In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the Plague of Infertility, after the False Tribulation, after the days of the Pious Presidents, the sixty stars and thirteen stripes wave from the plains of Athabaska to the national capital in New York City. In Colorado Springs, the Dominion sees to the nation’s spiritual needs. In Labrador, the Army wages war on the Dutch. America, unified, is rising once again.
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It falls to me to explain something of Williams Ford, and of my family’s place in it, and Julian’s, before I describe the threat Sam Godwin feared, which materialized in our village not long before Christmas.1
Situated at the head of the valley was the font of our prosperity, the Duncan and Crowley Estate. It was a country Estate, owned by two New York mercantile families with hereditary Senate seats, who maintained their villa not only as a source of income but as a resort, safely distant (several days’ journey by train) from the intrigues and pestilences of the Eastern cities. It was inhabited—ruled, I might say—not only by the Duncan and Crowley patriarchs but by a whole legion of cousins, nephews, relations by marriage, and distinguished guests in search of clean air and rural views. Our corner of Athabaska was blessed with a benign climate and pleasant scenery, according to the season, and these things attract idle Aristos the way strong butter attracts flies.
It remains unrecorded whether the town existed before the Estate or vice versa; but certainly the town depended on the Estate for its prosperity. In Williams Ford there were essentially three classes: the Owners, or Aristos; below them the leasing class, who worked as smiths, carpenters, coopers, overseers, gardeners, beekeepers, etc., and whose leases were repaid in service; and finally the indentured laborers, who worked as field hands, inhabited rude shacks east of the River Pine, and received no compensation beyond bad food and worse lodging.
My family occupied an ambivalent place in this hierarchy. My mother was a seamstress. She worked at the Estate, as had her mother before her. My father, however, had arrived in Williams Ford as a bondless transient, and his marriage to my mother had been controversial. He had “married a lease,” as the saying goes, and had been taken on as a stable hand at the Estate in lieu of a dowry. The law in Athabaska allowed such unions, but popular opinion frowned on them. My mother had retained only a few friends of her own class after the wedding, her blood relations had since died (perhaps of embarrassment), and as a child I was often mocked and derided for my father’s low origins.
On top of that was the thorny issue of our religion. We were—because my father was—Church of Signs, which is a marginal Church. Every Christian church in America was required to secure formal approval from the Council of Registrars of the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth, if it wanted to operate without the imposition of crippling federal taxes. (The Dominion is sometimes called “The Church of the Dominion,” but that’s a misnomer, since every church is a Dominion Church as long as it’s recognized by the Council. Dominion Episcopal, Dominion Presbyterian, Dominion Baptist—even the Catholic Church of America since it renounced its fealty to the Pope of Rome in 2112—all are included under the Dominionist umbrella, since the purpose of the Dominion is not to be a church but to certify churches. In America we’re entitled by the Constitution to worship at any church we please, as long as it’s a genuine Christian congregation and not some fraudulent or satanistic sect. The Dominion exists to make that distinction. Also to collect fees and tithes to further its important work.)
We were, as I said, Church of Signs, a denomination shunned by the leasing class and grudgingly recognized (but never fully endorsed) by the Dominion. It was popular mostly with the illiterate transient workers among whom my father had been raised. Our faith took for its master text that passage in Mark which proclaims, “In my Name they will cast out devils, and speak in new tongues; they will handle serpents, and if they drink poison they will not be sickened by it.” We were snake-handlers, in other words, and famous beyond our modest numbers for it. Our congregation consisted of a dozen farmhands, most of them lately arrived from the southern states. My father was its deacon (though we didn’t use that title), and we kept snakes, for ritual purposes, in wire cages on our back acre, a practice that contributed very little to our social standing.
That had been the situation of our family when Julian Comstock arrived in Williams Ford as a guest of the Duncan and Crowley families, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, and when Julian and I met while hunting.
At that time I had been apprenticed to my father, who had risen to the rank of an overseer at the Estate’s lavish and extensive stables. My father loved and understood animals, especially horses. Unfortunately I was not made in the same mold, and my relations with the stable’s equine inhabitants rarely extended beyond a brisk mutual tolerance. I didn’t love my job—which consisted of sweeping straw, shoveling ordure, and in general doing those chores the older stablehands felt to be beneath their dignity—so I was pleased when my friendship with Julian deepened, and it became customary for a household amanuensis to arrive unannounced and request my presence at the House. Since the request emanated from a Comstock it couldn’t be overruled, no matter how fiercely the grooms and saddlers gnashed their teeth to see me escape their autocracy.
At first we met to read and discuss books, or hunt together. Later Sam Godwin invited me to audit Julian’s lessons, for he had been charged with Julian’s education as well as his general welfare. (Fortunately I had already been taught the rudiments of reading and writing at the Dominion school, and refined these skills under the tutelage of my mother, who believed in the power of literacy as an improving force. My father could neither read nor write.) And it was not more than a year after our first acquaintance that Sam presented himself one evening at my parents’ cottage with an extraordinary proposal.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hazzard,” Sam had said, putting his hand up to touch his Army cap (which he had removed when he entered the cottage, so that the gesture looked like an aborted salute), “you know of course about the friendship between your son and Julian Comstock.”
“Yes,” my mother said. “And worry over it often enough—matters at the Estate being what they are.”
My mother was a small woman, delicate in stature but forceful, with ideas of her own. My father, who spoke seldom, on this occasion spoke not at all, only sat in his chair gripping a laurel-root pipe, which he did not light.
“Matters at the Estate are exactly the crux of the issue,” Sam Godwin said. “I’m not sure how much Adam has told you about our situation there. Julian’s father, General Bryce Comstock, who was my friend as well as my commanding officer, shortly before his death charged me with Julian’s care and well-being—“
“Before his death,” my mother pointed out, “at the gallows, for treason.”
Sam winced. “That’s true, Mrs. Hazzard—I can’t deny it—but I assert my belief that the trial was unfair and the verdict unjust. Just or not, however, it doesn’t alter my obligation as far as the son is concerned. I promised to care for the boy, and I mean to keep my promise.”
“A Christian sentiment,” my mother said, not entirely disguising her skepticism.
“As for your implication about the Estate, and the practices of the young Eupatridians there, I agree with you entirely. Which is why I approved and encouraged Julian’s friendship with your son. Apart from Adam, Julian has no reliable friends. The Estate is such a den of venomous snakes—no offense,” he added, remembering our religious affiliation, and making the common but mistaken assumption that congregants of the Church of Signs necessarily like snakes, or feel some kinship with them—“no offense, but I would sooner allow Julian to associate with, uh, scorpions,” striking for a more palatable simile, “than abandon him to the sneers, machinations, ruses, and ruinous habits of his peers. That makes me not only his teacher but his constant companion. But I’m more than twice his age, Mrs. Hazzard, and he needs a friend more nearly of his own growth.”
“What do you propose, exactly, Mr. Godwin?”
“I propose to I take on Adam as a second student, to the ultimate benefit of both boys.”
Sam was ordinarily a man of few words—even as a teacher—and he seemed as exhausted by this oration as if he had lifted some great weight.
“As a student of what, Mr. Godwin?”
“Mechanics. History. Grammar and composition. Martial skills—”
“Adam already knows how to fire a rifle.”
“Pistolwork, sabrework, fist-fighting—but that’s only a fraction of it,” Sam added hastily. “Julian’s father asked me to cultivate the boy’s mind as well as his reflexes.”
My mother had more to say on the subject, chiefly about how my work at the stables helped offset the family’s leases, and how difficult it would be to get along without those extra vouchers at the Estate store. But Sam had anticipated the point. He had been entrusted by Julian’s mother—that is to say, the sister-in-law of the President—with a discretionary fund for Julian’s education, which could be tapped to compensate for my absence from the stables. And at a handsome rate. He quoted a number, and the objections from my parents grew less strenuous, and were finally whittled away to nothing. (I observed all this from a room away, through a gap in the door.)
Which is not to say there were no misgivings. Before I set off for the Estate the next day, this time to visit one of the Great Houses rather than to shovel ordure in the stables, my mother warned me not to entangle myself in the affairs of the high-born. I promised her I would cling to my Christian virtues—a hasty promise, less easily kept than I imagined.2
“It may not be your morals that are at risk,” she said. “The high-born conduct themselves by their own rules, and the games they play have mortal stakes. You do know that Julian’s father was hung?”
Julian had never spoken of it, and I had never pressed him, but it was a matter of public record. I repeated Sam’s assertion that Bryce Comstock had been innocent.
“He may well have been. That’s exactly the point. There has been a Comstock in the Presidency for the past thirty years, and the current Comstock is said to be jealous of his power. The only real threat to the reign of Julian’s uncle was the ascendancy of his brother, who made himself dangerously popular in the war with the Brazilians. I suspect Mr. Godwin is correct—Bryce Comstock was hanged not because he was a bad General but because he was a successful one.”
No doubt such scandals were possible. I had heard stories about life in New York City, where the President resided, that would curl a Cynic’s hair. But what could these things possibly have to do with me? Or even Julian? We were only boys.
Such was my naiveté.
1 I beg the reader’s patience if I detail matters that seem well-known. I indulge the possibility of a foreign audience, or a posterity to whom our present arrangements are not self-evident. Back to text
2 I beg the reader’s patience if I detail matters that seem well-known. I indulge the possibility of a foreign audience, or a posterity to whom our present arrangements are not self-evident. Back to text
And now, you can continue by listening to Chapter Three of Julian Comstock right here.