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Authors: Serena B. Miller

Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050

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BOOK: A Promise to Love
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Ingrid had met Hazel Smith when the older lady had come calling on Millicent. Hazel was nearing seventy and lived alone on the outskirts of the village with a dog that looked like it had more wolf in it than dog. At the moment, the wolf-dog was quietly positioning itself between her and Hazel. Its behavior was not yet threatening, but Ingrid could tell it was giving the situation careful thought.

Millicent had told her that Hazel had moved here with her trapper husband long before White Rock had become a village. The old woman had unkempt gray hair and wore men's britches, a belted calico shirt, and an old battered hat. She grew her own garden, shot her own meat, and ate fish that she caught and cleaned.

Millicent, needless to say, did not approve of Hazel, her life, or her choice of apparel. The feeling appeared to be mutual.

Hazel had dropped by the Bowerses' home only once while Ingrid was there. She had ended up quarreling, quite heatedly, with Millicent over the war. Ingrid discovered later that the only reason Hazel had stopped by at all was to see the young immigrant girl who had answered the advertisement George had placed in a Detroit newspaper. There wasn't a lot happening in White Rock, and for a few days the news of her arrival had apparently been the town's primary source of gossip.

For a short time, Millicent had enjoyed the attention Ingrid brought. It made her the first woman in White Rock to employ a “servant,” which is what she insisted on calling her. Ingrid preferred the term “hired girl,” which was what the other townsfolk called her—to Millicent's annoyance.

“If that woman ever gets on your nerves,” Hazel whispered as Ingrid walked her to the door after her one memorable visit, “you just come on over and stay with me till you figure out what you want to do.”

It seemed an odd thing for the old woman to say, but Ingrid had tucked it away in her mind just in case.

“I have no place to sleep,” Ingrid said. “Millicent tell me . . . get out.”

“I figured that might happen,” Hazel said. “What did you do to upset her?”

“I broke tea set.”

“That fancy china teapot all the way from England?” Hazel whooped with laughter. “I bet that was one furious Southern belle you had on your hands.”

“It was accident.”

“Well, of course it was an accident. A girl like you don't go around smashing good china on purpose. How did you get those welts on your face?”

“She whip me.”

Hazel's laughter stilled and her eyes narrowed. “She what?”

“She hit me with whip.”

“Well, I'll be.” Hazel's mouth formed a rigid line. “That woman's crazier'n I thought. She's probably walking around with her corset laced too tight again. Forty-two years old and still trying to have the waistline of a girl. I've heard she even sleeps in it—is that true?”

Ingrid nodded. “She have sleep corset, day corset, and party corset—very tight, that one.”

Hazel shook her head. “Imagine sleeping in something made of bone and steel, laced so tight you can't breathe.”

“She say girl-childs need wear too.”

“Are you making a joke?”

“No. I hear her tell Mrs. Burnett to lace her
dotter
up tight at night.”

“Little Lucy? For goodness sake. That sweet child is only seven years old!”

“Millicent say it best when the bones still soft.”

“I hope the mother refused.”

“Mrs. Burnett say she do when girl is eleven.”

“Goodness! Well, you're just as well out of there. Come on in and we'll find you a place to sleep.”

Hazel's indignation about the way she had been treated made Ingrid feel enormously better. She hadn't been certain if getting beaten by an employer was considered normal in America. Now she knew that not only was it not normal, it was considered crazy.

Even though Hazel's house was small, Ingrid immediately felt at home. Instead of every corner being stuffed with furniture, there was a barrenness that appealed to her Swedish love of cleanliness and order.

Except it wasn't really all that clean. Hazel, after all, was not young. She no longer had the clearest eyes or the sharpest nose. Perhaps in return for a bed, Hazel would allow Ingrid to give the place a good scrubbing.

“You can sleep in the loft,” Hazel said. “There's a bed and a bit of furniture up there. Go on up and get yourself settled.”

Ingrid mounted the narrow stairs and was pleased with what she saw. The roof was steep, and the loft felt roomier because of it. A small, glassed-in window was at one end, allowing a ray of late afternoon sunshine to dance upon the wooden floor. There had been no window in the Bowerses' attic.

Pegs were set into the logs for hanging clothes. There was a single rope bed with a plain dressing table and oil lamp beside it. A footstool was pulled up to a small rocking chair.

It was more than enough, especially since she was grateful to have a roof over her head at all. She scooted her one piece of luggage beneath the bed and went back downstairs.

“Thank you,” she said. “I pay with work. I clean now? Sweep floor?”

“You'll be paying me back by giving me some company in the evenings,” Hazel said. She patted the dog's head, which came up to her waist. The wolf-dog could easily have made a meal of Hazel with a few bites, but it not only tolerated Hazel's loving hand on its head, it also closed its eyes with pleasure when the old woman stroked it.

“She-Wolf here isn't much of a conversationalist at night, but she can scare the daylights out of anyone that might try to take advantage of me.”

The dog gave Ingrid a straight, meaningful look, as though making certain Ingrid knew she was there on a probationary status only.

“She bite?” Ingrid was uneasy about the glare she was getting from the wolf-dog. “She
look
like she bite!”

“Not unless I tell her to.”

Ingrid tried to ignore the giant wolf-dog. She rubbed her hands together and looked around. “Give me job.”

“Let's get you settled first. That bed up there ain't been slept in for a while,” Hazel said. “Might be a good idea to shake the mice out of it and tear some fresh corn shucks to put in. I got some I been saving since last fall. Hadn't seen the need till now.”

“I help!” She was pleased to have something productive to do.

“Good then.” Hazel dragged a large bag of dried corn husks from beneath her own bed, which was placed in the only other room on the first floor. “It's gonna be good having company around here again. Old She-Wolf here is tired of listening to me telling my stories over and over, aren't you, She-Wolf?”

The wolf-dog had settled down on the floor next to Hazel's rocker with her muzzle on her paws. Now she looked up at Ingrid and whined softly as though in agreement that she would be happy to be relieved of the burden of listening to Hazel's stories.

Had the dog not been so large and intimidating, Ingrid would have been tempted to laugh at her self-pitying expression. She chose not to risk it. She-Wolf might not have a sense of humor.

“Go up and throw down that mattress,” Hazel said. “Then take it outside and empty it. We'll see if there's any damage.”

Ingrid did exactly as Hazel asked. Unfortunately, the mattress
had
been used as a cozy place to raise a family of mice. She took the mattress outside and shook the contents into the field beside the cabin.

Then she went back inside and repaired the small hole the mice had made, and Hazel built a fire against the cool spring night. It was companionable sitting in the solid little cabin, a small fire burning in the grate as they tore husks and stuffed them into the mattress.

“Why'd she stop whipping you?” Hazel asked.

“I take whip away.”

“You did?” Hazel's eyes were admiring. “Did she put up a fight?”

“She try. Mr. Hunter stop her.”

“Joshua?”

“Millicent call him ‘wife killer.'”

Hazel's hands stilled. “To his face?”

“Ja.”

“She
would
do that!” Hazel grabbed a large handful of corn shucks and started ripping them with renewed vigor. “I been trying to squash that rumor for weeks now. Joshua has enough on his hands without dealing with that kind of foolishness. I wish the Bowerses would move back to where they belong.”

“Millicent much like that.”

“I know. I've heard her singing the praises of Richmond ever since the two of them got here. She doesn't seem to realize how it sounds to those of us here in the North, especially them that's got menfolk in the ground because of that war. The biggest mistake of my life was selling my husband's store to George. I miss visiting with the customers.”

“Why you do?”

“I was going through a sickish spell. Thought it was the end. Couldn't take care of the place like I wanted. I got better, but by then it was too late.”

“Why they want store?” Ingrid reached into the sack for another handful of corn shucks. They were so dry they felt like thin paper.

“There was no money down South after the war. Michigan is where the money is, now that it's the lumber capital of the world. George is not dumb. He knew a store in a place growing as fast as White Rock is, and especially a town near the lumber camps, would be a gold mine. It was a good business decision for him, and I didn't have anyone else standing in line to buy it from me. Now that wife of his is spreading gossip about Josh, one of the finest men I know. I could just wring Millicent's neck.”

“Did he?”

“Who, Joshua? Kill his wife? Of course not. Never saw a man so besotted with a woman, and with that passel of little girls of his. He can't even keep his daughters under control, let alone hurt that pretty wife.”

“She pretty? This wife?”

“I don't think I ever saw a woman more perfect in form or face. Had an air of mystery about her too, that seemed to fascinate all the boys that hung around before she married Josh. She never told anyone what she was thinking, not even other women. Josh worshiped her from the moment he laid eyes on her, and from what I could see, he never got over it.”

“But Millicent say . . .”

“Millicent is enjoying herself at Josh's expense. That big mouth of hers is one of the reasons they've called for an inquest. Between you and me, sometimes I suspect the real reason George moved north was because there was no one left in Virginia who could tolerate Millicent.”

“When is this . . . this . . . inquest? I get word right?”

“Yep. That's right. Where did you learn English, anyway? You sure don't sound like you just got off the boat.”

Ingrid felt very pleased at the compliment. She had worked hard learning the language of what was going to be her adopted country.

“We have English neighbor. She marry Swedish man. We children, me and brother, go next door and visit her every day. She very lonely. She play games, bake cookies, teach us English just for fun. Very kind.” Ingrid sighed, missing their friend. “When we decide to go to America, she work very hard so we be ready.”

“Well, that answers another question I had,” Hazel said.

“What is that?”

“How a Swedish girl wound up having a British accent.”

“That is bad?”

“No. Not at all. Just a little confusing,” Hazel said. “Are you talking about the brother I heard was supposed to meet you in Detroit?”

“Ja.” Ingrid marveled at the way news traveled in a small town. “Hans is my twin brother. He go to America, get work on farm in Ohio and send money for Ingrid's trip. He say he make more money in lumber camp in Saginaw, Michigan. He say come in spring to Mrs. Baker's boardinghouse in Detroit. He say wait for him. I do. He never come and never come. No letter. No Hans. I run out of money and take job in White Rock. Think if I come close to where Hans work, I find him.”

“You poor child.” Hazel shot her a pitying look. “Did he write you regular-like before then?”

Ingrid nodded.

“And then the letters stopped?”

“Ja.”

“We'll pray that you find your brother.” Hazel laid a comforting hand on her arm. “But don't get your hopes up. Lumber camps can swallow a man whole.”

“You think Hans is not alive?”

“He could be the governor of Michigan for all I know.” Hazel shrugged. “I'm just sayin' it might be wise to have a plan that don't involve pinning all your hopes on finding your brother.”

Ingrid winced at Hazel's words. They too closely echoed her own fears. She knew that if Hans had any way of getting word to her, he would. A lumber camp very well might have “swallowed him whole” as Hazel had put it.

She didn't want to cry in front of her new friend, so she fought down the panic that threatened to overtake her at the thought of losing Hans and tried to force herself think about something else—something that would not make her sad.

“You say Mr. Hunter is good man?”

“Why?” Hazel shot her a glance. “Are you interested in Josh?”

Ingrid looked away. “He was . . . kind to me.”

“Well, I'll be,” Hazel said, smiling. “You're sweet on him.”

Ingrid felt her face turning red.

“Can't say that I blame you. Josh is definitely a looker. A war hero too. There'll be more than a few women in this county setting their caps for him—once the inquest puts the rumor about his wife to rest.”

The thought of other women pursuing Mr. Hunter bothered Ingrid.

“You do realize,” Hazel continued, “that anyone who snags Josh will be taking on a poor dirt farmer with five children to feed.”

“I like children.” Ingrid shrugged. “I like farm.”

“Well, the inquest will be tomorrow at the Rogerses' house. Maybe we'll find something out then. No one really knows what happened to Diantha, including Josh. It's the biggest mystery we've had around here since we quit trying to figure out why a nice man like George would marry a woman like Millicent.”

BOOK: A Promise to Love
11.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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