The House of Closed Doors

Chapter one

 

My stepfather was not particularly fond of me to begin with, and now that he’d found out about the baby, he was foaming at the mouth. 

I mean that literally: One of Hiram Jackson’s less attractive characteristics was the liberal spray of spittle that doused the room whenever he got agitated about his subject. He was in full flow now, in both the verbal and salivary sense, and a small crest of foam gathered in the corners of his thin lips as he paced, hands clasped behind his back and chin jutting. His face glowed a dull, mottled red, and the stretching of the skin occasioned by his outrage caused his eyebrows, small goatee, and side-whiskers to bristle outward like outcrops of winter trees on a piebald landscape. The charm for which he was famed had evaporated, and I found myself wondering, in a detached manner, what my mother had been thinking when she decided to end her long widowhood by marrying this man.

“Who is the father?” Hiram swung round to glare at me as I stood‌—‌as far from the spittle cannonade as possible‌—‌in a strategic position near the door. Bet, our housekeeper, had rushed me downstairs before I could reach for one of the shawls I had been using to conceal my growing belly, and my dress strained over the lump. I would have to let it out again, I thought. I was uncorseted, of course, as I had been for many weeks.

I did not answer his question, and he strode toward me, knocking over a small occasional table. Bet abandoned her position for a moment to retrieve it, then returned to the post she’d taken up to block my retreat.

“I said, who is the father? Answer me, Nell, or I will not be responsible for my actions.”

Hiram was a tall man and solidly built. His bulk hung over me, and those ice-blue eyes were the only unmoving objects in a face that seemed to be twitching in all directions. His side-whiskers also twitched. I lowered my eyes, caught suddenly between mirth and defiance and not wanting to display either.

“I cannot tell you, sir.”

I felt, rather than saw, Bet draw herself up and give me one of her best daggers-drawn stares. I knew exactly what she was thinking: How many men? Only one, dear Bet, I reassured her in my mind. Only one, and just the one time. I began again.

“I cannot tell you because I do not wish to marry him, Stepfather. If I told you his name, you would oblige us to marry.”

My mother’s soft voice cut across Hiram’s indrawn breath. “Then he is free to marry you, Eleanor?” she asked. “He is not a married man?”

A purplish flush spread over my stepfather’s cheeks, producing a most unpleasant effect. He turned on his heel and stamped over to the window, glaring sullenly out of it, with one hand massaging his lower back.

“Eleanor.” My mother’s voice trembled, but her English accent‌—‌and the use of my proper name‌—‌lent it an imperious tone. “Come over here.”

I approached her chair and looked anxiously at her face to see how the news affected her. I could hear her breath wheezing in her lungs but was glad to see that her hand was not at her bosom, always an indication that the chest pains had returned. I dropped to my knees by her side and placed my warm hands on her small, cold ones.

“Mama, I am so sorry. I‌—‌” What did I want to say? That I hadn’t meant it to happen? I wasn’t even sure if I had. Not the baby, of course, I had never wanted that, but the act that had caused it. In my memory I saw flashes of sunlight through a curtain of green leaves.

“You must tell us the name of this boy‌—‌this man. Nell, even to be wed in your present condition will cause a considerable scandal. But to remain unmarried‌—‌oh, my dear child! You must think of your stepfather’s political career. His opponents will use your behavior to convince the voters that my dear Hiram is unable to control his family. Just think, Nell! And, of course, it is wrong in the eyes of the law and the Lord not to marry,” she added as an afterthought. My mother generally put Hiram before the law and the Lord.

“I am sorry, Mama.” I knew my face was assuming the expression Bet called the stubborns. “I do not wish to give the name of the father.”

“Then he is unsuitable for your station in life, is he not? Oh, Nell‌—‌you who have always been so particular about the young men of your acquaintance!” My mother’s eyes, the faded blue of old china, were bloodshot, and tears were beginning to gather. But her voice was steady and strong now. 

“Amelia.” My stepfather had recovered himself from whatever emotion had temporarily robbed him of speech, and his face had settled back into its usual smooth, handsome lines. He moved toward us, ready to dominate the conversation again. “Your reproaches are quite clear-headed, my dear. But as always, you are too indulgent of your daughter’s ways. She must be made to tell us the name of the‌—‌the‌—‌the unspeakable blackguard who has put her into this shameful condition. You are quite correct that my political chances may be damaged by this, this, this,” he glared down at me and gestured at my belly, searching for a polite enough word. He failed to find one and began again. “She must tell.”

Two tears trickled down Mama’s soft, white cheeks. I shook my head.

“Hiram,” Mama said, gazing up at her husband who loomed above us both, fidgeting with his watch chain with one hand and massaging his back with the other, “how do you propose to make her tell? You cannot possibly be intending physical violence. And you cannot possibly withhold food or any of the necessities of life from her in this condition. Her innocent child must not be made to suffer for her sin. And you know that Eleanor will never yield once her mind is made up.”

My stepfather’s face flushed again, but the mere sight of my mother’s hand creeping up to clutch her chest in the region of her heart gave him pause. I will say one thing for Hiram: He really did seem to love my mother. He, too, knelt heavily by her chair and shot me a look of such venom that I quickly stood up and retreated to the door again.

“Amelia, my dear, do not distress yourself,” he said in quite a different tone. “I will give this matter thought and find an honorable course of action.” He turned to look at Bet, who had held her tongue all this time, sniffing occasionally and making noises under her breath to indicate her disapproval of my wretched self. “Bet, Mrs. Jackson is cold. Bring that blanket.”

Bet immediately grabbed the soft woolen coverlet neatly folded on the piano seat and went to tuck it in around my mother’s legs, murmuring, “There, Madam, and I’ll bring you a nice pot of tea directly. Leave it to the master to arrange things, now do. You must not get yourself into a state.” I noticed that her Irish brogue was to the forefront, as always when she was trying to placate my mother.

My stepfather, who had risen to his feet to get out of Bet’s way, now strode to the door. On the way he grasped me by the shoulder‌—‌so hard that I could feel his fingernails dig into bone and muscle‌—‌and breathed into my ear, the merest hiss that neither of the other women could hear: “I will arrange matters, you little whore, and you won’t like it.”

And then he was gone, and I heard his heavy tread as he ascended to his study.

 

The parlor seemed silent and much emptier without my stepfather in it. It resumed the character it had maintained for so many years since my father died: a realm of women, of soft and earnest gossip and the clink of china cup against delicate saucer. A world of women, who all adored me.

A shrinking world. My adored English grandmama, whose refined ways and English tastes had put their stamp on our Middle Western household, rested peacefully in Victory’s spacious graveyard. And my mother’s dearest friend, Ruth Rutherford, who had visited us almost every day despite the demands of her drapery business, now lay on her deathbed. Our refined, feminine life was under siege, buffeted daily by Hiram Jackson’s loud, large, cigar-scented presence. 

I sighed and resumed my seat on the red velvet settee opposite my mother’s chair. Both Mama and Bet turned to stare at my belly, which made a firm, sausage-shaped lump against the lace trimmings of my blue day dress. I felt the baby move, a mere flutter inside me, and my stomach growled loudly.

“Bet,” I said in the most conciliatory tone I could summon, “I really am quite hungry. I have had no breakfast, if you recall. Please bring some buttered toast with the tea.”

Bet drew herself up to her full height and gave me the benefit of her best Irish stare. She had been with us since I was three years old and had gradually grown stouter and more heavily corseted. By now her figure was so compressed that I often wondered what happened when she unlaced at night: did she burst out in all directions like a split bag of flour? She sniffed loudly and linked her freckled fingers together over her tautly imprisoned stomach.

“You are causing terrible distress to your dear mother, Miss Nell,” was her only reply, her missing bottom tooth causing the sibilants to hiss and lisp. “You always were a terrible willful child, and now look! See what shame you are bringing on us all. Can’t you tell us, now, even just what sort of person this,” she hesitated, “gentleman may be?”

“Bet,” my mother’s voice hardened into the tone she used when her servants‌—‌of however long standing‌—‌forgot their place. “Have Marie make tea for both of us and buttered toast for Miss Nell. Now, please.”

Bet sniffed, but very quietly. My dainty invalid mother somehow managed to exact absolute obedience from her servants, whom she ruled through the love they had for her and controlled by the tiniest changes in her faintly lined brow and her small, delicately pursed mouth. 

Bet turned to leave, shooting another of her looks in my direction as she did so. I suspected there would be another talking-to later on, when she got me alone in my room. It would not work. I could resist Bet’s bluster and bombast far better than I could my mother’s gentle remonstrances.

As the door closed behind Bet, my mother looked directly at me. She was everything I wasn’t: petite, ladylike, and still very pretty for her thirty-eight years, with her pale blonde hair and slim, narrow-waisted figure. People loved her. I loved her. My father had loved her so much that he had died for her.

She raised her eyebrows, and I shook my head again.

“I will not say, Mama. I do not wish to marry him.”

“Is he so very unsuitable?”

I thought hard, searching for a way to reassure her I had not been with the butcher’s boy or a stable hand and yet not give any hint as to who it might have been. 

“He is suitable in the eyes of the world, but not in my eyes, Mama. I do not wish to tie myself to him for life.”

“You would rather be an unwed mother? Merciful Heaven, Nell! That is the end for you socially.”

I twiddled one of my bronze-red curls, still waving around my shoulders because Bet hadn’t spared me the time to put my hair up before she dragged me downstairs. I liked it this way. When it was twisted and prodded into submission on top of my head, it was a heavy nuisance, and I was always having to poke escaping curls back into the mass.

“I have never cared too much about society, Mama. And the society of Victory is not exactly extensive.”

“Our town is growing fast, Nell,” said my mother reprovingly. “Since the War ended, we have seen so many new people, some of them even from the Confederate states. Doreen Ahern, you know, has engaged a‌—‌a‌—‌colored servant from Chicago!” Her voice had dropped to a whisper, and the sentence ended in a scandalized squeak. The town of Victory was composed of almost equal parts Irish, German, and Scandinavian blood, and a dark-skinned person of any rank had been a rare sight until the War had brought its changes and peace an inrush of new people. Mama was right: In this year of our Lord 1870 Victory was a growing, prosperous place. 

She cleared her throat and resumed her lecture. “My dear Hiram says that Victory is excellently situated, poised as it is between the great city of Chicago, the golden fields of grain, the dairylands of Wisconsin, and the lake. And such an excellent road!” 

Her voice grew strident as she parroted my stepfather’s political rhetoric. In point of fact, Victory was sixty miles from the lake and well away from the corridor of towns that had pushed up like a string of mushrooms in a direct line from Chicago to the Wisconsin border. Still, it was true that after two years of bullying its prominent citizens for subscriptions, Victory‌—‌called Greenersville before the heady celebrations of the Union triumph over the slave-masters‌—‌was about to receive a railroad station. 

To me, Victory was an eventless desert in which I did not wish to be marooned.

My mother’s eyes had focused on me again and taken on a calculating look. I surmised this was one of the good days when the fog her illness spread over her mind lifted for a while. “Bet says you are five months gone, Nell,” she said flatly. “Then it happened in May, did it not?”

I stared at the curl wound around my fingers. “I do not wish to discuss the matter, Mama,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. My heart raced, and I had just one thought: Please, Mama, do not remember who visited us in May.

 

I was saved by Bet’s reentrance with the tea tray. It was a strange time of day to be drinking tea, but Mama was not at home to visitors until one o’clock, and tea, in a house still dominated by Grandmama’s traditions, was regarded as medicinal and well suited to any crisis. I avoided Bet’s gaze as she lowered the tray onto the table by the fire and watched as she poked at the burning logs in an effort to warm up the chill October morning. 

Bet straightened up as a thought seemed to strike her, the poker clutched in her right hand like St. Michael’s sword. 

“Madam,” she waved the hot end of the poker in my direction, “am I right in assuming that Miss Nell will no longer participate in receiving visitors?”

The corners of my mother’s mouth turned down in quite a comically childish fashion, and she patted her hair absentmindedly. “Dear me, Bet, you are right.” Her eyes widened, and she stared at me, horrified. “Supposing someone has already guessed?”

“I’d not worry, Madam,” said Bet. “Miss Nell has been careful to hold her shawl just so.” She clattered the poker back into the fire-iron holder and left the room. I distinctly heard “No flies on that one, to be sure” drifting on the breeze behind her. 

“Nell,” said my mother, “you will kindly remain in your room during visiting hours from now on, and you will not leave the house. I will give out that you are suffering from the influenza‌—‌or the shingles‌—‌or something infectious so that no one will ask to visit you.”

Knowing how vague my mother’s mind could be at times, I fervently hoped that she would decide on one disease and stick with it. But I dipped my head obediently, said “Yes, Mama,” and accepted the proffered cup of tea. I tore through the buttered toast as speedily as decorum allowed and made my escape to my bedroom before my mother could revert to the question of the timing of my pregnancy. Fortunately, Mama had to get ready for her daily visit to her friend Ruth, so she had other things on her mind.

Marie had made my bed and tidied my room. As I entered, she had just finished dusting the mantelpiece; her large black eyes grew round as she noticed my belly, and a small reddened hand flew to her mouth. She looked about to speak but found nothing to say.

“Thank you, Marie,” I said as briskly as I could. “I won’t need you again today‌—‌except, I suppose, to help me with my hair later.” We kept a very small domestic establishment, a habit left over from Mama’s long widowhood, and Marie was a true maid-of-all-work.

Marie bobbed her sketchy version of a curtsey, said “Yes, Miss Nell” in a tone somewhere between hilarity and horror, and flew downstairs to gossip with Bet. No guessing who would be the main subject.

I sank gratefully into the armchair by the window. So, my secret was out. I stared down at the bulge of my belly and wondered how this would all end. Not, please God, in marriage. 

I closed my eyes and once again saw the May sunlight making the pale new leaves glow, and a warm feeling spread through certain regions of my body. Admittedly, there was one aspect of marriage that had potential for enjoyment. I reopened my eyes quickly, shocked by the thought that marriage could have any attractions at all and by my own wantonness in deriving even the least pleasure from the memory of that day.

I was beginning to understand the distinctions between flirtation, love, and what Bet always referred to, mysteriously, as “relations.” I wished to God that she, and all the women who had surrounded me in the seventeen years of my life, had been less mysterious and explained to me what “relations” were so that I could have put a stop to matters before they went that far. But I had been far more innocent than my flirtatious manner suggested, and therein lay my doom.

 

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