Ring of FireEric Flint



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4After the next Emergency Committee meeting, the mayor asked, "Becky, could I talk to you. Privately. Just for a few minutes?""Oh, of course.""How does a man court a German lady? How does he do it right, I mean? Not helter-skelter.""You put your money where your mouth is. No, better, you put your money where your mouth is going to be. You give her presents, proper ones, suitable to your rank, income and status; suitable to her rank, income, and status. For you? You need something valuable.""I don't have anything valuable. I'm the mayor, but I'm the mayor of a dirt poor, scroungy, Appalachian coal town.""Certainly, you must. Everyone in Grantville has things that are valuable. Look, tomorrow. Look at your house with all that you have learned about the costs of things in Germany while you have been arranging the supplies and provisions for this town. Just look."* * *"Would these work? They were never opened after Annie died. She'd bought them right before she had that aneurysm, just before Valentine's Day. They should still be fresh."Rebecca looked at the little bottles he was showing her. Glass, with tightly fitting plastic screwtops, the three little bottles themselves were worth quite a bit. But the contents . . . cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger: there must be two ounces of each. "It is a gift worthy of being given by a prosperous merchant; truly it is.""Maybe I could write a note to go with them in English. Paying my respects, and asking her to accept them in time for the holiday baking. If you could translate a copy of it into German? Ronnie doesn't read English very well yet, and I'd sort of rather not have her call on one of those boys to read it out loud. If she doesn't accept—well, I could always, say, I guess, that it was meant for all of them if they'd invite a hungry old bachelor to Thanksgiving dinner and treat him to some Christmas cookies."* * *Jeff had walked out to the road with the mayor, to engage in one of those interminable, "Well, I guess I should be going about now" conversations without which rural and small town America could not function. Grandma opened the little packet that Henry had pressed into her hand as the two men went out the door and gasped. "Maria Margaretha!"Throughout Gretchen's life, the appearance of her full baptismal name had heralded events of portentous significance: she hadn't seen or heard it since she signed "Maria Margaretha Richterin" on the marriage register for Father Mazzare. She looked at what Grandma was holding and her eyes grew wide. "There's a note."* * *"We must discuss it with the whole household," Grandma was insisting. "It is a matter that will concern us all.""No Grandma." Gretchen was also insisting, even more stubbornly. "We're Americans now. I decided for myself. You decide for yourself if you will accept Mr.

reeson's offer to court you. Then, if it happens—then we can talk about how it will concern us all."Dreeson offering to court Grandma Richter? Every one of Ms. Mailey's repeated, urgent, anxious lectures about cultural misunderstandings, repeated like a hammer throughout the summer at every available opportunity, came rushing into Jeff's head. This had to be a monumental mistake. This had to be a cultural misunderstanding of stupendous, humongous, proportions. This could not have been equaled by anything that had happened since the Ring of Fire. Oh, good grief, he thought. And it's too late to do anything about it tonight. He wasn't looking forward to tomorrow.But first, to find out what had brought it on. He entered the kitchen. All this from three dinky little bottles of spices? Mom hadn't gone in for cooking from scratch, so there hadn't been any in the Higgins trailer, but he had seen them in the stores. Racks full of the things at what? He had no real idea. Two dollars a bottle, maybe? At least, he'd learned when to keep his mouth shut. He'd warn the mayor first thing in the morning. Then what? Of course, ask Becky. In a pinch, always ask Becky.* * *Jeff was the first one out the door the next morning. He was waiting when City Hall opened; he was in a chair outside the office before Mr. Dreeson arrived. "I thought I'd better flag this. Er—Gretchen and her Grandma got all excited about those bottles of spices."His efforts were rewarded with a broad, relieved, smile. "Great, she's willing to consider the idea, then. I was afraid she wouldn't be. It'll be a big change for her, you know. If we can work it all out."Never before in his life had Jeff Higgins understood the true depth of meaning signified by the simple word, "relax."5The license for the day care center was issued in mid-December. As soon as it was in hand, the great clean-up of the premises began. The grand opening was scheduled for January 1, to take advantage of the holiday and draw a bigger crowd."Do you ever get the feeling that we've been stung?" grumbled Larry."Shaddup and haul those two-by-fours out to the flatbed.""D'you think he really forgot that he had this lumber here?""'Course not—he intended all along to get something extra out of this deal, and that was having his lumber carried down this stupid narrow hallway without having to hire anyone. I knew it the minute that he said 'plumb forgotten.' He only talks with that much local color when he has a reason to act like a good ole boy. He's the tightest man with a dollar anyone ever met. That's why they made him minister of finance.""Oughta get along real good with Gretchen's granny, then.""Lennox says that she's thrifty.""Lennox admires thrifty. What d'you want to bet? If Dreeson hadn't beaten him to it, would he have shown up on our door with some kind of a nosegay?""Too late to bet. No way to find out."* * *But Larry had his revenge, both for the lumber hauling and for all the evenings for the past six weeks when he had cowered in the farthest corner of the third trailer while Mayor Dreeson entertained the Higgins household with his favorite 1940s videos on the VCR. Somehow, between the last inspection the night before the grand opening and the next morning, the entry door acquired an elaborate full-length exterior-enamel portrait of Veronica Lake with a lock of hair falling down over her eye and a sign on the wall next to the doorframe, in Gothic Fraktur, that proclaimed, "Ronnie's Day Care."Veronica Richter was not amused. Neither, however, was she willing to pay for a completely unnecessary additional coat of fresh paint.* * *Guided by Becky, Dreeson had continued to be a punctilious suitor. For Thanksgiving, there had been a 1950s silk headscarf, all pink and turquoise flowers and paisley, found in its original box; then paintings suitable for decorating the day care center ("wonder why we never threw out these old calendars?"); for Christmas, which Becky had warned him was not a big gift-giving day in Germany, a pair of quilted, insulated, footwarmers with cotton knit tops and also two linen handkerchiefs edged with Irish crochet in variegated thread; for New Year's, two pair of knit knee socks, with all sorts of fancy cables and feathery sorts of stitches, that, O blessings upon us, stayed up without garters. Each offering had been accepted graciously. The courtship was progressing. On Epiphany, January 6, 1632, he presented his chosen wife with a hand mirror. (Heavens! Is the man made of money?) To the full satisfaction of the future spouses, the match was agreed between them.6"The woman is totally insane." Maxine Pilcher had not attended the grand opening, but had certainly heard enough about it. "I tell, you, Anita, I could not believe the things she said to Megan and Joshua. I was surprised they didn't have nightmares for weeks.""They didn't, though, did they?" Anita Barnes asked.Since Megan had passed through her first grade classroom the year before, the prospect of the arrival of her colleague's second offspring next year was not one of the experiences to which Anita looked forward with happy anticipation. The Pilcher children did not strike her as having fragile egos. Nor, she thought, were any children of Keith Pilcher likely to develop them. She'd gone to high school with Keith. He had not suffered from undue sensitivity.Maxine pushed on. "How can they possibly allow her anywhere near young children? The city council is completely crazy to have given her a day care license. It must have been all arranged under the table—she's the grandmother of Higgins' wife. He's in tight with Stearns and they're all hand-in-hand with Dreeson.""It wasn't exactly a secret, Max. It was on the council agenda for two meetings. They put the agenda up on that bulletin board in the City Hall lobby. They publish it in the newspaper. They announce it on the radio. Rebecca Stearns reads it on her TV show. You absolutely have to go out of your way not to know what they're going to be discussing.""I go to my book discussion group on Mondays.""Your book discussion group reads Harlequin Romances.""Don't knock it, Anita. Kelley Bonnaro had three titles that no one else did. She's sold the translation rights to a press in Muenster for enough money to add a room to her house for each title.""She what?""Well, the authors sure aren't here to collect the money, so we figured that the owners might as well. Publishers are absolutely grabbing for them. The only thing was to decide how to share it out. We decided that anyone who had the only copy of a title got to sell it; for the rest, we put as many titles on the table at each meeting as there are women in the club and draw straws for who gets to sell which one.""You gals are in absolutely no position to call anyone else crazy, no matter what they do. Does the cabinet know about this? Has the committee on foreign currency exchange approved this?""None of their business." Maxine returned to the topic at hand. "We've decided to do something about Mrs. Richter, though. Next week, we'll sacrifice our discussion group meeting. We're going to the city council meeting instead. Someone has to speak out about this.""You and who else?""Well, Darlene. Jenny. The rest of them didn't really want to come.""You and your sisters, in other words? What did Keith say about . . . this?" Anita managed not to say, "about this latest nitwit fit and start of yours.""Well, I haven't told him. He has so much on his mind, you know. I think I ought to spare him my own troubles if I can possibly bear them alone." Maxine looked virtuous.Anita thought, You dwork! The only thing besides hunting that Keith ever had on his mind was his hair, and that's gotten pretty thin on top.* * *The entire Monday Evening Book Discussion Club was sitting around the table in the conference room, looking rather defensive. "Maxine," said Melissa Mailey. "Would you please just explain. You don't have to justify it. Just explain it.""We've got a right. When they came around to collect for the National Library, or whatever the fancy name is now, they just laughed at our books and said we could keep them—a bunch of intellectual snobs, that's what all of you are out here at the high school.""What on earth gave you the idea for selling the publication rights to them?" Melissa looked around the room and fixed her eye on a club member who had once been in her classes. "Kelley." Having undergone conditioning, Kelley scrambled."Ms. Mailey, it was when that guy from Amsterdam came to talk to Dr. Abrabanel. You know Susie Castalanni here. She has a complete set of first edition Betty Neels—real collectibles, valuable—all the ones about English nurses who marry Dutch doctors, more than forty titles, I think. Susie's awfully proud of it. She invited him to come see it. He was real happy to find out that in three hundred fifty years the Dutch and the English would still have their countries and their languages and their churches and live in peace and have good hospitals and not be harried by the Spanish Inquisition like the remnants of the Waldensians. Susie hasn't found out what a Waldensian was yet, but whatever happened to them, it wasn't good."Kelley was forced to pause for breath. Maxine interrupted. "They're real respectable classics, too—not like some of the newer ones. No sex at all until the nurse and doctor get married and not very much after they do. Lots of descriptions of houses and furniture and landscapes. Shopping trips for new clothes. Pictures of ancestors on the wall. Being nice to your stepchildren. He thought that the Calvinist preachers would OK them just fine."Kelley regained the initiative. "When he went back to Holland, a publisher up there sent a guy down to copy her whole set. They're going to publish them in English for export to London and translate them into Dutch. So we thought, if Susie can sell those, why can't we sell the rest of them? And we did. To the highest bidder. That's all there is to it.""We reported it on our taxes, too," added Susie. Then, looking at the expressions of her fellow club members, she added in a more doubtful tone of voice. "Well, at least I did. You can look it up."* * *Nobody blamed Anita Barnes, of course, for dropping the news to everybody she met that Maxine was going to make a fuss about the day care center at the next city council meeting. She hadn't campaigned about it or said anything that a person could call criticism of another teacher. There sure was a big crowd, though—as city council meetings went. All the chairs around the sides of the room were full, with SRO in the back."Face it, there's no one in this town over forty whose grandma didn't say something of the sort to them. We all turned out all right." Karen Reading finished her thirty seconds at the microphone. Darryl McCarthy turned to the man next to him and whispered, "Hell, there's probably no one in this town over twenty whose grandma didn't say something of the sort to them.""Will the audience please maintain silence. Everyone will be given a chance to speak in turn. If you want to speak, and didn't take a number at the door when you came in, please see one of the ushers now." Quentin Underwood was acting as chairman pro tem, since Henry Dreeson, as a partner in the business, had recused himself.It surely was not to be interpreted as a comment on the dialogue that Mayor Dreeson pulled his glass eye good-luck piece out of his pocket and absentmindedly started to toss it from hand to hand. He did that all the time.Nat Davis expressed the opinion that kids these days were too full of themselves anyway and didn't need their self-esteem enhanced. The German apprentices he had taken on paid more attention to him than the ones from West Virginia families. Ollie Reardon seconded him. The Baptist minister got up and read part way through a pamphlet on the importance of discipline, but ran out of time.Maxine had spoken first. When she realized how many people were there, she had sent Darlene and Jenny back to trade in the low numbers they had picked up by coming-early-to-make-sure-they-were-on-time for higher ones, so they would have a chance to comment on the comments."We don't want our children exposed to it. It's not modern. It's not progressive. Disciplining children that way is cultural regression." Jenny glanced at the three-by-five card in her hand. "Er—I was supposed to say next that it's un-American, but I guess that I really can't, though, because Karen Reading was telling the truth: my grandma was always frightening us with ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. You should have heard what she could make out of an acorn hitting the shingles or a squirrel in the chimney." Maxine's glare at her sister indicated that Jenny's contribution had not been up to the standard of debate she had hoped for."I guess maybe Maxine has reason to complain about what Mrs. Richter said at Dr. Sims's office," began the manager of the Dollar Store (who didn't sound very sure, even about this qualification, because Maxine Pilcher had brought her children into his territory on many occasions). "But that doesn't have anything to do with the center. If you don't want to send your kids there, you don't have to. Send them somewhere else. Find someone who's running a day care center that you like." He sat down."Actually, I mean, you know, well, when you come right down to it. It's not such a bad thing to have kids do what you tell them to." If Jenny had gotten a glare, Darlene got the kind of look that signified the beginning of a major family bone of contention—the kind with reruns at every holiday dinner for the next fifteen years. Darlene, of course, did not have an education degree: she had gotten married right out of high school and gone to work for the Grantville veterinarian. Veterinary assistants develop considerable respect for the value of discipline, even though they don't always articulate its theoretical basis very well.By a unanimous vote, the city council reaffirmed the day care license that had been issued to Mrs. Veronica Richter.7Jeff had discovered that there was a big chasm that gaped between the stage when a match had been agreed upon by the parties involved and the stage when it was a done deal. There were a lot of conversations. Negotiating the marriage of a widow and widower of such prominence in the town bore more resemblance to a corporate merger than a proposal, even when both of the parties concerned were heartily in favor of the project. Necessarily, there would be feelers and tenders; offers and counteroffers; exploration of the options. Eddie, of all unexpected people, was invaluable—he was learning esoteric diplomatic arts from Becky and her father almost faster than they could teach him.* * *"It's hard for a man to maintain a proper housekeeping without a wife to manage things—there's a lot of scrubbing and stuff that ought to be done first. We could get a maid. My income runs to that.""We will need a cook, also. To cook, with the business, I do not have the time. My own income, now, runs to paying the cook.""It might be that I should help with the cook. It sort of contributes to a man's position to have a wife. Because I'm mayor, people have asked me to have dinners when we have out-of-town visitors, but I've put them off.""It's only proper for you to host dinners, considering your office.""I'd need to get a new suit if we gave dinners.""Leonhard Kalbacher is a tailor of respectable quality. He opened a shop about three doors down from the museum a couple of months ago. A nice black worsted, with velvet facings?""Velvet facings? Er—Ronnie!""Velvet facings are very fine. America used them, too. I saw them on Professor Ferrara's suit the day the faculty came from the university at Jena to visit our Hochschule.""Hell, that wasn't a suit. That was the academic gown Greg had to buy when he got his M.S. degree.""It was a very fine robe, indeed. Dignified.""Velvet facings?"* * *"It still doesn't seem just right to me for a boy as young as Jeff to be the head of a household. Probably, sometimes, I don't give him quite the deference that his position deserves.""He's American, Ronnie. He isn't expecting your deference—not the way a German might.""Well. Remind him that if we ever do get my late husband's property back, I only have a life interest. After that, it will go to Gretchen and Hans and Annalise, so there will be no harm to his children's inheritance. What will your family say?""I don't have any really close relatives left here—just a couple of my late wife's nephews and their families. Technically, they don't have anything coming from my side of the family, but I thought—if you don't mind—I'd just divide Annie's personal things between them, half of the trinkets for Lila and half for June. They weren't worth a lot back home, you understand, just some costume jewelry and such. But if we make it, if Grantville makes it, they'll all turn into 'valuable, irreplaceable antiques' in another twenty-five years. Which the boys know—they've seen as many tourist traps as I have. It's probably more than they'll have been expecting. And if we don't make it . . .""Ja, wohl. You ought to make sure that they understand that it will not hurt their prospects in the long run. It's always best to be on good terms with your kin.""Yep. No matter what else comes and goes, family stays with you."* * *A few days later, Henry Dreeson had reason to reflect more deeply on his comment that family stays with you. "Hoo, boy, did it ever!" Or if it went away, it came roaring back in spades. It appeared that he had traded a deceased wife and one married daughter with a husband and two children in Ohio for . . . what? Well, Ronnie appeared to think that it would be his first duty as an adoptive step-step-grandfather to provide moral support, wise advice, useful contacts, and at least some financial backing for launching Eddie, Larry, and Jimmy into their careers. It did not strike him that Ronnie was the type to let a man shirk on his duty. And that's not all, he thought with a quirky grin. No, that's not all. * * *"It's a big old Victorian house. You'll have a lot more room than you do now, and fewer people.""Certainly, but with the new baby coming, we should make more room for Jeff and Gretchen.""You could bring Hans and Annalise along.""It would certainly save time for Hans if he were living downtown, now that he's working for the newspaper. It would also improve Annalise's prospects, I think. Those boys are not doing her manners any good at all—she's becoming very outspoken, almost frech—fresh.""Do you have any idea what Gretchen would say if we suggested this? I've sort of felt Jeff out about it. It seems okay with him.""Gretchen is their sister. But under our old law, I would be their guardian. She was under age when their parents were killed. I would not fight her, though. Still, with a second baby . . . and they will be with us, right here in town. Without the war, they would both have gone by this age, Hans to an apprenticeship and Annalise into some form of service.""So let's count on having them.""I think that we should probably take the two oldest of the other children, also. It's a lot closer to the elementary school here. They can help me at the center when they get out of school in the afternoon.""You will be closer to the center, too—not the long walk home after dark on winter evenings.""Have you ever thought that we might expand to another location? There's plenty of need, and a good place would be over by the power plant. Appollonia Hirsch could be manager. She's learning fast.""Well, I have an old garage on a lot over that way. If we tore it down . . .""I may have already done a few figures here, just thinking about possibilities."* * *There was a formal betrothal, of course: everything was to be done in the most proper order, suitable to the age and standing of the parties. It took place in late March, presided over by Father Mazzare and the Calvinist minister whom Henry Dreeson shared with Mike and Rita, who both solemnly accepted the words of promise de futuro (after cautiously looking up the significance of the rite in advance and finding to their surprise that both Mazzare's completely up-to-date ritual and an 1894 Manual of the Presbyterian Church in the USA once bought at an auction provided for such a contingency). For the preparation of the marriage contract, Jeff and Dr. Abrabanel represented the bride; Mike Stearns and Quentin Underwood represented the groom. All parties emerged with greatly heightened respect for the negotiating abilities of the others.All of the parties: even Grandma, who for the first time referred to Jeff as "Herr Higgins" after his triumphant, if mischievous, insertion of a clause according to which, when Hans married, he and his wife should receive the right to occupy an apartment to be constructed on the third floor of the second day care center building for five years at a fixed, very modest, rent, with option to renew. Hans was not old enough to marry yet, of course; Grandma was certain of that. But he was also now of age by the American laws, so it was best to be prepared.* * *The day care center had held a grand opening. Henry Dreeson's house received what the entire Higgins/Richter household came to think of as the Grand Inspection.o Soapo Ragso Whitewasho Furniture polisho Floor waxo Laundry"Oh, all those curtains and draperies; oh, that smell of tobacco smoke; Henry, what is this?"We cannot possibly marry until September. Everyone in Grantville is so busy, always, immer, immer. It will take a while to organize a cleaning crew to bring it up to the standard that will be properly, yes properly, expected of a Herr Buergermeister and a Frau Buergermeisterin.""Nobody's ever objected to my house the way it is so far.""Did your first wife keep it like this? I ask you?""Well, ummn, no.""So. I am a townswoman, not an ignorant peasant. I know what is due to your position. I may never have expected to be a Frau Buergermeisterin, but I certainly know what is expected of one."
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