Read Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt Online

Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini

Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Romance, #Mystery

Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt (6 page)

BOOK: Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt
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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.

D
OROTHEA’S FATHER AND
uncle finished the harvest, aided by the threshers and a spell of temperate weather that made Dorothea wistful for the long-ago days that she and Jonathan spent exploring the shores of Elm Creek barefoot and happy. Once they wandered so far they scaled the peak of Dutch Mountain, unaware of the distance they had conquered until the entire Elm Creek Valley lay spread out before them. They returned home to Thrift Farm late for their chores, but it never would have occurred to their parents or the other adults who occupied the cabins scattered about the main residence to scold. They were a community of Christians with strong Transcendentalist inclinations, and they believed children had to be allowed to pursue their own hearts’ desires without adult interference. If they had not also believed human beings were obligated to treat the animals in their care with respect and kindness, the Granger children might never have learned any part of what it meant to run a farm.

Dorothea wondered what had become of those optimistic men and women who had tried to build a utopia in the Pennsylvania wilderness. None had perished in the flood, but after Thrift Farm lay underwater, the group was forced to disperse. There was some talk, at first, of moving out west to start again, but the money for the journey and the perfect plot of land could never be found. Singly or in pairs, the former residents of Thrift Farm drifted away from the Elm Creek Valley like cottonwood seeds on the wind. Dorothea’s parents occasionally received letters from friends who had gone to Kansas or California; Lorena would linger over them, caressing the precious words with her fingertips.

Uncle Jacob had taught the Granger children how to run a farm properly and a child’s proper place within the household. Their education was swift and jarring, but they learned. Dorothea’s parents caught on more slowly, but Uncle Jacob eventually made able farmers out of them. Dorothea learned, too, that as hard as Uncle Jacob worked them, there were advantages to his methods: Her days were no longer hers to fill as she chose, but the forest did not reclaim the fields and the crops did not fail. Jonathan no longer complained of hunger in the middle of the night and his persistent headaches disappeared. Dorothea grew three inches the first summer after Uncle Jacob took them in, after which he ordered Dorothea’s mother to put her in long skirts rather than dungarees and forbade her to wander the valley as if she were, as he put it, a wild Indian or Irish.

If nothing else, Uncle Jacob’s restrictions on the children’s carefree wanderings allowed them more time for books. Jonathan’s aptitude for the scholarly life was apparent even to his uncle, who generally mistrusted such inclinations. It was Uncle Jacob who first introduced his nephew to the local physician, who, after a year as his tutor, recommended that the boy broaden his experience in a larger city. For two years Jonathan had lived in Baltimore, and as proud as Dorothea was of his accomplishments, she could not deny feeling an occasional stab of envy.

In the past Jonathan had returned for at least part of the harvest, but that year he did not, citing important ongoing cases that his mentor insisted he observe to the end. Uncle Jacob grumbled but did not order him home, and instead kept on the hired hands and agreed to exchange work with Abel Wright. He had done so every year as far back as Dorothea could remember, even though the Wright farm was nearly eight miles away, southwest of Creek’s Crossing.

This season Abel Wright came to their farm first, but despite Lorena’s repeated entreaties, he did not bring his wife with him, saying that she sent her apologies but had so much work to do in her new home that she could not spare even a day away. The next week, when Uncle Jacob and Robert were to help at the Wright farm, Dorothea was pleased when Uncle Jacob told her she and Lorena must come, too, to assist Mrs. Wright however she needed.

“At last we can give her a proper welcome,” said Lorena. “We should take a gift. Something useful for the home.”

“And something to eat,” said Dorothea. “A wedding cake.”

“Yes. That’s a fine idea.” Lorena instructed her to begin beating eggs for the cake while she searched the house for an appropriate gift.

Dorothea went to the hen house, gathered eggs in her apron, and hurried back to mix the cake batter. She cracked the eggs in her mother’s large mixing bowl and beat them until her arm ached, pausing only to build a fire in the oven. The eggs were stiff and the oven hot by the time her mother returned, hesitating in the doorway, hands behind her back.

“Did you find something?” asked Dorothea, mixing sugar into the bowl.

Lorena nodded and revealed what she carried.

Dorothea recognized the quilt top before her mother unfolded it. The appliqué sampler quilt top was the first she had begun after coming to live with Uncle Jacob, and it had taken her nearly two years to complete. At that time she had still believed she might complete the customary thirteen tops for her hope chest, but was practical enough to realize that just in case she could not, she ought to make at least one very fine top that could serve as her bridal quilt. Knowing she was hungry for details of city life, Jonathan had written of a new style of appliqué quilt the fashionable ladies of Baltimore were making. Their intricate designs created still life portraits in fabric—floral bouquets, nestling birds, wreaths, beribboned baskets, urns of greenery. Inspired by her brother’s descriptions, Dorothea sketched images from her own life, capturing her memories of Thrift Farm and the Elm Creek Valley with every stitch into the fourteen-inch squares. She had drawn each appliqué template by hand on old newspapers and had spent a good portion of her modest savings on the soft muslin background, bleached to a snowy white by the sun, to which she had sewn the calico flowers, leaves, and figures. She arranged the sixteen blocks in four rows of four, then fashioned an appliqué border of elegant swags gathered by roses. Once she had succumbed to a local superstition and had slept beneath the unquilted top so that she might dream of her future husband. She woke the next morning with no memory of her dreams, a worrisome omen that now made perfect sense.

“You want to give this to the Wrights?” she managed to say. “But—but it is not finished yet. It is not quilted.”

“Yes, and the fact that you never bothered to do so tells me it is not very close to your heart. Not so dear that you cannot bear to part with it. Mrs. Wright can quilt it herself, or she can leave it as it is for a summer quilt.”

Dorothea thought quickly. “A quilt is a fine idea, but perhaps Mr. Wright would prefer a Rail Fence quilt. I have enough blocks finished. Do you remember how he admired them?”

“We don’t have time to stitch your blocks together. Besides, this is a gift for the bride. The flowers will suit the occasion.”

Dorothea said nothing.

“Constance Wright came north with little more than the clothes on her back,” said Lorena. “Wouldn’t she treasure this beautiful quilt? Wouldn’t it be a wonderful expression of the friendship we hope will grow between us?”

“It would,” said Dorothea. Her mother watched her so expectantly that Dorothea could not bring herself to explain that she had not quilted the top because she was saving it for her engagement party. Everyone in the Elm Creek Valley expected the bride-to-be’s best friend or sister to host a special quilting bee where the bride’s thirteen tops would be unveiled and all the women would help quilt them. Telling her mother this would be no use. Lorena did not believe that people should allow custom to dictate their behavior, especially if it steered them away from finer impulses such as kindness and generosity.

Dorothea was not betrothed. Even if she became engaged that afternoon, a highly unlikely occurrence, she might still have time to make another bridal quilt before the wedding. She had saved her sketches and most of her templates. She could make another.

“I suppose it would make a fine gift,” she said. Her mother smiled and hurried off to find some clean muslin to wrap it in. Dorothea turned her attention to the cake, a hollow sensation growing in her heart. Back at Thrift Farm, she had been taught not to value earthly possessions. She felt ashamed that her instinct was to snatch the quilt top from her mother’s arms, race off to the attic, and stash it away in some secret place.

She tried to think only of Constance Wright’s happiness as the cake baked and she and her mother packed a basket with jars of preserves, a new ball of butter, and other things Mrs. Wright might need. As Dorothea’s father helped them into the wagon, her mother told her that, as the maker, she ought to be the one to present the quilt to the bride.

“What quilt?” said Uncle Jacob as he shook the reins to get the horses underway. When Dorothea’s mother explained about the gift, Uncle Jacob said, “Whose idea was this?”

“I suppose it was my idea,” said Lorena. “But it is Dorothea’s generosity that makes it possible.”

Uncle Jacob shook his head. “Lorena, let the girl keep her quilt. Look at her. She’s holding it so tight she might squeeze it in two. Mrs. Wright doesn’t expect any fool wedding present from people she doesn’t even know.”

“It’s fine, Uncle,” said Dorothea. “I can make another.”

“It took you all winter to make that one.”

Longer, actually
, Dorothea was tempted to reply, but instead she said, “It’s just as well. I will need something to keep myself occupied in the evenings, since I will no longer have lessons to prepare.”

Uncle Jacob snorted. “If you need something to do, I will find work for you.”

Dorothea glanced at her mother, who shot her a look of warning. “Thank you, Uncle,” she said. “Anything to be useful.”

He peered over his shoulder at her, perhaps sensing something less than sincere in her tone, but she looked away, gazing at the passing scenery as if she had not seen those hills and trees a hundred times before.

They followed the road south for a mile, past lakes and marshland until they reached the ford over Elm Creek. They climbed down from the wagon as they crossed the waterway on the ferry, Uncle Jacob and Dorothea’s father holding tightly to the reins of the horses. Dorothea withdrew to the railing and watched the town on the distant riverbank. At the ford, the creek was merely an eighth of a mile across, the waters calm unless a storm stirred them. Among the young men of the valley, it was considered a test of courage to swim across Elm Creek three miles upstream at a point called Widow’s Pining, where it was nearly twice as wide and far more treacherous, with dangerous currents, sharp rocks, and unexpected undertows. Dorothea considered it a test of great foolishness. It was difficult enough for someone who knew Elm Creek well to manage a boat that far east of the ford, much less swim.

She and her brother had discovered that for themselves not long after the waters had claimed Thrift Farm. It had been Dorothea’s idea to take the rowboat to see if they could find the place where their house had once stood. They thought they spied the foundation through the cloudy waters, but the swift current overturned their boat. They clung to it as they were swept downstream, and only providence in the form of a log that snagged the boat before they lost their grasp spared their lives. Uncle Jacob had wanted to switch them when they returned home, exhausted, cold, and bedraggled, but their mother had intervened. She said they had learned their lesson and that the river had already beaten them harder than any man could. Lorena was right. Jonathan had feared the water ever since that day, and he would only wade in the creek up to his ankles. If obliged to cross on the ferry, he lay down in the back of the wagon, feigning lazy indifference as he fixed his gaze on the sky rather than look at the water, clinging to a book or his hat with white-knuckled hands.

BOOK: Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt
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