Neferet's Curse

Page 11

"Emily, I expect you to come down for dinner soon. Afterward, I will call on the Simptons so that you may go to your bed and rest. I want you in good health for Monday next."
"Yes, Father."
* * *
Except for one slight exchange, I had been silent during dinner. In the middle of Father's latest tirade about the excesses of the Exposition and his worry that he would, once again, be proved correct and the bank would lose money, he abruptly changed the subject.
"Emily, are you enjoying the time you volunteer with the GFWC each week?"
I am not sure what came over me. Perhaps it was how utterly exhausted I'd been by the subterfuge required to keep living a life wherein I had been forced to play the part of dutiful daughter to a man unworthy of the title of father. Perhaps it was because of the growing coldness within me, but I'd decided not to lie or evade Father's question. I met his gaze and told the truth.
"No. Mrs. Armour is a hypocritical old woman. The poor and homeless of Chicago stink and behave badly. Little wonder they have to live on the charity of others. No, Father. I do not enjoy volunteering at the GFWC. It is a charade and a waste of my time."
Humph! He'd made a noise through his nose followed by a guffaw of laughter. "You just spoke almost the exact words I used to your mother when she'd petitioned for the bank's charitable support of the GFWC. Well done you for understanding so quickly what your mother did not comprehend at more than two decades your senior."
I'd held my words. I would not barter my soul to be the ally of a monster. In silence I'd continued to push my food around my plate. Father had watched me while he drank deeply of the wine I had not had an opportunity to water.
"But contributing to a charity is of the utmost importance for those of our social and financial status. Let us imagine, for a moment, you could support a charity of your own inception. Tell me, Emily, what would that be?"
I'd hesitated enough to consider whether there could be any negative ramifications to answering him honestly, and I'd quickly decided I might as well speak my mind. It was obvious that I was his toy, his doll, his diversion. Nothing I said had the least bit of meaning to him at all.
"I would not support the lower stratus of humanity. I would uplift those who strive to reach beyond the bounds of the mundane. I have heard Mr. Ayer speak of his collection of fine Native art. I have heard Mr. Pullman discuss adding electricity to Central Station and his more exclusive cars. If it were within my power, I would create a Palace of Fine Arts, and perhaps even a Museum of Science and Industry, and I would nurture excellence rather than sloth."
"Ha!" Father had slapped the table so violently his wine had sloshed over the rim of his glass, and ran like blood into the fine linen tablecloth. "Well said! Well said! I am in complete agreement. I proclaim from here on you will no longer volunteer at the GFWC." Then he'd leaned forward and captured my gaze. "You know, Alice, we could accomplish great things together, the two of us."
My whole body had gone to ice. "Father, my name is Emily. Alice, your wife, my mother, is dead." Before he could respond I stood and, as George entered the room with the dessert, I'd pressed the back of my hand against my forehead and staggered, almost fainting.
"Miss, are you unwell?" The Negro had asked, frowning in concern.
"As Father said yesterday, I am still fatigued from Saturday night. Could you please call Mary so that she may escort me to my room?" I'd glanced at Father and added, "May I be excused, Father? I would not want my weakness to keep you from calling on the Simptons tonight."
"Very well. George, call for Mary. Emily, I expect your health to be better tomorrow."
"Yes, Father."
"Carson!" He'd bellowed, pushing away the dessert George had left for him. "Bring the carriage around at once!" Without another glance at me, he'd stalked from the room.
Mary had come in immediately thereafter, whispering about the fragility of my health and herding me to my bedchamber as if she were a hen and I her chick. I'd let her help me out of my day dress and into my nightgown, and then curled into bed, assuring her that I would be well if I could just rest. She'd left me quickly, though I could see that she was honestly concerned for me.
What could I have told her? She'd seen the heat of Father's eyes on me. She and George and Carson, and probably even Cook, had to know that he stalked and imprisoned me. Yet none of them had said so much as one word against him. None of them had offered their aid in planning my escape.
No matter. I must be the vehicle of finding my salvation.
But that night, at least for an hour or two, I could orchestrate an escape, if only one of miniscule proportions.
Father would be gone to Simpton House, and would be ingratiating himself in the family and attempting to appear the concerned patriarch for his poor, frail daughter.
Again, no matter. It only meant that I could flee to my garden!
On silent feet I tiptoed down the broad stairway, around the foyer, and made my way out the servants' exit. I was not discovered. The house was as I preferred it, dark and quiet.
The April night was dark, as well. And I found a great ease in the concealing shadows. With no lights on in the rear of the house, and no moon risen as yet, it seemed as if the shadows had overtaken the walkway completely and, welcomingly, they caressed my feet. As I hurried to my willow, I imagined that I drew the shadows to me so that they cloaked my body in darkness so complete that it would never, ever, allow me to be discovered.
I'd followed the music of the fountain to my willow, parted the boughs, and gone to my bench, where I sat with my feet curled beneath me and my eyes closed, breathing deeply and evenly and searching for the serenity I'd always found there.
How long I was there I have no real recollection. I tried to keep time in mind. I knew I must leave my safe place well before Father might return, but I was drinking deeply of the night. I did not want to be parted from it.
The latch of the side gate to the garden had not been oiled, and its protesting voice had my head lifting from my hand and my body trembling.
Moments later a nearby twig on the garden path snapped and I was certain I could make out footsteps shuffling through the gravel of the walkway.
It could not be Father! I'd reminded myself. He does not know I come to the garden!
Or does he? Frantically, my mind had raced back to the conversations of Saturday night-the women complimenting me on my flower arrangements; Mrs. Elcott's sarcasm regarding my regard for the garden.
No. It had not been mentioned that I was spending time in the garden. No! Father could not know. Only Arthur knew. He'd been the only person who-
"Emily? Are you there? Please be there."
As if I'd conjured him, Arthur Simpton's sweet voice preceded him and he'd parted the boughs and stepped through the willow curtain .
"Arthur! Yes, I'm here!" Without allowing myself time to think, I'd acted on instinct and rushed to him, hurling myself into his surprised embrace, weeping and laughing at the same time.
"Emily, my God! Are you truly as unwell as your father says?" Arthur had held me away from him, studying me with concern.
"No, no, no! Oh, Arthur I am perfectly well now!" I hadn't stepped back into his embrace, his hesitance had warned me. I must not appear too desperate-too forward. So I'd wiped my face quickly and smoothed my hair, glad again of the concealing darkness. "Forgive me. I have embarrassed myself dreadfully." I'd turned away from him and hurried back to the safety of my bench.
"Think nothing of it. We both were surprised. There is nothing to forgive," he'd assured me in his calm, kind voice.
"Thank you, Arthur. Would you sit with me for a moment and tell me how you come to be here? I am so glad!" I'd not been able to stop myself from saying. "I've been so distraught at the thought of not visiting you and your family."
Arthur had sat beside me. "At this very moment your father is sipping my father's brandy and they are sharing cigars as well as banking stories. I come to be here because of my concern for you. Mother and I have both been dreadfully worried since receiving your Father's note yesterday saying that you were too unwell to pay any social visits at all this week. Actually, it was Mother's idea that I slip from the house and check on you tonight."
"Did you tell her about the garden?" My voice had gone sharp and cold with fear.
There was enough light for me to see that he was frowning. "No, of course not. I would not betray your confidence, Emily. Mother simply suggested that I call on you. And if you truly could not receive visitors I should leave a note of condolence with your maid. That is exactly what I have done."
"You spoke with Mary?"
"No, I believe it was your father's valet who answered the door."
I nodded impatiently. "Yes, Carson. What did he say?"
"I asked to be announced to you. He said you were indisposed. I said my parents and I were distressed to hear it, and asked that he give you our note of condolence tomorrow." He paused and his frown had begun to tilt up in the expression that had already become so beloved by me. "Then your father's man escorted me from the porch and watched me bicycle away down the street. When I was quite certain he was no longer watching, I circled back and entered through the gate as I did before, hoping that I might find you here."
"And so you have! Arthur, you are so clever!" I'd placed my hand over his and squeezed. He'd smiled and squeezed my hand in return. I released him slowly, understanding that I must not offer too much too soon.
"So you have recovered? You are well?"
I'd drawn a deep breath. I knew I must tread carefully. My future-my safety-my salvation depended upon it.
"Oh, Arthur, this is so difficult for me to tell you. It-it makes me feel disloyal to Father to admit the truth."
"You? Disloyal? I can hardly imagine it."
"But I'm afraid if I speak the truth I will sound disloyal," I'd said softly.
"Emily, I believe in truth. To tell it is to show a loyalty to God, and that is beyond any loyalty we hold to man. Besides, we are friends, and it is not disloyal to share a confidence with a friend."
"As my friend, would you hold my hand as I tell you? I feel so frightened and alone." I'd added a small, hiccupping sob.
"Of course, sweet Emily!" He'd captured my hand in his. I remember how wonderful it was to feel the strength and sureness of him, and what a stark contrast that was to Father's hot, heavy touch.
"Then this is the truth. It seems as if Father is going mad. He wishes to control my every move. I was not unwell after Saturday night, but he suddenly refused to allow me to call on your parents. He has also forbidden me to continue my volunteer work that I have been doing weekly at the GFWC, and that cause was so important to my mother!" I'd stifled another sob and clung to Arthur's hand. "He has said I may not leave Wheiler House until Monday next, and then I am only allowed to attend the opening of the Columbian Exposition and the University Club dinner afterward because several influential ladies have requested my presence. I know it is as you said before, that Father is mourning the loss of his wife, but his behavior has become so controlling that it is frightening! Oh, Arthur, tonight at dinner when I tried to insist that I continue Mother's volunteerism with the GFWC I thought he was going to strike me!" I began to sob in earnest. Finally, Arthur pulled me into his arms.
"Emily, Emily, please don't cry," he'd said soothingly as he patted my back.
I'd pressed myself against him, crying softly on his shoulder, becoming increasingly aware that I had nothing on except my thin nightdress and my loosened dressing gown. I am not ashamed to admit that I thought of the beauty and fullness of my body as I clung to him.
His hand had stopped patting me, and had begun traveling up and down my back, warmly, intimately. When his breathing began to deepen and his touch had gone from consolation to caress, I'd realized his body had begun to react to the scant amount of cloth separating his hand and my na**d flesh. I'd let instinct guide me. I'd held to him more tightly, shifting my br**sts so that they were flattened against his chest, and then I pulled abruptly from his arms. With trembling hands I'd retied my dressing gown and turned away from him.
"What you must think of me! My behavior is so … so-" I'd stuttered, trying to find my mother's words. "So forward!"
"No, Emily. You must not think that, for I do not think that. You are obviously distraught and not yourself."
"But that is the trouble, Arthur. I am myself because I have only myself on which to depend. I am completely alone with Father. I so wish Mother was here and could help me." I hadn't had to pretend the sob that followed those words.
"But I am here! You are not alone. Emily, give me leave to speak to my mother and my father of your troubles. They are wise. They will know what to do."
I'd quelled a fluttering of hope and shook my head miserably. "No, there is nothing to be done. Arthur, Father frightens me dreadfully. If your father said anything to him about his treatment of me, it would only make my situation worse."
"Emily, I cannot promise that my father will not speak to yours. I had wanted more time to move ahead slowly and carefully, but with things as they are, it doesn't seem we are destined to be afforded time." He'd drawn a deep breath, and turned to face me on the bench. Gently, chastely, he'd taken my hands in his and continued. "Emily Wheiler, I would like to ask permission to formally court you, with the express purpose of making you my wife. Will you accept me?"

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