The cover letter was from Winnie, surprising and pleasing me a great deal. It was all about how they had arrived and settled in and were doing well, how she and baby Rachel were both gaining strength, and for none of us to worry.
It was short but reassuring; however, the next note in the stack came from the Captain and told how Winnie’s nerves were still rattled but she seemed calmer so long as you didn’t bring up the subject of second wives or the Lathrops.
“Fel, this sojourn here at the fort may take longer than I expect and not simply because Winnie is having a rather difficult reaction to the situation that we’ve already discussed. The Lathrops have been busy. In my absence from the fort, and from the council, certain events have taken place that I won’t bother to explain because they wouldn’t really mean anything to you. Their result however is to have even more thoroughly divided the council, even causing some division within the families themselves. Some is a result of what I consider to be bully tactics where the Lathrops are using their status as primary fuel producer in Kipling to force families to take sides. Some is a result of foolishness where others believe if they support the Lathrops now they will curry favors for later. While this sounds bad for us, the reality is that forcing people to choose sides does not mean that they always choose the side you desire them to. We now have allies that we did not have before and some that were trying to stay neutral are beginning to understand that the Lathrops will not, in the end, allow neutrality.”
“What has also come to the attention of some is that all is not as harmonious as the Lathrops are making Cor’s proxy marriage out to be. I have intentionally refused to say ill of Francine but at the same time several that have met you have had good to say about your influence. Do not take this the wrong way but I must say I am surprised as Outlanders … well, we will not dwell on that. Your sisters have gone a long way towards adjusting people’s attitudes about those from west of the Mississippi.”
“Now for the difficult news. You will be receiving visitors from various families during the coming weeks, perhaps up until the snow flies unless Cor returns earlier than expected. On the surface these visits are strictly for courtesy’s sake. Out of necessity Cor and Francine’s marriage was quiet and small. Cor didn’t have the funds or the time for a lavish honeymoon trip which is usually used to introduce the new couple around to the other First Families. Now with his second marriage, and this one by proxy, there has been some argument that the visits are needed to cement approvals and other meaningless social flotsam.”
“You will need to work this out with Francine. You must try to at least appear to work in harmony. I imagine that right about now that may be the last thing you wish to concern yourself with but the estate cannot afford to offend anyone even if it is for what I personally view as a waste of time and funds. Usually the estates having the visitors try and use it as an opportunity to showcase their particular specialties. Speak with Jonah, he will bring you up to speed. I cannot offer any dates at this time as I suspect that visits will be used much like a pop inspection to ascertain the true situation at the estate. The first visitors will be the most critical, as well be the last ones I suspect. I will send word as soon as I hear anything definitive.”
“If you get into any difficulties send a rider to the fort and we will try and manage a maneuver or two of our own. At the very least I expect weekly reports so that I can stay apprised of what is occurring on the estate, who visits, when, for how long. I should have thought of this and discussed it with you before I left but I allowed my worry for Winnie to override everything. Hopefully we can carry out a campaign that will prevent further incursions by those cursed Lathrops.”
For a moment I gave into the luxury of panic then I kicked myself for being a fool. “They are just people Fel. So they might be a different kind of people than what you are used to but since you haven’t heard of any people eaters here in Kipling your worries are only as big as you make them.”
The situation did leave me feeling a little lonely. I had no one here that I could discuss all the layers of it with. Jonah would hopefully understand some of it. Mrs. Wiley would hopefully understand the meat and potatoes of having so many visitors come through. I knew I would have to speak with Francine about handling the people as they came through as I couldn’t just sit around entertaining folks all day long when there was so much work to do. But the bottom layer, the real reasons why all of this had to be pulled off successfully, I had no one to speak with about it. The closest would have been Cor and he was off saving the estate and I wished him luck at it. As far as I was concerned, the sooner he saved it the sooner my neck came up off the chopping block.
I tossed and turned all night and was not looking forward to cornering Francine about visitors we were expecting, especially as I didn’t know when the first one would arrive. At the breakfast table I announced the proposed visits and everyone froze looking at me.
I shook my head. “It’s not my idea. Apparently the estate has suddenly become due some past due attention by the other families of Kipling.” Turning to Jonah I said, “The Captain wasn’t real specific but he said that you would know what he meant when we were supposed to ‘show case’ the specialties of the estate.”
The man snorted. “And here I was all set to have a good day.”
I asked him, “The visits are bad news?”
After a look around the table he said, “Not supposed to be Gilly. Supposed to be all friendly like but … well … with things being like they are …”
I smiled. “And how are they? The cellars are getting full to bursting. The rice and cotton crops are well on their way to being bumpers. The smokehouses are filling. And we aren’t dependent on the other estates for the farm equipment fuel or fuel for our lamps.” I continued looking around the house. “A speck of dust or lent wouldn’t dare land anywhere near Mrs. Wiley because it knows its life would be forfeit. The village is getting well turned out too. What more could they possibly want to see.”
Jonah rubbed his ear and then said, “An heir. Doesn’t matter if it be boy or girl right now though they’d prefer a boy for the namesake.”
My mouth got dry as we all knew for a fact, the way that a close household does where everyone’s laundry is mixed, that a baby wasn’t in the making in the moment. “Well, that is certainly none of their business. And if they weren’t all in such a hurry to get paid back it would have probably gotten taken care of some time ago. I can’t exactly make one appear out of thin air so let’s focus on what we do have.”
Mrs. Wiley nodded briskly, “Good sense Gilly. We can feed ‘em both plain and fancy using what we grow here on the estate. Show ‘em we don’t need ‘em as much as they think we do. Maybe throw some of them recipes yer been showing us. Jonah, you know the ones that likes to drink. The heavy drinkers you can dose ‘em with rice lightning, them that are more picky can get a dibble of whats we been stashing in the spirits cellar onct its ready. A couple o’ the real high flyers we can dose with the old stuff that was bottled when Young Cor was a boy.”
Jonah’s buxom widow added, “We can show off ther textiles too. My oldest boy is a worker out to the paper mill. I can send word that we need lots o samples of the prettiest stuff and the coarse ever day stuff. They cans be sat around or folded inter pretty flower shapes. I used ter do it fer Young Cor’s mam.”
Other people around the table added more bits and pieces and a basic plan was made. Now it was time for me to deal with Francine. And it proved considerably less difficult than I had expected.
“Well, it’s about time,” she said.
Sighing and waving a fan made of painted rice paper she said, “Of course you wouldn’t know but this is what is proper and right. My aunts were actually quite offended on my behalf that I received so few visits from the other families and it certainly hasn’t been rectified since then. But if you said the Captain … and why would he be writing to you anyway?”
I can dance real fast when I need to … and sometimes I just don’t care to. “Does it matter Francine? He gave the information we needed. You handle these guests since you seem to know how to play lady of the manor. I’ll keep things running smoothly as possible in the background. Deal?”
She himmed and hawed and then finally said, “It is what Cor would want.”
I told her “Most likely.”