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Cruel Alchemy

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Eliza Tillinghast set her table carefully, with an entertainer's eye for detail and an undertaker's quiet deliberation. Ezra Weeden was expected at midday, and she hoped it would be his last visit -- that, perhaps, his recent time at sea would have illuminated to him what all his previous visits and all her words have not. Surely the capacity for reason had not fled from him entirely?

As she began to boil water for tea, Eliza took in her surroundings, the childhood home that welcomed her back in her widowhood. It had scarcely changed since her courtship, and perhaps that was a part of Ezra's stubbornness. They'd spent a happy year courting in this house, and here she was again -- unmarried, living in the Tillinghast house on Power's Lane, and even restored to her maiden name. Had Ezra returned in his mind to the sweet days of their courting, when he was such a frequent visitor to Power's Lane, and such a welcomed one? Could such a bloody-minded man be so terribly silly?

When Ezra arrived at her door, in a fresh silk waistcoat and bearing a bouquet of asters, Eliza realized that he truly could be. Nonetheless, there was some power in the illusion; their courting had been graced so often with wildflowers, picked with care by Ezra on his walk to the house, and she recalled dearly his rather foppish taste in courting dress, endearing in its effort. The illusion was there of those sweet old days -- but he walked close to her, and it shattered, as all illusions must. In the ten years since their courting, Ezra had aged twenty, with a lined face and a curious scar above his right eyebrow. A very faint odor clung to him, acrid and not entirely unfamiliar. This Ezra was close kin to her Ezra of young days, but Eliza could not believe they were the same man.

She led him to her table, poured the tea and brought the cakes, and he placed the flowers in the empty vase she'd prepared for him. They were old rituals, comfortable, but not enough to rekindle love. "Have you reconsidered?" he said, as she knows he would. "I know it is difficult for you. I would ease the burden."

"It is not so difficult," said Eliza, nudging the sugar bowl towards him. He would take sugar, of course; every visit was the same, like a recurring dream. "I have told you before, Ezra. I am not unhappy here, and I do not struggle. We were given a substantial sum from Joseph's estate --"

"And you are content to live off his filthy money?" Ezra's voice carried new energy and an edge of hungry rage, and Eliza flinched away. His face fell. "Forgive me. But..."

But she had been married to Joseph Curwen so that she and her father could live off Joseph Curwen's filthy money, she wanted to tell him. That was the only purpose of the endeavor. "Much of his money was faultlessly earned," she settled on as an answer, "and it and Father's income is enough for us. I provide for Ann and Father, and we are content."

"Is that enough for you? Contentment? You have a long life before you, Eliza, and why should it not be joyful?" Ezra picked at his tea cake in silence, and Eliza did not seek to speak, knowing too well that he was in real and earnest thought. "He must have been cruel to you," he said at last, very softly. "I knew it, but I did not think of it, not truly. You must understand that the natural way of man and wife is surely nothing like the life that Curwen gave you."

"I suppose not," Eliza replied, as blandly as she could manage. It was true enough that most men were not so frequently absent from their households as Joseph Curwen was, but as the daughter of a sailor who had been affianced to a sailor in her turn, Eliza had been prepared for Joseph's long stints at his farm. It was not a terrible thing, to her, to have only servants for company, and after Ann had been born, she had always had her daughter to keep her happily occupied. Eliza suspected, though, that Joseph's absences were not Ezra's real concern. What lurid visions of Joseph Curwen's "marital liberties" danced in his head? How would he respond if told that, when she and Joseph had arrived at their nuptial bed, that Eliza had been the more worldly of the two? However old her bridegroom may have been -- and she, herself, did not know even after his death -- he had not lived a life of pleasure, and throughout their marriage he had approached her with only a trembling tenderness. What would Ezra say, if she told him that? If she said that her memories of their bedchamber were fond ones? She instead chose to let the silence speak, and to let Ezra continue to say what he cared to.

"You are too young to fade away as Curwen's widow," Ezra continued. "I would give you a proper household, with a proper husband, a life without cruelty and shame. Not a day has passed that I have not longed to do so."

"No," said Eliza, "I do not believe that is so." It was a divergence from their usual visit conversation, from the eternal cycle of Ezra Weeden pleading for her hand and Eliza politely demurring, but the necessity of it had weighed on her mind for days. "There have been many days, I am certain, where you longed only to kill my husband. I believe that it is more the memory of your hatred for him that brings you here than your memory of our love. Am I your beloved, or am I a prize you clawed out of Joseph's hands?"

Ezra was silent. Underneath the assault of his fork, his tea cake crumbled into smaller and smaller fragments. A memory rose in Eliza's mind, not of Ezra or their courting, but of a dinner conversation with Joseph. He'd been in a cheerful mood after some development in his work, and he'd enthusiastically explained to her the concept of alchemy: the science ("know, my dear, that it is not witchcraft but a process derived from man's own reason") of transmutation, by which the classical scholars strove to turn the base elements into the higher ones, to spin gold like a good fairy of Eliza's childhood stories. It had been a strange night, but she'd been pleased by his high spirits, and the abbreviated lesson still lingered in this mind. Eliza stared into Ezra's haggard face, and she saw in it the mark of cruel alchemy. Whatever those old scholars had managed, she did not and would never know -- but Ezra Weeden had worked a powerful transmutation on himself, fueled only by his hatred of Joseph Curwen. He had turned his golden heart to dross.

"Please, Ezra," Eliza said once the silence had grown too unbearable, and when she was able to properly form the thought that had grown to fruition over the course of his visits. "Find another. You will always be dear to me, but no good can come of this devotion any longer. Discard me and Joseph, for your own sake, and find a woman with whom you can begin anew. Set this old burden down, for you are more burdened by it than I."

"Yes. Yes, perhaps it is as you say." Ezra rose to his feet, abandoning his tea and the smear of his tea cake. "Good day, Eliza. I bid you, be well and happy, however you can be." He did not wait to be escorted to the door, no doubt able to trace the path by memory, and Eliza let him go. It would be for the best if she lingered not a moment longer in his mind.

Eliza Tillinghast cleared the table, and she thought of the men she had loved: Ezra Weeden, in his bright and gentle youth, and Joseph Curwen, in the years that were to be his last. Both men had followed a long path of dissolution, and both men had died in the last night of the Pawtuxet Farm, of whose events Eliza had sought to remain blessedly ignorant. Her Ezra was dead, but the Ezra who remained might yet find another life, just as she had. She hoped, with the childlike hope of her courting days, that he would yet redeem his tarnished heart.