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Chapter 14

Much later that night, the Roth household was quiet and peaceful. Everyone had gone, except Balthazar, Melissa, and the Roths themselves. Even Rebecca was absent. Michael had insisted that she join the campaign planning effort, which had grown so large that it was being transferred to the high school.

Her father, in the event, was glad of her absence. It allowed him to raise a delicate subject freely, in the company of other Jews. And Melissa, of course. But Balthazar had already made his assessment of her.

"My daughter seems much taken by this Michael Stearns," he said. His tone was friendly and mild; the words themselves, an open invitation.

Morris and Judith glanced at each other. "He's a fine young man," said Judith hesitantly.

"Bullshit," snapped her husband. He gave the Sephardic doctor a look which combined apology with belligerence. "Pardon my language, Dr. Abrananel. But I'm not going to dance around about this. Mike Stearns is the closest thing you'll ever find in this world to a genuine goddam prince, and that's all there is to it. Gentile or not."

Morris leaned forward, planting his elbows on his knees. "You read the book I gave you? The one on the Holocaust?"

Balthazar winced, and spread his hand as if to ward off demons. "As much of it as I could bear. Which was not much."

Morris took a deep breath. "The world we came from was no paradise, Dr. Abrananel. Not for Jews, not for anyone. But if there were devils aplenty, there were also those who dealt with them."

He rose and stalked over to the mantelpiece. Perched next to the menorah was a small photograph, black-and-white, set in a simple frame. Morris took down the photograph and brought it over to Rebecca's father.

He pointed to one of the men in the picture. He was a small man, emaciated to the point of skeletonism, wearing a striped uniform.

"That's my father. The place where the photo was taken is called Buchenwald. It's not far from here, as it happens." He pointed to another man in the photograph. Taller, healthy looking despite the obvious weariness and grime—and wearing a uniform.

"That's Tom Stearns. Michael's grandfather. He was a sergeant in the American unit that liberated Buchenwald from the Nazis."

He put the photograph back on the mantelpiece. "Most people don't know it, but West Virginians—in terms of percentage, of course, not absolute numbers—have provided more soldiers for America's combat units than any other state in the nation, in every major war we fought in the twentieth century." He turned back to face Abrabanel. "That's why my father moved here, when he emigrated to the United States after the war. Even though he was the only Jew in Grantville when he first arrived. Tom Stearns had invited him to come, you see. Many others went to Israel, but my father wanted to live near the man who took him out of Buchenwald. It was the safest place he could imagine."

Morris stared down at Rebecca's father. "Do you understand what I'm trying to say, Balthazar Abrabanel?"

"Oh, yes," whispered the doctor. "We had that dream, once, in Sepharad." He closed his eyes, reciting from memory:

"Friend, lead me through the vineyards, give me wine
And to the very brim shall joy be mine . . . 
And should I pre-decease you, friend, select
Some spot where vineyards twist, my grave to sink."

Morris nodded. The nod turned sideways, pointing. "My father is buried in the town's cemetery. Not far from Tom Stearns, and not far from Michael's father, Jack." His eyes came back. "And that's all I've got to say, Dr. Abrabanel."

Balthazar's shrewd eyes turned to Melissa. "And you?"

Melissa chuckled. "I'd hardly call Michael Stearns a 'prince'!" Then, cocking her head sideways, she pursed her lips. "Well . . . maybe. As long as we're talking about Prince Hal, the rapscallion."

Balthazar was startled. "The prince from Henry IV?" he asked. "You're familiar with the play?"

It was Melissa's turn to be startled. "Of course! But how did you—" Her jaw dropped.

"I saw it, how else?" replied Balthazar. "At the Globe theater in London. I never missed any of the man's plays. Always attended the first performance."

He rose and began pacing about slowly. "I was just thinking of it, in fact. Not Henry IV, but The Merchant of Venice."

He stopped, smiling down at his audience. The expression on the faces of Morris and Judith Roth now mirrored Melissa's. Mouths agape, eyes bulging.

"The most wonderful playwright in the world, in my opinion." He shook his head. "I'm afraid you all seem to be misconstruing my question about Michael. I was not concerned over the matter of his faith."

Balthazar snorted, with half-amused exasperation. "Bah! I'm a philosopher and a physician, not a moneylender. What did you think? Did you really expect me to start wringing my hands over the prospect that my daughter might be smitten by a gentile?"

Suddenly, he clasped his hands and began wringing them, in histrionic despair. With the same theatrical flair, he twisted his head back and forth. "O my daughter! O my ducats!"

Melissa burst into laughter. Balthazar grinned at her. Morris and Judith just stared.

Balthazar dropped his hands and resumed his seat. "No, no, my friends. I assure you that my concern was quite mundane." For a moment, his kindly face grew stern, almost bitter. "I have no love for orthodox Jewry, nor they for me. I was cast out because I argued there was as much to be learned from Averroes the Moslem as from Maimonides the Hebrew."

He sighed and lowered his head. "So be it. I have found a home here, it seems. My daughter also. I only wish for her happiness. That was the sole purpose of my question."

"He's a prince," said Melissa softly. "In all that matters, Balthazar. In the way that such men truly come, in this true world."

"Such was my hope," murmured Dr. Abrabanel. He chuckled again. "It will be difficult for Rebecca, of course. I fear I may have sheltered her too much. Her head is full of poetry."

"We'll fix that," growled Melissa. "First thing."

Judith Roth finally managed to speak. "I can't believe it. You actually—" She almost gasped the next words. "You actually saw Shakespeare? In person?"

Balthazar raised his head, frowning. "Shakespeare? Will Shakespeare? Well, of course. Can't miss the man, at the Globe. He's all over the place. Never misses a chance to count the gate. Twice, usually."

Half-stunned, Morris walked over to a bookcase against the wall. He pulled down a thick tome and brought it over to Balthazar.

"We are talking about the same Shakespeare, aren't we? The greatest figure in English literature?"

Still frowning, Balthazar took the book and opened its cover. When he saw the frontispiece, and then the table of contents, he almost choked.

"Shakespeare didn't write these plays!" he exclaimed. Shaking his head: "Well, some of them, I suppose. In some small part. The ones that read as if written by committee. The little farces like Love's Labour's Lost. But the great plays? Hamlet? Othello? King Lear?"

Seeing the look on his companions' faces, he burst into laughter. "My good people! Everyone knows that the plays were really written by—" He took a deep breath, preparing for recitation: "My Lord Edward, Earl of Oxford, Seventh of that Name, and Seventh in degree from the English Crown."

Balthazar snorted. "Some people, mind you, will insist that Sir Francis Bacon is the real author, but that was a mere ruse to throw off the hounds. The theater is much too disreputable for the earl of Oxford to be associated with it. Hence the use of Shakespeare's name."

He looked down at the book. "Apparently, the fiction has become historical fact. So much for vanity and worldly fame!"

There was now a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. "But perhaps it's simply justice. Edward was in some ways not the best of men. I know—I was his physician."

The stares were back. "Justice, I say. The earl owed me money, and refused to pay his bill."

Dr. Abrabanel stroked The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, like a man might fondle treasure. "This is so much more satisfying a revenge, don't you think, than a paltry pound of flesh?"



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