Chapter Eighty-Nine: History

 Black and white clouds over mountains and a lake. 
“What happened to you?” 

The woman’s eyes darted fearfully from the trees in the distance, then to my face, then back to the trees again.

Yet she remained silent.

I tried again.

“Why are you here?”

She grimaced, wrinkling her forehead, but never acknowledged my question.

Her brown hair frizzed out about her ears, the bits that had slipped out from the large braid that ran down her back. 

She seemed terribly normal. 

She fed herself. She didn’t make odd noises or weep and wail incessantly. She groomed herself as much as was allowed here, brushing her hair every morning and evening. I had watched her walking from one woman to the next, whispering God knows what into each ear, patting shoulders, offering encouraging smiles.

“What is you name?”

She sighed a great sigh, then closed her eyes.

“Zenobia,” she spoke softly.

“Zenobia? That is your name?” 

What an odd name.

She nodded slowly. 

It was quiet except for the birds in the trees.

Her eyes opened suddenly. “I gave myself the name. She was an ancient Persian queen.” The woman fixed me with a piercing gaze, waiting expectantly. 

My mind wandered, imagining her in rich Persian regalia, riding a great white horse, commanding vast armies. When I did not answer, she coughed, bringing me back to the asylum. “Well? You are…?”

“Oh!” My cheeks reddened. “I am Evelyn.” 

“That isn’t made up, is it? It’s rather plain.”

“No.” I shook my head. 

“You need a new name…” Her voice trailed off as the orderly came back through looking even more sour.

It was hot outside on the porch, but after several weeks here I knew that it was preferable to the suffocating wards and spent as much time out of doors as I was allowed.

I decided to try again. “Why are you here?” I asked tentatively.

She gazed at me suspiciously. 

“Why do you care?”

“I don’t think you are insane…”

She smiled sadly, pushing back a bit of hair from her damp forehead. 

“Depends on who you ask,” she replied, laughing.

We fell silent as a dour female orderly with a pinched face strode purposefully past, shoes clacking on the wooden veranda.

“How long have you been here?” I ventured once the orderly was out of earshot.

“Six years.”

My heart sank.

Six years?

“Why?”

Zenobia took a deep breath. “Because I would not give my husband what he wanted.”

“What did he want?” I pressed.

“A son.” 

She pointed to a stooped young woman with golden hair and vacant eyes. “She has been here three years. We call her Theodora. She sank into a deep melancholy after the birth of her first baby. Her husband took a mistress. She was placed here to keep her out of the way. Now another woman, her rival, is raising her child in her family home.” Zenobia shrugged. “She will never leave. Over there by the doorway, that one is Hippolyta. She had several lovers. The wife of one grew jealous and made a report. In the process she was deemed mentally deficient and imprisoned here two years ago. She had no family that would take her. She will also probably never leave.”

She paused to look around.

“That one, Hatshepsut,” she nodded her head to an elderly, wraithlike figure, “Refused to marry an earl. Her family had her committed decades ago.”

She turned back to me. “How did you get here?”

“I am not entirely sure. But Dr. Jenkins and I have…. we have a history.” I told her about Edinburgh, about the Crimea, about my daughter, about the surgery here. “Did… Did that happen to you?” 

“It happened to all of us, one by one, since that man arrived…” She spoke softly, her eyes darting around, watchful and guarded again. 

Zenobia rose from her seat. “Excuse me. I must go.” She started to walk away but stopped short suddenly and turned, smiling. “Hedwig.”

“I beg your pardon?”  I was confused.

“Your name. Hedwig. The Polish queen who crowned herself the King of Poland. That will do nicely for you, I think.” She paused. “We are not normal. We are exceptional. All of us.”

And then she was gone.

Chapter Eighty-Eight: Crumbling

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I wept bitterly that night and every night after…

The days were spent in a stained jacket of sorts that wrapped my arms around the torso and held them tight. I was placed in a chair and then tied down, only to be wheeled out to the veranda to take in the air twice a day. I was fed by the orderlies as apparently I could not be trusted with utensils. 

They were probably right.

Time passed slowly. 

I thought about all of the ways I could hurt that man with a spoon: evisceration would be difficult but if he held still long enough maybe with some chloroform or ether, I could ram the handle up a nostril and do some damage to his brain, I could scoop out each eyeball or maybe even his testicles, I could shove the handle into each ear and render him deaf, I could use that same handle at his jugular and maybe make him bleed to death….

I asked everyone I came across about my daughter but was only met with blank stares or shrugs. I begged for answers, news, any bit of information. 

None came.

Dr. Jenkins himself was a specter, flitting in and out around my periphery. How lucky he must have felt when I fell into his lap here. Had it been orchestrated, his little charade? Or purely chance? What were the odds anyway? 

I had no uterus. No ovaries. No child. He had robbed me of everything I had left.

Everything but my hate.

It was not a strong enough word, really…

After a week I was pinned down for an exam by him, my legs spread wide and held in place by two male orderlies as he painfully probed with his fingers. All the while he watched my face with a grin, clearly enjoying himself.

I held his gaze until he looked away.

If I could only kick him.

But I could not. I had already tried. 

Hence the male orderlies.

They leaned heavily on my legs, forcing them still. I could no longer feel my feet, the circulation had been disrupted for so long.

I wiped away all outward emotion. I resolved that I would not give him the satisfaction of having control of me in that way any longer. There were places in my mind where he could not touch me. I escaped there until he was done. 

A female attendant stood silently to my right, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. She had little to do besides serve as an observer, a witness to my humiliation. I wondered what she must be thinking. Whenever I looked at her she looked away.

He moved up to my abdomen and removed the sutures. They had been terribly itchy. Restrained all day and all night, I could not reach the area to scratch. That fact alone was enough to drive me mad…

He was rough but the removal was a kindness, after all. My quality of life would be vastly improved. I hated him all the more for making me feel even this small amount of gratitude toward him.

Soon enough it was all over. 

I should have killed you when I had the chance, you bastard.

My legs were released as he stepped back, my chemise pulled back down to my ankles. The blood rushed back into my toes, a wave of prickly pain that excruciatingly crescendoed and then died away. He walked up to the basin and pitcher placed on the table next to the head of the bed. He washed. 

As he dried off his hands and rolled his sleeves back down he leaned in close to my ear and spoke softly. “I hear your daughter will be adopted out by a nice family. They needed extra hands to labor around the farm. They have adopted six other children from other unfit mothers already. I hope the girl does not mind cow shit…”

I closed my eyes and let the hate wash through me. I could feel it in every hair of my body, every pore, every fiber.

For now hate was my hope.

Chapter Eighty-Six: Out

 

My eyelids felt weighted with lead, heavy. I willed them to open but they would not. I decided to focus on my other senses. 

There was an odor. That smell. I knew it from somewhere…

From where?

The Crimea! I was back in the Crimea.

Footsteps faded away to the left, echoing off of hard, antiseptic surfaces. 

I tried again on the eyelids, this time they opened a bit, revealing a long crack in the stained plaster overhead. It was a rusty red, like blood. My heart shot out of my chest, racing into my throat. This was not the Crimea.

Panic dragged me awake and I bolted upright.

Where was I?

Pain slammed through me, suddenly, and I cried out, falling back onto the bed.

Pain? From where?

I moved a hand down to my abdomen and pelvis. There was a large bandage there.

Oh, God! What did they do?

The walls of the long room were an odd greenish gray. I could not tell if that was because of the fading light filtering through the dirty windows or from some terrifying paint job. I looked around. There were other beds, other women.

A hospital ward.

“Psst!”

The woman to my right stared unseeingly at the ceiling, unresponsive. She was almost translucent. Her gray hair was thin and carefully arranged about her head, combed out over the pillow.

Was she dead?

I wanted to touch her waxen skin but that was impossible from where I lay.

Hello?” I ventured, a bit louder. No movement. Not even a blink. I gave up on her and turned to my other side.

“Pssst!”

The woman to my right had bright orange hair. She stirred, looking over at me, but her eyes were glassy and vacant. 

This was not going well. 

A moan escaped from somewhere. It echoed off of the bare walls and floor. I went back to examining the crack in the plaster overhead. Surely someone would be through soon?

Anne! Where was she?!?!!?

I swung one leg and then the other over the side of the bed, doing my best to ignore the pain that seared through my pelvis. Standing, my legs felt unsteady. I took a tentative step forward only to have the knees buckle and I tumbled to the floor. 

Think!

Try as I might, I could not pull myself back up. I felt warmth gushing from between my legs as redness soaked through my white shift and pooled around me on the cold floor. Short shallow breaths were all that I could manage. Colorful bursts of light flashed into my line of sight then closed off into a lengthening tunnel of dark gray.

Get up, damn it!

Thoughts grew fuzzy then faded away. 

Blackness overtook me again.

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 Eighty-Two: Trappings

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The birds fell silent in the trees overhead. Our eyes met.

“Why do you keep coming back? Go on and tell my secrets to everyone who will listen. I will not be held prisoner in my own home any longer!” My eyes flashed with the anger I had been holding inside.

“May I come in?” He removed the hat from his head, holding it in his hands in front of him.

In supplication?

“No.” I said it firmly, without raising my voice.

“Please.” He spoke softly, almost tenderly, then took a few steps forward. The tone of his voice made me feel off balance for a moment and I put my hand on the door frame for support.

He is not going to stop coming until I give him what he wants. 

What did he want, exactly? Power? Control?

“Why? Just tell me why. Why can’t you leave me alone….sir?” I stopped before I said “Reverend”. That word, the implication that he was a man of God, stuck in my throat.

“I… I realized that there was much more to your story after Mrs. Brierly turned up looking for you. I want to know your story.” He stood silently for a moment. “Not so that I can use it against you. I want…” He looked up at the sky overhead, the gaze upward wrinkled his forehead, then he looked back at me. “So that I might understand.”

I considered this for a moment. My story. I was not sure my story was anything this man would approve of. There was nothing to lose though, really. Nothing could get worse than it already was, could it?

“Come.” I stepped back from the door and motioned him inside.

As he stepped across the threshold, he pulled a package out from his coat pocket and handed it to me. It was small, soft, and wrapped in brown paper.

“What is this?”

“Open it.” 

I motioned him into the parlor and indicated he was to sit in a plain wooden chair by the window. I settled myself on the cushioned sofa, careful to arrange my skirt and crinoline properly. 

“It is a peace offering of sorts,” he said. He picked up the chair and moved it closer to me before he sat.

I placed the package on my lap and untied the string, folding back the paper. It was a summer dress for a baby girl, pale yellow, lace trim. 

Exquisite. 

Suddenly, I wanted to cry. I didn’t. I was not going to give him that satisfaction, but my heart, wounded and bruised as it was, felt overwhelmed by this simple act of kindness even though it was admittedly suspect.

Having vast amounts of money is meaningless without respect, human interaction/support, dignity. Ostracized for so many months I only went out for the bare necessities, making my trips as short as possible. I could hear the whisperings. I saw the looks, felt the glares. I knew when I asked for bread that I was given the stale loaves, a message not to come back. All of my money could not buy what I needed most: Love and kindness. 

I had not bought Anne anything like this but she deserved it and so much more. Every day I promised myself that I would make it up to her once everything was set right, when she could meet her father.

“Thank you,” I whispered as I fingered the lace. I did not want to feel guilty for not offering him tea, but there it was, guilt. “This does not make everything better, you know.”

“I understand.”

“It is beautiful, though.”

He smiled. “It is beautiful like her.” 

“Yes,” I replied. The man was devious. He knew the way to a mother’s heart was through her child. I could feel my own heart softening against my will.

“Tell me about her. About you.”

And so I did.

Chapter Eighty: Into the Darkness Again

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The week passed slowly. I awoke in the wee hours each morning to Anne’s cries and then spent the days vacillating between delighting in her giggles and a building of anxious dread over what Sunday would bring.

Recuerdo.

The broach came out of hiding. It was an irrisistable plaything for little fingers whenever I wore it. It had been too precious to risk breaking so I had left it buried in the corner of a drawer. Now I took to wearing it again, pinning it each morning to my dress. Perhaps it would offer protection?

I had no intention of ever attending church services or allowing the Reverend Drummond back into my home but the threat of both loomed ahead in the dark unknown of my future.

What I really needed to do, I realized, was to move away. Far away.

And yet…

If I left, would this woman in red find me again? 

Mrs. Brierly. 

Hate and pity and satisfaction mingled together as I repeated all of the permutations of her name over and over again. Mrs. Nathaniel Brierly. Anne Brierly. Mrs. Anne Brierly. 

And now perhaps Evelyn Brierly? I repeated the words until they became a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth. Then I realized the taste was not the proverbial fearful bile. It was blood. My nervous habit of chewing the inside of a cheek had drawn blood… The pain hit, reminding me of my own frailty.

I could not send her a letter myself, could I? No. And if I packed up and left town, leaving word here where I had gone, then the Reverend would follow me, wouldn’t he? Escape was not possible. 

Could I even trust this woman? 

I still had my doubts and yet desire, or was it love, clouded my judgement. 

So then I must remain for the next year in this place. 

How to survive?

The days ticked by. The fear kept my mind buzzing, unable to settle on a coherent plan.

Sunday dawned dark and overcast. The doors and windows were locked tight. I double checked them, triple checked them, drawing all of the curtains closed.

The bells rang summoning for services, their joyful sound standing in stark contrast against my fear. Soon he would see that I was not in the pews.

And then what?

Dark storm clouds rolled in bringing along thunder in the distance. Raindrops pattered down in a soothing staccato on the roof and lulled Anne to sleep in her bed. I had planned an early afternoon nap, not wanting her to bear witness to what might come next. I kissed her gently on the forehead and then closed the door quietly behind me.

I settled down in the dark parlor to wait.

Then it came, the knocking.

Go away.

It came again.

Go away!

Then again. Jiggling of the door knob.

Oh, God!

Then banging. Was he kicking the door?

I tiptoed to the window and stole a glance.

There he was, dressed in dark gray clothing that matched the dark skies overhead. He was standing in the rain, water pouring from the brim of his hat. He did not move but his eyes flicked to the window, searching it from top to bottom. 

Surely he could not see me?

My heart pounded until it felt as if it might burst, but then it was not my heart at all, I realized. I was holding my breath, afraid that he might hear even the intake of air as I stood frozen to the spot.

Please don’t wake, dear Anne! Stay quiet as a little mouse…

He stood there for what seemed like hours. 

So did I.

Anne woke. I could hear her stirring. Could he? 

I stepped slowly away from the window, wincing at the creak of a floorboard as I moved. I must reach her before she began wailing.

I did my best to keep her quiet in the back of the cottage, not lighting any lamps. I snuck into the kitchen to silently prepare her pap mixed with water. No milk today since I had not left the house.

The hours passed. Some sunlight appeared through the clouds as the rain stopped temporarily.

Eventually Anne fell asleep in my arms cradled among the long twilight shadows that creeped and crawled and grew across the room. I nestled her among the blankets and in the dark stillness snuck to the parlor to the front window. I pulled back the heavy drapes a crack to peer through the lace veil and my eyes searched the darkness.

Lightening flashed across the sky.

He was gone. 

I checked through the house and looked out of every window to make sure he was not lurking about and then decided to retire, to attempt sleep myself. I did not undress, however, wanting to remain at the ready. 

I stood over my baby, my precious daughter, my only tie to another life. Her gentle breathing helped me to relax some. I picked her up, carrying her to my bed and watched her peaceful slumbering with envy until my own eyelids felt heavy as lead.

This was only the beginning of the unpleasantness, I knew. I could not hide forever.

Chapter Seventy-Seven: Promises

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“Where is he now?” I asked.

We eyed each other across the vast expanse of the worn wooden kitchen table, a chasm made wider by our mutual pain and mistrust. I had not bothered to cover it with a table cloth. Why worry with niceties when your rival is sitting across from you? The surface was crossed by knife gouges and my fingers traced the marks absently as I watched her face. Her eyes clouded with something… Anger? Pain? A secret perhaps? Then it disappeared, hidden.

Finally, she spoke. “He is in Edinburgh. Probably drunk.”

We sat in silence again.

“Do you still love him?”

“Yes.” She smiled slightly. She was beautiful. “But not as before, not in the same way. I want him to find the happiness he could not find with me.” She seemed earnest, though I wondered. Who could be human and yet so magnanimous? 

“And your daughters?”

She sighed. “With him.” She saw my concern and hurriedly added, “They have a governess. An old, ugly governess. No sense tempting fate.” A bitter laugh escaped from her red lips.

“What do you intend to do?” I watched her face again. There was resignation this time.

“I will go back. I have no choice. I have no money of my own and no means or skills by which to support two daughters.” She stared at me, pointedly. “What do you intend to do?”

What could I do?

“I will continue to go on as I have.” I shrugged. “No choice but to keep going forward.” I stopped as realized her intent. “If you are worried that I will attempt to take him from you, I can assure you that I will not.” She nodded solemnly. 

Shame and pity washed over me. 

I held out my hand to her. 

She hesitated but took it. I squeezed. We had made a pact, she and I, two women hurt beyond recognition by love. How happy would we be if he had never crossed into our lives? We would never know. There was nothing to be done about it now.

“I am sorry, you know.”

“I am, too,” she whispered softly.

She gripped my hand tighter.

“I know of another way.” She rushed through the whispered words.

My heart pounded. “What?” Did I hear her correctly? Surely not.

“I know of another way,” she said, this time louder. “We can both have what we want. You want him. I want freedom. I know of a way but I need your help.”

“You know of a way?” My voice sounded incredulous. I cleared my throat and tried again, this time without the edginess. “You know of a way?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“I cannot tell you just yet.” She stood, still holding my hand. “Give me one year to make the preparations. I will send you a letter with instructions.” She was squeezing harder.

“One year?”

“One year.” She spoke with urgency and determination. “You promise to help me?” Her grip was beginning to hurt.

“Yes.” I stood up. “Yes, I will help you.” 

“You will raise my daughters as your own?” I nodded. “Say it! Say you will do it!” She grabbed my other hand and we stood facing each other, her eyes searching mine, looking for some clue. Could I be trusted?

“I will.”

She let go of my hands. She gave me a tight, quick hug and then held me out at arms length, joyful. 

A smile.

And then? Then she was gone. 

She walked out of my house. I watched her red dress fade into the distance from the parlor window as Anne began to fuss from the nursery, letting me know she was hungry.

One year.

Chapter Seventy-Six: GrievancesĀ 

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I brushed a small buzzing insect away from my face, waiting. 

We both eyed each other. 

“Who are you?” I repeated. 

Her smile continued, unwavering. “I am looking for Nathaniel Brierly.”  

stood silently, weighing my answer, hoping my face did not betray the fear. 

Oh, God! What did she know? 

Somehow I knew this day would come.   Be sure your sins will find you out… 

“I am not acquainted with him.” I lied. “Does he live around here?”  

Anne squealed and reached behind my shoulder for some imaginary play thing. I had turned her back to the woman as we had come up the walk. Now I shifted the weight to keep her from falling but this allowed her to grab my hair. The pain from the sudden yank stung in my eyes as I untangled her fingers and turned her around on my my hip.  

“I think you are… acquainted.” She motioned to Anne as the smile faded from her face. “How old is the baby?”

“I think you need to leave.”  

For a moment the veil lifted. Fear and hurt showed in her eyes. Her skirt shifted and the red silk fabric rustled like the whispering leaves overhead as she stepped forward, holding out her hand. 

I stared at the slim, pale fingers. No resemblance there. 

“I… I….” She stopped, pulling her hand back when I did not accept it. “My name is Mrs. Anne Brierly. He is my husband.” She appeared close to tears as she handed me a calling card printed with her name in black inked script. “Please.” She paused again, seemingly unsure of how to proceed. “I am sorry. I need to speak with you.”

I wanted to scream at her, to fly into a jealous rage. Bite. Claw. Kick. Spit. She shared his life! I only had a small part of it here in my arms.  

“Why?” I whispered. 

“May I come in?” 

Warily, I nodded my head and motioned for her to follow me inside.

She left her bonnet on her head as I busied myself preparing tea.  

“May I?” She wanted to pick up Anne. 

Anne wanted to hold Anne… 

nodded but watched carefully out of the corner of my eye as I put up the newly purchased goods and the kettle heated on the stove. 

She pulled the garnet earring out of her earlobe and dangled it before the giggling baby who chased it with her hands.  

“She is beautiful. What is her name?”

I hesitated. “Anne.” The woman stopped playing with the earring and looked over at me, surprised. “I didn’t know it was your name.”

She nodded, silently, then went back to playing seemingly satisfied.

“You have girls, too, don’t you?” 

She looked up, surprised. “Yes.” 

“How many?” 

 “Two…” 

“Any boys?” 

“Yes. Well. No. Actually no….” Her voice drifted off. We both understood what that meant. 

“What happened to her arm?” She asked softly. 

“It is a long story… not one that I am ready to tell as yet.” 

“Oh…..” She put the earring back in her ear.  

I put Anne down for a nap while the tea steeped. I took my time, hoping to steel myself for whatever was to come next. 

When I returned, we sat across from each other at the table in the kitchen. I poured the tea. We made eye contact over our teacups as we sipped, punctuating time with the clink of china upon china. 

“Why do you have his smile?” I finally asked her. 

She put her cup down delicately but a tremble in her hand made it rattle as it hit the saucer. She took a deep breath, then spoke softly. 

“Nathaniel was my second cousin. I was much, much younger than he. I looked up to him. I thought he was the most gallant and handsome man I had ever met. I rarely saw him but I spent my time infatuated, thinking only of what it would be like to be loved by him.” She shrugged. “I was just a little girl.” 

“One day he showed up again. He had completed his medical training and had toured in the States, talking about something or other.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I resolved to make him mine.” She steepled her fingers in front of her face and brushed her lips across the tips. “So I used everything in my power….” 

She paused for a sip of tea, realized her hand still trembled too much, then quickly put it back down.

“I was soon pregnant and family pressure forced a wedding.” She paused. “I gave birth to a boy. He… the baby… was not right. Only one eye. His face was split from his lip to his nose. His belly was turned inside out.” 

The hair stood out on my forearms.  

Just like my little Levi. 

“He died?” I asked. 

She nodded.

“Within a few years we had two daughters. His behavior at home was erratic and I saw less and less of him as he became more well known in Edinburgh. He would stay there for months at a time. 

“Finally, one day, he sent me a letter, saying that he was leaving for the Crimea. No explanation. Just leaving.” More anguish was showing on her face. “Every now and then we would get vague letters from him about the cold or the terrible food but they were rare.”

“When he finally came back, he was a shadow. A tortured soul.” Her eyes bored into me. “I didn’t know why.” Another pause. “He started to drink. Not just a little bit. No. Heavily. Drowning sorrows, he said. I thought it was because of his leg, the fact that he could not walk well any more, or because of things that he had seen…. there.” She lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “There were terrible stories, you know.” Then she laughed. “Of course you know. You were there. You were there with him, weren’t you?” Her voice cracked.

“Yes.” I breathed. 

“One night, in a drunken stupor he called me by your name. He talked to me about his leg. About you. To him I did not exist as myself, I was his dear Evelyn.” She sobbed out of grief and rage. “I felt what it was like to be loved by him that night….” 

There was silence for a few long minutes as we measured each other from across the table. I was unsure what to say. Finally, she spoke again. 

“I decided to find out who you were.”

Chapter Seventy-Five: RedĀ 

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“That will be two pounds, six pence.” The shopkeeper glared at me as she stood expectantly, arms folded across her chest. Her index finger tapped out a message of annoyance on her forearm.

Counting out money one handed with a child on your hip was an arduous task and it seemed to take forever. Rather than assisting me, the woman continued to stare, boring holes of hate into my forehead. She sighed loudly, clearly wanting to communicate her displeasure further. 

My fingers fumbled self-consciously. 

At last I handed her the required change and she set about wrapping the purchases. She was deliberate, taking her time as Ann squirmed impatiently in my arms, reaching for the canisters of bright candies that lined the far side of the counter.

“How do you even know what those are, baby girl?” I whispered into her ear. “Maybe they are poison. You never know about pretty things…”

Eventually the woman was done and she unceremoniously shoved the parcels across the wooden countertop. She turned her back to me, pretending to rearrange the bars of soap that already rested in orderly and pristine rows on the shelves behind us. 

I gathered the brown paper wrapped bundles and placed them into a large brown fabric sack I had brought from home. The cook had sewed it some months ago and had used it for this purpose. Thankfully, she had left it behind…

Anne sneezed as she always did from the bright sunlight as we stepped out of the dim shop and into the street. We started the journey back home.

After several blocks I caught a glimpse of the back of a deep scarlet dress as the wearer rounded a corner. I picked up my pace. I had recognized it.

The beautiful woman in red.

Dreams.

My dreams. 

What were dreams anyway? Ephemeral taunts from on high; gauzy, misty things impossible to grasp.

But I had just seen her. 

Here.

Back home in New England dreaming of a beautiful woman dressed in red meant a move. But here now, across the world, was the meaning the same?

I knew that I needed to speak to her. Somehow I knew the key to my happiness lay with her.

The corner loomed just ahead. I picked up my pace, the bag slapping hard against the crinoline with each step. I quickly dodged around a man in a grey waistcoat to make the turn, breathless. Anne laughed with the sudden evasive movement. She enjoyed this game of pursuit.

There she was.

Her back was to me. She was across the street, listening intently to the Reverend Drummond. Curls of dark hair peeked from beneath a matching bonnet decorated with velvet and wine colored roses.

He looked up at the sound of Anne’s happy gurgling. 

My heart stopped beating.

The man paused in mid sentence as our eyes locked across the cobblestones for a split second.

A choice.

I could turn and walk obviously away sending a message of disdain or keep going forward as if none of this chance meeting mattered to me at all.

Forward. Always keep going forward…

A carriage rattled by. I shifted Anne to the other hip and kept walking, one foot in front of the other. I wanted to turn and look over my shoulder, to catch a glimpse of the woman’s face, but that would be too obvious. I resisted.

I made a long loop around the neighborhood, moving deliberately as if I knew exactly where I was going and why. My arms felt like rubber from Anne’s weight as what had started out as a quick trip to the grocers had turned into quite the journey. Eventually I ended up back in my own neighborhood. As I closed the gate and walked through the small garden to the house with the bag of goods on my arm, I found myself stopping short again.

She was sitting there on the steps at the front door, clearly waiting for me.

She stood, smoothing the red silk of her dress absently.

I was haunted in so many ways. Every smile from Anne’s face was his. I had wrongly believed that it would only be a joy having some small piece of him here with me. A miscalculation to be sure. I loved her dearly but I was tortured by her at the same time. Guilt. Shame. I carried all of these with me every day.

The woman on the porch smiled at me. 

It was Anne’s smile. 

His smile. 

“Who are you?” I asked.