1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 35:





Frenzies bewilder, reveries perturb the mind



Chapter 11


The Tower of London


January, 1634



            “I think I’m going to tear my hair out,” Melissa Mailey announced, to no one in particular. She was looking through one of the windows in St. Thomas’ Tower that overlooked the broad alley that separated it from the Inner Ward and the rest of the Tower of London. Glaring through it, more precisely.


            Sitting next to each other on an ornate divan, not far away in the big central room of their quarters, Tom and Rita Simpson looked at each other. Then, back at Melissa.


            Tom cleared his throat. “I think it’s an attractive shade of gray, myself.” His wife winced.


            Melissa swiveled her head, bringing the glare onto Tom. “I am not that vain, thank you.”


            She was fudging a bit. Outside of being clean, well-groomed and reasonably well-dressed, in a schoolteacher’s sort of way, one of the few things about her appearance that Melissa was sensitive about was her hair color. Perhaps it was because she was a natural dark-blonde who’d spent too many years being belligerent about blonde jokes. Whatever the reason, as she’d gotten into middle age she’d found herself dismayed by the gray creeping into her hair, where the wrinkles creeping into her face and the various little sags in her body hadn’t bothered her in the least.


            So, for years, she’d dyed her hair. Subtly, of course. Melissa Mailey would just as soon commit hara-kiri as become a peroxide blonde. In her lexicon of personal sins, being garish ranked just barely below being reactionary or bigoted.


            Alas, while the seventeenth century had plenty of methods for coloring hair, “garish” pretty well defined the end result for any of them. So, since the Ring of Fire, Melissa had rationed the small supply of up-time hair-coloring that existed in Grantville which suited her needs. But she’d only brought a small supply when they came to England on a diplomatic mission, the past summer. That had long since vanished in the months since they’d found themselves imprisoned in the Tower of London.


            She looked back out the window. “I propose to tear my hair out not because of its coloring—which suits me well, enough, I assure you—but because of the activities and behavior of a certain Darryl McCarthy. One of your soldiers, let me remind you, Captain Simpson.”


            Tom settled his massive frame a bit further into the divan. “Oh. That.”


            “Yes. Oh. That. If he gets that girl pregnant…”


            Tom cleared his throat again. “Ah… that’d be a neat trick, Melissa. Seeing as how—being crude about it—he hasn’t managed to get into her pants yet. Well, not pants, ladies garments being what they are in this day and age. Lift her skirts and undo… whatever she’s got on underneath.”


            Rita Simpson winced again.


            So did Melissa. “The operative phrase being ‘yet,’ I take it. You admit he’s trying.


            “Well, yeah, sure. Of course he is. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool hillbilly, Melissa. Might as well ask him to give up his pickup and Cat cap for a VW and a beret, as ask him not to put the make on a girl. He’s got his self-respect, y’know. On the other hand, he’s not being crude about it and he’s not even really pushing all that hard. Just enough for form’s sake. Being as how—miracles do happen, from time to time—he’s actually got the serious hots for the girl, he’s not just trying to get laid.”


            Melissa looked back at him, squinting a little. “And exactly how do you know all this?”


            “He talks to me about it, how else?” Tom spread his huge hands. “Who else would he talk to, concerning this subject? He’s a hillbilly, Melissa. He certainly isn’t going to discuss something like this with—you know—”


            His wife chuckled. “A girl. And he defines anything female as a ‘girl.’”


            “Well, not Melissa. He pretty much still defines her as the Schoolmarm From Hell. Her gender comes a long way second to her innately demonic essence. But, yeah, a girl. It wouldn’t even occur to Darryl to talk to anyone except a guy about it.”


            Melissa tossed her head a little, indicated one of the rooms to the side. “There’s Friedrich.”


            Tom shrugged. “Friedrich’s a down-timer. Darryl gets along fine with down-timers, but this isn’t a subject he’d feel comfortable discussing with one of them. Even a male down-timer. So that leaves me—even if I am his commanding officer.”


            Sitting a bit further off in a chair, Gayle Mason issued a soft, half-grunted chuckle. “Especially since rank sits very lightly on Darryl McCarthy’s consciousness. It’s a good thing you don’t have a General MacArthur sort of temperament, Tom, or he’d have been court-martialed by now.”


            “Ten times over,” Tom Simpson agreed placidly.


            “You’re sure about this?” Melissa demanded.


            Rita spoke up. “Melissa, I really do think you’re worrying too much. I spend a lot more time than you do in the Tower’s residential quarters, because of my medical rounds. It’s not simply a matter of Darryl’s intentions. Or the girl’s, for that matter. As cramped as everything is in the Tower—and as good-looking as Victoria Short is —I can guarantee you there isn’t more than five minutes at a time when she’s out of somebody’s sight.”


            “The ‘somebodies’ involved usually being her own family,” Tom added. “Who include her father Andrew, who’s a Yeoman Warder; her mother Isabel, who is definitely in the ‘no sparrow shall fall’ camp of parenthood; her brother, motivated to watch her by honor and her two sisters, motivated by envy; several cousins; and, last but not least, her uncle David James—”


            “Eek,” issued from Gayle.


            “—whom nobody this side of an insane asylum, and sure as hell no level-headed hillbilly like Darryl, is even going to think of pissing off. Relax, willya? Yes, it’s true that Darryl has the serious hots for Victoria Short. No doubt about it. But I can tell you, Melissa, that the hots are serious enough that he’s even—twice, no less—uttered the young male hillbilly’s ultimate curse.”


            Melissa lifted her eyebrows. “Which is?”


            Gayle snorted again. “Can’t you guess?” Her voice dropped an octave, roughened, and got a heavier West Virginia accent. “Damn, I think I’m gonna have to get married.”


            “Yup,” said Tom. “Except the prologue was a tad stronger than a mere ‘damn.’ The first time it was ‘I’m fucked, aren’t I?’ The second time it was just a simple declarative ‘I’m fucked.’”


            Melissa couldn’t help but laugh. “O brave new world, that hath such miracles in it! Well, I hope you’re right. The only thing that’s made our captivity here fairly tolerable—well, I’ll admit the Earl of Strafford has been civilized—is that the Warders have been so friendly to us.”


            She gave Rita an acknowledging nod. “Mostly because they think—and rightly so—that she’s kept their kids alive and in good health.”


            Rita’s face darkened a little. “Mostly. There’ve still been a few deaths, and it was touch and go with some others. Still is, with poor little Cecily.”


            Her husband laid a hand on hers. “That’s way better than they expected, love, child mortality rates being what they are in the here and now. You know it—and so do they.”


            Melissa looked back out the window. “Speak of the devil, here he comes.”


            In the alley below, Darryl McCarthy was heading for the stairs leading up to St. Thomas’ Tower. The young American soldier barely returned the friendly nod the Warder on duty gave him. Not surprising, that, given the expression on his face.


            It was a mix of emotions. Gloom. Frustration. Yearning. Despair.


            Melissa laughed again.