Not only could I feel all my bumps and bruises as I levered myself off the straw tick I had been laying on, but once I managed to get up I could see them too. Most wouldn’t keep me from getting around but two came close. The shin on my good leg had a rainbow-colored goose egg on it as well as a couple of deep scratches. It meant putting more weight on my bad foot which was also more tender than it had been in a long while. The other bruise was so black it almost looked burnt and was right on the meatiest part of my hip, not that I had a lot of padding back there; Daphne had always been quick to point out I didn’t get the right kind of attention because I didn’t fill out my clothes very well front or back.
I had a feeling I wasn’t going to find any comfort in standing or sitting for a while but it couldn’t be helped. Hopefully no one would pay too much attention to me and I’d be able to make do without looking like a fool.
I was tying my skirt on when there was a brisk knock on the door right before it was opened to reveal a woman that reminded me a lot of Jonah … and as I was to learn, in more ways than one. “Tsk. Tsk. Do you want to give Young Cor the idea that he can act like he has air between his pitcher handles and there be no pains from it?”
Cautiously I said, “You must be Mrs. Wiley.”
Her nod was as brisk as her knock had been. “I am. And you be Young Cor’s new wife.”
I opened my mouth then closed it. If I was going to let people think what they wanted I couldn’t go around denying things at every turn. I didn’t like it. The dishonesty of it went against what little better nature I had. And even if I didn’t mind the lie – for a lie of omission is what it was – it went against the grain to let people think that I’d let myself be sold into bondage without a fight.
She must have seen something on my face because she softened a bit and turned me around and efficiently retied the horsetail that I kept my hair in. “Ye’ve a fine thick mass here. Most as has had a hard life has it show up in their hair and their skin. You don’t look sickly; yer skin and hair both are as brown as a hickory nut though yer skin be a bit cut up in places. Like yer foot.”
I shrugged not sure how to respond. Some of my skin tone came from my Ma but most of it was just always having to work outside. She didn’t seem to really expect me to and when she was through with my hair she asked, “Any of yer bang ups poking at yer partically?”
I shook my head feeling that she’d managed to get my hair bound tight like I preferred it. “I’ve been worse. If I spoil any of them too much they’ll only poke meaner.” I paused and then said, “I’m sorry that all for want of watching where I put my feet you got stuck with my chores.”
She sniffed and I wasn’t sure exactly what that was supposed to mean but then she said, “About that. Jonah said that there might be an opening here in the big house. ‘Twere you to offer I wouldn’t say no. I hear that Mary is needed at her daughter’s place. The daughter had twins this time - two more boys and her with a houseful of them already - and is doing poorly. Not a girl in the bunch to help out and her sister who lives next door is in the same shape. They’ve both asked Mary to stay but she won’t abandon Miss Winnie.”
“I’ll … I’ll ask Cor about it.”
“Who will leave it to Miss Francie who will leave it to Miss Winnie who isn’t in any shape to do anything even if she could. That leaves yer self. Yer be the only one what can put her foot down and straighten up the order of things.”
Oh glory, there’s that order business again. Then she asks me, “Do yer really think yer can keep up with everything alone? Young Cor comes and goes several times a season – has to though it grieves him to be away from the work here so much. Mayhap if he were home more he’d see things clearer. The Captain is a good man but is trying too hard not to meddle in Young Cor’s business and he is gone for good pieces too though with Miss Winnie so close to her time I doubt he’ll stray this season or next. And now I hear tell that Miss Francie has done sent for one of her aunts. Yer gonna let the running of this place slip away from the fambily? Let us all become thumb-screwed holdings of the Lathrops rather than free under the Cormans as it should be?”
Giving into my curiosity I asked, “Does it really matter to people? I was told that the relationship between the area farms and the estate aren’t the best.”
As honest as her brother she told me, “Sure and they could be better, and it wouldn’t take much. Most do like Young Cor, they just can’t abide the chaos his sire left behind; it still be leaving a bad taste in folkses mouths. And strength is needed after some get fond of having their own way for so long. Everyone is pretty sure Young Cor has the strength for it, he just ain’t around enough to use it on the ones that need it. When a man has got to lead it be best if he get about the business of doing so. ‘Nother problem be since he brought Miss Francie here some folks have begun to doubt he’ll ever be able to set his house to rights. It’s becoming worrisome and causing quarrels.”
I wasn’t going to get caught up in something I didn’t understand so I asked, “Why do they say that?”
“Yer ain’t a stupid Gilly, just look around. Yer’ve done more in the short time yer’ve been about this place than the whole six seasons that Miss Francie has been here. She be a sweet thing but she has no stuffing to her. She ain’t took the time to get to know folks, like she be afraid ‘cause they be different from what she knowed … or maybe she just don’t like the rough ways of the folks ‘round here when hers be so different spoken and uncaring of what we be so caring about. Instead of making a place for herself here she lets herself get lonesome and goes to visit her family for long stretches when Young Cor is gone. Not so bad when she goes to stay on one of their farms but when she goes to the fort she winds up spending coin that Young Cor ain’t got to waste. And the few times she has tried to take on the reins as she ought, it left a bigger mess than what was there to start. What she needs is a babe in her belly ter keep her occupied so’s those that can lead ain’t gotta be entertaining her like all the time.”
Well that was certainly an earthier take on the subject than I’d heard so far. I start to wonder what they must think of me though they say you never hear anything good about yourself when you eavesdrop.
“I was making do before Cor brought all those men home with him. Does he do that often?”
“Sometimes less but sometimes there’s even more of ‘em. They be young men that have no wives to keep ‘em busy so’s they gets up to stuff if they don’t have enough work ter do to wear ‘em out. Yer making do won’t cut it when groups of ‘em get locked up here when the snow flies. It was getting so that Mary almost feared Young Cor coming home ‘cause it always meant so many more mouths ter feed and all t’ other housework and cleaning up the tomfoolery they get into. They usually stay smart ‘cause of the Cap’n being around but there’s been a few to get fresh with Miss Winnie and Miss Francie. Jonah said they’s been sizing you up to see what they got to work with.”
“Humph. They try and ‘work’ me and they might just find they won’t ever ‘work’ again.”
That got me a cackle. “Jonah said yer had stuffing to yer. Glad ter see he was right.”
It was slow going but I made it down the three flights of steps and into the kitchen. There I found Jonah and the Captain glaring balefully at Cor who was trying to ignore them while he sucked on what smelled like a mug of rye coffee.
All three jumped up when they saw me but it was Cor that snapped, “What are you doing out of bed?”
I was in no mood to be tongue lashed. “You want to drink that coffee or wear it? I’ll get up when I please. No way am I going to roll around in misery when the heat of the day is already rising to the roof. It gets roasting up there even with the windows open as wide as they’ll go.”
“Humph. Well at least sit down. I don’t want people thinking worse of me than they already do. I’m not going to let people think I’m forcing you do get up and cook and clean. And, you look awful.”
“You don’t exactly look as fresh as a dew dressed dandelion yourself. You should get into the habit of sticking your head in a bucket of cold water in the morning if you’ve got no bottom for breaking the dawn.”
The Captain tried to hide a smile behind his mustache and drink mug. Jonah beamed and said, “Well, you don’t sound like you cracked yer noggin none Gilly. I was a might worried you had. The house was a fair too quiet without you letting the world know what’s what.”
I looked at him and with a smile said, “I hear you’re the one to thank, that you found me.”
A little riled he said, “Shouldn’t a taken so long. Sum body should have noticed yer were missing sooner.”
From the look on Cor’s face that wasn’t the first time Jonah had said that. I shook my head but was careful not to jar my neck that felt like it wanted to stiffen up. “Well, it’s over and done with. I’ll be glad to get back to work.” After a pause I said, “I know Mary was supposed to be back soon but the … the thing is I hear that she is caught in a bind.”
The Captain sat his mug down. “Mary? Our Mary? Is she in trouble?”
“Uh uh, not trouble exactly. Her daughter had twins and is down for longer than she thought she would be. Boys again and I’ve been told she already has a house full of them.”
Jonah had an interested look on his face as he did like a bit of gossip now and again; and the Captain was eyeing me like he was trying to figure out where I was going with this. Cor on the other hand appeared to be smarter than some were giving him credit for being. He put his mug down on the table and said, “If you are asking, you can forget it. I won’t turn Mary off. She’s been with the family forever.”
I shook my head. “Don’t be knuckleheaded. No one is asking you to.”
“I won’t let anyone else do it either.”
“That’s an even bigger act of knuckleheadedness. Why would anyone want to do that? No one really complains and she’s been loyal to you since you were a baby.”
I didn’t know whether it was loss of sleep or worries or if he was really that big of a chucklehead or just what but he was losing patience again and said, “I don’t have the time for this. Just spit it out already.”
I sighed. “You know, it isn’t necessarily everyone else that is making this so hard. It’s as plain as the nose on your face that you don’t want Mary to be hurt and not have any support. It’s just as plain that this has been too much for her for a while but that she’s not wanted to say anything because it would leave you – and in particular Winnie – in a pickle if she did. Two people wanting to do for the other for the best of intentions, but look where it has led. Mary gets overworked and stuck here when her family needs her somewhere else which I am sure pinches at her and you wind up getting pecked at all the time because it is obvious things aren’t getting done like they used to and that people see how poor Mary is struggling. You’ve both done it just as long as you can but now there is a better solution for both and no one has to get their feelings hurt or nose out of joint.”
Cor cautiously sat back and said, “And that solution is?”
“Mary’s daughters want her to come live with them. They need her more than we do and if she managed to put up with you for all these years all those grandsons should be a piece of cake.” Cor got an outraged look on his face so I rushed on before he could muck things up. “Mrs. Wiley has kindly informed me that she would be willing to step in and take over for Mary if the position became available. She’s local, knows the right people, and she’s Jonah’s sister and if she is anything like him she’s as trustworthy as they come.”
Still stubbornly clinging to the way he thought things should be run he said, “Francine should have the running of the house. I can’t believe you are already trying to disenfranchise her.”
The Captain said, “You are being unjust Cor. Fel is not trying to disenfranchise Francine. You know it whether you’ll admit it or not that Francine has never shown the least bit of … er … interest … in taking over the reins the way they must. She was brought up for entertaining but not for running a house that has … er … some necessary economizing to do.” He turned to me and said, “Fel, disenfranchise means …”
A little insulted I told him, “I know what it means. I’m not completely ignorant you know.” Trying to put away my feelings I turned to Cor and treading carefully I tried to bring him around. “You’ve tried to wait on Francine to get her feet under her. I can understand that. But it isn’t working. She’s had six seasons to find a way to work it out. Perhaps Francine is … is …” I didn’t dare say what I really thought what Francine was so I picked another phrase. “Perhaps Francine is like you … too worried that Mary will be left out in the cold. People can be too nice you know.”
I’d given him an out that left Francine looking sweet and innocent and not what I suspected she really was. It took a bit of grasping at straws on my part but it left enough wiggle room that Cor might just take the bait and be willing to be managed. Something told me though after he gave me a hard look he knew what I was doing, or at least suspected something was going on. He steepled his fingers and continued to stare for almost a minute and I was starting to sweat it. Then he suddenly just flopped back in his chair and said, “Fine. As long as Winnie isn’t upset by the solution you can ask Mrs. Wiley if she would care to come work here … assuming that is that you don’t have a problem with it Jonah?”
The man in question kept an innocent look and said, “Me? Naw Young Cor. Seems providential. Mary gets ter be with her people. Miss Francie doesn’t get worried ter bits about … er … things Me sister gets a place out from under that dragon what was her husband’s sister. And a few strings get tied up before you get yer … er … yer visit from some of Miss Francie’s people on the morrow.”
“Fine,” Cor said resigned. “Uncle Rob, could I ask you to make sure the papers are in order? And Jonah, make sure that Mary gets what she needs. With that many grandkids maybe she would appreciate a cow … or two … as parting gifts from the Corman family. And keep an eye on her. If it looks like she is going in want tell me and we’ll work it out.”
That surprised me a little as I hadn’t expected him to really see such things. Frankly I hadn’t thought of it either and I felt bad about it. I suppose those things were done differently here than they were in our town where you were expected to look after yourself as soon as possible and that didn’t end with old age.
I stood to go help Mrs. Wiley in the kitchen but Cor stood with me and said, “I want to talk to you before people start coming down for the morning meal and I get pulled away.”
“I should help …”
“Mrs. Wiley has it all in hand. This needs to be done.”
“Fine. What do you want to talk about?”
“Are you up to a short walk?”
Jonah nodded encouragingly but added, “Just calls me if yer gets ter feeling poorly Gilly. I’ll bring the push cart and tote you back ter the house.”
“I am not going to be hauled in a cart like refuse for the compost pile!”
“Well, it’s that or get hauled back like a sack a taters over Young Cor’s shoulder. Yer can take yer pick.”
I hadn’t even shut my mouth before Cor was guiding me out of the back door and down a side path away from the main house. I was aggrieved to note he was trying not to laugh, but not trying very hard.