I'd vowed to myself that I would never, ever allow fear to make me miss magnificence.
* * *
Father insisted Mr. and Mrs. Burnham share our carriage to the University Club, which gave me a much needed and unexpected reprieve. Mrs. Burnham had been so excited by the Ferris wheel and the triumph of the electrical lighting, which only served to showcase her husband's talent, that I hadn't needed to engage in conversation with her at all. I'd simply appeared to mimic her expression as she'd listened attentively to her husband and Father blathering on and on about every miniscule detail of the fair's architecture.
Now that we weren't walking about, and my nerves had settled, I was finding it easier to control the terrible cough that had come so suddenly upon me. I was reluctant to admit it, even to myself, but I was feeling dreadfully weak and lightheaded-and there was a heat within my body that was becoming more and more uncomfortable. I believed I may truly be ill, and had been considering whether it would be wise for me to ask if Arthur could escort me home early. I must wait until after he declared his honorable intentions to Father, and Father accepted, but by the time the carriage reached the University Club, I was having a difficult time keeping my vision from blurring. Even the flickering gaslights in the club caused a tremendous pain to spike through my temples.
As I write this, I do so wish that I had understood the warning signs I was being given-my cough, my fever, my lightheaded sickness … and most of all, my aversion to light.
But how could I have known? As the night began I had been such an innocent about so many things.
My innocence would soon be irrevocably shattered.
We'd exited the carriages, and I'd been pleased to note that none of the other unmarried girls had been allowed to accompany their parents to the dinner. Their envious, condemning looks were, at least, an annoyance I didn't have to tolerate.
Our entire group arrived in a long line of carriages together and we had entered the ornate foyer of the University Club as one. I'd been relieved to notice that his father had joined Arthur and his mother. I'd only seen Arthur's father just a couple of times, and that was easily six or seven months ago when the family had first moved into their mansion not far from Wheiler House, but I was shocked to see how bloated and pale the old man looked. He leaned heavily on a cane and walked with a noticeable limp. I saw when Arthur and his mother caught sight of Father and me, and they steered Mr. Simpton our way.
Bloated and ill though he may be, Arthur's father had his same brilliant blue eyes as well as his charming smile. After he greeted Father and turned both on me, he said, "Miss Wheiler, it is a pleasure to see you again." I'd felt a great warmth for the old man and realized that though Arthur, too, may run to fat and poor health as he grew old, there would always be a spark left of the young man I'd married.
I'd curtseyed and returned his smile. "Mr. Simpton, I'm so glad you're feeling well enough to attend the dinner tonight."
"Young lady, the Grim Reaper himself could not have made me miss this evening," he'd said, eyes sparkling with our shared secret.
"Too bad you missed the Ferris wheel, Simpton. It was magnificent-simply magnificent!" Father had said.
"Magnificently terrifying!" Mrs. Simpton had exclaimed, fanning herself with her gloved hand.
I'd wanted to smile and perhaps say something clever to Mrs. Simpton about overcoming her fears, but a cough had caught me unaware, and I'd had to press the handkerchief against my lips and try to control my breathing. When the cough had finally spent itself and allowed me to breathe again, Father and the Simptons were all studying me with varying degrees of embarrassment and concern.
Thankfully, Mrs. Simpton's concern had voiced itself before Father's embarrassment. "Emily, perhaps you would accompany me to the ladies' lounge. I must splash some water on my face and collect my nerves before dinner, and while I'm doing that you could rest yourself on one of the settees."
"Thank you, Mrs. Simpton," I'd said gratefully. "I think I overexerted myself at the fair today."
"You must be careful of your health, Miss Wheiler," Mr. Simpton said kindly.
"Yes, I know. Father has been telling me the same thing recently."
"Indeed! Indeed! A woman's constitution is a fragile thing," Father added, nodding sagely.
"Oh, I couldn't agree more with you, Mr. Wheiler. Be certain I will take care of Emily." She'd turned to her husband then. "Franklin, do be a dear and be certain we are seated at the same table as Mr. Wheiler and Emily so that the two of us will have an easy time finding the both of you when we join you for dinner."
"Of course, my dear," Mr. Simpton had said.
Arthur hadn't said one word, but his eyes had lingered on mine and he'd winked when Father hadn't been looking.
"Father, I'll be back soon," I'd said, and Arthur's mother and I had made a hasty escape.
Once in the lounge Mrs. Simpton drew me to a quiet corner. She pressed the back of her hand against my forehead. "I knew you would be warm! Your face is ever so flushed. How long have you had that cough?"
"Just since this morning," I'd assured her.
"Perhaps you should take your carriage home and rest. Arthur can choose another evening to speak to your father."
Panic had turned my stomach and I'd gripped her hands. "No, please no! It must be tonight. Father is getting worse and worse. Mrs. Simpton, look at me. Look at this gown."
Her eyes had flicked downward and then back to mine. "Yes, dear. I noticed it when first I saw you."
"Father forced the dressmaker to remake one of Mother's favorite gowns into this. I tried to reason with him, and tell him the style, the cut, were wholly inappropriate, but he would not listen. Mrs. Simpton, I pity Father and I know he is grieving for Mother even more than I am, but his grief is changing him. He must control everything about me."
"Yes, Arthur has told me he will not even allow you your volunteer work."
"Mrs. Simpton, Father won't allow me to leave the house at all unless he is with me. And his temper has become so frightening, so violent. I-I don't know how much longer I can bear it!" My shoulders had heaved and my body trembled as another coughing spell engulfed me.
"There, there. I can see that this is all very hard on your health. You are right. Arthur's intentions must be made public tonight, and soon tonight at that. Then I will escort you home myself so that you may rest and recover."
"Oh, thank you, Mrs. Simpton! You cannot know what this means to me," I'd sobbed.
"Wipe your eyes, Emily. You can show me how much this means to you by promising me that you will be a good and faithful wife to my son."
"I promise with all of my heart!" I'd meant the promise
. I'd had no way of knowing that the rest of the night would alter everything.
* * *
Mr. Simpton had fulfilled his wife's request. He and Arthur were seated at the same table as Father and me, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Burnham, and Mr. and Mrs. Ryerson.
Father had gloweringly pushed a crystal flute filled with champagne the color of a blush over to me, saying, "Drink this. The bubbles may help your abominable croup!" I'd sipped it, folded my linen napkin onto my lap, and surreptitiously watched Arthur's mother whisper to him.
Arthur's face had gone pale, obviously with nerves, but he'd nodded tightly. He'd turned to his father, and I saw rather than heard him say, "It is time." Slowly, laboriously, his father had stood, raised his own champagne flute and, using a silver knife, tapped the crystal, silencing the crowd.
"Good ladies and gentlemen," he'd said. "I must begin by saluting Mr. Burnham and ask that you join me in a congratulatory toast to his genius, which was the driving force behind the World's Columbian Exposition."
"To Mr. Burnham!" the room roared.
"I am happy to announce that tonight's congratulations are not yet over. But I bow to my son, Arthur, as he must lead us in our next toast, and he has my blessing in doing so."
I'd felt my rapid heartbeat pounding in my chest as Arthur, tall, handsome, and somber-faced, stood. He'd walked around our table until he reached Father. He'd bowed first to him, and then he extended his hand to me. Though mine trembled terribly, I borrowed strength from him and stood by his side.
"What is the-" Father had begun to bluster, but Arthur neatly cut him off.
"Barrett Wheiler, I publicly, formally, and with the blessing of my family, declare my deepest affections for your daughter, Emily, and ask your permission to court her with the express and honorable purpose of marriage." Arthur's voice was deep and did not falter one bit. It carried throughout the opulent dining hall.
In that moment I can truly say that I loved him utterly and completely.
"Oh, well done, Simpton! Congratulations indeed!" It was Mr. Burnham, and not my father who stood. "To Emily and Arthur!" The room echoed his toast, and then there was an eruption of cheers and well wishes. As Mrs. Ryerson and Mrs. Burnham gave me soft kisses and made over Arthur and me, I saw Arthur's father limp over to my father. I held my breath. Though Father's expression was dark, the two of them shook hands.
"It is done." Arthur had been watching as well, and he whispered the words to me as he bent and kissed my hand.
I don't know whether it was with relief or with illness, but it was then that I fainted.
When my senses returned there was pandemonium around me. Father was bellowing for a doctor. Arthur had lifted me and was carrying me from the room into the sitting area outside the great hall. Mrs. Simpton was trying to reassure Father and Arthur that I was simply overexcited and had not been feeling well all day.
"And the poor thing's gown is entirely too tight," she'd said as Arthur placed me gently on a settee.
I'd tried to reassure Arthur and agree with his mother, but I could not speak through the cough that gripped me. Next I knew there was a gray bearded man bending over me, feeling my pulse, and listening to my chest with a stethoscope.
"Definitely not well. Fever … rapid pulse … cough. But in light of the events of the evening, I'd say all except the cough could be attributed to woman's hysteria. Rest quiet, and perhaps a hot toddy or two are what I prescribe."
"So, she will be well?" Arthur had taken my hand.
I'd managed to smile at him and answer for myself. "Quite well. I promise. All I need is rest."
"She needs to get home and to her bed," Father had said. "I shall call our carriage and-"
"Oh, Father, no!" I'd forced myself to smile at him and sit up. "I would not rest well knowing I had been the cause that took you from this special dinner you have so looked forward to."
"Mr. Wheiler, please allow me the honor of escorting your daughter home." Mr. Simpton surprised me by speaking up. "I understand what a burden it is on the family when one member is not well, as I have not felt completely myself for months. This evening I agree with little Emily-rest shall do us both a world of good-and that should not hinder the celebration for the rest of you. Mr. Wheiler, Arthur, please stay. Eat, drink, and make merry for Emily and for me."
I'd covered my smile with a cough. Mr. Simpton had put Father in a position twice in one night wherein he would look ridiculous if he refused him. Had I not felt so terribly ill I would have wanted to dance about with joy.
"Well, indeed. I will allow you to see my Emily home." Father's voice had been gruff, verging on impolite, but everyone around us acted as if they did not notice.
Everyone, that is, except Arthur. He'd taken my hand and met Father's dark gaze, saying, "Our Emily now, Mr. Wheiler."
It had been Arthur and not Father who had helped me to the Simpton carriage, and Arthur who had kissed my hand and had bidden me a good night, saying that he would call on me the next afternoon.
Father had stood alone, glowering, as the lovely, well-upholstered carriage had driven away with Mr. Simpton and me smiling and waving.
It had seemed that I was a princess who had finally found her prince.
* * *
Wheiler House was unusually still and dark when the Simpton carriage left me on the walkway to the front door. Mr. Simpton had wanted to see me inside, but I had protested that he not inflame his leg any more than necessary, and explained that Father's valet, as well as my maid, would be waiting within.
Then I'd done something that had surprised myself. I'd leaned down and kissed the old man's cheek.
"Thank you, sir. I owe you my gratitude. Tonight you saved me-twice."
"Oh, not at all! I'm pleased by Arthur's choice. Get well, child. We will talk again soon."
I'd been thinking how fortunate I was to have found Arthur and his affable parents when I entered our foyer and lit the gaslight within. After the soothing darkness of the carriage and the night, the light seemed to send spikes through my temples and I snuffed it out immediately.
"Mary!" I'd called. The house didn't stir. "Carson! Hello!" I called again, but my words dissolved within a terrible cough.
I'd longed for the comforting shadows of my garden and the concealing darkness beneath my willow-how I believed it would have soothed me! But I was feeling so very ill that I knew I must get abed. Truth be told, the severity of my cough and the burning of my fever was beginning to frighten me. I struggled up the three flights of stairs, wishing Mary would hear me and appear to help me.