“As I am sure you are aware there is an … embarrassing situation … facing both our families.”
With Robbie’s words still ringing in my ears I forced myself to remain calm. “Embarrassing? Elder Lathrop this situation is well beyond a description that simple.”
The man sighed and then said, “Please Mistress Fel, let us sit. You may be young and of limitless capacity to bounce back from an injury but I am not.”
I started to look more closely at him but he forestalled me by shaking his head and saying, “It was a month ago but I am not a young man and this … this situation we find ourselves in has drained me.”
I gave him the benefit of the doubt and we both sat down. Frankly I was glad of the excuse to put my pride aside.
“Francine’s mother – her name was Eleanor - was the daughter of my best friend from boyhood. At one time I had even proposed that she become my own bride. But for some reason my friend discouraged me and as a result I allowed us to become less … close as the years progressed. It was only after his death that Eleanor married and I began to suspect that all was not as well as it could be and that my friend had been both trying to protect his own family as well as me; it has left me with bitter regrets, regrets that I have tried to make up for by watching over Eleanor’s daughter. Then Francine was born and for a time it seemed Eleanor well … but then she began to deteriorate; however, it was never unmanageable and was mostly attributable – or so it seemed – to a late in life case of the spots that caused her health to deteriorate significantly.” He smiled. “And Francine was an angel.” His smile faultered. “Or she was until she entered puberty. Unfortunately by that time she had drawn the attention of Lee Corman and his son, both of whom were frequent visitors to our estate.”
Staring at the past through the open window he continued. “You’ve heard of Lee’s … personality. Francine’s father and Lee were friends but there was also fear that should Lee come to know the truth that he would somehow use the information against the family for his own ends. Then Lee died but Cor continued to be smitten with Francine. To have denied him access after all that time would have created bad blood and raised questions that neither estate could afford given how closely we had become aligned by then.” He turned and looked at me. “I will say here Mistress Fel that our elders have not been united in the strategy that was chosen to expand the estate and its influence in Kipling. I am one that believes that rather than expansion, we should have curtailed our contact with the other families. Too many outside influences have distracted our families from our way of life and confused our children from the path they should trod. Many have chosen to seek a life outside our culture, a sad thing for us all as it drains our people. I and many others now believe that it has been this wonton desire for power that has brought our own destruction upon us. We will be a generation rebuilding what has been lost as our punishment for taking our eyes off our true purpose of being fruitful and multiplying.”
I couldn’t say much to that. Never having much of a purpose beyond survival I wasn’t going to tell this man and his people what their purpose should be. But I would have never chosen their way.
“And against good sense Francine’s father allowed her to marry … but note it was marriage outside of the Lathrop clan. He was trying to give her a proper future, one she would not have had had she remained on our estate, and was hoping that a marriage and child would settle her as it had her mother. There was never any suspicion on our side that Francine had started to … to dose herself to deal with her own issues – issues of separation from the steady and structured life she had always known and needed. Obviously she knew something was wrong and was trying to recreate her former life and she was encouraged by certain factions within our estate. Poor girl was as manipulated as Cor and had fewer defenses against it.”
I didn’t see it quite that way but I allowed him to continue uninterrupted.
“And now, now there is the aftermath.”
“I don’t see how running away will accomplish anything and it will hurt Cor who is already injured enough,” I told him forcefully.
Stiffly Elder Lathrop told me, “No one is running away young woman but this situation is unsupportable. Cor loving Francine is immaterial, a wrong must be righted. Unfortunately Francine is in no condition to make such reparations herself; nor can she be allowed to. Action must be taken on her behalf to safeguard her safety.”
“No one is threatening her!”
“Not yet. But if word spreads before we can enact a suitable recompense I have no doubt that they will. What she did …” At his word I realized the man was as shaken as any of us over what Francine’s actions had wrought. He tried to hide a look of disgust but was only mildly successful. “Neither of our estates are in any condition to withstand a full on onslaught by certain members of the Council. Corman cannot support the fines for a divorce, even one warranted in the eyes of all of Kipling … wait … I am not finished.” I was having a hard time maintaining my calm and he must have seen that. “And and our estate is already prodded at every turn by those seeking to subjugate us. There is only one action that will remove the weapons from the hands of our detractors Mistress Fel and I have decided, in the memory of my friend, to make the sacrifice.”
I wanted to ask him what in the blue blazes he was going on about but his next words effectively silenced me.
“We will transfer Francine’s matrimonial contract from Cor to me.”
I gagged. “What?!”
“In effect, Francine will divorce Cor and marry me.”
“And how exactly is that a solution?!” I was fast losing what grip I had on my calm.
“Young woman if you do not stop using that tone of voice …”
“Now listen here, do not threaten me. Cor isn’t here and while I may not have done a good of a job as he wanted in protecting Francine – I didn’t truly understand her greatest enemy was herself – I haven’t been released from that responsibility. I’m not going to turn her over to some fate I don’t understand much less am able to trust is true!”
He lips twisted sardonically. “Very well, I concede the point that you feel you have a responsibility to continue to safeguard Francine; but I assure you she was given a choice in the matter and has made the choice herself.”
“And what of Cor?” I asked outraged. “Has he been asked what he wants?”
“Cor is in no position to make his wishes known much less have them heard.” I was ready to blast him again but he continued on. “Whether you understand why or not in Kipling the laws were written in such a way to protect a woman’s position, to in essence protect the weaker sex. During the Dark Days too many females were abused with no way out of their predicament. The future of our population had to be insured and since it was most often the men that were the abusers …”
I spit, “Cor is about as far from abusive as you can get.”
He shook his head. “Do not be idealistic, it does not suit you. Cor’s … let us call it temperament … may not seem abusive to you as you are a strong individual with … hmmm … temperament issues of your own. Francine on the other hand is a delicate flower, one not able to withstand the rigors of Cor’s needs and attributes.”
I was ready to gag again.
“So he is a man … I still fail to see that as abusive. Sounds like you have a pretty good lock on your household yourself.”
Appreciatively he said, “Just so. On the other hand I’ve never had to raise my voice or hand to achieve my ends.”
Well, I didn’t know whether that was true or not so I had to let it pass except I did say, “Shouting is not the same thing as hitting.”
“To some. Not to others,” he replied calmly.
He had a response to everything I could say so I shut up.
He finally got down to nails and tacks as my Gramp would have said. “In our civilized society it is very difficult for a man to divorce a woman without severe repercussions. Divorce is not much easier for a female except under the circumstances where she is leaving an undesired marriage for a desired one. The husband being divorced can fight it …” he got a deceptively kind look on his face that warned me I wouldn’t like what he was about to say. “But he opens himself up to certain … accusations shall we say. Abusing a woman is a very serious offense in our society Mistress Fel. Even if you cannot see them as people and valuable in their own right, you must understand they are a resource that our society cannot live without.”
“Yeah, yeah … preservation of the species and all that. But Francine cannot have more children … and the one she did …”
His walking stick struck the floor. “THAT will not become known. I assure you the consequences for both of our families would be devastating.”
“Devastating because people would worry that the lot of you are crazy or …”
“Devastating because the death of a child – any child – is an offense warranting hanging. And as wrong as I believe that Francine has been, I cannot allow that to happen. She is ill and doesn’t truly understand what she has done.”
Horrified I said, “But if she’s ill surely no one would …”
“Oh I assure you they would. Madness is culled from our society as necessary. There is a demand that you either control your family or Kipling society will do it to protect the whole. Do you understand?”
Unfortunately I did. The Outlands was a brutal place. Many children that were seen as defective were left in the wilderness to live or die as the spirits decreed. The elderly were allowed to pass with dignity when at all possible. The injured and maimed were given the dignity of living or dying as was their wish so long as it did not burden the people. But madness was seen as a judgment on an entire town, village, or family and was rooted out and destroyed whenever it was at all suspected.
The Elder continued, “I will marry Francine and take her on as my responsibility. That will effectively end my opportunity to bring in any new wives to our family. I have spoken to my wives and they understand and agree that they will take over Francine’s care to make sure she is not a danger to herself nor anyone else. By accepting responsibility for her I remove that responsibility from Cor’s shoulders which will allow him to move forward unburdened so that he can contribute to Kipling’s future unfettered. What you personally make of it is your own responsibility.”
“What if Cor doesn’t wish to rid himself of the responsibility of Francine. He loves her.”
He shook his head. “Such idealism. Who would have thought it of an Outlander?” He sighed and then very directly and succinctly said, “In this particular case love is insufficient. Cor is incapable of providing the care and constant attention that Francine needs. More importantly he has an obligation to allow Francine to go leave if she wishes to and I assure you she does. However, since you seem so unexpectedly protective of her I will allow you to question her on this yourself. But be warned, I now consider Francine under my strict protection and I will not allow her to be upset.”
With that he stood and then left the room and Hazel brought Francine in. I got the creeps as soon as I saw her. She was calm … too calm. I knew right away she’d been drinking those teas of hers again. But what choice did I have? I had to try and reach her, if not for Cor’s sake then for her own. Did she truly know what she was doing or was it only a bit of revenge she was after?
“You can't leave him like this Francine,” I told her. “I'll leave, go off someplace since you hate me so, but don't leave him. Don't punish him because of me. He's barely clinging to life; this could send him over the edge. If it’s begging you want of me, I'll do it. Please ...”
An arrogance that always lurked beneath her dealings with me tinged her voice when she said, “Nothing you can say will change my mind ...” But then in a false voice of forgiveness she added, “I do not hate you Fel, I feel sorry for you.”
However, some anger and resentment began to show through her façade as she said, “You could have been a co-wife with me and instead you chose this PATHETIC half-life. Even then I don't truly blame you. You are from the Outlands and know no better. No, it is Cor that I cannot live with, whose choices have cut me too deep. He married me knowing who I was. I married him sure that I could bring him to understand the joy that could be found if he would live the way I wanted. My aunts and the elders said that I could be one of the first to spread our joy to others. It should have worked. It would have worked. But it didn't and the only reason is because there is something inherently wrong with Cor. I do not know what it is but I cannot live with it.”
Outraged I said, “Something inherently wrong with Cor?! You are the one that drank those infernal teas even knowing what they could do!”
In true anger she said, “I would not have been forced to put myself and my baby at such risk if Cor had been a better man.”
I was as close as the width of a shade to scratching the cat’s eyes out right then and there. Francine had always had the ability to set me off and I should have been more prepared for it. But I wasn’t; the sheer injustice of it all was like a boulder in my chest.
Topher saved me. He had slipped into the room unnoticed and then just appeared at my side. Sounding far too old for his age he said, “Let her go Mistress Fel. She's made her choice and may she have the joy of it." He spit and then added, "At least the woman who bore me let me draw breath and didn't try and rid herself of me with potions and poisons just to have her way."