Chapter VIII.

26 Apr

Not a word was said about the three tribers that evening or at breakfast the next morning. Yet Lea felt the alarmed state of Thav and wondered what had happened to raise such heightened anxiety in her new friend.

The two young women were busy managing the decorations and preparations, while Gimel Vexa spent his time going through the leaf collection over and over, each time discovering new treasures. He felt profound ecstasy within himself, satisfying internal needs accumulating over many years.

At one point, Thav went by herself from the drawing-room to the kitchen in order to have a word with the pastry cook about the pili nut cakes and sapodilla pandowdy for the approaching reception.

All of a sudden, her brother’s voice struck her ears, although the corridor appeared to be empty.

“Thav, I’d like to have a word with you, if you aren’t too busy.”

His merciless gray eyes peered out at her from the door of the study.

She turned around and approached the open doorway where he stood. Mem backed up to allow her in, then closed the door.

The two of them stood looking at each other. Mem did not invite her to sit down. He himself remained standing close in front of her.

“Do not reveal this to either of our visitors, but there was an incident that involved three of our workers found slacking off while they were supposed to be digging cassava roots. I had to take immediate steps to stop it from re-occurring in the future. Perhaps it would have been better to leave the punitive action up to Khaph alone…”

Thav cut him off. “I saw you with the whip in your hand. It was clear what you did. Tell me, how are the workers now? How severe was the punishment that you administered to these natives? Did any of them suffer permanent injuries?”

“I don’t actually know,” he admitted. “That is Khaph’s responsibility to see to. But you must realize that there was no other way. I had to set some indelible marks on those criminal loafers. Had I been soft or weak, the situation would have only worsened for us.” For a second, he paused and tried to read her whitish blue eyes.

“There is an important matter that I wanted to tell you about,” announced the planter in a lowered tone. His face reddened with emotion.

“Yes?”

He moved closer, until only three or four inches separated the two.

“You are spending your time with one of our guests while ignoring the other.”

Thav’s lips parted and formed a gape. She sent her brother a look of incredulity.

“The plan is to throw myself at the lucky man, is that it?”

His face and eyes appeared to darken.

“You said that, I didn’t. All I say is be pleasant and sociable with him and allow things to take their natural course. Nothing beyond that. You do not recognize how charming and beautiful you are, my dear. You must set your mind to making use of your natural charm and beauty. This is the moment for that.”

She made a sarcastic face at him.

“How wealthy is he, Mem?”

His face became grotesque, as if a disfiguring mask were covering it.

“The fortune is one of the three top ones in all of the country of Landia,” he whispered. “At present, he is desperate to purchase all the leaves in my collection. In time, my hope is that he realizes that we have much more to offer him than simply that. Am I wrong to expect magnificent results to come about?”

Thav could say nothing.

She had never before plumbed the depths of her brother’s character. Not until that moment. Not to such a low point of selfishness and greed. Her new understanding began to terrify her.

Determined not to betray her private thoughts to him, she spun about and rushed to the door, pulling it open and fleeing toward the kitchen.

Time was getting short.

Thav helped Lea dress herself in a pink mousseline dress she had brought with her from Landia.

“I will be in my best peach taffeta,” announced the planter’s sister. “It won’t take me much time to get ready, so I can be of assistance in here.” She glanced about the guest bedroom. What occupied her mind was what her brother had told her about his plans. A cold shudder moved down her back as she remembered his words.

“It is going to be a spectacular party,” said the guest behind her. “Back in Landia people would never think of having a fireworks display at such an occasion. This will be a genuine visual spectacle. I can hardly wait till the time arrives for what will be coming.”

Thav spun around so that she could face her new friend directly.

“It is an old planter tradition to set off tourbillioni on holidays or special occasions. Khaph has much experience in detonating fireworks. He will be in charge of the show for our guests.”

Lea smiled. “I’m certain that everyone will enjoy themselves.”

The two women gazed at each other a moment. It was Thav who turned her eyes away, out of profound guilt. She decided to tell her new friend the brutal, unvarnished truth.

“Mem has told me that you and your father are incredibly rich,” she began, advancing with care.

The reaction to this was a laugh. “Well off, I would put it. We are fortunate in that my father’s grandfather was a very successful stockbroker. Our firm has grown and prospered for four generations. The profits have been sufficient to provide the family a comfortable, if not luxurious style of like. I must admit that our situation is enviable to most people.”

Thav pursed her lips, then hurled herself into stormy waters.

“My brother is scheming to tap into the Vexa fortune,” she blurted rapidly. “First, he intends to sell his leaf collection to Gimel. But his main goal is to arrange a match between your father and me. That is the purpose of our having the two of you here as guests. That, I confess, is the aim of my brother’s scheming. His motive is rooted in self-interest. It is plain and quite simple.”

Lea, for a few seconds, felt faint. Her head whirled, producing an eerie dizziness. But she quickly gathered together all her wits.

“You are not joking, are you?” she asked in a cold, severe voice.

“No, my dear friend,” slowly pronounced Thav. “I would never invent anything so horrible for you to hear. It is difficult for strangers to perceive my brother’s true character and motives. His grasping greed is not plainly visible, but disguised through the tricks he has learned to use.”

“My father and I have been blind, then,” stuttered Lea. “But I will give him warning of this. He must be told at once, so that we can change our plans.”

She stretched forth both her arms, taking hold of her new friend’s two hands. “But I cannot leave you here alone with such an evil man, can I?”

Thav’s eyes began to fill with liquid. She clung closely to the hands that gripped hers.

“I would go away with the two of you, but my conscience tells me not to. Terrible deeds are done on our plantation. The most recent are the whipping of three of the workers by my brother himself. I saw it happen yesterday. The tribers had terrible injuries and are now imprisoned in our estate lock-up.

“I have been thinking of going to them with some food. If anyone is seriously hurt, a doctor can be summoned from the landing. But there is always the potential presence of the overseer. He would certainly report any visit directly to Mem. What can I do?” She wiped her eye with the back of her right hand.

Lea thought a second. “You and I must help each other. But, first of all, we face the reception downstairs in just a few hours.”

“That is when I will have an opportunity to sneak off to the housgow and see the prisoners there. I want to find out for myself how they are. That is a moral duty that I deeply feel. There is no way that I can ignore the awful actions done by my own brother.”

‘I will go with you,” promised Lea. “We have to act together from now on.”

In a little while, the two went back to their preparations for the coming soiree.

Resh Zayeth looked forward to an evening listening to music ribbons with his friend Chak. They had discovered that they shared a liking for old Tochian music from several centuries back. It was an influence that had brought them together.

As was usual, their conversation on the screened veranda quickly centered on the problems of the Vazean natives of the district they lived in.

“I wrote up a sketch about the economic conditions in the triber villages,” reported the journalist-editor. “My hope is that some of the capital news-sheets will publish the material and help get out more information about the facts around here. If this is successful for me, it will draw attention from government officials and important decision-makers in Tochian City.

“Do you think the two of us will ever have any effect on the circumstances that rule around here?”

“I don’t believe that conditions are too different in other regions of Tochsylvania,” said Resh in a thoughtful tone. “We are like a mirror that reflects the general economic and social environment of our country.

“We, the Tochians, migrated into the forested interior as conquering outsiders. The Vazeans have always been seen and treated as primitive inferiors. And that holds true down to today, unfortunately.”

“Will it ever be different, do you think?” asked the dendrologist.

“I don’t know and really can’t say,” murmured Chak. “But I have to try something, don’t I?”

“Yes, we must at least try as much as is possible.”

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