Rebirth of Reason


Schulmeister's Trophy (Part One of Two)
by Julia Brent

Greetings to you, Comrade,

I write this by lantern, sheltered under the bridge where you will arrive soon.   By then, I will be in the trees, on top of the gray rock in the east.  May you be comforted by my gaze of friendship, for Dr. Adahlgiso has been exposed.
Our Associates will not berate, as they are noble, and the doctor is not yet captured.  They and the Allies are roused in spirit, because the decisive battle is at hand.  However, by no act of your own, the hunter has his prey in sight.  My friend, I wish I were not delivering the doctor to you in this danger.

Some news will have reached you, but I must submit my own report.  His inventions of war are secret and safe in his precious mind, and he is close now to the very front of the chaos to come, where he may be needed.  This is our journey to Stotteritz from his hiding place in the South, the doctor and I alone, carried on so simply by my reason:
You will see him dressed as a woman, to which costume he makes entertainment, but no less than the leper’s bells he applauded when making the Carinth crossing.  With those, he stirred up the town, 'til I feared discovery.   Only if I let him keep the gear in his rucksack would he stop, so I packed them silent, and now he moves without noise.  I think he thought my care too gentle, for he smiled and pinched my ear.  As to his leg, it is often bad, and he eats the brown gum for relief.  His vigor is unmatched and his brilliance a constant joy, but he tells tales from the hallucinations of his drug.  To learn of his activities since I left my apprenticeship took days of patience.  It requires great skill to understand the flammability of earth vapors amidst a discussion on maneuvering aerials which (apparently) shine with a metallic hue.  One doesn’t know which is the science and which is the dream.

That said, most noteworthy is his discretion: of his Secret, he is silent, and if I make mention of it, he looks at me with a lucid eye.

The Vienna leg of the journey was not without violent mishap, although it went well at first.  We stayed the night before crossing the mountains with the couple from your childhood.  It was glorious refreshment in beds and new linen.  In the morning we ate sausage and cake, drinking ale with the door open, but warm by a strong fire.   Afterwards, the doctor went outside to dig his “soil inspections,” then sat in the bower looking up through the leaves at the sky.   Meeting with them was good advice; they gave us four good places to stop to provision and directions to Gilbert’s house in Stotteritz, if we need him.   Thrice my age they walked us fully to the Ridge, and the entrance to the tunnels.  Though I’ve lived here half my life, I will never be as strong as the Austrians.

The over-road is well traveled and we wanted to avoid being seen.  I hate the underground, but there was nothing for it.  When we got to the tunnels, the air was thin and the sky blue at the entrance.  This bit was better on foot, since obtaining fresh horses would promote inquiry, but it meant a long trek through the Germanic lands.  I could only console myself with what our chief Associate said, that it’s not forever we must hide him, only a few more weeks until the battle.  Then we may use or keep hidden his inventions to gain advantage on the field.

Of all Dr. Adahlgiso’s mental infirmities, the digging is my least beloved (what treasure is in a footpath? But, there, we have to stop, and bend, and hack at the rock).   It put me out of temper.  If it was bad crossing a field, it was a catastrophe in an underground tunnel traveled only by our private Opposition.  Every piece of salt had to be tasted, every variant rock overturned. I finally put a rope on his waist and dragged him against his will.  My conscience hurt me, but so much is at stake, and speed is the greatest cover. 

I was punished for my cruelty.  At the low end of the third cave the ceiling had come down and there was no passage.  We were trapped in a pit of a tunnel with the wall fallen because we haven’t had the time or strength to upkeep the pillars and balustrades and it was my job to find someone, but I didn’t and the darkness sank into me as I watched him scrabble over the heap.  I let the rope go and he was all a-flutter pecking at the cave wall and then scraping the floor, it gave me a chill.  I said nothing and at last he came over, looking like Bedlam in the lamplight.

“We could dig our way out,” he said, as though inviting me to a boat party.

“You’d like that.”

I am ashamed to say I sat pensive and depressed, despite the defeat of Vandamme’s men, and the victory over Bernadotte just the day before.

“What is there in the clay, Sir?”   I asked him, as he was sitting on the heap with a fistful, which he turned over in the small light.

He held it up, studying the surface, and answered without sense:  “The right of attention,” he said.

I’ve always wondered how he bore up when they seized him; I’ve never made reference to it in his presence.  It’s private, like a man’s toilet.  If he ever spoke to me of the kidnapping I would be powerless to speak.

There is a hysterical quality to the Monster now.  When I saw the Grand Army dragging through Vilinius last year towards Russia, it was as though I saw each individual man alone.  Their ribs were held up by filthy tunics and rope, buttons crumbling in the cold over damaged britches as they carried torn flags.  Soldiers misused for the illimitable ambition of this foreigner.  He is emptying out his country, pouring the lifeblood of the people into the ground for it to waste.    He has turned their soul.  They arrived as locusts consuming the crops hard won by others.   Like a cold hand on the back we have realized this no longer concerns France, it concerns the man.

Dr. Adahlgiso did not excavate the third cave, but he found the way out.  Climbing up with a slither to the top of the heap, he found a hole to a higher passage which bore air, though too small to get through.   We went at our task.  He did not mind the mess (not to mention danger),  but instead was methodical, and sent rocks and mud down into the cavern. He looked like a large bird digging out its nest on the cliff side, his dark coat flapping at his ankles.

The rocks pressed against us as we wiggled through the opening.  We scrambled up and flew down the last passage toward the light, and burst through as the only humans in the hidden ravine; disheveled, muddy, and relieved.   There’s an old well close to the entrance, I left a coin for the divinity that presides over it.  We cleaned up, refreshed ourselves, and broke into a run; the mountain slopes down for miles. 

We plodded along with vigor for over two weeks, through woods and fields, and were stopped by members of the Grand Army who checked us without much interest and sent us on.  I’ve taught the doctor to play drunk, which is disarming, and the Officer de la Guard is reluctant to make work for himself.  Then, the doctor and I covered the last 50 miles just shy of our meeting point north of Stotteritz.   It was hilly, but I am young and he is Austrian.

At last we reached the Leipzig area, and the approach to the town of Stottertiz.  The roads were better, and we were out of the forests.  I love Stotteritz; it has wide fields that lead up to it like a grand lawn.  There is more refinement here - even the light lays neat in the valleys.  Our travelers’ noses could smell bread baking even miles away.   The Saxon people are hospitable as they are in these areas, hard workers and good drinkers.  In the distance, we saw the smoke from the hearths, and we walked through the fields, then took the proper road that lead up to town.  On the hill, the buildings run square with straight rows of windows that look as if they are calming the curves of the earth.

The wind blew in my ears and made me brisk.  We hurried up the hill, though we were two days early.  It was when we pumped up to the east-west road, that the doctor first cried out in pain, while making a grab for a discarded workman’s saw.  He had been too quiet, but I hadn’t noticed, being too busy ignoring my inner warning, and trading caution for just one glass of anticipated ale.   I think all is well, therefore it must be so.

But it wasn’t, and we were held up.   There was a small desk set up inside a tent at the point where most folk pass into the town, and from there we were challenged.  It had been a long time since we had been reviewed, and I always think they will see through the forgery, the parchment paper being the only honest thing in the package I handed over.  We couldn’t take our eyes off the man’s hands as he unwrapped and flattened the papers, then bent over them in his tight jacket and spectacles.  I shivered in my place on the uneven ground when the doctor growled, but thank God he can control his odd habits when it matters.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The Officer thumped an endorsement and the papers into perfect folds, and gave me the French stare that says You’ve Been Found Out.   I stiffened, but rejoiced, realizing he so intimidates every one of his clients.  I took the papers back, and we strode into town on the hunt for beer and bread.

On the hard stone street, we watched people at their errands.  We bought several loaves and cheese in a short time.  Soldiers from the Grand Army who lived in the barracks to the west of the town were standing and talking, while others were going to the noon meal.  I could tell which were the government officials and kept our heads down, and I looked for a tavern.  The buildings rose up tall, they had the smell of lilacs and gunpowder.  I kissed my wrist for luck and then dodged into the door with my partner along.  We stepped through the doorway and it was instantly warm; we had the autumn morning to shake out of our clothes.  The doctor sank into a chair and looked at the young man who handled the daytime drinking.  I ordered ale for us both while the doctor scratched at his skin, unnoticed by me.  In the dialect of the area, I asked where I could take care of my business. 

The young boy dished out the information, and I started to the back to find the two steps down that led to the rear door.   I walked into a hallway next to the kitchen entrance.  The stew was already on for the evening.  There was laughter, and when I got close I could see the efficient movement of the staff and the enormous back of the owner, who was also the main cook.  Men were moving back and forth, smooth as the inside of a clock; potato parings were bagged and thrown to the trash outside like organizing tools in a tool chest.

Then I heard shouting behind me.  Dr. Adahlgiso was angry and spitting at the boy at the bar.  In Austrian.

“You never drink Obstler before the five year mark, how did that ever come out of the cellar?  You rumpled pig faced son of swine.”

Like ripping off a bandage, I at last realized the doctor had used all his opium, probably last night, and was approaching his state of utmost angst and great physical discomfort.  More important, there would be a huge public upheaval.  It’s hard to say which would cause me more pain.  Soon he would begin pulling at this skin and folding and unfolding his clothing, then the hallucinations would start.  It was awful to watch and he was just starting in. 

I turned back to the doctor but then I heard a large voice:

“What’s going on here?!?”

It was the master cook.  He was massive and tall, with the sort of fat that is so well groomed and pure that it looks like alabaster.  His eyes were large and blue and he was ready to throw anyone out of his tavern.

“Good sir, my father is ill, and it is a . . .”

I stopped short.  A man, a small man, pushed his way from around behind the chef on the way back from the outhouse.  He wasn’t wearing the velvet and wrist lace of his adopted patron, and he didn’t have the fruit of his espionage in a money bag the size of a gatehouse, but I recognized him.  It was Schulmeister.  Red hair dyed brown, wearing plain clothes.  He slipped past the master cook and looked at me calm with his eyes cool as a lake, though behind me came a mocking “awwww, swine!” and the enormous cook trod us both down to tear the throat out of the doctor.  As Schulmeister walked by me in the narrow passage, his plain coat brushed against my sleeve.

One thing at a time.  I had to first calm the master cook.  I said something soothing, hoping no one would catch my English accent.  Then I raced back to the doctor.  I found out he indeed had run out, and I scolded him in a hushed voice for not telling me, hoping desperately that Schulmeister would leave, but the spy went and sat in a corner where two friends of his were smoking French pipes.  I sat on the stool and could feel them bore their eyes into us.  I drank a splash (a mere splash!) of delicious ale and paid. 

Through his fog, the doctor could see my face.  I’m sure it was white with the danger, and this helped to steady him.   Adapt or perish, as the Americans say.

To be continued...

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