Chapter One Hundred Two: Freely Bleeding

7-29-2006-30

“We should do some blood letting,” he said grimly.

“Why?” I asked.

“It is the only thing that will help.” The white haired doctor lifted Nathaniel’s eyelids, one at a time, noting with a grunt the jaundice, a sickly yellow where white should be. He wearily sat back down in the worn wooden chair I had placed by the bedside.

“But how will it help?” I had not seen blood letting benefit anyone. Not ever.

“Madame, leave this sort of thing to the professionals. You should not have to worry yourself with the why’s and wherefore’s…”

He reached into his valise and pulled out a brass encased fleam. The blade clicked open with a fling of the wrist. He held it at the ready.

“I need a bowl.”

“Wait. I…..”

“Bring me a bowl!” he said sharply as he dug into Nathaniel’s forearm. “I don’t have all day. There are other patients to see.” He clamped a hand over the oozing blood then looked over at me expectantly. 

Nathaniel groaned and shifted. 

“Please be quick or this will stain….” he warned.

I shook off the shock and grabbed the basin off of the dresser, the one used for washing up. I felt numb.

“Here.”

“Thank you.” He said it deliberately in mock gratitude. “Now I need some fresh linen and clean water.”

I stood watching the blood flow down the arm in a weak rivulet, forming a deep scarlet pool in the creamy porcelain bowl below. 

“Now?” the doctor prompted.

I left to grab the required items, placing the wash pitcher with the clean water on the floor next to him, then handing over a few strips of clean linen. He put down the fleam and took the linen, draping it over his dark brown pants leg. 

“Just a few minutes more…”

Eventually he took a strip of linen and wrapped it tightly about the wound. Blood quickly oozed through as he wrapped another strip around that one.

“Come.” He motioned me over. “Apply pressure here.” I placed my hand over the indicated spot as he tied the bandage tightly. “He is a free bleeder, as most people in this situation are. It will take time for the oozing to stop. If it bleeds further, apply more pressure until it stops.”

I kept my hand on the bandage, holding tight.

The doctor quickly washed the blade and then his hands using the pitcher and bloody wash basin. Standing up, he dried them both on the towel on the dresser.

“I will see myself out, Madame…?”

“Brierly. Madame Brierly.” I sat down in the chair he had vacated.  “I am his wife,” I added by way of explanation.

“I gathered,” he said dryly. He looked at me pityingly. “I will be back tomorrow to check on you both.” With that, he nodded his head and left. I heard the door close softly behind him.

I moved my hand from the bandage and watched as the red spot on the white bandage widened. I clamped my hand back over it quickly, holding tighter this time. 

It felt as if I was holding on for dear life, holding on to a dream long past. Hope was oozing away beneath my fingers…

But there was no other choice. 

Or was there?

I relaxed my grip, then let go. Blood soaked the bandage, then dripped to the floor. 

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

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“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-Eight: Threshold

IMG_2194

The foyer was dim. It was clear that this was not a home so much as a cluster of apartments.

It smelled stale and musty, so much so, in fact, that it could be tasted as I opened my mouth to breathe to prevent the odor from permeating my nostrils.

I pounded on the worn door of a downstairs apartment only to have it opened by a scowling, stooped old woman who looked at me suspiciously.

“What?” she demanded.

“I am looking for Nathaniel Brierly.”

“Up there. Top floor.” She cocked her head, using her chin to indicate the direction.

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

She nodded curtly, staring at me for a few moments before closing her door with a slam that made me jump.

Every step I mounted creaked in protest from the weight. A different tone or pitch rose from each as I climbed to the third floor flat.

Would it be locked? Should I knock? Or just enter?

I reached the landing and stopped at the door. I put my hand on the rough wood. What future lay on the other side? Happiness? I wanted happiness. Happiness and love and rest. 

I am so tired of fighting. 

I tried the door tentatively. It cracked open. Unlocked. No knocking, I decided. I would just enter. 

Pushing the door open further, I crossed the threshold. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust further to the darkness. Small slivers of light beamed through cracks at the edges of the heavy drapes, a shard here and a shard there, trapping dust in its light. 

No fire. 

I shivered. Was it cold? 

Walking to the far window, my eyes explored the room. It appeared empty. I pushed the drapes open with a flourish letting light flood in. I moved to the next window, doing the same. I squinted in the light as it assaulted my eyes. Lifting the veil and removing the bonnet, I paused for a moment letting the warm sun hit my face.

Deep breath.

Before I could turn around a snarl came from behind me. “Close them, you fool! Close them or they will see you.”

I turned to see a man standing framed in the doorway, shielding his face from the light with an arm. There was a bottle in one hand. He lurched forward, spilling liquor on his clothes and upon the bare floor. A bloated belly made it appear as if he were with child. The exposed skin of his hands glowed a sickly yellow.

“I said close the drapery!” Another snarl.

He lowered the arm and took another menacing step then stopped.

Should I run? Who was this monster?

“Evelyn?” he gasped softly.

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 Ninety-Four: Running Away

 sunrise through the trees 
We drove hard through the night, never stopping. 

My heart pounded all the while as I cradled my little sleeping Anne. I held her injured hand, the stiff, frozen fingers curled tightly around mine as if they were made of stone.

I did not have much time with her and each second that ticked by softened my resolve. 

How could I do this?

“Whoa!”

The carriage rumbled to a stop. I could hear the crunch of boots as he hopped down and strode around to the side. His black hat shadowed along the fogged window glass was the only visible part of him until he opened the door and stepped inside, rocking the carriage as it shifted with his weight.

A chill entered with him.

The sun was creeping up over the horizon. A train whistle caused Anne to startle and wake. She smiled up at me. I made a face at her and she giggled back before snuggling up against my chest.

“We have arrived.” He stared at me grimly. “Are you ready?”

“No.”

He nodded solemnly. “Remember it is the only way to keep her. You wanted me to remind you of this when the time came…”

“So I did.”

“They will be looking for a woman with a child, a baby girl…”

“Yes.”

“They will not be looking for me…”

I had not told him the whole truth, though. I was leaving from here to go to Edinburgh to the arms of another man, the man who haunted me even still after all of these years and miles. Why was I drawn to him? What made him special? Had we known each other somehow in another life?

The Reverend held out his arms in order to take Anne.

“She will be well cared for until we can meet again.” 

“I know.”

Leaning over to him, I gave him a peck on a scarred cheek. He reached over and pulled me in closer, kissing me full on the mouth, deeply. My stomach turned. 

His breath… 

I pulled away quickly and smiled at him, whispering, “I love you.” I must maintain the illusion. I still needed him.

He smiled back, his eyes full of hope.

I had not fully planned the lies I would tell to get her back while severing my ties with the Reverend but I knew he was the only person I could trust right now with her well being. I would think of something when the time came.

Resisting the urge to tell him yet again how to properly care for her, I gave her one last kiss on the velvety cheek and whispered softly into her ear of my love for her, how I would see her again soon…

His arms opened again, ready to receive Anne. I handed my daughter to him reluctantly and stepped out of the carriage with my small valise in hand.

I could hear her muffled screams and sobs behind me as I moved away. They pierced my heart. I knew I left some part of my humanity behind that day as I kept walking to the train station, leaving my daughter behind.

Somehow I knew it would all be worth it. It must.

Chapter Ninety-Two: Brewing


The warm bitterness of the coffee matched my mood. I took it black now. Black like the darkness looming outside, ominous and harsh. I had missed it terribly. Tea had always seemed weak and patronizing, even more so now that the world had shifted.

I sat down the cup on the small lace covered table beside me. My hands shook a fair bit and there was a slight rattle as the cup came to rest again on the saucer.

A letter lay on my lap. It had arrived the day before, forwarded to the boarding house that was my home for the time being.

I smoothed out the paper again and stared at the flowering script, letting the effect of the coffee and the words wash over me.

The instructions were detailed. I was to meet Mrs. Brierly at the New Calton burial ground in Edinburgh in a fortnight exactly at sunrise. There was an arched gravestone in the far northeast corner where she would be waiting. Bring no one. Tell no one. Wear black, full mourning, complete with veil.

My mind raced.

I would have to wait to purchase the clothing as I got closer to Edinburgh. There was no way to do that here without arousing suspicion. I was too well known. The train tickets to Scotland. Should I purchase early to guarantee passage? Or wait until the last minute to minimize the risk of being found out?

And Anne. 

There was the matter of Anne that must be addressed.

Timing was key. I would not be able to take her with me, at least not yet, but I also could not leave her here in that awful place with the Greers.

I had gone there, begging to see my daughter. The farmhouse was in frightening condition. The red faced woman, rotund woman who answered the door looked puzzled until it dawned on her who I was. I caught a glimpse of Anne being dragged to a back room before the door was slammed shut. There was recognition in her sad eyes. I could hear her screams for me from the other side of the warped wood. Shouting. A slap. Silence.

How could one feel this much hate and not be consumed by it?

No. She would not stay there much longer. I would see just how much love was willing to compromise and sacrifice for the sake of love.

Chapter Ninety: Setting Sail

  
“Pssst! Hedwig!” 

I heard the coarse whisper. It registered somewhere in my head but I was too numb to process it properly. I did not move in the darkness. 

Why bother?

There was impatient tapping of a fingertip on the heavy metal door. “Are you in there, Hedwig?” Knuckles rapping, louder. “It’s me, Zenobia. You have a visitor!”

A key turned in the lock and the door creaked open slowly, banging against the wall. I started.

Too bright!

I shielded my face from the light of the two oil lamps.

“Evelyn?” The voice. I knew the voice. A man. 

Oh, God. 

A man.

Who?

The Reverend. 

No! Not like this!

My shift was stained with urine and feces. My hair had been cut short to combat the lice and what was left was matted about my head. I reeked of foul pestilence. I could hear his steps inching forward tentatively only to stop suddenly a few feet away. I could feel him recoil.

“Oh, God!” 

I had seen no light for…. how long? Days? Weeks? Assigned again to the “tank” for some minor infraction I could no longer remember. The dark had become a comforting companion, a warm blanket of sorts. Now they were taking it away.

No, no light! Please…

My eyes hurt. I squinted through the pain and looked up at his face. Only, it was not his face that I saw. It was horribly disfigured, unrecognizable. 

Who was this man?!?!

Surely, it was another hallucination. The moorings of my mind had been set loose and I was not sure that I had ever been completely sane.

He spoke again, more softly as he squatted down beside me. “Evelyn…” It was indeed the Reverend. 

The smallpox!

I hazarded a glimpse again at his face. Scars. He must have suffered terribly.

More footsteps advancing in the hallway, raised voices saying angry words that I could not quite make out.

“How dare you!” Dr. Jenkins shouted as he entered the cell. “Explain yourself.” I whimpered at the sound of his voice.

The Reverend stood.

“Who are you?” The Reverend demanded.

“I am the director of this asylum, Dr. Stuart Jenkins. Who are you?” He replied, haughtily.

“The Reverend Drummond. I am here to collect Mrs. Aspern.”

“She is a patient here and as such, is under my jurisdiction.”

“She is no longer yours to torment.” Papers rustling. “Here. This is an order from the magistrate. I am to assume custody.”

The papers changed hands. 

Someone knelt beside me again, took my hand. Only it was not Reverend Drummond’s hand. It was that other hand. The hand that caused all of this pain. The burns. The lashings. The slaps. All of the pain that hand had delivered with impunity. 

I recoiled and tried to pull away but the grip was too tight.

There was a foul breath hot on my cheek. “We are not done, you and I,” the doctor snarled. I could not see but I spit at him anyway.

“Enough!” The Reverend bellowed in his Sunday morning pulpit voice. He commanded attention. 

I felt my body lifted and carried out into the bright sunlight. I shielded my face from the sun against the rough fabric of his coat. Every movement and shift seemed to bring up new terrible odors and served to deepen my shame.

I was free? 

“Anne..,” I whispered. 

“Shhhh. Not now. Soon.”

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-Seven: Promises

045

“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.