There are days when time passes so slowly you want to pull your hair out one strand at a time and then there are days that move as fast as a hummingbird’s wing. Even though the days were normal if not downright boring it feels like I completely missed the month of February as it flew by. I barely even remember it. I stayed busy tending to Winnie and Francine but it wasn’t as onerous a task as I thought it was going to be.
Winnie of course didn’t really need me to fetch and carry for her but she seemed grateful that I was willing to; Rachel wasn’t always the angel she looked like. For such a wee pretty thing she has a nasty little temper. If she doesn’t get tended to fast she arches her back, throws back her head and cries loud enough to shatter glass. I don’t even want to think about what she is going to be like when she starts teething. Georgie was an easy baby from what I remember but he just about gnawed the legs off the table when he started cutting teeth. He tried to chew off my leg a couple of times too.
Francine didn’t really need me to fetch and carry either but keeping an eye on her was the job I had set for myself. I think I’ve managed it pretty well though a few times I’ve had to be a bit of a stinker and trick her into things. It’s not that what I was telling her wasn’t the truth but I laid it on a little thick to get the desired result. Like when she wouldn’t get up and do anything I kind of mentioned that she looked like she was … ummm … spreading along the backside area and that if she didn’t get up and move some it might stay spread and that labor would be worse for her. Another time I caught her eating sweets and then playing at being too pathetic and ill to eat the good meals that Mrs. Wiley worked hard to provide. That time I got her with the suggestion of spots and how people with spots would scar in unseemly places.
I honestly didn’t understand why I had to do anything like that. You would have thought that she would have been eager to do everything she could to have a healthy baby … a Corman heir … and all that it would mean for her down the road to be the mother of the Corman heir if she couldn’t do it for the baby’s sake alone. It isn’t like she had to do all of the work herself; people were tripping over themselves trying to make it easy on her. It is very confusing and there are moments when I swing back and forth between Francine playing at being stupid and helpless and her really being stupid and helpless.
Her mood swings could get pretty uncomfortable too. I know some women are like that but I’d never been on the receiving end before. The moon coming for a visit could make some of my sisters a tad cranky but nothing like what Francine could dish out. Crying like you’ve been handed a death sentence just because you are out of rice powder is way more than strange. And if I took heat Cor took at least twice as much. It got to where he was eager for his weeklong “vacation.” Strangely enough that week seemed to be the only time he and Francine could get along. I had to listen to him tell me how much better she’s doing and how she must be getting better because she was like she was when they first married. No sooner would the week be over and he moved back into the house and Francine would start on him all over again. I just couldn’t figure the situation out. And it was making Cor just heart sick. He tried so hard but she seemed to know exactly what to say to set him off … and worse, some times she seemed to do it on purpose.
I’m beginning to think that maybe Francine is scared of something or just worried. The letters from home don’t seem to help her and in fact she almost shudders when she gets one in the courier packet. I’ve asked her if she wants to talk about it, that I had a thick skin and wouldn’t mind if she needed to let off some steam but every time I tried it only seemed to make her more upset.
I’m not exactly sure what is in those letters but if I had to guess I would say that some of it must deal with the bad news that is circulating all over Kipling about the Lathrops. Boy are they getting paid back for all of their maneuvering. The fuel production situation is bad, very bad. People in the territory are scared and worried. They want to know how they are supposed to run their field machines in the spring if the Lathrops aren’t going to produce any fuel for them to buy. Most were counting on a spring resupply and that simply isn’t going to happen.
The Lathrops took coin to secure most of the spring deliveries and now they are up a creek because they have to return the coin. That leaves them with very little to buy the supplies they need to keep their people fed. And no coin to barter or buy the replacement equipment they desperately need to rebuild with. Plainly from all the rumors not too many people are in a hurry to help them.
One of the worst arguments that Francine and Cor had was over the fact that she demanded that Cor take supplies to the Lathrops; she wasn’t talking about a little bit either.
“Don’t tell me there isn’t enough to do what I want! I helped put just tons and tons of food aside! There has to be enough!!”
“Help?! Don’t give me that. You sat back and watched food be put aside but you didn’t have a whole lot to do with the actual work involved. And that food is to get our own people through to the spring that in case you haven’t bothered noticing doesn’t look like it wants to get here any time soon. I already told you I’ll take a wagon load of rice on my way out to my barter run but I won’t put all the people that I am responsible to on my estate in danger in order to try and take care of the Lathrop estate at the same time. Other estates can share the burden.”
She wailed, “But they’re not! Everyone is turning against my family! It isn’t fair!!”
“I am your family, the people on this estate are your family. When you married me you left the Lathrop estate remember? As for what hasn’t been ‘fair’ for the last few years is how the Lathrop elders have been really squeezing people over the fuel. I’m not saying it is all the Lathrops fault … other estates could have built their own fuel production set ups like we have here but they chose not to. But people have long memories Francine. Some of the deals that were made were pretty brutal whether you are willing to accept that fact or not. There are consequences. I’m not against the Lathrops making a profit; however, I’m not real fond of their methods and the influence peddling they had taken up doing. Now calm down before you make yourself sick.”
She cried, she begged, she threw tantrums, but it wasn’t until she threatened to leave and go back to the Lathrop estate that any of us realized just how much Cor had grown in his ability to handle Francine’s strange starts.
“Leave? How? No one is going to escort you there and in fact from this point forward you are not to go anywhere out of this yard without an escort. You are five months pregnant and have no business throwing these kinds of fits; you are going to hurt yourself, and possibly the baby too. I’m also going to put the Council on notice of what is going on and if you do try and go to the Lathrop estate I’m going to make dem sure it gets hot for them harboring you and trying to take our child away. I’m not above thinking that maybe someone in your family hasn’t put a bug in your ear to try and use our baby as a blackmail tool. Am I right?”
Francine is a poor choice of pawn, or maybe she is the queen on the board. I’m still not sure. But if she was acting she was doing a pretty doggone good job of it. There was no more fussing, no more scenes from that point forward. By another week going by Francine did another flip flop. She was calmer than she has been since she shared with us that she was with child. She was so good I was suspicious but Cor, being the huge lunkhead he is, swore to me that he had just needed to step up and be the man.
Trying not to say thing wrong thing all I could mutter was, “Uh … well …”
Cor smiled with so much confidence I couldn’t bring myself to even think about busting his bubble. “Fel, that’s what was needed. I needed to be a man instead of a boy. That’s what Francine needs. I … I remember now how her father was. I used to think maybe he was too strict and he reminded me of my father at times. Oh he never yelled but all of his wives and kids knew where the boundaries were. I don’t want to hurt Francine but … but I’ve made my bed and made a commitment to her and I’ve got to fulfill it, no matter what.”
I shook my head. “Stop sounding like a martyr. You know you’re goofy in love with her.” Smiling I added, “You’re such a lunkhead and top over tail that she’s finally settling down. She’s spending a lot of time with Winnie and Rachel. Might be the reality is finally settling in and she will lose her fear of whatever has been bothering her.”
He looked uncomfortable for a moment before saying, “I fell in love with Francine the first time I saw her. She looked like an angel … acted like one too. This … this trouble we’ve had … it doesn’t change that. I … I can’t let it change that.”
Cor had surprised me and come to visit for a while at the cabin even though it wasn’t “our week.” He looked at me and then sighed. “You know I asked my mother one time why she loved my father. I wasn’t very old at the time but remember she’d cried most of the afternoon after one of his ‘lectures’ before riding off on one of his trips. She said you didn’t get to pick the people you fall in love with.”
Concerned and not real sure where his statement had come from or where it was going I told him, “Francine is not your father.”
He shook his head, “I realize that but she does use her emotions to get her way too often like he did; different methods but with the same goal in mind. It just wears you down. I couldn’t understand why my mother would stick around for my father doing that … I didn’t realize at the time that if she left we wouldn’t have any protection from him. Didn’t really understand what her leaving would mean period. I thought if she would just stand up to him … well, as you say it is water under the bridge but there is one other thing I do remember vividly. I remember Winnie and Mona visiting while he was off on one of his runs; one I wasn’t allowed to go on for some reason. They were talking to her about starting over or something along those lines – I wasn’t supposed to be around, I’d skipped out on my lessons down in the village – and Mother said that she had to guard her heart against temptation of the wrong sort, that my father needed her even if he didn’t know it and that she’d made a commitment that she would stay by him through thick and thin and that that was what she was going to do, that if she didn’t she wouldn’t have any self-respect left.”
“Cor? Are you saying you don’t think you are being a good husband? Because from where I stand you are … and you’ve had a lot more patience with some things than I would have had in your shoes.”
“Have I really been a good husband Fel? I’ve … I’ve failed in so many areas. I … there’s things … I … can’t talk about them. Feelings … I’ve had … have … I … And you … look at what position I’ve put you in.”
I reached over and put my hand on his arm. I could feel how stiff and bunched up the muscles were. “Cor, I’ll tell you the same thing my Da used to tell me when I couldn’t master a lesson right away … if you’re looking for perfection you’ll never find it. Not in others, not in yourself. All we can do is try the best we can to try and do it right as often as possible. Stop beating yourself up because you’ve figured out you’ve got a few flaws.” I snorted. “Look at me. Look what I’ve done in my life. I’m not sure I could look any of my family in the eyes. I killed men before I was anywhere near grown and have killed since then too; sure I’ve got reasons for it but that doesn’t change what I’ve done and that I’m answerable for it. Add to that I’ve got a mouth on me that would try the patience of a saint and get a little overly proud about it. I am so not perfect you would think I wouldn’t be able to stand myself. And there are days when I wonder how I can if you want to know the truth. But I’m not sure I would have done anything any different if given a second chance at it. All I can do is try to be better from any given moment forward. Trying to go back and change the past is fruitless and stupid. Whatever you regret Cor, just try and not make the same mistake twice.”
He sighed and it was a deep, troubled sound. “Easier said than done when … when what I feel …” He stopped and sighed again then closed his eyes like he had a headache. “Fel, I have to go in a couple of days if I’m going to make that contract deal and to be honest I just can’t afford to miss it. Circumstances are such I need to make sure as few people as possible have any hold on me and the estate for any reason … especially the Lathrops. There are two scenarios that I’m worried about. First is that the Lathrops are so desperate they’d sell my debt to someone else and that would live me in unknown territory. The second is getting crops in the ground, coming close to harvest, and then having the Lathrops or some other estate call in a loan and if I can’t pay it they’ll demand land instead … and it would be the land that held the ripe grains or the orchards or something. The Captain and I have worked out who would be the most likely to pull such a stunt and I think I can come back with enough coin to pay off those debts with this spring barter run, but I’ve got to act fast. Francine doesn’t know it but I’m going to try and get part of the remaining debt written off in exchange for the rice I’m taking over there. I won’t gouge them with the price, won’t event charge them for all of the rice, but if they are in as bad a shape as is rumored, I might be able to get some benefit from it.”
I shook my head. “Is that what has you all upset? I wish you wouldn’t let it. Some of that is good business and some of it is just good sense. They had you in thumb screws, all you are trying to do is get out of ‘em and prevent worse from happening.”
He looked at me and some of the trouble had cleared from his face. “Yeah, that’s some of it. The rest I’ll just have to deal with on my own. But … but I’ve got something to ask of you and … and I … I don’t know if I’ve got the right to.”
The look on his face bothered me for some reason. “How are we going to know if you don’t ask?”
He turned to stare into the fire. “I … I always had in my mind that once Francine got pregnant I’d be able to offer you some kind of … of freedom from … from this mess we are in.” He chuckled cynically and shook his head. “Now I find out that … that I … I need you to stay Fel. I need you to. Jonah relies on you. The other people on the estate rely on you. They love their Miss Francie and they respect Uncle Rob and Winnie … but it is you they … they turn to. Even when I’m here they pull you into things, value your opinion or just want to have you involved because it seems to make them feel better, like someone is listening to them in a way no one else does. As much as I would like to free you from this mess if I do … I … I … Fel … I’m … I’m sorry … I …”
He was really broken up. I mean I could see the battle writ all over him, not just his face. “Cor I told you already, you really need to stop beating yourself up. I sometimes wonder if I’m needed around here … especially now that Francine is gonna have your baby and there will be the heir everyone has been waiting on. I do wonder what my place is going to be after a while. Like I told you before, most of the time I’m at peace with it but sometimes I’m not. But if you need me … if you aren’t just saying it because you think it is something you have to say … then I can live with most of the time.”
Still troubled Cor asked, “Are you sure Fel? Because trust me if you can, you are needed. I … I need someone I can trust when I’m not around. I need someone that I know will not only speak for me but … but will do the right thing for the people … who will think of them in a way … uhh … others might not.”
I think it is the closest he could bring himself to admit out loud that Francine couldn’t now … and may never be able to … be a part of the estate like was needed.
I nodded, “Just remember, working for you doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with you all the time. So don’t blame me if we go logger heads at it sometimes. We’re both hard headed and fond of having our own way.”
That got a real chuckle out of him. “True. And look, I hate to add to it to make it even harder but … but you keep an eye on Francine. She … she doesn’t seem able to … I don’t know what to call it.”
He didn’t stay long after that. He opened the door and left and most of the warmth seemed to get sucked out of the room and I was left shivering and alone with my thoughts once more. And now I had even more things to think about.