A Walk at Dusk, “Coffin Water” part 4

Supper was held before sunset. The table was set for twelve: David, his brothers, his two sisters, and five places for the Weatherbys, a wealthy plantation family from the other side of Laughlin that had (as David saw at dinner) three daughters and no sons. Everyone was dressed formally, and even little Ophelia wore a crisp yellow dress.

“I’m not feeling well, father. Do you mind if I retire to the study?”  Michael sat straight-faced as he spoke, but David could see his brother’s old glint of mischief around his eyes. It was reassuring, as much as Michael’s improved pallor. It truth it was the best David had seen his brother in months.

“Yes, of course,” Henry said. “You can go to your room if you wish as well.”

“Do try to take it easy, my boy. We appreciate your company, of course, but you must care for your health.” It was Evelyn Weatherby who spoke to Michael, causing the boy to pause as he rose. Her face, pale and thin, wrinkled as she returned Michael’s obsequious smile. “Long life is in the care paid!”

“Of course, Mrs. Weatherby,” Michael said. He gave his hand a fake cough. “I will take your advice as best I can.” He bowed slightly to her, then to her daughters, the eldest of whom, Marjorie, sat beside Charles with a constant grin pasted on her face. Michael shuffled out of the room and down the hall, toward the study, and David swore he could hear the hint of a chuckle.

David looked again at Marjorie, whom he had never met before dinner. She was a smallish woman, barely more than a girl in stature and in mannerisms. She wore a laced dress that revealed the delicacy of her thin frame, and her blonde hair was arranged to frame her small facial features. David thought she was pretty, in a way, but found himself comparing her to Ezra with a mental list of Marjorie’s flaws.

“Mayem!” Julia Smith called to the kitchens. “Mayem, do fetch a pitcher of water to the study!”

Mayem popped her round face into the dining room to nod silently at Mrs. Smith, then shuffled by a moment later with a silver pitcher on a tray.

“Since we have champagne, I propose a toast,” Victor Weatherby said. He raised his full glass and sniffed it through voluminous grey mustaches. “To the Smiths, and the future.”

“Aye,” Henry said, and sipped his glass.

“With that,” Charles said, standing. “I would like to formally announce, after having conferred with Mr. Weatherby, of course-”

“Of course, by boy,” Victor said, smiling widely.

Charles smiled and continued. “Marjorie and I are engaged to be married.”

“Here’s to that!” Victor said, and drained his glass. Around the big table glasses clinked and voices spoke approvingly.

David clacked his glass with Marjorie’s younger sister, Helen, who was seated beside him. In contrast with her sister, she had a round face and robust features that made her look older than she was. She gave him a smirk that never touched her eyes, then purposely looked away from him. The youngest sister sat on the other side of her, and David wondered why at such a young age she had been brought into attendance at all.

He took a sip of the champagne and nearly coughed from the sharp, acidic taste of it. The sparkling wine had been the only part of the dinner he had held positive anticipation toward, since he was not permitted under normal circumstances to drink alcohol, but after his finished his first swallow he looked at the glass with a low dread. He glanced at Michael’s empty seat and noted the empty glass.

“Such a good match,” Mrs. Weatherby said, smiling warmly as Charles and Marjorie stood, the young woman’s arm tucked into Charles’s elbow. “And two more upstanding sons making their way up as well.” She glanced at David.

“Thank you,” Julia said.

“Now, when shall we hold the wedding?” Victor said. “Summer’s coming up fast, and I expect any day will be as fair as any other.”

“Yes,” Charles said. “Marjorie and I were discussing this, and we were thinking about June the twentieth. It would be Marjorie’s grandmother’s birthday.”

“May she rest in peace,” Marjorie said.

Henry shook his head. “Sorry, but that won’t do. What about your other announcement, Charles?”

Charles nodded, then looked around the table. “In light of recent events, such as we’ve heard from the governor, I’ve decided to volunteer for the war. Everyone at this table has family in Texas, and I’ll be damned if I won’t stand up to fight for what they settled and won.” Charles took a breath and nodded to his father. “The governor has called for us to muster immediately, but I don’t see a regiment being formed and deployed in less than a month. I can send a letter of my intentions, then report in early July.”

Henry shook his head. “It wouldn’t do for a man to leave his bride so quickly. Better to server your enlistment, then come home and get settled.”

“Well,” Victor said, “I would say let’s get on with it. You wouldn’t send a man off to possibly die without getting to be with his wife, would you?”

“I’m surprised you’re plying that line, mister Weatherby,” Henry said.

“What line?” Evelyn Weatherby said, raising he eyebrows as high as they would go.

“You shouldn’t talk about it like that,” Julia Smith said. “Charles going off to die. It’s not going to happen like that.”

“Of course not,” Charles said. “It’ll be a one year enlistment. Probably shorter. I expect we’ll run through Mexico and have the whole war wrapped up by winter.”

“Aye to that,” Victor said. He poured himself another glass of champagne. “The Texans beat them handily, and we’ll have all of America’s good men, and not a few from Arkansas, my boy, to show for this war.”

“War is never a simple or light-hearted affair,” Henry offered.

Victor smiled. “The Mexicans can’t even hold a government together. You think they’ll be able to put up a good fight?”

“I expect we’ll annex the whole of the country within the year,” Charles said.

“You ought not hold back young love,” Evelyn offered.

Henry scratched his chin and sighed. “We can talk more about that later. For now, let us take what joy we can in the joining of family.”

“Hear,” Victor said, and drained his glass again. Everyone at the table followed suit, and David had to swallow down another mouthful of the acidic champagne with a smile on his face.

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