Bright and early the next morning Eliza and her sister were up and getting the day started. She’d woke with the determination to stay. She wouldn’t leave behind what her parents had worked so hard for, or the home she’d grown up in.
After breakfast was cleaned up, Joanna got ready for school. They’d both agreed it was time, and since Joanna enjoyed school, she was ready to go back. Once she’d walked her sister to school, Eliza changed into her work dress, and proceeded to carry a bucket of water to the barn. She stared down at her feet as she walked, one too many times as a child had she not paid attention, and tripped over her own skirts, spilling whatever she’d been hauling. She successfully got to the barn door and slid it open, only to be startled by someone on the other side.
Despite her efforts she still managed to dump the bucket, her skirt catching much of the water. “Miss Eliza! Did I startle you?” Thomas Fox, who’d been their farm hand since his childhood—and hers—was standing on the other side, looking apologetic.
She cleared her throat and tried to settle her nerves. “Yes,” She said, taking a deep breath. “Yes you did, Thomas.” She bent down to pick up the bucket. “I guess I don’t think you’d be here today.”
“Well, why not?” He took the bucket from her.
“I just,” She paused, unsure of how to say it. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to pay you, is all.”
“Oh.” He looked at his feet, then back up at Eliza. “I guess I should have spoken to you yesterday.”
“Were you at the house yesterday?”
“I was. Animals still needed fed, things needed taken care of.” He said. “I came inside but you’d seemed busy with all your guests. Thought I’d pay my respects another time.” He paused. “I am so very sorry, Eliza.” He so rarely left off the “miss” it surprised her. “I loved your parents as if they’d been my own.”
“Thank you, very much.” She sighed. “But you don’t have to do all this,” She said. He’d taken the bucket and they were walking back to the outdoor spigot. “I don’t know that we’ll be able to pay you.”
“It’s alright.” He put the bucket down and tuned on the water. As the water ran he looked at her, and smiled. “I’ll be here to help as long as you need me.”
She smiled gratefully and was about to express her gratitude when she heard a carriage coming quickly up the driveway.
“More company today?” Thomas asked.
She knew exactly who it was, and rushed into the house, consciously disregarding her disheveled damp dress. Her Aunt Clara was knocking frantically on the door when she’d reached the knob.
“Good morning Aunt Clara.” Eliza said dully.
“Good morning, dear.” She responded, pushing her way into the house, like she’d owned it. She looked Eliza up and down, barely hiding the disgusted look that flashed across her face.
Eliza was about to close the door behind her when Clara stopped her. “Don’t be rude dear, you have a guest.”
She looked out the door, and there, stepping out of the carriage was the last person she expected. “Eliza,” Aunt Clara said, an uncomfortable sweetness in her voice, “I’m sure you’ve met Randal Perry?”
“We’ve never been formally introduced,” he said, stepped inside, removed his hat and offered his hand. Eliza reached out to shake it and he turned it to kiss her knuckles. She did not reveal they were covered in dirt.
“It’s nice you meet you, Mr. Perry.” She said, taking her hand back. She had, in fact, heard a lot about Randal Perry. As she was sure her aunt had.
“I wanted to come by and offer my condolences, Miss Alcott.” He said. “I was quite busy the last few days and was unable to attend services for your mother and father. Your father was well aquatinted with my family.”
“Thank you, Mr. Perry. My father was aquatinted with many people, he was a friendly man.”
“Eliza, dear,” Clara emphasized the dear, knowing it frustrated her niece. “We should prepare some tea.”
Knowing that by “we” her aunt meant that she should prepare it, she showed them into the small front room and walked to the kitchen, thinking about how many chores she’d be pushing back.
What does her aunt have up her sleeve, bringing someone who she’d clearly just met to her niece’s home? She prepared tray—a tea set her mother had inherited—and carried it to the front room, where her aunt and Mr. Perry we’re talking quietly. Their conversation stopped when she entered the room.
She served them tea, two strangers she believed she might never have met had her parents still been alive. She sat down, despite knowing she had much more work to do, she was exhausted just thinking about it.
“Have you made your decision, dear?” Aunt Clara got right to the point.
“Yes, aunt Clara I have.” She sipped her tea and sat the cup in the saucer. “We’re staying. My sister and I will both be happy here.”
“But all the work it’ll take? Not to mention you’ll be raising your sister, with no help!” Aunt Clara feigned worry, as if she were concerned for their wellbeing. Eliza sensed an act.
“I’ve done this work all my life, mother and father taught us well, and this is what we know.” She said, pausing. “They left us with what their hard work got them. And I intend to keep it.”
“Miss Alcott, if I may?” Randal Perry who, Eliza felt, had nary a horse in this race, spoke up. “It’s hard work, caring for a farm, even a small one.” What was he implying, Eliza thought. “I would hate for you to be overwhelmed.”
“Mr. Perry, you hardly know me, much less what I may overwhelm me.”
“I understand, but I was raised to offer help should someone be in the need of it.” He said. “Let me help you, I can send a few spare hands to help you with the farm work.”
“Mr. Perry,” she paused, not sure she should reveal too much. “While I appreciate the offer, I may not be able to pay extra hands.”
“It would be free if charge, of course.”
“Dear, it might be prudent to take him up in this offer. I may not know Mr. Perry well, but he seems a very kind man.” Aunt Clara looked at Mr. Perry and batted her lashes.
“Thanks kind of you, Mrs. Wilkes,” Mr. Perry responded. He sat his cup of tea down and stood. “Please, Miss Alcott, consider my offer.” He looked at Clara. “Unfortunately, I do have other appointments today, so I must be going.”
Eliza herself stood, as did Clara. The three of them walked to the door and Eliza opened it to see them out.
“Do let me know what you decide.” Mr. Perry requested then stepped out to the waiting carriage.
“My dear niece–”
“How, might I ask, do you know Mr. Randal Perry, Aunt Clara?” Eliza asked, suspicious. She knew her aunt hadn’t spent a great deal of time in her small town before her parents passed.
“Oh, well,” her aunt hesitated, seeming to grow nervous. “We met in the hotel parlor, dear.” She waved her hand daintily, waving off Eliza’s inquiries. “What’s important is that if you stay on this,” she scrunched her nose, “farm, you will be doing it all on your own. Alone.” She emphasized. “I’d accept Mr. Perry’s offer of help.” With that her aunt’s demeanor changed back to sweet and and innocent and she stepped out the door without a goodbye.
Eliza happily closed the front door behind her unwelcome guests and returned to retrieve hardly used tea tray. Her aunt and Mr. Perry were, sadly, right. Running a farm was hard enough for her parents, a young unmarried woman raising her young sister would have a lot on her hands. But she did have Thomas, who’d been a huge help to her family for many years.
Should she accept extra help from Randal Perry, whom she’d just met but had known her father, and liked him? Or ask Thomas to do it all on his own?