October 6th, 1845
A warehouse in Bergen, Norway
The children were not, strictly speaking, forbidden from playing in the warehouse; but neither had they approached the master and got his august nod of permission. So when Geir heard men approach, he scuttled behind one of the paper-wrapped bales of whatever-it-was that had been unloaded the day before, made himself small, and settled down to wait for them to leave. It was probably just the master coming down to inspect his goods; he wouldn’t need more than a few minutes for his gloat, and then Geir could get back to capturing pirates.
He was surprised, then, to hear the voice of Tormod, the master’s butler: “Here it is – three tons of silk, finest kind, fresh from China. Maybe a hundred thousand, all told – most of the Randale capital, in fact; all in one place. Burn it, and Randale would be ruined, and so would his creditors.”
Geir blinked in shock. Burn the master’s goods, ruin him? He knew what happened in houses that went bankrupt: The servants were turned out, to find new positions or starve. Quite apart from what would happen to Geir’s father, Tormod couldn’t want that, could he? He’d be just as ruined as anyone – more so; it was harder for the higher servants to get new positions.
“That’s fine as far as it goes, Tormod.” Geir didn’t know the second voice, a gravelly bass. “Ruin an exploiter, send shock waves of bankruptcy through the upper classes, wake people up a bit. But it doesn’t do the poor any good, does it? We don’t want the silk burnt, we want the money spent on good causes.”
“Good causes like your fifteen girlfriends in the Four Lions?” a third voice sneered; a woman.
“They’re poor too,” the gravel voice came back, cheerfully unruffled. “But you have an exaggerated idea of my capabilities if you think I can spend a hundred thousand, or even just my share of it, on helping poor women.”
“Let’s not count our women before they – er, before we have the money for them,” Tormod put in. “Agreed that we don’t want the silk burnt. But we can’t steal it, either; three tons of the stuff! Not to mention the difficulty of fencing it.”
Geir’s eyes widened in indignation. He hadn’t grasped why anyone would want to burn valuable things, but stealing he understood. He just hadn’t expected it of Tormod – the same man who had given him an epic thrashing and a lecture on the Importance of Property for a mere three apples out of the master’s garden, calmly discussing taking all the master’s goods and putting him, Geir, out in the streets!
“Which is where you come in,” Gravel Voice agreed. “You say the buyers are arriving tomorrow night?”
“Some of them are here already, but yes, the major players won’t arrive until tomorrow.”
“And they’ll have what, an auction?”
“Right. What am I bid for lot one hundred seven, another half-hundredweight of finest Shanxi silk? Do I hear one thousand?” Tormod let his voice go high and drawling, in vicious imitation of the master; Geir had to suppress a laugh at the cleverness of the impression.
“They’ll have muscle, though, won’t they? And anyway nobody carries a thousand riksdaler around in their pockets.” The woman’s voice was quite pleasant when it wasn’t sneering, Geir noticed.
“That’s the clever bit,” Gravel Voice returned. “They’ll put it all in Randale’s strongroom for safekeeping – some in silver, most in bearer bonds.”
“Why won’t they just write out notes on the spot?”
“For a thousand riksdaler a pop? Even the merchant class don’t trust each other that much. It’ll be bearer bonds drawn on reputable banks, thank you kindly, none of your private notes.”
Geir didn’t understand the talk about bonds and notes, but silver was clear enough – silver was money, and they were plotting how to steal the master’s money and ruin him, and Geir. The situation was, come to think of it, rather like the romance Geir had borrowed from Johann the previous week, where the plucky young hero overheard the bandits planning to ambush the wealthy merchant’s carriage and abduct his daughter. In the book, the hero had revealed the plot and been rewarded with A Position; Geir sharpened his ears.
“So how do we get into the strongroom?” the woman asked.
“Well, pardon me,” Gravel Voice said. “I thought I was speaking to Banging Bertha, known far and wide for her skill with powder and locks.”
Geir stiffened; he knew the name. If Gravel Voice wasn’t joking, one of the most wanted criminals in the entire North Sea Empire was right here in the warehouse with him.
“Quite so, Gjest (*), but I do need to actually get to the locks, you know. And I prefer not to be interrupted by merchants while I work; they tend to make rude remarks about my tits, not to mention the Penal Laws, and hangings, and suchlike unpleasant things.”
Geir couldn’t restrain a start of surprise; if that ‘Gjest’ meant what he thought it did, then the most wanted criminal (**) in Norway was also in the warehouse – and making plans with boring old Tormod, a man Geir knew best for his uncompromising attitude on apples and suchlike trifles. Truly life was full of surprises.
“Tormod will be our inside man,” Gjest said. “So we’ve got him to let us in a back door and show us the strongroom, you to blow our way in, and me and a couple of boys I know to cart the loot and do any strong-arm work that’s needed.”
“And how do I know you and your boys won’t cart away all the loot, strong-arming me as necessary?”
“I give you my word, yes? All the world knows that Gjest Baardsen is a man of honour. If I wasn’t, who would bring me word of useful schemes like this? Come now, Bertha, you know this as well as I do. Thieves have honour or nobody brings them business, nobody helps them when they’re on the lam, nobody thinks twice about ratting them out. Pimply strong-arm men who roll drunken sailors for two shillings can work that way; not the likes of you and me.”
“True, but with a hundred thousand, you don’t need any more business; on such a sum you can retire to sunny Spain, where they don’t ask too many questions about where a man’s money comes from. You’ve always dealt fairly, but maybe you were just building up your reputation for this one big score, no?”
Gjest sighed gustily. “Well, you’re right; but I don’t see what guarantee I can give you. Shall I swear on my mother’s grave? Give you my silver watch for security? Cross my heart? Either you trust my word or you don’t. If not, well, we’ll call it off and let the exploiters get on with their truck and barter. So, are you in or out?”
There was a pause; at last Bertha said, “Oh, very well. You can only be hanged once, and I’ve got a price on my head already. I’m in.”
“Splendid. Then I’ll get my boys, you’ll get your powders and oils, and Tormod will go and do his last day of service to a rich man. We’ll meet here tomorrow night, an hour after sunset.”
(*): For the non-Norwegian speakers, ‘Gjest’ is pronounced ‘Yest’.
(**): Actually the reward for Bertha’s capture is higher than that for Gjest; but Gjest is better known – he’s the one with songs written about him. Like any woman in a male-dominated field, Bertha has to do twice the work to get half the recognition!
October 6th, 1845
Randale mansion, Bergen, Norway
Geir had counted slowly to a hundred, three times, before daring to move; and when he finally did stir out of his hiding place, it was in the creeping expectation that Tormod’s hard hand would any moment descend on his ear to capture him, as had happened in that memorable episode with the apples. But Gjest and Bertha, Geir thought, weren’t the kind to be satisfied with a mere thrashing and a lecture; so gooseflesh ran all up and down his body, and his spine froze at every tiny stirring as he made his way out of the dark warehouse. But nobody grabbed him; once outside he breathed more freely – they wouldn’t suspect him of overhearing if they saw him outside, would they? – and ran as fast as he could for the mansion house.
Once he got there, though, he slowed down; what, precisely, was he going to do? If he burst into the house babbling about Banging Bertha and, no less, Gjest Baardsen, both meeting in the warehouse – well, yes, if he hadn’t heard it himself he wouldn’t believe it either. He’d be sent to bed without supper for telling lies; or at best would have his hair ruffled and be told not to read so many penny-dreadfuls.
Then again, did he really need to save the master’s money? He couldn’t help but notice that the hero’s reward, in that book, had been a position – a job, in other words, involving presumably hard work. Not, for example, bags of jingling silver money, or even “bearer bonds”, whatever they were. Suppose he instead found Tormod and threatened to reveal the plot unless Tormod paid him – well, how much? Tormod wouldn’t have any money now; if he did he wouldn’t be a butler. And afterwards it would be too late, Tormod would be over the hills with his money and have no need to share with Geir. There was the honour among thieves that Gjest had talked about; but Geir didn’t feel like relying on it, and anyway Tormod wasn’t a thief, he was a dishonest servant. If he could have tried the blackmail trick on Gjest, the famous thief might have kept his word, supposing Geir stayed alive long enough to extract it; but Geir had no way of getting in touch with him.
No, it would have to be loyalty and information-leading-to; the question was how he could make anyone believe him. Perhaps if he left out the names of precisely who he had heard? Yes, he decided, that would work. Mention Gjest Baardsen and everyone would think he had been reading penny-dreadfuls again – well, he had, he admitted to himself; but that wasn’t the point – but if he just said he’d heard thieves plotting to break into the strongroom, that was another matter. The master was deathly afraid of thieves. Even if he didn’t believe Geir, he would put in extra guards just on the principle of the thing; and then Geir would be vindicated when the thieves were captured.
October 7th, 1845
Randale warehouse, Bergen, Norway
An hour after sunset
For a famous thief with a price on his head, Gjest seemed quite calm about being surrounded by armed men; the master, on the other hand, was practically dancing with glee. “We got him!” he kept shouting. “Gjest Baardsen himself!”
“It’s a fair cop, guv,” the thief acknowledged. Now that Geir could actually see the man, he was less formidable than his reputation, and his deep voice in the dark, had made him seem the night before; a quite ordinary man in late middle-age, with grey eyes set far apart and a low forehead. But his stoicism was impressive; he had never been convicted of murder and so might escape the noose, but he could surely expect to be in prison the rest of his life.
“But then, how long was Adam in Paradise?” he quoted, and Geir realised with a shock that no, actually Gjest expected to escape from wherever he was put. He’d done it before; was famous for it, in fact.
“A noose ought to hold,” the master shot back, referring to the line in the song asking what irons and bolts could restrain Gjest; but the threat was weak, and Gjest shrugged it off.
“I’ve done no murder, nor threatened any man, nor offered violence. If I weren’t wanted for theft you wouldn’t even have grounds to do more than run me off your property for trespass.”
The master’s lips drew back from his teeth, an alarming gesture. “Oddly enough, though, the reward for your capture is ‘alive or dead’. I think they make them that way to encourage people to surrender.” He weighed the pistol in his hand, consideringly; Geir was reminded that Randales didn’t sit about in their mansions all their lives counting money. In his youth the master had gone out on the ships himself, as his sons were doing now, and had fought real pirates, not make-believe ones.
“Sir,” one of the guards said, laying a restraining hand on the master’s arm, “that’s murder, and in cold blood at that. You’d hang. He’s not worth it.”
“It’s not murder if he’s trying to escape a lawful arrest,” the master shot back. He looked around, challengingly. “Two men’s witness is all it needs; you can all see him struggling and fighting, can’t you?”
Looking unconcerned, Gjest began whistling, and Geir realised he knew the words, he just hadn’t connected them to the living man in front of him: “Say what you will, and think what you can, and call him a thief and a highway man; this praise he shall have, for it’s rightly his due: He steals from the rich and he gives to the poor.” Suddenly Geir was uncertain; had he done the right thing, informing on Gjest? True, it meant his father’s position, but… perhaps Gjest would have given them some of the money?
The guards were refusing to meet the master’s gaze; they were happy enough to capture a thief, but apparently balked at conniving to murder one, at least when the thief was Gjest Baardsen. But Tormod, who had been looking increasingly green as he saw his life crashing down around him, suddenly burst out: “I’ll do it! He’s struggling and fighting, just as you say! And he threatened me, forced me at gunpoint, to let him in!”
Gjest raised his eyebrows, bemusedly; “That’ll teach me to trust a man in honest employment,” he remarked. The master, though, was grinning fiercely. “Aye, of course. You’ll still be dismissed without reference,” he noted, and Tormod nodded frantically, sealing the implicit bargain. A lie in court, in exchange for no charges being made; dismissal without reference was better than prison and disgrace.
“That’s one, then.” The master needed two witnesses that Gjest had been shot while trying to escape, rather than in cold blood; he looked around thoughtfully, searching for the second witness. His eye fell on Bertha, whom he had been ignoring to this point in his focus on Gjest. “What about you, sweet tits? What are you doing in this company, anyway? Bad girls get spanked, you know.” Then he looked more closely. “I say – ” he gestured for the lamp to be brought closer, and his eyes widened in recognition. “You’re Banging Bertha!” he exclaimed.
“Damn straight,” Bertha answered. “And I daresay I’m not too worried about spankings.” Geir understood what she meant: Unlike Gjest, she had been convicted of violent crimes and thus faced hanging, not imprisonment. He was beginning to feel a bit sick; he’d expected – he didn’t quite know what he had expected, but it wasn’t this calm talk of murder and hangings. He’d saved his father’s job, and the master’s capital, and there was likely a reward in his near future – but he felt sick, all the same.
“Well then, how would you like a petition for clemency?” the master asked.
Bertha looked thoughtful. “It’s a handsome offer,” she admitted. “If it works. I’ve rather a lot of deaths on my conscience, you know; even a consul’s plea for clemency might not be enough to save me from the Nordnes Tree – especially if there’s any suspicion of, hmm, shady dealings.” She straightened her shoulders, as much as she could with two burly men holding her. “No. I’ve killed by accident, and maybe it’s fair I hang for it. I’ve never killed on purpose; and I won’t start by ratting out a comrade to be shot in cold blood.”
“That’s fair dealing,” Gjest remarked. “I owe you one, if we both get out of this.”
“As you said,” she answered. “We’re neither of us two-shilling strong-arm men. Or murderers, either;” this last with a contemptuous toss of her head to indicate the master. Geir was confused; somehow the two thieves who had plotted to ruin half the gentry of Bergen, one of whom was wanted for gunpowder murder, had the moral high ground. After Bertha’s speech, Geir wasn’t at all surprised to see the two burly “boys” Gjest had brought shake their heads mutely when the master looked at them; presumably they weren’t wanted for anything in particular, and would get out of this with at most a fine for trespass.
At last the master’s eye came around to Geir, who stiffened under his regard. “What about you, boy? You’ve done well, helping me capture these thieves. The reward for them both is rightly yours. But I’ll double it if you witness that Gjest is trying to escape.”
Geir swallowed, trying to think. If he refused, would the master turn his father out into the street? That was what he’d been trying to avoid, throughout this Adventure – which he suddenly felt like spelling with a small ‘a’. “How big is the reward?” he temporised.
“For Gjest, twenty-five riksdaler; for Bertha, a full fifty, she being wanted for murder. Total, seventy-five riksdaler.”
“Um – what’s that in shillings?” Geir could actually do the arithmetic in his head, but there wasn’t any harm in looking a bit younger and naiver than he really was. The master smiled.
“Three thousand, six hundred shillings.”
Geir blinked; he had apparently done the arithmetic wrong, for he’d come out with one-tenth of that. His father’s wages were five shillings a week; three thousand six hundred would pay him for… confused, he couldn’t come up with anything better than “a very long time”. And the master was offering to double that?
“Th-that’s a lot of money,” he stuttered.
“Indeed it is,” the master said. “We’re agreed, then?”
The ‘yes’ trembled on Geir’s lips; but he looked at Bertha, who had just refused to save her own life at the price of a lie, and at Gjest, who had joked about helping the poor in a way that suggested that the song might be a bit inaccurate – and at Tormod, who would rat out a comrade to save himself from prison. Gjest was no comrade of Geir’s, in fact he was in some sense an enemy, having plotted to steal the capital that employed Geir’s father and throw them out in the street to starve. But Geir suddenly felt a deep distaste for Tormod, and for this shadowy dealing in false witness and murder. It occurred to him that no penny-dreadful hero would have agreed to lie in court, but that didn’t matter – his decision was made before the thought came to him, and had nothing to do with books. He wanted to be like Gjest, and not like Tormod; and so he said, low, “No, sir.” He swallowed, trying to come up with some justification for his flat refusal, and suddenly remembered a dusty Bible lesson. “Thou shalt not bear false witness. Sir.” He’d never thought religion was good for anything but church, before; but there it was, the explanation he’d been looking for.
“Nor covet thy neighbour’s goods,” the master replied; but it seemed Geir had reached him, for the tension in his shoulders eased. “But no, no, you’re right. We’ll give the law its chance; this isn’t the Gold Coast.” He glared at Gjest. “But make sure you tie that man up tight.”