1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 08
“Because they’re nothing but a bunch of–”
“Mounted hooligans? Thugs? For Pete’s sake, Morris, in this day and age–early seventeenth century, remember?–the ‘Cossacks’ are barely even ‘Cossacks’ yet. They’re just getting started. A lot of them are former serfs, in fact, who ran away from their masters. We’re at least a century away from the time they started serving the Russian tsars as their mailed fist. This is the best time I can think of to stop that in its tracks, too.”
Morris looked mulish. Melissa looked exasperated. “Dammit, you asked. At my age, I’d hardly have come racing to Prague on horseback of my own volition.”
“You rode all the way?” asked Judith.
James grinned. “She rode on a horse for exactly one day. After that, she put her foot down and insisted we hire a carriage. One of those litter-type carriages, of course, not a wheeled one. Going over the mountains on a wheeled vehicle is best left to mad dogs and Englishmen.”
It was Melissa’s turn to look defensive. “I spent my youth waving a placard at demonstrations. I did not attend the kind of ladies’ finishing school where Mary Simpson learned to ride.”
“How’s she doing, by the way?” asked Morris.
“Given her recent hair-raising adventures, quite well. It helped a lot, of course, that when she got back to Magdeburg her son was waiting for her along with her husband.”
Judith peered at her. “I thought you detested the Simpsons. Well, except Tom.”
“I did, sure, when John Simpson ran that godawful campaign against Mike three years ago.” Melissa waved her hand. “But three years is ancient history, as fast as things have been changing since the Ring of Fire. I think quite well of them, these days.”
She pointed an accusatory finger at Morris. “And there’s a lesson for you. If I can make friends with Mary Simpson, why can’t you do it with Cossacks?”
He threw up his hands. “They’re barbarians, for the love of God!”
“Again, so what? Yes, they’re not far removed from barbarism. What do you expect, from a society being forged out of runaway serfs and bandits on the borderlands? Nobody is simply one thing or another, Morris. It’s always more complicated. To go back to Mary Simpson, she’s still haughty as all hell–can be, anyway–and I don’t think she’ll ever really be able to see the world except through her own very upper crust perspective. But that’s not all there is to the woman, not by a long shot. The trick is finding a way–which is exactly what Mike did–to match her and her husband properly to the right circumstances. Bring out their best, instead of their worst. So do the same with the Cossacks.”
“They don’t have a ‘best side,’ that I can see,” Morris groused.
“Oh, that’s silly,” said his wife. “Of course they do, even if it’s only courage. If they hadn’t been tough bastards, the tsars couldn’t have used them in the first place.”
A young servant entered the salon. “Dinner is ready, Lady Judith.”
Judith rose. “Thank you, Rifka. Come along, folks. You must be starving by now.”
Fortunately, they were hungry–or James might have spent half an hour instead of three minutes making wisecracks about Lord and Lady Roth and the way they bid fair to make pikers out of any European aristocrats barring maybe the odd emperor here and there. He didn’t even make one wisecrack about the food being kosher.
Of course, he might not have noticed anyway. But Melissa did, and after the meal was over she gave Morris a little smile.
“I see even you can bend a little. Smart move, if you ask me.”
Morris was back to being defensive. “I didn’t eat pork in the old days, even if I never had any use for most of those silly kashrut rules. Here…”
His wife gave him a mildly exasperated look. “To start with,” she said, “we didn’t really have any choice. Things are changing in Prague, but there’s still no chance of Jews, even very rich ones, hiring Christian servants. And even if you could, you couldn’t trust them not to be spies working for somebody else. So all the servants in the house, including the cooks, are Jewish–and the only way they know how to cook is kosher.”
She shrugged. “So, I persuaded Morris that it just made sense to make a virtue out of the business. You know how Jews are, Melissa, even if”–she gave Nichols a skeptical glance–“James is probably awash in goofy notions. Most of Prague’s Jews, and certainly all of the rabbis, know that Morris’ theological opinions are radically different from theirs. But Jews don’t care much about theology, the way Christians do. They care a lot more about whether people maintain Jewish customs and traditions and rituals. And since we now do–”
“Not all of the customs,” said Morris, half-snarling. “I was born Reform, raised Reform, and I’ll damn well die Reform. No way I’ll ever–”
“Husband, quit it,” snapped Judith. “We follow most of them, and you know it perfectly well. And you also know that between that and the fact that all of Bohemia’s Jews depend on you to keep them in Wallenstein’s good graces, everybody is being friendly to us. Even the rabbis, most of them.”
She gave Morris an accusing glare. “And don’t pretend otherwise! You even like some of those rabbis.”
“Fine. Yes, I like Mordecai and Isaac. But they’re–they’re–”
He made a vague motion with his hand. “Not exactly just orthodox rabbis. It’s more complicated. More…”
“Many-sided?” asked Melissa. “Full of potential, not just limits?”
Seeing her triumphant look, he scowled. Then, transferred the scowl to the servant Rifka when she entered the dining room.
Timidly, seeing her employer’s expression, she drew back a pace.
“Oh, stop it, Morris!” snapped Judith. “He’s not glaring at you, Rifka. He’s just glaring the way he always does when one of his pet peeves develops legs and starts walking around on its own instead of obeying his orders.”
She added a winning smile to settle the young woman’s nerves. “What do you need?”
“Ah… nothing, Lady Judith. It’s just that some people have arrived and insist on speaking to you immediately.”
“And that’s another thing I miss,” muttered Morris. “Doorbells, so you’d know when somebody was at the blasted door.”
“House this size,” James muttered back, “you’d need a foghorn.”
Judith ignored both of them. “Please, show the visitors in. We’ve finished eating anyway.”
When the newcomers entered the room, Morris’ expression darkened still further. Melissa’s, on the other hand, was full of good cheer.
“Well, I do declare. Red Sybolt, in the flesh. We were just talking about you, as it happens. Or rather, I was. Morris was trying to evade the subject.”
“What subject?” asked Red. “But, first, some introductions.” He gestured to the four men who’d come in behind him.
“You know this big fellow, of course.” Pleasantly, the very large man standing just behind him nodded at the people at the table. That was Jan Billek, one of the central figures of the Unity of Brethren, the theologically-radical church led by Bishop Comenius which, in another universe, would be driven into exile and eventually become the Moravian church in America.
Red’s hand indicated the two men standing to his left. One of them was blonde and large, if not as large as Billek. The other was of average height and more dark-complexed. “And these are Krzysztof Opalinski and Jakub Zaborowsky. My kind of guys, even if they’re both Polish szlachta. Finally–”
He clasped the shoulder of the last man, a burly fellow wearing a rather exotic-looking costume, and pulled him forward. “And this here’s Dmytro Fedorovych.”
Sybolt grinned cheerfully. “He’s a Cossack, of all things. Well, sorta. They’re not exactly Cossacks yet, you know. He tracked me down while I was in Lublin with Jan here, doing nothing we need to discuss at the moment. He heard I was connected to the Prince of the Jews in Prague, and insisted I take him there and make the introductions. That’s you, Morris, if you didn’t know.”