Saturday, January 8, 2011

From the mouths of drunks and babes

It was, as they say, later the same day.

Schaffkopf cards

Schmitt was having a relaxing time, being happily pampered at the House of Madam Palme. He was now of an age where a comfortable salon was of more importance to him than the pleasures of the flesh, preferring to spend his time in a seat by the fire, sipping a good schnapps and chatting wittily with young ladies who flattered him by laughing at his jokes and hanging on his every word.

That had not prevented him from keeping a weather eye on some of Madam Palme’s other clients. The unspoken rule was that no-one spoke of such meetings outside of the premises, but Schmitt occasionally saw individuals whose public stances were clearly at variance with their private morals. Frequent nocturnal visitors often included older and more senior members of the Abbey’s religious hierarchy and supposedly happily married Burghers along with wealthy farmers and landowners from the countryside.  Other customers included the usual run of drunken soldiery on payday as well as visiting tradesmen and travellers from out of town.

Madam Palme's salon

This allowed Schmitt to pick up a useful trail of gossip, and he was currently embarked on a gentle fishing expedition with a visitor from out of town. The circumstances involved alcohol, a couple of pretty girls and a game of ‘strip Schaffkopf’, a card game recently brought back from the fleshpots of Munich by Schmitt himself. The visitor was a Major from the Emperor’s Court, and apparently he had found his way to Madam Palme’s establishment after visiting the Abbey, via a couple of local taverns.  As one of the girls gigglingly removed her petticoat (the girls were very good at losing this game to entertain their clients) Schmitt prompted the Major further:

Experts at losing

‘So, you do not know what was in the despatch? Seems a shame that His Imperial Highness did not see fit to take you into his confidence’

‘Is, whatsit...secret’ the Major averred hazily. ‘But it’s obvious, really, when you think about it...’ The Major’s furrowed brow suggested actual thinking was something he was struggling with right now.

‘Well, I am just a humble businessman’ Schmitt said silkily, ‘but I am responsible for this town and I am sure we would like to help if we could.’ He poured the Major another schnapps as one of the girls stroked his thigh provocatively.

Cards at Madam Palme's

‘Well, the way I see it is like this’ The Major commenced, before drifting away drunkenly. Schmitt waited until he drifted back again.  ‘Oh yes,' the Major said, suddenly discovering that he was still talking, ‘the Emperor needs all the friends he can get right now, to prove his wassname with the Elector is not just him bullying people. So my guess is that he has asked the Abbot to join the war. Is political I fink...’ he trailed off as his cards swam in front of his eyes again.

‘Really..?’ said Schmitt. ‘Well, I am sure that you can tell His Imperial Highness that the Free City of Kempten stands four square behind him.’
And that is where we are staying, Schmitt added mentally.

The Major slumped forward, finally giving way to an alcoholic stupor whilst Schmitt pondered the implications. Idly he wondered what Major Forster of the Burgherwehr was up to.

Friday, January 7, 2011

War Despatch

Brother Gumbolls

It was time for the military review and formal investiture. Alois thought that, looking over the order of service, that Gumbolls must have gone mad. It was less an investiture than a form of bladder torture, whereby the congregation and guests, highest and lowest, would be expected to ‘hold it in’ for several hours. The actual formalities would be conducted by Brothers Himmelstoss and Richardt, both of whom at least had vague religious duties (as opposed to commercial or political ones) and upon his robing he would be expected to give a resounding sermon to set the tone of his suzerainty. This had been thoughtfully written for him by Gumbolls.

Standing somewhat sidelong and talking at something above Alois’ left ear, Gumbolls had explained that the delicate balancing act in the Abbey, between the Abbey and the Stadt, and between the Prince-Abbot and his Patrimony, and between the Patrimony and its larger neighbours and the Imperial Diet and the Emperor himself meant that things had to be handled ‘with delicacy’. Alois had been somewhat surprised that the permanently swaying Gumbolls could even spell the word, but as Gumbolls reeled off the political ramifications of whatever he said, why and to whom Alois began to get a mild headache. Innocently Alois suggested to Gumbolls that what was more important was the Abbey’s relationship to God rather than all this rather grubby secular business. This did not earn Alois the expected explosion but rather a didactic lecture from Gumbolls who had clearly come to the conclusion that Alois was even thicker than he remembered.
After half an hour of Gumbolls’ beery breath wafting over him Alois weakly agreed to deliver the sermon as written and set himself the task of learning it by rote. He had only managed a few lines when the Graf von Limburg was announced, or rather barged in as the novice stumbled through his name.

Graf von Limburg

‘Right, your Grace...’ said von Limburg, in a voice that clearly had developed a sense of purpose over the years ‘you understand that, at your investiture you will be reviewing the troops of the Patrimony?’

‘I believe so’ replied Alois with a high pitched irritability. ‘What of it?’

‘Well, your Grace, I am Colonel-in-Chief of your regiments and I am keen to ensure that there are no errors’ von Limburg said, insinuating most clearly that Alois was certain to commit numerous military crimes as he was simply a bumbling civilian.

Alois chuckled ‘But my dear Graf, this is not the Imperial Army, this is a small police force, a Gendarmerie at most whose duties are...’
The Graf exploded like a gigantic belch, his face going a shade of purple that Alois would have been certain never existed in nature.

‘YOUR GRACE!’ roared von Limburg gently, ‘You must not speak like this. Our army may be small but the units are models or professionalism with the highest standards of drill, the very best equipment, the most professional officers the...’

Abbots Lifeguard on dismounted duty

Alois held up his hand, soothingly. ‘Yes, my dear Graf, yes...’ he said placatingly, ‘but tell me, when was the last time we actually went to war?’

The Graf stopped, hush descended. His left foot started twisting as if he was stubbing out a burning ember on the floor, which he was staring at intently.

‘Yes..?’ prompted Alois when it became clear that von Limburg was not going to answer easily.

‘Er...well, about 27 years ago, your Grace, as part of our contribution to the Imperial Army’

‘Indeed’ said Alois, smiling faintly. ‘And how many of our people were killed or maimed in that conflict?’

‘One’ von Limburg muttered eventually.

‘One’ Alois repeated. ‘Killed or wounded? Was it bullet or bayonet?’

‘Neither, your Grace,’ von Limburg replied miserably, ‘A shaving accident. You see we only marched as far as Bingen and then we got told to go home, because the Emperor didn’t need us and we were only asked along by mistake...’ the explanation became increasingly hurried.

‘So, what you are telling me in fact,' Alois applied his words with the delicacy of a watchmakers tool, ‘that in a generation we went to war once, which was the result of a clerical error and lasted a day? With one wounded man through a blunt razor?’

‘No sir, two to Bingen and one back’ von Limburg replied smartly. He was clearly determined to wring as much out of the adventure as possible.

‘Turning to the present,’ Alois continued, ‘you mentioned Regiments, plural. I was under the impression there was only my Lifeguard.’

‘Oh no your Grace, you have two. Your Lifeguard under Hauptman Lachen and your own regiment of foot, commanded by myself.’

Abbot's Regiment of Foot

‘And how large is this force?’ Alois asked, intrigued.

‘Well...,’ said von Limburg evaisively, ‘the Lifeguard has about sixty men, on a good day, and nearly two dozen horses when they are not needed for ploughing and such. Their job is to see to your day to day security, collect taxes, man the border patrols, carry messages and chase deserters. Your foot regiment can turn out nearly five hundred men, assuming they are not needed for the harvest that is, or when the breweries ship out their stock. We also have a cannon!’

‘Really?’ Alois looked bored. ‘And what am I to do with such a mighty legion?’

‘You never know, your Grace, when a letter may arrive from the Emperor. He is in a struggle with the Elector and, well, it could be anytime.’

‘Hmm...I remain unconvinced’ Alois sniffed.

The Imperial messenger

There was a hubbub at the door as the novice was heard arguing with a stentorian voice at the door.

‘Whoever it is, Georg, show them in!’ Alois shouted. Anything to give Limburg the hint that his audience was over. But Limburg stood there, awestruck, as through the doorway marched a mud spattered cavalry officer. No chocolate soldier this, thought Alois, feeling somewhat intimidated as the heavy cavalry boots hammered smartly across the wooden floor. Bowing stiffly the officer silently presented Alois with a sealed despatch, sidling close von Limburg noticed it bore the Emperor’s own seal. 

‘Well?’ hissed Limburg, ‘Aren’t you going to open it?’

The colour had drained from Alois’ face, and his trembling hands fiddled with the seal until he prised it open. The Imperial officer looked on intently, Limburg hungrily. Alois read the message, then again, before limply passing it to Limburg and collapsing back on his throne. Limburg’s hungry eyes devoured the despatch and he smiled triumphantly. His time had come.

The Council of the Burgomeister

Kempten Rathaus
As Alois was wrestling with his advisers, his conscience and his faith Burgomeister Hans Schmitt was chairing a meeting of the council of the good Burghers of Kempten gathered to respond to the enthronement of a new Prince-Abbot.

They were, Schmitt ruefully admitted, all very fat, very corrupt and devoted to the making of money. Their only saving grace, and it was certainly a large one, was that they were also uniformly stupid. Of course this combination of greed and stupidity had been primarily responsible for the turn to Protestantism and its survival in the face of the Abbey's wrath for over 100 years, as it had provided a Heaven-sent (Schmitt permitted himself a small blasphemy) opportunity to break the Abbey's monopoly on brewing. Looking at the dozen faces around the council table, at least half owed their position and fortune to the production and sale of beer, and the rest owned interests in industries dependent on the income the trade brought to the city.

The table was a hubbub of voices and argument, wigs shook and bloated faces reddened as conversations became heated. After all, the Abbot and his followers may be the enemy, but this lot were usually in competition with each other. Such ruses as small insurance fires, rotted barrel staves and bad hops characterised their relationships.

'Gentlemen, gentlemen', Schmitt gently banged his gavel, 'this is no time to indulge ourselves in petty squabbles'

Hans Schmitt, Burgomeister of Kempten

This had its intended effect in most cases, except for the Rohrschach brothers who were busy arguing over whether an ink blot one had made on his notepaper was a simple inkblot or looked like a butterfly. Schmitt brought the potentially groundbreaking discussion to an abrupt halt with a glower.

The Burgers of Kempten on a fact-finding mission

'Now, my friends. We all now are aware that the new Abbot has taken up his throne. We shall, of course, be sending him a message of goodwill and God's blessing in his new appointment'. This was accompanied by nodding of heads and mumblings of 'rhubarb, rhubarb'.

'Further to this...' Schmitt soldiered on oblivious, 'the Abbot has invited me to discuss the current poor relations between the Abbey and our fair city. I have agreed that a small delegation, composed of myself, will meet with the Abbot and open discussions'

This began a gale of argument, as Burghers around the table agreed, disagreed, changed their minds or continued arguing about what they had been arguing about before. Schmitt banged his gavel and closed the meeting, leaving the tumult to subside on its own. He slipped out of the Rathhaus and along a few side alleys until he came to an unobtrusive door. Knocking in a rhythmic way the door opened and he flitted inside. Discarding his cape he looked around a room sumptuously, one might even say over, dressed. He passed cape and hat to a gargantuan Tartar who everyone called Otto, and cast himself down on a rather over stuffed red velvet chair.

Madam Palme

In moments in swept a woman. Not a lady, Schmitt mentally noted, but a woman trying to ape one and outwardly suceeding. The whitened face, elegant dress and resplendent wig indicated a woman fighting a determined rearguard action against the onset of late middle age.

'Madam Palme' Schmitt jumped to his feet and bowed, turning on his not inconsiderable reserves of charm.

'Herr Burgomeister' She responded, fluttering a fan in a move that would have been coquettish in a younger woman but in Madam Palme's case looked vaguely grotesque.

'And which of your five lovely daughters should I entertain this evening?' Schmitt enquired, the charm had an edge to it this time. One advantage of being Burgomeister was the ability to turn a blind eye to Madam Palme's establishment in return for favours. In the same way he was able to borrow money from the Jew Goldblum at remarkably reasonable rates and the local Masonic Lodge never seemed troubled by the normal suspicion of such places, a relief to Grand Master Schmitt.

Yes, Schmitt permitted himself an inward smile of complacent contentment, everything was just fine, not a cloud in the sky.

Unfortunately, well, for Schmitt at any rate, his ability to predict the future was not as compliant as he would have liked.