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Four Days on the Danube: Chapter Six
Last updated: Monday, June 27, 2011 20:28 EDT
Once he realized who was coming — that had been a tense few seconds, until he recognized the women — Stefano was immensely relieved. Before they’d even arrived at the airship, he’d already begun deploying the envelope.
Trying to, rather. It really wasn’t a job for just one person.
Dina Merrifield and Amanda Boyd hurried over to help.
“Where is Hank?” Stefano asked, trying not to sound exasperated. The help of the girls — no, women — was appreciated, but neither Dina nor Amanda was large. Siers was big and there was quite a bit of muscle under the fat. That muscle would be useful at the moment.
Thankfully, it had been a cold and dry January night, with a clear sky. In damp conditions, the envelope had a nasty habit of absorbing moisture which not only reduced the lift but made it more difficult to deploy.
“He’s hurt,” Dina said. “Broken leg, we think, and he’s still unconscious.”
Stefano broke off from the work long enough to look at the other people who were now arriving. A small man he didn’t know was struggling with a wheelbarrow, heavily loaded with
Sure enough, Hank Siers. He looked more dead than alive, although that might be an effect of the moonlight. One of his legs had been bound up in some sort of crude splint.
Bonnie Weaver was with him. Behind them came another group of women. He recognized all of them. The wife of the American artillery officer — she was also the sister of the former prime minister — was bringing up the rear, with a shotgun in her hands and a very fierce look on her face.
Mary Tanner Barancek was there, he was relieved to see. He was less relieved — considerably less — to see that her fearsome aunt was with her, along with the two women she seemed inseparable from. The three of them were something called “auditors.” Stefano wasn’t sure what the term signified, but he knew that a number of people viewed their comings and goings with considerable trepidation. They were police officials of some sort, apparently.
Mary came over to help also. Within a short time, the envelope was ready and Stefano began the process of filling it with air driven by the fan that would maintain pressure in the envelope during flight. This air was cold, not hot, and would not provide enough lift for the craft to actually fly. But it would fill out the envelope and get it prepared for the hot air to come.
That process was finished in a few minutes. While the envelope was filling out, Stefano used the time to operate the control surfaces and engine tilts to make sure they were functioning properly. Then he lit the pilot lights for the burners.
Now came the moment Stefano had been dreading. As soon as they were ignited, the burners would light up the entire area. The flames would be bright and visible even in broad daylight. At night, despite the moon in the sky, they would be like beacons.
But there was no help for it. They’d just have to hope they could fill the envelope with hot air and lift off the ground before anyone came out from Ingolstadt to investigate.
Slowly and carefully, as a man will when he’s worn out, Johann Heinrich Böcler lowered the handles of the wheelbarrow until the weight had settled firmly on the braces. Then, finally letting go, he staggered backward a couple of steps. He might have fallen, except that Bonnie Weaver came up quickly and steadied him.
“Easy, fella,” she said. “It’s done. Don’t hurt yourself now.”
He grimaced, thinking of the damage he’d already inflicted upon himself. By tomorrow, his muscles would be aching all over. Böcler was stronger than he looked, but his life was mostly a sedentary one.
The worst would be his hands, though. He dreaded to look at them. He hadn’t stopped once during the journey and he was quite sure he had a number of blisters.
Weaver had figured out as much herself. “Let me see your hands,” she said. He held them up, unresisting. May as well learn the worst now, he supposed. She took them in her own and gently turned them over so she could see the palms.
He heard a little indrawn hiss and saw her wince. “Let’s go over to the light,” she said. “I can’t see well enough just by the moon.”
Franchetti had the burners going by now, and the flames were very bright. Once they got near, Weaver resumed her inspection of his hands.
“Well, I won’t lie to you, Herr Böcler. I’ll see if I can find some salve and bandages. But even if I can, your hands are going to hurt like the dickens before too long.”
The term “dickens” was unknown to him, one of the many English words that slid in and out of Amideutsch according to the whim of the speaker. No German dialect was standard in this day; Amideutsch less than any. But the meaning was clear enough.
He shrugged. The gesture was minimal, since she was still holding his hands. “The problem should only be temporary.” He smiled, a bit ruefully. “I was not planning to do any more writing for a while, anyway.”
She chuckled. “Writing? I know you have a reputation for being meticulous, Herr Böcler, but I can’t imagine there’s any point in keeping records for a while. The Bavarians will already be turning everything upside down and inside out.”
He shook his head. “I was thinking of my book, not the province’s records.”
She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Book?”
Böcler realized he was speaking too freely. He was usually quite reserved, especially in the presence of women, but Bonnie Weaver had a relaxed and friendly manner that invited casual intimacy. Between that and his own exhaustion, he was being less guarded that he should be.
“What book?” she repeated.
He cleared his throat. “I am ah. Well, it is an ambition mostly. So far I have a great deal of notes, but nothing I suppose you could properly call a book.”
“That’s how most books get written, I figure. What’s it about?”
“It’s a book on history.” He’d hoped he could leave it at that, but the expression on Weaver’s face made it clear she expected a fuller explication. “A record of our own times,” he added.
“Good luck with that! I remember Ms. Mailey saying in class once that it was impossible to analyze human events dispassionately until at least two centuries have gone by — and not always, even then. Anything more recent than that, according to her, was just current events. She said that with a sniff, as if the term was synonymous with gossip. She didn’t teach current events, of course. That was taught by Dwight Thomas, who doubled as our driver’s education teacher.” She smiled. “They didn’t get along real well. Being fair to Mr. Thomas, he was a pretty good driver’s ed teacher.”
Böcler had no intention whatsoever of asking the formidable Mailey women her opinion on his book project. Or anything else. She was the sort of person his father and grandfather would both urge him to avoid at all costs. His father was a Lutheran pastor; his grandfather, a school director. Neither was a profession noted for taking risks.
Thankfully, Weaver seemed willing to let the matter drop. Böcler really didn’t like to discuss his book with anyone. Some of that was his natural reticence. Most of it was the reluctance of an unpublished author to discuss his ambitions openly. The printing press was less than two centuries old, but it had already been well established that the phrase “unpublished author” was a ridiculous oxymoron.
Johann Heinrich Böcler had a horror of looking ridiculous. In that, as in many things, he was a faithful son and grandson.
Weaver looked away, toward the work being done to ready the airship. The envelope was now beginning to fill out completely, as the hot air produced by the burners did its work.
The moon was almost directly behind her, so her profile was well-illuminated. She had a short, blunt nose, above lips that were slightly imbalanced. Her lower lip was thin; the upper, rather fleshy. Her chin was round, as were her cheeks. Like Böcler himself, Weaver was someone who would constantly tend to be plump.
Her figure, also well-illuminated, was much like her face. Not obese, certainly; but not at all slim, either. She was attractive, in a modest sort of way, but not a woman anyone would consider a beauty. Or even particularly pretty.
Böcler felt a sudden, powerful attraction to the American. He was taken completely off-guard. What had triggered that impulse?
He was a bit alarmed, too. He was only twenty-five years old. A rich man’s son or a nobleman would contemplate marriage at such an early age, but someone from Johann Heinrich’s modest origins would not be able to sustain a household until he was in his late twenties or early thirties. He had no business getting interested in a woman yet. Any woman, much less an up-timer.
The thought of pursuing a mere dalliance never even occurred to him. A considerable number of people — most people, truth be told — thought Böcler was a prude. But at least he could claim the virtues of prissiness as well the vices. He was not a man who would toy with anyone’s affections.
Bonnie Weaver wasn’t thinking of the man next to her at all. Her concentration was on the man tending the burner that was filling the airship’s envelope.
Stefano Franchetti. Slender, dapper in a commoner’s sort of way, quick-witted; altogether charming.
He reminded her a lot of Larry Wild. The reminder drew her to him and repelled her at the same time.
Bonnie and Larry hadn’t exactly been involved, but they’d been very close to it when the Ostend War started and he went off to fight the Danish fleet attacking Wismar. He’d been killed in that battle, when his rocket boat attacked the enemy ships.
Foolishly, in hindsight, Bonnie had probed hard and long to find out exactly how he’d been killed. When she finally learned, she wished she hadn’t. Cut in half — literally, cut in half — by a cannonball. They never found any part of his body. The upper half had been sent flying into the sea, where it would have long ago been eaten by sea life. The lower half had stayed in the rocket boat, but the boat itself had blown up a short time later when it rammed one of the Danish warships.
October 7, 1633. More than two years had gone by since then, but she still had nightmares about it sometimes; even flashbacks to something she’d never actually seen.
The worst of it was that she couldn’t grieve properly. It wasn’t as if she’d lost a husband or a fiancé or even an established boyfriend. Just a possibility, forever gone. She still wondered what might have happened between them. Not just from time to time, either, but often. She was beginning to fear she’d developed an obsession over his memory.
Hearing a sound next to her, Bonnie turned her head and saw that Böcler had a tight expression on his face. That had been him, issuing a little hiss of pain. What was she doing, mooning over a dead man and his Italian doppelganger when she had an injured man to tend to?
There was a first aid kit in the gondola, she remembered. She’d never looked inside it, but it had to hold bandages and some sort of salve or unguent. Bandages, for sure.
The problem was that the envelope had been inflated enough to come completely off the ground. Stefano and Amanda and Dina were scurrying around with last minute preparations. This was the worst possible time for her to start rummaging around inside the gondola. She wasn’t even in it yet.
Her thoughts must have shown in her face, because Böcler cleared his throat and said: “There is nothing you can do for me at the moment. Once we are in the air, we can see if there are medical supplies in the what do you call it? The part that looks almost like a boat and hangs underneath the huge balloon?”
“Gondola. It’s called the gondola.” She gave another smile. “And you’d do better to call the inflated part the envelope instead of the balloon, or you’re likely to get a long lecture from Stefano on the profound metaphysical distinction between a dirigible airship and a pitiful balloon, subject to the mercy of the winds.”
He smiled back. It was quite a nice smile, she thought. Much less stiff-upper-lip than his personality seemed to be.
Then, again, maybe the smile was the reality and the personality just the appearance. It was always a mistake to judge people too quickly. Whatever else, she’d learned one thing about the short, stout Franconian secretary tonight. He was a very steady man. Reliable in a crisis, and not given to either panic or self-pity. She knew plenty of people with more charming externalities who were a lot less solid.
“We’re ready to go!” hollered Dina. “Hurry up!”
You didn’t want to dally when it came time to board an airship that used hot air instead of hydrogen. It was lifted and lowered by adjusting the heat produced by the burners, not by dropping a lot of ballast. Each passenger who came aboard added to the weight, which required more heat — which, if you overdid it, ran the risk of lifting too far while another person was trying to climb aboard.
The long dimension of the envelope had been aligned to face into the wind, and there was a bow line anchored to a tree stump that kept the ship fairly steady. But “fairly steady” is one thing, once a person is in a gondola; something quite a bit more challenging, when you’re trying to get into it in the first place.
Under normal conditions on a proper airfield this wouldn’t be so much a problem, because there would be half a dozen groundspeople who’d be holding the gondola down with ropes. Not to mention that they’d almost always be working in broad daylight.
It dawned on Bonnie that she’d given no thought at all to the problem of getting Hank Siers aboard. The surveyor was still unconscious.
Stefano sprang over the side of the gondola and landed lightly on the ground, by now almost six feet below the rail. He was a lithe and agile man.
Not a big one, unfortunately, nor a particularly strong one. With Willa and Maydene’s help, he was now trying to get Hank into the gondola, and…
Was not going to manage it. Bonnie hurried over, with Böcler right behind her.
Once there, she and the secretary lent a hand to the effort.
Still no success. The problem wasn’t simply Hank’s mass, it was the height of the gondola. Dina had replaced Stefano at the burner — she was more-or-less the expedition’s designated copilot — and was trying to lower the airship as much as she could. But, at best, that still meant trying to hoist more than two hundred pounds of dead weight over a railing that was never less than five feet off the ground.
“Use me as a stool,” Böcler said. He got down on hands and knees, right beside the gondola. “Quickly, please.”
Stefano didn’t hesitate for more than a second before he stood on Böcler’s back. “Pass him up to me.”
As stated, the proposition was absurd. Franchetti was barely more than half the size of Siers. But with four women pushing from below and using Stefano as a combination hoist and ramp — Amanda and Rita were pulling from above, too — they managed to get it done.
Bonnie helped Johann Heinrich back on his feet.
“Are you all right?” she asked. She was genuinely worried. He had to have taken something of a beating down there in the final frenzied push to get Siers into the gondola.
He took a deep breath. A bit of a shaky breath, too. “I have been better, at times in the past. But worse also. It’s not as bad as being bitten by a horse. Or kicked by a horse, which is still worse.”
She stared at him. Northern West Virginia had been a rural sort of place, especially a small town like Grantville. But the truth was that Bonnie, like many people in the area, didn’t really have any more experience with horses than a resident of Manhattan.
Or hadn’t, at least, until the Ring of Fire planted them all in the seventeenth century. But even then, Bonnie — also like many people in Grantville — still didn’t have much experience with horses. You could get pretty far by walking, when you got right down to it. And didn’t have to negotiate with a creature six or seven times bigger than you were in order to do it.
“You were bitten by a horse?”
“Oh, yes. They’re quite vicious animals, actually. I look forward to the day when we can all ride in automobiles everywhere and put horses in the zoo. Or, better yet, in the larders. The meat’s tasty, if you slaughter the animals before they get too old.”
“You’ve eaten a horse?”
“Not often. The meat’s too expensive unless you get the flesh from horses slaughtered late in life. And that’s no good except in sauerbraten. I’ve heard the Bavarians make a good sausage out of horse meat too, but I’ve never tasted it.”
It was their turn to get into the gondola, everyone else having already gone aboard. That was an awkward process. Neither of them was slender and Böcler had the further handicap of hands which were now almost useless. But with the help of the people pulling from above and a complete disregard for dignity, they managed the task.
As soon as they were in the gondola, Franchetti increased the output of the burners. At his order, Dina cast off the anchor line. They began rising immediately.
Panting a little from the exertion and half-sprawled on the floor of the gondola, Bonnie went back to staring wide-eyed at the secretary. “You ate a horse. Was that, like, a revenge thing?”
Böcler frowned. “For the horse who bit me? And the one who kicked me? Of course not. They’re simply brutes, Ms. Weaver. I’d have to ask my father — he’s a parson — but I believe seeking to wreak vengeance on dumb animals would be frowned upon by the Lord. Viewed severely, in fact.”
He sounded for all the world like a man discussing the temperament of his department boss instead of the Almighty.
So. Steady, solid, seemingly unflappable. Add severely practical to the list, too.
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