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Chapter One: 1849
"Abel Wright intends to purchase his wife's freedom before the month is out," Dorothea's father said to Uncle Jacob.
"At long last," Dorothea's mother declared. "If Abel has raised the money he must do it quickly, before her owner can change his mind again. You will go with him, of course?"
Robert Granger nodded. They had spoken of this occasion often and had agreed that Robert ought to accompany Mr. Wright south to Virginia, both to share the work of driving the horses and to discourage unscrupulous interlopers. The abolitionist newspapers told of proslavery men who became so incensed at the sight of a newly freed slave that they would seize him and sell him back into slavery. Not even Mr. Wright was safe from their ilk, for all that he had never been a slave. If anything, enslaving him would bring them even greater pleasure.
Uncle Jacob's face bore the grim expression that Dorothea likened to a block of limestone. "You can't think of leaving in the middle of harvest."
"Abel needs to leave at sunup," Robert explained apologetically, as if humility would protect him from Uncle Jacob's wrath.
"Surely he can wait a few weeks until the crops are in."
"He said he can't. He'll go alone rather than wait for me."
"Then let him go alone," glowered Uncle Jacob. "Hasn't he done so often enough to sell that cheese of his?"
"This time is different," said Robert. "He will be exchanging a considerable amount of money for the person of his wife."
"Wright raises goats. He likely has more goats than corn on his place. He can afford to leave his farm during the harvest. We can't."
Dorothea waited for her uncle to announce yet another visit to his lawyer. The implication was, of course, that he intended to change his will, and not in favor of his only living relatives. Dorothea waited, but Uncle Jacob said nothing more until mealtime gave way to evening chores. As they cleared the table, Dorothea's mother remarked that Uncle Jacob had not expressly forbidden Robert to go, which in his case was almost the same as giving his blessing.
"According to that logic," Dorothea replied, "if I tell my pupils not to put a bent pin on my chair, what I really mean is that I would prefer a nail."
"Your pupils have far too much affection for you to do either," said Lorena, deliberately missing the point. They both knew she was putting her brother's obvious disapproval in a better light than it deserved. Dorothea knew her uncle would have expressly forbidden the journey for anyone but Abel Wright. Uncle Jacob had no friends, but he respected Mr. Wright for his independence, thrift, and industriousness, qualities he would have admired in himself if doing so would not have occasioned the sin of vanity.
Uncle Jacob had never declared whether he was for or against slavery, at least not in Dorothea's presence. According to Lorena, Uncle Jacob's long-deceased wife had been a Quaker and a passionate abolitionist, but he never spoke of her and Dorothea had no idea whether he shared her views. Still, she suspected her uncle's objections to the journey had nothing to do with his moral position on the subject of slavery and everything to do with the pragmatics of farming. Despite Mr. Wright's reasonable urgency to free his wife from bondage, Uncle Jacob likely could not comprehend how a sensible farmer could take off on any errand when the most important work of the year needed to be done. Of course, Uncle Jacob knew all too well that his sister's husband was not a sensible farmer. If he had been, Uncle Jacob would not have been obligated by the ties of family and Christian charity to take in his sister's family after they lost their own farm.
Later that night, Dorothea asked her father if she might accompany them, but her father said this particular errand was too dangerous for a girl of nineteen.
"But Mr. Wright has made the trip so many times," protested Dorothea.
"You are needed at home," said Uncle Jacob. "Already I will have to hire hands to make up for your father's absence. I will not hire kitchen help, too."
Even without Lorena's look of warning, Dorothea knew better than to protest. Her uncle had not even looked up from his Bible as he spoke, but any interruption of his nightly devotion was unusual enough to reveal the strength of his feeling on the subject.
Robert left for the Wright farm as soon as the sky had lightened enough for safe travel. Though the sun had not yet risen, Uncle Jacob was already at work in the barn, but he did not break away from his chores to wish his brother-in-law a safe journey. Lorena had packed the horse's rucksacks with so much food that they strained at the seams, and Robert thanked his wife for providing enough to eat for a month of sightseeing. Mother and daughter smiled at his joke, for they knew he intended to make the journey as swiftly as possible. They kissed him and made him promise to take care, then followed him down to the Creek's Crossing road, where they stood and watched until horse and rider disappeared into the cool, graying mists that clung to the hills south of the farm.
When they could no longer see him, Lorena glared at the barn and said, "See how little he cares for us. He might never see my husband again, and yet he cannot even stir from the barn to bid him farewell."
Dorothea's heart quaked at her mother's ominous words, but said, "Likely Uncle Jacob knows how little we care for him and feels no need to make any pretense of fondness. Likely, too, he knows Father will certainly return."
Immediately Lorena was all reassurance. "Of course, my dear. Of course your father will return. Perhaps earlier than we expect him. Mr. Wright will not want to linger in the hostile South." She frowned at the barn. "If I would not miss him so, I would ask your father to take his time just to spite your uncle."
Dorothea smiled, knowing her mother would never wish for anything that would part her from her husband. Dorothea knew, too, that her mother often spoke wistfully of small acts of disobedience none of them dared commit. They were beholden to Uncle Jacob and must not commit any transgression that might tempt him to send them away. Uncle Jacob had no wife and no children, and therefore, no heir save his nephew, Dorothea's younger brother. If they served Uncle Jacob well and bided their time, one day Uncle Jacob's 120 acres, house, and worldly goods would belong to Jonathan.
For five years her parents had clung to these hopes with almost as much fervor as they pursued the abolition of slavery. They rarely seemed troubled by the doubts that plagued Dorothea. Uncle Jacob might marry again. He was older than her mother but even older men had taken young brides, although Dorothea could name no young woman of Creek's Crossing whose prospects were so poor she should settle on a stern, gray-haired, humorless man who had ample property but eschewed anything that hinted of romance. If he had once had a heart, he had buried it in the maple grove with his young bride and twin sons long before Dorothea was born.
Sometimes Dorothea suspected her parents were not entirely certain Jonathan would succeed in inheriting his uncle's farm. From an early age they had fostered his interest in medicine, and for the past two years he had served as an apprentice to an old family friend, a physician in far-off Baltimore. Jonathan had learned enough about farming to earn Uncle Jacob's grudging acceptance during his infrequent visits home, but he made no overt attempts to win his potential benefactor's affection. Dorothea wondered if his assured success in the vocation of his choosing had made him indifferent to the inheritance the rest of his family relied upon.
Either way, Jonathan surely would have been permitted to accompany their father and Mr. Wright south to Virginia. Though he was three years younger than Dorothea, he was a boy. Dorothea felt herself restricted and confined every minute she spent beneath Uncle Jacob's roof, even when he himself was not in the house. Her only moments of ease came as she walked to and from the schoolhouse on Third Street where she taught twenty youngsters reading, arithmetic, natural sciences, and history. When she felt the wind against her face as she crossed Elm Creek on the ferry, she feared that this was as close as she would ever come to knowing the freedom Jonathan took for granted.
At noon, Uncle Jacob and the hired hands came inside to eat. There was little conversation as Dorothea and her mother served; the men, whom Dorothea knew to be lively enough in other company, were uncomfortably subdued under Uncle Jacob's critical eye. It was well known in Creek's Crossing that he had once fired a man for taking the Lord's name in vain when a horse kicked him, breaking his jaw. Dorothea did not care for rough language, either, but even she could concede the injured man had had cause.
The men had seconds and thirds, clearing the platters of corn, baked squash, and shoofly pie as quickly as Dorothea and her mother could place them on the table. The other men quietly praised Lorena's cooking, but Uncle Jacob did not address her until after he finished his meal, and only to state that Robert's absence had hurt them badly. As they did every year, the Creek's Crossing Agricultural Society had arranged for a team from Harrisburg to bring a horse-powered thresher into the Elm Creek Valley. Every farmer of sufficient means paid for a share of days with the machine, and Uncle Jacob's turn was fast approaching. Robert had left before the oats and wheat could be cut and stacked, and if Uncle Jacob did not finish in time, the threshers could not wait for him. He had no choice but to go into Creek's Crossing and hire more men.
Dorothea and her mother exchanged a hopeful look. "May we accompany you?" Lorena asked. "Dorothea and I have many errands we were saving for a ride into town."
"I have no time to waste on your errands," said Uncle Jacob, pushing back his chair, "and your time is better spent on your chores."
The hired men recognized the signal to leave and bolted the rest of their food. One man quickly pocketed the heel of the bread loaf, while another hastily downed a generous slice of pie in two bites.
"What errands?" asked Dorothea as the men returned to the fields.
"I would have invented some for the chance to go into Creek's Crossing." Lorena sighed and began fixing a plate for herself, motioning for her daughter to do the same. "It has been three weeks. We might as well live a hundred miles from the nearest village."
"If Uncle Jacob goes on horseback, we could take the wagon."
Lorena shook her head. "Chances are we would run into him in town if not on the ferry. Even if we managed to avoid him, he would discover our incomplete chores upon his return."
"No two mere mortal women could finish all he has assigned us." Briskly Dorothea scraped the remnants of her uncle's meal into the slop bucket for the pigs. "He cannot be satisfied. He knows you and Father are merely waiting for him to die so that Jonathan may have the farm, and he is determined to thwart our every attempt at happiness until then."
"Dorothea." Lorena laid her hand on her daughter's arm. "Clearing can wait. Eat something. We have a long day yet ahead of us."
Rather than argue, Dorothea complied, although the ravenous men had left little for the women to share. She resented her uncle for his power over them, but her parents' morbid anticipation shamed her. She remembered a time when they would not have been content to live at the whim of another. Perhaps they had been too idealistic in those days, but at least they had insisted upon setting the course of their own lives.
Dorothea and her mother could not have stolen into town in the wagon after all, because Uncle Jacob took it. Three hours after his departure, Dorothea heard the wagon coming up the road. She stopped scattering chicken feed and straightened, shading her eyes with one hand. What she saw made her want to duck behind the hen house and hide.
Her mother had also paused at the sound of the wagon. "It couldn't be," said her mother, with a soft moan of dismay. "Not Amos Liggett."
"I wish it were anyone else." Dorothea watched as the wagon brought the gangly, round-shouldered man closer. His red face was beaming with jovial pride behind greasy, unkempt whiskers. Uncle Jacob drove the horses stoically, apparently oblivious to his companion's chatter. "I can almost smell the liquor on him from here."
"Dorothea," her mother said reprovingly.
"You don't like him any more than I do." For that matter, Uncle Jacob despised him. Every winter Mr. Liggett asked Uncle Jacob to exchange work with him at sugaring time, a request Uncle Jacob always refused. "I don't want that blasted fool to set one foot inside my sugar camp," he had grumbled the previous winter, after Mr. Liggett had cornered him in church before Christmas services to plead his case yet again. "He's more likely to overturn the kettle and tap an oak than to give me a penny's worth of real help." There must have been no one else in all of Creek's Crossing to hire, or her uncle never would have brought Amos Liggett home.
Mr. Liggett offered the women a gap-toothed grin as the wagon rumbled past. Dorothea and her mother nodded politely, but quickly averted their eyes. "Stay clear of him," her mother cautioned, as if Dorothea needed the warning.
Mr. Liggett had brought his own scythe, an implement Dorothea surmised must be as sharp as the day he purchased it, given his inattention to his own fields. Uncle Jacob put him to work cutting oats with the others. Throughout the afternoon, as Dorothea passed from the garden to the kitchen where she and her mother were pickling cabbage and beets, she glimpsed him at work, swinging his blade with awkward eagerness, with none of the practiced, muscular grace of the other men. More often than not, he was at rest, his scythe nowhere to be seen, probably lying on the ground. The blade would not keep its shine for long.
At sundown, the men washed at the pump and trooped wearily inside for supper, smelling of sweat and grass and fatigue. Uncle Jacob offered Mr. Liggett the loan of a horse so that he might return to his own home for the night -- an uncharacteristic display of trust and generosity that astonished the women -- but Mr. Liggett declined, saying he would spend the night in the hayloft quarters with the others. Then he said, "Before we retire, I surely would like to get a look at that sugar camp of yours."
Uncle Jacob frowned. "For what reason?"
"Because everyone knows you make the best maple sugar in the county." Mr. Liggett let out a cackle. "And you never let anyone near your sugar camp. I know folks who'd pay good money to know your secret."
"I have no sugar-making secrets to share," replied Uncle Jacob.
Mr. Liggett chuckled and waited for him to continue, but when Uncle Jacob said nothing, his grin faded. He had thought Uncle Jacob spoke in jest, which, of course, he never did. Dorothea doubted Mr. Liggett had noted her uncle's careful choice of words. He did indeed have sugar-making secrets, but he had no intention of sharing them with Mr. Liggett.
"Perhaps you burn the syrup," suggested Lorena as she offered Mr. Liggett more mashed turnips. "It must be watched and stirred constantly or it will be ruined."
"I can't stand in front of a kettle all day," said Mr. Liggett, scowling. Then he brightened. "Say, Jacob, how about we trade work this winter? I'll help you with your sugaring, and you can help me."
"Thank you, but my family will provide all the help I need."
With that, Uncle Jacob excused himself and retired to the parlor. Mr. Liggett resumed eating, glancing hopefully at the doorway now and again as if expecting Uncle Jacob to appear and beckon him within. But Dorothea knew her uncle was by now well engrossed in his Bible, and he would not have invited Mr. Liggett to join him in the house's best room in any event.
At breakfast, Mr. Liggett spoke to the merits of various woods for producing steady flame, as well as the skill of local blacksmiths in producing cast-iron kettles of size and durability. When his hints about visiting the sugar camp became too obvious to ignore, Uncle Jacob said that too much work remained for them to consider indulging in idleness.
Dorothea was relieved when the men left the breakfast table for the fields, and in the two days that followed, she learned to dread mealtimes. When Mr. Liggett was not querying her uncle he was grinning at her, casting his gaze up and down her person with shameless appreciation, as if his sour smell alone were not enough to turn her stomach. Lorena kept her out of his sight as much as she could and never left them alone together, but once he came upon her unaccompanied in the washhouse. He complimented her dress and had just asked if she might like to go riding some Sunday after he had his horse breeding business going when Uncle Jacob rounded the corner and fixed them with an icy glare. Mr. Liggett muttered excuses and slunk away, while Dorothea stood rooted to the spot until her uncle ordered her back to the house. She left the laundry in the washtub and obeyed, shaking with anger, her cheeks ablaze as if she had earned the accusation in her uncle's eyes. She wished her father would hurry home so that Mr. Liggett would no longer be needed.
Her father had been gone one week on the morning Mr. Liggett did not come to breakfast. Uncle Jacob ordered one of the hired hands back to the barn to rouse him from his sleep, only to learn that Mr. Liggett had been gone all night. "He left right after sundown," the hired man said. "He told us he desired to slake his thirst."
"Perhaps he fell into the well," said Lorena. Uncle Jacob sent a man to check, but when he found no sign of any mishap, Uncle Jacob told Lorena to serve the meal. His expression grew more stern as they ate in silence, listening for Mr. Liggett's approach.
He did not come. The other men went to the fields to cut the last two acres of wheat, looking to the sky as a low rumble of thunder sounded in the far distance. There were few clouds overhead, but the air was heavy and damp, and Dorothea knew they must hasten before rain pelted the heavy shafts of ripe wheat, dashing the grains to the earth, ruining the crop.
She was gathering carrots in the garden when Mr. Liggett returned, shuffling his feet in the dirt on his way to the barn. "Pray tell, Miss," he addressed her, with slurred, exaggerated formality. "Where might I find the master of this establishment?"
"My uncle is cutting wheat with the others."
He made a mocking bow and headed for the fields. Dorothea watched him as she worked. When Mr. Liggett reached the men, Uncle Jacob rested on his scythe, mopped his brow, and said something low and abrupt to the latecomer before raising his scythe again. Mr. Liggett took his hat from his head and fidgeted as he tried to explain, but Uncle Jacob did not appear to respond. After a moment, Mr. Liggett slammed his hat back on his head and hurried to the barn for his scythe, muttering angrily to himself. Dorothea had never seen him move so quickly, though he stumbled and once nearly fell sprawling to the ground.
At midday, through the kitchen window, Dorothea overheard the hired hands talking as they washed up at the pump. "Have to run home to care for your livestock, Liggett?"
Dorothea recognized the teasing drawl of the youngest of the men, a former classmate named Charley Stokey.
"Never you mind," snapped Mr. Liggett as the other men guffawed. It was well known that Mr. Liggett owned only one scrawny mare and a few chickens, for all that he boasted of one day raising prize racehorses.
"No, he was tending to his vast acreage," said another, evoking more laughter. Mr. Liggett was forever bragging about the improvements he planned for his farm, though he rarely would lay hand to plow or hammer. Though he owned forty of the valley's finest acres, he had let all but a few run wild.
"I know more about running a farm than you fools ever will," said Mr. Liggett. "My people own one of the richest plantations in Georgia."
"Then why aren't you down there helping them tend it?" Charley inquired.
Another man answered before Mr. Liggett could. "His people don't care for him any more than anyone else."
Over the laughter, Mr. Liggett said, "I'm telling you, it's one of the richest and the biggest. When I was a boy I could climb on my horse at sunup at the eastern edge of the plantation, ride west all day, and still be on my grandfather's property at sundown."
"I had a horse like that once," remarked Charley. "We named him Snail."
The men burst out laughing, and a moment later, Mr. Liggett swung open the kitchen door with a bang and stormed over to the table. "Are you going to feed us or let us starve?" he barked at Lorena.
She regarded him evenly. "We're waiting for my brother. He will be in shortly."
Uncle Jacob had come in from the fields ahead of the others in order to work on his ledgers. He entered the kitchen just as Lorena finished speaking and took his seat at the head of the table with a stern look for Mr. Liggett. Mr. Liggett dropped his gaze and tore a chunk from the loaf of bread.
The men ate swiftly, mindful of the threatening rain. The wind had picked up; the low growls of thunder in the distance had grown louder and more frequent. Dorothea wondered where her father was and hoped he was well out of the storm's path.
Not long after Uncle Jacob and the men returned outside, Dorothea heard a furious shout from the direction of the wheat field, followed by a string of curses.
"What on earth?" gasped Lorena as she and Dorothea hurried outside. Two of the hired men were heading for the house supporting Charley between them, his face covered in blood. Behind them, Uncle Jacob stood before Mr. Liggett, palms raised in a calming gesture. Mr. Liggett quivered and tightened his grip on his scythe. The blade was stained red.
"Put it down, Liggett," commanded Uncle Jacob.
"I didn't mean to," shrilled Mr. Liggett as the women ran to help Charley. "He got in the way. He came up behind me."
Uncle Jacob again ordered him to put down his scythe, but whether he obeyed, Dorothea could no longer watch to see. Charley was moaning and scrubbing blood from his eyes as Lorena and Dorothea lowered him to the ground. Lorena tore off her apron and sopped up the blood. "I cannot tell where he was struck," she murmured to her daughter. "There is too much blood."
Dorothea, Charley's head resting on her lap, snatched off her own apron and dabbed at his face. Distantly, she heard the voices of Uncle Jacob and Mr. Liggett coming nearer. "Here," she said, pointing, as blood seeped from a long gash along Charley's hairline.
"Is it bad?" one of the men asked.
"It is not as bad as it could have been," said Lorena, a tremble in her voice as she pressed the cloth to the wound. Charley flinched, but Dorothea held him firmly. "Nor as bad as it seems. It is not deep, but cuts on the scalp bleed profusely. Dorothea, run inside and fetch my herbs and plasters."
Charley let out a yelp, and as Dorothea set him down gently and ran for the house, she heard one of the hired hands ask Lorena if they ought to give Charley a strong drink to ease the shock and the pain. He might not know that Uncle Jacob permitted no liquor on his farm.
"Squeeze Liggett, and you'll get a pint," the other hired man said darkly.
Dorothea returned minutes later in time to see Uncle Jacob, the bloody scythe in his hand, order Mr. Liggett off his property. "It's bad enough that you were too drunk to find your way back last night," said Uncle Jacob. "It's far worse that your drunkenness could have killed a man today."
He waved Mr. Liggett off, gesturing toward the road. When Mr. Liggett realized that Uncle Jacob meant for him to walk home, he said, "What about my scythe? And my pay?"
"I'll deliver your scythe to you tomorrow. As for your pay, consider it forfeit."
Mr. Liggett flushed. "But I worked six full days for you. You owe me for six days."
"You worked five and a half days. Bearing in mind what has happened here today, considering that the work is not finished, and that you have cost me Mr. Stokey's labor as well as your own, you are fortunate I am willing to let you go without calling in the law."
"I want what's owed me."
"I'll give him what's owed him," said Charley weakly, lying on the ground as Lorena threaded a needle beside him.
"You," jeered Mr. Liggett, but he took a step backward, then turned and broke into a trot.
"It was only a glancing blow," said Lorena when Mr. Liggett was out of earshot, with an inscrutable look for her brother, which turned into a glance to the sky as thunder pealed overhead. "Help me get him up. This is better finished inside."
The cloudburst soaked them before they could reach shelter indoors. As the furious rain battered the ground, Uncle Jacob glowered out the window in the direction of the wheat fields.
The threshers would not arrive for two more days, but they had done all they could. They had lost the last acre of wheat to the storm.
The next morning, Uncle Jacob paid the hired hands and agreed that Lorena could drive them back into town, and that Dorothea could assist her with her errands. When Lorena suggested they deliver Mr. Liggett's scythe to him, Uncle Jacob snorted and told them to spare the horse a few miles and leave it at the tavern. Dorothea had her doubts, but when Mr. Schultz readily agreed to hold the scythe for Mr. Liggett, she acknowledged that perhaps Mr. Liggett did indeed spend more time at the tavern than within the crude log walls of his cabin home.
Afterward, Lorena stopped the wagon in front of the general store, and as she shopped for coffee and sugar, Dorothea fingered the yard goods and thought wistfully of the dressmaker's shop across the street.
"Dorothea," a woman called from behind her. "Dorothea, dear, did you hear the news?"
Dorothea turned to her greeter, the mistress of the farm directly to the north of Uncle Jacob's property. One stout arm was linked with that of her young daughter, a beautiful dark-haired girl not yet fourteen years old. Their simple calico dresses belied the prosperity of their farm.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Claverton," said Dorothea, and smiled at the girl. "Hello, Charlotte."
Charlotte returned her greeting softly, smiling but with eyes cast down shyly.
"Did you hear the news, dear?" repeated Mrs. Claverton eagerly. "Creek's Crossing has acquired a prominent new resident."
"Yes, I know," said Dorothea. "My father is traveling with Mr. Wright to bring her home."
"What?" For a moment confusion clouded Mrs. Claverton's face. "No, no, dear. Good heavens. Not the Wright girl. Mr. Nelson. The young Mr. Nelson is coming to take possession of Two Bears Farm."
"I had no idea the Carters intended to leave." They had been the Nelson family's tenants so long that few people in town remembered the farm's true owners. Dorothea herself had never met them.
"As I hear it, they had no such intentions." Mrs. Claverton lowered her voice in confidence. "The young Mr. Nelson forced them out."
"Forced them?" Dorothea echoed. "He sounds very unlike his father. The Carters always referred to him as a generous man."
"He was. And still would be, I suspect, if his son had not driven him to such ends."
Intrigued, Dorothea glanced at her mother, safely out of earshot on the other side of the store. Lorena disapproved of gossip. "What ends? This sounds dire."
"By all accounts Thomas Nelson did not inherit his father's strength of character. I have it on very good authority that he comes to Creek's Crossing almost directly by way of prison."
"Prison," exclaimed Dorothea.
Mrs. Claverton shushed her and lowered her voice to a whisper. "He says that he has been suffering ill health, and that his father sent him out here to manage Two Bears Farm while regaining his strength in our milder climate. What he does not say is that the depravities of prison caused his illness, and that his father banished him here, where his shame is unknown."
"It will not be unknown for long," said Dorothea, amused.
"I don't doubt it, although if he wanted to avoid being the subject of gossip, he should have lived more virtuously. Unfortunately, many members of society will welcome him for his father's sake, regardless of his past, and we can hardly shun him after that." She shook her head. "I confess I have some misgivings about exposing my daughter to such an influence, but as he will be charged with the education of our youth -- "
"Mama," warned Charlotte, too late.
"Oh, my dear," said Mrs. Claverton, dismayed. "I certainly did not mean for you to find out this way. The school board has written you a letter."
"Mr. Nelson is to be the new schoolmaster?"
Mrs. Claverton nodded. "After all, his father did donate the land and the funds to build the school. When he wrote to request a position for his son, well, the school board couldn't refuse him, could they?"
"Apparently they could not, since it would seem the decision has already been made."
"Now, Dorothea." Mrs. Claverton patted her hand. "Don't be angry. You do remember you were hired as the interim schoolteacher only. You may have been the brightest pupil in the Creek's Crossing school, but before his more recent troubles, Mr. Nelson attended university."
"Did he? Then if he is a felon, at least he is an educated felon."
"Mr. Nelson's minister assures us he has repented his crimes and that he has been entirely rehabilitated," said Mrs. Claverton. "If we withhold from him the opportunity to contribute to society, he may never be able to atone for his misdeeds. You are a properly brought-up girl; you shouldn't need me to remind you of these things. You must drive your poor mother to distraction. You should look beyond your own apparent misfortune and find the opportunity."
"I completed the Creek's Crossing school years ago," Dorothea reminded her. "Even if Mr. Nelson were qualified to teach at a secondary academy, I cannot imagine what education I should care to receive from him."
"I was not speaking of your education. Did I mention that Mr. Nelson is unmarried?"
Dorothea could not help laughing. "Mrs. Claverton, did you not just inform me that Mr. Nelson is a former convict?"
"But a repentant one from a good family," she retorted. "And, I might remind you, he is an educated man with a prosperous farm. Why, if my Charlotte was not already promised to your brother, I might consider Mr. Nelson for her."
The girl started, setting her two ribbon-tied braids swinging down her back.
"She didn't mean it," Dorothea assured Charlotte.
"No, indeed, I did not." Mrs. Claverton gave her daughter a quick hug. "Well. It is plain to see young Mr. Nelson has already upset us. I cannot imagine what will happen when we are finally forced to meet him."
On the way home, Dorothea told her mother about the arrival of Mr. Nelson only to discover that she already knew. She had learned from the shopkeeper, who was also the mayor, that there would be a party in Mr. Nelson's honor on Sunday afternoon at the home of the school board president.
Dorothea wondered if the shopkeeper had mentioned the rumors circling the guest of honor. "I would rather not attend."
Mother regarded her, eyebrows raised. "You would prefer to stay home with your Uncle Jacob?"
Dorothea said nothing.
"It is a pity you lost your position so close to the start of the new term, and after you spent all summer preparing your lessons," said her mother. "But you mustn't sulk. You did a fine job and will receive a good reference from the school board. You will find something else."
"Perhaps it is Mr. Nelson who ought to find something else."
Her mother said nothing, the silence broken only by the sound of the horse's hooves striking the hard-packed dirt road. "Your father and I wish we could afford to further your education, but since we cannot, you must make the best of it. You need not set your heart on the women's academy in Philadelphia when you have a library full of books at home. Look to books and nature for your teachers. You shall learn more from them than in any classroom."
Dorothea nodded, although she did not entirely agree. She had read all of the books in her parents' modest library at least twice, even the dullest collection of essays. As for learning from nature, for most of her first twelve years she had explored the forest and fields of the Elm Creek Valley until she had learned them by heart. She knew every bend of Elm Creek, every type of tree that grew along its banks. A woman of Shawnee heritage who had lived at Thrift Farm for a time had taught her the lore of local herbs and roots. She knew which leaves to brew into a tea to ease the pain of toothache and where to scrape the bark of a tree for a poultice to reduce the inflammation of wounds. Jonathan had abandoned this knowledge as soon as he left to study real medicine, but it was all Dorothea had and she cherished it.
When Uncle Jacob declared that it was unseemly for a girl her age to wander about in the wilderness without an escort, her heart constricted in grief, but she resolved to learn as much as she could within the confines of her uncle's farm. Indeed, she did learn much from her uncle about the raising of crops and the husbandry of animals, but she mourned the loss of everything she would never learn. She tried not to envy her brother and told herself the people of Creek's Crossing were fortunate that books and nature alone were not considered adequate teachers for a future physician.
When she was the schoolteacher, Uncle Jacob had claimed half her wages, but Dorothea had saved every penny of what remained. Even that was not enough for one semester's tuition at the women's academy. Dorothea shook her head and told her mother, "If I do not have enough education to teach the pupils of Creek's Crossing, where people know me and have confidence in me, I cannot see how any other school would have me."
"Then you cannot see far enough."
Dorothea frowned at her quizzically, but her mother looked beyond her. "Look," she said, nodding to the pasture. "Father is home."
Dorothea heard the clanging of a cowbell and quickly spotted her father driving in the two Guernseys and the calf. He waved his hat and shouted something, but the breeze carried his voice away.
ard"He's home a day early," exclaimed Dorothea.
"Yes, and already your uncle has him working. We lingered in town longer than we should have if he has had time to begin your chores as well as his own." Dorothea's mother chirruped to the horse and shook the reins to quicken his pace. "Your uncle will be stomping around the fields like an old bear, wondering why I have not started his supper."
"If we hurry, perhaps he won't see us. He won't know when we arrived."
"Deception by an omission of the truth is as bad as a lie," her mother chided, but mildly. Dorothea was expected to speak respectfully of her elders, but her parents often made an exception for Uncle Jacob if no one but themselves were around to hear.
It was not for Uncle Jacob that her mother hurried to the barn, Dorothea knew. Her father met them there, and her parents greeted each other with a warm embrace and a discreet kiss Dorothea pretended not to observe. When her father removed his hat, she saw he was sunburned beneath his thinning blond hair. He was slender, although years of farm labor had added muscle to his frame, and he was scarcely as tall as his wife.
"Tell us about your trip, Father. Please," she remembered to add, hungry for news of the world beyond the valley. "Did Constance's master change his mind again? Did you have to elude slavecatchers?"
Father smiled, but his eyes showed the strain of hard travel and little sleep. "No, Dorothea. You would have found our journey dull. We reached Virginia, paid the plantation owner the ransom he demanded, and were on our way. It was all very civilized, like any business transaction." His voice was so mild no one but Dorothea and her mother would have detected his disgust. "Mrs. Wright carried all she possessed wrapped in one small quilt, so it took us only minutes to load the wagon. We left as soon as the horses were rested and stayed one night at the home of a sympathetic friend an hour's ride north."
"How is Mrs. Wright settling in?" asked Mother. "What a poor wedding party awaited the bride and groom. I wish we could have prepared a meal for them, but I was not certain when you would return."
"They're happy just to be north and home. They weren't expecting a party. On our way south, we pushed the horses as hard as we could without ruining them." He glanced at Mother and unhitched the horse. "We arrived a day earlier, but none too soon. A few days more..." He shrugged and led the horse away.
Mother turned toward the house and Dorothea fell in step beside her. "What did he mean, a few days more?" she asked.
Mother was silent for a moment, as if considering how much to say. "The last time Mr. Wright visited Constance, other slaves warned him of rumors that Constance's master wished to increase his number of slaves."
"He intends to buy more?"
"No," said her mother carefully as they entered the house through the kitchen door. "He does not mean to buy them."
A moment passed before Dorothea understood. "I see."
"The indignity of having his wife taken by another man -- that, Mr. Wright could bear. If Constance could endure it, he certainly could, and they have had to throughout the two years of their marriage. Her owner is a greedy, spiteful man. He only turned his attentions to Constance after she married Mr. Wright, to punish her for marrying and, I suppose, to punish Mr. Wright for being born free in the north. Mr. Wright had to obtain Constance's freedom before she became pregnant. Her owner would not have allowed her to leave until after her child was born and weaned, if he did not change his mind entirely. There was also no guarantee he would have parted with the child, or sold him to the Wrights rather than another slave owner."
"Even if the child had been Mr. Wright's?"
"Even then. And I'm sure I don't need to remind you never to mention this to the Wrights, or anyone else, for that matter. They have enough to bear without adding the embarrassment of gossip regarding how Mrs. Wright has been violated."
Dorothea nodded, her heart going out to the Wrights as she imagined what they had suffered, and the certain anguish they had narrowly escaped.
With Dorothea's help, her mother finished cooking supper with moments to spare. Dorothea was setting the table when they heard Uncle Jacob working the pump handle outside as he washed up for the meal. Dorothea did not look up at the sound of two heavy footsteps on the wooden floor, the sound of the kitchen door closing behind him, and a pause while he removed his boots. She greeted him in a murmur as he pulled back his chair and seated himself; he replied with a nod. Like his sister, Uncle Jacob was thin and tall, but where Lorena was dark he was gray-haired, down to the scruff of beard he shaved off every Saturday night. The hollows in his cheeks were a darker gray; they might have been dimples except he never smiled.
He had not always been so grim, Lorena had confided to Dorothea not long after they came to live with him. As a boy he had been proud and pious, but lighthearted. He had won the affection of the most beautiful girl in the valley and had been the envy of all his friends. His farm had prospered; his wife bore him two fine, strong sons. Then scarlet fever swept through Creek's Crossing. Uncle Jacob thought they would be safe, isolated on their farm, away from the contagion of the town, but his wife insisted on returning to nurse her stricken parents. She fell ill soon after her parents died, and against his better judgment, Uncle Jacob brought her home to care for her. Lorena offered to take the children to Thrift Farm, but Uncle Jacob thought the sight of her children would encourage his wife to fight off the illness.
Uncle Jacob did not tell his wife when her precious babies died, and to the end, he soothed her with lies about how they grew stronger every day, how they were playing outside or sleeping when she begged to see them. When she died, Uncle Jacob nearly went mad with grief. He would let no one into the house to attend to the bodies. He chased the minister off with his rifle. Only Lorena was permitted to enter, and he sat in his chair by the window, face buried in his hands, responding numbly when Lorena asked him what his wife and children should wear, where he would like them to be laid to rest. He picked a clearing in the maple grove and dug the graves alone, rebuffing Robert's offers of help.
After a time he regained himself and resumed the work of the farm. He rid the house of all relics of the woman and children he had loved. At first Lorena assumed he would marry again, but his heart had scarred over and would permit no more joy within it. He never again smiled, or laughed, or showed any sign that life was anything more than a burden to be endured. His Bible was his only consolation. The two decisions he had made with his heart rather than his head had cost him all that he held dear in this life, and he would not make that mistake again.
Outside the pump clanged and gushed as Dorothea's father raced through his washing. He joined them, breathless, just as Lorena began to place serving dishes on the table -- boiled turnips, sweet corn, stewed greens, bread from the previous day's baking. Uncle Jacob waited for them to be seated before leading them in prayer. Wordlessly, he served himself a heaping spoonful of turnips and passed the dish to Robert on his left, repeating with each of Lorena's dishes in turn. He spoke only to ask for butter for his bread; at a glance from her mother, Dorothea hurried to fetch it from the cool of the cellar.
By the time she returned, Uncle Jacob had sated his hunger enough to engage her father in a discussion about the crops. The threshers had sent a man over early that day to report that they would arrive the next morning, as scheduled. "We lost an acre of wheat because of you," said Uncle Jacob. "Why you could not have waited another week for your trip down South is beyond me. We'll need to work day and night to make up for the time you wasted."
"Except for Sunday afternoon," said Dorothea's mother. "There is a social in town to welcome Mr. Thomas Nelson, and we are expected."
"A social?" Uncle Jacob shook his head. "What fool planned a social for the middle of harvest?"
"The mayor, I believe. And the school board."
"What nonsense. No one will attend, not at this time of year. Likely not even Thomas Nelson would care to interrupt his harvest chores for a silly party. If we want to be good neighbors, we should leave him in peace to finish his work."
"We must have some representative of the family present," said Robert. "Dorothea, at least, ought to meet with Mr. Nelson, as he is to take over as schoolmaster."
Uncle Jacob looked Dorothea squarely in the eye. "You said nothing of being replaced."
"I learned of it only today."
"Your wages will be sorely missed." Uncle Jacob took a bite of greens and chewed slowly, thinking. "Very well. Dorothea must go, and since she cannot go unescorted, you two must accompany her. Fortunately, I see nothing requiring my presence." He regarded Dorothea again. "Do you think you can be gracious to this man who is taking your situation when he likely has no real need of it?"
Surprised, Dorothea said, "I believe I can manage to be civil."
"Then it's settled. I'm sure you won't do anything to shame this family." Uncle Jacob wiped his lips, set his fork and knife neatly on the edge of his plate, and pushed back his chair. "You worked hard as you always do, Dorothea, but they made their choice and it can't be helped. Robert, join me in the barn when you're through."
With that, he left.
As soon as the kitchen door swung shut behind him, Robert quietly said, "If I didn't know better, I'd say that was an expression of sympathy."
"He regrets only the loss of her wages." Lorena began clearing the table. Dorothea quickly shook off her astonishment and rose to help.
Two days later, Dorothea put on her best dress and rode with her parents to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hiram Engle. None of the Grangers had called upon the couple since their marriage six months before, a slight somewhat excused by the fact that they had not been invited. Mr. Engle owned the livery stable and the only hotel in town. Until the former Mrs. Violet Pearson had ensnared his affection a year after her first husband died, Mr. Engle's prosperity had rendered him a highly desirable bachelor despite his facial tic and ample waistline. Uncle Jacob spoke approvingly of Mr. Engle's business acumen, but Dorothea's parents did not care for his politics and avoided spending too much time in his company.
Mr. Engle had offered his livery stable for guests traveling from outlying farms, and from there it was a short walk from the riverfront to the more fashionable street in the center of town. It was not the oldest block; the more modest, wood-frame buildings along Elm Creek were the first to be built when the village that became Creek's Crossing was settled, but as their owners prospered, they moved their families to more spacious limestone dwellings farther away.
The Engles had hired several servants and a quartet of musicians for the occasion, and as one servant took their wraps, Dorothea glanced through an open doorway and saw that what was presumably the parlor had been all but emptied of furniture to make room for dancing. Several couples danced merrily to a popular schottische, but when Dorothea's father headed in that direction, her mother took his elbow and steered him toward the publisher of the local newspaper, no doubt to prevail upon him to write another editorial denouncing slavery or supporting woman's suffrage. On her own, Dorothea decided to stroll through the house in search of her friends before seeking out the hostess and an introduction to the guest of honor.
She found a small group of young men and women laughing and chatting near the punch bowl, friends since her first days as a student at the Creek's Crossing school. The young men were tanned from long hours in the fields, but the women had endeavored, as Dorothea herself did, to protect their skin from the harsh sun. The condition of their hands revealed their station in life; town girls had smooth, pale hands, while the hands of farm girls were as sun-browned as the men's faces. Since Uncle Jacob did not permit trips into town for mere social calls, Dorothea had not seen them all together in months, and she eagerly caught up on their news. Apparently her own news had not circulated as rapidly as she had expected; one young man, who had always teased Dorothea for knowing all the answers in class, grinned as he asked her if she planned to send her pupils crawling along the creek banks looking for curious rocks as she had the previous year, or if she had moved on to studying pictures in the clouds. Dorothea strained to betray no emotion as another young woman murmured in his ear, and struggled to smile graciously as he apologized. "Nelson might be a good teacher but he can't be as clever as you," he said, and as the others added their assent, Dorothea's smile threatened to collapse, forcing her to pretend to look around for her parents rather than let them see how much the loss of her position grieved her.
As some of her friends left to join the dancing, Dorothea heard a polite cough and turned around. "Why, Miss Granger," said Cyrus Pearson, giving her a slight bow and a mischievous grin. "I'm honored by your presence at my party. If I had known your uncle would allow you to have a bit of fun on a Sunday, I would have delivered your invitation myself."
Dorothea smiled back. "It's your mother's party and her invitation to give, but thank you just the same."
"Quite right," replied Cyrus, rueful. "It's not even truly my home, however welcome my stepfather has made me feel beneath his roof."
"So welcome that you have spent most of the past six months abroad."
He raised a finger in playful warning. "No more questions, Miss Granger. I am not a plant or insect for you to study." He offered her his arm. "I see I must ask you to dance before you have me entirely figured out."
Uncle Jacob would have been offended to see his niece dancing on a Sabbath afternoon, but despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- Dorothea accepted. It was, as Cyrus had promised, difficult to talk during the lively country dance, and whenever they did have an opportunity, Cyrus kept her laughing with amusing observations about the party. She learned nothing more about his stepfather. If only she could dispense with her obligation to the guest of honor as easily.
After a second dance, Cyrus escorted her from the floor, explaining that his mother had made him promise to see to it that no young lady was allowed to remain a wallflower at one of her parties.
Dorothea regarded him, eyebrows raised. "Is that why you danced with me?"
"Miss Granger, I believe you know the answer to that." He gave her a wicked grin as he bowed over her hand, then he moved off into the crowd.
"He is full of fancy manners, that one," said Dorothea's best friend, Mary, appearing at her side, her light brown hair braided into a knot at the nape of her slender neck. "I suppose he thinks he's charming."
Dorothea watched him depart, his golden curls visible above most of the other men in the crowd. "I'm sure he is not alone in that opinion."
Mary sniffed. "I hope you do not share it."
Dorothea hid a smile. From the time they were children, Mary had secretly admired Cyrus -- so secretly that no one else but Dorothea knew of it -- but Cyrus had never noticed her. Mary had never spared a kind word for any girl who did attract his attention, and after she fell in love with a more receptive young man, she had nothing good to say about Cyrus, either.
"Cyrus is neither as fine as you once thought nor as terrible as you think now," teased Dorothea.
"I do not believe your parents would approve," warned Mary. "It is no secret where his mother stands on the slavery issue. I confess I do not always share your parents' fervor, but unlike Violet Pearson Engle, at least my heart is in the right place."
"Cyrus Pearson is not his mother," said Dorothea. "I would no more condemn him for his mother's sins than I would have anyone condemn me for the wrongs my parents have committed."
She smiled to soften her words, but slipped away before Mary asked her which wrongs she meant.
By that time the newlyweds' home had filled almost to bursting with what appeared to be nearly every resident of Creek's Crossing within the range of Mrs. Engle's condescension. Dorothea found her father engrossed in conversation with the mayor, but merely waved to him on her way to the kitchen, where she found her mother chatting with the colored cook about abolition and woman's suffrage. The cook regarded Dorothea's mother curiously and with some wariness, as if she did not know what to make of this white woman who spoke so passionately about impossibilities in the heat of the kitchen, rather than enjoy the laughter and music of the party. Dorothea was so accustomed to her mother that she sometimes forgot that others often found her inscrutable.
Dorothea's mother greeted her affectionately and introduced her to the cook, who nodded a greeting as she removed a pan from the oven and looked Dorothea over with renewed cautious curiosity.
"So, Dorothea," her mother said. "How was your conversation with Mr. Nelson?"
"I have not met him yet. I had hoped someone would offer a toast to him so that I might be able to pick him out of the crowd."
"You must have gone out of your way to avoid him." Mother described him -- a bespectacled, brown-haired man, slender, somewhat pale -- and pointed out that he would be one of the very few people in the familiar crowd Dorothea did not already know. "Swallow your pride and meet him soon," she added. "We must leave before long or all the evening chores will be left to your uncle."
With a sigh of resignation, Dorothea left the kitchen and made her way to the parlor, where she spied a man chatting with Cyrus Pearson who fit her mother's description. He was not quite as tall as Cyrus, but he wore a finer suit with an overlarge but not unattractive boutonniere on his lapel. Dorothea made her way to an unoccupied spot nearby, where she could await a suitable moment to introduce herself, if Cyrus did not see her there first and take care of the formalities.
She fixed a pleasant smile in place and observed the dancing. Abner whirled Mary about; Mrs. Claverton waggled her fingers and called out a greeting as she and her husband passed. Dorothea returned the greeting with a smile and looked around the room for Charlotte, hoping for the girl's sake that her parents had possessed the sense to allow her to remain home, as befitting her age.
"You have not danced one single set all afternoon," Dorothea overheard Cyrus chide the young Mr. Nelson, if that was, in fact, who he was. "Surely your health cannot be as bad as all that."
"It is not for my health that I refrain," came the reply, in a voice both deeper and more disdainful than Dorothea expected.
"What is it, then? Come, now, my mother made me promise that there would be no young ladies unattended at her party, and I insist you help me."
"While I regret disappointing the woman who so kindly organized this gathering for me," said Mr. Nelson, "you will have to satisfy your obligations to your mother yourself. I dance when I am inclined to do so, and at this moment, I am not so inclined."
"Why not? Look -- there are three, four, no, five ladies not engaged at present. Your legs are obviously not broken whatever else might ail you. You will not do yourself an injury if you take one turn about the floor."
"Nevertheless, I decline." He paused and gave Cyrus a slight bow. "With my apologies."
"I cannot understand you, Nelson. You are newly arrived in Creek's Crossing, and apparently you mean to stay. Surely you wish to make the acquaintance of our charming local beauties."
Mr. Nelson frowned and indicated his boutonniere. "If their taste in conversation resembles their taste in flowers, we will have very little to say to each other."
Cyrus laughed, incredulous. "You cannot mean it. I am as well traveled as you, sir, and I defy you to say the ladies of Creek's Crossing are not as pretty or as charming as those of New York, Paris, or London, without all their artificial graces."
"Pretty?" Mr. Nelson paused. "Yes, perhaps one or two of them are somewhat pretty, but I do not find ignorant country girls amusing. It is far better for me to avoid them than to subject us both to an excruciating attempt at conversation."
"I cannot believe you seriously mean this. What about her?"
Dorothea closed her eyes, hoping fervently that Cyrus was directing Mr. Nelson's attention toward the other side of the room.
"That young lady is Dorothea Granger," said Cyrus, with a suggestion of pride. "Surely you can see how lovely she is. She is not yet twenty, and yet she is so clever she was appointed interim schoolteacher after your predecessor stepped down."
"That says more about your school board's standards than her cleverness. In any event, the manner in which she gazes so longingly at the dance floor suggests that she has not set foot on one in quite some time. I assure you, I have no intention of directing my attention to any woman ignored by other men, especially those here, who know her character."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Cyrus. "Some may say she is too clever for her own good, but no one would ever question her strength of character. Let me introduce you. Miss Granger?"
When he called to her, Dorothea took a quick, steadying breath before turning around to face them. "Yes, Mr. Pearson?"
"Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Thomas Nelson, our guest of honor. He just finished telling me how very much he wishes to make your acquaintance."
Mr. Nelson masked his annoyance poorly as he bowed to her.
"Welcome to Creek's Crossing," said Dorothea. "I regret that so far you have found very little to like about it."
Mr. Nelson gave not a flicker of acknowledgment, but Cyrus had the decency to appear mortified. "Miss Granger, please accept my apologies for my companion's boorish remarks. You were not meant to overhear them."
"You are not the one who should apologize."
Mr. Nelson gestured impatiently to his boutonniere. "If you refer to my criticism of this collection of twigs and vegetable matter -- "
"I do not refer to it, but since you mention it, I must speak in its defense." Dorothea gave the boutonniere a quick survey. "It is an unusual arrangement, but its maker's intention is evident. Those twigs, as you call them, are maple seeds, and maple sugar is a significant part of our local economy. These are the leaves of the elm, which grow in abundance throughout the valley and whose beauty is a particular source of pride for us. The leaves of the rose, here and here, represent hope, while the water lily symbolizes purity of heart. The ribbon I recognize -- the mayor's wife wears a similar trim on her spring bonnet. To speak plainly, this nosegay that you disparage welcomes you to enjoy the beauty and prosperity of the Elm Creek Valley, with hopes that you will remain honest and true to your calling as the educator of our youth."
"You could hardly ask for a better welcome than that," remarked Cyrus.
"What I would ask for," said Mr. Nelson, "is to be permitted to wear the flower of my choosing."
Dorothea glanced at his hands. "Would that have been a blossom plucked from a round cluster of small white flowers growing on a rather tall stem?"
He almost managed to hide his surprise. "Yes, that's right. Queen Anne's lace. You must have seen me discard it."
Dorothea let out a small laugh. "No, I assure you, I was not paying you that much attention. Nor was your flower Queen Anne's lace. We call it cow parsnip, although it is actually a member of the carrot family. Curiously enough, while it is edible, it is a particularly noxious weed to the touch. The rash on the back of your hands will pass in two or three weeks, longer if you scratch it. I would offer you a healing salve, but as I am merely an ignorant country girl, I am sure my humble medicines are beneath your regard. Next time, if you wish to choose an appropriate flower, I would recommend a narcissus." She turned a blistering smile on Cyrus and ignored his companion. "Good afternoon, Mr. Pearson."
She quickly departed, nearly bumping into Mary as she and Abner left the dance floor. "Goodness, Dorothea, what's wrong?" asked Mary. "Your face is so flushed! Are you ill?"
"I am not ill." Dorothea refused to allow Mr. Nelson and Cyrus to see how angry she was. "Abner, will you excuse us, please?" She linked her arm through Mary's and drew her toward the far end of the room, where she asked, "Have you had an opportunity to meet our new schoolmaster?"
Mary nodded. "Mrs. Engle introduced us. He's handsome in a bookish way, but I suppose that suits his profession. He certainly doesn't look much like a farmer. Would you like to meet him?"
"No! No, thank you. I know him as well as I care to." She told Mary about the encounter.
Mary glanced at the ill-humored schoolmaster and turned away quickly, unable to contain her amusement. "Honestly, Dorothea! Mrs. Deakins may have little talent for flowers, but she meant well, and he had no call to be so unkind. In your place, I would have been tempted to slap him."
"I did not say I wasn't tempted."
"I considered him somewhat aloof when we were introduced, but I had no idea he was so rude." Mary's eyes widened and she grasped Dorothea's arm. "Oh, he's looking this way. He surely knows we're talking about him. But I suppose he doesn't care about the opinion of a couple of ignorant country girls."
"I suppose not," said Dorothea, laughing. "Ignore him. We cannot let him think he is important enough to be the subject of our conversation."
At that moment, she felt a hand on her elbow. "I'm afraid you must bid your friend good-bye," said her father, her mother at his side. "We have chores to attend to at home."
Dorothea let out an exaggerated sigh. "That's fine, Father. I was merely gazing longingly at the dance floor, wondering if I shall ever set foot on one again."
Mary giggled as Dorothea's parents exchanged a puzzled look. Then Dorothea's mother said, "You did find an opportunity to speak to Mr. Nelson?"
"Yes, I spoke to him, the odious man."
Lorena's eyebrows shot up, but before she could inquire, Dorothea hugged Mary good-bye and promised to call on her soon. After giving their regards to the hostess, the Grangers left the party.
"I gather," said Robert carefully as they walked to the livery stable, "that Mr. Nelson did not make a favorable impression upon you?"
"Entirely the opposite," said Dorothea, and she told them what had happened.
"What a rude young man," said Lorena, but she smiled. "Of course, he assumed he was speaking in confidence, unaware of your eavesdropping."
"I was not eavesdropping. I was merely waiting for an appropriate moment to introduce myself," said Dorothea. "Besides, you have often told me one should not do in secret what one would be unwilling to have known in public."
"Not all deeds fall into that neat category, dear. Nor all words."
Her father shook his head. "Are you sure you did not misunderstand him, Dorothea? His father is such a reasonable, just man. I considered him a friend and was disappointed when he returned to the East. It is difficult to believe his son could be so unlike him."
"I understood every word with perfect clarity." Dorothea threw up her hands and quickened her step. "I cannot bear for you two to defend him! Whatever fine qualities his father may possess, Mr. Nelson the younger does not share them."
"Still, it was a fine party," offered her father.
"He seemed as oblivious to its charms as to those of everything else in Creek's Crossing," retorted Dorothea, quickly outpacing her parents.
"Cheer up," called her mother. "He has only just met us. Perhaps once he knows us better, he will decide to move on to some other town, where the women have greater skill with flowers."
Dorothea tried to stay angry, but she could not help it; she burst out laughing. "One can hope," she said. She paused and allowed her parents to catch up to her. She thought, but did not say aloud, that if Mr. Nelson did leave, Creek's Crossing would need another schoolteacher.
Her father was right. It had been a fine party, but it was wasted on Mr. Nelson. Dorothea's thoughts went to the small farmhouse to the southwest where Abel and Constance Wright were finally enjoying the comforts of freedom. No wedding supper, no bridal quilt, no wedding party had marked their homecoming. How much more appropriate it would have been for the people of Creek's Crossing to welcome Constance with music and celebration, and to allow Mr. Nelson, the convict-turned-schoolmaster, to eat a cold supper alone.
Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Chiaverini