That day was rough but I lived through it by doing what my Gran had always said was the only way to live through such times; by putting one foot in front of the other. Cor just about drove me crazy. He’d come around and make out like I was some important person and the others around me would nod and act like Cor was coming to his senses. Me? Just made me feel like he was losing his mind more than he had already. If he would have left well enough alone it would have been easier to ignore.
“Cor! What are you doing? I didn’t ask to be treated like … like … well, like whatever you are doing. Stop setting me apart and giving me so much attention. I don’t want whatever it is you are offering.”
“I’m trying to give you your rightful place as my wife. What I should have been doing all along.”
I looked around and whispered fiercely. “Have you forgotten that I’m not really your wife? Stop this right now and stop changing the rules of our agreement.”
Quietly he said, “I was wrong Fel. We’ll stick to our agreement. I … I won’t dishonor Francine or myself … or you … by taking this any further and I hope you know you can trust me on that, or at least you’re willing to pretend you can trust me until you really do. I still don’t believe they should have forced this proxy marriage on us. What they did was wrong but two wrongs don’t make a right. I owe you more than you’ve been getting. And that gets fixed starting now.”
Frustrated I asked him, “Did bugs crawl in her your ears and nibble on your brain while you were gone?!”
He tried not to but he slowly caved and gave me a small, bashful smile. “Maybe.”
I swear some people are just impossible to stay mad at no matter what the circumstances. I kept my distance but at the same time it is awful hard to beat on someone that seems to expect it at every turn. Cor’s da must have done a real number on him.
I finally sat back against the tree I was sitting under while I sorted through the mess of pumpkin seeds I was cleaning so that I could season and toast them. Changing the subject to something safer I said, “Those men that ride with you, they seem to be in a good mood. Did you do ok on this run? Make some headway?”
A genuine smile lit his face. “After all that you’re still … still interested in … in …”
Honest to pete he is three-quarters puppy half the time. “Yeah, I’m interested. What is the point of it all if we aren’t working on things from our own angles?”
“Oh.” He was quiet so long I had to ask again. “Yeah, I did …” He stopped for a minute then he got a big grin like a boy that has swiped the baker’s best pie and lived to tell the tale. “Fel, I cleared off three-quarters of the debt that was left. In a single run!”
Astonished, especially since I knew the amount, I asked, “That much?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “We took last season’s rice thinking that we’d get an OK price for it going up to the northeast. At best they only have wild rice up that way. But they’d had a long hard winter followed by a wet spring all through the region. No one had gardens in yet despite it being so late when reached the area. They needed that rice real bad by that time. I gave them a good price for it too, didn’t gouge them like some might even though I could have. They couldn’t pay me in too much coin but I got some good lumber, gallons of maple syrup, some textiles and some ivory work. Got some whale oil too from a village on the coast. Best though was a large load of salt, about half of which I brought back to Kipling. Took what we traded to a couple of other places and traded for other things and brought in a little more coin. Coming back this way we ran into another trader group and they offered to take the remaining stock I wasn’t keeping for personal use off my hands for pure gold and silver plus a few odds and ends. And I’ve got a contract with them for a bulk order of everyday use paper. Said they might be interested in some of the specialty stuff we produce as well. Fel … I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! Only have a few folks left to pay off and then we’re done … no more owing people ever again.”
When he talked of paying off the debts you could tell it was a burden coming off him. I’m actually kinda sorry it got spoiled with the mess between Francine and I. It must have really nipped at his male pride. But it did make me wonder once again what place I would have after all of the debt was gone. I had thought I was satisfied to live the life fate seemed to hand me but I’m beginning to wonder if it is going to take more work to be content with that than I had planned on.
The next morning I could tell people were starting to calm down. Things were going back to normal though folks skirted around the issue a bit or would stop talking or change the subject when they saw me coming. People wanted things to be OK between Cor, Francine, and I. They needed things to be OK. In a sense we held their lives in our hands because if our plan failed, the debt holders could come in and take things and maybe dismantle the estate. People don’t like that kind of uncertainty. Realizing that it made me feel guilty for thinking I could just run off without looking back.
At lunch time Cor insisted on sharing the noon time meal with the estate staff the way I have been doing. He kept looking at the house and then losing his concentration and after a while wasn’t following the conversations around him at all. People began to sense something was wrong. He wasn’t looking like a black thunder cloud yet but everyone that wasn’t blind could see Cor was heading that direction.
After the meal was cleared away I tugged him off to the side. “What is wrong now?!”
“Nothin’,” he said sullenly.
I crossed my arms and gave him my Ma’s best hard look. Gran could do it better but Ma always made me feel worse somehow.
He sighed in an extremely irritated way and then burst out, “I told Francine to come down and share the noon meal with everyone. Show everyone we were doing OK. She said she would. And she … she …” Quietly like he couldn’t quite believe it he said, “She lied to me. She … she didn’t come down.”
Uh oh. “Maybe she got a headache at the last moment. Queasy. Something like that.”
“No she didn’t,” he said getting wound up into a snit all over again. “I saw her at her window and she saw me see her. She looked straight at me and then pulled the curtains shut. She didn’t come down on purpose.”
“Cor, maybe …”
He looked at me incredulously. “After what she said? After the predicament she got me into? You’re going to make excuses for her?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m telling you to calm down. If she wants a scene don’t give it to her. Daphne – one of the girls that came east with me - used to like to get my goat and a lot of the time the only way to deal with her was to ignore her. You react, you make her feel like she has power and it only makes it worse.”
This time he was the one who shook his head. “This isn’t a game Fel, or a girlish tantrum. I know how I acted and I see … or I’m learning … just how wrong I was. Every minute goes by it only gets worse. I … I love Francine. I always will but I don’t understand why she turned on me like this. Why she would lie like she has … first about you and then about coming down to the meal. If she is lying now has she been lying all this time?”
I opened my mouth to try and calm him down but he kept going and asked, “And why do I feel so free to talk to you about this?! And why are you listening to me after all that has happened? Are you women all just crazy or something or is it me that’s fallen over that waterfall?”
Part of me knew how serious he was being but part of me wanted to laugh at the same time. I’m not sure why. I’m even less sure why the laughing part won out. It wasn’t a huge belly buster but I did let myself smile. “Cor, I swear sometimes everybody that is east of the Mississippi has some kind of crazy wrong with them. Being an Outlander is a whole lot less complicated. You live, you die and in between the two you fight to survive. You feed your belly, you rest your body, and you try and save your skin. That’s all there is except for small bits and pieces here and there. On the other hand you people around here get too wound up in things that in the end don’t have anything to do with anything but giving you a headache.”
He opened his mouth and I stopped him with my hand. “Listen to me. Right now for whatever reason you and Francine are like two ticks with no dog between you. Each of you are just draining the other, expecting them to provide all you need and no person can do that for another person no matter how much they want to. Let’s just figure out what set her off, fix it, and then move on.”
I took my hand away from his mouth and he opened it, then closed it, then grunted like an old razor back that was irritated. “I know what set her off. That Elder Lathrop gave her a talking to, a big one, and none of it included a blessing. Apparently it has come to his attention … and now to mine … that Francine hasn’t … er … hasn’t …”
“Gotten into the spirit of things?” I asked trying to find a polite way of saying it all in as few words as possible.
Sadly grateful he nodded. “Yeah. That.”
“There are some mules that are willing to pull and some who aren’t. Sometimes the ones that aren’t can be brought around to the farmer’s way of thinking but it takes patience and practice. Sometimes the only way is with a willow switch. Contrary to recent experiences, I still don’t think you are a hitter by nature though anyone can be pushed too far, especially when their heart is involved. That leaves trying to figure out what is going to … um … encourage Francine to pull her part of the weight we all three are under. “
Sadly he asked, “And if I can’t find out how?”
“Then we have to pull without her.”
I thought that Cor had calmed down and in fact looking back at it I know he did. Lollie Hudson told me she heard Francine egging him on when he went inside a couple of hours later to get the inventory books so we could update them with this week’s reports. Within thirty minutes they were both shouting loud enough that we could hear them out back in the garden.
We all tried to ignore it but it was hard. Thirty minutes it went on and it wasn’t anything but one of those circular arguments that never went anywhere. People started to mutter. It wasn’t angry muttering; it was concern and in some cases fear. Too many remembered Cor’s Da and how he could get. Lollie told people that it was Francine that had started it but the way Cor roared made it hard to believe.
I stood up and dusted off my hands. I’d had enough.
Jonah tried to stop me. “You don’t want ter get in the middle of that Gilly. Young Cor … well ain’t he already flayed yer once?”
“That was a misunderstanding. “
I heard someone mutter, “Some misunderstanding. Just about ruined everything.”
I don’t know who said it but everyone heard it and I had to address it. “Cor is exhausted. That’s no excuse but he’s been on that run for months trying to save the estate, does a good job, and then comes home to the mess he found. Now Francine, who he has loved since he was a boy and you all know it, is all twisted up for some reason … family has a way of being able to hurt you more and deeper than anyone else and she really took whatever it was to heart. They’re going to tear themselves apart if someone doesn’t get the guts up to stop them. I reckon two lovesick fools can’t be much worse than a cranky grizz so I might as well give it a try.”
They were still going at it when I walked into the room Cor used as an office. Things were really heating up and they had started to ask each other whether they really loved one another.
“OK, that’s enough,” I told them quietly but forcefully. “You are taking this all way too far.” They both opened their mouths but I stopped them. “You can’t control who you fall in love with. I don’t know why but my observation is that’s the plain truth of it. When you first find out it must be something really beautiful the way people carry on so, you two included. But in my experience beauty doesn’t last. Life rides it hard and sometimes it gets hung up wet and winds up wrinkled and out of shape. Newness wears off. As sad a fact as it is, beauty just doesn’t last in this world. Now love can, but it might not look the way it did when you first felt it.”
Turning to Cor I told him, “When you love someone you have to accept them for who they are.”
Looking at both of them I said, “This battling has to stop. The people on this estate need each of us in our own way and they need us together. They need you Cor because you are the head of the family. You represent continuity and security. They see you working hard and being responsible, part of the past and the road to the future.”
“Francine, you are the first lady. You can bring beauty to life and make them remember there is more to their lives than just work. You are also the connection to the other estates, the other long time families of Kipling.”
Francine asked bitterly, “And what about you? What do they need from an Outlander like you?”
I shrugged. “Me? I remind them the way I should remind you why they work as hard as they do, what could happen if they don’t. I show them, up close and personal, what exists outside the settlement boundaries. Nobody living today went through the Dark Days. It is too easy for people to forget that time. But when people see me, they see what was. I have known great loss from a battle I did not choose. I have known brutality. I have known subjugation and slavery. I am with them every day, sharing their lives, sharing their labor, working with them to secure their future so that they do not have to share my past.”
When they tried to start the squabbling again I told them, “Enough! They need each of us … responsibility, security, continuity, reminders of the past and hope for the future. We have to work together or we are not going to pull this off. Bad times are coming and in my experience bad times breed like feral cats. We have to be strong together so we can be strong for them.”
Looking at Francine I told her quietly, “I will live with whatever opinion you may have of me, but I won’t live with not doing my duty. If you can’t find it in yourself to understand anything else, at least understand duty to others means more than feeling sorry for yourself and wishing things were different. Put it aside. Cor will. I will. You don’t have to keep on at this. Aren’t you tired? Don’t you just want some comfort from Cor to make it feel better? He didn’t do anything to deserve you being so angry.”
I’d given her an out and she took it. She burst into tears and ran into Cor so hard he just about fell over into the book case. The great big lunkhead just stood there with his arms outstretched holding the account books and looking like he’d been kicked in the head by a buffalo. I shook my head and took the books out of his hands and finally he hugged Francine and I could tell that he really was willing to work things out. He looked almost as relieved as Francine did.
If love makes that kind of fool out of folks I’m pretty sure that I never want to be in it.