By Jane Greensmith
My arms are empty. My children are grown. Grown, married, gone, leaving me with empty arms and a big old house that longs to be filled with laughter and songs again. Just the two of us are left. Just us two, like at the beginning, when he was mad for me. I filled his arms then, and he filled my nights…oh yes, he could fill a night, could my husband, my man, my Henry.
Now he turns away from me at night. We share a bed, more trouble than it’s worth not to, but the love died with our last baby. We tried so hard—we did. I held my baby for as long as I could. He cried when I laid him in his cradle, so I held him. We sent him to a good woman in the village to suckle. The best, she was. Nothing but the best for our little boy. I sang to him and looked into his eyes and talked of sweet nothings. But still God took him. Took our last baby. Our last boy. Our last chance.
By then it was too late. My husband laughs at me, mocks my nerves. Says they are his old friends, these twenty years. He’s wrong, of course, but don’t try telling him that. My nerves didn’t plague me until my last sweet baby died. Then the bleeding stopped, never to start again. I couldn’t think what to do. I was too young for the bleeding to stop. I went to the woman in the village who could fix things. She said she couldn’t make the bleeding start again. She made me a strange, bitter tea and said it would calm my nerves. I didn’t want calm nerves. I wanted my baby back. I spat out the tea and went home. Home to five daughters and a husband as sad and lost as me.
At first I thought everything would be fine, in time. My husband would rally. He’s so clever; I simply believed that he would figure out a way to solve our problems. Sadly, his way was to read his accursed books and drink his wine and ignore the simple fact that we were spending our girls’ dowries. Five girls, beautiful and lively, still need fortune as well as figures and faces if they are to make their way in the world. I couldn’t make him see that we needed a plan. He said I made his head hurt. I, who had made his heart ache so long ago.
My mother said we didn’t suit. He was too clever, she said, and I was too young. He danced three sets with me the night we met. Yes, he did. I told you he was mad for me. Oh, but we made the people talk that night. I, in my white muslin with blue trim that made my eyes bluer than ever and my lace tucked so that it just peeped out, enticing every man under ninety. He, so fine a gentlemen, you’d have thought he was a pink of the ton, so turned out was he.
I saw him right away. As soon as he entered the room, I knew that he was the man I wanted. My sister and I were with our particular friends in the upper rooms in Bath. Our family had recently taken lodgings in that city—at least my parents and my sister and I had—my brother was studying at the Inns of Court to be an attorney. Henry, my husband to be, entered the room with a large party of friends. He was visiting from the country and was ready for a bit of fun. When I heard he had an estate in Hertfordshire, well I made sure that we were introduced. The master of ceremonies liked my sister and me. Complimented us prodigiously, especially my sister, so he was ready to help us along.
I also made sure that Henry thought the introduction was all his idea. He was a rattle in those days—always talking, always flirting. He made my head spin with his nonsense, but no matter. He was the man I wanted. Didn’t matter what my sister and mother said. I wanted a man of breeding, a gentleman. So I went to work. I remembered what my mother told me—"There’s nothing more irresistible to a man than a woman who’s in love with him." So, I adored him with my eyes. I laughed at his jokes and touched his sleeve. I rustled my skirts and brushed his hand when he brought my glass of punch. I let my eyes fill with tears when he said he was leaving Bath. I made sure that he knew I saved as tokens bits and pieces that he touched—the nub of a pen, a ticket from a ball. He knew I said his name into my pillow before I went to sleep at night. I danced three sets with him that first night, and would have danced more if he’d asked. I’d have done anything, had he asked. Just as I still would. If only he would ask.
The last wedding was Mary’s. She’s married to a clerk now. I stop in to see her when I visit my sister Philips in Meryton. She’s happy. I’m glad she’s happy. She reads to her husband at night, she says. He thinks she’s very clever and listens to her and does her bidding. I wonder what it would be like if Henry thought me clever. He’s never thought me clever—pretty, yes. Charming, of course. Old, worn out, shrill, nervous. Never clever.
Once, shortly after we were married, I asked him if he would read to me. I told him that I would like to know more about the world, more about the things he liked. He only laughed at me and said that he liked me just the way I was. After we started having babies, there was no more time to learn. When the babies stopped coming, I was too scared to think of anything other than what was to become of us. Henry hadn’t told me soon enough that his estate was entailed away—that all our future depended on me having a boy child and that child growing to be a man. Why did I have to do everything? Why did it all come down to me? When our last baby died, I didn’t know what to do.
I miss my girls. I miss their laughter and songs and funny ways. Everyone always thinks that Lydia is my favorite because she is so like me. I’ll tell you a secret. I wish I could have been like Lizzy. I was jealous when Henry would take Lizzy on his knee and read to her, and laugh at her jokes, and tell her stories. I was hurt when he would confide in her and take her advice. I could have been like Lizzy if he’d taken the trouble to teach me. But then, maybe he thought he shouldn’t have to teach his wife—maybe wives aren’t people you talk to after all. I wonder if Lizzy makes her Mr. Darcy’s head ache. I know she made his heart ache, just as Henry’s ached for me.
The house is so quiet tonight. I chatter to fill up the empty spaces our girls left behind. Henry looks up from his book when I ask him a question—something foolish about whether we should invite Jane and her Mr. Bingley and their children to visit for Christmas. I know Henry is annoyed with me. He thinks I’m silly. Why am I asking about Christmas in July? I shall scream from the quiet—it’s so vast and so close, how can that be? We have so many years ahead of us. So many nights like this, with empty arms in this empty house.
He lays his book down. He rubs his forehead, massaging the knots that furrow his brow. He still looks like a pink of the ton to me. His brown hair and whiskers now almost all white. His smile, even this strained, resigned smile that he gives me, warms his face and makes it glow.
"What are you reading," I ask him. I work hard to not sound shrill or silly. I want to know. Just as I wanted to know all about him ever since that night we met in Bath. I’ve lived with him for almost thirty years and I still don’t know much about him. I haven’t learned much in thirty years. Thirty years with a clever man, and I’m still silly.
He hesitates, almost as if he’s going to say something clever and cutting, again. But he doesn’t.
"Robinson Crusoe," he says.
"Is it good?"
"Do you think I would like it?"
He smiles at me and reaches out a hand. I catch it and he squeezes it. I look into his eyes. I don't think he likes the quiet any more than I do.
"Shall I read it to you?" he asks.
I adore him with my eyes and let them fill with tears. I remember what my mother said. I nod.
He reads, and the quiet retreats. I know my arms will not be empty forever.
God has been very good to us.
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