A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)


After sundown the drizzle turned to sleet and then to fine hail; the wind picked up, so that by the time the clock in the cathedral tower sounded the eighth hour, the night was wailing; the first storm of winter had arrived, and throughout Sankt Piterburkh, all the buildings battened down their shutters and bolted their doors as the wind rose and the streets turned from graveled ways to bogs. The Czar sent messengers throughout the Foreign Quarter, announcing his fireworks display would be delayed until the storm had passed.

In the care-house, Kyril Yureivich and Hroger spent over an hour hanging old blankets along the walls to stop the drafts that whistled through the unfinished paneling. The stove on the main floor had been kept hot, and the one on the floor above had been cleared of ash and stoked again; it was just beginning to lessen the chill in the surgery-room and the care-room beyond. Jascha and Klavdye were putting the large pots on the downstairs stove, pots filled with cabbage soup with bits of pork and onions in it, the supper that, with black bread, would feed the patients and the staff as well; the open kitchen shelves were beginning to fill up.

"What do you make of this?" Hroger asked Saint-Germain as he lit the oil-lamps in Saint-Germain's quarters in the care-house. He was speaking in the tongue of Visigothic Spain.

"The storm? From what I've been told, it has come early this year. According to Saari, hard weather usually waits until the third week in October, not the second." He got up from the floor where he had finished laying a large rectangle of Dutch tiles, establishing a base for the athanor he was planning to build during the long winter months, when he could replenish his supply of his sovereign remedy and jewels. "It could be that the weather will turn fair again, once this passes, and we will have mild days until the end of the month. That has happened occasionally."

Hroger considered for a moment, then said, "I don't think the city is ready for such a storm. There's too much unfinished for winter, such as this house."

"Nor do I think they are prepared," Saint-Germain agreed. "They were gambling on the weather, and this time, the weather has won the hand." He dusted off his hands and pulled off his smock. "Brother Vasili took ill today." He reached for his coat that he had tossed over the back of the best chair in the room and drew it on; it was made of leather and edged in fur, one of three winter coats he had brought with him.

At this mention of one of the nursing monks, Hroger nodded. "So Kyril told me," and waited for what Saint-Germain would say next.

"He has an inflammation of the intestines, not Swamp Fever-or not only Swamp Fever." He went to his red-lacquer chest. "I have given him some of my sovereign remedy, and will provide more later this evening."

"Do you think it will help?" Hroger asked.

"I hope so, if the putrescence has not yet spread too far," Saint-Germain answered, going to his plank trestle-table and reaching for the flask of willow-bark tincture he had prepared a few days before. "If you will see that the patients with Swamp Fever get some of this in their tea this evening?"

"Haven't I done so every evening for almost a month?" Hroger asked, and added, "You're worried about the messenger, aren't you? You worry that this storm will delay him."

"It has crossed my mind," Saint-Germain admitted.

"Boguslav Miesienkevic has been gone ten days, and should be a good distance away from the Baltic by now." Hroger could see a slight tightening around Saint-Germain's dark eyes. "He should be nearing Grodno tomorrow, if he has kept to his schedule of remounts."

"If this storm is wide-spread, it will slow him down," said Saint-Germain.

"It may, but it isn't likely to stop him," said Hroger. "The roads should be open for a while longer, and he can be expected to use the opportunity to advantage. It isn't as if he hasn't experience of winter travel."

Saint-Germain gave a short, hard sigh, then spoke in Russian. "You are right, of course, and my fretting will do nothing but enhance my fears." He stretched as if he had been bent over books all day, and rubbed one hand over his close-cropped head. "We have only two empty beds left on the floor below, and three on this one."

"And they may well be filled by the time the storm passes," said Hroger.

"It may happen," Saint-Germain agreed, holding up his hand so he could hear the pounding on the main door. "With the weather so inclement, accidents are apt to increase."

"Are you expecting more patients?" Hroger kept his voice neutral, but his faded-blue eyes had a resignation in them that revealed his centuries of experience in such matters.

"I probably should," said Saint-Germain.

"Do you want to go down to the main floor?" Hroger asked as they heard the door open and excited voices mix with the ululation of the wind.

"I suppose I ought to go," said Saint-Germain, and reached for the fox-fur hat he had taken out of his trunk two days ago. "I may need this."

"Do you mean to go out in this weather?" Hroger asked, already opening the door of the wardrobe to remove his traveling-cloak.

"I believe I may have to." He took the cloak over his arm. "At the least, I need to have a word with Saari, and he will be at the stable at Zozia's house. He and I need to alter our … arrangements with the storm upon us."

"I could attend to that for you," Hroger suggested.

"You are more needed here at present, but thank you, old friend," said Saint-Germain, going out of his quarters and toward the stairs. "And I need a word alone with Zozia, or so her note informs me. The sooner I find out what she wants, the better." As he descended, he saw two Karelian Watchmen urgently engaged in conversation with Heer van Hoek, and a third standing in the doorway, showing signs of wanting to hurry off. "May I be of assistance?" he inquired as he walked up to them.

"Are you the Hungarian foreigner? The one who built the treadmills?" one of the Karelians asked in poor Russian. "They told us you were here."

Saint-Germain found the question somewhat puzzling. "You are looking for Hercegek Gyor? I am he." He felt a jolt of apprehension. "What do you want of me?"

"The fourth levee has broken. They hadn't finished shoring it up, you know, and with the storm coming, and the tide high-" said the tallest of the three, lifting one hand to show helplessness.

"How bad is it?" Saint-Germain asked, privately relieved to have something useful to do; still, he wondered why they had come to him. What the Watchman said next explained their presence.

"The new treadmill is falling with the levee bank, and the men in that drained portion of the marsh may drown as the water rises in the marsh. They are trying to move the camps out of the lowest parts of the basin even now, before the water gets too deep to save anything. We hope to preserve the treadmill if we can, but to do that, we need to have your advice." The Watchman dared to take Saint-Germain's sleeve. "Come with us. You can help us."

"And bring some of your care-house servants, to carry back the injured supervisors," said the man standing next to him, the one who had addressed him first. "If they lie out in this storm, they'll be dead or worse by morning."

"How many supervisors are you speaking about?" Saint-Germain asked, aware that the Watchmen would know that, but not the number of workmen.

"There are nine work-gangs at the fourth levee, some completing the levee, some setting up the pump in the marsh to drain it. There are also two treadmill-gangs, but they've been moved out of danger."

"So eleven supervisors." Saint-Germain privately calculated the number of workmen in danger at between three hundred and five hundred fifty-far too many to rescue; he hoped that most would be able to get out of the marsh on their own. "We must hope that not all of the supervisors are injured, but it would be more lamentable still if the treadmill were lost, and the work-gang as well." He looked from the tallest Karelian to the man lingering in the door. "We need to assess the damage as soon as possible. Once we find out how much of the levee has failed, we will find out how the work-gangs and supervisors fare." Saint-Germain looked at van Hoek. "Can you spare Jascha and Klavdye? I know you need Kyril here, but perhaps-?"

"I suppose so," van Hoek allowed, looking profoundly uncomfortable. "I know you must bring the supervisors here for care, if they need it, but keep in mind that we are near capacity now. It could be difficult to accommodate many more." He cleared his throat. "I will inform Ludmilla Borisevna of what has happened when she wakes for her night-duty."

"Thank you. And if you will, have Klavdye and Jascha put on their heavy cloaks and hats and join the Watchmen here as soon as they may. I and this fellow"-he nodded to the man who had taken his arm-"will go on ahead to assess the damage. If we can simplify the treatment of any supervisor in need of it, so much the better. I'll need a shielded lantern." Saying this, he shrugged into his cloak and then put on his fur hat.

"Take the one in the vestibule." Van Hoek nodded slowly. "We'll make what preparations we can. I reckon we can bring in a few pallets if we must. I don't want to put two into a single bed unless we have no other choice."

"Let us hope that will not be necessary," said Saint-Germain, nodding to the Watchman. "When you are ready?"

The man nodded to his companion in the doorway. "Let us out, Tonu," he said. "You and Jaakko follow as soon as you can."

"I will," said Tonu, handing one of two shielded lanterns to Saint-Germain as they stepped out into the icy, blasting night.

"Do we go toward the fourth levee?" Saint-Germain hunched against the stinging wind; he had to raise his voice to be heard.

"On the dyke road," the Karelian said, almost shouting.

"Stay close behind me," Saint-Germain recommended, then started out along the raised walkway, taking care not to slip where ice had formed. He carried the lantern low so that its light would shine at their feet, revealing the walkway; his night-seeing eyes could pierce the darkness well enough in spite of the storm, and he did not require the beam of the lantern to find his way. Hail the size of grains of wheat lashed at them, and the wind had invisible fangs that sank cold into their bones as they made their way through the treacherous streets out toward the fourth levee.

As they passed the third levee, the Watchman tugged at Saint-Germain's cloak and called out, "You'll need to be careful, Hercegek. The storm has been very fierce out here. Part of the wooden walkway ahead has fallen into the river, and the footing on the path is uneven. You must not be hasty or you risk falling."

"Thank you," said Saint-Germain. "I will bear that in mind." He continued on a short distance until the raised walkway was replaced by a wooden one; he turned to the Watchman. "How far beyond this, can you tell me?"

"Not far-a dozen paces or a bit more." The man pointed to where part of a work-gang was struggling frantically to cover the second treadmill with tarpaulins; two supervisors shouted incoherent orders at them as the wind tore at the canvas, flailing up into the hail, the cloth snapping as the wind took hold of it. "Not far beyond that."

For an instant, Saint-Germain had an uncomfortable memory of his attack in May, but he quickly banished it; on a night like this, robber-gangs would not venture out. He could feel the disorientation of running water all around him, and he reminded himself to be careful of vertigo. Something else occurred to him, and he turned back to the Watchman. "What is your name? If I have to call for you, I should know."

"I am Aijus Kainula."

"A good Karelian name," Saint-Germain said, and prepared to go on. He skirted the work-gang as widely as possible, and continued on, paying attention to their footing and the state of the walkway ahead of them. When the wooden path stopped abruptly, Saint-Germain raised his lantern enough to show the extent of the damage to the top of the dyke. "We can walk along this if we are careful."

"Keep the beam low, so we don't misstep. With so much hail in the wind, the air is shiny, and things are not easily seen." Kainula sounded nervous; that increased the uncertainty that had gripped Saint-Germain since he had left the care-house.

"I will," said Saint-Germain, and paused as he heard shouting ahead. He motioned Kainula off to the side of the path, and in less than a minute was glad he had done so: a group of men from one of the work-gangs came running heedlessly along the dyke, parcels clutched to their chests, panic in their eyes as they fled. As soon as the first group had passed, Saint-Germain motioned to Kainula. "There will be more. We should stay off to the side as far as we can without risking sliding into the river."

"Some of the bank is unstable," said Kainula.

"Everything wet is unstable," countered Saint-Germain. "So we must be doubly alert."

Another twenty men or so hurried by them, most of them soaking wet, with their packs of their few belongings held over their heads for protection. Then from farther along the path came the moaning sound of wood about to crack, and Saint-Germain lifted the lantern, hoping its small beam would penetrate the hail and darkness.

"There!" shouted Kainula, pointing ahead and slightly to the right. The huge open wheel of the treadmill was canted at an angle, the strong triangular supports that held the axle had sagged into the muddy ground, and the pump had shifted off its housing.

"It's going to fall," said Saint-Germain. As he spoke, one of the supports snapped, its breaking as loud as thunder; the huge wheel tipped and ponderously slid down the broken levee into the marsh, crushing the rest of the pump mechanism as it went.

"The men could be crushed," said Kainula, yet he remained where he was. "How do we get down?"

"If we could get across the breach in the levee, there might be a way," said Saint-Germain. He aimed the lantern's beam at the broken section of levee and saw that it was too broad to jump; at both edges of the break, more of the wall was crumbling into the stream of muddy water that poured down the packed earthen wall.

A group of a dozen men came running along the path, all wide-eyed and distraught as they rushed away from the fallen treadmillpump. As they fled, a man with a nasty gash across his forehead trudged after them, cursing them, his heavy supervisor's whip raised in threat. He called the men worse than cowards, deserving of nothing but death. He took no notice of Saint-Germain and Kainula as he followed his work-gang, still berating them.

"That man is a fool," said Saint-Germain, more to himself than to Kainula.

"He is a supervisor. He must do the work he is ordered to do, or face the consequences of his laxness. He can't let his men desert their gangs." He lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the hail. "His life could be forfeit if he did."

Saint-Germain turned to look at the Karelian. "Men who rule by threat can never rely on those they threaten," he said before walking on toward the ruined treadmill. "It will need to be repaired. The pump-housing will have to be replaced, and the wheel rebuilt." He shone the light down into the marsh, where he could see a dozen men struggling in water that was as high as their waists. "Are there any ladders we can use to reach down to them?"

"I don't know," said Kainula. "I'd guess they were kept in the camp, with the men. They usually are, so they don't get stolen."

"A good precaution, but not useful just now," said Saint-Germain, noticing that the hail was getting worse as the wind sliced across the river and the island. He was a bit surprised that it did not turn to snow, but remained hardened ice pellets that struck with the impact of bird-shot. "Do you Watchmen have no deputies to help work-gangs?"

"There are some, but not out here." He pointed to a pair of workers who were struggling to climb the bank, but kept falling back into the water as the bank collapsed. "Think, Hercegek-many of them have got out. Those remaining are weak already."

"Is there any rope we could throw to them?" Saint-Germain looked about, using the lantern to identify covered stacks of supplies. "What about those?"

"We aren't allowed to touch them," said Kainula.

"Men are going to drown, or freeze," said Saint-Germain.

"Watchmen can have their hands struck off for taking supplies," Kainula told him bluntly. "At the least, I would be knouted."

Saint-Germain knew the knout from his time in Moscow, just over a century ago, and he shuddered at the memory. "Then I will look, and the Czar may order me to leave Sankt Piterburkh if he wishes. I cannot stand here and watch men die and do nothing." He picked his way along the dyke to the first covered heap. He pulled up two of the stakes holding the tarpaulin in place, flung the canvas back, and discovered a cone of shovels and rakes. He secured the tarpaulin and went to the next covered heap. Here he found three lengths of heavy rope and four work-stools. He pulled out two lengths of rope, fastened the tarpaulin down, and carried the rope back to Kainula. "If we stand on the dyke, we should be able to help these men climb up."

"If they pay any attention to your help." Kainula took the rope and tested its weight. "This is very strong."

"That it is," said Saint-Germain; he could feel the hemp fibers press into his palms. "You will need something to help anchor you," he went on. "The foot-stone on the treadmill should be strong enough."

"What about you?" Kainula asked. "We cannot both straddle the foot-stone."

"I will find something," Saint-Germain assured him, knowing that in spite of the running water all around him, his strength would suffice to pull men out of the muddy water. "Hurry. The water is getting deeper."

Kainula made his way to the edge of the fallen treadmill and began to wrap one end of the rope he had been given around the foot-stone. "What now?"

"Call down to the men and have those who can climb up. I will shine the lantern on you, and then I will secure my rope." Saint-Germain turned the lantern, and heard Kainula begin shouting.

"Over here! Workmen, climb up the rope! Come up!"

Saint-Germain wrapped his rope bandolier-style across his chest, then tossed the end down the side of the levee. "Come up! There are two ropes!"

For the next quarter-hour they continued to shout, and during that time fifteen men managed to clamber up the ropes to the path. That left twice that number in the water, a few of them still floundering, but most of them already numbed by cold and terror and unable to help themselves, succumbing to exhaustion and pervasive cold. As the last man who could clawed his way to the foot-stone, Saint-Germain tried to find some way to descend to bring up those men still alive.

"Hercegek!" Kainula shouted, pointing down the path toward the second treadmill.

"What is it?" Saint-Germain shouted back.

"There are men coming. I can see lanterns." He motioned to the men huddled on the ground around them. "They'll have their hands full. I hope they brought blankets."

"Kainula! Can you see who they are?" Saint-Germain turned the direction the Karelian had pointed; there were undoubtedly men coming bearing lanterns.

"They must be my comrades and the men from the care-house." His voice was getting harsh and ragged from shouting and cold.

"Are you sure?" Saint-Germain called back. He busied himself with winding up the rope in preparation for restoring it to its place. His cloak had grown sodden and his fox-fur hat was soaked and clinging to his head. The cold was keen, but it bothered him very little, though he knew the men huddled on the ground around him and Kainula were suffering from it, and unless they were soon out of the storm, it would endanger their lives.

"It must be," Kainula responded. "Who else would be out here on such a night?"

"The army might be patrolling, or the new Guard," Saint-Germain ventured, then saw both Jascha and a man in a Guard's cloak come into the small circle of light the lantern provided. Behind the two were the other two Karelian Watchmen. They all carried oiled-wool packages, and the Guard at their head held two lanterns as well as an ominous halberd. As they came to a halt, it was clear that the Guard had taken command of the others.

"Hercegek," the Guardsman said, taking in the gathering; he was uncertain how to proceed and compensated for his inexperience by taking an obdurate stance. "The Dutchman told us you had come out to inspect the damage here, it being your 'gin. This is a great loss. There will have to be an inquiry as to why it fell." His breath smelled of garlic and beer; he had probably been half-drunk when he started on his way here, but cold and wet had rapidly sobered him so that now he spoke crisply, determined to show his purpose. "How many men do you have here?"

"Not nearly enough," said Saint-Germain, pointing down into the marsh. "Look there. Not all of those men are lost."

"We have fifteen men, Guard," said Kainula. "They're all soaked and shivering. They need to be moved, and quickly."

"If you would help me, I can go down one of the ropes and bring up a few more," Saint-Germain persisted.

Kainula paid no attention. "Jaakko, Tonu, start handing out blankets. Those that can't walk put on pallets, but start them all back toward the care-house."

The Guard held up his weapon. "Not yet, not yet." He rounded on Kainula. "The work-gangs: where did they go?'

"The far bank, I would guess," said Kainula. "It is the easier to climb."

"And the farthest from authority, so they might flee the island," the Guard said, making it an accusation.

"On a night like this?" Kainula asked incredulously. "If they find no shelter, they will die by morning. Why would they become fugitives when there is no place for them to go?"

The Guard leveled the point of his halberd at Kainula. "Those who desert will be counted against you, Watchman. You will answer for their absence." He swung his arm to signal the others to begin handing out blankets. "As soon as possible, get them off to the care-house. See that each man gives an account of himself as soon as he is indoors. Where are the supervisors?"

"I don't know," said Kainula. "When we went to fetch the Hercegek, some were still here. One had gone for the Guard-and since you are here, he must have reached you-a few of the others were trying to secure the treadmill, to keep it from falling. When I returned with the Hercegek, we found only the men still in the water. On the order of the Hercegek, we put ourselves to the work of helping the last men climb out."

The Guard glowered at Saint-Germain. "Is this true?"

"I cannot say what the Watchmen saw before they sought me out, but Kainula's account of what happened after we arrived is accurate." He came up to the Guard and held out the coiled rope. "This may be put back with the supplies. If it has been damaged, I will pay for its replacement. The same for the rope the Watchman used."

"At the least you will replace it." The Guard gave him a hard stare. "You had no authority to take the rope."

"I would have used it to hold up the treadmill-pump that is my design, had there been men to man the ropes," Saint-Germain responded more calmly than he expected. "In that capacity, I am expected to use whatever supplies may be needed to save the 'gin. Had there been more men to aid us, I believe the ropes would have helped keep the treadmill from falling. But in order to do that, we had to have more of the work-gang to help us, which necessitated taking as many men as we could out of the flooding marsh." He nodded to Kainula. "You can see that his rope is around the foot-stone of the treadmill."

Now the Guard was nonplussed. "It may be so; I will have to consult my superiors," he said while Tonu and Jaakko went among the fifteen men, putting heavy blankets around their shoulders and asking what gang they were from.

"The men need to be warmed, Aijus," said Jaakko. "The blankets aren't enough to warm them."

"Take them back to the care-house," said Saint-Germain. "And Klavdye, go back now and you and Kyril warm the bath-house. Tell Ludmilla to prepare a drink of broth-and-brandy for them; the same we have given Adolphus Gronigen after a day on the driving-box. Be sure you look at their hands and feet for blackening." He turned his attention to the Guard. "You need information from these men, but you will not get much now. Let them get warmed and dressed in dry clothes, and they will be able to tell you much more. If you are willing to wait until morning, most of them should be improved."

Jascha came to Saint-Germain's side. "But, Hercegek, we're only supposed to take in supervisors. These are simple laborers. We have no accommodations for them."

"These men can tell us how the treadmill came to fall, and that will help us to rebuild it safely. That should be cause enough to admit them to the care-house." He thrust his hands into the fur-lined pockets of his cloak. "Explain matters to van Hoek, and tell him I will absorb the cost of their care while they are being treated. Take the Watchmen with you. They can help carry the pallets."

"Wait. Wait!" the Guard yelled. "I haven't given permission for any of you to depart."

Kainula made an impatient sound, and issued sharp orders in the Karelian dialect. It was similar enough to Finnish that Saint-Germain realized that Kainula had told the other two not to rile the Guard, but to get the men to the care-house as quickly as possible. Tonu and Jaakko took three rolled pallets and began to unroll them. "We Watchmen will take care of these men," he said in Russian. "That is part of our duties."

"But you must give me a report. That is part of my duties." He held his halberd very upright.

"Then come to the Watchmen's Barracks tomorrow morning. You will find us there." Kainula handed one of the lanterns to Klavdye. "Go. Tell the Dutchman we are coming, and what the Hercegek said." He pointed at the pathway. "Be careful where you step. The ground is soaked."

"I will," said Klavdye, and bowed slightly to Saint-Germain before treading cautiously along the narrow path, bound for the care-house.

"This is unacceptable," the Guard blustered. "We Guardsmen may be new to Sankt Piterburkh, but we know why we are here, and all of you must come to know it."

Saint-Germain went to help Jascha lift a semi-conscious workman onto the nearest pallet, taking time to wrap him well in the blanket and to make sure his face was protected from the storm. As he stood up, he said to the Guard, "Tomorrow morning, you will be able to discharge your duty in regard to these men. We will expect you at the care-house an hour after sunrise."

The Guard was about to protest more vigorously, but something in Saint-Germain's eye held his attention and he relented. "Tomorrow morning. I will have one of my superiors with me."

"Excellent," said Saint-Germain, taking the lead position on the pallet. "Ready, Jascha?"

"Da, Hercegek," he said; he picked up one of the lanterns and counted to three to lift the pallet.

"Go back to your barrack, Guard, and with my thanks. I would not like you to take a chill from tonight's work." Saint-Germain glanced over at Kainula. "Try to keep us in sight as we go, in case of problems."

"We will," said Kainula, who was helping the men who could walk to get to their feet. "We will go fairly slowly, so the men won't sweat and turn colder than they are now."

"We will bear that in mind," said Saint-Germain, and set off, thinking as he did that he would have to postpone his visit to Saari and Zozia. He would ask Hroger to carry a message around to them both, and would call upon them tomorrow once the Guards had left the care-house.

The Guard stared at Saint-Germain as he went off, Jascha behind him, the somnolent workman between them. Shaking his head in disbelief, he said to Kainula, "I've never seen a nobleman carry a workman-have you?"

Kainula had not, and was as surprised as the Guard, but only said, "Well, he's Hungarian. What do you expect?"

Text of an invitation from Zozia, Ksiezna Nisko, and Missus Drury Carruther delivered to all foreign diplomats in the Foreign Quarter of Sankt Piterburkh.

To the most distinguished residents of the Foreign Quarter of Sankt Piterburkh, Zozia, Ksiezna Nisko, and Missus Drury Carruther extend this invitation for the evening of October 25th at the English Residence, where a salon will be held, commencing an hour before sundown and lasting until the clock strikes nine.

His Majesty the Czar will attend with Marfa Skavronskaya, and urges all his foreign residents to join in this occasion, which will help to provide a model for future salons. He has declared that attendance will be seen as a personal favor to him, and respected in that light by him and those serving him most closely.

Seventeen musicians and three singers will perform in the ballroom, and a number of couples may dance while the music plays; two rooms will be prepared for diverse discussions. There will be a room for cards, for those inclined to play them.

The present mild weather cannot be expected to continue, and the English Resident has offered the use of his three carriages to bring guests to and from the salon if there should be snow or rain. Those seeking to avail themselves of this kind offer are asked to send word to the English Residence within the next five days.

October 16th, 1704