1633 David Weber and Eric Flint



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Chapter 37


Mary Simpson chattered gaily all the way home, not even complaining once about the wretched conditions of the half-cobblestoned streets and the way their vehicle was lurching about. They were riding in what amounted to a palanquin suspended fore-and-aft between two horses, with a rider on the lead horse. That was a far more practical conveyance for a city with such rough streets as Magdeburg's still were than an actual carriage would have been. Still, the ride was very far from a smooth one.

Simpson was glad to hear the undertone of happiness in his wife's voice, but paid little attention to her actual words. Her monologue was mostly meaningless to him, anyway, involving Mary's detailed—even exhaustive—assessment of the various personalities she'd encountered at Hesse-Kassel's soiree. As opaque as his own shop talk would have been to her.

It was a practiced and polite sort of ignoring, on his part. He'd had plenty of experience, in the long years before the Ring of Fire, accompanying Mary to a multitude of social occasions. He'd always tried to get out of as many as he could, except during his stint at the Pentagon, but Mary ran a tight ship and didn't let him slip too often. She'd even forced him to attend more operas than he could remember, a form of entertainment he found positively excruciating.

But . . . he'd never complained, either. Simpson was honest enough to admit, even to himself, that his impressive career in the Navy had been helped along considerably by Mary's talents and discipline. She'd been the perfect "Navy wife," just as, in later years, she'd given him more influence in the social circles that mattered than he'd ever have been able to get simply from his status as the head of a sizeable industrial firm. Without Mary, John Chandler Simpson would have been a powerful and respected man, of course. But no newspaper or magazine would ever have bestowed upon him—as one of them once had—the title of "Mr. Pittsburgh." The title had been given out in a gingerly manner, to be sure. There would always be too much of the ruthless corporate shark about John Simpson to make people completely comfortable around him, even those as wealthy and powerful as he had been.

There'd been no such reservations, on the other hand, about the title which many magazines and newspapers had bestowed upon Mary. "The Dame of the Three Rivers" was a phrase you could have found, on any given day of the week, in the society columns of western Pennsylvania's periodicals. She'd been on the board of directors or otherwise highly connected with practically all of the Carnegie establishments in Pittsburgh, ranging from museums to Carnegie-Mellon University; and the same for at least half of the city's major artistic and musical foundations. Whenever someone wanted to tap into philanthropical circles in Pittsburgh, they eventually wound up knocking on the door of Mrs. John Chandler Simpson—and those of them already in the know started there in the first place. With a quick phone call, followed by lunch at any one of Mary's favorite restaurants.

Her enthusiasms had cost him money, to be sure, and now and then he'd grumbled about it. But not too loud, and not too often. Partly, because money hadn't been everything to John Simpson, despite what people assumed. Mostly, though, because he was more than sophisticated enough to understand that what goes around, comes around. He was certain that at least one big contract he'd landed—balanced on a knife edge between him and a competitor—had come his way because the prospective customer, on a visit, turned out to share Mary's enthusiasm for Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes. The customer's wife—no accounting for taste—had even shared Mary's fondness for Renaissance music.

By an odd coincidence, no sooner had they entered the house which he'd rented next to the shipyard and lit the lamps than his drifting thoughts intersected Mary's full-bore monologue.

"—still alive. God, John, think of it! Monteverdi himself. Of course, he's getting on in years—must be somewhere in his sixties by now—but if I remember right he lived to a ripe old age. Even down there in Italy, where they always have such terrible epidemics. And the landgravine of Hesse-Kassel—that's Amalie—was telling me that she heard from her cousin Luise that although Monteverdi took holy orders after that horrible sack of Mantua and he moved to Venice—"

The name "Monteverdi" finally rang a bell. An alarm bell. Mary caught the slight wince on his face and laughed.

"Oh, please! I am not going to apologize for forcing you to sit through—once only, for pity's sake—a performance of the entire Vespers of the Virgin Mary." Firmly: "No person who claims to be civilized should go through life without hearing it. I will admit, I'm personally more partial to his operas."

She broke off her monologue as she went to the side table and rang a little bell. Almost instantly, a young German girl appeared in the doorway. Their house servant, having heard them enter, had obviously been waiting for a summons.

"We'll have some tea, please, Hilde." She spoke in English, not her still very-poor German. Hilde had been hired in part because she was fluent in English.

The girl nodded and left for the kitchen. "That's one good thing about this century," said Mary, lowering herself onto a divan. "The service is not only cheap, it's good. And I'll say this, too—"

She patted the divan she was sitting on. "Furniture like this would have cost us a fortune back then. Even if we do have to spray it with DDT before taking it into the house."

When Mary looked at him, her smile was a bit sly. "But, to get back to what I was saying, Monteverdi himself, of course, is probably immovable. But the Landgravine tells me that her cousin Luise tells her that Monteverdi's student Cavalli is very frustrated with the situation in Venice. Frightened too, of course. The epidemic there two years ago took off a third of the city's populace, you know."

Knowing the decision Mike Stearns had made to send all of the chloramphenicol to Luebeck and Amsterdam, Simpson winced again—and no slight wince, this time.

Mary shook her head. "Horrible, isn't it? But let's look on the bright side. Cavalli's not the genius that Monteverdi is, to be sure—I saw his opera Giasone once, and while it wasn't bad at all it certainly didn't match up to Orfeo or L'incoronazione de Poppea—but he's the other great composer of the day in Italy. Will be pretty soon, anyway. He's still a young man. And Cavalli's apparently just as upset about the state of musical affairs in Venice as he is about the danger of plague. He wants to build a theater especially for opera—opera houses don't exist yet, as amazing as that seems—and with the city's desperate situation he's having a hard time getting the financial backing—what's so funny?"

"You are," said Simpson, shaking his head. "Mary, I hate to break the news to you, but you are no longer 'the Dame of the Three Rivers.' And—" He shrugged. "While I'm reasonably well-off by today's standards, with my salary as admiral, I am no longer 'Mr. Moneybags.' "

He lowered himself on the divan next to her. "I'm sorry, Mary, but we have to face it. We lost everything."

Her face was pale, and even stiffer than his own. "No, John. That's not quite right. We didn't lose everything. What we lost was our money. What we threw away was our life—starting with our son."

Simpson felt the wooden mask clamp down.

"Oh, God help us," she whispered. "Here it comes again. John Chandler Simpson, the man who can never be wrong about anything." She turned her face away from him, her eyes starting to water. "I hate that man. Now, more than I ever have."

"Mary—"

"Shut up. Just shut up." She rose to her feet, hands pressed to her thighs, and stared at the far wall. There was nothing on the wall. No painting, no tapestry, nothing. Simpson's salary had been enough to cover the house and the furniture and the servant. There had been nothing left over for Mary's beloved art works.

She seemed to be reading his mind. Not surprising, perhaps, for as long as they'd been married. "I don't blame you for that. I don't blame you for not having the money you used to have. The Ring of Fire was not your fault. I don't even blame you for Tom. That was probably my fault more than it was yours, to be honest. I think I was even nastier to his fiancée than you were."

Simpson's jaws were clenched. He was filled with the anger of a man who, always sure of himself, wanted desperately to drive home the lesson again. Probably? Are you kidding? I was just stiff and cold to the girl. Okay, even rude, I suppose. But you were the one, the first time Tom brought her up to Pittsburgh to meet us, who reduced her to tears at the dinner table by ridiculing her tastes in music. You were the one who wouldn't let her slide out easily when you pressed her on her knowledge of the world's 'great lit'rat'chure.' You were the one, you snotty—

Barely, thankfully, he managed to hold it in check. Even through the anger, Simpson retained enough clarity of thought to realize that his marriage was at the breaking point. And realized also, in something of a crashing wave of recognition, how desperately he did not want that to happen. On a personal level, his wife was all he had left in the world. They'd gotten married the day after he graduated from Annapolis. He couldn't imagine his life without her.

"Mary, please—"

"John, be quiet. For once—just once—listen instead of talking." She turned around to face him. The anger was still there on her face. But he was relieved to see, lurking somewhere behind the tears, the affection of a lifetime shared.

"You are not good—to put it mildly—at ever admitting you were wrong about anything." She swallowed. "I suppose I'm not much good at it either, for that matter. I know I can be even pettier than you are, lots of times. But I'm not in your league when it comes to unyielding self-righteousness. Not even close. I don't think I know anybody who is."

Hilde came into the room then, carrying a tray with a teapot and two cups. There was neither milk nor sugar on the tray. Milk was too much of a headache for casual use, needing to be boiled first; and sugar was far too expensive. Willy-nilly, Mary Simpson had learned to take her tea plain. She'd even stopped complaining about it, months before.

The servant froze, after taking two steps in the room, as servants will when they suddenly realize they've walked into the middle of a quarrel between the master and lady of the house.

When she wanted to be, Mary Simpson could be graciousness personified. For a moment, the anger and hurt and sorrow on her face vanished, replaced by the serene dame. "Thank you so much, Hilde. That will be all for the night."

The servant nodded nervously, set the tray down on a sidetable, and hurried from the room.

The break in the tension came as a relief for Simpson. All the more so, when he saw that Mary's "dame persona" had settled her down. The expression on her face was now stern, but no longer had any trace of hysteria.

"Tonight, John Chandler Simpson, I am going to tell you the truth. Two years ago, when the Ring of Fire turned our universe inside out, Mike Stearns was right and you—we—were wrong. Just as he was right—not us—during the political campaign."

She waved her hand impatiently. "Oh, stop looking like a boy being forced to swallow a pill. I didn't say he was right about everything, for God's sake. He's still a crude and uncouth man, as vicious in a brawl as anyone you'll ever meet, and I think he's reckless and short-sighted about a lot of things. But—"

The word was spoken almost like a gunshot. "He understood something, right from the beginning, that we didn't. Although, looking back on it now, it's clear as day to me. Those few thousand Americans who came through the Ring of Fire were almost petrified with terror. You saw that also, and—I know you, John, you're not a bad man, never have been—reacted to it by trying to organize the fear in order to save them. And what he saw, and understood, was that fear—organized—would just turn into savagery. No matter how well it was administered. So, he used you—and me—like a punching bag. Hammered on us to dispel the fear by offering them . . ."

She paused, wiped her face. "Oh, hell, call it inspiration, if you will."

"Mary, that's the most one-sided—"

"Shut up. Can't you ever listen?" The fury was returning to her voice. "I was at those campaign rallies at the Club 250, John. Tonight—now, after it's all over—look me straight in the eye and tell me we weren't staring down the throat of a Ku Klux Klan in the making."

Her shoulders shivered. "I always felt like taking a shower afterward. Would have, too, if the hot water hadn't been rationed. God, those animals. 'No dogs and Germans allowed.' 'Pale niggers.' 'I got nuthin' 'gainst no Kraut—ev'ry Murikan should own one.' That's what they were saying in the crowd, John, it doesn't matter what fine words you were spouting from the speaker's platform."

Simpson swallowed. He'd hated those rallies, himself. But, given Stearns' savage and relentless campaign, he'd had no choice—

He groped for . . . something. "Damn it, his program and policies were incredibly reckless. Without our traditions, our customs, letting tens of thousands of Germans—I don't care about their so-called 'race,' it's got nothing to do with that and you know it—let them have the franchise—swamping us under with their medieval attitudes and superstitions—God knows what they'd do with it . . ."

The words petered off. Mary laughed drily.

"Yes? And then what? What have they done with it?" She glanced at the bare wall, and managed a smile. "Having no pictures up isn't really the end of the world, you know. It's been two years now, John. And if the man was wrong about a lot of things—and I think he was, and still do—he wasn't wrong about that. He may have screwed up around the fringes, but he didn't screw up at the core. Did he? Whatever else this new United States is and may become, at least it's nothing we or anybody else needs to be ashamed of. And—be honest, John—are you so sure you'd be able to say the same thing today, if you'd been running the show?"

He tried to say it, but . . . couldn't. Quite.

"Terror is a horrible thing, John," she said softly. "A monster, if it's set loose. Much less if it's whipped up. And I think, no matter how hard you tried, you wouldn't have been able to control it. Not after you'd done everything you could to ride terror into power. Which—to be blunt—is exactly what you tried to do."

Again, she wiped her face. "Yes, yes, me too. I'm not trying to put the blame on you, John. Just . . . oh, fuck it."

The profanity jolted him. Mary was usually fastidious in her use of words. More than anything, in fact, it had been Rita Stearns' unthinking use of profanity—and the way it seemed to have infected Tom—which had so instantly turned Mary's prejudice against their son's fiancée into unyielding opposition to the marriage.

Suddenly, they were both laughing. Almost hysterically, in fact—Simpson himself as much as Mary. Some of that was his own relief at the realization that his marriage was going to survive. But as much—even Simpson could understand it—because the laughter would let him release all errors. Wash them away into the past, without ever actually having to come right out and . . .

Admit it.

"All right, Mary," he said after the laughter died down. "Tell me what you want."

She sat down next to him and took his hands in hers. "I want us back, John. I want my life back. I want our son back, if we can manage it. You've had your work with the Navy to keep you going. I've had nothing."

He nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. "I'll do—"

"Oh, shut up!" This time, though, the snapped words were friendly, not hostile. "John, you don't have to do anything. Well . . . not quite. I'm going to need you to call in the favor Mike Stearns put in your bank account."

She laughed at the stiffness in his face. "Come on. Whatever else he is, the man's as slick a politician as you'll ever meet. That much ought to be obvious to anyone with half a brain—especially you, Mr. Black and Blue All Over and Still Wondering What Truck Ran Over Him."

Again, laughter. And again, a wave of relief. Mary and he hadn't shared this much in the way of warmth since before the Ring of Fire. He'd missed that intimacy, and desperately—all the more so because he'd had no way of telling her. He wasn't good at that. Marriages don't lend themselves well to efficient administration.

"That's what that personal apology was, John, that he gave you on the wharf. It wasn't just an olive branch. It was also an offer. So take him up on it, you dimwit. Or would you rather stay all cooped up, festering in resentment?"

She rose to her feet, moved over to the one window in the room, and drew aside the curtain. There was really nothing much to see, of course, in the middle of the night.

"Let's steal a page from Mike Stearns' book, John. Down there in Grantville, he's groping his way when it comes to imperial politics. But up here, in Magdeburg . . . I can feel it, John. Feel it, I tell you. It was all through the air at that soiree tonight. Those people are perched on a knife's edge between exhilaration and terror. Some of them—The Landgravine of Hesse-Kassel, for instance—are even smart enough to know it. And if you think Amalie's a smart cookie, you ought to meet the abbess of Quedlinburg. I spent more time talking to her than anyone."

"I don't understand what you mean. Steal a page from Mike Stearns' book? How?"

"Give them confidence, John. Give them hope. Gustav Adolf's not seeing that either, I don't think. 'I want this, I want that. Give up this, give up that.' They all recognize that he's right—the ones who were at that soiree, anyhow. And there's even a part of them—the best part—that's a bit thrilled that they're going to be bold enough to do what everyone has known for—oh, for centuries now!—needs to be done, if Germany is ever going to be more than a basket case. But they're scared." She stared out into the darkness. "If there's one thing I've come to know, these past two years, it's the way fear can eat a human being alive. Terror is a dangerous thing, John. Let's not—this time—be on the wrong side of that equation."

He shook his head. "Mary, I'm not trying to argue with you. I just don't understand—"

She spun around, her hands spread wide and a great smile on her face. For just an instant, his heart swelled, remembering the young woman he'd met and married so many years before.

"Give them an empire, John. Not just money and power. Hell, you're trying to take that away from them. So—so—" She groped for words. Then, softly: "Give them an olive branch, extended on a wharf. Give them a place of their own. Give them an imperial city for a capital, not just a great, ugly, monster of an industry town. Give them universities that they can send their children to. Give them opera houses and libraries and museums. Give them a city they'll want to live in—and it won't hurt any to have them here under Gustav's guns instead of festering out in their country mansions, now will it?—while they spend their energies in a social whirl. There's no harm in it, and a lot of good. I know you think my hobbies are a bit silly, but I will tell you this, John Chandler Simpson. Culture is not just a pretentious word for rich bitches with nothing better to do."

She smiled, seeing his jaw sag at her language. "Oh, phooey. Since I'm broke now, anyway, why not? If you've got the name, why not have the game?"

She shook her head firmly. "It's not, John. However foolish the trappings often are. Culture is what transforms raw power into civilization. So if we're going to do this, then, damnation, let's do it right. If Gustav wants his empire, fine. I just insist that the thing has to shine." She spurted a little half-laugh, half-giggle. "At the very least, I insist that it glitter."

"But—but—" He took a deep breath of his own. "Mary, who is going to pay for all this? We're already strapped—"

"Men!" She rolled her eyes. "And you're no better than Mike Stearns or Gustav Adolf!"

She lowered her eyes and gave him a twisted half-grin. " 'Mr. Pittsburgh.' What a laugh. Tax breaks, you dumbbell. Gustav Adolf is about to strip away the tax exemption from Germany's nobles. Well . . . those of them, at least, who are willing to vote for it. And a lot of them are going to, I'll give them full credit for it. But then what? How easy is it going to be to collect the taxes?"

He winced.

Mary's half-grin twisted still further. "You know as well as I do—you ought to, John, as many accountants as you had on your payroll—how energetically they're going to try to dodge the bullets. And they'll have all the advantages you didn't have. A poorly educated civil service, for starters—not like those sharpies in the IRS, you can be sure of that—a population which doesn't even consider it 'corruption' unless the stealing takes place in broad daylight—"

Now, he was scowling. He understood her point, and perfectly. After all, he had spent untold hours closeted with his accountants and tax lawyers, in years gone by, figuring out every angle to shave money from his tax bill. But . . .

Even in his day and age, up-time, with all the complex dodges a highly industrialized and well-educated society provided, the key to efficient tax collection had been the basically cooperative attitude of the tax-payer. Sure, everybody would look for the legitimate loopholes. But, in truth, not all that many people really tried to break the law outright. Especially when—

"Jesus, you're right," he whispered. "Give them a legal loophole . . ."

"At last. The dawning light." Her smile was positively serene. "You let me trot around and show all those noblewomen how their husbands can swindle the emperor all the way to their opera houses—as founding contributors, of course, they'll be entitled to their own box seats—and they'll cough up the money he needs for his soldiers and his ironclads. Gladly enough, believe me. They won't want any surly foreigners sailing up the river to interrupt their parties. And Gustav Adolf doesn't really lose anything in the process, because—you know this as well as I do—he'd never get his hands on that money anyway. They'd hide that much from him, be sure of it. So why not have them hide it in broad daylight? And, while you're at it, provide this place with universities and art institutes and musical centers—which anybody can use, after all—and also make them feel like they're important. A part of it, not just the sheep that got shorn."

He stared up at her. Then, rose abruptly to his feet.

"Let's try it. What the hell." He took her coat off the rack by the door and held it up. "Come on."

"Where are we going?"

"Radio station at the naval base. I'm going to call the President. If the idea comes from him, Gustav Adolf will listen."

"It's the middle of the night!"

"So what? It's not far to walk."

Still, she hesitated. Simpson gave her that same twisted half-grin.

"Come on, Mary. In for a penny, in for a pound. We're living in the middle of the so-called 'radical district,' in case you didn't know. Sure, those CoC youngsters are just barely this side of ruffians. They rub me the wrong way just looking at them. But I'll give them one thing: this is the only part of the city that's pretty much crime free."

Harshly: "They call it 'knee-capping.' Except they do it with a hammer instead of a gun. That's the established penalty for robbing or stealing. First offense. You don't want to know where it goes from there. Let's just say it ends up in the Elbe and leave it at that."

Mary's eyes were wide. "You're kidding." She turned to face the door, her expression apprehensive, as if worried that wild-eyed anarchists would break in any moment.

"No, I'm not kidding. But"—this with a bit of a chuckle—"I assure you that we don't have to worry about them. Say whatever else, those CoC roughnecks approve of the United States. The Navy in particular, I think, the way I see them coming down to the wharf all the time to admire the ironclads."

He helped her on with her coat. "I don't approve of their conduct, of course. But I also never hesitate to walk home from the naval base after dark. I guess it's not a perfect world, is it?"

She was still wide-eyed when he opened the door for her, after taking up a lamp. " 'Knee-capping,' " she muttered. "That never happened in Pittsburgh. Well. Not in our neighborhood."

"No, it didn't. On the other hand, I can also remember you complaining that the courts coddled criminals. No danger of that happening here."

By the time they neared the naval base, picking their way slowly in the light shed by the lamp in Simpson's hand, Mary's apprehension seemed to be fading away. Simpson realized now that she'd never made this walk before. Not at night, at least. So she, unlike him, was not accustomed to its . . . peculiarities.

Young people—most of them young men—standing on street corners with their hands in their pockets, was not the sort of thing which people of John and Mary Simpson's class were accustomed to look upon with favor. Especially in a city which had no streetlights. But, after the first two such little groups did nothing more than nod politely, Mary began to relax. By the time they reached the third and largest group, standing not far from the entrance to the navy yard, Simpson decided it was time he put his own lingering doubts to rest.

So, as they drew alongside the cluster of half a dozen people, five young men and a girl—teenagers, half of them—Simpson came to a halt. The murmured conversation among the youngsters died away and one of the group, a man in his twenties, stepped forward a pace or two.

"Excuse me. My name is John Simpson and I'm—"

"We know who you are, Admiral," the young man said softly. He nodded his head politely to Mary. "Frau Simpson. My name is Gunther. Gunther Achterhof. I am in charge of this district. What may I do for you?"

In charge? 'District'? Simpson was taken off-balance for a moment. Then cleared his throat and said:

"My wife may, in the future, wish to come down to the shipyards. I would appreciate it if you would . . . ah . . ."

Achterhof smiled, his crooked teeth gleaming in the lamplight despite the dark spots left by caries. "We can provide her with an escort, if you wish. But there's really nothing to fear. Your house is under guard at all times. Even when you are not there, since Frau Simpson arrived in Magdeburg."

Simpson stared at him. Mary was practically goggling at him. Her German was good enough to follow the conversation.

"The enemies of the revolution. Richelieu has agents everywhere—Ferdinand and Maximilian too. Desperate and vicious men. They will stop at nothing."

Achterhof added a word in German which Simpson did not recognize. From the venom roiling under the syllables, he suspected that it was the CoC's version of slang terms which had been found throughout history when the anger of the long-downtrodden began to congeal and harden. Sasenach. Bouzhoi. Honkie. Sometimes national, sometimes racial, sometimes simply a matter of class. The simple definitions of people who had had enough!—and were none too concerned about the fine points.

"The United States, of course, is their most feared and hated enemy. So—" Gunther shrugged. Or, it might be better to say, shifted his shoulders into a fighter's stance. "We guard."

There seemed nothing further to say. Simpson realized, suddenly, that he would never really understand how to talk to someone like this. So . . .

Let Stearns deal with them. He can, I can't. I'll deal with the Navy. That I know how to do.

He nodded, murmured a few words of thanks, and went on his way.

"He seems a nice enough young man," said his wife hesitantly.

"Mary, he is absolutely nothing of the sort. On the other hand, he's on our side."

After a few more steps, she said, "Best figure out how to keep him there, then. I'm telling you, John. Culture."

The radio operator was on duty of course, but he was obviously surprised to be called upon. As a rule, since reception was always best in the hours after sundown, the radio was only used then. But, with the higher power and full-sized antennas available to the radio stations in Magdeburg and Grantville, radio communication was quite possible at any time.

"Uh, sir," said the radioman as Simpson gave him the opening words of the message, "the President'll still be asleep. I send this 'urgent top priority' they'll—"

"I know how to tell time, sailor," rasped the admiral. "And I don't recall asking for your opinion. Just send it. If the President loses some sleep—"

He bit off the next words. Serve the bastard right, all the sleepless hours he's caused me. He realized, even if still only dimly, that he was going to have to stop calling Mike Stearns the bastard. Even under his breath.

"Do as you're told."

"Yessir." The sailor hastened to comply.

Two hours later, the sailor's eyes were no longer bleary with sleep. Indeed, by now he was downright astonished. Not so much by the content of the messages flying back and forth—most of which he barely understood to begin with—but simply by the fact that it was happening at all.

Nobody's gonna fucking believe this. Not even about the Old Man, much less Mrs. Pruneface. And she's doing most of the talking.

By dawn, it was over. The radio operator, now too tired to be astonished any longer, handed over the final transmission from the President.


WILL SEND PROPOSAL TO EMPEROR. EXPECT HIM AGREE ALSO. U.S. INFLUENCE HIGH RIGHT NOW. SUSPECT VERY HIGH.

COMING UP MYSELF, AS YOU SUGGEST. AGREE THAT WITH CRISIS LOOMING, APPEARANCE OF UNITY AS ESSENTIAL AS FACT ITSELF. WILL BRING VERONICA DREESON, IF SHE AGREES. PROBABLY WILL. TOUGH OLD BIDDY. APPROVES HIGHLY OF MRS. SIMPSON ALSO.



"That seems to be it, sir."

Simpson passed the message over to his wife, smiling about the last two sentences. He'd suspected it was true, as hard as it was to believe. Granted, Veronica had married Henry Dreeson, the mayor of Grantville. However, she was also the grandmother of Gretchen Richter—and Richter's dislike of the Simpsons was well-known.

But Veronica Dreeson had wound up traveling with his wife, when Mary had finally moved up from Grantville. Having established a school in Grantville, Veronica had been bound and determined to set up a branch of it in the new imperial city. Odd as it may have been, in the days of their shared journey up the rivers, the two women had discovered they had several things in common. First, firm convictions on the subject of child discipline. Second, a passion for setting up schools. Third—probably most important—the mutual esteem of tough old biddies.

Mary, new to the city herself and—it was obvious to Simpson now, looking back on it—mired in a quiet, deep depression, had still done what she could to help Veronica's project. Apparently the experience had left Veronica with as high an opinion of Mary as Mary had of her. Which, given the new situation, probably boded well for Veronica's ambitions.

Mary smiled also, reading the message. But, by the time her husband rose, the smile was gone.

"That's it then, Mary. We've done all we can. It's late—early, I should say. We need some sleep."

"No, John." She shook her head firmly. "There's still one last message to send. And this is not a message that can be sent to 'Mr. President.' It's a message that has to be sent to Mike Stearns. Our son's brother-in-law."

She took a deep breath, her nostrils flaring. "If you can't do it, I will."

Simpson sighed. Then, turned to the radio operator.

"Last message. Address this one, 'Dear Mike.' " Simpson almost laughed, seeing the man's efforts to keep a solemn face. They'll never believe this in the barracks. What, sailor, you think I don't know that you'll gossip about the Old Bastard?

"Dear Mike," he dictated. One glance at Mary told him not to try compressing the language for the sake of transmission brevity. "Mary and I would much appreciate it if you would do what you can . . ." He groped for the words. Then just said, quietly: "We'd like our son to speak to us again. We miss him. Thanks, John."

The reply came back immediately.


WILL DO MY BEST. MY WORD ON IT.


"As much as I can ask," said Simpson quietly, handing it over to Mary.

"He'll keep his word," she said. Even confidently.

"Oh, yes. He's quite good at that, actually."

On the way back to their house, walking much faster in the light of daybreak, Simpson spoke only twice.

"I still
don't like the man."

"Of course not," replied Mary, matter-of-factly. "What is there to like? Yes, he'll keep his word. But, beyond that . . ."

Her breath steamed in the cold morning air. "He's crude and uncouth—he is, too; his language is vulgar beyond belief—I hate the way he panhandles everybody, shifts his language to suit the crowd—fancy here, as good-ole-boy as you could ask for over there—ruthless as a snake; just as brutal, too, when it comes to infighting. Devious, manipulative, a backroom horse trader and wheeler-dealer with the scruples of a carnival huckster fleecing the crowd—I could go on and on."

She took a long, slow breath, steaming into Germany's autumn. "But I won't, John. Not any more. And the reason I won't is because I
majored in history in college. And there is this little nagging voice in my head that is reminding me how much proper society detested another president the United States once had. And for exactly the same reasons. He was a crude bumpkin from the sticks, with a low sense of humor—and undoubtedly the most capable politician the country ever produced. I think it was the last part they hated the most. Couldn't forgive, anyway."

Simpson's knowledge of history was, in general, not the equal of his wife's. But there were some exceptions, especially when it came to American history. Given Simpson's own brown-water experience in Vietnam, he'd read a great deal on the Civil War. He'd been mainly interested in naval history, of course, especially the use of gunboats on the interior rivers. But, obviously, studying the Civil War involved constantly running across a certain famous politician.

"You can't be serious," he protested. "How can you possibly compare Mike Stearns to—to—"

She just gave him a sideways stare. He never did finish the sentence.


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