Day One Hundred Twenty Eight
I told Charles we should go to town early because Susannah had offered to lend me a dress. This surprised him. “I had the impression she wasn’t much taken with you.”
I thought he hadn’t been paying attention!
“I’m glad you didn’t take her attitude personally,” he went on. “She’s had a tough life. Her father died when the youngest child, Caleb, was a baby. Susannah helped her mother run the business and look after the children. She had no time to have friends or a boyfriend. I think it made her bitter. Since her mother became an invalid last year, Susannah’s been running the place alone.”
“It seems like a depressing line of work,” I said. “But what about that boy who sat in the room with us yesterday? He looked at least fifteen. Doesn’t he help?”
“If you can call it that. He’s got other ideas about life, although I think he has a tough time finding girls who don’t mind that he usually has dead people in the house.”
I agreed that it wasn’t the sort of thing girls found attractive. “So you don’t mind going to town a little early?”
“Of course not. I want you to have friends, and I certainly like to see you dolled up.”
He made to put his arms around me, but I moved away, still not convinced that he liked me for anything but my resemblance to his wife.
Charles seemed puzzled by my behavior, but said nothing and went to hitch the donkey and bring the wagon around. Once we were on the road, he asked, “What did you and Susannah talk about yesterday? Besides that she would loan you a dress, of course.”
“That was all,” I lied. “Other than she was annoyed about the certificate. She said it shouldn’t make any difference when everyone knows everyone else’s business, anyway.”
He was silent for so long that I thought his mind had turned to other things and I leaned back against the seat cushion to enjoy the drive.
Charles broke into my thoughts.
“You seem distant today.”
I shrugged and hoped he would forget about it.
“You weren’t yourself last night, either.”
I cast about in my mind for an excuse. “Your mother-in-law was murdered just up the road from us, so of course it’s given me a lot to think about.”
This seemed to reassure him, and he put a hand on my knee. “I’ll look out for you.”
I resisted the temptation to tell him I could look after myself, thank you. Instead, I nodded and scooted a little closer, hoping he would think everything was all right between us and quit asking questions.
When we got to the funeral home, Susannah was waiting. She left Charles in the public room in the company of her useless teenage brother and wild little Caleb, whose hair looked even crazier than the day before, and who seemed to have grown several extra freckles during the night. Charles didn’t seem to mind the boys’ idiosyncrasies, and settled in with them while Susannah led me to a room at the back of the house.
It was a nice room, all pink and gold, with flowered curtains and bedspread. When I commented on it, she smiled. “My father picked it out for me when I was a kid. It’s not my taste any more, but it reminds me of him, so I keep it this way.”
I let her give me a dress to try on. It was dark gray, almost black, with a white collar. “I wish I had known my father,” I said. “In a way, you were lucky.”
“Sometimes I wish I’d never known him. Then I wouldn’t be able to miss him.” She took a step back and examined me with a critical eye. “That dress isn't a bad fit, but something’s missing.”
“My hair, maybe?” It was in its usual plain braid down my back.
But after we brushed out my hair and rearranged it, she still wasn’t satisfied. She rummaged in a polished wooden box on top of her dresser and took out a string of pearls. I hadn’t seen such a thing in years. My grandmother had owned some pearls, but they had either been stolen or lost when the soldiers burned my family’s home.
“They’re a family heirloom,” Susannah said, clasping them around my neck. “My great-grandmother bought them on a trip to New York, so be careful not to lose them at the cemetery.”
I reached up and touched the smooth stones, in awe that something from so far away had found its way to my neck.
When we went back to the main room, Charles was alone, the boys having grown bored and fled. He looked at me in my swishing dress and glowing white pearls, and smiled. “Aren’t you the sweetest thing.” He got to his feet and gave me a cautious embrace. “You look too pretty to be going to a funeral.”
Susannah was watching us enviously and I pulled out of Charles’ arms so as not to make her mad. I thought Susannah was much prettier than I could ever be, with her shiny gold hair, pert little nose and long lashes. There was a dignified grace to her movements that I couldn’t in a million years hope to match, and I found myself hoping Charles could see her as I did and return some of her interest after I resumed my journey east.
The funeral was a simple affair, just as Charles had asked for. Susannah had a closed carriage for us, drawn by a black horse, and her teenage brother drove while we sat inside. The cemetery was on the outskirts of the village, and it looked pretty full to me.
There was a Protestant minister waiting at the grave site, and there were a few other people too. They were respectful and I had the impression they were old friends of Vickie and her mother. I wondered how they had gotten word of what had happened, but maybe they knew the officials at the town hall, or maybe little Caleb had spread the word, even after being told not to.
I stood with Charles, trying to keep a good attitude, but it wasn’t easy. Peggy’s open grave and casket were next to an elaborate headstone for Vickie, and Charles’ gaze kept returning to his wife’s grave. I told myself it didn’t matter. Flecha was nearly well. I would be leaving soon, and why should I care if he pined over his long-dead wife? Still, it hurt. When he offered me his arm as we left the cemetery, I turned away.
Although Charles hadn’t asked for a reception, Susannah had arranged for coffee and cake at her house. I thought it was nice of her, and hoped it hadn’t cut too much into her profit. I still thought it was a terrible thing to make money off the dead, but since that was how they did things here, it seemed like they might as well do it right.
At the house, I was formally introduced to the guests who had followed us from the grave site. When one of them commented on my resemblance to Vickie, Charles turned red and couldn’t find his tongue. It was up to me to be gracious and make a polite comment about how kind the lady was to compare me favorably to someone whose loveliness was so well known. But the stress of all the stares and whispers took its toll on me, and I was glad when everyone was gone and I could go back to Susannah’s room and change into my regular clothes.
“Thank you for everything,” I told Susannah. “You’ve been very generous.”
She shrugged and put the pearls away. “I wish it was something I was better at. I admire Charles so much. He’s who I call whenever someone can’t afford a proper funeral or headstone. Even though it’s not easy for him, he always finds a way to help, even if the family has been mean to him.”
“He’s nice to everyone,” I agreed, suddenly feeling bad that I had been so churlish all day.
“I wish I could be more like him, but it’s hard when you’ve got a whole family to take care of.”
“I know,” I said, slipping out of the dress and putting on my worn pants and shirt. “I’ve had a pretty crazy life, too. But Charles says when you do good things, good things will happen to you. He calls it karma.”
Susannah put the dress back on its hanger. “Maybe I should loan out more dresses, then.”
“I don’t think it works if you do it on purpose. You have to do good because it’s the right thing. If you expect a reward, you won’t get it.”
“So I might as well be mean, then?”
Her eyes met mine and we laughed.
On the way back to the lake, I tried to be a little nicer to Charles, remembering his generosity to me and the good he did in the community. He didn’t deserve for me to be sullen and silent, pulling away from his touch. But my mind kept returning to the words of the woman who had compared me to Vickie, and to the way Charles had stared at the headstone. I didn’t mind that he was still in love with his wife, but if he was going to have me sharing his bed, I needed to know that it was because he cared about me. I didn't want to be a replacement for the woman he had lost.
When we got home, Charles let me out at the house and went to put the donkey and cart away. I turned on some lights and started supper, wondering how I would broach the subject that had been troubling me for a whole day now. It was unfair to keep being so cool to him. I owed him an explanation.
I had just about figured out what I would say, when Charles came in. He saw me working on supper and told me to stop and come with him into the living room. This was not how it was supposed to happen.
He took a folded paper from inside a book and handed it to me without a word.
It was the deed to his mother-in-law’s property.
“I’ve been thinking, and I want you to have it.”
I closed my eyes and tried to quiet the thoughts exploding in my mind. “I can’t accept this.”
“Of course you can. This will make you an independent landowner.”
“Thank you, but I can’t put this land to good use. I have other plans, remember? I’m on my way to Kentucky.”
He frowned. “You don’t need to go to Kentucky now. You have your own property. You can do whatever you like—grow crops, raise chickens, start your own horse farm. . . anything you want.”
My mind reeled with the possibilities. My very own horse farm? Oh, wouldn’t that be heavenly! Foals in the spring, riding lessons for the local children. . . Rachel would be our vet, and . . .
I put a stop to that line of thinking. “No. I don’t want to be beholden to anyone, and I especially don’t want to live on your family’s land.”
“I know why you want to give it to me,” I said. “And I know why you’ve been carrying on with me this way. It’s pretty low to use me as a substitute for Vickie. I’m not her, no matter how much I might look like her and no matter how many interests we might share.”
“You thought I didn’t know, didn’t you? But can take this deed and give it to your next Vickie-substitute, because as soon as I can, I’m leaving.”
I tried to hand the paper back, and when he wouldn’t take it, I crumpled it and threw it on the floor. Then I left out the kitchen door, into the darkening night. I worried he might chase after me and I wondered if I should run. What was one supposed to do after flouncing out the door in a huff? Then I remembered the lake. It would be good to be down by the water. It would quiet my mind. So I went to the dock and sat down, dangling my feet over the edge.
Me, a landowner? The only thing crazier than that idea was the realization that I had thrown such an opportunity quite literally back at Charles’ feet. It was a foolish, reckless thing to do. Auntie would surely have told me to take it. I was poor and living on the charity of strangers. Who was I to turn down a chance at independence? It might be years before I would have another chance at land of my own, and it might not happen ever. I was a fool.
But at least I was an honest fool. Accepting that land would tie me to Charles forever. It would also tie me to Vickie, her mother, and a whole community of people who according to Susannah, already saw me as Vickie’s replacement. Accepting that land would mean spending the rest of my life either living that role or trying to break free of itm and I didn’t want that. There have been enough ghosts in my past without adding anyone else’s, too.
I sighed and gazed out over the dark water. I would take Flecha out tomorrow and see if she was ready to travel. Maybe I would even walk her to Rachel’s place. I couldn’t keep on here. Things were getting too complicated.
At the sound of footsteps on the wooden dock, I turned around.
“Can I join you?”
I shrugged and turned back toward the water. Charles sat down beside me.
“I think,” he said, “That you’ve been misinformed.”
I jerked my chin and refused to look at him. “Are you saying I don’t look like Vickie, and that she didn’t like the same things I do?”
“I’m sure the world is full of pretty brown-haired girls who like water and horses. That doesn’t mean I think they’re all alike, and I’m a little hurt that you believe I would think so.”
We talked for a long time, and I began to realize that I had jumped to some hasty conclusions. There were many ways in which I was nothing like Vickie. “And I love you for it,” Charles said.
I let him draw me into his lap and hold me for awhile, and then he asked if I would like to take the boat out. I had never been out on the water at night, and it was still and peaceful with the moon and stars overhead and the sliver fish darting beneath the waves. The world felt like a magical place, where anything was possible. It might even be possible to love the man who wanted to give it all to me.
When we went back to the house, we were hungry, having had nothing to eat since the reception after the funeral. The half-finished supper I had been preparing earlier was cold, so we took some cheese, nuts and dried fruit out onto the patio and ate while sipping dandelion wine.
“Will you reconsider about the land?” Charles finally asked. “There’s no obligation, but it would make me happy to know that you’ve got something of your own and will never be vulnerable again.”
Vulnerable? It had never occurred to me to think of myself that way. I had always managed to find my way out of a bad spot. Now I reconsidered. What would things be like for me ten years from now? Or twenty? Or thirty? Where would I be at forty-nine? Surely I wouldn’t still be relying on my skill and my wits, would I? The land Charles offered was a guarantee that I could always support myself.
“You don’t have to decide tonight. But think about it, will you?”
I nodded and sipped my wine. Yes, I’ll think about it. I’ll have to think very hard about it.
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