Ostbrück, by Robert Wexelblatt.
Only two weeks after the old Count died leaving no heir, his only son having been killed in the war that placed Friedrich-Wolfgang in the Electorship, armed men from the adjacent baronies of Dalhausen and Metz-Hagenau invaded Ostbrück. They tore up fields, plundered four villages, killed a score of peasants and raped a dozen women before skirmishing with each other outside the walled market town of Benehmen. After this indecisive engagement both detachments withdrew over the frontiers. The two barons, each intent on annexing Ostbrück and denying it to his rival, at once set about raising more troops and preparing for full-scale war.
Three days later, the Count’s widow, accompanied by a delegation of Ostbrück’s leading merchants, traveled to the Elector’s palace to plead for his intervention. The Elector welcomed them courteously, found them accommodations, ordered a feast and seated the Countess on his right. He liked the look and the manners of the merchants and would very much have relished conversing with them; however, he thought it to their credit when they bowed and said the good lady Countess would speak for them. Friedrich-Wolfgang was drawn to merchants, notwithstanding their low birth. Ostbrück, virtually a city-state far smaller than its neighbors, had made itself into a mercantile center. The Elector had esteemed the old Count who encouraged these developments and, like him, found men of business clever and curious, both well traveled and well read. The truth was that he preferred the company of a glove-maker or dealer in spices to men like the barons who had designs on Ostbrück.
The Elector attended to all the Countess had to say on behalf of her people who, according to her, were about to be plucked clean by the two arrogant barons, both of whom had long cast a covetous eye on Ostbrück. “They were just waiting for my husband to die,” she said, then added pointedly, “knowing he had no heir.”
The Elector felt distressed. He had no affection for the Barons Dalhausen and Metz-Hagenau, and little respect for them. Though one was scarcely thirty and the other nearer sixty than fifty, they were much alike: haughty, reactionary, petty, egotistical, greedy, hedonistic, brutal, and not excessively encumbered by intelligence—in short, typical of the nobility. During the struggle over the Electorship both had remained neutral not out of cowardice, still less conviction, but simply because each was waiting for the other to declare himself in order to take the opposing side.
The Elector would have liked to protect Ostbrück but did not see how. He explained to the Countess that her plea had moved him and he would dearly like to assist her and her industrious and worthy people. However, his personal vassals had been decimated by the war and he found himself dependent on the nobles for troops and money. In fact, he found himself little more than a figurehead with more responsibility than power. The latter came from ownership of acres and the land was in the hands of the barons and dukes, many of whom, he pointed out, had recently been his enemies.
The Countess’ reply was blunt. “That’s politics,” she said. “My appeal is to honor.”
Red-faced, Friedrich said he would do what he could, and ended the banquet by rising from the table.
The Elector was not fond of his wife, their marriage having been the work of an ambitious father when Friedrich-Wolfgang was only fourteen. Margaret did not much care for her husband either, but she was enthralled with his new position and her title of Electress. At dinner Friedrich had observed with disgust that she made no effort to keep up with the lively talk of the merchants but looked down her nose at them, dropping names and titles like rose petals to strew her own path. “When I last stayed with the Duke of Thuringia. . . The Emperor himself confided to me that . . . the Bohemian queen is not half as beautiful as people say. . .”
The woman Friedrich loved was named Franziska; he had installed her in a modest mansion a half hour’s walk from the palace. There was no secret about their relationship but, he felt, propriety required that half-hour.
Unlike Margaret, who was at once snobbish and bovine, Franziska was passionate, beautiful and had more brains than his wife and all her ladies-in-waiting put together. Such a high regard did the Elector have for his mistress that he would often seek her advice, which was always sound and delivered in her own style.
When Franziska was fourteen, the same age as the Elector when his father married him off, a squadron of mounted knights murdered her father, a horse dealer, raped her and carried her off, leaving the family homestead in flames. Seeing that his lord admired her exceptional beauty, the captain of these knights sold her to him for some fifty acres of barley and wood land. This lord soon wearied of using a woman who would not give her consent, and so made a present of her to the Duke of Mainz. She lived as a miserable ornament of the Mainz court for two years until the visit of the newly installed Elector. Friedrich did not look at her as these other nobles did. He sought her out and talked with her almost as an equal, and as a man who is not happy. Franziska believed she had steeled her heart in hatred of the high and mighty and was astonished to find herself falling in love with the Elector. As for Friedrich, he was wholly enchanted. Matters were soon arranged with the Duke, helped along by a timely reminder from the Elector that Mainz had been less than whole-hearted in support of his cause when it counted most.
Franziska knew that her hatred of the nobility found some echo in the Elector. How else could she have loved him? When he came to her that evening, weighed down by his problem with Ostbrück, her far-seeing mind glimpsed an immense prospect, a vast landscape illuminated as if by a lightning flash. Her heart beat as fast as it had when Friedrich had first taken her in his arms.
“Have you ever seen two boys who’ve found some silver?” she asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“Say they’re lucky enough to discover a fallen purse.”
“They’d fight over it.”
“I think they would. Now say that instead of two boys there are three.”
“Would they fight over it too?”
“Perhaps, but would you say it was more or less likely?”
“Then three may share what two will fight over?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
Franziska drew the Elector toward her wide bed.
“How many barons want to seize Ostbrück?”
“Dalhausen and Metz-Hagenau.”
“And, in your opinion these two would fight, even if you were to negotiate a fair division of Ostbrück between them?”
“Undoubtedly. I know the men only too well.”
“What if you gave all of the land to one of them?”
“That would be still worse. The other would be bitter. I’d make an enemy of him; there would be war anyway, and my authority would be undermined.”
“It’s certainly a dilemma. And what if there were a third?”
“They still might fight. Besides, the Ostbrückers aren’t longing to be oppressed, on top of which there is no third claimant.”
“One can’t be found?”
“Well, suppose this third were more powerful than either of the two barons, stronger even than both of them banded together. What then?”
“Slicing the place into thirds would still cost the people the advantages of their independence. Thanks to the old count, Ostbrück is an oasis of trade in an ocean of rye and beets. I fear that won’t remain so if they’re devoured, whether there should be two diners or three.”
“Yes, I see that. But what if you were to put conditions on the division of Ostbrück?”
“Conditions that not only ensured the survival of Ostbrück’s trade but caused it to flourish. What if the nobles could be made to see a benefit to themselves in promoting trade instead of frustrating it, as they do now?”
“Take down the tollgates, you mean?”
“I think that would be a good start, My Lord, don’t you?”
Franziska lay down on the bed.
“Wait,” said the Elector, “those two boys who are joined by a third.”
“They’ll be angry at not getting all the silver for themselves.”
“Disappointed, yes, but neither would be embittered. Isn’t one handful of silver better than a knife in the gut and no silver at all?”
The Elector considered all this while Franziska began to undress. Pulling her chemise over her head, she asked, “If there were a third, would it be better for Ostbrück if he were nearby or far off?”
“If he were nearby and as powerful as you say, he’d be sure to go to war.”
“Then let him be far off. Do you think such a great noble might be capable of seeing that what he can collect in taxes on trade will greatly exceed what he could get from tolls and tariffs, from turnips and oats?”
“Possibly. But what of poor Ostbrück?”
“My Lord, let’s suppose that three tall men armed with quarterstaffs attack a short one, but the short one is a trained and armored knight on a warhorse. Who would win, the three tall or the one short man?”
The Elector stroked his beard and admired Franziska as she lay back on the bed.
“I think I see.”
Franziska drew herself up, pressed her breasts against the Elector’s chest, and gave him a warm kiss. In his ear she whispered, “I haven’t studied maps but I believe Franconia is leagues and leagues away from Ostbrück, isn’t it?”
“The Franconian duke is rich and powerful. And he would be grateful.”
“To you. Yes.”
Franziska lay back on the feather bed and fetchingly bent one leg.
“Tell me, Your Highness, why is it that the Elector is at once so high and yet so weak?”
“Because of the nobles, who own the land.”
“Yet you admitted there’s more wealth to be had from trade than land, no?”
“Well then, suppose trade begins to flourish. Who then will have the most wealth?”
“And will these merchants want tolls every two leagues, new weights and measures every five, roads infested with robbers, no navy to protect their argosies?” She put her hands on either side of the Elector’s head and gently drew him to her. “Will they endure being lorded over by petty earls and Junkers? What do you think, will they desire a powerful government or a weak one?”
“They would need a strong one, of course, much stronger than mine.”
Franziska rubbed Friedrich’s temples. “Tell me, as Elector, what is it you have and what you lack?”
“I have authority but no money”
“And these merchants, if they flourish?”
Friedrich laughed at her cleverness and the curious way she had of showing it. “They would have money but no authority.”
Franziska smiled slyly. “With whom, then, would such men naturally ally themselves, and against whom?”
When the Elector left her at dawn, Franziska gave herself up to imagining the future she hoped she had set in motion. It would take far longer than her lifetime to come to pass, yet she could see it plainly, how for a time Ostbrück would appear to have been betrayed, how the Elector would be cursed for its dismemberment. But if Friedrich did as she advised then Ostbrück would prosper and therefore be emulated. She had seen the way to her revenge at last, how in the end Ostbrück’s triumph would bring about the destruction of the nobility.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women (KenArnoldBooks, 2008), which was awarded first place in General Fiction/Novel and also the First Grand Prize for Fiction by the Indie Book Awards. Next year he will publish a new collection of short stories, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, also from KenArnoldBooks.
Wexelblatt's story The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik appeared in Offcourse Issue #33, Summer 2008.
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