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1635: The Eastern Front: Chapter Four
Last updated: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 07:06 EDT
Near Poznan, Poland
As he watched the archer bringing his horse around again for another run at the target, Lukasz Opalinski leaned toward the man standing next to him. “So, tell me, Jozef. Is Grantville as exotic as its reputation?”
Jozef Wojtowicz didn’t answer immediately. He was pre-occupied with watching the mounted archer.
“I think he’s still the best horseman I’ve ever seen,” he said quietly.
“He’s probably the best in Poland, anyway,” said Opalinski. “For sure and certain, he’s the best archer.” The words were spoken in a tone that had more of derision in it than admiration — albeit friendly derision. Then, in the sure tones of man who was still no older than twenty-two: “The archery’s a complete waste of time and effort. The horsemanship… Well, not so much. But this is still –”
He waved at the man on horseback, now racing past the target and drawing the bow. With his size and splendid costume, he was a magnificent figure.
“Completely ridiculous. We are not Mongols, after all, nor will we be fighting such. Even the Tatars have outgrown this foolishness, for the most part.”
The arrow pierced the target, almost right in the center.
Wojtowicz didn’t argue the point. But it was still a mesmerizing sight to watch.
“Grantville,” nudged his companion.
Josef shook his head. “It’s complicated, Lukasz. In some ways, it’s incredibly exotic. Yes, they can talk with each at long distance — miles, many miles — using little machines. Yes, they can make moving pictures on glass. Yes, they have flying machines. I watched them many times. Yes, yes, yes — just about every such tale you’ve heard is either true or is simply an exaggeration of something that is true.”
The mounted archer came back around again, still at a full gallop. Jozef, who was an accomplished horseman himself, knew how much skill was required simply to manage that much. The rider’s hands, of course, were completely pre-occupied with the bow. Add onto that the skill of the archery –again, the arrow hit the target’s center — and add onto that the preposterous pull of the bow being used. Jozef had no idea what it was, precisely, but he was quite sure that he’d have to struggle to draw the bow even standing flat-footed. And while Jozef was not an especially large man, or a tall man, he was quite strong.
He’d broken off his account, watching. Opalinski nudged him again. “Grantville, Grantville. Let’s keep our mind on the future, Jozef, not” — he waved again at the mounted archer, with a dismissive gesture — “this flamboyantly absurd display of prehistoric martial skills.”
Jozef smiled. “In other respects, no. Leaving aside the machines and marvelous mechanism, Grantville seems much like any other town. People going about their business, that’s all.”
He was fudging here, but he didn’t see any alternative. Not, at least, any alternative suitable for a conversation held under these circumstances. The months that Jozef had spent in Grantville had also made clear to him the more subtle — but in some easy, even more exotic — differences in social custom that lay beneath the surface of the fantastic machines. He’d also come to understand that those subtleties in social custom were inextricably tied to the mechanical skills that were so much more outwardly evident.
It was not complicated, really, if a man was willing to look at things with clear eyes. If you wanted your serfs to build and operate complex equipment for you, in order to enhance your wealth and power, then…
Sooner or later, you’d have to be willing to end their serfdom. The American technology presumed a level of intellect and education even in their so-called “unskilled” laborers that no Polish or Lithuanian or Ruthenian serf could possibly match. And simply instructing them wouldn’t work. In the nature of things, education can only be narrowed so far or it becomes useless. And given the necessary breadth, how could a sane man expect an educated serf to keep from being discontented — and, now, far better equipped to struggle against the source of his discontent?
Nor was it simply a matter of education, as such. Another thing had also become clear to Jozef in the time he’d spent in Grantville — and perhaps clearer still, during the months that followed when he’d resided in Magdeburg. The sort of broad-ranging skills that were necessary in a population to create and sustain the technical marvels which the Americans took for granted also presupposed mobility of labor. There was no way around it. Not, certainly, in the long run. The needed skills for that sort of advanced technical society were simply too complex, too inter-connected — most of all, too unpredictable. The demand could only be met by a productive population which was free to move about at will, to learn whatever skills and apply themselves to whatever labor they chose. You could no more regulate it than you could regulate the ocean.
Put it all together, and the conclusion was obvious. Jozef had come to it long before he left Magdeburg. If the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania was to have any chance at all of surviving the historical doom so clear and explicit even in Grantville’s sketchy historical records of the future of eastern Europe — the Commonwealth had been the one and only major European power which had simply vanished by the end of the eighteenth century — then serfdom had to be destroyed. And Jozef could see only two options. Either the Poles and Lithuanians destroyed serfdom themselves, or someone else would destroy it for them. And, in that second event, might very well destroy the Commonwealth in the process.
But how to explain that, even to the young man standing next to him — much less the mounted archer putting on this impressive display?
The archer was Stanislaw Koniecpolski, who was not only the Grand Hetman of the Commonwealth but also one of its greatest magnates. The Koniecpolski family was one of the mighty families of the realm, not to mention one of its richest. They owned vast estates in Poland and the Ruthenian lands. The hetman himself owned sixteen districts and had a yearly retinue somewhere in excess of half a million zlotys. He’d even founded a complete new town — Brody, which had manufactories as well as serving as a commercial center. Jozef had heard it said that more than one hundred thousand people lived on Stanislaw Koniecpolski’s estates, most of them Ruthenians. And most of them serfs, of course.
He was immensely powerful, too, not just wealthy. King Wladyslaw allowed Koniecpolski what amounted to the powers of a viceroy in the southwestern area of the Commonwealth. Some foreigners even referred to the hetman as the “vice-king of the Ukraine,” although no such title actually existed in Polish law. But the king trusted him — and for good reason. So, the hetman negotiated directly with the Ottoman Empire, and the Tatars, and even signed treaties in his own name. He also had perhaps the most extensive spy network in the Commonwealth, which penetrated Muscovy as well as the Ottoman and Tatar realms.
And now, penetrated the United States of Europe as well. Insofar, at least, as his young nephew Jozef had been able to create a spy network in that newest realm of the continent over the past year and a half.
It was a rather extensive network, actually, given the short time available — and, in Jozef’s opinion, quite a good one. It turned out, somewhat to his surprise, that he had a genuine gift for such work.
The young man standing next to Jozef, Lukasz Opalinski, came from the same class of the high nobility. And if the Opalinski family was not as wealthy as the Koniecpolskis and many of the other great magnates, they made up for it by their vigorous involvement in the Commonwealth’s political affairs.
They were not stupid men, either of them. Not in the least. Just men so ingrained with generations of unthinking attitudes that Jozef knew how hard it would be for them to even see the problem, much less the solution. He suspected the only reason he’d been able to shed his own szlachta blinders was because he wasn’t exactly szlachta to begin with.
“You’re smiling, Jozef,” said Opalinski. “I don’t think I care for that smile.”
Jozef chuckled. “I was contemplating the advantages of bastardy.”
“What’s to contemplate? You get all the advantages of good blood with the added benefit of an excuse whenever you cross someone.”
Jozef shook his head. “It seems like an elaborate way to go about the business. Samuel Laszcz manages to cross almost everyone without the benefit of bastardy. Granted, it helps that he has the hetman’s favor and protection.”
A scowl came to Opalinski. “Laszcz! That shithead.” He used the German term, not the Polish equivalent. Like Jozef himself, Lukasz was fluent in several languages. He was particularly fond of German profanity.
So was Wojtowicz, for that matter — although, in recent months, he’d also grown very fond of American vulgarity. He didn’t think any other language had a term quite so charming in its own way as motherfucker.
“Finally! He’s finished,” said Opalinski.
And, indeed, the mounted archer had sheathed his bow and was trotting toward them.
When he drew close, he smiled down at the two young men. “I see from his scowl that Lukasz had not budged from his certainty that I am indulging myself. And what’s your opinion, nephew?”
Jozef squinted up at his uncle. And, as he’d known it would, felt his resolve to break with the man if he couldn’t bring him to understand the truth crumbling away. Stanislaw Koniecpolski had that effect on people close to him. Say what you would about the narrow views and limitations of the Grand Hetman of the Commonwealth, but Jozef didn’t know a single person who wouldn’t agree that he was a fair-minded and honorable man.
The simple fact that he referred openly to Jozef himself as his nephew was but one of many illustrations of Koniecpolski’s character. Jozef was a bastard, born of a dalliance by Stanislaw Koniecpolski’s younger brother Przedbor. After Przedbor died at the siege of Smolensk during the Dymitriad wars with Muscovy, the hetman had taken in the boy and his mother and raised him in his own household at the great family estate in Koniecpol.
“I wouldn’t presume to judge, uncle.”
Koniecpolski laughed. “Always the diplomat! Well, nephew, I will explain to you the truth, in the hopes that you might see it where stubborn young Opalinski here sees only a pointless melancholy for things past.”
He stumbled over the word “melancholy” a bit. The hetman suffered from a speech impediment, and had since he was a boy. He usually avoided long words, in fact, since he tended to stutter on them. That habit of speaking in plain and simple words led some people to assume Koniecpolski was dull-witted, an assumption which was very far from the truth.
Using his bare hands, the hetman mimicked an archer drawing his bow. He twisted sideways in the saddle as he did so, as if aiming at a target off to his left. “Notice, youngster, how the innate demands of using a bow properly while in a saddle almost force the archer to fire to his side, or even” — here he twisted still further in the saddle, imitating a man aiming behind him — “to his rear. In the nature of the thing, it is very difficult to fire a bow straight ahead while sitting in a saddle — and impossible to do it well, even for an excellent archer.”
Jozef nodded. “Yes, I can see that.”
The hetman beamed. “Well, then! You now understand — should, at least — what somehow still remains a puzzle to young Lukasz. The reason to practice mounted archery is to ingrain intelligent tactics in a soldier. The pike, the musket, the sword — pfah!” His pronounced mustachios wiggled with the sneer. “These teach a man to be stupid. Straight ahead, straight ahead, straight ahead.”
Opalinski sniffed. “That may well be. But that will still be the way the Swede comes at us — and not even you think he can be defeated with bows and arrows.”
“Well, of course not. But I also know that I have no chance of defeating the Swede — not so mighty as he has become — if I simply try to match him head to head, like two bulls in a field.” Koniecpolski gazed down at the young nobleman, very serenely. “This is why I am the Grand Hetman of Poland and Lithuania, and you are not.”
Opalinski chuckled. “Point taken.” He shivered a little, and drew his cloak around him more closely. “And, now, it’s cold. Your poor horse looks half-frozen himself. I propose we retire indoors.”
In point of fact, the horse — like the hetman — had been exercising far too vigorously to be chilled. And it wasn’t really even that cold, for the time of year. Still, the idea of retiring to a comfortable salon and warming one’s innards with a stout beverage appealed to Jozef. So, he too drew his cloak around him more tightly, and faked a shiver.
“Weaklings,” jeered Koniecpolski. “And at your age! Just another reason to practice mounted archery.”
After Koniecpolski left for the stables, Jozef and Lukasz began walking toward the manor, some distance away. Fortunately, they were on one of the Koniecpolski family’s smallish estates, this one located near Poznan. Had they been at the great family estate in Koniecpol, their walk would have been much longer. Fortunately, also, it had been a sunny day, so the ground was dry. Had there been a thunderstorm recently, their boots would have been caked with mud by the time they reached their destination.
Still, it was not a short distance, even if the walk was easy. That suited Jozef well enough, though. He needed the time to compose his thoughts.
“So solemn,” Opalinski murmured, after a while. “Is it really that bad, Jozef?”
Wojtowicz gave his friend a sideways glance. “Well. Yes, actually. I’m afraid the hetman’s not going to like what I have to say. Or you, for that matter.”
“Because I’m going to tell him that it’s sheer folly to weigh in on the side of the Saxons and Brandenburgers against the USE. Those are German lands, not Polish. We should just stay out of the whole business. All that an intervention on our part will accomplish is to given the damn Swede an excuse to invade Poland.”
“Not that he’s ever needed much of one,” grunted Lukasz.
“True, true. Still and all, if we stay out — but!” He lifted his hand. “I may as well save it for the hetman. No point giving the same speech twice. It’ll probably be wasted on you anyway, dull-witted soldier that you are.”
Lukasz called him a very unfavorable term in Lithuanian.
Jozef grinned. “I have the most marvelous American expression.”
After he spoke it a few times, Lukasz began practicing the pronunciation. “Modderfooker… mudder — yes, it is nice.”
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