The Ten Weeks, 16 December, At the “Plantation”

The Amherst Estate was, after the Royal one, the single largest holding in the Kingdom of Serelia, especially since those of their rivals the Cavitts and Masters had brutally passed into the Crown’s holdings. The nerve centre of the estate was the family mansion, situated at the end of a spur off of the Old Beran Road, that civil engineering wonder of the World War I era that both united and divided the Island at the same time. The spur ended in a circular loop that was as barely paved as the narrow way that connected the Estate’s centre with the outside world. The loop was perched on a slightly elevated place in an otherwise homogeneously flat part of the earth.
The mansion itself, which echoed plantation architecture of the antebellum American South, was a two-storey affair which faced due east as surely as any Masonic Lodge or Christian church or cathedral could want to, and more so than Serelia’s own Cathedral of St. Thomas. For the observer standing in front of the mansion’s entrance, one could see to the immediate right the guest house, necessary since the second generation of Amhersts to occupy the house had been very fertile, with four children. Beyond that was the servants’ quarters, itself with a little courtyard that the confederado western neighbours, the Dentons, referred to as the “Negro yard.” But there were no Negroes there; the last black people to work for the Amhersts massacred them when they were in the west, searing the memory and leaving a lasting legacy on family and national policy. The occupants were as European in ancestry as those in the mansion, and rumour had it that some of them were blood relatives of their own “masters,” but such rumours were only said in very hushed tones.
To the left of the servants’ quarters were the stables. The Amhersts were said to have the best horses in the country; they certainly were the most equestrian family in the kingdom, riding for sport and to help manage their vast estate. Separating the stables from the business office—which rounded out the square—was the spur itself, moving off straight away from the estate centre, then through alternating subtropical thickets and fields, towards the main road and ultimately the rum distillery that was an important source of income for the Amhersts and the town that bore their name.
The centre of the circle—or more accurately the oval—was a well-manicured patch of Bermuda grass with a ficus hedge or two. The scene, combined with the family history, begged for some kind of monument, but the master wasn’t much for monuments to his past or that of his forbears.
All of this private property was hard to see on the moonless and slightly warmer than usual December night. Looking out from the mansion’s front, the Milky Way rose from the earth, leaning off to the north, leaving Saturn to its right and high in the sky to join the stars in looking down on the scene. The Amhersts weren’t much for security lighting either, so the only lights to break the darkness other than the stars and planet alternately showing and hiding behind the cirrus clouds sailing in the sky were the ring of lights showing through the windows of the various buildings.
The darkened quiet of the scene was only broken at last by laughter and conversation that burst forth from the second storey balcony on the mansion. A full balcony that extended across the entire front of the house, it also split the columns horizontally that gave the dwelling its “plantation” look. As the host and guest came out and seated themselves on the wicker chairs, the servant followed dutifully with the Boreal orange liqueur that was both Serelia’s trademark and an important source of revenue for the Crown.
The two men who seated themselves on the end of the balcony facing the guest house were a study in contrast. The estate’s owner, Elton Amherst, had just passed his three score and ten in apparent good form. His signature red hair was almost completely white by now, but he had most of it. Thin with his military bearing, before he was seated he strode across the balcony with ramrod straight posture. Although he was born in what is now Aloxa, his accent was that typical “East Island” one, with its formalities of phrase.
His guest was the Island’s premier tyre salesman, Pierre des Cieux. Although their heights were not that divergent, the effect was entirely different, as Pierre’s creeping waistline was turning his country’s famous crise de foie into a crise de l’oie. Pierre had already remounted his trademark straw hat back on his head; some on the Island were convinced that he was born with it on. The hat concealed balding at work, but he compensated for that to some extent with his moustache, still mostly dark at this stage. His own accent revealed someone who had worked very hard at learning English but whose overlay of French was inseparable.
As they were seated, the servant poured the liqueur, bowed to both of them, and left the balcony. Elton lit one of his Havana cigars and Pierre his pipe.
“It’s a pity that Thomas cannot join us,” Pierre noted.
“There’s always something to attend to,” Elton observed. “My son isn’t much of a socialiser in any case. When he becomes master of the estate, you will come here, he will haggle with you a bit over the price, he will give you your order, and you will leave very shortly, which will give you more time to collect your money from our neighbours to the west.” They both chuckled at that.
“Your family seems to be doing quite well.”
“Other than my wife’s departure for the ‘celestial lodge,’ as we used to say, they are. . .”
“Grandpa!” The cry came from the centre of the balcony. They saw Thomas’ wife Susan standing at the door. She was an attractive blonde but Pierre noticed a sad shadow over her mood the whole time they were together. But the centre of attention was her little daughter Darlene, in her pyjamas, her bright red hair made up into pigtails. “Grandpa!” she cried again and ran over enthusiastically towards Elton, the rhythm of her tiny feet beating enthusiastically on the wood plank balcony floor. Her dash came to an abrupt halt when she got in front of Pierre. She stopped, looked at him quizzically, then extended to him her right hand.
“En-chan-tée,” she mouthed out, obviously memorised.
“D’accord,” he replied, taking and kissing her hand. She put her performance into oblivion and resumed her run toward Elton.
“I love you, Grandpa,” she said, reaching up for him. He leaned over, took her up into his lap and kissed her forehead. They hugged for a long time.
“I love you too,” he answered. “You have sweet dreams.” Darlene was in no hurry to get out of his lap but she sensed her mother’s impatience and finally parted, running back to Susan and leading her back into the house.
“She’s very charming,” Pierre said.
Elton took a sip from his liqueur. “There’s something special about her. She’s the most affectionate child I’ve ever seen—and, for some reason, everyone around here has taken leave of their senses and indulged her. But her brothers have decided that they needed a boy for a sibling. They take her on hunting and fishing trips—very quick study, from what they tell me. Too quick sometimes—just last week her mother had to give her a good whipping and wash her mouth out with soap for using some of the salty language her brothers find inseparable. It seems that, since she is so ‘out of order,’ normal conventions don’t apply.” He turned and looked Pierre straight in the eye. “I think she has a decidedly ‘unwomanly’ future ahead of her.”
“To be frank, in this society that is surprising,” Pierre responded, trying to be careful.
“This is a different world we live in. Who knows what could happen? Even here. But she’ll definitely do better than that bubble-headed sister of hers.”
“Theresa?”
“Of course. Inherited all of her mother’s beauty and charm. But it doesn’t go much beyond that. Now she’s taken up with the help, that stable boy Barton Caldwell. Susan can’t bring herself to face the fact that they are seeing more of each other than they should. We put the servants’ quarters where we could keep an eye on them, but it works both ways. Barton’s gotten his eyeful—and more. I know it. Her brothers know it. But her parents won’t do what they have to do.” Even Pierre, always the conversationalist, was at a loss to deal with this outburst.
Elton picked up on his guest’s discomfort. “Sorry to burden you with such things,” he resumed. “But I know you’re a man of discretion.”
“Of course,” Pierre recovered.
“So how has your trip to Serelia gone?”
“Very well. I have seen all of my end users, including those in Drago, Cresca and Fort Albert. Had a very good audience with His Majesty and the Bishop as well.”
“Our dear sovereign. . .his father was a fine fellow, I owed a lot to him. I still feel his loss last year. His son is good, but too much like dealing with the Sphinx. But that’s also a matter for discretion. So how many cases of champagne did you bring to the East Island? The champagne you presented to Thomas and me is magnificent.”
“Three actually. It is a good thing to do at Christmas time, to appreciate our loyal customers.”
“From a drinking standpoint, it is a drop in the bucket in this country. . .but it is a fabulous gesture. You should be commended. You are Jaques’ worthy successor. So how is he doing these days, in retirement?”
“Very well—I don’t hear from him much, so he must be having a very good time.”
“Didn’t he retire to the south of France?”
“He did.”
“Evidently he hadn’t had enough of the hot weather in this place. One of these days, one of you will decide to stay here. But the Island is a rough place.”
“I have enjoyed it very much. It is an interesting territory, pleasant in many ways, challenging in others. Serelia is, frankly, straightforward. Verecunda has gotten interesting with the recent political changes.”
“Political? Ideology? Rubbish!” Elton exclaimed. “It’s all personal vengeance. He married Max Herver’s granddaughter, and she wants revenge for Lucian Gerland wheedling her family out of that estate of theirs. If you want to keep something in the family, the family has to stick together!”
“But, all of this legislation he is passing—there is some kind of social agenda.”
“It’s the Americans’ fault. They spoiled this generation coming up, so their kids threw a tantrum, just like little Darlene does when she doesn’t get her way. But you see even Susan knows what to do when that happens. Their idea of discipline is to let this tantrum go all over the world. What they’re doing is vile, and will lead to Verecunda’s destruction. I told His Majesty just last week what I always told his father—if he lets that kind of thing into this country, we’ll end up the same way and he’ll lose his throne. So far, I think he’s listening to me. Now, the American’s won’t fight for what they have thanks to this ‘tantrum,’ so not only do we have to worry about a bunch of fornicators and drug addicts taking over the Island, but now we have to worry about the sound of Soviet boots goose-stepping down our streets. You’ve met Russian expatriates, haven’t you?”
“Many, over the years. My father counted a good number as friends.”
“Then you know what the Reds can do.” Elton took a good swallow of liqueur to calm himself from the small tirade he just made, easing back into a more relaxed posture in his chair.
Elton looked at Pierre again. “You must excuse me from burdening you,” he resumed. “I have lived on this Island for more than three score now. When I was born, the sons of Beran ruled most of it, the Negroes knew their place, the Verecundans and Collinans were confined to the corner of the Island, and all was well. But things are not the same now. Today we have a collection of kinglets fighting for every scrap of swamp they can get their hands on. The Negroes spilled the blood of kings and rulers and have nothing to show for it. The Verecundans are following blind guides over the cliff. Thank God we have a Christian king and a magnificent Christian church to help us avoid such dangers and have a country where everyone can do what’s right.”
His servants had a sixth sense of when his glass was empty; they refilled it just at the end of his last speech, along with Pierre. For his part des Cieux was agitated by his thoughts. Usually he knew how to ‘hold it in,’ but Elton could detect his nervousness, especially with his extended silence.
“There’s something bothering you, my friend,” Elton noted. “Let me guess, you’ve heard rumours.”
“This is true,” Pierre finally confessed, realising that his own sang-froid had been overcome. “You must excuse me for my impertinence, but ever since I have lived on the Island, I have heard it whispered that you are in fact the senior descendant of the kings of Beran through your mother.”
Elton sighed and looked out on the oval. “Such fairy tales are magnificent, but it’s not so. My father took the privilege of gentlemen, and so my mother was not his wife. He chose to raise me amongst his other sons. That is why I lost my head and ended up here—by God’s grace, as it turns out. So put such things out of your mind, and enjoy the evening—the children of the royal house of Beran are no more, if it were otherwise Allan Kendall would not be wasting his time fighting the Gerlands. The sons of Beran had no equal in their day and do not now.”
“One can only amuse oneself with what could have happened if the two had joined together.”
“The Gerlands and the house of Beran?” Elton asked, a little startled.
“Of course.”
“Now that is a fairy tale!”

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