This is the second half of the first part of this story.
Part One: The Whirlwind
He was a new patron at the tavern. Even if he hadn’t stood out as a stranger in a mob of faces that I by then knew well, I could have identified him because he clearly was unaware of my rules. All the regular patrons knew better than to try to dance two dances with me, or to steal two kisses, but he persisted in petitioning me to join him at the beginning of every new song the fiddler played. There was also something markedly different in the way he watched as I sang. He had the same hungry look as the men who always watched me, but he also seemed dazzled somehow, transfixed.
“Tell me your name,” he murmured in my ear as I alighted from the table.
“I never do,” I told him in return, brushing past him without meeting his eyes. It was true. Not one of the men in the tavern knew my name. I told them to call me whatever they liked. But this man would not stop asking. I would turn him down, he’d sit at a table in the dark corner for a spell and watch me, and then he would try again. I found his persistence intriguing. This was a game I had never played before, and I found it enjoyable.
I did not leave on the arm of any man that night, though some had done a particularly good job of trying to persuade me when they noticed the persistent stranger. The stranger himself tried to accompany me as I set off towards my family’s estate, begging one more time to know my name.
I stopped, turning to face him, contemplating how I ought to respond to him. I allowed a smile to play at the corners of my lips for a good minute, waiting for him to either give up or beg more passionately, but he did neither. He simply stood there, not too close, arms folded across his chest, with an air of self-assurance about him that a man with a face like his did not deserve to possess and all the more fascinating for that.
“Perhaps tomorrow,” I finally answered, then continued on my way without glancing back. For a moment, I found myself hoping that he would return, but had forgotten that hope by the time I returned home.
The stranger did return the following night. However, I remained aloof even as he became more unrelenting in his pursuit. Another night ended, and I continued to dangle that carrot just out of his reach.
“Tell me your name,” I said as we began to leave, “and perhaps I’ll tell you mine tomorrow.”
“Edward,” he said. His gaze held mine for a moment. It was a long enough moment in which I very nearly surrendered, but caught myself. The slightest twitch of his eyebrow seemed to indicate that he had noticed my near faltering. But he asked nothing, merely bid me a good night and went on his way and I mine.
The third night, he entered the tavern while I was singing, and the instant my foot touched the floor, he seized me into his arms and locked his lips to mine.
That kiss was unlike any other I had experienced before, as was the rest of the night that followed. He was furiously passionate, perhaps even more so than I, and perhaps that’s exactly why he won me over in a way no other man had. I had always thought that a lover would try to tame me, to force me back into the corset, to deprive me of my liberty, but Edward did none of those things. If anything, his passion only further inflamed my own. I still sang and flirted at the tavern every night, but now there was only ever one man whom I chose at the end of the night, and only one man who knew my name.
Scarcely a fortnight later, I was surprised one day to hear voices in our parlor. It had been ages since we had entertained, which I suspected was because Mother had been unwell (or so I presumed from her constant isolating of herself in her rooms), so I ventured forth to appease my curiosity. I could not have been more astonished to find both my parents sitting there with another lady and gentleman and… Edward. He was the only member of the party who noticed me standing just beyond the doorway, and I could not decipher the look that crossed his face when he did.
“So it’s settled, then!” Father declared.
“What is?” I could not stop myself from asking. The four other sets of eyes were instantly upon me. Mother, whose back had been to me until now, seemed to have aged decades, but Father’s response interrupted any wondering I might have done as to why.
“This lady and gentleman are Mr. and Mrs. Fairfax,” Father said, gesturing to the couple. “Mr. Fairfax and I have recently become colleagues, and when it came to our attention that we both had unwed children, well… it seemed fate had spoken.”
I stared at Father, at the Fairfaxes, at Edward. How could we not have known that our fathers were colleagues? Or had he known and said nothing? What was I to think? What was I to feel?
“The wedding must take place at once!” Mr. Fairfax declared and was met with wholehearted agreement from the three others. They began to talk animatedly about how soon they might be able to marry us. Edward was pale.
I returned to my room and shattered a vase on the floor. The bonds of marriage would destroy the freedom that Edward and I had. He had given me more life, more passion, yet without shackling me to a vow that I would only ever fulfill my passions with him. And yet now, after my precious years of liberation, my parents had unwittingly determined to make a prison for me out of my greatest source of freedom.
“We could run away,” I told Edward that night. We had met at the tavern as usual, but instead of slipping away for a tryst, slipped away to discuss our new circumstances.
Edward was unsettlingly subdued. “That’s not possible,” he said.
“Yes,” I insisted. “It is! We can go anywhere, and we can have each other in whatever way we wish, but we cannot be married. I cannot submit to that simply because society demands it of me.”
“Bertha,” he said in a voice that stopped my runaway thoughts in their tracks. “If we flee, my inheritance will be cut off, and what kind of freedom will we have if we’re poor?”
I pursed my lips and looked away, struggling against the weight of that realization. I could not run away without Edward, because I had no means of my own, and staying meant I would become a prisoner to the very societal rules that I had raged against for so long. I was trapped, trapped, trapped. Trapped if I ran, trapped if I stayed. I had a spirit that could not live imprisoned, yet I found myself doomed to imprisonment.
Something inside me broke. Fully overcome by anger, by the hatred of my powerlessness, I began to scream. The sound that issued from my throat was so otherworldly that I almost felt as though I was hearing a cry that belonged to someone else. I threw myself onto the ground, beating the dirt with my fists, until I could scream no more. Edward rested a hand on my shoulder as I wept bitterly.