Chapter One Hundred Three: Leaving

IMG_4043

It was hours later when the last drop of red blood trickled down his ghostly hand, into the bowl and overflowed into the growing crimson lake on the floor.

His face was sallow and translucent without the pinkish hue of blood coursing through his veins. The jaundice was now left unchecked and he appeared otherworldly in the lamplight, no longer human.

The chest no longer rose and fell. 

He was still. 

Faded.

I had cried and rocked in the corner as I watched and waited, surprised yet again that I had any tears left after all of the sorrows of the years. 

I cried for myself, for innocence long gone. 

And I cried for him. He had been dead even before this. There was no cure. No treatment. He would die sooner rather than later anyway, most likely choking on his own blood and vomit, suffocated by hemorrhaging from within. At least I had spared him that indignity, hadn’t I?  

When the flow of tears and blood had stopped, I stood and packed my few belongings. 

I stood at the doorway to the bedroom for a few moments more, staring at the shell of what had been a brilliant doctor, my lover. I wanted Nathaniel to wake, to hold me, to tell me everything would be fine. He would not. I knew he would not but the heart wants what the heart wants. 

I craved his forgiveness but I could not have it. Not in this life.

Gathering up my skirts, I tiptoed through the sticky blood covered floor and kissed him once more on the cold lips. 

Kiss me back…

I touched his cheek.

There was no life there. 

I turned on the landing to look back, panic welling up as the horror of what I had just done broke through my clouded senses. A bloody trail of footprints followed behind me, fading with each step. My stomach turned.

Oh, God.

Then I ran.

Chapter One Hundred: Fluids

IMG_2141And so I went back.

I climbed each of those steps again, more slowly this time, filled with dread of a much different sort.

He was still lying in the floor, and had urinated on himself, but was coherent enough that he could assist me in getting him to bed. I helped him stand, leaving the bottle of spilled liquor in the floor.

Halfway across the room he began vomiting. 

Oh, God.

I stopped and waited for it to pass, the vomit splattering to the floor. Bits of it splashed up onto my skirt. I fought back my own urge to retch.

When the contents of his stomach had been completely evacuated, we resumed our halting progress.

His eyes held no recognition. I did not know if that was because of the alcohol, the head trauma, or something else. He groped my breast as he stumbled with me into the bedroom. I brushed his hand firmly away. 

“Stop.”

He didn’t fight me.

His eyes closed as he fell onto the bed, dust rising up from the mattress. He appeared to be unconscious, though his brow remained furrowed. 

I undressed him anyway.

His abdomen was swollen, full of fluid that shifted with every breath, every touch. His legs were doughy, my fingers left a deep imprint that lingered wherever they touched up to his thighs. I could see that he had scratched his jaundiced skin bloody in several places with long fingernails, leaving deep excoriations. The dried blood was still visible under those nails. 

His personal hygiene had been neglected for some time.

It is difficult to watch someone you love, someone you have been so intimate with, so changed. I wrestled with revulsion as I bathed his body with the water I found in the pitcher on the worn dresser. How long had it been there? At least it was cleaner than him.

I realized, as I scooped the vomit into an old dirty towel, that I still cared for him, otherwise cleaning this vomit from the floor would not have been possible.

I walked back to the bedroom and lay down on the mattress next to him and wept. All of his secrets, his pain, his mortality were all on display here in this dimly lit room. We had both suffered. My heart ached.

Chapter Ninety-Nine: Honor

IMG_2200

“Evelyn, I….” The hoarse words caught as his thick tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He cleared his throat. “I… Are you… Evelyn?” He leaned forward, squinting against the light from the window. It threw him off balance and he swayed a bit, then steadied himself with his free hand. 

He took a swig from the bottle again and wiped his mouth with a grimy sleeve.

All of this time I had imagined our reunion, playing the possible permutations over and over again in my heart. It always ended the same way: Love. Joy. His embrace. 

This was none of those things. 

I was too late…

I wanted to retch.

This shadow was no longer the man I loved. I had been duped. I cursed that woman under my breath. I should have known better. So foolish.

I cannot not stay here. 

Frantic thoughts.

I retied the bonnet quickly, lowered the veil. Snatching up the valise from the dusty floor, I hesitated for a moment.

“No. I am not Evelyn. I am sorry. I have made a very grave mistake.” 

He stared intently as I crossed from the window, past the chairs. Recognition crept slowly across his face, then left again.

Another uncertain swig.

Reaching the door, he grabbed my arm, pulling me close up against his body. He struggled to focus the jaundiced eyes, his face inches away from mine. Even filtered through the fabric of the black veil his breath was rancid with decay.

“Let me go!” I hissed as I yanked my arm away.

“Anne?” He moved to stand in front of me, strangely agile for a man who moments before had looked as if he would topple over. “You came back?”

“No.” I shoved him hard. 

In slow motion I watched as he fell, crumpling to the floor. 

He moaned.

Love was supposed to be unconditional? I felt nothing for this man. No remorse. No hatred. No sadness. No love.

Who am I, now?

My whole identity had been wrapped up in him for so long…

But then, there was the other half of that question:

How did I become so cold, so calculated? So unremorseful?

I stepped across his body, lying motionless across the threshold, and made my way down the stairs. 

The arrogance of pursuing what we cannot have. It is blinding, maddening.

Back in the cool morning air, I breathed deeply. My feet carried me several blocks away, weaving in and out among the men on their way to work and the women on their way to market. Walking fast. They were going toward something. 

I was running away. 

It was some time before I felt my head and heart clear. Tears stung my eyes, thankfully hidden beneath the mourning veil. 

It was appropriate, this black. 

I stopped at a corner, standing still, letting the world rush on without me. Carts and carriages rattled past, men shouted greetings to each other. 

Honor.

We should honor what was, what had been. Honor the hope of a future now passed.

He was dying. He had killed himself. 

“Are you alright, madame?” A young gentleman in a dark grey overcoat stood watching me, concerned. English. Here in Edinburgh. How long had he been there? How long had I been there? 

He offered his arm. 

“No,” I shook my head. “No thank you.”

The man tipped his tall hat, shrugged, and walked on.

I turned around, walking slowly back to Lauriston Street. He would not die alone but he also would not take me with him, I would make sure of that.

Chapter Ninety-Seven:┬áThe Next Chapter

IMG_7938

Where had she gone?

There was no doubt that she had disappeared into thin air. A magic, dark and powerful, filled with hate and anger and sadness, was involved… I had felt it throw me to the ground. It had crawl into my heart before it recoiled and fled. What did it see there?

I still felt a lingering cold and despair. Was it her despair?

Why?

She had said she no longer wanted to live in my shadow. Nathaniel did not love her as he loved me. I felt a certain pride in that fact. I had won after all, hadn’t I?

Her daughters were dead. They were the innocent casualties. I could not feel for them now, faceless as they were.

Was she dead? Or transported to another life, another time? Would she ever come back to haunt me?

Sunlight had broken over the horizon and bathed the rooftops in bright yellow. I shifted my skirts as the carriage made its way to Lauriston Street. The hem of the black mourning crepe was damp from the dew of the graveyard and black dye rubbed off onto my fingers.

No matter. It will dry.

My heart was pounding we came to a stop. A rocking signaled that the driver had stepped down. In seconds he had opened the door with a flourish and held out his hand to me. I placed my black gloved hand in his and stepped out.

The veil did not protect enough from the blinding sun glancing off of the third floor windows of the brownstone to prevent me from squinting as I looked up. It certainly looked respectable enough.

I could live here. 

I smiled to myself, relaxing somewhat, and took a step toward the front door. It was shiny and red with a large, simple brass knocker.

“No, Mrs. Brierly. Over there.” That name on his lips startled me.  I had given it to myself, to him. Still, to hear it on someone else’s lips….

He handed me the valise and pointed across the narrow street to another brownstone. The windows were dark with grime and the front steps were dirty. The door was propped open halfway, revealing stairs.

Surely not.

I checked the paper again, confused.

“Shall I wait for ye?” He stared at me kindly, expectantly.

I shook my head no silently as I pressed money into his hand.

“Are ye sure, lass?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

I could barely breathe, anxiety and fear gripped my chest.

Had she given me the wrong address on purpose? Was this her revenge?

I did not want this man to serve as witness to my humiliation.

Crossing the street, I stood staring at the steps until I heard the carriage depart. Only then did I push the door open further and entered.

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 Eighty-Five: Retribution

 Antique hospital bed reflected in an apothecary's window. 

Where was he?

I waited at the window for hours with Anne playing in the floor beside me. 

“Don’t pull on the drapery, darling…” I tugged gently at the dark silk but she did not turn loose. Instead she giggled and yanked hard back. “This is not a game!” Edginess showed in my voice.

She smiled up at me but did not release her grip, pulling hard again.

I knelt and unfurled the fingers of her good hand from the fabric. She was strong when she wanted to be. The curtain was quickly draped carefully over the chair back out of her reach. 

Anne pulled herself up on the chair, still smiling. Reaching. Standing on bare tip toes she balanced with the one arm, reaching with the other. Unsuccessful, she switched hands. Realizing she could not reach it, I was quickly met with wails of frustration. 

Still, he had not come.

Darkness descended, empty and foreign.

What did it mean?

My mind explored all possible scenarios: A carriage accident? He had finally come to his senses about me? He was ill? Someone else was ill? The diocese had called a meeting about his suspect activities on these Sunday afternoons? 

Sleep was fitful, punctuated by fear filled dreams of blood and fever.

Monday passed without word from him as did Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday. Hurt. Desperation. Anger. Relief. My emotions ran the gamut. 

There was no one I could ask and pride prevented me from sending a letter of inquiry directly to him. I was not sure I wanted to know the answer, quite frankly. As long as it was possible that there had been an accident, I was spared the inevitable rejection.

Another Sunday passed at the window, alone. 

Finally, I was done with it. I would not care. I settled in the flickering shadows after putting Anne down for the night and burned his letters in the fire one by one. 

All except one. My favorite. 

“I hold you in the highest regard and pray for your wellbeing nightly…”

I would keep it as a token, a reminder of my folly. The dangers of hope. The flattery of attention, being led astray…

I traced the letters over and over again, then refolded the paper, returning it to the envelope.

Great wracking sobs came. I mourned. For myself, the loneliness. For Anne. For Nathaniel. For hoping for something better than what I had, better than this miserable existance in its perpetual state of uncertainty…

Mid morning on Wednesday, still with no word, I swung Anne up onto my hip and set out, intending to get bread but instead walking past the bakery. 

We walked on and on, the dappled sunlight filtering through the occasional trees.

There was the beginning of a strange, dull ache and I shifted Anne to the other hip. She rested her head on my shoulder and dozed off a bit, lulled by the movement.

I did not stop.

People crossed to the other side of the street as we approached, fear recognizable in their eyes even from that distance. I was used to anger and loathing. Fear was new and puzzling.

There it was. 

The modest gray stone building in traditional Georgian construct, the rectory. 

I halted at the bottom of the front steps.

There on the heavy wooden door hung my answer. Acid crept up the back of my throat as understanding set in.

Small pox.

A sharp pain suddenly broke through the dull ache in the base of my pelvis. Severe. Crippling. 

Oh, God.

Something was wrong. Very wrong.

Chapter Seventy-Nine: Sundays

IMG_2620

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…”

“Get out.”

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.

Reverend Drummond.

“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.”

“What secret?”

“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.

What price?

“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.

Chapter Seventy-Eight: Rest

IMG_3386

At last I had peace.

The heat generated by his body as he slept next to me was oppressive. The bed creaked as I shifted, kicking off the coverlet. Beads of sweat had formed between my breasts underneath my shift. I sat up and lifted the crisp, white cotton fabric up over my head, tossing it to the floor nearby. 

I did not want to sleep. Instead, I lay back down, eyes wide open, still feeling restless. I wanted him to make love to me again. 

He stirred slightly. I slid my hand up his back and softly touched the hair at the nape of his neck in the darkness then pressed my naked body into his.

He was mine again.

I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of him, laying my cheek against the warm skin of his upper back. I could feel him breathe. 

He stirred again. I kissed his shoulder. 

When he rolled over toward me, at first I thought the shadows from the fireplace were playing tricks on me. I searched his features.

That was not Nathaniel’s face, was it?

I scrambled back away from him then off the bed, scooping up my shift. I held the fabric up against my naked body as he sat up. I suddenly felt terribly cold. I shivered. 

What should I do? Run? Where was Anne?

Confusion played on his face. “Evelyn? Come back to bed.” He beckoned to me as he spoke the command. “Now!”

I knew that voice, didn’t I?

I could see his face better now. I could not breathe.

It was the Reverend Drummond.

How?

The world closed in around me and I felt myself gasping for air, falling toward some unseen terror.

Then I was awake all over again, my heart in my throat. I felt as if I had been holding my breath for hours.

The bed next to me was empty. Relief washed over and through my body as I tried to slow the movement of my chest, the tremor of my hands.

The nightmare again. How much longer would this dream repeat itself?

One year. Just one more year.

If I could trust her.

I could endure this for one more year. Surely. One could endure almost anything if there was an end in sight. The Crimea had taught me that.

Chapter Seventy-Four: Visitation

IMG_2177

“Come on, Evelyn. You have to do better…” In the silence and emptiness of the house I had taken to speaking aloud to myself. This time the words twisted a lock in my heart and sobs poured from me, buckets of grief that had been buried deep.

Anne had finally cried herself to sleep and the loneliness had crept in on the wings of a cricket that sat chirping somewhere by the hearth.

I wanted it to die but I could not find it.

After the stress and anxiety and days without feeding, my breasts had become empty sacks and no amount of suckling could bring the milk back to its previous plenty.

Anne, having survived the infection, was slowly starving to death it seemed. She screamed and fussed, her thin little arms beating against my chest as she wailed, more irritable by the day.

I began scouring books for suggestions of what to feed an infant. She was too young yet for any table food.

Her right arm had been saved but the infection had left her ring and little fingers curved under grotesquely, like a claw. She could not move them.

Each day I tried to straighten the fingers out, hoping that someday she would regain use. I did not want them to become frozen stiff and unbending as I had seen of the injured limbs of soldiers in the Crimea.

I am losing hope.

God had left our house along with the Reverend Drummond, and with them the maid and housekeeper. There were whispers about that I was a witch, that no one should have, could have, done what I had done. Hiring new staff became impossible and people around town went so far as to cross to the other side of the road when they saw me coming.

As a consequence, no wet nurse would agree to hire.

Don’t you see that you are all conspiring to kill her!?!??!

There was no choice but to attempt to bring her up by hand but this was fraught with hazards.

Some recipes insisted on gelatin and arrowroot and varying amounts of cream, though no logical reasoning for such was presented.

I opted for simplicity, the use of fresh cows milk diluted with an equal quantity of barley water and a teaspoon of added sugar. As spring broke into summer, I knew diarrheal illness lurked. It was impossible to use milk from only one cow as we did not live in the country. What was delivered made the trek of miles in the back of a creaky wooden cart. Runny stools with subsequent death was a hazard to spoon fed infants in warmer months and to combat that, I began to include a bit of beef suet as the books suggested.

Scrofula was also a constant fear. The books instructed not boil the milk before use but I scrubbed the feeding cups and mouth pieces as thoroughly as I could, all the while praying that no further ill would befall her.

Remember, God, if she dies…

Some color came back to her little cheeks but Anne continued to fuss, angry with each sip and spoonful so I made a pap of stale bread, milk sugar, and beer and began to give her that with a weak beef tea that seemed to sate her. She was not particularly happy to be eating from a pap boat but she liked it better than the bottles and truthfully it was much easier to clean.

Feedings became an all consuming ritual as procuring supplies and the preparation and clean up were labor intensive. It became my religion.

Her curled under fingers did not improve despite my work with them. I fashioned a contraption with two forks and blocks of wood to hold her fingers open and left it on for days at a time, but the fingers did not stay that way once it was removed. When she swung her arm at me, the wooden and metal bits caused great pain… I abandoned the idea.

And so on this night as I fell into a fitful, exhausted sleep, I dreamed of a beautiful woman dressed all in red.