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Authors: Laura Lebow

Sent to the Devil

BOOK: Sent to the Devil
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Peter Albrechts's patience was running out.

Like most military men of high rank, he could easily wait weeks for an enemy under siege to surrender, but had little forbearance when subordinates were ill-prepared, inefficient, or tardy.

Where was the damned man? It was past one o'clock. He should be home in his bed, not standing in the middle of a dark, deserted city square. Strict adherence to a routine was important for a warrior. He must stay fit for battle, in case the emperor should call on him to lead the troops once again. True, he had been retired for many years, but he was still more capable than that fool Lacy the emperor had put in charge.

He walked over to the monument in the center of the plaza. He'd always liked the bronze column, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, although he scoffed at the legend that claimed that she had aided Vienna in its war with Sweden a hundred years ago. Victory was achieved through discipline and good planning, not through prayer and superstition.

A slight rustle sounded from behind the stone plinth of the monument.

“Who's there?” he called.

There was no answer. He shrugged. Probably just the breeze. It had been warm that day, unusual for Vienna in April. He had heard that summer weather had arrived in Semlin already. The troops camped there had better invade Belgrade soon, or men would begin to die in the swampy conditions caused by the heavy spring rains.

He glanced down at the paper in his hand. He had no time for such nonsense. Once his correspondent showed himself, he would quickly learn that he had chosen the wrong man to threaten. One did not insinuate such things about a war hero. How dare the scoundrel sully the Albrechts name!

The breeze whispered from behind the plinth once more.

He had waited long enough. He shoved the page into his coat pocket and turned away from the monument.

There was a stirring behind him, and then his body was jerked backward. A heavy arm circled his neck.

“Good evening, General,” a voice hissed in his ear. “I knew you would come.”

“Who are you?” the old man cried as he struggled to pull the arm away. “What is the meaning of this?”

His assailant twisted him around and shoved him onto the low stone steps of the monument. “Are you ready?” he asked. As he leaned over the general, he pulled a small dagger from his coat pocket.

“Ready for what? Who are you? What is it you want—money?” He tried to push himself up, but his aged arms betrayed him, and he fell back. He stared up at the man's face. “You! What do you want with me?”

“You know what I want you to do,” the man hissed. He knelt, pushed the general's head against the cold stone, and brought the dagger to his wrinkled neck.

Rage surged through the old man's veins as the man continued to talk. Blood pounded in his ears, deafening him to the words
. How dare he! I am General Peter Albrechts!

“No!” He tried to shout, but his voice was merely a croak. “No! I will not!”

His assailant grunted. He pulled back his arm. The old man saw a blurred motion, and then pain seared his neck.

An owl hooted in the distance as blood spattered over the stone steps.

“I am dying!” he cried. But he could not hear his own voice, only a loud gurgling, and after a few moments, nothing.



A Solemn Oath



Monday, April 14, 1788

The second message was waiting on my desk when I arrived at my office.

The cheap paper had been hastily folded, sealed with a messy blob of wax, and its front scrawled with the words “Lorenzo Da Ponte, Court Theater.” I turned it over in my hands. There were no marks on the outside to show that the letter had traveled through the postal system, and no insignia pressed into the wax to identify the sender. I went to my cupboard, placed the note on a high shelf, returned to my desk, and pulled out the aria I had been writing. I had no time this morning for the game my mysterious correspondent insisted on playing.

I'd been working night and day for the last nine months. I am the poet of the Court Theater in Vienna, where I am responsible for editing all of the librettos—the texts—and coordinating the productions of operas performed there. I augment my salary by taking on commissions to write librettos myself, and last fall I had written three at the same time, one for each of the city's top composers. The opera I had written for my friend Wolfgang Mozart,
Don Giovanni,
had debuted in Prague six months ago, and had been a big hit there. There was no rest for us after our triumph, however, because soon after, Emperor Joseph II had ordered a performance of the opera here in Vienna. Mozart and I were busy adapting our work to the more sophisticated tastes of the imperial capital. And once
Don Giovanni
premiered in May, I had commissions for several more librettos. I was tired. Sometimes I wished that I'd been born a Viennese nobleman, instead of a leatherworker's son from the Veneto who had to work for a living.

But although I was overworked, I had to admit that I was happy with my life in Vienna. I loved my job, and had achieved professional recognition for my talents. I treasured my relationship with the emperor, who had supported me from the very first day he had appointed me to my post. I had a small circle of friends with whom I could discuss literature, art, and music. And lately, I had even returned to writing my own poetry, which was my first love.

When I had edited the aria to my satisfaction, I put it into my satchel. My stomach grumbled as I pulled my watch from my waistcoat pocket. Half past one already! I had an appointment for dinner at two. I closed my satchel and went to the cupboard, where I pulled on my cloak. My eyes went to the high shelf. I sighed, grabbed the message and shoved it into my cloak pocket.

*   *   *

Outside in the Michaelerplatz—the gateway to the Hofburg, the large complex of buildings that housed the imperial government and the emperor's personal apartments—small groups of newly inducted soldiers in crisp, shiny uniforms stood under the leaden sky laughing and teasing one another, their smooth faces flushed with excitement. In the Kohlmarkt, I stopped and peeled off my cloak. The spring weather had been unseasonably balmy for a week now.

At the end of the Kohlmarkt, a small crowd had gathered to watch two laborers bang a large board over the entrance of one of the city's most popular print shops. A large painted sign indicated that it had been closed by the Ministry of Police. The once-free presses of Vienna must now be cautious about what they printed, or suffer the fate of this one. I hurried by. I had had my own encounter with the Ministry of Police two years before, and now tried to avoid trouble whenever possible.

I turned into the Graben. As late as last autumn, the large plaza had been the place to see and be seen for Viennese society, but as the snows of winter melted and the emperor and his troops marched off to war, the large expanse had lost its frivolous air. Instead of promenading down the plaza and stopping to chat with friends, people now hurried to their destinations, greeting one another with nothing but a quick nod.

“We are the aggressors in this war, not the Turks!” Ahead of me, a young man stood on an upended crate at the base of the elaborate plague column that dominated the middle of the Graben. A few shoppers and workmen were gathered around one side of the monument's enormous plinth, which was decorated with sculptures symbolizing the triumph of faith over disease. I stopped at the back of the group, nodding at a square-jawed man in his early thirties who leaned on an ornate stick next to me.

“Our ally Russia is to blame!” the young man shouted. His features were handsome, but his long hair was tangled and his beard unkempt. He wore a threadbare coat over breeches that were torn at both knees.

“That's nonsense!”

I started as the man next to me called to the protester.

“Read the papers. The Turks have been stocking arms since the Crimean crisis. They are stirring up the peoples in the Caucasus against Russia.”

“The Turks are just trying to defend themselves, sir,” the orator replied. “Russia provoked them. The emperor was a fool to sign a treaty with—”

My neighbor snorted. “The Turks declared war first!” he shouted. “You are the fool! How can you believe they are an innocent party?”

A group of market women had stopped to watch the argument.

“They had to declare war. They had to defend themselves before Russia's army grouped along their borders—”

“If the Turks are just defending themselves, as you say, why did they refuse offers by France and Britain to mediate their dispute with Russia?” my neighbor asked.

The war protester turned to the newcomers in the crowd. “Friends, you look like solid citizens of the empire. Do you want your fathers, your sons, your brothers to give their lives for Catherine of Russia's expansionist policies?”

“No!” a middle-aged woman holding the hand of a young child shouted.

The man left my side and, using his stick for aid, pushed his way to the front of the crowd. His twisted right leg dragged behind him. “Russia is not our enemy,” he shouted at the orator. “You are young and naïve. We need Catherine's help in keeping the Prussians away from our own borders!”

Two constables approached the assembly. “Everyone move along,” one shouted. The market women turned away.

“We should also have France as an ally against Prussia.” The orator looked down at the crippled man. “The French carry on a large trade with the Turks. By declaring war against the Ottoman Empire, Joseph has alienated the French.”

As the constables continued to press, the group broke up. I lingered as the angry man moved close to the orator's box. The protester shouted to the backs of the dispersing crowd. “Think of the lives lost already! Our men sitting in that swamp in Semlin waiting for the Russians to distract the Turks in Galicia before we can invade their garrison in Belgrade. How many of our boys will die of disease as the weather gets hotter?”

BOOK: Sent to the Devil
7.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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