The year 603, the fourth month. (The year 1962 Fallow by the Old
"Please let me help with the store, Uncle Will!"
His uncle looked doubtful. He was nearing the end of his middle age and had creases across his brow that had been accumulated during the raising of his youngest son. But now all three of his sons had left home, and his daughters were living with their husbands, so he generally appeared more carefree these days. "That's not why you're here, Jasper. You're a man now; you owe service only to your liege-master."
Jasper Simmons – known to his former schoolfellows simply as Simmons – shook his head. "My coming of age is still a month away. And as for my liege-master . . ." He swallowed. "Till then, couldn't I help you with the store? I've done so in the past."
"That was when you were a child." His uncle examined Simmons's face before relenting with a smile. "I can see why you'd want to hold onto these final, golden days of childhood. Yes, very well. You'll find that my new store is ordered much the same as the one I owned in the capital."
"But you attract a different type of customer here, don't you?" As he spoke, Simmons turned his gaze toward the rest of the store: tables piled high with slate pencils and scissors and thimbles and other items perused by watermen's wives, showcases filled with shirtwaists and paper collars, bins heaped with coffee beans or garden seeds, a lunch counter showcasing cheese and crackers, shelves overflowing with chewing tobacco and turpentine and canned goods, and racks loaded with feed and flour. Above them, hanging on the wall, were clusters of items so thick that they crowded the eyes: hand-carved trail-boards from old boats, the skin of a water moccasin, a waterman's whittling, oak buckets, traps for muskrats, and on pride of display, newly carved oyster tongs, waiting to be sold and taken aboard and plunged into the Bay to harvest oysters.
The store sold nothing fancy, like in the stores of the Third Landstead's capital which Simmons had often visited – nothing that would interest a first-ranked master and mastress.
Simmons never grew bored, exploring the store's contents.
At that moment, the door opened. A light spring breeze, fresh with the smell of Bay water, entered the store, along with a waterman, unmistakable in his oilskin hat and coat and boots. Simmons caught a flash of the man's rank-mark on the back of his right wrist as he removed his gloves: black.
The servant wasted no time in the doorway; he limped forward as Simmons's uncle said, "Ah, Sol. I'm glad to see you up and about. How's that leg of yours doing?"
"None too good." The servant's reply was so brief, and without proper salutation, that Simmons might have thought the waterman rude, but he noticed that the man had carefully removed his hat the moment that the owner of the general store spoke.
His uncle, at any rate, seemed to treat his remark as inoffensive. "I'm sorry about that – very sorry indeed. But you've found a new captain, I hear? How have the oysters been this winter?"
Sol shook his head as he removed a list from within his coat. "None too good neither. Way I figure, all the right good ones've been stole by those dredgers from the Western Shore."
His uncle sighed. "It's very sad, very sad indeed that there's such animosity between our landstead and the Second Landstead. That their boats should take oysters from our own territory . . . Ah, well, oyster season is over. And Captain Harvey is doing well, I suppose, if he could afford to hire you as his new man."
Sol shrugged as he laid the list on a lard barrel next to Simmons's uncle. "Needed couple more servants for his boat. He's still short a man. Come autumn, he'll be looking for more watermen."
"Really? He needs more crew, with all the watermen on this island?" Simmons's uncle took the list and peered at it through his spectacles.
"'Deed he do. He's like to hire a full-grown man, but an oyster-shucking boy would do." Sol's gaze wandered over to Simmons. After a moment, Simmons realized why, and he felt his face grow flush.
Travelling from the capital to Hoopers Island had been no problem; Simmons had simply hired a boat with most of the remaining money his father had given him for the brief period during which he would still need his family's income, before his liege-master should begin paying him. But Simmons's belongings had been a greater problem. He had not anticipated having to move them further than the bedroom that had long awaited him in the house of his liege-master's father.
With his plans turned awry, he had been forced to dispose of all but his most precious goods. Fortunately, school term had only just ended; he had been able to give many of his belongings to the servant who had tended his study-bedroom at Capital School.
His trunks, he had sent down to Hoopers Island by road. He had taken care to hire an automobile, naively believing that, with such a swift means of transportation, his trunks would be awaiting him when he arrived by boat.
His uncle had smothered a laugh when he heard this, then had patiently explained that most of the marshy roads between the capital and Hoopers Island were not yet paved. The roads on Hoopers Island were. The pavement consisted of logs and oyster shells.
Feeling very much an ignorant townboy, and envisioning the automobile wallowing in the mud – or even sinking without a trace in the marshes – Simmons had made do as best he could. His uncle, a portly man, had no clothes that would fit the new arrival, and his uncle's apprentice was several sizes too small. So Simmons – by now grateful for anything that would cover his body – had borrowed clothing from his uncle's manservant, a waterman who spent most of his days making deliveries by boat.
His uncle, looking up from the list and seeing Sol's gaze upon Simmons, seemed to realize the mistake that the waterman had made. Characteristically, he did not reprimand the erring servant. Placing his arm across Simmons's shoulder, he said, "This is my nephew, Jasper Simmons. His journeymanship birthday is coming next month, so he's staying with us this month while he decides which master he wishes to pledge his liege-service to."
Sol did not embarrass Simmons by asking, "Why did you wait till now?" But neither did he dip his eyes, as any well-trained servant would ordinarily do under such circumstances. All that he said was, "Right glad to meet you . . . sir."
The slight pause could have been taken any number of ways, but Simmons, staring into the waterman's eyes, suddenly realized that this was a servant who rarely addressed masters as sir.
Smiling at the special courtesy he had just been granted, Simmons said, "I'm glad to meet you as well, Servant Sol."
Then, and only then, did the waterman dip his eyes. And Simmons realized that he had been granted a deep courtesy indeed. Simmons wondered what, by all that was sacred, he had done to earn such honor.
His uncle squeezed Simmons's arm in some sort of silent accolade. "I won't keep you, Sol; I know you're busy. Some of these items will have to be wrapped. Your boat-master still docks at Back Creek? I'll have my apprentice bring the goods over, then."
"Master Simmons." Sol's slight nod of farewell encompassed both uncle and nephew; then he turned away.
At the doorway, he paused. Another man had just arrived, wearing a wool coat against the spring chill. He made some brief greeting, and Sol, hearing the man's refined accent, carefully stepped to one side to let the master enter.
"That's a good man," said Simmons's uncle softly as the door shut behind Sol. "A very good man. I'm glad you didn't take offense at his mistake."
"Why should I?" Simmons laughed as he turned to his uncle, but he kept his voice low as well, so as not to disturb the newly arrived master, who was now at the other end of the store, fingering a bottle of morphine.
His uncle raised his eyebrows. "Some masters would be very offended indeed to be mistaken for a servant."
"Oh, but I look like a servant at the moment." Simmons stared down at his shabby clothing. "It's not his fault. I suppose I ought really to change out of these, lest I mislead—"
A bell, higher in pitch than a fog-bell, interrupted his speech. His uncle glanced out the window facing the water and said, "Postal boat. It's early today."
"Shall I help you bring in the mail, Uncle?" asked Simmons.
"No, no, my lad. You stay here and tend the customers." His third-ranked uncle patted Simmons's shoulder somewhat awkwardly.
Simmons could understand why. He was still becoming used to it himself, his rise in rank. At school, he had always held the awkward position of being the son of a third-ranked master who was very, very rich. Now, after many years, the Third Landstead's House of Government had eased the lack of alignment between their family's wealth and rank by granting to Simmons's father the title of Envoy Extraordinary, assigning him duties in an overseas nation in the Old World and raising him to second rank.
Until that time, as a third-ranked lad, Simmons's choices were clear: as a journeyman, he could train under his father, under a third-ranked master, or under a second-ranked master – not under a first-ranked master, as he futilely tried to point out to his first-ranked schoolfellow Eugene on many occasions.
But now Simmons was second-ranked. He could train under a first-ranked master. He could even pledge his liege-loyalty to that master.
"I told you it would work out," Eugene had squealed, hugging the older boy on the day that Simmons received the news of his eligibility to be Eugene's liegeman. And Simmons had hugged Eugene back, stunned and joyful at this turn of events.
But it had not worked out – not in the end. Turning his thoughts from this recent, raw sorrow, Simmons centered his attention on the other master in the room.
On this cool spring day, the young man was wearing a long coat whose collar was turned up, as well as gloves that hid his rank-mark. Probably not a first-ranked master, thought Simmons, well used to this popular schoolboy past-time of guessing a man's rank from his behavior. A first-ranked master would be unlikely to visit a store; he had many servants for that sort of thing. A second-ranked master would likely have brought one of his servants. Perhaps a third-ranked master, who possessed only one or two house servants? Many of the boat-masters at Hoopers Island were third-ranked, Simmons knew.
Confident now that he was dealing with someone who, at the very least, was not higher-ranked than himself, Simmons departed from his position behind the counter. A glance through the window told him that his uncle was busy chatting with the postal boat-master. One of the advantages of shop-keeping, his uncle had mentioned with a smile, was the chance to talk with men of many stations and occupations.
The wool-coated master was standing still, apparently absorbed in thought by the tins of seafood. "Hello," said Simmons, striving for friendliness. "Do you need help?"
The master turned. His face, which Simmons had only briefly glimpsed before, was young – he looked journeyman-aged. Perhaps, Simmons thought, the master was a second-ranked journeyman sent on a mission by his liege-master. At any rate, the young master seemed to have made up his own mind about Simmons. After a quick glance toward Simmons's wrists – fruitless, Simmons knew, for the too-long sleeves hid his wrists – the master said, "I feel as though all my training has gone to waste. I thought I knew crab, yet here are a dozen types of crab, at prices ranging so far apart that you'd think that one type of crab was intended for servants, while another was intended for the High Master's Council."
Simmons laughed and leaned over. "This is the one you want," he said, handing the master a tin. "Blue crab, native to our Bay. Better than the imported crabs, and twice as cheap. Though the fresh variety is better yet," he added. "All you have to do is wait a few weeks for it."
The journeyman shook his head. "My master has plans for the week's end. Thank you." He glanced at the counter. "The shopkeeper isn't here – is there someone else I pay?"
Truly, he must look shabby indeed if customers weren't willing to trust him with their money. "I run the register when the shopkeeper is away," Simmons assured the journeyman. "Let me take this up to the counter for you." He plucked the tin from the young master's hand.
The young master followed him to the counter. "I don't think I've seen you here before, have I?"
Simmons concentrated most of his thoughts on punching the numbers correctly into the cash register. "I visited the island a few months ago, for a week, but this is my first extended stay. Have you lived long on the island?"
"I'm new to the entire area." The young master leaned in a leisurely manner upon the counter. "I only just began work for my master this spring."
The journeyman was likely not much older than Simmons himself. Simmons wondered whether he had met the journeyman's liege-master, but there seemed no tactful way to quiz him on such matters. Instead, he said, "I'm going to be staying in this area. I just arrived."
"Welcome, then. I'm Golding." The journeyman offered his arm.
No way of telling whether "Golding" was a family name, a first name, or a nickname. Simmons decided to travel the safest route. "Jasper," he introduced himself as he shook the other young man's arm. "Do you live nearby?"
"Fairly near, on the mainland." Reading the price on the register, the journeyman offered a bill from his wallet. He waited until Simmons had handed back the change and wrapped the can in brown paper, and then he said, "I shop here occasionally. Do you ever get time off from your work? We could have a drink together sometime, perhaps."
"I'd like that," said Simmons, warmed by the offer.
Golding flashed what Simmons suspected was a rare smile. "My own hours are irregular, but I'll look for you the next time I'm here. Till then . . ."
"Till then," agreed Simmons, and they shook arms again.
For a while after the young master left, the store was silent, other than the faint sound of Simmons's uncle talking to the postal boat-master, and the fainter swish of waves against the shore and wharf. The salty smell of the Bay permeated the shop, mingling with the varied smells of the dried goods which the store carried. Simmons leaned against the worn wooden counter, contemplating the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the store, where the watermen often sat and chatted, as well as the little barred area where Simmons's aunt – currently away, tending a sick sister – distributed mail to the inhabitants of Hoopers Island.
Simmons loved the shop. He loved learning the names of the various goods, their purposes, their prices. He loved helping the customers select their goods – finding the exact object that most suited them. A friendly but somewhat shy lad, he loved being in a place where he did not have to grope for the right words to speak to strangers. His duties gave him a framework for conversations, throughout the day, with watermen and their families and the occasional mainlander. Masters and servants alike, they all interested him.
He wondered whether he would enjoy whatever work his liege-master assigned him. He wondered whether he would ever have a liege-master.
Sighing, he locked the register. At least now he had one friend in this place. Perhaps, when they spoke next, Golding could tell him of any masters here who were in need of an apprentice who was perilously close to the age of journeymanship.
Jackie, when Simmons found him the next morning, was standing on the bit of marshland beside the road, whacking with a stick at a cattail and looking longingly down the road.
Simmons could guess, from his short acquaintance with his uncle's apprentice, what Jackie was longing for, but he asked anyway: "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's happening." The twelve-year-old spoke these words with something close to despair.
"It's mid-morning. Life always slows down on Hoopers Island at this time of day."
He had said the wrong thing, he knew immediately. Jackie swung around, stick in hand, and cried, "It's ever like this. This is the most boring place in the universe!"
Recalling long sermons in school chapel that inevitably put him to sleep, Simmons had to bite his cheek to keep from smiling. "What sort of excitement are you seeking?"
"Anything!" declared Jackie comprehensively, and then whacked at the ditch at the edge of the road. The ditch-water promptly stained his bare shins black. "All the excitement happens elsewhere, on the mainland. The Fleet Master came by last month, to ask about supplies for the Hoopers Island fleet. He talked about gun-battles on the water, and debates in the High Masters' Council, and everything exciting! But here—" Jackie aimed the next thrust of his stick at a saltmarsh snail, fortunately missing it. "Nobody lives on this island who's exciting. Only boat-masters and servants."
This time Simmons did smile. "Didn't your parents give you a choice how to spend your apprentice years? They let me choose between staying in school and taking up a profession."
"School is just as boring." Jackie heaved a heavy sigh. "I thought it would be exciting here on the island. I thought there would be watermen fighting each other, just offshore. But that all happens on the other side of the island." He waved a hand in the direction of Honga River, a mere half mile to the east. "And I can't see it because I'm busy putting tins on shelves or packing big tubs with peanut butter. Everything's happening, and I can't see it!" He ended with a wail.
"That's a great shame." Simmons kept his expression sympathetic. "Come on, my uncle is waiting for you to shelve a few more tins. I'll help you."
But when they came inside, his uncle shooed Jackie over to the cash register and drew Simmons aside. "Can he work the register?" asked Simmons, concerned. "He doesn't seem to be very good at stocking items in the right place. I found the collar buttons mixed in with the hairpins yesterday."
His uncle sighed. "The boy's bright, but he has no heart for this business. It worries me. I'd hoped he'd be able to take over the business when I retired, since my sons are busy elsewhere."
Simmons nodded. All of his cousins had been attracted to the ever-present lure of Bay-fishing, leaving his uncle short-handed in the store – hence his uncle's relieved acceptance of Simmons's offer to help at the store in exchange for room and board, while he was searching for a liege-master. With his father out of his country, Simmons needed a guardian: a man who would temporarily serve as a parental figure and sign the papers which legally transferred Simmons into the care of whichever master trained him. Simmons's uncle, in turn, needed a helping hand.
Giving no sign now that Simmons's departure would leave him short of workers again, his uncle pulled an envelope from his shirt pocket, saying with eagerness, "I think I have someone for you, Simmons – I truly do. I've been asking around, and I learned that Master Kerwin, a bachelor with no sons, is seeking a journeyman to work on the farm that Master Kerwin inherited from his great-grandfather. He's second-ranked, so you would only be able to stay with him for the four sun-cycles of your journeymanship – but oh, how very respectable he is. His liege-master is Fleet Master Fletcher, who's second hand to our landstead's High Master. With Master Kerwin's reference, you'd have no problems finding a permanent liege-master when you finished your journeyman years."
Simmons took the envelope from him but did not pull out the letter. "He's a bachelor, sir?"
"Oh, yes. He is fairly young, and he is busy trying to build up his career as a government clerk, so that he can afford to sell the farm in a few years. He has no plans to marry for the foreseeable future."
Simmons winced. He had hoped for a married liege-master, with whom he would not be required to do liegeman's service. If that wasn't possible, he would have preferred a liege-master who was still an apprentice. With an apprentice-aged liege-master, Simmons would not be called upon to do liegeman's service – not until his liege-master reached journeyman years, and by that time, Simmons would be familiar with his liege-master.
He wouldn't have minded eventually doing liegeman's service to Eugene. Eugene was bouncy and friendly and oh so happy to know Simmons. They had known each other for years, and Simmons liked him a great deal. But to do liegeman's service to a stranger . . .
"Is something bothering you, Jasper?" His uncle frowned.
"I'm sorry," Simmons said quickly. "Of course this is wonderful news. When is he to interview me?"
"He has asked us to join him for dinner at week's end." His uncle continued to scan his face. "Have you heard something about Master Kerwin that you dislike? I wouldn't want to force upon you a liege-master who makes you unhappy."
He shook his head. "I don't know anything about Master Kerwin. It's just . . . I'm a bit worried about offering him liegeman's service."
"Bed-service?" His uncle's voice was brisk. "Well, I'm told that journeymen are often nervous about that, just as brides are often nervous on their wedding nights. I'm sure you'll find that it all comes naturally to you, if Master Kerwin requires that service of you."
Simmons tilted his head to the side as he looked at his uncle. Further back, at the counter, Jackie was muttering angrily about useless cash registers and useless receipts and other boring things in life. "You never did liegeman's service, did you?"
His uncle politely turned a burst of laughter into a hiccup. "Certainly not. I served my journeyman years under your late grandfather, as did your father. The law permits fathers to train their own sons and even take them as liegemen, you know."
Simmons sighed. "I wish I could be liegeman to my father." Being liegeman to his father would mean no liegeman's service – not in the special meaning of the term.
"Have you not told your father that?" His uncle pushed his glasses further up the bridge of his nose as he peered at Simmons.
"Oh, he offered to train me, when I wrote to him to let him know I wouldn't be serving Eugene. He said he couldn't see me as a diplomat, but that the training might come in useful in whatever profession I chose later."
"You did not accept his offer?" His uncle seemed fully absorbed in Simmons's tale, ignoring the sound of Jackie angrily slamming the register shut, over and over.
"It would have meant going overseas, to a desert country. And that would mean—"
"Leaving the Bay," his uncle concluded softly. He placed a hand lightly on Simmons's shoulder. "Well, dear boy, Master Kerwin's farm is a few miles from the Bay, but that's certainly better than living in a desert. Shall I send word to him that we accept his dinner invitation?"