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Chapter 9

When Rebecca and her companion reached his exotic vehicle perched on the flat expanse before the school—the parking lot, they called it—she watched him reach into his pocket for the keys. As if suddenly remembering something, he stiffened.


Rebecca heard him mutter. A suppressed curse, perhaps. She had noticed that American men seemed to avoid the use of obscene terms in the company of women. Quite reticent, they were, compared to the Londoners of her childhood and the men who swarmed in Amsterdam's streets. But she had also noticed how casually they allowed themselves to blaspheme. She found that combination odd.


Odd, and— And what? she asked herself. A bit frightening, of course. But, for the most part, Rebecca had decided that the casual blasphemy was reassuring. Men who did not seem to fear either the wrath of God or—more to the point—the wrath of their God-fearing neighbors, were men who would be less likely to persecute others for their own beliefs. So, at least, Rebecca hoped. And was even beginning to believe.


Michael was speaking to her. An apology, it seemed. "I'm sorry, but we'll have to walk. We just approved a decision to restrict gasoline to military use, if you remember."


She smiled. "Yes, we did. So? It is not far. The walk will be pleasant."


Rebecca almost laughed, seeing his little start of surprise at her answer. So strange, these Americans. They seemed to view the simple exercise of walking as the labors of Hercules. Yet they were quite healthy—much more so, in fact, than any other people of her acquaintance. They appeared to be physically fit, too, other than being even more corpulent than Dutch burghers.


On average, that is. Michael—


The man standing next to her was not fat at all. No more than any hidalgo of legend. Over the past three days, talking with the Roths, Rebecca had come to understand that Michael was not an hidalgo. Not of any kind, it seemed. Among their many other peculiarities, the Americans had a ferocious commitment to what they called "democracy." They reminded her of the old Anabaptists of Munster, without the bizarre excesses.


Not an hidalgo. But Rebecca, standing there, knew that she would always think of him as such. The knowledge brought a sharp sensation to her heart. Sharp, and confusing. The sensation was partly fear, of course, and partly uncertainty. But she would no longer hide from the rest.


She saw that Michael had, once again, crooked his elbow in a subtle invitation for her hand. Just as he had done, to her surprise, in the school's hallway. Her response then had been timid. Now—


An instant later, her hand was tucked on his arm and they were walking away from the school.


No longer hide from the rest. There is a reason, Rebecca, you are feeling that sensation in your heart and not in your head.


Understanding the risks and dangers involved—he is a gentile, stupid girl!—but not wanting to dwell on them, Rebecca hastily brought up a new subject.


"The 'gasoline' you seemed so concerned about. I spoke to Mister Ferrara on the subject. For a few minutes only, during one of the recesses in the meeting. If I understand him correctly, I think it is just purified naphtha. Distilled, perhaps. Am I correct?"


She was expecting him to be startled again. That was the normal reaction Rebecca got from older men—any men—when she asked one of her many questions about the natural world. Instead, to her surprise, the expression which came to his face was—


Pride?


"That's just about exactly right," Michael replied. "The distilling process is pretty complicated, you understand." He frowned. "Probably more than we can manage here, I'm afraid. In any large quantities, at least. But—yes, that's what gasoline is. Simple, really."


"And you then burn it inside the—motors? Is that the right word?" At his nod, she added: "And that is the source of the power which drives your horseless carriages."


Again, he nodded. And, again, that odd expression came to his face. Smiling very broadly he was, too.


Yes. It is pride. Why, I wonder?


 


The distance was almost three miles, from the school to the house owned by the Roths where Rebecca was now living. It took them well over an hour to make the journey, as slowly as they were walking. Most of the time—almost all of it—was spent with Rebecca asking questions. Michael answered them, of course. But his answers were usually brief. He was a good listener, and Rebecca more often than not managed to answer her own questions with new ones.


By the time they reached the Roths' home, that peculiar expression of pride seemed to have become permanently fixed on Michael's face. So had his smile.


But Rebecca no longer wondered at the reason. She knew. And found the knowledge as exhilarating as it was unsettling.


At the door, standing on the porch, she began to knock. Then, pausing, she turned to face Michael. He was very close to her.


This is insane! Insane, Rebecca—do you hear?


She lowered her eyes, staring at his chest. He was wearing a linen shirt today, well-made and dyed in blues and grays. But she knew that she would always see that chest in white silk, drenched by sunlight. For one of the few times in her life, Rebecca Abrabanel was utterly at a loss for words.


Michael spoke softly. "Rebecca."


She raised her eyes to meet his. He was still smiling. Not broadly, however. The smile seemed—understanding, she thought.


"This is difficult," he said. "For both of us, I think." He chuckled. "Sure as hell for me!" Chuckled again. "Dinner and a movie just doesn't seem appropriate, somehow."


She did not comprehend the precise meaning of that sentence, but she understood the logic. Quite well. She felt her cheeks flush, but fought off the urge to lower her eyes. She even smiled herself.


Michael spread his hands in a gesture which combined amusement, momentary exasperation, and—most of all—patience. Rebecca was dazzled by the charm of it. Relaxed, humorous—confident.


"Time," he said. "I think—yes. We need some time."


Rebecca found herself nodding, and fiercely tried to restrain the impulse. Hopeless. Idiot girl! The image of a rabbit came to her mind, sniffing the world's juiciest cabbage. The image, combined with her nervousness, caused her to burst into sudden laughter.


Then, seeing the quizzical expression on Michael's face, she placed her hand on his chest. "Please," she whispered. "It is not— I am laughing at myself, not you."


The humor faded. Staring into his eyes, now, Rebecca fought for the words. So hard, to speak those words, in a world of confusion and chaos. Too hard.


Time, yes. I am not ready for this.


"Do not be angry with me," she said. Softly, pleading: "Please."


Michael smiled and placed a hand on her cheek. She responded by pressing her cheek into the hand, as if she were an automaton. She did not even try to stop herself.


"Why should I be angry?" he asked. And that, too—that simple question—seemed as dazzling to her as the sunlight. His hand was very warm.


He was turning away. "Time," he said, still smiling. Very broadly, now. Very cheerfully—almost gaily. "Time, yes."


Rebecca stared at his departing figure. When Michael reached the bottom of the small flight of stairs, Rebecca blurted out his name.


He turned and looked back at her.


The words came, finally. Some of them, at least.


"I think you are the most splendid man in the world, Michael. Truly I do."


A moment later she was knocking on the door. Almost frantically. She did not look behind her, afraid of what she would see. Or, perhaps, she was simply afraid of her reaction to what she knew she would see. A smiling face can be the most frightening thing in the world. Her world, as she knew it.


The door opened, and she vanished into the safety beyond. Out of the sunlight.


For a time.


Time, yes.


Time—yes!


 


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Framed