The Captain said, “There are things you have no choice about Fel. But you can choose whether you regard this place as a prison or whether you use it as an opportunity. Authority in and of itself cannot bring happiness, but satisfaction in a job well done can regardless of the authority you wield. I do not wish to see Cor unhappy. Nor do I want that state for you. I cannot force either one of you to deal with the other in anything beyond necessity. But perhaps … perhaps … a … friendship of sorts can develop. Neither one of you had a choice in this marriage contract, but you do have a choice on the shape it takes as time goes by.”
Easy enough for him to say.
“No promises Captain. But I will say I lost my family to a feud that we did not pick; it is not my intention to start one myself.”
He sighed. “And I suppose that admission is more than I have any right to expect so early in the game.”
Game? This is no game, it is my life. And with that thought I knew that I had to let it go for a while or risk upsetting the whole apple cart by expressing just how angry I really was. I shook myself and said, “Well, with this Mary gone for who knows how long, and Winnie as well … should I hunt up Francine so that we can get started on some food? I’m not even sure who all that needs to be fed.”
The Captain rolled his eyes. “If you expect help from Francine you are sadly mistaken. She is useless in the kitchen. It is one of the reasons why Cor hasn’t wanted to take the time to find a replacement for Mary. Francine is good at entertaining guests when they are quartered at the fort, putting them in a good mood which makes it easier for Cor to get better deals … but anything else …”
Beginning to get irritated again – irritated but resigned – I asked, “Can you at least show me to the kitchen so I can see what there is to work with? And tell me who I should expect to be feeding?”
I would not repeat those first weeks for all the gold in the Headman’s teeth. I worked as hard as I ever had in my life. It was not the work, or its difficulty that bothered me however, but the feeling that the Headman or his ghost was laughing at me and in essence saying that the life I had had under his brutal rule was the only life I would ever have regardless of where I lived it.
I spent nearly a full week on the kitchen and pantries alone. The area could only have been considered clean if you looked at it from a blind man’s perspective. Grease caked the walls and in places even the ceiling. Every surface had a thin slimy layer of the stuff that was so hard to remove I knew it had been there for years. Even the stone floor was discolored by the stuff. I doubtless went through a year’s supply of soap and almost as many scrub brushes just trying to get the worse of the nastiness under control. At least I wasn’t having to do it all by myself.
There were two boys that had been set to fetch and carry for Mary and they had gotten too used to sneaking off or only doing their chores half way. That stopped after I told them if they expected to eat as well as I fed Jonah and the other men that they better expect to work as hard as the men did and then went on to prove my point by serving them gruel at several meals when they would get caught shirking. I wouldn’t starve them, couldn’t bear the idea of it after I had been there myself, but I had to draw the line or they would only ignore me more than they already did at that point.
After the kitchen came the kitchen gardens. Lucky for me Jonah said to just tell him what I wanted done and it would get done. “Jonah, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t want anyone to think I believe myself too good to work. My Da didn’t raise me like that and would have tanned my hide had I ever even thought it.”
Jonah was a cranky cuss but for some reason he had decided he liked me. “Sure Gilly, but your Da’s no here. You be Young Cor’s wife for all he ain’t bedded ya yet. Yer’s to say what’s done and I’s to do the doing. That be the order of things around here.”
The order of things. Jonah was fond of the idea that there is an order to things and he let me know that it was high time things were once again orderly. “Thet’s been the problem Gilly. The order ‘as been gone. You be bringing the order back. It makes the estate perky. The hens be laying more. The stallions be studding more. The trees and fields be saying things to the planters they ain’t been sayin’ in years. Even that old hound be getting a little randy with that female pup what come around in heat and I just about be done give up on him for good. Mayhap when young Cor comes back you’ll get him good and randy for Missus Francie … or for yourself … and they’ll be Corman children on the estate again. A passle of them would be a good thought to think on.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh at Jonah’s words or not. I know he believed them, but really? The last thing I wanted to think on was a randy anything much less a randy man I’d never met, especially under the circumstances. I’d met enough randy men to know that it wasn’t necessarily what was under their hat they were thinking with and if what the Captain said was true Cor would need all his thinking skills to survive Francine’s people.
But finally even I could admit things were looking “perky,” or at least perkier than they had been. My Gran and Ma had been fierce about a clean home for Gramp and Da to come home to after a day at the forge. Some of my earliest memories are of my ol’ Gran teaching me the right way to sweep to keep the dust from swirling up and settling on everything and on the best way to wash a dish so that sickness didn’t grow in any cracks.
I started to take each room of the main house and turn them out one at a time. I started at the top in what Francine proudly told me were the nursery and rooms where the helpers slept. I surmised after questioning Winnie that helpers was just another name for servants. There hadn’t been any need for any of the rooms at the top of the house in over a decade and their decay showed.
Francine asked me, “Why do you bother? You shouldn’t waste energy cleaning areas that aren’t going to be used when there are so many other things to do.”
Ugh, like she would know. If she truly had as many sick headaches as she claimed she needed to see a healer immediately … or perhaps just go straight to the undertaker. I shook my head beginning to wonder if perhaps where some things were concerned she was as silly as she played at being. I told her, “All cleaning is useful and in this case it’s needful. Top to bottom instead of bottom to top keeps dirt from getting tracked back through clean areas. If you let mold and mildew get hold in one area it will only spread to others. Vermin hide in uncared for corners and then carry their pestilence across the whole house in the night when no one is looking.” Deciding it was time to push her a bit I told her, “Francine I’ll clean the whole house except for your room and … and Cor’s. That is your place and your responsibility alone.” Before she could start her usual pretty and helpless pout I turned to Winnie and said, “You pick up anything heavier than a fan and I’ll sic the Captain on you. I’ve got no desire to have my heart stop beating watching you go into another faint. I nearly swallowed my tongue last time.”
Winnie rolled her eyes and said, “You did not. I swear you were as calm as you please.”
“Well if you have no care for my feelings the least you could do is have a care for the poor Captain. I swear he’s still stained a bit green around the gills.”
The man in question gave a mock shudder but a look passed between us that he’d square off with Winnie if need be to keep her out from under my feet. She really did make me nervous when she went that awful grey color right before she took a dive to kiss the floor.
Somehow or other Jonah got wind of my plans and before I was finished with the top rooms several women had shown up to give me a hand. It wasn’t quite like having my sisters around as the women were several years older than me but it was still nicer than doing the work all alone. They were wooden at first but by the end the housework I think they at least didn’t think I was some kind of she-devil sent to make their lot in life worse. A few even seemed to approve of me; not all of them but more than one or two.
It was when I finished with the house that I ran into problems. I knew nothing of substance about barns or stables, wine cellars or smokehouses … at least not on the grand scale as they were on the estate. Our smokehouse had been an old barrel set over a smoky fire; our wine cellar the back of a closet where Gramp kept the bottle of mescal the occasional Mexi would trade for a set of new shoes for his horse. What hurt the worst was seeing the sad shape the blacksmith’s hut was in.
I stood there a moment before walking in then couldn’t stop myself from running my hands over the bellows and feeling like crying to see that mice had chewed holes in it. Rusty tools still hung on the wall from even rustier hooks. The anvil had somehow been tipped on its side. I knew there was no way I could do it but I still fell to my knees and tried to right it. It seemed to symbolize everything in my life and the tears began to fall.
“Oh Da, I’m all awash. There’s so much to do and no one to ask about it. The Captain admits he is no estate manager and the last few days he’s seemed so tense with couriers running letters all over the place. I dare not bother him. Winnie is no better and hides in her room and I don’t know what to do for her. Francine … we won’t even go there. Perhaps Jonah will know but I hate to look the fool in his eyes. Oh Da, why’d you have to go and die and leave me to this awful life? You made me stay in those bushes and I had to watch them evil men kill you … and I’m so alone and now I’ll always be. Why couldn’t you have taken me with you?”
I don’t know where it all came from. I hadn’t cried like that in a long, long time. I was just about determined to stop when something fell across my shoulders causing me to near jump out of my skin. I was up and putting my back to a wall and caught between grabbing for the small kitchen knife I had taken to carrying in my apron and brushing the tears from my eyes so I could see proper when a man spoke.
“I was prepared to hate you. Why did you have to go and make that impossible?”