Into the Wilderness

Page 5


"Mrs. Freeman—" Elizabeth began.
"No, miss, you must call me Curiosity. It's the name my mama give me, and I go by it."
Elizabeth smiled. "It seems everyone here goes by their first name."
"All except the judge."
"Well, then, please call me Elizabeth." This was a social breach which never would have been countenanced at home; Elizabeth knew that Julian would complain to her that she was too familiar with the servants. This train of thought was interrupted by Curiosity, who had her own questions to ask.
"You a Quaker, like your mama was?"
"No, we were raised by my aunt Merriweather, Father's sister. But admire very much the Quaker teachings—"
"Well, you won't get no argument from me, as Quakers bought me and my Galileo free. It was your mama's daddy who done that for us, but I expect you heard that story. We been working for your folks ever since."
Elizabeth smiled at this good report of her family. "I hope my father's done well by you?"
Curiosity stood up suddenly. She gave Elizabeth a long, steady look, her dark eyes hooded. Then she smiled. "Time to get to table. The menfolk will be waiting." She turned toward the door, her wide skirts rustling around her.
"Has my father done well by you, by you and yours?" Elizabeth repeated, uneasy at the woman's sudden reticence.
Curiosity spoke with her back to Elizabeth. "He done pretty well by me and mine, miss. But there's others who ain't as satisfied." She turned and saw the questions forming on Elizabeth's face, and held up her palm.
"Time to get to table," she said, and then she was gone, before Elizabeth could remind Curiosity to call her by her Christian name.
When Elizabeth had changed into a simple gray dress with a lawn shawl tucked into the bodice and tamed her hair into a roll along the back of her head, she stood looking at herself in the mirror. The vision of Nathaniel Bonner, bare chested, rose up before her and she scowled fiercely at herself. Nathaniel was waiting downstairs, as was the mysterious Dr. Todd, and she would have to go and deal with both of them. This was not what she had expected for the first day in her new home. In England she had not been much in society; she had preferred the company of her books, and the few close friends she had left behind.
When she could wait no longer, Elizabeth found her way down to the dining room where the meal and the men waited for her. With great enthusiasm, her father took her by the arm and presented her to Dr.Todd; Elizabeth smiled politely and answered his inquiries as to her trip and health, all the while too aware of Nathaniel, who stood with his back against the wall, his arms crossed, and his gaze fixed on her.
Richard Todd did his best to capture all her attention for himself: he was solicitous and amusing, and the look in his blue eyes set below a mane of red—blond hair was friendly and seemed sincere. She judged him to be just over thirty, with hair thinning high on his temples. Elizabeth saw that while his coat and waistcoat were well cut and suited him well, they could not hide a propensity for fleshiness.
Seated at one end of the table opposite her father, Elizabeth found herself too near Nathaniel Bonner for comfort. He was on her left; Richard Todd sat to her right. At the table's head the judge was flanked by Hawkeye and Julian. Elizabeth noted with some relief that the three of them had immediately taken up a previous conversation on the war in France and that she would not have to entertain five men.
And I can certainly manage this, she said to herself firmly, and she turned to Nathaniel, suddenly determined to make a new start with this strange man. He wore his own clothing again, the dressing on his wounded shoulder showing through the rent in his shirt, still stained with blood.
"Are you in pain, Mr. Bonner?" she asked. "Is your wound distressing you?"
"Nathaniel," he corrected her. Then: "I am comfortable enough, miss. Thank you most kindly for your concern and interest."
"You are most kindly welcome," she said, matching Nathaniel's tone of mild impertinence.
The dining room was small and somewhat dark, but it provided a profusion of serving tables and odd pieces of furniture for Elizabeth to concentrate on while she considered her predicament. She was at a loss on how to start a conversation which would engage both Richard Todd and Nathaniel Bonner; subjects which were the staples of polite dinner conversation at home would not do here, and she did not know them well enough to bring up more controversial political topics, although she would have liked to hear their opinions on President Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality, or the French defeat of Austrian and Prussian troops at the battle of Valmy. Neither could she ask them about their work without opening up many subjects which would be unseemly, although this topic interested her greatly. Elizabeth glanced around the room again and noted that there were a number of oil paintings, landscapes all of them, some quite awkward and naive in their execution, but a few very appealing.
"I see my father has been collecting the work of local painters," Elizabeth said to both Nathaniel and Richard Todd. "Interesting, some of them. I like the mountain glade."
"That's a lopsided contrivance," Hawkeye volunteered from the other side of the table. "Nothing in nature to match it."
"Is that so?" Elizabeth asked. "Well, perhaps I haven't seen enough mountains to know. But I do like it."
"You are very generous," Richard Todd said, and Elizabeth turned to him. "Hawkeye is right."