“Show me around your home, Mister Henry Elias,” Agatha requested, and I fought the sour taste in my mouth as I offered her a smile.
We were standing outside near the back of the house, father had taken Mister Taylor out to the fields to show off the productivity of the slaves, and our mothers were inside. They’d left the four of us to bond with our betrothed, but I was having no fun of it. Daniel was with Temperance near the barn, holding what looked to be kittens from the distance we stood at.
“There is hardly enough to show,” I said finally, stepping forward, “The orchard is to the right, on the other side of the house, and the barn is just ahead. Beyond that are the fields, and the slave residency.”
“My uncle tells me you have the best slaves,” Agatha noted, quickly following me, and I held back the sigh as I smiled.
“We take pride in it, ma’am.”
“Henry come look!” Temperance called me when I was within earshot, cradling a little tabby kitten against her chest, “Daniel says they were born only a few weeks ago!”
“One of the workers was looking after the mother,” Daniel explained, holding up the little black kitten in his hands and smiling up at it, “He told me she gave birth and I was so excited.”
“You speak with your property?” Agatha asked, and Daniel and I both turned to look at her as she scoffed, “They are slaves, they cannot speak.”
“Maybe because you don’t know how to listen,” Daniel stated, and Agatha drew back as he turned away.
Temperance gave me an expectant look, as if she was waiting for me to add my opinion, and I turned to Agatha, “He’s a silly boy, pay him no mind. Most his days are spent dreaming frivolously, he meant no disrespect,” I looked to Temperance as if for praise that I’d said the right thing, but the disgust on her face told me I hadn’t, and I watched as she walked away from me, following Daniel.
“Who is that one?” I turned to look where Agatha was pointing, utterly infuriated when my eyes fell on Josiah, who seemed to be mending the wheel on my father’s wagon, “What do you call him?”
“My brother names him Josiah,” I said with a sigh, turning back to watch Temperance as Agatha hummed in curiosity.
“Is he a good worker? Obedient?”
“He is,” I answered honestly, for all his indiscretions, he was undisputedly the best worker we had, both in productivity and obedience; he followed every order, finished every task in record time, never once spoke back to the family, in fact before I caught him with Daniel, I didn’t know he could speak at all.
I believed him to be illiterate and daft, but as it turns out he had an unusually elegant way of speech, and could read quite well. Something told me that Daniel was the reason behind that strange occurrence, and my eyes closed with a sigh as I realized that my brother had taught a slave to read behind the back of our parents and against all rule of the age.
“What is he doing now?” Agatha asked, and I fought the groan as I turned back to her, nodding towards Josiah.
“As you can see, he appears to be mending the wheel of my father’s carriage. Josiah oversees and joins in the basic labor and maintenance of the carriages, buildings, and fences on the property.”
“You trust him with that much?” she asked, and I turned.
“That’s all I trust him with.”
She seemed to be distracted, so I wandered from her and over to where my brother was sitting with Temperance, young kittens playing at their feet. Her eyes lifted to me when she heard me, but turned her nose away when I sat on her other side, fighting the smile when a tiny gray kitten padded over to me.
“What are you discussing without me?” I asked, bending down and picking up the little thing, looking around instinctively to watch for my father before turning my attention to the animal as Temperance hummed.
“Nothing of importance to you,” she said, and I nodded.
She made a noise of absolute disgust and rose to her feet, spinning to me, “You are the most unbelievable and infuriating man I have ever met!” she yelled, and I gaped at her with wide eyes before looking to Daniel for help, but he just leaned back with a kitten in both hands.
“Oh?” I decided to speak on my own, standing and dropping the kitten down, “And you think you’re any easier to deal with? Honestly, I feel sorry for Daniel, that he has to put up with you.”
Temperance laughed, setting her hands on her hips, “Oh yes, because you weren’t looking forward to dealing with me yourself. You seemed excited in the last letter you sent me.”
“I was just being nice for your sake,” I argued, “Women are frivolous creatures, all they want is to get married, never mind to who.”
“You are disgusting!”
“Should I leave you two be to finish your lovers quarrel?” Daniel asked, and both Temperance and I spun on him.
“No!” I pointed at Temperance, “You don’t tell him what to do,” then at Daniel, “You’re not leaving my sight.”
He mumbled under his breath and slipped off the bench to sit in the dirt with his legs crossed, collecting each of the kittens and placing them in his lap between his legs, essentially trapping them so he could play with all seven at once.
A breath fell from my lips and I turned back to Temperance, who was watching Daniel with an amused, maybe jealous glint in her eyes, like she wanted to sit in the dirt with an army of cats as well.
“Temperance,” I started quietly, and she turned her eyes to me, frowning, “This is not what I had planned,” I insisted, “I didn’t know your father was planning this, I had no idea you even had a cousin. My whole life, you were the one I wanted to marry.”
Her eyes left mine and she glared off to the side, “Oh? You weren’t just being nice?”
I opened my mouth, turning to glare at Daniel when he snorted before looking back at Temperance and holding my hands out, “Listen, what am I supposed to say or do in this situation? Our fathers already arranged everything. It was always a plan that you would marry into this family, that hasn’t changed, but power is a dangerous temptation, and my father wants the influence that would come from Agatha’s dowry.”
“I don’t care,” Temperance said, “I have no desire to marry Daniel, and he feels the same.”
I opened my mouth before sighing and finally speaking, “I know that, believe me.”
“Then why can’t I be with you?” she asked me weakly, “I would still be marrying into your family, and Daniel can just marry Agatha!”
“Daniel doesn’t want to marry at all,” I revealed, and Temperance gave me a surprised look.
“What? Why? Isn’t that what all men want?”
“I’m in love with someone else,” Daniel explained, “I have no plans of marrying unless it is to them.”
“Never mind that,” I held an arm out in front of Temperance to pull her attention away from my brother, “The point is there’s no other way to do things.”
“Yes, there is,” Temperance argued, “I marry you, Daniel marries whoever he wishes, and Agatha moves back to London,” she smiled, putting her hands together, “Lovely plan.”
“Lovely,” Daniel agreed, and I rubbed my hands over my face.
They just didn’t understand. Why didn’t they understand?
“Speaking of,” Temperance looked around, a slight frown on her lips, “Where has my cousin gone off to?”
My hands fell from my face, “She was watching the slaves work,” I explained, and Temperance gave me an alarmed look an instant before screams filled the area.
Daniel shot to his feet immediately and Temperance turned, the three of us watching as Agatha staggered out of the barn, falling to her knees, her hair a mess with bits of hay stuck in it, her skirts dirty and ripped, hands holding the petticoat up against her chest as she sobbed and screamed as if she’d witnessed a murder.
Our mothers came rushing from the house as our fathers came around with them, and Mister Taylor dropped to his knees in front of Agatha as the three of us hurried to join them and the inconsolable woman choked on her sobs, mumbling nonsense we couldn’t understand as ugly tears poured from her eyes.
“What happened, tell me!” Mister Taylor demanded, shaking her shoulders, and she took several gulping breaths as she finally whispered.
“He hurt me, uncle, he touched me!” all eyes turned to me, and I was about to lose my mind entirely from fury at being accused of such a thing before Agatha continued, “The slave, uncle! The one fixing the wagon! He dragged me into the barn and… and…”
She burst out into sobs, and Mister Taylor wrapped her in his arms. I had never seen a man so angry. I could understand his next words.
“Lynch him, Elias.”