Into the Wilderness

Page 16


Elizabeth's knees were trembling. For a moment she thought she might be truly ill. How could she not be, with this bitter pill her father was asking her to swallow. She had come so far, and had such hopes of another life, only to find that he had been bartering away her freedom before she had ever had a chance to experience it. And for this he expected her admiration and gratitude. It was too much to bear, and yet she must, if anything was to be salvaged. She folded her hands tightly together and gave her father a look she had learned from her aunt Merriweather, the one reserved for the most outrageous of men's endless maneuverings. "I wonder that you think I am so dim—witted that I wouldn't see through this ploy."
"There is no ploy," the judge sputtered. "What have I done but to offer you almost half of my most valuable holdings?"
Elizabeth shook her head with such force that her hair began to slip from its pins.
"A married woman cannot possess land. If you sign that on the day marry, the property goes almost directly to Richard Todd. It is not for me, but for yourself and for him that you are doing this. You must esteem him very highly. Or perhaps you fear him?"
"I am doing it for you," the judge fairly roared, waving the paper in her face. "A husband is someone who will look after your interests. If I die and all my property goes to your brother, he will gamble it into nothing in a year. I have spent my life building this village out of wilderness and it will all be for naught, and then where will you be?"
"Where I am right now, with a little money of my own and no property," said Elizabeth, raising her voice to speak over her father's blustering. "If you really wanted to show your concern for me and protect me from Julian's excesses, you would sign that deed today, and trust me to marry or not according to my own best interests."
There was a silence while Elizabeth watched her father stalk away to lock the deed in his desk.
"There is more at stake here than you are acknowledging," she said. "Is there some financial problem I don't know about?"
"None that concerns you," he said shortly.
"I would say that it concerns me if you are trying to marry me to stranger in order to resolve your difficulties," Elizabeth responded.
He spun toward her, and she saw the ticking of a pulse in his cheek.
"Have I struck too close to the truth, Father?"
"I have had some bad luck with an investment," the judge said slowly. "That I will not discuss with you."
"Well, then," Elizabeth said. "If Richard Todd is so keen to have more land, sell the thousand acres to him. I would hope that would provide the liquidity that you lack, and there would still be two thousand acres for us, surely enough to live in comfort."
Her father flushed so deep a red that Elizabeth was alarmed.
"I have spent thirty years," he began, his voice wavering. "I have invested my life in this land. I will not sell it, not at any price. I am asking you to consider Richard's offer of marriage, because it would keep the property in the family, and resolve my difficulties. But I am also convinced that Richard would be a good husband to you and look after your best interests."
"It is very unfortunate," Elizabeth began in a tone that was calmer, but clear and resolved, "that we must argue on my first day here. But I hope you will do me the favor of believing me when I tell you that I will never consider marrying Dr. Todd. I could not marry someone who keeps slaves. Even if I loved him, I still could not marry him. My conscience would not allow it."
"He is the right husband for you," her father said. "If you were more sensible, you would see that."
There was a moment's silence as Elizabeth struggled with her temper.
"Then I am not sensible," she said. "But I will not act against my conscience.
"There's no other man suited to you in station or property for many miles."
"You will not sell your property, but you will sell your daughter, have I understood you correctly?"
"You are impertinent!" he sputtered. "I would have expected that my sister might have done a better job with you—"
"Do you care, Father, about what I want?"
"I care about your welfare."
"Listen to me. What I want is independence. It is the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath." Do you know who wrote that?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," the judge said, exasperated.
Elizabeth picked up the slim volume she had been reading when he found her and she handed it to him. "Mrs. Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Women'."
The judge looked down at the volume in his hand and then shook his head.
"You are being influenced by this, by this—"
"Yes" Elizabeth said. "I have been influenced by these writings. But no more than you have been by the writings of Thomas Paine."
The judge dropped the book on the table. "The Rights of Man cannot be compared to this drivel."
"You haven't read Mrs. Wollstonecraft, how can you know?" Elizabeth said impatiently. And then seeing that she was not going to sway her father, Elizabeth stopped and tried to gather her thoughts.
"Keep your property and your gift of deed. If you will sign it only on my marriage to Richard Todd, then it will never be signed. If you continue to attempt to force me into an alliance which I do not want, I will go back to England and take up my old place in the home of my aunt Merriweather."