A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)

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05.03.2019

Nacreous sunlight cast its eerie lume over the frozen marshes, its anemic glow limning the approaching line of seventeen heavy wagons-some containing livestock, some containing men-an army escort of twenty soldiers, a remuda of twenty horses, and a dozen open carts piled high and covered with vast canvas tarpaulins: they seemed spectral, insubstantial in the wan afternoon; only the muffled sound of their advance made them real. For those residents of Sankt Piterburkh who were prepared to brave the furious cold of this short, dim day, it was a relief to watch the supply-train coming across the frozen river toward the city, Alexander Menshikov at its head, his shaggy horse swaddled in bear-skins for warmth, as were all the horses. They came on steadily through the pallid landscape, their progress marked by the bobbing lanterns on all the vehicles. As Menshikov urged his horse up the incline of the bank along the broad, icy swath that gave access to the sanded snow track on the dyke above, a growing cheer went up from all those who had come to the frozen river; the Captain of the Sankt Piterburkh Guard came out to greet him, nine of his men behind him to make a good showing, for the supply-train was earlier than it had been expected, and this was cause for celebration. "We will open a keg of brandy at once, for you and your men! Everyone will join in the celebration!" This announcement brought more cheers.

From his vantage-point near the fortress gate, Saint-Germain watched the long line of wagons and men; he turned to Yrjo Saari, who had insisted upon accompanying him to the office of the Clerk of the Archives to deliver a written account of the current state of supplies and aides at the care-house. "At least there will be food enough for a while." He did not join in the cheering, but he could feel the surcease of anxiety experienced by the residents of Sankt Piterburkh, and it brought him a sense of relief.

"Thank you, Captain Fet. It is satisfying to arrive. We've been pressing for ten days-eight hours on the road each day, almost four of those hours in darkness-for they say a bad storm is coming, and that might have kept us from traveling for more than a month while the roads were marked and cleared. I promised the Czar that we would be in Sankt Piterburkh for Christmas, and fortunately, that promise can be kept," Menshikov declared when the Captain completed his brief welcome. "It's taken a toll, but we are here with six days to spare." He nodded to the Captain of the Guard, and said, "Is the army garrison going to greet us, or only you Guards? I need some soldiers to deal with the convicts we have with us."

"Most of the officers are off supervising the work-gangs in the woods." Guard Captain Nikolai Evkareivich Fet pointed in a vaguely northeastern direction.

"Surely you don't have men trying to run at this time of year," Menshikov said. "Why waste soldiers on them? Won't Watchmen do?"

"Not fugitives." The Captain shook his head. "Wolves."

"Of course," said Menshikov. "But I need the soldiers here. Bring the work-gangs in for the time being. You don't want them caught in the storm in any case."

Captain Fet saluted. "We'll send a messenger at once."

"Do so," said Menshikov. "And make room in one of the barracks ready for the convicts. It doesn't have to be completely finished, just enough to get a roof over them and walls around them. You'll need to set the Guards to keep watch over them. We have about fifty of them from Moscow-we lost five of them on the journey, but we've added a dozen more whom we caught on the road two days ago. They made the mistake of attempting to rob us, unaware that our escorts are soldiers, not simple streltsy of a decade ago, and ready to deal with such scaff-and-raff as they. The soldiers quickly detained them. One of my officers thinks they may have come from here, since the Guard has driven many of the robber-bands away from the city, leaving them desperate for spoils." He swung down from his mount, his movements stiff from cold as much as from his long hours in the saddle. Steadying himself against his gelding's shoulder, he said, "Did the Guards shoot any bears before they went to hibernate, or have the soldiers? Bears have fur and meat in abundance."

"Only one, and some of it is still in our Guards' larder. The soldiers have brought back pelts of a dozen wolves, and four white foxes."

"Disappointing," said Menshikov. "Still, there should be deer in the forest. We'll dispatch hunting parties in the next few days." He looked over the small contingent of Guards. "We're ready for journey's end."

Taking this as an order, the Captain motioned to one of his men to take the reins from Menshikov. "Get the horses to the Guards' stable and have them groomed, fed, and watered. Double up on stalls if you have to."

Snow crumpled and crunched underfoot and beneath wheels as the rest of the train came up the bank and halted, the army escort grouping around two large wagons, drawn by eight horses apiece, holding huddled men. The smaller wagons carried both men and supplies, and the coachmen kept to their driving-boxes while the postilions dismounted. The carts were still out on the river ice, bringing up the rear of the train.

"Is the bath-house ready? I need an hour in hot steam, and a large glass of hot buttered brandy," said Menshikov, nodding to Saint-Germain as he trudged toward the Guard station at the fortress gates. "Hercegek."

"Poteshnye," said Saint-Germain, returning the nod; he, along with a dozen other residents of the Foreign Quarter, had come to watch the arrival of the supply-train, keeping a little distance between themselves and the wagons so as not to rouse suspicions by the Guards, who were alert to pilfering. Saint-Germain walked a few steps forward until he was on the dyke-road, Saari not far behind; without being obvious about it, he was trying to calculate what the various equipages contained, hoping that some of the supplies were earmarked for the care-house. "You made good time. Did you leave Moscow early?"

"No, but an early arrival was my intention; the convicts wouldn't stand being kept chained in the wagons for many more days. I must attend to their moving into barracks," said Menshikov, about to pass on, but pausing, asked, "Will you tell your wife's brother that I'd like a word with him some time this evening?" as if he had just recalled something important.

"I will go by the Polish house before I return to-"

"The care-house. I remember. I'll have information for the Dutchman, too, in a day or so; I'll send for him to discuss the expansion he has requested so often." He considered again, then fanned his gloved fingers next to his head, showing his thoughts were in disorder. "One more thing: have you produced the proof you claim to have against the claims of the other Hungarian?"

"Not yet." Saint-Germain indicated the ice-bound marshes. "I have sent word to Grofok Saint-Germain where I last encountered him, but I do not expect an answer until spring."

"Um. Well, let me know when you have information: the Czar wants the matter settled quickly. If the war with Sweden continues, Austria and Hungary may yet have an important role to play, and having such an unresolved matter of identity could prove difficult when it comes to ensuring alliances." He coughed diplomatically and changed the subject. "My regards to your wife-the Ksiezna is a fine woman. I hope you will tell her I said so."

"As you wish," said Saint-Germain, and gave a second, little bow, then stepped back as the first of the largest wagons moved off toward the Guards' stable, the men inside huddled together for warmth, all of them cold and weary.

"Will you go to the Polish house, Hercegek?" Saari asked when Menshikov was out of earshot.

"I suppose I will have to: Menshikov expects it, and he wants to see Benedykt," said Saint-Germain, preparing to slog through the thigh-deep snow that lined the streets. "Tell me, Saari: have you learned anything more about this Lajos Rakoczi in the last several days?"

"Not very much. He has been staying with the Resident at the Hessian house now that the interior is finished. He has continued to mock your statement that you have seen his uncle, telling everyone that you are either mistaken or determined to make mischief for him." Saari sounded apologetic for reporting this.

"He would be wiser to say that he welcomes my inquiries; his current tactics may cause some of the Foreign Quarter's residents to doubt him."

"I would think it would bring him supporters," said Saari.

"Possibly a few, but his continuing slights about me remind others of the reservations I have in his regard, and that can lead to doubts. That is one of the reasons I will not talk about the matter unless pressed." Saint-Germain waded away from the packed snow of the road along the dyke toward the Polish house, nine buildings along the street.

Saari plodded after him. "What would you like me to do?"

"For the rest of the day, go back to the stable and get warm; have a good sleep. The next few days are bound to be busy, so take rest while you can." Saint-Germain pulled his cloak more tightly around himself for emphasis. "Stay in for the night, have a good meal, and a pitcher of beer. Tell Gronigen I want the small sleigh harnessed and ready tomorrow at sunrise, and keep in mind while you do that the Ksiezna's coachmen overhear everything you say. Tomorrow I have to do my weekly inspection of the treadmills, and Menshikov is right: a storm is coming."

"Don't you want me to go with you to the care-house? With so many people out in the streets, you could be set upon again."

Saint-Germain shook his head, although the movement was obscured by his wolf-skin hood. "The crowd is not big enough to provide protection to an attacker; there would be no advantage for anyone making such an attempt with so many people about. And if anyone should be foolish enough to try, I have my francizcas with me. I will arrive safely enough." He adjusted the hood of his cloak and pressed on.

"Are you going to need me to go with you in the morning?" Saari asked.

"It would probably be a good idea," said Saint-Germain after brief consideration. "Gronigen will have his hands full out on the dyke road just driving the sleigh; they've taken up the wooden walkways until spring, and the route is not well-marked. Another set of eyes will be useful. This is not the time to end up in a ditch."

"No, it's not," Saari agreed, pointing ahead through the fading light. "There. The lantern over the door is lit. Someone more than servants must be in."

"I see it," said Saint-Germain, and forced himself to move more quickly.

"Do you want me to go on to the stable?" Saari called, raising his voice.

"If you would; I will deal with the Ksiezna without fear of assassins," Saint-Germain answered. "I will see you tomorrow." He floundered his way toward the door.

"In the sleigh, when we come to the care-house," called Saari as he made his way toward the stable. His wave was broad so that it could be seen in the last of the daylight; overhead the first, pale streamers of yellow and pink and green began to undulate across the darkened sky.

"No wonder the Chinese think those lights are dragons," Saint-Germain said aloud to himself as he gazed upward. It almost made up for the long hours of darkness, he decided. But tempting as it was to stand in the cold watching the aurora, he had a task to accomplish. Abandoning the radiant sky, he made his way to the porch of the Polish house and used the heavy knocker, banging it three times as the Russians did to honor the Trinity. He waited, then knocked another three times, and this time saw the door open, and met the stare of Benedykt's manservant, Antek Lienjek. "Good afternoon, Antek. Is your master or your mistress within?" He spoke in Polish.

Scowling, Antek admitted Saint-Germain. "Hercegek Gyor," he said, ducking his head. "They are in their apartment."

"Would you be good enough to announce me to them?" Saint-Germain asked.

"You will wait here, in this room," said Antek, after he considered the request. "If they are willing to speak with you, I will inform you."

"As you like; you might tell them that I come on an errand from Alexander Menshikov," Saint-Germain said, pulling his cloak off his shoulders and going toward the stove, just now pouring heat into the main room. "I will wait here."

Knowing he had over-stepped himself, Antek said, "As you like, Hercegek." His words were conciliatory, but his manner was irritable.

Saint-Germain selected one of the three visitors' chairs and dropped into it. He rubbed his face with his gloved hand to help restore warmth to his icy skin, then, realizing that he should offer Zozia his ungloved hand, he removed them both and thrust them into his coat-pocket on top of the francizca. For more than ten minutes he waited, his thoughts focused on the arrival of the supply-train. He was becoming restive when Antek came in from the adjoining room. "They will be with you directly." He bowed and went on into the servants' room without offering any other show of hospitality.

It was almost five minutes later when Zozia bustled out of her chamber, enveloped in an ermine wrapper, her cheeks bright, her demeanor unusually active; Benedykt was close behind her, his chamber-robe of heavy satin held closed with a broad, embroidered belt, and his wig slightly askew on his brow. She gave a small curtsy in answer to Saint-Germain's bow. "What an unexpected visit," she exclaimed.

"I am here at the behest of Alexander Menshikov," said Saint-Germain, "who has charged me with messages to both of you."

"Then he is back?" Benedykt asked. "Was that why we heard cheering a little earlier?"

"Yes; the supply-train has arrived." He looked around the room. "I was a bit surprised that you remained here rather than coming out to greet the train as most of the Foreign Quarter has."

"We have been playing chess," said Zozia.

"A most engaging game," Saint-Germain remarked.

"We were told the supply-train wouldn't arrive for three or four days," added Benedykt. "There was no reason to leave the house for less than that." His nose and cheeks were chapped and his knuckles were red from cold.

"There may be now," said Saint-Germain, noticing that both Zozia and Benedykt were wearing boots under their finery and that the boots were wet; he kept his observation to himself, saying only, "Menshikov would like to see you later this afternoon, Ksiaze Radom. He asked me to inform you of this."

Benedykt sighed. "If he asks for me, I suppose I must." He began to pace. "Did he happen to mention why he wants to see me?"

"Not as such, no," said Saint-Germain. He turned to Zozia. "He asked me to convey to you his admiration: you are a fine woman."

"A compliment, to be sure," said Zozia, pursing her lips, not entirely satisfied. She said nothing more, and the silence lengthened.

Saint-Germain bowed again. "So. My obligation is discharged. If you have any message you would like me to take to the care-house?"

"There's no reason to send one; you are here, and you're the only one we have reason to communicate with." Benedykt lowered his eyes. "We have nothing to say to you."

Saint-Germain gave another bow. "Will you be attending the Christmas Eve festivities at the English Residence?"

"For a time," said Zozia before her brother could answer. "I take it you will be there."

"I have accepted the Resident's kind invitation, and I have a meeting there tomorrow afternoon with Brian O'Meaghar, Tarquin Humphries, and Mungo Laurie, in regard to the ice-bound ships out in the mouth of the river; they will need shielding from the movement of the ice, or risk damage before the thaw. They also want to know about the treadmills and the dredging-barge, which is why I have been asked to attend; so you may find me there before their celebrations."

"Will you play for the evening? On the clavichord?" Zozia asked.

"I have not been asked to, so I cannot say." He went to the door. "If we do not see one another before the day, the joy of Christmas be with you," he said, taking his cloak from the rack and drawing it around himself. He pulled on his gloves and let himself out into the night. All the way back to the care-house he wondered why Zozia's and Benedykt's boots were wet, why they both appeared chilled, and what they had been wearing under their enveloping garments.

By ten the next morning, Saint-Germain was ready to leave for his inspection; he met with Hroger and van Hoek as he got ready to step out into the deteriorating weather. "I should be back by six in the evening. After the inspection, I will attend the meeting at the English Residence. If I am going to be later than six, I will send Saari with a message."

"Is there anything you would like me to tell Madame Svarinskaya?" Hroger asked. "She will be up from her sleep by three in the afternoon."

"When it will be light," said van Hoek, sounding annoyed.

"Four hours of not-quite-light in winter, and four hours of not-quite-dark in summer," Saint-Germain said, shaking his head. "If she would like to postpone our lesson until tomorrow, I would be willing to have it so."

"Very good," said Hroger, opening the door and revealing wind cutting along the drifts, sending thin swaths of snow scudding; the sky was gloomy. "I will continue to guard her, and the care-house, as you have asked me to do."

"If anything should need my urgent attention, send word out to me, unless the storm has arrived: in that case, send someone to the English Residence with a note to me, and tell me what has transpired."

Hroger pointed to the sleigh coming down the street, the horses blanketed in bear-skins beneath their harness. "There. Gronigen is driving, I see."

"Do you recognize him?" Saint-Germain asked, startled.

"No, but I know his cloak," Hroger said with a faint smile. "Make sure you wrap your face, my master."

"I will; you need not fret, old friend." In proof, he took his heavy Persian-lamb muffler and wrapped it expertly around his head so that only his blue-black eyes remained uncovered. "Will this do?" he asked in a muffled voice.

"It's satisfactory," said Hroger, watching Saint-Germain make his way out to the open sleigh and climb into it. He stepped back and closed the doors.

"Hercegek," said Adolphus Gronigen, nodding as much as his heavy fur robe would allow.

"Gronigen," said Saint-Germain as he settled down on the wide bench, facing the bundled figure of Yrjo Saari.

Gronigen snapped the whip and the two horses started off at a jog trot, toward the road along the dyke, the beams of the two fixed lanterns framing the coachman's box providing a tunnel of light for them. "Clouds are thickening up," he said. "We won't see much sun today."

"We would see little sun even if the sky were clear," said Saint-Germain, thinking of the previous evening when the aurora had brightened the night.

"You have the right of it," Gronigen sighed as the sleigh moved on.

"What did he say?" Saari asked in his version of Russian.

Saint-Germain explained, and added, "If it starts to snow heavily, the lanterns will not be much use and I will have to get out and lead the way to be sure we stay on the road."

"I should do that," said Saari.

"It is one of the gifts that those of my blood possess that we see better than most in darkness. I will lead because I will see the way better than you or Gronigen could." Saint-Germain adjusted his muffler and squinted into the rising wind. "By tomorrow the snow will be falling, whether it does or not tonight. I can smell it."

"I agree," said Saari, and lapsed into contemplative silence as the sleigh continued onward.

It was more than half an hour later that they arrived at the first treadmill; it was wrapped in tarpaulins and its pump housing had been protected by a wooden enclosure. Snowy ice weighted down the tarpaulins and the wooden shield. Saint-Germain got out of the sleigh and spent the next twenty minutes making sure the tarpaulins were properly anchored and the enclosure did not have too much weight on it. Satisfied that the treadmill would be able to resume work in the spring, Saint-Germain climbed back into the sleigh and told Gronigen to drive to the second treadmill.

They were half-way there when Gronigen drew rein: a line of chained men occupied the road, a dozen Guards watching them, whips and cudgels in their hands. Iron poles hung with lanterns provided illumination to their efforts.

One of the Guards held up his hand. "Who are you and where are you going?"

Saint-Germain stood up in the sleigh. "I am Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor, inspecting the treadmills-those of my design-on the order of Alexander Menshikov."

The Guard looked displeased. "It would be better if you would wait a day, Hercegek."

"No doubt; but tomorrow will be stormy and I am charged with delivering my report this afternoon." Saint-Germain remained standing. "If you would permit me to pass …"

The Guard held up both his hands. "You will not move," he said, and signaled two of his men to approach him, and they talked in low voices. "These men are outlaws," the Guard said at last, waving his men back to their posts. "They are assigned to repairing the slippage in the embankments. We have to keep them working. It is important that this section be repaired, and as you say, it will storm shortly."

"Don't believe him!" shouted one of the chained men. "They are killing us!"

The Guard struck the outlaw with his cudgel. "If they die, that is unfortunate, but the embankment must be saved, or part of the city will flood when the ice melts."

Saint-Germain did not raise his voice, but there was something in his demeanor that commanded the attention and respect of the Guard. "Are you killing them?"

"They're outlaws. They are condemned to death in any case," said the supervising Guard. "If we move the men, will you drive on?"

Gronigen started to answer, but was stopped by Saint-Germain, who said, "What are you doing to them?"

Another of the chained men dared to answer. "As soon as we stop working, they strike us over the head and shove us down that hole in the ice. Who's to say if we freeze or drown." His complaint was echoed by resentful, ragged shouts.

"That is hardly an honorable execution," said Saint-Germain, looking directly at the supervisor of the Guards.

"Hercegek," Saari whispered. "Don't interfere."

The Guard gave a mirthless chuckle. "We can do this, or we can let them starve: which is more honorable from your point of view, Hercegek?"

"It would be better if they are not required to die," said Saint-Germain.

"Are you prepared to house and feed them?" the Guard scoffed.

"I wish I were, but as I am a foreigner, I would not be allowed that opportunity. Still, I would think you will want to keep them alive," said Saint-Germain. "If only because you will be short of workers in the spring." He saw the Guard frown under his bear-skin hat.

One of the Guards began making ominous motions with his whip.

"Vadim Levovich, don't be so unkind to this Hercegek." He strolled over to the sleigh. "We know these men attacked, robbed, and killed more than a dozen men in the last year, and beat up another twenty or so, judging from the money, jewelry, watches, and other items they had in their possession when they attacked the supply-train-more fools they. We found a kind of tally-sheet for their victims and what these men took from them. After being questioned, they admitted they kept a camp near the fishermen's cabins at the far end of the island. We found all manner of loot in their baggage, and they claim there is more at their camp." He leaned on the sleigh. "So you see, these are men who have given death to others-they wouldn't hesitate to give it to you-and so should be willing to take it for themselves. We're only making sure they do something useful before they die."

"Hercegek, please," Saari whispered. "Move on."

Another of the Guards drew his pistol, giving a long, significant look to Saint-Germain before shouting orders at the chained men to form a line along the side of the road. Slowly, sullenly, the men shuffled into the line required.

The supervisor-Guard stepped away from the sleigh. "You may drive on; take as much time as you like getting back," he said, offering a deep bow that almost submerged his head in a snowdrift.

Gronigen did not wait for Saint-Germain to sit down, or for his order, but snapped his whip and set the sleigh moving on. He remained utterly silent until they had reached the second treadmill, when he said, "Hercegek, you don't want to challenge soldiers like that. They wouldn't think twice about putting you under the ice with those men."

"Those men," said Saari. "I recognized a few of them from my days as a Watchman. They're outlaws, all right. They might even be the gang that set upon you, Hercegek."

"Would that not be convenient," said Saint-Germain ironically. He got out of the sleigh and approached the treadmill, taking his time inspecting it. He found it difficult to concentrate on the tarpaulins and housings and cables: what if those men were being murdered by the Guards-and what if the men were the ones who had tried to kill him in May? He finally decided that he had done all he could to ensure the preservation of the treadmill, and went back to the sleigh, going on to the third, where he made another somewhat preoccupied inspection as the wind picked up and the first, ephemeral flakes of snow began to fall.

"Hercegek!" Gronigen urged as Saint-Germain kept up his inspection. "It's almost full dark and I don't want to have to pick our way without our tracks to guide us."

"Very well," Saint-Germain said, complying more quickly than Gronigen had expected. "Saari, get onto the driving-box with Gronigen, to help him see his way. I doubt anyone will be lying in wait for travelers out on the dykes this afternoon."

Without making any comment, Saari did as he was told, shielding his eyes with his arm so that he could make out their tracks ahead of them. No one spoke, but Gronigen kept the horses to a smart trot, determined to get them back to their stable as quickly as possible. By the time they made their way to the place between the first and second treadmill, the Guards and the chained men were gone, only the lanterns burning on their poles and rapidly vanishing trampled snow remained to remind others that they had been there.

Text of a note from Benedykt Rozmowaslad, Ksiaze Radom, to Viatislav Brodsky, both in Sankt Piterburkh, written in code and carried by private messenger.

Viatislav,

Can you please tell me why Arco-Tolvay is still alive? You assured me that you and your men would make short work of him, and that his death would be attributed to the same men who had attacked him shortly after his arrival in the city. I have paid you well for your skills, but I begin to think that my good opinion may have been fraudulently obtained, in which case, I will expect the return of the sixteen silver Angels I gave you against the completion of the mission with which I entrusted you.

Because of the sacred season, I will not expect the return of my money quite yet. Let me urge you to use this time to redeem yourself. You have until ten days after Epiphany, and then I will assume I will have either a pouch of coins or a corpse from you. I am not interested in any excuses you may have for your failures-only your success matters to me, and you have had little in your performance to give me hope that you will come through with your promise.

To enable you to make the best use of your time, I will include as much of the Hercegek's schedule as I know it. If you make a note of it, you may find opportunities within it that will provide you with the advantages you say you have lacked.

Christmas Eve, the Hercegek will attend the festivities at the English Residence, and may join some of the Foreign Quarter at Midnight Mass at the Cathedral.

It would be inappropriate to kill him on Christmas Day, since anyone dying that day goes immediately to Heaven, and that is more than I am willing to countenance.

The day after Christmas, he will be playing the violin for the ball at the Hessian Residence, an engagement that will keep him there until midnight or later.

The last day of December, he is engaged to come here to this house for a conference with his wife; unless it is actively snowing, as it is now, I think you may assume he will walk back to the care-house, it being so near.

On New Year's Day, he will be one of those in the Foreign Quarter to attend the fete at the house of Alexander Menshikov, and his return from that engagement may well be the most opportune time to rid me of him; the guests will be drunk and the Guard will be busy making sure no one falls down in the snow, lost in drink, and freezes to death. You may move about largely unhampered; if asked, you need only say that you are looking for your master, who has not yet returned home.

If you apply yourself, you should find something in his agendum to turn to your advantage. If you fail, then I will be glad to have my money returned. Do not think of denouncing me to the Guard: I have already warned them that there are workmen in the city who have attempted to blackmail me with spurious charges so outrageous that only a fool would lend them credence.

Appreciatively,

Benedykt Rozmowaslad, Ksiaze Radom

December 22nd, 1704