Dear Reader, I am at once in raptures and sick to my stomach! Perhaps I am sick to my stomach in part because of how happy I feel, if that makes any sort of sense. Perhaps I still feel guilty for my happiness, though I am trying not to. But I have come to accept--
Oh, bother! Here I am, starting in the middle or, worse yet, at the end, again. Let me try once more.
Zebediah and I arrived at the inn last night still without having spoken a word to one another. Mr. Troxill had arranged for separate rooms, of course. (Our driver slept with the other drivers, I believe. I am not sure how these things work because I have never had someone "beneath" me and serving me, but the man seemed to know where to go perfectly well, and reappeared as soon as we were ready to leave this morning. I am glad someone knows what they are doing in this!) Once Zebediah and I had put our few belongings in our room, we went down for a late supper. The dinning hall was mostly empty, as everyone else was either in the adjoining parlour, or already in bed. The near-silence made it very obvious that we weren't speaking.
I could hardly eat, and I had not eaten much all day because of how awful I felt. I didn't want Zebediah to go, not really, but it was only right and proper! And though I knew he understood that, too, he refused to let me be. All day I had been thinking about how I could dissuade him, but was too nervous to speak of it lest he do something else to try and convince me, as he had in his room at Mr. Troxill's.
After pretending to eat for perhaps ten minutes (which felt like ten hours), I pushed my plate away and began to move my chair back, but Zebediah reached across the small table and touched my hand. I jerked it away as if burned, but I did look up at him. "Bernice," he said with no sound.
I shook my head and stood up. "Goodnight," I whispered, and fled to my room, telling myself it would be better tomorrow, once we had reached the academy and I had a definitive plan. I read what I had written in the coach, reliving it again. I saw the hurt in his eyes as I told him he must stay behind, and held my hand out before me, remembering the touch of his lips on my palm. I went to bed soon after that, and thankfully gave into the oblivion of dreamless sleep.
When I opened my door in the morning to go down to breakfast, Zebediah was waiting for me in the hallway, leaning against the opposite wall with his arms crossed. As soon as he saw me, he stood up straight, then nodded toward the room behind me, asking if he might come in. "We... we should eat and prepare to leave," I stammered, but he was already walking toward me and I had no choice but to back up and let him in. He shut the door behind him, and while I did not particularly like that, we were in a public space and if we were to argue again, I did not fancy the entire rest of our floor hearing it.
"Do you love me?" he asked with hand gestures as soon as he door was closed.
His question caught me off-guard, to say the least. "Excuse me?" I asked, stalling for time to think. How could I answer that truthfully while still convincing him to leave me alone?
"Do you? Tell me! Say it!" If he had been able to speak, he would have been nearly shouting, I am sure.
"Zebediah, I... I cannot really..." I was cut off by my own shock when he stepped forward and took my hands, then took another step toward me so I had to stumble back in order for him not to run into me. Looking up into his eyes, I fell silent for a moment. He stared intently back at me, and I knew it was time to say what I have been feeling for days.
"I do not... I do not know, for sure, that I love you," I whispered, very aware of the pressure from his fingers, of every slight movement of his thumbs on my knuckles. "You are really the only man I have ever... ever known, ever been close to. What I feel is likely... infatuation. How should I know what love is? I, who had never even left my little town until a month and a half ago, who had never known anything but teachers and other girls all my life. I... I cannot know for sure if I love you because... you are the only man I have known since becoming a young woman. I think that, if I love you, it is only because... you have been here. I think... another man in the same situation would provoke the same feelings from me."
"You love me out of necessity?" he asked, using gestures and spelling.
"I think so," I whispered, and something made me feel as if I had heard those words before.
"Adelaide loved Arthur of necessity," he told me. I let go of his hands, gasping, and stepped back.
"You have read my diary!" I cried, for I knew I had not told him about Adelaide's feelings for her father's assistant on the train.
"You told her to love him regardless," Zebediah went on as if I had not just accused him of theft and betrayal, pulling my hand toward him when I at first refused to give it him to spell on. "Perhaps it is not necessity but fate."
I yanked my hand away and glared at him, tears stinging the backs of my eyes. "I cannot believe you would betray me like this," I whispered. He said nothing, but took my little diary from his pocket. My eyes flicked to the desk where I had left it last night; he had come in while I slept and taken it to read.
As I would not give him my hand now, he held the diary toward me and spelled on its cover. "I am sorry. I had to know. I cannot let you leave me. I love you." Almost reverently, he placed the book back on the desk, then turned toward me again. "I will marry you," he told me, touching the ring finger on his left hand for this new word which we had never spoken of together. "I'll go with you. Anywhere."
I let out a strange sound, half-sob, half-laugh. A marriage proposal before breakfast, I thought, a little hysterical. I felt a bit faint and reached out for the bed post to steady myself. "Marry me?" I echoed. He nodded, nothing but earnestness and longing in his eyes. "Why?"
A sad smile crossed his face, and he looked both confused that I would ask such a thing, and amused that I had. "I need you." He came nearer now, to spell on my palm when he had to. "I need... a normal life. Family. You do not see me as a murderer, an evil man. Nor as a mercenary, nor as a servant. You see me as... just a man."
Strangely, I thought then of dear Maggie, and our talk on my last morning at Saint Anne's. She was convinced I would find myself a handsome husband soon after I left her, and I promised that I would return for her if I did, to keep her with me always. And here was that dream, beginning to come true. I could hardly believe I was allowing myself to consider it, but this is what I had longed for since I was young. Having no relatives, I wanted a family of my own. I just did not think the opportunity for one would come so soon!
"I cannot... This is..." I felt even more light-headed, and quickly rounded the end of the bed to sink down onto the edge of it, trying to catch my breath.
Zebediah knelt before me and took my hands in his. It was just like a scene in a love story! "You do not have to answer now," he spelled on my palm, merely wanting to touch me, since he could have used gestures to communicate. "Know that I love you, and will not leave you." He bent his head to kiss the back of my hand, then stood. Looking at me for a moment as if to memorize my face, he gave me a small, secretive smile, then left me.
Instead of going down to breakfast, I recorded all that happened here, too fluttery with nerves and (yes, I dare to write it now!) love to see him so soon. I am still a little angry with him for reading my diary, though now I think of it, I would probably have told him all of it eventually. Now I must pack quickly so we may leave.
I am loved, Dear Reader! Not only that, but I return that love in equal part, and I know now that I shall always have a friend at my side, no matter what. Why have I denied it all this time? It is more wonderful than anything I have ever known!
Zebediah is asleep in the corner of the coach, and it is lovely to watch him. He is leaning his head against the curtain which we have pulled across the window, and his mouth is open just slightly. His breaths are long and slow, and when I extracted my hand gently from his in order to write this, he stirred slightly as if he knew I was getting further away from him, and did not like it. We are nearly to the academy now, and have sat on the same seat holding hands nearly all the way. It was lovely, lovely, lovely.
I must write Maggie as soon as I am able.