Chapter 1: Beech, Thomas Beech
When he appeared at the kitchen door, all shiny
And handsome, I nearly dropped the flour-covered
Wooden spoon. And then he said that he would be
Miss Lister's new groom, and yes, he's too young
For me, of course, but it warmed my loins,
And when was the last time that happened?
So I showed him into the dining room and then
Hung back in the hallway to watch the sisters
React to him. Surely, I thought, even Miss Lister
Will be charmed by such a dapper fellow. But
No. I think she found her toast more charming
As she listed a tour of Europe that sounded
Downright exhausting. Maybe in my younger
Years, I'd have looked at it as simply one more
Rousing adventure, especially with a man
Like that to distract me from all the ladies
She would undoubtedly attract. And speaking
Of attraction, I notice that Miss Marian
Has lost track of her toast, gazing fondly
At the young man's slightly bulging pants
So that Miss Lister must rap with the knife
To get her to pass the butter. Her elder
Never bothers to look him in the eye
As she speaks, much less his manly crotch.
Chapter 2: The Itinerary
Having always been a bit of a home body,
I always stop listening when Anne starts
Listing cities she wants to go charging through
Like Atilla. It's bad enough taking the Highflier
From here to Market Weighton, all rattling
About. But this Thomas Beach, there's a body
I wouldn't mind having about. He starts
Today and I'm to take him to Halifax, through
The shops for his clothes, shoes, hat. We'll fly
Into the bank too, while I rattle on...
Just as I was telling my dolly all about my plans
To be a pig farmer or a librarian or maybe just
A land steward like Pa, there was a sharp knock
On the front door and what do you know,
It's that Thomas Sowden all in his Sunday best,
So I go up to tell Pa and I surprise him with
My banging on his door and make him smudge
But he doesn't mind really, and eventually
I remember to show Thomas up and he wants
To talk to Pa about something "delicate," he says,
And I say, "We're very discrete. What's
On your mind?" but then Pa kicks me out,
Saying I should help in kitchen, but I do tend
To drop things, so I know I don't have to go,
And instead, I tell my dolly about how Thomas
Probably wants to marry our Suzanna,
But my dolly just can't seem to keep quiet,
So my sisters hear us talking and then race
Upstairs to listen at Pa's door, but at least
This time they can't say I was carrying tales.
God, I love this kid. Incipient butch, circa 1834.
Chapter 4: The Deeds to Shibden
The moment Christopher Rawson said it at the bank,
I had a sinking feeling it just might be true.
With Anne, anything is possible, and the worse it is,
The more likely, I'd say. So when he came
Straight at me and started saying all those things--
How she'd given him the deeds to Shibden
As security against a 2000-pound note of credit,
I suddenly had visions of her swanning off
To Paris, Rome and Moscow, while the whole house
Was sold from under us. And then he made
A lewd comment about Mr. Abbott, who apparently
Is now engaged to Miss Greenwood. He said
He'd offer to marry me, but only to get at our coal.
Mr. and Mrs. Saltmarsh saw the whole thing,
And all his staff, and the townspeople sniggering
At me. Excruciating! I'm never going back.
I know Marian doesn't always think the best of me,
But I should have hoped she would know I'd never
Do that. It pains me that she would not believe
I hadn't until I pulled the deed out of the closet,
And she read it for herself. I almost forgave her
Her doubts, though, when I realized she was
In tears. He should never have spoken to her,
To my sister, like that. Well, I'll deal with him.
Chapter 5: He's Still Stealing Your Coal
When she called Holt and me to Shibden
And told us the latest of that great sinner,
Christopher, it went straight to my heart.
I'm fond of Miss Marian, the little I see of her,
And I find I feel fiercely protective of her sister,
Even though she is a bit of an Amazon. Surely,
We two can help them sort this out. "He's still
Stealing your coal," said Holt, "Yes, that's what
This is about. He's fishing for information,
Frightened you might still have the money
To sink your own pit." She spoke of the third
Party's investment she no longer had, showed
Her agitation about risking income and estate,
Kept opening and closing her pocket watch.
She's never nervous. "We'll look again," I say.
Chapter 6: Not Quite off the Mark
Feeling so very official in my new blue and gold
Livery, I held the door for Miss Lister as she climbed
Inside (Joseph Booth having told me that she don't
Like to be handed in), then I hopped up on the back.
The back's not so bad once you get used to it,
Though I will say the road to York wasn't exactly
The best of the roads I've suffered through. Still,
Autumn in Yorkshire is as beautiful as folk say,
And it never rained, so that's a mercy. But,
When we finally arrived at Dr. Belcombe's,
I was barely halfway down before she was out
Of the carriage and giving orders about
The postilion bating the horses and getting them
Back by 4:00 for our return to Leeds. She speaks
Fast, walks fast. I'm going to have to practice
Getting down faster, to get the door before her.
Chapter 7: If She Should Happen to Write to You
It's hard to believe that I've known Anne
For so many years now. I met her when she
And Marianna were teens, awkward, defiant,
And in love, though I shouldn't even think it.
Then Anne had that phase where she swaggered--
There's no other word--and wore more masculine
Clothes, the ones Marianna so hated. And now,
At forty, she is settled in some ways, although,
Alas, not in others. Inheriting suited her, as travel
Always does, a way of taming that bold spirit.
This afternoon, she comes first to thank me,
For my help with Miss Walker, a fine young woman
Who is, like Anne, weak and strong in different ways.
"I was happy to help," I say, and I hope she knows,
Disregarding Marianna, I consider her to be family.
She tells me she recommended Miss Walker write
To me if she needs, that they'd promised not
To write each other, but that if Miss Walker did
Write to me, would I let her know, wherever
In the world she might be, in case she could help.
She gives me her itinerary, with dates and addresses.
I say, "There was a letter two weeks ago,
From her sister. Ann was worried it would be
Too cold in Inverness. I advised good nutrition
And giving the place a fair trial. But there was
No mention of seeking medical advice in Edinburgh."
Anne becomes agitated, using sharper gestures, words,
Looks of disgust as she describes the mother speaking
Quite openly about the family trying to get Ann
For the kin, to pay off debts. I calm her, saying,
"I only met her briefly, but she seems to have more
Backbone than people credit her with. So when do
You travel? Mariana will be delighted." She says,
She thought if they ever got together, finally,
The world might make sense. "Hasn't too much
Water passed under the bridge for that?"
Chapter 8: The Family Table
Passing the potatoes, commandeering the carrots,
Gliding the gravy across the table, we casually
Put the magistrate on trial for behavior unbecoming.
Father says Rawson is often drunk in the morning,
Even while sitting on the bench, and Marian recalls
His odd ebullience when he was insulting and upsetting
Her. Aunt Ann questions what that makes us,
Halifax, if such one is at the head of our most revered
Institutions. I resolve to invite him to Shibden. Why?
To hear him apologize, first of all. And then... Well,
I can't have him stealing my coal ("our coal").
They think that he will refuse to come, but I know
A few tricks they don't know, and nor does he.
Certainly, if he can play dirtily, then so can I.
Chapter 9: Help Yourself!
I know I always complain about how Anne manages,
Always, to become the topic of conversation no matter
What it had been, and I know I complain about her always
Upstaging me, as she always has. I know this. I do. And yet...
On a day like today, when I sit in the front row for this
Performance, and watch her change the scenery around,
Sifting the little table to next to the love seat, moving
The Madeira onto it, with a little "Hmm" of content...
Then I think, let the show begin. And it does. Christopher
Is like her in his speed and how he uses it to belittle
Whatever "little" affair he thinks he is walking into.
I think you can't belittle a sleeping giant like Anne,
(Although I would never on Earth tell her so). I watch
As he bullies his way past Joseph and immediately
Complains about her "trick" of telling lies to his mother,
And she counters with the thug trying to beat the living
Daylights out of her (I knew she didn't fall off a wall!).
"Didn't work, by the way. He ran off clutching the old
Family jewels--" (I wince at both phrase and gesture)
"--I think he was crying in the end. Perhaps next time,
Employ three or four?" She steps up in his face, smiles.
"Would you like a glass of Madeira?" "Perhaps," he says,
"A small one." (And I don't understand the shift, but
I think it's intentional on her part). He sits down.
She pours for him and her, asks me, but I decline.
And then the moment I never thought I'd live to see:
Anne stepping up for me. "You alarmed her, upset her.
I'm fair game. You can try my mettle any time you like,
But do not humiliate my sister." "Oh, she's a great
Thick-head. I was teasing!" "She was embarrassed.
She was angry. I was intrigued as to why it was said."
"As was I by what you told my mother, who thinks
Anything coming out of your mouth is Gospel."
"She likes me, always has done. Everything I told her
Was true." She took his empty glass and refilled it,
Repeating the complaint about his humiliating me
In front of all those people, the thug, and him driving
The gig in the accident where the boy lost a leg. And then,
You offer to marry Marian, for my coal. Do you recall?"
"Vaguely," he says, which is ridiculous as she points out.
She talks at length, as he drinks off the second glass,
About why he wants to know her worth and how he is
Still stealing her coal (our coal), and how she didn't want
To accuse him outright-- "Own it, and let us do a fair deal."
She adds that Hinscliffe's men heard his men down
In her upper bed. "Oh, men in your bed. Now there is
A novelty." She clinks his glass. "Help yourself." He does.
I begin to see where this is going, smile slightly.
She says, "You vaguely remember what happened.
Were you drunk? We think you were. Then, and when
Your gig ran the carriage off the road and when you paid
Mark Robinson to beat me up--Mm. I found out who he is.
Being drunk doesn't excuse these things, but it explains
Them. But when you systematically day after day steal
My coal, that is not drunk. That is a decision." And that
Was when she got him to show her his hand. Ha!
Chapter 10: How to Surprise Your Lawyer
I am surprised to see her like this, tired, fidgetty,
Talking of running off to the Continent when there is
Work to do here, in Halifax, on the estate. She says,
"I need to get away for a while," though she has only
Been back for a year. "Part of me just wants to run off
And forget about it." I shake my head. "That's not
Like you." "You'd be surprised. There are other things
To do in the world... The only alternative I can think of,"
She says, tapping her thumb on my desk--a bad sign--
"Is, could you... get me a loan? I'd need 1500 pounds
At least." "And security for that much?" She paused.
"The deeds... to Shibden..." Surprise after surprise.
Chapter 11: Forwarding Addresses
With all her trunks and bags and things being piled
Out in the courtyard and Joseph and Thomas sweating up
Their livery carrying down yet more, the household
Is all aflutter. I wish she wouldn't travel so much. Yes,
It was good to get off to Wales that time, and yes, Paris,
For the most part was good, although the riots were,
To be quite honest, alarming. But now she is going off,
Again, without me--with just a lady's maid I know she has
Doubts of, and an almost untried footman. How can this
Be a good idea? She sits with me in the dining room
Telling me of her stops and addresses, in Leamington,
London until the 17th, Paris a week later. "And then,
From Paris, who knows? But you'll always know
Where I am, wherever I go. I'll come back at a moment's
Notice if there is anxiety about health." I say I know,
And I do, but that doesn't mean I like it much. That is
Also when she asks me to write to Ann Walker Sr.
From time to time, pass the news on to her. I will.
Chapter 12: Mirror
My history with mirrors is a mixed one. When young,
I hated them, not knowing how to recognize myself
In the girl who looked back at me. I longed to see
Her with her wife, arms around each other. With each
Woman I entangled myself with, I imagined leaning
Back against her, perhaps looking out a window.
The years passed, and as I had more of my own
Money, and more of my own say in my own clothes,
I found a happy medium between clothing that would
Allow me to do the things I love to do--walk, ride, shoot,
Climb walls if I have to--and be with the people I prefer
To spend time with, educated ladies of good conversation,
Who inevitably expect a certain bowing to conventions,
Compromise. It took me years and a good dressmaker,
But I found my place. But today, readying to travel,
I throw on my greatcoat and find myself confronting
Myself. After all the women come and gone, I wonder
Just who this woman is, so bold, and still so alone...
Chapter 13: Nobility of Character
She's off again, and it's a relief to both of us, if not
To Aunt Anne. Still there is one more thing. I tell
Her she mustn't be cross if I do have call her back
On account of our aunt's health. "I wouldn't do it
Lightly, you know that, but she is... old." She nods,
Then tells me about Thomas Sowden's trouble
With Suzannah Washington's mother not being for
The match, thinking Thomas and his family are
Beneath her. "Washington's for it, of course.
He can see how bright Thomas is, that he will do
Well for himself. And it's better for us if our tenants
Are settled, so... Perhaps you could take Father,
Pay a house call on the Washingtons. Tell them
That just occasionally, someone is born with
A nobility of character that belies their lowly birth,
And that's how we feel about Thomas." I do not
Show my shock at this uncharacteristic show
Of--dare I call it egalitarianism? No, she'd not like
That. So all I say is, "Certainly." She hugs me,
Roughly, as always. "Take care of yourself." "And you."
Chapter 14: Nobody Else Knows
She always thinks she knows so much, and so much
Better than anyone else, as if she were the expert,
Just because she's read all those books on geology
And the like. So when she comes to say farewell,
And just happens to mention that the pit is being
Sunk, starting now, and won't say where the money
Came from, and Holt and Washington in charge, and
Only they and their men know about it, and if those
Blasted Rawsons don't find out, all the better, well...
I can only hope she actually does really know
What she's doing. She says the money is "tight,
But it's manageable, and if all goes to plan, we could
Be getting the coal within a year." "Shouldn't you
Be here to manage it?" I ask, frustrated. She says,
“That's the perfect cover. How can I be up to something
If I'm not even here?" "I've told you before," I say,
"It's an unpleasant business, coal." She says nothing,
Just kisses me, nods, and goes out to her carriage.
Chapter 15: Cordingly, Having Been Indiscreet
Cordingly always thinks of such things, a basket
For the servants, bread and cheese, tongue and apples,
And a few bottles of beer. Surely Eugenie has learned
Enough English to understand that, though she still
Seems determined to flirt with the new groom,
The handsome Thomas Beach. But he's not having it.
I marvel, murmuring to Cordingly, "It doesn't matter
What she tries. He's just not having any, is he?
How odd. All the other men seem smitten with her."
Cordingly smirks. "Well," she says, "I may have been
Indiscreet, telling him a cautionary tale about her
Indiscretion with his predecessor." Lesson learned.
Chapter 16: A Thermometer and a Kiss
When I give thought to the necessities for a journey,
I first think of the obvious: new drawers; a new trunk
That will fit on the carriage, lined; slippers for dancing;
New boots for much walking; my travel suit; my pelise
For more formal occasions; money drawn from the bank;
My journal and slate; stationery, ink and my writing desk.
But, of course, there are also the last-minute things.
As I take leave of my father and am about to pass through
To the courtyard, my eyes land on the thermometer
And I pull it off its hook tuck it under my arm. One wants
To know what the weather is, when traveling, so as
To plan one's clothes, decide to go out or stay in.
And as I hurry out to the courtyard, I see them lined up
To see me off: the servants, my aunt, my sister. Of course
Only my aunt seems disturbed by my leaving. Marian
Probably is relieved. The servants, I imagine, only think
Of one less mouth to feed, one less set of clothes
To launder, orders to obey... But Aunt Anne is in tears,
Her handkerchief damp in her hand, her eyes red.
I feel a powerful tenderness toward her, this woman
Who has been more of a mother to me than my own
Ever was. I stride forward and kiss her hand. She sees
My meaning, my gratitude, I hope. Then, all needful
Things packed or handled, I get in and we go. Release.
Chapter 17: Fond of Children?
The last few days I've given new thought to that idea
I had, that I liked children. The longer I stay here,
The more their shrieks and moans, the banging of drums,
The whining--there's a lot more of that than laughter,
It would seem. It's a miracle my sister doesn't lose
Her mind. It goes on and on, sunrise to sundown,
And that's before you tally in how she has to order
The servants and watch out for the captain's temper.
Anne always said the lack of children would be a great
Sadness, but now I wonder. I can't imagine she would
Get much reading done if we had a pair of little Annes
Running around, and boys would be even worse.
And yes, she is occasionally pushy or patronizing,
But she is also a rock to lean against, with an even
Temper--she says the journal helps there--rarely
Displaying anger. And I know now it was righteous
The two times she did, when I reacted harshly
Because of Mr. Ainsworth and Miss Parkhill.
She is nothing like the captain. He is vain, stern,
Sulky and self-serving, always putting Elizabeth
In a hard place, criticizing and threatening.
I am going back to my early thoughts of marriage
To a man as being repugnant. I draw Anne here
So I can tell her likeness how my ideas change.
Chapter 18: Sister Talk, One
She's quiet yes, is Ann, but nothing like
What we were told to expect. And she does
Not like company, but then she never did,
Much preferred conversation with just one
Or two friends, rather than parties
And the like. I go to her, as she is drawing
Flowers and ask her if she might make
A compromise with her own preferences
To make my life easier--as I've got one
Child nursing, one in the measles, and
Sackville utterly unmanageable...
"It's just that the captain has invited
His mother and cousin to dinner
On Wednesday and hopes you might
Come join us. I know you prefer it
Upstairs here, but Captain Sutherland
Would count it a great kindness, as would
I... And don't think there's anything
Behind it, just a family gathering.
You'll be all right with that, won't you?"
Chapter 19: London in Autumn
so my life is like this now, cold grey London, as if
all of summer's warmth had been bled from the city,
if not the world, and I hear carriages rattling down
the street behind the clattering of horse's hooves,
but they all sound like hearses to me today...
and objectively I know, I can see the brightly turning
leaves, the yellows and oranges that offer a reminder
of sun and warmth, one last fiery fling before winter
overtakes us once again, for months and months
and then she hurries into the sitting room, all in black
as ever she has since my wedding, and it's just one more
reminder that death happens, is inevitable, and Charles
might go first, but will he leave me enough to live on?
will he leave me anything but the memory of decades
lived with a man, with an irritating man, because that
is the way the world is: cold, unfeeling and unfair,
especially when one is a woman, and here she is
looking less like a man than formerly, but still--
and Charles takes his leave to be with the family
at this dreadful time, but his late brother's wife
can't stand me, and the dead boy was the only one--
but she is here, and I lean on her as I often have,
lean into her kisses, because she's seen a fair bit
of death too, her mother, her uncle, her hopes when I
married Charles, securing money and unhappiness...
Chapter 20: You and Her Were So Close
At least in bed, we are alike, hair down, white linen
Covering us lest the servants walk in, a shared sheet,
A shared blanket, shared candlelight as we grubble,
Shared darkness as we doze, sated, and then, shared
Daylight maneuvering its way around the curtains.
We talked between kisses all night, talked between
Me drifting off, then her, then waking to talk again.
I find the tale she is telling me disturbing. It fills in
Details left out of her letters, gaps that made me
Wonder, worry, not a little jealous, though I tried
To wave it off. I say, "I didn't realize that you and her
Were so close. I suspected something, but..." Her hand
Strokes the linen over my knee, saying, "It was just
Something to do. I was bored. And lonely." She tells me
It's all off now, but she won't meet my eyes. "Freddy,
Are you crying?" "No, it's just--" "Is she very rich?"
"Yes, but it's not that. It was to start, but then..."
And I wonder about that look in her eyes, far-off,
Romantic, idealistic. Once again, she tried for that
Hopeless wish she had, and once again, she failed.
Chapter 21: Yes, and Then You Married Charles
It always hits me sharply, every time I am near her
Again, her perfume, and all the memories good and bad
It stirs in my imagination: meeting, falling, discovering
What we liked from each other. Then the proposal, his,
Her marriage, every adulterous connection we've had
Since then. The "three steps" business and Scarborough,
When she said she would wish me different, basically
Saying she would wish me to be not-me. That stung,
And the sting has never completely gone away. So now,
When she seems surprised when I finally tell her more
About my understanding with Ann, how I had asked her
To marry me, move in to Shibden, take the sacrament,
It's odd and ironic for her to say, "But Freddy, you are
Married to me!" "Yes," I snap. "And then you married
Charles all those years ago." She is annoyed, I can tell,
And jealous, saying, "I'd no idea it had got that far
Between you." "Yes, well, it did." And I lie there,
Thinking how her perfume is so strong compared
To l'eau de toilette Ann wears, like the oil portrait
Compared to the watercolor. My tastes have changed.
Chapter 22: Do You Think It's Going to Rain?
I recall telling my father that Ann blew hot and cold,
Never realizing that I have been experiencing sudden
Shifts in the weather for almost two decades. I put
Away my journal as M starts talking about the dead
Nephew, glance out the window at the heavy clouds,
Ask, "Do you think it's going to rain?" before I realize
She has been trying to tell me something. "Sorry. Go on."
So he was Charles's heir, the amiable young man who
Would have taken her in on Charles's death. Now, though,
She thinks Charles will leave her destitute, reliant upon
Some unknown relative who will cut her off. My surprise,
I see, makes her think me naive. She says, "I always
Thought I'd be coming to you when Charles died, and now
There you are moving in with Miss Walker." Her tone
Is petty. I remind her how she'd put an end to us ever
After Hastings. She says she didn't, but I was distraught,
Yes, not deaf. And she starts to argue, but is distracted
By my yard-long thermometer. "Why'd you bring that?"
"To know what the temperature is, what else? You'd
Better shut up now. You're bringing back some poor
Memories." "I'm just pointing out--" "Yes, I'm odd!
I like to have my thermometer with me on holiday.
It's not illegal!" Hot and cold, always. I only now
Notice her inconsistencies, wonder, have I wasted time?
Chapter 23: This Maybe-Sometime-Never Event
I forget, between visits and dalliances, just how
Unreasonable she can be, how out of the common way.
The clothes, the hat, the thermometer. How are we still
Even together after all this time? After all these oddities
And embarrassments? Yet, even as the carriage bounces
Along to Oxford, I see her face soften. "So you do want
To come live with me at Shibden, mm?" "Yes." She takes
My hand, looks soft. "When Charles dies." She throws
My hand back into my lap, growling, "Not now? So, what
Am I supposed to do? Just wait for this maybe-sometimes-
Never event?" She is angry, and I've rarely seen her
Like that, and never for long, but I do know that seventeen
Years is not the five or ten we had presupposed, back then.
Charles has turned out to be hardier than expected, if not
Always as firm as I'd like. She sees the thoughts flicker
Over my face. She knows me too well. She can see it all:
My fear for my future, my jealousy over her moving
Her little Miss Walker in, my surprise that she could
Ever find someone who might replace me in her deep
Affections. Someone other than me she might have, hold.
Chapter 24: A Great Kindness
I suppose all families are alike in their push
And pull, each of their separate agendas, their
Needs and wants and inabilities to distinguish
Between those two. My family, hers, the captain's.
I've never seen her family together, not since
That congenial visit after the one where my aunt
And I were tossed on the shores of their hospitality
By the carriage accident. Anne played an equal role
In both, though she was only present the second time.
That is just who she is. In my own family, so parched
From our bereavement, there is our aunt, my sister,
And myself--not much to work with. But Elizabeth
Managed to marry into a bit of a menagerie (or so
I can imagine her describing them). The push
And pull of my sister and her husband, her husband
And his mother, his mother and his cousin...
Then you add the children and the whole thing
Is a bit like jungle monkeys taking tea together.
But the captain is the one we all must bow to.
Elizabeth's quick look tells me so. I never thought
To be a part of such a pantomime, but I know
Survival when I see it, so I acquiesce. No raging
Gorilla will upset the fragile teatime my sister
Has managed to finesse for her own safety.
Chapter 25: I Always Know When You're Sulking
Aggrieved, I wait by the fire while she writes in that
Infernal journal, tapping and flipping her pen, sipping
From her teacup. "Are you not speaking to me at all?"
I don't think I have snagged her attention. I continue.
"I always know when you're sulking. All you do is read
And write. You should apologize to me, for what you said,
Earlier." "It's brought back too many memories for that."
"What do you mean?" "Scarborough this time ten years ago."
"Right. Let's talk about Scarborough, my miseries..."
I think of the myriad mortifications I suffered for her
Insistence on masculine attire, gestures, postures,
Her hair and hat and coat. The looks she got, the looks
I got for being seen with her. "Do you know what agonies
I endured being seen with you, the way you used to dress?
Everyone whispering about you behind your back
About how masculine you were. I was snubbed just
For being seen with you. At least now, you do try
To look like a lady. Back then? I heard the post-boy
Say, 'Is that a man?'" "Well, good heavens. I'm surprised
You ever bothered me at all, if that was the case." I flush,
Insist, "I love you. I always have!" She seems unconvinced.
Chapter 26: We've Both Made Choices
So many years have flown past, and yet, still
Scarborough haunts me, her words haunt me.
And in all this time, she has never entirely
Taken them back, never said that she loved me
As I was, as I am. Her avowals are always couched,
It's always clear that if she does love me, it is
In spite, rather than because, of what I am:
This oddity who wears stays and petticoats,
Spencers and a top hat. They suit me, I find,
And it took me long enough to come to this dark
Compromise. She thinks I don't know what people
Said or say, but I do. I always have. As Horace wrote,
"It is the false shame of fools to try to conceal
Wounds that have not healed." Perhaps, like our
Shared venereal trouble, some wounds never will
Heal. She claims she loves me more than "your
Miss Walker ever would." I remember the letter.
"We are where we are," I say. "We've both made
Choices, mistakes. Mm? Let's not hate each other.
We've weathered the storm this far... Come!
Live with me at Shibden. I won't go to Paris
Or anywhere!" She pauses. I will remember
That, forever: her pause, her intake of breath.
I sigh. "Think about it. We'll carry on to London.
Think about it." That pause. She lays her head
In my lap, where once upon a time, she did
Other things. My tea, like my heart, grows cool.
Chapter 27: You Do Have an Eye
Night is falling, finally. The children are quiet.
Finally. Once more I seek the relative solitude
Of this room and my sketchbook. I flip past ferns
And flowers to my friend, not only sketched,
But also painted, true to life, her sardonic look,
Her dark blue spencer, her (I shouldn't say it)
Ridiculous hair. I can't think of a single lady
I've ever met who could bring off croquettes
Like that, yet when she looks at me, I only
See her eyes. When she grins at me, I only see
Her humor, her clever wit, her willingness
To question conventions in the interest of being
Herself, first and last. I run my fingers over
Her blue sleeves, the way I ran my fingers
Over white linen in York. Only when I hear
The light rap of knuckles on my door do I
Shut the album. The door opens, admits
My elder sister, wrapped in a woolen shawl
Over her nightdress. She says I've been all right
Today, and I think I have carried that off.
She says I've been busy and asks to look
At my album. "Hmm. These are good.
You do have an eye... Thank you... At teatime..."
"I shan't marry him," I say. "No one will make
You do anything you don't want," she says.
"I want to go home!" "No one's there now
To look after you. Miss Lister is traveling...
But I won't let them bully you into anything."
She looks worn, if not haggard. "You are
Frightened of him, aren't you?" I ask.
She sighs. "So much more complicated
When you've got children, but I promise, Ann,
I'll look after you." And she is my big sister.
I must believe her. We hug. Such a little stretch
Of time before her babies, wake, cry, take her.
Chapter 28: Your Likeness, in My Arms
Lullaby and good night
As I hold your likeness tight.
With willows bedecked,
What else could you expect?
With lilies o'erspread
As my shoulder feels your head,
Lay us down now and rest.
May our slumber be blessed.
Lullaby and good night,
My gondolier staves my fright.
Shining angels beside,
All your travels abide.
Soft and warm is your bed
After travel's wine and bread.
Clear your mind and rest your head.
Forget your traveler's dread.
Sleepyhead, close your eyes.
Now you've agreeabilized.
You'll protect me from harm
And I'll wake in your arms.
We'll sleep on with no fear.
Our guardians are near.
Let our minds make no fuss.
They watch close over us.
On our sheets, white as cream,
With our head full of dreams
As I hold your likeness tight,
Lullaby and good night.
Chapter 29: London, At Speed
Cityspeed, Marianna used to call it, the speed at which
I walk to get not from one village pub to the next but that
Which I use to make things--often travel arrangements--
Happen faster, so I can make connections between coaches
And ships, between one set of high-flown friends and another.
Now I rush, feeling exhilarated, toward the rooms that
Vere and Donald have let, to show off tiny Anne Hobart
To their aristocratic acquaintances in the City. I hurry
Between puddles in the street, take the townhouse's
Steps two at a time and rap the knocker. Inside their
Well-apportioned home, I also take the many stairs
Two at a time in my eagerness to see Vere, congratulate
Her on that achievement <as she sees it> that required her
To risk her life and bet on the child for her future security.
<Do I sound jaded, testy? Perhaps. Well, let it be so.>
I manage a huge smile when I see her and the small, bald
Progeny. Her hair braided to the side <as I always imagined
She did it for bed>, she holds the swaddled babe, smiling
With that look women often get after surviving a birth:
Breathtaking in this case... I tell her of Donald's note,
And she says she would have rather laid an egg. I laugh,
Until she says, "Here, have a go." My gloves and greatcoat
Still on, I take up the blanketed Verelette tagged with my--
I mean, his grandmother's name. I sit, pull my gloves off
With my teeth and hold and examine the child, who has
Vere's exquisite pearl ears. Vere laughs at my expression,
Asks, "How are you? How long in London?" "A fortnight,
Then to Paris, and after that, who knows? South to Rome,
Or north to Copenhagen and--" "Oh, you must go there!
My half-sister lives in Copenhagen, would be delighted
If you turned up there, couldn't do enough for you.
She's gagging for decent company. Her husband does have
Those handy connections at court. Who are you traveling
With?" And she doesn't ask, when I say, a man and my maid,
But I keep waiting for someone to say, "Do ladies do that?"
Chapter 30: Suddenly Remembering Her Speed
It's one thing to remember her speed while walking
From, say Shibden to my carriage, ten miles to meet me along
The way: ridiculous. But in the in-between years
Of our marriage, she has exemplified the speed
Of an ancient Greek marathoner: ready at a moment
To report miles away on a battle lost, on a cause
That she expected to have won, and then, didn't.
This afternoon, I am napping on the hotel sofa
When she comes charging in, hanging on the doorknob
That smashes into the room, waking me suddenly.
She tosses off hat and greatcoat as I ask, "How was she?"
"Very well, and the baby too." I pointed to the cards
And the letter, all from Lady Fill-in-the-Blanks, and
The last, from Lady Stuart, an invitation, which she
Can reply to, as I cannot, having not been introduced.
I suggest shopping and she agrees, needing to buy
A coffee pot for Vere's wedding, but then I realize that
She will need to start dressing now for Lady Stuart's
Dinner, being held an hour away at least. She grabs
Hat, coat, letters all and rushes out to change. I recall
When such an invitation would not have made her budge.
Chapter 31: Will I Do?
After Anne disappeared to dress and prepare
For this Lady Stuart's ball, I took to my own chamber,
Thinking of what she would wear and how she would
Fail her hostess utterly, trying to be more a man.
She loves that black satin pelise, with the practically
Regimental black hat, and her boots and gaiters.
How I loathe the boots and gaiters, always have.
They, all of it really, the whole painting, are why
People always snicker and ask if she's a man, and,
My least favorite, if her cock stands. It's like she
Never hears, doesn't understand, refuses to change.
"Madame," I say in French, "Your Thomas? I don't like him."
"Nonsense," says she, "What's not to like?" "He hates me,
Won't speak to me more than he has to." We're not attaching her
Amusing little croquettes, two above each ear. (I rerolled them
Myself last night after she gave them to me and retired to bed.)
But this afternoon, she wants a different look. This dress
Truly makes her look more like a lady. Her shoulders are fine.
I offer her two pairs of earrings and she chooses. I put those
Earrings in and she says I haven't been trying hard enough.
But I have. She stands and asks, "What do you think?" But then
Madame Lawton hurries in without knocking, and stands mute.
I think I have never seen her naked shoulders except in bed,
And never these fifteen or more years. They are exquisite, yes,
But I always thought them mine. How dare she expose
Her exquisite bits to the general public? How is it that,
No matter how I complained or begged, she always dressed
In a masculine style, even with the corset and all
The petticoats? Yet, suddenly, for this Lady Stuart person,
She chose, CHOSE, to wear an off-shoulder gown? How?
Her shoulders are luscious; how can I possibly share them?
She looks at herself in the mirror, sees me staring at her
Reflection, aghast. Strangely hesitant, she asks, "Will I do?
Lady Stuart prefers ladies to wear low-cut gowns at dinner..."
So I looked worried. Envious maybe. She never did that for--
It's strange to think of going out in public like this, and I cannot
Read M's gaze. She looks horrified, angry, something I cannot
Name. She stutters when I ask if I will do, and I suppose
That I am flubbing it again, this femininity business, but
Lady Stuart's preferences are well known, and it would be
Social death to flaunt them. So here I am, exposed, chilly.
Still, we're not alive if we're not trying to better ourselves
And there's no guarantee that we'll be comfortable as we do.
Chapter 32: We'd Like to Give You Our Blessing
Once again, I find myself in debt to Miss Lister, for surely
She put her sister and father up to visiting the house,
Talking my wife into coming around on the match
Between Suzannah and Thomas Sowden. Nobility
Of character? That's Miss Lister's phrase, you may rely
Upon it. So, wasting no time, I rode to the farm, catching
Thomas just as he was building a proper staircase
With his younger brother. I told him that we would
Like to give him our blessing, and then Suzannah would
Surely like to hear the good news from him direct.
His mother did mention a letter from Sam Sowden's
Brother, Ben, which I did think odd. If a man did do
A drunken runoff, why would he go to his brother?
And would the brother then let the wife know? But
Perhaps it was done so that she need not worry.