1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 04 

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Six days ago, Hugh had knocked on that front door — unannounced — to begin his second visit to Grantville. This was a considerable departure from the formality of his first visit, made about three months earlier.

That initial visit had been something of a low-level affair of state. Technically still the Earl of Tyrconnell (in everyone’s opinion but the English), Hugh Albert O’Donnell’s name was known to some up-timers not only in reports from this present, but also from the tales of their own past. And it had been that past, and thefuture which had followed from it, that Hugh had come to explore.

Grantville’s official libraries had been helpful in the matter of general history, but had little mention of Hugh or his illustrious forbears. Rather, it was his first passage through the front door of the McCarthy house that changed his world forever. Although it was Michael Jr. who had invited Hugh to use their home library, it was the father — an elderly ex-miner suffering from black lung — who was the more ardent (or at least outspoken) Fenian, possessing an impressive collection of both historical and contemporary texts on the subject. Like some enfeebled but passionate bard, Michael Sr. could recall twice the number of tales that were in the books, and was singularly well-versed in the lore of Ireland‘s many troubles — troubles which had continued on, Hugh was devastated to learn, for almost another four centuries.

On the last day of his first visit, Don McCarthy had waggled a gnarled finger at him. “Sir O’Donnell — “

“Don McCarthy, this will not do. I insist that you address me simply as ‘Hugh.’ “

“Then stop calling me ‘Don McCarthy’ — ‘Hugh.’ “

Hugh could not stop the smile. “You are the eldest of your family and have the wisdom of many years. I would be a boor not to title you ‘Don.’ “

‘Don’ McCarthy made a gruff, guttural sound. He had learned that, although the thirty-year-old Earl was always gentle with his hosts, he had a winning way of getting what he wanted. “I have a book,” the elder McCarthy grumbled at last.

“You have many.”

“Yeah — well, this one talks about you.”

“I am mentioned in many of the — “

“No, Hugh. This one has a special chapter about you. About your family, your life — your death.”

Hugh felt the hair on the back of his neck rise up straight and stay that way. The old McCarthy patriarch reached up a slender journal. Hugh remembered taking it with the same mix of avidity and dread that he would have felt if given the chance to handle one of the legendary serpents that possessed both the power to kill and confer immortality.

And the chapter, written in 1941 by Brendan Jennings, OFM, had proven to have both such powers. In his first hurried read of The Career of Hugh, Son Of Rory O Donnell, Earl Of Tyrconnell, In The Low Countries,Hugh discovered that he and the last of his men were to die in 1642, only seven years hence, in the service of Spain, fighting the French at sea off the coast of Barcelona. And thus was sparked his resolve to leave direct Spanish service and encourage his men to consider carefully any offer that might draw them away from their benefactress — and his aunt — Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Lowlands. It was a decision that might simply lead him to an even earlier death, Hugh reasoned, but that was only one possibility. And so, he hoped that he, and many of his men, had been granted a new lease on life.

But within a few minutes, Hugh discovered the darker curse lurking in the pages of the book. It indicated that his wife had died in 1634. And so she had. Eighteen-year-old Anna Margaritte de Hennin had often visited the court of the Infanta Isabella, who had been instrumental in brokering Hugh’s marriage to her. What had started as an act of prudent policy had blossomed (as Isabella had wryly predicted) into a passionate romance, but one which had ended in bitter tragedy. Anna Margaritte lost both their first child and her life in the week before Christmas, torrents of post-partum blood pouring out of her as if some demon within could not kill her quickly or thoroughly enough.

Hugh stared at the book. The warning had been here. It had been here since the American town had materialized in the middle of Germany in 1631. It had been here before he had married Anna Margaritte. Before they had spoken of children. The warning of Anna Margaritte’s death in childbirth had been here, waiting. And he had not come, had not read it.

And so they had conceived a child in blissful ignorance and she had died in horrible agony.

Hugh did not remember leaving the McCarthys’ house. He remembered putting the book down carefully, remembered gathering most of his belongings and notes, and leaving directly into the deepening night, riding west. His two guards caught up with him, frenzied with worry, three hours later.

After returning to his regiment, Hugh spent days recovering from the shock of what he had read, and then weeks thinking about what course of action he should take, and when.

At last, just before spring, he began writing the most difficult and delicate letter of his long career as a correspondent with kings and cardinals, princes and pontiffs. When he completed the letter in early April, he leaned back and tried to see anew this document which had even plagued his dreams. And so, skipping the long prefatory parade of titles and overblown felicities, he read the beginning of its second paragraph with, he hoped, fresh eyes:

“So as not to besmirch the names and honor of my kind patrons — who ensured I kept my own titles when my sires died — I regretfully announce my resolve to take leave of their service, that I may better serve my native country and kinsmen. This decision in no way signifies any deficiency or decrease in the love and esteem in which I hold my many benefactors. I have naught but gratitude for their innumerable kindnesses, and I depart their service heavy with the sorrow that I shall surely never know the like of their love again.”

And, given the many contexts (and pretexts) that had gone into the making of Hugh’s current situation, he reflected that his words were true enough on all counts. The persons who had truly been his surrogate family — the Archduchess Infanta Isabella; Sister Catherine, Prioress of the Dames Blanches; Father Florence Conry of St. Anthony’s — had been generous, compassionate, even loving. And of his more distant benefactors — the careful Philip, his recidivistic court, and its hopelessly blinkered courtiers — he could only say that their ‘love’ had indeed been unique. Indeed, no group of ‘benefactors’ had ever stood in such a strange and often awkward relationship to its dependentsas had the Spanish crown to the relatives of the exiled Irish earls O’Donnell and O’Neill.

Three days later, Hugh was finally able to bring himself to fold the letter and press his seal down deep into the pool of red wax that bled across the edge of the top sheet.

The next day he posted the letter to his patrons and lieges, sought permission for a leave of several weeks, received it, dashed off a letter to the McCarthys that might or might not arrive before he did, and set off for his second visit to Grantville, alone.

He had arrived at their fateful yet welcoming front door six days ago. He had ventured back out beyond it a few times, but had spent most of the days — and nights — reading. Reading reading reading. And when he was not reading, he was making notes, comparing accounts, examining how the dominoes of polities and personalities had fallen during what the up-timer histories called the Thirty Years War. Judging from how current events had already veered dramatically away from those chronicled in the up-timer books, Hugh quickly concluded that although the current wars might or might not last as long as Thirty Years, they would have an even more profound and lasting effect upon the map — and life — of Europe. And, no doubt, the world beyond.