Chapter 11. The prayer



            Two days later, after they’d made camp for the evening, Janos was approached by the Barclay couple and Allen O’Connor. They were the leaders of the up-time defectors, insofar as such a group could be said to have leaders. They were hardly a well-disciplined company.

            The day before, Janos had heard Denise Beasley refer to them sarcastically as a “motley crew.” The term being new to him, he’d asked for a translation. He’d found her explanation quite charming, especially the qualifiers that seemed to be inseparable from the girl’s vocabulary. Even more amusing had been her pugnacious attitude. Clearly, she seemed to be expecting him at any moment to begin chastising her for her language.

            Indeed, he was sometimes tempted to do so, when she lapsed into blasphemy. But he’d already learned from his weeks in Grantville that Americans had a casual attitude toward blasphemy, just as the rumors said they did. And despite his piety, Janos was skeptical—had been since he was a boy—that the way so many priests lumped all sins into unvarying categories was actually a reflection of God’s will. Janos did not presume to understand the Lord’s purpose in all things, and blasphemy was certainly listed as a transgression in the Ten Commandments. Still, he doubted that the Creator who had forged the sun and the moon made no distinction at all between blasphemy and murder.

            As for the girl’s profanity, he simply found it artful. Growing up as the scion of a Hungarian noble family in the countryside, he’d learned profanity from high-born father and low-born milkmaid alike. His were not a prissy folk. Janos himself avoided profanity, as a rule, but that was simply an expression of his austere personality. He didn’t paint or write poetry, either. But he could still appreciate the skill and talent involved in all three of the arts.

            Has Janos’ father still been alive and been there, he might have had caustic remarks to say about the girl’s language. But the old man would have criticized her for the sloppiness of the form, not the nature of the content. When it came to profanity, Janos’ father had been a devotee of formal structure; Denise Beasley, of what the up-timers called free verse.

            Jarring stuff, free verse, at first glance. But in the hands of a skilled poet, it could be effective. Janos has read some poems by an up-timer named e. e. cummings—he’d refused to capitalize even his name—and found them quite good. He’d even had a copy made of some of them to give to his uncle, Pal Nadasdy.

            “We just wanted to tell you that Billie Jean’s settling down,” said Barclay. “We were a little worried there, for a while.”

            Janos nodded. He’d been somewhat concerned himself. Caryn Barlow seemed almost indifferent to the death of her father, but that wasn’t particularly surprising. Their relationship had obviously not been close. In fact, it had seemed to verge on outright hostility. She’d joined the group because of her friendship with Suzi Barclay, not because of her father’s involvement.

            The Mase woman, on the other hand, was an odd one. Clearly intelligent, in most things, even quite intelligent. But it had been hard to analyze her attachment to such a man as Jay Barlow as being anything other than sheer stupidity. It was not simply that the man had been unpleasant, since that was true of many husbands and paramours. He’d been feckless and improvident as well.

            Marina Barclay shook her head. “There’s a history of abuse, there. I think it’s got her all twisted up.”

            Janos couldn’t quite follow the idiom. “Excuse me?”

            “Billie Jean’s father… Well. It was pretty bad. God knows why that got transferred over to an asshole like Barlow, but I think that’s what happened.”

            “Ah.” That was somewhat clearer. It was certainly as clear as Janos wanted it to be. Up-timers set great store by what they called “psychology.” They claimed it was almost a science. Janos was dubious, but supposed it couldn’t be any worse than the astrology which so many down-timers used to guide their way through life.

            “The point is,” said O’Connor, “we don’t think she’ll be a problem any more. Now that she’s cried herself out, we think she’s actually kind of relieved. That was a bad situation.”

            Marina’s expression darkened. “He beat her, sometimes, when he got drunk.”

            Janos looked from her, to her husband, to O’Connor. “Does she have possession of a weapon? A gun, I mean.” He was not concerned, of course, that she might have a knife.

            “No,” said Peter Barclay firmly. “We took that away from her right away. We didn’t… uh…”

            Janos was tempted to scowl, but didn’t. We didn’t want her taking a shot at you because you’d slaughter all of us.

            As if he himself couldn’t make distinctions! They were truly annoying, sometimes, in the way they insulted without even realizing they did so.

            Barclay’s wife immediately demonstrated the talent anew. “And, uh, thanks for not killing her at the time.”

            Janos kept his face expressionless, since he knew there was no intentional insult involved. True, there might come a time in his old age—assuming he lived that long, which was unlikely—when he would be forced to kill an unarmed woman who attacked him. But to do such a thing now, when he was twenty-five, an experienced cavalry officer, and one of the best swordsmen in the Austrian empire? She might as well have thanked him for not being a coward.