Chapter Eighty-Four: Shadowed

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Make love to me first with words.

He had done that, and then some. I had stacks of his letters in my dresser drawer, written since I had asked him to give me words. I would take them out and reread them each night by lamplight. 

Sometimes certain phrases or even the simple curve of a letter would send my fingertips tingling. 

I looked down at the hand holding mine, the fingers that had written those powerful words of apology and devotion. There was a charge there that raced from his hand to my fingerstips to my lower spine. I had almost forgotten how intoxicating that sensation was.

He leaned forward tentatively. 

I closed my eyes in anticipation, awaiting the feel of his rough beard against my face. I could smell his soap.

Just as his lips touched mine for the first time, there was a cry from Anne in the other room. Not her sleepy whimpering wake up cry. It was a full on, angry sob as if she knew that I was betraying her father’s memory at that very instant. He kissed in earnest until it was clear that she would not settle down.

He moved away, amusement playing on his lips. A half smile hung suspended there.

“I will get her,” I sighed. 

“No, I will go.” He applied gentle pressure to my shoulder indicating I was to sit down and wait for his return. 

I eased myself down onto the sofa and folded my hands onto my lap to wait.

He knew nothing of changing diapers or feeding or soothing a child. It would not be long.

As expected. Anne would have nothing of it, of this man. The wailing creacendoed as she refused to calm down. 

Two minutes later he returned with a red faced, tear stained Anne who turned silent as soon as she saw me. 

He placed her on my lap, apologetically.

“It’s alright. Shhhhh,” I murmured.

I held her close. She rested her warm, damp head on my shoulder, fuzzy hair tickling my chin. A quiet hiccup, then a contented sigh as she drifted off to sleep again.

“I will go,” he whispered. He bent down and kissed my forehead, then the top of Anne’s head. “Until next week…”

I watched him grab his hat and let himself out.

Tonight I would not need his words. My lips felt raw from his earlier kiss. Love lingered there.

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 Twenty-one: The End of Me

The morning dawned clear and crisp.  It was the Wednesday,  2 November, 1847 to be exact.  My wedding day.  Here I was, now seventeen years old.  I felt like I was in my thirties.  The ivory gown was laid out on a nearby chair and I had stared at its shadow all night long from my bed between fitful sleeps.

I dressed hurriedly, refusing assistance from anyone aside from Agnes and I sent her away as soon as I could.  I did not wish to see my mother, or anyone else for that matter.  It would require me to seem happy and excited, a pretense that I knew I would not be able to maintain for long.  This process was one that must be endured.  I was irritated with myself, but little could be done about that now.

For an hour I sat staring at my reflection in the hazy mirror.  People over the years had complimented me on my eyes or sometimes for my skin and figure.  I did look pretty with my hair done up, the jewels that were William’s gift to me around my neck.  Was it sinful to think I was beautiful, I wondered?  Pride.  Clearly, what I possessed had not been enough to keep Mr. Brierly.  Perhaps this perceived beauty was really nothing at all.

“Miss Evelyn?” the maid said softly at the door, followed by a sharp tapping.

“Yes,” I sighed, knowing what she would say next.

“They are ready for you.  Downstairs.”  She turned the knob on the door, but it was locked.

I sat quietly.

“Miss?”

I could climb out this window…

I would lose everything.

“I will be down in a moment, thank you.”  She hesitated for a minute or two, unsure what to do.  Eventually, she left.  I could hear her footfalls on the stairs.  Let them wait.  It could not go on without me anyway.

Standing, I quickly pinched my cheeks, straightened my petticoats and fluffed out my skirts.  I took a last look at my image in the glass, my last look at the only me that I had known.  Who was this Evelyn Aspern?  It was time to find out.

I unlocked the door and stepped into the hallway.  I felt my legs taking me downstairs where my mother was waiting.  I nodded coldly as I passed her at the door to the parlor.  Once she was at my back, I put on the demure, pleasant smile that I had rehearsed upstairs.  Mrs. Eggleston was in attendance, as were a William’s parents and about a half dozen of my mother’s other acquaintances.  The room was filled with white flowers of every type imaginable tied with mulberry ribbons.  A wishbone was hanging from the ceiling above the priest’s head, an odd touch that I had seen at weddings as a child back home.  It seemed out of place here.

My father, of course, would not be giving me away.  We had discussed at length who would present me to my future husband, but in the end, I elected to walk alone.  My mother frowned, as she usually did at unconventional things, but at last agreed.  Her charge had been to get me married and if that was what it took, so be it.  The gossip potential at this point was minimal, since she would be leaving in short order for Cambridge and it was likely that I would never set foot in Edinburgh again.  William did not care, so long as I was happy, even if his parents considered it to be bordering on scandalous.

William was standing before the mantelpiece, dressed in a frock coat of deep mulberry, the noontime sun glinted off of his dark brown hair.  His full beard was impeccably well groomed.  He positively beamed with pride.  His best man, Alfred MacDermot, stood to his left and was dressed in a similarly cut blue frock coat.  His countenance was much more somber.  What was he thinking, I wondered?  All eyes were on me as I progressed from the doorway to stand with William.  I focused on my feet to keep from tripping or thinking.

There was no organ march.  No cheering.  No crowd.  I felt a hollow emptiness.  I wondered if I would miss all of that more acutely in later years.

I took William’s left hand and stood beside him as we exchanged our vows.  It only took a few short minutes.  Will you promise to honor and obey…?  I will.  He placed the narrow gold band on my ring finger.  There, it was done.  We turned back to face the room.  William leaned close to whisper, “Thank you,” softly in my ear.  I squeezed his hand in acknowledgement.

“May I present Mr. and Mrs. William Aspern!”  There was light applause, muted by gloved hands.  I marveled briefly at the sound of my existence being whittled down into three little letters and a period uttered by someone else’s lips.  My mother hugged me and I felt the tears welling up in my throat.  I forced them back.  Other individuals filed past, congratulating William.  The bride was never congratulated herself, as it was implied that the honor was already granted her in marrying the groom, which meant that I stood by him awkwardly, not sure what to say or do.

Eventually, everyone filed out of the room migrating to the breakfast table.  William offered his arm.  “Mrs. Aspern, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to breakfast?”  He smiled at me.

I was now to embark on the perpetual charade that was to be my life.  I prayed silently that God would somehow give me peace.

“Certainly, Mr. Aspern.”  I took his arm, smiling back at him.

Chapter Eighteen: Cultivation

It was a sunny afternoon and I had been sitting in the garden reading, enjoying the feeling of the warm sunlight on my face. I had the book of poetry by Robert Burns. It was my first physical gift from a man and such, symbolized power. My power over another human being. It was intoxicating.

I knew I could not be out for long before my mother would appear at my side urging me indoors lest I ruin my complexion. I paused a moment from the words on the page to look up at the flowers around me. It was a lovely warm summer day, the steaminess resulting from the rain the day before had burned off by mid morning. Several bees were busy exploring the hollyhocks and jasmine.

Footsteps appeared at my back and I quickly looked down again at my book, choosing to ignore her…hoping that she would leave me alone. I was not really reading. The letters were swimming in my vision as I focused on the crunch of shoes on grass.

The garden was not large. Five short steps later, and she had stopped behind me. I continued to pretend to read. She remained silent, unmoving. I grew annoyed. Minutes passed.

Finally, exasperated, I turned around.

Instead of my mother, Mr. Aspern was there, staring at me. The sun was just above his head and I found I could not see the the expression on his face. He cleared his throat.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Douglas.” He nodded solemnly.

“Mr. Aspern. How do you do? You surprised me! Won’t you have a seat?” I motioned to the bench beside me as I slid over to make more room. There could be no touching.

He remained standing.

I squinted up at him, expectantly. If he would not sit, then I would let him be the one to speak next. But he did not. The awkward silenced stretched on. Finally, my patience wore thin.

“Come, tell me about your inscription!” I insisted. He sighed, seemingly relieved and took a seat on the ledge beside me, not on the bench. I turned to Gaelic phrase written in his hand. He read them easily for me, the words sounding almost musical.

Chan ann leis a’chiad bhuille thuiteas a’chraobh.

“It means, ‘It is not with the first stroke that the tree falls.'”

True. Yes. He was right in this case.

He took the book from my hands, turning to the last poem. At the bottom of the page, also in his script was another phrase in Gaelic. I was afraid to attempt to speak the words, instead reading them silently to myself.

Is fheàrr teine beag a gharas na teine mòr a loisgeas.

“What does it mean?”

“Someday, I will tell you.” He smiled gently at me. “But not today.”  He closed the book and handed it back to me.  “May I call on you again, Ms. Douglas?”

There was only one answer to give, and I gave it. Yes. But it worried me. I recognized great kindness and love in this man, and I loved him somehow for that. But it was not the burning, flaming passion that I had felt before.  The feeling of power was exhilarating but it was not the same.  What if I could not return his feelings in kind in the end? I felt like an actress, hoping that the motions would eventually turn into real feelings.  And I fest dishonest, as if I should issue a disclaimer up front…I am not who you think I am. sir.

I worried that I was cheapening what I had felt before by even speaking to this man, that I was somehow unfaithful to Nathaniel’s memory. I hoped that I would be able to love like that again. Passionate. Consuming. Inexplicable, life altering love. If not with Mr. Brierly, then with someone.

A life without that kind of love would be too much to bear.

Chapter Six: The Bridge

Courting. 

Generally a young lady’s first season (running from April to early fall) was intended for playing the field so to speak.  I was on a much tighter time frame, however.  My father, while quite wealthy, could not afford to keep two households going for more than this one season.  My mother expected me to present my card to every young man that I danced with.  Truth be told, I had not done so.  I had only given out one card.  Ever.  To Mr. Nathaniel Brierly. 

 At home in our borrowed house I sat waiting to hear the bell ring.  I was on edge, my anxiety wracked body wound up so tightly that a spring was most certainly going to pop out of place somewhere in the near future.  Two days passed.  Then three.  He never called.

I hated him again.

My appetite came back.  I was finally able to sleep.  We began planning the strategy for the next ball. 

At breakfast on the fifth morning, as I was sitting at the table eating toast with a liberal smattering of marmalade, John appeared with a silver tray.  There was a single white envelope centered upon it.  He presented it to me with a flourish.

“Mistress Evelyn, a letter for you by morning post.”

My heart pounded.  From whom?  I was afraid of the answer, but at the same time hopeful.  My hands shook as I opened the wax sealed envelope with the carved floral letter opener that also lay on the tray.

 

            Ms. Douglas:

            I request the privilege of visiting you this afternoon at 4 o’clock ,if that would be convenient.

            Respectfully,

            William Aspern

 

I looked up at my mother, confused.  She was staring intently at me.  I passed the paper to her and watched her face as she read.  She betrayed nothing.  He should not have done this.  I did not give him my card!

“Well?” I asked.  She sighed.

“By all means, have him come.  Send a response poste haste!”  She had passed him my card somehow.

I penned a letter back to him.  Then tore it up.  Clearly it would appear too eager. I was not certain that I wanted to communicate that just yet.  Finally, I merely penned the words, “You are welcome at my home at 4 o’clock,” and then signed my name.  It was sent by messenger. 

What to wear?  What to say?  I had not done this before.  Should there be refreshments?  A gentleman calling on me.   I wanted to ask my mother what I should do, how I should behave.  But how to ask her?  I was not accustomed to asking her or anyone else for help.  It would be a sign of weakness, surely, and would give her a position of power.  I could not have that. 

I resolved to muddle through this myself.

Staring at my wardrobe, I struggled with what to wear. I felt like a piece of meat, trying to make itself more appealing.  Lean or fat?  Marbling?  Yes, please.  I had so much to choose from.  Sometimes the choices themselves are too much. 

How do you make someone love you?  Perhaps that is not possible.  I wanted love.  Maybe not so much, but being in love?  I did not understand at the time that this was not something that could be contrived.  It was.  It existed.  In spite of myself.  In spite of him. 

As four o’clock approached, I had a drink of brandy to steel myself.