A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)

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05.03.2019

For once Saint-Germain was dressed in his habitual black; his coat and knee-britches were of heavy black velvet, his chemise of perfectly white silk, his leg-hose of black silk. His one concession to color was his waistcoat, which was a magnificent ruby shade of silver-shot satin. His jabot was fixed with a ruby stick-pin. His formal wig, done in the Roman fashion, was ornamented with two discreet combs studded with diamonds, as were the buckles of his thick-soled shoes.

Next to him in the carriage, Zozia was a dream in lavender satin, the corsage of her splendid gown studded with amethysts and mother-of-pearl; she had sprayed her favorite attar-of-roses on her exposed bosom, and augmented it with a handsome necklace of amethysts and diamonds. Her hair was done up in a complicated style that brought cascades of ordered curls down her back and ringlets to frame her face; there were a number of jeweled pins sparking in this confection, which she hoped would be the envy of all the ladies attending the reception. She had a cloak of dark-blue velvet draped over her arm, and she carried an ivory fan.

The afternoon was warm and sultry, the air close and still. Overhead clouds were gathering like a vast tent across the world, and turning dark; the Neva looked leaden and glassy beneath them; the sails of ships on the river hung limply on the oppressive air. The only sounds besides the roll of the wheels and the clop of the horses' hooves was the on-going bang of hammers and the scratch of saws. At the far end of the street, a work-gang was busy putting down coarse sand in preparation for extending the roadway; all the men were drooping at their labors and sweating profusely. Saint-Germain sighed. "Ominous weather," he declared.

"But there's almost no wind," Zozia said, extending her hand out of the open window of the carriage. "That's all to the good, this stillness."

"There will be wind, and before much longer," said Saint-Germain with certainty; he could smell it, mixed with the pervasive stench of decaying vegetable matter.

As they drew up at Alexander Menshikov's house, Adolphus Gronigen pulled in the grays and shouted, "Ksiezna Nisko and Hercegek Gyor have arrived!" In answer to his summons, three footmen rushed out of the house, opened the carriage door, and let down the steps, then helped the elegant passengers to alight. "I'll return at ten o'clock sharp," said Gronigen as Saint-Germain tapped on the closed door to signal him to depart.

"Very good. We'll be ready," he said.

Zozia laid her hand on Saint-Germain's arm. "I hope this won't be too dreadful. I dislike commanded appearances when nothing of value is accomplished."

"I hope it will not be dreadful at all," he said, going up the two steps into the reception room of Menshikov's four-room house. He gave their names to the steward, then handed Zozia's cloak to a maid who waited to collect the women's wraps.

"Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor, and his wife, Zozia, Ksiezna Nisko," the steward intoned.

Almost fifty guests were already gathered in the reception room-most of the invited guests-all dressed as if they were in one of the grand palaces of Prussia or the Court of Saint James' instead of this four-room wooden house at the edge of a vast marsh. Living cheek by jowl with one another in the Foreign Quarter, they had all met, but the formalities were being properly observed here, and so each new arrival was announced with due ceremony, and Alexander Menshikov, resplendent in pale-blue-and-green brocade, waited to greet each guest, reciting the usual pleasantries that Piotyr Alexeievich had learned during his stay in Europe. As was expected of them, Saint-Germain made a slight bow and Zozia dropped a curtsy before moving into the magnificently dressed company.

Colonel Broughton was one of the first to approach them, wearing Court dress instead of his dress regimentals, offering a bow to Zozia, and saying, "Among all these beauties, Duchess, you are the prize."

Zozia gave a lilting laugh and said in German, "You flatter me, Sir Peregrine," and playfully slapped his wrist with her closed fan.

"No such thing, Madame," he insisted, this time speaking German. "Allow me to bring you a glass of wine. I fear all they have to offer is German whites, but the Gewurztraminer is tolerable."

"I'll let you choose which you think I'll like," she said, laying her hand on his arm. She turned to Saint-Germain. "If you will permit?"

"Of course," said Saint-Germain, inclining his head, and stepped back.

With a swish of her skirts, Zozia moved away, but paused to say, "I will join you at dinner."

Colonel Broughton added, "The table is laid in the next room, where the stove is."

"A better choice than here," said Saint-Germain, and made his way into the buzzing throng. He had made his way to the window at the far end of the room when he caught sight of Mungo Laurie, who was sipping wine and staring out at the wall of the fortress. Laurie was decked out in his tartan kilt, with sporran, a lace-edged blouse, velvet jacket, and tartan bonnet. Amid the satins and brocades, he looked the most exotic. "Good afternoon to you, Mungo Laurie."

"And to you, Arco-Tolvay," he responded, relieved to be able to speak English; the two exchanged bows.

"The fortress is commanding your attention?" Saint-Germain inquired.

Laurie shook his head. "It's badly designed for defense, although given its location, I don't see how it could be improved."

"You mean because it lacks stellations?"

"That, and the stockade, although reinforced, is still mostly wooden, and any cannon-fire will surely knock it to flinders." He regarded Saint-Germain narrowly. "Do you think the Czar will change the form of the walls when he replaces the logs with stones?"

Saint-Germain shrugged. "I suppose that will depend on how many piles he is willing to drive down into the mud, or if you and your dredging-crew find enough bedrock for him to anchor stellated walls."

"Who knows what we will come upon, burrowing down into the mud? I hope he will improve the fortifications, or he will risk losing his entire island during an artillery barrage." He gazed out the window again. "Those heavy clouds-do you think we'll have rain?"

"Probably," said Saint-Germain. "Once the wind rises." He glanced toward the window and saw that the nearest trees were beginning to bend, wind-strummed. "By morning, if not tonight."

"Just what we need: more water," Laurie muttered sarcastically, and drank down his wine. "I'm going to get more of this, since they haven't any whiskey."

"There will probably be vodka at dinner, and still more wine," said Saint-Germain, reminded of the Russian fondness for excess.

"I don't doubt that. Great drinkers these Russians are, and given the water hereabouts, it may be the wiser course," he said, and shook his head. "Not that there's much else to do here but work and drink."

"True enough," said Saint-Germain, remaining by the window as Laurie went away to have his glass refilled. Standing by the window, he took the time to watch the departure of another three carriages after depositing passengers at the door to the house; he paid little attention as the new arrivals were announced, preferring to make himself as inconspicuous as possible so that he could scrutinize the guests without being obvious about it. Over the next half-hour, while the gathering clouds brought an artificial dusk to the islands in the Neva, he kept at his self-appointed post, taking care to stand where his lack of reflection would not be noticed against the darkness; he spent the time watching Zozia move among the guests, talking, flirting, encouraging conversation. He was observing her in bantering discussion with Hugo Weissenkraft when he heard someone speak his name. Turning, he found himself facing Ludmilla Borisevna Svarinskaya, dressed beautifully in the Viennese style, in an adriene gown of embroidered faille the color of Asian poppies; she had a lace fichu around her shoulders, and her bronze hair was simply dressed in a coronet with twisted gold ribbons. He bowed to her. "Ludmilla Borisevna."

"Hercegek Gyor," she said with a curtsy. "I'm delighted to see someone I know. All these elegant people, and so many languages."

"But surely you know everyone in the room," Saint-Germain said, not simply for good manners.

"As faces with names and titles, yes. You I know as a colleague of sorts, and a patron." Her eyes were somber.

"Nothing so grand as a patron," he assured her. "But I am honored to be considered your colleague."

She smiled more genuinely than she had at first. "Very gallant speech, Hercegek."

"Hardly gallant," he said, so directly that she believed him. "You are doing your best to provide care, medicaments, and treatment for those who need it."

"And what we provide is little enough," she said.

"That cannot be your fault, Ludmilla Borisevna, nor should you think it is; you haven't the building, the equipment, the staff, or the physicians you would need to improve upon what you have done so far. Without any of these ameliorations, you may not be able to offer more than you do now." He gave her a moment to add something; when she remained silent, he asked, "How does Yrjo Saari go on? Does he continue to improve?"

"He is getting better, but his recovery is slow, and his speech is still disordered when he is tired. He is weaker than I would like."

"I have a tonic that might help, if you would accept a bottle of it from me. It is made from rose hips and hawthorn, among other ingredients." Again he waited for her to speak, maintaining a listening silence in spite of the soughing of the wind.

"We can try it," she said with her customary caution. "As it would come from you, I'm willing to use it, if you will give me instructions."

Saint-Germain gave a small bow. "Thank you, Ludmilla Borisevna. It is a shame that the Czar has not seen fit to establish and staff a hospital for all the workers, but given your resources, you have much to be proud of."

"Proud of?" At this she gave a spurt of laughter. "My father would not agree, nor would my husband."

Saint-Germain stared at her. "I did not know you are married. Heer van Hoek has not mentioned it."

"He knows very little about it," said Ludmilla. "Though he knows I have a husband."

His curiosity piqued, Saint-Germain asked, "Is your husband on campaign with the army? Or is he at Court in Moscow?"

"No. Nothing like that. Neither war nor politics interest him, except when they touch him directly. He is a boyar, like my father, and he likes to stay on his land."

Saint-Germain found it challenging to form a question that would not offend her, so finally he said, "It must be difficult for you to be here, away from him."

"Daniela Grigoreivich and I have lived apart for nine years. He remains in Simbirsk, on his estate. He has two mistresses with him, I'm told by my cousin." She looked away from Saint-Germain. "I don't know why I'm telling you this-except that you are listening without judgment." She frowned her mystification, then decided to go on. "The Czar may have changed the rules of marriage, but my father is a man of tradition, as are most of the boyars. He and Daniela's father arranged the marriage, and Daniela Grigoreivich and I met at the altar, in the old way."

"That does not always turn out for the best," Saint-Germain said.

For over a minute Ludmilla stared out the window. "It is starting to blow," she remarked, then continued, "Unfortunately, Daniela and I took each other in immediate dislike, and we had no more dealings with each other after two months under the same roof. He gave me my portion back and sent me away. My father was too proud to take me back, so I cast about for something I could do other than enter a convent."

"Does either your father or your husband know what you are doing?" Saint-Germain met her eyes, compassion in his gaze.

"I doubt it. I haven't informed them, if you're wondering about it. They would not approve." She took a deep breath, then spoke in what was barely more than a whisper. "All they know is I have put myself in service to Piotyr Alexeievich. They probably think I am one of his mistresses."

"I am sorry they do not know you," said Saint-Germain, keeping his voice low so that they would not be easily overheard.

"Thank you." She stared at him in astonishment. "How kind of you."

"Kindness is little enough, under the circumstances," he told her, and kissed her hand.

Her stare turned to bemusement. "Why would you do that, Hercegek?"

He considered his answer. "You deserve some tribute, and a sign of admiration is a small enough recognition."

"Then thank you again," she said, and turned away. "I am going to get some wine. Do you want any?"

"No, thank you. Heer van Hoek has advised me to abstain for a while longer, so that my recuperation is complete." He had noticed some minutes before that they were being watched by one of Menshikov's assistants; he went toward the man, his manner gracious and forthcoming. "Good afternoon to you-I do not believe I know your name."

The young man blushed at being directly addressed; he was lanky and pale, as if he had been out of the sun for most of his life. He was dressed in European fashion: a coat, waistcoat, chemise, and knee-britches with leg-hose, all in an unflattering shade of rose. "I am Ioakim Avtamonovich Miloslavsky; I am Alexander Menshikov's aide."

"A plearure, Ioakim Avtamonovich," Saint-Germain said at his most urbane. His bow was refined and practiced.

"Most … genial," the young man made himself say; the nearness of this foreigner flustered him, as if he had been discovered at a secret sin.

"I hope I might ask our host a moment of his time before we sit down to dine," said Saint-Germain.

Arranging such things was something that Ioakim understood. "What is your concern, Hercegek?"

Saint-Germain managed not to smile at this tacit admission that Ioakim had been watching him deliberately. "About the care-house Ludmilla Borisevna and Heer van Hoek run. They could do so much more with a larger building and a better staff. With so many workmen, a better care-house may be essential, now that Swamp Fever is on the rise." As if to lend emphasis to this observation, the wind made a sudden, moaning gust.

Ioakim nodded as if satisfied in regard to the exchange between Ludmilla and Saint-Germain he had witnessed. "I will mention it to him, and arrange a time for you to have a proper conference with him. This is not the time and not the place for such a discussion."

Bowing slightly, Saint-Germain said, "That is very good of you, Ioakim Avtamonovich. I thank you for any attention you may bring to the difficulties the care-house is confronting, and my concerns for the future of its usefulness. Ludmilla Borisevna and Heer van Hoek gave me as much care as they could provide shortly after I arrived, and I feel beholden to them."

"I will speak to Menshikov on your behalf tomorrow." He did his best to look reliable.

"What more could I ask?" Saint-Germain said, and left the young man to his task of observing the guests.

A half-hour later, as the wind was beginning to ululate around the houses like winter wolves accompanied by the drub of distant thunder, Menshikov left his place by the door and strode to the center of the room, a large glass of wine in his hand. He called for the attention of his guests, then spoke out in a strong voice used to addressing large gatherings, "To all of you from the Foreign Quarter, welcome to my home. Tonight we gather to honor Marfa Skavronskaya, who has gained the love of our Little Father, Czar Piotyr Alexeievich, and is come to live here in the Czar's city, as a sign of her devotion to him." He nodded to the door into the second room. "If you will drink to her, to make her welcome?" With that, he downed half the glass of wine, and watched while his guests did what they could to copy him. "Ah!" He bowed in the woman's direction, and again watched while the guests did the same.

Marfa, in a saque-back gown of puce damask, was clearly pregnant; she was a blocky woman with a pleasant, plain face with a ripe mouth and mischievous eyes, so young that Saint-Germain doubted she was more than twenty. She bobbed a curtsy and lifted her own glass to welcome the guests. "We have bread and salt at table," she said loudly. When she spoke, there was a strong trace of Livonian accent in her Russian. "I am sure I will be happy here, with so many well-disposed neighbors to protect me from those who are not so well-disposed." This was clearly intended as a joke, and Menshikov led the expected laughter.

"May the Swedes not continue as neighbors much longer," cried one of the guests in clumsy Russian.

There was a general roar of approval. Marfa gave an enthusiastic whoop of approval and led the company in drinking. When she had finished with the wine, she held out her glass for more, her expression one of great satisfaction. "Let everyone eat and drink his fill tonight, and be merry. Let us all rejoice in our new acquaintance."

"What do you make of her?" Graf von Altenburg asked; he had come up beside Saint-Germain, two glasses in hand. "You need to drink the toasts, or at least pretend to. Menshikov won't like it if you refuse."

Saint-Germain took the proffered glass. "You may be right," he said, and hefted it as another toast was roared out. When he lifted the glass to his lips, he used a lace handkerchief to wipe the rim of the glass when he was through, and was able to soak some of the wine into the handkerchief in lieu of drinking; he had learned the trick almost sixteen hundred years ago, and although he disliked having to use it, he knew it would be useful this evening.

Von Altenburg watched him, a glint in his prominent eyes. "Very adroit, Hercegek," he approved. "It will spare you an unpleasant time later tonight, when there will be vodka in addition to the wine." He came a step closer to Saint-Germain. "What do you think of the Czar's mistress? A little back-stairs for my taste."

"Hush," Saint-Germain warned, and went on in French, "There are at least five men watching this gathering, and they will no doubt report to Menshikov on what they have overheard, as is their duty. At least three of them speak German, and two speak Dutch. I do not know if any of them understand French."

"How do you know this?" von Altenburg asked.

"Because I have been watching them, and I've seen how they listen, and to whom." He lowered his voice still more. "Make a toast: that will please Menshikov, and he will not pay as much attention to anything reported against you."

Nodding repeatedly, von Altenburg raised his glass and his voice. "To the Czar's chosen companion: may she safely deliver him a son, and may she and her child set an example in Sankt Piterburkh for all the generations to follow." He drank copiously while Saint-Germain repeated his sleight-of-hand.

There was a cry of approval, and waiters were dispatched to refill empty glasses. The guests were milling now, and the aroma of roast pork filled the room. The noise of their mingled voices had grown louder, and the room rang with it.

"What do you make of this, Hercegek?" von Altenburg asked as quietly as he could and still make himself heard.

"I have not made up my mind," said Saint-Germain. "This is either a skirmish before a battle, done up to look like a party, or it is a celebration of more change; it has elements of both, I agree, but I doubt either of us will know what it truly is for some days, depending on how Marfa Skavronskaya settles in."

Von Altenburg ducked his head. "If the Czar continues to favor her, I will be surprised. He can have any woman he sets his sights on."

"Yet he has set his sights on her," Saint-Germain said. "That is something to consider."

"As a gift from Menshikov," von Altenburg scoffed, then looked up uneasily as the wind wailed. "The storm is almost upon us. Who would have thought it would rise so quickly." With a suggestion of a bow, he drifted away toward the center of the room, joining those thronging about their host.

Menshilkov stamped on the floor to command the attention of the guests, then hollered to be heard. "Dinner is ready. Let each of you find a place at table, and sate your hunger." He waded through the gathering to the door into the adjoining room, where he took Marfa by the arm and guided her ahead of the rest of the company to the head of the long dining table laid with dishes, glasses, and utensils for sixty guests. He made a show of seating her in a high-backed chair, then took his place beside her. He then struck a small gong to summon the waiters, and all the while the guests jostled for places at the table.

"Would you prefer me to sit near you, or not?" Saint-Germain whispered to Zozia as they shuffled forward in the midst of the guests.

"If you can contrive to sit across from me, I would be most grateful. There is a Hessian engineer who has been pestering me tonight." She smiled as she said this. "I don't want to give him false hope."

"Certainly not," Saint-Germain agreed. "I will do my utmost to guard you unobtrusively."

"You are beginning to understand me," she said, patting his arm. "This evening promises to be a long one."

He started to reply, but the sudden salvo of thunder drowned out all conversations; the windows rattled and the roof shuddered. The guests went silent, and one of the waiters began to pray aloud in Russian.

Menshikov had turned pale, but he managed to maintain his composure. "The lightning is still far off. We can eat, confident that Russian guns guard us in the heavens." It was not a very clever remark, but it gave the assembly an excuse to start talking again. What laughter there was, was jittery and high.

"Tell me where you want to sit," Saint-Germain said to Zozia.

"Toward the end of the table. It will make leaving easier," she responded. "If you take the fourth seat from the end on the near side, I'll take the sixth from the end on the far side." She giggled. "Look at the scramble to get near the front."

Lightning flickered in the single window at the far end of the room; a number of the guests crossed themselves and tried to pay no attention to it.

"It is to be expected at such a gathering," said Saint-Germain. "No one wants to be ignored."

"They are being-"

Thunder roared over the rest of her remark, and this time, the very walls of the house thrummed. A half-dozen of the servants shouted, and Marfa looked about in distress, casting a nervous glance at Menshikov, who was clinging to the back of his chair.

Another flash, a loud pop, and almost immediately on top of it, the crash of thunder. This was followed by the sound of the bell in Sankt Piter and Sankt Paultje ringing not the hour, but the alarm.

"God and the Saints!" shouted Menshikov. "Urvan Jeronimovich, go out and see what is the matter!" One of his aides hurried out of the second room.

The guests wavered in their seating now, some hanging back from the table, some rushing it as if to find safety. One of the women was weeping, and half a dozen of the men fretted, not knowing if they should pretend nothing had happened or if they should withdraw from the festivities entirely.

More lightning and thunder, and with it now copious rain that sounded like a giant's drum-roll as the wind shrieked. In the street, shouts of alarm and dismay, and then a tumultuous knocking on the door and the scream of "Fire!" while the bell continued to sound.

Menshikov rose and went into the main room to the door; his guests whispered among one another, their speculation enhanced by the storm. In three minutes Menshikov was back in his dining room, calling out, "Ludmilla Borisevna! Heer van Hoek! You are needed! At once! There is a fire in the main barracks of the fortress. There are burned men, and others with injuries from the falling building. If you would be willing to-"

Before he finished, both Ludmilla and van Hoek were on their feet, moving their chairs out so they could leave. From his place at the table, Saint-Germain signaled a kind of apology to Zozia, then stood up, prepared to join them. "If I may be of assistance?"

"Saints Boris and Gleb be thanked," said Ludmilla. "We will have need of your skills and potions before the night is over," she said as she started toward the door, van Hoek behind her.

"Hercegek," Zozia said in a warning tone. "I need you here."

"And ordinarily, I would comply with your wishes," said Saint-Germain, "but not when so many are in danger." He went around the table to kiss her hand. "No doubt Graf von Altenburg will see you are handed safely into the carriage."

"I will," said von Altenburg from farther down the table.

"Thank you," Saint-Germain said, then bowed to Marfa and Menshikov and the guests before he resigned himself to ruined clothes; he dropped his wig on the table; he hurried out of the room and rushed for the door as more lightning flared and thunder pealed over the sodden city in the marsh.

Text of a letter from Moricz Losi in Transylvania, Hungary, estate manager for Ferenz Ragoczy, Grofok Saint-Germain, in care of Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor, at Sankt Piterburkh, Russia; written in code carried by private courier and delivered on August 1st, 1704.

To Ferenz Ragoczy, Grofok Saint-Germain, currently in the new city of Sankt Piterburkh in Russia, the greetings of Moricz Losi at the Grofok's estates in Transylvania.

My most esteemed Grofok,

It is my pleasant duty to inform you that your lands are in good heart, and that the weather has been kind to us all. The orchards bloomed in good time and most kept their buds long enough to make fruit. The vineyards are much the same, but for the eastern-most plantation of Bull's Blood where grapes have been slow to fruit. Your cattle, sheep, and hogs are thriving, and the first lambs and piglets have arrived, most doing well, although the brindled sow ate three of hers before we could take them from her. There are nine mares in foal, and the first of this year's get are expected to drop in the next week. The tenant peasants have planted three fields in wheat and oats, and will shortly start on the squashes and melons, lettuces, and long-beans in the nearer fields. We look toward a fine season of growth. I have already arranged for a large number of tenants to help us through the harvest, and I have ordered ten more barrels for wine. The cook recommends smoking as much pork and ham as we can, in case the Austrians return and take sheep and calves for their men. The shepherds have plans to move the flocks higher into the mountains as soon as all the lambs are a month old, to keep them from the soldiers. We are going to have a larger amount of wool this year, unless the rebels, or the Austrians, raid the estate, which is not impossible.

As you instructed me, I have sent your invitation to Roma to the man Niklos Aulirios, and he has replied, saying he is most grateful for your offer of hospitality; he will arrive after the harvest at Senza Pari and Villa Ragoczy. I will inform you as soon as he is here. I understand that he is to be treated in the same way that your manservant Hroger is treated, as he served in a similar capacity to one of your blood.

In regard to blood, I will admit that when you answered the King of Poland's summons to his country, I was startled to see you comply so readily, but now I understand better why you did: in the last three months, Austrian soldiers have come here to demand you accompany them. In spite of all your assurances that you are in no way associated with II Ferenc Rakoczi, the Austrians continue to believe that you are part of those who privately support the rebels. Since March they have become more demanding; they have carried off a chest of gold coins-for which I am abashed. I told them you had no dealings with those opposing the Hapsburgs, but, as you feared, your name is sufficient for the Austrians to hold you in some way responsible for all that has happened in this part of the country. The things I said when you left last summer I now regret, for you would most certainly have been taken to prison. There has been a great deal of uproar about the rebels; until the matter is settled, I think it would be wise for you to remain away, reluctant as I am to say so.

News has come from your press at Venezia that your printer has taken a second shop for the business now that the new presses have arrived from Amsterdam. He informs me that you have authorized this expansion, and that he has added three apprentices to his staff, and would like to double that number next year. If this is satisfactory to you, you may want to send him word yourself, for he is a careful man, and will only proceed with your knowledge and approval. I have not told him where you are beyond that you were in Poland from July through March. I can impart more, if it is your wish, but until you authorize me to do so, I will only tell him you are away.

Trusting that this finds you in good health and good fortune, and the hope that you are enjoying the hospitality of Arpad, Hercegek Gyor, another Hungarian among the Russians, I promise you my continued devotion,

Your servant to command,

Moricz Losi

estate manager

on April 19th, 1704, in Transylvania, Hungary