I am currently writing three novels at the same time. Two are set in the Regency period, but one is a sequel to my next Regency title, while the other is a Pride and Prejudice Vagary. I’ll share excerpts from those over the next few weeks. Today, I’m giving you a taste of another Pride and Prejudice Vagary; this one is set in the 1790s along the wilderness of State of Franklin. (Yes, there was truly a state called “Franklin” for five years.) These counties constituting Franklin are now part of the eastern counties of Tennessee. The title of the book is “The Great Road to Understanding,” for the passage from Roanoke, Virginia, to the Southwest Territory was known as the Great Valley Road. Our “characters” are the same (sort of). Read on and you’ll understand.
The Great Road to Understanding: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary
©Regina Jeffers 2016
“There it is,” he mumbled under his breath. “My future.”
Darius Fitzwilliam crossed the wooden walkway to make his way along the path leading to the large whitewashed house near the Congregational church. Darius could not recall the last time he attended a church service in an actual house of worship. It was difficult to discover a proper minister of the western side of the mountain range separating North Carolina from Lesser Franklin. Generally speaking people either spent time in reading their Bibles alone or with a few close neighbors, although “close neighbors” were still hard to come by where he called “home.” One of the things Darius hoped to accomplish with this return to civilization was to employ a ministerial student or graduate to accompany him west.
He paused as the house came into sight. It had been more than two years since he called upon his betrothed. Needless to say, he wrote to Caroline as often as his duties to his father’s land permitted. Darius wondered how much Caroline Bradford changed with their separation. He couldn’t say he held Caroline in deep affection, but Darius knew the woman a fine lady, and it was time for him to claim a bride and set up his family homestead. Moreover, he assumed affection would come with their marriage and living together.
Darius studied the well-groomed lawn with a large oak shading the house’ entrance A rope swing hanged from one of the limbs, and he couldn’t help but recall how Caroline’s brother and Darius taunted her and her elder sister Louisa upon a summer’s night.
“Before Charlie lost his hand in the war against the British.”
Charlie and Darius followed Washington through more years than either of them cared to mention.
Darius’ eyes scanned the pristine lawn again before he set his steps for his future.
“Nothin’ like the rolling hills and endless forests of my father’s land,” Darius murmured. “My land too.”
He’d already cleared several acres and began a proper house for his bride. Before arriving in town, Darius spoke to a man about a pair of oxen and a small wagon, more for Charlie’s use than his. It was not as if Caroline and he could share a wagon with her brother on their return to Darius’ land.
With a sigh of resignation, he climbed the three steps leading to the main door of Wade Heywood’s home to release the knocker. Caroline resided with her older sister, Mrs. Louisa Heywood. At one time Caroline thought to keep house for her brother Charles, but after Charlie’s injury, Darius’ friend no longer held a desire to settle down among the civilized sort. Darius suspected Charlie thought himself less of a man and couldn’t bear the possibility of censure.
Darius cleared his throat. “Mr. Fitzwilliam for Miss Bradford.”
The maid, who responded to his summons, appeared confused. “Mrs. Bradford be not within, Sir.”
It was Darius’ turn to know bewilderment. During the winter months, he sent Caroline a letter, which chronicled his travel itinerary, explaining to her that he would arrive the first week of August for their nuptials. Although he didn’t expect her to sit at home and wait for his appearance, Darius knew disappointment at her absence from the house.
“May I speak to either Mr. or Mrs. Heywood?”
The girl glanced over her shoulder to the interior rooms. “You’d best come in, Sir. I’ll sees who might be to speaking to yeh.”
Not even accepting his hat, she left him biding his time in the open hall. Darius felt quite conspicuous in his “Sunday best.” In Lesser Franklin, he wore buckskin and heavy work clothes, but he thought his appearance before his betrothed required more formal attire.
Darius looked up to note Mr. Heywood’s descent from the storey above.
“What brings you to Fincastle?”
The man paused on the stairs to await Darius’ response.
“I wrote Miss Bradford of my arrival. Did Caroline not share our plans with her family?”
“What plans would those be?” Heywood asked with a frown of disapproval.
“I came to Virginia to claim my bride,” Darius said in what rang of the trepidation now claiming his heart.
A look of disbelief crossed Heywood’s features.
“I suspect there’s some sort of misunderstanding. You should follow me, and we’ll address your questions to Mrs. Heywood. She holds a better idea of Caroline’s whims than do I.”
Darius did not like the sound of Heywood’s assertions, nor of the word “whims,” but he followed the man, nonetheless.
Locating his wife in a small sitting room, Heywood bustled Darius to a seat before explaining Darius’ situation to Mrs. Heywood.
“When was the last time you heard from Caroline?” Mrs. Heywood asked in a nervous manner.
“Some ten months,” Darius admitted, “but that be not unusual. Someone must make the trek to Jonesborough to claim mail.”
“I see,” the woman said tentatively. “I suppose there is no other means but to reach the point, Mr. Fitzwilliam. Our Caroline married Colonel Fidera some seven months back. My sister and the colonel have a house in Richmond.”
The woman’s news made no sense. Certainly, Darius would accept Miss Bradford’s change of heart, but did he not deserve an explanation from the lady’s lips? A farewell?
“Charlie knows nothing of Miss Bradford’s decision,” Darius stated lamely.
Surely Charlie would not permit him to act the role of fool if his friend was aware of this change.
“You know something of Caroline’s nature,” Heywood countered. “When our sister met Fidera, she set her sights upon the colonel. If she didn’t reside under the same roof as us, I doubt we would hold knowledge of their courtship.”
Mrs. Heywood added, “It was a speedy affair…barely a month of courtship.”
Darius rose awkwardly to his feet. “I must be going,” he said in poor excuse. “Charlie awaits my return near Evansham. It’ll be a surprise for Charlie to learn of his sister’s marriage to another. I image he’ll think it quite the thing.” Darius reached for his hat. “When you next write to Mrs. Fidera, please send my warmest regards.”
Mrs. Heywood rose quickly. “Will you not say for supper, Mr. Fitzwilliam? There’s no need for you to rush away. We’d enjoy hearing more of our brother.”
Darius wished to be long away from this most unexpected conversation. Without forethought, he reached into his pocket to withdraw a letter. “Charlie dictated what he wished you to know of his life on the western front. I’m certain you’ll find it informative.” With a clearing of his throat, Darius made his farewells, and before Heywood could respond, Darius made his departure.
Once again outside, he turned his steps toward the outskirts of town rather than the direction of the room he let for the night.
Darius wasn’t certain how he felt about what just occurred. Last evening as he fell asleep under the stars, he thought long and hard upon the fact his days as a free man were numbered. He would admit that he wasn’t best pleased with the idea of holding himself accountable to anyone but his revered father; yet, he understood God’s commandment to populate the world meant that men and women must join. Darius was well aware that America’s hope of becoming a great country rested with men like him, who were willing to work for prosperity and family.
Even so, his pride grimaced with the thought of the folly of appearing upon Caroline Bradford’s threshold only to be sent packing by his so-called betrothed’s relations.
“Should I be incensed?” Darius asked as he paused to lean against a large oak. “Odd, but I’m not.”
“Did I tarry too long? Certainly I might’ve returned last summer, but I wished to have the beginnings of a house built before claiming a bride.”
Darius gave a lift of shoulders in resignation. “I suppose Caroline became weary of waitin’ for my return. Or, mayhap, she’d grown too soft to face frontier life and didn’t have the nerve to speak her qualms.”
He gave a disbelieving shake to his head. Scrubbing his dry hands across his cheeks, Darius attempted to bring forth an image of Caroline, but he no longer could recall the bits of Caroline’s countenance that initially drew his attention to the woman. It was expected that he claim one of the two Bradford sisters, and Darius did his best to develop an affection for Caroline when Louisa married Heywood.
“What is the shape of her lips or the true color of her eyes?” he wondered aloud. Darius smiled with hard determination. “How can I blame Miss Bradford for her desertion when neither my body or my heart wished the connection? I acted from duty to my family name. I just wish Caroline was honest enough to admit the life I chose wasn’t to her liking.”
He glanced toward the town’s outline.
“I shan’t be stayin’ more than another day. No sense in keeping Charlie waiting. Will he not be surprised with my early return and his sister’s absence? I can hear him now, offerin’ apologies and excuses. But there’s nothin’ to be said on the matter. I’m free to seek companionship elsewhere, not that there are many women from which to choose in the wilderness, but if’n I come across one that suits my fancy, I’m no longer obliged to another.”
* * *
Eliza Benfield held her father’s arm tightly: They were in a part of the country of which she knew little, and for a change, she practiced discretion.
“Pardon me, Sir,” Mr. Benfield said as they approached a tow-headed man whose hair displayed the signs of long hours in the sun. “I’m seeking the acquaintance of two gentlemen from the Southwest counties.”
The man looked up and grinned widely. Eliza thought his the most congenial smile she’d ever encountered.
“I suppose that be me, but I don’t count myself a gentleman, not in the strictest sense of the word. I be a frontiersman who knows his Bible teaching. My name’s Charles Bradford. How may I be of assistance, Sir?”
Her father stretched out his hand in greeting. It was only then that Eliza noticed the man’s missing hand.
Mr. Bradford shrugged his shoulders in what appeared to be embarrassment. “A gift from good King George,” he said in explanation. “I beg your pardon.”
Mr. Benfield shook off Bradford’s apology. “No need, Son. I’m proud to claim the acquaintance of those who served our fledgling country.”
A flush of color claimed Bradford’s cheeks, but Eliza noted how the man stood straighter.
“I’ve learnt to do many things with the left one. Now, what business do you claim, Sir?”
Her father cleared his throat before confessing their purpose.
“My name is Thomas Benfield, and this be my daughter Eliza. We heard two men from the Southwest Territory meant to set out soon for Jonesborough. We hoped to join them as far as the Salt Lick. Perhaps we can find another group of settlers to continue the journey through the Cumberland Gap from there.”
Bradford nodded his greeting to Eliza while her father made his explanation.
“Where ye from, Benfield?” the man asked.
“Up near the Maryland–Virginia border. My wife and daughters and I mean to claim land in the valleys in Kentucky County. I hear land be available for less than a dollar an acre.”
“Hears the same,” Bradford assured. “Don’tcha have no sons?”
Her father patted the back of Eliza’s hand.
“My girls be strong enough to survive the trek if that be yer concern, Mr. Bradford.”
“I’m just asking what I know my partner Mr. Fitzwilliam will ask. The journey be difficult even for sturdy men.”
Eliza straightened her spine to appear taller than she was.
“My sisters Jane and Mary can handle a team of oxen as well as any man, and I’m not afeared of a long walk.”
Bradford smiled kindly upon her.
“I’ve no doubt, Ma’am. As for me, yer welcome to join up with us. Fitz means to see several settlers to the mountain territory, but I’m certain he’ll not object to add a few more to our party.”
“Where’s Mr. Fitzwilliam?” Eliza inquired.
“To the east in Fincastle,” Bradford said with a smile of amusement. “Plans to get himself hitched to my youngest sister.”
“And you will not attend the wedding?” Eliza asked.
It appeared odd to her that both men wouldn’t retrieve the lady.
“Nah,” Bradford said with a shrug. “I left home at eighteen to join General Washington. My father’s house no longer exists. Only been home once since leaving Virginy. Wade Heywood bought the land when my father passed, and he married my eldest sister, Louisa. There’s nothing for me there. My sister’s neighbors recall a whole man and look upon me as if I’m a derelict. I prefer the wilderness where a man be judged for what he accomplishes, not for his failures. My father left me a small legacy, and I mean to earn my fortune upon the frontier.
“Fitz will escort several families west to join up with us. He and Caroline will share a small wagon until we meet up again, and then I’ll claim the smaller one and permit Fitz the larger. There’s no need for a man without a wife to hold back those who do. Moreover, I consider myself fortunate to claim Fitz to friend. Most wouldn’t consider my needs in such a matter.
“Even so, it’ll be good to have Caroline close. Of late, I find I’m missin’ much of my Virginia roots. We moved there from where we first settled in New York.The winter in the mountains reminds me of both my homes.”
“It sounds as if you’ve found yourself a friend with principles,” her father observed.
“The best,” Bradford declared. “If not for Fitz, I’d be dead in some unmarked cornfield posing as a battleground.”
Her father nudged Eliza closer when two unsavory-looking men passed them.
“When do you expect to depart?” her father asked.
“Three to four days. A week tops if’n we get rain. Can you be prepared by then?”
“Absolutely,” her father declared. “Gives us time to restock some of our supplies. We’ll be prepared to leave when you and Mr. Fitzwilliam make the call.”
* * *
Watching the McClendons cuddle together upon the wagon seat did little to ease Darius’s bruised pride. The couple professed sorrow at not taking Caroline’s acquaintance for Darius spoke of his betrothed to the pair, before he’d ridden to Fincastle. From his own observation, he didn’t think the McClendons would even know of Caroline’s absence if he’d not informed them of it. Married only a few months, they were rarely seen not holding hands.
In truth, the scene fueled Darius’ anger. He couldn’t say he would be so openly affectionate with Caroline as were Ronnie and Marti McClendon, but he’d convinced himself he and Miss Bradford would know contentment.
“Much longer?” Geoffrey Winston asked as he brought his horse alongside the one Darius rode.
Darius wasn’t much pleased to add Winston to their party, but he’d possessed no legitimate excuse to deny the man. Winston served for a time in the same troop, as did Darius during the war–that is, until their commanding officer drove Winston from their lot. The man had run up a sizeable gaming debt, a vice of which Colonel Whitmore, who was a Bible thumper, didn’t approve. Moreover, there were rumors of Winston’s ruining two young ladies in the homes in which Whitmore billeted his troops. But Darius and Winston held a more troubled past than their short time together during the war.
Darius couldn’t prove Winston’s debauchery, and he hoped if there was some truth in the rumors that the man learned something of what was important in life in the years since. They were all green youths in the early years of the war, and despite all that had happened between his family and Winston’s, Darius fondly remembered a young boy who was a childhood friend. He and Charlie certainly had changed; they were no longer those idealistic youths who risked it all for a cause. They still held their values, but after tasting war, they’d preferred the quiet of a mountain stream. What passed for society in the East no longer held a lantern to the freedom they’d learned to cherish in the wilderness of the western counties.
“Be in Evansham by this time tomorrow. It’ll take at least two days to bring the group together. Hope to set out for the Southwest Territory by week’s end. The others might wish to stay for one last Sunday service before leaving the closest thing to civilization this side of the mountains.”
“In that case, I might ride over North Carolina way for a day or two,” Winston said. “I’ve relations that direction.”
Darius warned, “Can’t wait for your return if’n the others mean to claim dry weather.”
“No worries,” Winston said with a grin. “I travel light. If you leave, I’ll follow in a day or two. I’m certain several of those waiting for you are well loaded with supplies. You’ll not make as good a time when you add another half dozen wagons to these three.”
“Will the boy come with us?”
Darius glanced back at the small ox cart owned by Winston. The fellow had won a Negro child, an ox, and a half wagon in a card game. The boy of no more than ten to twelve years drove the slow moving cart holding Winston’s few belongings and a chest of which Darius had yet to see the contents.
“Finny will stay with the cart to Evansham and beyond if’n you leave before I return. It’ll be my contract with you. Everything I own be on that cart. I shan’t forget to make an appearance.”
Darius couldn’t shake the feeling that Winston would cause trouble, but he supposed he could leave the man at one of the forts or settlements they would pass if that proved true. If the worse came, he could send Winston out on his own.
“Before you set out for greener lands, I must reiterate that what occurred between my family and yours is in the past – between our fathers. But know, I won’t tolerate your gaming on this journey for more than a few pebbles. The families that travel with me are under my protection. Do I make myself clear? I’m well aware of what Whitmore accused you back in New York. I pray the colonel was wrong about you, but if he wasn’t just know I’m of the same hard nose as Whitmore in such matters.”
“I’d expect nothin’ less, Captain,” Winston declared in what sounded of sincerity, but Darius couldn’t shake the unease tugging at his chest.
* * *
“Fitz!” Charlie called as Darius reigned in his horse before the barn in which he and Charlie claimed a straw bed as cover each night.
“Evening,” Darius said with a grin as he swung his leg over the saddle to dismount. “Everything go well?”
“Absolutely,” Charlie said in distraction as he looked past Darius’ shoulder to the three wagons rolling to a stop before the barn. “My sister within one of the wagons?”
Charlie squinted into the late day sunshine.
“Fear not,” Darius said softly. “Miss Bradford chose not to join us.”
Charlie looked upon Darius in obvious confusion.
“What mean you by ‘chose not to join us’? It was always the plan for you to marry my sister and us to take up homesteading together.”
Darius attempted to hide his continued aggravation with the situation.
“Plans change: Miss Bradford married another some seven months back. She is now Colonel Mrs. Fidera and residing in Richmond.”
Charlie’s expression took on an incensed look.
“Without even as so much as a fare-the-well?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Heywood seemed to think Mrs. Fidera sent me her regrets,” Darius explained.
He didn’t enjoy the discussion of Miss Bradford’s betrayal for Darius feared it would leave a wedge between him and Charlie. They’d been friends since they were no more six, and Darius would be sore to lose Charlie’s loyalty.
“What’s done cannot be undone,” he said in sympathy for Darius recognized the conflicted expression on Charlie’s countenance. His friend also held a loyalty to both his youngest sister and to him. “Miss Bradford chose a life that best fits her needs. I cannot fault Caroline.”
“If’n yer certain,” Charlie said in a tone that spoke of doubt. “I’d not want Caroline’s notions to set our friendship off foot.”
Darius slapped Charlie upon the shoulder in camaraderie. “We remain as we’ve been for some two decades,” he assured his friend. “Another woman will eventually claim my attentions. Until then we’ll build ourselves a welcoming homestead.”
“Mayhap I’ll find me a woman before you,” Charlie teased.
“That would please me as much as finding someone of my own,” Darius declared as he loosened Jinx’s bridle.
“Any takers for the settlement? We could use some unmarried ladies in the west.”
Charlie propped a leg against the side of the barn to oversee Darius’ efforts.
“One young one came to speak to me three days prior.”
Darius looked at his friend in compassionate amusement. “Pretty?” he asked.
Charlie rarely spoke of women. Since his injury, Darius’ friend seemed to think women would judge him half a man. Darius couldn’t recall the last time Charlie showed interest in any woman.
“Fair enough,” Charlie taunted. “She and her pa, a Mr. Benfield, asked about going with us as far as the turn off for the Cumberland Gap; they be going on into Kentucky County.”
“Then ye better work fast,” Darius suggested with a broad smile.
“Supposedly there be more than one daughter,” Charlie explained. “And the MacCaffeys have two daughters, one of age and one maybe a year removed.”
Darius grinned at his friend. “Should I not grieve your sister’s loss for a few weeks?”
Charlie shoved off the barn to set his steps in the direction of the two wagons and the cart. Darius had no doubt Charlie would make certain the newcomers were properly settled.
“I sees no reason to grieve for something you never had. Caroline’s bed be made elsewhere. Neither of us have a foot in the grave. We’ve a lot of livin’ to do.”
Darius watched his friend greet the McClendons, Mr. and Mrs. Wilkerson, and Finny. There was a quickness to Charlie’s step, which Darius thought long missing. He prayed Miss Benfield would be kind to his friend. Even if she held no interest in Charlie, Darius hoped the woman wouldn’t find Charlie’s injury repulsive.
* * *
He wasn’t long to wonder on Charlie’s improvement. Early the next morning, the Benfields called upon Darius.
“Heard of your return,” Benfield explained after Charlie made the introductions. “Wanted to make certain you held no objections to my family joining your party.”
There was little Darius could say since Charlie approved of the family joining them. He could tolerate a gaggle of females if it meant Charlie’s doldrums disappeared.
“As long as your womenfolk can keep up with the rigors of the trail,” Darius began.
“Why shouldn’t we? It’s not as if walking long stretches is a man’s domain.”
Darius eyes finally settled upon the woman, and despite recognizing Charlie’s interest in the lady, Darius’ body reacted to her appearance: Fine boned, but not fragile of frame. Eyes that changed from green to muddy brown as she spoke with emotion. Skin tanned from the sun. Hair kissed by flakes of fire. Certainly not a woman of which Darius’ betrothed would approve as a replacement or a suitable match for her only brother.
“I meant no offense, Ma’am,” he said distractedly.
“Never mind our Eliza,” Mrs. Benfield placated. “She’s never learned her place or how to hold her tongue.”
In spite of first impressions, Darius studied the girl as Charlie assumed control of the conversation with her parents. She wasn’t the type that would customarily catch his eye, but Darius was hard pressed to conceal his interest. If they were back in England, like when he was at Cambridge, he’d address her as “Miss Eliza” for he learned she possessed an elder sister. But in America, if they were familiar, she was simply Eliza.
Nonetheless, Darius suspected there was nothing simple about the woman. Somehow, he thought the shortened name without the form of address just didn’t suit her. Even with her protests of being able to hold her own on the journey, the woman was as regal in the tilt of her head as any member of the monarchy.
“Do you ever go by Elizabeth?” he asked in a soft tone.
In his opinion, the idea of the “warrior” queen fit the woman who stood before him.
As if she read his mind, she asserted, “I’m not named for an English queen.” Her nose curled up in distaste.
Darius’ lips turned upward. He understood perfectly what had attracted Charlie to the woman. The thought of his friend’s attraction for Miss Eliza had Darius bringing his own desire under control.
“You assume I mean you harm. Perhaps it’s better we keep our connection minimal. It appears I cannot speak kindly without your accusing me of disdain.”
His words evidently shocked her for Eliza Benfield turned several shades of red before huffing her disapproval and following her parents toward the open barn door.
Despite his warning not to intrude upon Charlie’s supposed courtship, Darius couldn’t withdraw his eyes from the gentle sway of the lady’s hips as she walked smartly away. He memorized the way she straightened her shoulders, shoulders that held no sign of the practiced façade of gentility in them. The woman walked as if she owned the barn in which he stood–walked as if she wasn’t afeared of work, a fact that would prove to her benefit upon the wilderness frontier. She was without a false shell often found in society ladies.
Although he set his mind to ignoring her, Darius’ smile widened. Eliza Benfield would make the journey over the mountains interesting. Of that, he held no doubt.