Kurt Vest didn’t know what he was doing at the party except that he had been informed by his mother, his father, his elder sister Elisabeth and his brother-in-law that he would attend. He was just back from university, having completed his studies in natural philosophy. The party was being held in the courtyard in spite of the rain earlier that day. Gertrude Krüger was talking about the latest Italian fashion, a subject that interested Kurt not quite so much as how the local cattle were chewing their cud. Kurt wondered what had happened to Trudi while he looked for an escape. Trudi had been such a sensible child before he went off to university. He had always liked her, back then. They’d done all sorts of things together when they were children, but now at twenty she seemed to have lost all practical sense. He was only twenty-five years old himself, but his brain still worked.
How had such a smart, sensible girl turned into such a social butterfly with nothing on her mind except fashion? Kurt didn’t know how to talk to her anymore. He wasn’t sure she had any intelligence left, what with all that giggling and eyelash batting.
Between his ruminating on the dead past and searching for escape, he honestly never saw the fine lace handkerchief that Gertrude dropped. “Excuse me, Trudi. I want to talk to your cousin about the new load of clay.”
Kurt stepped on the kerchief. His booted foot picked it up and deposited it neatly in a mud puddle. He hadn’t meant to kick it into the puddle. At the time, he didn’t even realize he’d done it. He went off to talk to Carl Krüger, Gertrude’s second cousin, about clay.
He thought his note of apology was wholly appropriate and his recommendation that she show more caution in how she handled such finery was simply good advice. His sister and mother, for some incomprehensible reason, didn’t seem to agree.
“Don’t you pay any attention to anything other than your experiments? You’re going to Grantville. Probably tomorrow. So go pack.”
Kurt tried not to sigh. The conversation had reached familiar ground, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. The patterns of his interaction with his sister Elisabeth had been set at the infamous party seven years before. At thirty-two, Kurt was something of a disappointment to his family. A useful disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless. He didn’t understand—or even want to understand—politics or social niceties. Kurt liked his work and his experiments. He was something of an alchemist, although he wasn’t trying to produce gold from lead. He just wanted to produce pottery in the Chinese style. The experiments were interesting, if frustrating. And if he hadn’t found the key to China stoneware, he had found a number of useful bits of information. He very much did not like social flibbertygibberty, when you could start a scandal by failing to pick up a dropped hanky. Kurt was unmarried, and by all estimations—including his own—certain to remain in that state until his dying day. It wasn’t that he was uninterested in the fair sex. Well, not entirely. It was just that the whole business was really quite confusing, and he had better things to do. “Very well, Elisabeth. Who did I offend this time, and why does it entail me going to Grantville? Wouldn’t a nice note of apology do?”
“Because Grantville has information we need!”
Kurt turned back to his records. Elisabeth took Kurt by his ear, something she hadn’t done since he was twelve. It hurt rather more than he remembered. Dragging him by his ear, Elisabeth brought him out of his workshop and to a table on which were stacked wonders. Chinese porcelain was something he had been working on for the last several years with little success. But it turned out that the Chinese porcelain was the least of it. One of the family’s factors had gone to Grantville and returned with examples of stoneware, something called bone china which was much like Chinese porcelain, but subtly different, along with several examples of something called plastic and several new types of glass.
That was how Kurt ended up in Grantville, researching the making of china. And that’s how he met Melba Sue Davis and her husband, Garth Freeman.
Kurt was grateful that the sign outside of the dwelling said that translation was available. Trying to understand English was a lot of effort.
The man who greeted him was apparently a former soldier. He had a gunpowder tattoo on the right side of his face and considerable scarring. But he spoke German with a Swedish accent and at least some English.
“Ian McCormick,” the man introduced himself. “How can I help you?”
“I am looking for information on the Chinese method of making ceramics.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place,” Ian said with a gap-toothed grin. “No one this side of China knows more about ceramics than Frau Davis and Herr Freeman. You wouldn’t believe the stuff they make.”
Somehow Kurt thought this wasn’t the first time that Ian had said that. There was something a bit rehearsed about it. Which didn’t mean it was untrue. Just on the shelves in the front room were some of finest examples of the potter’s art that Kurt had ever seen. Still, Kurt wondered just how many people Ian had told about their skill and how many people had learned the secrets of Chinese-style pottery from them.
A tall, skinny woman with graying hair and spectacles entered the room and said something in English. Worse, it wasn’t even an English that sounded like the English that Kurt had heard before.
Ian said something back to her in English much more like the English that Kurt was used to, then said to Kurt, “I was telling Frau Davis that you were here to learn the up-timer secrets about pottery and working in clay. And I realized that I don’t know your name?”
“I am Kurt Vest, from Creussen.”
“Kurt Vest babble babble Creussen. Creussen babble babble babble.”
Gradually, over the next few minutes, Kurt got used to the translation and it was almost as though he was talking to Melba Sue; she insisted he call her that, directly. Ian was still very much there, occasionally inserting his own opinion.
“We offer training in the mixing and making of ceramics in both the true Chinese style and in other forms of ceramics that have been developed over the last four hundred years or so. Unfortunately, we can’t provide the really advanced stuff that was being done up-time . . . ”
“They made ceramic knives up-time,” Ian put in. “Sharp as broken glass but strong as steel.” He pointed to a wide-bladed knife hanging on the wall. The knife was white, not the gray or silver of steel, then went back to translating.
“A lot of the exciting new advances were still proprietary information and unavailable to hobbyists like us.”
“You were hobbyists?”
“Yes. Given six months and some training, you’ll be better than we are, I imagine.”
“I don’t think so, myself,” Ian interjected. “Frau Davis and Herr Freeman are artists. They are real artists.”
“So, would you like a tour?” Melba Sue asked.
And during the tour, Kurt met several acquaintances from towns and villages in central Germany where clay was worked. They made everything from the beer steins made in Creussen to roof tiles. And all of them were here learning the up-timer techniques. Kurt realized that they wouldn’t be able to keep this a secret to Creussen, much less the Vest family, but he didn’t realize what that would mean in terms of the price of Chinese-style porcelain. It simply never crossed his mind.
Over the next few weeks, Melba Sue and Garth, with Ian interpreting, showed Kurt how they did things in the latter part of the twentieth century. And they were things of amazing value in terms of saving fuel and work while at the same time increasing production.
He also learned the formula for hard paste and soft paste china and bone china, which was actually developed in England from a misinterpretation of a Jesuit text on the Chinese method of making porcelain.
Kurt didn’t care where it had been developed. He cared about the fact that he could see the shadow of his hand though the bone china, it was so fine.
He spent three weeks there on his first visit and returned with two pamphlets copied from some of the up-time books on pottery and a new-found faith in God. Kurt’s faith faded, but the pamphlets he would keep for the rest of his life.
Back in his lab, Kurt worked with kaolin, feldspar, quartz and pottery shards, grinding and mixing to produce a soft paste porcelain that vitrified at around 1300ºC. After he got it working and figured he had the formula down, he showed his family. They were quite impressed.
“This is marvelous,” Elisabeth said. “We must keep it secret.”
Kurt chose to assume that she meant the particular mix he had come up with and his particular procedures, because he knew that there was no way that they could keep the basic formula secret.
“It’s beautiful, Kurt,” Elisabeth said. And this time her voice lacked its normal edge. As a member of the Vest family, Elisabeth, like the rest of them—and virtually everyone in town—had grown up with stoneware pottery and an appreciation of what it was and what you could and could not do with it. This almost translucent tea cup with the delicate handle had, until now, very much been in the category of “could not.”
“Thank you, sister. With what I learned in Grantville it only took me a few months to get the formula right. Not just something that would work but something truly beautiful. I think this is as good as what Melba Sue Davis makes. And frankly, it’s better than anything I have seen that comes from China. At least outside of the things I saw in Melba Sue’s books.” Honestly, Kurt thought it was better than what Melba Sue and Garth made. Just as she had predicted.
“You have talked about this Melba Sue quite a bit, brother.” Elisabeth ‘s voice had taken on a teasing tone.
“Yes. She is an expert on the chemistry of clays and glazing, though Garth, her husband, is better with the kiln and the potter’s wheel.”
It took more time to get into production. Porcelain can be worked using basically the same techniques that are used in stoneware. Basically. Bone china is a soft paste porcelain, but at the same time stronger than most after firing and can use a thinner cross-section. But that takes a very delicate hand when throwing a pot or bowl. Some of that Kurt had been able to explain but a bigger part required practice to get right. They spent quite a lot of time and more than a little money gaining that skill. It was more than a year after Kurt’s first trip to Grantville that they thought they had products good enough to sell.
“They aren’t selling,” Friedrich said. “Everyone is impressed, but no one wants to buy at the prices we can offer.”
“Why not?” Elisabeth asked. “Our new line of dinnerware is lovely.”
“Yes. I got more compliments than I have had on any sales trip I have ever taken. It’s the price that is causing the problem. They, the people I tried to sell to, say that with the up-timers and the knowledge they bring, everyone will be making bone china in a year or so. All they have to do is wait and the price will come down.”
“Not from us it won’t. It takes extra processing of the clay and the addition of bone ash. That doesn’t come cheap.”
Elisabeth was overstating the case and Friedrich knew it. In fact, while the price wasn’t going to go down as much as most of the people he had talked to thought it should, it was going to have to go down. They had expected the bone china to be a high profit item—had counted on it, in fact—but they were going to have to drop the price and take less profit if they expected to make any sales. Still, this definitely wasn’t the time to argue the point, not with Elisabeth. “I know that and you know that but the customers all think that everything made with the new knowledge is cheaper to make than the old way. So they figure that we can make bone china for less than stoneware.”
He held up his hand before his wife could interrupt again. It had been a cold and disappointing two months on the road and when Liesel got on a tear it could take a while for her to cool off. “I told them, but they don’t believe me. They don’t want to believe me. And they aren’t entirely wrong. The bone china is lighter than the stoneware and uses less clay. Which, they pointed out to me in several towns, means we can use less clay. And that there were other savings that we were no doubt making from up-timer knowledge. And there are. You know how much we are saving in fuel by pre-heating the air with the reverse-flow heaters.
“It doesn’t matter that they are wrong. What matters is that they believe the price will fall and are waiting for it to do so. Also, Peter Krump from Annaberg showed up with bone china that was pretty good. Not as good as ours, I don’t think, which is why I am convinced that they didn’t steal our formula. Even so, it was still bone china.”
“Other people can make bone china?”
“Yes. Kurt isn’t the only one to consult the up-timers. Apparently Melba Sue and Garth have a nice little business telling people how to make porcelain.”
“How could you?” Elisabeth shrieked.
Kurt jumped. He hadn’t even heard her come in. “How could I what, Elisabeth? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Have I yet again offended some flighty girl you want me to marry?”
“No. How could you? You haven’t been out of your workshop for weeks, I think. But other people are making bone china. If this keeps up, we’ll be out of business in a few months. No one is buying!”
“It was hopeless to think we could keep it a secret, sister,” Kurt said. “We can keep some of it to ourselves, but anyone with any desire to make better products can find out the same things I did. And even if they didn’t consult with Melba Sue and Garth, there’s still the library. It has information on ceramics. For that matter, there was a ceramics factory in Grantville, or at least near it, before the Ring of Fire. Garth was telling me about it. You know, that’s an idea . . . ”
“What’s an idea?” Elisabeth shouted.
“Well, they made toilets.”
“They made what?”
“Toilets. Indoor plumbing.”
“This is going to take some explaining. Up-time and in Grantville, they have indoor outhouses. That don’t stink,” he added quickly, before Elisabeth could interrupt to tell him how bad an idea that was.
“Chamber pots? You want us to make chamber pots?”
“Not exactly. They use water to flush away the waste to . . . ” Kurt stopped. “Well, I don’t actually know where it goes, but the toilet flushes it away. The thing that interested me in them was that they are porcelain and they have complex shapes that can’t be thrown on a potter’s wheel. I read a little about how they do it and we do some things that are similar but not quite the same.” The truth was that most of what was written about slip-casting was still in English and he hadn’t trusted the translations of the little there was in German so far.
“I still don’t understand. What is the idea?”
“We could make toilets and perhaps other plumbing supplies. Like the sinks. Melba Sue had a toilet and sink, as well as a bathtub, that were all pale blue. Quite lovely in its way.”
“And they were all porcelain?” Elisabeth asked.
“Well, the bathtub was fiberglass, I think they said. But I think it could have been porcelain. Oh, and the pipes were mostly copper or perhaps stainless steel. I’m not really sure.” Kurt was trying to remember. His interest, aside from the fact that it was convenient not to have to go out in the cold, was mostly that the bathing room, they called it, had several ceramic components, unlike the kitchen, which had a steel sink. He had wondered casually why. “In the bathing room the tiles were ceramic. So were the sink and the toilet, which was, I guess, a self-emptying chamber pot. It just struck me that that room had more ceramics in it than the rest of the house. Or at least that’s how it seemed.
“So when you reminded me of it, it occurred to me that we might be able to branch out into making the toilets and tiles and sinks. Perhaps the bathing tubs, which are long enough to lie down in so that the water will cover your whole body. A bit like having a bath house in your home. That’s it!” Kurt hit himself on the forehead. “I knew I was misremembering something. It was a bathroom, not a bathing room. A bathhouse room in your home, but with a self-emptying chamber pot and wash basin that can be filled and emptied with the twisting of a lever.”
“It sounds like an amazingly expensive addition.” Elisabeth sniffed.
“Why? A basin isn’t that expensive, nor is a chamber pot.”
“Because where does the water go? The water from the basin and the bathing tub and . . . is there water in the toilet thing? I think you said something about flushing and that implied water to me.”
“Yes, there is. In fact, there is a water tank behind the pot part of the toilet that refills on its own.”
“Refills from where? Where does the water to fill the tank come from?”
“I don’t know,” Kurt admitted, suddenly realizing that his obsession with clay and pottery had done a fair job of blinding him to the other miracles that the up-timers had brought with them.
For a few minutes Elisabeth was quiet and Kurt let her be as he tried to remember what little he had noticed about the bathroom in the Freeman home. And, for that matter, the other bathrooms he had seen in the various homes and public buildings.
“I think,” Elisabeth said finally, “that you are going to have to make another trip to Grantville. We don’t know enough. This may be the answer to our problems or it may be another bone china fiasco. Only worse, because who will be able to afford bathrooms?
“Listen, Kurt. We thought that the bone china was going to be a high profit product. We calculated based on that belief. And in order to get the greatest profit, we went ahead and spent money on things like rebuilding the kilns and promised the council that we would spend even more hiring more people to work in the shop. Now it turns out that we aren’t going to make nearly as much as we thought on bone china. But we still have all those obligations. People we promised jobs, artists and refugees who came to us and who we accepted. We have agreements with those people, Kurt. I don’t know how things worked in that future world that Grantville comes from, though I’ve heard some things. It doesn’t matter, anyway. In this century you don’t just throw people out when things aren’t working. We need something for those people to do, Kurt, something that will make a profit.”
Back in Grantville, Kurt quickly discovered that Melba Sue and Garth weren’t really the people that he needed to talk to about plumbing. Well, not the only people. Water pipes, he was told, should not be made of lead.
“Every one is telling me I can’t make the pipes out of lead,” Kurt complained to Garth. “I wasn’t thinking of making water pipes out of lead. I was thinking of making them out of ceramics.”
“Not a good idea,” Garth told him, “because the pipes have to have some flex to them and can’t be too stiff. Ceramic pipes would break as the house walls expand and contract on warm days and cold nights.”
“Yes. So do pipes, both metal and ceramic. The issue is how much, and the fact that the metal pipes can flex but the ceramic pipes, not so much. They get stressed and they fracture rather than bend.”
“So while we can make the sinks and the tubs and the toilets, we can’t make the pipes that make the system work.” Kurt shook his head. “It seemed like such a good idea.”
“It might still be,” Melba Sue interrupted. “You’re not really used to the level of interconnectedness of a modern society. Mostly we didn’t pay any attention to it up-time, either. You could get pipes because there were thousands of people making pipes. You could get toilets because there were thousands of people making toilets. There wasn’t an issue because there were multiple suppliers for all the parts needed to make a bathroom. Or just about anything else, for that matter.”
“But that’s not the case here,” Kurt complained. “We can’t afford to start making toilets and just hope someone will make the pipes. That could easily ruin my family.”
“Which means that you need some sort of guarantee.” Then Melba Sue stopped and Kurt knew why. There was no such guarantee.
“Look, Kurt,” Garth said. “I know you can’t afford to go into full production, but you could do some of the set up, some of the experimentation, that would let you get into production.”
“I don’t know. It’s the expense. With the disaster that bone china turned out to be, I don’t think the family will be willing to invest another fortune into this on speculation.” Which was a truly disheartening thought, because Kurt had gotten really fond of bathrooms going back and forth between the up-time world of Grantville and down-time world of . . . well, the rest of the world.
“We might be able to help some with the bone china thing,” Garth said in badly accented German. “We’ve gotten a lot more on slip-casting translated.”
“Kurt’s back,” Trudi’s younger sister, Margretha, said with clear malice.
“I really don’t care,” Trudi tried, but she knew that she hadn’t quite carried it off. Since Kurt had kicked her handkerchief into the mud all those years ago, Trudi had had a couple of suitors. Had even considered a betrothal. But the truth was, she wasn’t that much better in the romance department than Kurt was, it being beyond the merely human capability to be worse at romantic things than Kurt Vest. Most of the young men in the town bored her to tears and, unfortunately, she didn’t flutter well. Dropping her handkerchief was not a bad example of that, but it was hardly the only one. What people like Margretha did with apparent naturalness and consummate ease, Trudi couldn’t do to save her life. Somehow it always felt like she was a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes.
So Trudi turned back to her accounts. She would end up an old maid, just as Kurt would, no doubt, turn out a crusty old bachelor. If there was one slight touch of light shining through the whole gloomy mess, it was that she wasn’t the only woman Kurt ignored. Kurt was, financially at least, something of a catch, but showed even less interest in other women than he did in Trudi.
“Well, you should care. Even if you’re not interested in Kurt himself,” Margretha continued, halfway letting her off the hook. “He’s back from his second trip to Grantville and he went there to learn about toilets and stuff because with the up-timers stopping the war—at least around here—and opening up trade again and building roads and railroads and—”
“You’ve never seen a railroad in your life. They are all going north from Grantville.”
“Just because there aren’t any around here yet, doesn’t mean we can’t learn about them on the radio. Besides they’ll send a railroad this way to reach the Danube. They have to.”
“Maybe. But so far they seem to be focusing on the Elbe and Magdeburg. That’s where the capital of the USE is. We are a backwater and likely to remain one,” Trudi said severely, hiding a grin. Margretha was Grantville mad and had been even before the townspeople had made a bunch of crystal radios. She was utterly gone on the fictional Robin of the CoC, and was actively disappointed in the prosaic nature of the local males. Margretha also spent every pfennig she could get her hands on buying romance novels.
“We should send someone to Grantville,” Margretha said. “Our family is as important as the Vest family.”
Which wasn’t entirely true, though with the reverses that the Vest family had taken over the bone china, they were closer. Still, Margretha had a point. There was knowledge in Grantville. As the Vest family had shown, it was knowledge that was not without risks. But they had produced bone china and it was beautiful, truly beautiful. The knowledge was there and useful. It just had to be used with caution and common sense. “I’ll talk to Father about it. But I wouldn’t expect to go if I were you.”
Kurt was ambushed that night. It was supposed to be a family dinner, but turned out to be a family meeting. With Kurt’s many failings as the subject.
“Well, son,” Papa started with faint praise, “I agree that the slip-casting does indeed provide a standard product. It’s simpler than our old techniques and saves on labor. But all those molds do cost. Quite a lot, in fact. And with the extra people we have taken on, the labor savings is not translating into much money savings. We have master craftsmen whitewashing the stables for something to do.”
Kurt tried to offer them work in his experimental shop, but Mama was speaking. “And you haven’t paid any attention to any of the girls I’ve introduced you to, because you’ve been buried in your workshop.”
Elisabeth hit him with, “You could go out on the sales trips with Friedrich. Get you out of that shop and into the fresh air.”
Friedrich rolled his eyes, in sympathy Kurt thought. ” Elisabeth, there’s no point in Kurt coming along. The sales have picked up a bit.”
“That still doesn’t get him married.” Mama sniffed. “Trudi Krüger is still single. A good girl, Trudi. With excellent prospects.”
Kurt sighed. “Papa, the molds are reusable, probably just about forever, so long as they aren’t dropped and broken. And we have to have more than one, else we can’t increase production enough. They do have to dry between castings. As to the craftsmen send them to me I can put them to work on new designs. Mama, I’m not sure I will ever marry, but even if I do I am in no rush. Something strange happens to girls when they turn into women. Perfectly reasonable little people turn into utter flibbertigibbets. It happened to Trudi. She was a perfectly clever child, interested in how things worked, when I left for university. Now she’s turned into such a, a, well, something. She’s not like she used to be, that’s certain.
” Elisabeth, no. I’m not going out on sales trips. I’m busy with my research, which, I will remind you, did give us the way of making the bone china. And thank you, Friedrich, for trying. And, so you all know, I’m hungry. If I can’t eat in peace here, I’ll go to the tavern.”
“No need to be rude,” Mama said. “I’m thinking of your welfare.”
At last they quieted and Kurt was able to fill his stomach. As a parting shot before going back to his workshop, he said, “I could, you know, go back to Grantville and just stay . . . ” Then he left the room before the fuss started, hiding a grin.
Friedrich followed Kurt out to his workshop. “Hey, wait up, Kurt. I want to talk to you.”
Kurt slowed his walk, allowing Friedrich to catch up. “You’re not going to try and marry me off, are you?”
Friedrich laughed. “Please! One Elisabeth is enough, I think. Another woman in the house would drive us all mad. No, I wanted to talk to you about the plumbing fixtures. On my last trip, a few people were installing septic tanks and water tanks to catch rainfall. I believe that you’re right. Plumbing, real bathrooms, will be much in demand, someday. So I wanted to know how you’re progressing on your research.”
“Some of it is very simple,” Kurt said. “After all, a basin is just a basin, only the up-time ones have a hole in the center to attach the pipes. And a hole and channel in the side so that it won’t overflow. It’s the same for the bathtubs. They’re just a large basin. The problem is that they are a very large basin and that introduces stress, especially when you’re firing them. And the toilet is a bit tricky. The water tank is simple, yet another basin, only taller. What I’m not sure of is the toilet bowl and how they get the water to empty it and refill it the way they do. I have seen the designs in Grantville, but making them work for us is harder than I thought it would be. I haven’t been able to come up with a design modification to do all that with our way of doing things. But then, I haven’t really had much time to research it, either. Mama, Papa and Elisabeth constantly interrupt me.”
Six months later Kurt was sitting at his work table with a clay-carving tool in his hand, carefully modifying the shape of a toilet bowl. It turned out that the shape of the bowl was important in terms of directing the water. The model was one-eighth scale, and he was trying to figure out how to make the joint between the rim and the bowl in such a way as to be easy for the workers in his family’s shop to assemble. He knew that there was no market, yet, but he, like his brother-in-law, was sure there would be someday.
He wanted a good design just so he would have it when the time came. And the family let him get away with it because the up-timer slip-casting was proving to be a very useful innovation, whatever Papa’s complaints. And a toilet was a complex device that took considerable time and dozens of individual parts. First, to make each plaster mold there were several parts that had to be assembled. Then several plaster molds had to be assembled for the slip to be cast into. Then there were different clay parts that had to be welded together with thick slip while they were still semi-soft, and finally the whole assembly had to be sanded smooth and painted with glaze. Even with every up-time advantage he could come up with, the process was time consuming and labor intensive.
By now Kurt was convinced that it had been labor intensive even in the twentieth century.
“Kurt, you have a letter from Grantville.”
Kurt looked up from the piece he was carving. Once carved, it would be the inner surface of a plaster of paris mold to make a sink. He saw his sister holding up a letter and held out his hand. The hand that was holding the carving tool. Then, realizing that, he put the tool on the counter while Elisabeth shook her head. She handed him the letter and he opened it. There were two sheets in the envelope.
We saw this and thought of you. We knew you were disappointed about not being able to get into the bathroom fixtures business, so we thought you might be interested in the opportunity this represents.
Melba Sue and Garth.
The next sheet was a sheet of newsprint with a half page ad on it.
Plumbing Supplies and Equipment Needed
We will guarantee to purchase pipes, toilets, sinks, valves, bathtubs and other plumbing equipment that comes up to our standards of quality. Contact Universal Plumbing Supply, 1500 Route 250.
“Do you think it’s for real?” Elisabeth asked.
“I don’t know. Melba Sue and Garth wouldn’t send me anything they didn’t think was legitimate, but I don’t see how they could know one way or the other.”
“Well, we’re sending Friedrich this time. We need someone who knows business.”
“We also need someone who knows plumbing supplies. And that’s me, at least more than anyone else in the family.”
Trudi Krüger had had just about enough of waiting around for Kurt Vest to open his eyes and realize that she existed. It was time to take steps.
“So, what do I do now, Elisabeth ?” Trudi asked. “Nothing has worked. Kurt just keeps his head down and keeps ignoring me.”
“You go to Grantville,” Elisabeth said. “Kurt and Friedrich are going there in a few days, to look into this company that is buying toilet fixtures, and will be there for a while. You talk to your parents and I will talk to mine. You can go with them to represent your family. And if you have to, you have my permission to whack Kurt on his head.”
“I would if I thought it would help,” Trudi said. “He has to be the most blind man in Creussen.”
“There’s a lot of information in Grantville,” Elisabeth pointed out to Trudi’s parents. “It was there that Kurt discovered that we could make the bone china.”
After some discussion, the Krüger family decided to send Trudi and her younger sister Margretha along on the trip to Grantville. After all, everyone should have that opportunity. And if they sent Trudi and not Margretha, they would never hear the end of it.
“I have good news,” Elisabeth said in a voice that terrified Kurt.
“Ah, what news?” Kurt asked cautiously.
“Trudi will be going along, representing her family. You know that they are making tiles now?”
“Yes, I heard. But Trudi? What does she know about bathroom fixtures?”
“Trudi knows about the business, Kurt. She needs to see what Grantville has to teach about that.”
Kurt wasn’t at all sure about that. Ever since he’d come back from university, Trudi Krüger had presented herself as an empty-headed fashion plate, not at all like the sensible girl she used to be.
“What do you know about this Universal Plumbing Supply Company?” Friedrich asked, once Kurt had made the introductions.
“You get right down to it, don’t you?” Garth grinned. “I know they are being set up by OPM Investments. That’s the mutual fund that got set up a while back.”
“I heard of it. Something about some up-timer children.”
“I guess you could say that, though the board is a bunch of down-timer burghers. It’s well thought of around here.”
“That’s, ah, interesting.” Friedrich didn’t sound convinced and Garth laughed out loud.
“Check around. There are several mutual funds that have opened up in the last year, but the sewing circle kids are the one most people notice because they are kids. It’s not till you look closer that you realize they have adult supervision.”
Friedrich nodded, still unconvinced but willing enough to check around. He had connections in Badenburg, Kurt knew.
“It’s incredible.” Friedrich was shaking his head in wonderment mixed with more than a touch of concern, or perhaps even disgust. “Why anyone would put that kind of money in any hands, much less the hands of children, is beyond me. But they have. OPM is a publicly-traded mutual fund. It has to make its books available to its shareholders and it does. I didn’t know there was that much money in the world.”
“So they have the money to buy our town’s toilets and sinks and things?” Trudi asked.
“They have the money to buy Creussen itself! Though they aren’t offering to do that. Apparently, Universal Plumbing Supply isn’t the only new venture they are setting up. There is some sort of electrical supply place, as well, and machine parts, whatever that means, other things. I talked to Bernhard Kunze and he isn’t just familiar with it. He is involved and considerably richer than he was a year ago. He explained the function of Universal Plumbing Supply. It’s the whole interconnectedness problem. No one can afford to make any of the various parts of a plumbing system till someone is making the other bits.”
Kurt nodded impatiently. He was the one who had explained the problem to Friedrich seven months earlier.
“But, thanks to OPM, Universal Plumbing Supply has the money to fix the problem and make a profit on the deal. Apparently they plan to sell to people like Clarence’s Heating, Plumbing and Air Conditioning, and what ever else he’s doing—I couldn’t keep track. Universal will also ship complete systems abroad for installation in other places. And will be buying from several different manufacturers. We can get in . . . ” Then Friedrich sighed. “But we will lose some of our profit because they have their own markup.”
“That’s not much of a problem, is it? I mean, we often sell to retailers even on things like beer steins?” Kurt knew they did.
“True, but we also sell to individuals and inns and . . . ”
“You mean we won’t be able to sell to anyone else?”
“Well, not exactly. There is nothing in the contract that would keep us from making extra, but who would we sell the extra to?”
“To Clarence’s Heating and whatever,” Garth suggested. “For that matter, I don’t think that Universal will be the only plumbing supply house for very long.”
“From what Bernhard said, it isn’t even now. The difference is that most of the others don’t have the money on hand to make the kind of promises that would get people to take the risk on a new product line.”
Garth looked over at Friedrich. “What do they get out of it then?” Then he smiled. “We have a bit of OPM, so while I’m all for getting the plumbing industry up and running, I have to wonder where the profit is.”
“Well, according to Sarah Wendell, by way of my friend Bernhard, you have nothing to worry about. What they are doing is buying market share. I didn’t know what it meant, either, but Bernhard does and seems to think it’s worth it.”
“It is,” Trudi said. “If there is one place where you can go to get anything you need to install a restroom or a bathroom or both, why would you go around to all the individual suppliers? Besides, if you know they have quality goods at a fair price, it’s just easier to go there. You know, I think those kids are liable to get rich off this plumbing supply company.”
“Those kids,” Garth said, “are already rich. Even by Grantville standards.”
Kurt knew what that meant. Grantville was an expensive place to live, or even to visit, but it also had by far the highest salaries in central Germany. A person could become well off as a maid here. And while not all the up-timers had gotten rich, a lot of them, including Garth and Melba Sue, had at least become well off. Rich, anywhere outside Grantville.
“So what’s with you and Kurt?” Melba Sue asked Trudi once they were alone.
“He is an idiot and a boor and I hate him.”
“You do realize you sound like you’re about fourteen and in the middle of your first crush, don’t you?”
Trudi didn’t know all of the words, but she got the gist of what Melba Sue was saying and it was true. “I know. He was my hero when I was a little girl, then he went off to university. Their family needed someone to learn about nature and clays and things like that. They were hoping that he would . . . I don’t know . . . solve the question of how the china pottery was different. Which was a pretty crazy idea, if you ask me.”
“Because what do a bunch of priests and lawyers know about clay?”
“I thought he studied natural philosophy?”
“Yes, but what do philosophers know about clay, other than that the ancient gods had feet made out of it?”
“That’s a point, I’ll grant you,” Melba Sue conceded. “But back to Kurt . . . . When he came back he had changed?”
Trudi considered that. “I guess so. Or maybe it was me. He was always talking about clay and the history of the world and stuff before he went away. Perhaps it was me that changed. He was gone for six years, studying all over Europe. And when he came back he buried himself in his work room, trying to find the recipe for china pottery. Finally, Elisabeth . . . ” The whole story of the party and the lace handkerchief and the insulting note and him running away whenever he saw her came out while Melba Sue listened and nodded.
“Kurt’s a geek, girl. They take different handling.”
“A nerd. A natural philosopher,” Melba Sue explained. “I’m sure you have them in this century. Heck, I’ve met several. But in the twentieth century they were the movers and shakers of the world. People like Einstein, Oppenheimer and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and what’s his name . . . the guy who did the dwarf wheat . . . Norman Borlaug, I think. Oh, and Salk . . . there were hundreds of them and they changed the world without half trying and they were in the movies and on TV and there was a weird kind of glamour to them. I never saw the attraction myself, you understand, but the thing about geeks is that they don’t know how to be charming. They are constantly doing things like stepping on your handkerchief and it’s not that they’re trying to be mean. They just don’t know any better. They are too busy figuring out how the universe works. I’ll bet that the reason that Kurt runs away is that he is afraid that if he doesn’t he’ll kick your handkerchief again or something like it. He also probably figures you hate him, so there’s no use trying.”
“You think so?” Trudi said doubtfully. “I mean, it’s hard to imagine anyone being as rude as he has been by accident.”
“Not for me,” Melba Sue said. “I’ve seen it a million times. And, you know, there are women like that too, who don’t realize that a guy likes them. Though that mostly has a different effect. But my point is, dropping the hanky is not the approved method of attracting a nerd. For a nerd, you need to be, ah, explicit. Tell them what you want because they won’t see the signals.”
Trudi realized that she was one of the women like that, even if she had been trying to be the sort of social creature that Margretha was by nature.
“What happens to girls like that? The geek girls?” Trudi asked.
Melba Sue gave her a look. “I’m not sure down-time, but up-time they usually ended up in bad relationships because they didn’t choose who to get involved with. They ended up with the pushy jerk that the more knowing girls avoided.”
“I don’t know what we can do about it, anyway.” The “it” was transportation; the speaker was Friedrich, and the point was valid. The distance from Creussen to Grantville was fifty-two miles as the crow flies and nearly twice that as the mule trod. A stoneware beer stein is a heavy piece of cargo and they had been shipping them all over Germany for the last fifty years. On the other hand, a toilet is a lot bigger and a lot heavier. A mule can carry one or even two—if it is a particularly large mule. But for all practical purposes, you need a wagon road to transport toilets.
As it happened, the road between Creussen and Bayreuth was a good road, thanks to the efforts of Margrave Christian of Bayreuth, but that happy state of affairs didn’t extend all the way to Grantville. There were various other counties between Bayreuth and Grantville. And not all of their rulers were as bright or as conscientious as the margrave.
“What about getting some sort of agreement?” Kurt asked. He really didn’t know what would be involved.
“It’s not that easy, Kurt.” Friedrich was much more familiar with the political ins and outs of who was and wasn’t building roads. “First, there are people that don’t want the new road.”
“What? That’s crazy!”
“No. Just a little short-sighted in my view,” Friedrich said. “But the worse problem is all the places where they figure that they can get the roads for free because someone will want them enough to pay for the whole thing.” He shook his head. “Never mind, Kurt. It’s not your problem, or even the Vest family’s problem. It’s the whole town’s problem and I expect that Margrave Christian will have some things to say about it.
“We have time. It’s going to take months to get into production. And now that I think about it, I think we need to sit down with the margrave as soon as we can to start working on solving the transport issues.”
“So what we are going to need from you is estimates of what it will cost you to produce the various components on the list here,” David Bartley said.
Trudi was really surprised by how young he was. And also by how confident. She was absolutely sure that he wouldn’t kick her handkerchief into the mud. As it happened, she was wrong. Outside of business, David was about as nerdy as her Kurt, but she didn’t see that. And it made her resent Kurt’s failings as a Lothario even more. But David was going on. It wasn’t a private meeting. There were a dozen faces that Trudi recognized, most from the towns of central Germany that dealt with clay, wood, and metal. And there were twice as many that she didn’t recognize. They were offering everyone the same deal: if you could deliver the goods and meet the quality requirements, OPM, through Universal Plumbing Supply, would buy those goods.
The price was yet to be determined. That was what this meeting was about.
Ernst Eiffel stood up. “We will need an exclusive contract. What are all these other people doing here?”
David Bartley looked at the man for a moment, then pointed. “There is the door, sir. We are not offering, and will not offer, exclusive contracts.”
“Then you will not be allowed to sell your devices in Nürnberg. We have influence with the council.”
“Perhaps not,” David acknowledged. “That just leaves Magdeburg, Hamburg and, oh yes, the rest of the world. Good day, sir.”
Well, that answered that, Trudi thought. She had been wondering about how they would sell their goods when they conflicted with what the local towns and guilds thought of as their own private domains. And as she thought about it, she really doubted that they would be able to keep people from buying, even in Nürnberg.
Trudi, Margretha, Kurt, and Friedrich were all sitting in the kitchen of the Freeman home talking about the meeting. Margretha was grinning and flushed. “Did you see the way David Bartley stepped on Ernst Eiffel? I thought that oaf was going to melt right on the spot.”
“Well, that explains how they are going to work it and, for that matter, it makes it clear that we will have a market for our products,” Trudi said. That the products of Creussen would be of acceptable quality she didn’t doubt at all. She looked at her sister. “Even in Nürnberg, I don’t doubt.”
“Yes. A standard sink and a standard toilet, standard tiles and a standard tub,” Kurt agreed.
“Not that standard,” Friedrich demurred. “They are specifying the size of the . . . what was it they called it . . . the footprint of the toilet and the size of the holes in the tank and the sink, so that the fittings will fit. Also that the sink hold at least so much water and the toilet actually flush, but shape and color, as well as any decoration, are up to the maker, within reason.”
“And that gives us an opportunity,” Trudi said. “Several design styles and even individualized patterns for the discerning buyer.”
“Is that all you have in your head anymore, Trudi?” Kurt said in disgust. “Nothing of substance, just patterns of doilies and the color of gowns?”
Trudi gaped at him, amazed at his attack. “What do you mean, Kurt? Have you never opened your eyes to see the world around you? Or the people? Not everyone wants, or has to live with, plain surroundings. Oh, sure, a lot of people will buy the plain, white, utilitarian fixtures because they will be more affordable. But if you think that every customer is going to want that, then you haven’t been paying attention. Think about the various bathrooms we’ve seen here in Grantville. I grant that they’re hopelessly plain, but at least there are colors!”
“And how much time are you going to devote to these hand-painted toilets? Extra expense is right. Extra fortunes. It takes hours to hand-paint a beer stein, much less a toilet or a sink, and the whole point of the slip-casting is to save time and cost,” Kurt said.
“Then come up with a way of painting them faster,” Trudi almost yelled. “Because, whatever the up-timers think, most people want and expect beauty in their lives.”
“She’s right, you know, Kurt,” Friedrich said. “The up-timers will probably affect fashion and styles over time, but not yet.”
“Fine, she’s right. But why is it that all that’s left in a woman’s brain after she grows breasts is fashion and style? Where does the substance go?”
“Substance?” Trudi said. “Who do you think scrubs the floors and washes the dishes, mends the clothing and cooks the meals? You men would have no substance without us.” She stood up, preparing to walk away. “I was wrong about you, Kurt. I’ve loved you almost all my life, but I was wrong. You don’t care about me and I’ve wasted years on you. I could walk naked down the street and you’d only tell me to put on a cloak against the wind. Well, no more!”
As she started around the table, Friedrich leaned over to Kurt. “Get up and kiss her, you idiot.”
Kurt, whose brain had stopped on a picture of Trudi naked anywhere, much less the street, followed instructions.
“It’s about time,” Margretha whispered to Friedrich. “Do you supposed he’ll propose today?”
Friedrich winked at her. “Oh, probably. He’s always loved her too, you know. Maybe now he can get the words out without sticking his foot in his mouth.”
“Again,” Margretha said.
When they reached home, without orders for their products, but with plans to rework both families’ businesses to get into the plumbing supply business in a big way, not everyone was thrilled.
“First it was that silly china, as though good, solid stoneware wasn’t good enough and how did that work out?” Kurt’s father complained.
“Better now than last year, with the slip-casting. And the price is coming back up,” Elisabeth pointed out.
“So just when we get that working, after considerable expense, mind, you children want to go into a whole new line of products?”
“Yes, Father. And Trudi’s family, too. They are going into tiles in a big way, using printed designs and tile patterns that can be painted on using stamps and stencils. Their tiles will match our glazes.” Kurt still thought that was a bit silly, but had learned enough about his fiancée to keep that opinion to himself.
Kurt’s mama and future mother-in-law, both quite happy with the results of the trip to Grantville, started planning the wedding celebration almost immediately.