Neferet's Curse


Page 12


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"Yes, Arthur! Oh, yes!" It hadn't just been relief at the escape that had opened before me that had me laughing and crying and hugging him tightly. I cared for Arthur Simpton, truly.
I might even love him.
He'd hugged me in return and then, laughing with me, drawn back, saying, "I have not stopped thinking of you from the moment I first saw you all those many months ago when you and your friend joined the Hermes Club. I think I have always known you would be mine."
I'd tilted my head back and looked up at him adoringly. "Arthur Simpton, you have made me the happiest girl in the world."
Slowly he'd bent and pressed his lips to mine. That first kiss had been an electrical shock to my body. I'd felt myself molding to his body and parted my lips invitingly. Arthur had deepened the kiss, tasting me hesitantly with his tongue. There had been no hesitation in my response. I'd opened to him, and even as I write this my body easily recalls the rush of warmth and wetness that his mouth had caused me to feel. Breathing deeply, he'd broken the kiss. His laugh had been tremulous.
"I-I must speak to your father soon. Tomorrow! I will call on him tomorrow."
My good sense had returned to me abruptly. "No, Arthur! You mustn't."
"But I don't understand. You are frightened, and time is of the essence."
I took his hand, pressed it to my breast, over my heart, and dared to say, "Do you trust me, my darling?"
His startled expression had softened instantly. "Of course I do!"
"Then please do as I say and all will be well. You must not speak to Father alone. He is not himself. He will not be reasonable. Arthur, he may even forbid you to see me, and then beat me when I protest."
"No, Emily! I will not allow that!
I'd breathed a sigh of relief. "I know how you can secure his blessing, my safety, and our happiness, but you must do as I tell you. I know Father far better than you do."
"Tell me what I must do to keep you safe."
"Be sure you and your parents attend the dinner at the University Club Monday next after the opening ceremonies on the Midway. At the dinner, in front of his peers and the great ladies of Chicago who have expressly requested that I accompany Father, that is when you must publicly ask permission to court me." Arthur had already been nodding in agreement, but I continued, "Even in his current unstable state, Father will not act irrationally in public."
"When I pledge my intentions, and my family supports me in my troth, your father will have no rational reason to refuse me."
I'd squeezed his hand more tightly. "That is true, but only if you do so in public."
"You are right, sweet Emily. Your father will have to act like himself then."
"Exactly! You are so wise, Arthur," was what I'd said. My thoughts, of course, had been much different.
"But will you be safe for a week? And how can I see you without provoking your father?"
My mind had whirred. "Father himself has said I am unwell. I will be a dutiful daughter and insist he is right, that my health is fragile and that I must rest, so as to be invigorated for Monday." And, I'd added silently, I will go to my bed early and sleep with a heavy chest of drawers barring entrance to my chamber …
Arthur had pulled his hand from me and gently tapped me on my nose. "And no more insisting that you volunteer at the GFWC. After we are married there will be years for you to follow your civic spirit, and volunteer as often and wherever you so desire."
"After we are married!" I'd said the words happily, mentally tossing away the rest of his sentence. "That sounds so wonderful!"
"Mother will be pleased," he'd said.
That had touched my heart and true tears had come to my eyes. "I'll have a mother again."
Arthur had embraced me, and this time I did not offer my lips to him. This time I'd only clung happily to him.
Too soon, he took his arms from around me. "Emily, I do not wish to leave you, but I am worried about the passing time. Father will not entertain long-his health will not allow it."
I was already standing before he'd finished speaking. Taking his arm I'd guided him to the edge of the shielding darkness of my willow. "You are absolutely right. You must leave before Father returns." And I had to rush to barricade myself within my bedchamber!
He'd turned to me. "Tell me how I can see you between now and next week. I must know that you are truly safe and well."
"Here-you may come here, but only at night. If it is safe, and if I am able to escape to the gardens I will pick a lily and place it in the latch of the garden gate. When you see the lily, you will know I'm waiting for you, my love."
He'd kissed me quickly and said, "Be safe, my dearest one." And then he'd hurried away into the darkness.
I'd been giddy with happiness and breathless with worry as I ran as swiftly and silently as possible back through the house and up the long flights of stairs. It had only been minutes after I'd pushed the chest of drawers before my door that, watching from within the curtains of my third-floor balcony, I saw Father stumble drunkenly from our carriage.
If he lurked outside my bedchamber, that night I did not know it. That night I slept soundly, door barricaded, content that my escape had been secured and that my future would be safe and happy.
* * *
Avoiding Father over the next week proved much easier than I'd anticipated, thanks to the financial travails of the Columbian Exposition. Father's bank was in turmoil regarding last-minute funding that Mr. Burnham was insisting the Exposition Committee approve. Tuesday and Wednesday he'd rushed through dinner and then left immediately afterward, muttering darkly about architects and unrealistic expectations. Though he did not return home until well after moonrise, I did not escape to my garden. I did not pick a lily and chance being discovered. But on Thursday evening, when Carson announced that Father had come home only long enough to change into more formal attire and then depart for dinner and a board meeting at the University Club, I knew I would have hours of solitude before he returned.
I took dinner in my private parlor and dismissed Mary hours before usual, encouraging her to take the evening for herself and to visit her sister who lived across town in the meatpacking district. She had been grateful for the free time and, as I knew it would, word that the master and mistress of the Wheiler House were otherwise occupied spread through the servants. The house was silent as death before the sun had fully left the sky, and it had been ever so difficult for me to wait for true darkness and the concealing shadows of night. I'd paced and fretted until the moon, almost completely full, had lifted into the sky. Then I crept from my room, moving much more slowly than my heart had wanted my feet to go-but I understood I must be more careful now than ever . My freedom was in sight. Being discovered now, even were it only by one of our servants, could put everything I had worked so hard to orchestrate at risk.
Perhaps I should have remained in my room and trusted that Arthur would not forsake his word to me, but the truth was that I needed to see him. I longed to be touched by his kindness and his strength, and through his touch feel warmer, gentler emotions again. The tension within me had been building each day, and as Monday drew nearer and nearer, even though Father had largely been absent, I had begun to feel an increasing sense of foreboding. Monday should bring an end to my fear and suffering, but I could not shake the presentiment that something so terrible that even my imagination could not give it name, was waiting to happen to me.
Trying to put aside my foreboding and focus on the things I could control-the events I could understand-I'd dressed carefully, fully aware that I must draw Arthur to me and make him irretrievably my own. I'd chosen my finest chemise, a nightgown made of blush colored linen so soft that it felt like silk against my na**d skin. From Mother's wardrobe I borrowed her finest dressing gown. It was, of course, made of velvet the exact color of our eyes. I'd stood before my looking glass as I wrapped it snuggly around my body, using the gold tasseled sash to belt it tightly so that the slimness of my waist contrasted beautifully with the generous curves of my bosom and my hips. But I'd been quite sure that the belted sash was tied in a bow, and one that could easily be loosened, as if on accident. I'd left my hair unadorned and free, combed it to a lustrous shine so that it tumbled in a thick auburn wave down my back.
I'd plucked a fragrant lily in full bloom from beside the garden path. Before I'd threaded it through the latch on the outward side of the gate I pulled one petal free and rubbed it behind my neck, between my bosoms, and on my wrists. Then, covered in the sweet scent of lily and the welcoming shadows of the night, I'd sat on my bench and waited.
Looking back I realize I couldn't have waited long. The moon, white and luminous, was still hanging low in the sky when I'd heard the garden gate squeak open and shoes crunch hurriedly on the gravel path.
I hadn't been able to sit calmly as I should have. I'd leaped up and on feet that did not seem to touch the spring grass, hurried to the edge of my willow curtain to meet my lover, my savior, my rescuer.
"Arthur!"
His arms were around me and his dear voice sounded like a symphony in my ears. "My sweet Emily! Are you well? Unharmed?"
"I am completely well now that you are here!" I'd laughed and tilted my face up, offering my lips to him. Arthur had kissed me then, and even pressed his body against mine, but as I'd begun to feel an increase in the tension of his body, he'd broken our embrace and, with a shaky laugh, bowed formally to me and offered me his arm.
"My lady, may I escort you to your seat?"
I'd swept my thick hair back and curtseyed, smiling teasingly up at him. "Oh, please do, kind sir. And, though I do not want to appear too forward, you should know that I have saved every dance tonight for you."
My words had made him laugh again, less nervously than before, and I did not cling too tightly to his arm, but gave him a chance to collect himself as he guided me to the bench. We sat, holding hands. I'd sighed happily when he, shyly, lifted my hand and kissed it gently.
"Tell me how you have been. There has not been one moment since last I saw you that you have not been on my mind," he'd said, sounding so earnest and young that he'd almost frightened me. How could anyone as good and kind as Arthur Simpton ever stand up to my father?
He wouldn't have to! I'd reminded myself as quickly as I do now. Arthur only need make a public declaration for me-Father's fear of scandal and ridicule would do the rest.
"I have been missing you," I'd said, holding tightly to his strong hand.
"But your father-he has not…"
When Arthur faltered and could not complete his question I continued for him, "Father has not often been at home for the past several nights. We have rarely spoken. I have kept to my chamber, and Father has kept to the business of financing the exposition."
Arthur had nodded in understanding. "Even my father has roused himself from his sickbed and has been dining and conducting business beside Mr. Pullman." He'd paused, and appeared uncomfortable.
"What is it?" I'd prodded.
"Mother and Father were completely pleased when I announced my intentions toward you. When I further explained your circumstances Mother, in particular, was concerned, especially after Father returned home Tuesday evening from a meeting and reported how very drunk your father had been, as well as impolite and belligerent, before the meeting had even come to a close."
I'd felt a thin ribbon of fear. "Oh, please, Arthur! Tell me your parents do not hold my father's excesses against me. It would break my heart if they did!"
"Of course not." He'd gently patted my hand. "To the contrary. Because Father witnessed Mr. Wheiler's behavior himself, he and Mother are even more determined that our courtship be short, our engagement formally announced, and you be rescued from such an undesirable situation as soon as is proper. If all goes as planned, this time next year you and I shall be wed, my sweet Emily!"
He'd pulled me gently into his arms then and hugged me. I'd been glad that I could bury my face in his chest because it had stopped me from screaming in impotent frustration. One year! I could not stand to be in this abominable situation for another year!
I'd slid closer to Arthur, secretly pulling at the sash which held Mother's dressing gown closed.
"Arthur, one year seems such a very long time from now," I'd murmured, lifting my face slightly, so that my breath was warm against his neck.
His arms had tightened around me. "I know. It seems long to me as well, but we must do things properly so as not to cause gossip."
"I'm just so afraid of what Father will do. He's drinking more and more, and when he is drunk he is frightening. Your father even said he was belligerent!"
"Yes, sweet Emily, yes," he'd said soothingly, stroking my hair. "But once we are betrothed, you will belong to me. Though it is impolite of me to say so, the truth is that my family has more social connections and is wealthier than yours. I want you to know that matters not at all to me, but it will matter to your father. He dare not offend my family, which means once we are engaged, he dare not offend-or harm-you."
Of course Arthur had spoken truthfully-or spoken as truthfully as he knew. The problem was that Arthur did not understand the depth of my father's depravity or the force of his desires.
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