London bustled like a city under siege. Underfoot, the cobblestones sounded as if to complain of the rain's constant harassment of them.
Melchior understood. It had certainly been a hard year and a half.
Even now, having found work and shelter in this city that devoured the weak, Melchior did not feel safe.
He'd been offered the apprenticeship through healthy doses of both good will— on the part of the seemingly ancient librarian— and begging— on the part of Melchior. Even if it meant sleeping in a small room above the library that could only be considered an attic by those looking rather kindly upon it, otherwise simply a small, poor excuse for a servant's quarters, Melchior was grateful. His English was good, but not perfect. He was well-read for his age, but he was still young, and had, as the old man had put it, still much to read.
And as much as that excited Melchior, there was only so much opportunity to put his abilities to good use with the work before him.
November 13st, 1893
Thank you for your letter. I am doing well. London is wonderful and appears to have taken me into its arms as much as any rogue could expect it to. Everything here is much busier than at home— even the library where I have found work. I am afraid that the stipend you so generously offered me is gone and used up, but it is not so bad, earning my living. Sometimes I even rather enjoy it.
I must confess that I have been spending rather more time reading than I have working, but the temptation is simply too great— the library is so vast, and there are so many nooks and crannies in which to hide myself with many a book in hand. Sometimes I become so engrossed that the old man will catch me, and I must suffer the beatings for my insubordination, but it is worth it for the books. They seduce me far too easily with their beautiful words, I do not hardly know what to do with myself.
I do apologize for waiting so long to write to you, but I must confess that my current lodgings are rather cramped and leave much to be desired. It has taken me longer than I had hoped to procure a writing desk and accompanying parchment and ink.
Now that I have these at my disposal, however— the old man I am apprenticing under having taken some measure of pity on me— I look forward to hearing from you soon, and I do promise that my next letter shan't be quite so delayed as this one.
In Memory to December 18th, 1891
For a girl in her position, Wendla had it extremely well. Working as a hand-maiden for the Von —'s, cleaning, washing, she had even been lucky enough to have made friends amongst the other servants, taken in with them as if she were family.
To say that she was grateful was putting things mildly. There was only so much a mother could do with a child in her situation, even if Wendla did not understand the exact circumstances.
"You're a disgrace to the whole family," Frau Bergman had said rather quietly, darkly, as if everything about this was entirely Wendla's fault for not knowing better. "I no longer have a choice, you understand? We'll have to tell your father tonight and leave him to decide if there's anything we can do with you."
As it turned out, there wasn't. Locked into her room, the only thing Wendla could make out were muffled snippets of their conversation, most of it the bellowing of her father and the cries of her mother.
"Abortion — doctor — damn fraud — all the money — no choice," and finally just, "she has to go."
As stony-faced as her mother looked when she retrieved her from her room, the bloodshot redness in her eyes gave her away, and Wendla felt lighter for it, somehow.
"I've already found an opening not far from here. They're a rich family who should be moving soon, and they were looking to hire extra help. I've already sent a letter, so we should be hearing back from them soon, I hope. You are not to leave this house, understood?"
The funeral was held three days later, Wendla put on a coach headed to Hamburg the following week. Within the confines of their small town, Wendla Bergman had effectively ceased to exist.
Two weeks following his discovery of her gravestone beside that of Moritz, Melchior began to write letters.
He hadn't been entirely honest with his mother, really, if he considered the lack of space for a desk cumbersome. It was a question of what really mattered, and despite the fact that his mother was, of course, important to him, he'd promised them.
Every night before bed, with near-religious adherence to his cause, he pulled out parchment and ink, and began to write.
Moritz, my dear friend,
Sometimes I wish you were still here for the strangest reasons. Pirates! Do you remember? Those were some of my favorite memories to relive in darker times, and trust, there have been many as of late. I must confess I've been quite lucky, really, and still I miss the things I do not have, your companionship in particular.
I have so much still to tell you, to teach you, and yet I wish not for you, my dear, dead friend, to think of me as your mentor, let alone your instructor. I will always be your equal, your friend. I pray beg you to realize how much you've taught me. You've always underestimated yourself when you were so full of vigor and worth. Sometimes I feel the whole world misses you, truly.
My lovely, dearest Wendla,
Even in the whole city of London I cannot seem to find a single beauty that so much as rivals your own, can you believe it? They all pale in comparison to my memory of you. I know it seems silly to place you upon a pedestal when I ought not to hope to ever see your beautiful face again, but I cannot help it.
I realized last night that I still hear your heartbeat, even now, after all this time. I wonder whether you might hear mine, as well, wherever you are now. If it is meant to haunt me for the rest of my days, so be it, I say, I will take my punishment like a man with valor.
Your smell, your touch, the feel of your skin beneath my hands— the things I would offer if only I could have one more moment, one more lifetime with you.
I miss you. Most ardently. Sometimes I will turn my head and think I smell you, but when I turn to look for your face, there is nothing there. How I wish to hold you and touch you one last time.
Every night when I think back to our time in the hayloft together, I can hardly control myself from the urges and passions I feel. Some nights I will even imagine it is your hands instead of my own that touch me, and the feelings are only heightened. At times when I am shelving for the old man, it can be quite distracting, and I cannot help but wonder if I, too, am distracting to you where you are.
With all my love,
December 1st, 1893
"Let me tell you, it's not good to do that for a child for too long."
"She's just attached," Wendla retorted quietly, clutching her daughter to her chest as she suckled on her breast. "She should be ready for her nap soon. I promise I will then go out for the wash."
"The child is too attached. I heard you complain to Margarete of your aching back just yesterday. It's because you carry that child around with you too much. You need to go out to the market, she starts screaming, and of course you pick her up. You're too soft on her. That child needs a father to put his foot down."
It was hardly that Ingrid, the head cook of the household, was not right. But every time the subject of a father came up, Wendla did everything to dodge the topic as fast as she could, quick to fall silent.
What was she supposed to do? Was it not enough already to look upon their daughter and see Melchior in every feature? She hardly looked like her mama at all, a shock of dark-blonde curls gracing her head and big blue-green eyes peering up at her as if she had all the answers.
But Wendla hardly even knew how she'd ended up here. Melchior was the one with the answers, not her.
"I'll take her, if you need me to."
"Oh, it's all right. I'll just take her with me in a moment if she doesn't wish to fall asleep."
Ingrid scoffed. "As if the labor wasn't hard enough already, now we've got another umbilical cord to cut."
"Don't be unkind. It's all she has left."
"Yes, since she can't seem to want to open her mouth about the father. It's like he never even existed and she just decided one day to have a child all on her own."
"I'm going out to do the laundry," Wendla announced, tucking her breast back into her shirt and hoisting Sophie onto her hip. "I'll be back later."
Wendla always hated this kind of talk. It was the kind of thing she'd hoped to escape by avoid by steering clear of the public sector, but it wasn't to be. Still, memories of Melchior haunted her wherever she went, whether it was from looking at Sophie, listening to the others' gossip, and most recently, the way Sophie had turned into a little copycat, sometimes repeating things she was supposed to, and more often, not supposed to.
Like daddy. Dada. Papa.
And as much as she tried not to care, not to listen, she couldn't help but hear the sound of that question mark at the end of the word, like a direct accusation aimed straight at Wendla.
Where is Papa? Don't you care about him, Mama? Other girls have their daddy. Don't you miss him? Where is he?
It was all she could do not to cry whenever she retreated to hang up the laundry, foot on the edge of the small crib to rock Sophie into sleep. But she didn't know where Melchior was. For all the letters she'd sent to him, she'd feared that not a single had reached him. In spite of her mother's wishes, she'd even attempted to write to Fanny Gabor, but nothing had come of that, either. Was he still alive? Did he even still remember her? Care about her? For all she knew, he very well could think her dead, eradicating all hope of seeing him again.
Was he all right where he was? Safe? Happy? Did he miss her at all? If he'd heard of her sudden departure from this world, did he have the strength to carry on after Moritz's death? Or had he followed him to his untimely demise, leaving Sophie truly without a father? It was hard enough trying not to think of him all on her own; the last thing she needed was someone else reminding her of what she'd lost in him, what they'd both lost.
Loneliness had become a good friend to Melchior since he'd been left behind by the two of them, sucking him dry like quicksand, gutting him. The old man who had taken him in already had Death knocking on his door and he knew it, leaving Melchior truly wary of any other attachments for fear of more death around him as he walked with his memories of Wendla and Moritz by his side.
There was a small window in his pitiful excuse of a room out of which Melchior was content to gaze nightly, the sky beautifully visible from the small building peak.
Moritz would have loved it, he knew.
"Is it not breathtakingly awe-inspiring?" he asked, knowing fully well that his old friend was not there to hear it. "If only you were here now, my friend. We could conquer London by storm, just you and me. I know you were never particularly good at English, but I could have helped you, fear not."
Letting his eyes drift closed, his head thrummed softly against the wall behind him.
"I wish you'd have stayed just a bit longer in this life, Moritz. So much has happened that I hardly know what to do with myself."
So soon after his time with Wendla, Moritz had left him, leaving him unable to ever tell him about any of it. If he'd have known how good it could be, would he have still left? It wasn't fair. The things Melchior would do to only have his friend back just for a moment, get the sickeningly heavy weight of his actions off of his chest, make him feel less like a criminal for what he and Wendla had done.
What he'd done to Wendla.
"I know that I have never written to you of Wendla, but I simply must tell you what happened today. I could not so much as fathom telling her this, I'm sure you understand." Realizing how truly odd it was to speak to someone who was not there, he righted himself in his seat just slightly, tucking one knee up and close to his chest. Who else was he to speak with? He surely could not tell his mother of such things.
"I saw an angel today," he said softly, licking his lips as he let his eyes close, and his head fall back against the wall. "I was at the market, you see, and— god, Moritz, she looked just like Wendla. Her face— I only saw her for a moment before she disappeared into the crowd, but— m-my mind must have been deceiving me, surely, but for a moment I wondered if I would ever be able to love another. I ought not to. I promised her, just as I did you, to walk with her in my heart for as long as I am alive.
"But am I not cheating her whence my eyes fall prey to other women? How can I possibly bear to look at myself with a clear conscience? And it's— it's not just that time it's happened. There have been others. It's as if I see Wendla in my mind's eye wherever I go. But I saw her grave, Moritz! It is not as though she still walks among us, my angel. It's not possible! Either I am disloyal, or I am losing my sanity, truly.
"I must confess, I have not seen you, my friend, so my mind cannot be deceiving me that greatly." Taking a deep, shaky breath, he tore at his hair. He needed to depart from this topic. "I wish you'd have seen her the way I was able, Moritz. Her breasts— oh god, her breasts, they were perfect in my hands. I even dared to taste them briefly before my impatience overtook my senses and robbed me of my sanity. How I wish to taste her skin again, to kiss her once more. She resisted my advances at first, but she wished it, too, I know. I could see it in her eyes, Moritz—
"Don't— don't think ill of me, I did not force her. I wished her to say yes, and my beautiful angel did, god—" The back of his neck was starting to feel warm. He was getting hard. "I touched her Moritz. She let me part her legs, and I— I could hardly tear my eyes off of her, she was so beautiful, so warm and slick and—" groaning, he bit down on his lip, one hand slowly moving to rub his length through his pants with awkward desperation. "I-I took her as my own, I— we— we made love in the hay, I—" Fumbling with his suspenders and the fastening of his pants, he swallowed hard, finally taking himself in his hand. "She felt so good around me, so completely different from just... when I touch myself. So much better than anything I could have ever imagined. I know I shouldn't have, she didn't know— she cried out when I pushed inside of her—"
His breathing was coming out ragged just as his words. "I should have been more careful with her, but I just— I could not control myself, I wished to be with her so badly. It was finally happening, and if I'd had to stop then, I would have died, she—" With another low cry, he came, emptying himself, the sticky white liquid running down his knuckles as he bucked up into his hand, eyes still closed as he rode out his orgasm, Wendla's name spilling from his lips with a cry.
December 10th, 1893
Sophie had begun sleeping through the night, only taking one nap in the afternoon now. Walking around more sure-footedly since she'd taken her first, faltering steps about a month prior, Wendla almost preferred her asleep, content to know for certain that she was safe. If she was anything like her parents, she was bound to be tenacious, overly inquisitive, and rebellious at best.
As a mother, Wendla was quickly learning just how lethal of a combination this turned out to be, desperately wishing, once again, that she had Melchior by her side to support her and help her.
He was missing out on everything. The ups, downs, excitements. He was supposed to have been there when her first word had been dada, when she rolled over for the first time, when she started to take her first steps and made her first falls. Soothing her back to get her to burp, or cleaning the scrape on her forehead from being a bit too overeager in her walking.
If only she had some means, some way by which to find him, look up if he was anywhere near her— though it didn't seem like a likely possibility— maybe she could get somewhere. But for all the asking around she'd done, no one had ever heard of Melchior Gabor.
It was stupid, of course, going off a hunch. But she could have sworn she'd seen him— a number of times by now, even, whenever she left the estate to escape to the market.
But Melchior would be well-known around if he was here, surely, just as he would, more than likely, look distinctly different from the boy she'd seen, happier, brighter.
The stranger had looked saddened, and deeply so. Sallowed, deeply sunken cheeks, more so even than before, as if he'd not been eating much. A steady frown on his face, as though all the joy had gone from his life. It was certainly not the Melchior she'd known.
Then again, she wasn't the same Wendla he'd known, either. She'd had it so good, before; so easy. No need to work or care for anyone but herself. Ever since their time spent in the hayloft, he had become her world, her everything. And as all that had crumbled before her as she lost him, her reality had shifted once more.
Sophie, even before she was born, required constant attention doted upon her, and Wendla could not help but give it to her whenever she demanded. But it wasn't until she was born that Wendla finally understood.
Her world had not truly changed. Sophie looked just as Melchior did, reminding her every day who was still, after all this time, most important to her. It hurt far worse than she cared to admit, knowing that he was gone only to leave her with a child to care for that looked as though she had been crafted to look as the very apple of his eye.
"Strand! Strand! Get the Strand! Just five pence, get it here!"
With Sophie on her arm and her small purse of money clutched tightly in her palm, Wendla rarely stalled as she sifted her way through the dense crowds of the London Saturday afternoon market. Told not to trust anyone, Wendla repeatedly had to resist the urge to ask the merchants about their fare, the fruits and vegetables they had to offer. It was pure necessity that she do just as she was told, not looking twice at anyone.
She nearly missed it, but the shock of dark-blonde curls drew her gaze despite her best efforts to the contrary.
It had happened a number of times prior by now. This time it had been just two weeks to Sophie's half-birthday, snow already coating the world in a sea of white that felt fake, wrong somehow.
Her eyes had first caught hold of the snow-covered hair on the back of his head, causing Wendla to do a double-take, terrified, suddenly, to blink. Hitching Sophie higher on her hip, she couldn't help the way she stared upon his turning around, looking back at her as if he'd seen a ghost.
And in a way, he might have, hadn't he? Wasn't that precisely what she was supposed to be to the outside world?
Sophie's tiny fingers reached out to him before she could stop her— she was always far too eager to be friendly to those around her— and Wendla turned away, abruptly, deciding on the spot to lie to Ingrid for the first time and simply say that they had been entirely out of cabbage at the market, and that they would need to make do without that day.
The snow turned bitterly vehement in its anger overnight, and Sophie cried far more than she should have. She was a testy baby at best— something Ingrid condemned to being caused by an erroneously heightened intellect, tenacity, and rebellion in girls (none of which was a great surprise if she spared even a single thought to the father)— but for her to start teething when she'd barely just begun to sleep for longer periods felt like a judgment from God. Of course she had to end up with the intelligent daughter when obedient would have been far preferable what with her absentee father, Ingrid's words echoing as resentment rose in her chest like bile.
Surely, surely he couldn't have known that this would happen, or he would have told her, would have stopped before doing what he did, leaving her with child.
But if there was one thing she could not forget, it was the guilt etched on his features upon withdrawing from her.
And still, even despite this, more than anything, she wished to lie with him again.