Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (3 page)

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The cold water that Ethan splashed on his face did little to cool his burning cheeks. If not for Lizzie standing there, he'd have doused Daniel with the contents of the washbasin. Instead, he scrubbed at his face and hands with all the fury he wanted to set loose at Daniel.

“He'll learn,” Lizzie said. Ethan looked up from his rinsing to see her offering him a towel. Her smile faded as her nose twitched and her gaze drifted down to Ethan's trousers. “Oh, dear,” she sighed. “Couldn't get it all off?” Without waiting for a reply, she rummaged under the sink and came up with a battered brush and whisk broom. She led Ethan to the doorway of the little ell and stood him on the threshold so she could brush and scrape the manure off into the yard.

Two furry bodies twined around Ethan's ankles, then bolted into the house.

“Now the bloody fool's let the cats in,” Daniel growled. He took off in pursuit. Ethan heard the thud of Daniel's feet, a shriek, a thwack, and a couple of feline yowls. He hoped Daniel hadn't struck the cats.

“I'm sorry,” Ethan said, twisting around to see if Lizzie's work was doing any good.


I'm
the one who let the cats in,” Lizzie said. “Don't mind him.” She shrugged in the direction Daniel had gone. “That's just Paddy being Paddy.” She gave Ethan a final brush, then quickly stepped aside as the two cats hurtled out, Daniel stomping behind them.

“They didn't get into the cream, did they?” Lizzie asked.

Daniel shook his head. He yanked Ethan back into the ell and slammed the door.

“There,” Lizzie said. “Best I could do, I'm afraid. Good thing your trousers are brown.”

“S'pose it'll have to do,” Daniel said. With a loud sigh, he grabbed Ethan by the shoulder and tugged him toward the kitchen. “Right, then. Let's see what else he don't know how to do.”

“Not like that. You want to be wearing down the carpet? And by the seat, not the back.” Daniel picked up a bright yellow chair to demonstrate.

Ethan smothered a groan. There seemed to be a right way and a wrong way to do everything around here, and whichever way he chose was always the wrong one. Now there even seemed to be a right way to set the chairs around the table for the evening's tea.

Mrs. Lyman and the girls had already laid the table with starched white napkins and blue-edged dishes as delicate as eggshells. A platter of cold ham formed the centerpiece,
flanked by bowls of gleaming burgundy-red pickled beets and cabbage. Bread, pies, cakes, and pastries paler and more delicate than any Ethan had ever seen covered nearly every inch of the white tablecloth. His stomach fluttered with apprehension at all the things on the table that a misplaced elbow or hand could spill or break.

The chairs bumped against his shins as he carried them, but better bruised shins than more scoldings. In a few moments, he'd lined up a neat row on his side of the table. He stood back to await his next order.

Daniel came around and inspected the chairs. He moved the first one an inch to the left. He moved another chair a few inches to the right, and a third a fraction of an inch back. Ethan's jaw tightened. Finally, Daniel nodded. “That'll do.” He retreated to the kitchen and returned with an old ladder-back chair with a grease-stained rush seat. From the way Daniel thunked it down, Ethan guessed that nobody cared much how this chair was handled.

“Whose is that?” Ethan asked.

“Mine,” Daniel said.

With a rustle of skirts, Mrs. Lyman swept into the room. Florella and Zeloda followed close behind. Florella carried two puddings, while Zeloda brought in the steaming teakettle. Somehow Mrs. Lyman conjured up spots on the crowded table for all the new dishes.

Daniel seemed to shrink when Mrs. Lyman entered. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, ma'am. What chair would you like me to be setting for him?” He jerked his chin toward Ethan. Although he spoke to Mrs. Lyman, he directed his eyes at the table, his head bent, his shoulders rounded. His voice changed as well as his posture, losing some of its sharp edge, though not all. Something hard lurked under his deferential tone, like a tiny bone lodged in his throat.

Mrs. Lyman gave Ethan a weary glance, as if he were yet another platter that needed a space on the table. “The table's crowded enough with all the help we have to feed,” she said. “He can stand.”

Ethan gulped.
Stand?
He hadn't stood for meals since he was five. From the corner of his eye, he thought he noticed Daniel watching him, but when he turned to look, Daniel had dropped his glance.

Daniel dragged a foot along a thin red stripe in the parlor's carpet. Without looking up, he asked, “Only for today? Or for always?”

“Until I say he can sit,” Mrs. Lyman said. She wrinkled her nose. Ethan realized that in spite of his double scrubbing and Lizzie's brushing, there was no erasing the ground-in smear on the seat of his trousers or the smell of souring milk on his shirt—a fine impression for his first day in her house.

The parlor seemed to explode with noise and people as Silas and the two farmhands came in, talking and laughing, at one door. Lizzie entered from another, carrying Aaron and leading Ruth by the hand.

Ruth squealed and dashed toward Silas. The work-weariness faded from the young man's eyes as he picked her up and balanced her on his hip.

“Silas.” Mrs. Lyman frowned at him as if he were a great stupid dog who might bite his little sister.

The muscles under Silas's eyes tightened. Like Daniel, he seemed unable to look directly at Mrs. Lyman. “Sorry, ma'am.” He let his sister slither out of his arms and onto the floor.

Mrs. Lyman tugged Ruth's dress straight where it had ridden up her legs. “You must be ladylike, Ruth. You are not a monkey.” Her voice softened when she addressed her daughter. She touched the tip of Ruth's nose with her finger, making
the girl giggle. A hint of a smile crossed Mrs. Lyman's mouth. She kissed Ruth's forehead as she fixed the girl's hair ribbon.

“Yes, Mama.” Ruth's voice was dutiful, but her eyes strayed to Silas's, and they shared a smothered smile.

The household milled around the table for a few moments, then stilled as footsteps in the hallway announced Mr. Lyman's entrance. It reminded Ethan of how the children in school would fall silent when the teacher came in. Daniel and Silas stood at attention with their eyes averted, as though waiting for the master's examination.

Mr. Lyman stood in the doorway for a moment, surveying the assembled household. Ethan noticed that Mr. Lyman and Silas had the same serious, deep-set blue eyes: Silas's the soaring blue of a crisp autumn sky; Mr. Lyman's, the grayish blue of winter. Father and son shared the same strong nose, dimpled chin, and high forehead. While Silas's profile was lean and sharp, the flesh under Mr. Lyman's chin and at his neck had thickened with age. Stern lines ran from Mr. Lyman's nose to the corners of his mouth, and a severe crease separated his eyebrows.

When Mr. Lyman's glance settled on Ethan, all the sternness washed out of his face. He gave Ethan the smile he always gave Ma and Pa when they came into his store, as though he were greeting an old and cherished friend. “Ah, young Mr. Root.” He strode over and patted Ethan's head. “And how are your parents?”

“Well, sir,” Ethan said softly.

“And your sisters? And the baby?”

“All well, sir.” Ethan spoke carefully, feeling his tongue threatening to thicken and tangle up inside his mouth.

“It's a fine thing having a baby brother, isn't it?” Mr.
Lyman glanced fondly from Silas to the baby in Lizzie's arms, then back to Ethan.

As far as Ethan could tell, all a baby brother meant was more noise, confusion, and smells in the house, and Ma always being too busy, too tired, too something or other else for anything but Benjamin. But it would be rude to say that to Mr. Lyman, wouldn't it? “I—well, I don't know. I mean, he doesn't do anything yet.”

Mr. Lyman, Mr. Pease, and Mr. Wheeler burst into laughter. “Oh, that's good, boy, very good,” Mr. Lyman said. “‘He doesn't do anything yet.' I must remember that. Well, you'll see. You'll see.” He surveyed Ethan up and down. “You've started your chores, then, hmmm?”

“Yessir.” Ethan ducked his head, hoping Mr. Lyman wouldn't comment on his state of cleanliness.

“Well, then,” Mr. Lyman continued. “You're to help Silas with the farm chores most of the time. A few days a week, I'll need you at the store, sweeping, tidying up, delivering parcels, helping unload the wagons when they bring in the goods. And now and then Mrs. Lyman and the girls will need you in the kitchen garden.” He nodded toward his wife, his face relaxing into a fond smile. “Think you can manage that, boy?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Lyman ruffled Ethan's hair again. “Good boy. How did he do with the milking?” he asked Silas.

Silas looked to Daniel. Daniel's head tilted almost imperceptibly down, then up, just once. “Paddy says he'll do,” Silas said.

Mr. Lyman frowned. “Paddy?”

“I've put Paddy in charge of him. He can show Ethan his chores as well as anybody. No sense taking my time on what Paddy can do.”

“Just see you don't learn too much from Paddy.” Mr.
Lyman wagged a finger under Ethan's nose. “You know what they say about the Irish.” He let out a hearty laugh and clapped Daniel on the shoulder.

A muscle quivered in Daniel's cheek. He didn't laugh. Neither did Silas, Ethan noticed, and Lizzie only pressed her lips together. But everyone else laughed.

“Indeed,” Mr. Pease said. “Like the thieving Irishman who went to heaven.”

“To heaven?” Mr. Wheeler said, taking his seat. “Don't you mean the other place?”

“Well, you'd think so, for he'd stolen his neighbor's pig and eaten it.” Mr. Pease shook out his napkin and tucked it into his collar. So did Mr. Wheeler and Daniel. The Lymans, Ethan noticed, laid their napkins tidily in their laps.

He watched the others carefully, as his mother had told him to, so that he wouldn't embarrass himself with poor table manners, and so he could learn how he was supposed to fit into the household. At the head of the table sat Mr. Lyman with his wife and older daughters on either side of him. Lizzie had returned from putting Aaron to bed and taken her place beside Florella, while Silas sat next to Zeloda, with Ruth in his lap. Mr. Pease and Mr. Wheeler sat at the end of the table near Ethan and Daniel. Since he didn't have a lap anyway, Ethan finally tucked his napkin into his shirt the way the hired men and Daniel did.

Mr. Pease continued his story. “Anyway, eventually Mrs. O'Malley died. And so, after a bit, did Paddy. So there's Paddy, standing before the seat of judgment, with Mrs. O'Malley and her pig there, too, ready to charge him with the crime and call out judgment upon his head. Paddy, of course, says he only borrowed the pig and he'd meant to give it back.

“‘You never,' Mrs. O'Malley says. ‘For didn't you eat it all up?' And the pig confirms the tale. In pig, of course.” Mr.
Pease made a little squealing noise that set the children giggling. Ethan couldn't help smiling along with them.

“Then Paddy says, ‘How can you say I didn't return him, when there's that very pig standing beside you? It only took a bit longer to get him back to you than I was expecting.'

“Well,” Mr. Pease continued when the laughter had died down. “Nobody could deny that he was right, however they tried to look at it. So there was nothing for it but to let the sly rascal into heaven after all.”

Mrs. Lyman leaned back in her chair and wiped her eyes. “Oh, Mr. Pease, where do you find such tales?”

“All true, ma'am.” Mr. Pease laid a hand over his heart. “I swear on my honor, which is more than an Irishman can do, eh, Paddy?” He elbowed Daniel. “No offense, of course.” His eyebrows rose as Lizzie held a plate under his nose. “Ah, currant cake. Lizzie, you are a jewel,” he said with a blissful sigh. He put a thick piece of cake on his own plate, then reached across Daniel to lay a slice onto Ethan's plate. He followed it up with heaps of baked goods, cold ham, pickles, and preserves, until Ethan's dish was buried beneath a mountain of food. Daniel, meanwhile, had to sit back and wait to eat while Mr. Pease's arm passed back and forth under his chin.

If Ma had served such a tea at home, instead of the usual bread and milk, Ethan could have eaten all that Mr. Pease had given him and still not had enough. But today the currant cake tasted like ashes, and the white bread stuck in his throat like a clump of wool.

Mr. Pease winked at Ethan. “Eat up, boy. Don't be shy. No lumps of soap here, I promise.”

“Soap?” Mr. Wheeler prompted.

“Haven't you heard the story about the Irishman who went to the city and mistook a barber shop for an eating house? The barber sets a basin of suds and a ball of soap
before him and goes to fetch his razor. When he returns, the basin is empty, the soap is gone, and Paddy's wiping his mouth on a towel. ‘Oh, no, sir, you didn't need to bring me a knife, now. I'm finished,' says Paddy. ‘The soup was lovely, but I must say that turnip was just a wee bit undercooked.' ”

While everyone laughed, Daniel hunched lower over his plate, drinking and eating as though he were the only one at the table and the meal required his full attention. He raised his eyes only when Silas addressed him with instructions about tomorrow's work.

At first, Ethan welcomed Mr. Pease's jokes. Daniel deserved it, after all, for being such an ill-tempered lout. Eventually, though, the jokes grew stale and Mr. Pease's laugh grated. Ethan almost felt relieved when, after several thwarted attempts, Silas managed to change the subject.

Ethan considered his future in the Lyman household. He prayed he'd spend more of his time working in the store than Mr. Lyman had predicted. Other than Lizzie, Mr. Lyman was the only one who'd seemed pleased to see him. The rest were indifferent at best, and at worst—

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