Neferet's Curse

Page 4

Suddenly, Father's big hand engulfed my elbow, squeezing while he commanded, "You will meet with Mrs. Armour now, Emily." In comparison to my gentleness, Father was like a battlefield. I heard Evelyn and Camille both gasp at his forcefulness.
Then Camille was there at my side, saying, "We can easily call again, Emily. Please, your mother's work is so much more important than our silly bicycle outing."
"Yes, truly," Evelyn had added as my friends moved hastily to the door. "We'll call again."
The sound of the door closing behind them had seemed to me like the sealing of a tomb.
"Ah, well, that is better. Enough of that foolishness," Father said as he loosed my elbow.
"Mrs. Armour, please, join me in the parlor and I will ring Mary for tea," I'd said.
"Good. Go on about your business, Emily. I will see you at dinner. Good girl-good girl," Father had said gruffly. He bowed to Mrs. Armour, and then left us alone together in the foyer.
"I can tell you are a young woman of excellent character," Mrs. Armour said as I woodenly led her into Mother's parlor. "I am sure we will get on well together, just as your mother and I did."
I nodded and agreed and let the old woman talk on and on about the importance of women of means being united in their dedication to improving the community through volunteer service.
In the weeks that have followed, I have come to realize how ironic it was that Mrs. Armour, who lectured unendingly about the importance of the unity of women, has become one of the main instruments in isolating me from other women my age. You see, Evelyn and Camille have not called again to ask that I bike with them. Evelyn has not called on me at all since that morning. Camille, well, Camille was different. It would take more to lose her as a friend, much more.
* * *
March passed into April-the winter chill was tempered by a spring that came with light, reviving showers. My life has aligned itself into a numbing rhythm. I run the household. I volunteer at the wretched Market Hall, feeding the poor while I nod and agree with the old women who surround me when they drone on and on about how, because the spotlight of the world would shortly be on us and the World's Fair, we must use our every resource to change and shape Chicago from a barbaric gathering into a modern city. I have dinner with Father. I watch, and I have learned.
I learned not to interrupt Father. He liked to speak while we ate dinner. Speak-not talk. Father and I did not talk. He spoke and I listened. I wanted to believe that my taking Mother's place in the household and at dinner was honoring her memory, and at the first I did believe it. But soon I began to see that I was not doing anything at all except providing the vessel into which Father poured his vitriolic opinion of the world. Our nightly dinners were a stage for his soliloquy of anger and disdain.
I continue to secretly water Father's wine. Sober, he was abrupt, overbearing, and boorish. Drunk, he was terrifying. He did not beat me-he has never beaten me-though I almost wish he would. At the very least that would be a sure and outward sign of his abuse. What Father does instead is burn me with his eyes. I have come to loathe his hot, penetrating gaze.
Though how can that be? And, better asked, why? Why did I come to loathe a simple look? The answer, I hope-I pray, will unravel here, in the pages of this journal.
* * *
Camille visited, though less and less often. The problem wasn't that our friendship had ended. Not at all! She and I were still as close as sisters when we were together. The problem was that we were less and less able to be together. Mrs. Armour and Father decided that I must continue Mother's work. So I ladled soup to the miserably starving and handed out clothing to the stinking homeless three days per week. That left a mere two days out of the five, when Father worked, for Camille and I to visit. And for me to escape, though it has become more and more clear to me that escape is not possible.
I tried to get away from Wheiler House and to call on Camille as I had before Mother's death. I attempted this four times; Father thwarted me each time. The first time, leaving late for his banking duties, Father spied me as I was hurrying away astraddle my neglected bicycle. He didn't come into the street to call me back. No. He sent Carson after me. The poor, aged valet had turned red as a ripe apple as he'd jogged along South Prairie Avenue to catch up with me.
"A bicycle is not ladylike!" Father had blustered when I'd reluctantly followed Carson home.
"But Mother never minded that I rode my bicycle. She even allowed me to join the Hermes Bicycle Club with Camille and the rest of the girls!" I'd protested.
"Your mother is dead, and you are no longer one of the rest of the girls." Father's eyes had traveled from my gaze down my body, taking in my modest bicycle bloomers and my serviceable, unadorned flat leather shoes. "What you are wearing is lewd."
"Father, bicycle bloomers are what all the girls wear."
His eyes continued to stare at me, burning me from my waist down. I had to fist my hands at my sides to keep from covering myself.
"I can see the shape of your body-your legs." His voice sounded odd, breathless.
My stomach heaved. "I-I will not wear them again," I heard myself saying.
"Be sure you do not. It isn't proper-not proper at all." His hot gaze finally left me. He pushed his hat firmly on his head and bowed sardonically to me. "I shall see you at dinner, where you will behave as, and be dressed in the fashion of, a civilized lady, worthy of her position as mistress of my home. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Father."
"Yes, sir!" His poor valet, who had been hovering nervously in the corner of the foyer had jumped at Father's violent tone and skittered to him, reminding me of a large, old beetle.
"See that Miss Wheiler remains at home today, where she belongs. And get rid of that infernal bicycle!"
"Very good, sir. I will do as you say…" The old wretch had simpered and bowed as Father had stalked from the house.
Alone with him, Caron's eyes flicked from mine to the tapestry on the wall behind us, then to the chandelier, then to the floor-everywhere except truly meeting my gaze. "Please, Miss. You know I can't let you leave."
"Yes. I know." I chewed my lip and added, hesitantly, "Carson, could you, perhaps, move my bicycle from the outbuilding to the gardening shed at the rear of the grounds instead of actually getting rid of it? Father never goes there-he'll not know. I'm sure he'll be more reasonable soon, and allow me to return to my club."
"I would like to, Miss, I would. But I cannot disobey Mr. Wheiler. Ever."
I'd turned on my heels and slammed the door to the parlor that had become mine. I hadn't really been angry with Carson, nor did I blame him. I did understand all too well what it was to be Father's puppet .
That night I dressed carefully for dinner in my most modest gown. Father hardly glanced at me while he talked endlessly about the bank, the precarious state of finances in the city, and the impending World's Fair. I rarely spoke. I nodded demurely and made agreeable noises when he paused. He drank goblet after goblet of the secretly watered wine and ate an entire rack of rare lamb.
It wasn't until he stood and bade me good night that his gaze lingered on mine. I could see that, despite the weakened wine, he'd had enough of it to flush his cheeks.
"Good night, Father," I said quickly.
His gaze scalded from my eyes to my lips. I flattened them together, wishing they were less full, less pink.
The gaze then went from my lips to the high bodice of my dress. Then, quite abruptly, he met my eyes again.
"Tell Cook to have the lamb more often. And have her be sure it is as rare next time as it was tonight. I find I have a taste for it," he said.
"Yes, Father." I kept my voice soft and low. "Good night," I repeated.
"You know you have your mother's eyes."
My stomach heaved. "Yes. I know. Good night, Father," I said for the third time.
Finally, without another word, he'd left the room.
I went to my bedchamber and sat in my window seat, my neatly folded bicycling bloomers in my lap. I watched the moon rise and begin to climb its way down the sky, and when the night was at its darkest, I made my way carefully, quietly, down the stairs, and out the rear door that led to the path, which emptied into our elaborate gardens. As I'd walked past the great bull fountain, I pretended that I was just another of the shadows surrounding it-not a living thing … not a girl who could be discovered.
I'd found my way to the utility shed and discovered a shovel. Behind the shed, at the edge of our property, I went to the pile of rotting compost the laborers used as fertilizer. Not heeding the smell, I dug deeply, until I'd been certain they would be safely hidden-and I'd buried my bloomers.
Afterward, I returned the shovel and washed my hands in the rainwater barrel. Then I went to my stone bench beneath the willow tree. I sat within its dark, comforting curtain until my stomach stopped heaving and I was quite sure I would not be sick. Then I sat some more, allowing the shadows and the darkness of the night to soothe me.
* * *
Though not on bicycle-never again on bicycle-I made my way to Camille's home three more times, walking the short distance down South Prairie Avenue to the Elcott mansion. Two of the three times she and I had managed to stroll toward the lake, wanting to catch a glimpse of the magical world that was being created from marsh and sand, and had the whole city abuzz.
Mrs. Elcott's maid had intercepted us both times with the urgent message that I was needed at home. When I returned home there was always something to be tended to, but that something was never urgent. And each evening Father drank heavily, his hot gaze focusing on me more and more frequently.
So, you see, it was madness for me to go to Camille a third time. Isn't it madness to do a thing again and again, and expect a different outcome? Does that not make me mad?
But I do not feel mad. I feel very much myself. My mind is clear. My thoughts are my own. I miss Mother, but the numbness of mourning has left me. What has replaced it is a waiting, wondering sense of dread. To combat the dread I have come to crave the normalcy of my old life so desperately that it is beyond my ability to translate it into words.
Perhaps I am having a bout of hysterics.
But I don't lose my breath, or faint, or burst into flamboyant tears. So, is the coolness of my temperament more proof that I am mad? Or could how I feel be much like how any girl would feel whose mother's death had so untimely come? Is Father's hot gaze only a symptom of his widower's grief? I do, indeed, have my mother's eyes.
Whatever is true, I could not stay away from Camille and the life I missed so very much. This very afternoon I visited Camille again. We did not attempt to leave the Elcott home this time. It was an unspoken agreement between us that we knew our visit would end abruptly with Carson coming to escort me home. Camille embraced me and then called for tea in the old nursery that had been made over into a rose wallpapered parlor for the Elcott daughters. While we were alone Camille had grasped my hand.
"Emily, I am so very glad to see you! I've been worried! When I called on you last Wednesday, your father's valet told me you were unavailable. That is exactly what he said the Friday before as well."
"I was unavailable." I curled my lip and empathized the word. "Both days I was at dreary Market Hall, being a servant to the homeless of Chicago."
Camille's smooth brow furrowed. "Then you haven't been ill?"
I snorted. "Not ill of body, but ill of mind and heart. It is as if Father expects me to take Mother's place in all things."
Camille fanned herself with her delicate fingers. "I'm so relieved! I thought you might have been struck by the pneumonia. You know Evelyn died of it last week."
I felt a shudder of shock. "I didn't know. No one told me. How terrible … how very terrible."
"Don't be frightened. You look strong and as beautiful as ever."
I shook my head. "Beautiful and strong? I feel as if I am one thousand years old, and that the whole world has passed me by. I miss you and I miss my old life so very much!"
"Mother says what you're doing is more important than the girls' games we used to play, and I know she must be right-being lady of a great house is very important."
"But I'm not the Lady of a great house! I am more servant than anything else." I felt as if I wanted to explode. "I'm not allowed to breathe one bit of freedom."
Camille tried to put a cheery face on my changes. "It is the middle of April. In two weeks it will be six months since your mother's death. Then you will be free of mourning and be able to rejoin society."
"I don't know if I can even bear two more weeks of everything being so very dreary and so very boring until then." I'd chewed my lip at Camille's surprised look, and hurried to explain. "Being the Lady of Wheiler House is a job-a terribly serious job. Everything must be just so-and just so means exactly how Father wants it, which is how Mother had it. I didn't understand how hard and grim it is to be a wife." I drew a deep breath and said, "She tried to tell me. That day. The day she died. That is why I was in the birthing room with her. Mother said she wanted me to know what it was to be a wife, and to not go blindly into it as she had. So I watched. Camille, I watched her die in a flood of blood, with no loving husband holding her hand and mourning at her side. That is what it is to be a wife-loneliness and death. Camille, we must never get married!"

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