This week started out … anticlimactic. I could have called it a lot of things but that is the word that describes it best. I was ready for a fight or challenge but I wasn’t given one which left me a little disappointed I admit, especially as I was looking for a brangle to get into.
Cor did leave to go to the fort as planned but I don’t think he got any making up from Francine. He looked like a thundercloud was riding his shoulders; angry and trying not to show it but doing a poor job of it. Francine was all stiff but trying to act cut up at the same time. I could have told her that was the worst way to handle a man with a hot temper but she probably would have played sad or dumb and told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about or that I just didn’t understand. Cor slammed his hat on his head and rode away with most of the men that had been hanging around – the rest having departed going to their other destinations earlier in the day – without a word to anyone after Francine wouldn’t even look at him properly. Not that I personally expected a word from him but at the same time I would have liked to have told him I planned on giving them a couple of lumps for him.
What made me a little angry was to watch Francine drift into the house acting all pathetic and tragic but then within the hour she was all bright and happy with her aunts. I wanted a target for my anger and was coming up with plots but I never got the chance to implement them because it was like I didn’t exist. Well, not that exactly but they would stare at me blankly for the most part if they couldn’t ignore me.
For a few days this continued and even the Captain was getting a little bent out of shape about it. He asked me to come with him and visit for a spell with Winnie. While we were up there in the rooms they shared the Captain and I explained what was going on and at first I thought Winnie was having a fit of some kind.
She was hunched over going, “Ow. Ow. Oh … don’t.”
The Captain and I both jumped up to see what we could do for her but then she leaned back and we could see she was holding her stomach and laughing of all things.
A little shocked the Captain asks, “Winnie?! My dear, are you …”
“Oh, I … I’m sorry,” she finally sputtered. “I didn’t mean to worry you but I would have given a lot to see what you described and then be a fly on the wall when neither one of you reacted the way they are obviously expecting you to.”
“Huh? Winnie,” I said. “Are you sure you aren’t suffering from heat exhaustion or something? Maybe a cool bath would help.”
That set her off for a moment again. “Oh my Dears … you are both … oh …” She finally stopped chuckling again and explained, “They are giving you the silent treatment.”
I had a hard time believing that. “The silent treatment?! You’re joking. They just about talk the color off the walls and you call that silent?”
Well that set her off again and the Captain must have finally understood because he was getting a laugh out of it as well. I wasn’t. I still didn’t get it.
Trying to explain Winnie said, “Fel this is their way of showing they disapprove of you in some way. They are … hmmm, what’s the best word … well, to put it bluntly my Dear they are being deliberately discourteous as a form of punishment.”
I just looked at her and then said, “Their adobe is over-baked if they think that is going to work with me. The more they ignore me the happier I’ll be. What, did they think I was going to suck up to them or something to get them to pay some attention to me?”
Winnie smiled and said, “Let’s just say they have a rather high opinion of themselves and are rather more used to managing girls like Francine than Outland girls. Peer pressure can be a powerful thing. What they do not understand is that you do not consider them your peers and therefore could care less what they think.” Wiping her eyes she added, “The Captain told me of your suspicions as far as what they intended. The Cinderella effect sounds exactly like something they would do; it would leave them looking and feeling like benefactors rather than the manipulators they in reality are striving to be.” After a brief hesitation and in a said voice she told me, “I must admit that I am a bit disappointed in how she and Cor were unable to settle things before he left for the fort. It is unwise to separate in such a fashion. The Captain and I are very careful to never close our eyes for the evening while there is a problem between us and certainly never part on such terms. One never knows if the last time you say good bye to someone is the last time you’ll ever get to say good bye to them.” She shuddered and suddenly seemed depressed.
Alarmed and trying to figure out some way to make her feel better I said, “Winnie why don’t you and the Captain have a nice private dinner up here. I’ll arrange it and you can have some quiet time together. What say you Captain? I’ll make your excuses to Francine. She won’t think it unusual.”
The Captain, looking more than a little relieved to get out of being the only male at a table full of females said, “I do believe Winnie would be better for some company. Make our excuses to the ol’ … er … just give Francine my apologies.”
I did better than that. I found Francine and the buffalo heard in the parlor and told her, “The Captain sends his apologies as he needs to remain with Winnie for the evening.”
It wasn’t Francine that answered however as it appeared that she had abdicated her position of authority in favor of her Aunt Muriel. “Should a healer be sent for? Or perhaps a midwife,” she asked with high interest.
“No ma’am, she be fine … just tired like and needing the comfort of her husband with her time so near.”
When she didn’t respond with more than a regal bob of her head I said, “And begging your pardon but I expect having me in the middle of yore gatherin’s has interfered with yore time together. I’ll be taking my supper in the kitchen with Mrs. Wiley after I put everything on the long table in the dining hall so that the lot of you ladies can have some quality family time.” I said the last phrased like it was something I had memorized based on what someone else had told me.
One of the others, a woman named Hazel who was quite handsome when she wasn’t staring down her nose at you, said, “It is called a buffet.”
“Yes’m. A boo-fay. I’ll remember that ‘un.”
A twitter from around the room from everyone but Francine that was looking at me strangely was followed by Hazel saying graciously, “Close enough.”
As I left the room I could hear a confused Francine tell her aunts, “You must really overwhelm her. She isn’t normally this bad. I mean she’s very … mmmm … rustic, but usually she tries harder than this.”
Francine hasn’t figured my game out yet but she is certainly less stupid than she’s given credit for being. I’ll have to watch how thick I lay it on from here on out.
With that excuse firmly in place I went to tell Mrs. Wiley of the change. “But don’t worry, I’ll do the fetching and carrying.”
She shook her head. “The boys can bring the dishes in from the dining hall but yer’d best handle the breakables for the Captain and his missus. I don’t trust them mischief makers on the stairs. I can see them tumbling down and breaking both the dishes and their heads.”
I asked if she wanted me to help and she said, “No, everything is under control. I’ve got the boys on the porch peeling taters now. But you’s best go find Jonah. Him was around looking for yers earlier and hims got some bee in his bonnet about somethin’.”
I found him out in one of the larger gardens stringing netting over several beds and some trees and some bushes. “Jonah, Mrs. Wiley said you wanted to see me.”
He wiped his face with an old square of cloth and then nodded. “That I did Gilly. Strawberries are in and what do yer mean ter do with them? Lookin’ like a bumper crop this year.”
I looked at him blankly. “What do you mean what do I mean to do with them?”
“Well, someone needs to decide what’s ter do with ‘em.”
Suspiciously I asked, “Who normally decides what to do with them?”
Innocently he says, “The lady of the house only Miss Francie never has given much care to anything like this. I do hate ter see it all go ter waste again this year. It’s like picking money out a Young Cor’s coin bag.”
I crossed my arms and said, “Jonah, I only have a vague idea what a strawberry is. I mean I’ve seen them in books and my Da told me about them, but …”
“Well that’s soon fixed,” he said and before I could do much more than jump he’d stuffed one in my mouth. It’s hard to explain how something tastes when you don’t have anything to compare it to but all I knew is that I fell in love right then and there.
“Oh,” I said quietly. My mouth was so full of juice and spit it just about leaked out of the corners of my mouth but I wasn’t letting any of it escape it was just that good.
Looking at the large round and tiered beds I couldn’t believe how many red berries I was seeing. I would have started to graze like a cow if something hadn’t struck me as strange. “Jonah, are you telling me that this all goes to waste every year but you plant a new crop anyway?”
“Aw, well as ter that, I’m not saying they alls go ter waste zactly. Mary used ter call a couple of women up from the village when Miss Winnie gives her the say so but Mary’s not here and Miss Winnie ain’t in no fit condition to be worrying at it.”
I just looked at him and realized he was trying to get me to do something again. “Jonah, if you want me to do something then just say so. I trust you.”
And I did but when I said it I suppose I surprised us both. His face lit with pleasure and he said, “Well then Gilly, if it was me I’d be making plans because we’s gonna have problems shortly if someone don’t.”
“What … what kind of plans?”
“Well¸ doing all that cleaning and women’s work in the main house was needed, no doubt, but this here estate be more than jus’ a house. And there be more than just cleaning ter keep up with everything. And feedin’ people means more than jus’ cookin’. That foods gotter comes from sum where.”
Looking around I said, “You don’t mean that all the food for the estate comes from these gardens do you?”
“Naw, uh uh. The grains and sech are mostly handled at the farms … estate and free. O’ course every farm has its own gardens for private use. The houses down in the village der too. What yer see in these gardens go fer two purposes Gilly. First off they gots ter support the house and those in and working fer it. Now days that ain’t ser many as once twer.”
“You said they served two purposes. What’s the other?”
“Well, the ways things are suppose ter work is that the extry from the gardens goes to support the widders and orphans and the old folks too bad off to do for themselves or that are takin’ care o’ youngin’s what ain’t got anyone younger that can or will take ‘em.”
I heard something in his voice. “Supposed to?”
He nodded and I could see in his face a deep disappointment. “Last few years Young Cor’s been off trying ter save the estate fer the people. What he fergot is the estate is the people.”
I put my hand on his arm and said, “You call him Young Cor for a reason Jonah.”
He sighed and nodded. “I know it. We kept waiting fer him ter figger things out. Then when he brung Miss Francie home we was sure that even if he didn’t know what was supposed ter be done that she would coming from a big fancy place like the Lathrops run. But she … she don’t seem up fer the job. We thought all was lost … now here yers is here and we’s gots another chance to do right by the people.”
I was appalled, sympathetic, and outraged all at the same time. “Why didn’t someone tell Cor? How was he supposed to know with a Da like he got? And the Captain didn’t know either; he said himself that he never really knew anything about estate management.”
“Young Cor wasna home during the right times ter show him.”
“Then why didn’t someone talk to Francine the way you are talking to me?”
“Mary tried. Miss Winnie tried. She wus jes …” He shook his head unwilling to speak ill of someone that was supposed to be the lady of the estate I suppose.
I felt a horrible weight. A frightening weight. When I had come to understand that there was not escape for me from being a second wife I thought all I would have to do was survive that. Then I found out that there was a type of feud that caused my situation and I thought to survive that. What Jonah was causing me to face was something completely different. He made me realize that it wasn’t just about me, or about Cor, or about Francine nor even the Captain and Winnie. The people that depended on the estate were real and they were getting desperate. They had to be to think that an Outlander nobody like me was their last hope.
I looked at Jonah and suddenly I wasn’t seeing him but Docia and Hannah and Nel and the other girls that first winter after the feud when we had all lost our parents. The Headman, new at the time but known to us by his brutal reputation, made sure that what food was left was pieced out to the men first and then their families. The rest of us, weaker and younger or weaker and old, that served no purpose or had no connection were left to make do the best way we could. So many died that winter that it was nearly as bad as replaying the feud all over again but the enemy wasn’t the Lakesider tribe but cold and starvation. I vowed that I’d never sit back and let that happen again and when I was taken from the town, even though it was against my will, I thought never to have to do face that type of thing again. But here I was. And there was Jonah staring at me like I was something that I wasn’t.
“I … I don’t know what to do Jonah,” I told him quietly. He sighed in defeat and turned away but I grabbed his arm and tugged him back. “I don’t know what to do right now … but … I can learn. If someone will tell me and teach me, we’ll see if we can’t put what has gone wrong back on track … put the order of things back the way they are supposed to be. I’m … I’m just going to need some help. I don’t think I can do this alone.”
“Well … that I can help yers with. We got lots o’ bodies that would be willing ter work it out. As fer the rest, me sister knows a thing or three ‘bout what’s ter do with what’s comes outta the gardens so they lasts the longest. She’s also friends with the preacher man’s wife and mother. Them women should be able to say who is in the most need right now and the rest can be set aside the way it used ter fer the hard times down the road.”
He patted my shoulder and I was left standing in the middle of it all. Part of me wanted to scream that it was too much, too frightening and part of me was thinking about how lonesome and without purpose I had been since my sisters no longer needed me. Then I recalled something my Gran would say every once in a while. “Be careful what you pray for because you just might get it.”
I had prayed to find some way to survive the fate I had been handed. I knew the feud between the Lathrops and Cormans couldn’t last forever, that eventually something would end it one way or the other. I saw the empty and lonely years stretch far off into the future after that with me growing old and alone trying to make something out of the nothing of my life. This … this need that Jonah had shown me … it offered me purpose. For how long I wasn’t sure but even if it was just this one season I suddenly decided to grab it in both hands.