“Uncle, I have just been made the strangest offer of my short life. I think it will still be the strangest offer of my life when my old gray head finds its grave.”
Diego Nasi looked up from his cup of thick, sweet, Turkish-style coffee. “Oh? Do tell me about it, Isaac.”
Diego was sitting at the table in the conference room, which doubled as the break room in the Abrabanel business offices in Grantville. The offices pretty much functioned as a bank and trust, a stock brokerage, an import/export house, an investment brokerage, and offered the services of various financial advisers. It was the Abrabanel business offices and the Abrabanel’s business was making money. Diego was an older man, and the current, in-house, senior partner, by the prestige of age and wealth and therefore presumed wisdom, and had but recently arrived in Grantville. He found his interest piqued at his young kinsman’s curious statement.
“Do you remember me talking about the old man on the mountain top, the one who sold me the seed corn we sent to Aleppo, the seed that Josef’s customer was so pleased with?”
Diego had a memory for names and details. “The old man, Herr Jenkins? Yes, he was also being mentioned as having sat in the back with the Catholic priest and the mayor and the Baptist priest when they had the open house to celebrate the opening of the first synagogue.”
“Well, he stopped into the offices the other day and asked when I could come up to the farm. Not if, mind you. When! His farm is the highest point on the rim and maybe the highest point in the ring. It has no paved road, hardly any road at all by Grantville standards, so it is no small matter to walk up there. Still, we did all right on the corn, mostly in terms of public relations, so I set a time and trekked up there.
“Herr Jenkins met me and thanked me for coming, and said he had something I wanted to see. Not something he wanted to show me, but something I wanted to see.”
“I followed the old man to the farther of the two barns. There he showed me two mostly wooden machines that he had made.”
Isaac fell into a traditional storyteller’s cadence as he related what happened.
“ ’This here is a cotton gin,’ ” the old hillbilly said. “ ’It will separate the fiber from the seed and hulls, ten or twenty, maybe a hundred times, faster than it can be done by hand. I hear tell India’s got something called a charkhi but it don’t work half as well as a gin does. I’d show you how it works, but we ain’t got any cotton bolls.
“ ’Now, this one here is a one-row, horse-drawn cotton picker. I’ve got to tell you, I think it will work. I know the gin will, and I think the picker will. I got a good look at a gin and a picker in a museum years ago. How they worked fascinated me, so I took a good long look and it stuck with me. It ain’t gonna be too long before someone works out how to make a spinning jenny.’ ”
“He saw my puzzlement at the words, ‘spinning jenny,’ and explained. “ ’It’s a powered spinning wheel that will turn out more thread in an hour than a woman can make in a week. When they get it made, the demand for fiber will go up. The price will go up, and someone will turn out a cotton gin, ’cause they’re easy.
“ ’Now back when we came from, I was told that cotton almost died out as an export crop in the southern states because of the labor-intensive job of gettin’ the seed out. A fella by the name of Whitney made the gin and the South went into cotton in high gear. The profits went up and the demand for labor to grow more cotton went up, so slavery increased instead of dying out.
“ ’I had one teacher when I was a child tell us that John McCormick an’ John Brown made the Civil War possible. McCormick, ’cause his reaper, which they’re crankin’ out down in Grantville, freed up enough labor so the U.S. could build an army that didn’t have to break off to go home and harvest the wheat. Brown, ’cause he scared the south into turning their militias, which were a joke before he came along, into serious little armies. But it was Eli Whitney who made it necessary, ’cause he made cotton profitable.’ ”
Isaac paused to take a deep breath. “Well, I’m sure I must have been looking confused again, because Herr Jenkins continued.”
“ ’Well, never mind all that. I’ve got a cotton picker that will probably work, and a cotton gin that will work. I think one man and a horse can out-pick ten or twenty people. I’ve got no cotton to test it on, and I ain’t got the years left to go where they do. I need some help. So I thought of you.’ ”
“How much is he asking for these machines that might work?” Diego Nasi asked Isaac, skeptically, interrupting the narrative.
“He does not want to sell them.”
“How odd. What does he want?”
“I asked him that, Uncle, and this is what he said . . .
“ ’Now, I know these ain’t gonna sell for very long. Any competent wheelwright can take either one of these apart and put it back together and then with a little help from a blacksmith he can start makin’ ’em from scratch and probably makin’ ’em better ’cause he’ll be where they’re bein’ used and can correct any problems. So you can sell one in a region and then you’ve lost the market.’
“By this time I was quite confused, and I said, “ ’Mr. Jenkins, if you can’t sell them, then you don’t need capital to build a plant to make them. What do you want from me?’
“ ’I want you to send these down to Egypt to someone who will follow through on it and make the cotton picker work. When he’s got a working cotton picker you can send him the gin. But only after he’s got the picker workin’. I ain’t a-gonna help slavery with a hand up on the cotton prices until I put the cotton pickers out of work.’
“ ’Mr. Jenkins, if we can’t sell it because it is too easy to reproduce, how are we going to make any money off of it?’
“ ’Son, we ain’t going to see a dime out of this, unless you speculate in cotton futures. But that’s gamblin’. It’s your business, not mine.’
“ ’If you won’t see a dime out of it, why have you done all of the work? What are you getting out of this?’
“ ’I’m gonna get the same thing you’re going to get. This will take a chunk out of the slave market. It will put more clothes on more backs and keep people warm in the winter. It will increase international trade and that increases peace in the world.
“ ’What do I get? I get the same thing you do. It is a mitzvah.’ ”
The word, mitzvoth, or in this case the singular mitzvah, in Isaac’s tale caught Diego Nasi’s full attention. “Isaac, don’t put words in the man’s mouth.”
“Uncle, I am not. That is the word he used.”
“How strange. Did he understand it, do you think?”
“Yes. I think he did. Getting these machines into production will be a good thing for many people. The farmers will make more money with less work. The seasonal labor market will be greatly diminished, so the slave market will decrease and lessen the attractiveness to the slave stealers to ply their trade. More people will have better clothes. It is indeed a mitzvah.”
Isaac continued telling the tale to his elder partner.
“ ’Mr. Jenkins,’ I said, ‘I think we will be able to do what you ask. We will lose money on it, perhaps, but it can be done. I have just one question. You are not Jewish. Why do you care about doing a good deed before the Lord as he has commanded the Jews to do?’
“ ’Son,’ he said, ‘can we just say I owe the world a thing or two and let it go at that?’ ”
Diego Nasi blinked. “So he wants to give us these machines?”
“Uncle, he has given them to us already. I just have to send a horse to bring them down from the mountain top.”
“And we are to send them to Egypt and give them away?”
“He did not say that. We can sell them if we wish. He doesn’t care. But he did point out that they can be easily reproduced. So selling them might pay for shipping, but we’re not going to make a lot of money in direct sales.”
“Still . . .” Diego Nasi smiled. “. . . if we can’t figure a way to make money off of a vast increase in cotton production, then we deserve to die in poverty. Do you understand how to use these machines? Can you write up instructions?”
“Herr Jenkins already has a series of pictures for each machine, showing how to use them.”
“Very good. Yes, to answer your unasked question. I will authorize the cost of shipping these two machines to Egypt at a complete loss to ourselves, through our associates in Cairo. We will send them to Rabbi Solomon Halevy at the Ezra Synagogue in Fostat. I know Solomon from when we were young. He will see to it that they get the exposure Herr Jenkins needs for his mitzvah.”
Near Cairo, Egypt
The gabbai disturbed the rabbi as he was reading in the cool of the shade in the inner courtyard beside the fountain.
Part of his job as gabbai—assistant to the rabbi (the non-Jewish neighbors might say servant, but it was service to the rabbi and servant does not capture the honor and respect or scope of the relationship)—part of his job was seeing to it that the rabbi was not unnecessarily disturbed while he was reading, and to see to it that he was disturbed when he should be.
This was clearly one of those times.
“Rabbi, there is a shipment at the door for which you must sign.”
“Well, bring it in,” Solomon Halevy said excitedly. There was a text from Syria, a commentary on the writings of the Rambam, that he was expecting.
“Reb Solomon, they won’t fit through the door. Well, one of them won’t.”
“Curious. What are they?”
The gabbai shrugged.
“Let’s take a look then.”
Outside, the delivery man was unhitching the donkey from between the shafts of the wheeled contraption that had a smaller affair and some bundled bits and pieces strapped to the top of it. The horse shafts were oddly off-set to one side of the vehicle.
“Rabbi Halevy?” he asked.
The drayman opened a pouch and handed the rabbi a package of papers. A wax-sealed letter was tucked under the string. Solomon slid it out and started to read through it. When he finished, he went back to the top and started over. Then he opened the package of paper and his eyes grew large as he looked through them.
“Shimon?” Solomon asked the gabbai, “Do you know anyone who still has cotton bolls to separate from the seeds?”
“No. But that shouldn’t be hard to find.” The harvested bolls were put in storage and the farmers and their families worked on separating the seeds as other work allowed, often after dark, for several months after the harvest.
“Get me a large hamper of them, please. Right after we push this contraption out of the lane.”
Late the next morning, Rabbi Solomon cranked the handle while Shimon fed the bolls into the hopper.
Clean cotton came out the other end. The seeds dropped out the side. Shimon’s eyes grew large and Solomon’s smile grew larger.
“Stop, Shimon,” Solomon said.
“But we have half the hamper yet,” Shimon protested.
“Yes, and unless you want to go buy another hamper, we’ll need that half. Go find Mordecai Hakohen and ask him to come here.”
Sometime that afternoon, an annoyed Mordecai showed up. “Solomon, what is this great wonder your gabbai insists that I must see today? Do you have some new book that pleases you? Surely it could have waited until tomorrow.”
Solomon smiled. “Come.” He led Mordecai to the part of the courtyard just inside the double doors that could handle a carriage, where the machines waited. He picked up a handful of cotton bolls from their basket and gestured at the contraption.
“Now, Mordecai, turn that lever while I feed the bolls into the hopper.”
As clean cotton came out the far end and the seeds dropped out the side, Mordecai’s mouth dropped open and Solomon smiled as he continued feeding bolls into the machine.
“Was I correct in bothering you with this? Should I apologize for wasting your time and seek another partner?”
“Solomon, don’t be an ass,” Mordecai grumbled sourly at his friend’s smugness. “How much?”
“Half of net. My machine, your warehouse. We start buying cotton futures now. And we have to buy one crop in the field.”
Solomon quit feeding the machine and Mordecai quit turning the crank. Shimon was setting drinks on the table in the shade near the fountain.
“Come. Let us have something to drink.”
Solomon seated his guest and handed him the drawing showing the cotton picker.
“If we use the separator, we become obliged to make the picking machine work. With the picking machine, the number of laborers needed to harvest the cotton goes down. Without it, because of increased demand due to the ease of separating out the seeds, the number of needed laborers goes up. One creates slavery and the picking machine reduces it. If we use the machine to separate the cotton from the seeds, we undertake a responsibility to help end slavery.”
Mordecai nodded solemnly. “We were slaves in Egypt and now that we have returned we should not increase slavery in Egypt.”
“Our commitment is to a much larger world,” Solomon said. “The cotton picker will help stop slavery from spreading to the new world. My childhood friend, who now works out of the town from the future, Grantville in the Germanies, made it quite clear. If we use the separator, we must use the picker, also.”
“What of the pickers who are put out of work? I guess we can hire them to spin thread and weave cloth.”
“Yes, until, we are sent mechanical spinners and powered looms. And I am told to look for them. Then we will need to find other work for the pickers. Sewing garments, perhaps, on the sewing machines that my friend is asking me to find buyers for.”
“Yes, Solomon. I will go halves with you on using the separator and the picking machine. I will clear warehouse space. We will have spinning wheels and looms made. We will buy futures in cotton bolls and I will buy one crop in the field.” A smiling Mordecai was mentally rubbing his hands together in anticipation of what the future would bring.
Mordecai was not at all happy late that fall after the cotton harvest was separated from the seed.
Mordecai stood up from where he was sitting next to the fountain in the shade of the rabbi’s courtyard and practically shouted, “Solomon, you can’t mean that! Do you have any idea just how much we are going to make?”
“Mordecai, I made it very clear when I showed you the separator. We have the use of it only if we made the commitment to seeing to it that we were using the picker.”
“But the picker does not work.”
Solomon looked sad and solemn. He did indeed know just how much money was at stake. But the letter that arrived with the gift was clear. The cotton gin was not to be used without the picker.
“Mordecai, believe me, I do understand. You have plans for building more separators and buying more cotton. If you are buying more cotton, the farmers will grow more cotton.
“The large land owners will see them making money and they will then need more laborers and they will buy them from the slave dealers who will need more slaves to sell, so the slave stealers will take more slaves and cause more misery. And don’t tell me they are better off working here than living in the wilds farther south. You are right, but they would rather live badly in the wild than work from dawn to dark here in the north, separated from their homes and families.”
“I am not dismantling what we already have! We bought cotton that was already being grown. We will not change things if we continue to buy that cotton. We have an investment in spinning wheels and looms. We have people who look to those jobs for their living. Solomon, would you have me put them out of work? Would you have me be so cruel as to turn those children back into the streets to starve again after they have just gotten used to eating every day?”
Mordecai was running a scam and they both knew it. But Solomon had to concede that Mordecai did have a valid argument. And he had to concede that his half of the sale of the finished cotton cloth was a very nice income.
“All right,” Solomon conceded. “We keep what we have to provide employment for our needy workers.” He could do so with an easy conscience. With what they were paying spinners and weavers at the warehouse, the able-bodied were not taking the jobs. Grandmothers were coming at dawn with grandchildren in tow. Street urchins were sneaking back inside to sleep for the night and when they started feeding the urchins breakfast, the grandmothers started coming earlier. Mordecai had a Frankish sewing machine in use and a dozen more on order. They would keep the employees working in the warehouse year-round, except now that the cotton picker proved unworkable, they would go to the fields in season to pick cotton.
Mordecai quieted down and settled down, at least some, at least for now. The vast fortune he was dreaming of was gone. But the warehouse factory, spinning and weaving and soon to be making garments, was still in play.
“It was a shame about the picking machine breaking,” Mordichai complained. “By chance, I was there when a wheel broke turning at the end of the field and they dragged it aside and abandoned it. They were ready to give up on it by that time anyway. For the most part it would not work at all. When it did work, it mostly did so poorly. The few brief times that it worked well it seemed to work very well indeed. But neither rhyme nor reason could be fathomed for the why of those times, compared to the why not all the other times. So the cost of fixing it was pointless. It truly is a shame.”
“Yes, Mordecai, it is a shame. But . . . could you sleep at ease knowing you were counting your vast fortune at the cost of untold human miseries?”
Mohamed was pleased when the Jewish merchant’s agent once again bought his crop in the field, though this year the agent did not even try to use the horse-machine. His shop manager just showed up each morning with the entire work force of old ladies and young kids. He didn’t buy anyone else’s crop in the field, but he did offer an excellent price for the picked cotton. Other pickers were jealous of the care the merchant’s shop manager provided for his laborers. They were fed before the work began, and they were fed when the work was over, and they rested in the heat of the day with a snack of melons. When Mohamed asked the shop manager when they were coming for the picking machine, he was told to consider it his, they were through with it.
Mohamed was looking it over where it sat between two fields to see what should be stripped off before the rest was burned when his neighbor, Haji, stopped to chat.
“You are lucky. You do not have to pick your field. But why do they not use the machine?” Haji asked.
“Did you not see? They could not get it to work. I am going to break it up and burn most of it.”
“Because it is lazy?”
“Because it will not work.”
Haji looked at the broken wheeled contraption. “Mohamed, I was here last year. Each morning when they first put it to work it cleaned the plants like a farmer who owns them. Not long after that, it picked cotton like a hired laborer who did not care if some were missed.”
“And shortly after that,” Mohamed said, “it would not pick cotton to save its life. And now that life is forfeit.”
“Mohamed, my friend, you do not kill a horse because it is lazy. You motivate it.”
“But how do you whip a machine?”
“Why do you need to? What is different? Why does it work in the morning and not at noon? Is it inhabited by a djinn who does not want to work, but will work in the cool of the day, but not in the heat? Would a holy man’s blessing motivate it? That is something the Jews did not try, though they did curse it often enough.
“I have a wheel that will fit and we can try it on my field for the third picking of the season.”
“If you want to waste your time, go ahead,” Mohamed said. “When you give up, I want the machine back.”
“And if I succeed?”
Mohamed laughed. “As Allah wills. If you succeed, then the machine is yours.”
Haji smiled. “I will bring the wheel this evening and the mule in the morning.”
One morning late in the picking season, when it was time to strip the plants and not just pick the fluffy white bolls as they popped open, Haji put the machine to a row of cotton soon as the dew was off the bolls, and gave the donkey permission to amble. His wife and daughter scrambled to get the cotton as it came out of the chute into a sack. The machine had been designed to discharge into a wagon but a second donkey or a horse to pull a wagon was beyond Haji’s means. In short order, the machine quit working well, and shortly after that, it quit working at all.
“There are evil, lazy djinn in the machine,” Haji told his wife and daughter. “It can work. It just does not want to.”
Looking up at him, his daughter, Fatima, pointed out that, “The fingers in the machine at first, as they spin, grab the cotton and twist it around. Later, the fingers do not grab the cotton. It is the same cotton. Why does it not keep picking?” she asked.
“This is so much easier. If we started earlier, would it work longer?” she wondered out loud.
“Fatima, you know you cannot pick cotton heavy with the dew,” her mother told her.
“But, the first of a morning the cotton sticks to my fingers if it is just the least bit wet. Is that it?” she asked. “Does the cotton collect on the spinning metal fingers if it’s damp, and then it doesn’t when it is fully dry just a bit later?”
Haji’s eyebrows met in a collision over his nose. “Go fetch some water, and let’s find out.”
By flinging water off of their fingers onto the spinning spindles, they kept the machine working. The next morning, Haji had a drip system in place. By the end of the next day, people were flocking to watch the machine work its way through the fields. Mohamed showed up and Haji let the donkey have a rest.
“I suppose,” Haji said, “that you will want your machine back.”
“No. We abandoned it. You have made it to work. The machine is yours. What I want is your cotton. Considering the time you are saving, though, you should be able to give me a good price on it.”
Haji saw no reason to take a lower price, relieved as he was to keep the machine. “Considering that you are being generous about the owning of the machine, I see no reason to ask any more for machine-picked cotton than I could get for hand-picked cotton.”
“But you do not have to pay the cotton pickers.”
Both Haji and Mohamed ignored the growling that grew in the ranks of the on-looking crowd.
“No, but I must feed the donkey year-round. And it takes both my wife and daughter to keep up with the machine and I must feed both of them year-round, also. Without cotton seeds to separate, what will they do with their time?”
“I will send wagons and you can feed the machine’s harvest into them so your wife and daughter can stay home and cook.
“And, I will tell you what else I will do. I will pay you the old price for this year’s harvest. You will loan me the machine when the fields are picked so I can make others to send elsewhere. I will return your machine before the next harvest.”
“I could sell the machine for a lot of money,” Haji answered.
“I could claim the machine is mine,” Mohamed countered.
Haji nodded in admission of defeat. “I will sell you my cotton at the going rate,” he agreed. “But you are putting my wife and daughter out of work.”
“If you have no work for them,” Mohamed said with a smile, “then send them to the mill. With the picking machine working, my master is eager to build more and bigger separating machines, and I will need more spinners and weavers. Or I can sell you spinning wheels and you can buy separated cotton from the mill and sell me spun cotton thread in return. Then they can spin any time they do not have other work to do.”
“How much will a spinning wheel cost?” Haji asked. “They have drop spindles already.”
“But the wheel is so much faster,” Mohamed said. “And with what you are saving on the cost of paying pickers, you can afford the new spinning wheels.”
“What of us?” came a lone voice from the growling crowd. “My children will starve while the machine does our work!”
The growling grew in volume.
“Send them to the mill,” Mohamed called back to the unseen voice. “By this time next year, we will need all the help we can hire and there will be work all winter for many and all year for others. My master has promised, no one who is willing to work will need to go hungry because of our machines.”
“Isaac,” Diego Nasi sought out his young associate with a letter in hand. “I have a letter from my old friend, Rabbi Solomon Halevy, in Egypt. I thought you would like to know how that business three years ago turned out. He writes that the cotton-picking machine was made to work after some difficulties. The gins are doing a booming business. They have now opened up three shops that house and feed spinners and weavers, providing employment to widows, orphans and cripples that had nowhere else to go. Our partners in Cairo speculated in cotton, knowing that demand would go up, and they are shipping finished cloth to Venice by the boat load.”
“It is good to hear that Herr Jenkin’s mitzvah is prospering.”
Diego Nasi chuckled. “And it does not hurt that our associates in Cairo are prospering and owe us a favor. My childhood friend, Solomon, is also prospering. He asks if there is some return kindness he can do for his benefactor.”
“Uncle, very shortly after Herr Jenkins gave me the machines, he gave the farm over to the Baptist priest in town to open a school. He is gone, I hear, to England and then to Ireland. I have no idea if he is even still alive, much less if there is any way of getting a letter to him.
“It will have to suffice that he has done a good deed as the Lord has commanded. One does not need to know why he is being blessed to enjoy the blessings of the Lord.”