After Thomas North shared the grim secret of his crucial absence during Liam Donovan’s tragic loss, there remained the matter of whatever unresolved personal tensions—both positive and negative—existed between him and Sherrilyn Maddox. However, their eventual conversation on the matter of the emotions that existed between them—or not—was not able to occur until they were approaching the wharves in the Italian town of Nettuno:
Sherrilyn settled herself on top of a duffle of clothes that had been soiled during their journey around the heel of Italy’s boot: the softest seat she should find. North remained perched upon the smallish, locked chests that held their up-time shotguns, field stripped for later reassembly.
She glanced at North, who was looking out at the broad bay with a strange fixity. She looked that way as well. “So,” she said.
“So,” he answered.
More silence. Well, this was going well. Sherrilyn decided that a subtle icebreaking question was in order. “So why do you still treat me like an unwashed sewer-cleaner when anyone else is around?”
North swallowed. “I’m sorry for my—attitude—toward you. But you should not be here.”
“Whaddya mean? On this mission? Why? What the hell did I—?”
“No. You should not be on any mission. You should not be a part of the Wrecking Crew, Miss Maddox.”
She was ready to tear Thomas North a new one, but she stopped, considered his tone and face: they were somber. Pained, even. No anger, no denunciation. So she decided to see if honey really did attract more flies than the shitstorm she wanted to unleash at him. “Why shouldn’t I be here?”
“Because you are a woman.”
Okay: that did it. “Listen, asshole; just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I can’t pull my own weight. Hell, in this sorry bunch of—”
“You misunderstand. I do not question your skill. Truth be told—and I will deny this if you report it to the others—I think you are the best soldier of the whole group.”
Sherrilyn, all ready to Fight The Old Fight against gender bigotry, felt her forward momentum—the charge that she would have rammed right down North’s chauvinist, machismo-spouting throat—waver and break. “What—what do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. You are the best soldier in the group.”
“And how is that a problem?”
“Again, for exactly the reason I said: you are a woman.”
“So, I’m better than I should be, for a woman?”
North sighed, hung his head. “No, you still do not understand. Mostly because I am not making myself clear. Damn it all, I’m not sure I can make myself clear.”
“Well, try. Real hard. And real fast.”
North looked over with a grin, saw that the same had crept onto Sherrilyn’s face, despite herself. “Yes, ma’am. Actually, that’s the root of it, you know. That I should be calling you ma’am.”
“Well, if that’s all—”
“No, no: that’s not all. That’s merely the tip of the iceberg.” He turned on his seat, so that his body now faced her. “Miss Maddox, I know that in the world you came from there was, by my standards, tremendous informality between the sexes. You dressed similarly, socialized similarly, played the same sports, pursued the same activities.”
“And this bothers you.”
“Let us say instead that it unsettles me. But I have adapted. Or so I thought.”
“So you draw the line at female soldiers, is that it?” Well, in all honesty, that wasn’t so different from a lot—maybe the majority—of male attitudes from the up-time world into which she had been born. “You acknowledge we have the necessary skills, but are more comfortable keeping us barefoot and pregnant, anyhow?”
“Not at all! Not me!” He raised his hands as if to ward off a terrible threat.
“So, we women should stay barefoot and pregnant for other men? Just not for you?”
“Yes. Well, no. Damn it. Now see here: I don’t feel any woman should be barefoot or pregnant unless she wants to be.”
“How enlightened of you.”
“And I have become—mostly—a convert to what I have seen in Grantville: women with truly equal political and professional standing. Oh, of course, there weren’t really many laws against it in England—well, not that many—but it just wasn’t done. Wasn’t proper. But one of the reasons I left the Green and Pestilential Land was because I’d had a bloody belly-full of ‘proper’. So I can hardly criticize another culture that snubs its nose at many of the same old, odious proprieties and charts a new course of its own. That’s rather like what I did myself.”
Sherrilyn could feel the puzzled frown pulling her scalp and face downward, knew it wasn’t exactly her most beguiling look, but at the moment, didn’t give a damn. “So, if my ears still work, you actually sound like you approve of women as equals, are comfortable with it.”
“Approve? Absolutely. Comfortable? Well . . . that kind of change takes a little longer, in my experience. Old, oppressive conventions have this to say for themselves: they are familiar, and make their long-established internal ‘logic’ well known to all who live subject to them. New behaviors and traditions don’t feel comfortable because they can still catch you up, surprise you. As in this case.”
“Okay. So what’s the surprise, the catch, in this case?”
North looked back out over the water, which seemed ready to simmer in the early afternoon heat. “Miss Maddox, I grew up assuming that, as a gentleman, I would encounter damsels by rescuing them from distress, not by heading into it alongside them.”
Sherrilyn’s frown flew off her face; she tried to keep the reaction an expression of her surprise, without revealing the strong undercurrent of delight she felt. Well, bless his old-fashioned heart; cynical, smart-mouthed Thomas North was, at his core, still a chivalrous knight-errant when it came to fair maidens. And that courtliness extended to Sherrilyn, too, evidently. Because she was certainly no longer young enough to be reasonably described as fair—and she hadn’t been a maiden since she was sixteen.
For his part, Thomas North was still looking out over the water, his hands clasped in a tense knot. “Well?”
“Well, aren’t you going to lambaste me, now? Or—to follow the maritime motif in which we find ourselves—keel-haul me?”
Sherrilyn leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re an idiot,” she pronounced.
Thomas turned wide, perplexed eyes upon her, his hand moving slowly to his cheek. “I confess, I had not seen that coming.”
“Me neither,” Sherrilyn admitted. “But you are an idiot, you know.”
“So I have been told. And have often proved, I suppose. I was not aware, however, that this was one of those occasions.”
“Well, it is. Look, Thomas: most of us up-time women don’t want men to stop making a fuss over us. We just don’t want the price of that fussing to be our equality.”
North nodded, carefully. “But—may I speak frankly?”
“You haven’t been so far?”
“Well, I have been honest. But not exactly frank.”
“And the difference is?”
“Hmm. I would put it this way: being honest simply means telling the truth. Being frank means going a bit further, involves expressing the frustrations and uncertainties that may underlie those truths.”
“Oh. Yeah, okay. So what is making you frustrated or uncertain about twentieth century sexual politics? Because I can assure you that the men and women of my time had it all worked out. No misunderstandings or frictions. It was all sweet reason and clear sailing.” She smiled wickedly. “In a pig’s ass.”
North’s responding grin was broad and sudden, and Sherrilyn realized that, back in the Val Bregaglia, Miro had been right: North likes me—really likes me! But then why—?
North was nodding, though. “Very well. I shall be frank. About all the fuss that you up-time women still enjoy: isn’t it a bit of a double-standard, then?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let us speak plainly. What are the origins of courtly behavior? Of chivalry? Of what you call—I think—pedestalization?”
“At the very root of it? I guess because we can bear babies and you can’t. Makes us worth celebrating. And makes us tougher, too.” She stuck out her tongue at him.
His smile came back even wider, if that were possible. “But still, it implies certain vulnerabilities as well, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so, particularly right at the end of the pregnancy. And there’s the breast-feeding stuff.” Sherrilyn repressed a shudder. She’d never been hugely enthusiastic about the possibility of becoming “Mommy” and the notion of nursing had, for whatever reason, been particularly unappealing.
“Yes, all told, bearing children is a rather profound encumbrance.”
“Yeah, well, that’s why we fee-males look for good providers and are nesters. Or so they say. I’m not much minded that way, myself.”
“So I’ve noticed—which is a point to which I will return. But I suspect that all of what you’ve outlined is why you had been dubbed ‘the weaker sex’ as well as the ‘fairer sex’.”
Sherrilyn shrugged. “I suppose so. That, and male upper body strength. I was a gym teacher, buster, and I remain no slouch when it comes to what I can do with these muscles. But facts are facts: men bulk up bigger and with less effort than women in the top half of their bodies. Not that we can’t give you a good run for your money, but we’re the underdogs in that contest.”
North nodded. “And so men evolved a tradition of protection.”
“Which quickly became—or maybe started as—an excuse for oppression and inequality.”
“No argument. But it creates the whole ‘damsel in distress’ motivation for men.”
“Yeah, and in order to play the part, we women have to be weepy, delicate beauties who faint or take the vapors at the drop of a hat or the leer of a villain. No thanks; not for me. I ain’t waiting for a rescue; I’m kicking my captors in the balls, if I get a chance.”
North smiled. “Well of course you would. Which is why I find you so remarkable.”
“Huh?” That sounded positive. “But I thought you’re making a case for the damsel in distress, here.”
The Englishman shook his head. “Were that it was as simple as that. I’m making the case that all of us are—to one degree or another—prisoners of what our culture has foisted upon us. In my case, I was brought up to believe that a ‘proper lady’—the kind to which a young man should address his attentions and whose favor he should pursue—should not be aggressive, should not be self-sufficient, should not take matters into her own hands. Which is probably why I have remained a bachelor and long ago dismissed the possibility of matrimony from my mind: because I have never had the faintest interest in such ‘proper ladies.’ And in the society of my birth—by which I mean not merely my nation, but my class—these young women were the almost unexceptioned rule. And any young lady who veered too far from the ranks of these demure schemers and back-biters was usually hidden away in the attic or sidelined in an even more creative fashion.”
Sherrilyn was not afraid to admit that she was now fully perplexed. “I am now fully perplexed,” she said. “On the one hand it sounds like you want to rescue a damsel in distress, but on the other—”
“Miss Maddox, sometimes it is not so easy to know what you want as it is to know what you don’t want. I do not want a useless, drooping creature who has no power or will to extract herself from danger or crisis.”
“Well, good for you, Thomas North.”
“But on the other hand, I am baffled by women such as those I find in Grantville: women who want some displays of chivalry, but not all of them. And who care more about those displays at certain times and in certain places more than at others. What am I to make of this? Do you secretly wish to be damsels in distress? Is there a bit of hypocrisy about it all: wishing, even insisting on privileges and special considerations on one hand, while insisting on absolute equality in all other things? For a man of my origins, Miss Maddox, I must confess that I, too, am fully perplexed.”
“Okay, fair enough. But enough theorizing and analysis: what the hell does this have to do with a woman being a soldier?”
North nodded soberly. “A fair question. Hard to answer. Or at least hard to say. Can we agree on this, at least: that soldiering is a dirty, nasty job?”
“No debate. None whatsoever.”
“And do we not find ourselves in situations where we give orders that we know—know—will lead to the demise of those so ordered?”
Ah, I think I see where we’re going, now. “Unfortunately, yes.”
“And does war not scar us, damage us inside as well as out?”
“Unless you’re a sociopath, you bet it does.”
“So, here I am, a man of my origins who has no use for fainting damsels. Rather, I aspire to the hand of what is an impossible creature in my world: a Lady who is also a fully capable Woman. A Lady who does not need my assistance, but chooses it, and is able to rely on my being her devoted help-meet and friend, who would neither do her ill, nor suffer it to be done to her.”
Sherrilyn nodded: yep, now North’s quandary was clear.
“So now let us consider my relationship with such an impossible creature, who might indeed be a woman soldier. She is indeed the very antithesis of a frail damsel in distress. But maybe too much so. If a woman soldier must be fully divested of the right to any special treatment, a Gentleman—a man who was taught that he should protect her, regardless of any other social niceties—might have to order her to her doom. Order her into the mud and filth and blood of an enemy trench. Order her to euthanize the mortally-wounded, both friend and foe.”
Thomas North looked out at the ships. “Where does it end? Does the woman soldier continue on through her motherhood? Does she train her own son—or daughter—in the fine art of how to disembowel an enemy with a single sweep of the blade? Will she be tasked to euthanize her own mortally-wounded children?” He turned to Sherrilyn; his eyes were clearly frustrated, slightly worried, and just a little desperate. “Tell me, Miss Maddox: where does it end? How does the principle of being a Lady—even a strong, resourceful one—remain intact once touched by war? Are we to be all the same, except for our genitalia? Is that truly what we want? Is that truly something one can, or should, achieve?”
Sherrilyn was silent, staring at him. “Wow,” she said. “You think too much.”
North’s mouth quirked. “Now that is a criticism that has not been leveled at me before this moment.”
“Well, it is truly said that I’m an original. Thomas, fact is, we up-timers never answered all these questions, either. But I guess it was easier for us: the notion of a lady had undergone a lot of change by the time we started grappling with these issues of women soldiers. And we were still feeling our way in the dark. But sometimes, that’s half the fun. Some folks need all the answers laid out ahead of time. Me, I’m not one of them. And I didn’t figure you for one of them either.”
“I’m not, and that’s what’s so surprising about this, to me. Customarily, I have largely accepted my life as it unfolds. Indeed, my combat tactics are often rather based on—well, let us call it situational inspiration, rather than advanced planning.” He smiled. “Much to the frustration of my associates. I remember one time in the Lowlands, when I convinced Liam to—”
The moment after Thomas North uttered the name ‘Liam’, he stopped. Sherrilyn swore silently: the moment was gone. The conversation was past. He’d inadvertently summoned the shade of Liam Donovan and a black pall fell over the glimmering possibility of reaching an understanding, or at least a—
“Hey, get jur lay-zee asses to standing up, guyz!” It was Gerd, shouting from the corner the Crew had disappeared around a few minutes—or was that a few years?—ago. “Juliet haff found mounts and a wagon. I will help you mit your bags now.”
Thomas was on his feet, offered a hand to Sherrilyn. Who stared up at him, wondered if she should accept the assistance, given the substance of their talk.
North smiled. “Do allow me to be a gentleman, this time.”
Instead, Sherrilyn hoisted herself upright without taking his hand. “Next time. Maybe,” she explained in response to his quizzical stare, and stooped to start picking up the Wrecking Crew’s gear.
—and that is where the uncertain story of Thomas and Sherrilyn ended. As the desperate actions of the Wrecking Crew and its allies grew increasingly more rushed and desperate, events conspired to keep the two of them apart—during which time they both realized that although they were well-suited as friends and comrades, the passion and longing of lovers did not exist between them.
Which, of course, ultimately freed them for more interesting intimate escapades in later books!