Monday, July 21, 2014

Chapter Four



Mid-morning the next day Nat sat at my table having come by to check on me.

"By all that's holy.  Such news," Nat muttered.  "And it should have been shared with the church.  We need to lay in extra food and medical supplies in case the enemies on our border try an incursion during this time of apparent weakness."

"I believe the Captain ... or whatever title he bares as the brother of the Guardian ... may well be having a word with the Mayor."

Noting my tone of satisfaction Nat counseled, "Leeda ... it is not healthy that you still hold such a grudge.  And dangerous until we know where this new Guardian stands ... whether the Mayor has his ear or not."

Knowing he was right but still unable to let it go I said, "Perhaps.  On the other hand ... oh bother, what am I to do with my fowl."  The thought distracted me from where I would have taken the conversation and confused Nat.

"What?  Why do anything with them ... the lazy cluckers already drop more eggs than you can use."

Attempting to explain I told him, "That is the other part Nat.  The housekeeper at Linderhall ... she needs me.  It will be at least through the Winter."

Nat immediately pruned up. "No.  I ..."

"Nat, I want to go.  Or should I say I want to leave this place regardless of where I go.  This is no longer my home.  I had thought to write to Sister Evelyn but ... truly ... this may be God opening a door for me to escape before what you call my 'grudge' becomes too deeply entrenched."

"What incentive have they given?  And are you sure they come from Linderhall?"

A soon-to-be familiar voice called from the dooryard.  "Widow?"

I stepped to the door and beckoned him over.  "I can offer you a seat at the table this time Sir.  My cousin is here."

The man took off his hat and shook hands with Nat.  "Daren Linder ... and you are Brother Harper?  I just stopped by the church and Father Gabe sent me this way.  I was hoping to catch you."

Nat nodded.  

 

"Please, sit, allow me to pour you a cup of tea?"  I pulled a bottle of apple wine from the cupboard and asked, "Or something stronger despite the hour of the day?  Forgive me for saying so but you look like you could use it.  And the fruitcake should be ready to eat if you'd both like a slice."

Nat gave me a scowl.  He was partial to my fruitcake and he knew that I knew it and was trying to bribe him into a more open mind.  "Bah!" he said suddenly capitulating.  "You'll do as you please anyway Leeda.  Let us not have an argument over it.  I'll have a slice of cake and a cup of wine."  He turned to the man and said, "If I were you I wouldn't turn either down.  Leeda has a fine hand at such things despite her youth."

I rolled my eyes at Nat behind his back and the man's eyebrows shot up.  Nat and I were close despite the ten year difference in our ages.  Both of us are unconventional in our own way.  I suspect that the man was having to rework his expectations of us.  He looked at Nat and said, "She has told you of my request?"

"Only just.  What guarantee do I have that you are who you say you are?  I made the mistake in believing that the Linders would care for her once, I won't make the mistake twice."

"Nat!" I exclaimed, worried he was making an enemy he did not need.

"It is true and I won't stand by again."

The man didn't seem to take any affront to Nat's words and in fact seemed to relax ... though perhaps it was his first bite of cake that did it.  "I've papers here.  And if you've need of further proof I can send for Mr. Tosh who is going over the Mayor's books as we speak."

I was glad I hadn't taken a sip of wine yet or I would have choked on it.  "Mr. Tosh is here?"

"Yes," he answered with smirk.

"Well, the ... hmmm ... the Mayor must be finding it ... well ..."

The man snorted and nodded.  "Indeed he is."

Nat turned to me and asked, "You know this Mr. Tosh?"

"He is the manager of Linderhall, or was when I resided there."

The man said, "Still is though his title has been changed to Bailiff and my brother has bid him hire some assistants so that he can do more touring."

Nat whistled.  "That's going to go over fine."

"Aye, there's already been talk but the truth is that it is as much for the protection of the towns as it is for the Guardian.  Before his death my father discovered a great many discrepancies and unknowns in his cousin's income and the same in the tax rolls.  The review is to straighten the two sets of books out in case the missing entries are because the books have become confused over the years.  Mr. Tosh said that the old Guardian did his own books and was tight fisted with them.  My brother has decided to continue with the idea of a new accounting to show both the people and the Great Council that it is to be a lawful transfer despite the unusual nature of this succession, that there are no plans to take advantage of those under our care and nurture."

Nat nodded.  "Makes sense when said that way.  But let us return to the topic at hand.  I will be blunt and ask what duties will Leeda be expected to fulfill."

It took but a moment for both the man and I to catch Nat's meaning.  Fear leapt into my chest but the man was quick to dispel it.  "Mostly she will be a liaison between Mr. Tosh as Bailiff, Marta as housekeeper, my other brother James who has taken the position of Chancellor, and my sister in law so that the Hall can be pulled back in shape after so much disruption.  Mr. Tosh will have his hands full guiding the incoming harvest; James with helping Tomas - The Linder - establish his place on the Great Council, and Marta is still recovering and will need to be careful through the winter.  For the rest, I had thought that she can be a companion to my sisters who are ... high spirited and not enjoying the restrictions they are experiencing in their new social circle."

Nat still looked unconvinced.  "Nat, let me try and understand."  I turned to the man and asked, "Basically what you wish is for someone to ... hmmm ... put your sister in law at her ease, perhaps introduce your sisters to the household staff, and if possible redirect everyone's energies so that the work can proceed quickly and with as few ... er ... bumps in the road as possible."

The man nodded.  "You see it rightly."  To Nat he explained, "The Guardian's wife is expecting her first child.  To say it has my brother ... er ..."

Nat nodded thoughtfully.  "The village priest often needs to counsel men that are ... er ..."

I rolled my eyes at their er's.  "How close to climbing the ceiling in the meeting hall is he?"

The man looked at me with a smile.  "He's almost able to swing from the gaslamps."

Nat leaned forward and said, "Be that as it may, and I'm not so deep in the church that I can't see where my cousin’s presence wouldn’t help, but what of her status?"

"Nat ..."

"No Leeda.  It needs discussing.  I know you are fond of this Marta and will do all in your power for her regardless of my concerns but on this I'll have my say."  He turned to the man and said, "Leeda was sent back here with no escort, no dower, no portion beyond food and a few circles to keep herself for less than a year.  She was forced to give up what could have been sold to secure some future for her and left with the burden of a status that keeps her from pursuits better suited to her talents and nature.  Had she not had this cabin to return to she would have been forced to beg for charity ... but from whom I don't know as none have stepped forward to offer much more than consternation and resentment at having to rearrange the social scale of Harper.  My cousin was a wife, not a temporary consort, and should have been treated better ... should be treated better."

The man scowled.  "It wasn't by our hand.  My father was told she would be there to care for.  That she wasn't made it appear ..."  In an aggravated tone he said, "It was weeks before I could finally get some of the story out of Marta and Tosh and they still kept most of the facts close.  I assume it was because of the presence of the other widows and the mischief they could cause.  I knew the Below Stairs held some grudge and distrust but I was searching in the wrong direction.  I thought it was due to their attachment to the previous Guardian or perhaps because he'd treated them ill."

I shook my head.  "No.  The Linder treated his staff well and was even handed, if not generous with his words or coin to them.  Ceena and Tonya could be a bit cold to the staff but that was status talking and them showing how they were raised rather than intentional misconduct.  And as for the rest, you must be mistaken yet.  Mizz Marta and Mr. Tosh would hold no grudge on my account, nor would any of the other staff for that matter.  Any changes would have them concerned as most have been staff since their apprenticeship and for several, their parents before them were and are also staff.  When your life and livelihood depends on a single family, it can be nerve-wracking to be in the midst of change.  And you've likely brought in your own staff to the mix."  At his nod I said, "I'll sort out the problem when we arrive.  The quicker the issues can be concluded the better for all concerned."  The man just stared at me.  "What?"

"I've a sister your age - the younger, not the older which I have a feeling you will get along well with - and I cannot imagine ...  You are ..."

Nat nodded.  "Leeda came on like this during the dying time we had here when she was a child.  The Sisters saw it and sent her to the college early.  She would have had a triple had her marriage to the old Guardian not interfered."

"I thought she was given in marriage at 14?"

"She was."

"Hello.  I'm in the room, not on my deathbed or deaf," I reminded them.

The man turned to look at me.  "And you are 16 now?  Why did you not finish the college or go to university?"

I spit, "Status."

"Status?  But surely ..."  He stopped and then remembered that status was a two edged sword.  Depending on your status you can receive social perks but at the same time be held back so that those with less status can have a fair try at seeking their fortune.  He sighed.  "My brother may be able to help but not until after the succession is secured."

I shrugged, "I don't expect anything to change so don't make a request on my behalf."

Nat looked at the heavens and sighed, "And this is why she needs someone to look after her interests."

The man nodded and they both began to irritate me.  Before I could express it however the man said, "I have some leeway in this matter.  I'll get Mr. Tosh to write a contract and at a minimum she will at least have a stipend and a sum settled on her."

There was some scratching at the backdoor and I left the two men to their dickering.  I looked out and there to my great surprise saw a runner from the Mayor's house.  "May I help you?" I asked.

"A delivery Widow Linder," the boy said holding out a piece of paper.

I took it by its corner and the boy ran off, presumably to complete other tasks.  I walked back in holding the invitation like it was a piece of hairy nettle and me without gloves.

"What is it Leeda?" Nat asked.

"I have no idea."

"It looks like an invitation."

"I know."

The look on my face must have been something to behold because the man laughed and asked, "And do you always treat invitations like they are plague riddled bombs?"

"Seeing as I've never been invited anywhere much less to the Mayor's home I'm honestly not certain how I am to treat it.  Are you the reason for this?" I asked him in accusation.

He smirked.  "Perhaps."  More seriously he asked me, "You've never been invited to the Mayor's house?  I was given to understand that you were quite close."

Nat snorted and said, "The Waverly family holds the post once held by the Harpers.  Our great grandfather grew weary of the politics and retired.  We became the Woodsmen ... at least until the plague that killed us all.  It came from fleas carried by the deer and ... "

I put my hand on Nat's shoulder as I knew it was an old worry of his.  "Rest Nat.  It was never your calling to be a Woodsman.  Grandfather and father never regretted sending you to seminary.  And that is ancient history.  As for the connection with the Waverly family ... that too is ancient history and I would rather not discuss it.  But I won't be part of a faradiddle either, not even for politics or politeness.  I have no relationship with the Waverly family, certainly not a close one."

The man looked interested in questioning me more but I asked instead, "You seem to know about this ... this missive.  Did you prompt it?"

"In a manner of speaking."  I simply stared at him.  He shrugged.  "I dislike mysteries and I've faced far too many in the last few days, and them being primarily about you Widow."

"Oh for goodness sake ..."

"Oh aye ... you may doubt it if you wish but between being thwarted from questioning Marta because of her illness, from questioning Tosh because he's so stiff in his britches he must have his wife starch them, and then the so-called confusion that should not have been of you being informed of my tentative arrival date, I can assure you ... I am being good and mellow compared to how I wish to behave."

I was trying not to smile as his description of Mr. Tosh was very accurate.  "And exactly what devilment have you gotten up to to release some of your fractious nerves?"

"I wish to see you at the Mayor's house, in company."

I was no longer amused.  "No."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Leeda!" Nat hissed.

"I won't go."

The man looked at me calmly and said, "The invitation is for my benefit, not the Mayor's."

"I care not," I told him rising from my seat.  "I won't go and you can't make me even if you are the brother of the Guardian."

I turned and left the cabin.  It was a childish thing to do and I left Nat to clean up the mess but my anger had taken my commonsense.

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