A loveless marriage. A monstrous husband. A defiant hope.
I'm not sure which type of cold pierced my soul deeper—winter's brutal breath on the lonely London street or the remnant sting of his words. Even their great Queen Victoria had her love story, a romance amidst her stately obligations. I hadn't planned to travel through the Atlantic portal and simply be plopped into a wretched place of utter misery. Without my family, a few friendly acquaintances, and the warmth only a familial home can provide, I feared I'd freeze to death in his bitter cold.
Marriage was supposed to be warm—a soft place to land when your heart is weary. Not mine. He wasn't concerned with the state of my heart or anything else for that matter. He expected a complacent fool of a wife. One who would sit pretty by a fire and meet his guests with kindness and silly laughter. He couldn't have known that I wouldn't be content with such an arrangement. I needed and enjoyed the incentive of deep conversation.
I read books about history, philosophy, and theology. I had actual knowledge and had been educated to the best of my father's potential, despite him getting socially slandered for wasting his hard-earned wealth on educating his daughter. All of this only afforded to me because the Women's College was located in our tiny southern town. My mother convinced him she'd take on more sewing jobs to help balance the costs. Of course, her menial income provided little more than the occasional meal in the school's dining hall. He didn't require this of her, of course. She offered it out of the depth of motherly love. No. My father believed in education for all his children, and since two of my brothers never returned from the war, it prompted more of an importance to educate his remaining two.
My brother, a university graduate and a commanding officer in the Army, is the epitome of a southern gentleman and is the apple of his new wife's eye. She damn near worships the ground he walks on, and I couldn't be happier he's found such a steady marriage and occupation there in Montgomery. Come to think of it, his doll of a wife is exactly what Hugh thought he was getting when he married me.
Daddy needed the two of us to be intellectually capable of being the bearers of the family's fortune, however small it had become.
What would he think of me now? Walking these strange streets in search of my own ghost. Leaving my husband to rot at the dining table with his own pathetic thoughts and me storming out of the house and closing the door so mercilessly that a whiff of air chased me down the stoop.
The stoop. That's where I belonged. A doormat to his feet. I felt my cheeks flush with anger, melting the fresh winter flakes that found their rest there.
"Mam," I heard her familiar voice.
I thought about turning around and facing her, but I wasn't ready to let the lady back into me yet. I clung to my rage and ran with it.
"My lady!" she screamed louder. The quickness of her footsteps increased to match mine.
"Leave me," I answered her.
"You're making a scene."
It wasn't until then I realized the few people on the street glancing in my direction. What must they have thought? I stopped, understanding that my moment with fury was over. It was now time to reunite with who I was supposed to be—and worse—time to return to him.
I turned to face Martha, our maid. He had given me that liberty. I'd requested one when I first arrived, but it wasn't until months later he conceded. She was my relief most days—the only person who could reason with the fury beneath my smoldering façade. I hung my head, ashamed of myself for making her chase me down like a blasted child.
"I tried to let you go on, Mam, but it's just so bloody cold. I feared you'd catch the fever. And that would be terrible for a woman in your condition," she said while clasping her arm in mine and escorting me back to my cage.
I felt my stomach instinctively and tried to concentrate. Did I feel anything? Could life really be brought from such disgust? Wasn't it love and warmth that made things bloom? Apparently not. My growing bump was proof that even hate could create.
"What did he say about my leaving?" I ventured.
"I think I'd be wise not to put words in my master's mouth."
"You're mine, Martha. I'm the one who pressed for your employment, and I'm the one who needs you. Not him."
I desperately tried to prepare myself for what I'd find at home.
"He's unhappy. I think he's called for his mother to return." She looked down as if anticipating my reaction.
My spirit fell into the deepest darkest pit within me, making its bed next to our unborn child.
When we approached the steps, I clung to Martha. I took her hand in mine and nearly cried. I wished never to see those steps again.
We proceeded into the foyer.
"I'll fetch you some tea, Mam. You should warm by the fire."
I took off my coat and gloves, careful to be as quiet as possible. I could see his chair in the parlor, empty. He wasn't having his usual after-dinner brandy. I cautiously forced myself through the wooden sliders and into the sitting room, where I found the fire stoked and dancing rapidly. I pulled up my favorite armed chair and warmed myself.
Though he wasn't there, I could feel his oppressive presence woven into every fiber of the room. The tension hung heavy and made my heart thick with worry. The idea of his mother visiting again this month made me cringe. Every time he thought his grasp on me was slipping, he called her in to tighten the reigns. A fierce, wicked lady, she was. And he, her foul spawn.
"Here you are," Martha said sitting the tea on the mahogany table. "And this as well." She pulled a small writing pad from her apron and handed it to me."
"I purchased it for my son while at the market today, but I think you need it more. It's for your words. When you feel like running, run into it."
I ran my fingers across its rough pages and nearly cried. "But... I don't write."
"Beg your pardon, Mam. But I've seen your scribblings in the waste basket. I've read them, and it's my humble opinion that they're quite good. I thought maybe you might need a safer place to escape than the bitter streets. Forgive me if I'm wrong."
"Please sit with me." I gently tugged at her arm. I feared being alone, left to the mercy of silence and my own thoughts.
"Just for a moment," she said.
"Thank you, truly."
She felt sad for me. I saw it in her tired eyes. She—a forty-year-old widow with two children she could barely feed—felt sorry for me. My needs were met, and I wanted for nothing. Yet she gave me gifts. I searched her face, soft and wrinkled beyond her years. Do I really warrant your pity? I wanted to ask but sipped my tea instead. God, I am a wretched woman.
I focused my eyes on the fire and watched it sway seemingly to the quickened pounds of my heart. I sensed him drawing nearer, and when I heard his footsteps, I quickly took Martha's hand.
"Martha, will you excuse us?" His voice unnerved me entirely, and I nearly jumped from my chair. I squeeze her hand for comfort and momentarily refused to let go. I gave her a desperate look, in which she returned a sorrowful one and slipped away from me—from us. I nervously placed her gift on the table as he took her seat.
"Mrs. Meriwether, the neighbor, came to see about you," he said calmly.
"Is that so?" I tugged at my throat, having a hard time speaking.
"It is. I assured her that, despite the noise she heard, you were well. She insisted on seeing you for herself, and when I told her you were out, she scolded me for allowing a woman in such a fragile state to take a walk in this brutal weather." He tugged at his waistcoat, a habit he had when trying to calm his frustrations.
"Emma, you're behavior is utterly unacceptable. I simply will not have it."
My eyes met his—cold as ice.
"You must be responsible and learn to mother. Part of that is taking care until the child arrives. He needs a strong mother to carry him through the trials of childhood." He sat back in his chair, crossed his legs, and stared into the blaze.
The shadows danced across his features, and his graying temples glimmered in the light. Despite myself, I noticed how agreeable he looked. Handsome, even. If only he weren't him.
"I'll not take orders from your mother in my own house." I found myself again.
"You'll take them from me." He sat up, as if we were animals, stating his dominance.
I sipped my tea in defiance. My heart raced in rebellion, but I forced myself to breathe slowly, hoping he couldn't sense my fear.
"It's a she." I pressed him further.
"What?" he asked confused.
"The child. It's a girl." I clasped my stomach with my free hand.
"You can't be sure."
"I am certain. Look how she sits within me," I went on motioning my hand around my mid-region. "I've even tried the pendulum, and Providence told me."
In the midst of my demonstration, he slapped the tea from my hand. The cup landed in the fire. It's fine hand-painted surface smearing into nothingness. I looked up at him, bewildered.
"Don't you ever mention that this child is a girl again! It's a male. Possibly my only chance of one. You had bloody better be praying that God gives us a boy," his voice quivered. His cool eyes aflame with rage.
"Why must it be a boy?" I nearly whispered.
He ran his slender hand through his dark curls.
"No one is promised another day, Emma. I've strived my entire lifetime for this small fortune, and I need someone to manage it. Your father understood." He collapsed into the chair, defeated. "He has a fine son to carry his name. My brother died without an heir. There's no one else to carry ours." He stared at the now cracking cup.
For a moment, I felt tenderness toward him. Pity, almost. But then he spoke again.
"A good wife delivers healthy children. Male children. And she also knows how to behave. She has calm temperament..." he said, shaking his finger in reprobation, "She cares for her appearance, both physically and socially, so as not to be an embarrassment or hindrance to her husband. She's well mannered and never allows herself to be overcome with anger." He glared at me. "Be a good wife!"
"My father may have understood your need for an heir, but he never treated my mother nor myself like this. He would not be pleased with how you have treated me," I cried.
The mere thought of he and my father agreeing on anything revolted me, but for him to even occupy the idea that my papa would accept his behavior enraged me.
"I am a wife. I will bear you children, but only because I have no vote in the matter. This is not a marriage; it is enslavement!"
He forced his hand across my face.
I froze in astonishment. Tears welled and spilled down my cheeks. I touched my fingers to the swelling flesh.
"If you do not learn to do as I say, all your privileges will be reduced to nothing. You will bear me a son if I have to force a dozen children through you." His words hovered as he left the room. I sunk from my chair to the cold floor and allowed my sorrow to seep into every part of me.
I felt her flutter.
"Mam, are you alright? Please let me help you to your chair," Martha said coming to my aid.
"I hope she's a damned fool. A real wife—without tongue or intellect. One who knows only how to please and be pleasing." I tugged at my stomach. "Please God, make her a beautiful fool."
"Oh no, Mrs. Emma. May she be intelligent and divinely gifted like her mother. May she write words people will read for lifetimes to come. No, Mam. May she be beautiful, and may she only be foolish in love."
Vanessa K. Eccles
Books, life, and travel.
Author of FABLED, RED RIBBONS, and OF LOVE & LEGEND // Founder of The Faithful Creative Magazine