“Fel, there was no way around this. We couldn’t hold Francine against her will. It doesn’t work that way here in Kipling,” the Captain told me quietly as we all stood on the porch watching the carriages holding Francine and the rest of the Lathrops drive away. It was unutterably troubling to watch Francine waving a handkerchief merrily from her window as if she merely were going on a holiday and would be back soon.
“But if she isn’t in her right mind …” I said quietly.
It was Robbie’s father who said, “In order to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt and remove her freedom to self-determine, it would all have to come out Fel … her family history, her addiction, the baby … all of it.”
“Everyone already knows all that at this point.”
He shook his head kindly but firmly and said, “No my Dear, people may suspect but they do not know for certain and this is not something people will attack without extreme caution. Many of us witness to the truth are forbidden by our oaths from speaking of it and many others will not out of loyalty and good taste. Others will simply assume but they won’t openly accuse for fear of it rebounding onto them. No family is without its eccentrics and some … shall we say … are more eccentric than others. It could start a witch hunt and the truly innocent would be hurt.” Seeing that I was still stubbornly clinging to the idea of airing the laundry in public whether it was dirty or not he added, “If it comes to that Fel, Cor might even be blamed for not seeing the signs before now. You could be blamed for taking advantage of Francine’s weakness to insert yourself into a position of greater authority. Rob and Winnie’s names could get dragged through the mud and his career ruined.”
I could give a flying turnip whether someone tried to blame me or not, part of me did feel guilty; but I was less sanguine about the idea of others being made the object of scorn. Doubly upset I asked, “So it all just gets swept under the rug and Cor is left holding the bag? Again? Isn’t that what people did to him before with his Da? What kind of justice is that for him? And what of justice for that wee babe that was planted, forever to only be known as Daughter? Is she to bear the debt alone because her Ma was a broken minded soul?”
No one would look me in the eye and I was disgusted. Part of me understood but at the same time part of me had a hard time dealing with the cowardice of it all. I snarled, “Hang your civilized society. It is getting exactly what it deserves. Maybe the Outlands are a good place to die but Kipling seems that it is a hard place to live.”
I turned and entered the house knowing what needed to be done. When Topher went to follow me I stopped him at the bottom of the stairs. “Not this time. I’m not sure if Cor will understand but he has the right to know what is going on in his own house.”
The boy shrugged his thin shoulders. “Then I’ll follow yer half way. The Mister always done me good and never turned me out when he could have. I won’t repay him by running just ‘cause he be troubled.”
I agreed to the compromise and then walked the rest of the way to Cor’s room alone after leaving Topher on the upper landing. Lollie was sitting with Cor and came over as I entered. “Is it finished?” she asked quietly.
I nodded. “The first part of it is.”
She patted my arm and then sensing my purpose told me, “He already knows. She came and told him, supposedly didn’t want him to make a scene and try and stop her.”
I shook my head. “And exactly how was he supposed to, him all bandaged up and barely livin’ like he is?”
Lollie shrugged. “Miss Francie never was one to make much sense. We accepted her for Cor’s sake but truth be told she never fit in here. You’ve always been much more to our liking.”
I was flummoxed but refused to show it. Already people were changing their tune to suit the memories they wished to keep. I’d seen it before as the survivors of the feud that took my family disremembered evil deeds they’d done and battles lost, and praised those that they won as being greater than they were until they came to believe it their own lies. During one of our many lessons Da had called it rewriting history to make it more comfortable to live with. I wasn’t sure where it would leave me in their eyes but I had no taste for being put on a pedestal.
I asked Lollie if it was OK that I gave her a break. “Hmmm, don’t mind if I do. Ring the bell to beat all if you think he is in trouble and we’ll come running.”
Quietly I sat in the chair next to the bed. A gruff voice startled me from saying what I had meant to. “She gone?”
“Lollie … is Lollie gone?”
I cleared my throat and said, “Yes. I’m sure she just stepped out for a moment. Do you want me to fetch her?” I was afraid he didn’t want me around and it hurt to think it.
“No,” he sighed. He tried to sit up and I jumped to stop him from moving.
“No you don’t. You’ve got a fearsome wound in your side Cor. You move too much and you’ll split it open again.”
He groaned. “My throat’s dry and full of sand.”
I spooned a bit of water into his mouth, doing it slowly to keep from choking him. He raised his hand and put it on my arm and I froze. “Has she left?”
This time I knew the “she” he was referring to. “So Lollie was right and she told you.”
“Some of it I even remember. You tell me the rest.”
His voice was dead. It tore at me but I told him … the whole truth of it. He was a man and deserved to be treated as one and not like a child to be managed. “I tried to stop her Cor. I tried. I just don’t know what else I could have done with her family and yours standing against me.”
“You did what you could,” he said quietly. “Francine … didn’t want to stay.” I wanted to comfort him but I had no idea how to take the sting away from all the pains he must be feeling. He turned his face away and said in the same dead voice, “I’m going to sleep now.”
Each day I sat with him for a while in the afternoon. Sometimes he was awake but mostly he slept, slipping in and out of the fever that seemed to be sucking the life out of him. Eventually everyone began to leave, being called away to other emergencies. Out battle with the raiders had taken the head off the snake but it still thrashed yet, unaware that it was dead.
Even Docia eventually left but not before delivering wonderful news. “I hadn’t wanted to tell you and make you feel bad. It seemed cruel.”
“Oh Docia, I don’t expect you to turn away from your own happiness – yours and Robbie’s – just because my life is in the manure heap. If anything your happiness gives me hope that this world will keep turning.”
Docia was four months along and happy as a lark. She was the last of my sisters to get caught with child. Hannah and Nel are both expecting. Daphne has already had her child and is working on her next one. Docia says if her Lem’s mother crows any louder somebody is going to wring her neck. The others were all in various stages of pregnancy or nursing. With Docia I think it was just a matter of Robbie travelling so much as first and being so careful of her, but they seem to have settled down into a fine couple, one that can play as well as be serious.
Was I jealous? A bit. But I had vowed to put off the fairy stories and simply accept what came my way in life. Pretending did no good. Yes, I still love Cor but he is so hurt – in body, mind, and spirit – that I cannot force myself upon him. In a way that would be as wrong as what Francine has done to him and I would never know if he would have chosen that path if he had been given his way.
Besides my days became as full as they ever had. April was turning May and May would soon be June and the harvest would start again. The long winter and wet spring had forced our fields to be planted later and everyone was in a rush to catch up. And because of the raider attacks plenty of families needed help to get it done. The village and farms came together and helped one another. Boys were brought up into men’s positions to replace those that had been lost to injury and death.
Because of his experience Topher was called on to help with patrols and spent a good part of every day in the saddle with the Captain and his trusted lieutenants; but he always had time for me though life had taken away the little boy that had been left in him. There was no more tramping through the woods, carefree and light for either one of us because our responsibilities lay like a heavy mantle across our shoulders. I was still the one he came to when he hurt. I was still the one that played mother. But he was turned eleven and it was in the time of life when a boy begins to need a man’s company far more than a nurse maid’s.
I made a point of bringing reports to Cor every day. He was healing but it was a slow process and I didn’t want him to feel left out of all the hustle and bustle going on on the estate. Sometimes he would respond with interest and sometimes he would stare blankly out the window. The blank days usually meant he was in pain or the fever was trying to return or memories held him tight. Once I’d caught him with a scrap of fabric in his hands and I realized it was one of Francine’s fancy handkerchiefs. I know he still loved her and at least part of him always would but still it pinched a bit. Didn’t he see me standing right there?
Then I realized I was asking too much too soon. He’d lost so much weight that he reminded me of a prisoner long held in some dungeon. I went back to treat him sisterly simply because it made it easier on me and seemed to cause him less trouble. His emotions ran so close to the surface but he reined them so tightly it was painful to look at. I almost wished for the snapping growling man he used to be.
When he was feeling particularly blue and refusing to communicate in much more than a grunt I would drag a chair to the window, put a pillow in it and then tell him he was needing some fresh air. We’d only fought about it once and I’d been the unequivocal winner … so now when I said he needed fresh air he went with apparent willingness though not always with good grace.
A few more weeks passed and the first pods of the garden peas made a dainty addition to the evening meal when Cor started coming to the dinner table once again. He seemed to feel ill at ease so I asked Mrs. Wiley’s helpers to take the leaves out of the table to make it smaller so it would feel like we were all sitting so far apart. “Ridiculous to have the thing as long as a banquet table,” I muttered. As further excuse I said, “We’ll have less to clean by using the short linens on the table as well.”
Winnie smiled and nodded. “A good idea. The less ironing the better. With Rachel toddling around I get positively green unless I am able to do it while she naps and even then I rushed so fast the other day I nearly ironed my own hand.” She held up a blistered finger to make her point.
We were midway into the meal and Cor was starting to lose steam. He stopped eating all together when the Captain said, “Cor my boy, when do you want to leave for the festival?”
Cor’s fork snapped down in his plate and so did his voice when he said, “Uncle Rob, I told you I have no interest in going.”
“You didn’t attend last year either.”
“Last year …” I could tell Cor was angry but I could also see it was draining him.
I broke in and asked, “Why would Cor want to attend this festival? It’s not like I’ve seen anyone go out of their way to come visit him here.”
The Captain and Cor both were caught with their mouths open. Winnie chuckled. “Trust you to strike at the heart of the matter Fel.” She cocked an eyebrow at the Captain who noisily cleared his throat and pretended not to notice.
Cor sighed and then closed his eyes briefly before answering. “It’s expected.”
“Oh, well if that’s all tell ‘em to shove their expectations sideways.”
The Captain was in mid-swallow of his evening glass of whiskey and my comment redirected it down the wrong pipe for some reason. Winnie jumped up and ran to his side and started pounding him on the back trilling a delighted laugh. Even Cor tried to hide a small smile.
The Captain finally gasped and harrumphed himself clear. His eyes were still watering when he tried to pierce me with their gaze and said, “If it was that easy I would tell them myself.”
“But?” I asked.
I looked at all three but it was Cor who looked the most uncomfortable. However it was him that finally explained. “I never … presented you.”
He sighed tiredly and rushed on. “I never presented you to the First Families Council.”
“Then what was all that foolishness last summer? Just a different type of waste of time?”
He nodded. “Basically.”
Winnie took up the challenge this time. “Cor, this year is different from last and regardless of whether we’ve all been dancing around it we know it to be the truth. The Lathrops aren’t the only family that looks with envy at the Corman estate, especially not now that the true state of affairs is leaking out. We must show a strong and united front. Especially as not all of the debts have been paid.”
Cor, weak or not, could still slam his fist down enough to make the tableware jump. “Don’t you think I know that?! I …” He went to stand up but it didn’t go quite as he planned and he stumbled.
I rushed around to give him a shoulder to balance with and as soon as his feet were back in under him solidly I said, “Enough of this. Will someone explain it simply so I can understand why we should subject ourselves to a bunch of snobs that would seem to be happy, despite what purpose they brought me here for, for us to fail or at the very least look like fools?”