1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 05 

But ever and again, he would find something that reminded him of how his late arrival to Grantville and its histories had allowed him to follow the fateful track of that other future just a few months too long. Too long for his wife, his son, and at least a hundred of his regiment who had been lost fighting for the interests of a Spanish king who, it was now clear, would never fight for their interests.

And on this, the sixth night of his stay, while sitting in the worn living room of Don McCarthy, these specters of regret had been gathering within Hugh once again as Michael McCarthy Jr. had emerged from the kitchen with the dreaded “white lightning” that the up-timers seemed to consider divine nectar. He had found himself recalling all the faces which had come to swear allegiance under his banners, and which were now buried in the loam of foreign fields.

He broke out of his silent reverie without preamble. “I could nolonger command a unit that bore my name like a lure, so as to attract the cultchies — the simple country boys — like bees to pollen.”

The McCarthy’s did not comment as the moonshine was poured out, but he felt their eyes.

“It was hard watching them die in foreign service, far from home, dismally used. But I could make myself do it, so long as I was able to believe we were purchasing the good opinion of our Spanish allies, that we were securing their permanent regard for our honor and character, as well as skill on the battlefield. And that, therefore, Philip would finally be moved to act — if only to keep faith with the promises he had made to men of such quality and integrity.” He took a look a small sip of the white lightning. “What a fool I was.

Michael Sr. responded in a low, steady voice. “Hugh, you were brought up by good people to be a good man, and true. But nations — even those ruled by kings who claim to prize honor and loyalty — cannot keep faith with those same virtues. It’s in the nature of nations to make promises they don’t keep. Unfortunately, no man can know beforehand that the promises made to him will turn out to be the worthless ones.”

Hugh heard the attempt to take the onus off him. He shrugged it off. “I was gullible — in this and other matters. I was not merely a child but a simpleton to believe the initial priestly rubbish about Americans as the spawn of Satan himself. If I hadn’t put such faith in Philip’s court clerics, I might have thought for myself and come here earlier. I might have read my own future — and in it, seen and avoided Anna’s death in childbirth.”

“You could not have known.” Don Michael’s tone was soft yet strangely certain.

“I could have. I could have found better care for her.”

“She was Flemish aristocracy. She had the finest doctors of Europe.”

“The finest doctors of Europe, even of the Lowlands, are not your doctors. My reading has not been confined to the future plight of Ireland, Don McCarthy. I have spent many hours in your libraries. I have learned of obstetrical bleeding, of placenta previa. And so I learned that what killed my wife was ignorance: my ignorance, our ignorance.”

“Son,” — and McCarthy sounded sincere in affixing that label — “son: you couldn’t have read that in time to save her.”

“With respect, Don McCarthy, you were here almost three years before her accouchement. At any time, I could have — ”

“No, Hugh. I’m not saying that the books were not here to be read. I mean that you weren’t ready to read — and believe — them.” He looked to his own son, whose often unreadable grey eyes were crinkled in what appeared to be pain.

And suddenly Hugh understood that these strikingly plain-mannered beings had been trying to lead him to the realization which now snapped on in his mind like one of their impossible “light bulbs”:

— it was Anna’s death which had jarred him enough so that, shaken from his old perspectives, he could see the world through the new lenses brought by the up-timers. Before she had died, he would not have traveled to read, nor have believed or trusted the content of, the books in Grantville that might have saved her. But when their unborn child had killed her by tearing out the very root of the umbilicus which had already choked him, Hugh’s happy complacency ended. Their two deaths had midwifed the birth of his new consciousness.

The change had not been instantaneous. His former habits of thought had not died suddenly, as if decapitated by the single blow of a headsman’s axe. No, it had been like a fall from a great height, starting when the midwives and doctors left him alone with Anna’s haggard corpse and the tiny, blue-black body of he who was to have had his father’s name, and titles, and boundless love. Sitting there with that tiny form in his hands, Hugh had started falling into a hole at the center of himself: falling falling falling —

And when he finally awakened from that long fall, weeks later, he opened his eyes upon a different world. It was a world which was unguided by Divine Providence, and in which his kinsmen had languished and died hoping hopeless hopes. And then had come the strange letter fromGrantville.

It had been a strange letter indeed. It conveyed, first and foremost, condolences — of which there had been many others, most far more grandiloquent in their invocation of tragedy and the mysterious will of god. In contrast, this letter — from an up-timer named Mr. Michael McCarthy, Sr. — while clearly heartfelt, had been singularly straightforward and plainspoken. Yet, it landed like a thunderbolt before Hugh’s eyes. In part, this was because he had never thought to receive any such expression of solicitude from an up-timer. But even more arresting was McCarthy’s lament that the death of Hugh’s wife and heir were also “terrible blows to all O’Donnells — and to the many generations of patriotic Irish who came after you.”

This added a strange, almost surreal dimension to his loss. Posterity had, somewhere, already been lastingly impacted by the death of his child and his wife. And the more Hugh reflected on that, the more he felt it grow like a tapeworm in that part of his mind that digested new facts. He and his line were known in the future. And that future could be discovered by going to Grantville.

And so he had. And now he sat in Don Michael McCarthy’s living room, sharing this magical bourbon with him and his son. He sighed, sipped again, wondered if life was really any less capricious than the unpredictable dance of flames in this hearth built from eerily identical up-time bricks. He watched the fire send flickering shadow-demons capering along the walls. But less energetically now; it was burning low.

Michael noticed the fading flames and got up, gestured for Hugh to remain in his seat. “I’ll get another few pieces of wood. Stay put.” He looked for his coat. “Damn. That’s right; it’s in the wash.”

Hugh tried to hide his smile. Michael had attempted to ride Hugh’s war-trained charger earlier in the day. The high-spirited stallion had been tolerant enough when the up-timer was in the saddle, but was impatient with his awkward attempt at dismounting. One sharp, tight turn had flung coat-wearing Michael down into the mud and manure.

Hugh rose. “Michael, I will — “

“You will not. You’re my guest.”

Hugh took his distinctively embroidered cape from the knob on the coat-closet door, revealing his scabbarded sword. “Then at least stay warm in this.”

Michael seemed ready to decline, then nodded his thanks and took the cape. Hugh sat back down, contemplated the firelight sparkling through the bourbon, wondered what foreign fire he’d be staring into a year from now.

Presuming, that is, he was still alive to do so.