After the way Francine spoke of him I had imagined the man to be built like a wall, sturdy as an oak, and bright as the sun. Uh … no. Elder Lathrop reminded me a whole lot more of a banty rooster without the attitude than he did a powerful giant.
I reckon he used up all the fat that could have been on him running from woman to woman to keep them satisfied. Sounds like a dirty joke but I really don’t mean it that way. I mean it quite literally. The man has nine wives that range in age from one who wasn’t too much younger than my Gran would have been to one just a tad older than Francine. Fact is if I’ve got it right Elder Lathrop has kids older than his youngest bride. I’ve heard that happens when a man is a widower a couple of times running but having wives and children all together all the time is some kind of different.
Elder Lathrop isn’t a scrawny man precisely, but there sure isn’t a whole lot of extra to him. He might be five foot six without his boots on but if he didn’t wear boots I’d worry about him in a stiff breeze; I’m thinking they might be the only thing keeping him from blowing away.
Of course all those kids and grandkids always hanging on him might be something else that keeps him well grounded. And there is a whole bunch of them … both flavors from child to grandchild and from male to female ... though they have the same gap as many do here in Kilpling as there is a great big giant hole where many of the ten to eighteen year olds should be.
I’m told he does have a few girls of that age but they are kept cloistered on the Lathrop estate. As a matter of fact only the three oldest wives came with Elder Lathrop. For the most part I’m not sure what to make of them. They are … well … they are nice. And helpful. And … and I’m really not sure what I expected but as far as I can tell there isn’t anything wrong with those women; we just don’t share many similar experiences nor do we agree on this multiple wife thing though I don’t tell them that.
As a matter of fact I’ve been able to keep my mouth fairly well closed which has to be some kind of miracle. Maybe I am starting to be the master of my mouth instead of it being the master of me. Docia would be proud … but she would likely pass out first from shock.
There is only one area that they make me uncomfortable in and that is how easy they talk of sharing the Elder Lathrop. Well for goodness sake it isn’t like I want to hear anyone’s bedroom talk to begin with but having to listen to them give me advice on how to make sure I get my “share” of Cor sure does make me want to go find a hole and crawl in it. The problem is they do it so nicely that I can’t say anything, especially not when I’ve agreed to play this part for my sake and for Cor’s.
What is even worse is that when I try and deflect it by saying that basically Francine got there first and that Cor is in love with her and I never mean to interfere with that, those women seem to take it a lot differently than all the others that I have given that response to.
I didn’t mean to do it that’s for sure but somehow or other those women suddenly decided they needed to protect me or champion me or something else fair strange. They’d talk me up at the dinner table, about how I was so industrious and obviously doing my best to fit in and help the estate; and then turn to Francine and ask her what she’d been doing all day with herself.
Of course they knew what she’d been doing. She’d been hanging on Elder Lathrop like he was a golden calf and she had just escaped from this place called Egypt. I thought at first they were on my side because they were jealous that some pretty young thing was spending time with their husband; but I was wrong. When those women said they knew how to share they were being quite serious. And I do suppose that the Elder in his own way did have a certain charisma to him … he didn’t do anything for me but I can see how he might for others … they don’t blame him for attracting Francine’s obvious infatuation.
Nope, this was something different. Apparently since Francine was raised in a multi-wife community she should have been teaching me … what I do not want to know but she was supposed to be doing it. She should have been ensuring that I “got my share” of Cor’s attention. Somehow or other those women seemed to think that I was being cheated by Francine. I swear I never said anything to that effect but boy did they twist it around.
I’m not sure who’s idea it was to have the Elder “speak with me.” Maybe he felt it was his duty or something of that nature. Either way there is no way it could have been much more uncomfortable for me than it was.
“Elder Lathrop, I appreciate that you are trying to be helpful in your own way.”
The Elder has a deep voice that can mesmerize you if you let it. Not a bad voice but one of the type I’ve always been a little leery of since I was little and my Gramp used to rail against a peddler that would come through the area and work deals that in hindsight weren’t very good for the people he was trading with. “I am glad you view me as trying to be helpful Child. I assure you it is my fondest wish that your relationship with Francine be a productive one for you both.”
I sighed and gathered my thoughts. I had a feeling this was going to take more being civilized than I’ve normally got in me. “Yes, I do appreciate it Elder but you have to appreciate that I have responsibilities beyond who sleeps with who. And it is more than a little embarrassing talking about this with you so I’d rather not if it is all the same to you.”
He shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately my dear, I cannot simply walk away from this. I have a responsibility to my estate and those from it, and while Francine automatically falls under that heading, you do in a sense as well because you are a co-wife with her. My wives state that they feel you are … underrepresented in this household; at least in so far as what is your rightful place as a wife of the estate. I’ve noted that the people come to you and see you as someone they can trust. But I’ve also discovered that as a member of our society you aren’t being given your proper place.”
“I don’t really care that I have a ‘place’ elder so long as I don’t lose respect for myself. What anyone else thinks doesn’t matter to me too much.”
“No one? Not even your husband?”
I’d fallen into that trap too easily and I needed to be more careful. “OK, you have me there. And Mrs. Wiley and Jonah too. The Captain and Winnie and …” I stopped and sighed. “Look Elder Lathrop, I just mean that what so-called society sees me as isn’t as important as the people that care about me see me as.”
“A commendable sentiment Child.” He gave his own sigh. “I do not see Francine having the same sentiments. Underneath the gay exterior she seems like an unhappy young woman and I worry that she is allowing her … dissatisfaction … to impede the household she should be building. We must develop a plan to correct this unacceptable situation.”
I shook my head. “You cannot help someone that won't help themselves. She has been happier the last couple of months than she has been since I was brought here. I’m not averse to seeing her happy – I can’t make her be happy though – and it was my understanding that her happiness at least in part that is why I was brought here. I’ve done what I can. I have divided responsibilities so that Francine isn’t … er … anymore dissatisfied than I can help. I leave dealing with the visitors to the estate to her and I take care of the people already here.”
He did the kindly man act well enough that I almost believed it. Would have believed fully if I hadn’t known for a fact he is one of the people responsible for selling me into this sham proxy marriage for his own purposes. “The attention of the visitors will soon end Mistress Fell. Francine is lonely and will only become more so.”
I shook my head. “Not because she has to be. There are people coming and going from the house all day long. She could come to the gardens; she has been asked repeatedly, she has chosen not to. She could involve herself in the kitchen or in numerous other areas including activities in the village; she does not.”
“I have made a study of this Mistress Fel and based on my discussions with others before I arrived and then staff here I have come to the conclusion that you have Cor’s ear in estate matters. You should utilize that voice and speak to Cor on Francine’s behalf and get him to understand her needs.” Like a wise owl he intoned, “She misses her husband.”
I nodded vigorously and responded, “And he misses her I’m sure. I know for a fact he adores her. She’s all he talks about and that’s fine by me, gives me something to listen to. I know he is going on these long runs in great part for her. I’m telling you nothing you don’t already know when I say he had an unfortunate Da who died before he could clear his own debts. Cor takes his honor seriously. He has responsibilities to Francine, to the debt holders, to the people dependent on the estate and even to the position on the council he will eventually take on. You ask Cor to understand Francine’s position, how about she understands his and give him some support cause he could sure use it. She doesn’t understand how much a good word from her lifts his day.”
Seemingly gratified for some reason he said, “You love him.”
Nearly swallowing my tongue at the man’s audacity to make such an assumption I stuttered, “I ... I ... I am not romantic, I leave that for Cor and Francine.” Not wanting it to end with me sounding pathetic I said, “I do respect him and what he is trying to accomplish.”
Thoughtfully the Elder said, “I ... see.”
Well I didn’t see, not in the least. I can’t stand for people to be mucking around in my business. One of my sisters maybe but they’d always had the sense to leave off before they got silly. In my eyes Cor was as much boy as man for all that he was older than me by a bit and some. If I had to pick how I felt about him it would be sisterly. Thinking anything else made me nauseous. Those Lathrops and what they want just seem to steal my breath with the arrogance of it all. It is my life and my business as far as who I do and do not fall in love with. Maybe the Elder didn’t mean to leave me feeling dirty with his talk but he did. Cor and I have worked it out between us. Why do people feel the need to meddle?
I didn’t exactly forget the conversation, in fact I recorded it for the Captain and then sent it out with the next courier, but I didn’t exactly dwell on it either. I continued working. The harvest was coming to an end but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t still quite a bit of work to do. The last of the apples and pears were being gleaned from the trees. Jonah had left a few of the trees for folks down on their luck to pick from and they were cleaned out as fast as we were removing the last fruits from the rest of the orchard.
The last of the sweet potatoes were getting dug and stored away as well. Several rows of long season cabbage – giant heads that would have been too big for me to wear as a hat – came into the kitchen and Mrs. Wiley and her helpers shredded it into a slaw and dried it. Come the winter it would make a good addition to hot soups and fillings for fried venison pasties. Then the only thing left in the garden were some pumpkins, some winter squash and several rows of long season tomatoes.
The oldest wife of Elder Lathrop had taken a chill on a late night visit to the outhouse and I dosed her with chicken broth and garlic and within a day she was feeling much better. Francine flitted in and out of her room but she seemed to give Mistress Giselle a headache. I was sitting by her bed for a moment one night making sure that she drank what my Gran had called a posset when she caught me off guard and patted my hand. “You’re a good girl Fel. I wish there was some way I could ease your way. You seem so young to already be a wife. I don’t like to see the girls married off so young. It sometimes means later on that they get … flighty … and rebellious as to their place.”
I tried not to laugh. For all the fact that I know the Lathrops are in a sense my enemy, I couldn’t help but like Mistress Giselle. We didn’t believe the same things but she was kind and meant well. And as far as rebellious, I could likely teach any number of Lathrop women what that word really meant. Likely a few of the men too. “Thank you Mistress Giselle but I’m … resigned and content I guess you could say … to making this my life. While it is different from what few dreams I might have had, and while it wasn’t of my choosing, it is still better than where I came from and I’ve come to terms with it.”
She nodded her head and stared into the fire. “Much in this life turns out different than we dream of. I lost six children in the plague; two boys and four girls. Six of my blood. My co-wives lost their blood children as well, so many it breaks my heart to think of it. No telling how many grandchildren to bring us we would have by now except for that.” She spoke quietly, almost like her words were meant for me alone. “Francine should not have left the estate. She needs … a firm hand. That Cor … he is too … to infatuated, a bit too soft to govern her the way she needs it; he tries too hard not to be his father. He gives her everything she wants and still she can’t find it in herself to be satisfied. You must watch her Fel. I worry she is … is susceptible to … to the wrong kind of flattery.”
In her own way Mistress Giselle had shocked me as much as the Elder had embarrassed me. Trying to put her mind at rest I said, “There’s been none of that going on I’m sure. Even if Francine hadn’t told me herself and made me sure … me who has enough experience with men to last a lifetime … and convinced me she was serious that she didn’t view that kind of attention with any kind of favor, Mrs. Wiley makes sure that neither Francine nor I deal with men by ourselves.”
“Neither of you?”
I shrugged. “I leave Francine to Mrs. Wiley as she knows what to do and Jonah is never too far when I am out and about on the estate. Even if he isn’t there himself he has someone trailing me like I need leading strings or something.”
She smiled and the relief showed on her face. “Then I won’t worry so much. Cor is a fine young man or Francine’s father would never have agreed to the match but he is gone so often.” She sighed once again reminding me a bit of my Gran. “Husbands with young wives shouldn’t be away from home so much.”
“He’s got responsibilities Mistress Giselle. More than just to Francine … and me. The estate, the people … his Da didn’t leave him with much choice. Cor’s too honorable to give up without a fight. I support him in that.” I was hoping she took my words to heart. She may have meant well but I can’t fall in with folks that try and hurt Jonah, Mrs. Wiley, or any of the others on the Corman estate. “And I’m sure Francine does as well.”
She was growing tired and let slip, “Does she? Hmmmm ….”
I waited for her to finish but when I looked she was asleep. I took the tray back to the kitchen but as I passed the sitting area I noted that Francine was still up and I could hear the Elder’s voice as well as the voices of his other two wives. Again, while a little late in the evening for visiting I thought nothing of it. The Lathrops were leaving the next day so I figured they were getting their last bit of each other’s company in while they could. I was tired after a long day of work and was eager to get to bed. There was a lot to do yet.
The next day it was obvious that Francine had been crying … a lot. I mean she didn’t even try to look her normally fragile yet beautiful self. Her nose was red, her eyes were swollen, and she looked … unhealthy. After the Lathrops caravan took off I went to the kitchen and got a pot of broth thinking that maybe Francine was coming down with whatever Mistress Giselle had had. They had spent a great deal of time in each other’s company in the beginning.
I walked into her sitting room to find her crying pitifully. Not fake tears but great big ol’ boo hoos that were as real as it gets. I knew she was likely to freak out when her kin took their leave but I had no idea what was heading my way.
I took two steps into the room and just had time to say, “Francine why don’t you drink some of …”
WHAM! She was up off the sofa where she’d been drapped and knocked the tray and bowl out of my hand. She turned to come at me again and it took a lot of willpower not to backhand her. That broth was hot and it had splashed my neck and soaked the front of the simple cotton blouse I was wearing. I shoved her back and she fell into a chair.
“Have you lost your mind?!”
She came at me again and I shoved her back again. I was ready to call for some help to keep from doing her any damage and then getting blamed for it all when she said, “I hate you!!”
“Then hate me for all I care but at least tell me why.”
“You know why. You turned them against me. You … you … you Outland whore.”
I hadn’t been expecting her to act like she was crazy. I expected those words out of her mouth even less.
I gave her a look and told her as calmly as I could force myself to be, “You do not want to call me that again Francine. You really, really don’t.”
“I’ll call you anything I please.” I turned to leave the room but she screeched, “I’m not done with you!”
I turned and gave her a dangerous glare. “But I’m done with you. I don’t know what has set you off … well, yeah I do … your kin leaving. But as bad as that must make you feel, it isn’t my fault and I don’t appreciate being blamed for it.”
“You turned them against me!” she wailed.
“How on God’s great creation am I supposed to have done that?!” I know I should have left but it was like watching someone fall off a cliff … it was so bad I just couldn’t turn away.
“You told them lies. You said I was being lazy and not being responsible and …”
“Whoa right there. One, I never said anything about anything like that. Even if I thought you’ve been lazier than you needed to be I never would have said it. Hardly anyone would believe me anyway and it would embarrass Cor and the estate. And two, I said that you took care of the guests just fine as your responsibility and I stuck to the rest of it.”
“Liar! Then why did they all lecture me and lecture me and lecture me about what was right and proper?! I know what is right and proper! Didn’t I get them to get Cor another wife when he wouldn’t do it on his own?! It isn’t my fault they just didn’t get a good one. They brought you into my home and my life has been a hellish misery ever since.”
I snapped. “You’ve lost your mind. Is this how your Ma went?” OK, so that hacked her off a bit but by that time I didn’t care. “Is it so hard for you to see that you are causing your own misery?! Stop wallowing, locked up in this room you treat like an ivory tower. Get out and get some sunshine. Make yourself useful. Do some work for pity’s sake. I’m doing the best I can with what I have, trying to make a life for myself which is more than anyone else has been trying to do for me. I am not what is making you miserable. I didn’t even choose to be here in the first place!”
“And you won’t be here any longer than I can help it!” That got me quiet real fast. “I told Cor to accept you for my sake and he did. And now I’ll tell him to get rid of you for my sake and he will! He’ll set you aside and we will find someone better, someone who doesn’t terrorize me at every turn, who doesn’t undercut my authority. I might not be able set you aside until Cor comes back but I can banish you from this house and I shall! Get out! GET OUT!! GET OUT AND STAY OUT!!”
I was angry, just about as angry as I have ever been but not so angry that I was going to stand there and let her peg me with all the throwables that were in that room. I got out all right and slammed the door before she could hurt me or anyone else.
I was so angry in fact that I realized I was grabbing my knife and that shocked me. I had never gone after anyone weaker than myself and there is no way Francine can best me in a fight. She was also unarmed. For a moment I realized how close I had come to doing something I wouldn’t be able to live with. I turned loose of the knife and fled down the stairs and straight into a crowd of shocked people. I looked around and couldn’t stand it. Mrs. Wiley, all the other women, Jonah, the boys … I had to get out. I couldn’t breathe.
I ran into the forest feeling like a deer on the run. There was no place I could go. Everywhere I turned all I found was a kind of anger I thought I had put behind me and nothing and no one that I could loose it against.
But even I get tired. Jonah found me up near Tumbler’s Spring. I was about to make off when he said, “Naw Gilly. Don’t run. I’m too tired and so are you. We gots a mess on our hands and we needs ter figger out what ter do about it.”
Sullenly I said, “I never said any of those things to people. I never have.”
He nodded, “Nope. You coulda said a lot but never have. Maybe yer should have.”
I shook my head. “Said what to who? And what difference would it make even if I had?”
He sighed. “Reckon yer’ve got the right of it. But yer cain’t run away.”
Gruffly I asked, “Why not? Run before I’m thrown out.”
“’Cause ya silly Gilly, the estate needs yer. Miss Francie will play Queen Bee for a day er two but she ain’t got no sense and will lose interest as she always has before. All she has done terday is sit in that room o hers and give orders that has me sister running but not accomplishin’ nothin’.” Furitively looking around he whispered, “We finally dosed her up good. She’ll sleep through the night and give us o chance to talk things out.” In a normal tone of voice he said, “Yer need to come back and help us out o this.”
I banged the back of my head against the tree a few times. The pain felt satisfying. But only a couple of times because I also had more sense than a ram in heat. Their heads may have been made for banging against something hard, mine wasn’t. I sighed and stood up. “I don’t know what I can do Jonah. You know when Cor hears what she wants he’ll give it to her. I can’t change squat about that.”
Catching a glimpse of Jonah’s sad face I knew that he knew it too. Still he said, “Let’s cross that bridge when we’s come ter it. Fer now, just come home.”
Home. I don’t have one. If I had one I wouldn’t be in this pickle. It’s almost like being in the stocks again. Held captive and in full view of everyone else, just waiting for the real punishment to begin.