Sharyn McCrumb

If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him…

The eighth book in the Elizabeth MacPherson series, 1995

To Deborah Adams,

with thanks for the title, which she

overheard from a battered woman:

“If I’d killed him when I met him,

I’d be out of prison now.”

Pray do not, therefore, be inducted to suppose that I ever write merely to amuse, or

without an object.

– Charles Dickens

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he- bear in his pride,

He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.

But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail

For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.



ON THE FIRST morning of her husband’s lingering death, Lucy Todhunter came down to breakfast alone. She explained to the houseguests-Mr. Norville from the railroad and her North Carolina cousins, the Compsons-that her husband was not feeling well, and that she would take some nourishment up to him on a tray.

“He’s such an old bear when he’s sick,” she said, with a little laugh, as she sat down to a bowl of porridge and cream. “I can’t think how he made it through the inconvenience of the war.” This unfortunate reference to Philip Todhunter’s military infamy (i.e., serving in the Union Army during the Late Unpleasantness) brought furrowed frowns to the faces of the Compson cousins. Lucy blushed and said, “I do beg y’all’s pardon. My mind is on my husband, not my manners.”

Still, her appetite and the gaiety of her table talk suggested that she was not unduly concerned about Philip Todhunter’s illness. Lucy’s long hair was artfully arranged into a chignon, with not a single hairpin showing, and her cheeks were smooth with rice powder. She wore a morning dress of faded green silk, carefully darned here and there on the long skirt, but still serviceable. Lucy’s attire favorably impressed Cousin Mary Hadley Compson of Maysville, North Carolina, who was later to say grudgingly: “Even though Lucy married a carpetbagging Yankee so soon after the war, she didn’t put on airs with their new money.” Of course, the imported Spanish mahogany dining-room table with seven extra leaves and a dozen matching chairs upholstered in crimson Moroccan leather might be considered showy. The drawing room, shining with a green satin suite and matching portieres, boasted a semigrand pianoforte in walnut by Collard & Collard of England that had cost a pretty penny. But that was keeping up appearances. A prominent man of business needed such a showpiece. There would be no illusions in local society about whose pride was on display. Mr. Todhunter was householder, and any Mrs. Todhunter he cared to install, merely housekeeper.

Lucy Todhunter was generally conceded to be a sensible woman, even by those who had reason to dislike her. Her Todhunter in-laws disliked her very much, indeed. When Philip, formerly a major in the Union cavalry, returned to Virginia two years after the war to start a textile business with cheap land and even cheaper labor, his relatives approved, boasting of Philip’s reputation as a shrewd and unsentimental man of business. When ten months later, Major Todhunter married a honey-haired Southern beauty less than half his age, and proceeded to furnish a new home near Danville with furniture imported from England, they declared that Philip had gone native, and that the torrid Southern weather had unhinged his judgment.

Lucy went on smiling, and adding cordial postscripts to his letters back to Maine, inviting her dear new kinfolk to come and visit them. (If nothing else, the excursion would have set them straight about the climate of piedmont Virginia, but the offer was not accepted.)

Lucy had been orphaned by the war, but she came of good family and could claim even a North Carolina governor a few branches down in the family tree. An only child, she had inherited the graceful house of her childhood and the many acres that surrounded it, but very little money. At fifteen the orphaned Lucy had gone to live with her godparents in Danville, and with vague affection for the pretty but reticent child, they had given her a home and completed her genteel upbringing. At seventeen she knew how to manage a house, how to play the pianoforte to accompany her own singing, and how to comport herself gracefully in good society, even if her acquaintance with formal education had been slight by Todhunter family standards.

She had met Philip through mutual friends on one of his visits to Danville. A few months later, he chose that river city in which to establish his new business, perhaps influenced by the presence of the young and lovely Miss Lucy Avery. By the simple expedient of joining the correct church and making substantial contributions to it, Todhunter had persuaded the local gentry to overlook his unfortunate past connection with the Union Army. Ensconced among the “right” people, he had pursued his acquaintance with young Lucy Avery at formal dinners and garden walks.

Her godparents had been taken aback when eighteen-year-old Lucy announced her engagement to the stern and charmless Major Todhunter, but they told themselves (and those who tactfully inquired) that the war was, after all, over, and that one had to give poor orphaned Lucy credit for realizing that someone would have to support her. They reasoned that being forced to choose between congeniality and prosperity, Lucy had taken the wiser course. Whether or not this prudence brought her happiness in her eighteen months of marriage was a source of considerable speculation in Danville society, but no one really knew.

Lucy had been taken ill a few months after the wedding, and so ill again six months later that she had been sent to the Montgomery White Sulphur Springs resort in the shadow of the mountains just east of Christiansburg, Virginia. Fears that the young bride had come down with consumption were curtailed in hushed whispers by her godmother: Lucy had lost a baby, each time in the second month of pregnancy. She emerged from each illness more frail and slender than ever, but she kept her beauty, and her spirit was not broken. There were also rumors that Philip Todhunter was a harsh and exacting husband, but no word of complaint was ever heard from his wife. Lucy Avery had never been given to confiding in her acquaintances.

“Too bad that Philip is feeling seedy,” Richard Norville remarked, helping himself to eggs and fried kidneys. “I hope it wasn’t the lateness of the hour that indisposed him. We were quite a time with our brandy before the fire, refighting the war, you know.” He smiled at his fellow guests, whose composed expressions did not reveal what they thought of boastful drunkards who gloated over their victories. The Compsons glanced at each other, and went back to their porridge without a word. The more they saw and heard of Lucy’s husband and his friend, the shorter their intended stay became.

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