Chapter Nineteen: A Proposal of Another Kind

My bleeding did come, eventually, when I was almost driven mad with fear. I had begged God, pleaded with Him, bargained with Him.  I sang silent songs of rejoicing for days after and my heart soared with delight and freedom.  Dues had been paid, God and the powers were sated.  I could move on with my life and almost try to forget that night.  Maybe.

Mr. Aspern continued to court me throughout the remaining few months.  My mother was proud of the reserve and decorum I maintained in public with him, after my earlier dealings.  I took to shutting her out of my heart and my life, building walls that I had no intention of ever taking down.  I did it gradually, almost imperceptibly, but I was aware that she knew and understood, even if she was not entirely pleased.

The fact was, however, that I could not show affection to any other man, even if I had felt it, when there was a possibility of that action returning somehow to the eyes or ears of Nathaniel.  What if he were still here in Edinburgh?  Indeed, I searched for his face everywhere, hoping that he would rescue me at any minute.  How could he profess love and then disappear?  Perhaps his absence had allowed me to grant him sainthood, to rewrite what little history we had together?

When the proposal came, I was not entirely prepared.  How is that, you may wonder?  It is something that is expected a normal course of courting, and yet, I had chosen to ignore it as an eventuality.  I had enjoyed the attention, it was preferable to being alone, but I had not allowed myself to spend much time pondering a marriage proposal.  Who wants to spend time thinking on something undesirable?

William had requested a walk with me in the Princes Street Gardens on a bright August Sunday afternoon.  The gardens had been built in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle over 20 years ago after the filling in of the Nor Loch, a former lake that had become a cesspool of waste and filth as the city had grown.  Although it had been drained in the 1750’s, it had not been filled in with earth and had consistently threatened to return to its former state.  Now, however, it was a lush green space with winding pathways.  It was a warm day, but was much cooler in the stippled shadows of the trees.  We had stopped for a moment beneath a particularly large, gnarled oak with twisted branches that dipped to the ground in a strangely gracious way.  It must have been there long before the park was built, as the surrounding trees were much younger.  After a furtive glance to assure himself that no one was looking, he took my hand and held it to his chest.  He would not have dared to act so familiar had we not been partially hidden from view by foliage.

“Ms. Douglas,” he announced.  He cleared his throat officially, a look of discomfort crossing his face.  My heart began to pound, please no, no, no…

“Yes, Mr. Aspern?” I smiled ever so slightly at him, trying not to make eye contact, willing myself to maintain composure.  I tried to take a step forward, hoping to continue walking and thus distract him from what was to follow, however he stood in my way and did not budge.  He took a deep breath.

“I have not dreamed that I would ever meet a woman as accomplished as I have found you to be.  I have spent my life thinking of ladies more as entertainment than as a worthy partner.  That fact alone makes you even more beautiful to my eyes and more dear to my heart than you could ever imagine.  However, I recognize that there is much more to you and I am intrigued, fascinated.  It will take me years to know you completely.  I hope that you have something in your heart for me because I have concluded that I myself could not go on through the rest of my life without you by my side.”  His eyes searched mine imploringly, hopefully.

“What are you saying, Mr. Aspern?”  My nervous heart was attempting to beat itself out of my chest.  It was cruel of me to toy with him in this way, to force him to spell it out, but I did it anyway.  He cleared his throat again.

“I am asking you to marry me…”

“I see.”

We stood there like that, under the tree, with time paused in the way that seems to make the slightest hesitation seem like an eternity.  My mind ticked through the pros and cons, weighing the consequences of a “yes” or “no”.  Was I not in love with Nathaniel Brierly?  What was my future going to entail if I were not married?  I had no family upon which to rely for support if my father were to die.  I could not, as a woman, run any sort of business in my father’s place.  I would end up making hats in some milliner’s shop somewhere, living in poverty.

Should I wait, in the name of love, for Mr. Brierly?  What if his leaving was not truly out of concern for me, but rather because of his stronger love for someone else?  If he truly had loved me, wouldn’t he want me cared for, even if he could not provide for it himself?  Yes, he had said that hadn’t he?  Why had I not fought him harder?  Why had I turned and walked away from him when he told me to go?  What if it had only been a test?  If I had only refused, he would have relented and we would be together right now.  Or, if not a test, but he had still loved me, would it really have made a difference for me to try to fight it out with him?  Could I ever bend him to my will?  No.  That was part of his charm.  I held no power over his thoughts, feelings, actions…not to change them at any rate.

If I say yes to this man and tie myself to him forever, do I tell him the honest truth?  That I cannot love him completely?  At least not right now?  Is that kind of cruelty better than the cruelty that comes from playing charades every night in order to make him believe that I love him?  Is it selfish to marry him myself and rob him of a match with a woman who would truly care for him?  Can I grow to love him that way?  I looked carefully at this man before me.  I could not imagine making children with him.  I was not sure that there was any other man alive for whom I would suffer in that way in order to create offspring, even if that suffering were to be my salvation in God’s eyes as the priest had pronounced from the podium several Sundays ago.

“I must ask that you allow me some time to consider your proposal, Mr. Aspern.”  I squeezed his hand quickly and then tried to pull my hand away, but failed.  He held it even tighter.  He stared at me intently.  His mouth opened as if he were about to say something, but after a hesitation, he promptly closed it.  He was silent for what seemed like an eternity.

“Alright, then,” he replied finally.  A look of pain crossed his face and at that moment, I ached for him.  I knew what he was feeling.

“Would you please escort me home, Mr. Aspern?”

“Certainly,” he nodded, curtly.  He placed my hand on his arm and we turned toward home.  In kindness, I left it there.

We began back down the path, looking toward Edinburgh Castle on top of its rocky, volcanic crag and walked together in stony silence ourselves, nodding at the occasional family or couple as they passed.

“Tell me something,” I said.

“Yes?” he replied.

“Why do you want a wife who is spoiled by knowledge and her own opinions?”

“I would not say that a woman is spoiled by those things.”

“Why not, Mr. Aspern?”

“When a woman is educated as you have been, the world you are in becomes too small for you.  You can think and judge for yourself the justness of the role you have been given.  One of two things happens in those women. They become angry and embittered or they are ruled by grace and profound dignity.  You are the latter.  It takes great control and presence of mind to make it appear that you do not care that the world is unjust when you know so well that it is.”

His words made my breath catch in my chest.  How did this man know me when I had so pointedly not told him anything that had really mattered to me?  I felt my face flush.  I had spent much time arguing and debating with him, even about silly, unimportant things just to argue.

“So, in short, it is your strength that I admire most of all.”

We went on in silence for some distance.

“I am not all that you think I am,” I said softly.

“On the contrary, I believe that you are.”

“I am not perfection.”

“You misunderstand me, then.  I do not believe you to be perfect, Ms. Douglas.  I believe that you are an extraordinary young woman who has demonstrated her ability to live well, beyond her flaws.”

The last part of our trek was made wordlessly.  As we mounted the white stone steps at the front door, William once again took my hand, this time bowing slightly as he pressed my fingertips to his lips.  Then, he turned to leave.  I was struck at that moment with a certain urgency.  I needed to make sure that he understood what he was asking for.

“Wait, Mr. Aspern.”  I reach out my hand to grab the sleeve of his coat. Speaking of what I was about to say to someone like this was a terrible risk, but I had to make myself plain on this one point before I could ever agree.

He turned back, a single brow arched quizzically.  “Yes?”

“You should know… You should know that I am terrified of having children.  Terrified.  I know that that is what is expected of me…as…as a wife.  But I must tell you that I am terrified.” Terrified of the pain. Terrified of the loss. Terrified of that kind of love.

He nodded quietly, though his face betrayed his discomfort.  He put his hand firmly on top of mine as it rested on his sleeve.  I could see him weighing, balancing the choices.  Was I worth enough to him to agree to this?  “There are ways to avoid pregnancy.  I give you my word that if you choose me, you will not be pressured or forced.  There will be no children unless you are ready.”

He patted my hand, then lifted it off of his arm, kissed the fingers again, then turned back to the street and started down the steps.

I entered the house, pulling off my bonnet.

“Ah, Ms. Evelyn!” Agness took the hat from my hands, squinting at me suspiciously. “You look disconcerted, Miss.”

“I am,” I admitted.  “Mr. Aspern proposed marriage this afternoon.”

“And how are we feeling about this?” she asked, her head tilted inquisitively.  I don’t believe she expected an answer so much as she wanted to read my face.  She carried the bonnet away as I started up the stairs to my room.

“Strangely, I am feeling at peace,” I replied, not for her ears.  Agnes would be on her way to my mother now.

This man was not simply a love struck puppy, with stars in his eyes and pathetic, romantic drivel to spout.  I had to respect his integrity, his honestly.  There were depths to him that had not yet been plumbed.  He was not particularly handsome.He was not gregarious and outgoing.  He did not seem particularly driven to achieve any greatness at all.  Still, if I must marry, this seems a safe alternative.  He had a fair income, though no title to speak of.  Yet in Massachusetts would Scottish title matter any whit?  Reasonably speaking, Father would like him as he was level headed and had few permanent ties that would keep him here.  Furthermore, Mr. Aspern was not the philandering type.  I would not have to worry about his fidelity.  I could do worse, much worse.

By the time I had reached the topmost stair, I had virtually made my decision.  I entered my room and settled myself at my writing desk.  Should I discuss it with mother first?  No.  I opened the ink jar and sat quietly for a few minutes, pen in hand.

Agnes appeared, asking if I required assistance with my clothing.  When I told her no, she removed a few spoiled flowers from the vase on the mantle, and excused herself.  I pulled out a sheet of crisp white paper.  I could hear the noise of the street through the open windows, the clatter of carriage wheels and horses’ hooves on the pavement below.  My hand was poised over the pristine white sheet before me, my future.  Was I acting too hastily, replying to Mr. Aspern so quickly?  And what of Nathanial Brierly?  It would always come back to him, I realized.  My whole life would always come back to him in one way or another.  I hated him for that.  Some part of me would always long for that excitement, that intensely romantic excitement that comes from being pursued by passion.

I looked up into my painted companion’s eyes.  I had always felt there had been a certain sadness in those eyes.  I had found through my questioning that she was Elizabeth MacKenzie the eldest daughter of the last owner of this house.  She had died in a train accident on her way back to Edinburgh almost five years previously.  She had never married, instead choosing to write novels under a male nom deplume for decades.  Her legacy was the power of words.  Would you think I was compromising myself?  Yes, I am certain that you would.  I took a deep breath and penned my answer.

8th August, 1847

My Dear William:

I was rather startled and yet honored by your proposal this afternoon.After carefulconsideration, I recognize that I must accept your offer.

I remain faithfully yours,

Evelyn Douglas

I folded the note carefully, placed it in an envelope, addressed it to Mr. Aspern and sealed it with wax.  I remained seated there with the note in my hand, feeling the breeze through the window.  My nerves were on edge.  Did every woman feel this uncertainty somewhere deep within them?  If I tie myself to this person, I am saying goodbye to Mr. Brierly forever.  I was exchanging the unknown potential for perfect bliss loving some conjured visage for something safe, hardly spectacular, and somehow less perfect.  Perhaps the imagination created dreams that could never be lived up to?  Perhaps adulthood was learning to accept that dreams were merely dreams, ephemeral wastes of time.  A woman longs to align herself with an extraordinary man, will sacrifice herself in order to do so.  Why?  To feel safe?  To belong to a cause?  Would Mr. Aspern’s clear devotion to me and acceptance of my psyche make up for my heart’s longing to be aligned with the extraordinary?  I could not know what my future would hold.  I only knew that this was the only option that remained before me.

Chapter Seventeen: Waiting

Truth be told, I could not just rush out, find Mr. Aspern, and demand to know about the inscription. Instead, I penned a brief letter to him.

Mr. Aspern,
I am most grateful for your attention to my mother during her party and for the gift of poetry, particularly given the interesting reputation of Mr. Burns. I look forward to discussing the poetry and your inscription in the near future.
Ms. Evelyn Douglas

Now, I would have to wait until he felt a decent amount of time had passed to allow for complete recovery from my illness.

Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more anxious as each day passed. Not because I was waiting for Mr. Aspern. More because I was waiting for my menses. I was never one to chart it faithfully, and I was left wondering exactly when it was due and if it did not come, how I would be able to weather the storm. I began pouring over the Mariceau book again, looking for some clue but found nothing new. Ordering the pills was out of the question.

When my first period had come almost two years ago, I had no idea what was happening to my body. My mother had chosen to protect me from any inkling, lest I should be driven mad by the knowledge. In her defense, this has been advised by the family physician, as I discovered later. But why she thought watching parturition would be fine but knowing about my own menstruation was not, I will never comprehend. Granted, many physicians believed that the menstrual flow was tied to a woman’s psyche and any disruption during that time could result in psychosis. In fact, bathing was discouraged lest the young woman take cold and end up insane.

When I began bleeding, it started with uncomfortable cramping and then I noticed the dark stains on my drawers. At first I was worried that I was pregnant. But I did not have a belly. How could that be possible?

I realized then that I was dying. The icy grip of death was on my shoulder. It would be a beautiful death, I decided. I began fantasizing about the poignant moments I would share with my mother and father as the life ebbed from my poor body and I eagerly waited for further signs that the end was nigh. Those signs did not come.

Afraid to tell anyone quite yet, in case I was wrong, I began staunching the flow with rags I stole from the laundry. I took the soiled cloths to the field and hid them beneath rocks. Things went on like this for several days until one morning I awoke to realize that I had stained my nightgown and bed sheets. Those would be impossible to hide.

I sought out the laundress, a broad, red faced but kind hearted old woman and begged her to help me. She gasped, a hand coming up to her mouth. With fear in her eyes, she dashed off without even uttering a word.

Shortly, I was summoned to an audience with my mother. The laundress, her large nose even redder than usual, had been crying when she appeared to retrieve me. “Your mother would like a few words with you, Miss Evie.” I followed her with trepidation.

As I entered the drawing room, I observed my mother perched on the edge of the sofa, ensconced in the opulent room surrounded with velvet cushions and silk drapery. The bright patterns of the fabrics clashed with the scrolled wallpaper, the effect was always dizzying and disorienting. She was visibly shaken, dabbing at her eyes with a delicate lace handkerchief. When she caught sight of me, she quickly tried to compose herself, hiding the delicate square beneath the folds of her skirt.

As I approached my mother the laundress let out a small sob behind me. After a stern look from my mother, she whispered an apology, then she softly slid the pocket doors closed.

I hesitated.

“Come here, dear!” My mother beckoned to me, sadly. It was then that I realized that I did not want to die. I wanted to live. When I did not move, she stood, and drew me to her heaving bosom. I stood there awkwardly in her embrace as she cried, not sure what I should do. Console her? I am so sorry, Mother! I am sure I will not suffer long… Make a run for it? Her grip on me would prevent that.

At long last, she relaxed and held me out at arms length by my shoulders. Her tear stained face was contorted and dread filled my soul as I awaited the pronouncement of my fate.

“My little girl is growing up…”

I stood there in shock. At first relieved, then embarrassed, then angry that I had wasted so much time convinced of my demise…I wanted to cry, but if this was a rite of passage to womanhood, I did not feel I was allowed tears like that any longer. I wanted to ask questions, but I was not sure that was allowed either. So I just stood there. Waiting.

“Lavinia will help you with the proper accoutrement…” she said once she had composed herself. She gave me one more brief hug, then patted me on the shoulder. And with that, I was dismissed.

I ran up to my room and sobbed into the pillow for a good ten minutes before Lavinia knocked softly on the door.

She was a tall beanpole of a young lady with blond hair, freckles and an easy smile. She served as lady’s maid to my mother. She showed me the pads that she made for my mother, showed me how to pin them into my drawers, warning me to take care last I move in such a way that I stuck myself. She told me stories of what her own mother had used…pieces of sheepskin, greased with lard on the smooth side to prevent leakage. It sounded ingenious but she assured me that the smell was less than desirable. She let me ask questions, without passing judgement.

And now, here I was, with more anxiety about not having the flow than I ever had at having it, even that first time. But now I did not have Lavinia, or anyone else, to shoulder the burden with me.

So, I waited.

Chapter Eight: A Father’s Love

The remaining part of the night, I sat at my window and watched the stars until the sun came up over the horizon mixing pinks and blues and purples with its own salmon hues.  Time would not stop for my grief, it seemed.  I had cried all night, silent sobs of loss that wracked the body until no more tears could come.  I realized that I had no memento of him:  no love letters, no picture, no gifts.  Nothing but my own memories.  My eyes burned in the cool morning breeze as it blew through the casement. 

He had lied.  Lied about his income/inheritance.  Lied and led me on.  Or did he?  Maybe he used society’s incorrect perception to his advantage.  He had never actually made claims as to his income.  Everyone else had done that for him. 

I wanted to write something.  I was afraid that if I did not pin my memories down onto paper with words, they would float away and I would lose them forever.

I finally crawled into the mahogany bed, laid my head on the pillow, and closed my eyes, allowing my aching heart to rest for a few moments.  I have no idea how long I had slept when I was awakened by a gentle but insistent shaking of my shoulder.

“Miss!  Miss!” came the whisper.  It was Emma.

“Yes?” I answered hoarsely.  My uvula had pasted itself to the back of my tongue.  I winced as I tried to generate enough saliva to work it free.

“Miss Evelyn!” 

“Yes!”  I sat up in the bed and turned to see the frightened face of the girl.  “What is wrong, Emma?”

“Please help me,” she pleaded.  Her face was twisted up in anguish. 

“Yes, yes, I will, but you have to tell me what is going on!”

She burst into tears.  Between her own tears, she told me that she was afraid she was with child.  She had not bled for several months and had recently felt a fluttering.  Her breasts were tender and she was feeling ill in the mornings.  Examining her belly, it was clear that she was indeed pregnant.

“What will I do?”  Scenes of my mother silently, determinedly packing Emma’s belongings, placing them in the street, passed through my mind.

“Emma, who is responsible for this?” I demanded.

“Please, miss, I cannot say.”  She recoiled, suddenly wide eyed with fear, her red hair wild around her head, her tears flowing with a fury again.

“Tell me, now.  I will tell no one.”  I tried for some time to reassure her.

“I cannot tell you!” she continually replied. 

There are times that I am more or less dim witted.  It was then that it dawned on me, the realization sinking like a boulder into the pit of my stomach.  I grabbed Emma by the shoulders and forced her to look me in the eye. 

“Did my father do this to you?”  The stricken look that crossed her face said everything that she did not.  “How?”  I demanded. 

She sobbed even more, tears staining her face further.

The story poured out of her after that.  He had come into her room in the middle of the night within a month of her arrival at our house in Cambridge.  She had told him to leave, but he would not hear of it.  He had told her how beautiful she was as he had held his hand over her mouth and pulled up her nightgown.  While he forced himself into her and fondled her breasts, he had whispered into her ear that if she ever said anything or ever refused him, he would turn her out into the streets.  He had made weekly visits thereafter, always in the middle of the night.   Knowing that there was nothing left for her aside from prostitution at this point, she had complied. 

“I did not know what else to do Miss Evelyn.  I know I am damned to hell for this.  Please help me.” 

I wrapped my arms around her and rocked with her as she sobbed.  I had no idea how to help her.  I had heard rumors of abortions but how and where?  This was the question.  Who could I even ask? 

“It is not your fault, Emma,” I had said.  “I am sorry that this has happened to you.”  There was nothing else I could say.

Finally, as she pulled herself together, Emma pulled away.

“I have tried everything miss!  I…I have jumped up and down for hours.  I have drunk every potion I can get my hands on…even the ones that leave you vomiting so violently that you pray for death.  Nothing has worked.”

“Don’t worry, I will figure out something.”  I tried to sound as confident as possible.  I was not sure I was very convincing.

“Thank you,” she sniffed. 

“Here, wash your face.”  I handed her a face cloth, and poured water from the pitcher on the dresser into the basin.  When we had her blotchy face somewhat cleared up and her hair tucked back into place, Emma left with the promise again that I would help her somehow.  What choice did I have after all?  It was my own father who had done this and therefore by some degree my responsibility, was it not?

As the shame over my father’s misdeeds continued to whirl around in my head, I realized at the same time that I was increasingly angry with my mother.  If she had not removed him from her bed, he would not have had to go elsewhere.

I collapsed back into the bed after Emma had left and mulled over what I had just learned.  Mr. Brierly would have known what to do…if I could have asked him.   As it was, I had no idea where to even start asking questions discretely about such things.  I did not dare to ask my mother.  I had no female friends whom I trusted here. 

Hours passed.

There was only one individual that could offer me any hope of knowledge of such things.  It was an acquaintance of Mr. Brierly’s that I had met some months ago.  I frantically searched my memory for his name.  Who was he?  Who was he? He, too, had been studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.  He was an Englishman and a good deal shorter than Nathaniel.  He had jet black hair to his shoulders, dark eyes, and wore a beard and mustache.  I remembered an off handed comment I had overheard him make during a conversation at an intermission at the Assembly House.  Something about the Royal Infirmary and a cure for interrupted menses.  He had said it with a wink to his comrades and his look had left me with the distinct feeling that he knew something of this first hand.  Later, when he had been introduced to me, his manner of taking my hand while bowing seemed innocent enough on the surface, but his fingers had covertly traced the underside of my palm in the most salacious way and said, “I hope that I may be of service to you in the future, Ms. Douglas.” I had made it my business to steer far clear of him in the future. 

Mr. Stuart Jenkins!  That was his name. 

I had caught glimpses of Mr. Jenkins at several orchestral presentations since then.  It would seem that the gentleman liked music.  I would have to seek him out.  There would be a performance of John Stanley’s organ concertos Sunday afternoon, just two days hence, at St. Giles’ Cathedral.  He was certain to be present.

There was a peace that developed out of having a mission, a plan.  I did not have as much time to mourn my loss of  Nathaniel while my mind was occupied with helping Emma.

Nathanial.  I realized that I had started using his Christian name.  Being in the presence of a dissected human body does tend to take your relationship to a new level of intimacy. 

I went through the motions of the next two days in preparation for my chance encounter with Mr. Jenkins, pausing now and then to acknowledge the gaping wound in my chest, as it could not be completely ignored.   On Sunday, I had Emma lace me into my corset tighter than usual.  I had carefully selected the dress:  a pale, blue muslin that I felt complemented my complexion and caused my eyes to stand out.  Gloves, hat, stockings, dainty little shoes.  Well.  Not dainty little shoes.  If there was one thing that I wished to change about me, it was the size of my feet.  Fortunately, they were generally hidden beneath the long skirts and petticoats that were the fashion.

I attended services at St. George’s as usual, pretending to listen attentively to the sermon whilst sitting next to my mother.  I cannot say what the clergyman spoke on, aside from the fact that I am certain it pertained to some moral shortcoming that was perceived to be rife throughout the congregation.

During our light luncheon on curried chicken, I informed my mother of my intention to attend the organ concert that afternoon.  Mother insisted between bites that she wished to accompany me, despite my protests, but thankfully she retired to her bedchamber with a headache just prior to the time for our departure.  Strictly speaking, young women were not permitted to attend functions without the presence of a chaperone, preferably an older, married woman.  However, as I was attending church in the afternoon, protocol dictated that it was acceptable for me to attend without such a chaperone provided I did not compromise myself by discoursing with a gentleman in a nonpublic place.  I had planned in great detail how I would communicate such a delicate matter to Mr. Jenkins in public. 

I took the carriage.