I fear I am unwell.
My startling outburst last evening must have confirmed this for you, and it will come as no surprise to anyone if you choose to put me away. I heard the viscount committed his own wife for a much lesser offense; the poor woman allegedly exhibited a fit of rage over tangled embroidery thread. Describing her behavior as “unnerving and volatile,” his assessment was damning enough to secure her future behind a stone-walled asylum. Though I dare never mention where my loyalties lie in the matter, I feel quite sympathetic toward the woman; needlework can be such a maddening affair.
You have assured me you’d never betray me in such a fashion, that you understand the nature of my weaker sex to be prone to fits of temperamental neuroticism, but I fear even you would be alarmed by the increasing pervasiveness of such fits into my well-being. I strain from the effort of concealing them from you, as I cannot bear the thought of you looking upon me with disdain or detachment. If you knew the depth of my unsettled mind, you would cast me away like a thorny weed. But I am, and shall ever be, your sweet smelling rose, the pride of your garden. And so, I quell my agitation and stomp it into submission on this sandy shore.
It was you who first suggested I make these daily walks to the seaside, to calm my nerves and quiet my disposition, but today, these fathomless waters have a rather un-soothing effect on me. I close my eyes and see myself, as you must have last night, breathless, sobbing, unraveling—all in front of our dinner party of society’s finest. I cannot express my humiliation or explain my behavior, as I do not quite understand it myself—though I am certain the viscount would attribute my distemper to possession of a demon and have me locked away indefinitely. I cannot make sense of the strangulating wave of fear and angst that came upon me so suddenly, and it so often does in moments of discomfort and stress, but I deeply regret ruining such an important evening for you—for everyone.
I will try not to ruminate over what they must be saying about me now; that I’ve grown mad, that I am a burden to you. I must be still and silence those thoughts; but the shrill squawking of seagulls reminds me of that gibfaced baroness’s squeals and dashes any chance of me bridling my racing thoughts into docility. I am truly sorry that, in my episode of distress, I toppled her wineglass, but I am sure she will never forgive me for soiling her custom Parisian gown—though we might both agree it was a rather unflattering style.
Nevertheless, that haughty baroness will not consume my thoughts.
If you were here, you would find me in the remotest corner of this beach, my little sanctuary, where I’ve spread a quilt—a faithful companion on my worst days. I’ve secured my hat against the wind and high sun, but a gust whips at the blanket and lifts my skirts before I can tuck them under me. I adjust a wayward corner of the quilt, but the wind sends it back with a spray of white sand. Such insubordination from the elements today.
I sit here with eyes shut, breathing deeply and listen to the sea. I wish it was as easy to speak frankly with you as it is to order my thoughts and unburden my heart to these waters.
Though I hope it is evident, that is, my undying devotion to you and our beloved children, I am becoming more desperate for these moments of respite from the bustling commotion of our estate. Some days, the thrill of being charged with the responsibilities of managing the household turns sour when I consider the likeliness of my failure—of making misguided decisions and plunging us into ruin or besmirching your good name. I am acutely aware of how my every action is weighed and judged, and above anything, I dread your disappointment in me. That weight looms like a heavy cloud.
The crashing of waves matches the rhythm of my chest, rising and falling. I taste salt in the air.
I am restless today.
More than my own fate, I worry about the futures of our children. Little George—his lingering cough has become a sound as commonplace as the grandfather clock striking each hour. I think of our eldest daughter, in the tempest of adolescence—a child who once believed I hung the moon now scoffs at my attention and turns away from my touch. The twins are ever their jovial selves, unfettered by anything but their Latin lessons. But the wee babe; she is the only one who truly needs me, but whose cries pierce my constitution and wrack my restless slumber. I lay awake each night, waiting for her ragged wails to shatter the quiet. I lay awake, and I think of you. I dream of that endless summer when we were young and caught up in the throes of romance. You would meet me at the seaside with your boyish smile and a spray of roses bursting from your arms. Always white, like our Queen’s wedding bouquet, though I doubt you’d remember.
My heart races as guilt trickles in. I’ve been away too long.
But I am not ready to return home to face you. I beg for strength from the air and the sea, but the sea is antagonizing me today.
I must compose myself.
I shall plant myself here until I’ve grown blissfully peaceful, too calm to consider my doubts and shortcomings or your disapproval. I won’t think of our children, how they fill me with joy and exasperate me all within a single breath, how helpless I am when they are ill, how small I feel when they despise me. I will not succumb to exhaustion. I won’t reflect on my duties as mistress, how the servants mock and disregard me. In the shadow of your steadfast strength, they see my weakness and insecurity, and the halls hiss with their whispers.
I have forgotten my steadied breathing and am now bent, plucking sand off the quilt, one glassy grain at a time. Though I recognize the futility of my actions, the effort soothes me. The sand settles into the seams of the thin, worn fabric. This quilt was once an impressive work of someone’s painstaking craftmanship—whose, I can’t remember, but I’ve always been fond of it. Triangles and oblong shapes in all manner of color and pattern fan out to form one magnificent starburst, an explosion of geometric jewel tones.
You would certainly laugh at me if you were here. I am lying on my stomach, letting my eyes roll over each shape, analyzing it for repetition. But each patch appears laid at random; there’s one of emerald green, another with deep maroon flowers, and a blue patch with embroidered waves of golden wheat. The longer I stare, the more it appears the stalks are rising and falling, like they too are blowing in the wind. I blink away the illusion and exhale.
This would be simple for you, or rather, you wouldn’t find yourself with any need to be here at all. Thoughtful stillness requires no effort from you—you, crafted of elements utterly distinct from those which comprise me. So earthly, concrete, so quantifiable. You are guided by the laws of logic; your mind heeds your control. You would have never allowed yourself to exhibit such a public and undignified display of emotion.
I sit up, once again reliving the embarrassing scene. Cold perspiration gathers at my temples and my heart quickens at the remembrance.
I once attempted to disclose details of my turbulent nature to you.
“Racing thoughts, what a notion,” you’d said, genuinely humored by the imagery. But that humor has dissolved into fear behind your steely eyes, fear of the woman you’ve bound yourself to. And heavier than the weight of your disappointment is the thought that you might come to fear me. I will not hear of it. And so, I have come to accept that the landscape of my mind, so wild and untamed with its erratic weather and perpetual storms, is a place I must traverse alone.
A crab skuttles by, unperturbed by my inner turmoil. I watch curiously as he wiggles himself down into the sand, nearly disappearing. It strikes me how envious I am of this little crustacean, free to come and go as he pleases, or to simply vanish all together. Angry tears fall, unbidden.
Why am I so weak? How long until you realize my fragile dam has crumbled? ‘Till you see how unsound I am and put me away? To shield your children from the mad woman they call “mama”?
I unfasten my shoes in a rush, stride toward the shoreline, and heave one into the water.
A deluge of panic—what have I done?
You’ll certainly know how unwound I am if I limp home wearing only one boot. What a stupid, stupid girl I am.
The waves accept my offering, and my rash decision is irrevocable. Sobs wrack me as I scream into the endless blue. I feel suffocated, my sobriety impaired by the chaos of my mind. Better the ocean take me and drag me to its depths where no one can be hurt by my madness.
I step into the cold, frothy edges when I hear a noise—a voice. Is it the sea? Does she welcome me with her watery embrace?
But the voice is behind me. Icy water licks at ankles as I turn to the grassy hill beyond the sandy shore, where someone stands.
You, with your boyish smile and a spray of roses bursting from your arms. White roses. You call to me with arms outstretched. There is warmth in your expression.