Somerset, p.1Leila Meacham
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For all those who came, stayed, made a difference, and earned the right to be called Texan.
Queenscrown plantation, near Charleston, South Carolina
Elizabeth Toliver observed her younger son, Silas, from under the wide, floppy brim of her gardening bonnet. He stood by the verandah railing, staring down the oak-lined road leading to the family’s plantation home, his posture expectant, his gaze intense. It was the beginning of October 1835. Elizabeth watched him from one of the rose gardens flanking the house, clippers in hand to cut a basket of the red Lancasters she’d babied and worried about in January. Amazing what water, mulch, and manure could do for spindly stalks—and for most growing things—left too long without care, she thought. Nature was full of such examples of regrowth and new strength when their requirements were met, if only man would take notice and apply to the human race.
If only her husband had noticed and applied to the needs of his second son.
“Who are you waiting for, Silas?” she called.
Silas turned his head in her direction. It was a very handsome head favored with the striking Toliver features that proved him a descendant of the long line of English aristocrats whose portraits greeted guests in the great hall of Queenscrown. Silas’s green eyes narrowed, as fiery as emeralds under brows a fair match to his rambunctious black hair, but it was the dimple set square in the middle of the family chin that left no doubt of his lineage.
“For Jeremy,” he answered, his tone curt, and returned to his surveillance.
Elizabeth’s shoulders sagged. Silas blamed her for the stipulations in his father’s will. “You could have gotten him to change his mind, Mother,” he’d accused her, “and now you must suffer the consequences.” He would never be convinced of her ignorance of the possibility that his father would write his will as he had, even though her son knew—must surely know—she’d never sacrifice his happiness to ensure hers. She now heard the “consequences” of her failure arriving on pounding horses’ hooves: Jeremy Warwick astride his white stallion, come to lure her son and four-year-old grandson and future daughter-in-law to a faraway, dangerous territory called Texas.
Jeremy thundered to a stop, and even before he greeted Silas and dismounted, he called to her, “Mornin’, Miz ’Lizabeth. How do your roses grow?”
It was his usual form of greeting, no matter the setting, and was meant to inquire after her general well-being. The reference to roses had further meaning in that both the Warwicks and the Tolivers were descended from royal houses in England identified by the elegant, prickly-stemmed flower that served as their emblems. The Warwicks of South Carolina hailed from the House of York, represented by the white rose; the Tolivers, the House of Lancaster, symbolized by the red. Though neighbors and close friends, neither grew in their gardens the other’s badge of allegiance to their aristocratic roots.
This morning How do your roses grow? was not intended to ask the condition of her beloved plants she’d nurtured back to health after months away tending her husband during his illness in a Charleston hospital, but the nature of her spirits now that he had been in his grave these four weeks. “Hard to tell,” she called back. “Their endurance will depend upon the coming weather.”
They had exchanged these entendres since the boys were children and Elizabeth had discovered Jeremy Warwick’s quick, ironic, but never mocking, wit. She adored him. Tall and strapping in contrast to her slim, sinewy son of equal height, Jeremy was the youngest of three brothers whose father owned the adjacent cotton plantation called Meadowlands. United by their family pecking order and the commonalities of age, heritage, and interests, he and Silas made ideal friends, a relationship Elizabeth had been grateful for, since Silas and his brother had warred from the time her younger son could talk.
Jeremy’s bright pleasure at seeing her dimmed in his gaze, indicating that he understood her meaning. “I’m afraid the weather can’t always be what we wish,” he said, with an apologetic inclination of his head that confirmed to Elizabeth why he had come.
“Did the letter arrive that we were expecting?” Silas asked.
“Finally. It’s in the pouch, and one from Lucas Tanner. He and his group made it to the black waxy.”
Elizabeth was of no mind to go inside. If they wished to speak privately, they could adjourn somewhere out of earshot, but she hoped they did not. Sometimes, the only way she knew what was going on in her family was to eavesdrop shamelessly or enlist one of the servants to do it. She heard Silas call into the house for Lazarus to bring coffee. Good. They meant to collude on the porch in the fineness of the fall morning.
“Will I be happy with the letter’s contents?” Silas asked.
“Most of them,” his friend replied.
Elizabeth knew what they were about. They were now beginning in earnest to fulfill the dream they had shared and talked about for years. As youngest sons, both had grown up aware they were not likely to be the sole heirs of their families’ cotton plantations upon the deaths of their fathers. In Jeremy’s case, that reality would have presented no problem. He got along well with his two brothers, and his father doted on him and would have seen he received his fair share of the estate. Jeremy simply wanted to possess his own plantation and run it as he saw fit. Silas’s fraternal and paternal situation was entirely different. From his birth, Benjamin Toliver had favored Morris, his firstborn, as heir of Queenscrown. “It’s the way of it,” he would say to Elizabeth, never having entirely shaken off the principle of the law of primogeniture, a throwback to his English heritage that decreed the eldest son should inherit the family property. In South Carolina, the law had been abolished in 1779.
But other prejudices factored in. Benjamin and Morris saw eye to eye on everything, and it wasn’t a matter of son wishing to please father. Morris genuinely shared his father’s views on every subject from religion to politics, whereas Silas’s took a different, sometimes incendiary, turn. Dislike grew between father and son and brother and brother, and it did not help that Elizabeth, to breach the widening gap between them, treated Silas with special affection. Benjamin had known that Silas and his brother, as equal partners, would have been at each other’s throats by sundown of his death. To avoid the situation, he’d bequeathed the plantation, all the money, and family property—land, house and furnishings, stock, equipment, and slaves—to Morris, leaving Silas penniless but for a yearly “salary” along with a percentage of the plantation’s profits so long as he served as land manager under his brother.
No wonder Silas, now twenty-nine, feeling betrayed and embittered, wished to abandon the land of his birth and head with Jeremy Warwick for the “black waxy” soil in the eastern part of Texas, superb for growing cotton, so the reports came back. How sad that he should leave with his heart harboring unjust ill will toward his father, for Elizabeth knew something that Silas did not. Benjamin Toliver had set aside his love for his wife out of love for his younger son. Her husband had left her in the care of a lumbering bachelor son who most likely would never marry, and she would grow old without the joy of grandchildren to cherish and spoil. She would probably live to regret it, but she’d let Silas—callous to her love for he
Silas could feel his mother’s despair, layered with her widow’s grief, waft to him on the crisp, autumn breeze, but it couldn’t be helped. He was going to Texas and taking his son and bride with him. Theirs was an age-old argument. Family was all to his mother. Land, a man’s inherent connection to his very being, was everything to him. Without his own land to till and sow, a man was nothing, no matter who his family was. His mother had mounted every reason against her younger son leaving the comfort, security, and safety of his home to set out with his family to the territory of Texas on the verge of revolution. Reports had filtered back that the Texas colonists were organizing to declare their newly settled land independent of Mexico, a move that would undoubtedly lead to war with that country.
“What am I to do, Mother? Stay here under the boot of my brother where my son, like his father, will never be master of his own house?”
“Don’t put this off on what you want for Joshua,” his mother had argued. “This is what you want for yourself—what you’ve always wanted—but now you have Lettie and your little son to consider.” She had covered her face with her hands at the monstrous images she’d warned him about: terrible diseases (there had been a cholera outbreak in Stephen F. Austin’s colony in 1834), savage Indians, wild animals and snakes, bloodthirsty Mexicans, dangerous water crossings, exposure to extremes of weather. The list of horrors went on and on, the most horrible being the possibility that she’d never see her son and Joshua and Lettie again.
“And don’t you put this off on them, Mother. If I were offered acreage anywhere else in the South where it’s safe, you’d still want me to remain at Queenscrown, all of us together as a family, never mind that my father practically disowned me and my brother loathes me.”
“You exaggerate. Your father did what he thought best for Queenscrown, and your brother does not loathe you. He simply doesn’t understand you.”
“And I will do what I think is best for Somerset.”
“The name I’m calling my plantation in Texas in honor of the Tolivers’ forebear, the Duke of Somerset.”
His mother had fallen mute, her arguments futile against so powerful an ambition.
She had her husband’s last will and testament to thank for her sorrow, Silas had reminded her, but it didn’t pardon his brusque behavior toward her these past weeks, and he felt ashamed. He loved his mother and would miss her sorely, but he could not rid himself of the feeling that she had intentionally failed to foresee and therefore prevent the unfair dispensations of his father’s estate. If Benjamin Toliver had divided his property equally, Silas would have forever abandoned his dream. He had promised himself to do everything in his power to live peaceably with his brother. Morris, a bachelor, loved his nephew and was fond of his sister-in-law-to-be and her sweet, gentle ways. Lettie and his mother got along gloriously. Elizabeth regarded Lettie as the daughter she’d never had, and his fiancée considered his mother the surrogate for the one she’d lost as a child. They would have made a tranquil household.
Even Morris now realized what he stood to lose by his gain. “We’ll work something out,” he’d said, but for Silas, nothing his brother could offer would make up for the deficit of his father’s affection so hurtfully demonstrated by the terms of the will. He would not take from his brother what their father had not meant for him to have.
So he was going to Texas.
As Jeremy dismounted, Silas looked gratefully down at the man who would be pulling up stakes with him, the stallion still prancing. Jeremy Warwick rarely refused his horse his head, as he was not in the habit of denying his own. Silas prized that quality in him, for while his friend’s head was known for its uncommon common sense, it was not averse to risk, and never would his boyhood companion enter a more risky venture than the one on which they were planning to embark.
Before securing his horse’s reins, Jeremy tossed Silas the mail pouch he’d ridden to Charleston to collect. Silas unbuckled the straps eagerly and was reading a letter from Stephen F. Austin, well-known empresario of Texas, before his friend’s polished boots struck the floor of the verandah.
“Some disturbing reading in there,” Jeremy said, lowering his voice so that Elizabeth wouldn’t hear. “Mr. Austin is willing to sell us as many of his bonus acres as we can buy so long as we agree to live in Texas, but he warns that war is coming. There’s a newspaper, too, describing the growing dissatisfaction among the settlements with the policies of the government in Mexico City, and there’s a letter from Lucas Tanner. He says the area is all he could have hoped for—good virgin soil, plentiful timber and water, fine weather—but he may have to fight to hold it. He’s already had a few scrapes with the Indians and Mexican militia.”
“Since we’re not leaving until next spring, maybe the conflict with the Mexican government will be settled at least, but I have to share this news with the rest who are going with us,” Silas said. “Let them know the additional risk.”
Jeremy asked quietly, “Does that include Lettie?”
The sharp snipping of the rose clippers ceased, the silence carried to the verandah in the pause that followed. Elizabeth had been listening, her ears perked for his answer. Yes, do tell, Silas. Does that include Lettie? Her son was saved from responding by Lazarus elbowing the front door open to deliver the coffee. Silas reached forward to open it wider for him.
“Thank you, Mister Silas,” the gray-haired Negro said, and set the tray on the table where generations of Tolivers had been served their mint juleps and afternoon tea. “Shall I pour the coffee, suh?”
“No, Lazarus. I’ll do it. Tell Cassandra the pie looks delicious.”
Lazarus and his wife, Cassandra, would be going with him to Texas. They belonged to him, an inheritance from Mamie Toliver, Silas’s grandmother. She had left nothing to her other grandson. Lately, Silas had noticed a heaviness to Lazarus’s walk, and his wife no longer sang over her bread kneading.
“That will include Lettie,” Silas answered, handing Jeremy his dessert plate. He poured them each a steaming cup of coffee. “When I’m inclined to tell her,” he added.
“Ah,” Jeremy said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That the pie is delicious,” Jeremy said, taking a big bite. “Will you and Lettie be going to Jessica Wyndham’s party?”
“Lettie wouldn’t miss it. She tutored Jessica before the girl left for boarding school and really liked her. There are only four years’ difference in their ages. I can’t say I remember her. Do you?”
“Barely. All I recalled until today was a serious-faced little girl with eyes big and brown as chestnuts, but I recognized her at the docks in Charleston this morning when she arrived from Boston. Her mother and brother were there to pick her up. There was quite a scene when Jessica went to the aid of a Negro porter being mistreated by a passenger.”
“A white man?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Her father will have something to say about that.”
“I hope his displeasure won’t put a damper on the party. I’m told the Wyndhams are sparing no expense to celebrate Jessica’s eighteenth birthday and homecoming from that finishing school in Boston. They’re entertaining relatives from England as well—Lord and Lady DeWitt.”
“The Wyndhams can afford it,” Silas said, drawing out a map from the mail pouch.
“The Courier lists Carson Wyndham as the wealthiest man in South Carolina,” Jeremy said, cutting into his pie.
“The poor man will be busy staving off every fortune hunter in the state.”
“Maybe Morris will marry her and save him the trouble.”
Silas snorted. “Morris wouldn’t know a waltz from a polka or a lady’s handkerchief from a cleaning rag, so there’s no chance of him winning the girl’s hand. Wh
Jeremy laughed. “No offense to Lettie, but I don’t think I could interest a young lady of Jessica Wyndham’s background and refinement into marrying a man with plans to settle in Texas. Lettie’s besotted over you. She’d let you take her to hell.”
Silas spread out the map enclosed with Stephen F. Austin’s letter and frowned over the route the empresario had marked in dark ink. The distance was formidable; the terrain beyond the Red River into Texas daunting. Circled was an area where the trail diverted from a more logical direction. A note in the margin read: Stay clear. Comanche Indian hunting grounds.
“Maybe that is where I’m taking her,” Silas said.
“Now where should we place Lady Barbara for luncheon?” Eunice Wyndham asked as her daughter sailed into the loggia amid a flurry of activity going on around a table set for twelve. “Such a quandary. If her back is to the garden, the sunlight will show her thin hair to its worst advantage. If she faces it, the light will expose every wrinkle. The woman is so vain about her looks.”
Jessica was not listening. Her mother was mulling aloud and did not expect her to answer. She knew her daughter had no interest in such things, even now after two years away at boarding school to correct her dispassion. The luncheon table had been arranged in the loggia to free the dining room for the huge banquet the next evening. Jessica would have preferred her birthday and homecoming celebrated with a family picnic. The person for whom she searched among the Negro maids was not there. She’d not found her in the dining room, either, where similar activities were taking place.
“Mama, where is Tippy?”
“Perhaps I can set her at the head of the table and Lord Henry at the other end. Everyone will interpret the seating as a sign of respect. Your father and I can sit across from each other in the middle.”
Somerset by Leila Meacham / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes