“Darling,” Arthur Colborne said, twirling his wife around the dance floor. “I dare say that you dance with the grace of a thousand angels.” Caroline looked up at him with a brilliant smile and winked at him. “And I dare say that you dance with the grace of an angry demon,” she said. Arthur laughed. He was not a bad dancer, of course. Caroline was teasing him, as she often had in the six years they had been married. On the night they met, Arthur had been so taken with her beauty that he had turned into a clumsy fool. He found himself forgetting dance steps and placing his foot so that she accidentally kicked it on more than one occasion. He had been horrified, but Caroline had giggled a little more each time. By the end of the night, they had shared four dances, and had agreed to see each other again the following day. Their love had been so strong and so complete that they were married just weeks later. As he looked into his wife’s eyes, Arthur realized he was still every bit as infatuated with her as he had been on the night they met. The dance came to an end, and Arthur kissed his wife atop her head as he escorted her from the dance floor. They walked together to the refreshment table where he fetched them two flutes of champagne.
He handed one to Caroline, who took it from him with another sweet, bright smile. They touched their glasses together, leaving their toast unspoken. They each sipped from their respective flutes, then Arthur gave his wife a gentle, sweet kiss on her lips. He stroked her cheek, admiring the same beauty that had him spellbound him all those years earlier. The pair stood watching the dancing couples in comfortable silence. Arthur smiled softly at those who were looking at one another as he and his wife had before they began their brief courtship. He silently wished them all the love and happiness he and his beloved Caroline had been fortunate enough to experience since they were wed. From beside him, Caroline coughed suddenly. He looked at his wife to see her gently patting her chest with her hand. He gently touched her back, frowning.
“Are you all right, darling?” he asked. Caroline nodded and waved a hand in front of her face. It was another moment before she could speak. “I am perfectly fine,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I think the champagne just tried to…” Before she could finish her sentence, the half empty flute slipped from her hands. She reached out and took hold of Arthur, who just managed to catch her as she fell. He ignored the stares and the cautiously approaching people as he tried to help his wife to her feet. She regained her balance, still clutching onto him and giving him a weak, sheepish smile. “Oh, forgive me, my darling,” she said. “I suppose it was the coughing that made me a little unstable on my feet for a moment.
” Arthur studied her, his eyes wide. “Are you sure you are well?” he asked. Caroline took a deep breath and nodded weakly. “Yes, dear,” she said. “I am quite all right.” Arthur shook his head, unconvinced. Her face was suddenly very pale, and her hands were trembling. He found himself not yet willing to release her. As he moved to pull her close to him, he felt her body buckle. Before he could move to catch her again, Caroline tumbled to the floor, unconscious.
Arthur took Caroline home immediately and sat by her bedside until the first rays of morning sun were visible through the window. She rested well, her breathing was regular, and her skin had regained its healthy color and glow. By the time the doctor arrived, Caroline was awake and trying to convince Arthur to let her get up and begin her day. “Darling,” she said, smiling sweetly at Arthur. “I am fine. There is no need for such a fuss. And certainly, not for a doctor.” Arthur caressed her cheek. “Well, my dear,” he said. “He has already arrived.
Besides, there can be no harm in making sure that all is well.” Caroline rolled her eyes playfully but relented. Arthur kissed his wife and left the room so that the doctor could see to her. A few moments later, the physician emerged. He said that Caroline appeared to be well, and that she had likely simply gotten herself too excited the evening before. Thrilled, Arthur arranged a picnic for him and his wife and their two little daughters, Agnes, aged three, and Sarah, aged two. The family enjoyed the day, and Arthur went to bed that night feeling relieved that everything seemed fine, just as the physician had said. However, when Caroline suffered her next fainting spell just a few weeks later, the prognosis was much more troubling. “Consumption?” Arthur asked, collapsing in the chair that sat outside his wife’s room. “But you said all was well when you came to see her after her first episode.
” The physician shook his head sadly. “I believe that the disease must have been in too early a stage for me to detect then,” he said. Arthur stared at the doctor for a moment. “But there is something you can do,” he said. The doctor shook his head sadly. “In most cases, consumption is fatal,” he said. “She may have several more months yet, but I advise you to spend those helping her get her affairs in order. I am terribly sorry, Lord Belgreen.” With that, the physician excused himself, leaving Arthur staring helplessly at his hands. After several moment, Arthur rose.
He was determined to find a doctor who could help Caroline. He refused to believe that his wife was terminally ill. If the doctor had been wrong with his diagnosis the first time, wasn’t it possible he was wrong this time? He went into Caroline’s room and comforted her, assuring her that he would find a physician who could help her. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Over the next few months, Caroline’s condition only continued to worsen. Arthur had every physician in London visit their home, only to be given the same prognosis each time. Even when she seemed to be improving, the doctors told him it was only a temporary improvement because her lungs had suffered so much damage during the progression of the illness that she would never fully recover. At last, Arthur decided that, when Caroline was feeling up to it, he would take her overseas to France or India and find another doctor who could help her. When he broached the idea to her, however, she simply stroked his cheek and smiled sadly at him. “Arthur, my clumsy darling,” she said.
“You must stop your fretting.” He looked at his wife as though she was mad. “Stop fretting?” he asked, incredulously. “You might as well ask me to cross the ocean by walking.” Caroline shook her head and took his hand. “I have accepted what is happening to me,” she said, her voice sad but sure. “And, while I do not ask you to accept losing me, I do ask that you not expect the impossible. There is no doctor in the world who can cure consumption, or else more people would know of such a cure. Trying to take me overseas would likely only serve to end me more quickly than if I simply remain here and enjoy the time I have left with you and the girls.” Arthur looked at her, dumbfounded.
He wanted to tell her she was giving up too soon, that she must fight and let him do what he felt was best to help her. He wanted to assure her that he could find someone to get her well, if she would only allow him to try. But, as he looked at her ever-weakening body and her tired but resolved eyes, he knew that he was being selfish and unrealistic. He knew she was right about traveling too. It would only shorten her already diminishing life and make her too sick to spend any amount of quality time with her family before her passing. Fighting back a sudden flood of tears, he nodded. “I will comply with your wishes, darling,” he said. Caroline smiled, relief replacing the sadness in her eyes. “Thank you, my love,” she said. “And, at this moment, I wish for nothing more than to have a picnic with you and the girls.
It is a beautiful day outside, and it would be a shame to waste it sitting in here, as I do every single day of late.” Arthur nodded and made the arrangements at once. He had to carry Caroline outside once the picnic had been set up, but seeing the brilliant smile on her face and hearing the music in her laughter made it all worthwhile to him. That was the last good day he spent with his wife. From that day on, Caroline’s condition steadily declined. She had good days, where she felt especially creative and euphoric, but her physical energy failed her more by the day. He had many supplies brought to her bedside so she could practice various crafts with their daughters. He was grateful for the time she wanted to spend with Agnes and Sarah, because he spent much of that time in his study, crying. He could not come to terms with the idea that his beloved wife was dying. Despite Caroline’s wishes, he wrote letters to doctors in France, Spain, and even India.
However, those who were kind enough to respond told him precisely what the London physicians had: There was nothing that could be done for her. In the last week of her life, Caroline could hardly lift her head from the pillow. Arthur knew she did not have much longer to live, so he sent their daughters to stay with his mother. He avoided disrupting her rest, though deep down, he simply could not bear to see her suffering as she was. One night, however, she called for him. Her maid came to fetch him from his study, her face grim. Without a word, Arthur understood the request. He hurried up the stairs and entered his wife’s room, giving her a warm smile. She looked so pale and fragile. It appeared as though the bed had grown to five times its size against her frail, too-thin frame.
Her gown was clearly clean and freshly changed, except for the still drying blood on the white cloth just below her chin. Her face was dull and near lifeless, and Arthur bit his lip furiously to suppress a sob. As soon as she heard him enter, she turned her head weakly. Her eyes lit up, looking just as beautiful as they did strange and foreign in her deathly sickly face. She gave him a weak smile. “Darling,” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper. “You should be resting, my love,” he said. “Save your strength.” Caroline shook her head weakly. “There is no strength left to save, my dearest,” she said.
“And too little time left for what I wish to say.” Arthur squeezed his eyes closed, praying for strength. Everything in him wanted him to insist that she not say the things he dreaded to hear. But in his heart, he knew that she was right to do so. “Tell me anything you wish, my sweet,” he murmured, kissing the top of her head to disguise the tears that had managed to slip from his eyes. Caroline nodded, covering her mouth weakly with a cloth as a coughing fit overtook her. He waited, looking away to keep her from watching his heart break. “Promise me that you will eventually remarry,” she said bluntly. Arthur stared at his wife blankly. “You do not know what you are saying,” he said, trying more to convince himself than his dying wife.
She nodded slowly, coughing again. “I do,” she said. “And I am thinking of the girls as much as I am thinking of you.” Arthur collapsed in the chair beside her bed, fumbling for words. “How could I… You can’t possibly…” he said, shaking his head in bewilderment. “You can, and you must,” she said, gazing at him intently. “You must not spend your life suffering over me, especially for the sake of Agnes and Sarah. They need to see you happy and well, and they will need a woman who can mother them.” At this, Arthur broke. He put his head in his hands and began to cry.
He could not adjust to the idea of life without Caroline. How could she possibly expect him to entertain the idea of remarrying? Caroline reached out and took his hand. With surprising strength for her condition, she squeezed it, stroking it with her clammy fingers. “I shall not rest easy unless I know that you and our girls will be all right,” she said. “You must promise me that you will do this.” Arthur shook his head again and looked at his wife, his eyes blurred with tears. “I can never love a woman as much as I love you,” he said. Caroline smiled weakly. “You have loved me very well, darling,” she said. “And I know that you have a great deal more love left to give.
You will find a woman to whom to give that love, and I am certain that she will love you in return.” Arthur stared at his wife. Even at the end of her life, she was the most beautiful and wise woman he would ever know. He knew he would never be able even to consider what she was asking, but he could not bear the thought of disappointing her on her deathbed, just as he had failed to save and protect her in life. After a moment, he wiped the tears from his eyes and nodded. “I will promise to try to do as you ask, my love,” he said. “I will do my best to do what is best for the girls.” Caroline gave him a knowing smile. “And for you as well?” she asked. Arthur laughed, despite his debilitating sadness.
His wife had always been sharp and observant. Of course, she had noted his careful selection of words. “For myself as well, darling,” he whispered. Satisfied, Caroline closed her eyes. Arthur held onto her hand, watching the rise and fall of her chest. Within moments, her chest movements were no more. He did not need to touch her to know that she was gone. He began to cry once more, rising to kiss his wife on the forehead. “I love you forever, Caroline,” he said.