1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 11

Chapter 6


If it hadn’t previously been obvious to Terrye Jo, it became quite clear what it was about a few nights later.

It had been a cold, blustery day, rather like late fall in West Virginia. The kind of day that Ms. Maddox, when she was in a particularly cruel mood — which happened a lot — would make the girls in her P.E. class run outside, to be blown around by the wind or be forced to stand and do exercises and wait for the rain to pelt down on them. It was a part of West Virginia she didn’t miss. Ms. Maddox had joined up with Harry Lefferts, Terrye Jo had heard, and instead of operating a radio tower for a duke was off having adventures in Italy or somewhere. But P.E. class was miles and years away, lost forever.

The rain and sleet never quite came. By evening the wind had mostly driven the clouds away to leave it cold and clear, just about perfect weather for radio transmission. She had gone up to the operations room to check on things — and found Francois de Vendôme lounging there, with a few of his attendants standing by, looking bored.

“Mademoiselle Tillman,” he said, standing and sweeping his impressive hat from his head as he bowed. “I have been waiting for you.” For some time went unsaid.

“I’ve just come from dinner. If you needed me, Henri or Sylvie could have sent word.” The brother and sister, a clerk and seamstress in the duke’s staff at the Castello who had shown some aptitude, were on duty this evening. She’d come up to check on them — the weather was too good, so someone should be up here practicing.

“I bid them return to their duties. I beg your indulgence if I have overstepped.”

“Their duty is here, My Lord. So, yes. Overstepped. Now, if you’ll excuse me –” She wanted to move past him into the room, but he didn’t seem inclined toward getting out of the way.

This could become ugly. Terrye Jo knew she could take care of herself, though with four or five of the Frenchmen it wasn’t a sure thing, even if they underestimated her — which they were likely to do. But still.

“As I say,” the nobleman said smoothly, “I beg your indulgence. I am expecting the imminent arrival of His Royal Highness.”

“Monsieur Gaston wants to inspect the premises?”

“That . . . and he wishes to make use of them. And you.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“Your professional services,” Francois said, his perfect courtier’s smile twitching downward for a moment, then returning to its place. “He has arranged to communicate at this day and hour.”

Terrye Jo thought about it for at least long enough for the smile to start to disappear again, then she said, “All right. Fine. I assume he has a prepared call sign and frequency?”

“He has . . . whatever he needs. He will clarify all when he arrives.”

It was clear that Francois de Vendôme had no idea what she meant. It was a fair guess that he didn’t truly understand how radio communication worked at all, but that was just as well.

“I’d better fire up the set,” she said, and this time he stepped aside to admit her to the room.

It was cold as usual, but everything was in order and put away except for two freshly-sharpened Number 2 pencils, a block of paper and the small pen-knife that substituted for a pencil sharpener. On the pad, in what looked like Henri’s hand, were the words pardonnez-moi, as if they’d be blamed for abandoning their posts. They were not accustomed to saying no to princes.

The set was an impressive-looking thing, with more decoration than any radio deserved to have, but that was the seventeenth century for you; inside it was really very simple. They’d installed a very sensitive dial with gradations that adjusted a tuning capacitor for the receiver. It was the responsibility of the on-duty operator to carefully note any transmissions and the dial position showing their frequency. The transmitter had a similar adjustment mechanism: the dial and a sliding bar controlled a spark-gap rig based on an old instruction book from the 1920s published by the National Bureau of Standards. They’d found it in Terrye Jo’s dad’s attic, where it had survived water damage and the Ring of Fire. The whole thing was powered by a bank of six Leyden-jar capacitors under the table, set in a wooden frame with a trough below, big enough to hold the contents of a jar if it should ever break. There were two knife switches on the front of the rig to engage or disengage them, and a sturdily-built telegraph key mounted on a heavy wooden block, connected to the box by an insulated wire.

It would have been more impressive to have everything open. The transmitter, when powered, created a blue corona around the spark gap that was too bright to look at when the gain was all the way up — but maybe it was better to keep everything in a carved box to maintain the illusion, Wizard of Oz-like. It was for job security if nothing else. It was best that most folks, especially princes, didn’t realize just how simple it all was . . . in the right hands.

She put on a pair of earphones and plugged them into a jack on the front of the box. There was a little volume control on the earphone cord. She turned it up and slowly moved the dial to a known position to see if she could pick up the transmitter from Bern, just as a baseline.

Thus when Gaston d’Orleans arrived she didn’t notice. She knew that Francois was standing a few paces behind her at the door, as if he didn’t want to get any closer to the wizardry. Gaston, on the other hand, seemed to have no fear — and a childlike curiosity.

She reached for one of the pencils without looking, and instead of the familiar wooden shaft, she touched a smooth, warm hand. She jerked her hand back and stood up, pulling the earphones off her head.

“What remarkable instruments,” Gaston said, holding a Number 2 in his hand. “Tisond . . . Tisonger . . .”

Ticonderoga,” Terrye Jo said, giving the ‘I’ the proper long sound. “It’s an Indian name. Native North American.” She looked from Gaston to the small shelf that held two boxes of authentic up-timer pencils. When transcribing a telegraph message, a good old Number 2 was much more useful than a quill and ink.

“Ty-son-de. . .”

“Ticonderoga. There’s no cedilla under the c, Highness. I think there’s a small company in Magdeburg that has started to make pencils, but they’re not as good as the genuine article.” She thought about it for a moment and added, “if you’d like one I’d be happy to make you a present of it.”