“Now the soap, William!”
William Button stood dumbfounded for just a moment at his wife’s sudden, strident outburst. It was the last thing in the world he had expected at the moment of his second son Andrew’s baptism. Then he heard the creak of their kitchen door and saw the sudden light from outside streaming in, and understood in an instant. Davy Riggins, the baker’s high-spirited little boy, had come early with the bread for the evening meal. He couldn’t possibly fail to see their family gathered around the big wash tub by the hearth. If he were to speak of them merely bathing Andrew, none would take notice of it. But if it became known that they had given Andrew baptism at the age of eleven, an age when he could understand and choose to take Our Lord into his bosom, so that the sacrament could truly have meaning, that word would spread in the town like flame on tinder. The dangerous word, Anabaptists. What might happen then—
Many of the most radical and vocal Puritans were still fleeing to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as the hounding grew worse toward any sort of religious nonconformity. Any who were still drawing attention upon themselves were paying the fearful price of outright defiance. Even without beatings and worse, being thrown into a squalid cell was a short step from pestilence and penury. Lose a breadwinner, and a whole family could starve.
And the height of folly would be to ask a child of six to keep a secret. William snatched up the soap and held it out as Melisa dipped a scrap of rag. Andrew had the good sense to keep silent. All the joy of the occasion was blown away like a leaf in the wind.
A week later
The Buttons, having no need for a shop of their own, left most of the front room to Melisa’s brother Martin Billingsley. He stored some of his stock-in-trade of imported silks and Flemish laces there while he traveled, and for that, he contributed to the rent. In the back ell that Martin didn’t fill up, they could spin, read, eat, and host the odd visitor.
Though dinner was past, enough of the dusk still remained that there was no need to light a tallow dip just yet. As Melisa and his grown daughter Martha finished clearing away, William glanced around. His eye fell on a couple of patches where the whitewash was starting to peel. A task to give Andrew. Or Harry. He pulled his mind away from that. Martin was sitting at the far side of their scarred old table, sipping from a cup of ale—anyone who didn’t know him would have thought by his mild smile that he was altogether at ease.
William laced his fingers together, stretched his arms, and looked Martin in the eye. “Out with it.”
Martin raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not some stranger, Martin. There is something troubling your mind.”
“Melisa told me what happened beside the washing tub. It must have been a terrible fright.”
William nodded. Well, there was no reason for her not to tell her own brother. “It was, indeed. If she hadn’t thought so quickly— We try to be quiet about matters of faith, as the king once demanded of dissenters of any kind, but we can no longer rely on silence to keep us safe. I hear the sermons, and see the tracts and scholarly disputations passing through the print shop. In these times— We must either submit entirely, or go beyond reach.”
“And you will not submit.”
“No. How can we, and stay true to the Lord?” He tapped his fingers on the tabletop. “Well. We’ve begun putting money aside for emigration, what little we can spare. Getting established as a master printer again would be the difficulty. When I was offered a place as master of printers for the university, it seemed a stroke of luck. But now . . .”
“You did not have to buy the shop, and so do not own it and cannot sell it. I understand that.”
William rocked his cup back and forth on the table. “But enough of our difficulties, they’re nothing to what a great many others must bear. Something more is weighing on your mind. I can see it.”
Martin’s posture changed. He finished his cup and set it down. “It’s Father.”
Geoffrey Stebbins kept a room in Brasenose College. John Button hurried along the path through Radcliffe Square, to reach the stairway entry before the next storm cloud arrived. The old scholar opened his door at John’s knock.
John brought out the wrapped stack of broadsheets from under his arm. “Your French poetry, Master Stebbins. I trust you’ll find the work satisfactory for your tutoring.”
“Oh, let me see, if you please.” He took it and turned up a corner of the wrapping. “Yes, very fine. But your father’s work has always been so.”
Actually, it was John’s work, though it was done under his father’s privilege of printing some small jobs in the shop at his own expense and on his own account. John merely smiled at the compliment.
Stebbins started to turn away.
“A moment, Master Stebbins. The price we agreed?”
“Ah, yes. Forgive me. Hold this, and I’ll get it.” He rummaged somewhere among the disordered papers on his writing table, and a moment later he was back at the door, dropping a few coins into John’s hand.
With a polite farewell and a handshake, John took his leave. The brief flurry from the sky was already ending. That was English weather.
Halfway home, a sudden roar of voices rose just as he passed the open door of a wine shop. He glanced inside.
Two gowned academics were shouting at each other. The beardless younger one, likely a half-soused undergraduate, held up his tankard in an extravagant pose, as if lecturing. “Leamington’s latest letter explains a sensible way to resolve the entire question of heliocentricity! If we merely find a mine shaft deep enough where the air is still, and lower a plumb bob down it, and then we . . .”
The other, an MA at a guess, sneered down his nose. “Oh, indeed, you propose that we rely on the speculations of a newly minted BA on his continental tour? Aristotle clearly said the sun moves around the earth.”
“Aristotle? What about Bacon, who pointed out the necessity for experiment to winnow fact from fancy? Did the venerable Aristotle think to put his reasoning to experiment?”
A third man thrust himself into the dispute, a town rowdy by his dress and manner. “Ha! Whoever this Aristotle is, what about Scripture? The world must be square, for Revelation says it has four corners!” He stood with his hands on his hips and a smug grin on his face, as if in triumph.
The student looked at him dumbfounded, as well he might. But he was unsteady on his feet, and stumbled into the man as he shifted his stance, spilling the dregs of his drink on the other’s head.
That could only bring on trouble, and it was no business of John’s anyway. He turned away and started to move on. He never saw the stout earthenware cup that came sailing out the door, struck him behind the left ear, and sent him to his knees. When he put his hand to the spot, it came away bloody.
The shouting grew louder, and sounds of things breaking began. It was a certainty the call would go out at any moment for the town watch, and without a doubt the university’s men too. There was no situation so miserable that it could not be made worse by the presence of a watchman—or a university official. He got to his feet and made his way around the nearest corner.
William was about to ask Martin what new trouble had hatched, when the door flew open and his son John came in, with his left hand to the side of his head and blood on his fingers. William rushed to him, trying to get a look by what remained of the daylight. “What happened? Were you waylaid?”
“No, Father, I was passing the Rose and Thorn on the way home when a brawl started. Stupid, drunken scuffle. I wasn’t even in the place, but someone threw something, and missed his mark.” He grimaced. “I have Master Stebbins’ payment safe in my purse.”
Melisa was there by then, looking, pursing her lips. “Not too bad, I think, though your shirt will need washing in cold water. But the cut is not broad nor deep. We shall clean and bind it up. Martha, take your brother to the kitchen and help him. What a way to get a crack on the head!” She helped him steady himself as he threaded his way through the stacked goods and into the back of the house. Turning back, she looked to Martin. “What has happened with Father?”
William moved his hand toward the chair beside the one he’d been sitting in. The man was her father too, and he valued her counsel on any troublesome matter.
Martin began again, “We nearly lost him to a fever which swept through the jail. But he seems to have pulled through. He writes often. But William, I’m having a hard time paying his keep.”
So that was it. William took a breath and let it out. He was willing enough to help bribe the guards who allowed his wife’s father a private cell, enough decent food to stay alive, a small fire in the winter and blankets to keep him warm, not to mention books, paper and ink. But though his position as head printer at Cambridge University Press was honorable enough, what it paid barely supported the family. It simply could not be stretched any further.
“I know your situation,” Martin said quickly. He couldn’t have failed to see his brother-in-law’s unhappy expression. “If only . . . He was just too obstinate to wear a cope while preaching, and then when he was dismissed, he openly defied the bishop and served communion to those gathered in his home.”
“Mmph. And if you accept the priesthood of all believers, which of course he does as one of us, then making a difference between them by wearing a cope is an offense to the Lord. And if all are priests, then any may serve the Lord’s Supper.”
“And he was rash enough to say that to the bishop! The man said it would have been better had he raped twelve virgins. And if he was going to hold communion in his home, couldn’t he have at least have been quiet about it?”
William scowled. “Yes, why couldn’t he?” But this was ground they’d plowed before. Once, being quiet might have been enough. Now, even a very public and very thorough recantation of every point of disagreement might not be enough to release him—all of which was about as likely as emeralds raining from the sky. He thought of his own family’s compromises. Was their own silence a denial of their Lord?
Martin clasped his hands. “Water under the bridge. But I’ve been having words with a few people in trade, and I believe there’s something we can do. A bookseller in York tells me that many more would buy the Bible, if they could pay the price. For that matter, more than a few ask for the Geneva Bible. You and Melisa still have Tim Dunne’s old press and fonts, do you not? A little less costly paper, smaller printing to take up less of it . . .”
Melisa’s head turned at the mention of her first husband’s old press, packed away upstairs for when John finished his journeyman years. William shot to his feet again, strode to the mantel, slammed his fist down on it, and shot a fierce look at Martin.
“What madness is this? Am I Eve, that you would play the serpent? Martin, can it possibly have escaped your notice that the Geneva Bible is severely frowned upon? Never mind its great value for the understanding of the faith, start selling that, and it would likely be noticed very quickly, and inquiries made where it came from. At best it would be confiscated, and at worst it would have us under close scrutiny. Let some groveling conformist who can stand scrutiny print the blessed thing!” He paced back and forth a couple of times in the little space between the chairs and the wall. “No, if we even think of printing Bibles—and as you say, the Word of Our Lord is being held out of the reach of good Christians—it must be the Authorized Version, for the bishops and the king’s men would care little who prints that. But, of course, you realize that presents a different problem, to wit, the royal license to print it, given only to our university, and Oxford, and the King’s Printer Robert Barker. We would be risking discovery by them or the guilds.”
Martin made a sort of equivocal flutter of the hand. “Just to live means risks.”
William felt a sour expression come over his face at the thought. It was the poison-laced sort of truth that seduced the unwary into deep pitfalls of imprudence.
Melisa rose and laid her hand on William’s arm. “Please, William, think on it, for our father’s sake. It would be the Christian thing, and put the Lord’s word into the hands of many kept from it by the cost. Martha and I could set the type by day, and print when you and the boys come home. And there may be some amount left for us to save for emigration. It may be our only chance to escape this madness without indenturing ourselves for years.”
William saw easily enough how it would be done. Oh, yes; he could hardly keep from doing the quick calculation of the work and the materials in his head. A duodecimo format, perhaps, with small type, so they would get many pages and many words on a sheet. And complete disruption of the house and everyone in it, for as long as it took.
He sighed inwardly and laid his hand on hers. “I will think, and not linger at it. Time to do something for your father is short, it’s true. But I don’t like this. It could bring trouble.” He paused. “And I say one more thing. If you and Martha set type, John and I shall proofread. At the shop I let no printer proofread his own work. It shall be no different in our family.”
Martin fingered his lace-edged collar. “I have a thought how the business might pass unnoticed . . .”
Some months later
There was little reason for anyone to take notice of Martin stopping with a wagon as he passed through Cambridge just before sunrise. William was happy enough to be handing him the last wrapped package of printed sheets and sending them on their way to the bookbinder in the north. The type was already broken down, washed, and packed away, and the press would be in a similar state by nightfall. John straightened up and stretched. “What news from London, Uncle Martin?”
“Oh, London, yes, I was there this trip. Well, our eminent King’s Printer Barker has become the talk of the trade. He’s run into some ill luck. He was somewhat careless with his proofreading, and let a run of Bibles leave his shop with a word missing. To wit, the word ‘not.’ The sentence reads, ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ The book is celebrated in the coffee shops and the alehouses as the ‘Wicked Bible.’ The Star Chamber has taken away his license to print Bibles, and fined him.”
William winced. “I feel for him. Some of the errors we have all set in type, and might not have caught in the proofreading, with even the slightest lapse of attention—”
“He should be all right. He’s gotten hold of a concordance to the Authorized Version, one of those new things from that strange town in the Germanies. The scholars are almost slavering for it, and if he should get a verse number wrong in the entry for ‘unto,’ he can just sell an errata sheet, eh?” He looked at William. “It’s as well you used last year’s date in the Barker title page you printed to avoid the notice of the universities, eh? For he’ll print no more now.”
“Unless he does what we did. No, he’ll be watched.”
“As well, then, that we’re selling only in York and Newcastle, far from him and his London booksellers.” With the load under cover, he glanced aside. “How does your head feel, John? That’s an ugly little scar.”
John touched the spot. “Well enough, I think. It seldom bothers me, and so I’m thankful it was no worse.”
“Well, I wish you good fortune. Good fortune to all. And now I must be off.”
When William and John returned through the gathering gloom at the end of the day’s labors, Melisa met them at the door with tears in her eyes and silently handed William a letter. He recognized Martin’s handwriting at once.
My dear sister and brother in Christ,
I must regretfully write to tell you that our father went from this earth on Friday last, peacefully in his sleep, and not in want. It is beyond me to express my gratitude for what you all have done to comfort him this last year and more . . .
The last part was business. Martin’s bookbinder in the north was continuing to draw on their printing of the Authorized Version, selling the copies almost as fast as he could put them together. The price had been good for seller and buyer both, and readers had spoken well of the quality.
Martin hinted at another print run in a year or two. But with the great urgency of Melisa’s father now a thing of the past, perhaps they could rely on William’s privilege at the shop to make small private printings, and deal in things that need not be hidden. Many new books had entered the world of late, books which had no bearing on affairs of state or the church.
Melisa clasped William to her bosom, not yet ready to speak. That would come later.
Martin arrived altogether unexpectedly soon after the dinner hour with a few bottles of a good French wine for a gift, looking shaken and almost babbling. “William, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I proposed the whole business, or even thought of it. It seemed such a perfect answer to our father’s troubles, and yours, and with little chance that anyone would notice.”
Melisa brought three cups to the table. This was not a household that ran to wine glasses.
William applied himself to opening one of the bottles.
“Steady, Martin, sit and let’s take a taste of this treasure you’ve brought. Why should it be noticed? You’ve sold only where you said. Haven’t you? And we did a good thing for poor Christians.”
“You haven’t heard, then? No, I suppose you haven’t, here in Cambridge. Everyone who wanted Barker’s concordance seems to have bought it, and nothing else he’s printed has sold nearly as well. He’s in difficulty. He never had a real head for business, you know, and now it has crumbled under his feet. Creditors are circling in the water about him.”
“Poor Barker, indeed. But here is the rest. One of our Authorized Version Bibles has made its way into the hands of Barker’s creditors, who knows how? Perhaps a sailor bought one in Newcastle and then pawned it in London. But, of course, the Ten Commandments in these Bibles are not defective! No, such a blunder could never escape a shop or a house where William Button is master, so of course anyone can see that they’re not from Barker’s acknowledged Wicked Bible printing. And so the hunt is on for the profits Barker is imagined to have gained and hidden, from this other print run he’s imagined to have made.”
William’s face must have showed alarm.
Martin’s head gave a sharp nod. “You see it, do you? How long can it take for someone to search out where those copies were sold, then follow them back through the bookbinder and the carters? And then, at the very least if they’re in a merciful mood, the university will demand its share for those copies—why else a royal license? But Barker and his creditors, they are certain to throw up unimaginable legal cataclysms all around them in their thrashing, like an eruption of Vesuvius. Where is your share of the profit, by the by?”
“In Amsterdam, accumulating to pay for our passage and for a new start.”
“Prudent. Perhaps even providential. I shall watch and listen, and send word when I hear any more. The day of departure may not be long in coming, if it’s to come at all.”
“But where, Martin? We were saving to sail for Massachusetts, but with it sold to the Papist French, going there now would be leaving the frying pan for the fire. Amsterdam itself? It may be safe again, but we could expect to find few there of our ‘Baptist faith.”
Martin grunted. “By what I’ve heard of the stiff-necked Puritan brethren in Massachusetts, even the Bay Colony, I doubt you would have enjoyed their company. But, do you remember the letter from our London congregation, speaking of the old fellow Joseph Jenkins who visited for a time, and then traveled on? There is a place where ‘Baptist congregations not only worship openly and without fear, but make establishments of their own for deep study of the faith . . .”
Cambridge University Press
The rider dismounted from a blowing horse, shook off the worst of the road dust, and took a step inside. Work stopped for a moment at his shout, “Master Button! Urgent message for Master William Button!”
William turned away from the half-composed column of type in front of him and strode to the door. “I am William Button.”
The man opened his pouch and produced a folded bit of paper. William broke the seal with his thumb and took in the message at a glance. It was signed “Martin,” and it read “Matthew 24:17.” William felt a chill as the verse flashed through his head. Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house. If that was all Martin had had time to write, he must have been in a very great hurry indeed.
So much for this one last print order, and the payment it would have brought. William fished a coin out of his pocket and held it out. “Here. Have this. For your trouble and the care of your horse.”
“Thankee, good master.” The man turned away.
Marshaling his whirling thoughts, William called out to his son at the press, “John! Go collect Harry and Andrew and get home. Now.”
“But—” John started to argue, promising craftsman that he was. They were in the midst of a print run.
There was no time for this. William strode over to the press and thrust the letter at him. “From Martin. Read it.”
John took it in at a glance, then stared off into the distance for just a moment, trying to recall the verse. Then he turned pale and left at a run without even untying his apron. William was already throwing his onto a peg by the door. He trod on his son’s shadow as he followed him out.
“Master Button, where are you going?” one of the journeymen called.
“To my wife. She needs me.” That should satisfy the shop’s curiosity, at least for a short while. He judged that he needed only a short while. As for the men, they should be all right. It should be plain as a pikestaff that they knew nothing.
Melisa looked up in surprise from cutting up a large turnip for the evening meal, when her husband rushed through the door at an hour when he had no business being home.
“What is it? Has something happened to one of the boys?”
He shook his head. “We’ve a message from Martin. He writes ‘Matthew 24:17.’ And that was all he wrote.”
She turned as white as her apron, as she quoted the passage aloud. And she added verse nineteen. “ ’And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days’!”
She was indeed with child and she had miscarried three children already, two by a previous husband and one by William. She was despairing of ever carrying a child to term, and each pregnancy seemed to drain her further.
His mouth tightened. “I cannot dispute it, my dear, but what choice do we have, but to do the best we can, and trust the Lord’s providence for the rest?”
“None, husband, none.” She rose. “Martha,” she called loudly to be heard in the little garden behind the house where her stepdaughter was hanging wash to dry, “Leave it all and come here.” Seeing the girl come through the door, she continued, “Bring out the bags. We must leave the minute your brothers come.”
Martha paled. She, too, understood. This was the time they had hoped for years would never come, then hoped would be a little longer in coming. That hope had finally run its course.
But they were at least not caught unawares. After Martin’s words of warning, each member of the family had prepared a traveling bag, ready to take up at a moment’s notice. Traveling clothes and anything you could not bear to leave behind, and a bit of hard money in case one became separated from the family and had to fare on alone. Every bag held at least a good knife. William’s contained a valuable pistol, as did John’s. William’s held the letter of credit for the latest of the money they had scraped together. There was some now that they would never see—let it be.
The morning was well along when the family gathered once again beside an evil-smelling cook-shop. William shook his head. “I found nothing but a leaky tub sailing for London. Not a place we would want to be now, even if it were loaded and ready for departure. John?”
“A collier returning north. Certainly nothing bound for the Germanies, or even the Low Countries.”
Melisa’s face showed disappointment. “Martha and I and the boys found nothing going that way either. Only a fishing boat from Norway, selling the last of its catch, and making ready to sail with the tide.”
William wasted no more time on indecision. “Hobson’s choice it shall be, then. Lead us to this fisherman, and we shall bargain for passage.”
“What, husband? To Norway?”
“To sail on the tide. We shall be away and beyond reach.”
She looked back at him wide-eyed. “Are they already pursuing us so closely?
He spread his hands. “How can we possibly know?”
Gil Fletcher was out of sorts. It had taken him and his men half the morning to find the house of William Button. The penultimate neighbor they had questioned spoke of Button and all his family taking to the road just as the sun went down. Why would anyone begin a journey at sunset? Why, indeed?
But here was the house. A cart without a beast to draw it stood beside the open door, partly loaded with furniture and bundles. Stepping inside with a man at his back and two with halberds in hand watching the street, he found a shabbily dressed oldster holding a cheap-looking crock up to the light, eyeing it with a frown. Gil let his right hand drift toward his sword. “Are you William Button?”
“Nay, my name is Jonathan Whitesmith.”
“Oh, and what might you be doing in this house, then, Jonathan Whitesmith? Stealing?”
The man drew himself up to his full height, such as it was. “Certainly not! I deal in household goods. Button has commissioned me to sell his, and forward the money. And who might you be? Are you in need of anything?”
Amusing as that notion might be, Gil fixed him with a sharp look. “I am a sergeant in the service of Sir John Carleton, Sheriff of Cambridgeshire. And this ‘commission’ you speak of, did you have the foresight to get it in writing?”
“Do I look like a fool? Of course I have it in writing.” He reached into the purse at his belt and withdrew a paper.
Gil scanned it. “A fat enough share for you, eh? Well, not the matter I was sent upon. This names a banking house in Amsterdam to receive the rest. From there the money might go anywhere, eh? And where have Button himself and his kin gone, do you suppose?” He let the question dangle.
Whitesmith cocked his head, looking out the door for a long moment. “I think I heard him speak to his wife of America.”
It was a great relief to be somewhere other than the road to Lynn, or a Norwegian fishing village, or Denmark, or on the heaving sea, and in a print shop once again.
The shop looked prosperous. The windows were larger and better-placed than William was used to seeing in England, some of the equipment looked new, and the master printer looked well-fed. That was more than could be said of him and his family at the moment.
The conversation was in Latin, for lack of any other shared tongue. They had to raise their voices a bit, over the shop’s clatter.
“Master printer in England, you say? A pleasure to meet you, but I don’t see how I can help. You would not be able to set up a shop here. There is no vacant place in this city for another master printer. And knowing no German . . .”
“We do not propose to stay, Master Triebel. We seek work for a few weeks only, to replenish our travel funds. The passage was roundabout and more costly than we calculated, having no time to wait for a ship coming straight here. Our other funds have yet to reach us, though that is promised very soon. And so . . .”
Master Triebel’s eyes flicked to William’s hands, then John’s. “Ja. I see the ink still under your fingernails. Well, you have luck today. Two of my journeymen are sick, and there is work in the shop, this Latin translation titled Of Superheated Steam.” He indicated a thick manuscript lying on a pedestal desk. “Show me that you can set and proof a page in Latin, and I will pay by the page at journeyman’s rates until the book is done or my men recover. The guild will not object to that. Your son can make the stereotypes.”
This was an unfamiliar term. William cautiously schooled his face to a neutral expression—it was very likely a test, a trap for an impostor. “Stereotypes? A German word of the trade?”
“A new method. You will see. Well. The day is half gone, so you will wish to begin. Follow me. These others are your family? Do they work as your helpers?”
Three weeks later
It could not have been a better day for traveling. The sun appeared much of the time, and the new-model boat made its own soft breeze over the bow as it paddled along pushing six barges lashed together two-by-two. In only three days Schwarzvogel had carried them all this way from Hamburg, with no more need for their cloaks than a rain shower or two. There was plenty of room to move around the deck, now that the Buttons were the last passengers still on board.
William was about to ask Captain Becker how near they were now to landing, when the deck shook with a couple of loud bangs and clangs from somewhere beneath their feet, instantly followed by a deafening roar of steam escaping up the smokestack. The paddles stopped, and the river’s lazy current took charge. One of the men ran to the foremost barge on the right side with a rope over his shoulder, secured one end somewhere on deck, then swam ashore and hitched the other end around a tree.
With the assemblage stopped from drifting downstream, all three of the crew dropped out of sight within the bowels of the machinery. When Becker appeared a few minutes later, he was shaking his head. “Bad news, Herr Button. A casting broke. A long way from the worst that could have happened, but not something we can fix with what we have here. I’ll have to send for parts.”
That didn’t sound hopeful, but William had to ask. “How long for that?”
“Three days, maybe. Two if we’re lucky. But probably not. I told them to douse the fire and save the coal.”
William considered the choices facing them. Wait on the boat for three days, if they could even be sure it would be three days? That would mean finding some place to buy more food. Try to get passage on another boat? More expense, either way. But . . . “I had been about to ask before this befell, how near are we to the landing to which we are bound? It was idle curiosity then, but if we walk, would we reach there today?”
The captain pursed his lips for a moment, and then nodded. “You could, but our regular run for passengers is to the landing at Magdeburg Central Station, on the far side of the city. Too shallow for us any further upriver, you see. But walking, you wouldn’t need to go that far. There’s another station at the Magdeburg Navy Yard. You could be there in three hours without hurrying.”
William’s great concern was for Melisa—nigh on two months since leaving Cambridge, two months nearer her time. But Melisa was already directing the children to bring out their bags.
If being once again on foot was yet another forced change of plans, the high road at least gave no cause for complaint. Dry as the day was, the passing wagons raised little dust. This close to the capital, the road had been crafted of broken stone in some cunning way to keep it free of ruts and mire. Their shoes being sturdy and not badly worn, they moved along at a good pace. Nonetheless, William’s concern grew as the afternoon drew on. Melisa made no complaint, but her growing weariness was plain to see.
He glanced at the angle of the sun. Regardless of the hour or more yet to go, it was necessary to rest. It might have been better to stop at some nearby village where they might find refreshment, but Melisa needed a respite now. He led his family to the side of the road and gestured to lay down their burdens and sit.
The boys skylarked about at first, while Martha merely stood unmoving, but Melisa sat bent forward with her eyes closed and said nothing for the first half-minute. He settled himself against a tree beside her and fanned his face with his hat. Finally she straightened and looked to him. “Have we the time for this? I can go on now if need be.”
“My dear, we can afford a quarter of an hour, easily. We shall be in time.”
“Afford . . . and to be in time for this coach? For us all to travel the rest of the journey by coach? We are in funds again, but can we truly afford that?”
“My dear, we spoke of this before. If Master Triebel told us true, and every sign proclaims him an honest man, it will cost us less to ride this new sort of swift coach that rolls on iron bars, than all the nights in inns and the meals along the way, if we were to walk. And tomorrow we shall be among friends.”
“Honest, yes, but he freely told us he has not seen the coach or the fare with his own eyes. Might he be honestly mistaken?”
“Mistaken?” He paused to consider that. “Perhaps. But we have the seminary’s letter as well, and it gives the same counsel as to how we should go. My dear, when we stop again, we will be at the ‘railroad station’ and then we shall see for ourselves. For this moment, be at ease.” He turned and took her in his arms, and she leaned against him to rest her head on his shoulder.
Passing folk hurried about their business. A few waved to the resting travelers. The foreign words they spoke might have been good wishes.
Mountain Top Baptist Bible Institute
West Virginia County
Late the following day
The first place Claudette Green headed after she hung up her coat was the kitchen, not that there was any doubt Katerina would have things under control, even managing two stoves in a room originally built for one. To Claudette, sticking her nose into the kitchen was just part of coming home. The whole farm had become home, after Old Joe Jenkins donated it to become a Baptist seminary.
She stopped in surprise as she came through the dining room. Her husband Al was laying out some impromptu refreshments for six dusty-looking strangers ranged around the end of the second table. She glanced at Al, then at them. “Oh, hello! Are you the folks we were expecting?” The way they were dressed, they had to be contemporaries. Plain drab colors, square white collars stretching across the shoulders, and close-fitting cloth caps on the woman and the girl. They’d have looked like a Thanksgiving special on TV, if their clothes had been new instead of worn and dusty.
The man, maybe forty or so, came to his feet and gave her a short bow. “William Button, at your service. And are you Mistress Green?” The rest of the family was rising as he spoke.
The other adult, a woman perhaps near his age, was having to work at it. By the time she was halfway out of her chair, Claudette saw the curvature of a late-stage pregnancy. That wasn’t all she saw. The woman’s color wasn’t good, her chest rose and fell with a rapid respiration, and the expression on her face suggested stress. Claudette was no nurse, but some cross-training in admitting had come with her administration job at Leahy Medical Center. She could recognize some of the more obvious signs of trouble.
She stepped sideways between the crowded chairs to get around the table, barely acknowledging the introductions—time enough later to learn everybody’s names. “Melisa? Please sit down, you need to. How do you feel? Does something hurt?” She went down on one knee and reached out to feel the woman’s pulse.
“Hurt? Only a little heartburn, Mistress, ’twill pass.”
Chest pain with rapid breathing? “Claudette. Call me Claudette. If we aren’t friends yet, we will be. It could be heartburn, but we can’t count on that. If this is what I think it is, you need medical attention, right away. Al, would you get a couple of aspirins and have someone ask Brother Stewart to bring the station wagon to the door? I’ve got to phone Leahy and tell them we’re coming.”
It was a lot of strangeness to throw at the Buttons all at once. Rushing them out the door with barely time to snatch their hats was a heck of a way to greet brand-new arrivals. Having to leave the four young ones behind with Al and the students couldn’t be helping their state of mind, either. Claudette watched with sympathy as William and Melisa held hands in the back seat as they rode down, and maybe that helped them as much as her explanations of what was happening, what a modern hospital was, and what Grantville’s nurses and doctors could do for her.
Just as they turned off Route 250, she saw Melisa shudder a couple of times. Holy cow! What’s going on?
But now they were here. An orderly came out the emergency room door with a wheelchair, the newer one with wood-rimmed wire wheels.
As they came inside, Claudette glanced at the board. Dr. Shipley wasn’t on, but Dr. Schulte was—Scultetus, when he wrote in Latin. If her guess was right, he might be a better choice anyway. One thing was for sure, Johann wasn’t a bull-headed know-it-all like some of the down-time docs.
Cheryl Yost was handling triage. She was already on her feet with a clipboard in her hand.
“This is Mistress Melisa Button, Cheryl.”
“Good evening, Mistress Button. Claudette, I have the information from your phone call. This way, please. You’re Master Button?”
“Yes, my name is William. You are the midwife?”
“No, I’m a nurse, but I can call in whoever is needed.”
By now they were turning into an exam space. Claudette stopped. “Cheryl will examine you now, Melisa. I know you’ll want your husband with you. I’ll be right out here.” The curtain slid closed. There was a murmur of voices, then Claudette heard the sound of the blood pressure cuff pumping up. A couple of minutes later the call bells rang. Sure enough, it was the code number for Dr. Schulte. Right after that the orderly came out carrying a blood sample in a vial.
Johann sure didn’t waste any time getting to the ER, and he didn’t waste any time once he got there. Cheryl still had her stethoscope plugged into her ears when the curtain flew open and he stepped aside so they could roll the gurney out. There was blood on his gloves. He gestured William toward Claudette. “Mrs. Green, it’s good that you are here. Mr. Button requires answers, which I must rely on you to give. She is experiencing premature labor. It’s come on very fast, and there are severe complications. Please explain to him the meaning and treatment of pre-eclampsia, placenta previa, anesthesia, care of a premature infant, and blood typing and transfusion, I expect she will need it. Also tubal ligation. And please have all her family members blood-typed. Quickly.”
William looked like he was in a half-daze. “Will she . . . ?”
“It’s very likely her outcome will be favorable, Mr. Button. You did well to come here. Magdeburg Memorial or Jena University Hospital could do everything for your wife that we can, but here we have apparatus to care for a premature infant that they do not. If the baby has a chance, it is better here than anywhere else in the world. Soon we shall know. Now your wife requires my services. My apologies, I must go.” He turned to follow the gurney, rolling toward the operating room. The bells were ringing again for the on-call team.
William stood there, watching them go. Claudette took a couple of seconds to figure out what to do first, then touched his arm. “The doctor thinks she’s going to need blood. We have to stop at the lab first to find out if you have the same blood type as she does. Then we can sit down in the hospital coffee shop and I’ll explain what’s happening. Right after I call the farm to bring your children here.”
William was looking overwhelmed while she was on the phone at the desk. She got through the call as quickly as she could and went back to him. “All right, they’ll meet us here. Let’s go get a cup of coffee and I’ll try to explain what-all is going on.”
“A coffee shop, Mistress Green? I saw a sign for a chapel as we came in. May we go there? I need to pray.”
Claudette froze for a second, then her mind cleared. “Prayer. Of course, prayer. William, there’s one more person I need to call before we go sit down.”
The supper dishes were finally all washed and drying in the rack. Nina Underwood was just about to go sit down in the parlor and finish reading yesterday’s Grantville Times, when the phone rang. It was Claudette Green, and it wasn’t any social call. But then, considering the recent history, it wouldn’t be.
“Nina, I need your help. I’m at the hospital with Melisa Button. She’s a Baptist, and she just arrived from England today with her family. So she doesn’t know anyone. She’s pregnant, I don’t know how far along, but not far enough, and a bunch of things have gone wrong. She got here just in time. She went into labor on the way down the hill, and Schulte just diagnosed placenta previa. You know what that means, as soon as she started to dilate it’d rip and she’d bleed out fast. They’re in the operating room right now doing a C-section and she’s going to need blood, but what I need you to do is get the prayer chain started.”
“How bad is it?”
“Nina, what I’m really worried about is what the doctor didn’t say. He said her outcome should be favorable. But all he said about the child was that if there’s a chance, it’s here. You know doctors. They try to be as encouraging as possible. And that was as encouraging as he thought he could honestly be.”
“Oh, my. Yes, I’ll get on the prayer chain.”
As soon as she got off, Nina started calling around the congregations. She didn’t stop with just the old Southern Baptist ladies. For really important occasions she knew who to call to get the whole town praying. After that, she went to the hall closet and got her hat.
Her husband Albert looked up as she put it on. “You goin’ someplace this time of night?”
“I sure am, and you are too. You know your blood type?”
“You have to ask an army vet that? Of course I know it. What’s this about?”
“There’s a poor woman over to the hospital having a Caesarian, and whether they can use your blood or not, they can use your prayers.”
“Is this one of Green’s people?” Until a few months earlier, Albert Green had been the pastor of the Southern Baptist Church in Grantville. When he left the pulpit, as orchestrated by Albert Underwood, the church split, with the younger half of the deacon board leaving with him.
“Albert Underwood!” Nina was as cross as she could be. “You should be ashamed of yourself for even asking! There’s a woman in surgery and there’s about to be a premature infant that needs our prayers. Where they’re attending should not matter in the least, and you know it. But no, it is not one of Green’s people. None of them are pregnant. You know that. Unless, by one of Green’s people you mean is it someone from the new Bible college. They’re Baptists from England, and they just arrived today. So they’re from out of town and don’t know anyone. Carole Ann Grover and some of the rest from the church are goin’ over there as quick as they can. And they can use a deacon, so you’re going too.”
Nina snorted. Old fool. She was a mother herself, a grandmother for that matter, and she knew what was important. She couldn’t do a thing about the mess her husband had stirred up with such relish over who pastored the church, like he and his crowd of cranky old farts had done before over the years, but she wasn’t about to let that get in the way of something important. She especially wasn’t about to let it get in the way of a child’s life.
“If I’m goin’ out, I need to clean up.” He said, rubbing his hand over the white stubble on his face, as white as his wife’s hair.
“Well, make it snappy. I’ll see you over there.”
My dearest aunt,
I am well.
I am to sit for an examination next week, and after that I will be Licensed as a Practical Nurse. You will be pleased to know that the License means they will pay me more.
I wrote to you that these up-timers calmly expect miracles, and now some of our down-timers also expect them. But they look on miracles with a strange form of humility, not at all one you would imagine. I have seen them apologize, as if they think they have failed in their duty, if they cannot deliver one . . .
Adelheid finished a medication pass and sat down at the nursing station to review some notes on the treatment of skin infections and funguses. It was likely to be on the examination. The peace and quiet didn’t last long. An orderly came hurrying up and looked around nervously. “Where are the rest of the nurses?”
“On the floor caring for patients. Or maybe on break. Do you need one of them?”
“Doctor Schulte sends me. He says make the incubator ready for a tiny patient, and do it quick.”
Adelheid closed her notebook with a thump and stood up. “Okay. I have attended the training for that. Please go get a liter of sterile distilled water from the pharmacy and bring it to the nursery. It’s for the humidifier and the wet bulb thermometer.”
Even after long familiarity with the nursery, the first thing that struck her on entering was the warmth. It was so important not to chill these little ones when it was necessary to uncover them in the course of their care. As she turned to the task at hand, her mind went back two months, to the way the man from O’Keefe’s had spoken during the introductory session. He’d had no reason to act so embarrassed.
“Feast your eyes, folks, here it is. You know that old joke about how this thing looks like it was built by somebody who’d only heard of incubators, and never seen one? Well, this time it’s no joke. We’re a bunch of heating and ventilation mechanics, for Pete’s sake. Half the parts in this Rube Goldberg contraption came out of houses we remodeled up-time. If it gives you any trouble, tell us, and we’ll try to straighten it out. There’s sure no guarantee you can just turn it on and leave it to do the job. Now, here’s the way it works . . .”
And now it was time to use it for real. The worn but meticulously cleaned three-ring binder was exactly where it belonged, on the chart shelf beneath the glass box that had once held tropical fish. Adelheid pulled it out and opened the handwritten manual to the List of Things to Check. All the loose bits and pieces of medical apparatus present? Yes. Sterility seals intact—you couldn’t just wait until you needed the thing, and then take time to sterilize it. Check initial thermostat settings—somebody could have bumped into the knobs and moved them. Connect the power plug and set the heater switch to “AUTO.” A couple of dim little orange-pink lights came on . . .
Nina’s husband was praying aloud when Martha Button came back to the chapel after donating a pint of blood. It was pure luck that even one member of Melisa’s family was a match, considering that none of them were her children. Albert had turned out to be another match, after Nina phoned him to quit fooling around changing his clothes and just get going. Her exact words had been “If you ever want to see a strawberry rhubarb pie again, get over here. Now.”
Nina didn’t even know some of the people who’d showed up, but by their accents they were either family or down-timers from somewhere else, maybe from the Bible school or the German Anabaptists. If the Lord didn’t care what language they prayed in, she didn’t either. The up-timers who came in to join the prayer meeting were all people she knew, at least by name.
Sonia Burke stuck her head in the door. She had one of those fancy-looking new stethoscopes slung around her neck, all nickel-plated brass and beautifully stitched leather tubing. “Mr. Button, they’re still working on your wife, but we think she’s out of danger. Would you like to see your new daughter now? Her name’s Providence. Mrs. Button told us just before we started anesthesia.”
Nina smiled at Claudette. “Why don’t you go with him and see the baby?” She knew the father might need the support. A baby in an incubator could be a frightening thing, especially if you weren’t familiar with it. “We’ll hold the fort here.”
William found himself standing in a corridor, looking through a marvelously clear glass window into a softly lit room. The walls were a pale blue, with a bright-colored mural of frolicking woodland animals. Mistress Green kept her voice low. “We can’t go inside, William, not in street clothes. Remember what I told you about infection control—right now she needs the best we can give her. But we can look from here. There’s your little lady.”
A young woman dressed in the severely plain clothing of the hospital staff was leaning forward over a glass box at waist height, looking closely at its inhabitant. She was hardly larger than those who had not lived. But one hand moved. Just a little.
“Is she . . .”
“Keep praying. She’s very fragile. We’re doing what we can, but there are just so many things we don’t have. But the doctors still believe she has a chance. The next twenty-four hours are critical. That’s all we can say right now.”
After they got back to the hospital chapel, Claudette called back up to the farm, yawning as she talked. By then, she was just about ready to fall asleep on her feet.
“Katerina, Melisa is in recovery. She should come out okay, she’s just in for a long and hard time of it. A woman forty-two years old shouldn’t be trying to have babies in the first place, never mind with her medical complications. Schulte is almost sure she has hyperthyroidism, and that causes all kinds of grief. But the little girl is not looking good at all. I’ve seen her. She’s so tiny you could make her a comfortable bed in a quart sauce pan. They’re telling us the next twenty-four hours are critical. If she’s still with us this time tomorrow then she has a chance. But they’re not making any promises. We need a miracle, if not two or three different miracles. Well, Heaven’s got plenty of them on hand, but we’ve got to ask. Keep the prayer vigil going. We need everyone adding her to their prayers. The name’s Providence Button. We need non-stop prayers through the night, and see to it that there’s at least one person in our chapel doing nothing but praying until we’re through this and she’s out of the woods. I called in the old prayer chain in town.
“We can let the men squabble over who runs the church all they want, but the ladies know what’s important. That’s what Nina said to me.”
My dear aunt, the machine is one more marvel. The clever mechanics built it because some newborn babies cannot keep themselves warm, even if they’re wrapped in thick blankets. You and I have seen that. The incubator shelters them, and lets us observe the child closely. I found that it worked much better than warm stones . . .
The little patient’s condition was Adelheid’s main concern, but about half past nine she looked at the thermometer again as she had been doing, and noticed that it had fallen slightly. The HEATER light was not on. It should have been. She opened the manual to “Fault Conditions.”
In case of thermostat failure, the temperature can be controlled manually by cycling the heater switch between ON and OFF. During manual operation check the thermometer at least once a minute.
Reaching for the switch, she got slightly off balance and bumped the control panel with her knee. There was a soft click, and the light came on. When the same thing happened again two hours later, she gave the panel a sharp rap with her knuckles. She made a note in the patient’s chart, and told her relief at midnight.
But things were not going nearly so smoothly for little Providence herself. Adelheid had nothing to compare such a young infant to, but it did seem to her that the child’s breathing was not what it should have been.
Kortney Pence kept popping in with one of the other senior nurses, looking more and more anxious. The third time she pointed to the color at the base of the fingernails and muttered, “You see what I mean, Annette?”
“Yeah. Whaddya think we oughta do?”
“I’m gonna make another phone call.” She turned on her heel and went out the door.
Soon an energetic doctor Adelheid had seen only a few times came in with a book in his hand and examined the patient through the glass. He straightened up and frowned. Kortney stared him in the eye until he spoke.
“I have consulted the literature. You’re correct, she’s not getting enough oxygen. This is because her lungs aren’t developed enough to face the world. Up-time they would try surfactants to help them get started. I don’t recall seeing any mention of them in this hospital’s pharmacopeia. Do you know if we have them?”
“We haven’t got a lot of things, Dr. Placcius. No, we don’t have any.”
He went silent again for a few seconds, thinking. “If she was any more premature, she would have no chance at all. As it is, I think she’s balanced on the very edge.” His fingers moved in a circle on top of the incubator for a few moments. “For all our desires and hopes, our ambitions had not reached to caring properly for one brought into the world so early as this. But here she is, and here we are. Well, we must increase her oxygen absorption.”
The other nurse, Annette, frowned. “Jeez, we’re already giving her supplemental oxygen, as much as the books recommend.”
“Yes. And as the books warn us, too much can cause blindness in a newborn, let alone such a premature infant. They discovered that in the 1950s.” He watched the infant’s chest move. “All right. We’ll turn it up some more, for a while. We can do that for a few hours without too much risk. With only a little luck, it might buy time for her lungs to learn their job.” He delicately adjusted the gas flow valves, watching the ball rise in the flow meter, and then watched the infant for a while. Her color seemed to improve. “All of you, see what her skin and her fingernails look like now? That’s all we have to judge by. It would be wunderbar if we had a clip-on pulse oximeter to tell us what her blood oxygen really is, but maybe next year, eh?”
Adelheid bent over the glass chamber to see what these clinical signs were, so she could keep watch on them.
Dr. Placcius kept looking at the infant, thinking. “I hope she can take nourishment on her own soon, but keeping her hydrated cannot wait. We must start IV fluids immediately. Who here has the steadiest hands?”
Kortney looked around, and said, “Adelheid.”
She looked up, to see the doctor’s penetrating gaze on her. “You have done this before?”
She shook her head. “No, not on a premature baby.”
“Well, then, we shall talk it over first. We use a scalp vein.” He pointed with his finger. “That one should be suitable.”
Five minutes later, with the IV running, her work earned a nod and a quick “Excellent. It will do.”
He turned toward the door. “I must visit other patients. After that I intend to consult a colleague, and then rest for a while in the on-call room. Please call me in three hours to come see how she’s doing.”
Kortney stood watching the infant for a moment longer. Adelheid looked up and threw her a raised-eyebrow questioning look.
“You don’t know him? Placcius is a professor at Jena. He’s over here doing a rotation.”
Adelheid thought that over. “And even he comes here to learn? We are fortunate, I think.” She turned back to the patient’s chart and wrote it all down while it was fresh in her mind. She kept watch over the little one and the machine that was doing its best to keep her safe and warm, until her relief arrived. In the morning she began a letter home.
Claudette fell asleep in her office chair, with a coat buttoned around her and a blanket thrown over her lap. She was bushed, and didn’t want to go back up to the farm anyway, with the whole Button family there in the chapel keeping a vigil. Tomorrow would be soon enough to get them settled and start making some plans.
She came out of a doze sometime around dawn and washed her face over a ladies’ room sink. When she went to see how Melisa was doing, William was on his knees by her bedside, holding her hand and whispering a prayer of thanksgiving. Somebody had gotten him a shower during the night and lent him clean scrubs so he could be allowed in with a surgical patient.
The nurse who’d just checked Melisa’s vital signs took Claudette aside. “If I didn’t know better, I’d be asking where the baby in the incubator came from and what they did with the little girl we put in there last night. I really didn’t think she was going to hold on, but something happened just after the shift change. She’s breathing steady now, and we got a little nourishment into her from her mother, thanks to a dropper and that steampunk-looking breast pump we’ve got. It’s still touch and go, but that kid is a fighter. I think she might make it. Take this crowd home and get some sleep, okay?”
My dear aunt, I have a moment and feel the need to write. I have been contemplating the nature of miracles since my shift began tonight. What our hospital administrator Claudette Green said to me makes me think that the nature of miracles is deeper and more subtle than we understand.
All of us together saved a mother and child from certain death last night because they came to us, and came in time. A full day has passed, and they continue to grow stronger. There is no sign of any infection.
But they came here because of what seemed to be misfortunes and mistakes heaped one on top of another. They were driven to leave England because their Anabaptist form of our Christian faith has been badly treated there. Their plan to go to a colony in America was thwarted because their king sold it to the French. They had to leave suddenly, long before they intended, because her husband printed Bibles without permission, because some of them were sold in the wrong city, and because another printer made foolish mistakes in printing his. They chose Grantville for their refuge, knowing nothing of modern hospitals and what we can do, much less that ours can do more for a delicate newborn than any other, because Claudette’s husband lost his place as pastor of a Baptist congregation, and so was called to found a Baptist seminary which became known among the believers in England. And after all that, it was because Claudette misdiagnosed the woman’s labored breathing, brought on by climbing the seminary’s steep hill, as a heart attack, and so they arrived on our doorstep at almost the last moment the mother could live with the baby still in her, and the first moment the baby could live outside her, even with our special care.
Claudette said to me that someone must have been watching out for them long before Grantville’s prayers began.
I sit here wondering, when are we only doing our duty, and when are we called to be a small part of a miracle?