Victoria: Chapter 29

Down at Mel’s, the talk was about our new governor. The problem was, we didn’t have one. We’d never had an election to choose a new lieutenant governor after Governor Adams was assassinated and Bowen moved up. While most matters were handled directly by the people, through referenda, if the war heated up again we’d need someone who could make decisions, fast. The Roman republic had elected dictators in times of crisis. We didn’t need to go that far, but we did need a governor, and this time it had to be a good one.

Everybody knew who that was: Bill Kraft. He believed what we believed, he could make decisions and he understood war. But Bill was not about to cooperate.

Nolo episcopari,” he growled when the speaker of the state legislature asked him if he’d take the job – “I don’t want to be a bishop,” the ancient answer a priest is expected to give when he is selected for that honor. The difference was, Bill meant it.

I added my voice to the many telling him he had no choice, Maine and the Confederation could not do without him, we could not afford another mistake, and so on. He would have none of it. When he got up from his half-eaten meal and marched out of Mel’s, I knew he was serious. I’d never seen Bill leave a table while it still had something edible on it.

At the Speaker’s request, I joined him and a few other political movers and shakers at his office after lunch. Sam Gibbons, the speaker, was clearly worried. “I think we all expected Bill Kraft to replace Bowen, as soon as we knew what Bowen had been up to. I know the folks back home in my district want him. Bowen’s treason upset them in a serious way. They feel Maine could go the way of the old USA if this sort of thing continues. They know Kraft and what he has done for us, and they trust him. If I have to tell them he won’t do it, they’ll really start to worry where we’re headed. They just won’t understand, and frankly, neither do I.”

“Have you ever visited Bill Kraft at home?” I asked.

“Nope,” Sam answered. “Bill doesn’t really like politics, or politicians, even ones who agree with him,” Sam explained. “He does like Marines. Have you been there?”

“I have,” I answered. “And I think I understand why Bill is afraid of the governorship. He lives a quiet, ordered life, a retro-life if you will. That’s his anchor, and it enables him to think creatively and boldly without becoming unstable. My guess is he fears the ‘celebrity’ life of a political leader would overturn that. He’s probably right. It’s not for nothing that “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen” is a sad song.”

“I can understand that,” Gibbons said. “We all feel it. I’m a lot happier back on my farm than here in Augusta. But in Bill’s case we have to get him by it. No one else can make the people of Maine confident in their leaders right now, after Bowen. What if we just put his name on the ballot, hold an election and let him win, which he would?”

“I seem to remember another popular military leader named Sherman who faced the same kind of political draft,” I said. “His answer was, ‘If nominated I will not run, and if elected I will not serve.’ I suspect we’d hear something similar from Bill Kraft.”

“Isn’t there some way we can order him to do it?” Gibbons asked.

“He only takes orders from the Kaiser,” joked one of the other politicos.

Bingo! As the light went on in my brain housing group, I could feel a big grin spreading over my face. Herr Oberst Kraft had played one on me by letting me go after the Deep Greeners without a full sheet of music. Now, it was payback time.

The others saw my idiot grin. “You got an idea?” Gibbons asked.

“I do,” I replied. “I think I can arrange for Bill to get an order from the Kaiser, or more precisely from the King of Prussia – they’re the same person.”

“Who is it?” asked another politico.

“The head of the House of Hohenzollern.”

“I didn’t think Germany had a Kaiser any more,” Sam said.

“Technically, it doesn’t,” I answered. “But technically, Prussia doesn’t exist any more either. I don’t doubt Bill’s Prussia is real, but its place is in his heart, not on the map. That Prussia has a king, and its king is the head of the House of Hohenzollern. If he orders Bill to accept the governorship of the state of Maine, he’ll do it. As a Prussian officer, he’ll have to.”

“How do we get to this king?” Sam asked.

“Through his ‘dear friend and cousin’ – that’s how the kings of Europe addressed each other, even when sending a declaration of war – the Tsar of Russia,” I said.

***

Following our little meeting, I walked a few blocks to the small wooden house that was the Imperial Russian Embassy and the residence of the Russian ambassador, Father Dimitri. In the front room that was his office, the samovar was bubbling beneath the double-headed eagle, and from the kitchen the ambassador brought out blini and a tin of caviar. “Thanks,” I said. “You know all we eat up here any more is fish. You wouldn’t have a nice beefsteak back there, would you?”

“Not on Friday,” Father Dimitri answered, laughing. “Besides, fish is good for you. Caviar especially. Health food. And it goes so well with vodka,” a large bottle of which adorned the silver tray bearing the imperial coat of arms. I helped myself to a generous glass.

I explained our problem to the good priest, and why we needed assistance from his sovereign. He knew first-hand what Bill Kraft had done for Maine and the Northern Confederation, and why we needed him to be governor. He also knew this would be the best joke ever played on the formidable Herr Oberst, and his eyes danced with laughter.

“I know His Imperial Majesty well enough that I can say he will assist in this,” Father Dimitri concluded. “Give me ten days, then check back with me to see where things stand. I would guess that Prince Michael, the rightful King of Prussia and German Kaiser, would be willing to oblige my Tsar in such a matter, but I cannot be certain.”

We left it at that, and I returned to my office and other business, principally the business of trying to control our borders. As bad off as we were in the N.C., others had it worse, which meant they wanted to move in with us. We couldn’t allow that. By the early 21st century, it was evident around the world that any place that got things working was immediately overwhelmed by a flood of people fleeing places that didn’t work. Unless it could dam the flood, it drowned. It was dragged down to the same level as the places where the refugees were coming from. We didn’t intend to let that happen to us.

About mid-afternoon on April 23rd, I was going over reports from New York militiamen of shootings of would-be illegal immigrants when the door of my office was flung open with a crash that nearly tore it from its hinges. Filling the doorway was Herr Oberst Kraft, in full dress Prussian uniform including Pickelhaube and flushed, beet-red face. (The old saying in Berlin was that there were two kinds of Prussian officers, the wasp-waisted and the bull-necked; Bill tended toward the latter.) “Do you know the meaning of this?” he bellowed, waving some documents in my face.

I quickly guessed I did, but my gut told me to be careful. It was always hard to tell whether Bill was genuinely angry about something or just keeping up his reputation. If he really was as mad as he looked, I might be in for a hiding. Bill Kraft was no athlete, and big as he was, as a Marine I knew I could take him if it came to that. But I also knew I could never do that to him. I owed him too much. If he really was going to pound me, I’d just have to sit there and get beat up.

Moi?” I replied. “Mais mon colonel . . .

“Cut the froggy-talk, you little worm,” he yelled. “How dare you cook up some forgery in the name of the King of Prussia! That’s lese majesté, you maggot, and the penalty for it is death! I ought to run you through with my saber just as you sit and let your pathetic soul dribble out all over your damned reports.”

“May I see the papers you’re holding?” I asked, beginning to understand the cause of his wrath. He thought we were making light of his All-Highest.

“Here,” he said, stuffing them into my face. “But you can drop the charade. I’m sure you wrote them. Who did you get to forge His Majesty’s signature and mail them from Germany?”

What he handed me was a letter from Prince Michael von Hohenzollern to Herr Oberst Kraft, on royal stationery, ordering him to accept the governorship of Maine if he were elected to it.

“I am certain this letter is genuine,” I said to the enraged Kraft. “Further, I believe I have a witness. Will you accept the word of the Russian ambassador?”

That brought Bill up short. His face began to show a different expression – less anger, and dawning wonder. “Is it possible His Majesty really has sent me orders?” he asked. “I’ve served him since I was a boy, but I never thought he knew I existed. How could this be?”

“Will you come with me to Father Dimitri’s?” I suggested.

“Yes, I guess,” Bill replied, cooling down but still wary. “You know, when I first received the envelope with the Black Eagle of Prussia on it, my heart almost stopped, not from fear but from hope. Then I realized it had to be some trick. If it is . . .” His face started to redden again.

“It isn’t,” I said, skirting dangerously close to the edge of the truth. “Let Father Dimitri explain.”

It took us about fifteen minutes to walk to the Russian embassy. Bill’s face was blank, his mind far away. The private world in which he had always lived was taking on a new reality, and it was both wonderful and terrible to him.

My own thoughts were penitent. In what I had conceived as a good joke, I had trespassed on the core of my friend and mentor’s being. It does not do to laugh and make merry before the Ark of the Covenant.

Father Dimitri received us with the inevitably generous Russian hospitality and a good priest’s sense that we were on perilous ground. Bill took a glass of tea but didn’t even look at the tempting zakushki placed before us. He handed the letter from Prince Michael to Father Dimitri. “Captain Rumford tells me you know something about this,” he said in a slow, flat voice that told me he was pulling hard on his own reins. “Is it genuine?”

Father Dimitri, who also spoke German, read it carefully. “Yes, it is genuine,” he replied. “I can confirm that in writing with St. Petersburg if you want me to, but there is no question about it. These are orders for you from your King.”

“How do you know?” Kraft asked the priest. My stomach was wadded up tight as a fist around a grenade with the pin pulled. If Bill took Father Dimitri’s answer the wrong way, my relationship with him might be shattered irreparably. If that happened, I knew I’d have no choice but to resign as Chief of the General Staff. I could not function without his guidance and support. I would also have lost a good friend.

“You may recall that on the day Governor Bowen was hanged, you were approached about the governorship, which you declined,” said Father Dimitri. “Your refusal concerned many of Maine’s leaders deeply. They felt that you alone could restore the people’s confidence in their leadership after Governor Bowen’s treason.”

“Later that day, one of them came to see me and asked my assistance. He did something that you may dislike, but that you must also admit is not improper in emergencies. He asked my help in contacting your superior – your King.”

Every language has one phrase that captures the essence of its speakers’ culture. For German, it is “Wer ist ihrer Vorstehener?” – Who is your superior?

“I communicated the situation here, and your central role in the creation of an independent Maine and the Northern Confederation, to my superior, His Imperial Majesty Tsar Alexander IV,” father Dimitri continued. “He expressly directed me, when he assigned me here as his ambassador, to take such actions as I believed necessary to uphold the independence of the Northern Confederation. In my dispatch, I told him I believed it necessary for you to be Maine’s next governor, if the Confederation were to endure.”

“You may remember, Herr Oberst, that our Tsar was once a soldier himself, a general in the Russian Army. He understands Auftragstaktik, that wonderful Prussian contribution to the art of war. He therefore trusts his subordinates – or replaces them. Trusting me, he laid my case before his fellow sovereign – by rights – the King of Prussia.”

“Prince Michael read my description of the situation here in Maine. He is a Christian prince. Desiring to support the effort to rebuild Christian civilization in North America, he sent you his order to accept the governorship if the people offer it to you. It was his decision, no one else’s. The order is genuine, it is from him to you – he knows who you are and what you have accomplished – and it expresses his wish.”

Bill Kraft sat unmoving, unblinking, almost as if in a trance, his eyes fixed a million miles away, or more than a century back. East Prussia, Allenstein perhaps, a clear day in early fall with a hint of the steppes in the east wind, his regiment drawn up on parade, himself on horseback in front. The Kaiser, Wilhelm II, stops his horse, smiles, commends the appearance of his men. Explains his intent for the coming maneuvers, gut, alles klar. Oh, and you’ll soon be coming back to Berlin – plans division, West, in the Grossgeneralstab.

Slowly, Bill came back to us. “Father Dimitri,” he began in a soft, almost inaudible voice, “I thank you for what you have done. It goes without saying that I will accept whatever orders my King gives me. But to me, what has happened here touches on much more than any order. I must know this letter is genuine. Forgive me, but I must ask if you are prepared to swear that what you have told me is true?”

The good priest’s Bible lay open on his desk, to the Psalm appointed for the day. Reverently, he took it, kissed it, closed it, and laid his right hand on it. “I swear, before God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, before the Blessed Virgin Mary, Blessed Michael and all angels, and Nicholas, Tsar and Martyr, that what I have told you is the truth.”

“Thank you,” Bill said quietly. Then he turned to me. “May I ask what your role was in this?”

It was time to face the music. “I was the one who asked Father Dimitri for his help in reaching Prince Michael. I’m the one who went over your head.”

“Thank you also,” he said. My stomach began to relax. I’d made it over the bar.

Bill took a couple deep breaths, as if coming up for air after a long dive into some hidden depth. Gradually, he was reconnecting with the world.

“May I not tempt you with some Sevruga?” asked Father Dimitri. I knew Bill was very fond of caviar, and this was the best.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t right now,” Bill replied. “I have eaten and drunk too deeply of other things this day. If you will excuse me, I need to be alone for a while.”

“Of course, we understand,” Father Dimitri replied kindly. “But before you go, I have something else for you.”

From his desk drawer he removed a small box, richly worked with gold, looking like a Faberge egg. “This came with today’s dispatches. Prince Michael sent it to my Sovereign, with a request that he send it on to you. The box is a small token of esteem from Tsar Alexander.”

Slowly, Bill moved to take the box. He stared at it for a long time. Then, almost reluctantly, he opened it.

Inside was the Pour le Merite – the Blue Max.

***

After Bill had gone and I had recovered with more than a few glasses of vodka, I looked seriously at Father Dimitri and said, “I don’t know what you’ve learned from this day, but I learned that I won’t be playing any more jokes on Herr Oberst Kraft.”

With a gentle smile, Father Dimitri replied, “You still don’t understand the Russian sense of humor.” favicon