Neferet's Curse

Page 6

"I'm sorry, Father. I do not understand."
"As of today I am lifting our mourning period." When I gaped silently he waved his hand, as if wiping away soot from a window. "Oh, some will be shocked, but most will understand that the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition constitutes a dire emergency. The president of the bank that rules the exposition committee's funds must reenter society. Continuing as we have been-segregated from our community and the world that is joining us-is simply not adhering to modern thinking. And Chicago will become a modern city!" He'd pounded his fist on the table. "Do you understand now?"
"I'm sorry, Father. I don't. You will have to teach me," I'd said truthfully.
He'd seemed pleased by my admission. "Of course you couldn't understand. There is so much that needs to be explained to you." He'd leaned forward then and awkwardly patted my hands, which were clenched together in my lap. For far too long his hot, heavy hand rested on mine as his gaze burned into mine. "Thankfully, I am willing to guide you. Not all fathers would be, you know."
"Yes, Father," I'd repeated my rote answer, and tried to still my heart from its frantic beating. "May I pour you more brandy?"
He'd let loose my hands then and nodded. "Yes, indeed. There, you see-you can be guided to learn!"
I'd focused on not spilling the brandy as I poured, but my hands were trembling and the crystal decanter had clanged against his goblet, causing the amber-colored liquor to almost spill. I'd put the bottle down quickly.
"I am sorry, Father. That was awkward of me."
"No matter! You will get more steady with practice." He'd sat back on the velvet divan and sipped his drink, studying me. "I know exactly what you need. I read about it just this morning in the Tribune. Seems women's hysteria symptoms are on a rise, and you are obviously suffering from this malady."
Before I could formulate a protest that would not incite him, he'd risen and walked, a little unsteadily, to Mother's small buffet table that sat against the wall and poured from the decanter of red wine that I had, just that morning, watered carefully. He'd brought the crystal wineglass to me and thrust it roughly into my hands, saying, "Drink. The article, written by the acclaimed Doctor Weinstein, stated that one or two glasses per day should be taken as remedy for women's hysteria."
I'd wanted to tell him I was not hysterical-that I was lonely and confused and frightened and, yes, angry! Instead I sipped the wine, controlled my expression, and nodded serenely, parroting my "Yes, Father" response.
"You see, that is better. No silly shaking hands for you now!" He'd spoken as if he'd effected a miracle cure.
As I drank the watered wine and watched him chuckle in a self-satisfied manner, I imagined throwing the wine in his pinkish face and bolting from the room, the house, and the life he was trying to thrust me into.
His next words stopped that waking fantasy.
"Two evenings from now, Wednesday night at exactly eight o'clock, will signal the beginning of the reopening of Wheiler House. I have already sent invitations and received assurances all will attend."
My head had felt as if it were going to explode. "Attend? The house reopening?"
"Yes, yes, do try to pay attention, Emily. It won't be a full dinner party, of course. That won't happen until Saturday. On Wednesday we will begin with an intimate group. Just a few close friends-men who also have an interest in the bank, as well as an investment in the World's Columbian Exposition: Burnham, Elcott, Olmsted, Pullman, and Simpton. Five men that I have invited for a light repast. It is an excellent way to move you gently into your new role in society, and, indeed, a very meager party by your mother's standards."
"Two days from now? On this Wednesday?" I'd struggled to hold tight to my composure.
"Certainly! We have wasted too much time already by being segregated from the whirlpool of happenings that surround us. The fair opens in two weeks. Wheiler House must be a hub at the center of the wheel that is the new Chicago!"
"But-but I have no idea how to-"
"Oh, it isn't so difficult. And you are a woman, though a young one. Dining and entertaining come naturally to women, and most especially to you."
My face had blazed with heat. "Especially to me?"
"Of course. You are so like your mother."
"What shall I serve? Wear? How shall I-"
"Consult Cook. It isn't as if it's a full dinner party. I already told you that I managed to put that off until Saturday. Three courses should suffice for Wednesday, but be quite certain to have the best of the French cabernet as well as the port brought up from the cellars, and send Carson for more of my cigars. Pullman has an especial fondness for my cigars, though he'd rather smoke mine than buy his own! Ha! A tight millionaire!" He'd drained the last of his brandy and slapped his thighs with his meaty palms. "Oh, and as to what you should wear. You are Lady of Wheiler House and have access to your mother's wardrobe. Make good use of it." He'd lifted his great bulk from the settee and was leaving the room when he'd paused and added, "Wear one of Alice's emerald velvet gowns. It will bring out your eyes."
* * *
I wish I could go back to that day and comfort myself by explaining that all that was happening was that the missing pieces of my life were being filled in so that the picture of my future could be complete. I needn't be so frightened and overwhelmed. All would be well-all would be most spectacularly better than well.
But that night I'd had no idea that this small reentry to society would quickly and completely alter my life-I'd only been lost in my fear and loneliness.
Two days passed in a frantic haze for me. Cook and I planned a lobster creamed bisque, a roasted duck breast with asparagus, which was very hard to find this early in the season, and her after-dinner iced vanilla cakes, which Father loved so much.
Mary brought me Mother's collection of emerald velvet gowns. There were more than a dozen of them. She laid them out across my bed like a green waterfall of fabric. I chose the most conservative of them-an evening dress modestly fashioned and unadorned except for pearls sewn into the bodice and the sleeves. Mary clucked her disapproval, muttering that the gold-trimmed gown would make a more dramatic impression. I ignored her and lifted my choice over my head so that she had to assist me into it.
Then the alterations began. I am shorter than Mother, but only slightly, and have a smaller waist. My br**sts are larger, though, and when Mary finally helped me lace myself into the gown and I stood before my full-length looking glass, Mary immediately began to cluck and fuss and open seams, trying to contain my flesh.
"All of her dresses will have to be altered, they will," Mary had spoke through a mouthful of pins.
"I don't want to wear Mother's dresses," I'd heard myself saying, which was the truth .
"And why not? They're lovely, and your looks are alike enough to hers that they will be beautiful on you as well. The most of them even more than this one." She'd hesitated, thinking, then while she stared at my bosom and the material stretched tightly there, she added, "Sure and they won't all be appropriate as they are made now, but I can find some lace or some silk to add here and there."
As she continued to pin and stitch, my gaze went from the mirror to my own dress that lay in a discarded heap across my bed. It was cream colored and lacey and covered with blushing pink rosebuds, and it was as different from Mother's fine velvet gowns as was Mary's brown linen uniform dress from Lady Astor's day dresses.
Yes, of course I'd known then, as now, that I should have been delighted by the vast addition to my wardrobe. Mother had been one of the finest dressed women in Chicago. But when my gaze made its way back to the mirror, the girl swathed in her mother's gown who looked out at me felt like a stranger, and me-Emily-had seemed to be utterly lost somewhere in her unfamiliar reflection.
When I wasn't talking with Cook or standing for alterations or trying to remember the endless details of entertaining that Mother had mastered with what had seemed like no effort at all, I wandered silently through our huge mansion, trying to avoid Father and speaking to no one. Odd how I'd not thought of our home as huge until after Mother was no longer filling it. But with her gone it had become an enormous cage, filled with all of the beautiful things one woman had collected, including her only living child.
Living child? Before that Wednesday evening, I had started to believe that I had quit living and I was only existing as a shell, waiting for my body to catch me up and realize that I was already dead.
Miraculously it was then that Arthur Simpton brought me back to life!
* * *
This evening, Wednesday, the nineteenth of April, Father sent a glass of wine up to my dressing room as Mary readied me for my first social event as Lady of Wheiler House. I knew the wine was strong, unwatered from the special bottles Father had ordered up from the wine cellar. I'd sipped it while Mary combed and pinned my thick auburn hair into place.
"'Tis a considerate man, he is, your father," Mary had chattered. "It warms my heart, it does, how much care and attention he's been showin' ye."
I hadn't said anything. What could I have said? I could easily look through her eyes at me, and at Father. Of course he appeared careful and considerate of me to the outside world-they had never seen his burning look or felt the unbearable heat of his hand!
When my coiffure was done Mary had stepped away. I'd stood from the chair at my vanity and walked to my full-length looking glass. I'll never forget that first sight of myself as a woman fully grown. My cheeks had been flushed from the wine, which came easily to me as my skin is so fair-as fair as Mother's had been. The dress fit me as if it had always been mine. It was the exact color of our eyes.
I stared and thought hopelessly, I am my mother, at the same instant Mary whispered, "You are so like her, 'tis like seein' a ghost," and crossed herself.
There was a knock on my dressing room door and Carson's voice announced, "Miss Wheiler, your father sends word that the gentlemen have begun to arrive."
"Yes. All right. I'll come down in a moment." I hadn't moved, though. I don't believe I could have made my body move had Mary not gently squeezed my hand and said, "There now, I was silly to speak so. 'Tis not your mother's ghost you are. Not at all. 'Tis a lovely lass who does credit to her memory. I'll light a candle for ye tonight and pray her spirit watches over ye and gives you strength." Then she'd opened the door for me, and I'd had no choice but to leave the room, and my childhood, behind.
It was a long way from my third-floor bedchamber and private parlor that had begun as a spacious nursery for children that never came, but it seemed it took only an instant for me to reach the last landing-the one that opened to the first-floor foyer below. I'd paused there. The deep male voices that lifted to me sounded odd and out of place in a home that had been so silent for so many months.
"Ah, there you are, Emily." Father had closed the few steps between us, joining me on the landing. Formally, he bowed and then, as I'd seen him do for Mother countless times, held out his arm for me to take it. I automatically rested my hand on his arm and moved down the remainder of the staircase beside him. I could feel his eyes on me. "You are a picture, my dear. A picture." I'd looked up at him then, surprised to hear the familiar compliment he'd paid Mother so many times.
I hated the way he was looking at me. Even after the joy the rest of the evening brought me, that hatred is still fresh in my mind. He studied me ravenously. It was as if I were one of the rare cuts of lamb on which he habitually gorged himself.
I still wonder if any of the waiting men that evening noticed Father's terrible gaze, and my stomach roils with sickness at the thought of it.
His gaze left me and he beamed effusively at the small gathering of men below us. "You see, Simpton. Nothing to worry about at all. Emily is right as rain-right as rain."
I'd looked down, expecting to see a graying man with rheumy eyes, a thick walrus mustache, and a barrel chest, but my eyes met the clear, blue gaze of a dashingly handsome young man who was smiling good-naturedly at me.
"Arthur!" His name had escaped before I could control my words.
His brilliant blue eyes had crinkled at the corners with his smile, but before he could respond, Father cut in gruffly. "Emily, there will be no overfamiliarity tonight, especially when Simpton here is standing in for his father."
I felt my face flame with heat.
"Mr. Wheiler, I'm sure it was surprise that caused your daughter to speak so familiarly. I am, alas, not the man my father is," he'd joked, puffing up his cheeks and swelling his chest as to mimic his father's girth. "Or at least not yet!"
A man I easily recognized as Mr. Pullman slapped Arthur on the back and laughed heartily. "Your father does have a love of good food. Can't say I'm not guilty of the same." He patted his own impressive belly.
Carson chose then to step from an arched doorway and call, "Dinner is served, Miss Wheiler."
It had taken me several moments to realize that Carson was actually speaking to me. I swallowed past the dryness in my throat and said, "Gentlemen, if you will follow me to the dining room we would be honored by your company for tonight's modest repast." Father had nodded his approval to me and we'd begun walking toward the formal dining room when I couldn't stop myself from peeking back over my shoulder for another glimpse of Arthur Simpton.

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