A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)


"Are you sure you don't need my help dressing today? You let me help you yesterday, and the day before. The Prussian Envoy is calling in an hour, isn't he? Will you be ready to receive him?" Zozia, Ksiezna Nisko, asked in Polish as she slipped around the end of the partition that divided the room in which they slept into two separate compartments, Zozia occupying the larger, brighter one, Saint-Germain the smaller, darker one, which suited both of them. "If you keep him waiting, who knows what he might think? You don't want him speaking against us, do you? The Foreign Quarter is rife with pettiness, and if you keep him waiting, he could hold it against us." She was turned out in a fashionable ensemble of green-and-white-striped taffeta with a long stomacher and a modified sacque-back, her sunny-blond hair dressed in a froth of loose curls known as the rustic style. A little too imperious in her bearing to be properly feminine and too lean in her figure to be pretty, she had a fomenting kind of beauty that hinted at her capricious and abrupt turn of mind.

"Hroger will assist me, thank you," said Saint-Germain, feeling a bit more himself, but still encumbered by splints on his hand and leg. His throat remained sore, but over the last eight days, the swelling had gone down so that he could speak without additional pain and nearly in his normal voice; the rest of his face and back felt stiff, but he endured it stoically, knowing the bruises would eventually fade.

"Then I'll go out with the English ladies. I don't know how long we'll be gone." She pouted prettily in the doorway, tossed her head, and went away, calling out, "Hroger. Your master needs you."

Saint-Germain sat up on his narrow, hard bed that was made of a thin mattress and sheets laid over a chest of his native earth; there was a light blanket at the foot of the bed, but he had not used it. He took stock of the state of his healing, then sighed; it would be more than a month before his hand would be able to work, and equally as long for the bruise on his tibia to dissipate. He touched his face, satisfied that the cut on his jaw was finally closed: by August, he knew, it would vanish completely, leaving no scar behind.

"Hercegek?" Hroger asked as he came around the end of the partition.

"Come in, old friend," said Saint-Germain in the dialect of western China. "And welcome. Though I'm in a nettlesome mood."

"Which means you continue to improve," Hroger remarked, his austere features showing a hint of approval.

"That I do. I'm sufficiently better that I find my limitations frustrating." He shook his head to show his dissatisfaction. "Never mind. If you'll take out my embroidered coat, the white silk chemise, and the ruby studs for the knee-britches, one silver-buckled shoe, and one black leg-hose."

"For the right side, of course," said Hroger, going to the armoire against the wall. "Which waistcoat? The dark-red one, perhaps?"

"I wish I could leave off the waistcoat," said Saint-Germain, "but I can't appear slovenly or invalidish, or impervious to chill, for that matter. The dark-red will do."

Hroger's next question was more problematic. "Do you need me to help you stand?"

"I think I can manage." He cracked a rueful laugh. "Lying abed as I have done of late, I've been considering again that this is the second time that a non-Polish King of Poland has sent me to Russia, and I ended up with a wife. A strange mirroring of events, don't you think?" The memory of his time at the court of Ivan Grosny on behalf of Istvan Bathory, the Transylvanian King of Poland, and his ordered marriage to Xenya Evegeneivna Koshkina still had the capacity to distress Saint-Germain, and the brave, hideous death of Xenya during their escape from the treachery in Moscow had not lost its capacity to discompose him.

"You haven't a wife this time," Hroger reminded him at his most neutral. "Just the pretense of one."

"True," Saint-Germain allowed, directing his attention away from that grueling time, just over two centuries ago. "I was Hrabia Saint-Germain for Ivan-though it meant little to him-not Arpad, Hercegek Gyor. And we are at Sankt Piterburkh now, not Moscow." He paused. "Also, there is a difference between Piotyr Alexeievich and Ivan Grosny, and between Xenya and Zozia."

"Luckily," said Hroger as he brought out the splendid red-embroidered black-satin coat, the dark-red waistcoat, and the matching knee-britches. He laid these on the bed, then went back to the armoire, removing one of the white-silk chemises that hung there. "Black jabot, or white lace?" He posed the question in Russian.

"The black, I think," said Saint-Germain in the same tongue. "I'll have to wear the colored clothes at some point, but since I'm recuperating, it's likely that sober dress won't be taken as anything but a recognition of my injuries."

Hroger set out the shoe and leg-hose, taking care to make sure they were within easy reach for Saint-Germain. "If you'll give me your night-robe?"

Saint-Germain opened the garment and slipped it off his shoulders, the habitual movement still a bit jerky from stiff muscles. He handed it wordlessly to Hroger and took the linen under-drawers Hroger held out to him. Donning these was awkward, and he nearly fell as he did his best to step into the under-garment and pull it up to his waist.

"The chemise next?" Hroger asked.

"Yes. Then the leg-hose, and afterward, the knee-britches. Then waistcoat and coat." He steadied himself against his bed as he took the chemise and worked it over his head, teetering as he strove to remain upright. Little as he wanted to admit it, he was still feeling the impact of his beating. "Do not fret: I can manage."

"Which wig do you want to wear today?" Hroger offered the single leg-hose to him, prepared to help Saint-Germain.

"The plainest, and no hat. The Graf is my first visitor since the assault, if you do not count Ludmilla Borisevna. This visit from Graf von Altenburg is an honor, of course, but hardly one deserving of full court dress. Elegant simplicity will be the fashion. I will not wear jewelry beyond my signet-ring." He touched his brow. "How dark are my eyes?"

Long experience had taught Hroger that Ragoczy tended to be embarrassed by injuries and the necessity to accommodate them. "You still have severe bruises, and they are dull-purple in color, the smaller ones fading to green." Hroger went to the single chest-of-drawers on this side of the cubicle, examining the three wigs on their stands: all were the same near-black as Saint-Germain's hair, but none had the faint trace of white at the temples that showed on the stubble of his close-cropped scalp. "This German one?" He chose the one with the least elaborate curls of moderate length. "Or the English-style one?" Of the three, Hroger preferred the English wig.

"The German wig will do; the Graf will prefer it," said Saint-Germain as he sat down long enough to pull on his leg-hose; this concession annoyed him, but he remained determined to do as much of his dressing as he could on his own. "I'll need a slipper for my left foot."

"I have one for you," said Hroger. "The black-silk one from Turkey. It should do well enough for your visitor."

"So I hope." He managed to work the single leg-hose up his leg and over his knee; he was too shaky to pull on the knee-britches without help, so said, "If you will?"

"I will," said Hroger, coming to assist him into the knee-britches. "I'll help you on with the coat when you're ready." His long association with Saint-Germain made him aware that his master's brusque-ness was more from exasperation with his slow-healing body than anything against his man's service. As he buttoned the knee-britches, he said, "In a week or so you'll be able to do this yourself."

Saint-Germain gave a self-deprecating smile. "You know me too well, old friend. I apologize for imposing my ill-humor on you; you deserve better of me. I should not abuse you for my own lack." He looked toward the small, high, double-glazed window. "I am out of all patience with myself, and you have taken the brunt of it. I should have realized that we might be set upon. At my age, I have no excuse for such a lapse."

"How could you have known?" Hroger asked levelly. "You answered an urgent summons from one of your supervisors to inspect a malfunctioning treadmill, which is what supervisors are charged to do. Vladimir Pavlovich Timchenkov was not unknown to you, and his reason for summoning you was not unreasonable, certainly not sufficient to alarm you. You might have incurred the displeasure of the Czar if you had ignored the request to inspect the treadmill; earning Piotyr Alexeievich's disapprobation so early in your mission would vex Augustus." He reached for the handsome waistcoat and eased it over Saint-Germain's arms. "You did the prudent thing."

"I should have been more cautions," said Saint-Germain.

"Perhaps you would have been, had you been here longer." Picking up the coat, he slipped it onto his employer, smoothing it before he came around to Ragoczy's front to button the waistcoat and adjust the hang of the coat. "I'll get the neck-cloth."

"Thank you," said Saint-Germain in chastened accents.

"You needn't continue to upbraid yourself, my master," said Hroger, taking a length of ruffled black-silk cloth and inspecting it before returning to Saint-Germain and putting it in place around his neck. As he tied the complicated bow, he added, "I've been told that there have been other attacks by large gangs."

"I have not yet been able to recall the attack beyond a few moments of it." This admission was as painful as the others had been.

"It's only eight days since it happened. Think of how long it took you to recall what Srau did to you."

Saint-Germain stared up at the ceiling. "It would be useless to say that was a different situation, would it not."

"It would," Hroger assured him as he completed the tying of the neck-cloth. "There. The Prussian Envoy should be satisfied with your appearance. Shall I serve him wine or vodka?"

"Wine, I think-from my stores; Zozia would not like me to use any of hers." He managed a brief smile and turned toward the partition. "It is awkward, this deception."

"You aren't surprised, are you?" Hroger held out his arm for Saint-Germain to lean on. "Shoe and slipper. Both have your native earth in the soles."

"Very good," said Saint-Germain, and accepted Hroger's support that enabled him to don his footwear without the risk of falling. Then, reluctantly, he retrieved his crutches from the side of his bed and slid them under his arms. "I'll pass the time until Graf von Altenburg arrives with reading. After spending the last six days lying in torpor, I feel stale."

"That torpor will hasten your recovery," Hroger pointed out. "Lying on your native earth can restore you better than any remedy, save one, particularly since the nights are so short."

"That has been a problem," Saint-Germain conceded.

"It's fortunate the attack didn't happen a month from now, at midsummer, when the sky doesn't darken all night long. At least there is twilight." Hroger regarded Saint-Germain with a mixture of concern and exasperation. "If you had someone who could-"

"But I haven't; not yet," said Saint-Germain.

"Then I trust you will make an effort to rectify this soon," Hroger said, his anxiety concealed in a kind of gruffness.

"So I hope. For now, I need to enliven my mind."

"Which book would you like?" Hroger asked as he followed Saint-Germain through Zozia's side of the room and into the central chamber of the house where the Prussian Envoy would be received and entertained. The room was the largest of the three, with a main door that opened onto the small covered porch. Five large chests stood against the walls; a long table was set up along the west wall, with benches long enough to accommodate the entire household at a meal. In the southeast part of the room there were three upholstered chairs, a low serving table, and a settee. A large candelabra depended from the beam in the middle of the room-at the moment it was without candles. The house, being in the Foreign Quarter, had two more windows than the Czar had allocated to three-room houses, and it boasted three dormers and a rear door, for Sankt Piterburkh, a very grand establishment-even the Czar's house had only four rooms.

"You choose what you think would suit me best," said Saint-Germain, and made for the Polish settee beneath two double-glazed windows in the south wall; against the north wall there stood a simple stove, which not only provided heat for the house, it served as a simple kitchen. He lowered himself onto the settee and raised his splinted leg while Hroger went to look through Saint-Germain's trunks for a suitable book, returning in a short while with a copy of Nicolaas Heinsius' Den Vermakelyken Avanturier.

"I thought something Dutch would be advisable," said Hroger.

"Very clever," Saint-Germain approved, taking the novel from him and holding it in the light. Before he started to read, he said, "I suppose Zozia has gone out?"

"She has, in the light carriage. Adolphus Gronigen is driving her; I didn't think you'd mind."

"Why should I. Which horses?" Saint-Germain asked.

"Your pair of chestnuts. You know the Ksiezna favors them for their matched paces. Her maids are sewing in the servants' room. Most of her staff is out until Vespers." He nodded in the direction of the third room, which was divided as Saint-Germain's and Zozia's bedchamber was, men in bunks on one side, women in bunks on the other.

"Do we have bread and salt to offer our guest when he arrives?" Saint-Germain looked toward the large cabinet behind the stove where most of the household foodstuffs were kept.

"I'll attend to that now." Hroger crossed the room, his demeanor unflustered. He removed a basket of bread and took a small loaf from it and set it on a tray, then filled a saucer with salt and set it next to the bread on the tray. "It's ready for Graf von Altenburg's arrival."

"Excellent," said Saint-Germain. "Impeccable as always, old friend."

"I'll fetch the wine," Hroger said, and left the room for the rear of the house where a formidably locked storage closet was attached to the structure, returning some five minutes later with a dusty bottle in his hands. "The wind is picking up, my master. Shall I light the fire in the stove?"

"Not yet, I think," said Saint-Germain, looking up from his book. "After the Graf arrives, then start the fire."

"So that it will be on his account," approved Hroger. "He will be complimented by the warming room."

Saint-Germain's smile was swiftly gone, but his eyes remained amused. "It is the nature of diplomacy to flatter, is it not."

Hroger went about opening the wine. "He should be here shortly."

"So he should." With that, Saint-Germain closed his book and set it down. "Which wine did you select?"

"A Tokay. A Hungarian wine seems appropriate." He indicated the bottle. "Sweet, but not cloying."

"Excellent," said Saint-Germain, shifting on his settee. "We will need to apply for space for the Polish escort aboard one of the westbound ships, and soon. Augustus will want his men back before midsummer."

"Once I have served the Graf, I'll see what I can find out on that account." Hroger studied Saint-Germain. "Are you in pain, my master?"

"Less than I was a day ago," Saint-Germain answered obliquely. "I'll manage."

"Good enough," said Hroger, knowing it was fruitless to press him.

In less than ten minutes there was the sound of a light carriage drawing up in front of the house, and a quick exchange in German. Hroger went to the door, preparing to open it as soon as there was a knock. He glanced over at Saint-Germain. "In German?"

"If you would," said Saint-Germain, patting the book at his side on the settee as the sound of footsteps came from outside. Almost at once there was a sharp rap on the door.

Hroger opened the door and bowed. "Graf von Altenburg, welcome to the home of Hercegek Gyor."

The Prussian Envoy handed his walking-stick to Hroger, and looked around the room. Johannes Walther Oertel Stiffelmund, Graf von Altenburg, was a man of middle-age and middle height, portly of body and florid of face. He wore clothes much like Saint-Germain's, but in a shade of muted peach, and his neck-cloth was made of lace; his wig was a masterful tumble of chestnut curls. He held an elaborate handkerchief in one hand and a snuff-box in the other. Catching sight of Saint-Germain on the settee, he offered his bow with a flourish of his handkerchief, and was answered by Saint-Germain inclining his head. "Herzog Gyor," he said, using the German title, and speaking courtly German. "I am pleased that you're willing to receive me. I can see that you still have a long way to go before you're entirely recovered."

"Graf von Altenburg," said Saint-Germain in the same language and style, but with a faint accent that the Graf could not identify. "You are most welcome. Thank you for your concern on my behalf."

"We in the Foreign Quarter are all agog about your mishap," von Altenburg continued. "Not a day passes but one of us is worried that a similar misfortune will befall him. Many of our people will not walk abroad after Vespers without at least one bodyguard." He saw Saint-Germain indicate the nearest chair. "Most kind, most kind." He stuffed his handkerchief and snuff-box away in the recesses of his coat, and sat down. "I saw your wife in your carriage with two of the English ladies as I came here. If you'll permit me to say it, she is a most attractive woman. Not just in the usual fashion, which serves to enhance her charms."

"That she is, on all points," said Saint-Germain, and signaled to Hroger. "I hope you will take the traditional tokens of hospitality, and then something from Hungary."

"Much appreciated," said von Altenburg, and coughed delicately. "I hope I will not offend you by being too precipitous, but I must ask if you are part of the rebellion against the Hapsburgs before we continue our discussion? I don't mean to impugn your motives for being here, nor those of your wife. I realize that this is unmannerly of me to … I'm sure you can understand the grounds for my concern."

"I can, and as to the war going on, I have sympathy for the Transylvanians, my blood having come from that region centuries ago." The centuries since he had left his homeland now numbered thirty-seven, but he kept that to himself. "In my opinion, Rakoczi II Ferenc has undertaken a dangerous venture, and who knows where it will lead? He has conviction and the desire of most of the Hungarian people on his side; the Hapsburgs have wealth, soldiers, and weapons." He paused, for once glad of having Arpad Arco-Tolvay to act as concealment. "I have no direct connection with either the Hapsburgs or the opposing Hungarians."

"I'm relieved to hear that," said von Altenburg. "I know such matters can become difficult when one is abroad."

"As you say," Saint-Germain said, giving another incline of his head to show his agreement.

Carrying a tray with the bread, salt, wine, and wineglass upon it, Hroger came to von Altenburg's side. "Graf? If you would honor this house?"

Startled, von Altenburg turned and stared at the tray. "Oh, yes. Very nice. Very nice." He took a pinch of bread, dipped it in the salt, and popped it into his mouth, chewing emphatically. Then he poured himself a glass of the Tokay, and held it up toward the window. "Like sunlight, isn't it?" He saluted Saint-Germain with it. "Won't you join me, Herzog?"

"No, thank you; I do not drink wine."

"Humph," said von Altenburg. "Well, to your recovery, then." He drank and smiled his approval. "An amazing vintage. Are you sure you won't have some?"

"Quite sure, thank you," said Saint-Germain.

"It is regrettable that you have had to keep to your bed this past week."

"Regrettable in what way?" Saint-Germain asked, knowing it was expected of him. "Beyond the inconvenience, of course."

"It has been a most exciting week; we actually held a small ball in the house of the English Resident. I'm sorry you missed it," von Altenburg continued, all affability.

"No more so than I," Saint-Germain assured him.

"What?" He stared at his host, then chuckled. "Oh, I see. Yes, undoubtedly you are more sorry than I for the cause." He glanced at Hroger. "You may remove the bread and salt. I'll keep the wine."

"Then I'll light the fire in the stove," said Hroger, picking up the basket and saucer, and retreating to the end of the room, where he busied himself with stoking and lighting the stove.

"I'm glad you find the wine to your taste," said Saint-Germain.

"It is most satisfying." After taking another generous sip, he went on, "Undoubtedly, you are behind on the news of the town. You will want to know that a ship has arrived from England-hence the occasion for the ball-with a number of engineers from Scotland, and two English shipwrights among the passengers aboard. They're assigned to housing on the edge of the Foreign Quarter, out where the working-men's supervisors' houses are. I was very much surprised to learn that the ship encountered little ice on its journey, and has been able to anchor out in the mouth of the Neva."

"Most interesting. But then, English ships are famous for their sturdiness, accustomed as the English are to building for hard weather." He studied von Altenburg with what seemed nothing more than mild curiosity. "What do you make of their coming?"

"Nothing much. The Czar is going to put them to work, of course; everyone is put to work here, one way or another. They say his deputy will arrive in the next few days, to see that the work continues to progress while the Czar is away. Most of the new arrivals will remain here, but some will go to the army to fight the Swedes." He shook his head ponderously. "Damnable business, this war between Russia and Sweden. Not going too well for the Czar."

"I doubt Piotyr Alexeievich would agree. So far he has gained more than he has lost, or so I understand." Saint-Germain waved his hand toward the window. "This place, for example, was in Swedish hands until recently."

"True, true, and the Swedes failed to reclaim it last summer," said von Altenburg. "Yet it is far from over. The day may yet come when the Czar will lose this miserable marsh once again."

"I doubt that. Piotyr Alexeievich has too many plans for his city to give it up."

"That might not be entirely his choice," said von Altenburg. "If there should be a turn in the war, who knows what he might have to concede."

"I would not wager on that," said Saint-Germain. "Piotyr Alexeievich isn't like other Czars, and it would be unwise to judge him by his forefathers. He has willed this place to be a city, and unless he dies soon, it will be one." He thought back again to Ivan Grosny, once more reminding himself that Ivan Vasillyevich had been a man of energy as well, but whose attention was turned eastward, not west; Ivan had been so absolute in his power that he had been the next to the last of his dynasty.

"What you say is true," said von Altenburg, nodding judiciously. "But Karl of Sweden isn't one to give up what has been his." He took another sip of wine. "I am not as confident as the Czar is that Russia will emerge from this war as a Baltic power. I realize that is what Piotyr wants, but Russia hasn't yet made the formidable army that Sweden commands."

"When you consider how far the army has come in a dozen years, I'm not at all convinced that Karl will be able to sustain his advances against Piotyr Alexeievich." He weighed his next remarks carefully. "I would like to think that the war will not be a long one, but I fear it shows every sign of lasting several more years."

"That is a very real concern to all of us," said von Altenburg, his frown portentous. "You have struck the heart of the matter." Again he paused to drink, swallowing nervously. "You see, I've come not only to ascertain for myself that you are improving, I am hoping that you and I might find some way to pool our missions to our mutual advantage, in two applications."

"What do you mean?" Saint-Germain asked, feeling wary.

"It seems to me that as foreigners in this place, we share many common … issues." Von Altenburg cleared his throat. "I can think of a number of situations when it would be advantageous for us to share any information we may possess. In addition, it seems to me that if we form a kind of committee of residents of the Foreign Quarter, to greet newcomers and acquaint them with the conditions prevailing here. Who knows, had some of us warned you of the dangers beyond the second levee, you might have been spared your injuries. Your situation informs the rest of us to be more willing to look after all our foreign neighbors."

Ragoczy made a show of pondering these possibilities, and finally said, "I cannot do anything against the mandate of Augustus, no matter how helpful it may be."

"No, no. Of course not. But consider the advantages if we pool our information, and help those coming here to avoid the pitfalls they may encounter." He waved his hand to emphasize that he had no intention to undermine Ragoczy's mission. "But insofar as we must deal with this place, and the whims of the Czar, don't you think that whenever it is practicable, that we agree to provide each other whatever information we may have for the purpose of protecting ourselves and our delegacies from any untoward development."

Saint-Germain responded carefully. "You must have instances in mind."

"Actually, the attack you sustained was the incident that made me aware of the advantage of sharing intelligence as I have mentioned already. Had you been told that there were gangs out in the marshes, you might have been better prepared for such an eventuality as your ambush. And it struck me that there were other aspects of intelligence that could be shared, as well."

"Oh. Were we ambushed?" Saint-Germain asked.

"Don't you know?" Von Altenburg was shocked to learn this.

"No. I recall leaving the house with Vladimir Pavlovich, and I have a few incoherent impressions of being struck with a club, but once we reached the second levee, I have no clear recollection of anything else until the Finnish Watch found me. They were the ones who brought me to the care-house." He saw something flicker in von Altenburg's eyes. "Why: have you heard something?"

"No, nothing. Nothing." He wiped his lips with his handkerchief. "I assumed, as did everyone, that there had to have been an ambush. How else could you and the supervisor have been overpowered? Those gangs lie in wait for the reckless, and had you been warned, you might have had a better outcome."

"No doubt," said Saint-Germain, wondering what was behind this offer. "It is an interesting proposition, Graf; one that, as you say, has advantages. I would like a day or two to think it over."

For the first time, von Altenburg became huffy. "I'd think the advantages of such an arrangement would be obvious."

"Oh, they are," said Saint-Germain smoothly. "But, do you know, I have learned over the years that sometimes a tempting offer conceals difficulties that come to light only after the offer has been accepted." He gave a self-deprecating smile. "I do not say that is your intention to lure me into an agreement that would redound to my disadvantage, but before we pledge our mutual support, we may both want to understand where the limits of the agreement lie," he went on, forestalling van Altenburg's protests. "I believe it would be prudent to anticipate possible problems before they arise. Such matters are more easily set aside than undone."

"Understandable, understandable," von Altenburg grumbled. "I do take your point, Herzog. Given your reception in Sankt Piterburkh, a little reserve may be wise." He poured more wine and took a long sip. "How long are you assigned here?"

This abrupt change of subject bemused Saint-Germain, who nonetheless answered the question. "It depends on my usefulness. Augustus of Poland did not set a limit on my mission. Either the King, or my wife, may call a halt to our assignment."

"Not you?" Von Altenburg was surprised by this news.

"No, not I. Keep in mind that my wife is Polish-I am Hungarian, which is why you inquired about the current uprising." He inclined his head.

"That you are," said von Altenburg. "That you are."

The room was warming steadily; Hroger left the stove, bowed to the two men near the windows, and went off to the third room of the house.

"He seems an attentive servant," von Altenburg remarked.

"He is; he has been with me half my life." Saint-Germain had a swift recollection of a day in Imperial Rome when he had come upon a badly beaten man in the shadow of the unfinished Flavian Circus, when Rogerian had been dying from a beating; Saint-Germain had restored him to life and gained a loyal companion. "I trust him implicitly."

"A rare encomium," said von Altenburg, and in three large swallows finished the wine. "Well, Herzog, I don't want to tire you, nor do I want to keep my horses standing on such a windy day, so I'll take my leave." He got to his feet, and offered a bow with a flourish. "Thank you for receiving me. And thank you for hearing me out."

"You are most welcome, Graf." He nodded his head to answer the bow. "I anticipate our next meeting with pleasure."

Hroger appeared again, and went to hold the door for Graf von Altenburg.

"It will be in a day or two, Graf," Saint-Germain assured him.

"Good. Good." He bowed again, and stepped through the door, signaling to his coachman.

"What was he after?" Hroger asked in English once the door was closed.

Saint-Germain shook his head slowly. "I wish I knew."

Text of a letter from Mungo Laurie, Scottish engineer, to his wife in Edinburgh; carried by ship and delivered two months after it was written.

To my most-dear spouse, and light of my life, the affectionate greetings of your husband.

My dear Hepzibah, my mouselet,

Thanks be to God, we arrived safely in this new city of Russia. We made good time, for even with three ports-of-call along the way, we were here in five weeks. The Royal Standard has come through two storms and fields of icebergs without harm, and the Captain, Kenneth Montgomery, is confident of a swift return. This should be in your hands in good time.

Five of us have been set the task of making a plan for dredging a proper harbor, for at present ships must anchor off-shore for fear of raking their underbellies on the shoals of sand and silt nearer the islands where the first buildings have been erected. We have been given a crew of three hundred men, some Swedes, but most of them from the southern reaches of Russia. This is a daunting task, for there is little equipment in place for such a project, no matter how many men we're allotted, although we have been assured that the Czar will have such 'gines sent from Amsterdam in the next few weeks. It appears he ordered them at the end of last summer and expects delivery by the middle of June. Barges are already under construction for our use.

This city is filled with industry. Everywhere one sees men working in their hundreds at draining the marshes, sinking piles into the earth, building up embankments and securing them with logs against the day when the logs will be replaced with quarried stone. On the land, carts arrive frequently with loads of logs, to be met by sawyers, who cut the lengths before the wood is ferried across. The sound of hammers and the clunk and groan of the treadmills create a din that is worse than a brawl on market-day. When you think that just over a year ago, there was nothing here but marshes and a few fishermen's huts, the buildings already here are remarkable in their number. The Swedish fortress is a small place, yet the Czar's village has expanded beyond its limits, and this island, called the Island of Hares, where the construction is centered, is supposed to be filled with houses and official palaces in a matter of four or five years.

I have not yet seen the Czar, although there is constant talk about him. If the reports are to be believed, the man is a giant: they say he is more than six and a half feet tall! One of the English shipwrights, a good-natured fellow named Tarquin Humphries, saw him when he was in England a few years since, and says that the man was taller than that.

Our housing is in the Foreign Quarter, which is to be expected. It is where all the foreigners who are not in work-gangs are housed, from servants to titled masters. There are strict rules for the houses in the city, but in the Foreign Quarter, there is some leeway in how the houses are built. We have a two-room house that fourteen of us share, the others being assigned similar quarters, and there is a Russian bath-house but a short walk from the door. This house is composed of a room filled with bunks and a room in which we eat and amuse ourselves. We have been allowed two extra windows. The houses are all of wood, but we're told that one day they will all be of masonry. The Czar has ordered that there be palaces in stone by the end of this decade, and a viable port as well. One cannot say this Peter lacks ambitions, but how he can prosecute this Swedish war and complete his city, I can't fathom.

Forgive me, my mouselet, for not writing longer, but Captain Montgomery has sent his ensign for any letters we may have, so I must close, but I promise I will write again soon, and as often as I may. Even such things as paper are in short supply here, so if you have the opportunity to acquire a supply, please dispatch it with my fur-lined cloak and my elk-hide boots: we're told the winters here are fierce.

Until I see you again, do not doubt that my love is with you from sunrise to sunrise every day of my life.

Your husband,

Mungo Laurie

on the 6th day of June, 1704