I sat for a while and then decided that I was being stupid so I climbed in bed and tried to go to sleep. After an hour I was almost in dreamland when there was knocking. I groaned but got up quickly since the only reason someone would be knocking was for an emergency. I opened the door and there was Cor.
“What? What’s …”
“Move and let me in Fel. It’s late. And it’s cold,” he growled.
“And you’re foul,” I told him as I moved out of the way. I noticed he had a duffle in his hand that he dropped to the side. I just stood back and watched him prowl back and forth, too agitated to sit. “OK Cor, enough. You’re going to wear the finish off the floor and I just got these boards sanded to get rid of the last of the splinters. What are you doing here?”
In a sing song voice he said, “What’s wrong? Didn’t you look at the calendar?”
“She didn’t,” I said having a feeling who he was mimicking.
“Oh yes she did. She finally tells me I’m going to be a father and then acts like she doesn’t want anything to do with me. Says her stomach is upset and she’s got a headache and no one cares how bad it is. She’s even mad at her relatives because they are leaving tomorrow. Oh, and as for you, I wouldn’t go near her for a bit … apparently you’ve turned the whole world against her somehow. She wasn’t making much sense by that point. Glyssen and Winnie came in and started to calm her down and told me to go so she wouldn’t get hysterical, that it wasn’t good for the baby.”
I finally pushed him into the rocker and put a pot of water over the fire and threw in a handful of basil. I found that when Cor was agitated I could use smells to calm him down … and old book I read once called it aromatherapy or something equally silly sounding. Basil was good when he was stressed out. There were other things I used too. Lavendar and Coriander oils mixed two to one made a good sleep aid. I would put a few drops on his pillow and he’d drop off real fast. Didn’t mean he didn’t get up in the middle of the night and move to the rocker but at least he got some sleep first. But tonight was definitely a basil night.
Cor’s fists were bunched up and he had them lying on his knees tight as rocks. I looked at him and not knowing whether I really should or not I still said, “For you to have just found out you’re going to be a Da you sure don’t look too happy.”
I watched him try and let the tension go out of his shoulders. “I am … about that. I … it … I mean …” He turned to look at me and I stepped back because the anger was deep in his eyes. “Why can’t anything ever be easy? Why does life have to be this hard?!”
I sat in the chair and pulled my feet up under me. “Because I doubt we would appreciate stuff as much if it all came easy.”
Almost in a snarling he said, “But it shouldn’t be this hard!”
I sighed. “Cor, I can’t know what to say unless you explain it better.”
He opened his mouth and then closed it, shook himself, and then sat back in the rocker. “I don’t know how to weave all the threads I’ve got in my hands into the right pattern Fel.”
He took a moment but finally seemed ready to talk. “I’m … I’m trying so hard to do the right thing, the honorable thing. Between Francine and everything else I’m so turned around. I thought her being pregnant would make things easier, more black and white. I had plans on how this was supposed to work out. I was going to get the estate out of debt. Francine and I would be free. She would get over me turning into her father with all these other wives to deal with and take care of. Instead, she’s a good part of how I wound up in a proxy marriage I never wanted … and … and I … I didn’t mean …”
I snorted. “Sure you did but I’m not one to take offense easy and you know it. Better that we can trust each other to be honest rather than have to go stepping around and tripping over the truth at unexpected moments.”
He shook his head. “But the truth shouldn’t hurt like this. Neither one of us should be in the position we’re in. It’s not f…”
“You better not say fair because that’ll be the dumbest thing you’ve ever said.”
He sighed. “Yeah, I know.” He raked his hands through his hair. “I … even … she …”
“She being Francine?”
“Yeah. She hasn’t … hasn’t changed. She’s known for almost two months that she’s pregnant. She said she waited to tell me to make sure that I would build us a real family. It’s like this test I keep having to pass over and over and over again. Fel, I don’t know if I can keep doing this but if I don’t … I … I think she’ll take off for the Lathrop estate and stay there. Just take our child and … and …”
I was beginning to see it. “Are you … ok let me start again. Did she say this or is all this skullduggery from the Lathrops making you think that she might?”
Quietly he said, “She didn’t say it out right but it feels like an unspoken threat. Either I do what she wants, what she expects, or she’ll take matters into her own hands like she did with the proxy marriage.” He looked at me desperately. “She wasn’t like this when we were courting or when we were first married. I … I don’t understand.”
“Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I’ll admit I don’t know what to make of Francine most of the time. On some days it seems like she must know exactly what she is doing and on other days … she’s like little girl lost and I’m sure that if anything is going on there is someone that has to be pulling her strings. I’m pretty sure I could like her if she would let me, but for all that it is at least partly her fault that I’m here, she can’t seem to get over me being an Outlander.”
“That’s not the reason she … she has problems with you.”
“What then?” I asked half of me wanting to know and the rest of me not particularly caring.
“Oh, this and that,” he temporized. “But mostly it’s because you’re just so different. From what she’s said she expected them to take into consideration her preferences and needs when they picked out someone for the proxy marriage. It was more like she expected them to get her a wife rather than another for me.”
For some reason that struck me as funny, not that I hadn’t thought the same thing. Just to hear it from Cor’s own lips it tickled my funny bone.
“It’s not funny. Why are you laughing?” he demanded.
“Oh … oh I know it’s not exactly funny,” I snorted from trying to control the giggles that wanted to control me. “And I’m not laughing at you Cor, honest. But I always wondered why they picked me for this second wife plan of theirs and now I’m beginning to think that someone decided to spite the Lathrops in general and Francine in particular and told the Captain to get the most ornery, backwards, independent, cussed female that he could find for the job. I knew from the beginning … even before they closed the deal … that I was set apart from my sisters. They must have asked the Headman who was the biggest problem or something along those lines. You have to admit they got their money’s worth.”
I wanted Cor to find it funny too but he stayed serious. “I think that I got dem lucky is what I got. And that you must have the worst luck in the world to have gotten put in this position.”
Trying not to let Cor’s weird mood infect me I said, “I’ll tell you like I told Winnie earlier. This may not be the life I expected but it is better than the life I had. What I make of it is my own responsibility. We might wish that our lives took a different path but wishing never changed or fixed anything. It is what it is.”
He turned to stare into the fire and slowly between one thing and the other the fight finally went out of him. “I want so bad to do the right thing Fel but every day that goes by I’m not sure I even know what the right thing is anymore.”
“Don’t be foolish,” I said, swatting him with a small pillow that Cor used on his neck when he slept in the rocker. I kept its small inner compartment filled with fresh pine needles, rosemary, lemon verbena and chamomile flower. It helped him to sleep.
He took the pillow from me and put it behind his neck, probably to keep me from swatting him with it again. He made a face and said, “I feel foolish. I feel like I’m walking at the edge of a cliff and the dirt and rocks keep shifting under my feet.”
“Then take things one step at a time until you get back on firmer ground. Let’s look at the things we know. You love Francine even though she’s done some strange things.”
“Yeah,” he whispered.
“And you’re going to be a Da come summer.”
“Yeah,” he whispered again.
“You know you need to get out from under the debt and one or two more trips could do it after the really great one you just had.”
This time he nodded, more confident.
“So keep doing what you planned and clear that mess off your plate before you try and fill it up with anything else.”
He looked at me and sighed but this time it didn’t sound so sad, like he was coming to terms with the day. “I suppose you’ve had time to think about what this accident at the Lathrops could mean.”
I nodded. “A bit but I don’t know them well enough to say which way it will jump. It could mean they’re weak and aren’t such a threat to the estate anymore. Could mean though that … well, with Francine being the unknown here … that they might try and get to you through your child.”
He surprised me by nodding calmly. “I’ll admit I’m a little worried about that. That’s one of the reasons I’m inclined to overlook Francine’s snit and just continue on as we have been.”
“What’s the other reasons?”
Looking a little uncomfortable he said, “Nothing … I mean they’re something but they’re just … uh … personal reasons that wouldn’t make much sense to anyone else. I … uh … just …”
I shook my head. “There’s nothing wrong in pacifying Francine right now if it keeps her from running off to her relatives. Plus, you love her and want her to … I don’t know … get over whatever it is she is going through. But here’s a bright side to think on, if things are as bad as the Captain said I doubt that family of hers is going to want her to come running … it wouldn’t look right and you’d almost be obligated to fetch her back and if they objected to that people would start to talk. And, if I took Elder Lathrop’s measure, what people think of them is important to the Lathrops. They seem to be real proud of their personal reputations.”
He reached over and put his hand on mine surprising me. “Then you’ll help me to keep that from happening? I don’t know who all I can trust anymore Fel.”
I patted his hand because he seemed so sincere but he sat back like he was startled and had been caught doing something he shouldn’t have. “Cor, I know what you’re saying. You wonder if the Captain and Winnie are going to start getting in your business the way they did before. I’m pretty sure they won’t … at least not to the extent they have in the past. I think having Rachel kind of brought it home for them and they are rethinking their position. I know you don’t think they would understand the deal we’ve made between us. I’m not too sure all of my sisters would either. But that’s all between me and you and no one else has to be involved. We do this for our own reasons because it is just the two of us caught up in it. As for who you can trust, no one around here is going to calmly watch Francine take off to the Lathrops I can tell you that. As much as you’re invested in saving the estate, the people of the estate are invested in you. They’re trusting you to save their future, trust them to do the right thing too.”
He was starting to drift off so I stood up but then he stopped me with a question. “Fel, does it ever bother you that … that we’re lying like this?”
I sat back down. “Yes it bothers me. I don’t like people thinking I’m no better than a saloon girl that I would settle for this kind of life. But I wasn’t given any choice.” I thought carefully before I admitted, “Most of the time I’m at peace with it Cor. If we were forever at odds like we were in the beginning I don’t think I could keep this up … but for you … and to protect other people from the conniving of people like the Lathrops … I’m pretty sure I can keep this up as long as we need to.”
I wanted to throw the pillow at him again but he was using it. “No. And I never said it was easy. I said I could do it, don’t assume because I can do something that I’m assuming it is going to be easy to do.”
Groggily he asked through mostly closed eyes, “Did that make sense?”
I had to laugh if for no other reason than I was remembering the few times I had asked the same question of him. “Maybe not. All I’m saying is that I think I can do this if I have to. I’ll probably go through days when I’ll give you a different answer though so be prepared. My Gran always said the hard stuff is what makes us better people. My Gramp always told her that you had to want to be a better person for that to work. Today I feel like I want to be a better person. Tomorrow might be a completely different story.”
He smiled then sighed. “I’m wrung out.”
This time I did get up and move the pot off the fire so it wouldn’t boil out and then added a log to the flames that were left. “Then go to sleep.”
“I suppose I have to. I have to ride half way to the ridge to get Glyssen and the rest of them to the courier route. They want to go home and help with the cleanup and to see how their family homes faired.”
Knowing how that probably went over I asked, “How torqued was Francine?”
Another tired sigh as he started to take off his boots. “Let’s just say those hens are taking home a few singed tail feathers.”
“Do you think it would be all right if I sent a letter home with them to Hazel?”
That woke him up a bit. “Why?” he asked suspiciously.
“Just want to … er …” I sighed. “I don’t want to add more to your plate but … uh …”
He nodded then went back at his boots. “Winnie already told me that you think Francine is too dependent on those teas of hers and that she didn’t like getting bossed around about it.”
Well that was one way of putting it I suppose.
“I just want to let Hazel know that Francine is pregnant and that we are going to take care of her and just in case anyone is thinking of sending her special packages or treats that she should put her foot down about certain things being included.”
He nodded. “Maybe you better. Sounds like you’d say it better than I would anyway.”
The same old routine was repeated though he didn’t crawl out of bed to sleep in the rocker until almost dawn. After he slipped quietly from the cabin I enjoyed a few extra moments of warmth below the bear skin then got up and wrote the note to Hazel making it as politely clear as I could what was going on. When I had finished I carried it over to the wagon driver and asked him to put it into the private correspondence for Elder Lathrop. Glyssen saw what I was doing and I saw her swallow but she didn’t say anything about it.
After the wagon had turn the corner and was too far away to be called back I could tell Francine was winding up for a huge scene. I looked around but saw everyone getting ready to duck for cover. I had to apologize to Jonah later for the trick I pulled but the blessed silence that resulted from it was worth it.
“Now Francine, if you get wound up you are going to make yourself sick.”
“I haven’t been sick once and …” I had taken her arm and steered her right into Jonah’s pipe smoke.
She got a great big face full and was trying to fan it away with her hand when I said, “Well, it’ll be happening any time now. My Gran said it never failed and each woman would find something in particular that would set her off. The smell of an overripe outhouse. The smell of cleaning out the guts of a chicken before cutting it up for dinner. A great big dose of cooking cabbage or perhaps it would be the steam coming off a pot of boiling dirty socks. Or …”
She’d gotten more and more green with each smell I had reminded her of and suddenly she was puking. The more she puked the more she made herself puke. When it was over she was as limp as a dishrag and everyone had run for the hills. That was fine by me because I was going to get it in her head that I knew what I was talking about and if it had to start with the pukes then so be it.
“Come along Francine. This just won’t do. You need to stay quiet. Let’s get you a nice cup of ginger tea or a warm mug of broth with some biscuits. You can sit until you feel more the thing but expect this to happen ever so often. If you get worked up, you’re gonna puke. You stay calm, drink your broth and eat a biscuit and your stomach will stay settled.”
Gran and Ma always taught me that there was more than one way to skin a cat and while Francine wasn’t a cat she was about to learn that I was done playing by her rules.