How Ruthie Ended the War: Chapter Three
Poor Captain Shtiva
“The diagnosis was immediately apparent—it did not take a seasoned mariner to understand wholly that we were doomed. Ice had destroyed a good most of the lower and tweendeck below the forecastle and we were taking water like a stuck pig. We were forced to seal the damaged decks off entirely for risk of sinking, although we knew that we were sacrificing our mobility. The mainsails had been severely chaffed from the strain and the fore and mizzen sails were little more than tattered rags. Half of the crew’s rations had been lost in the foredecks and crew’s quarters had been cut in twain. Crews of men were sent down to the ice field with pickaxes to try to break a channel for the ship but the ice was too thick to manipulate. Even the ice behind us, which we had broken through, in the arctic temperature had congealed about us and grown impenetrable. It seemed that no amount of labor would ever break us free from our confinement. Morale was very low—it became readily apparent that if we did not make significant headway one way or another within the next several days, we would never see civilization again—but still Captain Shtiva remained collected. He was a rare gentleman and officer indeed, sir. I fear I shall never see the likes of him again.” Here, the soldier paused for a moment. Ruthie imagined him sipping steadily from his cup of brandy, the numbing sensation of the cold returning to his haggard limbs in terrible remembrance. Ruthie herself was forced to massage her fingers and clasp her arms, a phantom wind blowing through the hall and sending wracks of shivers up her spine. She could not imagine being in such a horrific predicament—and for what cost? What could they have possibly been transporting that would make them risk such ominous consequences? The voice of the soldier, muffled by the girth of the great doors, drew her from her contemplation:
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“For two weeks we exhausted ourselves day in and day out trying to free the ship, but to no avail: with every day of work, the night would bring more bitter, cold winds that would adhere the broken ice back to the hull of the ship and undermine everything we had accomplished that day. Soon, men began to ignore the orders of Captain Shtiva when, at daybreak, he would arise from his cabin and set about organizing that day’s crew of laborers. Instead, the idlers would lay in their hammocks and shout obscenities at his commands, complaining “A dead man cannot dig himself out of his own grave!” Shtiva, for fear of inciting a deadly mutiny, ignored the lazy fatalists and every day would bring a crew of men down on to the ice field and begin hacking away at the ice. Every day, however, that crew grew smaller in number. Because I respected the man so indefatigably, I was his companion in labor until it was just he and I wielding pickaxes in the morning’s frigid winter wind. Two days had passed with only the good Shtiva and I working away at the ice field when the rest of the crew began deriding and heckling us from the deck of the ship. The command had all but been overturned and discipline had been thrown to the wind and the men had broken into the ration stores and were laying about the deck drinking mead and rum and eating the dried meat in great mouthfuls until they were vomiting off the bow. Captain Shtiva and I watched this baleful activity during a break from our work. ‘They will be the ruin of us,’ he said, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow and laying his pickaxe at his feet.
“‘Yes,’ I responded, ‘I fear for your life especially, sir. I hear treasonous talk in hushed voices at night.’
“‘Indeed,’ said Shtiva gravely, ‘the Jouissance may return, in time, to kinder harbors, but I fear I will not. I do not blame them, however, they are honest men brought to this by extreme circumstances. I have tried my best to correct the negligence of my command, but I see I have failed. Whatever fate befalls me, I have deserved.’
“‘No, sir, not at all,’ I began to object, but Shtiva stopped me short.
“‘Do not waste your breath, my friend. Your constancy has been a great tribute to the motherland and myself, and in a blessed world, would not go unrewarded; this, however, is a damned voyage and can only lead to despair and infamy. I will not survive this mission. You, however, must. If anything should happen to me, as it well may, I must rely on you to carry out my orders. In my quarters, below my desk, is a small black box. In that box, safely locked, is a very strange and important thing; it is imperative that you retrieve that thing and bring it personally to the Tsar at any cost.’ He then drew this key from his pocket and pressed it strongly into my palm.”
Ruthie heard the tock of metal hitting wood as, she imagined, the soldier placed the very same key on an end table.
“I nodded solemnly and stowed this key in my tunic and returned to breaking the ice. Shtiva turned and watched the rabble on the ship as their shouting grew in volume. ‘I doubt I shall survive the night,’ he said, and, picking up his pickaxe, joined me in labor.
“As poor Shtiva predicted, he did not survive the night. When we finally returned to the ship after many hours of grueling and thankless work, we found ourselves in the midst of a drunken, reckless rabble. Never have I seen such a maddened aggregation—as we clambered over the railings on to the deck, the crew, reeking of sweat and liquor, began tearing at our clothes, yelling epithets to our faces and spitting on our shoes and in our eyes. I attempted to fight back, but was too exhausted from my travails on the ice to lift an arm. A group of men held me to the ground while another group began tearing at the clothes of Captain Shtiva. Shtiva, too, was unable to retaliate, but only stood his ground with his proud head held high as that vulgar mob rent his body naked in the harsh cold of the early evening. They started by dousing him in liquor and then began retrieving heaving buckets of filth from the toilet chambers and smearing his body with feces, all the while shouting “Monomaniac! Reeking Captain of Pigs! Look now at what lovely raiment you wear!!!” I begged for the men to come to their senses, but still I was held fast. That poor, proud man. I have not seen, nor do I think I shall ever see, a man so defiled as I saw that night. And so unjustly! I curse those vile mutinous bastards—those filthy stinking cowards—for what they did to Shtiva, a man who had treated every one of them with the greatest kindness and respect as ever was shown by a captain to his crew.”
Silence consumed the hall as Ruthie sat dumbstruck, her head resting against the door, her mouth agape. Presently, the soldier continued:
“They had their pitiful fun with the Captain for several hours before finally retrieving a length of rope and clumsily hanging him from the main mast. They were so drunk, however, that each time they pulled the rope taught and tried to knot it to the deck, someone would slip and the Captain, half alive, would come crashing back down to the planks. They all would roar with laughter and try again, only to have the knot come loose and Shtiva, blood and filth foaming from his mouth, would again fall to the floorboards. By the time they had finished and my Captain swung freely in that bitter, arctic wind, the crew was much too exhausted to do anything to me and I was tied to the mizzenmast to await my cruel fate the following morning. That most unholy of crews then collapsed in a fetid heap on the midships deck and fell promptly into a deep, collective sleep.
“As you might expect, men too drunk to hang a man are inevitably too drunk to keep one confined by ropes; I was able to free myself from my fetters without much effort. Remembering my dead captain’s request, I moved quietly over the collapsed, snoring bodies of my maddened crewmates and made my way towards the captain’s quarters. I meant to retrieve whatever was locked in that safe. I scarcely made it into the room, however, before one of the crewmen startled from sleep and, seeing me, raised the alarm. The whole of the deck floor became alive with my crewmates, sluggishly pulling themselves from their drunken sleep and confusedly trying to suss out what the matter was. In this moment of distraction, I was able to launch myself off the starboard prow of the boat and on to the ice below. I left empty handed, however. I failed my good Captain Shtiva in that respect; I did not access whatever it was that was locked in that safe.
“Unsure of the steadiness of the landscape that surrounded me, I simply pointed myself south and started running, the sound of shouting men and pistol shots ringing in my ears. One of the scoundrels nicked me here in the shoulder. Unwilling to look behind me, I sprinted as fast as I could across the ice, staring only directly in front me, knowing that at any moment, the ground could open up beneath me and suck me down to my watery death. I can only believe that it was divine providence that allowed me to survive that run—I must have traveled a good fifteen miles in that first night, the caterwaul of the ship I was deserting fading quickly behind me. I stopped once I was sure I had traveled well out of range and laid down to fall into a deep, exhausted sleep. The night was as cold as ever I have experience and me with just my tunic and dungarees and nary a blanket to keep me warm. I awoke the following morning, and, forcing myself to stand, continued on my weary way. The freezing weather had turned the water into a desert made of ice and I walked for days without even seeing the blue of the ocean over which I was so expeditiously traveling. In the saddles of a small icebergs jutting from the icy surface I would find nests of birds’ eggs, which could afford me a modicum of sustenance for my travels. After what seemed like weeks of blindly stumbling south, I began to notice sprigs of grass jutting up between the cracks of the ice and realized that I had miraculously crossed that terrible ocean and reached land.
“The rest, sir, is plain: I reached the northern frontier posts only to find them abandoned, the foxholes and bunkers filled only with bric-a-brac and mortar shells. Heading farther south, I began to encounter those infamous northern villages which have for ages existed beyond the pale and are filled with the sort of superstitious old world folk who shutter their windows against strangers. The only exchange I enjoyed from the likes of them was a barrage of hurled curses from behind closed doors as I stumbled down their muddy streets. You are the first to treat me with kindness, sir, and I cannot tell you how thankful I am.”
A fantastic emptiness consumed the entirety of the house as the soldier fell into silence and Ruthie cast her eyes about at her surroundings. The same wind that had drove her from her bed continued to wrack the panes of the front doors; the candelabras that illuminated the corners of the great hall quietly winked and quivered to an unfelt breeze and turned the shadows of the banisters and pillars of the hall into dark swaying obelisks and objects. The fern behind which Ruthie hid was touched by this same breeze and gently caressed her cheek with a spiny green finger, causing her to shudder. The whole house itself seemed to come alive at that moment, resurrected from its stony immobility by the harrowing images racing through Ruthie’s skull. The eeriness of the moment was broken, however, as Ruthie heard the resonating voice of her father sounding from the room beyond.
“You must have your rest, sir,” said her father, “You are welcome to stay here as long as your health requires. I will send my manservant in the morning to the consulate in Archangelsk to alert the officers there of this unfortunate circumstance. But I must press you . . .” and here M. Baumbaum paused as if collecting his words, “this thing that you carried on the your ship—what exactly is it?”
In Ruthie’s excitement to hear the answer to this question, she leaned forward towards the door. Her foot slipped out from underneath her and, suddenly, she kicked the big potted fern in front of her and sent it spilling across the marble floor with a great crash. Ruthie sat in shock for a moment amidst the earthenware, dirt, and fern leaves, the debris of her catastrophe, almost expecting for the conversation in her father’s study to continue. Her intuition caught up with her in seconds, however, and she blindly made a dash for the staircase, hoping that she could make it upstairs and feign innocence before her father could investigate the noise. This was not to be the case, however, and her slippered feet had barely begun to scamper across the slick floor of the hall before the doors to the study swung open with a tremendous rumble to reveal the figure of her father, limbs set severely akimbo.
“Ruthie!” he shouted, “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
Ruthie cowered at the base of the staircase. “Nothing, Papa, I was just . . . I couldn’t sleep and I came down here to find you. . .and I. . .well I guess I knocked over that plant.”
“How long have you been down here?” M. Baumbaum said firmly, gripping Ruthie by her shoulder. His eyes sharply narrowed. “You haven’t been listening at the door, have you?”
Ruthie, the victim of an upbringing steeped in the importance of accountability, had a very difficult time mustering up the courage to lie to her father. She furrowed her brow as best she could, her eyebrows so angled as to appear as if they were sliding down on to her reddened ears, and puffed out her lower lip like a plump slug in repose after a large meal. “Yes, father,” she said, finally, “I couldn’t help it. I really couldn’t sleep and I came down here to find you and then I heard you talking and of course I was so curious...”
In the noise of the hubbub, Masha had been awoken and came shuffling down the staircase in her nightie.
“Ruthie, it was very wrong of you to disobey me,” her father intoned, slowly and deliberately, to his daughter, “It is also very wrong for you to eavesdrop on others’ business, especially on that which is not in the least bit appropriate for the ears of a young girl. How much did you hear?” He gazed deeply into Ruthie’s teary eyes.
“A lot,” she responded, her voice choked by sniffles, “It was so horrible, father, I couldn’t tear myself away. So terrible, terrible!” She threw herself into her father’s arms and began sobbing.
“Dear Ruthie, shhh. Shhh,” her father said, patting her back. Gently, he pushed her away and looked down at her. “You know to not disobey me. I am very saddened by your behavior—I thought I had taught you differently. Your poor, poor mother, God rest her soul, would be most disappointed. If she had known that you had been privy to such a story as you just heard, she would be grievously angry at both you and myself. You know this. I must teach you to obey me, Ruthie. When I ask something of you, I absolutely expect you to comply.”
“Yes, father,” said Ruthie, collecting herself, “I know.”
“Masha,” said M. Baumbaum, “I believe my daughter will be spending the night in the gunshed this evening. Please escort her there.” He patted Ruthie on the cheek, turned and walked back into his study.
Masha looked sternly down at Ruthie and frowned. “You’ll be coming with me, then, mam’selle,” said the maid, and, grabbing the self-same ear she had pinched only hours before, she lead the defeated Ruthie out the front door and through the snow on the fifty yard walk that separated that fantastic chateau from the decrepit shack that housed the Baumbaum family’s collection of antique firearms.