“Of course you can’t think about marriage right now! Neither of us should—not really. We’re sixteen. That’s entirely too young. Isn’t that what you’ve always said, Mother?” Camille had sounded strained, almost frightened.
“Thinking about a thing and preparing for a thing are not one and the same, Camille. Opportunity should not be overlooked. And that is what I have always said.” Mrs. Elcott had peered down her long nose at me while she spoke with disdain.
“Well, I think it is a good thing that I am devoted to my father,” I’d responded, feeling horribly uncomfortable and unsure of what else to say.
“Oh, we are all in agreement about that!” Mrs. Elcott had said.
They hadn’t stayed long after Father’s appearance. Mrs. Elcott had rushed Camille off, not giving us even one small chance to speak to each other alone. It was as if she’d gotten what she’d come for and left satisfied.
And me? What had I gotten?
I’d hoped for validation. Even though the affection of the handsome young Arthur Simpton had turned from me to my friend, I’d believed it was my duty as a daughter to care for my father. I’d felt that Camille and her mother would see that I was doing my best to carry on after Mother—that in a little over two months I’d grown from girl to woman. I’d thought that somehow I could make the loss of Mother bearable.
But in the long, silent hours after their visit, my mind had begun to replay the events and to view their facets differently, and on retrospection I feel my second view to be more valid than my first. Mrs. Elcott had wanted substantiation of the gossip; she’d gotten her wish. She had also wanted to make it very clear that Arthur Simpton would not now be a part of my future and that no man—other than Father—would be a part of my foreseeable future. She had accomplished both tasks.
I’d sat up that night and waited for Father’s return. Even now, as I record what happened next, I cannot fault myself for my actions. As the Lady of Wheiler Mansion, it was my duty to see Father cared for—to be there with a tea or possibly a brandy for him—as I’d imagined Mother had often done upon his late return from work dinners. I had expected Father to be tired. I had expected him to be himself: aloof, gruff, and overbearing, yet polite and appreciative of my fidelity.
I had not expected him to be drunk.
I’d seen Father filled with wine. I had glimpsed him red nosed and effusive in his praise of Mother’s beauty as they went out in the evenings, dressed formally and trailing the scent of lavender, lemon, and cabernet. I cannot remember ever seeing them upon their return. Had I not been asleep in my bed, I would have been brushing my hair or embroidering the fine details of violets at the bodice of my newest day dress.
I realize now that Father and Mother had been to me like distant moons circling the self-absorption of my youth.
That night Father evolved from moon to burning sun.
He’d lurched inside the foyer, calling loudly for his valet, Carson. I’d been in Mother’s parlor, trying to keep my heavy eyes open by rereading Emily Brontë’s gothic novel, Wuthering Heights. At the sound of his voice, I’d put the book aside and hurried to him. His scent came to me before I saw him. I remember that I pressed a hand against my nose, flustered at the rankness of brandy, sweat, and cigars. As I write this, I am afraid that those three odors will for me, forever, be the scent of man, and the scent of nightmares.
I’d rushed to his side, pursing my lips at the thick reek of his breath, thinking that he must not be well.
“Father, are you ill? Shall I call the physician?”
“Physician? No, no, no! Right as rain. I’m right as rain. Just need some help getting to Alice’s room. Not as young as I used to be—not at all. But I can still do my duty. I’ll get her with a son yet!” Father swayed as he talked, and he’d put a heavy hand on my shoulder to steady himself.
I staggered under his weight, guiding him to the wide stairway, so worried that he was ill that I hardly comprehended what he was saying. “I’m here. I’ll help you,” was what I whispered over and over to him. He’d leaned even more heavily on me as we climbed clumsily up to the second floor and finally stopped outside his bedchamber. He’d shaken his head back and forth, mumbling, “This isn’t her room.”
“It is your bedchamber,” I’d said, wishing his valet or anyone would appear.
He’d squinted at me, as if he were having trouble focusing. Then his slack, drunken expression had changed. “Alice? So, you are willing to break your frigid rules and join my bed tonight.”
His hand had been hot and damp on the shoulder of my fine linen nightgown.
“Father, it’s me, Emily.”
“Father?” He’d blinked and brought his face down closer to mine. His breath had almost made me retch. “Emily. Indeed. It is you. Yes, you. I know you now. You cannot be Alice, she is dead.” His face still so very close to mine, he added, “You’re too thin, but you do have her eyes.” He’d reached out then and lifted a strand of the thick, auburn hair that had escaped my nightcap. “And her hair. You have her hair.” He’d rubbed my hair between his fingers and slurred, “You must eat more—shouldn’t be so thin.” Then, bellowing for Carson to attend him, Father let loose my hair, shoved me aside, and staggered into his room.
I should have retreated to my own bed then, but a terrible unease had come over me and I ran, allowing my feet to carry me where they willed. When I finally halted, gasping to catch my breath, I found my blind flight had taken me into the gardens that stretched for more than five acres in the rear of our house. There I collapsed on a stone bench that sat, concealed, under the curtain of a massive willow tree, and put my face in my hands and wept.
Then something magical happened. The warm night breeze lifted the willow branches and the clouds blew away, exposing the moon. Though only a slim crescent, it was almost silver in its brilliance, and it seemed to beam metallic light into the garden, setting aglow the huge white marble fountain that was its central feature. Within the fountain, spewing water from his open mouth, was the Greek god Zeus, in the form of the bull that had tricked and then abducted the maiden, Europa. The fountain had been a wedding gift from Father to Mother, and had been at the heart of Mother’s extensive garden since my earliest memories.
Perhaps it was because the fountain was Mother’s, or perhaps it was from envy for the musicality of the bubbling water, but my tears stopped as I studied it. Eventually, my heartbeat slowed and my breathing became normal. And, even when the moon became cloaked by clouds once again, I remained beneath the tree, listening to the water and allowing it, as well as the concealing willow shadows, to soothe me until I knew I could sleep. Then I slowly made my way up to my third-floor bedchamber. That night I dreamed I was Europa and the white bull was carrying me away to a beautiful meadow where no one ever died and where I was, eternally, young and carefree.
April 15th, 1893
Emily Wheiler’s Journal
I should have written in my journal before now, but the months since my last entry have been so confusing—so difficult—that I have not been myself. Childishly, I thought that by not writing, not recording the events that have unfolded, I could make it seem as if they had not happened—would not continue to happen.
I was so very wrong.
Everything has changed, and I must use this journal as evidence. Even if I am losing my mind, it will show an unraveling of madness and, as I originally hoped, provide a path for my treatment. And if, as I am coming to suspect, I am not mad, a record of these events should be made and might, somehow, aid me if I must choose a new future.
Let me begin anew.
After that cold night in January when Father returned home drunk, I have never waited up for him again. I tried not to think much on it—tried not to remember his breath, the hot, heavy feel of his hand, and the things he’d said.
Instead, when he departed for late dinner meetings, I wished him a pleasant good evening, and said I would be sure Carson attended to him when he returned.
At first that stopped his burning looks. I was so busy with the running of Wheiler House that except for our dinners together, I saw Father very little.
But over the past months the dinners had changed. Rather, the dinners hadn’t changed—the amount of wine consumed by Father is what changed. The more Father drank, the more often his eyes burned into me as he bid me good night.
I began to carefully water his wine. He has not, yet, noticed.
And then I threw all of my attention into taking complete responsibility for the running of Wheiler House. Yes, of course, Mary and Carson helped me … advised me. The cook made grocer lists, but I approved the menus. As Mary had once commented, it was as if my mother’s spirit had taken me over, and I was a girl no more.
I tried to tell myself that was a good thing—a lovely compliment. The truth was then as it is today—I think I did my duty, and continue to do my duty—but I am not sure that is a good thing at all.
It is not simply the work of being Lady of Wheiler House that has so changed me. It is how people began to change in their treatment of me. Yes, at first I had been overwhelmed by the extent of Mother’s duties. I’d had no idea that she not only ran the household, instructed the servants, saw to every detail of Father’s routine, supervised me, and volunteered twice a week at the General Federation of Women’s Club, helping to feed and care for the homeless women and children of Chicago. Mother had been dead five months, and during that time I had completely dedicated myself to being Lady of Wheiler House. Thus when Evelyn Field and Camille called on me one mid-morning early last month, asking if I would like to join them in riding our bicycles to the shore and picnicking, I’d been justifiably overwhelmed with the joy the freedom of the moment provided, especially as I had thought that Father had already left for the bank.
“Oh, yes!” I’d said happily, putting down my fountain pen and pushing aside the grocer list I’d been going over. I remember how happy Evelyn and Camille had been when I’d said yes. The three of us had laughed spontaneously.
“Emily, I am so, so glad you will come with us.” Camille had hugged me. “And you are looking so well—not pale and thin at all.”
“No, not pale at all!” Evelyn agreed. “You’re as beautiful as ever.”
“Thank you, Evelyn. I have missed everyone so much.” I’d hesitated, feeling the need to share a confidence with someone who wasn’t a servant—or my father. “It has been difficult since Mother has been gone. Really difficult.” Camille had chewed her lip. Evelyn had looked as if she were on the verge of tears. I quickly wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand, and found my smile again. “But now that the both of you are here I’m feeling much lighter than I have for weeks and weeks.”
“That’s what we intended. Mother tried to tell me you were too busy to be bothered with bicycle riding, but I swore not to listen to her and called on you anyway,” Camille had said.
“Your mother is always too serious,” Evelyn said, rolling her eyes skyward. “We all know that.”
“I don’t believe she was ever young,” Camille had said, making us giggle.
I was still giggling as I hurried from the parlor, determined to rush up the stairs and change as quickly as possible into my riding bloomers when I’d run straight into Father.
The breath had been knocked out of me with an oof, and my eyes had teared.
“Emily, why ever would you be bolting from the parlor in such an uncivilized manner?” Father had seemed a storm cloud in the making.
“E-excuse me, Father,” I’d stuttered. “Camille Elcott and Evelyn Field have called on me and asked that I bike to the lake with them for luncheon. I was hurrying to change my clothes.”
“Bicycling is excellent for the heart. It creates a strong constitution, though I do not approve of young people biking together with no adult supervision.”
I hadn’t noticed the tall woman standing across the foyer from Father until she’d spoken. She’d taken me by surprise, and I’d stood there, speechless, staring at her. In her deep blue dress and her peacock-plumed hat, she’d made quite an imposing figure, though one I had not recognized, and I’d wanted to say that I did not approve of old women wearing wildly plumed hats, but of course I’d held my tongue.
“Emily, do you not remember Mrs. Armour? She is chairwoman of the General Federation of Women’s Club,” Father had prompted me.
“Oh, yes. Mrs. Armour, I apologize for not recognizing you.” I had recognized her name, now that Father had spoken it, but I could not remember the woman herself. “And—and I also apologize for rushing out,” I’d continued hastily. “I do not mean to be impolite”—I’d turned and made a gesture that took in Evelyn and Camille where they sat in the parlor, watching with obvious curiosity—“but as you can see, my friends are waiting for me. Father, I will ring for Mary to bring tea if you are entertaining Mrs. Armour in your study.”
“You mistake me, Miss Wheiler. It is you, and not your father with whom I wish to visit.”
I’d been confused, and I believe I gaped rather stupidly at the old woman.
Father had not been likewise confused. “Emily, Mrs. Armour has called on you to speak about your inherited place at the GFWC. It was a passion of your mother’s. I expect it to be a passion of yours, as well.”
My confusion cleared as I realized why the name Armour had been familiar. Philip Armour was one of the wealthiest men in Chicago and he kept much of his money in Father’s bank. I’d turned to Mrs. Armour and made myself smile, pitching my voice to be soft and soothing, just as Mother used to sound. “I would be honored to inherit Mother’s place at the GFWC. Perhaps we can set a date for me to come to Market Hall and meet with you about—”