I resolved to stay in London for a few weeks. I took up residence in a modest but respectable hotel as I gathered my wits and continued to write the stories of the people I had met in Scutari and Balaklava.
The first real order of business was pressing. I had to purchase new clothing as what I had brought with me from the Crimea was very worn and several seasons out of fashion. I spent money on three lovely new dresses, undergarments, and shoes only to find that as a single woman there was much curiosity. Everyone from hotel staff and shopkeepers wanted to ask me personal questions and I had much difficulty explaining my situation.
In order to make life easier, I decided to enter full mourning again. No one would hassle the grieving widow. I moved about the crowded streets unhindered, an anonymous figure cloaked and veiled in black. When William had died the clothing had seemed a prison. Hot, stifling, uncomfortable. Now, as a shadow, I was unrecognized, untouched. Eyes were averted. No one spoke to me except to quickly give me what I wanted or needed, hoping I would move one quickly before I brought bad luck or my tears or worse. It was freedom itself. The color suited my grieving, stained heart and the veil hid my deep sadness.
Nathaniel’s gift I kept with me at all times but as the paper began to show wear quickly, I realized that it needed to be better preserved. Still, to do so meant giving up my one relic, if only for a time, an act that was painful to consider even if it were temporary.
Eventually I enquired after reputable jewelers from the desk clerk at the hotel and had been directed to an establishment several blocks away that specialized in memorial pieces. I had a very specific item in mind. A gold brooch enameled in black with the word Recuerdo engraved upon the face. A reproduction of the one worn by the young lady in the painting in my rood in Edinburgh oh so long ago. Inside, behind a thick crystal, would lie the bit of his hair and the message…Victo Dolore. Thusly, he would be locked away, my secret, but I could still have him close to my heart.
“Good day, Madame,” the jeweler croaked as I entered the shop. He was a tiny, wizened old gentleman with a loupe stuck into one squinting eye. Much of his posture and appearance reminded me of a troll, but he did not seem unpleasant. He had looked up from his current project when he heard me enter.
“Good day, sir.”
“I will be with you in a moment.”
He continued tinkering away on an exquisite garnet encrusted bauble as I wandered past the display cases with their jewels reclining luxuriously on the folds of red velvet. Pearl necklaces, onyx crosses, emerald earrings, diamonds watch fobs all twinkled and shone in the late afternoon light. Each was constructed with a place to stash some memento of a departed loved one, tucked away behind glads. As I examined the pieces I began to doubt that my design was elaborate enough to serve as a fitting memorial. I began to panic a bit.
At last the jeweler cleared his throat and stood, putting down his tools. His fingers were gnarled and misshapen. How could he do such fine work with hand like this?
“How can I help you?” he asked after what seemed a lengthy period. The loupe was gone, replaced by a pair of wire rimmed spectacles.
Wordlessly, I showed him my crude sketch, smoothing out the folded paper on the countertop. He nodded, peering over the wire frames. A “Hmmmmmmm…,” escaped his lips.
He looked up at me. “I can have it ready in about two weeks time, I believe.” Glancing down at the drawing again, he was apparently lost in thought, tabulating some important variable. “Yes. That should be sufficient time. Is that acceptable?” He again looked up at me, this time quizzically. A wiry gray eyebrow was raised as a question mark.
“That soon?” I was taken aback by the speed of his answer and the promised time to have the order completed.
“Certainly.” He shrugged. “It is a simple yet elegant piece.” My heart lifted a bit at his praise. He would know beauty when he saw it, wouldn’t he?
We discussed price with some good natured haggling. Eventually we agreed on an amount. Truthfully I would have paid any price.
“Well then, that is most agreeable.” I handed over my precious bit of hair and the scrap of paper, aching as I did so, then paid him half of the agreed upon sum. “I will return in two weeks.”
He nodded acceptance of the arrangement, then returned slowly to his workbench, easing along with an arthritic shuffle. I turned to leave.
“This will not make it better, you know.”
“Pardon me?” I paused with my hand on the door handle and turned back, not sure I had heard him correctly. He was staring hard at me.
“This will not make it better,” he repeated.
“I understand,” I said, bowing my head. But I did not. And he did not. No one could understand because I could not tell them this dark black secret of mine.
He settled back to setting the showy garnets in their new golden home.
The door jingled as I closed it tight behind me, taking a deep breath. The air inside was less polluted but had been stifling nonetheless.
I walked slowly back to the hotel. His words bothered me. I was not sure that I wanted to feel better. Somehow the pain made it feel more real and suffering seemed necessary to atone for my sin. I had enjoyed my sin, making it all the more sinful. Certainly this fellow was attempting to assuage his own guilt for capitalizing on the grief of others by offering bits of pseudo-sage advice. I would never see him again after I paid for my brooch and I was glad.
I felt lost without my treasure, ungrounded. This was silly I recognized but I was unsure how to change the fact.
I found myself wandering the streets wondering how would I fill up my days and my nights. I played through the moments with Nathaniel again, hidden behind the black veil. I hoped that the more I relived those feelings, the deeper they would be etched into my memory. I did not want to lose even a second of that precious time. The sea of people parted easily for me as I passed, no one wanting the bad luck of touching me, the widow twice over.