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January 15th, 1893
Emily Wheiler’s Journal
Entry: the first
This is not a diary. I loathe the very thought of compiling my thoughts and actions in a locked book, secreted away as if they were precious jewels.
I know my thoughts are not precious jewels.
I have begun to suspect my thoughts are quite mad.
That is why I feel compelled to record them. It could be that in the re-reading, sometime in the future, I will discover why these horrible things have befallen me.
Or, I will discover that I have, indeed, lost my mind.
If that be the case, then this will serve as a record of the onset of my paranoia and madness so as to lay the foundation to discover a cure.
Do I want to be cured?
Perhaps that is a question that would be best set aside for now.
First, let me begin when everything changed. It was not on this, the first date of my journal. It was two and one half months ago, on the first day of November, in the year eighteen ninety-two. That was the morning my mother died.
Even here in the silent pages of this journal I hesitate to recall that terrible morning. My mother died in a tide of blood, which surged from within her following the birth of the small, lifeless body of my brother, Barrett, named after Father. It seemed to me then, as it does today, that Mother simply gave up when she saw that Barrett would not draw breath. It was as if even the life force that sustained her could not bear the loss of her precious only son.
Or was the full truth that she could not bear to face Father after the loss of his precious, only son?
That question would not have entered my mind before that morning. Until the morning my mother died, the questions that most often entered my mind were focused on how I might persuade Mother to allow me to purchase another one of the new cycling costumes that were all the rage, or how I could make my hair look exactly like a Gibson girl.
If I had thought of Father before the morning Mother died, it was as most of my girlfriends thought of their fathers—as a distant and somewhat intimidating patriarch. In my particular case, Father only praised me through Mother’s comments. Actually, before Mother’s death, he seemed to rarely notice me at all.
Father was not in the room when Mother died. The doctor had proclaimed the birthing process too vulgar for a man to witness, especially not a man of the import of Barrett H. Wheiler, president of the First National Bank of Chicago.
And me? Barrett and Alice Wheiler’s daughter? The doctor did not mention the vulgarity of childbirth to me. Actually, the doctor did not even notice me until after Mother was dead and Father had brought me to his attention.
“Emily, you will not leave me. You will wait with me until the doctor arrives and then remain there, in the window seat. You should know what it is to be a wife and mother. You should not go blindly into it as did I.” Mother had commanded me in that soft voice of hers, which made everyone who did not truly know her believe she was softheaded and no more than a beautiful, compliant bobble on Father’s arm.
“Yes, Mother,” I had said with a nod, and done as she had ordered.
I remember sitting, still as shadow, in the unlit window seat across from the bed in Mother’s opulent bedchamber. I saw everything. It did not take her long to die.
There was so much blood. Barrett had been born in blood—a small, still, gore-covered creature. He had looked like a grotesque broken doll. After the spasm that had expelled him from between Mother’s legs, the blood did not stop. It kept surging and surging while my mother wept tears as silent as her son. I knew she wept because she had turned her head away from the sight of the doctor wrapping the dead baby in linens. Mother’s gaze met mine then.
I could not remain in the window seat. I rushed to the side of her bed and, while the doctor and his nurse futilely attempted to staunch the scarlet river that gushed from her, I gripped her hand and brushed the damp hair back from her forehead. Through my tears and my fear, I tried to murmur reassurance to her, and tell her that everything would be well once she rested.
Mother had squeezed my hand and whispered, “I am glad you are here with me at the end.”
“No! You’ll get better, Mother!” I’d protested.
“Sssh,” she’d soothed. “Just hold my hand.” Her voice had faded away then, but Mother’s emerald eyes, which everyone said were so like mine, did not look away from me all the while her flushed face went shockingly white and her breath softened, caught, and then on a sigh, ceased altogether.
I’d kissed her hand then, and staggered back to my window seat, where I’d wept, unnoticed as the nurse performed the daunting job of disposing of the soaked linens and making Mother presentable for Father’s viewing. But Father hadn’t waited until Mother had been prepared for him. He’d pushed into the room, ignoring the protestations of the doctor.
“It is a son, you say?” Father had not so much as glanced at the bed. Instead he had hurried to the bassinette, wherein lay the shrouded body of Barrett.
“It was, indeed, a boy child,” the doctor said somberly. “Born too soon, as I told you, sir. There was nothing to be done. His lungs were too weak. He never drew breath. He did not utter one cry.”
“Dead … silent.” Father had wiped a hand wearily across his face. “Do you know when Emily was born she cried so lustily I heard her in the drawing room downstairs and believed her to be a son?”
“Well, Mr. Wheiler, I know it is of little consolation after losing a son and a wife, but you do have a daughter, and through her the promise of heirs.”
“She promised me heirs!” Father shouted, finally turning to look at Mother.
I must have made some small, wounded sound because Father’s eyes instantly flicked to my window seat. They narrowed, and for a moment it didn’t seem he recognized me. And then he shook himself, as if trying to shiver something uncomfortable from his skin.
“Emily, why are you here?” Father’s voice had sounded so angry that it seemed the question he’d meant to ask was much more than why I was in that room at that particular time.
“M-mother bade me s-stay,” I had stuttered.
“Your mother is dead,” he’d said, anger flattened to hard-edged truth.
“And this is no place for a young lady.” The doctor’s face had been flushed when he faced my father. “Beg pardon, Mr. Wheiler. I was too occupied with the birth to notice the girl there.”
“The fault was not yours, Doctor Fisher. My wife often did and said things that perplexed me. This is simply the last of them.” Father made a dismissive gesture that took in the doctor, the maids, and me. “Now leave me with Mrs. Wheiler, all of you.”
I wanted to run from the room—to escape as quickly as possible, but my feet had gone numb and cold from sitting unmoving for so long and as I passed Father I’d stumbled. His hand caught me under the elbow. I’d looked up, startled.
His expression had suddenly appeared to soften as he gazed down at me. “You have your mother’s eyes.”
“Yes.” Breathless and lightheaded, that was all I could say.
“That is as it should be. You are now the Lady of Wheiler House.” Then Father released me and walked slowly, heavily, to the bloody bed.
As I closed the door behind me, I heard him begin to weep.
Thereby also began my strange and lonely time of mourning. I moved numbly through the funeral and collapsed afterward. It was as if sleep had taken me over. I could not break free of it. For two full months I hardly left my bed. I did not care that I grew thin and pale. I did not care that the social condolence calls of my mother’s friends and their daughters were left unanswered. I did not notice that Christmas and a New Year came and went. Mary, my mother’s lady’s maid, whom I had inherited, begged, cajoled, and scolded. I cared not at all.
It was the fifth day of January when Father broke me free of sleep’s hold. My room had grown cold, so cold that my shivering had awakened me. The fire in my hearth had died and not been relit, so I pulled the sash attached to Mary’s summoning bell, which tinkled all the way down in the servants’ quarters in the bowels of the house, but she had not answered my call. I remember putting on my dressing gown, and thinking—briefly—how large it seemed and how very much it engulfed me. Making my way slowly from my third-floor bedchamber down the wide, wooden stairway, shivering, I searched for Mary. Father had emerged from his study as I came to the bottom of the stairs. When he first saw me his eyes were blank, then his expression registered surprise. Surprise followed by something I was almost certain was disgust.
“Emily, you look wretched! Thin and pale! Are you ill?”
Before I could answer, Mary was there, hurrying across the foyer toward us. “I told ye, Mr. Wheiler. She’s not been eating. I said she was doing nothin’ but sleepin’. Wastin’ away, she is.” Mary had spoken briskly, her soft Irish accent more pronounced than usual.
“Well, this behavior must end at once,” Father had said sternly. “Emily, you will leave your bed. You will eat. You will take daily walks in the gardens. I simply will not have you looking emaciated. You are, after all, the Lady of Wheiler House, and my lady cannot look as if she were a starving gutter waif.”
His eyes had been hard. His anger had been intimidating, especially as I realized Mother wouldn’t appear from her parlor, buzzing with distracting energy and shooing me away while pacifying Father with a smile and a touch.
I took an automatic step away from him, which only made his expression darker. “You have your mother’s look, but not her spunk. As irritating as it had been at times, I admired her spunk. I miss it.”
“I-I miss Mother, too,” I heard myself blurt.
“Of course ye do, dove,” Mary had soothed. “’Tis only been little over two months.”
“Then we have something in common after all.” Father had ignored Mary completely and spoken as if she hadn’t been there, nervously touching my hair, smoothing my dressing gown. “The loss of Alice Wheiler has created our commonality.” He’d turned his head then, studying me. “You do have her look.” Father stroked his dark beard and his gaze lost its hard, intimidating cast. “We shall have to make the best of her absence, you know.”
“Yes, Father.” I’d felt relieved at the gentling of his voice.
“Good. Then I expect you to join me for dinner each evening, as you and your mother used to. No more of this hiding in your room, starving your looks away.”
I had smiled then, actually smiled. “I would like that,” I’d said.
He’d grunted, slapped the newspaper he’d been holding across his arm, and nodded. “At dinner then,” he’d said, and he walked past me, disappearing into the west wing of the house.
“I may be even a little hungry tonight,” I’d said to Mary as she clucked at me and helped me up the stairway.
“’Tis good to see he’s takin’ an interest in ye, it is,” Mary had whispered happily.
I’d hardly paid any attention to her. My only thought was that for the first time in a month I had something more than sleep and sadness to look forward to. Father and I shared a commonality!
I’d dressed carefully for dinner that evening, understanding for the first time how very thin I had become when my black mourning dress had to be pinned so that it did not hang unattractively loose. Mary combed my hair, twining it in a thick chignon that I thought made my newly thin face look much older than my fifteen years.
I will never forget the start it gave me when I entered our dining room and saw the two place settings—Father’s, where he had always been at the head of the table—and mine, now placed at Mother’s spot to Father’s right hand.
He’d stood and held Mother’s chair for me. I was sure as I sat that I could still smell her perfume—rose water, with just a hint of the lemon rinse she used on her hair to bring out the richness of her auburn highlights.
George, a Negro man who served our dinner, began ladling from the soup tureen. I’d worried that the silence would be terrible, but as Father began to eat, so, too, began his familiar words.
“The Columbian Exposition Committee has joined collectively behind Burnham; we are supporting him completely. I wondered, at first, that the man might be a touch mad—that he was attempting something unattainable, but his vision of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition outshining Paris’s splendor seems to be within reach, or at least his design appears to be sound—extravagant, but sound.” He’d paused to take a healthy mouthful of the steak and potatoes that had replaced his empty soup bowl, and in that pause I could hear my mother’s voice.
“Is not extravagance what everyone is calling for?” and didn’t realize until Father looked up at me that it had been I who had spoken and not, after all, the ghost of Mother. I froze under his sharp, dark-eyed scrutiny, wishing I’d kept silent and daydreamed the meal away as I had so many times in the past.
“And how do you know what everyone is calling for?” His keen, dark eyes were sharp on me, but his lips lifted slightly at the corners, just as he used to almost smile at Mother.
I remember feeling a rush of relief and smiling heartily in return. His question was one I’d heard him ask Mother more times than I could begin to count. I let her words reply for me. “I know you believe all women do is talk, but they listen, too.” I spoke more quickly and more softly than Mother, but Father’s eyes had crinkled in the corners as he showed his approval and amusement.
“Indeed…” he’d said with a chuckle, cutting a large piece of bloody red meat and eating it as if he were ravenous while he gulped down glasses of wine as red and dark as the liquid that ran from his meat. “But I must keep close tabs on Burnham, and his gaggle of architects, close tabs indeed. They are grotesquely over budget, and those workmen … always a problem … always a problem…” Father spoke as he chewed, dribbling bits of food and wine into his beard, a habit I knew Mother had loathed, and often rebuked him for.