1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 04
Franz felt his shoulders stiffen, and forced himself to relax. He did prefer the circumlocution, in point of fact. If that’s what it was at all, which he didn’t believe for a moment. The difference between a mercenary and a professional soldier might be thin, but it was still real. A mercenary cared only for money. A professional soldier always placed honor first.
As Piccolomini knew perfectly well, damn the crude Italian bastard–or he wouldn’t have made this offer in the first place. He’d take Franz von Mercy’s oath not to allow himself to be used against Austria as good coin, because it was and he knew it. He’d certainly not do the same for a mere mercenary.
“Who, then?” he asked.
Piccolomini seemed to hesitate. Then, abruptly: “How do you feel about Jews?”
Von Mercy stared at him. His mind was…
Piccolomini might as well have asked him how he felt about the natives in the antipodes–or, for that matter, the ones that speculation placed on the moon but which Franz had heard the Americans said was impossible.
What did Jews have to do with military affairs? They were the least martial people of Europe. For any number of obvious reasons, starting with the fact that most realms in the continent forbade them from owning firearms. About the only contact professional soldiers ever had with them involved finances, and that was usually only an indirect connection.
Belatedly, Franz remembered that he’d also heard some rumors concerning recent developments among the Jewry of Prague. They’d played a prominent role in repulsing the attack of General Holk on the city, apparently. That had allowed Wallenstein to keep most of his army in the field and defeat the Austrians the previous year at the second battle of the White Mountain.
They were even supposed to have produced a prince of their own, out of the business. An American Jew, if he recalled correctly.
Throughout the long pause, Piccolomini had been watching von Mercy. Now, he added: “Yes, that’s right. Your employer would be a Jew. An American Jew, to be precise, who is now highly placed in Wallenstein’s service.”
Franz rummaged through his memory, trying to find the name. He knew he’d heard it, at least once. But, like most such items of information that didn’t seem to have any relevance to him, he’d made no special effort to commit the name to memory.
Piccolomini provided it. “His name is Roth. Morris Roth.” He smiled, a bit crookedly. “Or Don Morris, as the Jews like to call him. They fancy their own aristocracy, you know. At least, the Sephardim always have, and it seems the Ashkenazim as well.”
Franz noted–to his surprise; but then, he didn’t really know the man that well–that Octavio knew that much about the inner workings of Jewry. So did Franz himself, from a now-long-past friendship with a Jewish shoemaker. But most Christians didn’t, certainly not most soldiers.
He realized, then, the purpose of Piccolomini’s probing questions. And, again, was a bit surprised. He wouldn’t have thought the outwardly bluff Italian soldier would have cared about such things.
“I have no particular animus against Jews, if that’s what you’re wondering.” He smiled crookedly himself. “I admit, I’ve never once contemplated the possibility that one of them might wish to hire me. For what? In the nature of things, Jews don’t have much need for professional soldiers.”
“Or a need so great that it is too great to be met,” said Piccolomini. “But, yes, in times past you’d have been quite correct. But the times we live in today are ones in which the nature of things is changing. Quite rapidly, sometimes.”
The waiter returned, bringing two hot cups of coffee. Piccolomini waited until he was gone, and then picked up his cup and leaned back in his chair. Still speaking rather softly, he said: “Well, then. Let’s savor our coffees, and then I’ll take you to meet someone.”
Piccolomini shook his head. “No, Roth himself is in Prague, so far as I know. The man I’ll be taking you to is one of his agents. Uriel Abrabanel, of the famous clan by that name.” The Italian blew on his coffee. “Famous among Sephardim, anyway.”
Quite famous, in fact. The Jewish shoemaker whom Franz had known in his youth had once told him, very proudly, that he himself was–admittedly, rather distantly–related to the Abrabanels.
“Famous to many people, nowadays,” said Franz, “seeing as how the wife of the prime minister of the United States of Europe is an Abrabanel. And has become rather famous herself–or notorious, depending on how you look at it.”
Piccolomini nodded, and took an appreciative sip of his coffee. “She has, indeed. The redoubtable Rebecca Abrabanel. I’ve been told that Cardinal Richelieu himself remarked upon her shrewdness–which, coming from him, is quite a compliment.”
“Yes, it is. Although many people might liken it to one devil complimenting another on her horns and cloven hoofs.”
“Oh, surely not,” chuckled Piccolomini. “The woman is said to be extraordinarily comely, in fact. So I’m told, anyway.”
He chuckled again, more heavily. “What I know for certain, however, is that she’s the niece of the man you’ll be meeting very soon. So do be alert, Franz. Uriel Abrabanel would be described as ‘comely’ by no one I can think of, not even his now-dead wife. But he’s certainly very shrewd.”
It was Franz’s turn to hesitate. Then, realizing he simply needed to know, he asked: “At the risk of being excessively blunt, Octavio, I must ask why you are doing me this favor?”
Again, the Florentine issued that distinctively heavy chuckle. “Good question. You’d really do better to ask Janos Drugeth. Know him? He’s one of the emperor’s closest advisers.”
Von Mercy shook his head. “The name’s familiar, of course. He’s reputed to be an accomplished cavalry commander and I try to keep track of such. But I’ve never met him and don’t really know much about him.”
“Well, Janos is also one of Ferdinand’s closest friends, and has been since they were boys. This was his idea, actually, not mine.” Piccolomini made something of a face. “For my taste, the reasoning behind it is a bit too convoluted. Quite a bit, being honest.”
Franz cocked an eyebrow. “And the reasoning is… Indulge me, if you would.”
“I suppose there’s no reason you shouldn’t know. Drugeth is not in favor of continuing the hostilities between Austria and Bohemia, and thinks we’d be wiser to let things stand as they are. Personally, I disagree–and so does the emperor, for that matter. But Ferdinand listens carefully to whatever Janos says, even when he’s not persuaded. And Janos suggested this ploy as a way of encouraging Wallenstein to look elsewhere than Austria for any territorial aggrandizement. We know that he’s appointed Morris Roth to expand his realm to the east. But how is Roth supposed to do that without a military force? So, Drugeth thinks we should help provide him with one.”
Von Mercy nodded. Up to a point, he could follow the reasoning. War had a grim and inexorable logic of its own. Once the Bohemians began a real effort to expand to the east, in all likelihood they would find themselves getting drawn deeper and deeper into the effort. The more they did so, the less of a threat they would pose to Austria to the south.
There came a point, however, at which the logic began to crumble. Granted, Franz was more familiar with the geography of Western Europe than Central Europe. Still, one thing was obvious.
“‘Expanding his realm to the east’ will take him directly into Royal Hungary, Octavio.”
Piccolomini grimaced. “So it will, indeed–and don’t think I didn’t point that out to the emperor and Janos both. I thought that would end the business, since the Drugeth family’s own major estates are in Royal Hungary. But Janos–he’s an odd one, if you ask me–didn’t seem to feel that was much of a problem. In the end, the emperor decided there was enough there to warrant making the connection between you and the Jew in Prague.”
He gave Franz a stern look. “But I stress that we will want your vow not to take the field against us.”