"Monsieur L'Admiral et Madame Simpson!" cried out the majordomo, in a tone of voice which somehow managed to be stentorian without actually bellowing hoarsely. As he passed by the man into the huge and crowded ballroom beyond, maintaining a stiff and stately progress with his wife's hand tucked under his arm, John Simpson found himself possessed by a sudden and well-nigh irresistible urge to have the man impressed on the spot and shanghaied into the United States Navy. One of the many discoveries Simpson had made concerning naval service in the 17th century was that—in a navy without powered phones—a petty officer with leather lungs and a carrying voice was worth his weight in gold.
The notion, he realized dimly, was a reflection of his own nervousness. Simpson hated being nervous, and handled it with such a rigid external pose that the mind beneath was sometimes prone to mad flights of fancy. He could remember entering a stockholders meeting once, followed by the top officers of his corporation, to give a very pessimistic report. Entering the room and seeing the angry and gloomy faces of the stockholders, he'd had to choke down a sudden impulse to turn around, draw his gold-plated pen, and order the vice-president in charge of marketing to commit seppuku with it on the spot.
But . . . he hadn't. He'd given the report, and weathered the storm which followed, with his usual wooden expression. The same expression had been on his face the next day, when he'd fired the incompetent jerk.
A little tug on his arm distracted him from the memory. "Why are they announcing us in French?" Mary whispered. "I didn't think that had become the language of the courts until Louis XIV came along."
Simpson shrugged. "No idea." He listened to the babble of conversation filling the room. "Most people seem to be talking in German. Of some sort or another. I think. Hard to tell, as many dialects—"
"Monsieur L'Admiral! Et Madame Simpson! Enchanté!"
A very pretty woman in her late twenties or early thirties was advancing toward them, hands outstretched. The beaming smile on her face was echoed in fabric and embroidery by every single item of apparel she was wearing. From the top of her well-coiffed hair to the soles of her expensive-looking slippers, she positively radiated splendor and wealth.
The smile was supple as well as wide, somehow conveying great unexpected pleasure with I realize you have no idea who I am combined with don't worry about it, I'll get us through the awkward part.
Simpson remained stiff and wooden-faced. His wife Mary, on the other hand—one old pro instantly recognizing another—had a smile plastered on her face that was just as wide and just as supple. God knows who this is welded to but I'm sure we'll get along soldered firmly to no sweat, dearie, give me a lob and I'll get the volley started.
A moment later, the unknown woman and Mrs. Simpson were chattering away like magpies. In French, a language Simpson neither spoke nor had ever had any desire to learn. To his wife, French was the language of class and culture. Good taste personified. To Simpson, it was the tongue of a nation whose character—as any proper Pentagon-corridor-man could attest—was the very definition of "obnoxious" and "obstreperous." He'd learned to speak reasonably passable simple German and Dutch in his NATO years. Useful languages, spoken by useful folk.
He felt a hand on his other arm, and swiveled his head. Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar was smiling up at him.
"Delighted you could come, Admiral," said Wilhelm in his fluent English. "If I could tear you away from your wife for a moment . . . some gentlemen I'd like you to meet." He gestured in the direction of an archway in the far corner of the huge room. "Like me, they find the din in here tiresome, so we've sequestered a smaller room for more civilized conversation."
Before Simpson could even think of a response, Mary was saying: "By all means, John. You'll be more comfortable there anyway." The smile plastered on her face was as wide as ever. It would remain so, he knew, for the rest of the evening. Supple as always, of course, the variations would change as quickly as clouds passing through the sky. Right now the smile was radiating thank God I'm in civilized hands standing at attention next to and she's got such a splendid volley with you'll get underfoot, buster saluting smartly and get lost but don't go far holding up the colors.
A moment later, Wilhelm was steering him toward the archway. Again, Simpson had to fight down an almost irrepressible urge. This time, to laugh uproariously. This was not the first time in his life, of course, that he'd seen this same maneuver carried out on the field of social battle. But he couldn't ever recall seeing it handled so surely and effortlessly.
Just before passing through the archway, he turned his head and caught a last glimpse of Mary. By now, there were perhaps half a dozen women in the little group surrounding her. All of them had the same general aura of wealth and position, though their ages and appearance varied widely. Two of them seemed to be as old as Mary, late middle age. It was, as always, difficult to tell. Even for noblewomen, the 17th century was a heavy burden. Simpson wouldn't be surprised if they were ten years younger than his wife.
But he wasn't paying much attention to them, in truth. He was just immensely relieved to see that, for the first time since the Ring of Fire had shattered their well-ordered universe, Mary Simpson actually seemed to be enjoying herself.
An hour later, Simpson was not feeling so cheerful. The small group of men gathered in a small salon in the palace, so much was quickly obvious, were the inner circle of what Simpson could easily recognize from past experience constituted a faction of some kind. And, since his German had become rather good over the past two years, if not fluent, he was able to follow the conversation easily enough. The more so once the men apparently decided he was "safe and acceptable"—several of them had obviously been surprised to learn that he spoke any German at all—and began unbending a little and speaking more frankly in his presence.
There was even something mildly amusing about their increasing relaxation. Some of it, he suspected, was because they assumed the particular dialect most of them favored would be rather opaque to the stranger in their midst. As it happened, however, Simpson's NATO years had left him with an odd combination of half-remembered Dutch as well as German. And the dialect these German noblemen were speaking was riddled with expressions and phrasings which seemed very "Dutch-like" to him.
That was enough to bring the picture into focus. To some degree, at least. Simpson made a stern resolve to pay more attention to what his assistant Dietrich Schwanhausser had been telling him about the internal politics of Germany. He hadn't really done so in the past, partly because of his own preoccupation with the ironclad project, but mostly because he found the subject infuriatingly complex and intricate. Accustomed as he was to the comparative logic and rationality of late 20th- and early 21st-century government administration, Simpson found the traditions left over from feudalism utterly bizarre. "Quaint" was the polite way to put it. As far as he was concerned, "idiotic" was more accurate.
The Holy Roman Empire had been a political mare's nest to begin with. Since Gustav Adolf had sundered away a good portion of it from Ferdinand II of Austria to form his Confederated Principalities of Europe, the situation had—if anything—gotten even worse. As if a bowl of spaghetti had had a heavy layer of Swedish cheese melted over it.
This much Simpson did know:
The Holy Roman Empire's nobility, the "Adel" as it was called, was basically separated into two major classes. At the top were the Hochadel. The Hochadel were also known as the "territorial princes," because they were the ones who had a seat in the Holy Roman Empire's Reichstag and, in theory, dealt directly with the emperor himself. They also had jurisdictional rights over their subjects, since they ran the law courts. It was in this class of noblemen that one found the electors, prince-bishops, prince-abbots, counts, margraves, landgraves, and the like. Despite their legal equality, however, their actual power varied enormously—from the ones as large as John George of Saxony with a million subjects down to a reichsritter with one village.
When Gustav Adolf formed the CPE, he had simply transferred their status to the new Chamber of Princes. He had also transferred with it their debts to the Holy Roman Empire—which were considerable, because it had been this class of noblemen whom Ferdinand II had squeezed ruthlessly to pay for his wars.
The rest of the German nobility were called Niederadel, and had at least one layer of the territorial nobility standing between them and the emperor. But all of them, no matter how petty their actual power and wealth might be, were officially classified as being one of the Adel, or nobility. Taken as a whole, Dietrich had told Simpson, the Adel constituted perhaps one out of a hundred of Germany's population—a much higher percentage than the small English aristocracy constituted of that island's population.
Perhaps most critical, at least from the standpoint of taxation and government revenue, was the fact that any nobleman was exempt from taxation. And while the Adel constituted only one percent of the population, they controlled perhaps a third of Germany's land. Which removed from the tax rolls a disproportionate share of potential government income—and threw an extra burden on both the commoners at the bottom and the territorial princes themselves, who, come what might, were the ones whom the emperor was going to squeeze when he needed money.
It was even more tortuous than that, because the tax exemption applied to the property itself, not the individual landholder. Over the centuries, as tax-exempt properties passed from one set of hands to another, Germany had become a crazy quilt of tax exemptions. From what Simpson could determine, the situation was roughly analogous to what might have happened in the United States if all taxes owed to the federal government had been the responsibility of the state governors to collect—but one third of all counties were exempt from taxation. And if the governors were forced to do so, moreover, while finding their way through an accumulation of "loopholes" that made the old U.S.A.'s much-derided 1040 tax form look like child's play.And had to deal with a judicial system at the imperial level that was firmly dedicated to the maintenance of every traditional variance, quirk, and local peculiarity—such as a nobleman who had the right to maintain a tavern in his castle.
Hesse-Kassel was the largest and most important of the semi-autonomous princedoms, leaving aside the two major ones of Saxony and Brandenburg. And Hesse-Kassel's principal allies among the secondary and tertiary territorial princes were the so-called counts of the Wetterau. The Wetterau counts traditionally had close ties both with Hesse-Kassel and with the aristocracy of the United Provinces. Those ties were still alive and strong. The wife of Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange, had come from the Solms-Braunfels family.
So it was not surprising that the conversation roiling around Simpson was spoken in a dialect of German that bore certain resemblances to Dutch. Nor—and this was the reason for his ebbing good cheer—was it surprising that the conversations were tense.
The Holy Roman Empire had been a crazy quilt of political allegiances tangled up with centuries worth of accumulated social and economic rights, obligations and privileges. Gustav Adolf had inherited all that from the Habsburgs. But, unlike the Habsburgs, he was bound and determined to bring some order, logic and rationality to the situation. If for no other reason, because until and unless he could do so the vast potential wealth of German manufacture and commerce would remain crippled.
"Order, logic and rationality," of course, was the Swedish king's definition of the process. From the point of view of that portion of Germany's Adel who now found themselves within the CPE, on the other hand, the Swedish king bore a remarkable resemblance to a bovine oaf who proposed to tread heavily on their toes—and they had hundreds of toes, each and every one of them very long and tender.
Still, Simpson knew enough about the situation to be puzzled. For the first time since he'd been welcomed into the room, he cleared his throat and spoke.
"I do not understand. I have—would have"—he stumbled for a moment over the grammar, cursing himself; John Chandler Simpson hated to stumble—"would have thought you would welcome a tax reform."
The eight men in the room stared at him. Saxe-Weimar shrewdly, the other seven with befuddled expressions. As if they'd just had a grizzly bear ask them a question, and were trying to decide whether to answer or look for an escape route.
Hesse-Kassel was the first to recover, and did so quickly. "Ha!" he barked. Sweeping his hand to indicate the room: "Admiral Simpson, I can assure you that we welcome it. So does every Hochadel in Germany—John George of Saxony no less than any other. It would increase our revenues considerably, not to mention making our lives easier. But . . . the matter is tied to everything else. Gustavus Adolphus has made clear that he wants the tax reform adopted as part of a systematic reform. Ah, you may think of it—"
"Oh, yes. In fact, the American vocabulary for matters of fine political distinction is quite massive." He smiled sweetly. Simpson suspected Saxe-Weimar was taking the opportunity to drive home a point. "Remind me someday to explain such terms as 'logrolling' and 'pork-barrel' and 'line-item veto.' The concept of the 'filibuster' is particularly enchanting."
Simpson cleared his throat. "In other words, the king of Sweden—ah, 'emperor of the CPE' I should say—"
He paused, a bit nonplussed. Once again, the noblemen in the room were staring at him as if he were a speaking bear.
"Did I mention Americans are fond of acronyms?" mused Wilhelm. "An odd habit, I thought at first. But then, when I saw the enthusiasm with which the Americans proliferate administrative and regulatory bureaus, I realized the logic of it. They're quite an efficient folk, much given to order and routine. They even have a name for that, too: 'red tape.' "
Now, the noblemen were staring at him as if he were a speaking bear. Or, perhaps, a man they thought they knew suddenly transformed into one. Saxe-Weimar's smile was still on his face, but it could no longer be described as "sweet." Indeed, it was rather grim.
"They ruled a continent, lords. They had provinces larger than any realm in Europe. Do you think they did that by the methods of anarchy?"
Simpson sat stiff, wooden-faced. There had been times in his life—not many, but some—when he'd cursed that also. That inability of his to "unbend," however useful it was in many situations, had cost him in others. In his most honest moments, he knew it had played a large role in losing the affections of his own son. But tonight, in the here and now, it was invaluable. He could tell, just by the look on the faces of the German landgrave and his supporting counts.
To hell with you snots. I've forgotten more about efficient administration than the pack of you amateurs will ever learn. But the stiff and wooden face removed the insult, while passing along the fact itself.
"Ah," said one of the counts. "By 'CPE' you refer to—"
Hesse-Kassel chuckled. "It is more efficient, I admit."
The point having been made well enough, Simpson continued. "In short, Gustav Adolf is demanding that you adopt all of his measures. He will not permit you to pick and choose."
One of the counts nodded. Glumly: "And some of those other measures are . . . highly distasteful. Speaking for myself, for instance, losing the tolls will cost me—"
"Oh, enough!" exclaimed one of the other noblemen. "Enough, I say! We've already agreed to support the emperor and we've formed a league to do it. So why waste the rest of the evening fretting over it?"
He bestowed a smile on Simpson which, for the first time coming from any of them except Saxe-Weimar, was the kind of expression a man gives to another man, not the formal grimace one presents to a potentially savage animal.
"I am Ludwig Guenther, Admiral. The count of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. And, speaking for myself, I think we will—certainly in the long run—gain far more than we will lose from the emperor's policies." His nostrils flared. "If nothing else, abolishing the rule of derogation will mean that my lazy cousins will no longer have any excuse to drain my larder."
"Surely you won't turn away the prince of Orange?!" exclaimed Hesse-Kassel, half-laughing and half-grimacing.
Ludwig Guenther smiled thinly. "If my first cousin Frederik Hendrik shows up at my door looking for asylum, I will gladly give it to him. But my second cousin Ernst—to give just one example—can hardly claim Orange's necessities. Much less his talents! If Ernst can do anything beyond ride a horse and drink himself into a stupor, I have yet to see any evidence of it."
The count of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt's face grew stern. "Half the noblemen of Germany are pure and simple parasites. I know it and you know it—all of you. Well, no longer! Not after the reforms are instituted. Henceforth, they will have no excuses. They will be able to take up any occupation—trade, commerce, whatever—without losing their precious status as members of the Adel. I can assure you that as soon as I return home, those cousins of mine are out the door. Louts, all of them! I'll give them enough to get started. That's it."
Two of the other noblemen chuckled. "You think your cousins are bad?" demanded one. "My brother-in-law . . ."
Hesse-Kassel interrupted. "What do you think, Admiral?"
For a moment, Simpson froze. (And, fortunately, because of his wooden face, was able to hide the moment.) He had a flash of memory; being asked a question, once, at a stockholders' meeting, for which his staff had not prepared him. He'd gotten through the question, fumbling his way—he hated to fumble—and had then stripped the hide from his staff the next day. Rubbed salt into the bleeding flesh, in fact.
But . . .
I can hardly blame Dietrich for this, after all. Not as if he hasn't tried. John Chandler, you've been goofing off on your homework. An 'Admiral,' you stupid jerk—how much time did you spend in the Pentagon?—has to be a political animal also.
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, but I've been so preoccupied with my own naval affairs that I haven't paid as much attention to this matter as perhaps I should have." The pro forma apology issued, Simpson glided forward smoothly. He had, after all, gotten through more than one bad moment at a stockholders' meeting.
"But it seems to me that you need to step back and consider the long-term—ah—" His lips tight, he fumbled for the word. Wilhelm, sitting next to him, leaned over and murmured: " 'Consequences,' I believe, is the word you're looking for."
He flashed Saxe-Weimar a grateful glance. "Yes, consequences." He swiveled his head and looked at the nobleman who had complained about losing his tolls. "Let me give you an example, using a subject I am very familiar with. The matter of the tolls. Yes, immediate revenue will be lost. Although I should point out that the emperor has no objection to tolls levied for works which are actually being maintained—such as locks, for instance. It's simply the endless bleeding of money from the merchants for a thousand fees that he wants removed, most of which—let us be honest—are simply a monopoly surcharge for no service rendered. Add it all together—which I have done—and you will find that, as a rule, those tolls wind up adding a third to the price of something shipped simply across half of Germany."
The nobleman scowled, but did not try to object. And you'd better not, buster. On this subject, I've got the facts and figures damn well memorized.
"What this will produce in the long run, however—and much sooner than you might think—is a rapid increase in Germany's internal trade. Foreign trade as well, for that matter. That, in turn, will produce an accumulation of money in the hands of Germany's commoners. Some of them, at least. What will they do with it? Reinvest, that's what. And where will they do so? Many of them, of course, in the same place where they exist already. But many of them will look for opportunities elsewhere. Especially—"
He swiveled his head, giving all the noblemen in the room his very fine and well-polished confident CEO regard, lingering for an extra moment on the count of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. "Especially in the lands of those territorial princes who have the good sense to encourage them to come. And there are a multitude of ways to do so. For instance—"
Simpson spoke steadily for half an hour, interrupted only on occasion by the need to determine the right word, or to clarify a few terms for the noblemen. The concept of 'tax-free enterprise zones' was especially challenging for some of them. Although Simpson was ignorant of most of the specific circumstances, the subject in general was one on which he was a genuine expert.
When he was done, the room was silent for a moment. Then Hesse-Kassel started chuckling.
"So. We are not doomed after all, it seems."
Wilhelm, the former duke of Saxe-Weimar, started to say something. Then, pursed his lips and remained silent. Simpson glanced at him, and for an instant a look of complete understanding passed between them.
God, he's a smart one. Saxe-Weimar knows the truth. No, Hesse-Kassel. As a class, you are in fact doomed. Sooner or later. But as individuals, as families . . . If you're smart—and that's a big "if"—you could wind up better off than ever. So what do you care?
A dim thought seeped into Simpson's mind. Dim . . . and unpleasant. So he pushed it aside almost instantly. But, for just a moment, he found himself contemplating the possibility that maybe—just maybe—that coal miner roughneck knew what he was doing. Better, even—maybe—than the CEO had.