1858 - The Farmhouse
I remember that Summer day when Peter came running up to me, out of breath. He and the kids from some neighboring families were engaged in a game of tag that had gone on for nigh an hour. Childish giggles echoed across the yard as the adults conversed and drank on the farmhouse's front porch.
"Joshua," he said in between pants, "I saw you talking to Olivia Burkeshaw. Are you courtin' her now?"
"Mind yer own business, Pete. You're too young to be knowin' about that stuff anyhow", I replied, trying my best to look like a grown up. Uninterested in the trivialities of the young 'uns.
"She's real purty. And I heard her dad, Tom, owns a chicken farm. We don't have a chicken farm. I bet Uncle Garrett would approve of you courtin' her." I looked in his eyes for any hint of mischief or teasing, but Peter spoke with a sincerity beyond his eleven years of age. "She has nice hair", he added, casting a look across the yard to where Olivia had joined the adults.
I followed my little brother's gaze and caught her staring back at me. She looked away coyly. Come to think of it, Uncle Garrett had been the one to properly introduce Olivia and I. I'd been dismissed from the day's chores, and ordered to take a bath in preparation for the night's banquet. We had gingerly shaken hands when presented, my palm clammy with anxiety. I wasn't used to the confines of my formal clothing. Standing nearby, Father and Mother exchanged smiles and knowing glances. Truth was, I had noticed her on several of my incursions into town. Pete was right. But she was more than just "purty", Olivia was downright beautiful. She was also a year older than me.
I went to ruffle my brother's downy hair, then remembered Mom had done it special for dinner. Instead, I smoothed out an unruly russet cowlick that had stuck up in the back. "I dunno", I finally said. "She's a nice girl. She probably deserves a real gentleman, not a farmhand like me."
"But one day, you'll be a foreman, just like Daddy. Seems pretty respectable to me," Peter replied.
I smiled and pushed him playfully. "We'll see. What about you? Got your eye on any of the lasses from around here? Doc Pallin's girl oughtta be in your grade."
He scrunched his face up in mock disgust. "Ew, no! Besides, I ain't gonna have time for gettin' married. I'm gonna be a swashbuckler when I grow up. Like the Three Musketeers." He took two steps back and assumed a fencing stance. "En garde!"
I countered with an imaginary rapier. We danced across the lawn and made clanging sounds as our invisible swords crossed. Partially hidden in the tree line behind us, the dark manor loomed, an impressive backdrop for our duel to the pain. From the porch came the unmistakable ring of the dinner bell.
We sat at the table with full stomachs, placing our silverware on the plates delicately, careful not to mess the good china. Our family and neighbors resumed their casual talking among glasses of wine and bourbon. As Peter and I were about to ask to be excused, Uncle Garrett rose from his ornate chair at the head of the table and clinked a knife against the nearest piece of crystal.
"Friends and family, I want to thank you for coming here today to help us celebrate. Before we get to tonight's big announcement, I'd like to revisit the reason we are all here right now, and how we have managed to make this town and farm a better place for the community.
"As you all remember, my father, Clive Cartwright practically ran this town in his time. He provided employment for many of your families and helped our economy grow respectable. He was also one of the first farmers to rebel against the crass use of slavery in this state. Clive was a good man.
"But he was not without his enemies. Unfortunately for him, his nemesis was his own brother, forged by greed and jealousy. James was born the youngest of five sons, and ever since he was old enough to understand, he knew that it was Clive's birthright to inherit the family farm. The rest of the sons and daughters were given compensation when they became of age, and were let free to pursue their heart's desire. Most chose to stay and work the farm, content to raise their families and keep fellowship. For a while, James was satisfied to dwell in their ranks, but was drawn to the card tables until he had no inheritance left to give his children.
"The devil works through desperation, and so he did through James as well. One by one, he poisoned and murdered his brethren. Working in secret to make every death appear as an accident. When only Clive was left, James raised a small militia to wrest control of the farm. But the dedicated of you in this town, who knew Clive as the man he was, acted as a bulwark and quashed the rebellion. We purged the usurpers by force, and those captured were hung for treason so they could harass our society no more.
"Now we live in harmony, and stay according to the rules enacted by Clive Cartwright. The new birthright. One to assume the wealth, another to assume the fruit of generations. For we all must make sacrifices. We all must suffer, so we do not take for granted that with which we have been blessed. Forever and ever. Amen."
"Amen", the company answered in chorus.
Uncle Garrett made his way around the table, stopping directly behind my chair. His voice rang in my ears, his words draining the color from my face. "Join me in rejoicing the marriage of Master Joshua Cartwright and Miss Olivia Burkeshaw. May your union bring us all further happiness and prosperity."
Across the massive slab of wood, Olivia hid her eyes, yet I couldn't help but notice the slight smile at the corner of her lips.