Into the Wilderness

Page 18


She caught his smile and stiffened.
"No!" he said, trying to catch her eye. "I was not laughing at you. I was just thinking how much like a schoolmistress you sound."
"Like a bluestocking," Elizabeth agreed. She stood and smoothed her skirt. "I am a bluestocking, Dr. Todd."
"You don't look anything like a spinster schoolteacher."
"You needn't make me compliments," she said. "I'm not used to them and they won't find an eager target." Elizabeth was shocked but pleased that she could find it in herself to be so blunt, as blunt as she wanted to be. As blunt as a man talking to another man. But Richard Todd was not put off.
"That is very unfortunate," he said calmly. "Because they are meant sincerely. You do not look like a schoolteacher."
"You are wrong," she said. "A schoolteacher is just what I am, and what I plan will always be."
Her father approached them and Elizabeth panicked at the idea of carrying on this conversation with her father in attendance. In a moment she had excused herself and disappeared into the hall and up the stairs to her room.
The sounds of the party rose up to Elizabeth where she stood at her window. The winter night was very clear: the moonlight reflecting on snow let her see almost to the village. In a moment Elizabeth had made up her mind to steal away for a walk, and she made her way back down to the hall, where she quickly found her heavy cloak and mittens, pushed her feet into her sturdiest boots, and hurried outside.
The night was as cold as it was clear; almost full, the moon hung low over the mountain, shimmering silver—white and gray, illuminating the snow. Elizabeth breathed in deeply and wrapped the cloak more tightly around herself, pulling the hood up. Taking note of her direction, she set off on a small path through the snow, thinking to walk only ten minutes, to clear her head of the party and Richard Todd.
She knew men like him in England. The only difference between Dr.Todd and them, she was forced to acknowledge, was that in England men like the doctor—in possession of fortune and good connections—did not need bother with young ladies past their prime. He was a confusing man; she could not reconcile his manner, which was pleasing, with what she knew about him. She thought again of her earlier conversation with her father and she almost despaired.
She had been walking for just five minutes on the path when she entered the first woods, and there she saw a solitary figure ahead of her. Elizabeth stopped and looked about herself, wondering what to think of a stranger out at this time of the night, when she recognized that it was Nathaniel Bonner walking toward her. Surprise lodged in her throat and slid down slowly to rest in her chest.
He stopped before her and nodded. "Boots," he greeted her.
She bit down on the urge to grin at his name for her.
"Good evening," she said. "I thought you would bring your father—and your daughter."
If he was surprised at her mention of his daughter, Nathaniel did not show it. "They're on their way to the party from our cabin, on the other side of the lake. I been out checking trap lines for hours."
Elizabeth glanced back over her shoulder toward the brightly lit house, just visible from where she stood.
"I didn't see them. Maybe I just missed them."
"The party didn't amuse you, then?"
She turned away so that he couldn't see her face; she thought she could not hide her unhappiness from him, and she was uneasy and shy.
"I should go back," she said. Then, suddenly resolute, she faced Nathaniel.
"Well, I must be honest enough to admit to you that you were right. About my father. About his plans for me."
"Richard Todd," said Nathaniel flatly.
"Yes, Richard Todd." Elizabeth drew in a shaky breath.
"I don't know why I am telling you this. Two days ago you were a stranger to me."
He was silent.
"Yes, I do know," Elizabeth corrected herself. "You have been honest with me, and I find that honesty is as hard to come by here as it was in England."
Nathaniel looked toward the house and then back to Elizabeth, who stood with her face averted toward the woods.
"Are you too cold to walk for another few minutes?"
They set off down the path the way he had come. It wound through the woods for a quarter mile and then crossed a frozen stream. Here they sat on tree stumps in a small clearing. The night was very quiet, all the sound in the world seemingly drawn into the blanket of snow. Elizabeth heard her own breath and saw it in a hazy cloud before her.
"Todd is a smart man," Nathaniel said. "His uncle left him considerable money, and land. I have known him to deal straight with every white man who comes his way."
Startled, Elizabeth did what she had been studiously avoiding: she looked directly into Nathaniel's face and she saw that he was sincere. Why he should be promoting her connection to Richard Todd was unclear to her, and it caused her considerable distress to think she must take up this argument with him.
"I came to this country to live a life unavailable to me in England," Elizabeth said shortly. "I have no intention of marrying Richard Todd." She lifted up her chin and laughed, a trembling laugh. "There are many things I want to ask you, because somehow it seems to me that you are the only one who will tell me the truth of things." Her smile faded away. "But none of it may matter, after all."
"Why is that?"
She stood and pulled her cloak more tightly around her. "Because I think I shall be going back to England."