1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 15:
The round ocean and the living air
Magdeburg, central Germany
Capital of the United States of Europe
Had Gretchen seen the expression on Rebecca’s face a month earlier, when Rebecca first inspected her new home in the capital, she would have recognized it. She was wearing much the same expression, after having completed an inspection of her own new home in the city.
Not quite, though. Gretchen had the same uncertain, dubious, apprehensive, wary, and skittish attitude. But, unlike Rebecca, she was making no attempt to avoid covetousness. The last few weeks of having to take care of a small horde of children again — she’d forgotten what it was like, during her long absence in France and Holland — made the prospect of settling them into a large apartment building very attractive. She and Jeff would have some privacy again.
In her days as a camp follower in a mercenary army, she wouldn’t have thought of such things. Lack of privacy had been the least of her worries. But she was not immune to the common tendency of people to have their expectations and aspirations expand along with their blessings. The more you had, it sometimes seemed, the more you wanted. If you weren’t careful, that could lead into a bottomless pit.
“And down you’ll plunge,” she muttered.
Jeff had lagged behind his wife, more interested than she was in the interior design of the building. He came into the vestibule just in time to hear her last remark.
“What was that, hon?” he asked.
Gretchen shook her head. “I was just contemplating the dangers of excessive greed.”
Jeff looked around, smiling nostalgically. The structure had been designed by a down-time architect. Where an up-time apartment building was essentially a collection of individual homes all squished together, this “apartment building” reminded Jeff of a hotel more than anything else. Not a newfangled motel, either, but the sort of old style hotels you often found in downtown areas.
He’d had a great-aunt in Winchester who’d owned such a hotel. He’d spent a week there, once, when he was eight years old. His great-aunt’s hotel had only a few transient customers. Most of the inhabitants of its many rooms had been elderly residents of the town, usually but not always male. There was a common kitchen, and his great-aunt always provided three meals a day in the hotel’s dining room.
That was what this apartment building in Magdeburg reminded him of — except this building even came with a resident cook. Two of them, in fact. A middle-aged man and his wife; both, of course, members of the city’s Committee of Correspondence.
“So much for those piker Jones!” He said that with a melodramatic sneer, twirling a mustachio in the bargain. The seventeenth century had its drawbacks, but it also had its advantages. One of the greatest of those, in Jeff’s opinion, was the ubiquitous facial hair sported by men. Jeff ran toward fat, and had been sensitive about it since childhood. He still was, even though he’d replaced of lot of fat with muscle since the Ring of Fire, and even though Gretchen insisted she didn’t care. Nothing, in Jeff’s opinion, improved a plump lip and jowls like a beard and mustache.
“Who are the Jones?” asked Gretchen.
“They’re the next door neighbors that people are always trying to surpass in wealth and ostentatious displays.”
“Ah.” She nodded wisely. “Bait, dangled by the devil.”
This was one of the seventeenth century’s drawbacks, on the other hand — the tendency of its inhabitants to inflate all manner of human frailties. There was no peccadillo that someone wouldn’t call a sin; no menial sin that couldn’t be made into a mortal one; and no mortal sin where a dozen could be described in detail. Even a person as normally level-headed as Gretchen was prone to the habit.
“Fortunately, we are not guilty,” she continued. “I have decided that Gunther is right. We can use this otherwise-far-too-large building for good purposes. The basement, for instance, is perfect for an armory.”
Jeff rolled his eyes. And another drawback. This one, the tendency of down-timers to look at everything bloody-mindedly. As his friend Eddie Cantrell had once put it: “These guys make the Hatfields and McCoys look like Phil Donahue and Oprah.”
Of course, given the nature of the seventeenth century, it was hard to blame them. The Hatfields and McCoys would have been right at home here.
Veronica and Annalise came into the vestibule. “It will suit you, I think,” said Gretchen’s grandmother.
Jeff figured the “I think” part of the sentence was what the British philosopher Bertrand Russell had called “a meaningless noise” in a collection of essays he’d read once. Gretchen was devoted to her grandmother. Jeff would allow that the old biddy was tough as nails, and some of the time he even liked her. But he often found her view of the universe annoying. Veronica, so far as Jeff could tell, recognized no distinction between an hypothesis, a theorem, and a fact — not, at least, if she was the one expounding the certainty.
Being fair, Jeff thought the house would suit them himself. There was plenty of room for all the kids, even when you factored into the equation the small army of “security experts” that Gunther was determined to foist upon them.
Gunther Achterhof. A kindred spirit of Gretchen’s grandmother, if you set aside politics. Achterhof was as radical as they came and Veronica was about as conservative as you could get and still (grudgingly) support Stearns’ regime. So what? They both knew what they knew and if you didn’t like it, so much the worse for you.
“Security experts.” Yeah, sure. Back up-time, Jeff would have labeled them thugs without even thinking about it.
On the other hand, he reminded himself, he wasn’t up-time any longer. And as many enemies as Gretchen piled up, it was probably just as well that they’d be sharing the apartment building with guys who’d scare motorcycle gangs if there were any such gangs in the here and now. Which there weren’t, of course, unless you wanted to count Denise Beasley and Minnie Hugelmair as a two-girl motorcycle gang.
But that’d be silly; and besides, Denise and Minnie would get along fine with Achterhof’s guys. Those two teenagers would scare Jeff himself, if he hadn’t married a woman who was probably their role model when it came to unflinching pugnacity in the face of danger.
But all he said was: “Yeah, Ronnie, I think it’ll suit us just fine.”
Veronica met that statement as she would have met a statement that it was raining in the middle of a thunderstorm. A brief dismissive glance. Then:
“So. Annalise and I will be off then. Mary Simpson is meeting us for the journey to Quedlingburg.”
Gretchen frowned. “But school won’t be starting for two months.”
“Yes. Delightful. Two months of quiet with not a squalling child to be found anywhere. I leave that to the two of you. At long last. Come, Annalise.”
And off they went. Gretchen’s expression was on the sour side.
It got a lot more sour two hours later, when Jimmy Andersen showed up.
“Hey, man, how come you’re still in civvies?” he demanded, squinting at Jeff’s decidedly unmilitary clothing.
“Already?” Gretchen said, frowning. The word was half a complaint and half a wail. Some of the wailing component, Jeff knew, was because his wife was unhappy at his looming absence. Most of it, though, was because she now faced the prospect of dealing with the kids on her own.
Jimmy looked dense, but he wasn’t. Certainly not with regard to technical issues, and occasionally — much less often — with regards to emotional affairs.
“Jeez, Gretchen, what’s the problem? Just appoint some of these goons you’ve got lounging around as babysitters.”
Gretchen bestowed an unfavorable look upon him. “There’s more to taking care of children than beating them, you know.”
“Well, yeah. But I’m pretty sure those guys can feed themselves. As big as they are. All you got to do is make sure they feed the kids, too.” He looked her up and down. “They’re scared of you, you know.”
Gretchen looked dumbfounded. Jeff managed not to laugh. His wife had an odd streak of modesty in her. Odd, at least, given her reputation in the world at large — which he knew Gretchen didn’t fully grasp. Her own self-image was still mostly that of a small-town printer’s daughter, not the ogress that noble and even royal families were reputed to use to frighten their children into obedience.
True, Gunther Achterhof’s handpicked CoC muscle didn’t fear that Gretchen would eat them. Still…
Gretchen caught his smile. “And what do you think is so funny?”
He, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid of her at all. “You. My leave was brief, special, and only happened because I sweet-talked Frank Jackson and he probably sweet-talked Stearns and you knew perfectly well it’d be over soon.”
Jimmy nodded. “Way it is, Gretchen. Frank Jackson sent me over himself. So he wouldn’t look bad. Well, look worse. On account of every grunt in the army figures Jeff only got that leave ’cause he’s your husband. Good thing they’re mostly CoC, or they’d be holding a grudge. Still, all good things have to come to an end.”
“Fine for you to say!” snapped Gretchen. “You’ll be staying here in Magdeburg on Jackson’s staff — what do they call them? rear echelon mother-fuckers? — while Jeff goes to the front.”
Jimmy looked wounded. “Hey! S’not true! Not any longer. I requested a transfer to the Third Division. Well, okay, Stearns asked me too ’cause he wants a good radio man, but it’s not as if I put up an argument or anything.”
“Stop picking on him, hon,” Jeff said mildly. “You know perfectly well Jimmy’s not an REMF. He was with us all through France and Amsterdam, remember.”
“We gotta go now, Jeff,” said Andersen.
Jeff headed for the stairs that led from the huge vestibule to the upper floors. “I have to change into my uniform first.”
“Yeah, sure, but how long can that take?”
“The problem is finding the uniforms.” He started up the stairs. For all his heft, he moved quickly if not lightly. “We just moved in, remember? I got no idea which trunk they’re in.”
“You got trunks? Jeez, I only got a suitcase, myself.
Gretchen’s most unfavorable look was back. “And exactly how many children do you have, Jimmy Andersen?”
“So shut up.”
“We’re gonna catch hell,” he predicted gloomily.