SMS Strassburg, late evening 17 June 1915, New York harbour:
"Some birthday," Siegmund thought.
He paced across the empty bridge of Strassburg, gazed at at the tapestry of lights from the city that even at midnight was not dark or silent. He paced restlessly across the bridge again, gazed out into the impenetrable darkness that lay beyond the eerie azure face of Miss Liberty. It was a warmish evening, the thin veil of high clouds hiding the moon and stars also slowing the arrival of the nighttime chill. Too warm to cause him to shiver, too cool to cause him to sweat. And yet, knowing how many ships, friendly, hostile, and neutral, were out there cloaked in the darkness, part of him wanted to do each.
"I should be sleeping," he thought. But the worry of what the next day and night would bring kept him awake, disturbed him in a way that the tension of battle and the tedium of patrols in the Helgoland Bight couldn't.
"I should be celebrating," he thought. But he was not in a mood to enjoy a party.
Beer only reminded him of convivial evenings of years gone by, carousing with boyhood friends. Bawdy songs and pictures couldn't make him smile tonight, only made him think longingly of his wife. Had it only been 12 days since he had said farewell to her before putting to sea with Hanzik and von Hoban? It was hard to take joy in the gifts some of the men he was closest to had given him, when he was worrying whether he'd be there in six months to see the smiles on his own 9-year-old son's face at Christmas. He'd missed last year's Christmas with his family, sailing Strassburg into the Baltic and seeing her safely into drydock to be fitted with the new 15-cm guns.
It was the first birthday he'd ever celebrated on 17 June. He'd been born early the morning of 18 June 1877, the third of four children to a decorated but unsung hero of the Franco-Prussian War. Now, technically, they had sailed far enough west it was right to celebrate six hours early; but he tried not to dwell on the real reason there'd be no time for drinking and carousing for him or his crew on 18 June 1915.
They'd be needing their full faculties and strength for less savoury matters, if today's news from the embassy and von Hoban proved accurate.
He turned his eyes seaward again, wondering how many ships the British had gathered out there in the last 3 days. It had been crowded enough before. He muttered aloud to himself in frustration: "Even with Hanzik's help, sneaking past them alive would be a good bit of theatrical trickery (Schikanederei)!"
"A word, sir, if I may?"
Siegmund, startled, turned, and found himself facing L.z.S. Emanuel von Mellingen.
Mellingen was one of the younger and newer members of Strassburg's complement, only earning his officer's commission last year, only aboard Strassburg since after her refit. Siegmund didn't know much about the nervous-looking young man, except that he was from a well-off family, high placed in the Thüringian government in the days before Bismarck and unification. They'd never spoken much before, certainly weren't close friends.
Mellingen stepped forward awkwardly and began: "I -- I have something for you, sir, for your birthday... I didn't want to give it to you around the others... didn't want them to laugh..." He nervously held out a small clockwork glockenspiel.
Siegmund reached and took the small varnished wooden box, one eyebrow raised quizzically. Mellingen spoke again:
"You may think this silly, sir... but there's an old story, I remember
hearing as a
Siegmund, puzzled but curious and thinking a moment's diversion from their worries would do both of them good, humoured the lad. "Go on," he said, leaning back against the bridge rail, eyes not focused on anything in particular, turning the box over idly in his hands. And Mellingen began his tale:
"A noble lady ... imprisoned, trapped within a great and mysterious palace, but not chained ... learned a great prince from far away loved her ... and sent to her one of his close friends ... together they plotted to sneak away from the city by night and back to the prince's arms ..."
Siegmund realized that as they leaned back against the rail they had turned, and were looking across the calm waters of the harbour at Imperator, chained to the HAPAG pier.
"Together the noble lady and her escort made it outside the palace gate ... he whistled a signal on his pipes to the prince waiting in the woods beyond, and it was answered ... away from their captor they crept ..."
His eyes had unconciously panned slowly away from Imperator and toward the outer harbour as he listened.
"But their black-hearted captor was not to be so easily fooled ... he and his troops fell upon them beyond the city walls ... the princess was bound ... her would-be saviour looking down the barrels of ten soldier's guns ..."
A lump came to Siegmund's throat at that, and he was tempted to cut short the grim story, but he didn't.
"But he carried on his belt a set of silver bells as I have given you today, an enchanted gift given him by the queen who wanted her daughter rescued... in his moment of need he played that music-box ... and at the sound of the bells, the ropes around the princess's waist fell from her captor's hands ... as the soldiers reached for the triggers of their muskets, bouquets of marigolds burst forth from the muzzles ... mesmerized, the evil Moor and his henchmen sang and danced into the sunset, leaving the lady and her escort standing alone."
Siegmund chuckled, and spoke with a hint of bitter mocking in his voice. "If a man could find such bells as these, all his enemies would fade away."
Mellingen's voice broke, and regaining compusure he went on: "There's more to it than that, sir... something I haven't admitted to anyone on this ship... how much do you know of my family?"
"Just that they have in the service of the Freiherr of Thüringen almost since the beginning, 1650 or 1700 I suppose."
"Yes." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I must beg of you... don't repeat a word of this to anyone, sir... if my pious aristocratic mother ever heard it she'd never recover from the horror of it. I was named Emanuel after my grandfather and he after his grandfather. My mother gave me the name 'to carry on the fine Christian tradition' of my family.
"But on his deathbed my grandfather called me to his side, and whispered to me his secret. His great-grandfather was ambassador to the Hapsburgs, and lived in Vienna, and was always busy with affairs of state. His great-grandmother left to her own devices fell in love with a lower-class actor and poet, and had an affair with him... they retreated from the foreign capital back to their home to avoid the scandal... and shortly after their return a baby was born, named for his father..." The lieutenant fell silent. For Siegmund the light dawned, and recognition crept slowly across his face, the bitterness fading.
A lengthy pause.
Siegmund cleared his throat. "Let me guess. Your grandfather's grandfather was born in ... 1791?"
"And the lover-- and the story--"
Siegmund had wound the music-box as he spun it in his hands earlier, and released the catch, starting it, and together they intoned the words Siegmund had purely unintentionally spoken earlier:
(If a man could find such bells as these, all his enemies would fade away, and he'd live free from them in greatest harmony. Only friendship soothes our pains, without it there would be no happiness on earth.)
Another long pregnant silence, ended by the sounds of the revelry astern wafting to their ears.
Siegmund drew a deep breath. "Lieutenant, place this over there beneath the ship's bell for luck. Our own fate of Trial by Fire and Water shall soon be upon us, and I should be glad for a gift from the Queen of the Night tomorrow, to aid our safe passage." Slowly he left the bridge. Standing at the door of his sea cabin, he turned, and gave the faintest of smiles. "Thank you, Mellingen. I shall sleep soundly tonight, and in times as these, that is a rare gift to receive."
The door to the sea cabin closed. And Mellingen felt strangely not in the mood to return to the party that wore on on the fantail, instead slipping quietly belowdecks and making his way to his berth.