Chapter Ninety-Six: Buried Grief

  
It was October 1st, 1858. The dawn of a new life awaited me this day, surely. I had suffered long enough.

It had been a decade since I had last stepped foot off of a train onto the cobbled streets of Edinburgh and yet the place still smelled and looked the same: damp, gloomy, mysterious, and medieval. 

The wheels of the carriage jolted as they hit each pothole along the way. I could feel each one in my bones.  

There were untold secrets, magic lurking in every wynd, every alleyway…

“Here ye go, lassie. The New Calton Cemetery…” The driver paused as he handed me out of the carriage. The dim light of the moments just before sunrise made the concern on his face barely discernible. I handed him a few extra coins. “It is still dark and the ground is drookit. Ain’t ye feart?” 

The gate appeared closed but I could see the light, low fog beyond mingling with the dark stones. The graveyard stood on a hill overlooking the city. The watch tower lay just beyond the entrance.

“I will be fine, sir. I am visiting my husband’s grave, I know my way.” Lying had become second nature to me now. I smiled at him.

“Shall I wait fer ye?” 

“Yes, please.” 

I walked to the gate, pushing gently against the cold metal. I could feel the chill of the ironwork through my gloves. It gave way easily, opening with a slight groan of displeasure. I slipped inside and pulled it closed behind me.

I walked quickly. 

There was not much time.

The stones grew older as I went, skeletons, angels of death, skulls…

Northwest corner….

Soon I could see the dark figure of a woman, also in full mourning dress. Black ghosts in the mist. She lifted her veil as I approached.

“Mrs. Brierly,” I murmured, warily. I was still unsure if I could trust her.

She nodded to me, coldly, a half smile playing upon her lips. The arched stone rose up behind her. It was newer than the other stones around us, just large enough for someone to walk through.

“You are ready?” she asked.

“Yes.” I took a deep breath and drew myself up taller.

She pulled a slip of paper and a small, pointed knife with a gilt handle out of the reticule at her wrist. “Here is the address.” 

I glanced at it, then tucked it into my sleeve.

1203 Lauriston Street

“Come here.” She commanded. I stepped closer until I was standing next to the arch itself. “Let me have your right hand.”

I held out my hand to her. She pulled off the glove.

“This will hurt.”

She pricked my ring finger. I winced, resisting the urge to pull away. A drop of dark red blood rose up. Still holding firmly to my wrist, she wiped the blood across a name carved into the stone. 

The breath caught in my chest. 

It was her name. 

Died, October 1st, 1858 aged thirty-one years.

Before I could ask, she released my hand. She pulled the glove off of her own hand and removed her wedding band, handing it to me. She pricked her own finger, wiping it also across the stone letters, murmuring a few unintelligible words. 

She pulled a gun from her belt and laid it on the ground. “That is in case this does not work.” 

“Why?” I was confused.

Her gaze was distant, far away. “My daughters died in the typhus outbreak seven months ago. Watching your children die one after the other, burning with fever and out of their minds, knowing there is nothing you can do to save them….” Her voice trailed off. She looked at me again, suddenly, fixing me with her determined eyes. “There is nothing left for me here. I would rather die than continue in this hell.”

I felt pity for her.

A few bright rays of sunshine were piercing through the gray of the morning, falling into the archway itself.

“I am running away. Far away,” she said, smiling.

She pulled off the mourning veil and slipped out of the black dress. Beneath she wore clothing that curiously resembled a man’s work clothes. Brown pants. A homespun shirt that buttoned down the front. She pulled her hair out of the braids and mussed the curls. Using the knife, she cut her hair short, jagged, letting the discarded locks fall into a haphazard pile on the ground. A hat then covered the mess. She wore work boots on her feet, thick and crude and had fashioned a pouch around her neck. It appeared heavy and I could hear coins rattling against each other inside.

And then?

She stepped into the archway without even speaking another word and was gone. 

Gone? 

I circled the stone. Indeed. She had disappeared into thin air.

How?

I touched her blood stained name and a force knocked me backwards to the ground. For a few moments it felt as though I could not breathe. 

Slowly the air returned to my lungs and I stood up, looking around. Not a soul was present. At least not of the living kind.

I picked up the gun from the ground. It felt heavy in my hand. I debated taking it but instead put it back down. 

I would not be needing it. 

I looked closely at the ring in my hand and then slipped it on over my still throbbing finger. It should have been mine in the first place. I replaced the glove.

Dressed in mourning with the long veil, I would be able to slip into the house undetected, even in the bright light of full morning.

My heart sang as I walked back to the waiting carriage. 

Chapter Ninety-Two: Brewing


The warm bitterness of the coffee matched my mood. I took it black now. Black like the darkness looming outside, ominous and harsh. I had missed it terribly. Tea had always seemed weak and patronizing, even more so now that the world had shifted.

I sat down the cup on the small lace covered table beside me. My hands shook a fair bit and there was a slight rattle as the cup came to rest again on the saucer.

A letter lay on my lap. It had arrived the day before, forwarded to the boarding house that was my home for the time being.

I smoothed out the paper again and stared at the flowering script, letting the effect of the coffee and the words wash over me.

The instructions were detailed. I was to meet Mrs. Brierly at the New Calton burial ground in Edinburgh in a fortnight exactly at sunrise. There was an arched gravestone in the far northeast corner where she would be waiting. Bring no one. Tell no one. Wear black, full mourning, complete with veil.

My mind raced.

I would have to wait to purchase the clothing as I got closer to Edinburgh. There was no way to do that here without arousing suspicion. I was too well known. The train tickets to Scotland. Should I purchase early to guarantee passage? Or wait until the last minute to minimize the risk of being found out?

And Anne. 

There was the matter of Anne that must be addressed.

Timing was key. I would not be able to take her with me, at least not yet, but I also could not leave her here in that awful place with the Greers.

I had gone there, begging to see my daughter. The farmhouse was in frightening condition. The red faced woman, rotund woman who answered the door looked puzzled until it dawned on her who I was. I caught a glimpse of Anne being dragged to a back room before the door was slammed shut. There was recognition in her sad eyes. I could hear her screams for me from the other side of the warped wood. Shouting. A slap. Silence.

How could one feel this much hate and not be consumed by it?

No. She would not stay there much longer. I would see just how much love was willing to compromise and sacrifice for the sake of love.

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.