Here follows a short gothic tale for a dark night, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest…
I think I may have been here for quite some time. But I do not know… I am no longer certain what time means. It is dark here, and snug. I wriggle down, turn my head and press my cheek against cold silk. I am unsure whether my eyes are open or closed, the blackness is so complete. Plenty of time in which to reflect. To while away the hours until I am free. It will not be long now – of that I must be certain…
The recollection of his face still warms me. Others might call me foolish, but it is true: he arrived in our house like the winter sun. Before then, my existence was an eternity of days, each minute measured by ticking clocks in empty rooms. Once I bit my lip in boredom till I drew blood; then was shocked by the trickle of red, reminding me that my heart was still beating.
I had not long been married before I grew to dread the swish of her skirts – I swear the air itself grew chill. Sometimes she stayed outside the door, lingering; at night, the glow of her lamp slid under the sill like a knife. She knew her presence was enough.
I cannot believe I am free of her yet; she haunts me even here. Over the breakfast table, she would lean across and ask in a voice like pewter, ‘How will you be occupying yourself today?’
How to occupy myself?
So many activities for a young wife: planning the menu for Cook; taking up my infernal embroidery; reading the Monthly Magazine … ‘Today, why, today I shall redecorate the morning room!’ I surprised even myself and Edward spluttered, tea stains blooming across the tablecloth. His mother leaned back in her chair, raised a sharp eyebrow, and said nothing.
‘Does this room need redecorating, dearest?’ Edward set down his cup.
‘Why, Edward, these furnishings are very handsome,’ I glanced at the heavy, striped curtains, ‘but perhaps something to lift the spirits?’
His mother sniffed. ‘The latest Parisian fashions.’
I continued, ‘A project like this might be just what the doctor ordered!’ I tried to laugh; my palms were tingling.
‘Indeed!’ She raised herself from the table.
As the door slammed to behind her, Edward placed his hand upon mine; I kept myself from flinching. ‘If you believe it might help …’ he said.
‘Yes, I do!’
‘… Then you may order whatever is necessary – within reason, of course.’
‘Thank you.’ I squeezed his fingers in gratitude.
The following weeks were a cascade of fabrics and outings, of colours, textures and decisions. It was a joy to visit the different drapers, with their yards of material, the metallic slicing of their shears; and a pleasure to see my visions translate into reality.
When I revealed the finished morning room to Edward, I felt as bright and giddy as the wallpaper with its pattern of songbirds and trellises.
Edward chuckled. ‘My goodness, what a transformation!’
His mother followed like a shadow. She ran her bony hands over a chair back. ‘It is certainly… different.’ She narrowed her gaze. ‘However, the only decoration a home truly needs is a child.’
She did not wait for a reply, but left me weeping.
Edward patted my shoulder. ‘It is very pretty,’ he said. ‘And you’ve been much more animated, positively radiant of late. I propose,’ he continued, ‘that we find you another outlet for your artistic talents. Perhaps drawing lessons?’
I nodded numbly.
And so my drawing master was appointed.
I have always loved to draw. It is a way to make sense of the boundaries between things, where one thing becomes another. But at first my sorry little pictures were so lost on the page – timid, tight studies adrift on an ocean of white.
‘Here,’ said my drawing master as he drew a neat box around my sketch. ‘Now it is contained.’ When he smiled, I blushed.
But he told me I drew very nicely. ‘Indeed,’ he said as he took the pencil gently from my fingers, ‘I sense potential.’
That evening I stroked the skin of my hand, where he had touched me.
In the weeks that followed, I devoted myself to my lessons. And Edward approved most heartily. His broad face would beam with pride when I showed him my drawings and watercolours – the lines becoming bolder, the colours more lively with each session.
His mother merely sniffed, ‘Embroidery would be more practical. One may as well teach a kitten to sew as a wife to paint.’
I did not care what she said; I knew myself to be thriving under the guidance of my new master. No pleasure could compare with those hours I spent at my easel each week. It was as if my tutor’s encouragement fed my very soul. ‘Why, you have captured the evening sky most beautifully. Perhaps a hint of vermilion just here,’ he would say, as he leaned over my shoulder to steer my hand with his.
I cannot remember when I first understood that I loved him; it was as though that love had always lain within me, dormant, and he nurtured it slowly, like a gardener tending a fragile shoot.
When at last he told me I was beautiful I believed him. He said I was like a painting of a princess in a fairy-tale tower. ‘But how to free her?’ he wondered, as he stroked my cheek. ‘If only I were a wealthy man, I would take you away from this – this imprisonment.’ The promise dangled like fruit.
‘There might be a way,’ I offered, hesitantly. When he still said nothing, I explained, ‘I have jewels that could be sold, pieces given to me by Edward and others that I have inherited – not a pot of gold, but enough perhaps …’
He knelt before me. ‘And you would do this?’
The moment was so magical; it was as if I had stepped into a story from one of my journals. I did not know what to say; the brilliance of his eyes quite dazzled me.
‘I would do anything,’ I confessed.
We conceived a plan. Piece by piece, I smuggled my jewels to him so that he could sell them and secure the sum he explained we would need for our elopement. I could hardly eat, sleep or think for the excitement. I was sure it must be writ over my face. Yet neither Edward nor his mother suspected a thing. As Edward never thought to take me with him to the theatre or opera, and my delicate health precluded visitors or house calls, my jewels were not missed by anyone other than myself. Rather, Edward noted that my lessons appeared to be doing me good, for my complexion now had such a healthy glow. My sketches and paintings were certainly much more animated – full of feverish energy. ‘In fact,’ he observed, ‘one could almost call them French.’
His mother snidely commented that I appeared somewhat thin and drained. Of course, I knew she would be delighted if the day ever came when my waistline thickened with an heir for her beloved Edward. If she could have borne him the child herself, I swear she would have done so. In my mind’s eye, I re-imagined my future children, clever and handsome as the man I now thought of as their father, my drawing master, with his unruly black hair and pale eyes…
When I handed over the last piece, a garnet bracelet of which I was particularly fond, he kissed me full on the lips.
‘What are we to do next?’ I asked.
‘Now, dear heart, we have reached the most dangerous juncture in our venture. All our planning will come undone if we lack the courage required. Yet I hesitate to put the next step to you – although I am sure I must if I am to deliver you.’ He placed his palms together as though in prayer and pressed them to his chin. The garnets glittered between his knuckles. ‘You are acquainted with the plays of Shakespeare, of course?’
The question took me by surprise. ‘A little,’ I said. ‘I have dipped into The Family Shakespeare from time to time.’
‘And Romeo and Juliet?’
‘I am familiar with it.’
‘Then you will know where my inspiration comes from…’ He proceeded to reveal to me what we were to do and the outrageous step we had to take. So shocking, yet so thrilling and – as he carefully explained to me – so essential to the execution of our plan that I could not but agree to it, although the thought of what we were to do filled me with terror.
The next time we met, once the door was closed upon our lesson and we were confident that no one was eavesdropping in the hallway, he placed a small, blue, hexagonal bottle upon the table. ‘First, you are sure you have given me absolutely everything?’ he asked, one finger resting on the bottle’s cork.
‘Then you must take this and drink it tonight.’ He slid the bottle over the polished tabletop towards me, and said, ‘This is a sleeping draught that creates the semblance of death.’
I gasped, and he pulled me to him. I knew I had to place my faith in him absolutely. ‘You will fall deeply asleep, that is all,’ he said. ‘And some days later I will wake you.’
When I opened my mouth to ask how, he placed a finger upon my lips and continued, ‘I’m sure you understand that, as an artist, I am acquainted with those in all walks of life. Including certain men of the medical profession.’ He paused. ‘Such as men whose business it is to unearth those committed to eternal rest – for the advancement of science and the benefit of the living…’
‘Body snatchers!’ I tried to step from him, but he held me tight, his embrace as strong as a hoop of iron.
‘Resurrectionists.’ He kissed my brow and let me go. ‘You will be perfectly safe. You will take the draught. You will fall asleep and be inhumed for what will seem like the very briefest of times. Then you will be retrieved from your resting place. When you wake you will be with me. Forever.’
To be released from the clutches of that woman, to spare silly yet kind Edward the humiliation of betrayal, to taste adventure – to be free to live with the one I loved, and to become myself at last.
I did as he commanded.
That very same night I took the draught.
Now I lie here. I think I may have been here for quite some time. But I do not know… I am no longer certain what time means. It seems an eternity since I uncorked the bottle and sipped its bitter contents; it is certainly forever since he kissed my forehead and whispered sweet promises in my ear. But perhaps, in the moment that follows this one, I will hear a spade scratching and scraping above me, the thud of soil.
It is dark here, and snug. I wriggle down, turn my head and press my cheek against cold silk. I am unsure whether my eyes are open or closed, the blackness is so complete.