By G.L. Aster
Rustling beneath my skirts, my shoes tapped out a neat rhythm on the cobblestones beneath my feet. Left right left right. Heel–toe–heel–toe. I kept my head lowered demurely, hands folded neatly in front, not straying from the pools of yellow gaslight cast from the tall lamps. It was not entirely proper for a young lady to be out at this hour of the night without an escort, but then, nothing about this little excursion was proper. Still, one must keep up appearances, no matter what clandestine outing one has planned. I had made sure every curl of my hair was safely tucked up into my best hat, the one with the delicate blue ribbon curling at the rim. My hands were concealed in their white kid gloves, and my overskirt, though not my best, was still suitably fashionable.
I hurried along, not wanting to be seen wandering the streets alone for any longer than I had to. My destination was the weeping cherry tree by the Lovers’ Fountain. That was not its real name, of course, but it had become such a frequented location for trysts that that was all it was known by anymore. I allowed a soft smile to touch my face as I left out of the last cone of lamplight and strode onto the coarse grass surrounding the tree. Amidst all the houses and shops and narrow streets, here was one undisturbed patch of green, with the stone fountain gurgling its quiet music, and the graceful boughs of the cherry tree leaning almost to the ground to create its own little haven. I pushed aside the nearest branch, inhaling its sweet perfume, and stepped into the arms of the young man waiting for me.
Instantly I returned his embrace, abandoning all sense of decorum and winding my arms around his neck, feeling his heady laugh vibrate in his chest. His cheek pressed against my hair and his hands encircled my waist in a way that was decidedly not proper, but I merely threaded my fingers through his tousled black hair and held him closer. Eventually, he released me and stepped back, though still keeping one hand on my waist.
“Clara! I’d almost thought you’d forgotten!” His warm brown eyes shone down at me, the rest of his face striped in the gaslight leaking in between the cherry branches.
I gave his hand a squeeze. “Oh, Robert, I would never forget! Mrs. Blaithe was tidying the entranceway and I dared not try to sneak by her!” My parents and sisters had retired early, fortunately, but our housekeeper had no sense of what was the proper time to be cleaning doorknobs.
He gave a quiet laugh, and reached up to smooth a curl of my hair that had fallen from its careful arrangement. “Ah, Mrs. Blaithe and her oddities. Don’t worry about her. Soon, you won’t have to slip out at all the improper hours of the night. We’ll have all the time in the world to be together, with no interfering housekeepers or long walks through back alleys in our way.” He looked at me, soulfully. “I worry about you, you know. Wandering alone at night. I don’t know what I would do if something where to happen to you, my darling.”
I smiled, reassuringly. “It’s all right, Robert. It’s not that long a walk for me; I’ve had no trouble these past two years. And, like you said, it won’t be for too much longer.” A romantic sigh escaped my lips. “Ah, to have our own house, where we may meet as often as we like, where we won’t have to keep any secrets…”
A gentle quirk of an eyebrow. “Are you sure you won’t have tired of me by then, and be meeting someone else under this,” here he gestured expansively, “aromatic canopy?”
I gasped in outrage. “Not for all the stars in the sky would I tire of you! My love for you is like the rose: it blooms and captures the heart with its beauty, and when you think it has withered and gone it blooms again, more breathtaking than ever before.”
Again he touched the curl of my hair. “I can see you wearing all the stars of the sky on a necklace,” he said. “Glimmering like your eyes do in this gentle light. And roses, soft as your skin, entwined in your hair. For you, my love, I would get you this. And silks to clothe your graceful limbs, for nothing would be too much to see the one I love attired as she deserves.”
These words brought tears to my eyes, and I had to look away. Crying was most unbecoming. But Robert didn’t seem to notice, as he took one of my hands in his, leaving the other on my waist, and began to lead me in an impromptu waltz. I followed his lead, and together we danced under the boughs of the weeping cherry tree. Our feet glided over the grass, and when he released my waist to twirl me, my extended hand brushed a cluster of blossoms, causing a fluttering pink rain to gently fall all around us. There was no moon, as the sky was shrouded by thick clouds, but the light from the gas lamps was warm, and where it peeked through the cherry branches it gave everything a soft glow, illuminating the planes and angles of Robert’s face, the graceful fall of his hair over his forehead. I felt my heart swell as I looked upon him, and knew in this moment, more than any other, as we danced to the music that only we could hear, that this was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Gradually our waltz came to a close, and we stood, flushed and laughing, his hands now resting gently on my shoulders, mine on his waist. He smiled at me.
“Soon, my beautiful, we will dance in full view of everyone.” His voice was a whisper. “Soon we shall be married.”
I couldn’t help the warm flush that crept up on me every time I heard those words. We had shared only one proper dance together, after all, at the gala at which we had met. My head dipped downwards, and I leaned against his chest, hugging him tightly. I inhaled the scent of his clothing, the fragrance of the cherry blossoms and the muted scent of lilac perfume…
Frowning, I sniffed again, then tilted my head up to look at him. He looked confused, then smiled apologetically. “My sister, Charlotte. She does adore lilacs.”
Reassured, I embraced him one last time, then turned to go: Mrs. Blaithe would notice if my room were empty all night, but Robert caught my hand just before I reached to part the cherry blossom curtain. He spun me back around and bent over it, pressing a soft kiss to my knuckles. Then, in one gesture, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me on the lips. It was a brief kiss, but it left me breathless and lightheaded nonetheless. Robert gave me one last dashing smile, and vanished behind the cherry trunk.
“Tomorrow, at eleven!” I heard him call.
I pressed shaking fingers to my lips, feeling the smile creep up on them. Oh, to be his wife and have him kiss me every day. I exited the cherry bower and turned toward home. Soon, I promised myself. Soon.
The next day passed in a flurry of daydreams and hummed waltz music. I rose late, ignoring the looks of scandalized disapproval from my stern mother, and spent most of the day sitting in an armchair in the parlor, an embroidery hoop in my lap. My needle flew in and out of the white linen, in time with the waltz inside my head. Gradually, a cluster of cherry blossoms grew from its silver point. The cloth was white, but in my mind I saw the blossoms silhouetted by the night sky, embraced by the warm gaslight, even as Robert embraced me…I gazed at the window, seeing our midnight dance reflected in its pane.
I do not know how long I sat in the armchair, apparently staring at nothing, but it seemed only a moment had gone by before the swollen, watery eyes of Mrs. Blaithe filled my vision. Her grey hair had started piled up on her head in a sensible bun, but was how hanging in lank tendrils around her wrinkled face, framing her squashed nose, studded with broken veins. I leaned away from such unpleasantness.
Her puckered mouth opened, revealing far too few teeth in her mottled gums. “Your mother bid me come fetch you for dinner,” she rasped. She reminded me of the distasteful grey parrot that lurked by the newspaper stand in the Common Gardens: unwanted, unpleasant, and thoroughly unlikeable. Why my parents employed her, I had no idea.
With some difficulty I extricated myself from the chair and leaned away from her. “Thank you, but tell them I have a headache, and wish to take my rest early this evening.” A lie, of course. What I wanted more time to get ready for my late–night outing. Mother had bought me a new gown, and without the help of a lady’s maid it would take quite some time to dress.
Mrs. Blaithe leered at me, but steeped to the side to allow me to pass. I left the parlor and hurried up the stairs to my room. The yellow dress was laid out on the bed, waiting for me. Fingers trembling with eagerness, I reached out to pick it up.
Slipping out had been easy tonight, as Mrs. Blaithe had gone home early, and my parents and sister had been on the other side of the house from the door. I was a little early, my meeting with Robert not being until eleven, and the time still being half past ten. No matter. I would wait under the weeping cherry bower, and dream of the moment when I would feel Robert’s arms around me, and hear his voice whisper sweet nothings in my ear. Lost in my own world, I floated across the pavement over to the fountain, where I paused to admire my reflection in its mirrored bottom. I was resplendent in my yellow gown, and couldn’t wait to see what Robert thought. I turned to enter the safety of the cherry tree, but before I could break the petaled curtain, I heard a whisper. Alarmed, I spun around, thinking someone had followed me, and was going to return me, in shame, to my parents. But the whisper had come from inside the cherry tree, and in a flurry of embarrassment I realized another couple had decided to take shelter under its boughs.
I began to retreat, hoping that they would leave before Robert arrived, but the sound of a laugh stopped me. A rich, heady laugh, rumbling deep in the chest. I knew that laugh, knew it as well as I knew my own. Hadn’t I spent hours recalling its precise timbre only this morning? That was Robert’s laugh. But what was it doing coming from under the cherry bower, half an hour before we had agreed to meet? I stepped back up to the tree, and with a finger, pushed aside two blossoms to see into the interior. For a moment, I saw nothing, my eyes not yet adjusted to the dim lighting inside the tree, but soon, the scene before me became clear, and when it did, my blood turned to ice.
Robert was indeed there, I recognized his silhouetted shape, his black hair curling becomingly at his temples. But he wasn’t alone. In his arms was a wispy little blonde thing, all silken curls and enticing curves. I saw her tip her head back to look at him, saw her giggle at something he said, saw Robert lean down to kiss her on the mouth, and all the while I felt a great coldness grow in my heart, and my bones turn to lead. All the endearments that had passed between us flew through my head, every touch, every dance, every kiss. Robert, my sun, my sky, my moon. And here he was, his hands round the small waist of this girlish blonde creature, obviously no thought of me in his head, only her. She was no stranger to him, anyone could see that. It was clear in the way her hands caressed his shoulders, by the way she lovingly pressed against him. My vision began to crack and splinter, and in between kisses I heard sickening flatteries pass between them. ‘Valiant knight’. ‘Gypsy rose’. ‘Moonlight goddess’. I remained there, frozen, until I heard the words ‘lilac perfume’. The ice in my bones shattered and I spun away, leaving the gypsy rose and her valiant knight far behind.
I remember nothing about the day that followed. After creeping back into the house I returned to my room and lay on my bed, not moving all through the night and well into the morning. I ignore the knocks of first my sister, then Mrs. Blaithe, then my mother. The day came and went, and soon the sun had set, and my parents were asleep once more. Robert would be waiting under the tree soon.
Almost in a trance, I sat up, and swung my legs over the bed. I hadn’t bothered to remove the yellow dress, so still it clung to me, though now slightly wrinkled. I walked over to the door, not really seeing it, and unlatched it. With every step down the hallway I saw another kiss, another touch, another stroke of the blonde girl’s hand. Her girlish giggle followed me down the stairs, Robert’s loving gaze watching me turn toward the kitchen. In my mind I saw him, his arms full of the blonde girl, then her hair darkened to match mine, then paled again. Over and over again, first me, then her, then me, then her, all the while the sharp pain of his betrayal growing stronger. Just as I saw him bend to kiss her, I reached the wooden block at the back of the kitchen. My hand reached out to one of the protruding handles.
I was back at the weeping cherry tree. I must’ve walked, but I didn’t recall ever leaving the house. All I knew was that Robert, whom I had once loved more than I loved life itself, would be here soon, to meet the blonde jezebel for a moonlit tryst. My fingers tightened around the wooden handle clenched in my fist, a speck of moonlight bouncing off the metal running through it. I felt no anger, only a cold calmness and a surety that I knew what must be done.
It wasn’t long before I heard the footsteps. I ducked behind the cherry’s trunk, only the barest edge of my face visible. The brief thought passed my mind that I must look a madwoman: my hair tangled about my face, my dress dirty and wrinkled. The low–hanging branches rustled as someone pushed them aside to enter the bower. I took a quick glance to see who it was.
Not Robert, but the blonde girl. The cold inside my blood grew sharper and unsheathed its claws. They gripped around my heart as I stepped around the trunk to face her. She stood with her back to me, but I could still hear her soft sighs as, no doubt, she was imagining a whirling evening in Robert’s arms, smell the waft of her lilac perfume. A white shawl was wrapped around her shoulders.
I cleared my throat and she spun around to face me, the loving smile on her face fading and she saw, not Robert, but a slightly crazed looking girl in a yellow dress, one hand holding something behind her back.
She looked confused. “May I be of assistance?” Her voice was delicate and sweet, a perfect match for her heart–shaped face and fragile appearance.
I allowed a smile to touch my face. “No, thank you.” I stepped closer. “A beautiful evening, isn’t it?”
Her rosebud mouth pursed as she cast a questioning gaze in my direction, likely wondering what I was doing here. “It is.”
“The scent of the blossoms, the music of the fountain – ah, it is a perfect evening to be in love.” Another step closer.
At this her blue eyes shone with a sickening display of love, and the corners of her mouth began to tug upward. “I know. One could not ask for a more beautiful place, either.” Her eyes were nearly welling up with tears.
My smile hardened. “Ah, I see you are in love. Maybe even come to meet him here tonight, hmm?”
She nodded. “Oh, I know I shouldn’t, but I love him so that I risk everything coming here to meet him every night.”
Every night. “He is everything to you, isn’t he? He is the air you breathe, the face you see when you wake up the morning, the one you are with when you are alone, is he not?”
She clasped her small, white hands to her chest. “Oh! You must be in love, too! Only someone else who is would understand what it is like.” She came closer and reached out to touch my wrist. “Who is he?”
I shook my head. “Wrong. I was in love. Not anymore.”
The blonde girl drew back a little, her soft curls falling to frame her face, which had a slightly horrified look on it. “My most sincere apologies.” She bit her lip. “What happened, if I may ask?” Her eyes met mine from underneath her lowered lashes.
My smile turned feral. ”You.” I brought my hand from behind my back and raised it over my head, the knife blade glinting in the gaslight.
Robert’s boots were quieter on the ground than the blonde girl’s shoes. His barely made a sound as he stepped through the cherry curtain and into its protective dome. I saw him start as he saw, not the blonde girl, but me. Standing before him, smiling sweetly.
“Clara! What…what are you doing here?” His eyes darted around in surprise, looking for any sign of the blonde girl. Pity.
“Don’t you remember, Robert? We were to meet tonight.” I laid my left hand on his shoulder, keeping my right from view, hoping he wouldn’t notice the stains on my sleeve.
He frowned. “You didn’t come last night. I waited for you, but…” He shrugged. “Anyhow, I thought we were to meet at eleven. It’s barely ten.”
I giggled coquettishly. “Oh, come now, my valiant knight. Aren’t you happy to see me, your gypsy rose?”
A soft, loving look began to show on his face, but his eyes still flicked around anxiously. “Of course, my sweet. You just startled me, my–” His eyebrows drew together. “What did you call me?”
My mad smile was back. “My valiant knight, astride his mighty steed, come to meet his fair moonlit goddess, she of the blonde curls and lilac perfume.”
Robert looked perplexed, but I saw the dawning fear in his eyes. “Clara…what are you talking about?” He took a step back. “Who – ” He stopped as something wet dripped onto his cheek. He wiped it away, first looking distracted, then horrified as he saw the red smear. He looked up to the low branch above his head, where, hoisted by her shawl and her knotted hair, was the blonde girl. Her face was fixed in an expression of abject terror, her mouth open in a permanent scream. Her cut throat gaped like a smile, sending more blood falling onto Robert’s face.
He didn’t scream, but a sound of horror and revulsion crawled from his mouth. His eyes bulged at me. “What have you done?!”
I laughed, the sound more akin to that of a crow than something made by a human being. “Don’t you see? Now you two can be together forever!”
Robert started to back away from me, and from the dead girl in the tree, but his boots caught on a cherry root and he fell, scrabbling back up against its trunk. The movement caused more blood to fall from the blonde girl’s throat. “Clara, please!” His voice was pleading. “Whatever I’ve done…”
“Oh, it’s far too late for that, my love. Come, give us one last kiss!” I leaped forward, knife extended in front of me. Robert’s scream echoed in my ears as the blossoms of the weeping cherry tree fell like pink tears all around us.