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Chapter 30

In the end, the wedding went off without a hitch.


Willie Ray showed up on time. And if he wasn't exactly sober, he had a lifetime's experience to lean on. So, stubby and half-inebriated as he was, he managed to get Gretchen down the aisle without mishap. True, it took her quite a while. But she didn't stumble once and the organist didn't mind having the time to show off.


Neither did the audience. The church was packed. Standing room only, and likewise the street outside. At least half the town showed up for the wedding, spilling off the sidewalks.


The huge crowd was in a very festive mood. More so, in truth—much more—than at most weddings. For all of those people, American and German alike, the wedding came like a burst of sunlight. Quentin Underwood had spoken for thousands. After this nightmare we've been plunged into, I swear I can't think of a single thing that'd be better for my soul than to watch a young woman walk down the aisle in a wedding dress.


 


That sentiment, everyone had in common. From there, the viewpoints diverged.


For the German participants and onlookers, the wedding came as something of a promise. Or, perhaps, a reassurance. Although they now numbered well over half of this new society coming into existence, the Germans—former refugees, mercenaries, camp followers—were well aware of their subordinate position within it. They were still groping to understand, much less accept—much less feel they were accepted.


The habit of centuries had shaped them. The acid of hereditary privilege had corroded their souls. Without even being aware they were doing it, the German newcomers automatically reacted to Americans as commoners to nobility. It didn't matter what the Americans said. Words are cheap, especially the promises of aristocracy to their underlings.


What mattered—what had always mattered, more than anything—was what people are. And the Americans, it was plain to see, were nobility. It was obvious in everything they said and did, and didn't say and didn't do. It shone through in their simple carriage.


Had they been told, the Americans would have been mystified. Their own centuries had also shaped them, and healed an ancient wound. Every American, on some level, took a fundamental truth for granted. I am important. Precious. Human. My life is valuable.


That attitude infused them, whether they knew it or not. And it was that unspoken, unconscious attitude which the German newcomers immediately sensed. They reacted automatically, just as Gretchen had instantly assumed that an American schoolteacher was really a duchess. Just as Rebecca had instantly assumed that a coal miner was an hidalgo.


Ingrained habits, beaten into people by centuries of oppression and uncaring cruelty, cannot be removed by words alone. Deeds are also necessary, especially deeds which cut to the heart of the thing.


Some people are really human. Most are not.


Good blood. Bad blood. That simple, vicious dichotomy had ruled Europe for centuries. For more than a decade, now, it had turned central Europe into a charnel house. The nobility, as always when they bickered over the price of their meat, presented the butcher's bill to the common folk. And why not? Those people don't value life much anyway. They don't feel pain the way we do.


Good blood, bad blood. Today, in the clearest way possible, the Americans were making a pledge to their new brethren. We do not care. It means nothing to us.


 


For the Americans who watched and participated, the thing was seen from a different angle. "Blood" was irrelevant. A goodly number of them, after all, had more than a little German ancestry in them. What did matter was a subtler definition of class.


Regardless of Jeff's plebeian Appalachian "stock," he was one of the town's good boys. Everybody knew it, for all that some of them—yahoos—might have ridiculed him in private as a "nerd" or a "geek."


Gretchen, on the other hand—


The word "trash" had been bandied about in private, often enough, in the days since the public announcement was made. To that coarse term, some had added others even worse. Slut, tramp—whore.


But, as Mike had rightly said, public sanction carries a powerful weight. So, the foul words were spoken only in private. And, even then, not so very often as all that. The days passed, and the terms faded away. By the afternoon of the wedding, they were forgotten by all but a handful. Grantville's Americans had been swept up in a tidal wave of romance.


Yes, yes, yes—it was all very peculiar. So what? There were a thousand fairy tales to fall back upon. Jeff Higgins was one of their own, after all. Everyone knew the story of how he and his friends had stood off a mob of thugs with their shotguns. If you looked at it the right way, he was a knight in shining armor. Appalachian style, of course—and what's wrong with that?


Gretchen? Rapunzel, by God, with the figure and the face and the long blond hair to prove it. Forget about the dirty feet. And if the story of how she had hidden her sisters in a shithouse was gruesome, it was also heroic in its own way. For hill people, at least.


Soon enough, too, the new story was worming its way through the populace, adding its own gory glamour. Oooh . . . so grisly! Mountain grisly!


The story was garbled, of course. Ludwig and Diego conflated, confused. A desperate young woman and her new paramour, in murtherous conspiracy, doing away with the obstacle to their love. Terrible, terrible, just terrible. On the other hand, the man was a fiend. A monster, whose villainy grew by the telling. The very picture of a devil. Hadn't Dr. Adams said as much himself? (Which he had, in his blabbermouth way. But the rumor that he drove a stake through the heart of the corpse was quite false.)


So, by the afternoon of the wedding, the American half of this growing society had come to accept it also. Embrace it, in truth. In one of history's little ironies, a commoner folk adopted the romantic mythology of nobility and used it to drive home their own purpose. Something new was being forged here, in a place called Thuringia. Something valuable and precious. Their own blood would go into the tempering. As it should, as it must. Good blood joining other. So are true nations made.


 


The wedding took place in the town's Catholic church, since it was the biggest. But the service was Methodist, and was done by Jeff's pastor. The arrangement was unusual, but had been agreed to by everyone. Neither Jeff nor Gretchen cared very much, so long as the wedding was "done right."


As for the pastor and the priest? They were good friends, as it happened. Their friendship had grown over the years, shaped by a mutual interest in theological discussion, foreign films, and—most of all—a shared hobby. Both of them were enthusiastic auto mechanics, in their spare time. They had worked together, often enough, rebuilding good cars out of junk. Let others worry about the fine points and the detail work.


True, Father Mazzare had fretted at one point.


"It's not the wedding that bothers me, it's—" He waved the wrench about. "Everything."


Rev. Jones grunted. His head was half-buried in the engine. "Are you still worrying about the pope?" He extended his hand. Father Mazzare passed him the wrench. His voice continued, half-muffled: "I looked it up, by the way. Papal infallibility wasn't proclaimed until 1869. So the way I see it, you've got almost a quarter of a millennium to argue with him." He grunted again. "Okay, that's done."


His face emerged, grinning, to meet the scowling visage of his friend.


"That's lawyering and you know it," growled Father Mazzare.


Still grinning, Rev. Jones shrugged. "Yeah, of course it is. So what? Lawyering'll work in a pinch."


Father Mazzare was still scowling. Rev. Jones sighed. "Larry, what else are you going to do? If you accept the current situation, you'd be pretty much bound to call in the Inquisition and demand the enforcement of the Edict of Restitution." He cleared his throat. "I'm afraid I'd have to take exception, if you tried to seize my church. Very least, I'd insist you return my copy of Rashomon."


Mazzare chuckled. "Oh, well," he muttered. "We'll do the best we can. I would appreciate it, however, if you'd refrain from denouncing the Whore of Rome at the wedding service tomorrow."


Jones grimaced. "Give me a break!" Then, chuckling himself: "Not that the current pope doesn't deserve it, mind you, from all I've heard. But that girl's Catholic herself, and she's gone through enough already."


He peered into another crevice of the engine. "Hand me the quarter-inch drive, will you, with a three-eighth socket?"


As Mazzare rummaged in the rollaway, Jones continued. "Do you think they really did it?"


"That's between them and God," came the reply, along with the socket wrench. "I can't say I'm losing any sleep over it. The way I heard it, the man looked like a vampire."


"Wouldn't surprise me if he was," muttered Jones, diving back into his work. "How's the town stocked for garlic, by the way?"


 


Time, now.


Standing at the altar, his friends by his side, Jeff tried not to fidget. James Nichols, about to take his seat, paused and came back.


He spoke very softly, so only Jeff could hear. "You can still change your mind."


Immediately, Jeff shook his head. "No, I can't. You know that as well as I do."


Nichols studied the young face in front of him. "Just checking, that's all."


Jeff smiled. A bit ruefully, perhaps, but only a bit. "And I don't want to, anyway. I'm not worrying about the wedding, Dr. Nichols. Just—" His hand made a little motion. Groping.


"All the years after."


Jeff nodded. Nichols put a hand on his shoulder and leaned close. "Listen to me, boy. It'll work out or it won't. Doesn't matter, really, as long as you do your job. Forget all you ever heard about manhood. Your job is to give your people—your wife, your kids—a space where they can build their lives. A roof over their heads and food on the table is part of it. So's their own bed, for your old folks to die in. How much more you can do is up to you. Just try your best. If you do that, you can call yourself a man. The rest is all bullshit." He squeezed the shoulder. "You understand?"


The shoulder relaxed, and the man with it. "Yeah, Doc. I do."


"Good enough." Nichols left. A moment later, the organ began to play. In the back of the church, steadying herself on Willie Ray's arm, Gretchen made her appearance.


 


Jeff watched her come, the whole time. He never noticed her mincing, hesitant steps on treacherous heels. He was simply swept up in the ancient ceremony. And discovering, as untold millions of young men had discovered before him, that there is nothing in the world as beautiful as his bride approaching.


Doubts, worries, fears, anxieties—all vanished. I do. Oh yeah, I do.


 


 


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Framed