Four Days On The Danube – Snippet 05

Chapter 3

          Hearing another burst of gunfire, Stefano Franchetti was distracted from his work with the airship’s burners. Nervously, he glanced in the direction the gunfire was coming from. Insofar as he could determine the direction, at least, which he couldn’t with any precision. There was a three-quarter moon in the sky, but he still couldn’t see very far. A line of trees at the edge of the clearing where they’d set up the airship station impeded his view of Ingolstadt.

          The State of Thuringia-Franconia had leased one of the blimps built by Estuban Miro in order to carry out a thorough survey of Thuringia, Franconia and the Oberpfalz. They’d wanted Filippo Franchetti for a pilot, but since he was Miro’s foreman he’d declined and offered his nephew Stefano in his stead. As it was, Miro was simply breaking even on the operation. The rates he normally charged were far higher than the SoTF would have been willing to pay. He’d cut them drastically in the interests of maintaining good relations with the authorities.

          The man placed in charge of the project was Hank Siers, an independent engineer who’d been trained as a surveyor. Three young women who’d recently graduated from the geological survey program connected to the SoTF’s State Technical College in Grantville had also come along. Those were Dina Merrifield, Bonnie Weaver and Amanda Boyd.

          Stefano heard more gunfire, accompanied by the sound of at least one cannon firing.

          Where were Hank Siers and the girls?

          No, young women, he reminded himself. American females had odd quirks, one of them being that the older women liked to be called girls and the young ones resented it.

          As always with up-timers, there were exceptions to this rule as there seemed to be to all rules concerning them. They were the most perverse people in existence. It was worth your very life, he’d been told, to refer to the famous Melissa Mailey as a “girl” in her presence. He’d also been told — was there any coherence to American customs? — that the young up-time women who were most famous for their free-spirited ways like the equally well-known Julie Sims and the rapidly-gaining-notoriety Denise Beasley, apparently had no objection at all to being called girls.

          The four Americans had left the airship station that morning to obtain some supplies in Ingolstadt. They’d been planning to spend the night inside the city at one of the inns. They needed fuel, mostly, but they’d also wanted food. The girls — no, women — had quickly grown tired of the staples that Hank Siers had insisted on bringing. So had Stefano. Siers’ idea of suitable provender for a geological survey consisted of crackers, dried meat and vegetables which had been subjected to some sort of “preserving” process that didn’t bear close examination.

          Why? Stefano didn’t know for sure, but from idle remarks dropped by Siers it seemed the American thought that an airship survey of Franconia and the Oberpfalz was somehow similar to an expedition to the Arctic. As if Stefano couldn’t land the ship almost any time they wanted at any one of the hundreds of well-provendered towns and villages that dotted the German countryside!

          Stefano would have ascribed Siers’ eccentricities to his advanced age, except that the American engineer wasn’t more than forty years old. Bonnie Weaver had told him, a bit sarcastically — well, more than a bit — that Siers was hopelessly addicted to romantic adventure twaddle.

          “I’ve been to his house a few times,” she’d told him, “since he likes to hold seminars around his kitchen table. Says it’s quieter than the school, which is true enough. Practically every square foot of wall space is covered with book shelves. At least a third of them hold books about exploration. It drives his girlfriend Mina David nuts.”

          The thought of Bonnie Weaver provided some distraction from his current anxieties, but only at the cost of raising new ones. It was bad enough for any young man to find himself caught between two girls — no, women — even if neither of them was an up-timer. When both of them were American, the situation was one which Hank Siers liked to call “fraught with peril.”

          The engineer was fond of such florid phrases. Bonnie said that if he wrote anything besides dry survey reports Siers would redefine the expression “purple prose.” After she’d explained the term, Stefano had had his doubts. So far as he could tell — keeping in mind that his education was fairly good but mostly informal and oriented toward practical matters — his seventeenth century was the era which had more or less defined purple prose to begin with.

          Bonnie ought to know that, too. She belonged to the Baptist church, an up-time sect that she claimed already existed in this world but which Stefano had never heard of until he encountered Americans. Apparently, in this day and age it was still confined to England.

          Somewhat against his will — it might be better to say, against his spiritual will but in accordance with his interest in things of the flesh — he had once attended a Baptist sermon with Bonnie, at her invitation.

          Purple prose, indeed. Thankfully, his own Catholic church mostly used Latin for such purposes. Latin was a language which Stefano could read, with some difficulty; but the difficulty was enough that he could ignore whatever the priest was saying unless he really wanted to pay attention.

          Which, he usually didn’t. Had anyone questioned him on the subject, Stefano would have insisted he was a pious Catholic. But, in truth, he didn’t think much about religious matters.

          In that regard, he was closer to the Baptist woman than he was to Mary Tanner Barancek. Bonnie Weaver’s attitude toward religion seemed quite relaxed. Mary, on the other hand, while she shared Stefano’s own Catholic faith — the odd up-time version of it, anyway — was far more devout than he was. She’d told him that she’d even considered becoming a nun on several occasions.

          She hadn’t explained her decision not to take that course, but Stefano was pretty sure it was because Mary would have had difficulty adhering to the demands of chastity, and had enough sense to know it. The girl — young woman — was… attracted to men. And the reverse was certainly true.

          Best to leave it at that, he thought. Stefano was already on perilous ground without adding to the risks by thinking about it.