Mr. Emerson's Wife: an excerpt

​​Amy Belding Brown

The pews were already crowded – the only available seats being the second-rate ones to the far right of the pulpit, facing the steep, angled steps that rose to the lectern.  I grasped Sophia’s arm and pulled her smoothly past the round knees of Thomas Batchelder and we settled ourselves quickly on the wooden bench.  I was relieved to note that Mr. Emerson had not yet taken his place in the pulpit.  I smoothed my skirts and straightened my bonnet, then discreetly signaled Sophia to straighten hers.

A ripple of voices at the back of the room drew my attention, and I turned to watch Mr. Emerson walk down the aisle – his brown hair glinting in the lamplight, his face serene and composed.  He was a tall man with an unusually long neck and sloping shoulders – a feature of his anatomy that gave him an air of cultivation and congeniality. He climbed the steps, his arms at his sides. I noticed that his dark suit betrayed a genteel poverty in the sheen at the elbows and the fraying threads at his cuffs. 

I was at an unfortunate angle to the pulpit and there were three tall men seated in front of me.  I could not see him

properly without stretching sideways and craning my neck, which I did with considerable pique.  Mr. Emerson took some folded papers from the pocket of his jacket and laid them on the lectern.  In profile, his nose was beak-like and reminded me of an eagle, an image that somehow matched the sharp blue of his eyes.  These eyes swept over the audience and I imagined that they rested momentarily on me. The sensation unsettled me, and left in its wake a not-unpleasant tingle at the nape of my neck.  

I refolded my hands – when had they separated and clenched the bench? – and pressed them deep into my lap, then glanced at Sophia who was again playing her bonnet strings.  I had no time to correct her, however, for at that moment Mr. Emerson began to speak.

As I listened to his words – and not merely his words, but the music of his voice – I felt a pronounced constriction of my mind and heart.  His voice was melodious and oddly calming – its lyric quality soothed me, making me think of a summer sea.  It was as if his tone exerted a physical pressure in my brain, changing its shape and opening it to new ideas.

His lecture lasted nearly two hours, but I was unaware of the passage of time until he stepped back from the lectern.  Then I turned to smile at Sophia and the sudden ache in my neck and shoulders informed me that I had been frozen in a forward lean throughout the entire event. 

Applause filled the meetinghouse.  I clapped until my hands were sore.  Mr. Emerson bowed and descended the pulpit steps.  People began getting to their feet, preparing to leave, some still applauding as they buttoned themselves into their cloaks. There was a great sizzle of skirts and shawls.  I saw that Mr. Emerson had been detained in front of the pulpit by a knot of men, all of whom appeared to be addressing him at once.  He seemed to listen closely, yet his gaze strayed past their shoulders and, for an instant, met mine.

He smiled and my heart fluttered like a curtain at a newly opened window.

Sophia caught my sleeve.  “How does it feel to hear your own words from Mr. Emerson’s mouth, Aunt Lydia?”

“My own words?”  I turned.

“You have spoken his very thoughts a hundred times!”

I stared at her, and for a moment the sounds around me ceased, or seemed to, as if cotton or water had stoppered my ears.

“I have read and admired Swedenborg,” I murmured.

“So has Mama, but she doesn’t talk the way you do!  You and Mr. Emerson are of one mind.  I’m convinced of it!”

Suddenly, I was desperate to be outside where I could draw cold air into my lungs, for they were aching with fiery pressure.  I turned toward the door and saw Mary Russell pushing her way through the crowd toward us.  Mary, with her elegant neck and fluttering hands, wrapped in her black mourning cloak, had been my friend for twenty years.  I rose to greet her.

“You are planning to attend Father’s reception for Mr. Emerson tonight, aren’t you, Lydia?”  Mary touched my sleeve, her hand a clutch of bone and nail sheathed in ivory gloves.

“Of course,” I said, though I dreaded the small, hot rooms of the Russell home.

“We are so honored to have Mr. Emerson as our guest!”  She leaned toward me, so close the brims of our bonnets touched.  “I believe he may be in the market for a wife,” she whispered.  “You should have seen the longing on his face at breakfast this morning when he spoke of seeing his newborn nephew on his recent trip to New York.”

I had to smile.  Mary was always setting her cap for a husband. 

"I cannot believe a man like Mr. Emerson would have any difficulty finding a wife should he want one.  Yet I suspect he is more intrigued by ideas than by female wiles.”  I patted Mary’s arm, detaching her hand from mine in the process. “I must go home and rest before the reception.”  I pried Sophia’s hands once more from her bonnet strings and made my way to the door.

At the Russell house, gaslight sconces flanked the door and light swirled from the front windows to pool on the snowy lawn fronting Court Square.  Mary’s mother welcomed me at the door. I was surprised to find her up; she had spent the past month in bed, daily purged and bled by Dr. Roberts.  Her pallor had yellowed alarmingly since her illness and her hand on mine was cold as death.  She was still clothed in darkest crepe, in mourning for her youngest daughter, Mercy.  As I stepped across the threshold, a suffocating wave of heat assaulted me, caused by the fires and close press of people.  Ever since Mercy’s death, the house had been kept over-warm, as if the scorching temperatures might discourage further dying.

 Mr. Emerson sat in the front parlor, surrounded by a bouquet of brightly dressed women.  I occasionally caught a glimpse of the crown of his head and caught the gentle timbre of his voice, but could not imagine pushing my way through the tight-pressed bodies in order to meet him.  Instead, I moved freely through the downstairs rooms, engaging friends and acquaintances in conversation and enjoying the warm sociability of the evening. It was nearly ten and I was on the point of retrieving my cloak when George Bradford detached himself from Mr. Emerson’s side and approached me.

“Don’t leave. Our guest of honor wants to meet you.” He held a glass of port in his right hand.  “He asked particularly to be introduced.”

“To me?”  I searched his face to see if he spoke in jest, but his gaze was direct.

“Have you no desire to meet him?  Were you not impressed with his lecture?  I thought certainly his words would move you.”

“They did.  Most assuredly.  But I fail to understand why he would ask for me.”

“Because your reputation precedes you.  I’ve let him know that there is a woman in Plymouth whose brilliance of mind will challenge his own.”

“Surely not.”  I was surprised to find myself blushing.  It was not my habit to respond to common flattery.

George bowed slightly so that his face came near to mine.  “He seeks a woman’s companionship and conversation.  You would not deny him those simple pleasures, would you?”

“He does not appear to be lacking.”  I smiled at the circle of women who sat attendance on Mr. Emerson.  “From what I have observed, he has been enjoying them all evening.”

George drained the last of his port.  “He does not easily tolerate superficiality.  He wants substance in his social discourse.”

“As do I.”

“You make my point, Lydia.”  He placed the glass on a nearby table and took my arm.  “Come.  The hour grows late and Waldo is waiting.”