We turned a bend in the road and I nearly lost my breath and my teeth. I hadn’t really considered what they meant when they had called their home an estate. I could only stare and blink. It was Francine who proudly said, “It has been in the family since before the Dark Days and belonged to the Cormans for several generations before that.”
“Good brown gravy,” I muttered. “How many people live here?”
When Francine failed to respond the Captain answered me, “Only a handful these days. There are other families that tend to the fields that are still in production but the homestead … well, not since the plague has there been more than a dozen and these days only half that number.”
Outraged but not exactly sure why I said, “If you really tried you could fit the population of my whole town in the house and the outbuildings.”
But we had gotten close enough at that point that the illusion had begun to wear off. The barn and silo were in disrepair as was nearly every structure within the compound walls including the house itself. The gardens, such as they were, were untended except for the kitchen garden and even that was bedraggled and dying. Vines covered one side of the house, windows and all. At least the chimneys and roof seemed in a good state.
Chickens and geese wandered where they would and I saw a pig using a porch rail to scratch his itchy behind. A dog gave a lackluster bark but no one came out to greet us. The Captain looked at the outrider that had spoken to me and asked sharply, “Do we have a problem Jonah?”
“The lads were likely called to the fields or are off fetching water for Mary. The pump handle broke again and the peddler ain’t been through.”
The Captain looked at Francine and asked, “Did you send the letter to have the fort blacksmith make another handle?”
Francine sighed, “I’m sure it was in that pile of letters I gave to Aunt Muriel. She even mentioned that all Cor needed to do was apply to father and the farm’s blacksmith would be happy to come around and take care of it.”
About that time a woman came around the house riding a donkey that was as short and round as she herself was. “Oh Cap’n. Yers came just in the nick. Got word my youngest is about to give birf and I’m off to see to her for a few weeks. The farm delivered this month’s supplies this morning. She beamed and bowed to Francine and Winnie, saluted the Captain, and then after giving me the evil eye trotted away to the bemusement of all who were left in her dust.
Afraid to know but needing to nonetheless I asked, “Who was that?”
Francine only moaned and claimed to be coming down with a sick headache from the heat and could someone please help her into the house. A young outrider jumped down and rushed to her side and walked her to the porch where she disappeared rather quickly for one so ill.
I would have said something unwise if I hadn’t glanced at Winnie and discovered that she truly was ill. “Captain!”
The Captain and I got Winnie into the house and into a cool, shaded room with doors that opened to catch what breeze there was. It took no time for Winnie to fall asleep and I was left looking at the Captain who stared worriedly at his pale wife. “Is this why Mona said she would confine Winnie to bed?”
He nodded. “Early in our marriage we lost three babes. After the last … well, we thought there would be no more. She’s never gotten this far along before. She’s been working herself sick … and now that blasted woman has taken off on top of everything else.”
He ran his hand through hair that already had as much salt as it did pepper as we stepped out into the hallway and I felt compelled to ask, “Why has Francine let her get like this? Surely … well … well surely …”
He sighed and then gave me a look as if he was deciding something. “Come. My study is over here. Winnie will sleep for a bit and we’ll have some privacy.”
After he bid me sit he sat at his desk and played with the few things upon it as if he was drawing courage for a battle. “The woman you met was Mary. She is the housekeeper and cook and has been working for the family for over twenty years, since Cor was a babe. She might as well be family and has been treated as such for as long as I’ve known her. She was once quite a force to be reckoned with but as you can see her … talents … have deteriorated with age and time and she really needs to be replaced.”
“So why doesn’t Francine do it?”
He sighed. “She says it isn’t her place but Cor’s. Cor says he doesn’t have time and leaves it up to Francine or Winnie. Winnie won’t do it because she doesn’t have the authority to create a new place for Mary and in reality in the past was never bothered by Mary’s … oddities.”
Trying to find the right words I asked, “There’s problems with the line of authority in this house. Is Francine too afraid of her husband to …”
“No. Yes. Dammit … I suppose I will simply have to explain things. Why I am being left to deal with all of this mess. Why it had to come to this …”
I waited patiently as the Captain calmed himself and wondered how close to the truth Winnie’s version had been. She likely thought she was telling the “unvarnished” truth but I had already seen that Francine had her fooled in at least one respect; she wasn’t near as silly and stupid as she sometimes acted.
Finally the Captain sighed and admitted, “The place is a mess. I’d blame Lee, Cor’s father, if he was here to blame. He left a mound of debt and a weakened leadership upon his death. Lord what a hash this all is. Allow me to start from the beginning, it will make more sense. Winnie told me that Mona and she explained the early history of Kipling.” At my nod he said, “Good. The less said about some of that the better. Some fools seem to want to repeat the mistakes of history rather than learn from it. The troubles for the Corman family started because of his father. Cor’s grandfather was a strong leader and well respected; unfortunately he died too young leaving two young sons and one rather avaricious cousin as their guardian. The cousin died soon after but not before making a mess of the relationship between the estate and the surrounding farms as he tried to demand more of the harvest than was his due. This is the vacuum that Lee grew up in. He had doting grandmothers and aunts and cousins but no male role model strong enough or willing to knock some sense into him when he began to display certain less than constructive personality straights.”
I realized I was to hear a part of the story that Winnie had glossed over. “Lee hated all of the work and effort needed to keep the farms and estate running. It held no interest for him. He was brilliant and truly hated anything and everything that took time away from what he called his experiments. He married only because he was forced to do so by the Council. Winnie’s sister was a nice girl, a lot more like Mona than Winnie however, and no match for Lee’s perfidies. Lee squashed her spirit at every turn and blamed her when the estate began to fail. Lee’s brother loved the estate and therefore Lee made him grovel and beg for every little bit that was needed to keep things running. He was killed when one of the old barns that Lee had refused him the funds to repair collapsed on him. Eventually Lee himself died in a similar accident when one of his experiments backfired and brought a wall down on him. While some had become suspicious the true state of affairs of the estate wasn’t fully known until I came in as guardian. I did what I could but I’m no estate manager and funds were next to nonexistent. When Cor came of age he received a trust from his maternal grandfather and he used that to begin the work that had been delayed for so long. Francine’s dower has also helped but it is a toss up which is needed more to bring the estate back to what it should be … funds or work. He needs funds to finish paying off his father’s debts to the Council members but to get the funds he has to go on long bartering runs which takes him away from the work that needs to be done.”
The Captain looked at me to see if I understood the problem. I nodded and said, “My father called it a catch-22 for some reason. You’re stuck no matter what you do.”
He sighed and nodded. “Yes. Now enters that thing that can turn even the strongest of us into fools; love. Cor has been infatuated with Francine since they were children. Despite his poor prospects her family had no trouble encouraging the match. Winnie said you understood the why of it easily enough without it having to be explained.”
I shrugged. “It was an easy enough question to answer once I asked myself what would the Lathrops gain from such a match and influence and power is something even the people of my town understood. You marry into the right family, the right warrior or craftsman, your life is easier because you have more influence on what goes on around you. With more influence you can make things get done the way that they benefit you most. You get enough influence and enough power and enough of the right friends and you become an almost unbeatable force … or at least you imagine you are.”
The Captain nodded. “Exactly. But what Cor is only now beginning to understand is that love is not a panacea. He truly loves Francine but he is no longer blind to some of her worst failings. And one of those failings is that she is a flibberty jibbet that seems to know more ways to escape the work that needs doing than is seemly in such a sweet looking girl. Even knowing what she is I can’t raise my hand or voice to her. And she still has many fooled, including many of those attached to the estate.”
Regretfully the Captain agreed. “Including Winnie though I think perhaps that may change with you to compare her to.”
I shrugged. “So will I finally know what purpose brought me into this madhouse?”
Steepling his fingers the Captain gazed at me like I was a puzzle he was still working out. “As Winnie told you, the Lathrops have been pushing Cor to have at least one more wife. Unbeknownst to those of us trying to prevent it they formed a coalition that gave them a majority vote on the issue. Even my brother and his wife were swayed much to my disgust though I think they may be regretting the side they picked.”
“You don’t agree with the practice of multiple wives?”
Walking a political tightrope he answered, “Let us just say that I think any man who wants more than one wife should be watched for signs of mental disorder. My Winnie is enough to keep me busy to the end of my days. More than one would end my days twice as fast. If you add children to that …” He shuddered. I think he meant to be comical but I saw that he was only partially funning.
Baldly I said, “But you let this be done to me.”
The humor completely disappeared from the room. “Fel there was no changing that it was going to happen. Quiet threats were made to cripple Cor’s chances if the Lathrops didn’t get their way. Loans would have been called due, that sort of thing. I have no sons Fel. Cor is like one to me.”
I nodded quietly understanding at last his reasons. “So be it. What’s done is done,” I told him. “But there is more to this or you wouldn’t have told me to come in here where no one else could hear.”
Seriously he looked at me. “Cor will fail if he does not get some help around the estate. He needs someone that can speak with enough authority to force the work to be done and keep it being done in a timely manner and prevent those that would take advantage of his absence. He is a man fully grown and I am no longer his guardian. I cannot speak in his name or for him. That is the rule in Kipling¸ only a man and his wife or an adult child has the authority to order work done on family holdings. Francine either can’t or won’t hold those reins; I haven’t figured which yet. Every time I think I have, something changes my mind. And Cor cannot stay around the estate all the time, he must go out and acquire the funds and goods needed to affect the repairs. Enter a second wife. You.”
“Yes, you. Winnie and I were to … guide you let us say … into doing what needs doing. We would use your authority, your station, and Cor would get the help he needs to rebuild the estate.”
I leaned back in the chair. “Is that why I keep hearing folks say I’m not what they expected?”
He gave a small smile. “Certainly one of the reasons. In truth I am pleased. I never like the idea of manipulating a young woman in such a way. But if you will consider it, see the good it will do …”
Losing a bit of patience I told him, “You are asking me to take the side of a man I have never even met but one that I am completely sure is going to despise me before he even claps eyes on me. Even more, you are asking me to take sides in a feud I have no investment in and no hope of ever winning.”
“Not winning? You think our cause is lost?”
I shook my head. “No. Your plan sounds sensible enough and I might even go so far as to say I’d be a part of it just to kick dust in the nose of the folks that set me up to begin with. But there is only so much satisfaction in that Captain. No matter who wins, I’m going to lose. Or do you really expect me to be happy with this half-life I’m being handed? When the estate becomes profitable … and I’ll even go so far as to say it’s possible to make it so because if my town can eke out an existence in the hell hole of old Saburbia this pre-Dark garden of Eden should easily be made to pull its load. When the estate becomes profitable, I won’t be needed any longer. This Cor you’re so fond of will doubtless be just as embarrassed by me as he is likely to be in the beginning. He’ll hate the idea that someone … some female he never even asked for or wanted … some female that is not his blessed angel Francine … did what he himself could not. I’ll still be just as alone as the day I buried my family.” Whether I wanted it to or not my throat got tight and I was forced to stop talking and look away so he couldn’t see how close to the surface my emotions were.
Quietly the Captain said, “Cor … Cor is not like his father Fel. I can’t deny that he is going to be difficult about this situation. He’ll be at least as difficult as you have been, and likely worse. He’ll see you as a threat to Francine’s position. He may even fight you at every turn. I can’t say for sure just what he will do. But I am confident he will not abandon his responsibilities. And in this life you are one of those responsibilities; he won’t be given a choice on that issue. He is as smart as his father but without the cruelty. He’ll understand once it is all explained to him.”
“I understand now that it has all been explained to me and I’m not brilliant Captain. But understanding still doesn’t make me happy. And it still doesn’t change the fact that I’m being used as a substitute because for whatever reason Francine isn’t doing her job.” A thought struck me. “Isn’t there some kind of hierarchy? A pecking order? Isn’t the first wife the boss wife or something? Won’t that flummox your plan?”
“No. In Kipling the tradition has always been that all wives are equal regardless of age, number of children, or order of marriage.”
“From what I heard practice is different than theory.”
“Do you really see Francine putting up such a fight? We cannot get her to take on her responsibilities now. My guess is she will be more than happy to know she won’t have to do the work and will leave you alone to do as you please.”
My guess is some different. My guess is that Francine is playing a deeper game than they suspect; but I cut my eye teeth on Daphne’s tricks and if I can survive Daphne then I doubt too many others could give me the indigestion she did.