Winnie led me downstairs and I went willingly enough. All I really wanted to do was escape. Escape to what I had no idea at this point but I knew I needed to do something … preferably something that would make whatever end there was for me useful to those I cared about, but end it must just so it would stop hurting.
In the kitchen Winnie made me sit down. Mrs. Wiley thrust a mug of something rich and warm into my hands but after one sip I nearly gagged and I tried to push it away.
Mrs. Wiley unceremoniously pushed it right back at me and said, “Yer’ll drink that and like it. Yer won’t be starving yerself on my watch.” When I turned stubbornly away she snorted and said, “Mistress or not, yers just about ter find yers is not ter old ter switch with a willow. Ain’t had no sleep. Ain’t had no food. Well ‘tis goner stop afore you leave my kitchen or I’ll know why.”
She started banging pots and pans as she slammed them on them on the stove top. I’d managed to rile her even more than Jonah and I hadn’t thought that possible.
Winnie placed her warm hand over my cold one. “Fel, he’ll be sorry he spoke as he did, even more so when he finds out the truth. He’s changed so since you’ve come; so rarely thoughtless in his words. He was just grieving and upset.”
“Why?” I asked in a monotone. “Why expect him to be sorry for something that is simply the truth. I was supposed to …”
In a voice heavy with exasperation Winnie said, “Enough. And I had better not hear another word about failure either.” I winced. Having both Mrs. Wiley and Winnie upset with me on top of everything else went beyond uncomfortable by a few miles.
Continuing more kindly she asked, “Do you think you’re the only one feeling guilty my Dear? How many of us missed the signs? I even more than you should have seen it. My own sister, Cor’s mother, became dependent on a pipe of Lobelia every evening towards the end of her life. Cor’s father was not very … kind … to her and she believed it was the only thing that made his attentions bearable though after Lee’s death I read entries in his journals that suggested that … well, never mind, they are both dead now and hopefully they’ve found peace together where they are even if they could not here on earth.” She shook the memories away and added, “Then there is the fact that Rob and I … we knew Francine’s mother … we should have seen the resemblance in their behaviors.”
I put my hand up to stop her. “Don’t make excuses. And … and don’t say those things about Francine. We don’t know if she is or isn’t like her mother. Right now she … she does have a problem but to say it is anything more than that … inherited instead of learned … It will hurt Cor that his wife …”
In a voice that held the promise of something I didn’t care to examine right then Winnie said, “You’re his wife too.”
I blanched as the lie stabbed me again and again. Instead I told her, “Not like Francine is his wife.”
She said a heartfelt, “Thank God.” I shuddered but she mistook it for a chill and insisted we move closer to the fire. I agreed simply to get her to a different subject but she wasn’t finished yet. “The opportunity will present itself Fel. I will never repeat the mistake of meddling in your life in such a way again and pray no one ever does it to Rachel or any other girl in Kipling forever more, but what happened cannot be undone and God forgive me, it may be Cor’s and the estate’s salvation.”
“Winnie,” I whispered fiercely looking around to see if anyone heard. “Don’t say such things. Do you even know what you are saying?”
She looked at me calmly and answered, “I don’t expect it to happen overnight nor am I saying that Francine should be boarded up in the attic some place like Rochester’s wife. But you should think about it, think what this could mean to everyone.”
I shook my head denying the future she was trying to map out for me. It felt even more repugnant than the one that had originally been meant. “I will not … usurp … Francine’s place at Cor’s side. I never agreed to that. He and I have spoken about it. No … no … I …”
A cat footed Lollie entered the kitchen startling everyone and said, “Might not have any choice in it Mistress Fel.” To Mrs. Wiley she said, “The Mister will be down shortly for Jonah to take him to the ice house. He wants to see with his own eyes.”
Mrs. Wiley paled but nodded and sent a boy to bring Jonah to the back porch. I shook my head, “Surely there is no need for him to put himself through that. I understand there will need to be a burying but … but the babe would be so small so …”
Winnie spoke quietly. “It isn’t that Fel. I believe what Lollie means is that Cor has to see the proof of what Francine has done.”
“She’s lost the babe … there’s no need …”
It was Lollie who spoke the bitter truth. “It won’t be pretty to look upon, I agree. The babe’s been dead at least a few days afore Francine’s pains come on. But it’s more than death. Seven months and the babe would have been small but should have still been built like a babe should be at birth. But truth be told, even had the babe been born ter term and alive it would have suffered. The babe be withered on one side from head to toe and it ain’t from womb death. I’m not even sure if that little one ever could have ever been strong enough to have drawn breath in this world.”
I moaned and put my head in my hands. I felt silent tears, tears that shouldn’t have been there. I had no business crying … but they wouldn’t stop no matter how many I wiped away. I was so involved with my own pain I mistook his footsteps for Jonah’s. His hand came down on my shoulder and I turned to tell Jonah to leave me alone only to realize it was Cor.
The shock of it was too much. The pain in his face was too much. I jumped up and backed away trying to wash away the tears with my hand. He opened his mouth to speak but, cowardly or not, I ran.
I don’t remember where I ran but I awoke in the orchard with the Captain’s great coat draped over me and him sitting against a nearby tree. I jumped awake and realized it was past noon. He must have thought I was going to run again because he said, “Don’t Fel, I’m too stiff after yesterday to track you down again. You’ve given Winnie and everyone a good fright though I think we all understand. Here,” he said tossing a slab of pemmican at me. “Eat this or Mrs. Wiley will be the one to finish what that Outlander started and I’d look awful strange to my daughter with an extra smile where one didn’t belong.”
I gave him a look wondering if he had cracked during the night. He gave me a small, sad smile. “I owe you an apology Fel. I must be getting old … or idealistic which will get me just as dead. My only excuse is that I’ve always tried to keep the two parts of myself separate. I never had to concern myself with what would Winnie think of me as I always left my less civilized self on the other side of the border. I can no longer afford to do so … and I worried needlessly anyway. Winnie took me quite to task and reminded me that she knew who and what I was when we married and she expected me to do whatever it took to stay alive to help her raise our daughter.”
Munching on the pemmican so that I would not have to have a peel rung over my head by anyone else, least of all Mrs. Wiley who had a great talent for that sort of thing, I told the Captain, “Winnie has always had good sense.”
The Captain nodded and said, “Yes … yes she has much to my blessing.” He sighed and asked, “Now as for you, you seem to have lost all sense. Running off in the dark like that, not eating … I found you passed out under this very tree and if you hadn’t been fiercely wrapped around that Green River of yours and brandishing it in your sleep I might have simply hauled you back to your bed and tossed you there for being a brat. Would you mind explaining exactly why you ran the way you did?”
I didn’t want to but felt I owed it to him. Reluctantly I told him, “I couldn’t stand to see the pain Cor is in. I failed … No Captain … Winnie and everyone else can try and say it is something else but it’s not. I failed. I did not complete my mission. A babe is dead and a lot of people are hurting because I didn’t see what I should have. And the estate, the people on the estate … I don’t know if they are in danger again, if that flaming Council will try something else next. Or the Lathrops … what will they do when they get word of what has happened? All because my eyes didn’t catch the signs that seem so obvious in hindsight.”
Calmly he asked, “And … Cor’s words aren’t the reason? You aren’t … pouting?”
I growled, “I deserve every horrible thing he has to think of me.” I jumped to my feet and tried to walk away but the Captain wasn’t nearly as old or as frail has he tried to pretend because he was right there with a panther’s grace.
“Fel … there is no shame in the fact that Cor’s words hurt but I tell you, whether you are ready to believe it or no, the memory of his words are hurting him much worse. Do not turn on him, he needs you now more than ever.”
I shook my head not wanting to believe what he was saying. “He can’t. You don’t understand.”
“No, not fully. And I’ll not go delving into yours … or Cor’s … business over this. What I will add is that it is not just Cor that needs you. The estate – the people – they are confused and frightened. The attack was bad enough, it has made them feel vulnerable in a way most haven’t in at least a generation. But this business with Francine, it is threatening their future.”
His words reached me in a way no other plea would have. I sighed quietly and asked, “What do they need of me?”
He patted my shoulder. “For now, just come back. Try and project some stability.” When he saw the face I made he said, “I know. I hated the fakery of it when I was managing the estate after Lee died and before everyone realized just how bad things were. But projecting confidence eventually helps you to find confidence just like using patience teaches you to have more patience. In this instance it is even truer. We cannot expect our people to fight a foe when they are too busy fighting their own fears. Fear is a mind killer Fel and if the enemy senses it, they’ll be on us like a dog pack.”
Now that I could understand, and even though my heart was breaking I knew I had a score to settle with the Outland raider that had stolen my Topher from me. And even if I never got him back I was going to make sure that the enemy was paid for every bit of pain they had inflicted a full seven score times over.