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1636: The Saxon Uprising: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Monday, March 14, 2011 22:04 EDT



USE army’s siege lines, just outside of Poznan'

    “Some wine, Doctor?” asked George, the duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, holding up the bottle from which he’d just poured himself a glass.

    James Nichols shook his head. One of the things about the seventeenth century that he’d never gotten accustomed to was the astonishing alcohol consumption. Abstractly, he knew that the practice of drinking alcohol from the morning on was common in pre-industrial societies. Melissa had told him that Americans in the early nineteenth century consumed an average of six times as much in the way of alcoholic beverages as Americans did in the late twentieth century — and they were mostly drinking whiskey, too, not beer or wine.

    From a medical standpoint, it even made a certain amount of sense, in an insane sort of way. You couldn’t assume the local water was potable — it very likely wasn’t, in fact — and alcoholic beverages were much safer to drink in that respect.

    Never mind that they also had a lot of unhealthy side effects. The thing that really drove James Nichols crazy was that one of the standard practices for drinking in the daytime was to cut the wine with water — as Duke George was doing this very moment. He’d only poured himself half a glass of wine. The rest, he was filling up from a carafe of water.

    Drink wine in order to avoid microbes from infected water. Then cut it with water full of microbes. Go figure.

    Something of his thoughts must have showed in his expression, because the duke smiled widely. “I assure you, doctor!” He waved the bottle at General Torstensson, who was sitting in a comfortable chair just a few feet away — with a glass of wine cut with water in his own hand. “Lennart always insists that his orderlies have to boil the water we use for our beverages.”

    Torstensson chuckled and said: “And now the good doctor is wondering why we simply don’t drink the water.” He shrugged. “It has no taste, I’m afraid. Or tastes bad, often enough.”

    He used the glass to gesture at a chair positioned not far away in the chamber of his headquarters he was using for informal meetings. It was one of the rooms on the second floor of a tavern he’d seized in one of the villages not far from Poznan'.

    “I can have some tea made, if you’d like. I’m afraid I have no coffee.”

    The duke plopped his portly figure into another chair. “Tea! But it’s still at least two hours short of noon!”

    “That’s it, make fun of the abstemious up-timer,” grumbled Nichols, as he took his chair. “Thank you, General, I would appreciate a cup of tea.”

    He didn’t ask for cream or sugar. Cream, because he wasn’t willing to drink un-pasteurized dairy products; sugar, because it was rarely available and he didn’t much care for honey. So, he’d just learned to drink tea plain. By now, he’d even developed a taste for it.

    At that, he was enjoying a luxury. Tea was even more expensive than coffee, and coffee was extremely expensive. The standard hot beverage for people at the time if they weren’t drinking alcohol was a thin broth of some sort.

    Torstensson wiggled a finger at the orderlies standing by the doorway and one of them left to get the tea. The other two remained in place.

    And that was another seventeenth century custom Nichols had never really gotten used to — the ubiquity of servants. By now, most Americans had adapted because they’d found they could afford servants themselves. But Melissa strongly disapproved of the practice — she was not entirely rational on the subject, in James’ opinion, but it wasn’t something worth arguing about — so they had no servants in their own household. Instead, they had a seemingly endless procession of cleaning ladies and cooks who didn’t live on the premises and were thus not technically “servants” but who did exactly the same thing and cost about twice as much.

    Go figure. It wasn’t as if everything about the twentieth century had been logically coherent either.

    Duke George seemed to be something of a telepath today. “And how is your estimable wife these days?”

    The third general in the room was Dodo Freiherr zu Innhausen und Knyphausen. He shook his head lugubriously. “You forget the lewd American customs, George! ‘Shaking up,’ I believe they call it. Amazing, really, that the Lord didn’t smite the lot of them for sinfulness.”

    “The term is actually ’shacking up,’ ” Nichols said mildly, taking another sip of tea, “although the genteel way to depict Melissa is as my ‘Significant Other.’ I’m more amazed the Lord didn’t smite the lot of us for mangling the language, myself. As for Melissa, she’s fine. Feeling a bit ragged these days, from traveling so much. She says she’s feeling her age, although she’s been saying that as long as I’ve known her. Melissa is one of those people who feels betrayed by the march of time, as if she and the universe had an understanding that she’d always stay about twenty and the universe is welching on the deal.”

    George smiled. “I will not inquire as to the nature and purpose of the travel. Such a firebrand! Who would guess, beneath such a proper appearance? I swear to you, James, the first time I met her I thought she was a duchess herself.”

    A lot of down-timers had that reaction to Melissa Mailey, when they first met her, especially people who were members of the nobility. Nichols had always found that amusing — and been even more amused by the appalled reaction so many of them had once they discovered Melissa’s radical political history and her still-radical political views.

    In the case of the duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, however, the reaction had been curiosity and interest. In the two years or so that had passed since he first encountered Melissa and James at one of Mary Simpson’s soirees in Magdeburg, he and Melissa never missed a chance to discuss politics whenever they found themselves in the same city. At considerable length, too. Oddly enough, one of the highest-placed members of the Hochadel — George was Prince of Calenberg in addition to being the ruling duke of a province and the commander of an army division — had wound up becoming quite a good friend of hers.



    That was the duke’s temperament at work. Despite his status, George had a rare capacity to distance himself from political nostrums. He had almost a child’s reaction to what Melissa called the as-we-all-know syndrome. He’d ask “why is that true?” where most of his class — of any class, being fair — would just take as-we-all-know for granted.

    Brunswick-Lüneburg’s own political views were quite moderate, as such things were gauged in the here and now. Like a number of highly-placed people — James could see a copy of the book in Torstensson’s bookcase right here and now, in fact — Duke George was being influenced by the writings of the Netherlands essayist Alessandro Scaglia.

    James hadn’t read Political Methods and the Laws of Nations, but Melissa had. The book was only being circulated privately, but when she’d asked Scaglia for a copy he’d sent it to her with his compliments.

    Her depiction of the policies advocated by Scaglia had been as follows: “The gist of his argument is that the powers-that-be are going to get screwed anyway, no matter what. So they might as well relax and try to work out the best possible arrangement with the plebes. Make ‘em agree to take a bath regularly and dress up for dinner, that sort of thing. He uses longer words and a lot more of them.”

    The orderly appeared with a tray bearing a cup of tea. He placed it on the side table next to Nichols’ chair and withdrew to the back of the room. There was a moment of silence as the three generals waited politely for the doctor to take his first sip.

    After he set the cup down, he said: “In answer to your unspoken question, General Torstensson, I can’t tell you anything about the emperor’s condition. I was not permitted to see him.”

    Torstensson grunted. “Not permitted by Chancellor Oxenstierna?”

    “I was told the orders came from him, yes. But I didn’t speak to him myself. Then or at any time in the three days I was in Berlin.”

    “Told by whom?”

    “Colonel Hand.”

    “Ah! The king’s estimable cousin.” That came from Duke George. Knyphausen’s contribution was to issue one of those grunts that seemed freighted with meaning; but, alas, a meaning known only to the grunter.

    “I’m interested in what else –” Torstensson started to say, but then closed his mouth and shook his head. “Never mind.”

    At a guess, Nichols thought Torstensson was going to ask him what else Colonel Erik Haakansson Hand had said to him.

    If he had…

    James wasn’t sure how he’d have responded. The colonel had asked him not to speak to anyone about the matter they’d discussed, on the grounds that he didn’t want to raise false hopes. A bit grudgingly, Nichols had agreed. He’d never had much use himself for that whole “let’s not raise false hopes” line of reasoning, which was rampant in the medical community. But he’d agreed to go along. He hadn’t thought much about it, to be honest.

    Now, if he was interpreting Torstensson’s abrupt silence correctly, James began to wonder if Hand really had simply been reluctant to “raise false hopes.” What if…

    What if what he’d really wanted was to keep Chancellor Oxenstierna from learning that Gustav Adolf appeared to be having flashes of coherence in his speech and his reactions to the people around him? One thing that Hand had made clear was that Oxenstierna only came to visit the stricken monarch on rare occasions now. For the past two months, understandably enough, the chancellor had been pre-occupied with political affairs.


    For the moment, though, Nichols didn’t see where there was much he could do, one way or the other. So he decided to satisfy his own curiosity.

    “If you don’t mind my asking, General Torstensson, I’m wondering what your own intentions are.” He waved his hand in a vague gesture. “About the overall political situation, I mean.”

    Knyphausen issued another of those meaninglessly meaningful grunts. Brunswick-Lüneburg grinned like a Cheshire cat. Which was equally meaningless, coming from him.

    Torstensson pursed his lips. “To be honest, Dr. Nichols, I am not prepared to give you an answer that would be at all…how to put it?”

    “Expansive,” suggested Duke George.

    “Yes, that’s it. Expansive.”

    “I’ll settle for terse,” said Nichols.

    Knyphausen grunted again.

    “Not that terse, please.”

    The three generals burst into laughter. “Ah, Dodo!” exclaimed the duke. “You see? As I’ve told you time and again, you could drive the Oracle at Delphi mad.”

    Torstensson finished the wine in his glass and set it down. “Let me put it this way, Doctor. I believe — so do George and Dodo; and, yes, of course we’ve discussed the matter — that nothing would be improved at all if we allowed the main forces of the USE’s army to be dragged into the civil conflict. That, for any number of reasons, not the least of them being” — his own voice got stiff for a moment — “as I have now explained to the chancellor on several occasions — that it is by no means clear how the army itself would react if I did so. The enlisted men, I mean.”

    Knyphausen grunted again — but, finally, put some words behind the sound. “In this instance, ‘enlisted men’ being a euphemism for ‘the fellows holding most of the guns.’ ”

    “And know how to use them, too.” That came from George; this time, without a smile. “There is a sort of unspoken, tacit agreement between ourselves — the commanding officers, I mean — and the soldiers in our army here at Poznan'. They agree to obey orders — here — and we agree that we will stay here and not try to use them to enforce any sort of settlement back in the USE proper.”

    “That’s well put,” added Torstensson. “And about as much as we are prepared to say.”



    Nichols nodded. The truth was, they’d said everything that was critical already. He’d tell Melissa when he got back to Magdeburg, as a man will say something to the woman who shares his life and his bed. Knowing full well that she’d pass it on to Rebecca immediately.

    Torstensson had to know that as well. Which meant that the tacit agreement he had with his soldiers had just gotten extended to the Fourth of July Party and the Committees of Correspondence across the entire nation. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

    Oxenstierna would have a fit, if he knew. But James had a feeling that the chancellor was slowly but steadily losing his grip on the situation — first and foremost, his grip on his own people.

    The tea was quite good, as you’d expect.



    Nichols spent the next two days inspecting the sanitary and medical arrangements and facilities that the army had set up in their siege lines around Poznan'. As he’d expected, they were well-designed and in good order. Torstensson and his staff officers had genuinely internalized the critical role that sanitation and proper medical procedures played in fending off the diseases that typically swept through armies at war, especially armies engaged in a siege.

    But what was probably even more important was that the rank and file soldiers were equally committed to those practices. So there’d be no dodging and shirking, which was often the Achilles’ heel of sanitation and medical regulations. Quite the opposite, actually. The punishment a soldier who slacked off would get from his mates was likely to be a lot worse than what he’d get if an officer caught him. Even from the standpoint of its commanders, there were advantages sometimes to having an army so influenced by CoC attitudes.



    On the morning of the third day, a small delegation of Polish officers came across the lines under a flag of truce. They’d come to bring Grand Hetman Koniecpolski’s answer to the offer Nichols had made the day he arrived to give his advice on medical matters to the Polish army as well.

    The leader of the delegation was an officer who seemed very young to be wielding as much authority as he obviously did. But his name was Opalinski — Lukasz Opalinski — which perhaps explained the matter. James had a vague recollection that the Opalinskis were one of the more prominent move-and-shaker families in the upper crust of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth’s aristocracy.

    Opalinski fit James’ image of a hussar to a T. He was tall, well-built, and handsome in a big-nosed sort of way. His hair was short and blond as was his beard, but his mustache was swept out in very dramatic fashion. The tips of it looked as if they probably blew in the wind as he galloped his horse toward the foe.

    He was a very polite young man, as well, although he was obviously struggling not to gape at Nichols. In all likelihood, James was the first black man he’d ever met in his life. Not that Germans had met very many black people either, of course. But James and his daughter Sharon were by now so famous in the Germanies that most people in the USE had at least seen a woodcut likeness of them somewhere. To Lukasz Opalinski, James Nichols was an utterly exotic figure, something out of the ancient tales by Herodotus about foreign lands and their peoples. If he weren’t being polite, James was pretty sure the hussar would lift up his shirt to see if he had another mouth or pair of eyes on his stomach.

    “I’m afraid we must refuse,” Opalinski said, in heavily-accented but quite good German. “Please accept the Grand Hetman’s regrets and his sincere thanks for the offer. But — ah — he asked me to explain that if he accepted, there might be trouble about it in the Sejm.”

    From the tinge of exasperation in the young hussar’s voice, James was pretty sure Opalinski thought there’d be trouble in the Sejm if Koniecpolski ate porridge for breakfast or put his boots on in the wrong order. But this was all a diplomatic dance, in any event. James had made the offer at Torstensson’s suggestion, but the Swedish general had told him he didn’t think there was much chance the Poles would accept.

    With a polite bow, Opalinski took his leave. He managed not to turn around and stare at James more than twice as he and his party rode off.



    “Well, you were right,” he said to Torstensson.

    The commander of the USE army shrugged. “Thank heaven for the nature of Polish government. If it weren’t the way it is, I hate to think what Koniecpolski could accomplish.”

    Knyphausen grunted. Duke George grinned.

    One of the air force’s Gustavs landed that afternoon to take James back to Magdeburg. The pilot buzzed the Polish lines on his way out. The Poles fired a volley at the plane in response.

    Apparently, that mutually useless display of martial prowess seemed reasonable to both sides. James made no objection, though. He could still remember a time, when he’d been a young man in one of the gangs in Chicago’s south side, when he’d have thought it was perfectly reasonable himself. Now at the age of sixty, he’d concluded that the main difference between gang fights and the wars of dynasties and nations was that the gangs were a lot less pretentious about their violence. Stripped of the long-winded folderol, from what James could see, most formal declarations of war came down to “the motherfuckers dissed us and we’re gonna get ‘em for it.”

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