Rebirth of Reason


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

We left the tavern, the top of the door brushing our heads as we stepped into the bright air and put on our hats.   Being outside improved my senses, and I could see the edges of everything.  In the northeast section of the city was a knoll with a lookout tower.  Down the back was an impassable face, and it was in that cliff that I had one of our hiding places, in case things turned for the worse in the town.  The way to the hill, and the safety of its north face, presented itself in simple pieces easy to understand. The knowledge relaxed me.  I looked at the doctor.  He stepped into my cadence and we turned up the street to the market.

People passed us, angry government officials, terse, anxious merchants.  You can tell they know a battle approaches.  With all our stealth and hush, you cannot hide 200,000 men on their way from Prussia and the far north, not while there are men on steeds willing to carry the news.  It was no wonder he was here, though I thought he had retired with his traitor’s wealth in Paris, and of course he would be making his circuit in Leipzig and Stotteritz.  It is his way to know first hand.  It’s why he is the best.

All the same, his intention is insidious.  By stealing the doctor’s accomplishment, Schulmeister plans to use our own invention against us.  It freezes the bones.  Just to lay hands on it, they must use force.  To make use of the Secret is worse, because Dr. Adahlgiso would be forced against his will to cultivate and harvest his ideas for the enemy.  And the art of draining a man’s mind is devilish.

Vulnerable in isolation, at the same time wanting speed, we crossed to the main street through an alley full of broken stones and rubble.  No rubbish, though, and my remark to the doctor had been so far, “another immaculate alley.”

But he fired at me, “Gothard, Gothard, why did you bring us to Stotteritz!”

There it was, I’d planned to see Gilbert and give him our regards and pick up more opium since I knew he was getting low, at least.  We had just run short, we were almost there, but we hit the empty bottom, even though it was a few days until I delivered him into your hands.  There it was, like climbing in the mountains and your rope is actually 20 feet from the ground, not 10 like one thought.  Remember?  So now just shy of our meeting with you, the plan was foiled since we couldn’t lead Little Bonie’s best to the doorstep of Gilbert, we would have to make do with what the town could provide.

“Gothard, why?”

I just bent my head.

“That was Charles Schulmeister, in the Guashaus,” I said.

The doctor stopped short in his tracks, this time as a man and not as a lunatic.  He turned for a moment and looked back, then resumed a rapid pace.

“Mack’s petit homme rouge,” he said.

“He is notorious,” I said.

“We’ll walk as though nothing is amiss,” said the doctor, “but let’s do that in the marketplace where a brutal attack on our person is less likely.”

We passed busy local folk and soldiers, doing their daily affairs, reading a newspaper, women talking in bright bonnets and all of them, everyone, carried the sunken stare that fills every word and action, the conflict with which a person struggles when a battle is near.  They ask themselves, should I fly?  Should I fly?  “Uncle says it may be farther north” or “My son’s commander says to stay put.”  Endangering the commoner so as not to give the Allied armies too much forewarning of the location of the best of the French forces.  The upcoming battle was most real to me then.

How does one move with speed, but look like one is wandering?  Our field-hardened muscles had a hard time with the start and stop, being pulled in one direction by distraction, but with fear hard on our tail.  We passed a man at his forge blowing smoke into the outside air and a boy at the bellows.  There were many sellers of the harvest – carrots large and red, giant squash and mountains of grain, it made my mouth water and my insides turn, as I had not yet attended to my business. We passed a woman selling pies.  It was the long way to the hilltop.

We overheard directions to the apothecary, so we didn’t have to ask, then heard  “but they’re closed today.”  It gave me only the briefest pause.

After walking on four different streets, I said, “It seems we’re not followed.”

While I took a private moment of long relief in a pristine alley, I reexamined my plan.  The hill that is the crown of Stotteritz was visible from where I stood and I stared at the green grass and the sky beyond.  An art school was taking in the warm but windy day, and easels were chained on stakes against the gusts that rolled up the height.   A look-out tower marked the genteel area where the rich from Leipzig come to view.  There were about thirty out with luncheon, sketching God knows what sterile abominations of landscape and each other.  German landscapes look like a child’s drawing, all simple lines and bright colors.  I’m sure they were posing for each other as does any aristocracy; Saxons and Bohemians just do it with greater vigor and commitment.  I could see them laughing and calling out, their brushes in hand like art was a duty.  As I rearranged myself I just shook my head.  A war on the way, and the German rich are painting.

The path up the hill led through buildings that showed rows and rows of windows, like soldiers in straight lines.  As if to organize vision, this is how they see the world:  through ordered spectacles.

I was just about to make my move when we heard a brick fall.

It was a dog and his rope, but in turning I saw a glimpse.  Schulmeister pulled back from just around the corner, his eyes unmistakable and his dark coat.  I froze.   In silence, he stepped out sideways from a small passage.  I saw no weapon in his bare hands which frightened me.  I don’t know why.  I bolted, the doctor already ahead.

So collapsed all my small campaigns, meeting Gilbert, finding a way into the apothecary, they folded down into one frantic adaptation - now we just needed to get out of the town.  My emergency escape was over the top, and so I steered us to a side street that led east.  The hill was in my sight.

But at the crest of the street, Schulmeister stepped out and started walking at us as calm as if going for the milk.  We were forced to turn into a fenced yard that surrounded a small barn.  I put my head inside for a second, the barn was rich with scent and hay.  A little mare in her stall, a french mare, standing with legs splayed and head to one side looking at me.  Not to be trusted.  We slipped around the back, through another garden and pulled out on the south side when it looked clear.  But when we rounded the corner to go east, Schulmeister was striding down the center of the road, his eyes like mirrors.  I could see his intelligence, but no emotion.  He reflected our fear back into our faces.

It’s known Schulmeister is a master chessman.  As well as I thought I’d learned Stotteritz, he knew it better.  Approaching a wall, he would be on the other side.  Going up a street, he would be ahead of the signpost.  His quiet was a force, and we were on the defense, without time to think.  The choices he made were cold and detached, ours were panicked and off balance.  Were we the amusement of a disturbing demon?  Worse was the emptiness.  Schulmeister could detail at least one hundred soldiers with the raise of his hand, yet not a soldier was in sight to detain us.  It was his private game.  Perhaps it was too lovely a day, and this was the Schulmeister’s art school outing.

In inches, and in alley after pristine alley, we found ourselves going west, and then horror, onto the west road.  This at last put us in sight of all the hundreds of soldiers encamped on the slopes that led down to Leipzig.  There were campfires and tents and huddles of men in uniforms or half dressed after a bath.   Horses stood unharnessed, with their burdens on the ground.   Some of the men were drinking, but most were staring at us as we gasped and staggered into the open.

It was the Grand Orders and Discipline at work.  At Schulmeister’s command, we were reserved.  Not one soldier moved towards us, not one took a shot.  My lungs tore themselves into fiery pain, but it was less than the agony of exposure.  Few knew the value of the doctor at my side, but everyone could see our faces. 

With nothing left to do, I chose a bold move and turned off the road and into the soldiers.  We brushed man-sweat and kicked against war gear.  Schulmeister behind us dogged our heels with ruthless composure.  We were helping make a show of his power.

My strength would have flagged, but I had the now lunatic Austrian in convulsions, dragging me with as much hurt as I previously offered him.  He was not depleted by fear since his hallucinations consumed him.  At some point the withdrawal would have him sob with weakness, but the dangerous present saw him breathing rage like the bellows of hell.  Soldiers jumped out of the way.  He kicked over their soup.

Here was where we gained advantage.  As we sped to the north and made our way into some trees, Schulmeister began to slow.  We pulled ahead, though he still had many men around to tell him where we went, and in this way we got back to the marketplace.  

Prodded and antagonized, I had no patience for the burst of spiraling images the doctor now described out loud to gentlemen and women in bonnets.

But Schulmeister was there, behind us only paces, and the disorienting mass of horses and goods and ladies in dresses whirled around leaving my mind in hazy terror.  In the smear of vision I could see him as though at the end of a tunnel, dark in his coat, and gaining.

I had a moment of temper.  It lit me like a torch and I felt myself in blood and on fire.  I turned.  Men and ladies stepped around me.  I walked directly to Schulmeister, and faced him. 

 “Good sir, why are you following us?  You have terrified my father.”

His face showed the expression of one who has received the unexpected pleasure of meeting an equal.

“You are looters,” he said, after quiet examination, and looking toward my “father” who was backing off a wagon, pulling a large keg with him, and wiping wetness off his lips.

“Show me your papers,” Schulmeister said.

The doctor hid behind a stall of women’s handbags.

Schulmeister held the documents away from his face and up in the air as if to dry.  He turned them over and looked at them, one by one.

Tres bon,” he said, nodding.  It was only later I realized he was expressing appreciation for the excellent forgery, rather than sending us on our way.

I’d kept my eye on the cobblestones, but now I looked up and again saw the hill.   A church bell down the south road rang suddenly, and so boldly, that it started my heart out of my body. 

Instead of leaping forward, though, I just stood in place in my own fiery implosion.

The thought of capture was intolerable.  It wasn’t English.  It wasn’t that for which the doctor and I had strived, hundreds of miles in the wet and unending forests.  In that moment, I decided I would foul Schulmeister’s prize.

Schulmeister raised his hand.  The only way out was the judgment of my mind, using it to be stronger and more clever than the “little red man” of the pounding intelligence who gazed at me.

I called to my “father” who came out, his eyes large as shillings.

“Put that down,” I said.

But he wouldn’t and I seized his arm and then – you will think I am insane – as soldiers approached, we bolted into an east alley toward the hill.  Then, I immediately ran us south, counter to where Schulmeister thought we were headed.

I was frantic that he was slowed, but he said something about the strength of the wise and gripped the heavy cask close to himself.  Every step for him was pain, but looking down, I saw his old man thighs still running strong and hard.  The greatest honor I can give him is to say it was likely beyond the powers and province of man, but by firing his strength up to be equal to his task, he brought the deed within his own compass.

After covering the distance past the churchyard, and running down through two empty gardens until it was quiet, we turned right at the second street and there it was.  The apothecary.

The doctor danced a few steps, but when he heaved the cask up and tried the door it was locked.  Crestfallen he faced me, but I pushed past him, and put out the eye of one of the well-ordered windows.  It took a punch and a kick of my boot to clear our passage. 

I leaned to look inside, but a nasty rock flew off the brick and hit my arm.

“We are being shot at,” the doctor said.

Across the street, in a second floor window, a man dressed in a loose white shirt was yelling the alarm.  He raised a rifle to his shoulder.  In the yard below him stood three children with coats and stacks of suitcases.  They stood in paleness without moving.

I pushed the doctor into the apothecary window, and when he fell midlong on the sill, I disposed his feet after him which caused something inside to crash.  I jumped into the darkness.  There was no time to light a candle, no time to do anything.  Taking a guess that the opium would be locked in the cabinet closest to the store desk, we felt the furniture.  A bullet at last found its way in the window and shattered the glass shelves for us.  A bundle of spears on display was what had fallen, and I used one to break the fine wood.  Carefully, we pawed through the splinters, found the brown tar, and tore to the back.  We hit the rear door running.  Surprise favored us since a few folk had gathered looking beefy and mean, but we broke through them before they could make good.

Now, there were numerous alleys and houses in which to lose ourselves, as we scrambled back north and east.  We went to go round the hill, but there was a wall and were forced back down and all became blurred.  I ran savagely through empty houses, then had to retrace our steps as though the town itself were forcing us back into the shackles of France.  Back through the market, and again towards the hill, but then Instructions were given.  From the top of the road looking down, I saw soldiers organizing, and I knew from the gestures and looks that it was for us.  To the north were the woods and safety and the bridge where we were to meet you.

We made our last try.  The town was on alert.  Most of the art school were on their feet looking out over the streets where soldiers were running and civilians jumped out of the way.  The doctor was now in the throes of his withdrawal, giving shrieks as we raced forward.  The wind hit us as made for the party lawn.  “Now, doctor.”  I said to bring us to our fastest, because we would be easy rifle shot. 

I sprinted forward direct into a fox den, and bashed my head against a rock as I fell.  When I looked up all I could see was one large eye of the doctor.  He had a smile on his face. 

“Perfect,” he said, and pressed my cheek in his fingers.

I scrambled out, but he stayed, pushing rocks inside the den.  I yelled, but he wouldn’t move, and instead was frittering in his pouch.  I screamed.   He didn’t look at me, only rolled his keg into the shallow hole.

“Quick, ” he said, and began shoving more rocks onto the keg, now with a long piece of tape trailing out its bin.  By his ruse, I had thought it a keg of spirits – I didn’t realize it was a weapon of the otherworld!  In a rush, I helped him, throwing rock after rock, even as the soldiers mounted the supporting wall.    They pounded the earth, they were close.   The doctor had fire in his hands.

“Run,” he said.

His pupils stared at me from the fallen windows of his eyes.

I turned and shouted at the people, then tore through the crowd of easels and bags, knocking satin and women and boots and indignation.  They weren’t moving.  I looked back.  The doctor raised his arms and came at them.

 “Run, chickens, run!”  he shouted in a voice of command and control.

They fled.  They fled all down the sides of the hill, and the soldiers reached us, and the doctor and I ran, forced and hard, up the hill.  We reached the middle.  When we reached the tower steps, a horrible sound of war exploded behind us and looking back I saw fire and grey smoke and soldiers down. The wind blew smooth and cool up the hill and, like birds racing overhead to get home quickly, more quickly, the pieces of thirty canvases flipped back and forth showing pastel and picture until, floating down in great relief, they caught, and jumped 'round the hill and swirled again - up, up, into the air. 

Then I found my rabbit trail and we disappeared into a hidden path and an otherwise rocky and almost untraversable descent.  We tumbled under brambles and dove into a covering in the rocks that is invisible to the outside.  We went as fast as we could, since speed is the paramount cover of them all.

Hidden in our cave with a false rock front, the doctor took a long-awaited dose of his drug; we ate cheese and stayed the night and the next day and night, our muscles stiff.  We did hear soldiers quite close the first evening and the next day, but we were undiscovered.   All yesterday I heard nothing, and I have great hope that we’ve given them the slip, though the entire world will be on alert.  This is most inconvenient.  An explosion on top of a hill they will hear all the way to Paris.
Last night there was a light snow, but the woods were quiet.  Reluctant we were to leave the hiding place, but our appointment with you is today.  So, we exited our small encampment.  Odd, I almost wished we could stay there with our tiny fire in the bramble thicket, debriefing, writing, and talking.  We crossed through the path in the woods, which comes out onto the land of our Patron.  Even though he has fled, it was good to see friendly fields.  I was tempted to check his house to see if it had been looted, but didn’t.

As the morning warmed and the snow melted, we made our way down the embankment, and, putting a hand on the side trusses of the bridge, we scrambled to the shadows and found wooden planking on which to sit underneath.    Later this winter, Dr. Adalgiso says, he and I will meet up in Prague, his friends have an estate, and we will all go into the city and dine at the club.

As I sit here with our lamp, it is with great distress I have been weighing whether to print Dr. Adahlgiso’s profound Secret; he seems indifferent when I ask and perhaps he is right - perhaps nothing matters and the end has come, as the religious say.  The reason would be in case anything should happen to him we would have the mechanical drawings.

In honesty I am trepidatious; I don’t even know if I believe it myself, that this is a thing that will work.  They have killed so many of our own men, I am against them.  I have memorized what I have enclosed for you and will tell you here in sum.

It is two things, not one, that he has discovered.  The first is the angle of the fin; it is rotated at an angle so that the rocket spins much faster.  He says the spinning sends it straighter, less likely to circle back and hit one of our troops. 

The second is from the earth.  From all his digging and inspections of clay he has made its magic and raised it up to bake a ceramic at the base.  The ridges make it fly straighter still, and higher, so that the fiery bombardment would be like the hallucinations of Dr. Adahlgiso’s secret world, the fire of his own Armageddon raining down.

Schulmeister did return the first night, alone. He crept around the hill and tried to climb the face.  It was as dangerous a thing as he’s done, I imagine.  I could have picked him off at any moment.  The only reason I held back was to avoid having a price on my head worth a million francs.  Perhaps he knew I wouldn’t shoot, but I think he was so angry at the loss that the rashness of his youth bloomed again.  At last he went away, swinging a lantern at the ground.

Keep in mind the doctor drinks tea, also he is studying natural vapors as you do; for any information, he will be grateful.    I daren’t go to Gilbert’s, but perhaps someone can be sent to give him my regards.  I promised to help him fix the supports in his root celler.  Both our gloves have holes, the doctor will need them mended, with winter coming on.

Since I can only watch when you arrive, I will hold close the memory of our childhood as boys in Yorkshire.  The quiet waters of friendship run deeper than blood.  May you be protected from the poor soldiers that are food for the ambition of the monster Napoleon.  You are ever in God’s care, and the thoughts of your loyal friend,

Gothard Wren
October 1, 1813

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