Kat Devitt is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in TWJ Magazine, Bold + Italic, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, Magazine of History & Fiction, and Fiction on the Web, with an upcoming publication in The Blotter Magazine. She also acts as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic. She’s working hard on many more short stories, and she’s researching for a novel. Stay tuned for more… In the meantime, please check out her website at https://katdevitt.com/.
Behind the cobwebs of some corner in her heart, she heard guilt pluck at its harp in a familiar tune. She hadn’t heard the melody in so long, she almost forgot the steps to the dance. Their dance.
Guilt raised a crescendo as she read a letter from her oldest friend in the sanctity of her parlor.
Of all in the world, I believe you most cherished my brother. I hold onto this faith, even as the echoes of the past speak otherwise. I write to you in duty, so you may not learn the news from the idle mouth of some London gossipmonger.
Damien passed away three weeks before my writing this letter. Natural causes, his doctors say. His heart, they say, but without further answer. I fear none know the specifics of his death, save his decline came slowly. And in his sleep, he left.
I buried him in the family plot without fanfare. He wanted no extravagance, but my tears still salted the earth I threw onto his coffin.
Oh, Emmeline, come visit. You have not been to Dolorosa House in three years. Damien, without wife or heirs, passed this house on to me in his will. I feel alone in these halls. I need your comfort. You may find peace at Damien’s grave, if you desire it. Please come for my sake, as I long for your company.
Emmeline folded the letter with a betraying calm, while inside she blared. Guilt strummed through her, and all while she kept her tears from slipping. She held back the storms as she thought on the horrid—her partner in this dance lay buried beneath the ground.
“My dear,” Emmeline murmured.
Reginald glimpsed over the edge of the Times as he sat in his favorite wingback. He considered her with his usual indifference, his gray eyes the stones of Newgate Prison. “Hmm?”
She folded her hands together, over the letter. “Do you remember Mr. Harbors?”
He glowered at her trudging up of the past. “How could I forget him, darling?”
“His sister wrote to me. She says he passed not long ago.” Emmeline let out a shaky breath as she reserved her grief for later. When she was alone. When it was appropriate to spend her tears. “She requests I return home to Yorkshire to visit her, so I may give her comfort.”
“Ah.” His gaze passed over to the ormolu clock on the mantel. “Do you mean to leave me?”
“Only for a short time,” she replied, as if her presence mattered much to him. She was as significant as a second passing at a tick. Unnoted, unimportant. “Miss Harbors will not keep me forever. I’ll be gone two weeks, but no longer, I imagine.”
“Is that so?” he asked.
“I promise you.” She stared at him, his coolness rolling over her. “Damien lays in the ground dead. You have nothing to fear.”
“No indiscretions?” Reginald huffed. “Your words mean so little.”
His restraint thinned with reminders of the past. He recounted their sins in his head. Emmeline could see it in the manner he watched the clock’s hands spin around its pivot. Tick, tick, tick. Each second, meaningless. But when combined together, enduring. And that is what they did when in one another’s company. They endured.
“Miss Harbors is but a spinster living in the countryside. She’s a wealthy spinster now, as she’s inherited Dolorosa House.” Emmeline wondered if through his anger Reginald heard the quivering plea in her voice. She prayed not, or else he might tighten his leash. “What harm may come from residing in her ramshackle for a short while?”
She watched him teeter. He did not want to spend his seconds with her, but elsewhere, and in lighter spirits. His reins might slacken for a change, and she—she could be free for a little. Seconds spared from him.
“I shall provide you with the means to visit your friend.” Reginald closed his paper, his attention leaving the clock. “I have an appointment to keep at my club.”
And with that, he dismissed her. He rose from his wingback, his gray hair shimmering in the thinning sunlight. He still moved with the determination of a young buck, but he was aged and weathered in his features. Reginald was fifty, nearly twice her age, while she was seven and twenty.
“Farewell, my dear.”
He nodded to Emmeline and left without another word, off to galvanize with his mistress or to gamble his wealth away in the smoky gaming hells of London’s underbelly. His endless wealth, Emmeline thought, as she glanced around the parlor with its silken drapes and rosewood furnishings. All bought with her dowry.
And his title bought her.
Reginald Beauford, sixth Earl of Blackwood, descended from one of the longest and proudest of English lines. Any woman would’ve been overjoyed to marry him, as Emmeline’s mama had reminded her on her wedding day three years ago, but her heart always held a song for another.
Hearing its tune, she tucked the letter into a pocket and stared up at the clock. Tick, tick, tick.
Emmeline retired to her bedchamber to escape her regrets. She lay in bed with her head buried into her feather pillow. She wept as she reminisced in her memories of Damien, and waited for her unloving husband to return.
On the coach ride to Yorkshire, Reginald was a distant thought. He remained in London, as he despised the fresh air and sunlight outside the great city. He preferred the smokes and fogs hanging above the rooftops, with people and carriages crammed onto the cobblestone streets.
But, miles from him, Emmeline soared as she watched the countryside roll past the window on the last stretch of her journey. Clouds glided overhead, shading fields and farmlands. Cottages dotted the browning world as autumn swept through. Somewhere not far, she heard the bell of a church droll as she neared the village of her home, Hampstead Haven.
Emmeline saw and heard with a numbness. She entered into the old days when she was a foolish girl with ideations of love and happiness, like that silly Alice girl from her favorite childhood tale. But, instead of love, she’d stumbled upon a trail of mistakes to hollow out the future.
She stared into the woods, as if losing herself into a fairy tale. She fell into her memories, as one falls into sleep, and remembered the love she shared with Damien, before her mother married her off to Reginald. She remembered the night before her unhappy wedding, wrapped in Damien’s embrace. She adored him that night, as she’d always longed to show him. She came into his bed, wishing to know his fullest love before her marriage the next day, but a jealous Reginald caught them, an arrow shooting down their flight into passion, into joy.
Emmeline bowed her head as the tears began to empty from her eyes. She wished for him to return to her, to come to her side. She longed to speak with him, to apologize for how wrong she had been in choosing Reginald and familial duty over him.
Through her misty vision, something outside her window caught her attention. She looked up, and amongst the trees, something manifested from her memories and sorrows. A blue light, the shade of aquamarine. The shade of his eyes.
It flashed and flitted through the trees, following the coach in its journey. Emmeline shook her head, not believing what she saw. Its light grew in strength, as her doubts clung to the impossibility of what she was witnessing: a blue orb, dancing for her.
Emmeline tore her gaze away. She blinked rapidly and rubbed at her eyes. She looked back out the window, but the orb was gone, as quickly as it came. She brushed it off as a mirage, a glint of sun setting through the trees. But it was only noontime, and the sun wasn’t blue.
This mystery continued to bubble in her head as her coach arrived at the gates of Dolorosa House. Its iron bars were thrown open without care, as if accepting of anyone to breeze through. The driver led his team of geldings up the dirt road leading to the house’s entrance, and there on the steps, Emmeline saw Agatha waiting. She sat on stone steps with a sketchbook in her lap, her silken hair falling from her braids.
Agatha suited the house, which had seen its heyday during the reign of Queen Anne. Bricks stacked high, like the Tower of Babel, with four chimneys jutting from the roof. Hedges embraced the outer walls, but the sheers of a gardener hadn’t trimmed their leaves for a time. Those steps on which Agatha rested swept up to a stone door-case with carved seraphs.
Agatha’s head perked up as the coach neared. She lifted a hand to wave, her pencil threaded between her fingers, her mouth pressed into a solemn line. Sadness clung to her, as it did to Emmeline. As it did to this house, dimmed without Damien.
The coach lurched to a halt on the driver’s shout. Agatha waited for the driver to jump from his perch and open the door. Grasping the hunched man’s hand, he assisted her down.
Agatha rushed forth, her black skirts swirling. Emmeline hadn’t been out of the coach for more than a second when Agatha collided into her and gathered her into her arms. She held Emmeline for many moments, as if she feared she might float away, like a cloud on a clear day.
“Emmelie.” Agatha murmured her childhood pet name with a softness she’d missed. “Now the house is complete.”
“Oh, and I meant to stay strong.” Emmeline rested her cheek against Agatha’s shoulder, brushing at a stray tear.
“We shall be so together, as the friends we once were.”
Emmeline backed from her. “I see…” She rubbed her hands together, her gaze falling to the leather-bound book tucked beneath Agatha’s arm. “I see you still draw.”
Agatha almost smiled, though sadness rimmed her silver eyes. “Of course. If I wander far from my easel, I must carry my sketchbook with me, as you know.”
“Yes, I remember well.”
“I shall sketch your likeness into the gardens.” Agatha flipped open the book and showed Emmeline what had preoccupied her moments before her arrival. Hedges, wild daisies, roses and their thorns graced her page in black lines, and in the background, Emmeline recognized an old oak tree.
Emmeline skipped a breath.
“Here.” Agatha pointed to the tree and its dark shades. “I think I shall place you here. It was a favorite place of yours.”
She nodded. “Once, a long time ago.”
Beside her, the driver dropped her baggage. She broke from Agatha and her sketches to thank the man. He nodded, his service at an end, and he returned to his perch.
Emmeline grasped the handles of her two bags as hooves clip-clopped up the dirt path. She glanced to Agatha, who watched in her usual quiet. One corner of her mouth curved in her second attempt at a smile.
“You must be weary from the journey.” Agatha took a bag from her, leaving her to carry the other. “Come, let me take you to your room.”
They started up the steps, and Agatha opened the fading gray door. Agatha led Emmeline through the entrance and down a hall with a red runner. On the walls hung visions of angels, nymphs, and lore. Pieces exquisite in their romanticism and age. Along the way, they encountered a sweep of steps to the second floor, and on a sharp turn, Agatha showed her to her room.
“The house hasn’t changed a day since I left Hampstead Haven,” Emmeline remarked as she placed her bag by the door.
Agatha plopped the other onto the bed. “A living timepiece.” On her grimace, she seemed to think, a mausoleum.
Emmeline lived not far from Dolorosa House as a youth. If one ventured to the east, through woodland and meadows, and over a brook, her ancestral home sat, but without her unhappy family to haunt its halls. Emmeline’s mother sold the estate after her father drank himself to death and used the monies left to obtain a single-minded dream. We move to London, Emmeline could almost hear her say, and there we shall secure our future. I’ll marry you to a duke or an earl, for the dowry your father left is great, and you shall wear the title I never owned…
Emmeline remembered this room above all else. Before abandoning Hampstead Haven for London, she often visited Dolorosa House. And here, in these walls, she often spent her stays.
“You do not mind the room?” Agatha asked.
Emmeline threw a glance about, and she luxuriated in the familiarity. The table in the corner with a broken leg. The rusted handles on the chest. The wingback with plush cushions, meant to sink a derriere into its softness. “I would want no other room.” For it reminded of happier times. Of Damien.
Emmeline tried a smile, which seemed inadequate on her lips.
“This house’s only change is its fading from fuller days. Now all that remains are dust, cracks, and lost.” Agatha went to the window and pushed aside the drapes. “Even the gardens stay the same. You’d imagine the trees and grass and flowers would overgrow, but nothing blossoms. The greenery stays dormant, even without a gardener to tame their stems and buds.”
Emmeline came to Agatha’s side, peering out the smudged window. Her words held truth, for standing here, Emmeline was adrift in a sea of memories. As if she was that foolish girl, before she died at the altar when banded into marriage.
“All seems the same.” And in the northeastern part of the garden, Emmeline saw the old oak. Not in sketch, but in truth. Taller and wiser than its neighbors with low-hanging limbs. The first time Damien kissed her was beneath its shade.
“You see what I see?” Agatha asked.
“I think so, but differently.”
Agatha abandoned the window, the black drape falling and brushing against Emmeline’s shoulder. “I’ll return for you once you’re refreshed.” She retreated back into the darkness of the bedchamber. “Once you settle in, we’ll go for a walk. I wish to show you something.”
“Of course.” Emmeline looked from the oak and to the doorway, but Agatha was out of earshot. She’d vanished, as a shadow when light becomes scarce.
Emmeline shifted from the window, about to abandon the view, when a flicker caught her notice. It was in the corner of her vision, far-off. She looked to it out of instinct, not fear, and beneath the shade of the oak, she swore she saw a blue light, a small orb with the wash of an aquamarine. She saw it for all of two seconds as it danced through the branches. It diminished until it was no more, as if her notice snuffed it out.
Out with its light, and into her heart sputtered chills. Clenching the drapery, Emmeline stood there with her eyes on the tree. It was the same light she saw from her coach. It had followed her to Dolorosa House, as if solely to greet her here. She waited to witness the return of the orb. Waited with her breath suspended in her lungs, her mind fevered with unease.
But it did not come again.
They walked the two miles into the village to visit the small churchyard. The church was a small heap made from a pile of gray stones, built in the time of King Henry V. Crab apple trees rooted without order throughout the yard, as its apples rolled onto the grassy graves. Headstones protruded from the ground, marking the lives of the many to pass within Hampstead Haven.
Agatha led her to a sectioned off part of the churchyard. On a hill, away from the other graves, rested the plot of the Harbors family. The graves below seemed to bow to the Harbors name, a longstanding line of knights and gentry branching through the history of the village.
Emmeline shielded her eyes from the sun as she stood before the rows of headstones. Each cross and granite block marked a place where Agatha and Damien’s ancestors rested. Many were covered with ivy vines, but with their lettering still visible. Others were cracked and faded, their words lost. But each repeated the same familial name. Harbors, Harbors.
“In your letter, you wrote Damien was buried without extravagance.” Emmeline breathed in the musk of the descending afternoon. “Is he one of the smaller stones?”
“He’s not far.” Agatha pointed further to the right, where there was newly churned earth. “He asked to be placed facing the sunrise.”
Agatha went in the direction of a headstone, placed beside a weeping angel, and kneeled at its side. His headstone was small, lacking any decoration. It was humble, much like him when he was alive. Emmeline ran a hand along the words chiseled into the granite. It read:
Born November 22, 1851
Died September 3, 1880
Son, brother, friend to all,
But to Emmeline, his soul devoted.
Bitter tears came down Emmeline’s cheeks. Damien, she thought. Damien, you fool. After all my selfishness, how could you still love me?
“I wanted to show you this.” Agatha brushed dirt from the top of the headstone. “I held Damien’s hand during his final breaths. In those moments, he made me swear to show you these words. He made me promise.”
Emmeline’s hand flew up to cover her mouth, muffling her sob. “It’s impossible. I cannot be forgiven when I’ve wronged him so.”
“He said there was never a wrong to forgive.”
“I chose Reginald over him.” Emmeline fell to her knees beside Agatha, her gaze tracing the last line of the epitaph. “The shame, the shame.”
“What shame?” Agatha asked. “Damien understood your choice was not your own, but rather your mother’s. Your will was tied between duty and desire, and duty triumphed.”
“I’ve not forgiven myself.”
And Emmeline cried. She cried until her insides hurt, and she thought she should die. Agatha wrapped her arms around her and called her by her pet name. Together, they salted Damien’s grave with their mourning, but Emmeline wished more than anything to have her soul slip from her body and into the ground to warm him.
Emmeline and Agatha left the graveyard before sundown. They enjoyed a gentle breeze, as if it guided them on their return to Dolorosa House. They exchanged confidences, their arms linked and heads inclined, as coaches and riders on horseback flew past them, but the rings of the past three years made them unaware of the hoofbeats and rolling wheels.
“I blame myself.” Emmeline lowered her head at this admittance, as broken as Damien’s dead heart.
Agatha’s hold on her arm tightened.
“No, no. You are not to blame.”
“Then who else?” she asked. “Choosing family pride over love, I broke him.”
“No, Emmelie. He’d not want you to fret so.”
“But, I did. And I’m paying recompense for it.”
Agatha studied her with a lifted brow. “Lord Blackwood?”
“He only married me for my dowry, because his coffers needed filling after years of his sinning. He gave me the title my mother starved for. Lady Emmeline Beauford, Countess of Blackwood. And the cost of such an extravagance is a husband with love for his mistress and money, but not the wife he keeps in his London home, and…” Emmeline’s voice faded into memories.
“What of it?” Agatha slowed her pace as they came to the house’s drive.
“He still holds resentment towards Damien.” Emmeline noticed how the sun was setting over the roof. Shafts of light stretched through the openings of the four chimneys. Around them, the forests darkened with the descent into dusk.
“Grudges against a dead man?”
“He’s held the grudge since the night before our wedding.”
“He must learn to give pardon, for half of that past is in the ground.” Agatha guided Emmeline up the steps and towards the gray door. She paused, her gaze on the trees. “Do you ever sense as if eyes are upon you?”
“Sometimes I catch a stranger staring at me at a dinner gathering, or during a shopping excursion on Mayfair Street.” Emmeline followed Agatha’s vision into the woodland. Dense, dark, imposing, as if guarding a secret from those not born of the greenery.
“Hmm.” Agatha frowned, her forehead creasing with wrinkles. “Silly is all I am.”
Agatha shoved open the door and called her inside. Agatha said the sun was setting and soon the wildlife of the night would be emerging from their dens. But Emmeline hesitated for a few seconds, staring into the woods. Those eyes Agatha mentioned. She sensed what halted her friend on her doorstep. Not the eyes of a human or animal, but a creature of another name.
Emmeline saw no movement amongst the trees, but she thought on the small blue orb of earlier. It had danced through the trees, as if in greeting. But it had shied away the instant she noticed its spectacle. She thought—she believed—it was still out there, dancing for her.
After supping with Agatha on roast pork and sweet pickles, they spent a few hours in Emmeline’s bedchamber. Talking, chattering. They caught up on every detail since her absence, from her loveless marriage to Agatha’s newfound obsession for Hogarth sketches and how she wished to mimic his mastery.
Agatha retired to her own room before midnight, right before the longcase clock struck the hour. Emmeline settled by the mirror at her nightstand. She brushed her hair, hypnotic as she counted the strokes. It kept the rising tune away, but only for a time. When she rested her head on her pillow, guilt sang her a lullaby.
Guilt slept beside her. Guilt dreamt within her. She harbored guilt, and she woke to it before daylight brushed over the horizon. Outside her window, with the black drapery parted, she saw the skies shimmer gray. It was that hazy time between night and dawn, when two realms collided.
Emmeline slipped from her bed. She could not fall back to sleep, even though she’d caught little from the sandman. She retrieved her wrapper tossed over the plush wingback. Lace-trimmed sleeves swept across her wrists as she nuzzled into its velvet warmth.
Holding herself tight, Emmeline walked to the window. She blinked at the grayness, her waking slow. She peered out into the dew-spattered gardens and thought the lushness was as disheveled as herself. Tangled, unkempt.
Standing there, Emmeline took a soft inhale. Rains had dowsed the forests the previous night. Tears had drummed on the roof, and she’d listened to its melody through the cracks in her sleep. In the uneven rhythms of gusts and tears, Damien’s face appeared before her, clearer than it had in years. Every detail, like a sketch, stamped in her mind, right down to the tussled ebony hair falling over his brow.
Guilt began to strum again, when she saw underneath the oak a flicker born into a flame. The flame burned brighter and brighter, returned her friend from yesterday. The blue orb fluttered between the branches, as if asking her to come.
Emmeline hesitated. She thought maybe the orb was a morning illusion. Rubbing at her eyes, a few quick blinks, and she gazed out again. Her eyes were not deceived, though her mind might have been unhinging.
It remained in its home beneath the oak. Dancing, dancing, and she calmed. Somehow, she was entangled in the nature of the orb. It danced for her eyes. It waited for her presence. It desired her, as one does a lost darling.
Madness, but Emmeline slipped from her bedchamber for the gardens. She followed the pulses of peace through the corridors of Dolorosa House, past the artwork filled with mythologies, and out the servants’ backdoor.
Behind her, the door closed on a creak. She stilled, her hand on the brass knob. The blue orb ended its dance, but it did not blink away. It spied her, as she spied it, and lingered beneath the sheltering oak.
Come to me. This voice, far-off and male, trembled through her.
Taking guidance from disembodied voices. She was unhinged. And yet, she listened to the tempo. She crossed through the knee-high grass, dew dampening her slippers.
All the world quieted when Emmeline came beneath the boughs of the oak. Crickets, birds, whispers in the wind, all hushed. Or, at least, she heard nothing except the slowing beat between two souls meeting. And that was the blue light, a soul, for it was the color of Damien’s eyes. It was him. At least, she hoped.
She smiled into its aquamarine hue. Peace. It embraced her in peace. In her chest, in her heart, it slipped inside and warmed her.
She was whole again.
Close your eyes, Emmeline, came the voice.
And Emmeline followed. Her eyelids fell, and she waited in darkness. Senses heightened. Musk from the earth mingled with the fresh rainfall, and the morning chill clung to her flesh like a second skin. Sensations and feelings wrapped her into a cocoon. She belonged here.
Hands fell over her shut eyes. Gentle, tender. Light puffs of breath brushed against the nape of her neck, her skin prickling.
“Smile for me again, Emmeline.”
The voice. His voice.
“Either the devil tricks me,” she whispered, “or I belong locked in a cell.”
“I’d die again if either happened to you.” A kiss grazed her neck.
A quiver, a shrill.
His hands lifted, and Emmeline saw the world again, but anew. She turned to him and gave into the impossible and insane. She was in her cocoon, but with him. Together again, as they belonged.
“How can it be?” Emmeline asked.
Tears slipped down her cheeks, but he swept their trails away. His lips curved, his aquamarine eyes locked with hers. And his ebony hair, tussled, as she remembered.
“Smile, love.” His own deepened. “I am here, and I am glad.”
“I love you.” Emmeline pressed her hand against his temple. Warm. “Oh, Damien. Your heart, the physicians said—”
“You are my heart, and as you live so do I.” His hands—oh, his hands—held her face. His thumbs massaged circles at her cheekbones, and his smile never faltered. “Forget the past, our choices. Be happy.”
“Break away from our dance.”
He kissed her, then. Thought vanished as she loved only him. Darkness came again as she closed her eyes, lost. She longed to stay lost with him between these two realms. She cherished nothing else, for he’d taken all from her. And he’d given all.
But when Emmeline saw again, he was gone. His hands, his smile, his kisses. Not even his blue light, his soul, glowed nearby.
Smile for me. His voice whispered between the branches. His last murmur in her ears, his final trace on her lips.
And she was alone again. Without a smile.
Her time with Damien beneath the oak distanced into a dream. Their song slipped into the day and far from memory as the household stirred. Servants crept from their bedrooms below stairs and rose through narrow passages to start the morning, pendulums swinging to complete the clockwork of Dolorosa House. They were groggy as their eyes adjusted to the light, their uniforms and livery wrinkled, but their hands moved in time and measure. Another day, as it was before.
Emmeline joined Agatha in the parlor after taking their breakfast, prepared by those measured hands. Agatha rested on a chaise lounge with a book, while Emmeline deciphered the title as its embossed letters glistened silver in the sunlight. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The insane come to truth.
Gazing out at their tree from a window seat, Emmeline embraced the madness and oddities of the morning. Mistakes hollowed out, leading to this place where she sat. And she had choices to make. She could stay in the past, dancing, or she could return to the measured beats she understood and knew.
“I think I shall return to London earlier than expected.”
Agatha's skirts rustled. “Why?”
“Reginald, he was not pleased with me leaving for so long.” Emmeline swallowed hard as she slipped into her old habits, unable to break free from the steps. “He will be glad to have me come home so soon.”
“You needn't return to him.”
She glanced at Agatha. “He's what I know.”
“You know Hampstead Haven. You know my home.” Agatha closed her book and laid it beside her. She rested her hand on the cover, tender, as if she meant to take an oath or a vow. “Since sending my letter, I have considered asking you to be my permanent guest.”
Emmeline started to tremble. “Thank you, Agatha, but I cannot stay.”
Memories lurked in every corner of this house.
All Emmeline saw was Damien and his face. They shared their first kiss beneath the oak tree, but within the house, their history was intertwined. They explored the portrait gallery as children, wondering if one day they might mimic the married pairs in the oils. They laughed in the ballroom when his parents hosted parties. They imparted secrets, hopes and kisses in the alcoves, fresh in their innocence.
These walls conducted her love for Damien, and within, she suffered in a cage worse than the townhouse Reginald kept her in. Here, she lived in the tune, while in London she could forget again—if she tried.
“Why leave?” Agatha asked. “All is as you remember, and you'll not be a burden.”
But burdens lay in living here.
“Dolorosa House is a mausoleum.”
Agatha looked at her, as if she’d been slapped. “But we've good memories here.”
“So many were with Damien.”
Emmeline shook her head, slipping back into the old notes, the old tune.
“Think of what new memories we could make.” Hope brimmed in Agatha’s silver eyes, as if she longed for Emmeline to see with her sight and mind. “Picnics in the gardens, walks by the brooks, reading and laughing in this parlor.”
“This is but a pretty picture you paint.”
Agatha lifted her book high: her oath, her vow, her plea. “Please, stay on with me. You are my closest friend. If I stay here by myself, I will be lonely. And always thinking of my brother.”
Emmeline turned from Agatha as clouds of grief descended upon her friend. She looked out onto the oak, wishing she could admit she’d spoken to Agatha’s dead brother without sounding mad. “You adore art, Agatha.”
“I do.” She paused. “If you take up as my companion, I may teach you how to paint. You never were good with watercolors.”
Emmeline smiled at her bribe, but it soon dashed when the branches of the oak swayed. He wasn't there to dance between the leaves, to welcome her to him. “Dolorosa House is an oil painting. Vivid, colored. I am part of the art. My home with Reginald is a sketch. I understand the lines with which we draw, but I am not in the color or the shapes. I simply move within those lines.”
“You choose his trap.”
“I choose not to be burdened with memories of Damien.” Emmeline pressed her hand against the window. Her breath fogged the glass as she looked closer. “I see him everywhere.”
“He was my brother, and I miss him, too. Do you think otherwise? I remember him, and everywhere I sense him.” Agatha's slippers pattered across the floor as she came to stand beside Emmeline. Her friend placed her head on her shoulder, weighing on Emmeline. “Don't leave, Emmelie. I lost my brother. Must I lose you, too?”
“I cannot stay.” Emmeline draped her arm over Agatha, holding her close, and stared out at the oak tree for the last time. She’d seen the last of Damien, she was certain, and from this house she would fade in a brushstroke.
In her hands, Emmeline held Agatha’s parting gift. Her friend had spent her last night at Dolorosa House completing the sketch of the estate’s untamed gardens. Agatha had added color to her original work. Hedges as green as emeralds, not sheered by the hands of a gardener. White daisies with corn-colored centers, waving to the viewer. Roses colored red, as if bleeding through the page. Greenery surrounded the main subject of the sketch—Emmeline, as she looked on at the old oak.
Agatha gave Emmeline a message as vivid color filled her lines and shapes. In her sketch, she said memories from the past filled her life with Reginald. Memories colored Emmeline’s cage, and she trapped herself with guilt as much as he with his resentment. And to unlatch the door, to escape, came when she heard the tune of the past, but without guilt. Only happiness, and a smile to match.
“I am leaving for my club.” Reginald folded the pages of the Times with a rustling. “Do not wait for me, darling.”
He rose from his wingback and laid the newspaper onto his seat. Emmeline saw in him the door to her cage, and she could only free herself through him. A new tune started in her, rising, unfamiliar in its notes. Unfamiliar, but reminiscent of a time, and a love, long past.
“You will not dine with me tonight?” Emmeline asked.
“How often do we?” He slicked a hand through his hair, his attention on a mirror hanging on the wall. “Once, maybe twice, a month? You’ll not miss my company.”
“Yet you were bothered by my absence.”
Reginald turned to her. “Hmm?”
“When I returned two days ago, you treated me with annoyance. You huffed when I greeted you. Shoved me aside when I came to kiss you on the cheek.” Emmeline glanced down at the sketch, at the colors interwoven with the lines. “You were not pleased with me, yet you wanted me to not stay long at Dolorosa House.”
“You returned many days early.” He shrugged. “I was shocked to see you back so soon, and without notice.”
“You’ve not said more than a handful of words to me.”
“I am out of spirits.”
“When are you not, Reginald?” There it was. Rising, rising. Emmeline danced into this new tune, as if she was the master of its steps all along. “You seek out your mistress or the card tables every night. You never stay at home with me.”
His face reddened. “You do not want me here, nor do I long for your company.”
“Why do we act out this marriage?”
“We do not act married.” Reginald curled his upper lip, disgusted. “We are married.”
He stood there, working his hands. Angered that she had found her tongue, her instrument, to defy him. She’d always been calm. She’d always been docile and tolerant, while he could live as he pleased. But no more.
“For three years, I tried to give you a happy marriage. For three years, you have scorned me.” Emmeline rose from her chair. She escaped her cage and flew into freedom. “This is not a marriage, Reginald, nor can I call you husband anymore.”
“I treat you with what you deserve.”
“For what happened three years ago?”
“You destroyed any trust I could place in you.” Reginald took slow, purposeful steps towards her. “On the eve of our wedding, I found you in Mr. Harbors’ bed, naked, sweating, moaning.”
Emmeline shrank back a little, her guilt bubbling. “I did not mean for you to find us.”
His eyes narrowed. “Or did you?”
“I swear, I did not.”
“Regardless, I found you with him.”
Reginald let out a heavy sigh, as if exhaling a tide held back for too long.
“I invited him to our wedding out of goodwill. I hadn’t known the history between you and Mr. Harbors. You told me he was a childhood friend, but you fooled me. You fooled me very well, Emmelie.”
Hearing her pet name come from him gave venom to the word. He poisoned her memories with fouling that one word, the one word she had left from her more youthful days. When Damien was alive. “Do not call me that,” she whispered through clenched teeth.
“I’ll call you what I want.” He moved closer, towering over her. She had to crook her head back to meet his gaze, still indifferent, still chilled. But she was beginning to see the cracks in him.
“That night, I came to his guest room—in my home—to thank him for coming. Instead, I discovered a betrayal.”
“I wanted to know love’s embrace before I settled on you.”
His fine demeanor fractured at her truth. His coolness faded into a fog of resentment. “You whore.” He lifted a hand, ready to strike. A strike he’d been itching to give for three years.
“Go ahead.” Emmeline jutted out her chin. “Slap me, beat me. You’ve done so with your silence and indifference for all these years. Finally do what you’ve always yearned to do.”
She turned her head to the side, staring out the window, as she offered her cheek. Tick, tick, tick. She waited, but the strike, and its sting, never came. She glanced at Reginald; his fists were lowered, clenching.
And in his eyes, she saw tears. “You’re not worth it.”
“What is my worth?” He didn’t answer her. She strived on. “Damien asked me to elope, but I still came to the altar the next morning. I still married you.”
“And you regret it every day.” Reginald lowered his fist, his tone levelling into accusatory calm. “I see it in your eyes every morning, every evening, when you sit in your chair and read your books and letters.”
Emmeline swept a hand towards the rosewood furnishings, silken drapes, and jade china set into their alcoves. “You only married me for my dowry.”
“And you only wanted my title.”
“That was my mother,” she said. “I only married you for her sake, for I did not wish to lose the love of my only family.”
“I wanted to love you, but you never gave me the chance.”
“Because I’ve always belonged to another.” Emmeline inhaled, slowly, and for a moment, she smelled the earth and the fresh rains mingling beneath their oak. “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry.”
And Reginald did something he rarely did. He touched her cheek, he pulled her into an embrace. “You lost my trust that night and dashed my hopes for a happy union. Even if I needed your dowry, and you only sought my title.” He brushed a kiss atop her head. “Silence is all I can give you.”
He broke away, as if he never held her at all. She saw a glimmer of what could’ve been, but never what she desired. Reginald would’ve been more father to her than lover. A tear fell down her cheek as she remembered Damien’s arms around her, beneath the oak, for the last time. Before his soul faded away, before he died again.
Reginald watched the tear fall onto the floor. “Even now, you think of him.”
“Reginald—” Emmeline reached out a hand, seeking warmth, but he stepped away.
“I have an appointment to keep.” With his mistress, no doubt. His coldness returned, a mask, a barrier, for the torment she hadn’t known was there. Until now.
“Stay. Have dinner with me.”
He shook his head. Hope never had a home in his eyes. She saw only the stones of a prison. A prison they’d built together, three years ago.
“You will never be contented.” Reginald strode towards the door, but halted. His hands gripped the doorframe, and he threw a glance over his shoulder. “Not with me.”
And he left. Emmeline came close to collapsing back into those lines, moving in between guilt and hopelessness. She wounded two men. Her husband and her lover. One was dead, one didn’t care for her. She could continue to mourn, to die each day, but she remembered what Damien had asked of her. Smile for me again, Emmeline.
And that’s all she had to hope for. To find some measure of happiness, and to smile once more. She swung open the door to her cage, without anything to lose for it, when she heard a new tune. Tick, tick, tick. Hands spun around the clock’s pivot, but she no longer endured its measure. She embraced time for herself, and in its seconds, she found her choice—her new dance.
Not endurance. Not guilt. Freedom.
Emmeline broke from the parlor, from the clock and its ticking, and headed for her bedchamber. She held Agatha’s colored sketch against her chest, breaking from the lines, colors, and memories. Past choices and mistakes held no control over her. Memories shaded her not with fault, but with the dawning she needed to live. She needed to find happiness, and she wished Reginald the same.
She wished him all she’d never given him, all she never knew he longed for. Hope, smiles, love. She could only grant these to him by freeing herself of him, and giving him the chance to find these gifts in another. Maybe his mistress or another woman, but it was the only act of true love she could give to him.
Emmeline entered her bedchamber, anew. She pulled a trunk from beneath her bed and placed Agatha’s sketch beside it. She tossed a few changes of clothes and books inside. She tucked jewelry and pin money into a satchel, which she placed into the trunk, beneath her clothes.
Emmeline knew not where to go. She knew not where she was to start, but she needed to leave. She needed to fly free, and she’d write to Agatha at the first chance. Agatha could join her, live with her elsewhere, but she could never return to Dolorosa House. And it was quite possible Agatha needed to leave that mausoleum she called home.
“What else might I require?” Emmeline muttered to herself.
Emmeline glanced around the bedchamber. She considered what else she might need, but the belongings she selected sufficed. She could live comfortably and humbly with what was in her trunk. She could thrive without extravagance.
And in her choices, she heard her new tune come to a crescendo. Harps plucked, piano keys strummed, but from happiness. It was an old dance, their dance. One almost forgotten in the melodies of guilt, but in it she found Damien. She found herself.
Emmeline held Agatha’s sketch, and she smiled. Warmth entered the bedchamber, and a blue glow wrapped her in its light. She saw not the orb, nor Damien, but he was with her. She was his heart, and he was hers. They stepped as one in this dance.
And Emmeline smiled. She smiled as she placed the sketch in the trunk. She smiled as she walked out of the townhouse with her belongings and onto the London streets. She smiled for him, for her Damien, at last free.
Agatha held a letter in her hands. She read it over again and again, at the insanity written into the lines. But she believed the curve of each word. She, too, had seen a blue orb fluttering about Dolorosa House. Not amongst the limbs of the oak tree, but within the halls she and Damien played in as children, within the library lined with the books they loved to read.
“She’s safe, Damien.” Agatha folded the letter up and placed it by her easel. “Emmeline lives far away now. She lives in a cottage on the emerald green cliffs of the Scottish Highlands. And she’s seeking to dissolve her marriage to Reginald.”
She sensed a change in the room. Outside, the sun was setting, its fingers combing through the tree branches. She rose from her stool, while the sun sank behind the trees. And she looked about the room, waiting for him to appear.
“She says she smiles every day, for she is now free. She’s free to dance as she has before, in happiness.” Inside, her heart splintered a little. She missed her. Not nearly as much as Damien, but still, she missed her friend. “Emmeline has asked me to join her.”
Light diminished in the room as the sun set, leaving Agatha enclosed in darkness. Swathed in memories of a life now dead, buried in the ground along with her brother’s corpse.
Perhaps Emmeline was right. Perhaps her only chance at happiness was breaking away from Dolorosa House and its memories, as she had.
“Would you feel alone if I left you for her?” Agatha waited to see him, to feel him near. She waited for his hand to ruffle her hair, like when she was a girl, or a kiss to brush against her brow.
Nothing. But still, Agatha sensed something heightening in the room.
“Please, appear to me.” She paused. “If you give me your blessing, let me see you before I go.”
Darkness held Agatha close as she waited. Her hope faded with every passing minute, until she came close to giving up. She started to pack her paints and brushes, when it happened. A blue light appeared overhead. She glanced up into the aquamarine hue of his eyes.
Agatha smiled to him. “Oh, brother. I’ll always adore you.”
His orb twinkled in response. He danced circles around her head, pulling laughter from her belly. She laughed as she hadn’t in months, when he kept her company in her spinsterhood.
But just as quickly as he came, he started to leave. He glided towards the window and left through the glass. Agatha ran to the window to watch him, and she saw his aim. He flew to the oak tree, his home. He faded beneath its limbs, into the night.
Agatha stayed still for the longest time. She wanted one last glimpse of him, but it never came. That was his goodbye. Tears came to her eyes, but a smile remained fixed on her lips. He wanted her to be happy and to find comfort in her closest friend. She innately knew. She just knew.
Wherever she or Emmeline ventured, Damien’s soul would not be far away. Maybe he might not appear as an orb or a light, but he’d warm their hearts with his nearness. And that’s all she could hope for as she abandoned the window.
Agatha roved through the halls of Dolorosa House. It’d be her last night spent in this mausoleum. She was the last to be freed from this house and its decay, but come the morning, she’d start for Scotland. And there, she’d join Emmeline as they danced beyond this way of sorrows.