Somewhere in the eastern Harz mountains, 1635
Something’s burning! Stefan Leichtfuss stopped in his tracks to sniff, and began slowly scanning his eyes all around. There! A wisp of smoke was rising out of that new wooden cabinet mounted on the post! Before he could move, there was a loud humming, and then a rising screech from the machine on the floor. He was halfway across the mill before the two sacks he’d been carrying hit the floor and spilled. He paid no attention to that—in one fluid motion, he snatched up the grain shovel leaning against the wall and swung it at the leather belt. It popped clear of the pulley and hung down. He shouted out the door, “Herr Hartmann! Stop the wheel!”
* * *
The first thing Gerd Hartmann heard was a howl like an outraged cat. He was already moving when Stefan yelled. In three fast strides he reached the headrace gate, seized the lever in both hands, and slammed it shut. The flow over the spillway rose, while the wheel rumbled to a halt. As Gerd ran through the door, Stefan stuttered, “I-I’m sorry, Herr Hartmann, I know it’s not my place to give orders.”
“Never mind, I stopped it because I trust you. I would have anyway, I heard it too. Now . . . what happened?”
Stefan pointed to the box. “I saw smoke starting to come out of there, and then the belt started slipping on the pulley. I knew something was wrong.”
“The generator pulley?”
Gerd unhooked the latches on the side of the cabinet and swung the front cover open. He didn’t know what the insides were supposed to look like, but it surely wasn’t this. The pivoted copper bars with the wooden handle were tarnished, almost black in places, and the metal was still hot—he could smell it. There was some kind of covering over some of the wires, looking frayed and charred. Something black had dripped down to the bottom of the case, and there were tiny flames dancing on the liquid pool, licking against the wood at the back.
“Quick! A bucket of water!” He pushed the cover shut to contain the flames.
The only bucket handy was full of freshly ground flour. Stefan dumped it back in the bin at the foot of the grindstones, and ran outside to the brook. He was back in seconds. Gerd opened the box again and started tossing the water in, a little at a time, until the black stuff hardened and the charred wood was damp.
* * *
When Theodor Dränitz heard the call from down the shaft to try it again, he’d gone outside the mine entrance, and waved to Hartmann down by the mill. Hartmann waved back and started the wheel.
Theodor went back in with his lantern and climbed down the upper shaft. He’d gone twenty feet along the tunnel, when there was a strange snapping and hissing sound, and an orange glow appeared between the boards of the wooden covering over the wires. Then he smelled smoke, and flame blossomed at one spot.
He took a short-handled pick and started to knock loose the burning board, before the fire could spread. Flaming fragments and splinters rained down on his left hand. He shook them off and kept swinging. Suddenly the dull orange glow from two of the newly exposed wires faded to black, and the noises stopped after a few seconds. He stamped out the burning wood, and looked to make sure no other pieces were on fire.
He went back up as fast as he could with his burned hand, and ran outside—Hartmann wasn’t in sight. He hurried down the hillside to tell him not to start again, until they could figure out what had gone wrong.
* * *
All the way up at the house, Marta Seidelin heard the shouting. This scheme of Winkler’s had her a little nervous to begin with. She rushed down to the mill to find her husband Gerd and his apprentice Stefan looking into a ruined-looking complicated thing on the post, along with Theodor Dränitz from the mine. There was a big puddle of water on the floor. Then she saw the condition of Dränitz’s hand. There were raw, red patches, blisters forming, and dirt all over it.
“Theodor! That looks terrible! It must hurt!”
“Oh, it’s not so bad.”
“Well, it will be if it gets infected. The newspaper had an article about burns. Come up to the house with me and I’ll take care of it.”
Stepping back outside, she looked up to the house, and saw her daughter at the door. “Ilsabe! Ilsabe! Take two cups of boiling water from the pot and set them to cool!” Ilsabe waved and went inside.
* * *
Stefan was unlacing the belt when old Winkler arrived from down in the mine. “What’s your apprentice doing over there, Hartmann?”
Can’t even call Stefan by his name. Gerd snorted. “What does it look like, Horst? He’s taking down the belt from that generator of yours.”
“Hah? What about the test run? I’m certainly not going to pay you if you don’t turn it.”
“I’d like to get paid, all right, but I haven’t the least desire to have my mill burned down. Take a look at this. Take a good look. This thing was on fire when we stopped it.”
“The switchboard? On fire? What did you do?”
“We started the wheel when your foreman Theodor signaled. Then we stopped it when the pulley started screeching and this thing caught fire, and we put out the flames. Enough, Winkler! I’m through letting you and your men just try things in my mill with this new machinery when you obviously don’t know what you’re doing. Get somebody up here who understands this.” His voice rose to a roar. “And by God, no more ‘quick tests’ without a proper belt release lever!”
The shouting match went on for ten minutes while Stefan finished taking down the belt and stowed it behind the generator.
* * *
“Well? What’s wrong here?”
Winkler was standing with his arms folded and a scowl on his bewhiskered face.
Gerd silently fumed. This was just typical. What a way to speak to a man who came all this way to help!
The young Dutchman—he’d introduced himself as Jan Willem Bosboom, a “field engineer” from American Electric Works—straightened up from examining the insides of the switchboard. He just shook his head. “Quite a lot, Herr Winkler. Quite a lot. But this—” He pointed at a large porcelain block. “—is why the damage went so far. These load wires are supposed to be connected to the bottom end of the fuse holder. They’re connected to the top instead.”
“We tried that. Those little pewter ribbons on it are too weak. They kept melting.”
“Well, I should hope so! That’s what they’re there for. They’re supposed to disconnect the circuit when the load is too great, so that this—” Bosboom gestured open-handed toward the remains. “—doesn’t happen. The instruction sheet explains all that. You did read it, didn’t you?”
“No,” Gerd said in a dangerous voice. “Herr Winkler has that. His men did everything, except for adding a pulley and belt to my main shaft.”
“Oh? I see. Well, others are selling the services of their water wheels to generate a little electricity, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same. But this . . . Well, I’ll go over the owner’s manuals later with both of you, but for now, let’s finish the initial inspection before the day gets any further along. I’ll get my hand lamp. We can follow the wiring down into the mine, and then we’ll see what the pump looks like.”
Gerd took a deep breath. “I think I’d better come along and see all of it for myself.”
Winkler looked up sharply. “Eh? As you wish. Mind your head in the tunnels.”
Bosboom reached down to his tool case and took out a small varnished wooden box. They started up the hillside to the mine entrance, Bosboom looking speculatively at the line of poles as they went.
Meanwhile he flipped out a crank on the side of his lamp, and with a skkrrrk spun it for a minute or so. Finally he flipped a little lever. A soft whirring noise started up inside, and a narrow beam of yellowish light sprang out through a window on the front. Gerd looked curiously at the thing. “Is that one of those marvelous portable lights I’ve been hearing about?”
“An up-time electric flashlight? Not quite. They can’t duplicate those yet, but somebody found a good use for the half-million or so Christmas tree bulbs they have.”
“Christmas tree bulbs? What are they?”
“Well, during the Christmas holidays, they decorate their houses by bringing in a small fir tree and stringing colored ornaments and tiny electric lights all over it. Supposedly it was originally a German custom, but they used little candles in the old days.”
Winkler looked blank. “German? Not from around here. What a strange habit!”
“Oh, I agree,” he laughed. “A street full of houses with Christmas trees in the windows is a sight to treasure forever, though.”
* * *
The boss was coming up the hill. Gerd Hartmann was with him, looking like he was ready to spit thunderbolts. The stranger behind them must be the foreign expert to figure out what was wrong with this new pumping machinery . . . what was he supposed to be again? Some new kind of mine engineer? Theodor Dränitz picked up the lantern at his feet and lit a second one from it. He handed it to Herr Winkler as they reached the entrance, but it was Hartmann who performed the introductions.
Theodor led the way to the shaft head, and began descending the ladder. The miller followed him down, and then the visiting engineer. Finally the boss started down. The engineer was still ten feet up on the ladder when a sudden realization struck Theodor. “Herr Bosboom, wait!”
Crack! There was a clatter and a muffled exclamation. The beam from the odd-looking lamp swung around wildly.
“Hold on, I’m coming back up. Here, I’ll guide your foot to a solid rung.”
He braced himself between the ladder and the opposite side of the shaft, and lifted. The light steadied above him.
“Are you all right?”
“I think so,” came out with a hiss. “It feels like I strained my left shoulder. I should have let the lamp fall and grabbed on with both hands.”
“I’m sorry about this. I’ve been meaning to replace that weak rung. All this confusion . . . Can you make it down the rest of the way now?”
“Yes, but give me a moment.”
Bosboom slowly descended the last few feet. Herr Winkler came down, and Theodor led the party off along the tunnel. By now the whirring from Bosboom’s lamp was slowing down, and it was starting to get dim. Hartmann asked, “Herr Bosboom, would you like me to wind that for you?”
“Thank you, yes. I wish I had some ice for this shoulder.”
Theodor replied, “The water in the flooded shaft is almost as cold as ice. I can dip a rag in it for you when we get there, if that will help.”
“It’s worth a try.”
Bosboom stopped when he saw the charred fragments lying on the tunnel floor. “What happened here?”
Theodor said, “One of the cover boards caught fire when all this happened. I knocked it off so the flames wouldn’t spread. That’s when I got this burn.”
Bosboom looked down at the bandage on Theodor’s hand, then turned and raised his lamp. Herr Winkler didn’t seem to notice when the engineer stiffened. Hartmann did. He asked, “What do you see there, Herr Bosboom?”
“These wires here look like iron. They should be copper. That’s one major problem right there.”
Herr Winkler snapped, “There’s no copper wire made around here. We were told that iron could be used to carry electricity.”
Bosboom looked over his shoulder at him. “That’s a common mistake, unfortunately. Our instruction sheets warn against it. Besides all the other reasons not to use it, iron wires would have to be at least two and a half times this diameter to carry the current. That’s why they got so hot and started a fire.”
Winkler waved his hand at the wires. “The smith charged me enough for the iron wire. Copper would have been unbelievable. That would have to come all the way from Saalfeld!”
“Actually, no. We have plenty of it at the sales offices in Halle and Magdeburg, and there are others selling it too. That’s not the worst problem I see here, either. Well, let’s continue the inspection.”
Theodor answered, “This way, then, Herr Bosboom,” and stepped forward.
As the party moved through the tunnels, Bosboom kept looking around at the bends, the drain channels, and the wooden covering over the electrical wiring.
Finally they came to another shaft, filled with water almost to the top. Theodor reached down into the water with a rag, and handed it to the engineer. Bosboom clapped it to his shoulder, and began examining the equipment lying on the tunnel floor, moving his lamp around as he did.
There was a cast iron pump secured to a hoisting rig, connected to a long canvas hose stretched out along the tunnel, and a loose coil of electrical cable running down from the end of the wooden raceway. The engineer looked it all over. Then he knelt down and took a close look at the pump.
He sniffed at it. “What on earth? Ohhhhh.”
The boss snapped, “What now?”
“Just a moment, while I make certain.” Bosboom took the rag off his shoulder and wiped the nameplate clean. He brought his lamp up close.
“Well. To start with, this isn’t a mine pump. It’s for a village water supply system, and it’s only meant for clean water with no muck in it. If the length of that discharge hose is any indication, it can’t possibly force water up from anything like the depth of this shaft, and I don’t see the pressure relief valve it’s supposed to have in case of a blocked outlet line. That’s why it stalled out and overloaded the wiring. There’s no fused disconnect switch on the wall here. Now that I think of it, I didn’t see one at the mine entrance either. On top of everything else, you had the fuses at the generator bypassed. This motor smells like it’s cooked.”
Winkler looked wide-eyed at him. “Cooked? Why would anybody cook a motor?”
Bosboom’s shoulders shook for a moment. He coughed, then got out, “Sorry. A figure of speech I heard at the factory. It means it was probably ruined by overheating.”
“So what does this mean? How do I make this pump the water out of here so we can get down to the ore seam?”
“With this pump alone? You can’t. It’s impossible. The most it could do is push the water up the entrance shaft and out of the mine, if you didn’t have a drain tunnel at this level.”
“What? This is supposed to be a good pump. It cost enough!”
“It is a good pump, or it was. It’s just not the right pump for this job. It’s not even the right kind of pump. All right, I’ve seen what I need to. Let’s climb back up and go over what has to be done. We’ll start by going through the instruction sheets for the equipment in the mill, I think.”
Theodor dipped the rag in the shaft again and handed it back to him. “I’ll climb right below you, in case you need help on the ladder. I’m very sorry about the fall.”
Winkler stalked off down the tunnel.
* * *
Ilsabe nestled the covered pot into the coals, and scooped more coals onto the lid. “That will do it for now, Mama.”
“Good. Why don’t you go tell Papa and Stefan when we’ll be eating? Peter will be back by then, if I know your brother.” She winked.
“All right, Mama.”
She walked downhill to the mill and stepped inside. The stranger kneeling on the floor must be the expert Papa was expecting. He was doing something to that machine of Herr Winkler’s that had caused so much trouble. There were tools and small parts lying around it.
Papa was saying, “Stefan, his shoulder is hurt. Go help him.”
“Don’t you want me to finish getting this load under cover before dark, Herr Hartmann?”
“Well . . .”
“Papa, I can help.”
Papa looked over in surprise. “Oh, Ilsabe. I thought you were busy in the kitchen.”
“No, most of that is done. Mama sent me to tell you that supper will be ready in about an hour. I can stay and help here if you need me.”
“Well, yes, you came at a good time. Ilsabe, this is Herr Jan Willem Bosboom. He’s here from the company that made all this electrical machinery. Herr Bosboom, this is my daughter Ilsabe.”
The stranger looked up. “I’m pleased to meet you, Fraülein Hartmann.”
“Pleased to meet you, Herr Bosboom. What would you like me to do?”
“I need you to pick up one end of this generator while I put a block of wood under it. Then the other end, and I’ll prop that side up as well. After that you can take off these nuts and we’ll pull it apart.”
Papa picked up his grease pot again and went back to the mill machinery.
She knelt down and took a grip. It looked like a lot of iron, but . . . “Oh. This isn’t as heavy as it looks. If you’re quick with the sticks, I can pick it up all at once.”
“All right.” He put the blocks in place against the side. “Ready.”
A second later it was propped up with its ends clear of the floor. He handed her a wrench and gestured with his hand. “You turn the nuts this way to take them off. I’ll hold this down. Once that’s done, you can slide off the end bells and we’ll pull the rotor out.”
She looked at the wrench in her hand. It shone like a mirror, and there wasn’t a hammer mark on it anywhere—except . . . “Herr Bosboom, what’s this here?”
“That? That’s a kudzu leaf. It’s the maker’s hallmark.”
“They must be great craftsmen. This is a beautiful piece of work.”
He glanced up at her. “You appreciate fine tools?”
“Naturally. I grew up in this mill.”
She turned to the generator, and set the wrench in place on the first nut. She gave it an experimental tug to get the feel, then braced her knee against the side and gave a solid pull. Two minutes later the insides were exposed to view, and she was lifting the pieces one at a time to a cloth spread out on a bench.
Ilsabe watched curiously while Herr Bosboom blew the dust away and started playing his lamp over the parts. She pointed to the wires wound around a stack of thin iron plates. “This looks very carefully made. What do all these pieces do?”
“Well . . .”
* * *
Winkler and Dränitz came back to the mill with a handful of thick pamphlets. Gerd came over to the bench to see, with Ilsabe beside him. Bosboom spread out the papers for the generator and the switchboard, and looked up in surprise. “Herr Winkler, these are in Italian! Do you read Italian? Do you, Herr Dränitz?”
“No, but there are plenty of pictures. We just went by those, and the tables.”
“Whooh. So, you didn’t get any of the cautions and the explanations. That explains a lot. The instruction sheets in German weren’t packed with this equipment, obviously. I don’t know how that happened, but I’ll leave you my copies. But why didn’t you just send for the right ones, before doing all this work?”
Winkler flung up his arms. “That would have taken a week or more for the post to go back and forth. I needed to get on with this, so my men could start mining.”
“I see. Well, you would have saved a great deal of time, and a lot of money besides, if you’d sent for instruction sheets you and your men could read. Haste makes waste—it certainly has here. While you were gone, I inspected and tested the generator with Fräulein Hartmann’s kind help.” He nodded to her. “Except for that and a few bits and pieces, there isn’t much here that can be saved.”
“What! I wrote to the company to send somebody who could get this working, not to be told there is nothing to be done.”
Bosboom straightened up and faced Winkler, his hand resting on the open leaflet. His voice went flat. “Herr Winkler, this trip up here is costing my company a day and a half of my time, and if you’re being charged for it, I haven’t heard about it. My job is to tell you the truth, not wave my hands in the air and magically turn it into something else. So I suggest you start taking detailed notes of this discussion, if you want to accomplish anything.
“Now, then. There’s a great deal that can be done. In fact, this can be made to work. The basic idea is right, an electric pump is by far the most practical solution, with so little left of the old pumping machinery, especially everything there was above ground. But the system has to be engineered correctly. The pump company has people who can do that for you, and their consulting rates are reasonable.
“But the worst problem I see from the electrical side is that knob-and-tube wiring you have in the mine. That only belongs inside a dry building. It’s dangerous anywhere in a damp tunnel, but you have it running right above open drain channels. Let a discharge line burst, and it’s a death trap. Besides that, you have outdoor pole lines, and those don’t look like they’re up to standard either.
“There are just too many pitfalls here for inexperienced workmen. You need the services of a licensed electrician to direct the rebuilding, otherwise somebody’s sure to be killed.”
“An electrician? There isn’t one within forty miles of here! It would take days to get one, and they charge a fortune! If you’re such an expert . . .”
Bosboom clenched one hand on the edge of the bench.
“Herr Winkler. My employers make a point of maintaining a professional demeanor and sticking to technical matters when speaking with a customer.”
“Well, of course!”
He looked unblinking at Winkler for a good two seconds, then growled, “I could make an exception in your case.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“You asked for help. I’ve been patiently explaining what it will take to get the results you want, and make this pumping system safe for you and your men to be around. You stand here brushing aside what I’m telling you, as if a loud voice will change the facts to suit your convenience. It won’t. We all had to begin from the beginning, but what seriously disturbs me is your unwillingness to learn when you have the chance. Do you expect to make this work without taking the trouble to get the right equipment and install it properly? For that matter, don’t you care at all about the lives of your miners? Or your own life?”
“You expect me to throw money around like water? And take who-knows-how-long to do all this?”
“You don’t like the cost of safe wiring? Would you rather pay to restore the old pumping system from before the war, with all the push rods and bell cranks? Would you like to pay to rebuild the dam so you could get power to drive it? No? I didn’t think so. I can see the answer on your face.”
Winkler was turning red. “Who are you, you young puppy, to talk to the head of an enterprise like this?”
Bosboom fixed Winkler with an icy glare and slammed his open hand down on the Italian installation manual. “Who am I, Herr Winkler? The examiners at Leiden consider me a civil engineer. Mr. Reardon is satisfied that I know enough about electricity to give sound advice to his customers. I’m the man who can tell you how to keep from walking into a worse disaster than the one you’ve already suffered. The Lord protect your men! What you have here would never have been built in any of the mines around Grantville. If the state inspectors didn’t stop it, the UMWA would.”
“Now what are you saying? Are you threatening me with the UMWA?”
“Oh, be serious! The UMWA isn’t so foolish as to rely on companies or their representatives to tell them about dangerous mines. Now if you’re through trying to bully us into rebuilding this whole thing without charging for it, you can start taking notes, and we’ll discuss practical action to get your mine pumped out without killing anyone.”
* * *
Winkler went growling and sputtering back to his office with his papers and notes.
Gerd watched the engineer for a minute as he started packing up his tools, still working one-handed. Finally he said, “Herr Bosboom, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a speech like that one. Certainly not to old Winkler.”
“I hope I did right. I hope I got through to him.”
“What was it that made you so upset?”
“Herr Hartmann, I’ve seen the consequences of refusing to face facts.” He shuddered.
“When I was nine years old, I wanted to see what my uncle Hannes did. One day he let me come with him to a job site, where’d just been engaged as the supervising engineer. You can imagine what a treat that was for me. A canal lock was to be repaired and enlarged, so bigger barges could go through. When we arrived that morning, it had been all pumped out, and the masons were ready to go in and examine the wall.
“Uncle Hannes took a good look around, as he always does. Then he went over by the gate, and looked closer. You know how wood will start to take up a bend, when it’s been under too much load for too long? Well, the top beam looked like that. He dug his knife into it, and it went in much too easily. The steward was there, representing the owners. Uncle Hannes stood up and shouted to him that the gate was rotten and not safe. He said it needed to be replaced before anybody could go into the lock with water on the other side of the gate. The simplest way would have been to block the canal with a temporary dam of rocks and dirt.
“But the steward wouldn’t hear of it. He answered that the gate had held for forty years, and sent the men in.
“No more than two hours later, it broke open right in front of us. It all happened in a few seconds. Men ran for the walls and tried to ride the rush of water. All of us on the bank grabbed ropes, boards, whatever was within reach, and pulled men out, or just held them up until others could help. But there were two that nobody could find in time, with all the debris and muddy water in that lock.
“So, I broke a company rule just now. Deliberately. I couldn’t just ignore a fatal accident waiting to happen, and not try my best to stop it. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. And nobody in the company wants a reputation for making things that kill people.”
Gerd was silent again, thinking. He cupped his chin in his hand.
“Herr Bosboom, if I understand the lesson in all this, it’s that I can’t afford to allow this generator here unless I know enough about it to make it safe. I have to control what’s in my mill.”
Bosboom nodded his head. “That’s a logical conclusion, for certain. I couldn’t agree more.”
“But you said other millers own these machines, and they’re making money with them?”
“That’s right, it’s starting to happen. I think within a year there will be a sudden increase in that business. The problems of manufacturing light bulbs at prices people can afford are close to being solved.”
“I see. That means we have some important decisions to make here. I’d appreciate a chance to ask you a good many more questions. Would you accept an offer of supper with my family and me, and a place to sleep tonight?”
“That’s very kind. I wasn’t really looking forward to going back down the road, with evening coming on. Maybe my shoulder will feel better after a night’s rest, too. Can you accommodate the mule I rented to get up here?”
“Of course. Wagon drivers sometimes have to stay over.”
“Thank you, then.”
“Ilsabe, liebchen, go tell Mama we’ll have a guest tonight.”
* * *
With a thumping of boots Peter was back from his errand in the village. His eye fastened on the platter of fresh bread in the middle of the table, and Marta’s eye fastened just as quickly on him. She reached across with the long wooden spoon in her hand, barring his way. “You’ll sit and eat at the table with the rest of us, you wolf cub.”
“Mama, I’m starved!”
“Oh, right, I can see your ribs. Papa and the men from the mill will be here in no time. Then we’ll all eat. And nobody will starve. Go wash up.”
Then Stefan came in, and a minute later Gerd was there with their guest. He seemed a pleasant young man, with a ready smile and an air of intelligence. The cut of his clothes was something like the uniforms the army teamsters wore, but in different colors. His trousers were made of a heavy dark blue fabric with copper rivets at the pocket corners, and he wore a rugged-looking red and black checked shirt. He took off a broad-brimmed hat in a style she hadn’t seen before. Someone with tales from far away, perhaps?
” . . . my wife Marta Seidelin, and our son Peter.
“Marta, a man of virtue stands before us.”
She cocked her head, with an expectant half-smile.
“Old Winkler drove him to fury.”
“Heh-heh-heh. I can’t imagine how that could have happened. So then what?”
“Anyone else might have come out with a curse. Herr Bosboom here pronounced a blessing.”
This time it was the guest who showed a half-smile—a puzzled one.
“You did! You prayed for the safety of the miners!”
His hand went over his mouth, and his eyes crinkled. “What? Oh. Yes, I suppose I did.”
“And I assume you sincerely wished them well, when you called on the Lord to save them from Winkler’s foolishness?”
“Well, of course. I wouldn’t want anybody to be electrocuted.”
“So, there you are. You pronounced a blessing.”
“Pffff! A civil engineer is supposed to do a lot more than just pray.”
Marta laughed as she ladled out the soup, and gestured for everyone to sit down. “Well, husband, what’s the news?”
“Marta . . .” He sighed. “We have a problem. It will be weeks before Winkler will be in any position to make use of that generator of his, and even that might be too optimistic. Herr Bosboom says everything has to be rebuilt, and before that can even start, there are other experts Winkler needs to consult. So he won’t be paying us to drive it, for as long as that takes.”
“Oh, Gerd, we were counting on that money. What do we do now?”
“For now, let’s enjoy the food in front of us and our company. We can talk later about how to finish paying the carpenters.”
Bosboom asked, “The carpenters?”
“It’s no secret. A storm last winter brought down a big tree, right on top of the mill. We were keeping ahead of expenses, until that happened. It’s repaired now, and the mill is working again, but it cost a lot. The carpenters have been patient, but they naturally want their money.”
“It sounds like a difficult situation. I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Well, thank you. Gerd and I really hoped you’d be able to tell Winkler and his foreman what to do to get everything working.”
“It’s a little too complicated for that, Frau Seidelin,” he said with a downcast look. “It involves a lot more than just telling them how to install the equipment my company supplied. That would be hard enough, with what they’re trying to do. But there’s all the pump and plumbing work to plan over from the beginning, and Herr Winkler seemed to think I could do a mine electrician’s job too.”
Gerd paused with his spoon in the air. “Mine electrician? There’s a trade by that name?”
“Well, in a way. There are some special things to know about wiring in mines. One of Grantville’s better-known citizens started out as a mine electrician. I haven’t met her, though. She’s been away on business since before I came to the company.”
Clink! Ilsabe was sitting bolt-upright. The spoon had dropped from her hand. “Herr Bosboom! Did I hear you right? Did you just say that women work in this ‘electrician’ trade? This trade that Herr Winkler said draws such high wages?”
Marta understood in a flash. “Your dowry. You’re thinking of how to earn your dowry.”
“Yes, Mama! Instead of some dull job in service somewhere, struggling to save anything at all, maybe I could have a real trade? Herr Bosboom, is that what this means?”
“Well, if you decide that’s what you want to do, I’d say it’s a real possibility. You’re quick enough with unfamiliar tools. If you can do as well with book learning, you could get accepted into an electrical apprenticeship program easily enough. The up-timers are absolutely desperate to train enough of them.”
“And because of that, they accept girls?” Marta asked.
“That would be logical enough, but it’s not the reason. They had an equal opportunity law before they were ever flung into our midst, and they declared it still in effect before the guilds knew what was going on. Anybody who can show a record book with the required experience can sit for the state examination for journeyman or master, and get the license. A licensed electrician can work anywhere in Thuringia and Franconia.”
“But we’re not in their state, up here.”
“No, but let me tell you, a customer with any sense will ask to see a Thuringian license.”
Marta looked at him pensively. “And it’s a respectable trade? A better opportunity for our Ilsabe?”
“Oh, for certain. Hard work sometimes, but your daughter is a big, strong girl.” He turned to Ilsabe. “Look, if you’re at all serious about this, I’d be happy to write a letter of introduction for you.”
“Oh, thank you!” Ilsabe’s smile glowed. “I don’t know what to say. Yes, I’d like very much to go see what this trade is really like.”
“Yes, Herr Bosboom. I think we all would like to know that.”
“Marta, that isn’t all Herr Bosboom has to tell us. He said down at the mill that these generators are making money for other millers.” Turning to their guest, he continued, “What’s that all about? What makes this an attractive proposition?”
“Well. There’s one simple fact about electricity. It’s the cheapest and most convenient way to move a lot of mechanical power from where it is to where you want it. That pumping problem Winkler has is just one example. His little generator could equally well supply electric lights to a village of a dozen houses. And that’s the smallest model our company makes. Seventeen of our big ones run all of Grantville.”
“Electric lights in houses. Yes, I can see what that means, steady income all year round, doesn’t it? But if we turned all the power of our wheel into electricity and sold it, there would be nothing left to run the mill.”
“Actually, the usual kind of wheel captures less than half the power of the water running over it. And a lot more is lost in the runs along the brook from one mill wheel to the next. There’s a fellow teaching water power the way they did it in their nineteenth century. I’ve attended some of his lectures. That brook out there could deliver at least ten times as much power as you’re getting now, if you used all of their tricks.”
* * *
There was more. A great deal more. As much as Marta wanted to ask the foreign visitor about his family, his life, all the places he’d been, she put it aside. There was just too much that could be vital to her own family’s future. She could see her husband too, struggling to make sense of all these new thoughts fighting for room in his head.
Finally Bosboom sat back and stretched. “Well, thank you very much for all your hospitality. I really should get some sleep now. I need to be on my way soon after sunrise.”
Marta answered, “Oh, it was a pleasure. You’ve been generous to let us ask you so many questions. I’ll have a bit of cheese and bread ready in the morning for you to take along. Stefan, show Herr Bosboom where he can sleep tonight.”
Their footsteps faded out, up the stairs.
Marta stayed seated, staring across the room at the hearth, her chin cradled in her folded hands. “Gerd . . .”
“What is it?”
“He said we could sell enough power to light a village, and still have enough to run the mill.”
“Well, yes . . .”
“Think what that means. Our water rights are enough to make electricity to sell, and still run a mill. That mill could be just as easily run by electricity, somewhere else.”
“But, why . . .”
“Ours isn’t the only wheel on this stream. Somebody else could put in a generator and sell enough electricity to run a mill, and send it down to the village and run a mill there. And then the farmers wouldn’t have to cart their grain all the way up here.”
Gerd froze. “Marta! If that happened, we’d be ruined!”
“Unless we did it first. Gerd, maybe this is only a fantasy. But if electricity means the mill could be away from the brook and put where the farmers are, then we must be the ones to do it.”
“But, wait a minute. We have the only milling rights around here.”
“You’ve been reading the newspapers as much as I have. As strong as the free trade factions have become in Parliament, how much can we really count on that, any more?”
Gerd began to pace. “If, if, if. So on one hand, if we do nothing, all these changes could wash over us and take away our business. But if we do all this and it doesn’t work, we could spend a lot of money and get nothing back from it. And we’re already short of money. I don’t know what we’re going to do about a coat for Peter, he’s grown so much lately. What have these strange people done, Marta? Made us some bizarre kind of offer we can’t refuse?”
“More like . . . given us an opportunity we’d be fools to ignore. But what we must do is find out the truth about all of this. The one thing we can’t afford to do is guess.”
* * *
“Urrr. Are you still tossing and turning?”
“I can’t sleep, Marta. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”
“Well, it isn’t going to happen tomorrow, or probably even next year. Meanwhile, if it’s slipped your fevered mind, there’s the flour order for that mysterious army camp on the mountain. And they pay on time, if we ship on time. So the first thing to do is get your sleep.”
“Yes, I know. But still . . .”
“Still. Yes.” She chuckled softly. “Well, I know what will make you sleep.” She snuggled closer. She laid her fingertips on his chest. She nibbled his ear. “Hmmm?”
“Mmmm . . .”
* * *
Their guest came downstairs just as the family was settling down to breakfast. Marta picked up a package wrapped in newspaper and handed it to him. “This should help you keep body and soul together on the way back. How is your shoulder this morning?”
“Better, but I still feel it. I should be able to ride all right, though.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Here, sit down.” She busied herself setting another place next to Stefan. She looked across the table. Well, Gerd was looking a lot calmer this morning.
A few minutes passed in silence. Gerd looked up from his plate. “Herr Bosboom, we’re going to look into all this. I think before we visit any of these places you told us about, we ought to read up as much as we can first, so we understand what we’re seeing. You mentioned books. Which ones would you suggest I order?”
“Hmm. I think, to start with, I’d suggest The Modern Millwright’s Electrical Guide, and Installing Antique Wiring. Maybe the Thuringia Electrical Code. They’re all available in German.”
“Antique? What? Are you saying the ancients did this kind of thing?”
“Hah, no.” The engineer laughed. “The up-timer electrician who wrote it has a slightly twisted sense of humor. You see, they can’t make the materials for the kind of wiring they’re used to. Not yet, anyway. So they had to go back to the forgotten methods of their great-grandfathers, and there weren’t any books around to describe them. Not in enough detail, anyway. They had to examine surviving examples in a few old barns, and figure out how it was done.”
“They didn’t pass their skills down? I never heard of such a trade.”
“Oh, they did, they did, from one generation to the next one, and that’s the funny thing. The materials and the methods changed fast. Very fast. That seems to happen, when the up-timer Americans are involved. After a hundred years, everything was completely different, and there was no use for the older ways.
“So now, they’re trying to get back to where they were in just a few years. It’s learn the trade, and then every time something new comes along, read another book or manual. I’ll tell you, it never gets boring.”
Gerd ruefully scratched his head. “No, I don’t suppose it does. Things are changing all around us, since those people appeared.”
“True. But, you know? We lived in changing times before any of this happened.” He laughed. “They’ve certainly made it blindingly obvious, though.”
Three months later
Marta was down at the mill keeping a close eye on things. The batch of coarse meal Stefan was grinding looked satisfactory enough. She glanced over at the new switchboard, with the metal case and the circuit breaker handle sticking out the front, that Gerd had insisted on after he got his hands on an electrical supply catalog. Winkler had squawked like a chicken over that one, but Gerd had roared like a bear. Well, he could look like a bear when he wanted to. The front panel had meters, too—she could see that the frequency was holding right on the mark. She returned her attention to the ledger in front of her.
Halfway down a column of figures, Marta glanced up with a momentary flicker of annoyance as Peter stuck his head out the door for what must be the tenth time that morning.
“Mama! They’re coming!”
She put down the ledger and hurried outside, with Stefan right behind her. There Gerd and Ilsabe were, just coming into sight around the bend in the road. They waved, and walked a little faster. Half a minute later they were dropping their traveling bags at their feet, and Marta was seizing them both in a two-armed embrace.
“I’ve read all your letters over and over. Oh, Fräulein Apprentice Electrician, I’m so proud of you!”
“I’m not an apprentice yet, Mama. I still have to take the entrance examinations. The man at the power company said it will take a couple of months of study here at home, before I’ll be ready for that.”
“But the director of training was very complimentary, Marta. He said Ilsabe has the skill and the strength of character to take on the responsibilities of an electrician, and that’s what they value most. He promised her a place as soon as she passes the tests.”
“What an honor for you, Ilsabe!”
“And now . . .” He reached into his bag and pulled out a bank draft. “Look at this!”
She took it with an indrawn breath. “Oh, Gerd! This is most of what we owe. And now that Winkler is paying us, it won’t take long to pay off the rest. You wrote about this, but just how did you manage to come home with more money than you started out with?”
“Luck was on our side, for once. You knew that Herr Bosboom advised us to go see the water works at the Braun and Scharff machine tool factory, so we could understand what water power can really do?”
“Well, it was the head millwright who showed us everything and explained how it all works. That was more of Herr Bosboom’s doing. Their wheel is so small I could get my two arms around it, and it gives them hundreds of horsepower. Amazing! Anyway, it came out in conversation that he was short of temporary help to get a new part of the building running, and here we were with mill experience. So he hired the two of us for a month’s work at good wages, helping his men hang line shafts and doing other mechanical work. We’ve missed you all terribly, but this was an opportunity we couldn’t let slip away. Peter, I think you’re taller.”
Ilsabe broke in, “One of the men showed me how they put up electric lights, and I did a few myself.”
“So she’s done a little of the work with her own hands, and liked it. So, I consented to the apprenticeship.”
Marta hugged them again. “I’m so glad you’re home. You must both be ravenous after walking all the way from the train station. Stefan, you can stop the millstones now. We’ll go eat, and then we’ll talk.”
“Oh, yes, Marta. There’s so much to talk about.”
* * *
Gerd eyed the pole and crossarm lying on the ground. Peter was taking a turn with the tools Theodor Dränitz had borrowed from the mine. He slammed the heavy bar into the bottom of the hole once more, and worked it around to loosen the dirt. That boy is getting strong! Stefan moved in with a post hole digger to lift out what Peter had loosened—a wonderful tool.
“That’s deep enough, boys.”
The four of them took their places around the pole and picked it up. Into the hole went the butt. Theodor, Gerd, and Stefan pushed up the top end as far as they could while Peter took up the slack in the tackle hitched part way up and belayed it. Then Gerd ran around and helped him haul the pole upright, while Theodor and Stefan steadied it from the side. Gerd walked around with a plumb line, making hand motions until the pole was vertical.
“Okay, Peter, it’s straight. You can back fill it.”
“It looks okay to me too, and I can tell where you’ve been lately!”
Gerd looked over his shoulder in surprise. It was Jan Willem Bosboom, riding up the road. Gerd’s face lit up with a lopsided grin and a mischievous gleam in his eye. “Oh, yeah? I wasn’t expecting to see you, though. What brings you up here?”
“I have a customer to visit nearby, and your mill isn’t far out of the way. I thought I’d see how things are going.” He dismounted and came over to shake hands.
“Things are going in directions I never imagined. Marta and I were only thinking of buying a generator of our own, you know, and selling what power we could spare from our own wheel.”
“Did you know what all those people you arranged for us to see in Grantville have in mind?”
“Not exactly, but I thought they’d tell you what you wanted to know, so you could decide what to do.”
“Hmmph. It seems they weren’t interested in anything as modest as that. The government wants some little commercial power plants up here in the mountains, to help the mines get going again. Tiny by their standards, but a lot bigger than we could run with only our family water rights. There are investors ready to finance it, if we can show them a business plan that makes sense. So I asked them why they would think of coming to us to put something like that together, and do you know what they said?”
Bosboom shook his head.
“They said, ‘There’s nobody else to do it.’ I think it must be their favorite saying down there.”
“Now that you mention it, you’re right. That’s just about what they said to me when I was hired.”
“So Marta and I have been asking around to get an idea who might buy electricity if we go ahead with all this, and we’ve been talking to our neighbors up and down this brook to see what kind of deal we might be able to make to combine some water rights. You know that phrase ‘sweet-talking’ some of the up-timers use? She has a talent for it. And meanwhile, we’re learning all we can about running a power plant, while it’s still mostly on Winkler’s pfennig.”
Bosboom threw his head back and laughed. A second later everybody else was laughing too. He waved his hand toward the pole. “So what’s this for?”
“We’re putting up a power line to the house. We only need two poles and a small transformer. We’ll have one light in the kitchen and one over the dining table. After all, who would take us seriously if we couldn’t show electricity working in our own home?”
“So, will you stay for dinner?”
“I’m sorry, they’re expecting me up ahead. I’ll just pay my respects to Frau Seidelin, and then I have to be on my way.”
“No more Herr Hartmann and Frau Seidelin from you, with all you’ve done for us! It’s Gerd and Marta from now on.”
“Well, then, call me Jan Willem.” He put out his hand to shake again.
Theodor said, “Herr Bosboom, I’m glad you came by. There’s something I’d like to ask you about.”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Well, Herr Winkler has been talking about another mining improvement he’s heard of, that he thinks will help us dig the ore out much faster.” He paused. “Do you know anything about something called nitroglycerin?”
* * *