Excerpt from Signal and Noise by John Griesemer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Signal and Noise

A Novel

by John Griesemer

Signal and Noise by John Griesemer
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2003, 640 pages
    Apr 2004, 593 pages

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Then one day in winter, a gentleman from Washington came to seek his help for the Union cause. So despondent and hungover was he that morning that Chester almost sent Undersecretary of War Russell vanderWees packing.

But Secretary vanderWees was a persistent man who marched past the flustered Mrs. Tyler, tracking snow into the front hall and halfway up the stairs to the second floor, where he rapped on Chester's door.

Who is it?" Chester groaned.

VanderWees introduced himself, said he had attended the cable's celebratory dinner and ball all those months ago at the Metropolitan Hotel, and was here now, knocking on Chester's chamber door on the damn coldest day Maine could muster, at the behest of the President.

President of what?" Chester asked from his bed, elevating himself to a sitting position, slowly so as not to cause his head to explode. Scalding white light poured in every window from the snow and sun reflected off the Atlantic.

"President of the United States of America."

"That would be Lincoln," Chester said.

"That would, God save him."

"What does he want?"

"The mightiest cannon ever built."

"And he needs an engineer?"

"That would be you. May I enter?"

The deal was proposed with the two men sitting on the bed in the harsh morning light, with Chester's head clearing as vanderWees allowed as how the President hadn't actually handpicked Chester, he--vanderWees--had. As U.S. Undersecretary of War, vanderWees was the President's emissary. He had been impressed with Chester. VanderWees praised Chester's engineering, declaring the absolute necessity that those abilities languish no longer--and vanderWees conspicuously eyed the empty whiskey glasses on the bedside table.

This man vanderWees, Chester began to realize, was privy to disturbingly complete intelligence. The undersecretary made oblique references to Franny's departure and Chester's melancholic interregnum at Willing Mind. More pointedly, he praised Chester's astute and wide-ranging capacities as an engineer.

Chester knew he was being flattered, so he was wary. But vanderWees was both obdurate and effusive. He took a room in Falmouth and visited Willing Mind daily, to drink and talk and tease an affirmative answer out of Chester. By the end of the week, Chester came to believe that here was an opportunity he had better seize, lest his ambition and his prospects be lost forever. VanderWees had convinced him. They shook on it.

Chester threw himself into the task, plunging back into his old metallurgy texts; corresponding with Thomas Rodman, the Union's ordnance specialist, and Sir Henry Bessemer, the esteemed English metallurgist; test-firing model cannons of his own design on the bluffs at Willing Mind (lobbing dummy shells over the buoys of Gil Tyler's lobster traps); forging a one-quarter-size prototype at the Wiscasset Foundry near Bath, using the hollow-core casting method he'd devised to cool the barrel from the inside out; and completing all work in seven months so that he was ready to travel to Pittsburgh by midsummer. VanderWees had telegraphed him to hurry to Washington. If Chester could be there by Friday, vanderWees had a surprise for him before they left for Pittsburgh.

Chester supposed it might be an audience with the President himself. And it was, in a way. Both Chester and the President, and several hundred others, were in the audience at the Richard Theater for a solo performance by Katerina Lindt.

"She's been taking the country by storm," vanderWees said to Chester during the applause, "or at least doing quite respectably out on the concert tour. Mrs. Lincoln supposedly requested her return to Washington, but I happen to know it was the President himself."

Chester struggled to remain composed and tried to take his mind off Katerina, who had yet to appear onstage, by looking up at the ponderously tall President and his button of a wife entering their box and acknowledging the applause of the audience. Chester was too distracted to indulge his old custom of looking around the house to see if any attractive women were about. He hadn't seen Katerina for nearly three years.

Copyright 2003 by John Griesemer. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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