He was out there again.
The lace fell back into place over the window as the clock on the mantle chimed three o’clock.
Weeks had passed.
He was persistant.
I took a deep breath, then opened the door.
We eyed each other across the room.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
He smiled uncomfortably.
“I am here to bring you back into the fold…”
He had startled me terribly when I found him standing in the parlor holding his hat, his back to me, a figure in black who was turning the pages of the heavy Bible that sat on the table in the corner by the window. A dark stranger it had appeared at first until he turned around.
“Madame. I… I am afraid I owe you an apology.”
“I said get out.” Coming into my house unbidden was a terrible affront, an insult. “You are trespassing, sir.”
He spoke quickly. “I am most sorry for causing you grief, for accusing you of witchcraft. I did not understand what you had done. If it had been witchcraft, surely the girl’s arm would not still be crippled.”
“Surely.” I responded dryly. “Get out.” I kept my voice low and even but firm. Anne had just gone down for an afternoon nap. I did not want to wake her.
He took a step toward me.
“Mrs. Aspern.” He knew my real name.
That woman! She had told him.
“I don’t know who you are talking about,” I whispered.
“Yes you do.” He held out his hand as he took another step toward me. I stepped back only to feel my crinoline hit the wall behind me. The door was to my right if I needed it. Surely I could get there before him. But Anne! There was an oil lamp on a table to my left that I could throw at him if needed. My mind raced, eyes rapidly scanning the room for potential weapons.
What if I killed him?
A single eyebrow cocked up as he waited. Finally he spoke. “There is no need.”
“No need?” I could not hide the confusion in my voice.
“To kill me.” He laughed. “There is no need to kill me.” He took another step. “Your secret is safe.”
“Don’t play coy, Mrs Aspern.” He cleared the distance between us until he was standing close enough that I could smell his shave soap. He took my own mangled right hand in his. “I have a price, though,” he said softly.
I stared at him, waiting. Saying anything seemed an admission of guilt so I remained silent.
“I will come for dinner once a week after Sunday service.” He paused for a moment. “And you will attend those services again, every Sunday.” He raised my hand to his lips and kissed the fingers, his eyes locked on mine.
“Get out!” I said through gritted teeth.
“Until Sunday, then…” He smiled, then bowed with a flourish.
Then he was gone.
“…the love of the Father. In that line, grace is sufficient. It by definition must cover all manner of….”
My mind was elsewhere, bathed in joy of an irreverent kind. My heart sang. It had worked!
I had taken the risk to keep from becoming a prisoner to my own body and it had worked.
Baby Anne was at home with the maid and the cook. It felt good to be out and about, even if it was only to church.
A cough from Mrs. Fenuiel beside me brought the elaborately carved pulpit back into focus. The Reverend Drummond smiled benevolently upon his congregation from his lofty perch. He paused as he turned another page of his sermon notes.
When only his head is visible above his robes, he makes quite the pleasant visage.
I shifted in my seat, testing. I could not feel it inside, even when sitting for long periods of time on a hard wooden pew.
Each day that passed the pessary was less noticeable until I lost track of its presence entirely.
Well, maybe not entirely.
I had inserted a finger to feel its shape while lying on the bed in my shift that night and every night thereafter. It was a solid metal pillow with a central hole. I was not certain what exactly it was constructed of, as I was too afraid to pull it out. There was no telling if I would be able to get it back in properly and having to explain to the good doctor how it had “fallen” out would be too mortifying.
Furthermore, I had no intention of keeping my appointment to follow up with the doctor on Tuesday next. Looking him in the face after he had examined and felt of me down there was too much. The device was working. That should be sufficient.
“Let us pray.” The Reverend’s eyes fixed on mine for a moment. Did I look distracted? Surely he was used to distraction. I bowed my head dutifully.
What would it be like to be naked, body entwined with his in a passionate embrace?
My cheeks reddened. Why did that pop into my head? Here? In God’s house? Was what the doctor warned true? Was I becoming a whore? And then a new reality dawned on me. With a pessary occupying space, I could not make love to any man even if I wanted to.
I must not allow myself to want it.
I focused on the rise and fall of his voice, eloquent words masking their own intent.
Reality. I could never be a vicar’s wife. That was not me. I lacked the faith and fortitude. I lacked the innocence and capacity for love of humankind. I could not be his lover.
But protection. I longed to feel loved, safe, protected. God alone could not provide me with these very carnal, human things. Bernini had been wrong. I was fairly sure that even Saint Teresa in her ecstasy probably still felt unfulfilled. I felt the rocking of a ship in the dark. My face on his chest. His heartbeat. I could remember the intense pleasure of the very moment Anne had been wrought, but his features, the details, were lost to me already. Sadness stuck in my throat.
A hand touched the cold, hard oval pinned to my bodice.
There you are.
No. I did not want to leave this darkness…
Swells of organ music.
I must remain faithful to his memory.
Dutifully, I filed out of the pew, into the aisle, and out the door with Mrs. Finueil on my arm to exchange brief pleasantries with the Reverend Drummond. As we set foot on the steps the sun caught in my nostril and I sneezed.
I waited anxiously for the days to tick by. Still I had no long term plan. I felt I could think better once I had the brooch and so I put off any serious consideration until I had my bit of Nathaniel back in my possession.
Time slowed, it seemed, almost to a standstill. My days were marked by words and meals, both of which were meager. The stories had stopped coming. There was more, much more, to say but it would not flow out of me onto the paper in any coherent fashion. As for the food, I had no appetite. Why pay for something I could not eat? And so I did not.
Sunday I decided to venture out to church, more out of boredom than piety. The streets were thick with those hurrying to seek their weekly absolution. Children, scrubbed clean, were dragged behind their mothers and fathers dressed in Sunday best. Old women walked more deliberately, likely held back by their rheumatism. Everyone was on their way to pay their respects to the almighty. Or at least they were making sure everyone else saw them doing it.
As I took the great stone steps myself, I realized that my heart felt bruised and tattered and that the holes had been filled by resentment. I was not ready to let go of all of the anger that was holding me together. Somehow, I knew that stepping across the threshold would start to chisel away at it. Once that was gone, what would I have left but grief and despair? Resentment and anger might not be the most pleasant of emotions but it was better than the alternative at this moment.
And what of remorse? I felt none for my love of Nathaniel, for my time with him, naked. Wasn’t remorse required of me prior to crossing this threshold? I searched my soul. No. No regret. I would live those moments over and over a thousand times a day if I could.
I hesitated at the heavy, ornate door, not entering. It must have been a lengthy pause. Someone behind me shifted and then coughed impatiently.
Turning, I found a young married couple waiting expectantly. The woman stared at me, clearly irritated that I was blocking their path. She did not know that I could not be hurt by her. She was too young to have been affected much by life. Soon, that would change, I felt certain. Instead, I pitied her.
“I beg your pardon,” I whispered to them as I passed. The gentleman touched his hat to me, nodding slightly. The woman glared from beneath her green velvet bonnet, her matching green eyes flashing.
Walking back down the steps, I pulled the black cloak tighter around me. Inquisitive looks from other parishioners followed as I retreated. What were they thinking about me, I wondered.
Coward. Sinner. Heathen. Damned.
It was only a few blocks to the hotel and I hurried as quickly as I could, not wanting to be out here in the open where I suddenly felt so vulnerable. Why was everyone looking at me? I touched my veil, the bonnet, smoothed my skirt…making sure nothing was out of place. It must be my imagination. I looked over my shoulder. There! A man in a black frock coat was looking back at me over their shoulder. It was real. But why? I am supposed to be an apparition, dressed in mourning. Does the magic not work on holy days, then?
Back in my rooms I sat holding the Bible I had purchased a few days previously. I did not open it.
All of my life there had been a nagging undercurrent of disbelief, that feeling that what I had been taught about God was not quite real because it did not make sense. Yes, I had read the verses. I had heard the sermons. But there was something missing. They were all leaving out the most important part but I did not know what that part was specifically. All I had was that suspicion, the doubt. It was this doubt that I now grabbed hold of with both hands.
My acceptance letter was delivered and within the day a note from Mr. Aspern arrived, addressed to my mother, requesting an appointment with her. There was a second note from him, addressed to me, which simply read: “Thank you for your answer. I will endeavor to ensure that your life is not simply wasted on me. Yours as always, William.”
Agnes had indeed already announced the proposal but mother wanted to hear of the details from me. She had already done some research of her own into the state of Mr. Aspern’s family and affairs and felt that she could accept his offer of marriage.
The meeting between my mother and Mr. Aspern did not occur until that Friday. There was a full hours worth of deliberations in the drawing room of which I was not privy, but which sealed my fate nonetheless. I could hear the voices rising and falling behind the closed pocket doors as I sat on the hard wooden bench in the hallway. They were not always friendly in tone.
At long last they both emerged. My mother was smiling, clearly satisfied. Mr. Aspern winked and bowed at the waist, taking my hand and kissing it.
“My dear, it is arranged!” He was overjoyed.
“We will send for your father immediately, the wedding will take place in three months time here in Edinburgh,” my mother purred.
Three months! That was all the time I had left?
My mother misread the concern on my face and hastily added, “I am certain that you would like to be married sooner, but…”
“No. No, mother,” I interrupted. “Three months is just fine.”
“We will make the formal announcement in two weeks time,” my mother continued. She went on further with the details of the time line but I was no longer listening. The wheels had been pressed into motion and could not be stopped. I feared I would be crushed beneath the weight. What had I done?
A letter was dispatched to father. We were invited to the Aspern estate to meet William’s parents. The fowl and the reception were somewhat cold. I could see that his mother was not happy that I was taking away her eldest son to some foreign country across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, my trousseau was assembled. The wedding dress was a stunning ivory silk that had cost well over five hundred pounds, an ungodly sum considering so few people would ever see it.
We would marry on a Wednesday at noon in November. All if my life when I had thought about my wedding, I had dreamed of a huge church with hundreds of onlookers and well-wishers. My dress was embroidered with crystals and pearls. Bells tolled, doves were in attendance, beams of colored sunlight poured through the stained glass windows, a huge feast followed afterwards…it was magical. Reality, however, was nothing like this. Now I insisted on not having a church ceremony as I did not intend to have God watching over my shoulder as I took my vows. I begged, pleaded, and threatened until my mother agreed to make it a private ceremony in the parlor of our rented house with a small party of close friends. The weather would be quite cold and a garden wedding was out of the question. A meal would be served immediately after, a late breakfast of sorts.
As the ceremony was to be at home, I had no veil, only orange blossoms, which like the dress were a symbol of purity, and ribbons to wear in my hair. I also would have no attendants as there was no one that I was close enough with to ask to serve in that capacity. We would leave for the honeymoon directly after eating. William had not disclosed where we would go for the honeymoon, but had told me that we would be travelling for two months. My mother would close up the house and move back to Massachusettes where we would meet.
In five weeks, rather than receiving my father, we received a letter stating in vague terms that my father was rather ill and unable to travel. He begged my mother to continue with the wedding as planned and gave his blessing.
In response, my mother moved up the date of the wedding by two weeks.
The anxiety within me mounted and I felt the need to run away. Far away. But I had no one with whom to discuss these things. I was more isolated than I had ever been. I had attempted to tell William, but even the suggestion of anxiety on my part wounded him deeply and I knew I could not say anything further. Everyone around me made light of the situation, referring to the proverbial wedding day jitters as if every bride wanted to flee in such a way. I put up a brave front, not wanting anyone to think that I could possibly be bothered by such thoughts but even so, I found this hard to imagine. Every woman feels this? Perhaps I simply wanted my own angst to be special but how could every single woman feel so much fear and anxiety prior to their wedding? Love was not supposed to be like this!
My mother, attempting to be helpful, wanted to spend the night before the wedding discussing my duties as a wife. I had been summoned to her room. However, her Victorian sensibilities and societal taboos made such conversation difficult for her and she stumbled along. I could feel my anger rising again, thinking of Emma.
“I do not need your assistance in these matters, mother.” I said coldly.
“But…,” she appeared confused, trying to absorb what that meant. Then a look of suspicion crossed her face. Had her daughter already experienced sexual relations? My face turned red even though she never actually opened her mouth to make the accusation.
Embarrassment was mistaken for anger when the nerve was struck. I wanted to hide my pain, to bury it in her pain. How dare you make accusations regarding my character!
“You are not the one to be giving advice! How long has it been since you were in father’s bed?”
A flash of pain washed over her face for the briefest moment, then was hidden behind a mask as quickly as it had appeared.
“I have experienced a wedding night, something which you have not,” she replied calmly. “I wish someone had told me the details of what to expect.”
“You have not kept your husband interested…how could you teach me anything about mine?”
“Enough!” Her eyes flashed dangerously as her voice rose sharply.
But I could not stop.
“Tell me why! Why should I stop?” I demanded, as if it really were my right to continue hurting her.
“There are things which you do not understand and which I will not explain to you.”
“Then what are we talking about if you do not wish to explain? I thought you wanted me to understand?”
“Then listen to me and listen well,” she hissed, also standing up. “What little freedom you experience now, it is over. You are chattel and you belong to your husband. He is a man. He is taught that relations with you are vital to his being and that it is his right as your husband to have those relations with you at any time, whether you want them or not. You must submit to them because if you do not, he will take them from you by force. You have no rights. Your property and your person will be his forever, you can never have it back. I have managed to save some small part of myself in spite of all of this and I will not be ashamed of that fact for you.” She sank back down into her seat, brushing a wisp of gray hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear.
“I am glad to no longer be your charge, mother. I am glad to be free of both you and father! If that means that I must prostitute myself, then so be it.” I slowed my words, enunciating each one clearly, allowing my voice to grow ever so much deeper. “I hope the both of you rot in hell.”
I left her there, sitting on the emerald green divan in the corner. Her face was drawn tight and her jaw clenched in anger. She stared at some distant, dark memory, no longer seeing me.
Those were the last words that I spoke to her as Evelyn Claire Douglas.