Monday, July 21, 2014

Chapter Fourteen



The type of gas carriage used by traders and some of the wealthy families in the region were often noisy and smelled of someone's frying pan once they had gotten up and running.  The one I rode in from the rail yard to the Hall was much quieter and definitely less smelly.  In fact I will admit to enjoying the luxury of padded seats and a quieter ride after being so long on the rail.  An unexpected pot hole woke me from a near doze and I looked around to see we were nearly at the Hall and my stomach began to knot.

When we pulled up to the Great Gate I noticed there were less than half the guards there had been last time I was there and I didn't recognize a single one of them.  Driving down the long lane to the second gate I saw only about a third of the towers were manned.

Looking at the Sheriff with a scowl I said, "I thought you told me that none of the below stairs staff were killed."

"They were not," he said rolling up the window between us and the driver.  "Why do you ask?"

"Lack of attendants at the gate and security points.  And why are you doing that?  I thought you said the driver was your man?"

The Sheriff sighed.  "This isn't Harper, Widow.  Nor is it the rail yard.  There is a certain ... protocol ... that is expected at Linderhall and well you know it.  The people that came with us from our holdings have expectations and feel their status has been elevated since ours has.  You need to ... to be more careful in your speech and who you speak around."

I just looked at him.  "If you expect me to fix this snarl then you need to let me do my job and be who I am.  Do not start trying to confine me to how you think I should act.  That type of thinking is likely what has caused the mess you say exists.  You are trying to combine two households, change Guardians, and integrate the family into the neighborhood all in one fell swoop.  And I can tell you pretty much what I am likely to find."

"Oh really?"

"Yes, really Sheriff I-Care-Nothing-For-Status-But-Am-Lying-Through-My-Teeth Linder."  I got a glare but didn't let it stop me.  "The people from your old household have an attitude.  'Their' Linder is now in power and they are going to make good and sure everyone knows it.  I saw it in the outrage some of your staff exhibited at the rail yard whether you saw it or not.  The staff of Linderhall are likely wondering if they will lose their status if not outright be turned out by the new staff ... and the new staff have probably not helped calm those waters.  Then comes the plague and too many people that are needed are lost and your family is at sixes and sevens trying to find your way through grief and unfamiliar duties.  And rather than ask the existing staff to help and guide you, someone gets a stiff rump, stands on ceremony, and makes an even bigger mess of it all.  You can't see your interior problems because you are having to deal with so many from the outside.  But I can guarantee if you don't get the interior problems managed you'll never get the outside ones under control."

It looked like he was going to blow a gasket then his shoulders eased and he shook his head.  "You see things too damn clearly.  Trouble with the staff started almost immediately.  Like I said upon investigating I thought it was primarily a matter of distrust ... but ... yes, I admit on reflection it is possible that the staff from our holdings have ... not helped."

"Sheriff, you are going to have to step back a bit.  Let me feel things out with the old staff and give them time to feel me out.  What has been broken so long cannot be fixed overnight.  But let us get one thing straight ... I am not your spy below stairs.  Unless I think it pertains directly to the job I have set for myself what I learn stays behind my teeth."

"I have not asked you to ..."

I snorted.  "Not yet you haven't.  Like I said however, you are a Linder by blood ... you won't be able to help yourself.  You'll try and manipulate me and push me and not even truly realize that you are doing it ... or if you do you will be convinced you have only the purest of motives.  Mr. Barlow the ... the deceased Sheriff ... was just like that.  He too was some distant connection of my husband, just like Mizz Marta only on the other side."

"Marta is a Linder connection?!  She never said."

I could tell he was irritated.  I shrugged and told him, "If you had bothered to read the staff files you would have seen it.  And she's not the only one, simply the closest by blood.  Many of the older staff are distantly related to the Linders even if they have to go back to the Days of Destruction to make the connection."

"The staff files are missing."

Surprised I asked, "I beg your pardon.  What do you mean missing?"

"Exactly that.  Father ... Father did something with them and we can't find what."

I had a suspicion but I wasn't going to say anything ... not to the Sheriff.

It was at that moment that we arrived at the Hall.  The Sheriff helped me out and told the driver and outrider to take the rest of my luggage to the Dower House.  As they pulled away the door to the Hall opened and we climbed the stairs and entered in.

The entry way was dim so it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust but when they did I caught sight of the older man standing to the side.  "Mr. Holman!"

He tried, he really did, but rather than stand straight and tall and proud as the Head Butler had when I left he started coughing and nearly fell.  "What are you doing up with a cough like this?!  Surely you didn't risk your health for me!  Here ..."  I turned to look and told the Sheriff, "Don't just stand there, pull that chair over."

The Sheriff blinked but then did just as I bid him, scandalizing a maid that had come to take our cloaks.  I wanted to stick my tongue out at her but satisfied myself with a cold stare that had her giving me a belated bow and then hurrying to hang the cloaks on hooks near the door.  Mr. Holman finally got his breath and shook his finger at me, "You shouldn't be speaking like that.  That's the Sheriff."

I snorted.  "I know.  But he's human ... most of the time ... and has explained I am come to help to get things settled, so he can help when I bid him to.  Besides, Linderhall will not settle until its head staff are able to rest enough to regain their health."  I patted the older man's arm.  "What would we do without the likes of you and Mizz Marta?"

The older man's pale cheeks glowed a healthier pink for a moment before becoming pale again.

I heard the Sheriff snapping his fingers.  "You there ... Boy.  Is Doctor Cummins around?"

"Aye Sir," stuttered a boy who had been peeking around the corner.

"Well see that he is told I wish him to visit Mr. Holman before the curtains are drawn."  The boy continued to stare until the Sheriff said, "Move."  He scampered quickly enough after that encouragement.

"Ah, thank you sir.  It's just this cough ... it lingers."

"Think nothing of it Holman.  The Widow is correct, this Hall wouldn't be the same without you.  Do you require assistance?"

"No Sir.  But I will return to the staff lounge if you've no objections."

"None at all.  But before you go could you perhaps tell me which infernal sitting room The Linder is in?"

"The Blue one sir."

Mr. Holman walked slowly away but I could see that the Sheriff was trying to remember which blue room that might be as there were several.  I told him, "It is the one next to the Library."

He nodded in relief.  "Of course ... damnation, which Library?"

I covered my mouth with my hand to hide my smile and then said,  "The Linder's personal library most likely ... down the hall from his personal chambers."

"Lord, we need colored arrows around here like they do at the meeting houses of the Great Council.  We'd all get lost far less often."

"It's not that bad," I told him.

"Says you.  Do you know how many blue sitting rooms are in this place?"

"Six."

"I ..."  He stopped and then grinned.  "You've counted."

"If you think the number of sitting rooms is confusing you should try counting the bedrooms.  It even boggled the mind of my comportment teacher and hardly anything ruffled that woman's feathers.  Lucky for me I inherited a natural ability to never find myself lost from my Woodsmen clan.  As I heard it, four generations back the Guardian of that era had eight wives at one time and each wife demanded her own private suite of rooms under The Linder's roof rather than in their own cottages as had been the tradition before that.  Each suite encompassed what was basically a private home and was built to house not only the Guardian's wife but their offspring and all her private staff and any guests they might choose to invite for a stay.  They were also to be decorated in the style of the home they left behind as a reminder of where they each came from.  It took nearly ten years to complete the work and that was the last time that Linderhall was built out though some interior redesigning and modernizing has been done off and on since."

"I thought you knew nothing of the genealogies," the Sheriff said suspiciously.

"No, I said it was not considered something necessary for me to know, not that I knew nothing at all about the family history.  Though in truth I know more about the Hall itself than about the family that has always lived under its roof.  The staff take pride in their work and explained bits and pieces of it to me.  For instance, the sitting room that we are walking to is one of the original rooms and there is a series of trap doors in there that lead deep into the sub-cellar ... an escape method left over from the Days of Destruction though no longer the deep, dark secret it once was."

"Trap doors?  Surely you jest.  There's a few hidey holes but ... but no ... damnation.  Just how much has been kept back on purpose?"

"More than likely my husband's secretary showed your father.  That's the traditional way such information changed hands when a new Guardian took over.  It is why the position of the secretary is so important.  Whether your father had time or saw fit to show your brother ...?"  I shrugged.  "What happened to Mr. Whitt?"

"He was among the dead.  My father had taken him on as secretary as Father's previous secretary had preferred to stay at our other holdings and serve my brother Gerald."

I stopped in sudden consternation.  "How many brothers do you have?"

"Five.  Tomas is The Linder.  Gerald inherited Father's former holdings.  James now carries the responsibility of Chancellor.  Our brother Richard is in the Regional Guard.  Then a young half-brother named Rickerson at university studying agriculture who is Dwen's son.  I also have a step brother who is Dwen's son from her first marriage, but we only see him rarely as he prefers his logging holdings in the Northeast.  He wanted to take his mother's body and bury her in her birthplace but later agreed to abide by her will and let her be buried beside Father.  It was a great concession as he and Father never really got on."

"Good Heavens.  And the two sisters correct?"

He grinned.  "Incorrect.  If you do not count my sister in laws I have six sisters."  He laughed at the look on my face.  "We Linders are a prolific lot."  When he saw my expression following his statement he said, "Damn my mouth.  You'd figure a Sheriff would have more control of that orifice."

"No.  You merely speak the truth.  And it appears the problem may have been one of my husband's own making.  But could we simply name your sisters and ... and pass over the rest of it?"

He sighed but agreed.  "Melissa and Marjorie are married and on holdings of their own.  They are older than Tomas and I barely remember them living at home.  Then April who is between James and I in age and ... and she will not marry."

"Why?" I asked since it seemed such a strange thing to say.

"When we were children she and our sister Chell were playing in the orchard.  Men came out of the hedge, and kidnapped both girls and their nanny.  The woman was eventually able to escape but with only one of the girls.  A ransom was made but before Father could pay it they'd been attacked by the savages whose land they had tried to escape to.  It was three more months before Father and his men found her.  The damage had already been done."

Quietly I told him, "I will wait for her to tell me if she wishes to."

"That would be best.  April is ... she is very strong but ... well, you'll see.  And Chell ... well, she has her own problems from the experience but it did not stop her from marrying.  He's a diplomatic envoy with the Great Council.  Tomas sees her more than the rest of us do."

"That's four ... and then I know you have a younger sister named Nancee."

"Yes," he said as we climbed the last set of stairs.  "Quite a hike.  No wonder none of the Linders in the portrait gallery have ever been portrayed as fat."  Having thought the same thing more than once I remained silent.  "Nancee is Dwen and Father's daughter.  And then the baby is Liesel.  Between Nancee and Liesel is Rosalee.  We almost lost her to the plague as well and ... her health has not returned yet either.  She occasionally becomes confused and cries so we've made an area of the nursery for her to wander about in though she is beyond the age of needing it."

I made note to ask Marta what she prescribed for healing and whether people were cooperating or ignoring her good sense.  And then we stopped in front of a closed wooden door that the Sheriff knocked on.

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