May 8th, 1856
A garret in Copenhagen, Norway
“Are you coming to the speech?”
Geir looked up from the passage he’d been laboriously translating with some relief. The Greek was straightforward, but the convoluted Aramaic stubbornly refused to match it – either he, or the man who’d written the Greek passage, was making a fundamental mistake somewhere. He was glad, therefore, to see his room-mate Johann; he was an indifferent student, but could be relied upon for interesting distractions.
“Eh, why not?” he said, flinging the text down and stretching out the knots in his back. “I decline to decline any further Aramaic verbs until I’ve had the chance to decline some beers, which chance I shall decline. Who is speeching?”
“What do you care? All you want is to get away from the Aramaic.”
“True,” Geir conceded, “but if it’s some idiot from the Kristelig Folkeunion I might stretch the week’s budget as far as a couple of rotten eggs.” Opposition to the party of the aristocrats had been, to a good first approximation, Geir’s only strong political opinion, ever since their leader had suggested raising the tuition at the University “to keep the riff-raff out”. As one of the riff-raff, and one who had to live (and pay tuition, and books, and beer…) off a fixed sum until he graduated – no wealthy parents to bail him out, if he overspent – Geir had not been pleased.
“No, no, quite the opposite,” Johann assured him. “It’s Baardsen – you know, the famous writer.”
“Gjest Baardsen?” Geir stopped looking for his left shoe to stare at Johann. “I thought he was in jail!” An old uncertainty twinged. His actions that night had probably been right; but they had also led to a hanging and two imprisonments, of people Geir had, actually, come to admire a little on less than an hour’s acquaintance. The hypothetical bankruptcies that had been avoided seemed, somehow, not as weighty, even though they would have been far more numerous; things that hadn’t happened couldn’t quite match definite events. In any case it wasn’t as though his ten-year-old self had had any real understanding of the ethics; he’d acted from a desire to protect his father and himself, and from a surfeit of trashy novels. Reasonable enough, in a child; but that was why he was here, studying religion and law and philosophy, so he could avoid making a choice on such a basis again, and perhaps put his mind at rest over what he’d done.
“He was, but they let him out in the general amnesty when the Crumpet was born.” That was student slang for His Royal Highness, Olav MacRaghnall, more formally titled the Crown Prince.
“Oh? Good.” The man had still been in jail for – Geir calculated quickly – a bit over eight years; but at least he wouldn’t die imprisoned. It eased his doubt slightly. He found the left shoe behind the water bucket, and they went down the rickety stairs.
“You agree with him, then?” Johann asked. Geir thought carefully before answering. His reaction hadn’t had anything to do with politics, but confessing to a personal sympathy for the notorious agitator and rabble-rouser wasn’t likely to do his academic standing any good either – in fact, that was the kind of thing that got students from non-wealthy backgrounds expelled on any grounds that were convenient. Not that Johann was likely to rat him out, but… he chuckled awkwardly.
“Honestly, I have no idea! Never read the man.” An outright lie; in fact he had memorised every pamphlet and devoured both the books, searching for clues on what he should have done that night. “But I hate to see people in jail. Chop their heads off and be done, I say.”
“A great saving in food,” Johann agreed.
They had reached the main quadrangle of the university; the garret they shared was cheap because it had been shakily added to an existing building and the wind whistled through the gaps where the landlord had saved on timber, not because of its location. The quad was already full of people; students in dark suits, but also a crowd of men in cheap Russian wool, wearing knitted hats instead of the academics’ flat bonnets. There were, Geir noted with some concern, bottles going around and a marked lack of women and children; he took prudent note of the exits, in case things turned violent. They were, unfortunately, rather narrow; space was at a premium in Copenhagen. In many places the upper-floor apartments hung out over the streets, making tunnels rather than canyons.
A barking cheer announced that things were about to get started; men were climbing the central stage that overlooked the quadrangle, originally intended for the lecturer, back when the University had met in the open and consisted of a man reading slowly from a book so that the scholars could make their own copies, and become learned men by possessing written knowledge. Now it was used by senior faculty to address the students on holidays, and for political speeches.
Prison had not been kind to the famous thief. When Geir had last seen him he’d been a man in late-but-vigorous middle age, with dark hair and still quite capable of doing his own strong-arm work. The orator taking the stage now was unambiguously old, with white hair and the careful movements of a man with little strength left over for anything but the minimum required motions. Mr Randale had brought a dozen brawny warehouse workers to subdue him; as he was now, ten-year-old Geir might have sufficed. But his voice was still surprisingly powerful, the same deep gravelly bass that Geir remembered, booming out now incongruously from the sunken chest and easily making itself heard all over the quadrangle.
“When I was young,” he began, “I thought that helping the poor could be done by taking from the rich; and so I defied the law and the church, and gave away what I had stolen, and it’s true, there are men alive now who would have starved if not for bread that they bought with money Gjest Baardsen stole. But when the bread was eaten, what then? The silver I took with risk to life and limb trickled, by devious paths, back to the men I’d robbed: For who else owned the farm that grew the grain that made the bread that fed the child for whom I stole? And although I was the best thief in Christendie, still I could not steal a farm; to do so you need armies, or lawyers.”
There was an angry growl of agreement; some of these men had perhaps been turned out of their yearly tenantcies when sheep became more profitable, or seen it happen to their fathers. The Americas remained hungry for labour, but not everyone could muster the price of passage or the desire to spend years hacking farms out of raw forest; the poor districts of Copenhagen, and every other city in Norway, teemed with such men, working perhaps one day in three and drinking the other two.
“In prison I had time to think, and here is what I thought: There is enough bread in Norway today to feed every child; there is no need that anyone should go hungry. Why, then, does it take a thief to get the bread out of the warehouses and into empty bellies, where it rightly belongs? Only because some men have more than they need, more even than they can stuff into gaping, open gullets and bellies swollen with years of overeating. They gave me the name of thief, and I bear it proudly; but the real thieves are the ones who keep bread they cannot eat, and won’t let others near it, for love of silver. Let me be a thief, then! But let me do it properly, this time: Not with lawyers, but with an army: Workers and peasants, the largest armies on this Earth! I’ll steal no more silver, no more bread, no more goods at retail. Only wholesale theft for me: Farms and factories, ships and white sails, gold mines and green forests! Take from the rich, yes, and give to the poor; but not bread. Take the means of production from the few rich thieves that own them, and give those to the poor; and then who will be poor after that, when every man owns what he needs to make his living?”
Some of the students, who were there mainly for entertainment, took Gjest’s pause for breath as their cue to jeer and throw things; the working men, on the other hand, filled the space with cheers of agreement, and some of them turned around to glare menacingly at the jeerers. Geir could see a brawl developing, and began to think about a strategic retreat; genteel fisticuffs with the scions of the aristocracy after the bars had closed was one thing, but dock workers tended to fight rough and to take pleasure in kicking men who were down.
His thoughts were interrupted, however, by a tramp of boots; turning, he saw with a sinking sensation that the street he’d come out of had been closed by a company of soldiers, fixed bayonets glittering against the backdrop of black uniforms. An officer came out to stand in front of his men, and read from a sheet of paper in a loud command voice:
“Our Sovereign Lord the King charges and commands all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King Eirik, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!”
He was, Geir realised with a chill, literally reading the crowd the Riot Act; and although the Act technically provided that the people thus addressed had an hour to disperse before deadly force was authorised, the bayonets and the tense eagerness of the soldiers suggested that they were expecting to fight – often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worse, more soldiers were blocking other exits, making it impossible for thousands of men to disperse; and one group was making their way towards the stage, presumably to arrest the speaker.
“We’d best get out of here,” Johann hissed, tugging on Geir’s sleeve.
“You don’t say?” Geir returned, looking around frantically for a way out. Then it occurred to him that there was a man nearby with vast experience of this sort of thing, and he returned his attention to the podium. Indeed, Gjest was being supported down the stairs by two of his brawny followers, moving much more rapidly now.
“We’ll follow them,” Geir said, pointing; “they’ll have a plan.” He started forward, Johann on his heels.
It was hard to move quickly through the crowd, which was milling around uncertainly, unsure of where to go and of what was going on. Not many workers had the education to recognise the Riot Act or to catch the meaning of a phrase like “peaceably to depart to their habitations”, said in the open air over the mutter of a crowd; and many of them were drunk. The mood of the crowd was uglier by the minute; Geir was beginning to understand why students who’d lived in Copenhagen all their lives spoke with such respect of its mob. He’d always thought that a mob was just a bunch of people, a synonym for ‘crowd’ or ‘band’; now he was in the middle of a crowd that was becoming a mob, and understood the difference.
Geir had just reached the stage when the first paving stone flew; it struck a soldier on the head with an authoritative thump, and the incipient mob crystallised. “Land and Bread!” someone shouted, and immediately it was on hundreds of lips; knives came out of boots and belts, and more stones were ripped out of the pavement. The soldiers who’d been trying to reach the stage disappeared in a shower of missiles and then bodies, arms rising and falling rhythmically; the screams of pain and iron scent of blood threw the mob into a frenzy, and they began to surge towards the exits.
Words of command sounded, and then rifle volleys, like knitting needles in Geir’s ears. His mouth was dry with terror; once it had come to shots fired, the army would not make fine distinctions – they would keep firing until nothing moved in the quadrangle, or until the mob overran them. Where had Gjest got to? There – they’d gone through that door, still swinging on its hinges. He ran for it, aware that he was being followed; other students, presumably, as eager to get out of this killing field as he was.
He got through the door with a gasp of relief, then stopped short: The knife wasn’t quite literally at his throat, but it was pointed that way, and the man holding it looked like he’d used it before. “Not so fast, there,” he said. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Anywhere that doesn’t have soldiers shooting at me,” Geir said honestly.
“Good for you; but this is our bolt-hole. You lot can find your own. Shoo!” The man, a huge red-bearded fellow who spoke in a singsong northern dialect, gestured meaningfully with the knife. In ordinary circumstances it would have intimidated Geir into submission; but compared to rifles – grapeshot too, to judge by the deep booming sounds that could only be cannon – and thousands of angry men, even a knife that verged on sword size wasn’t so much of a much. Besides, Geir had comrades behind him, and the northerner was alone.
“If it has only this exit it’s not much use for escape, is it? How about you go through, then we go through, and nobody bothers anyone else? You shoo.” Geir wished for a knife, even a tiny one, to make threatening gestures with, but had to settle for balling his hands into fists. Johann came up beside him, and he had – of course – a bottle of beer, which he was holding by the neck, ready to smash it to make a nasty weapon.
“We’re trying, dammit,” the man said.
“Well, what’s the problem? Move along!”
“We can’t! It’s Gjest – he’s sick, he can’t breathe!” Geir felt a sudden abrupt change in his sympathies at the anguish in the man’s voice. A moment ago he’d been ready to trample an obstacle in his rush to escape; now he saw a man worried about his leader and doing the only thing he could for him.
“All right, look – I’ve studied anatomy.” Well, he’d certainly bought the textbook, anyway, and he’d looked quite intently at some of the drawings too, although presumably Gjest didn’t have those particular parts. “Let me have a look at Gjest, I’ll see what I can do for him, meanwhile these friends of mine will go through quietly, all right?”
“You’re a doctor?” The look of sudden hope on the man’s face made guilt well up in Geir; but it was life and death, and no time for scruples.
“Studying to be one,” he said, not quite honestly. He had not yet decided to quit after his lower degree, so it was quite possible that he’d get his doctorate in a few years; and if the man chose to interpret that as doctor of medicine rather than philosophy, well, Geir hadn’t told him any outright lies.
“All right, come in – the exit’s through there – go quiet, now,” the man said, putting the knife back in its sheath. The other students began filing through the hallway; Geir followed the northerner to where Gjest lay on a table, his shirt open, gasping for breath and holding his chest as if trying to keep his heart from escaping. It was an anatomical theatre, Geir realised with a chill, and the table was for dissections. He hoped it wasn’t an omen.
“All right, give me some room,” he said, affecting confidence; sweet sod-all he knew about medicine, but if the keyed-up men surrounding Gjest realised he was bluffing them, there was no telling what they’d do. He’d have to put on his best game face and maintain the bluff until he could get out.
“So, difficulty breathing, chest pain,” he said, listing what was obvious to anyone; but Gjest nodded as if he’d said something sensible, and there was a slight relaxation in the room. Clearly he didn’t have to be very convincing; these people were desperate for a doctor, any kind of doctor. He could probably count Gjest’s teeth and bleed him to let the excess humours out without anyone raising an eyebrow. He rubbed his chin. “Ordinarily I would prescribe rest, darkness, and quiet. That is perhaps not very practical.”
“Don’t think so,” Gjest gasped out. “Guess I’ve given my last speech, eh?”
“I – well, that’s possible, yes,” Geir had to agree. “But let’s not give up quite yet. A dram of whiskey sometimes has a calming effect on the heart. Does anyone have any?” For all he knew a dram was deadly poison to Gjest, but it sounded good, and that was all he needed. A bottle of whiskey came out of someone’s pocket, and Gjest took a long draught; it might have helped a bit, for the set of his shoulders relaxed slightly.
“Feels a little better,” he said, and his followers – there were five of them, four men and a woman – all looked at Geir as though he’d worked a miracle.
With his authority thus established, Geir could afford to admit some ignorance; he didn’t want their hopes so high that they’d kill him if Gjest died.
“I’m afraid that’s all that can be done right now. Don’t get up!” he added hastily. “Rest and quiet, that’s what you need. Which the army is quite unlikely to give you. But if you lie back, and you and you” – he pointed to the two brawniest followers – “break the legs off the table and pass them under it, like so, we’ll have a passable stretcher and we can get out of here without straining your heart.”
“Clever, lad.” Gjest managed a chuckle while his followers scrambled to do as Geir said; they had perhaps been rather panicked, or they’d surely have thought of it themselves. “Why are you helping us, though? You’re – ah, shit that hurts – on the other side, aren’t you?”
Geir looked aside. “I wasn’t born to money,” he said quietly. “And, well, I did you a bad turn once. Maybe I can make up for it a little.”
“Really? You look a bit young to have done anything, good or bad, before I was in jail.”
Geir flushed. They said confession was good for the soul; and who knew, perhaps Gjest would forgive him – he hadn’t known what he did.
“The night you were arrested – I was there,” he said, and Gjest interrupted.
“You’re the boy who wouldn’t bear false witness!”
“I suppose I am,” Geir said, surprised.
“Well then, you saved my life; and you might have got seventy-five riksdaler for it, too.”
“I – yes, I suppose you could say that.” Geir hadn’t really thought of it like that; it was the warning he’d given Mr Randale, about the thieves meeting in his warehouse, that had occupied his obsessing over the crucial event of his young life. “But I’m the one who ratted on you!” Oops, he could have put that better.
“Oh – that’s how he knew,” Gjest said. “I thought Tormod – well, never mind, what he got he had coming to him anyway. I can’t say I’m happy about it, but fair’s fair, I was there to steal. And anyway you were what, twelve?”
“Ten,” Geir admitted.
“Well. The great Gjest Baardsen, brought down by a boy of ten playing in a warehouse – I suppose that’s how you found out? I don’t know what I was thinking, meeting actually on my victim’s property. Getting sloppy, getting slow, getting old. Someone else would have gotten me, if you hadn’t.” He gasped, clutching his chest tighter. “Oh, God. No disrespect to your doctoring, lad, but I think it’s a priest I need most now.”
“I – I know where to find one,” Geir said. They weren’t far from the university chapel. There was a tightness in his throat.
“Then lead us there, if you would.” He looked at his followers. “And you’ll drop me off and run, and not argue; I don’t think I need to worry about jail now, but I’d as soon not see anyone else lose years of their lives. And besides, you’re needed to carry on the work.” He held their gazes, one by one, until they’d all nodded assent.
“As for you, lad – what’s your name, anyway?”
“Geir. Geir Randall.”
“Spear, in the old speech; and the surname means you’re related to the kings.” Gjest was wandering, now; but he brought himself back with a start. “I’m dying, I think. So listen carefully. I’ve got two things to say. First thing. Don’t forget where you’re from. The money you got for me and Bertha was luck, and I see you’re using it wisely. But don’t forget what your life would have been without it.” Geir nodded; his throat had closed, leaving him unable to speak. “Second thing. We’re even. Every man’s hand is raised against a thief, and I don’t hold a grudge for that. But you could have got rich by killing me, and you didn’t. You don’t owe me anything, hear?”
“Thank you,” Geir whispered; something in his head, that had been tightly wound for ten years, relaxed at last.
They’d reached the chapel, and the duty priest came running out, carrying the oil and the Eucharist. He asked no questions, but knelt by Gjest’s side where his followers had put him down, and daubed his forehead with the oil, rapidly reciting the blessing for the sick, to Gjest’s groaned amens.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Gjest ground out, each word seeming to cost him a great effort. His voice fell to a whisper, and Geir heard no more of what passed, until at last the priest stood up.
“May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life,” he said. The tears finally flowed from Geir’s eyes.