On his way home, moved by a sudden impulse, Mike swung away from his normal route and walked past the complex of trailers where, the year before, Gretchen's somewhat peculiar extended family had lived. "Officially"—which really meant whatever the rather fearsome Gramma Richter said—it had been known as the "Higgins residence." Jeff had married Gretchen Richter, very shortly after the Ring of Fire, and her grandmother Veronica had insisted on the proper marital protocol. Proper, at least, by American standards if not her own. The fact that Gramma herself thought Jeff was much too young to be a husband had been neither here nor there.
Privately, Mike—like most people in Grantville—had thought of it otherwise. Depending on the circumstances, either as "the boys' place," since Jeff's friend Larry Wild owned one of the trailers and his other two best friends Eddie Cantrell and Jimmy Andersen lived there also; or "the Richter place," since Gretchen and Gramma Richter's huge collection of relatives and unofficially adopted orphans had moved in after the wedding. Since Jeff and Gretchen's wedding, the confusion had deepened. To native-born Americans, Gretchen was now "Gretchen Higgins" and that made it the "Higgins' place." But 17th-century Germans did not follow the custom of a woman assuming her husband's last name, so for them it was still "Richter."
Mike couldn't help but chuckle. There had been plenty of time he'd thought of the place simply as "Gretchen's Lair." If ever Mike had met a tigress in human form, it was that young woman.
He stopped for a moment, and stared at the trailer complex. Everything had changed since then, and Mike wasn't entirely sure how he felt about it. Granted, the changes had all been positive ones—the inevitable transformations brought into peoples' lives by marriages, childbirths, and other duties and obligations. Still, he found himself missing the rambunctious energy the place had had in the days immediately after the Ring of Fire. Perhaps more than any other place in Grantville, he'd always thought that trailer complex was the brightest symbol of a hopeful future.
But . . . things change.
Call them the Higginses or the Richters, they were all gone now. The trailers themselves were still full of people, but these were tenants. Several related German families, as Mike understood what Gramma Richter told him. He didn't know them personally.
Again, he chuckled. Gramma now managed the complex for Jeff and Larry, in their absence. Knowing Veronica, Mike was quite sure the new tenants paid the rent promptly, and in full. It would be unfair to label the woman a "scrooge," but . . . she had a proper and thoroughly Teutonic notion of the value of property.
He glanced at his watch and saw that he was coming home a bit earlier than usual. So, moved by another impulse, he walked across the street and turned down another. He was heading in the opposite direction from his own house, now, but he didn't have far to go.
Less than a minute later, he was standing in front of the very large two-story house owned by Grantville's mayor, Henry Dreeson. The house was on a corner, and the new gas lamp situated there had already been fired up.
Mike studied the lamp for a moment. He had mixed feelings about that also. On the one hand, he understood and agreed with the logic of moving away from Grantville's profligate use of electric lighting. The problem wasn't the power supply, as such, which would last indefinitely. The problem was much simpler, and somewhat maddening—as most of Mike's problems were. Sure, there was plenty of power. But power doesn't do you any good once you run out of lightbulbs—and those, like so many "small" things 21st-century Americans had taken for granted, were now in very short supply and very difficult to replace.
On the other hand . . . it also seemed stupid to have to fall back on 19th-century technology when they knew everything they really needed to know in order to make such things as lightbulbs and other types of lighting fixtures. But, that was the reality. It was the old, well-known if not always accepted, distinction between science and engineering. The simple fact that you understand the scientific principles involved doesn't necessarily mean that you have the technology or the economic resources to do anything about it.
So the decision had been made to start switching over to gas lighting; and Henry Dreeson, being the mayor of the town, had taken the lead in having the first new gas lamp installed in front of his own house.
Mike heard the door open and swung his eyes toward it. Henry Dreeson himself was emerging and coming down the stairs toward him.
"Hi, Mike!" The elderly man saw what Mike had been examining, and smiled. "Oh, stop fretting. The next thing you know, you'll be wallowing in the classic problem—toilet paper."
Mike grimaced. "Don't remind me."
Henry was still smiling, but there was a trace of apprehension in the thing. "Is there any news? I mean—"
Mike shook his head. "Nothing bad, Henry. So far as I know, Gretchen and the boys—and Becky and Rita and Melissa and everybody else—are fine. That's not why I came over. I just . . . I don't know. I guess I wanted to see you, and Ronnie, and the kids. It's nothing pressing, if you're busy."
But before he'd even finished, Dreeson had him by the elbow and was marching him up the stairs.
"No, no! Come in! Ronnie'll be glad to see you. Of course, you won't know it, from the way she'll fuss at you about letting those 'innocent babes' wander around loose all over war-torn Europe, but—"
The old man grinned. "Hey, what can I say? I'm crazy about the lady, but I'll be the first one to admit my new wife's something of a harridan."
"Oh hell, Henry, I wouldn't call her a harridan, exactly, just—"
But now Veronica Dreeson was standing in the doorway herself, hands planted firmly on her hips, and glaring down at the two men coming up the stairs.
Henry grinned up at his wife. "Now, sweetheart—everybody's fine. Mike just told me so."
Veronica Dreeson was not to be mollified so easily. She sniffed, imparting to the sound a lifetime's worth of bitter experience. Men and their lies.
"And how does he know what's happened to the children?" Somewhat grudgingly, she stepped aside and waved Mike into the house. As he passed by her, she continued to scold. "They are probably lying in a ditch somewhere. Tot—alle! All dead. Maybe the girls are still alive. Ravished, of course, and turned into camp women."
The fact was that the horrors she was depicting were all too real. Veronica Dreeson, in the years since the Thirty Years War erupted, had seen all of them happen—and to her own family.
Fortunately, someone else came to the rescue. Gretchen's younger brother Hans was sitting on the couch in the living room, next to James Nichols' daughter Sharon. The young man sprang up with his usual energy and extended a hand of greeting.
"Welcome to our house, President of the nation!" He gave his grandmother a stern look of reproof. Which, needless to say, bounced like a pebble off a stone wall. Veronica didn't even bother to sniff.
Sharon's greeting was considerably less formal. "Hi, Mike."
Mike gave her a smile and a nod. And made a silent vow not to mention Sharon's presence here to her father. James Nichols, perhaps because of his own ghetto childhood and youth, was more inclined toward paternalistic intervention in his daughter's romantic affairs than most American men with a twenty-three-old daughter would dare to be. Mike didn't want to get an earful. Another earful.
The problem wasn't that James Nichols didn't approve of Hans personally—at least, leaving aside the young German's recklessness when driving the American motor vehicles Hans adored. The problem was simply that, first, Hans was three years younger than Sharon and James had his doubts whether the age and educational gap between the two young people wasn't simply insurmountable. So did Mike, for that matter, if not as much.
The other problem was even simpler. In James Nichols' eyes, the young man for whom his daughter had developed an affection suffered from a character trait which placed him in the legions of Satan.
He's a young man, dammit! I remember what I was like at that age! And lemme tell you—only one thought on his mind—
"And don't tell Daddy I've been here," she added. "I don't want to get another lecture."
As ever, Veronica was not bashful about her own opinion. "If Hans started courting you properly, your father would not object." Sniff. "I would, of course, because Hans is much too young to be courting anyone. But—"
She heaved a sigh which contained the grief of the ages, and plumped herself into her favorite armchair. "So be it. Americans are all mad—even my Henry—and I have given up. Do as you will."
Mike smiled down on her. He was quite fond of Veronica Dreeson. Sure, sure, she was a tough old biddy. So what? Mike approved of "tough old biddies"—in the new world created by the Ring of Fire even more than in the one they had left behind. One of the reasons he hadn't been quiteas concerned as he would normally have been at the fact that Rebecca and Gretchen were leaving their infants for a few months was because Gramma Richter had immediately volunteered to make sure they were looked after properly. Which, indeed, she had. Directly, in the case of Gretchen and Jeff's two children, who were now living in the Dreeson household. Indirectly, in the case of Mike and Rebecca's daughter Sephie, for whom she had found a young German couple who could serve as Sephie's live-in nannies while Mike was absent during the day. Mike had trusted the old woman's judgment, and had not found reason to regret doing so.
Old woman. She wasn't, really. Veronica was still short of sixty—almost the same age as Melissa Mailey. If she'd been a 21st-century American, people would have thought of her as being in late middle age. But the rigors of her time and her life made her appear much older than Melissa; older, even, than her husband Henry, who was pushing seventy.
Still . . .
"You're looking good, Ronnie," he announced. And, in truth, she was. The withered crone who had appeared in Grantville two years earlier, as part of the family Jeff and his friends had rescued from mercenaries, was long gone. Now, Veronica just looked "weathered by experience." She'd gained her normal weight back, for one thing, and for another—
"It is my new teeth," announced Veronica with satisfaction, opening her mouth to display the marvelous dentures. The teeth clacked shut firmly. "Other than that—no difference. Just a feeble old woman."
Mike and Henry both started assuring her that there was no truth whatsoever to that self-assessment—which there certainly wasn't when it came to the "feeble" business—but were interrupted in mid-peroration. Gretchen's younger sister Annalise more or less barreled into the living room, holding Jeff and Gretchen's son Joseph.
"Are they all right?" she demanded breathlessly. Not waiting for an answer, plunged on to the real question which preoccupied a sixteen-year-old girl nursing her first serious crush: "Has anything happened to Heinrich?"
Then, glancing guiltily at her grandmother: "I mean, Major Schmidt."
Mike suppressed a grin. The glare Veronica was bestowing on her granddaughter Annalise was truly a wonder. Entire legions of vagabond hoydens might have crisped like bacon in that basilisk gaze.
Veronica had firm opinions on the subject of romance, and they were the opinions of most Germans of the era. Rather to Mike's surprise, he had discovered that people in northern Europe in the 17th century did not typically marry at a young age. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most men didn't marry until they were in their late twenties, and women not until they were in their mid-twenties.
The reason was simple, and economic. Unlike a modern industrial society, where men and women could find jobs which could support a family at a young age, northern Europeans—unless they were of the nobility or rich—had to spend years accumulating the capital necessary to do so. In the case of young men, usually by learning a trade or establishing themselves as a farmer; in the case of young women, often, by working as a servant.
So, there was not much of an age gap, either, between groom and bride. Certainly not the eight-year gap which existed between Heinrich and Annalise—even assuming Heinrich was interested in the first place, which Mike rather doubted. He knew the young German officer was aware of Annalise's enthusiasm, but so far as Mike knew Heinrich did not return it. Judging, at least, from veiled comments the man had made to him before he left with Rebecca on their diplomatic mission. (With some relief, from what Mike could tell—Annalise was not exactly subtle about the whole thing.)
It wasn't that Heinrich didn't find Annalise attractive, of course—no healthy man his age wouldn't have found her attractive. At the age of sixteen, it was now evident that Annalise was going to be even better looking than her older sister, and her personality was considerably sunnier than Gretchen's. But Heinrich shared Veronica's traditional German view of such things: marriage was something which was a matter of practicality, not "romance" in the American sense of the term. And while the handsome young officer might have been willing to engage in a casual dalliance with an eager teenage girl—
Doing so with Gretchen's younger sister was not something even the boldest soldier would undertake lightly, even leaving the doughty grandmother out of the equation. Although it had never been proved, the story that Gretchen had once dealt with a mercenary lusting after Annalise by cutting his throat—and scrambling the thug's brains with a knife through the ear for good measure—was accepted throughout the area as Established Truth. Indeed, the story had become rolled into the ever-growing "Gretchen legend."
Hans, as it happened, was one of the exceptions to the rule that Germans viewed romance differently from Americans. Perhaps because of his own situation with Sharon, or simply his age, he had acculturated on this issue more than most. So, seeing that Veronica's glare at Annalise bid fair to become fixed in stone, the young man demonstratively moved to stand by his younger sister.
"He is a respectable officer, Gramma," he stated forcefully, "and in a real army. The United States Army. Not a typical mercenary! Furthermore—"
Mike decided to intervene, before what had started as an impromptu social visit turned into a family brawl he wanted no part of. So he took a few hasty steps forward and bent to examine the infant.
"And how's Joseph?" he asked the baby himself. Joseph stared up, with what seemed to be a slight look of alarm at the very large man looming over him. Belatedly, Mike remembered that the baby was now old enough to start feeling "stranger anxiety." And while Mike wasn't precisely a stranger, he wasn't often in the baby's presence because of the press of his own responsibilities.
But it was enough to break the moment's tension. Annalise smiled and kissed Joseph's fuzz-covered scalp. "He's fine. So's Willi. Although I think Willi's old enough to miss his parents. But this one—" She laughed softly. "At his age, I really don't think it matters much that they're gone for a while."
Silently, Mike hoped she was right. So far as he could tell, his own daughter Sephie wasn't showing any real ill effects from the total absence of her mother and the frequent absence of her father. But it was hard to know, for sure, and he often worried about it.
And now it was Gramma's turn to intervene, and she did so in a manner which Mike found very relieving. Acculturation worked both ways, after all, and on some subjects he'd come to the conclusion that 17th-century German stoicism was superior to 21st-century American . . .
Psychobabble, let's call it that.
"Of course the baby is fine!" snapped Veronica, sounding quite peeved. "Why would he not be? He is well fed, warm, properly taken care of." Her glare at her granddaughter softened a bit; or, at least, eased onto a different focus. "The biggest problem Joseph has is that Annalise spoils him constantly."
And now Wilhelm, Gretchen's older son, was toddling into the room, his hand being held by one of the young women who were part of the Richter family. Mike couldn't remember the girl's name—she was so shy he'd never heard her talk—although he recognized her. Like most of the members of the "Richter family," she wasn't actually related to Veronica and Gretchen. The girl had been one of the few survivors of a farming family ravaged by Tilly's mercenaries, and Gretchen had taken her under her wing shortly before those same mercenaries got chewed to shreds when they attacked Grantville.
"Willi's certainly looking good," said Mike. And, indeed, he was. His father, now dead—killed in that same battle outside Grantville—had been one of Tilly's mercenaries who had taken Gretchen for a concubine after her own town was overrun. By all accounts, the man had been a sheer brute. But other than sharing his father's blond hair and—it was already obvious—his large size, Wilhelm's temperament seemed to derive far more from his stepfather. Like Jeff, who was also large, Willi seemed to be studious and solemn by nature.
Of course, at his age, it was hard to assess Willi's personality all that well. But the boy was staring up at Mike with interest and curiosity, much as Mike had often seen Jeff pondering some new aspect of the universe which he'd suddenly discovered.
"Why'd you drop by, Mike?" asked Henry Dreeson. "Not that you aren't always welcome, of course."
Mike had wondered a bit himself, standing outside the door. And now, the answer coming to him with the force of a hurricane, felt himself fighting off tears. Tears not brought on by grief, or sorrow, but simply a sense of satisfaction so deep and profound that it seemed to shake his soul like a tree in the wind.
Slowly, his eyes scanned the room—now crowded, as more and more of the "family" came to see who the visitor was.
Henry Dreeson's kindly old face, smiling at him. A man Mike had known all his life, the mayor of what had once been nothing more than a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. The tough, almost hard, face of his new German wife, a refugee blown into their midst by the holocaust sweeping central Europe.
The face of her blond granddaughter, a face that was as sunny as it was beautiful despite the hardships she had been through herself as a young girl. Next to her, the wiry figure of her brother, almost—but not quite—comical in the way he exuded youthful vigor!To one side, still sitting and gazing warmly on her young German boyfriend, the dark face of James Nichols' daughter Sharon.
Children, everywhere. Healthy, all of them. A mixture of disparate people which had somehow, in some way, managed to begin the process of blending themselves into a new and genuine nation. And if there was a goodly share of hardness in that room—more, really, in the tough old biddy of a grandmother than the valiant youth—there was far more in the way of love, and caring, and acceptance, and a quiet resolve to make the best of things.
So the trailer complex was not gone, really. It had simply moved into somewhat more spacious and comfortable quarters.
He glanced at his watch. "And now I've really got to go. I like to tell myself, anyway, that my little girl Sephie expects me to be on time and gets upset if I'm not."
He departed, with Henry ushering him out the door and Gramma's tough old biddy wisdom following.
"Nonsense," sniffed Veronica. "Your daughter is a baby. The world begins with a tit and ends with a tit. So easy! Later, of course, she will give you plenty of grief."
He hurried home, down streets which were now dark. Perhaps because of that darkness, Mike allowed his steps to have more of a swagger than he usually did, now that he was a man well into his thirties and enjoyed the august title of President of the United States. The same cocky swagger with which years earlier, as a young professional boxer, he had entered the ring.
Go ahead, Richelieu. Start something, if you're stupid enough. But you'd do better to listen to my wife.