1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 44:
Thorsten’s relaxation at Caroline’s obviously friendly attitude vanished the moment he went through the door she’d led him to. Other than Maureen Grady, he knew neither of the women in the room beyond. But everything about them, from the obviously expensive clothing they wore to their hair styles to subtleties about their expressions and mannerisms made it clear as day that they were noblewomen. Probably Hochadel, to boot, not lesser nobility.
Thorsten didn’t share the automatic hostility toward the German aristocracy that most CoC members possessed. But he was certainly not partial to them, either—and, more to the point in this situation, had had so little personal contact with any real ones that he didn’t know how to conduct himself properly. The one Reichsritter who’d lived near Engler’s village had been a very small landowner without much more in the way of pretensions—and certainly not refined manners—than any prosperous farmer in the area.
Fortunately, the younger of the two noblewomen smiled and extended her hand for an American-style informal handshake. That much, Thorsten had long since mastered.
“A pleasure, ma’am,” he said, managing to get the words out smoothly and evenly.
“I am Emelie, the countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt,” she said. Then, gesturing toward the older noblewoman sitting by the window: “And this is my husband’s sister-in-law Anna Sophia, the dowager countess.”
There being no offer of a handshake coming from that quarter, Thorsten simply bowed. “A pleasure, ma’am.” The elderly countess nodded in return but said nothing.
“This is the inner sanctum, Thorsten,” said Caroline. “I figured I’d bring you in here first, so you wouldn’t think this place was being run according to principles of anarchy. Appearances to the contrary. But we can go now, and leave the ladies to their machinations. See you later, Maureen. Emelie. Countess.”
And off she went, taking Thorsten by the hand and leading him out. He made no protest. Leaving aside his own desire to escape, this was the first time they’d had any physical contact. He was quite thrilled.
After the door closed, the dowager countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt emitted a sniff. “I find myself wondering if your precious CoC fellow made any recommendations about her. She’s quite shocking at times, you know.”
“Don’t be silly, Anna Sophia. I find Caroline immensely refreshing.”
Maureen looked from one to the other. “For what it’s worth, I share Emelie’s enthusiasm for Caroline—and, yes, Anna Sophia, sometimes the girl practically defines the term ‘bluntness.’ But what I mostly care about, seeing as how I really know very little about Thorsten Engler, is that I’m seeing a human being’s emotional paralysis finally coming unraveled.”
Now simply interested, the older countess raised her head. Maureen nodded toward Emelie. “She knows the story, but I don’t think I’ve ever told you. Caroline’s not a native of Grantville like most of us here. The only reason she was in town when the Ring of Fire hit is because she was one of Rita Stearns’ college friends attending her wedding to Tom Simpson. Part of the reason she came is because she thought she might pick up some good tips—seeing as how she was supposed to get married to her own fiancé six weeks later. In Philadelphia, where he lived—and where the Ring of Fire left him.”
“Ah.” Anna Sophia looked out the window again. “I wonder if we will ever understand God’s purpose there. I don’t think so, myself, whatever the parsons say. The learned arguments they advance today to explain the Ring of Fire are no more learned, after all, than the arguments I can remember them advancing not so many years ago—which sagely explained why the age of miracles is long past and will never return until the Christ himself.”
Maureen was startled by the words, as she always was whenever someone spoke of the Ring of Fire that way. She shouldn’t be, really, since this was hardly the first time she’d heard a similar sentiment expressed. Looked at from that viewpoint…
True enough, the Ring of Fire was a palpable, physical miracle, like something right out of the Bible. The parting of the Red Sea might have been more spectacular, perhaps. But those waters had returned, after Moses and his people passed. Whereas all anyone in Europe had to do—as untold thousands had done, by now—was travel to within three miles of Grantville to see the modern miracle with their own eyes. Nine-hundred foot tall cliffs that had not existed an eyeblink before God made them to be; rivers running in new courses; lakes drained and lakes created. Perhaps most of all, if a bit more subtle, thousands of sometimes peculiar people set loose in the world, who had in less than three years been the human equivalent of an earthquake.
The problem was that, despite her own sincere Catholicism, Maureen Grady simply couldn’t think that way. She knew Grantville, having lived there for years since she’d left Chicago to take a better job at the big Veterans Administration center in Clarksburg. The idea that she and her neighbors—her cop husband, too, with his mania for baseball? their two sons, with a worse mania? their three dogs, with their mania for stealing the best seats in the house and shedding fur all over them?—were all part of a miracle just seemed completely absurd to her. Miracles were like Star Wars. They happened long, long ago in places that were far, far way—and had names that were hard to pronounce. They did not happen nowadays in dog-food-out-of-a-can plain old West Virginia.
They just didn’t, unless God was a lot more like an American Indian style prankster deity than the one Maureen had grown up with and worshipped. So, Maureen had long since plunked herself down on the “unknown natural causes” side of that debate. She could accept that blind nature might pick West Virginia for the Ring of Fire.
Why not, since nature had given them the seemingly-immortal Senator Robert Byrd? Nobody ever explained him as being due to any sort of miracle. The occasional Republican whispers that he’d sold his soul to the devil could be discounted, she thought.
“This is the day care center,” Caroline said, as they entered a section of the settlement house that was a newly-constructed extension from the medieval monastery.
Thorsten looked around carefully. The great one-room wooden structure was really just a huge barn, with what amounted to big stalls for children instead of horses or cattle. True, the floor was wood instead of dirt, and was amazingly clean given the swarms of children everywhere. But the design and craftsmanship of the extension itself was just about exactly what you’d get with a well-made barn. Very sturdy and solid, to be sure, but with no frills whatsoever.
The one thing that puzzled him at first was how they managed to keep such a big wooden structure warm enough in the winter. He saw no signs that the walls were insulated by anything except a double layer of planking. But then he spotted one of the peculiar-looking new American stoves that were becoming quite popular in the city. “Franklin stoves,” they were called. Thorsten’s own landlord had been talking lately about getting some for their apartment building.
He looked around again, and spotted two more. Apparently, they had such a stove in almost every one of the stalls for children.
“Well, what do you think?” Caroline asked. Glancing at her, Thorsten realized that he’d been silent for quite some time, as he’d given the day care center much more than a casual examination. His friend Eric teased him about that characteristic quite often. Thorsten supposed it was probably true that he tended to concentrate on something to the point of being half-oblivious to the world around him.
“It’s very sturdy,” he said. “Former farmers built it, I am thinking.”
“Well… yes, I suppose it could have been. It was done by a crew sent from two of the construction workers’ unions. Most of those men are from rural areas, true enough. I don’t know if they were farmers, though. Why do you say that?”
Thorsten waved his hand about. “It’s designed like a big barn, Caroline. Better made than usual, but that’s what it is.”
She looked a little startled. “A barn? I wouldn’t have said so!”
Fearing that she was on the verge of becoming offended, Thorsten chose his next words carefully.
“Ah… I don’t mean to be impertinent, but I take it you were not born and raised in a country village?”
Caroline’s burst of laughter reassured Thorsten, as well as intriguing him. She had a raucous, almost harsh-sounding laugh, quite at odds with her actual voice. Everything about the woman was fascinating.
“Hell, no! I’m the o-riginal city girl, Thorsten. Born and raised in and around Washington, D.C. When I was growing up, going on a ‘country outing’ meant finding an Eritrean restaurant instead of the run-of-the-mill Ethiopian ones. The first time I saw a cow was when I transferred to WVU my junior year because I didn’t like—well, never mind. Let’s just say it took Rita Stearns fifteen minutes to walk me through the differences between a cow and a horse so I could tell them apart.” She frowned rather dramatically. “And she’s never let me forget it even though the truth is I could have managed it in two minutes if she hadn’t been laughing her head off the other thirteen.”
Thorsten tried to imagine not being able to tell the difference between a cow and horse at a glance. Finally! Something about the woman that was clearly far from perfect. It came as a great relief.
“For someone like me, Caroline, a good and well-made barn is nothing to sneer at. Many people live their whole lives in much worse. I meant no offense.”
She turned her head and looked at him for a long moment, without a trace of her usual smile. “I believe you,” she said eventually. “I think you’re one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. And none of it’s phony.”
He didn’t know what to say to that. But the smile returned, and she took him by the hand again and led him elsewhere. The “soup kitchen,” she called it, even though they were serving no form of soup at all, so far as Thorsten could determine.
“So how was the food?” Eric asked him that evening, over beers in the tavern. He’d left the settlement house much sooner than Engler, of course.
“Who cares?” was Thorsten’s reply.
“That silly smile has no business on your plain German farmer’s face,” declared Krenz. He turned to Gunther Achterhof, who was sitting at the table with them. “Don’t you agree?”
“No.” Gunther studied Thorsten for a bit. He really did seem quite distracted.
“Still having dreams?”
Gunther drained his beer. “I changed my mind. You’re right, Krenz. That is the silliest smile I’ve ever seen, on anybody’s face. Better he should have kept suffering, like a farmer should.”