Neferet's Curse

Page 9

"Oh, Arthur, you do sound more and more like your father every day." Arthur's mother had squeezed his arm with obvious affection.
"Arthur! Oh, my. I had hoped you would be here." Camille had rushed up to us, ahead of her mother, though Mrs. Elcott followed so closely on her daughter's heels that it appeared as if she pushed her along.
"Miss Elcott." Arthur had bowed stiffly, formally. "Mrs. Elcott, good evening. I am escorting my mother as my father is still unwell."
"What a coincidence! My Camille joins me this evening because Mr. Elcott believes he may be coming down with an ague. And, of course, I so wanted to be sure I was here to support Emily at her first formal dinner as Lady of Wheiler House that I couldn't bear to cancel." Mrs. Elcott had explained with a honeyed tone, but her pinched expression as she cast her gaze from Arthur to me belied her words. "Though, sadly, I have only daughters and no devoted son. You are a fortunate mother, Mrs. Simpton."
"Oh, I readily agree with you, Mrs. Elcott," Arthur's mother had said with a fond smile. "He is a devoted and an observant son. We were just discussing that it was he who guessed that these lovely decorations were created by Miss Wheiler herself."
"Emily? You did that?"
Camille had sounded so shocked that I'd had a sudden urge to slap her. Instead I lifted my chin and did not soften my voice and make little of my accomplishments, as Mother would have.
"Hello, Camille, what a surprise it is to see you. And, yes, I did make this arrangement. I also created all of the arrangements on the dining table, as well as those in Father's library."
"You are a credit to me, my dear," Father had said.
I'd ignored him and kept my focus on Camille, and very precisely said, "As you and your mother observed during your last visit, I am learning early what it is to be the Lady of a great house." I had not added the rest of what Mrs. Elcott had said, which is something my future husband will be glad of. I hadn't needed to. I'd simply needed to turn my gaze from Camille to Arthur, and then return the warm smile he'd been beaming at me.
"Yes, well, as I said. You are a credit to me." Father offered his arm to me again. I'd had to take it. He nodded to the Simptons and Elcotts, saying, "And now we must greet the rest of our guests. Emily, I do not see the champagne being served."
"That is because I chose to follow the University Club's lead with the menu tonight. George will be serving amontillado before the first course instead of champagne. It will pair much better with the fresh oysters."
"Very good, very good. Let us find some of that amontillado, my dear. Ah, I see the Ayers have arrived. There is talk of a permanent art collection for his Indian relics, which the bank will be very interested in…"
I'd stopped listening, though I allowed Father to lead me away with him. That entire night, as I played the part of hostess and Lady of Wheiler House, I kept always in my mind the hope that Arthur Simpton was noticing, and each time I managed to steal a look at him our eyes met because he had been watching me. His smile had seemed to say he had also been appreciating me.
As the evening progressed, I'd understood that, as always, after dinner the men would leave us and retire to Father's library for brandy and cigars. The women would go to Mother's formal parlor, sip iced wine, nibble on tea cakes and, of course, gossip. I'd dreaded that separation, and not simply because Arthur would not be there, but because I had no experience conversing with ladies of my mother's age. Camille was the only one of them within a decade of my age. I'd realized I had a choice to make. I could sit beside Camille and chatter like I was nothing more than any other young girl, or I could truly attempt to be Lady of Wheiler House. I knew I might be treated with condescension. There were, after all, great ladies such as Mrs. Ryerson, Mrs. Pullman, and Mrs. Ayer present, and I was but a sixteen-year-old girl. But as I led the ladies into Mother's parlor, and was met with the familiar and soothing scent of the stargazers I had so meticulously arranged, I made my choice. I did not withdraw to the window seat with Camille and cling to my childhood. Instead, I took Mother's position in the center of the room on the divan, supervised Mary's refreshing of the ladies' wine, and tried to hold my chin up and think of something-anything intelligent-to say into the building silence.
Arthur's mother was my salvation.
"Miss Wheiler, I am interested in these unusual bouquet creations you have beautifully displayed in each of the rooms. Would you share with me your inspiration?" she'd asked with a warm smile that had reminded me so much of her son's.
"Yes, dear," I'd been amazed to hear Mrs. Ayer say. "The decorations are quite cunning. You must share your secret with us."
"I was inspired by our gardens and by the fountain at its heart. I wanted to bring the lily scent and the water imagery, and my favorite tree, the willow, inside tonight."
"Oh, I see! The cattails evoke the presence of water," Mrs. Simpton had said.
"And the trailing ivy is arranged much like the fronds of a willow," Mrs. Ayer had said, nodding in obvious appreciation. "That was an excellent idea."
"Emily, I haven't known you to be particularly fond of the garden. I thought you and Camille were much more concerned with bicycling and the latest Gibson Girl styles than gardening." Mrs. Elcott had spoken with the exact tone of condescension I had been dreading.
For a moment I said nothing. There had seemed to be a breathless silence in the room, as if the house itself awaited my response. Would I be a girl or a lady?
I straightened my back, lifted my chin, and met Mrs. Elcott's patronizing gaze. "Indeed, Mrs. Elcott, I have enjoyed bicycling and Gibson Girl styles, but that was when my mother, your particular friend, was Lady of Wheiler House. She is dead. I have had to step into her role, and I find that I must be concerned with things that are not so girlish." I'd heard clucks of concern and several of the women whispered the poor thing. That further emboldened me, and I'd realized how I could use Mrs. Elcott's condescension to my favor. I'd continued, "I know I cannot hope to be as great a lady as Mother was, but I have resolved to do my best. I can only hope that Mother is looking down on me with pride." I'd sniffed delicately and used my lace napkin to dab the corners of my eyes.
"Oh, you sweet girl." Mrs. Simpton had patted my shoulder. "As your father said earlier, you are a credit to your family. Your mother and I were not well acquainted, but I am a mother with daughters of my own, so I feel confident when I say that she would be very proud of you, very proud indeed!"
Then each of the ladies, in turn, consoled me and assured me of their admiration. Each of the ladies except Mrs. and Miss Elcott . Camille and her mother said little for the rest of the evening, and were the first of my guests to leave.
An hour or so later, when the men came to collect their women, conversation flowed in my parlor as freely as brandy had obviously flowed in Father's library. Our guests bade us effusive good nights, praising everything about the evening.
Arthur and his mother were the last to depart.
"Mr. Wheiler, it has been quite some time since I have had such an agreeable evening," Mrs. Simpton told Father, as he bowed to her. "And I do so appreciate it, as I have been uncommonly worried about my good husband's health. But your daughter was such an attentive hostess that I feel my spirits have been lifted."
"Pleasantly said, pleasantly said," Father had slurred, weaving a little as he stood beside me just within the foyer.
"Please, Madam, send Mr. Simpton my best wishes for a swift recovery," I'd said, holding my breath in hopeful anticipation of her next words.
"Well, you must call on Mr. Simpton yourself!" Arthur's mother had exclaimed, just as I'd wished her to. "You would be such a lovely diversion for him, especially as he desperately misses our two daughters. They are both married and remained in New York with their husbands' families."
"I would enjoy calling on you very much," I'd said, touching Father's arm and adding, "Father, do you not think it would be a kindness to visit Mr. and Mrs. Simpton, as he has been so unwell?"
"Yes, yes, of course," Father had said, nodding dismissively.
"Excellent. Then I shall send Arthur around with our carriage on Monday afternoon."
"Arthur? The carriage? I do not-" Father had begun but Mrs. Simpton had interrupted, nodding her head as if she agreed with whatever edict he was getting ready to speak. "I do not like the current craze of young people bicycling everywhere, either. And those bloomers girls are wearing-atrocious!" Mrs. Simpton had leveled her gaze on her son. "Arthur, I know that you are fond of your bicycle, but Mr. Wheiler and I insist his daughter travels in a more civilized manner. Do we not, Mr. Wheiler?"
"Indeed," Father had agreed. "Bicycles are not appropriate for ladies."
"Precisely! So my son will take the carriage for Miss Wheiler on Monday afternoon. It is well decided. Good night!" Mrs. Simpton had taken her son's arm. Arthur bowed formally to Father, bidding him good night. When he turned to me his bow was just as formal, but his gaze met mine and his quick wink was for me alone.
As soon as the door closed I went into action. I'd recognized Father's weaving and slurring. My heart was too filled with the success of the evening and the obvious attentions being paid me by Arthur and his mother. I'd not wanted to take any chance that Father would ruin my happiness with his alcohol breath, his hot, heavy hands, and his burning gaze.
"I'll wish you a good night now, Father," I'd said with a quick curtsey. "I must see that everything is back in its proper place tonight, and it is already so late. Carson!" I'd called and then had breathed a great sigh of relief when Father's valet hurried into the foyer. "Please help Father to his bedchamber."
Then I'd turned and, with purposeful, confident strides, retreated from the room.
And Father hadn't called me back!
I'd been so giddy with victory that I practically danced into the dining room where, just as I'd already directed, George was putting everything back to order.
"Leave the flower arrangements, George," I'd directed him. "The scent really is spectacular."
"Yes, Miss."
Mary was tidying the parlor. "You can leave that for now. I'd rather have you help me out of this gown. I am exhausted."
"Yes, Miss," had been her response, as well.
Had I actually ended the night after Mary had helped me into my sleep chemise, I would be recording that as the most perfect evening of my life. Sadly, I was too restless for sleep-too restless to even write of the evening's events in my journal. I'd craved the comfort of my sweet, familiar garden, and the soothing touch of the darkness that brought me a special sense of calm.
I'd wrapped my night robe around me and, on slippered feet I'd padded silently, swiftly, down the wide stairway. I heard the servants distantly in the kitchen, but no one saw me as I slipped from the house and into my gardens.
It had been late-much later than I usually ventured outside, but the moon was more than half full, and my feet knew their way. My willow awaited me. Under its curtained darkness I curled up on the marble bench, gazed at the fountain, and then, like each memory was a jewel, I sifted through the events of the evening.
Arthur Simpton's mother had made it clear that she prefers me! It had even seemed that she and her son were in cahoots, and that they worked together to slip around Father's possessive disapproval.
I'd wanted to stand and dance and laugh with joy, but Arthur had taught me a valuable lesson. I had no intention of anyone, not even one of the servants, discovering my special place, so I remained quietly on the bench and imagined myself dancing and laughing in joy under my willow tree, and I promised myself then that someday I would be Lady of my own great house, and my Lord and husband would have kind blue eyes and a warm smile.
As I write this, remembering the evening, I do not believe my manipulations malicious. Arthur and his mother had paid me special attention. Was it wrong that I wanted to use their affections to escape a situation I was finding more and more difficult to bear?
The answer I find is no. I would be good to Arthur. I would be close to his mother. I was not doing an evil act by encouraging the Simptons.
But I digress. I must continue to report the horrific events that followed.
That night, the comfortable shadows beneath my willow tree had worked their usual magic. My mind had ceased its whirring and I'd felt a lovely sleepiness come over me. Almost as if I was in a waking dream, I'd slowly, languidly, left the gardens and made my way back through the dark, silent house. I was yawning widely when I reached the second-floor landing. I'd covered my mouth to stifle the sound when Father stepped from the unlit hallway.
"What are you doing?" His words were rough, and came to me on a wave of brandy and garlic.
"I just wanted to be sure everything was set to rights before I went to sleep. All is well, though, so good night, Father." I'd turned and tried to continue up the stairs when his heavy hand caught my arm.
"You should have a drink with me. It would be good for your hysteria."
I'd stopped moving the instant he'd touched me, afraid if I began to struggle away from him, he would only grasp all the tighter to my arm. "Father, I do not have hysteria. I only have weariness. The dinner party has tired me greatly and I need to sleep now."

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