroidery and mounds of French lace.  My hair was parted down the middle with two braids that swung from each side and met in the back in a simple twist that was wound into a tight knot at the base of my neck.  A pair of jet earrings dangled from my earlobes and a large jet brooch held the collar at my throat.  New black shoes cut into my ankles and I could feel the blisters forming.  The pain would serve to keep me focused.  I cursed myself for lacing the corset so tightly.  I could hardly breathe with my heart beating against the stays as insistently as it was.  I had pushed the maid into pulling the laces tighter, knowing that the intervening years of marriage had made me a bit thicker around the middle than I had been in Edinburgh. 

William guided me around the room, introducing me to one finely dressed gentleman after another, accepting the slaps on the back, knowing glances, and veiled innuendos with genuine pride.  He whispered in my ear after one particularly flattering complement, “You look ravishing darling…thank you!”  It is not for you.  Sadness and guilt welled up within me but it was not enough to keep me from glancing furtively around the room for that familiar sandy hair, those broad shoulders.

When I finally saw him enter across the room accompanied by the dean of the medical school, I turned away quickly, feeling my cheeks flush.  I tried to appear engrossed in my husband’s conversation with an elderly fellow with a long, flowing white beard. What was this fellow’s name? I cannot remember what they were saying, as I could not focus on their words despite my valiant attempts.  It was as if in slow motion that they spoke, jaws opening and closing…gaping holes of nothingness full of meaningless gibberish.  In what was likely a matter of seconds but which felt instead like a half hour, I was aware of Nathaniel’s presence at the edge of my peripheral vision.  His companion began motioning in our direction, leading him across the room to our little group.  I resisted the urge to turn and run.

As the pair arrived, the dean, closest to me, announced, “May I present Dr. Nathanial Joseph Brierly.”  The group nodded silently in his direction.  “This is Mr. William Aspern, Mrs. Aspern, and Mr. Barnard Townshend.”

Dr. Brierly nodded acknowledgement to Mr. Townshend then turned to William, offering his hand.  “Mr. Aspern, I must thank you for your support of my lecture.” 

“It was a topic of particular importance to my wife, as you may imagine.  May I present Mrs. Aspern?”  William gestured to me and I turned to make eye contact with Dr. Brierly, presenting my hand.  I searched his face for some recognition, but there was none.  He had not seemed to have aged in the slightest. 

“Ah, Mr. Aspern, what a lovely wife you have.”

He bowed as he took my gloved hand and kissed it, then stepped back.  He turned to the gentlemen again.

“I must prepare, we will begin shortly.”  Then he was gone. 

We began gravitating to our seats.  I could see him shuffling papers at the podium, locating diagrams.  The lecture itself was tedious, filled with numbers and statistics on ether and chloroform safety.  The Scottish brogue with which he spoke was the only thing that made it bearable.  There were a few technical diagrams demonstrating proper technique for the administration of analgesic gasses via patented machines that were mildly interesting.  Then, the floor was opened up for discussion and things became much more entertaining. 

“James Simpson favors the use of chloroform early in labor and until the woman is rendered entirely unconscious.  Is this safe?  Or do you advocate these more controlled methods exclusively?”  This was from a stooped, older gentleman on the front row.

“Will all due respect to Dr. Simpson, I believe I have proven that a more controlled approach, tailoring anesthesia to the needs of the patient is a much safer use of anesthesia.”

“Does the use of chloroform reduce the strength of contractions, prolonging the birth process?”  asked a young fellow a few rows ahead and to the left.

“Certainly not.  I have seen it actually speed delivery by allowing women to relax and allow nature to take its course rather than fighting against the agony that they are feeling.”

A rather dour, dark haired man near the front stood.  “Are we defying God by removing his curse over Eve?”

“Do men not use machines for cultivation? Does doing so damn us for removal of our curse to toil upon the land?” he replied calmly.

“Why should we rob women of this essential part of womanhood?” 

“Well, why don’t we ask a woman?”  He gestured toward me.  “Mrs. Aspern, do you believe that the pain of childbirth is an essential part of your experience of womanhood?”

There was that noise, that rumble that signaled that now every man in the room had shifted in their seats to stare at me.  “Stand up, my dear.” William whispered into my ear.  I stood slowly and hesitated.  I looked down at William, sitting beside me to my left.  He gave my hand an encouraging squeeze and winked.  I directed my comments to the two hundred or so men in the room.

“I…I would say…”  I struggled to find something to say.  Here I was, about to appear the fool.  Then the answer struck me like a lightning bolt between the eyes.  However undignified it would be for me to speak of such things, it was my only recourse.  “Some cultures have young men circumcised as their rite of passage into adulthood rather than performing it in infancy.”  I could hear a shocked intake of air resonate from the lips of the men in the room.  “I would pose that when men consider experiencing the pain of circumcision to be an essential part of their experience of manhood, then they can speak to me of the pain in childbirth as an essential experience of womanhood.  My only regret would be that there is only one potential foreskin to be removed from each male, and yet perhaps half a dozen children or more to be had for each woman.  I believe that the theologian Thomas Chalmers stated before his death that there was no theological part to the debate about the use of analgesia during childbirth.  To echo his sentiments, if we are to debate anesthesia in childbirth, let us keep it limited to questions of safety and efficacy.”  I was met with stunned silence from the crowd.

“Well said, Mrs. Aspern, well said.”  There was a hint of admiration in his voice as there was a round of “Here, here!” that echoed from a few members of the audience as I returned to my seat. 

I do not recall how the rest of the questions and answers went as I was feeling rather lightheaded, like the buzz one gets after a couple of glasses of good red wine.  Or scotch.  I do remember William leaning over to whisper, “Well done.”

After the presentation, William dragged me up to the front and we hung around until everyone had finally finished with the questions they were too embarrassed to ask Dr. Brierly in public.

I stood there alone as William was dragged a short distance away by the dean.  I could not hear what they were discussing.  I felt a light tap on my shoulder and a quietly whispered, “Excellent response, Evelyn.”

Nathanial was there as I turned. 

“So you do remember me, after all?” I whispered back.

“Ah, yes.  I have been unable to forget.”  There was some sadness there. Good.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Well.  And you?”  He paused.  “I see that you are married after all.”  He had a look upon his face that seemed to say I told you so.


“He adores you,” he said simply.

“Yes, he does.”

“And you?  Are you married?”  I needed his answer to be yes but I wanted it to be no. 


“I see,” I said softly.

William rejoined us as Nathaniel was about to say something else and put his hand on my shoulder.  He was eager to discuss medicine and Edinburgh.  “Would you honor us by joining us at our home, Dr. Brierly?  In fact, I would be pleased if you would consider relinquishing your hotel room to stay with us in Cambridge.”  Oh, no!  I must have gasped because Nathanial’s eyes darted over to meet mine. I could see hope and fear dwelling behind his eyes.

“I…I am…not sure…,” he stammered.  He seemed a bit taken aback by the offer.

“Nonsense!  You will come!  Where are you staying?  We will send the carriage straightaway for your things.”  William said this rather forcefully, a tone I had not heard in his voice before.  I wondered how often he used it when I was not around?  Perhaps often in the course of business?

“…I am at the…” 

I could not make out what he said, but William nodded and assured him that the bags would be sent for immediately.  “You must accompany us!  Come!”

William let the way to the carriage waiting outside, his hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder.  As William chatted about Boston history, Nathaniel looked back at me, walking cautiously behind them and mouthed the words, “I am sorry.”  I scowled at him. Why did you agree to come? I could not meet his gaze for long, instead opting to look more closely at empty reflections from the windows of the nearby hospital until I was ushered into the carriage sitting across from Dr. Brierly and my husband.  William continued his dialogue about local history until we passed over the Charles River again and arrived at our home.  I sat silently in the corner watching the face of my husband and my former lover as they conversed.  The sun was fading behind the trees with the most spectacular reds and oranges I had ever seen.  I was not at peace.  Not at all. 

What had begun as a voyeuristic adventure, intending only to peek into the life I might have had, now ended here with my two worlds colliding.  God help me. The devil would be sitting in my drawing room.


Chapter Twenty-Eight: Numbing

It was evening.  The candlelight flickered across the table.  At dinner, William was in unusual spirits as he ate.  He put down his spoon, dabbed at his beard with the napkin from his lap, then cleared his throat.

“How do you feel about going into Boston for a day or two next month?”  He glanced over at me, hopeful.

I looked up at him from my soup.  “Why?”

“For a lecture in obstetrical anesthesia.”

“Oh, really?”  I wondered if this was a veiled attempt to bring up starting a family.  I would see how the conversation would proceed.  I took another silent sip of the oyster soup.

“I thought you might be interested in the topic.  Apparently, it is so controversial that all of the traditional backers balked.  I overheard the discussion at the club between Cornelius Felton, the university president, and Jack Waterhouse, of the medical faculty in Boston.  I do not believe that Cornelius wants the lectures to occur.  There is a part of me that delights in making that man miserable.  So, I wrote a check to Mr. Waterhouse.  We will bring anesthesia to Massachusetts!”  He said this with a flourish of his hand.  He smiled broadly.

“But Dr. Morton has already demonstrated anesthesia.  Several years ago, in fact!”  Everyone knew of the story of the huge neck tumor removed from Mr. Gilbert Abbott at Massachusetts General Hospital.  It had been all over the papers and had occurred before I had left for Edinburgh myself.

“Not in childbirth, my dear!  Dr. Brierly is from Edinburgh, where Dr. Simpson has been administering chloroform and ether during childbirth for years.”  He seemed quite proud of himself.

But, my heart stopped suddenly.  I was not sure if I had heard the name right.  No, it had to have been him. 

Deep within my chest I felt a heavy sinking, as if a rock had just dropped onto my diaphragm, my fingers and lips numb.  “You are doing what?”

“I am sponsoring a lecture series at the college,” he said patiently.

“Yes, but who is speaking?”  I could not breath.

“A Dr. Brierly on obstetrical anesthesia.” He shrugged, then squinted suspiciously at me.

I was not mistaken! Did he not know? Did he not remember?  Was he testing me? Did he know but now was planning to show me off as his trophy?

“I see.”  It was difficult to keep my tone even and impassive.

Did I really want to go to Boston, then?  Difficult question, really.  But I knew what my answer would be, what it had to be. 

“Well, then certainly, I would be happy to accompany you, dear!” 

I sat down my spoon, a tiny clank rang against the china.  My appetite had left me. I worked hard to not betray any emotion.

We finished dinner conversing about the rest of his day. 

When I had retired to my room, I sat at the mirror brushing my hair and examining my features.  Why did I feel so much older?  It had been three years, only, since I had last seen Mr. Brierly.  I had finally stopped thinking about him every day and now this?  Why? Dr. Brierly.  I was running through in my mind the things I needed in order to make sure I was in the best presentable condition possible when I was startled by a gentle tapping at the door.  Not tonight, please, God.  Not tonight of all nights when I longed to give my thoughts over to another man.  My hands shook as I put down the brush.

“Yes, come in,” I said softly.  I could see William enter the room in his dressing gown behind me via his reflection in the mirror.  He looked almost sheepish, imploring.  I knew he was trying to be kind to me, but I hated him for it.  Most days I longed for him to simply take control, but he was too timid to do that.  Tonight, I just wanted to get it over with so that I could get back to my secret sadness.