Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini
Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Romance, #Mystery
“I rather hoped she would show us where she would like us to put things,” murmured Lorena as they carried the baskets and bundles inside.
Dorothea had rather hoped she would have shown a trifle more appreciation for her quilt top. “Where shall I put this?” she asked as they entered the house. It was small and tidy. Mr. Wright had managed well for a bachelor, but as far as Dorothea could discern, Constance had made few changes since her arrival. A vase of flowers stood on a corner shelf in the house’s front room, but Mr. Wright could have arranged the decoration for his bride. A sewing basket sat on the floor beside a chair loaded with a pile of clothes, likely for mending.
“Leave it in the bedroom, I suppose.”
As her mother went to the kitchen, Dorothea found the bedroom but lingered in the doorway, studying the quilt already spread upon the bed. It was an unusual string-pieced star pattern, one Dorothea had never seen before, probably stitched from the leftover scraps or even remnants of older quilts.
“Dorothea?” Lorena joined her in the doorway and spotted the quilt that had captured Dorothea’s attention. “Perhaps you should place the appliqué sampler over it.”
“Why?” The fabric in the quilt did not appear to be new, but the colors had held fast, the stitches were small and even, and the binding was not worn. Perhaps the quilt had been made more recently than it appeared. “I think it’s rather striking.”
“Yes, but it is not quite the thing for a bridal chamber.”
Dorothea thought of the elaborately pieced, appliquéd, and stuffed creations some of her friends had made as their own nuptials approached—beautiful, decorative, and often too fine for daily use. Her best friend and her husband, married only seven months, had last slept beneath their quilt on their wedding night, although Mary was considering releasing it from the hope chest for their first anniversary. In comparison, Abel Wright’s quilt was less lovely and impressive, but far more comfortable and enduring. She wondered how he had come to own it. He did not piece quilts himself, as far as she knew.
“Perhaps it is not a proper bridal quilt,” said Dorothea. “But it is a perfect marriage quilt.”
“I suppose so.” Dorothea’s mother put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders as she regarded Abel Wright’s quilt. “A summer quilt is not enough for these cool autumn evenings, anyway. Since Mr. Wright is not a quilter himself, he is not likely to have anything more suitable, and Constance was unlikely to bring a wedding quilt with her, much less the thirteen pieced tops required of a bride of fashion in this county. It is a pity we no longer have yours. All those tops would have made a fine wedding gift, quilted or not.”
“They would have, indeed,” said Dorothea, managing a tight smile. “The appliqué sampler top will have to do.”
She saw no reason to tell her mother she never would have agreed to give away all her quilt tops. Why confess her selfishness when such a sacrifice was impossible, as the seven quilt tops she had pieced, appliquéd, and tucked away in her hope chest had been lost in the flood that had taken their farm? Dorothea had intended to re-create them and complete the thirteen that, according to local custom, would have shown she was properly trained and prepared for marriage. Lorena had her own ideas of proper training, however, and with so many more important items to replace, a new hope chest remained a luxury they could not afford. With home, land, and livestock lost, thirteen unquilted tops for Dorothea’s own use in some distant and uncertain future were a secondary, even frivolous concern. What no one in the family had yet admitted aloud was that Dorothea, with no wealth of her own, was unlikely to need even one wedding quilt.
Her throat constricting, she set the muslin-wrapped bundle on a pine bureau. “I should help Constance in the garden,” she said, and left the house.
Constance did not look up as Dorothea approached, nor did she respond when Dorothea asked where Constance would prefer for her to begin. “I suppose I’ll start over here, then,” said Dorothea brightly. Constance made a noise of assent, so she set herself to work. On her hands and knees, she dug onions, brushed the dirt from them, and stacked them in the grass beside the garden.
After a few minutes of silence, Dorothea said, “How was your journey north?”
“You can see for yourself we made it safe.”
“Have you had an opportunity to go into Creek’s Crossing? It’s not a large town, but it has some fine shops and friendly people.”
“I saw enough.”
“We also have a lending library, although it’s not much at the moment—two dozen books on a shelf in the post office. As long as I’ve lived in Creek’s Crossing, there have been plans to enlarge the collection, and possibly even build a room onto the school to hold it. Perhaps now it will finally happen. I understand a benefit is being organized.”
“I don’t care about no library. I don’t read.”
“Oh. I see.” Dorothea hesitated. “I could teach you. I used to be a schoolteacher—only for six months, but—”
“Maybe you don’t understand.” Constance stuck her trowel into the ground. “I don’t need your charity. Not your teaching, not your help in the garden, not your mama’s food, not your fancy quilt. You’re here because my husband invited your people. I don’t want to be your friend.”
“I see.” Dorothea sat back on her heels, brushed the dirt from her palms, and shaded her eyes with her hand as she looked up at Constance. “I suppose we needn’t fear that happening.”
Constance frowned before taking up her trowel again. “There are plenty of colored families around here. I don’t see why we need to ask white people for help.”
“My uncle and your husband have been exchanging work for years. It’s the neighborly thing to do.”
Constance barked out a laugh. “You aren’t our neighbors. Abel says you live clear on the other side of Creek’s Crossing.” She chopped at a weed, hard. “I met our neighbor, and he ain’t nobody I want to speak to again.”
“Whom did you meet? Was it a thin man, loud and unkempt?” Constance’s silence confirmed Dorothea’s guess. “I know that man, and I can tell you he is a drunkard and a fool. It is uncharitable to say so, but it’s the truth. Whatever he said or did, you must not assume all people in Creek’s Crossing are like him.”
Constance worked on as if Dorothea had not spoken.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong about something else, too. There are not plenty of colored families in Creek’s Crossing. There are only a handful in the entire Elm Creek Valley, and none of those nearby. I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for some white friends unless you’re determined to be stubborn and lonely.”
Cross, Dorothea pushed herself to her feet, took up the spade, and began overturning earth along the edge of the garden. At first Constance ignored her, but before long, she stopped working to watch.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m adding another row to your garden.”
“I can see that. Why? We won’t be planting until spring.”
“Because every spring for the past three years, my mother has traded some of her seedlings for some of your husband’s cheese. Last year it was pumpkins. This year I believe it will be sweet potatoes.”
“I didn’t know about no sweet potatoes.”
Dorothea was tempted to retort that there seemed to be a good deal that Constance did not know, but instead she said, “If I overturn the earth and mix in some manure with the grasses, in the spring, the soil will be richer for my efforts.”
Constance watched her work for a while, then picked up the hoe and began to help. When the new row was nearly complete, Dorothea left Constance to finish and went to the barn for a wheelbarrow half-full with manure. Facing each other on opposite sides of the new row, they mixed the manure into the freshly overturned earth.
“A man came to the farm my second night here, so drunk he could barely sit his horse,” said Constance eventually. “He had a torch and said he was going to set fire to the barn, and if we didn’t clear off after that warning, he’d set fire to the house. He slid off his horse and made like he was going to fling that torch into the hayloft, but all he did was scare his horse so it lit off down the road the way he came. He stumbled around and swore, all red in the face, and went into the barn saying we owed him one of our horses for the one that ran away. When he came out with a horse but left the torch behind, Abel ran to the door, but I wouldn’t let him leave the house. So Abel set the dogs on the man. They just nipped him a bit to make him let go the horse. They chased him away and came right back to the house once he was off our land, but from the way he was screaming, you’d have thought they’d taken his legs off. Abel and I both ran out to the barn, but the torch had just fell on a bare spot of ground. But not two feet away was a bale of hay. If he’d dropped the torch there instead—” Constance shrugged, studiously overturning soil. “I guess Abel would have asked you all to come help with a barn raising today instead of harvesting.”
“You must have been terrified.”
“The man didn’t have no gun. It could have been worse.” Constance looked away, her eyes sweeping from the barn to the place were the road from Abel’s barn met the main road. “He stood right there hollering that he’ll be back with friends to finish the job.”
“He wouldn’t dare. You must inform the authorities at once.”
“Why? They wouldn’t do nothing. They can’t lock up every drunk who swears at colored folks, not even here in the North.”
“He did much more than swear at you.”
“I’m not afraid of him.” Constance stuck her hoe firmly into the ground. “If he comes back, Abel’s going to shoot him.”
Dorothea felt a sickening shiver of dread. “If he should kill him—”
“Then he’s as good as dead himself. I know. You white folks don’t take kindly to having a colored man kill a white man, even a white man you don’t like.”
“Constance—” Dorothea did not know what to say. “If you go to the authorities, they will warn Mr. Liggett to leave you alone.”
“Liggett. So that’s his name.” Constance nodded, satisfied. “Abel wouldn’t tell me. I figured he didn’t want me to find out how close he lives. He lives close?”
Dorothea nodded reluctantly. “His farm lies no more than a mile away, in the direction of town.”
“Too close.” Constance gazed off to the northeast, to the thick mass of elms and oaks that hid Elm Creek from view.
“It may be some small consolation to know that one part of his threat rings hollow,” said Dorothea. “Mr. Liggett does not have any friends, so if he does return, there will be no one to help him, as he put it, finish the job.”
“I guess that’s something.” Constance took up the hoe again and resumed her work. “I knew we’d have trouble with white folks up here. Abel didn’t tell me what it would be like, but I knew.”
“But you came anyway.”
“Of course. What choice did we have? He couldn’t live with me on the plantation, him being free and me not. He wouldn’t have wanted to leave this farm anyhow, nor all his goats.” She snorted and shook her head, but she could not conceal a smile, or the affection in her voice. “He could have saved himself a lot of work and trouble by marrying some free girl up here instead of me.”
“But he chose you.”
“Lord knows why. Maybe he knew I’d say yes if he promised to buy my freedom.”
Dorothea regarded her with surprise. “Is that how it happened?”
“No, no. He always said he’d get me free, even before he ever said he loved me. I just thought he was the crazy cheese man, trying to fill my head with notions just like folks had warned me he would.” Constance stuck the hoe into the earth again and rested her chin upon it. “Every few months he would come by with that wagon selling his cheese. My master’s wife loved it and always bought some. Of course I noticed Abel, being as he was the only free colored man I had ever seen, but I didn’t know he had taken any notice of me until one day he gave me a big wheel of cheese and said he had brought it all the way from Pennsylvania especially for me.”
Dorothea smiled. “He wooed you with cheese.”
Constance grinned and nodded. “He brought me other presents, too. I liked his stories about the North best, about how he could go where he wanted, when he wanted. About how he had his own house and farm and didn’t answer to no one. Then he started talking about me running away—” Abruptly Constance fell silent.
“Running away, or running away with him?” prompted Dorothea.
Constance shrugged. “Both, I reckon. I wouldn’t do it, though. I didn’t know him all that well, for all his stories and gifts.” She looked abashed. “I was too scared.”
“You had every reason to be.”
“I don’t know about that. Others have done it. Abel thought I didn’t want to go because it wasn’t proper, us not being married.” Constance shook her head. “That wasn’t it at all, and I told him so. Once we jumped the broom and I still wouldn’t run off, well, then he believed me.”
“You must have been so lonely when he left.”
She considered. “I was, but I always knew he would come back for me. The mistress liked me and she liked Abel, so she thought it was real sweet. My master hated us being married, though. He only had ten slaves and didn’t want any of us to think about being free.”
“How could he expect you not to think about it?”
Constance shrugged. “Lord knows. My master was real sorry he ever said we could get married, so when Abel finally understood that I wasn’t going to run away, he asked about buying my freedom. He told Abel to pay two thousand dollars.”