1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 11

“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Melissa. But her own gaze at the canopy was probably on the dubious side, also. The thing wasn’t really a “canopy” such as you might find over a bed in a fancy hotel.  It bore a closer resemblance to the unicorn tapestries she’d once seen at The Cloisters museum in New York. It certainly didn’t weigh a quarter of a ton. That was just ridiculous. Still, it wouldn’t be a lot of fun to wriggle out from under if it did come down.

Not that that was likely to happen, of course. The four corner posters holding it up didn’t bear much resemblance to anything you’d see in a fancy hotel either. They looked more like floor beams, except they were ornately carved.

There came a soft knock at the door. James turned and gave it a frown. The door was visible through the wide entryway connecting the salon with the bedchamber.


Melissa was already moving through the entryway toward the door. “That’ll be Red, I imagine. At least, if I interpreted a look he gave me at the end of the meal correctly.”

“Why would…”

Melissa paused at the door. As thick as it was, she wasn’t worried about anyone standing outside hearing their conversation.

“Why? Because, knowing Red, I’m sure there are things he’s not prepared to ask or say in front of anybody. Especially not someone like the Roths, whom he likes personally but are for all practical purposes in Wallenstein’s camp.”

The frown on James’ forehead faded. “Ah.” Then he grinned. “You don’t seriously mean to suggest that a flaming commie like Red Sybolt isn’t entirely trustful of the intentions of Albrecht von Wallenstein, mercenary-captain-in-the-service-of-reaction-par-excellance and nowadays a crowned king in his own right?”

Melissa smiled. “Not hardly.”

She opened the door. Sure enough, Red Sybolt was standing there. To her surprise, though, he was accompanied by Jakub Zaborowsky. She’d expected him to come alone.

As she ushered them into the salon, Melissa pondered that for a moment. Why Zaborowsky and not Opalinski? She was quite sure there wasn’t any mistrust involved. Having spent a very long dinner in conversation, much of it with the two Poles, she felt confident she had the measure of Krzysztof Opalinski. Allowing for the inevitable cultural variations you’d expect from the gap in time and place, Krzysztof reminded her of any number of student radicals she’d known in the 1960s. Sincere; earnest; filled with a genuine desire To Do The Right Thing. Whatever faults such people had, treachery was rarely one of them.

On the other hand…

As a rule, they did have faults. The biggest of them–which Krzysztof Opalinski certainly shared, from what she’d seen–was a tendency toward certainties. And, still worse, simplicities. Revolution was not a complex and turbulent episode in human affairs, filled with contradictions and confusion. It was spelled with a capital “R.”

Such people could be trusted not to be treacherous, sure enough. But they could usually be trusted to screw up, too, sooner or later.

Red Sybolt was a different sort of person altogether. He had the same strength of convictions–probably even stronger, in fact. But he was a man in his mid-forties, born and raised in a working-class family, who’d developed his opinions and his political tactics dealing with his fellow coal miners in the gritty reality of working lives. Not from speeches spouted on college campuses, or late-night talk sessions. And he’d held those convictions for many years, solid as a rock, where most student radicals shaded into comfortable liberalism within a short time after leaving the ivory halls.

So. If she was right, that meant that Red thought there was a lot more substance to Zaborowsky than to his companion. Which wouldn’t surprise Melissa at all, since that was her assessment also.

Those calculations didn’t take more than a few seconds, by which time they were all seated in the comfortable chairs and divans in the salon.

All except James, that is. He was still standing in the entryway that connected the salon with the bedchamber.

Red flashed him a grin. “Hey, you’re welcome to join us, James.”

“Just a country doctor, remember?”

“Oh, cut it out.” Red jabbed a thumb at Melissa. “I know damn well she’ll tell you anything important, anyway. And leaving aside the ‘country’ bullshit, you’re a black doctor from one of Chicago’s ghettos, not some jerk MD who grew up in a gated community and thinks manicured lawns are a natural growth.”

James smiled thinly. “True. But I spent no time at all meddling with black power ghetto politics in my youth, neither. Went straight from honest crime into the military.” He waggled a finger at the three people sitting on the couch. “This sort of revolutionist caballing and cavorting is not my forte.”

“Yeah, sure. But you’re not given to blind trust in the good intentions of the high and mighty, either.”

Nichols’ smile grew even thinner. “True again. In those days, my opinion of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara was unprintable. To say nothing of my opinion of Nixon and Kissinger after they took over.” His shrug was as minimal as his smile. “You could print them today, but only because I picked up an education afterward. So, these days, I know there are alternative terms for ‘lying motherfuckers.'”

After a pause, he said: “Well, okay. Why not?” And took a seat next to Melissa.

Red now looked at her. And then jabbed a thumb at Zaborowsky.

“I want to know if you agree with him. About the Ruthenians, I mean. We’ve been arguing about it. Well… maybe ‘arguing’ is too strong a word.”

Melissa looked at Jakub. He was giving her a look that was far more placid than anything that really belonged on such a young man’s face. “Placid,” not in the sense of uncaring; but in the sense that he was quite willing to entertain notions that he suspected were wrong, but wasn’t sure.

Impressive. Most political radicals that age were sure of everything.


She thought about the problem. It was quite a tricky one, actually.

“The thing is, Red, I think Jakub’s attitude is the right one to take.” She made a little face. “Although I’d recommend keeping the wisecracks about illiteracy and drunkenness to a minimum. The reason being, that any Polish revolutionary movement that isn’t prepared to let Ruthenia go if that’s what the Ruthenians want, won’t be worth a damn. Sooner or later it’ll most likely collapse. It’s like…”

Jakub spoke up, for the first time since entering the room. “Here is what they would do. The leadership of the Cossacks, except perhaps the Zaporozhian Host, is not at all interested in eliminating serfdom. Their grievance is simply that the Polish and Lithuanian szlachta won’t accept the Cossack starytsa as their social and political equals. But if they do so, the starytsa will be satisfied. And even stupid, stubborn Polish noblemen–even Lithuanians, who are more stupid and stubborn still–can face reality if their backs are against the wall.”

He shook his head. “Besides, they wouldn’t even have to carry it out. Those registered Cossack colonels and atamans are every bit as stupid. All the Poles and Lithuanians have to do is promise them they’ll give them equality. And then we’ll have thousands of Cossacks to deal with as well as the great magnates and their private armies. Whereas if we make clear from the beginning that we will let the Ruthenians decide their own fate, when we take the state power, we’ll gain the support of many Ruthenians and the Cossacks will most likely spend all their time quarreling.”

He jeered. “They’re very good at that.”

The sarcastic jeer bothered Melissa a little. There was a hard edge to Jakub Zaborowsky that she hadn’t detected in his companion Krzysztof. It was understandable, of course. Unlike Opalinski, who’d been born into wealth and privilege and had the relaxed cheeriness that often came with such a background, Jakub had been born into a hardscrabble szlachta family. There was no way he could have arrived at the conclusions he’d come to if, probably at a very early age, he hadn’t come to loathe and detest the bigotry and narrow-mindedness he saw around him.

In most ways, in fact, that hard edge would be necessary. In the years to come, if he survived, Jakub Zaborowsky would have to deal with Polish and Lithuanian magnates who were as savage and ruthless as any rulers in history. Their standard response to rebellion was a bloodbath. Treachery and double-dealing came as naturally to them as venom to a viper. No revolutionary leader who was soft and sweet could possibly defeat them.