Submitted to the Ipswitch Historical Society
upon the occasion of Irma Fontaine’s death.
December 23rd, 1870
The cemetery has always been my most beloved place. For many, it represents terror of the inevitable. For others, it is the ideal setting for tales of the dark and macabre. But for me the scattered rows of crumbling tombstones, the low branches that serve as both roof and companions, instill in me a feeling of sweet tranquility.
I would often discreetly abandon the comfort of my window side to enjoy the nature that enveloped the graves. The heavy rot iron gates surrounding the hills did not impress upon me a sentiment of menace, but rather made me feel enclosed in beautifully ornate, protective arms.
I sat in the soft grasses near a stone—eyeing the emerald moss that climbed the side of the thick marble or the ivy lacing around the mausoleums. The tender words imprinted on the stone fading, but the meaning ringing true forever. Great statues of our Lord and Mother served as soothing reminders that the gates of heaven are open wide to all believers.
Mid-spring had erupted in color, the scent of flowers and tree blossoms creating perfume that rolled amid the gently swaying oaks, birches, and willows. In these moments, I could rarely be happier or more contented, the sense of bliss full in my bosom. The only greater love I can bring to mind is my elder sister Zella. She and I played in the graveyard as children, and while Zella was a year and some months my senior, I somehow felt I was the caretaker of this delicate sparrow. Her innocence was clear and pure; her heart was emptied of any and all sin the moment the priest cooled her dark hair with holy water. Original folly was the only bruise on her pearlescent soul, and she spent all the days of her life shining in this angelic simplicity.
While my dear Zella did fear roaming about the cemetery alone she feared nothing when I accompanied her. Throughout our precious childhood we were rarely apart. When night fell and turned our bedchamber as dark as coal, Zella called out, “Irma! Irma, where are you?” I always ran to her in protection and comfort.
Unfortunately, both Zella and I understood that childhood could not last forever; games in the playroom and between the stones would have to cease. Being our mother and father’s only children, we understood as women we were best put to use by marrying well and bearing healthy children. I must admit that neither of us girls wished to end our freedom and become wives or mothers. Though, of course, these are noble paths, our minds seemed beyond these positions—as if we knew somehow that the introduction of foreigners into our circle would only lead to the suffocation of our spirits.
The dreaded day arrived. Zella and I sat by the window facing the graveyard by our home drawing animals from memory. Zella’s black hair was pulled up into a fan of curls that accentuated the softness and shine of her long locks. Her chocolate eyes were warm and bright lined with lashes so long and thick you might believe they were made of raven wings. Her dark beauty was deep and alluring, but mother always reminded her that dark beauty was not the fashion.
“Why could you not have Irma’s fair hair and eyes?” she’d exclaim. “You are a beautiful girl. Of course you have a well shaped face and dainty features…but your darkness just does not compare to your sister’s beauty.” Mother’s face was loving, but disapproving. Her harsh words caused me to turn pink with embarrassment and dear Zella’s eyes to turn glassy.
We sat by the sill drinking in the buttery sunshine and sharpening our artistic skills. We studied in many areas of expression and drawing was no exception.
“I do not believe this elephant is true to form.” Zella knitted her thick brows inspecting the crude drawing.
“I believe it is because you added a fifth leg!” We giggled uncontrollably, the light flashing in our eyes, our bellies near sore with laughter. “I think it best you should go back to horses or gazelles. Your hand is much more talented at the smaller animals,” I urged.
“You are right, Irma, these large animals with their bulky limbs seem to give me far more trouble then the dainty curves of smaller beings.” Zella turned her paper over and readied her drawing pencil to begin a beautiful piece of work on a gazelle when our mother walked in and altered our lives forever.
Of course, marriage had been discussed. We were well aware the time was drawing near. Still, we hoped by ignoring the inevitable we could postpone it a bit longer. Neither of us was truly ready to forsake our sacred bond for the bond of wife and mother. Furthermore, it was my gentle Zella who would be married first. If only somehow I could traverse these remote waters before her, providing valuable knowledge for my sister, but I could not. With Zella being the eldest, she must go and leave me behind, me and everything else she had known and loved. I saw the small bird I had protected for as long as I had been alive thrown by the wind and rain of her impending future.
“Girls, I have wonderful news from your father.” Our mother looked upon us as if bestowing Christmas gifts. We could not meet her gaze. “He has met with Elwood Burkton. You remember that fine gentleman that we had dinner with a few weeks ago? Mr. Burkton has been, of course, looking for just the right companion and feels that our little Zella is just the one. Can you believe our luck? And I thought those eyes would never find a suitor, but here we are.” My mother’s joy was palpable and seemed to push up against us making it difficult to breathe. Zella’s eyes fluttered to life as if waking from a dream and spoke to my mother of excitement. Of course, I knew this was purely for my mother’s sake and did not intimate her true anxiety. Zella rarely spoke of her true feelings to anyone not wanting to offend or hurt while taking the entire burden upon herself.
That night Zella’s head rested in my lap, my golden curls hanging over her shoulder in shelter as she silently wept for her old life. Sullen tears rolled down her cheeks and inched along the side of her straight nose. I stroked her hair and searched for words of consolation, but found only anger boiling inside my stomach. Elwood Burkton was a wealthy man, or wealthy enough by father’s standards, being the owner of a publishing company. His age was, of course, much greater than Zella’s, but he had not lost his handsome face or good demeanor. The tilt of his head and the glint in his eyes somehow unsettled me, and I could not decipher if it was due to the circumstances that his presence came to be in my sister’s life, or was due to something more sinister.
“I don’t want to go, Irma…I just don’t know how I could be happy living in such a life.” Her feelings were desperate, but her voice was meek and quiet.
“You will be a wonderful wife and a glorious mother! There is no need to worry. And I will visit you whenever you wish it.” I struggled to sound secure, but for the first time I could not protect my little Zella.
“It will not be the same! Now I will be forced to answer to a man!” With these words, her shell broke, and her sobs fell like heavy weights in my lap.
“We have always had to answer to father!” I endeavored.
“You know that it will not be the same! We had freedom here, but I will be trapped alone with someone I hardly know. How will I ever bare it? If I could only refuse!” she clamped her mouth shut realizing that disobedience would never do. Only prayer could sustain her. She controlled her ragged breath and once again we sat in the dim light. I allowed her tears to soak my nightdress till she was dry of emotion and prepared for her new life.
It was not long before the dress was purchased and the date set. Zella was able to meet with her happy groom on many occasions. He came to dinner most nights and stayed for drinks and cards. Elwood introduced himself to the Fontaine family and promised that their eldest daughter would be happy and well provided for without question. And, of course, her favorite companion, her beloved sister Irma, was invited to visit at any hour of the day or night.
While Mr. Burkton certainly impressed Mr. and Mrs. Fontaine, I was far more curious about his interaction with his future wife. A respectable distance must be kept between men and women at all times, allowing for true intimacy only when married, but it was easy to see that Zella’s shy and gentle nature seemed to attract him instantly, her smoky eyes holding him captive. He had come from money and was well bred; his etiquette was perfected, proper conversation at both the dining table and during cards.
When the three were permitted to take a walk around the grounds, it was clear that Zella was comfortable in his presence. She interpreted his happy manners as kind and good spirited, which did indeed ease her mind about her future, but it did not fully satisfy me. Courting a young lady with flowers and attention while being benevolent could be difficult for some, but is not terribly difficult for most when a match is insisted upon. It would do no good for him to behave in any other fashion or to upset Miss Fontaine and lose the considerable dowry and prestige that would come with her. It was well known that marriage could be quite a struggle, often times cold and unloving. Marriage is not for the faint of heart. My stomach soured at the thought.
My cool blue eyes surveyed my sister and her fiancé. Her soft giggles and his hearty laughter mingled nicely. She seemed content, and anything that would bring her joy I would readily encourage. With these thoughts buzzing in my mind, Mr. Burkton’s voice interrupted my assessment.
“Miss Irma, my dear future sister. In all this marriage excitement I have yet had the pleasure to talk with my fiancé’s sister and most cherished friend. I understand you and Zella are very close.” His strong brow turned to view my reaction.
“You will not find two sisters closer,” I answered assertively.
“I have no doubt you will be visiting often, especially when Zella is overrun with children.” His voice was jolly, and I searched his brown eyes for any sign of treachery.
“Yes, I intend to help my sister whenever she calls upon me.” I answered, looking for how far Zella had walked ahead on the path. She was out of hearing range and admiring the wildflowers that emerged among the tall grass.
“You must understand, Mr. Burkton, that my sister and I have an exceptional relationship, an attachment that I feel only two sisters, two women, could truly understand and experience. I do not mean to interfere in your marriage, but I do not wish to be far from it either.”
Before I was able to finish my explanation, Mr. Burkton interrupted, “Yes, yes, of course. I completely understand that women need women. Sisters are important to one another, spending so much time together will foster that kind of intimacy. I mean no harm to it.” He looked about and spoke as if reciting lines; he lacked a sense of authenticity that took me back for a moment. I was lost on how to respond and only explicated my point further.
“Yes, I am sure, Mr. Burkton, that you have seen sisters before, but Zella and I are distinct. Do forgive me for being brash, but she is very special, and I do not intend to lose her to anyone, not even her husband.” My words astounded even myself. My directness was impertinent, but I felt there was no other way to make him understand this was not a flippant discussion. This was my sister’s happiness; this was her entire life.
The words clearly struck their mark and Mr. Burkton froze for a moment—trying to recover from my bluntness.
“Miss Irma…I have fallen in love with Zella. I want to be her husband and make her happy for the rest of our lives. I understand your concern, but there is no need. You have my word. I will not harm her.” The words were evenly spoken, direct, and grave. His promise rung in my ears. Like ripples in a pond, they expanded in my brain. I clung to them like the Lord’s covenant and prayed he spoke the truth.
Many a night I addressed my sister—prying into her thoughts and more importantly into her heart. Though I did not know what I would do if she did not want to marry Mr. Burkton, I only knew I would think of something if necessary. She brushed her long raven tresses in front of the glass—admiring the shine in the candlelight. She rarely did look upon herself, and I found it a natural transition from childhood to womanhood. I stood behind her and gently stroked the top of her head; she smiled warmly.
“Zella, in all honesty, you must divulge to me the very truth of your heart. Do you love, or feel you could love Mr. Burkton?” My voice was steady, but I felt the desperation in my tone. Zella turned to me her cheeks full of spring, a few freckles dotting her delicate nose. She stood and walked to the other side of the room as if inhaling, taking in the whole question, the entire power of it.
She spun around, a wider grin accentuating the dimples in her merry cheeks. “Irma. I was afraid. I was so awfully, dreadfully afraid. I thought for sure that I would be trapped with an awful man, one so far from kindness and love that I would be forced to marry an old goat with no heart at all,” she began to giggle and hopped upon the bed—motioning for me to join her. “I am so happy. I am unequivocally, gloriously, and absurdly happy. Elwood has won my heart in every way. I cannot imagine another better suited for me. Irma, we will have a happy marriage, and I implore you not to be so opposing to dear, sweet Elwood.”
“Opposing? Zella, I am hardly opposing. I simply want to make sure that you are safe, that he will take care of you, that he will love you.” My voice rose in excitement. Why did I feel so affronted by Zella’s comment? I did not know, and it did not matter—the point remained: would she be secure with Mr. Burkton?
“Irma, I did not mean to insult you. I just so desire for you and Elwood to get along. I had hoped you would find him as amiable and charming as I do! He is a good man. And I know he loves me.” Zella’s eyes were full of longing, a desperate need to calm her agitated friend.
I sighed, “If you are pleased, dear sister, than I am pleased, and there is nothing left to do or to question.” With these words, Zella was made tranquil, and the sisters would continue forth on their separate paths.
Many months passed, and it was not long before Zella was married and with child. Mr. Burkton was often occupied, and I rarely saw him when I was there to visit her. He was true to his word that I could visit Zella whenever she asked, though I found it odd that she did not call upon me more often. I could only imagine it was due to her happiness with her new companion as when I saw Zella she only spoke of delight in her marriage.
In Zella’s condition, it was made clear that she would need greater assistance, and I was more than pleased to come to her aid. As each month passed, I watched her excitement grow with her body. We prepared the home for the child and waited with baited breath. The angel was born in the spring and was blessed with my fair hair and eyes. Zella was overjoyed that the child took after Aunt Irma—declaring that she would follow me wherever I went, just like her mother always had. My heart could barely contain the elation I shared with my sister when precious Edna was born.
Mr. Burkton rarely saw his daughter and was often called away on business. I must admit that I seldom remember my father being part of child rearing, but still I felt his distance. There is often disappointment suffered by the father when there is no son, but there would be other chances, and perhaps he would feel greater joy when that occasion arrived. At the moment, I had no honest reason to fear Mr. Burkton had broken his promise to my sister or myself.
One evening, I watched baby Edna while Zella, exhausted, reclined on the sofa in hopes of regaining her strength. I cooed at the beautiful infant, her bright blue eyes shining in laughter and tears from one moment to the next. Mr. Burkton arrived home from work and only bestowing upon his wife a firm nod of acknowledgment entered into his office and closed the door.
“I do not wish to intrude, but how is Mr. Burkton?” I observed my sister carefully as she opened her eyes, but would not look at me.
“Oh, you know how men are about their work. I swear, he is running the whole company on his own.” Zella put great effort into appearing undaunted by her husband’s entrance or my question.
“No, I am afraid I know nothing of how men are, aside from father, of course. I do not recall him ever treating mother in such a fashion.” My words were direct, but I kept my eyes on baby Edna.
“Irma, honestly. I have requested your assistance because I am a new mother. I cannot run a household and care for a new child with only two hands, and now I feel as though you are judging my failure at every turn. Do you not wish I succeed?” Zella’s voice was excited, and she was sitting up in frustration. “I do not comprehend you, Irma. Elwood loves me. I know that man loves me. Why will you not trust in what I tell you?” She was standing now—her arms in pleading—her eyes staring out the window as if a phantom conversation was taking place elsewhere. I could not see her face.
“Zella!” Mr. Burkton’s voice rang out from the office in agitation. “I really must work. Please keep your chatter to a modest level.”
“I am sorry, darling. Please forgive me.” Zella’s voice turned from harsh stone to thin and small, the delicate pluck of a harp string.
I gazed upon the scene I had just witnessed. Strangers seemed to dance before me on a stage, reciting lines, makeup covering the true nature of their faces, dress I had never seen, and emotions that could only be displayed in a world made false. My mouth hung agape. I watched the actress Zella dab at the tears that lined her eyes and smooth the fraying of her hair.
I stood up and brought Edna to her room. She was near enough to her time of rest, and I rocked the cradle and watched her blue eyes slowly close in sleep’s sweet escape. I returned to the playroom in hopes that what I had seen was only a dream, that I too had fallen asleep with Edna and was just waking from a horrid nightmare. I stood in the doorway, and I saw Zella, red swollen eyes, sunken cheeks, knitted brow, a manner I had not seen her in since her marriage was announced.
“Zella, what has happened here? What have you withheld from me?” I spoke softly, allowing no anger to reach my tongue.
Zella wrung her hands and paced about the room. She looked from ceiling to floor as if praying to the Lord and feeling he had forsaken her. I allowed her to work through her thoughts. I knew that rushing her would not garner any answers, especially not the truth.
She glanced at me amid her pacing, “God forgive me, Irma. I am sorry for speaking to you in that way. I did not mean a word.”
“I know,” I said. In hearing these words, she stiffened.
“Of course, you do. How could I deceive you?” Zella asked. It was not a question meant to be answered, but directed towards herself. She shook her head as if shaking off the fog in her mind. “Elwood has gone to bed. We must speak.”
I had never seen Zella appear so firm, so sure. For the first time, her angel wings had slowed, and she was lowered to the ground with the rest of humanity. Zella’s years began to show. Though she was still young, I saw for the first time that she had indeed changed. She was not the same girl that whimpered in the night or clung to my hand in the graveyard. In contrast, I felt my youth. I felt my sister had been where I had not. She had learned lessons I had not. She was forced to stand without me and become wiser for it, but as these things do, they had taken a toll upon her. I felt smaller and distant from her somehow. Not until this moment had I felt the year and some months between us. I was naïve; I was innocent; I was ignorant of what had been suffered in this house.
We sat together on the sofa—facing towards one another, but not touching.
“Irma, I have not been honest with you about what has been happening here. I have hidden things from you for the first time in my life, and I must say I am not entirely sure why I have done this.”
Zella gripped her dress and looked away as a full tear rolled down her cheek and splashed onto her hand. “I have looked to you for everything…when I should have taken care of you.”
“Zella, no!” I petitioned.
“Yes. Yes.” She answered resolutely, unwavering. I felt my place was to stay silent. “Sweet Irma, you have been my baby sister, and I have looked to you for all my strength because I felt I had none of my own. I do not know if I do possess my own wellspring of strength, but I must find it, for if I do not…I will not survive this.” She reached for my hand, and I hurriedly offered it. Her hands were cold and clammy. With great effort, she continued.
“I must confess…I am mercilessly unhappy.” The air in the room grew colder in an instant. “I was a fool to believe that Elwood could provide me what we have known we were only able to provide for ourselves. We always knew that there was something that plagued us. A need to read by the windows and walk among the stones. We had no desire to heed the instructions of others. Willful? I believe so, but you cannot force a fish to fly.” A feeble smile passed her lips, and I felt my heart throbbing painfully. Her despair was tangible, its load weighing down my limbs with each passing word. “It is far beyond what I could have imagined. If only I could forget him.”
“What more could there be than your feelings of loneliness?” I asked. My mind sifted through solutions, choices. Of course, there were none to be had.
“I fear I may be replaced,” Zella said. These words were spoken quickly, hurried through, as if in saying them was to bring their meaning to life.
“What…what do you mean?” I asked.
“Elwood does not love me, this is without question.”
“How could that be? He has confessed his love for you to me. I have heard him say how much he…,” my voice trailed off with the shaking of Zella’s head.
“He was dishonest, Irma. He does not love me. That is all.” Zella spoke stoically, the meaning sure and complete. There was nothing more to discuss.
Zella continued to describe the way Elwood had treated her from the moment they had wed. She had fallen in love with a man who did not exist. While it was not uncommon to marry for convenience rather than love, it was far stranger and more painful when the man professed undying love for you only to find he felt no such emotions only a week after the wedding. Unfortunately, marriage had often been an unhappy situation for many women, finding they never loved or ever could love their husband, but they endured his existence and bore his children. Likewise, Zella’s romance had never truly begun because it had never been.
“Elwood’s heart was never mine, it has always belonged to another. And even this I could handle, even this I could bear if he did not treat me so cruelly.” Zella’s eyes clamped tight as tears ran down her flushed face. I could not withstand this torture. Watching her in this despair was more than I could tolerate. I felt both the heat of love and icy cold of detestation.
Elwood had been in love with the same woman for many years. Unfortunately, she was not his wife. Tillie Vaughn was a woman even younger than Zella. He had known her since childhood, but could not marry her due to her station in life. Still he was able to seduce her into an unscrupulous relationship that left her unable to marry another and him with both wife and mistress. Tillie was an inarguable beauty; her skin was pale, nearly translucent, with hair so fair it likened to silver rays of moonlight. She had appeared at a few gatherings and was hardly seen against the walls, her poor class, lack of connections, and timid demeanor left her with little merit despite her angelic face.
Very late one evening, Zella saw him approaching in a coach with her. Tillie's pale white locks caught the light, and there was no mistaking her identity. “When he arrived home the next morning, I asked him immediately what he was doing with another woman," Zella said. "I told him he was breaking my heart, not to mention what he would do to our reputations if anyone was to discover them.”
“Whatever did he have to say for himself?” I asked.
Zella’s dark eyes turned darker still, remembering a boundless pain that still struck her to her core. “He responded by revealing he had been doing this for years, and my presence in his life was not going to alter it.”
I inhaled sharply and watched my sister contort in her seat, bend in half, and drop her head in her hands.
“Oh, Zella. How could he do this? How could this happen to such a soul, the purest person I have ever known? My dear sister, we can undo this damage,” I swiftly knelt at her feet.
“Irma, there is nothing to be done. I am his wife, the mother of his child. I gave birth to little Edna in hopes that she would amend his position, but he has all but disregarded her entirely.”
For some time, we wept in silence. The clock marked the hour, and we felt unmoved. I held my sister, allowed her tears to soak my dress, and caressed her head in heartbreak. How could such a demon fool such an angel? I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness; all that I had done unto this point seemed inane, for I had failed her. I had failed to chase away the ghouls and ghosts that haunted her.
“There are worse crimes to be suffered,” Zella spoke, her words unaffected.
“I care not for what others have suffered, but only what you suffer. I will find a way out of this.”
“I could not stand for a divorce, nor will Elwood agree to one.” Her empty eyes swept the room. “I do worry so for Edna, I must remain strong for that little darling.”
“You will, Zella. You will love her enough for all the parents in the world, of that there is no doubt. We will find the path to a solution. It resides somewhere…”
“I have not misplaced my future, Irma. It is set. It is over for me,” Zella cried, her voice now shrill nearing hysteria.
“I promise you, dear sister, I will find a way to mend what has been broken. Do not think one more thought about it.” I took Zella into my arms firmly. There would be some way to save my sister, and I was bound to find it.
The graveyard stood in perfect peace; the early summer breeze was weaving around the thick oaks and rustling the long forlorn hair of the weeping willows, the sky, cloudless and open, as if with one leap I could find myself in the arms of God himself. I walked along the velvet grass and felt the sun warm the skin of my cheeks, which sent a radiating heat along my spine. I felt myself unfurl like a flower in this grand place, the stones like dear friends. Often Zella and I would read the names and the interlude between birth and death was imagined. The person who lay in the grave became whomever and whatever we fancied. The old and young were spun great stories of lives that far exceeded reality and provided a whimsical and magical air to death and the life that had been lead.
I used this place to think unclouded, my thoughts unobstructed. I felt I was in the best company, by myself and by the spirits of those who cared to listen. There was nothing frightful about the dead, for life itself seemed far more painful than the peace of a graveyard and the promise of our Lord. When many said in their condolences that their loved one had gone to a better place, for myself, those were not just empty words, but they had a meaning that resonated deep within my soul. Life was beautiful, but endlessly filled with horror while the afterlife promised far greater release than any that could be found among the living. Yet, despite the tranquility of death, we must find our rightful place in life, and these gravestones always reminded me of that truth.
I thought of Zella’s marriage and how living as a selfless wife and mother was made to be a prize. There was no argument that it certainly was for the right woman, but it seemed impossible to have the opinion that it was not indeed for every woman. The sole purpose of women was dictated by the society around us and while things had improved in what women could have in their life, every step produced both limitless effort and little reward, often times no reward at all. The value of a life was not insisted upon by gender, it could not be so. Furthermore, what right does a man have to ruin a woman, anymore than a woman has to ruin a man?
What abounded to be the most egregious of Elwood’s sin is that he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, he could continue without resistance. There would be nothing to fear, no one would or could stop him. Reputation and money was enough to recommend him and protect him from having a conscious. Thus he moved carelessly, coldly, without any regard for Zella. It was this fact alone that left me shaking with anger and despair for my sister. Elwood knew that there would be no negative ramifications for his cruelty, only for that of my sister; she is the only one who would be forced to suffer in silence, as his life remained relatively undisturbed. It was a vile act that should not go unpunished. I only wondered if God would provide his punishment in this lifetime.
This thought brought me back to my environment, the land of the dead, the calm of the relieved as they had all been relieved of this life and its harm. My heart pounded against my ribs as I thought that when Elwood’s retribution would be served, my sister very well would live a life of loneliness and despair, while Elwood had lived a life of immorality and sinful amusement. This hardly seemed fair.
It was not my decision to make; it was not my duty to judge. I can only carry my own sins. But is it not my obligation to care for my sister, to save her as I would save my own child? Should I simply allow her to be fed to this wolf? My pace quickened with my pulse, and a thin layer of perspiration formed on my skin.
Perhaps I can forgive Elwood Burkton; perhaps I can understand how a man who has been raised in his fortunate situation may become so unkind. Yes, I could forgive him; yes, I could place my tender foot in his shoe and sympathize with what society has taught him to be— especially against women. I understand completely that Elwood Burkton was not taught to truly love or respect women and for that I forgive him. However, with all the forgiveness in my heart, I decided he must die.
The thought crossed my mind quickly and decidedly, as if it were a natural occurrence. And this is where I must be honest in my heart and to my Lord: I so desired to feel shock and distress in my contemplation of being rid of Mr. Burkton. I must confess I did not. I waited in the silence of my mind for feelings of confrontation and opposition to my unholy contemplation. Resistance did not come; the thought was only followed by deeper silence and knowing that this was the only way. I must carry this horrific burden, the burden of taking another’s life, and do it for the life of my sister. If the Lord did not forgive me, I would understand, but that is all that I could do. I moved forward with love in my heart. I prayed for forgiveness night and day, but the decision was made, and the course set my mind in motion to devise a plan to murder Mr. Elwood Burkton.
Days and nights passed in a slow and steady way, the weight of the second hand seemed to land on my shoulder to knock upon my bony protrusion and shake me to wakefulness. I could think of nothing else. My thoughts were occupied with Mr. Burkton and how his handsome face must fall from time forever. To imagine him existing no more was a strange and complicated matter to consider. The father of my darling niece must live and breathe no more at the fate of my hands—a nightmarish thought—but I had to face it nonetheless. I breathed not a word of it to Zella in fear it would cause a mental hysteria that would leave her broken and unable to recover. Zella had grown as a woman, but I believed she could not handle the truth of my future plans for her wicked husband…at least for the moment.
I also used all the time I could to pray fervently for my soul and the soul of Mr. Burkton. Though I was slowly working on my scheme, I felt it still important not to lose faith in the Almighty and the fate of my spirit in the heavenly or hellish realm. It did not take long before Zella realized that something was appropriating my mind and altering my temper. I assured her to the best of my ability that it was the summer heat or simply my desire to help her.
Then I could not hide from her any longer and confessed my decision to end her husband’s life. To my great surprise, she did not react in torment or in overwhelming fear of me, but with a thoughtful silence that made me tense and relax simultaneously. As we sat in stillness, the tea cooling between us, she brought the cup to her pouty lips as if to take a sip. Her eyes seemed to search mine, and yet through them, past my secret blue orbs and into the dominion beyond.
“I cannot let you do that, you mustn’t have that affliction put upon you for the rest of your life.” She spoke calmly, without alarm.
“Zella, this is the answer. I have prayed upon it many a day and night. I am prepared to face the consequences. I am prepared to face what may come of this if it leads to your freedom, to Edna’s true freedom.”
“Do you not think I have imagined such rash action?” Her eyes fluttered in disbelief.
I chocked on my words and was left silent.
“I have thought that it was not completely beyond me. I walked in that beautiful graveyard with little Edna, and I thought, or perhaps tried not to think of how I might…” Here she stumbled for a moment and stood to regain the earth beneath her feet. “That I might end him. But I know that I have made my decisions in life, and it would be ungrateful of me to end the life of the man who assisted me in making my precious Edna.”
“No, Zella, it would not be ungrateful. Are you not worth surviving? Are we meant to simply resign to what our father’s have provided us? We must make our own way.” I stopped abruptly realizing I may sound unhinged, but in arguing her point I was promoting my plot in my mind.
“Irma, I cannot risk myself or the life of my—”
“That is why I would take it into my hands. I could never risk your life or that of my niece.” I interrupted—my face growing warm.
“I cannot let you do it. I cannot sacrifice you either, Irma.” Her voice caught in her throat, eyes glazed in tears.
“You will not lose me. I have thought of a plan.”
We settled ourselves as I began to explain the plan that would leave us forever altered. Once I had given thought to forming a strategy, I felt as if the world were supporting my actions, telling me that this was the proper course to take despite its moral ambiguity. It, indeed, would be difficult to murder Mr. Burkton, but the path was clear. I described to Zella, tense with anticipation, that we could kill Mr. Burkton, rid ourselves of the evidence, and never be suspected.
Tillie Vaughn, Mr. Burkton’s fair lover, had a father, a man of the land who suffered three unmarried daughters. The family was poor, only given attention due to Elwood Burkton who bestowed a small amount of money and great attention on vulnerable Tillie. The attention, financial and otherwise, that Mr. Burkton granted Tillie Vaughn was believed to be wholly appropriate, like an elder brother caring for a young sister. Due to their harmless relationship as children, it seemed innocent and welcomed while still done in a discreet manner. Unfortunately, Tillie’s family was unaware that the relationship had long since transitioned into something that was improper and, if discovered, would completely tarnish the reputation of this young girl and her family.
My sister’s eyes widened as she wondered if lives would be ruined because of our plan, lives other than her husband’s. I quickly defended that this act must be done, for she must think of herself and her little Edna. Tillie unfortunately, unwisely, made her decision to enter into an immoral relationship with a married man, and her consequences would be served sooner than perhaps she had expected.
“The child, though sinful, had entered into this debauchery under a great falsehood. Lord only knows the lies Elwood has whispered into her ear,” Zella sighed.
“I have no doubt, dear sister, that Mr. Burkton did persuade Miss Vaughn into this wicked affair, but she has dined in your home! She knows clearly of your existence, and the child you have bared!” I felt as if gasping for air.
Zella seemed dejected but thoughtful, “Yes, yes I suppose that is correct. I just loathe ruining someone’s…” Her voice trailed off. Her eyes began to tear.
“We must expose your husband’s infidelity and blame his murder upon Miss Vaughn, jealous that she could not be married to Elwood herself and bare his child,” I said pragmatically. This was the only way, and Zella would just have to understand it.
She stared out the window and took a deep breath. After a moment in thought, she turned to me and nodded solemnly. It was agreed.
The details of the plan I could not bare to tell dear Zella. Corruption enough had rained upon her, and I would not do her more harm. Furthermore, there was a greater detail I also failed to mention.
For a few outings, I followed Mr. Burkton and Miss Vaughn. I needed to know where they frequented and what place would be the best scene to orchestrate the killing. Many times, they sat in the dark booth of a theater or dined in small, unknown restaurants—going by aliases. However, the most convenient place they visited was the Magpies’ Inn. This strange little tavern resided down a narrow cobblestone road that was poorly lit. The clapboard siding was covered in peeling dark navy paint, the shutters a soiled gray. However, both siding and shutters seemed black by eleven o’clock. The only light available was offered by a street lamp a few paces away from the entry, and only pooled directly beneath the lamp providing no beam for the few mossy stone steps that led to the threshold.
I watched from the dark as the lovers stumbled in, clearly intoxicated from dinner and wine. In that moment, I knew I must make my peace with God, for our relationship would not be the same for very long. I wore a thin dress beneath two light coats. And held the knife, Mr. Burkton’s knife to be exact, in my purse close to my breast.
I waited for my courage to fail me, I waited for the overwhelming desire to head back home, but those things never came. Instead, I felt my resolve strengthen, and my heart, though beating quickly, was steady as a drum pumping my body full of vital blood to carry me through this night of terror. My palms perspired inside my gloves, and I longed for them to breathe, but I knew I could not remove them. I would not leave a trace of myself behind, not even the sweat upon my hands.
I followed them in, and they quickly asked for lodging. I was relieved to see the tavern was alive with people, barely sober, too intoxicated to remember a ghost like myself. I took a table near the back by the window and held a glass that was left as if I had been occupying this small wood bench all evening. Mr. Burkton was without any knowledge of my presence; this fact did not surprise me.
I tried to overhear the room number, but could not, or perhaps these rooms were without numbers, that was possible also. I suddenly felt panicked, deeply confused as if I had not given enough time and thought to my plot. I felt the adrenaline run through me for a moment and knew I must retrieve my bearings. Remember Irma, poor souls are killed every day, and no one finds the monster that did it.
I looked around quickly to search for eyes that might have caught a good glimpse of me. There were none. As Mr. Burkton and Miss Vaughn slowly climbed the stairs, I made my way through the crowd and did my best to follow, but not too closely.
“Excuse me, miss!” a voice rang out, and my blood stopped, for I knew this person was addressing me.
My tongue went thick, and I could barely reply. I tried to alter my voice, “Yes dearie?” I crooned sweetly.
“Do you want a room? You can only go upstairs if you plan on paying money for a room.” She seemed only slightly agitated, and I nearly prepared to faint. I glanced up the steep steps at my disappearing pray.
“Could I, may I? I have a dreadful pounding head. I must lay down. I only wish to lay down for a moment…” I sputtered trying to hide my face and lighten my voice.
“For an hour or a week, Miss, you’ve got to pay.” She said brutishly while spilling ale into a mug.
“Why, yes, of course.” I was stunned, but what choice did I have? Now they were going to look at me, see me clearly. But perhaps I would look different tomorrow. I pulled down the brim of my hat and quickly fished through my purse for coins. The knife nearly startled me though I knew it was there.
I handed her the fee, probably far more than necessary, and began to turn.
“Miss! We need your name Miss.”
“Yes dear, first and last, you understand these things.” She licked the bottom of the writing utensil in preparation.
“O’Neil. Roberta O’Neil.” I lied and sighed inwardly, surely that was simple enough. I began to depart yet again.
“O’Neil, you say? Oh do you know Patty? Everyone knows Patty.” She came around the large wooden desk and walked towards me. I felt each step she took.
“No, no, I don’t know any Patty.” I muttered, perspiration dotting my forehead.
“Really? Here, let me take a look at ya, you might be one of his cousins.” She clapped her hands and opened her arms preparing for me to come to her so to examine my face. I was trembling.
“No, no, I have recently married. I have received this name. It is not my own.”
“Oh well, congratulations. We must get you a drink.” She clapped her hands again her thick arms wringing in jubilation. Perhaps I gave her far too many coins for the room, and she felt I desired special treatment.
“No, really, my head is very ill, I must lie down at once, please excuse me.” With those words, I spun quickly and scampered up the steps. My face hot as an iron. Once I made it to the hallway, I licked my dry mouth. I had never been so thirsty, yet so averse to drink in all my life.
I peered down the dark hallway. I was unsure if it was poorly lit or nearly my eyes darkening due to faintness. I tried to take a deep breath and close my eyes. I reopened them again, the hallway looking just as dim and loathsome. Tiny candles lit the way, but only just enough to indicate there were doors.
I couldn’t imagine how I would find Mr. Burkton. I stepped to the first room and pressed my ear to the door listening acutely. I heard nothing. I did the same to the second and third door and heard nothing. In the fourth door, I heard a loud snoring, but nothing else. Finally, at the fifth door, I heard deep laughter and soft giggles. This must be Mr. Burkton and Miss Vaughn’s room. I listened for a moment more. Miss Vaughn sounded like a child; I could barely picture a grown woman behind the thin wood door.
I made the sign of the cross and gently knocked on the door. A rustling was heard from within, and I prepared myself.
Mr. Elwood Burkton opened the door. His hair was ruffled, his eyes bloodshot, his shirt undone to the navel. I dared not look at his body, but bore straight through his eyes. He was clearly stunned to see me.
“Mr. Burkton you must allow me in. I must discuss an emergency with your wife and child,” I spoke firmly.
Mr. Burkton blinked wildly as if to wash away my image. “Irma, how did you find us? Surely, this can wait until—”
“Absolutely not! There isn’t any time! Edna is very ill, and I was sent here to find you.” I pushed passed him into the room and closed the door silently behind me. I expected greater resistance, but he was wet with drink. I looked about the room quickly and saw no Miss Vaughn.
“What is wrong with my child? You must tell me,” Mr. Burkton said shaking his head. Genuine concern creased his brow, and for a moment I felt a twinge of guilt. I then reminded myself whom he was with currently. His daughter was just another piece of property not a young child that was in desperate need of a loving father.
“Well, Mr. Burkton, I do not even know where to begin. I am overwhelmed by the horror of the information I have to share.” I moved about the room guiding him with my steps. Like herding precious sheep, I moved him away from the door and closer to the bed. He followed my steps perfectly, stumbling slightly.
“Please, Irma. You must tell me what is wrong with my darling Edna.” He looked as if he were about to cry, but at that moment I heard a rustle from the armoire and knew where his companion had fled. My sympathy dissipated.
He watched me stare at his lover’s hiding place and interrupted my gaze, “Irma, I demand you explain this instant.” With all his efforts, he could not sound like a man to me. In this moment, he appeared only a sad boy, a boy who would not be minded by any mother and was far beyond customary punishment.
I could not withstand it any longer. “What are you doing here, Mr. Burkton?” I examined him cruelly.
“What do you mean…I have come here on business…it grew too late to come home…what is wrong with Edna?” he backed up slowly.
“Mr. Burkton, I must confess I do not believe you. I do not think this has anything to do with your publishing business. In fact, I think it has far more to do with you and your needs, Mr. Burkton, your abominable needs.” I took a few more steps closer growing in height. I felt him shrink beneath me.
“What are you talking about? I will not be spoken to in this way. I demand…I demand you tell me what you are here for. You, you are not telling me the truth,” he stammered.
“You would know all about not telling the truth, wouldn’t you, Mr. Burkton.” My face turned to a wicked smile, and I felt myself grow a few inches more.
Mr. Burkton stepped back and fell upon the bed, helpless beneath my scrutiny, my judgment, my wrath.
“You enjoy telling vile lies don’t you, Mr. Burkton? You enjoy taking a fine, intelligent, glorious woman and nailing her to your boot! You enjoy tearing her down and watching her become nothing more than some idle decoration for your pleasure! Don’t you, Mr. Burkton?” My voice did not rise above a whisper, but it was sharp and fiendish.
I now stood over Mr. Burkton, a cowering child beneath me, shocked and confused, naked to my fury. “Answer me, Mr. Burkton! You did that to my Zella, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”
His face contorted in horror as I pulled the knife from my purse and plunged it deep into his chest piercing his heart. He did not scream, but heaved a deep and painful groan that turned to a guttural animalistic whine. With a bodily strength I did not know I possessed, I pushed the blade deeper and twisted it, shredding his flesh. I then withdrew the knife and watched the blood surge from the wound, thick dark blood, spilling out of his white body. All the while his great masculine face stared into mine, cheeks red than waxen, mouth twisted in agony and astonishment. His dark brown eyes wide and pleading, pleading until the last moment when they saw nothing more.
I felt my body, pulsating, vital and alive. I felt as if all my senses were more acute, I was sure I could hear the sound of Mr. Burkton’s heart slowing to a halt. I could nearly taste the fear and horror around me, and my eyes felt open to every inch of the room.
Screaming, Tillie jumped from the armoire. I covered her mouth and shoved her back to the wall, “Quiet, you stupid sow!”
Her large, icy blue eyes rocked in her head as she looked around the room, tears streaming down her face as she watched the life leak from her lover. “I understand you are frightened, girl, but you know not what you have done. If you wish to live you will do as I say. Can you do that?”
She nodded her head to concede, and I slowly let her go. Matted with sweat at the forehead, her corn silk strands hung down by her slender waist. Her cheeks, normally a milky white, were ashen pale; she appeared as a beautiful ghost, crystal tears coursing down her glistening cheeks. Her mouth hung open as if in a silent scream, her bloodless finger digging into her face in terror and disbelief. I am sure this is the worst sight she had ever beheld in all her young life.
I moved towards her, her large eyes staring at Mr. Burkton. She shook her head violently and backed away. “I won’t hurt you, girl. You must listen to me. I will explain all of this to you on the way home. Now you must gather your things. Here,” I took a coin from Mr. Burkton’s trousers’ pocket and handed it to her. She would not take it. “Take it child I am warning you...” I was facing her directly, and she reached out with her left hand feebly. “Get your things, gather them now, so I can take you away.” She would not move. “Go now!” I shouted. She started at my demand and began to bustle about the room to retrieve her dressing; again, she picked up each item with her left hand.
I came soundlessly behind her. Watching the fragile silver haired nymph, silently crying, bundle her petticoat in her reed thin arms, I bent down gently, holding my breath. I took the knife into my left hand and whispered, “I am sorry child for your naiveté” and slid the blade from right to left across her spindle thin porcelain throat. The blood erupted from the gash. Her head fell back almost looking at me, her eyes wild and helpless, red rimmed in tears. She made a terrible sound, chocking, gurgling, blood bubbling into her mouth...my stomach churned.
I grabbed her limp hand and entwined the knife into her clawed fingers. I was shaking myself, my mind racing, and yet unable to catch any distinct thoughts. I stood and dared not look at my victims, for I knew I would not be able to finish if I did. I looked down; I was splattered with dark red blood. For a moment, I lost my balance. Get hold of yourself, Irma, do not fail now! I tore the blood stained coat from my body and then the soiled gloves from my trembling hands. I wrapped the gloves and the coat in a ball and stuffed it under my arm, careful to conceal any visible stain from view.
I took a look about the room for anything I may have left behind, careful to avoid the bodies of the dead. The only item I left behind intentionally was the weapon, and knowing this I took a final gulp of air into my lungs and straightened myself. I unlatched the door and stepped into the dark hallway. For a moment I felt invisible as if I had stepped into the shadows never to be seen again. I made my way to the end of the hall and started down the rickety wood steps. I saw the woman ascending them with a look of concern on her face.
“What was that horrible sound? I heard a scream and a commotion. What is the matter, dear?”
“Well, of course you heard a scream.” I replied impertinently, barely looking from underneath the brim of my bonnet. “There was a rat in my room! How am I to rest when this place is infested with rodents? Good night, madam!” I held my bundle closer and pushed passed her on the stair, leaving her with a face full of shock.
“I am sorry, miss. Can we offer you another room?” She called after me. I was already out the door and into the night air.
It was not long before the scandal reached the papers. For Zella, the pain was real. She truly lost a husband that she wished did not have to die, and she was heartbroken at the disgrace that spread, which left her and the Vaughns inconsolable.
What Zella was not prepared for was for the death of Miss Vaughn, and I expected the great blow it would bring my dear sister.
A day before Elwood’s funeral, we sat in summer light cheerlessly and without chatter—sipping tea. Zella was free, but could not experience this happiness until she was truly alone, without visitors or mourners viewing her every move. She also had to deal with her own darkness and her bewilderment and horror at my choice.
She broke the silence without warning. “I thought we agreed that Miss Vaughn would be blamed for Elwood’s passing not…killed.” She shifted uncomfortably and fought back tears.
“Zella, I could not tell you. But I knew from the beginning it had to be done. I despise lying to you, but I did not want it weighing on your conscience.” I spoke as gently as my voice would allow.
“And it is not on my conscience at present?” she whispered harshly, a tear hanging from her thick bottom lash.
“No, no, it does not because you did not concede to it. You did not know I was going to do it. Therefore, you cannot be blamed. It is my cross to bare,” I retorted.
“How are we to be happy after this, Irma? How can I look at my daughter?” She stood in anguish as she looked through the glass at the swaying maples.
“Do not. Do not do this, Zella. You do not have to forgive me; I would not blame you if you did not, but you will not squander the life I have provided you. You will not waste the freedom for yourself and Edna. I will not allow it. Not after what I have sacrificed.” I stood and yelled at her back, my throat thick with pain, begging to be released with tears of my own. I could not hold them back any longer. I collapsed in my chair, and sobbed into my hands.
“Of course, I forgive you, Irma. Of course, I forgive you. You have always taken care of me, and now you care for my child and myself. I am sorry if I seemed ungrateful.” She fell to her knees and attempted to pull my hands away from my face to no avail. “Irma, I do not fully understand what consequences will come. I do not know if God will forgive either of us. But what is done is done. And I promise that I will not waste what has been so selflessly bestowed upon me. I will not squander this great liberty.”
We held each other, knowing that this dark, unholy secret strengthened our bond despite blackening our souls.
The funeral had ended. We stood alone long after the mourners departed. The birds sang unwittingly around us, the sun glistening through the trees to ensure us that life does continue. We huddled in our heavy thick crepe dresses. Black handkerchiefs touched to our eyes. Zella stood and stared at the stone and the dark wood coffin that now filled the deep earth.
“We must put this behind us.” I gently squeezed her shoulders.
“Yes, we have to for our Edna.” Zella had no tears left, and her dark eyes were emotionless.
“For her and ourselves. We deserve life as well, and we must never forget it.”
Zella turned her head and studied my face, as if something was said that she never thought of before. “Yes you are right. We deserve to live without this shadow cast over us.” She smiled weakly.
We often visit Mr. Burkton’s grave. We freshen his flowers and say a few prayers. And most importantly, we still walk among the stones.
The cemetery holds greater meaning than it ever had before. Just as life holds more meaning than it ever had before. The iron gates embrace our secrets and our peace. They help us to respect the dead and respect our life.
I still feel safe here amid the swaying branches and the mossy stones.
It will not be long before they place me in the ground, but I say to my Lord: I regret nothing.
Archive: Murder Confession
File number: P86382
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