Neferet's Curse

Page 7

And I stumbled into Mr. Pullman's impressive girth.
"Alice, do watch where you are walking!" Father had snapped.
When he spoke I had been readying an apology for Mr. Pullman, so I saw the older man's face as he registered the fact that my father had just called me by my dead mother's name. His concern was palpable. "Oh, Barrett, think nothing of it! Your lovely and talented daughter may stumble into me at will." The dear man put his hand on Father's shoulder, gently guiding him ahead of me, all the while engaging him in conversation and moving him forward into the dining room so that I could pause and have a moment to collect myself. "Now, let us discuss an idea I have for adding electric lighting to Central Station. I believe the night traffic that will be generated by the Columbian Exposition justifies the expense, which we can more than make up for in the additional train tickets sold. You know I hold controlling shares in the station. I would be willing to…"
Pullman's voice trailed away as he and Father strode into the dining room. I'd stood there, frozen as stone, the words Alice, do watch where you are walking! playing round and round in my mind.
"May I escort you to dinner, Miss Wheiler?"
I looked up into Arthur Simpton's kind blue eyes. "Y-yes, please, sir," I'd managed.
He'd offered his arm, and I placed my hand on it. Unlike my father's, Arthur's forearm was trim, and there was no dark mat of hair tufting out from under his cuffed dress shirt. And he was so delightfully tall!
"Don't worry," he'd whispered as we led the rest of the small group into the dining room. "No one except Pullman and I heard him call you Alice."
My gaze had darted up to his.
"It was an understandable mistake," he continued, speaking quickly and quietly for my ears only. "But I know it must have been painful for you."
It was difficult for me to speak, so I only nodded.
"Then I will attempt to distract you from your pain."
And a wondrous thing happened-Arthur positioned himself beside me at dinner! I was, of course, sitting to Father's right, but his attention-for once-was utterly distracted from me by Mr. Pullman on his left and Mr. Burnham, who was sitting beside Mr. Pullman. When their discussion turned from the electricity at Central Station to the lighting of the Midway of the exposition, the architect, Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted, joined the conversation, adding even more passion to the argument. Arthur stayed out of much of the conversation. At first the other men joked that he was a poor stand-in for his gout-ridden father, but he laughed and agreed; then when they returned to their battle of words, Arthur returned his attention to me.
No one seemed to notice, not even Father, at least not after I called for the fifth bottle of our good cabernet to be opened and liberally poured-though he did send me a sharp look if I laughed at one of Arthur's witticisms. I learned quickly to stifle my laughter and instead smile shyly at my plate.
I did look up, though, as often as I dared. I wanted to look into Arthur's beautiful blue eyes and see the sparkle and the kindness with which they watched me.
But I did not want Father to see, nor did I want Mr. Elcott to see.
Mr. Elcott's gaze did not have my father's intensity, but I did find it on me often that night. It reminded me that Mrs. Elcott, as well as Camille, expected that Arthur Simpton was close to declaring his serious affections for their daughter, though in complete honesty I will admit that I did not need a reminder.
As I write this I do feel a measure of sadness, or perhaps pity is the more sincere emotion, for poor Camille. But she should not have deluded herself. The truth is the truth. That night I took nothing from her that she hadn't attempted to first take from me.
I also took nothing that was not freely, joyfully, given.
The dinner that I had dreaded seemed to last but a fleeting moment. Too soon, Father, his face flushed and his words slurred, pushed back from the table, stood, and announced, "Let us retire to my library for brandy and cigars."
I'd stood when Father did, and the other five men got instantly to their feet.
"Let us first have a toast," Mr. Pullman had said. He'd lifted his mostly empty wineglass, and the rest of the men had followed suit. "To Miss Emily Wheiler for a delightful dinner. You are a credit to your mother."
"To Miss Wheiler!" the men said, raising their glasses to me.
I am not ashamed to admit that I'd felt a rush of pride and of happiness. "Thank you, gentlemen. You are all most kind." As they all bowed to me I managed to sneak a look at Arthur, who winked quickly and flashed a handsome, white-toothed smile at me.
"My dear, you were a picture tonight-a picture," Father slurred. "Have brandy and cigars sent to my library."
"Thank you, Father," I'd said softly. "And I already arranged for George to be waiting in your library with both brandy and cigars."
He'd taken my hand in his. His was large and moist, as it always was, and he lifted mine to his lips. "You have done well tonight. I bid you a good night, my dear."
The other men had echoed his good-night wishes, as I hurried from the room, wiping the back of my hand on my voluminous velvet skirts. I'd felt my father's gaze burning me the whole way and I did not dare look back, even for one last glimpse of Arthur Simpton.
I'd started toward the stairs, meaning to secret myself in my bedchamber so that I would be well out of sight when Father, thoroughly drunk, stumbled to his bed. I'd even told Mary, who was chattering nonstop about what a success I'd been, to give me just a few moments to myself, but then I'd be ready for her to come to my room and help me out of the intricacies of Mother's gown so that I may change into my nightgown for bed.
As I consider back on it, tonight it seemed as if my body was completely in control of my actions, and my mind could do nothing except to follow its lead.
My feet had detoured around the wide staircase and I'd slipped quietly down the servants' hall and out the rear door where my hands had lifted my mother's skirts and I'd almost flown to the quiet bench under the willow tree that I had made my own.
Once I reached the dark security of my special place, my mind had begun to reason once again. Yes, Father should be smoking and drinking with the other men for hours, so it was logical that I could hide safely away there for most of the night. But I'd understood it would be too dangerous to stay but a few moments. What if the moment I chose to slip upstairs was the same moment Father stumbled from his library to relieve himself or to bellow for the cook to bring him something to satisfy his insatiable appetite? No . No. I would not chance that. And, of course, there was Mary. She would look for me if she didn't find me in my bedchamber, and I did not want even Mary to discover my sanctuary.
Still, I'd breathed a deep, satisfied breath, taking in the cool night air and feeling the comfort lent to me by the concealing shadows. I'd wanted to steal just a few moments for myself-a few moments here, in my special place, to think about Arthur Simpton.
He'd shown me such special kindness! It had been so long since I'd laughed, and even though I'd had to stifle my giggles, I had still felt them! Arthur Simpton had transformed the evening I had so dreaded from a strange and frightening event to the most magical dinner I had ever experienced.
I hadn't wanted it to end. I still do not want it to end.
I remember that I could not contain myself for another moment. I stood, and holding wide my arms I twirled around in the darkness within the curtain of willow boughs and laughed joyously until, exhausted by the unaccustomed rush of emotion, I sank to the young grass, breathing hard and brushing from my face the thick fall of hair that had escaped my chignon.
"You should never stop laughing. When you do, your beauty changes from extraordinary to divine and you look like a goddess come to earth to tempt us with your untouchable loveliness."
I'd scrambled to my feet, more thrilled than shocked as Arthur Simpton parted the willow boughs and stepped within.
"Mr. Simpton! I-I did not realize anyone was-"
"Mr. Simpton?" He'd cut me off with a warm, contagious smile. "Surely even your father would agree we need not be so formal here."
My heart had been pounding so loudly that I believe it drowned out the sound of my good sense that was shouting at me to hold my words, smile, and return quickly inside, because instead of doing any of those three reasonable things, I'd blurted, "My father would not agree to us being alone in the garden together, no matter what I call you."
Arthur's smile had instantly dimmed. "Does your father disapprove of me?"
I shook my head. "No, no, it is nothing like that-or at least I don't believe so. It is just that since Mother's death, Father seems to disapprove of everything."
"I am sure that is because he has so recently lost his wife."
"As I have so recently lost my mother!" I'd had enough sense remaining to me to press my lips together in a tight line and stop my outburst. Beginning to feel nervous, and incredibly clumsy, I'd walked to the marble bench and sat, trying to tidy my escaping hair, as I'd continued, "Forgive me, Mr. Simpton. I shouldn't have spoken to you like that."
"Why ever not! Can we not be friends, Emily?" He'd followed me to the bench, but did not sit beside me.
"Yes," I'd said softly, glad my errant hair hid my face. "I would like us to be friends."
"Then you must call me Arthur and feel free to speak to me as you would a friend, and I will have to be certain your father finds nothing at all to disapprove of about me. I won't even mention to him that I discovered you in the garden."
My hands had instantly stilled and dropped from my hair. "Please, Arthur. If you are my friend, promise me you will not mention that you saw me after I left the dining room."
I thought I saw what might have been surprise in his deep blue eyes, but it was replaced too soon by a kind, reassuring smile for me to have been sure. "Emily, I will say nothing of tonight to your father except to repeat what a lovely hostess his daughter was."
"Thank you, Arthur."
He did sit beside me then. Not close, but his scent came to me-cigars and something that was almost sweet. Thinking back I realize that was foolish. How could a man smell of sweetness? But I didn't know him well enough yet to understand that the absence of strong spirits and cigars on his breath seemed sweet after Father's foul odor.
"Do you come here often?" His question had seemed such an easy one to answer.
"Yes, I do."
"And your father doesn't know you do?"
I'd hesitated only a moment. His eyes were so kind-his gaze so honest-and he said he'd wanted to be my friend. Surely I could confide in him, but perhaps I should do so carefully. I'd shrugged nonchalantly and found an answer that was as truthful as it was vague. "Oh, Father is so busy with business that he rarely even notices the gardens."
"But you like them?"
I'd nodded. "I do. They're beautiful."
"At night? But it's so dark and you are so very alone."
"Well, as you are my friend now I feel I can tell you a secret, even though it may not be very ladylike." I'd smiled shyly up at him.
Arthur grinned mischievously. "Is it your secret that isn't ladylike, or the telling of it to me?"
"I am afraid perhaps it is both." My shyness had begun to evaporate, and I'd even dared to lower my lashes coquettishly.
"Now I am intrigued. As your friend, I insist you tell me." He'd leaned a little toward me.
I'd met his eyes and trusted him with the truth. "I like the darkness. It's friendly and comforting."
His smile had dimmed, and I'd worried that I truly had let my words reveal too much. But when he spoke his voice had lost none of his kindness. "Poor Emily, I can imagine you've needed to be comforted these past months, and if this garden comforts you, day or night, then I say it is a wondrous place indeed!"
I'd felt a rush of relief, and of joy at his empathy. "Yes, you see, it is my escape and my oasis. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. You'll forget that it's night."
"Well, all right. I will." He'd closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. "What is that lovely scent? I didn't notice it until now."
"It's the stargazer lilies. They've just begun to bloom," I'd explained happily. "No, keep your eyes closed. Now, listen. Tell me what you hear."
"Your voice, which sounds to me as sweet as the lilies smell."
His compliment made my head light, but I'd scolded him with mock seriousness. "Not me, Arthur. Listen to the silence and tell me what you hear within it."
He'd kept his eyes closed, tilted his head, and said, "Water. I hear the fountain."
"Exactly! I especially like sitting here, hidden under this willow. It is as if I have found my own world where I can hear the sound of the water rushing from the fountain and imagine that I'm riding my bicycle again beside the lake with the wind in my hair and no one and nothing catching me."
Arthur opened his eyes and met my gaze. "No one? No one at all? Not even a special friend?"
My whole body had felt flushed and I'd said, "Perhaps now I could imagine a friend joining me, and I do remember how you love to bicycle."

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