[This is part of a larger project that I am working on, but can be a stand alone piece.]
Dinner always finished at the Clevermann farmstead when the last little bit of dessert disappeared into the mouths of the family members. Usually, everyone sat in contented, companionable silence for a few moments before going about their business. Tonight, though, things were a bit different at the Clevermann New Farm house. It was the first time in a couple of years that the extended family had been able to gather privately for a meal, owing to an absence. Tonight, they could celebrate the return of a prodigal wanderer. No one was in a hurry to end the moment, even though no one had anything special to say.
Young Ed Clevermann, whose return from active duty in the Imperial Space Fleet had been the cause for the dinner, finally broke the silence.
“I'm at a deal of confusion about something, Pa, and I'd like to talk through it with you and Uncle, if you're willing.”
Theod Clevermann looked at his son, never the most cheerful fellow at the best of times. Still, despite a proven track record, young Ed's countenance clearly was miserable, and not one to be denied. He finally nodded.
“All right, son. Go out to the verandah, and we'll join you in a moment.” He was already moving towards the cabinet in the antique sideboard where the “medicinal spirits” were kept. Ed's uncle, and namesake, “Old Ed,” was also up and moving towards the outside door of the ranch house.
The Clevermann extended family were far from poor even though at the moment things were getting a bit tight, financially; as fleeing religious dissidents, they had been among the very first settlers of planet Stratford over two centuries ago, had acquired its best farm land and then added to that land over the decades by making judicious marriages with heiresses. The farm income was also now supplemented with small scale retail and manufacturing investments.
Still, there were pretenses to be observed, to maintain the illusion of “commonality.” So though the sideboard that Pa Clevermann went to was a masterwork of inlay and carving which would fetch a handsome price in any auction house in the Empire, and though the bottle he brought out was a very expensive brand of distilled wickedness that he had been saving for just such a special occasion, the glasses that followed the bottle were nothing more than three jars, used for storing emergency supplies or preserved foods. They had, to be sure, been purchased new for the purpose, and had never stored anything of the sort. Only the poorer “croppers” made do by recycling them. But, at least there were no aristocrats on the planet other than old Lord Stratford himself. The place didn't take well to such people.
Theod poured out three servings, wiped and recapped the bottle, and put it back in the cabinet. Satisfied, he took the jars out onto the verandah, where he joined his son and his elder brother, who had already settled into wood chairs for the duration. Theod passed around his treasures, and, when all three were settled, he opened the discussion.
Well, Eddie, what's all this about?”
“I've been thinking, Pa. You and Ma kept me posted while I was away, but I didn't want to say anything until I was at home. I don't care for the marriage Ma and Aunt Matilda have arranged for me. I'm especially minded to refuse the match.”
This was the very last thing the two older men wanted to hear from their heir. Both took long pulls from their jar as they considered the implications, which were shaping to call for a great deal of medication.
“Your aunt worked very hard on all the arrangements, and so did your mother.” Old Ed was a bit put out and afraid that his nephew failed to appreciate all the effort.
“I realize that uncle, I really do, and I'm at gratitude, but still...”
“Why aren't you minded to it, son. Your particular year had some very bad luck and the choices aren't very good. There aren't any good matches among the Proprietors, no heiresses at all, and very few other marriage portions close by that are of any use. You aren't the only fellow stuck in this way. Lots of families are forced to look out side the group these last few years.”
Ed nodded at that. He had known that all his life, or at least since he was old enough to think about such things. Going away for an enlistment in the Imperial Space Fleet did nothing to improve the situation, for others had two years to get their proposals in.
Theod Clevermann continued, “What's wrong with Dorcas Gratewell, anyway? The property terms aren't bad. They're the best we could get, and that only after we agreed to match her younger brother Gyles to our Maddie. This way, no land swaps hands, only dower cottages for the couples to live in. We can manage that.”
“I agree that times are rough, Pa, but is this really the best we can manage?”
“Son, we need the money. We need the money very badly. Dorcas comes with a very attractive portfolio even if there is no land. Her parents saved carefully, even if they are not our kind of people, and she has, in her name, a very nice account invested in two and one-eighth Imperial consols. We've arranged that the income will pay right to the Old Farm account to be available for your use. We already settled the land on you in anticipation that something like this would happen.”
Ed was torn between yelling, groaning, and moving down range in case divinely-sent lighting struck his father for that statement. No divine retribution, at least, was forthcoming; Ed had expected none. The Old Farm had indeed been placed in his own name as sole owner, but not out of any tender affection. Rather, the move kept the land shielded from some very insistent creditors who had been pressing two years earlier.
Once that happened, Ed realized the expenses of the family needed to be pruned. That had been his entire motive in joining the Fleet in the first place; he had ceased being an expense on the household, and had even sent most of his pathetic salary home as a token effort to help. His father, meanwhile, had used the income of the Old Farm in a misguided effort to cure an ailing bull foode-beeste of its urological complaints. What was worse, after burning through the profits of an otherwise debt-free and prosperous farm Theod Clevermann had ransacked Ed's college account for the same purpose. After everything, the stud 'beeste remained impotent.
Ed composed his thoughts. A different tack was needed. “Look, Pa. I know we need the money. I made a fair bit of bounty money in the Fleet, boarding a slave-running ship. That cash is safely invested. I'll have an independent income if I take a commission; my college expenses are now paid for by the Fleet, not the Clevermann accounts. I can, on my own, keep the Old Farm stable for a long time if not indefinitely. We don't need to rush into this just because we're down for the moment and the Gratewells are up and riding high for the same moment. Their grandparents were mere croppers. We're the Clevermanns of Stratford."
Theod Clevermann started to say something, but his brother cut him off with a question of his own.
“It isn't just the money, is it, Eddie, or the status?”
“No, Uncle. The money is the least of it, actually. The status isn't so important, either, for a good choice. It's everything else about the match. I went to school with Dorcas, remember? Dorcas is awful. She isn't very nice to anyone. Not kind, and not charitable. She isn't very bright, either. I dare either of you to say you made the match because of her great beauty. You can't possibly manage to get that phrase out with a cork screw.”
“Your aunt doesn't favor very bright girls for matches, nor very elegant ones. She always suspects overly fancy women. Anyway, it was part of a package match. Your sister is supposed to marry Gyles, and what will she do?
“I think an elegant, bright woman might be just the thing, myself, to bring some life into the place,” Ed said, for he started this conversation with someone in mind. “Besides, don't forget this, either I had ample opportunity to see Gyles when we were growing up, too. He's even worse. Dorcas might, with training, be able to carry a pail of feed to the 'beestes if the directions were printed on the bottom. But Gyles? No hope. Look, Uncle, would you put Gyles on the staff at the store up at the Market Grange?” Ed glowered at his uncle, who began an intense study of his jar, sipped at it, and refused to answer.
Ed turned back to his father. “Would you put him on as a machinist on one of the really valuable machines at the tractor factory?” Theod Clevermann flinched at the notion, and Ed carried on, his courage finally found. “If you won't use him, even allowing for good old-fashioned nepotism, why are you afflicting your children with him?”
Theod stammered out, “Your sister has to marry someone. So do you. People will talk; are starting to talk already. You'll be saying next your sister should marry some reprobate out of the Stratford City criminal gangs.”
“Funny you should mention that, Pa. I never wrote home about it, in my letters, because I didn't want the upset. But speaking of criminal reprobates, I served with the poster child for 'beeste bothering and general theft, Timmy Perkins. I'm still perfectly willing to put him on one of the lower rungs of Hell if I catch him anywhere near the Old Farm or the foode-beeste herd. Having said that, though, I've developed a sight more respect for him than I've ever had for Gyles Gratewell, who is an incomparable moron against whom all other dolts are measured down at the college. If I had to pick between 'em for a brother-in-law...”
Ed's uncle stepped up at once. He remembered Timmy Perkins, who appeared before him when he sat as a Commissioner for the Keeping of the Peace up at the Clevermann Market Grange. The slight acquaintance, which began with an indictment for general mopery and 'beeste-bothering, and ended with a probation to the Imperial Space Fleet, did not cause him to share his nephew's strange liberal sentiment for this individual. “Steady on, Eddie. Let's deal at your situation, first. I'm at a guess that you have a plan. You usually do.”
“I do, uncle, actually. First, since money, especially my money, washes around like water, it seems, if I have to provide a dower for Mattie and Maddie, I will. I won't like it, but the bounty money will stand a very modest settlement for each, and they can make their own arrangements. I met some nice officers in the Fleet, and I can find good matches for them there if you want. As for me, if I can make my own arrangement, I think I've found a nice girl in the Fleet. I've not reached any arrangement, nor even explored any, really. But if I can, I promise you won't be embarrassed.”
Theod Clevermann sighed a little bit. His brother continued to study his jar.
“She's not from Stratford; there aren't many from here who go into the Fleet.”
“No, Pa. We served on ship together. She's posted out here instructing in the Space Cadet Reserve Training program at Tech-Ind.”
“She won't be one of the Elect, either, then.”
“No, Pa. She comes off of planet Halcon, though. It shouldn't pose a problem. I've spoken with some ministers at different chapels about it, and none of them have raised any objection.”
“No money, I'm at guessing?”
“Actually, Pa, I'm not so big a romantic fool as you seem to believe. Quite a lot of money. Her Pa made a packet of bounty money in the Fleet, earned some rank, and a title and the lands to go with it, and her Ma was quite successful at investing the cash, and has a career in her own right. I won't mention the name yet; this stands or falls without that. They could buy the Clevermanns, and the Gratewells, and a few others here abouts and still have change for a nice dinner in Stratford City. Even if that weren't the case, she's still much more interesting than Dorcas, and has everything that Dorcas doesn't. I can actually stand to be with her, for a start.”
Theod thought he finally spotted some winning flaws. “She won't want to settle on Stratford, not after living on Halcon. It's too cold. She won't want to sit on a farm, anyway. Too, what, rustic? She'll be bored. And then what will folks say. 'No nobles on Stratford, other than the old Lord Stratford, and she won't be the next.' She won't be welcome.”
“Maybe not. But I'm willing to risk all that and be at the asking, at least, and explore the match. I can tell you one thing for certain, though. No match here with the Gratewells. They bring nothing I want to the bargain. I have enough cash to make that much stick, at least, and I can make a career in the Fleet. I can also buy my own thrice-bedamned Imperial consols.”
Theod Clevermann sat and rocked in his chair for a long time. His brother stopped gazing at the jar, and instead watched him, waiting for his reaction. Neither had expected their Eddie to be quite so forthright in any matter, much less this one.
Theod finally spoke, but couldn't look at his son. “I won't say I'm at peace with this, or pleased. Not at all. I doubt it will work. I also see what I think or don't think or doubt or don't doubt matters in the least. But I'm willing to let you try if you want. For the moment, you go down this path, if you wish, on your own. You don't have my blessing for it. That will save me a deal of grief with the Gratewells, and that is important right now. On the other hand, I will also say this. You can bring your friend by the place. We had hoped to use the 'beeste-feast we've organized to announce the matches, but I see that won't work. Bring her to that, and we'll see just how she does. If she will come, we'll all look her over and see what we think. I won't commit to more than that.”
“And as for Dorcas and Gyles,” Old Ed asked. “What do we do about the Gratewells. We can't blind side them at the feast.”
“I expect Eddie to be civil to all of them. You usually are, Eddie, but I want you to be especially nice right now and I want you to take special pains. If you can see your way to doing that, son, I think your uncle and I would both be at gratitude.”
Theod looked at his brother, who added only, “You can also tell your Aunt Matilda...”
Ed winced a tiny bit. “Actually, uncle, let's leave that for the moment. I've been daring enough for one day. If I start now, I can just make it back to the city by sunset. I do have some plans I need to make.”
With that, he drained his drink then set his jar under the chair, like a good guest or a dutiful son, and left. He only whistled a happy tune to himself after he was safely out of earshot.