Monday, July 21, 2014

Chapter Thirty-One

I stumbled to the below stairs staff area ready to beg for a cup of tea ... good, strong youpon tea or something similar.  I didn't normally imbibe in such strong and expensive tisanes but I was like a guttering candle and needed energy desperately.

I never got it.  First I was stopped by Mr. Tosh and made my apologies for not reaching him sooner, explaining that the Sheriff had needed a statement.  Then as I was leaving his office I was summoned to the gazebo.

I walked as quickly as I could without running since the summons had come directly from the Guardian's wife.

"I beg your pardon for keeping you waiting."

Mrs. Linder smiled and said, "That's quite all right.  I just didn't want you to miss the Vanburens.  Please take a moment and sit.  How surprised I was to find out that your cousin and Mr. Vanburen here are acquainted."

I sat gently on the edge of my seat.  I glanced around and then recognized Timothy Vanburen and inclined my head in his direction but didn't say anything.  His grandmother arched an eyebrow and commented, "I see you are still in mourning."

Carefully I said, "Half-mourning ma'am.  I would not embarrass the family by appearing at an improper time."

"Ah yes, I had heard that you were forbidden full mourning."

Staying calm despite the desire to grind my teeth I said, "No ma'am, not forbidden ... released.  It was in the will."

"Released?  How ... unusual."

"Yes ma'am which is why I prefer to ... to prevent confusion by maintaining my darks."

"Has no one encouraged you to change to half-mourning or even to put it away as instructed?"

I disliked her tone more as every syllable passed her lips but remained hospitable and polite.  "My cousin, Nat Harper.  He wanted me to follow my husband's edict.  Of course returning here to Linderhall to fulfill my duty and responsibilities makes it much more appropriate to continue to wear my widow wear.  I do not wish for any misunderstandings to occur.  I may add a gray ribbon or some other bit of what might be considered foolishness at some later point but for now my vanity must wait.  My full focus absolutely must be in supporting Mrs. Linder."

"And not the Guardian," the other woman asked.

Feeling pinched and pulled I took a breath and told her, "We are all to support the Guardian ma'am, I did not think it needed stating.  If it does then so I shall.  It is doubtful however that the Guardian would gain any benefit from me.  I'm well aware of my status."  To redirect her attention I turned to the senior Mrs. Vanburen and said, "I did not get to say my personal thanks to your grandson for taking the time out to offer support at my husband's passing.  We were all in such shock.  Would you permit me to do so now?"

She inclined her head graciously and I turned once again to the young man sitting stiffly and uncomfortably beside her.

"How do you do sir?  Have you completed your course of study?"

"Nearly ma'am," he answered like I was as old as his grandmother.  It almost made me laugh but for the sake of status and propriety I managed my mirth.

"My cousin is off to Regional Seminary for further training in his Order."

"Ah yes," he said with a genuine smile.  "Brother Harper.  We crossed paths during a lecture just two days ago.  He had only gotten in the morning from the rail and must have been exhausted but was still able to fix a translation that had us all stumped.  He is very talented."

I couldn't help it, I smiled.  "Yes, he is."

Mrs. Vanburen said, "You miss him."

"I always knew that Nat would someday get a place at the Regional Seminary.  I'm thankful that his care of me was not an impediment to his service.  He loves what he does and he is good at it.  He is very committed to doing the best he can with the talents that he has been blessed with.  I don't know if in the long run he'll stay at the RS but wherever God leads him to serve, he'll be an asset."

Timothy added, "I'm sure of it.  He could have really embarrassed the lot of us but instead he turned it into a lesson and ... unbelievably he made that dry assignment fun.  The history of his Order is quite extraordinary."

Knowing that some of that 'history' his grandmother would not consider polite chatter for an al fresca cocktail hour I merely inclined my head.

From that point I remained in the background and stayed silent observing Mrs. Linder and Mrs. Vanburen converse.  They soon took their leave to head to the rail yard and I gratefully escaped.  I was three steps away from the dining hall when I remembered I hadn't checked on Nanny yet so I turned around and nearly ran into the Talbot twins.

"Hello boys.  Finished your lessons for the day?"

"Don't have lessons Widow Linder."

"What do you mean you don't have lessons?"

"Have to help with the harvest.  We're men now."

"Indeed," I said, trying not to smile at their seriousness.  "Are lessons to start back up after the harvest?"

Their shoulders sunk a little. "Da said they better but with a different teacher as he expects us to go to college for agriculture and get a specialty.  Last teacher ran off and hasn't been seen since right before the plague came."

"I ... well ..."  I sighed.  "Run along boys and thank you for working the harvest.  We all need to pitch in."

As they walked away ... well ran would be a better description as they never have seemed to be able to move at a reasonable rate of speed ... I pulled out my list tablet made from scraps of rice paper and jotted a note to ask about the teacher.  The lists are becoming a job unto themselves to manage.

I finally made it out to the stable where I found Nanny gossiping with the Sheriff's horse Charger.  I walked to the corral fence and said, "Made a friend have you ol’ girl?"

She came over and wuffled my hair and started lipping my apron.  "I'm sorry Nanny, I forgot.  It's been a dratted day.  The closer I get to getting below stairs moving forward the more the rest of it seems to move backwards.  Someone is making life entirely too difficult on purpose and I care for it none at all."

Nanny was disappointed but not affronted by my lack of carrot and stood there giving me someone sensible to converse with for another fifteen minutes.

"Found your confessionary have you?"

I turned and groaned.  "Do not take this the wrong way Sheriff but must you turn up everywhere?"

He chuffed a laugh but said nothing.

"I suppose that was rather rude," I admitted.  His grin only grew bigger.  "Well, I must be off but I was wondering ..."

"Why do I have a feeling you are about to hand me more work?"

"I hope not.  The last thing I want is another mystery, which is why I am hoping you can tell me."

"Ask away Widow."

"The Talbot boys said that they are helping with the harvest."

"The red-headed terrors?  They gave me an ulcer the one time I watched them climbing in the barn rafters during an inspection by the GC to make sure the harvest we intended exporting was infection free.  But yes, to answer your question all but the youngest children have been called to duty for the harvest.  There isn't a family near the Hall that has not suffered from the latest plague.  Most are well but John was worried by how slow everyone is recovering and said we'd need to watch the workers or we'd wind up with a winter crisis on our hands from relapses.  James talked to the heads of households and offered them the option ... have their children help for this harvest and planting in the Spring or bring in migrants to bare the load.  To a man they chose their children."

I nodded in understanding.  "It's a matter of economy.  Each family is paid based on what they harvest."

"That's why we gave them the option.  Plus Tomas said he preferred that the coinage remain in the local economy to create good will.  Does that satisfy your curiosity?"

"On the first part.  On the second part I was told that the teacher disappeared.  If any of the children expect to go to college these introductory courses are really almost mandatory."

"Mr. Tosh mentioned he'd place an advertisement for a replacement as we have no one local interested in the position.  As to the teacher who disappeared, I'm not sure what to make of it.  He left in the dead of night with what appears barely a satchel of belongings but I was unable to track him by rail, coach, or find any one admitting that they saw him leaving on foot."  He sighed.  "I can see the pinwheels spinning Widow."


"You didn't like my answer," he explained.

I shook my head.  "It's not that as it's been unknown to happen Sheriff.  We had a teacher do the same thing when I was in college.  It just bothers me ... the timing."

"It could be coincidental and probably is but for now I'm not going to spend any more time on it than I already have.  A letter was posted to the man's family but we've heard nothing back."

"Then I'll leave it alone which probably relieves you."

He chuffed a laugh that sounded even more tired than I was.  "It does.  We've enough mysteries between us.  Now, permit me to make a suggestion?"

I inclined my head in a cautious nod.

"Allow me to escort you to the Hall.  Tomas ordered me a pot of cocoa from his private supplies and if I drink the whole of it myself it may be another three days before I see any sleep."

"Cocoa," I whispered in awe.  "I ... I had it once.  It was at a Guardian Banquet that was hosted here at Linderhall."

"Wendolyn's family is in shipping and her father sets great store by Tomas, even before he ascended in status.  He is always sending them imports.  I normally stay away from the stuff."

It seemed an odd thing from someone from a family of high status to say so I asked him, "Why?"

"Because it may be here one day and gone the next, just like anything else in life.  But imports are even more precarious than most.  My mother died because the medicine she had become dependent upon comprised an ingredient that could only be obtained through import and then the import simply ceased in availability ... as did my mother."

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