Neferet's Curse

Page 8

He'd surprised me then by slapping his forehead. "Bicycle! That reminds me of how I found you here in the garden. I excused myself early so that I might return home to speak to Father before he goes to bed. I'd bicycled here, and was alone, mounting my bicycle to return home when I heard laughter." He'd paused, and his voice had deepened. "It was the most beautiful laughter I had ever in my life heard. It seemed to be coming from the grounds behind the house. I saw the garden gate, opened it, and followed the sound to you."
"Oh." I'd breathed the word on a happy sigh, my face feeling even warmer. I'd said, "I am glad my laughter brought you to me."
"Emily, your laughter didn't simply bring me to you-it drew me to you."
"I have another secret I could tell you," I'd heard myself saying.
"Then that is another secret I will keep and treasure as my own," he'd said.
"When I was laughing, I was thinking about how happy I was that you had been at dinner. I had been so terribly nervous before you sat beside me." I'd held my breath, hoping I had not been what Mother would have called too forward with him.
"Well, then, I am very, very pleased to announce that I will be returning to your home for your dinner party Saturday, and that I will be escorting a lovely woman with whom I hope you will also become fast friends."
My heart, already so battered and bruised, ached at his words. But I was learning the lesson of hiding my feelings well, so I put on the same interested expression and soft voice I used with Father and said, "Oh, how nice. It will be good to see Camille again. You should know she and I are already friends."
"Camille?" He'd looked utterly baffled. And then I could see his expression shift to understanding. "Oh, you mean Samuel Elcott's daughter, Camille."
"Well, yes, of course," I'd said, but already my bruised heart was beating more easily.
"Of course? Why do you say 'of course'?"
"I thought it was understood that you were interested in courting Camille," I'd said, and then felt my heart become lighter and lighter as he shook his head and replied with an empathic, "I don't know how something I have no knowledge of could be understood."
I'd felt as if I should say something in defense of what I knew would be poor Camille's great embarrassment had she heard Arthur's words. "I believe the understanding was something Mrs. Elcott was hoping for."
Arthur's dark brows lifted, along with the corners of his lips. "Well, then let me make your understanding clear. I will be escorting my mother to your dinner party on Saturday. My father's gout is plaguing him, but Mother wishes to attend your first true social event in support of you. She is the friend I was hoping you would make."
"So, you will not be courting Camille?" I'd asked boldly, though breathlessly.
Arthur stood then and, smiling, bowed formally to me. In a voice filled with warmth and kindness, he'd announced, "Miss Emily Wheiler, I can assure you it is not Camille Elcott I will be courting. And now I must, reluctantly, bid you a good night until Saturday."
He'd turned and left me breathless with happiness and expectation, and it had seemed to me that even the shadows around me reflected my joy with their beautiful, concealing mantle of darkness.
But I hadn't spent many more moments reveling in the magical events of the night. Though my heart was filled by Arthur Simpton and I wanted to think of nothing but our wondrous conversation and that he had practically left me with a promise that it would be me he would be courting in the future, my mind was cataloging the other, less romantic information Arthur had just provided me. Though my hands shake with joy as, safely in my room, I relive through this journal my meeting with Arthur, and begin to imagine what a future with him could bring, I must remember to be very quiet when I come to my garden spot.
I must not ever draw anyone else there.
April 27th, 1893
Emily Wheiler's Journal
I begin this journal entry with trepidation. I can feel myself changing. I hope the change is for the better, but I confess that I am not certain it is. Actually, if I am to write with complete honesty, I must admit that even hope has changed its meaning for me.
I am so confused! And so very, very afraid.
Of only one thing am I sure, and that is that I must escape Wheiler House by any means possible. Arthur Simpton has provided me a logical and safe escape, and I have accepted him.
I am not the giddy child I was eight days ago, after that first night Arthur and I spoke. I still find him kind and charming and, of course, handsome. I believe I could love him. A beautiful future is within my grasp, so why is it that I feel a growing coldness within me? Has the fear and loathing I have for Father begun to taint me?
I shudder at the thought.
Perhaps as I review the events of the past days, I will find the answers to my questions.
Arthur's garden visit had, indeed, changed my world. Suddenly, the Saturday dinner party was no longer something I dreaded-it was something I counted down the hours to. I threw myself into the menu, the decorations, and every tiny detail of my gown.
What was going to be a five-course dinner that I'd uncaringly told Cook to resurrect from one of Mother's old party books utterly changed. Instead, I raked through my memories, wishing I had paid better attention-any attention really-when Mother and Father had discussed the especially sumptuous social dinners they'd attended in the year before she had had to withdraw from society because of her pregnancy. Finally, I recalled how even Father had praised a particular dinner at the University Club that had been sponsored by his bank and held in honor of the exposition architects. I sent Mary, whose sister was one of the University Club's legion of cooks, to get a copy of the menu-and then I was pleasantly surprised when she actually did return with a list of not simply the courses, but the wines that should accompany them. Cook, who I believe until then had mostly pitied and humored my attempts at menu making, began to look at me with respect.
Next, I changed the table settings and decorations. I wanted to bring the garden inside, to remind Arthur of our time together, so I supervised the gardeners in cutting bushels of fragrant stargazer lilies from our gardens-though not from around the fountain. I also ordered them to gather cattails from the marshy area around the lakeshore, as well as curtains of ivy. Then I set about filling vases and vases with lilies, cattails, and trailing ivy, hoping all the while that Arthur would notice.
And while I was in the center of a whirlwind of activity of my own creation, I realized something incredibly interesting-the more demanding I became, the more the people about me complied. Where once I had tiptoed around Wheiler House, the timid ghost of the girl I used to be, now I strode purposefully, calling out commands with confidence .
I continue to learn. This lesson is one I'm finding most important. There may be a better way of ordering the world around me than my mother's way. She used her beauty and her soft, pleasing voice to coax, cajole, and get her way. I am discovering that I prefer a stronger approach.
Is that wrong of me? Is that part of the coldness I feel spreading within me? How can gaining confidence and control be wrong?
Whether right or wrong, I used my newly discovered knowledge when I chose my gown. Father had, of course, commanded me to wear one of Mother's green velvet gowns again.
I refused.
Oh, I was not foolish enough to refuse him outright. I simply rejected every one of my mother's green velvet dresses Mary offered me. Where before she would have insisted until I capitulated, my new attitude and bearing had her befuddled.
"But, lass, you must wear one of your mother's gowns. Your father has been quite firm about it," she'd protested one last time.
"I will follow Father's request, but it will be on my own terms. I am the Lady of Wheiler House and not a child's doll to be dressed up." I'd gone to my armoire and pulled from the recesses of it the gown I had planned on wearing for my Presentation Ball. It was cream silk with cascades of embroidered green ivy decorating the skirt. The bodice, though modest, was full, as was the skirt, but the waist was synched tiny, so that my figure became a perfect hourglass. And my arms were left alluringly, though appropriately, bare. I handed the gown to Mary. "Take a green velvet sash and bow from one of Mother's dresses. I'll wrap the sash around my waist, and stitch the bow to the side of the bodice. And bring me one of her green velvet hair ribbons. I'll wear it tied around my neck. If Father objects, I can truthfully tell him that I am, as he asked, wearing Mother's green velvet."
Mary frowned and muttered to herself, but she did as I told her to do. Everyone did as I told them to do. Even Father was subdued when I refused to go to the GFWC on Friday, saying that I was simply too busy.
"Well, Emily, tomorrow everything must be just so-just so. Skipping this week's volunteer duties is certainly understandable. It is commendable to see you fulfilling your responsibilities as Lady of Wheiler House."
"Thank you, Father." I'd answered him with the same words I used countless times before, but hadn't softened my tone and dropped my head. Instead, I looked him directly in the eye, and added, "And I won't be able to dine with you this evening. There is just too much for me to do and time is too short."
"Indeed, well, indeed. Be quite certain you make good use of your time, Emily."
"Oh, do not worry, Father. I will."
Nodding to himself, Father hadn't seemed to notice that I'd left the room before he'd dismissed me.
It had been a delicious luxury to command George to bring a tray up to my sitting room Friday evening. I ate in perfect peace, sipped a small glass of wine, and recounted the gold-foiled RSVPs-all twenty invitations had, indeed, been accepted.
I had placed the Simptons' reply card on the top of the pile.
Then I lounged on my daybed that sat before my small, third-floor balcony, and burned six pillared candlesticks while I leafed through the latest Montgomery Ward catalog. For the first time I began to believe I might enjoy being Lady of Wheiler House.
* * *
Excitement didn't keep me from feeling a dizzying rush of nerves when Carson made his announcement Saturday evening that the guests were beginning to arrive. I'd taken one final look in the mirror while Mary tied the thin velvet ribbon around my neck.
"You are a great beauty, lass," Mary had told me. "You will be a success tonight."
I'd lifted my chin and spoke to my reflection, banishing the ghost of my mother. "Yes, I will."
When I'd reached the landing, Father's back was to me. He was already engaged in an animated conversation with Mr. Pullman and Mr. Ryerson. Carson was opening the front door for several couples. Two women-one I recognized as the rather plump Mrs. Pullman, and the other, a taller, more handsome woman-were admiring the large central arrangement of lilies, cattails, and draping ivy I'd spent so many hours on. Raised in pleasure, their voices had carried easily to me.
"Well, this is quite lovely and unusual," Mrs. Pullman said.
The taller woman had nodded appreciatively. "What an excellent choice to use these lilies. They have filled the foyer with an exquisite scent. It is as if we entered a fragrant indoor garden."
I hadn't moved. I'd wanted to take a private moment of pleasure, so I'd imagined, just for an instant, that I was back on my bench in the garden, curtained by willows, cloaked by darkness, and sitting beside Arthur Simpton. I'd closed my eyes, drawn a deep breath, inhaling calm, and as I released it his voice had lifted to me, as if carried on the power of my imaginings.
"There is Miss Wheiler herself. Mother, I do believe the arrangement you have been admiring shows evidence of her hand."
I'd opened my eyes to gaze down at Arthur, standing beside the handsome women I hadn't recognized. I'd smiled, said, "Good evening Mr. Simpton," and had begun descending the last flight of stairs. Father had brushed past them and hurried to meet me, moving so quickly that he was puffing with effort when he offered me his arm.
"Emily, I do not believe you have met Arthur's mother, Mrs. Simpton," Father said, presenting me to her.
"Miss Wheiler, you are even more lovely than my son described," Mrs. Simpton had said. "And this centerpiece arrangement of yours is spectacular. Did you, as my son surmised, create it yourself?"
"Yes, Mrs. Simpton, I did. And I am flattered that you admire it." I hadn't been able to stop myself from smiling up at Arthur as I spoke. His kind blue eyes were alight with his own smile-one I was already finding familiar and increasingly dear.
"And how would you know Emily created the arrangement?" I'd been stunned by the gruff tone of Father's voice, sure that everyone around us could hear the possessiveness in it.
Nonplused, Arthur laughed good-naturedly. "Well, I recognize the stargazer lilies from-" Partway through his explanation, he must have seen the horror in my eyes because he broke off his words with an exaggerated cough.
"Son, are you well?" His mother had touched his arm in concern.
Arthur had cleared his throat and regained his smile. "Oh, quite well, Mother. Just a tickle in my throat."
"What is it you were saying about Emily's flowers?" Father had been like a bloated old dog with a bone.
Arthur hadn't missed a beat, but had continued smoothly, "Are they Emily's flowers? Then I have made an excellent guess because they instantly reminded me of her. They, too, are exceptionally beautiful as well as sweet."

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