Neferet's Curse

Page 14

"You look lovely, dove," Mary had spoken quietly, and her mouth had formed a tight line as she'd studied me.
Fever and whiskey had flushed my face. My breath was shallow and it rattled in my chest. "Lovely," I'd repeated dreamily. "That is not how I would describe myself."
The door to my bedchamber had opened then and Father, holding a square velvet jewelry box, had entered the room. He'd stopped abruptly and stared with us at my reflection.
"Leave us, Mary," he'd commanded.
Before she could move, I'd grabbed her wrist. "Mary cannot leave, Father. She is not finished helping me dress.
"Very well then." He strode to me. "Move aside, woman," he'd said, brushing Mary aside and taking her place behind me when she'd retreated to the corner of the room.
His eyes had burned my reflection. I'd had to force my hands to stay at my sides instead of instinctively attempting to cover myself.
"You are a picture, my dear. A picture." His gruff voice had the small hairs on my arms standing on end. "You know I've seen you so little this past week, I almost forgot how beautiful you are."
"I have not been well, Father," I'd said.
"You look well-well indeed! Your color is so high it makes me believe you have been looking forward to this evening as much as I."
"Nothing could make me miss this evening," I'd said coolly and truthfully.
He'd chuckled. "Well, my dear, I have something for you. I know you will wear them as proudly as your mother before you." He'd opened the square velvet box to reveal the triple strands of Mother's exquisite pearls. Taking them from the box, which he tossed away uncaringly, he lifted them and placed them around my neck, latching the thick, emerald studded clasp and then, with hot hands, he'd lifted my hair so that they settled heavily on my chest in a triple waterfall of luster.
My hand went up and touched them. They felt very cold against the heat of my skin.
"They become you, just as they did your mother." Father placed his hands heavily on my shoulders.
Our gazes had met in the mirror. I'd kept my revulsion carefully hidden, but when he just stood there and stared, I freed the rattling cough I'd been repressing. Covering my mouth, I stepped out of his grasp and hurried to my vanity where I finished coughing into a lace handkerchief before taking a long drink from Mary's tea.
"Are you truly ill?" he'd asked, looking more angry than concerned.
"No," I'd assured him. "It's just a tickle in my throat and my nerves, Father. Tonight is an important evening."
"Well, then, finish dressing and join me downstairs. The carriage is here and the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition waits for no man, or woman!" Chuckling at his poor joke, he left my room, banging the door against the wall after him.
"Mary, help me into my shoes," I'd said and coughed again.
"Emily, you really are not well. Perhaps you should stay home," she said as she bent to fasten the buckle on my beautiful silk and leather pumps.
"As with most of my life, I find that I have very little choice left to me. I must go, Mary. It will be all the worse for me if I stay."
She hadn't said anything more, but her pitying expression had been words enough.
I'd been grateful that the carriage ride to the Midway was blissfully short, though the roads were clogged with people. Even Father gaped around us. "My God! The entire world is in Chicago!" he'd exclaimed.
I was glad that he was too busy to stare at me, and too busy to notice that when I dabbed my lace handkerchief to my mouth it was because I was attempting to cover a cough.
Even ill and nervous as I was, I will never forget my first glimpse of the Midway and the miracle that was the World's Columbian Exposition. It was, indeed, a great, white city, luminous as my mother's pearls. Awestruck, I held to Father's arm and allowed him to lead me to the group of dignitaries that waited in an elegant group before the street entrance of the Midway Plaisance.
"Burnham! Well done-well done!" Father had bellowed as we joined them. "Ryerson, Ayer, Field! Look at the crowds. I knew if they could get it built it would do well, and by God, I was right," he'd blustered, then he'd freed my arm and hurried to join the other men.
As Father clapped Burnham on the back, Arthur Simpton stepped past him, met my eyes, and tipped his hat to me. His smile beamed happiness, and some of the tightness in my chest began to loosen as I returned his smile and even dared to mouth a quick "I have missed you so!" to him.
"Yes!" he'd shouted and nodded, and then had hastily rejoined the other men while my father was still engaged in an animated conversation with Mr. Burnham.
I'd joined the women's group, finding Mrs. Simpton easily, as she was so tall and handsome, though we hardly murmured the barest of polite hellos to one another. We were far too busy staring around us in wonder.
Mr. Burnham, who looked as if he had aged years since my dinner party, though it had only been little over a week ago, cleared his throat dramatically and then lifted an ivory and gold scepter with a miniature domed building atop it, and announced, "Friends, family, businessmen, and beloved ladies of Chicago, I bid you to enter the White City!"
Our group moved forward into pure fantasy. To either side of us was a living museum. As we walked down the Midway we passed groups of exotic village settings so that it appeared as if we had been transported instantly and magically from China to Germany, Morocco to Holland, and even to the darkest regions of Africa!
We didn't speak to each other more than to gasp and point from one marvel to another.
When we reached the Egyptian exhibit I was mesmerized. The temple stretched above me, a golden pyramid, covered with exotic and mysterious symbols. I'd stood there, my breath coming rapidly, my handkerchief pressed against my lips stifling another cough, and the golden curtain that served as the door to the temple was pulled aside. A stunningly beautiful woman had emerged. She sat on a gilded throne that had been built atop two side-by-side poles that rested on the shoulders of six men, black as pitch and muscular as bulls.
She'd stood and commanded everyone's attention so completely that, even in the midst of the human cacophony surrounding us, fell a pocket of silence.
"I am Neferet! Queen of Little Egypt. I command that you attend me." Her voice was rich and distinctive, with an accent as seductive as it was foreign. She'd opened her golden cape, and shrugged it off to reveal a scant costume of silk and strands of golden beads and bells. From within the temple came a drum beat, sonorous and rhythmic. Neferet lifted her arms gracefully and began to undulate her h*ps in time with the music.
I had never seen a woman so beautiful or so bold. She did not smile. Truthfully, she seemed to mock the watching crowd with her icy gaze and her brazen looks . Her large dark eyes were painted heavily with black and gold. In the small indentation of her navel rested a sparkling red gemstone.
"Emily! There you are! Mother said she'd lost you. Our group has moved on. Your father would be very angry if he knew you had remained here, watching this lewd woman's show." I'd looked up to see Arthur frowning at me.
Staring around us, I realized he'd been right-his mother, the rest of the women, our entire group were all nowhere to be seen.
"Oh, I didn't realize I'd been left! Thank you for finding me, Arthur," I'd taken his arm, but as he led me away I'd glanced back at Neferet. Her dark gaze met mine, and very distinctly and haughtily, she'd laughed. I remember that at that moment all I could think was: Neferet would never allow a man to lead her around-to order her about and tell her what to do!
But I was not Neferet. I was queen of nothing, and I would rather be led around by Arthur Simpton than abused by my father. So I'd clung to Arthur, telling him how good it was to see him and how desperately I'd missed him, and listened to him talk on and on about how excited he and his parents were about our impending betrothal, and how he was not at all in the least bit nervous-though his torrent of words seemed to belie his protestations.
It was almost dusk by the time we found our group, finally rejoining them at the base of the enormous and fantastic creation Arthur explained they were calling a Ferris wheel.
"Emily, there you are!" Mrs. Simpton called to us and waved. I'd been mortified to see that she was standing beside Father. "Oh, Mr. Wheiler, did I not tell you my Arthur would find her safe and sound, and return her to us? And so he has."
"Emily, you must not wander off. Anything could happen to you out of my sight!" Father had gruffly taken me from Arthur's arm without so much as one word to Arthur or his mother. "Wait over there with the other women while I get our tickets for the Ferris wheel. It has been decided that we are all riding it before we depart for the University Club and dinner." He'd tossed me toward the group, and I'd stumbled into Camille and her mother.
"Excuse me," I'd said, righting myself. It had been then that I'd noticed what I hadn't earlier when the Midway had completely captivated my attention-Camille was with the women's group, as were several of my old friends: Elizabeth Ryerson, Nancy Field, Janet Palmer, and Eugenia Taylor. They seemed to form a solid and disapproving wall behind Camille and her mother.
Mrs. Elcott had looked down her long nose at me. "I see you're wearing your mother's pearls as well as one of her dresses, although the reworking of it has very much changed its appearance."
I'd already been more than aware of how the alteration of Mother's dress accentuated my body, and I could see by the censorious looks on their faces that while I had been distracted by the wonders of the fair, they had been judging and condemning me.
"And I see you are on the arm of Arthur Simpton," Camille added in a voice that echoed her mother's pinched tone.
"Yes, convenient of you to get yourself lost so that he had to find you," Elizabeth Ryerson had spoken up as well.
I'd squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. There was no point in attempting to explain my jewels or my clothes, and I certainly was not going to hide from these women, but I'd felt I must come to Arthur's defense. "Mr. Simpton was being a gentleman."
Mrs. Elcott had snorted. "As if you were being a lady! And it's Mr. Simpton now, is it? You appear to be much more familiar with him than that."
"Emily, are you quite well?" Mrs. Simpton had moved to stand beside me, facing the group of sour-faced girls. I noticed she was sending a hard look to Mrs. Elcott.
That had made me smile.
"Quite well, thanks to your son. Mrs. Elcott and Camille and a few of the girls were commenting on what a gentleman he is, and I was agreeing with them," I'd said.
"How nice of them to notice," Mrs. Simpton had said. "Ah, Emily, there are our men with the tickets." She'd pointed to Father, Mr. Elcott, and Arthur. The three of them were walking toward our group. "Emily, you will sit beside me, won't you? I have a dreadful fear of heights."
"Of course," I'd said. As Mrs. Simpton walked forward to meet her son, who was smiling distractingly at me, I'd felt Camille brush up close to me. Behind her I could feel the weight of the other girls' stares. Her whispered voice had been filled with spite. "I find that you are very changed, and not for the better."
Still smiling at Arthur I lowered my own voice, hoping that it would carry to Camille and the others behind her, and said with perfectly unemotional coldness, "I've become a woman and not a silly girl. As you and your friends are still silly girls, I can understand that you could not possibly find my changes are for the better."
"You have become a woman-one who doesn't care who she has to use or what she has to do to get what she wants," she'd whispered back. I heard murmurs of agreement from the other girls.
The coldness within me had expanded. What did this simpering child, or any of those other empty-headed, spoiled girls know of the changes I'd had to make to survive?
Without turning my smiling face from Arthur I said slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough for the entire spiteful group to hear me, "You are absolutely right, Camille. So it is best if you all stay out of my way. I would say that I would hate to see any of you hurt, but I would be lying, and I'd rather not do that."
Then I'd hurried to meet Father, who had been so overtaken by the anticipated trill of the Ferris wheel that he'd agreed to us sitting in the same cart box as the Simptons. As we soared two hundred and seventy-five feet in the air Arthur's mother held tightly to me with one hand, and her son with her other. She'd squeezed her eyes shut and trembled so violently her teeth had chattered.
I'd thought her a fool, though a kindhearted one. Her fear had made her miss the most spectacular view in the world. The blue waters of Lake Michigan stretched as far as one horizon, while before us was revealed an entire city that seemed to be built of white marble. As the sun sank behind the elegant structures, the powerful electric lights that surrounded the lagoon and the brilliant spotlight before the Electricity Building were turned on, making the Court of Honor and the sixty-five-foot-tall Statue of the Republic in the center of the lagoon blaze with magnificent white light that rivaled that of the fullest, brightest of moons. The light had been so bright, it had been quite uncomfortable for me to look at directly, though look I did.
Mrs. Simpton missed all of it, and her son missed quite a bit of the scenery, too, as he'd been so focused on soothing his mother's fear.

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