Read A Promise to Love Online

Authors: Serena B. Miller

Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050

A Promise to Love (6 page)

BOOK: A Promise to Love
8.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Why do they do this to him?” she asked Hazel.

“Diantha's mother and her aunt Almeida, who came over right after her death, were in the room when Dr. Allard mentioned the possibility of poison. Neither of them have let up since. Evidently, Diantha had told them how unhappy she was, and at least one of them brought Millicent in on it. Diantha and Millicent were friends.”

“I did not know,” Ingrid said.

“It does seem odd. They weren't exactly thick. Diantha had too many young children for them to spend a lot of time together, but she was closer to Millicent than anyone else.”

At that moment, Millicent arose and started out the door. She seemed surprised to see Ingrid.

“So that's where you got to,” she said. “I need you back at my house at once.”

Ingrid was taken aback. “You make me leave.”

“I changed my mind. It will take time to find someone to replace you. In the meantime, I have no one to do your chores.”

“She's fine just where she is,” Hazel said.

Millicent sniffed. “You don't need a servant. You could never afford to pay one in a million years, no matter how wretched the servant might be.”

“You might be surprised what I can afford,” Hazel said.

“Come along, Ingrid,” Millicent commanded. “I'll take you home now. There are dishes to wash.”

Ingrid pressed her back against the log wall. “No.”

“Excuse me?”

“I stay with Hazel.”

“Hmm.” Millicent pursed her lips and cocked her head. “I wonder how Hazel will feel about that when George stops ordering the medicine he keeps in stock for her heart condition.”

“He would not do that,” Ingrid said.

Millicent's mouth curved in a knowing little smile. “George will do anything I tell him to.”

“You have heart problem?” Ingrid asked Hazel.

“Nothing to worry about,” Hazel said. “Besides, I can order it my ownself—ain't like I never kept a store before. I was only having George order it to give him some business.” She glared at Millicent. “The man needs all the business he can get if he's gonna buy this one here all the fancy doodads she wants.”

“I hope you're prepared to order everything else you need for the rest of your life once I tell George you stole my servant.” Millicent glanced back and forth between the two women as though trying to figure out her next move.

Ingrid put her arm around Hazel. “All she do is give me a bed when you throw me out.”

“You have a perfectly good bed at our house. I'll expect to see you in it by this evening, or I'll make certain that Hazel's money won't do her a bit of good in our store.”

And with that, Millicent swished away. She-Wolf growled softly, watching her go.

“My sentiments exactly,” Hazel said, patting the dog's head.

Ingrid did not want to risk bringing misfortune on her friend, but she could not bear the thought of going back to work for Millicent. The only relatives she had left in the world were an ocean away, and she had no money to get back to them. There was no other job to be had for a woman in this small, out-of-the-way place.

Mr. Hunter came back in and sat down. He moved like a man who was heart sick and bone weary. She felt so sorry for him that she shoved her own worries aside.

“I'm gonna go see if that boy needs anything.” Hazel patted Ingrid's hand. “You stay right here. Don't let Millicent get to you. We'll be just fine. Millicent must have forgot that they still owe me quite a few more payments on that store. George will get me whatever I need. Millicent doesn't have
that
much power over him. The man does have a backbone. We just don't get to see it very often.”

Ingrid watched Hazel approach Mr. Hunter, wishing that she, too, had the right to go over and talk to him. Although what she would talk about, she had no idea.

Soon, Judge Cornelius Carver took his seat, and people poured back into the room. Hazel resumed her spot beside Ingrid. Agnes returned with Polly on her hip and the other two girls in tow.

“You should stay outside,” Ingrid heard Mr. Hunter say to his daughters.

“We ain't leaving,” Agnes said.

The two little girls who had been outside were red-faced as though they had been running and playing hard. Obviously, they were too young to understand the gravity of the situation. Their ribbons had come undone, the lace on the youngest's pantalets was torn and dragging, and both of their faces could use a wash. Agnes sat Polly down and began to rebraid Trudy and Ellie's unruly hair.

“How is he?” Ingrid whispered when Hazel had settled back down beside her.

“He's taken a pretty big hit, but Joshua is tough,” Hazel said. “He's faced worse enemies than Diantha's mother and this court, but never with his children beside him. I'm so mad at Virgie I could just spit. She's probably the one who told the judge about her daughter spouting off about wanting to die just to make Josh look bad. Every woman says things she don't mean sometimes.”

Ingrid could not imagine ever saying anything like that. Not with those beautiful children to care for.

“Now people will always wonder what Joshua did to make her feel that way,” Hazel said. “Oh. It's starting again. I want to hear what Virgie has to say for herself.”

 5 

There was a time when Joshua had liked Diantha's mother. Up until now, she had always been civil to him. In fact, when he had bought 160 acres of adjoining land from Diantha's parents after the war, he thought that since his wife was not a woman to be easily separated from her mother, the acreage he purchased next to them was as good a place as any to live.

Now, a hundred miles would not be enough distance to put between him and the Youngs as far as he was concerned. After Virgie had accused him publicly to whoever would listen of killing her daughter, he didn't have a whole lot of use for the woman, even if she was grieving.

After facing the enemy in battle, he had never dreamed the enemy would take the form of a woman in whose face he saw the shadow of his beloved wife's.

“Would Virgie Young please come forward and be sworn in?” the judge said.

Virgie was a small, slender woman like Diantha. She had seen so much trouble in her life that her hair had turned completely white even though she was only in her early fifties.

“Please tell us what happened on the day your daughter died, Mrs. Young,” the judge said after she had sworn to tell the truth.

Virgie dabbed at her eyes with a wadded-up handkerchief, and for a few moments, while the entire courtroom held its breath, she seemed unable to speak.

“Did your daughter appear to be in good health on that morning when she came to your house?” the judge prompted.

“She did.”

“Do you remember anything different from what your son-in-law testified?”

“That man is not my son-in-law.” Virgie pointed at Joshua. “Not anymore. Not after what he done.”

“No more of that, please, Mrs. Young.” The judge's voice was firm. “I repeat. Is there anything you want to add or subtract from Joshua Hunter's testimony?”

“Well, she didn't make no complaints until about ten o'clock. I started out back to get me some greens for our dinner, and Agnes comes to the back door and she says, ‘Grandma, come in here quick!'

“When I come in, Diantha was lying on the floor. I asked her what was wrong. She got up, brushed herself off, laughed, and said that nothing was the matter. I asked if she had fainted, and she said she didn't think so. She started peeling some apples I was going to bake and then I heard her make a real curious noise. I looked over, and she had her head laid down against the table and her eyes shut. I shook her and asked her what was the matter. But she didn't say nothing. That's when I told Agnes to run get her pa.

“When Josh come in, he talked her into laying down on my bed.” Virgie's eyes narrowed. “I know it sounds like he was all helpful, but he was just trying to make us think he hadn't done nothin' to her.”

“I'll come to my own conclusions,” the judge said. “Was there anyone else on the place?”

“Besides me and Richard?” Virgie thought. “Right after Diantha died, Almeida walked in.”

“Who is Almeida?”

“My sister. She says to me maybe Diantha had some kind of spasm. ‘Let's rub her,' she says. Sometimes people come out of it if you rub them. So we rubbed her and put camphor under her nose, but it didn't do no good.”

“Where was Mr. Hunter all this time?”

“In the other bedroom just a-talking to the children. He weren't helping us try to bring Diantha back to life at all.”

“Did the doctor mention a need for an autopsy?”

“Dr. Allard said he didn't think there was any reason for one. He seemed worried about a baby he had to deliver, and he was in a big hurry to go,” Virgie said bitterly. “He didn't stay no time. Just up and left. Next thing I know, Richard and Joshua are a-putting my daughter in the coffin.”

“Did you ever hear her say that she wanted to kill herself?”

“Yes, but I think that's just 'cause she was afraid of Josh.”

Virgie hesitated, and Joshua was afraid he knew what was going to come out of her mouth next.

“Go on,” the judge instructed. “Explain what you mean by that comment.”

“That last Sunday, when she come for dinner, she said that she thought Josh was a-trying to kill her.”

There was a rumble in the courtroom at this information.

“Ma'am.” The judge shot a sideways glance at Joshua. “Do you have any idea why your daughter would say such a thing?”

“No sir.” Virgie stared innocently at her entwined fingers. “But them's her exact words. She said, ‘That Josh, he's gonna kill me one of these days if I don't get away from him.'”

Joshua wished he could say that his mother-in-law was lying, but he couldn't. She wasn't lying. He was quite certain that his wife had said those words to her mother. She had said them to him.

Diantha was tired of bearing and caring for their children. She hadn't even wanted little Bertie, and she had informed Josh there would be no more children between them ever again.

He had agreed to her terms. It was not what he wanted for their relationship, but he was willing to do without physical intimacy if it would make Diantha's black moods go away.

Then one night, a few weeks after Bertie's birth, during one of Diantha's brief, sparkling, joyful periods that she sometimes had for no apparent reason, she had turned to him in the night whispering love words, and he had responded.

Was he going to have to explain all of this in front of his friends and neighbors? In front of his daughters? In front of the men with whom he had served? Did a man have to strip himself naked in a court of law?

The one thing he had chosen not to share with the court or anyone else was that on the day Diantha died, she was certain she was with child once again, and she was furious about it.

Ingrid had stopped paying attention to the court proceedings. It was late afternoon, and after Richard's testimony, the words were becoming repetitive. The headaches. The chilling. The dizziness. The death. Even the doctor had little to add except to hold to his original diagnosis that Diantha had died of something bursting inside her brain. He even said that his comment about strychnine had been the mere musings of an overworked physician. A.J. Rogers reported that a search had been made of both the Hunter and Young farms and no strychnine or any other poison had been found.

Ingrid wasn't really listening. She was far too absorbed in watching the four little girls squirming in their seats beside their daddy. Her hands ached to take a needle and thread to the one child's torn pantalets, and she wished she could neatly braid the other girl's hair that was coming undone once again from the braid the big sister had tried to do. She could tell that the oldest girl was doing her best, but no twelve-year-old could care for children like a real mother.

If only she could work for Mr. Hunter, she would be so good to those little girls!

The judge finished questioning the doctor and checked his pocket watch. Ingrid suspected that a man as important as Judge Carver could not linger long in any one spot.

“Does anyone else have something they want to say to the court?” the judge asked. “If not . . .”

“Your honor?” A lone man stood at attention in the back of the courtroom. His left arm had a hand hook on the end of it. There were scars about his left lower jaw and neck.

“Yes?”

“Private Lyman Wilson, your honor. I just want to say that I fought with and followed Captain Hunter for more'n three years when I served in the First Cavalry. I never saw a braver soldier or a more honest man. He saved my life, sir. Saved it at the risk of his own. When we weren't fighting, he'd tell us about his pretty wife back home, and the one little girl they had then, and how bad he wanted to get back to them. There's not a one of us who served with the captain who thinks there's a word of truth in whoever's been telling folks that he kilt that poor woman.”

The former soldier lifted his chin and looked around the courtroom. “Anyone who says Josh Hunter hurt his wife is a yellow-bellied liar, and I challenge ever' last one of you to a fair fight!”

A raucous cheer went up from the back of the room where the knot of former soldiers stood, all of them evidently itching for a chance to lick somebody on Joshua's behalf.

“I fought with the Third Infantry myself, Mr. Wilson.” The judge gazed thoughtfully at the remnant of the First Cavalry that had come to support Joshua. “In my opinion, no one knows a man's nature better than those who have fought alongside of him. Your words carry a good bit of weight with me.”

“They do?” Private Lyman Wilson looked startled.

Judge Carver picked up the gavel he had brought with him and twirled it in his hands.

“Based on the fact that there has been no evidence whatever of foul play, based on the fact that there has been no evidence provided of strychnine or any other poisonous substances found upon the premises of the Young or Hunter farms, based on the fact that the doctor who examined the body saw no basis for doing an autopsy or for believing Diantha Hunter was poisoned, based on the character witnesses I see today in the presence of the men who served with Mr. Hunter,
and
based on the fact that I am due in Port Hope in four hours—I am hereby ruling Diantha Hunter's death one of unknown causes.” He hit the table with his gavel. “Court is dismissed.”

Ingrid saw Mr. Hunter whisper a few words into his oldest daughter's ear, and then he walked to the back of the room to talk to the former soldiers who had come to support him. Several people pumped his hand and patted his back as he made his way through the crowd. People in the courtroom, tired from sitting and surfeited with about as much drama as they could absorb, began gathering their things for their journey home.

Suddenly, there was a stir up front. She saw Diantha's parents in deep conversation with the judge, and then she heard the judge's gavel come down hard.

“Will everyone please take their seats?” the judge said.

People sat down but looked at one another, puzzled.

“Another serious matter has been brought to my attention regarding this case,” the judge said. “Richard and Virgie Young are accusing Joshua Hunter of negligence in his parental duties and have petitioned the court for protective custody of all five of the Hunter children.”

“You can't take away my children!” Mr. Hunter exclaimed. “They're all I have left!”

“I sympathize with you, Mr. Hunter,” the judge said, “but it is not the court's responsibility to protect the parent's feelings. It is the duty of the court to protect the best interests of the children. From what little I've seen today, the Youngs' accusation that you are overwhelmed and unable to give your children the care they need is justified.”

Ingrid saw Agnes try to tuck the torn lace of Ellie's pantalets out of sight.

“Pa's doing the best that he can,” Agnes said, unwittingly hammering the nail deeper into her father's coffin. “He can't help it if he can't cook nothin' much but corn mush and Polly don't have no diapers on most of the time when she's playin' outside. He can't help it if he can't iron Trudy's dress without burning a hole in it. That's no call to make us go live with Grandma and Grandpa.”

BOOK: A Promise to Love
8.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Granite by Ronin Winters
A Taste for Death by P D James
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
Happy, Happy, Happy by Phil Robertson
Doctor Who: The Devil Goblins From Neptune by Topping, Keith, Day, Martin
Por quién doblan las campanas by Ernest Hemingway
The Second Confession by Stout, Rex
Embers of a Broken Throne by Terry C. Simpson