1636 The Devil’s Opera – Snippet 42
Hans looked at him for a moment, then a slow smile crossed his face. “Pigeons, huh?” He looked at the crowd again, then back at Simon. “Mayhap you’re right, boy. And you’re my luck, so I’d best listen to you.” His gaze went down the pit and locked on the other fighter. “So, let’s be about this.”
Just then Herr Pierpoint came down the other ladder and moved to the center of the pit. Simon didn’t listen as the up-timer went through his usual before-the-fight routine, focusing instead on the other fighter. Whoever he was, he looked to be more of a challenge than the last few men Hans had faced, especially poor Sokolovsky. He stood erect, head up and eyes staring at Hans. There was no fat around his middle; he was lean, and a bit taller than Hans. Simon shivered all of a sudden. Hans might have to work for this one.
Herr Pierpoint pointed to the timekeeper and the bell rang. Hans stepped forward, and the fight began.
In the event, Simon needn’t have worried. This fight was more of a contest than any that Simon had seen before, true. The other fighter was good enough to land a number of solid body blows, and early on he managed to thoroughly blacken Hans’ left eye. But in return, Hans’ relentless pounding just wore the other man down. He dropped in the seventh round.
The crowd went wild — as Simon had come to expect. But even for a fight night crowd, they were very exuberant. He looked at the people leaning over the rail, shouting and pounding on each other. At the same moment, he caught a whiff of the old blood smell from the pit itself. And in a moment of insight well beyond his years, Simon saw that the people cheering for Hans would most likely have been cheering on the dogs in the bear baitings that used to occur in the pit. That almost made him want to throw up, and he only kept his supper in his stomach by gulping hard a couple of times and taking deep breaths.
Hans walked over to Simon after Herr Pierpoint lifted his arm in victory. He was breathing deeply and flexing his hands, but there was a smile on his face. “That was a good fight,” he said. “That man knew what he was doing.” A touch to his left eye brought a wince, but didn’t dim the smile. “A good fight,” Hans repeated. He started whistling again as he donned his clothes, finishing off by plucking his hat off Simon’s head and giving the boy’s hair a ruffle.
Up the ladder they went. Simon had been up and down the ladder so many times over the last few weeks that he’d learned how to balance himself to get on and off at the top and didn’t even think about it now.
“Now, where’s Tobias?” Hans was looking around.
“Ferret-face,” Simon muttered. Hans heard him and laughed.
“There he is.” Hans pointed and they pushed their way through the crowd, accepting congratulation and claps on the back as they moved. In a moment Hans had Tobias by the arm and was watching him count out bills.
Simon counted along with them. “. . . ten, eleven, twelve.” Twelve hundred dollars! Hans was making even more money for each fight. It still amazed Simon that people would pay to see a fight, despite all the proof he had received over the last weeks.
“Twelve for tonight,” Hans said as he pocketed the money. “Next time it’s fifteen.”
“Fifteen!” Tobias almost screamed. “That’s robbery!”
Hans shrugged. “The people pay to come see me. If you want me in your fights, the price is now fifteen hundred dollars.”
Tobias’ eyes nearly popped out of his head. This increased his resemblance to the weasel-like ferrets to such an extent that Simon had to bite the inside of his cheeks to keep from bursting out laughing. They left Tobias wordless and huffing.
“There you are, Hans.” The crowd parted to let Andreas Schardius and his friends through. “You are indeed the Samson of Magdeburg. Congratulations on your win tonight. May it not be the last.”
“Thank you, Master Schardius,” Hans said. Simon could hear a strained note in his voice.
The merchant waved a hand. “I’m so glad you didn’t disappoint me, Hans. If you had lost, well, it would have been costly.” With that, he turned and walked away.
Simon was alarmed. Hans’ hands were fists again. He laid a hand on Hans’ arm. “Hans . . . Hans . . . pigeons, remember.”
After a moment the fists relaxed, but this time there was no smile. “No, Simon, not a pigeon. Not that one. A kestrel, maybe, or better yet, a carrion crow.” Hans spat as if clearing his mouth. “Come on.”
Byron and Gotthilf looked at each other from where they stood on the fringe of the crowd.
“Interesting,” Gotthilf said.
The torchlight around the bear pit dimmed behind them. The moon was in half-phase, riding high in the sky, so their way was lit before them. Simon was perplexed, and finally worked up his courage to ask a question.
“Why is Master Schardius not a pigeon?”
Hans spat again. “The preachers say that we are God’s flock, the sheep of His pasture. They might as well say we are the pigeons in His roost. Sheep and pigeons are both stupid, messy, nasty creatures, helpless for the most part. That probably describes most people — certainly the ones you and I know.” They walked a few steps farther on. “But there are always those who prey on the flocks. Call them wolves, or hawks, or carrion crows . . .” Hans kicked a rock out of his path. “. . . but they batten on the misery of others. And some of them . . .” Simon heard the smack of a fist into a palm. “. . . some of them feed on pain. And Master Schardius,” loathing dripped from the title, “he is one of the worst. He misses no opportunity to increase his wealth at the expense of others. I know that he brings stolen property into Magdeburg on his barges. I know that he cheats his customers, giving them short weights when they buy his grain. And I know that he delights in tearing at people to cause pain or to receive gain, and if he can do both at once then he is a happy man.”