1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 02:

June, 1635
The fever of the world

Chapter 1
Magdeburg, central Germany
Capital of the United States of Europe

After they’d completed the grand tour — Michael’s phrase; and a disturbingly appropriate one — of their new home, and had returned to the entrance foyer, Rebecca looked around. Her gaze was simultaneously uncertain, dubious, apprehensive, wary, skittish…

She tried to avoid the term “covetous.” Not… entirely successfully. Compared to the modest working-class house owned by the Stearns family in Grantville, much less the rather cramped apartments Rebecca and Michael had been occupying since they moved to Magdeburg, this house was both immense and luxurious. In truth, it was more in the way of a mansion than a house, if not a manor as such. The building was immediately adjacent to its neighbors and had almost no yard; what the up-timers called a townhouse. But by the inner city standards of Magdeburg it was as close to a mansion as you could get, short of an outright palace.

The very foyer she was standing in exemplified her mixed feelings. The “foyer” in Mike’s house in Grantville had been a simple entry vestibule, just large enough to provide the house with a heat trap in winter and hang some coats. The foyer in this house bore a closer resemblance to the hall of an auditorium. You could hold a fairly large party in this space.

Andrew Short came into the foyer from a side door that led to the rooms in the back of the house. “Splendid field of fire,” he announced, giving the area a sweeping gaze that had none of Rebecca’s doubts and anxieties. He was actually rubbing his hands!

“There’s no way in except through that door” — he jabbed a forefinger at the main entrance — “and the service entrance in the rear. And anyone who tries to come through here, we’ll slaughter the bastards. Assuming they get in at all.”

Rebecca studied the entrance in question. For all its ornate decorations, the “door” looked like it belonged in a castle. It was a double door, huge, made of solid oak further braced with iron, and seemed to have enough in the way of locks and latches to sink a rowboat — not to mention the heavy crossbar resting nearby, that could be added in a pinch. The “service entrance” in the back was similar in design and construction, if smaller and completely utilitarian.

There were no other entrances on the ground floor of the mansion. Rebecca had been struck by that: not so much as a single window. Not even a barred one, or an old-style arrow slit. Anyone attempting to assault the house would either have to smash down the heavy doors, blow a hole in the thick stonework of the walls, or scale the second floor using ladders. And those windows were barred. True, the bars were tastefully designed. They were also thick and too closely spaced for a human body to pass through.

For all practical purposes, their new home was an urban fortress. That was hardly surprising, since it had been planned and built with that purpose in mind. As a possibility, if nothing else. Michael Stearns had known for more than a year that he’d eventually be leaving Magdeburg for long stretches of time, and he was bound and determined to keep his wife and children as well protected as possible in his absence. By now, more than four years after the Ring of Fire, he had lots of enemies. Many of them were bitter and some of them were prone to violence.

Rebecca had plenty of enemies herself, for that matter. If she wasn’t as prominent as her husband in the political affairs of the new United States of Europe, she wasn’t that far behind him, either — and had the added distinction of being a Jewess.

Andrew spoke again, now jabbing his finger at the ceiling. “And look there! Murder holes! Ha! They’ll be surprised to run into that, should the bastards made the attempt.”

He didn’t specify the names or even the nature of “the bastards.” For someone like Andrew Short, it hardly mattered. He and his small clan had transferred their allegiance from the king of England to the person many people called the prince of Germany. Princes had enemies, it was a given; and such enemies were bastards. Also a given.

Rebecca stared up at the ceiling. Murder holes. She knew what they were, abstractly, but such devices were something she associated with medieval castles. Here, in a modern town house built as much as possible along up-time lines…

Finally, she spotted them. They were cleverly disguised as further decorations in a heavily decorated ceiling. Wood inlays, to a casual observer. But she had no doubt the wood inlays were slats which could be easily slid aside, exposing any attackers below to fire from above.

She shook her head, and looked away. The headshake was simply rueful, not a gesture of denial or criticism. She knew all too well the risks she and her husband — and their children — were taking and had been taking for years. If any reminder were needed, the mayor of Grantville and one of the town’s ministers had been assassinated just three months earlier. By fanatic reactionary anti-Semites, it was presumed — exactly the sort of people who hated Rebecca with a passion and had been writing and spreading vicious propaganda about her for at least two years now.

True, the savage response of the Committees of Correspondence to those murders had resulted in the effective destruction of organized anti-Semitism in the Germanies. For a time, at least. But that made it perhaps even more likely that a fanatic or small group of fanatics might seek vengeance by assassinating the most famous Jew in the United States of Europe. Who was now Rebecca herself, without any doubt, much to her surprise.

Her dark thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of her daughter Sepharad, who barreled into the foyer from another of the side doors. “Barreled,” at least, insofar as the term could be applied to a toddler still some months shy of her third birthday.

Sepharad also had dark deeds on her mind. “Mommy! Mommy! Barry’s messing in the cupboards like he shouldn’t!”

Rebecca made a face. Not at the reported crime itself — two-and-a-half-year-old boys were given to rummaging in nooks and crannies; girls too, at that age — but at the name.

Barry. Rebecca detested that nickname and refused to use it herself.

The child’s real name was Baruch. Baruch de Spinoza, originally. He’d been orphaned in the siege of Amsterdam and then adopted by Rebecca and Michael.

Yes, that Spinoza. The Spinoza. Still some years short of his future as a great philosopher, of course. But Rebecca had high hopes. Surely his current investigations were a harbinger of things to come.

Alas, hers was an uphill struggle against doughty antagonists. On this subject, even her husband and daughter were ranked among Rebecca’s enemies.

Barry, when it should be Baruch. And Rebecca knew full well that Michael was conspiring with Jeff Higgins to have the innocent boy fitted with a Harley-Davidson jacket and a Cat hat as soon as possible. They’d take him fishing, too, and teach him to ride a motorcycle. They’d already sworn they would.

Before Rebecca could intervene, though, Neddie Hayes appeared in the foyer, holding the selfsame philosopher/young miscreant in her arms. Judging from the smile on the young woman’s face, whatever Baruch might have encountered in his adventures had been harmless enough.

“You shouldn’t be spreading alarms, Sepharad,” she chided the girl. “Baruch couldn’t have come to no grief. T’aren’t nothing in those cupboards yet anyway, since we’ve just started unpacking.”

Rebecca returned the smile. She considered the addition of the very large Short-Hayes family to their household a great and unmitigated good.

This, for several reasons. Some of them were obvious. The men were former Yeoman Warders in the Tower of London and would provide the household with the finest security force you could ask for. The women were generally pleasant and invariably hard-working, and would be a great help in managing such a huge establishment. The children were numerous, ranged widely in age, and would make good companions and playmates for her own children.

Best of all, though, was that the family’s unquestioned matriarch was Patricia Hayes, and Patricia was of the old school. Whatever the mistress of the house wanted, she got — and Patricia had figured out very quickly that Rebecca’s attitude when it came to nicknames was quite unlike her husband’s.

And who cared what the husband thought? Michael Stearns was now a general in the army, about to go gallivanting off to some foreign war. The mistress of the house mattered. He didn’t.

So, it would be “Baruch,” not “Barry.” “Sepharad,” not the grotesque “Sephie” favored by most up-timers including —

Michael came into the foyer, followed by Anthony Leebrick and Patrick Welch. He looked down at his daughter and smiled.

“And what are you carrying on about, Sephie?”

Her husband.


Later that morning, Michael made his farewells. By then, their younger daughter Kathleen was energetically crawling about the foyer and doing her own investigations. So, she participated in the leave-taking ceremonies along with her mother and siblings. Whether or not the nine-month-old infant understood the nature of the occasion was perhaps doubtful. Although, the way she clutched her father’s shoulders when he picked her up for a good-bye kiss would seem to indicate some apprehension on her part at his coming absence.

But maybe she just found the epaulets fascinating. They were the one feature of the uniform of an officer in the USE army that was unabashedly flamboyant. These were not the subdued shoulder straps of the up-time American military, but the sort of golden-tasseled insignia that were used by Napoleonic-era armies. On the otherwise rather subdued field-gray uniform, they quite stood out.

Eventually, Kathleen released her grip and Michael handed her back to her current nursemaid, Mary Hayes. He then gave Rebecca a final kiss — nothing perfunctory, either, she made sure of that — and off he went, with his two new staff officers trailing in his wake.

Some part of Rebecca wondered if she would ever see her husband again, but she squelched that quickly enough.

He’s a general, she told herself firmly. Ignoring, just as firmly, her knowledge that in the seventeenth century army generals often led from the front and were quite apt to be killed in battle.