We entered the small house. Instantly, I knew death was there. It hung thick and present in the still darkness of the room, lurking in its very corners as if ready to snatch life in its grim clasp. Eddie went on ahead of me and dragged a stool to join the one that already stood next to the head of the bed.
“Please, sit,” he invited.
I tiptoed over hesitantly, feeling very much out of place. Light from an oil lamp flung long shadows across the bed where she lay. A beam of it rested on her face lying still against the pillow, fluttering in lively motion across her features, contradictory to the death pallor that held it still.
I sank down to sit on the offered stool. Her face was beautiful, but tormented, delicate but lined. Illness had wrecked its havoc, but even still there was a loveliness evidenced in her high-bonded features and sweeping lashes that death’s pallor could not hide. There was no doubt she was dying – even I, inexperienced in the ways of life could see that.
Then Eddie spoke. “How much has your Aunt told –“
“Nothing,” I interrupted hastily, so eager was I to have the mystery unveiled at last.
“Then you don’t know who she is,” he said with a sigh.
“No,” I whispered, feeling that we were trespassing were we ought not to be.
“She’s your Aunt Elizabeth’s daughter,”
“Her daughter?” I was utterly taken aback by this first revelation. I knew without doing the calculations that any daughter of my aged aunt would have to be older than the relatively young woman on the bed before me. This was Cherry's mother?
As though sensing my skepticism, Eddie continued.
“Your Aunt adopted her some twenty-five years ago. They never had any children of their own – your aunt and late uncle. Shortly after he died, she adopted a child. Some said it was because she was lonely, others speculated that she just wanted an heiress. Either way, she absolutely doted on her.”
I tried imagining for a moment crotchety Aunt Elizabeth as the coddling mother. My imagination refused to be stretched that far. But for the sake of believing the story, I went along with it.
“I met her when she was seventeen. I had just completed my first term in what was to be a seven year study to become a doctor.”
Outside, a clap of thunder shook the house ominously, as though the universe itself was stirring secrets from the deep. I swallowed hard, sure what was coming next.
“I loved her, Becky. I mean really loved her. We were young, and stupid but happy - very happy. I think she would have fallen for me too... only just when hope shone brightest that she might be mine, my brother, James, came home after a visit out west.”
Eddie smiled wryly. “As fine looking a chap as we both know me to be, James was the head-turner of the family. As much as I loved her, she could be very fickle. I knew that. I had risked loving her all the same.”
“She fell in love with James, didn’t she?” I said it quietly, feeling strange speaking in third person about one who was lying so close by.
“That she did. Her mother was furious. She approved of me because I was boring and homely and destined to keep her daughter on the straight and narrow. James was a wild one. He would have done just about anything to be contrary.”
He hesitated, as though reluctant to continue.
“One day he was recklessly courting the girl he had stolen from me, the next we awoke to the news that they had run off together in the night.”
He laughed humorlessly. “It gets worse. We thought we had heard the last from them. We supposed they had gone up North where there were rumors of a gold rush. James had always been a sucker for wealth. We didn’t find out until a year later when she returned home alone, broken and with child.”
“What happened to James?” I asked eyes wide with horror.
“I don’t know. We’ve never heard from him. I imagine that whiskey destroyed him or he got on the bad end of a deal.”
A thousand questions trooped across my curiosity shouting to be asked. But there was only one, in that moment of revelation that I needed to know.
“Do you still love her, Eddie?”
He swallowed hard and picked up one of her limp white hands. He ran his over it.
“No,” he said finally. “I loved her and lost her. I care for her because I remember what she was. But I can’t love her in the same way because I remember what she did.”
“...and Aunt Elizabeth?”
“...was enraged. She had loved her as daughter, and grieved for her as such. When she returned broken and destitute, it was more than your aunt could forgive. She told her to leave and never come back.”
He laughed again, but the hurt that sounded in it robbed it of all its mirth. “She did not go far. She came to me and asked me to marry her - to give her a home and a name for her fatherless child. I was her last resort. It was me or the streets.”
I felt keenly the injustice of it. “But she betrayed you.”
He glanced at me, and then lowered his gaze. “She had hurt me so badly, Becky. More than lovers, we had been friends.”
“And yet you would help her?” I could not understand.
“I could not claim to know God and have no mercy. I could not claim to love Christ, and have no grace. So for that reason, I could not refuse her. I agreed to marry her. We went to court to sign the papers, and that was that. It was then she chose to tell me she had contracted tuberculosis and it was in its final stages. I had married a dead woman walking.”
The wind whistled through the hairline crack in the window sill adding eerily to the ambiance. I shivered.
“I gave up the rest of my schooling to care for her. I didn’t know what else to do. She was already too far gone beyond medical help and was almost ready to deliver her baby. I dropped out of college and took a job mending fishing nets down at the wharf to be nearby. her. I hired a nurse for the days, but otherwise I cared for her myself.”
He spoke so unaffectedly that he may as well have been describing the weather.
“When your aunt found out what I had done she paid me a visit. She wanted to financially compensate me. I refused of course. I was raised better than that. She made it clear that she intended to take the baby. I could not stop her, and her daughter did not even try. In the end, I was thankful for Mrs. Tinsley’s interference. The task of caring for both an invalid and a baby would have been impossible.”
He paused, and then continued. “She’s lingered for five long, terrible years.”
I closed my eyes and imagined for a moment what those five years had been for him. To be married to a dying woman...a woman who had betrayed him. To have left his educational dreams behind to care for a woman who had trampled on his personal ones.
I asked another question that had been weighing in.
“Eddie, why did I find you in the library so often?”
“Your aunt insisted that I come and use the Edenhedge library to pursue my studies – to appease her guilt I suppose. She knew what I had given up. So for her sake, I have gone there...but not to study. I gave up that dream. I would slip away and escape the closeness of this cottage and read away my reality. How I enjoyed my times of solitude.”
“Then I came,” I said contritely.
His eyes crinkled into a smile. “Then you came. Becky, you were the first friend I had in years. I wanted to tell you everything. Do you believe me?”
“Yes, I do,” I said softly in a voice laced heavily with regret. I had handled myself abominably. I cringed to remember the bitter words I had hurled at him at box social. No wonder he had been angry.
“Your aunt has come from time to time with the little girl. For conscience sake, I suppose.”
“Should she be summoned now?” I wondered.
Eddie shook his head. “No. She made it quite clear that she had no desire to be here at the end. I don’t think that she could bear it. She invested everything into her girl. Her debt of grief must be immense. I sent word this morning though after the doctor was here to let her know that she was slipping.”
No wonder she had been so cross. It had been produced by a deep sadness. Again regret filled me that I had been so blind, so shallow, so stupid, so consumed with my own problems that I had failed to see others hurting around me.
“Eddie, what’s her name?” I felt compelled to know. Before her name would be merely a memory.
Somehow it did not shock me as it should have - little wonder he had not wanted to call me that...the name of one who had hurt him so badly.
“That’s why you said you wanted to call me ‘Becky’ when we met that evening in the library,” I said simply, understanding.
“I was wrong to say that to you. Rebecca is a beautiful name.”
I glanced sideways at him, overcome by everything he had revealed to me. I thought I had known him, in the short season I had been at Edenhedge. But I had not.
I cannot say how long we sat there by her beside, alternately talking in hushed tones and then falling into languid silences, where the only sounds were that of the laboured breaths of the woman before us and the ever retreating presence of a late summer storm.
And then at dawn, with a soft, final breath, Rebecca slipped away. We watched as the tenseness of her waiting, the agony of her suffering, ebbed into death’s gentle stillness. It was a terrible, beautiful moment of release.
“And that’s the end of the story,” Eddie whispered. He gently pulled up the sheet to cover her face.
I wept then. Because it was so unbelievably sad and because I was so incredibly shallow and because the man slumped before me had demonstrated so selflessly what true love manifest looked like.
“Eddie,” the tears only allowed for minimal words, but I wanted to speak. “I want what you have. This...this love. Where do you find...?” I could not finish.
“In Christ. In believing there is more to life than this,” he gestured to the still form on the bed.
“How can I have him?” I asked, humbled.
He reached over and squeezed the hand that was clenched on my lap. “Just ask Him, Becky. Just ask Him.”
The girl that crossed over the threshold a short time later was not the same one that had gone over it the previous evening. I had changed. How much I was not sure. The weight of my flawed heart had me nearly doubled over with the sheer effort of carrying it. I had experienced an epiphany and now sought an antidote to levitate the wretched state of my conscience.
In a blind, stupor I stumbled down to the shore, declining Eddie’s offer to have me driven back to Edenhedge. I could not face anyone right now... save the One I knew I had to face - the One who had, above everyone, been wooing me gently all along.
The rain had slackened in its intensity and now fell in gentle, spitting gusts. I dropped to my knees when I had reached that ever soft part of the shore where the water comes to briefly cover the parched sand, then recedes. I bent my head, letting my rain soaked hair drip onto my lap. The shallow, cool water lapped around me, refreshing in its touch.
“Dear Father in heaven,” I began, because that was always how my father started his prayers. The words tripped heavily on my tongue. I had not said a prayer since the obligatory bedtime rhymes I had said in my childhood.
“Dear Father in heaven,” I repeated. “I know that I am missing something.”
I was not sure if I needed to spell it out. He was, after all, God. Yet I had not exactly made him privy to my life ever before. I decided to leave no stones unturned.
“I am selfish and vain and stupid.” It hurt a little to say it out loud. But there it was.
“Please, forgive me. Come into my life.”I added a hasty amen, and then knelt in silent wait.
If I had expected a choir of angels or a vision of heavenly raptures after my prayer I would have been disappointed. When I opened my eyes, everything was as it had been. But I had asked only for the peace of forgiveness...and it had come, as sure and steady as the tide, filling the empty places of my soul with its quiet, impenetrable assurance.
I stood to my feet. A gull was soaring above me, carried on the warm, fresh wind that follows a storm. I smiled. That was precisely how I felt. As if my wings were outstretched and I did not even have to move. I was being carried on winds of new life.
Suddenly feeling full of light and life and love, I impulsively did an ungraceful but heartfelt series of jumps and twirls on the sand. The air was chilly. Autumn was falling, but summer’s heat still clung on the gusts that caught at the hem of my skirt and toyed with the wet strands of my hair.
I felt as deep as the ocean, and as full. Tuning my ears to the majestic sounds of the distant breakers and the beautiful cries of a morning dove, I remembered a line from an old hymn, which for the first time, resonated deep within me.
“Grace is the sweetest sound, that ever reached our ears...”
Morning’s light had already begun to colour the world with its gentle brilliance when I crept up the porch steps at Edenhedge. I had only realized on my walk home, how long I had been gone and what Aunt Elizabeth must be thinking. And Mark! I felt badly where he was concerned. I could only imagine what the atmosphere had been at Edenhedge after I had left so abruptly.
“I hope he enjoyed his soup,” I muttered as I turned the handle of the heavy door as quietly as I could.
The vestibule was still quite dark, the curtains having not yet been drawn open for the day. Relieved that I had made it home before the servants stirred, I tiptoed speedily across the floor.
“Who goes there?” a voice from the dark recesses of the hall shot through my entire body in a jolt of panic.
It was Aunt Elizabeth of course, for who else had such a significant, gravelly voice in all the world?
“It’s me,” I responded contritely.
From the shadowy corners she appeared, resplendent in a high collared nightgown and nightcap. Her knobby wrists and ankles stuck out of the sleeves and hemline respectively and she had clenched her hand a candle, whose dim flame cast ghoulish rings of light across her withered face.
“Where have you been, might I ask?” Had I not been so sure of her anger, I might have noticed that it was worry which had sharpened that terrible edge in her voice. But I was so certain that my absence had induced only her wrath that I responded in defensive meekness rather than apologetic reassurance.
“I’ve been to the shore,” said I, bolder this time.
Her expression registered surprise and something that could not quite be called annoyance but crept precariously close to being perturbed.
“And what do you suppose I would have told Ida, should you have been swept out to sea?” She demanded of me as if such a perilous outcome to my excursion had been entirely probable.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Elizabeth,” I said not at all ingeniously. “It was wrong of me to run off like that. Truly, I am sorry.” My voice inflected with all the heartfelt sympathy I felt coursing through me in regards to the odd woman that stood in the shallow light. I no longer was afraid of her – I pitied her too much for fear.
“Never mind then,” she said, seemingly vouchsafing my errant behaviour. Her tone was curt but before she turned I caught a glimpse of her eyes.
Compelled by a deeply sympathetic impulse, I reached out to grab her thin hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“I really am sorry, Aunt Elizabeth. For everything,”
She pulled away quickly, stiffening at my touch. I dropped my hand and watched as she retreated.
I went into my room and shut the door quietly behind me. I felt as if I had lived a thousand years since I had been there last, preparing for my dinner with Mark Hampton. I sat down at my vanity table, still in my wet clothes, and looked myself squarely in the face.
“You are in love with him,” I heard myself say the words to my reflection even as my disbelieving heart cried against the truth of them. For how long, I could not begin to know. But I believe it had been brought to fruition with the realization of what he had done, when we had sat at the bedside of Rebecca and he had showed me his heart.
I smiled slow and full. I would be patient...he had been through a lifetime of experience in the last years. But with time...I would show him I had changed. I was not worthy of the love he was capable of giving...I, who had been so silly in my approach to love...so shallow in my qualifications of a perfect man. My myriads of suitors had taught me that beauty and wealth and intelligence were only as valuable as the one who held them. But Eddie had, in one single night, taught me that beautiful is grace, wealth is mercy, and intelligence is using them. Reader, my heart still had some growing to do...but at that moment it was as full as it had ever been - full of new hope, new purpose, and new love.
I sat there thinking, praying, until morning came in its unadulterated fullness, and I tiptoed quietly into the nursery. Cherry lay sprawled across her little bed, but her dark eyes peered at me wide open from beneath her covers.
I went to her and sat on the edge of her bed. She gazed up at me innocently.
I gathered that loveless child in my arms and squeezed her. My cup was running over. I wanted to share a bit of the bounty.
“I love you,” So seldom had the words crossed my mouth in my life, that the sweetness of them caught me off guard.
Cherry snuggled into my arms and laid her curly head on my shoulder. Her warm breathed tickled my neck, and stirred maternal instincts...the first I had ever felt. Her silent, steady embrace told me the she loved me too.
I do not know exactly when I became sick.
The week that followed my revealing, rapturous journey to the shore, I walked around in a daze. I was treading waist deep in thought, in feeling, in experience and I presumed I was sluggish from lack of sleep and hazy from being overwhelmed.
Eddie had not come, but I expected that. I was not sure what arrangements had been made in regards to a funeral, but had assumed that certainly no one from Edenhedge would be in attendance. Aunt Elizabeth seemed unaffected by anything, and had I not seen her devastated eyes that morning I returned, I would have been inclined to think she did not care at all. I tried especially hard not to annoy her with all the small things she found aggravating, and worked twice as hard to keep Cherry out of her presence and out of her bad graces. By week’s end, I was exhausted and feeling anxious. I was not sure how to proceed in regards to my newfound feelings towards Eddie...if I was to proceed at all. I did not have any reason to assume he felt the same way...nor any confidence that a declaration of my feelings would be welcome.
That night, Aunt Elizabeth and I sat in the parlour. She was working on a needlepoint project and I held a book in my hand with the pretense of reading it. My eyes throbbed in the firelight till I could no longer even feign reading the words. I dropped the book onto my lap and lowered my forehead into my hands. The skin beneath my finger tips burned like fire.
“What’s wrong now?” demanded my Aunt, suggesting my action was the culmination of series of unfortunate events.
“I...I don’t feel very well,” I groaned, noticing for the first time how painful it was to draw breath.
She sighed deeply and rose to her feet. Coming over to me, she laid a hand on my forehead.
“Gracious providence child, you’re as hot as a debate!”
“I’m sick,” I croaked out.
“You would be,” she quipped darkly and unjustifiably with the air of one resigning herself to the intolerable inevitable before her. “Come, you are going to bed. This is nothing a cup of tea and a hot mustard plaster won’t cure in a jiffy.”
Praying that the promised mustard would not make an appearance, I rose to my feet unsteadily and followed my Florence Nightingale turned aunt up to my room, where I found the relief of a soft pillow and cool sheets to be more than comforting – but the instant I laid my head down, I realized how sick I was.
Aunt Elizabeth was surprisingly gentle in her administrations, straightening my blankets and checking that the curtains were drawn and the window tightly shut. She decided, against my protests that she should send for a doctor posthaste.
“I’m fine, auntie,” I whispered, having discovered it much gentler on my chest than speaking.
She grunted. “I’ll not have you dying on my hands.” Then added, “It would be most unseemly,” Whether in reference to my dying or in being on her hands I could not tell.
She left me alone then, and I lay in silent agony of illness.
Time passed in a blur after that. I remember little of those days that followed. I am sure I was not aware of how much danger I was truly in throughout that time, neither had I any idea how much time passed. I recall only bits and pieces from that time – images, thoughts, moments that seemed to be neither dream nor reality. I do remember seeing the doctor bending over and asking me to draw deep breaths and gazing back in him in terror because I could not understand how he could ask such a thing of me with so much weight on my chest. I recall seeing Aunt Elizabeth’s face hovering over me, briefly alarmed and hearing talk of bringing my mother to Edenhedge. I dreamt what seemed to be the same dream continuously. I was standing on the edge of the shore and gazing out as far as navy sea met black sky. Cherry was pressed against my side. I saw a man coming out of the water towards me but could not make out who it was.
“Eddie?” I whispered into the darkness.
“No, darling it’s your mother,” came the soothing answer. I felt a cool hand against my cheek and again I drifted off.
My first conscious thought after what I was to learn was days of battling a severe bout of pneumonia, was that I was thirsty.
“Praise be to God,” breathed my mother, whose shining eyes were the first sight when I opened mine at last.
Immediately the doctor was by my side, asking me a dozen questions that I could not muster the strength to answer. My mother was fluttering about seeing to my comfort, and Aunt Elizabeth hovered at the foot of my bed making ill-suited remarks.
“Well, this is what happens when you’re pertinent,” summed up Aunt Elizabeth irrelevantly, when the doctor had finished detailing to my mother and I the arduous care involved in my recovery.
My mother, who was so relieved in the face of my rebound, merely laughed.
But I turned on my pillow and my eyes met Aunt Elizabeth’s, and in a strange, moving moment, it was as if she knew that I knew. I cannot explain it. It was a connection between us in that split second. Without words, we acknowledged each other’s truths. Immediately, her eyes were moist, but for the first time since I had known her, a genuine smile flickered across her lips.
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