1636 The Devil’s Opera – Snippet 09
December 4, 1635
There was a formal groundbreaking last week for the construction of the new surgical wing of the Magdeburg Memorial Hospital in Greater Magdeburg. Participating were Mayor Otto Gericke, Dr. James Nichols, Dr. Balthazar Abrabanel and Dr. Paul Schlegel. Also present were Georg Kühlewein and Johann Westvol, members of the City Council of Old Magdeburg, respectively Altbürgermeister and Bürgermeister of that august body. Masters Kühlewein and Johann Westvol are among the leaders of the syndicate that won the contract to design and build the new wing. It is to be hoped that the new wing will be completed with all dispatch, as our growing city needs to be able to offer the best medical care available.
* * *
Stephan Burckardt, private secretary to Master Georg Schmidt, merchant, leading member of Magdeburg society, and member of the Council — the Rat — of Old Magdeburg tapped on the open door.
“Yes?” Herr Schmidt didn’t look up from the contract he was reading. “What is it, Stephan?”
“The newspaper has arrived, master.”
Now the merchant lifted his gaze from the paper he was scanning and held out his hand. “Let me see it.”
Stephan steeled himself — the boss would not be happy about this — advanced far enough to hand Schmidt the paper then retreated through the doorway as quickly as he could.
From his chair at his desk out of sight of the merchant, Stephan licked his lips and wiped his forehead. The air seemed to be getting thicker, much like a sultry afternoon right before a thunderstorm. Except that this was colder.
Stephan picked up his pen, put it down, shuffled some papers, unable to focus. The quiet in the other room was ominous. He knew from experience that nothing good could come from this. It was times like this he wished he was back with the men in the room across the hall, simply making entries in ledger books all day long; not subject to Master Schmidt’s direct gaze all day, nor privy to so many of the master’s secrets.
“Come take dictation.”
Maybe, Stephan thought to himself, the master wasn’t taking it so badly after all. He clung to that thought until he rounded the door frame into the office, whereupon the thought expired as if it were a mouse trod upon by an ox.
The master’s hands were clasped in front of him, and his head was bowed. Stephan stopped as he saw Schmidt’s fingers were twisted almost to the point of breaking, and the flesh of his hands was nearly corpse white they were clasped so tightly. Tension radiated from the master’s shoulders, and he really wished he could be someplace else at just that moment.
Schmidt raised his head. Stephan swallowed at the fury boiling in the man’s eyes. His employer was by nature an angry man. God above knew that the master had shown a plenitude of evidence of it in the past. But this was beyond anything Stephan had ever seen before.
At least the master was not looking at him. Stephan edged away from the path of his gaze, as if out of the line of sight of a weapon.
“One would think,” Schmidt said, his normal rich baritone almost a whisper and sounding as if it were being forced through a sieve, “that one could count on his relations. I needed — my partners and I needed — that contract. And all my august brother-in-law, the oh-so-magnificent Otto Gericke, who gazes at the world from the heights of Magdeburg’s Parnassus and whose chamber pot does not stink like other men’s; all he had to do was hint to the hospital committee that they should favor our contract proposal.” His voice started to rise, the words coming more quickly. “But apparently that was beyond him! It was too much to ask him to help the husband of his sister. Or rather, his half-sister. His older half-sister. Let us by all means be precise. Never mind that Sophie –”
Schmidt broke off that thought. Presumably, some things he would not say, even in front of Stephan — who, for all practical purposes, had the position of a slave.
Stephan knew that losing that contract had hurt the master’s pride. But even more important to the pragmatic Schmidt, it had hurt him in the strongbox. Stephan was aware just how badly the master had needed that contract, since he also served as Schmidt’s accountant. Funds were tight since the Sack of Magdeburg back in 1631. To make things worse, his wife Sophie was not the most frugal of women. And he had been forced by his associates to put up a sizeable share of the funds to pay the architect and prepare the offer. He had needed that contract, but Kühlewein and Westvol had gotten it instead.
“It is bad enough,” the master resumed after a moment, speaking again in that strained whisper, “that he allowed those bastards Kühlewein and Westvol to win out over us. But now he celebrates with them?”
Schmidt exploded into motion, sweeping his arm across the desk to send a thin-walled Venetian rose-colored glass wine decanter and matching glasses flying to crash against the wall and shatter into tiny slivers. Then he picked up the pages of the paper and slowly and carefully tore the paper in half, making sure that the picture of the grinning Kühlewein and Westvol was sundered in the process. He tossed the shreds of paper onto the spreading pool of wine, then spat on the mess for good measure.
Stephan found himself backed against the wall by the door, wishing that he could escape.
Schmidt spun and stared out the window for some time, back to Stephan, obviously still seething.
Eventually, the master squared his shoulders. “Very well, then. We’ll start a new game.” He seemed to be talking to himself. Then he half-turned his head and said: “Take a letter, Stephan.”
He barely gave Stephan enough time to sit down and pull out a notebook. “Address it to Signor Nicolas Benavidez, Venice, Italy.”
“To Signor Nicolas Benavidez, Venice, Italy.”
Stephan’s ability to read and write Italian was a major reason why Schmidt had hired him years ago. He tried not to think of why he was still working for the merchant. A temptation to . . . adjust . . . Schmidt’s accounts and pocket the difference had not gone undetected, with the result that he was now bound to Schmidt with chains he saw no way of breaking.
“Look up the address, add the usual greetings and pleasantries,” Schmidt said. “Here’s what I need to say: Esteemed Sir, I find that I am in need of that favor that you promised to me some years ago. It would be a great help to me if you would send me two of your best men to assist me in a matter. These need to be men that know how to handle difficult situations.’
Stephan noted all that down. He looked up to see the master staring at him.
“Got all that?”
“Good. Close it with the usual. Make it even more flowery than you usually do. Have it ready for me to sign when I get back. No copy for our files.”
Schmidt spat again on the now-soggy newspaper, picked up his hat and started to leave. He paused in the doorway long enough to add, “And clean up that mess.”
After the outer door slammed behind Schmidt, Stephan laid his notebook down on his own little desk in the outer room, found a scrap of towel and a box, and walked back into the master’s office. He knelt to gather the sodden newspaper scraps and place them in the box, then gingerly picked out as much of the broken glass as he could find. Finally he mopped up the spilled wine as best he could.
After disposing of the box and its contents, Stephan straightened the chair behind the desk, neatened the contract pages where they were still open on the desktop, and generally made sure the rest of the room was in order. Then, returning to his own desk, he pulled out cheap paper to draft the letter on and a much better grade for the final copy. Every movement was precise, subdued, exact. As you’d expect from a lowly clerk who’d once made the mistake of thinking he might soar into the heights of embezzlement.
The analogy with Icarus didn’t occur to Burckardt himself. He was a clerk born into a very modest family, not a figure from myth. Icarus had plunged to his death in the sea. Burckardt has gotten his wages lowered, his hours lengthened, his person demeaned. His prospects ruined also, of course — but they’d never been good anyway.