Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (10 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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“Of course she does.  I know that for a fact. This playing hard to get, it’s a woman thing—they do it so you’ll cozy up to them a bit more, you know, bring flowers, tell them their hair smells nice, stuff like that.”

“You don’t mean…” Henry started rubbing his chin just the way his papa always did. “…it might be that Abigail
loves
me?”

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. A man can’t judge what’s on a woman’s mind by what she
says
. Why her mama, turned me down three times and I practically had to get down on my knees and beg before she agreed to marry me.”  

“Honest?”

“Yes indeed. And Abigail Anne, she’s got ways just like her mama. Fire and brimstone on the outside, but inside,” William shook his head as if some special instance had suddenly come to mind. “…well inside, she’s cuddly as a newborn kitten.”

“I’d sure marry up with Abigail Anne, if she’d have me.”

“Have you? Why, there’s not a doubt in my mind that she’d have you!”

Henry had a tendency to slump like a person trying to hide their tallness, but when he heard what William said, the boy straightened his shoulders to their full height and put on a grin so wide it appeared that his mouth had somehow gotten hooked onto his ears.  “You mean…” he cleared his throat, “Abigail Anne, would say
yes
, if I asked?”

“Well, she’s a mite young right now and hell-bent on finishing up eighth grade; but, just you wait ‘till she turns sixteen in August and she’ll be ready for marrying.”

“But, Abigail Anne said next year she’s going to the high school over in Buena Vista. She told me she’s gonna study to be a teacher.”

“That’s just young girl talk—foolishness. You wait ‘till she’s sixteen.”

The voices continued for a while longer, then Henry asked William if he thought Abigail Anne was gonna come back out anytime soon.

“Might be she’s too embarrassed,” William said. You come for supper Tuesday evening; by then she’ll be all prettied up and smiling like nothing ever happened.”

“You suppose she’d make that apple cobbler of hers?”

“I’d bet on it, boy!”

Abigail Anne eased her door shut, then crawled into bed and pulled the quilt up around her ears. She turned on her side and let the tears fall into her pillow. “Oh, Mama,” she sobbed, “I miss you so much.” That night a flock of black crows gathered in the maple tree, screeching and cawing like they were angry enough to tear the skin from a grown man. As Abigail lay listening in the darkness, she came to believe the sound she heard was the protest of her mother.

 

T
he following morning Abigail dutifully set breakfast on the table, but before her father had his first sip of coffee, she said, “You’re wrong, Papa.”

“Wrong?” he replied, like he hadn’t the faintest notion what she might be talking about.  Wrong about what?”

“You as much as told Henry I’d marry him.”

“Well?”

“I’m not gonna. I already said, I’m going to school in Buena Vista.”

“Abigail Anne, I’ve had enough of that nonsense about you being a teacher. Henry Keller is a fine young man and he’s gonna come into his family’s farm one of these days. You ought to be thankful he’s so taken with you!”

“But, I don’t
love
him, Papa. I can’t marry a boy I don’t love!”

“Love!” William shouted. “What in God’s name does a fifteen-year-old girl know about love? Is love gonna put food on the table? Build you a fine house? Take care of your babies?” William reached across the table and took hold of his daughter’s hand.  “Abigail Anne, love happens after a woman goes to a man’s bed, after they have babies together and come to know each other. The important thing is for you to marry a good man, someone who’s got his own land and a means to provide for you, a man like Henry can take care of you, make it a bit easier in hard times.”  

“But Papa, if I learn to be a teacher I can take care of myself.”

“Take care of yourself? Now wouldn’t
that
be a fine life!”

“For me it would.” 

“For the love of God, Abigail Anne! It’s high time you start realizing that this ain’t some storybook tale! You might not fancy you’re in love with Henry Keller right now, but that boy cares about you! He’s one who’ll take good care of you and your babies, the way I did your mama.”

“Mama’s life wasn’t so good.”

“That’s enough!” William slammed his fist against the table so hard that a plate of eggs flew off and splattered on the floor. “You’ll do as I say!”

Abigail heard the cawing of a whole flock of black crows ringing in her ears and she snapped back, “I’ll not marry Henry Keller!” 

William smacked her face so hard she fell to the floor. “You’ll do as I say!” he repeated, then stomped out the kitchen door.

 

W
hen Abigail arrived at school that morning she still had a large red welt on her cheek. “Why honey,” Miss Troy said, “what has happened to your face?” When the other students turned to look, Abigail Anne burst into tears. Miss Troy, being the kind of woman who could make her intent known with a single glance, gave out a reading assignment then went over and put her arm around Abigail’s shoulder. “Now, now,” she said, “nothing’s that bad.” She pulled a lace handkerchief from the pocket of her skirt and dabbed at Abigail’s face. “Come with me, honey,” she whispered, and guided the teary-eyed girl to a side room that was used mostly for storage. “Now tell me what’s troubling you,” Judith Troy said in the same comforting way as Livonia might have. 

After she’d heard the complete story of how William expected Abigail to marry Henry Keller, Miss Troy called Will into the side room with them. “Is such a thing true?” she asked the boy and when he answered that it was, she huffed and puffed like an angry bull. “William Lannigan must be living in the Middle Ages!” she said. “Now-days young ladies are free to marry whomever they choose!”

“Papa’s mighty difficult to reason with,” Will said, “even when he’s dead wrong.”

“Oh, is he? Well, we’ll see about that!” Miss Troy waggled her finger and stuck out that pointy little chin of hers, “You just tell your papa that I’ll be out to see him this Saturday! Times have changed and it’s high time he changed with them!”

“If I was you, I’d bring along Preacher Broody,” Will told her.

“I’m not one bit afraid of your papa!” Miss Troy snapped.

“Maybe not,” Will said, “but Papa’s more inclined to listen to the preacher.”

Abigail’s black crows were cawing louder than ever.

The following Saturday morning Abigail was so nervous that she burnt the biscuits and brewed coffee so bitter William left a full cup sitting on the kitchen table. Given the irritating nature of these things added to the fact that she’d forgotten to feed the chickens again yesterday, Abigail was earnestly praying Miss Troy would have Preacher Broody in tow. When the surrey pulled up at the house and Judith Troy was alone, Abigail’s heart fell.

“Morning, Mister Lannigan,” the teacher said.

“Morning.” William was stacking wood and didn’t bother to stop.

“I’ve come to talk about Abigail,” Judith Troy said. “Abigail Anne wants to continue her education instead of getting married; and I believe you should respect her wishes…” Miss Troy didn’t get the chance to finish what she had in mind for William turned his back and walked into the barn. “Mister Lannigan,” she called after him but there was no answer.

Abigail, who had been standing there wanting to take it all in, shrugged as if to indicate she had no idea what her father’s actions meant.

Judith Troy stepped down from the surrey and started toward the barn.

“Get back in the buggy and get off my farm!” William said as he came out of the barn with his shotgun leveled at her head.

“Now, Mister Lannigan, there’s no need…”

“Get off my farm,” he repeated.

“Mister Lannigan, the girl needs…”

“Needs?
I’m
the one who decides what she needs and don’t need.”

“But…”

William fired a shot into the air. “I’m warning you!”

Abigail went running over to her father, “Stop, Papa! Please stop! Miss Troy don’t mean no harm. She’s just trying to help.”

“I ain’t in need of any
schoolteacher’s
help raising my family!” William lowered the barrel of his shotgun just enough to show he was willing to allow Miss Troy to walk safely back to the surrey.

“Please, Miss Troy,” Abigail pleaded, “…it’s best you go.”

Now, Judith Troy was willful and stubborn but she wasn’t foolish enough to take on a twenty-two gauge shotgun, so she climbed back into the buggy and left. But after she’d turned the surrey around and had gotten no more than a few feet along the road she looked back and shouted, “You think about it, Mister Lannigan. Think about it!”

William fired another shot into the air.

 

A
fter the confrontation with Judith Troy, William flew into a rage the likes of which Abigail had not seen for three years. He grabbed the girl by the arm, yanked her into the house and pushed her down into a straight-backed kitchen chair. “You sit there,” he shouted, “sit there ‘till I say you can get up!” Then he stomped back and forth across the room ranting on and on about how he would not have some meddlesome busybody telling him what to do with his children. “You’ll not go to that schoolhouse another day!” he told Abigail and that’s when she started to cry. Of course, she could have shed enough tears to fill the RappahannockRiver and it wouldn’t have made a difference to William, for at this point his mind was made up. 

“Papa, please…” Abigail sobbed, but she was told to shut up.

“I’m not interested in anything you’ve got to say,” he stormed, then kicked at the stove with a vengeance. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, blabbing our family business to that know-it-all teacher! What on this earth possessed you?” he asked, but when Abigail started to stammer out an answer, he said, “I told you to shut up!”

After this had gone on for well over an hour, Abigail whispered, “I’m sorry, Papa.  I know I had no right.”

“You ought to be sorry,” William replied, but this time he wasn’t shouting the way he had been. “I’m your papa, girl. I’m looking out for
your
welfare. It’s what your mama wanted; and I’m trying to do the best I can.”

“I know, Papa.  I know.”

“Then why do you fight me, every step of the way?” William stopped pacing and sat down at the table. He took hold of Abigail’s hand. “Why?”

“I’m sorry, Papa.  I won’t fight you anymore. If you let me finish the school year, I’ll marry Henry Keller like you want.”

“It goes against my grain to let you go back to that schoolhouse,” he said. “That teacher is a bad influence on you.”

“I won’t tell her another thing about our family business, Papa.  I swear I won’t. For certain she’ll never bother you again.”

“Well, if you’re dead set on finishing, I suppose I can tolerate five more months.”

“Oh, thank you, Papa. Thank you so much!”

“Just you make sure that schoolwork don’t get in the way of your chores!”

“No sir! I’ll make sure of that!”

That was how William’s tirade finally ended. It didn’t actually end; it just sort of evolved into a peace agreement based on the contingency that Abigail marry Henry Keller.     

 

A
bigail knew she’d made a mistake in promising to marry Henry, but without that promise she’d never again lay eyes on Miss Troy which was something she couldn’t live with. That night, as she lay in bed and listened to the black crows beating their wings against the icy cold air and cawing out a message she was certain came from Livonia, Abigail came up with a plan.

For three weeks she kept this plan to herself, letting it roll around her head and settle. Twice she made potato pancakes and pork with gravy, a dish that took considerable effort; and Henry, who came for supper more often than not, licked his plate clean. He’d smile across the table at Abigail and she would smile back. William seemed satisfied that the girl had come to her senses, so he also was in exceptionally good humor. With Henry being there evening after evening, Will was free to spend time at the Withers place; which was exactly what he wanted to do now that he’d gotten moony-eyed over Rebecca. To most outsiders it seemed the Lannigan household was downright happy, but there was one person who took notice of the far away look in Abigail Anne’s eyes.

 

W
hen Miss Troy asked, “Can you tell me the capitol of Pennsylvania?” Abigail Anne gave the teacher a look that seemed to infer she’d never even heard of Pennsylvania.  This alarmed Judith Troy because she knew the girl could recite the capitol city of each and every state, so she’d try again. “How about Maryland?” she’d say but Abigail’s face still didn’t register a thing other than an absent-eyed look of confusion. 

One morning when the rest of the class was working on a study assignment, Miss Troy whispered in Abigail’s ear, “Please, come with me,” and she led her back to the storage room. “Abigail Anne,” she said, “you’re a bright girl, a girl with a lot of ability. I know you know the answer to these questions so what’s causing you to act this way?” 

“Nothing,” Abigail answered looking down at her feet.

“It’s something or you wouldn’t be acting this way. Has there been more trouble with your father?”

“Don’t ask me that,” Abigail Anne answered and her eyes filled with tears. “I can’t tell you things about our family cause if I do, I’ll have to stop coming to school.”

“Nonsense! If your father tries a thing like that I’ll notify the state authorities!”

“Papa don’t care about the state authorities.”

“Well, he will care if I go out there with—”

“Oh, please, Miss Troy, please don’t come! Papa will claim you’re a trespasser and shoot you dead in the heart!” 

“He can’t do anything of the sort; there are laws against that type of behavior.”

“When Papa gets mad enough, he don’t care a bean about laws.”

Judith Troy took hold of Abigail’s hand and clasped it tightly as she looked into the girl’s eyes. “Child,” she said, “you’ve got to talk to someone. You can’t keep troubles bottled up inside you. You’ve got to pour them out so that somebody can help.”

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