The chill April wind whipped a strand of fine brown hair across Marta Ebel’s cheek, as if punishing her for betraying her homeland. Though she looked like the other German women standing on Lübeck’s splintered pier—homespun brown raiment, white apron, white cap, and wool cloak—Marta had no relatives to help her cart her goods to Russia. She fingered the document tucked in the waistband of her skirt and raised her chin. She might not be able to decipher the letters on this paper that promised her a new life, but she understood Russia’s offer of a respectable future for unmarried women. The German states offered only a slow death of servitude or a life of shame for women without the protection of family.
Why is it treason to want a better life?
She smiled down at Hans Binz as his pudgy fingers slid over the top of her hand. His blond hair played in the breeze, reminding her of a younger Wilhelm, before the prince of her state had kidnapped him to fight in one of his many battles. She had never seen her youngest brother again. Hans beamed at her, completely unconscious of the smudge of dirt on his cheek or the perils of the journey ahead.
“Guten morgen, Fräulein Ebel,” the five-year-old said. The excitement in his light blue eyes mirrored the hope in her heart. He pointed toward the harbor, where the turbulent waves seemed to be fighting battles of their own. “Today we shall sail on that big ship! It is almost my turn to go.”
“True,” Marta said. They glanced below the pier at the rowboat that would take them to the Maria Sophia. It creaked as another passenger settled onto its wooden slats. “You look like your father in your handsome boots and jacket,” she said. Hans stifled a smile and brushed a hand over his white cuffs. He took a small step closer to the edge.
Too much was at stake to wait on the pier like sheep as the other emigrants climbed down into the rowboat one by one. Marta glanced behind her, searching the shoreline and Lübeck’s wakening streets. She felt a growing tension with every passing moment.
“Make haste!” she wanted to cry as a man slowly lowered himself into the rocking boat, but she kept silent.
At last Herr Binz, whose sand-hued hair was tucked behind his ears and beneath his worn black hat, tossed a bundle into the boat and made room for his wife to step onto the ladder. “Mother first, and then you, Hans.”
Frau Binz began the climb down, but then paused in her descent as if realizing that this was her last contact with German soil. She was a plain woman, whose large, compassionate eyes seemed to see only the best in people. When her lips formed a smile, which they often did, her joy was infectious. She smiled now, and her blue eyes scanned Lübeck one last time before coming to rest on her son and husband.
“Make haste, Mutter,” cried Hans. Frau Binz laughed nervously and placed one foot and then the other into the boat.
The lead sailor bellowed, “Strike oars!” A wooden oar pushed against the pier, and the small boat jerked away. Frau Binz lost her balance and fell onto a woman’s lap. Marta looked down and then quickly glanced behind her at the others on the pier. The sailors’ actions seemed irregular.
“To the ship!” yelled the lead sailor.
As Frau Binz regained her balance, she called, “Don’t abandon my husband and son. Turn back!” Yet the oars dipped in and out of the water in synchronized splashes. Perhaps seeing that they would not listen, Frau Binz leaned forward and appeared as if she were about to dive in and swim to shore.
Herr Binz yelled, “No! Abide there, Gretta. We shall come to you.”
“Mother!” called Hans. A man with ale-numbed eyes and gray hair shoved Marta aside and dove into the frigid water after the boat. Hans turned to his father. “May we swim to Mother, also?” His father held him back.
“It is too cold,” Marta explained. “You would not reach the ship.”
The moment she finished speaking, she heard the first whispers. “Soldiers. The soldiers are come.”
They heard a splash as Frau Binz plunged out of the boat and into the water.
Herr Binz pushed Hans toward Marta. “Take Hans. I shall return for him.” Before she could agree, he dove into the water after his wife.
“Vater!” yelled Hans. “Mutter!”
Their fellow travelers, those closest to the cobblestone streets of Lübeck, grabbed their possessions and scattered. Marta’s mind was wild with thoughts. Hans yelling. Footsteps pounding over the creaking wooden pier. People drowning. It was as if Marta could hear her mother’s shrieks of fear—or worse, her father’s silent acceptance of injustice all over again. She flattened her hand against the document in her waist, her guarantee of free land. She would not give up on life as her mother and father had. She could not.
“Mother is safe,” said Hans. The sailors had disentangled Frau Binz’s skirt from the oarlock and pulled her back into the boat. Herr Binz stopped swimming once he saw that his wife was safe, and turned to rescue the intoxicated man, who was now calling for help.
Herr Binz’s voice, garbled by water, yelled, “Marta! Flee! Hide!”
Marta snatched up their goods, looping her canvas bags over her arms and clutching the rest with one hand as she grabbed Hans’s arm with the other. “Make haste.”
Hans clutched his bundle. “But Father—”
There was no time for explanations. They raced over the splintered wood, lugging everything they owned. At the edge of the pier, Marta caught her first glimpse of the advancing red jackets and black triangular hats.
Hans gasped. “Soldiers!” The company was moving toward them along the river’s edge. Marta fumbled and then released her bundles, her last tie to the past and the evidence that she was an emigrant. The bags slid to the ground with a thump. She yanked Hans’s belongings from him, and hand in hand they raced into Lübeck’s narrow streets.
Carl Mueller stood outside the blacksmith shop savoring a warm bite of brötchen. Emigrants were fleeing past him into the city through the arched entranceway of the docks. Carl brushed a hand through his dark hair and chewed contemplatively. Herr Schmidt gave recruiting agents a bad name. Once Schmidt got his emigrants to sign their contracts, he did not look out for them. Carl took another bite of his roll and brushed the crumbs from his brown silk vest. He could do nothing for any of them now. Besides, he had problems of his own.
“We shall all die,” a woman shrieked as she trundled past.
“No,” said Carl under his breath, “you shall not die; but you may wish you had.” Rotting in a prince’s prison was a horrible way to live. From the folds of his shirt he withdrew a small gold box, won the previous night in a wager with an officer. The soldier had seemed to dote on the trinket with the ornate S engraved on it. Perhaps Carl could change his last name again to something starting with an S. He had been Hernandez in Spain, Moore in England, and was now Mueller in the German states. His true surname was French, but he had not used it since he was a child. S. He would need to think of a Russian surname that began with S. The scent of fish drifted from the fishmonger’s doorway next to the blacksmith’s shop and seemed to attract a white stork on a nearby roof.
A young woman with flushed cheeks turned the corner and stopped in the middle of the red-cobbled street. Carl slid the gold box into his shirt and raised his eyebrows. Her hair was a soft brown and of a texture that begged a man to run his hands through it. Except for a few loose strands, it was pulled back severely, hidden beneath a white cap. Her dress was plain, covered by an apron and a wool cloak, in the style of an emigrant who had traveled from the southern German states. She held tightly to her child’s hand but stood only a few handbreadths taller than the lad.
With a quick look around, she stepped forward and asked Carl in a soft, unhurried voice, “I would have your barrel. What price do you ask for it?”
Carl glanced behind him. “The one beside the crate?” Lengths and coils of discarded rope hung over the edge of the barrel and tilted it at a slightly precarious angle.
“The rope is of no value,” he said.
“It matters not,” she replied. “I require only the barrel.”
Carl thought her request odd, until he realized what she was asking.
He threw his brötchen to the ground and grabbed an armload of rope from the barrel. While others were whining of their own demise and running haphazardly into dead-end lanes, this woman had come up with a scheme. He grabbed another armful of twine and tossed it on top of the refuse. Without asking permission, he clasped his hands around the woman’s waist—such a small girth—and lifted her into the barrel. She gave him a ghost of a smile before sinking into the oversized bin.
Quickly, Carl lifted the child onto his mother’s lap and said, “Set your faces by the knotholes to breathe.” He tossed a weathered piece of canvas over them and returned some of the ropes to their previous positions.
“What are you doing there?” demanded the blacksmith, looking out of his open side window.
“I’m waiting for my horse to be shod,” said Carl.
“That you, Mueller?” The blacksmith poked his head farther out the small hole. “Thought it was one of those traitorous emigrants. Cannot have ’em here. Won’t let soldiers take my shop for the likes of them.”
“It’s a bad business,” said Carl. Down the road, the doors to houses and stores slammed shut, seeming to echo “You are abandoned” to the fleeing emigrants. Carl continued, “Is my horse ready?” The blacksmith muttered an unintelligible reply and left the window.
Carl leaned against the barrel. Although it appeared to be teetering at a precarious tilt, it was firmly lodged between a crate filled with scrap metal and a pile of hay. The hiding place was ingenious. A woman who could think quickly under pressure might be of value to him, and a boy who was old enough to keep from crying but young enough not to ask too many questions could serve him well. Besides, the woman was . . well, she was beautiful. Her large blue eyes, almost violet, had caught his attention even before she had demonstrated her ingenuity. He had been looking for a way to smuggle himself back into Russia, and now a ready-made family had found him. He smiled.
The clipped march of the soldiers echoed between the buildings, causing the exhilaration of risk to heighten his senses. Carl stood alone on the abandoned street. Although he knew he should leave, he could not. The fishmonger finally closed his door. Clearly, he would make no more sales until the emigrants had been removed.
In the distance, Carl heard a woman yell, “My babies! God save my babies!”
“Filthy traitors,” yelled a voice from an upstairs window. “You shall be fodder for the birds.”
Soldiers poured into the narrow road. For a while, Carl watched them roughly hauling emigrants toward wooden carts meant to carry animals. His lips tightened. Russia would pay Herr Schmidt for the few poor souls he delivered from this botched affair, but they would not pay Carl for all the immigrants he had safely transported.
He wrinkled his nose. The air still smelled of fish.
“You there,” demanded a young soldier, moving closer. “Depart this street now.” Carl straightened his long frame so that the brocade and fine wool of his outfit would not be lost on the youth as he towered over him. “Wait!” The soldier looked around him. “How can I be certain you’re not an emigrant?” Although the soldier’s expression did not change, he now stood taller. “I arrest you in the name of the prince!”
“Arrest me? Lübeck is governed by a league, not by a prince.” Carl dusted a speck of imaginary dirt from the sleeve of his jacket and let his eyes slide down the youth’s slender frame as if he were of no consequence. With a condescending sigh, he removed the small gold box from the folds of his shirt. “Take me to an officer in your regiment immediately.”
“Lübeck gave my prince leave to—” The soldier’s eyes focused on the trinket in Carl’s hand. “Where did you get that?”
Carl gave the youth a condescending glance and waved a hand in the air to show his impatience. “I am a Lübeck resident, and a close friend of your superior officer. I wish to see him immediately.”
The boy licked his lips as if deciding his next course of action. Carl almost felt sorry for the lad, but he looked well fed and too full of his own importance to garner much sympathy. Because of the many years that Carl had had to fend for himself without family or friends, he had learned how to read people’s faces. He could see that even though the young soldier wore a uniform, an emblem of power, his eyes were uncertain.
Carl looked away. A stocky woman with a large scar on her left cheek was pulled past him toward the wooden wagons. She did not go with the soldiers meekly, like many of the others had. She fought, spit, and called them names the entire way. She was a stubborn one, a survivor.
“Arrest me now, and take me before your captain,” said Carl as he shifted his gaze to the dark clouds stirring overhead, “or go about your business.”
The boy neither moved nor lowered his weapon. “I mistook you for an emigrant.”
“Do I flee?”
“Do I bear the raiment of an emigrant?” Carl held out his arms so that the youth would not miss the gold watch fob or his exquisite, embroidered cuffs.
“Well then.” Carl closed the gold box and placed it back within the folds of his clothing. “The time is come for you to be off. There are emigrants to catch, and I wish to finish my transaction with the blacksmith.”
With a quick nod that could have been mistaken for a bow, the soldier hurried away. Carl tried to hide his smile. The lad was probably relieved that he’d gotten off so easily.
When everyone was out of earshot, Carl said softly, “Abide here. Do not move until I return. I shall draw attention to the barrel should I remain.”
He thought he heard a soft, “I thank you,” but was not certain if it was the woman’s voice or just the movement of a breeze.
He called through the window, “Blacksmith, I shall return for my horse as soon as the streets are cleared of traitors.” Then he thought, Perhaps now that I have a means to enter Russia, I can sell the horse for a good price.
Marta’s rescuer whistled as he walked away. Perhaps he did not whistle to reassure her, but somehow she thought he had. His commanding presence reminded her of a prince from a fairy tale her mother had once told her. Maybe that was why she had trusted him. She leaned her head against the barrel. But what if she were mistaken about his character? Would he turn them in for a reward? How could she trust a complete stranger? Her head tilted forward. It was his face—the square, determined jaw and compassionate brown eyes. That’s why she trusted him.
“Are we going to die?” whispered Hans.
“No,” she whispered back. “Hold your tongue, or they shall hear us.” Was she wise to trust the only person in Lübeck who seemed to care whether she lived or died? No, she decided, trusting a stranger with their lives was too great a risk. They would need to leave their hiding place immediately, before he returned. She would find Herr Binz. He would know what to do.
Marta heard the muffled screams of other emigrants as they were caught and thrown into wagons. Their wails echoed through the streets, conjuring pictures in her imagination of writhing bodies being cast into hell. She shivered. She glanced out her knothole at the bedlam. Perhaps she and Hans could wait a bit longer before finding a new place to hide.
Townspeople watching from upper story windows began jeering with such intensity that their taunts were only occasionally drowned out by the harsh cries of the soldiers. Marta and Hans, confined within the wooden walls of the foul-smelling barrel, were faring better than those in the open. Turning slightly, Marta was able to get a better view through the knothole. It appeared that at least half of the two hundred people she had wintered with in the barracks outside of Lübeck had been captured.
The air inside the barrel was putrid; it smelled of manure and mold. If only she could breathe fresh air again. Her legs tingled. She inhaled deeply through the knothole, almost sucking in a fly that buzzed nearby.
Despite the horror, she could not keep herself from watching her fellow emigrants being herded into the wagons. At the sight of their fearful faces—men, women, and children whose hopes had turned to despair—compassion gripped Marta’s heart. A noisy clatter drew the attention of the soldiers to the far side of the square. At the same moment, Marta saw a scramble of movement underneath one of the carts, and a figure emerged from the shadows. As light fell on his face, she recognized Herr Binz. He untied the prisoners nearest him and motioned for them to run. Marta recognized one of the women, the stocky one with the scar, as Frau Doenhof. She ran faster than Marta had ever seen her move as the escapees darted into the side streets.
With renewed vigor, the officers shouted commands to the soldiers, but as the regiment prepared to move the wagons forward, another noise, along with a scream, drew their attention away. For a second time, Marta saw Herr Binz emerge from the shadows.
He was sneaking back toward the wagons when a rough voice from an upstairs window yelled, “There’s one. Another dirty emigrant!”
The prisoners in the carts began to yell as if to drown out the warning, but it was too late. A soldier leveled his musket and ordered Herr Binz to halt. Instead of obeying, he darted out of Marta’s view.
The captain called, “Volker! Ericks! Fetch him.” The two men hurried away. The captain continued, “Forward.” The carts started rolling away, probably toward a prince’s dungeon.
“What is happening?” asked Hans.
“Shush!” said Marta sharply. “Do not speak another word.”
Once the carts had disappeared, the street grew quiet, except for the occasional scream or shout when a stray emigrant was found. Hans’s body felt like deadweight, his head sweating against Marta’s neck. He had fallen asleep. Sweat trickled down her chest.
As she tried to readjust her position in the barrel, she heard footsteps nearby. Had she been discovered? Was the stranger coming back for her? The ropes above her began to move as if someone was frantically pushing the lengths aside.
Fear gripped Marta’s heart. This was the end. There was nowhere to run. She pulled her arm from Hans and positioned it near her face. She would scratch her assailant’s eyes out if she had to. Her attacker might win the battle, but she would make sure he never forgot the day he captured Marta Ebel. The moment the canvas was removed, her hand shot out.
Herr Binz came into view, and he moved his face aside to avoid her attack. Her hand froze in midair. He glanced at Hans, gave her a quick smile, and immediately pushed the canvas back in place and piled on the ropes. She watched him through the knothole as he sprinted to the other side of the street.
“There he is!” a deep voice shouted.
Booted feet rushed past the barrel. All Marta’s muscles tensed. Herr Binz had almost reached the corner. He was almost safe. The sound of a shot echoed through the street, and Herr Binz’s body lurched forward, landing facedown on the cobblestones. Marta stifled a cry that almost suffocated her in the stale air of the barrel. This could not be happening. She closed her eyes. In her mind, she saw Herr Binz’s kind blue eyes and his strong hand reaching out to hold her father’s wrinkled hand. The thought of his merry smile was almost too much for Marta. She wanted to do something to help him but knew she could not move without endangering his son and herself.
By the time she opened her eyes, Herr Binz’s body lay unmoving on the ground. She could feel tears welling up from deep within her heart, forming a lump in her throat, but she did not cry. She had not cried when her brothers had been taken away, one by one, to fight. She had not cried when her mother died of a broken heart in the Rheinland. She had not cried at her father’s funeral outside of Lübeck. She would not cry now.
Marta could not tell how late in the afternoon it was when the boots of Lübeck’s residents again clipped down the cobbled street. She watched a soldier grab Herr Binz’s collar and drag his lifeless form in the direction of the docks. Her arms instinctively enfolded Hans. They were truly alone, and the boy needed her now just as she had needed his parents when her father was dying. She recalled how tenderly Frau Binz had nursed her father during his illness, even when no one else would draw near to him for fear of catching his disease. The compassion of the Binzes had meant so much to her. It was Herr Binz who had said the final prayers over her father’s cold body. She shivered.
And now, Herr Binz was dead, killed while protecting her as well as his son. She wished she could say the same prayers for him now, but she didn’t know how. Herr Binz prayed differently from the other Reformers she knew. Marta could almost feel God’s love in his words.
Grieved as she was, questions had plagued Marta. She had always been a good Reformer, helping her mother tend local widows and orphans, but Herr and Frau Binz seemed to have something more. She had planned to ask them about their faith on the ship, but now it was too late. Her chest heaved as she again fought off the urge to cry.
Under her breath, Marta whispered, “I shall do all in my power to take you to your mother, Hans. All. I promise.” She leaned her face against his silky hair. By sheer strength of will, she pushed the horror of Herr Binz’s death from her mind. She had to think clearly. She had to concentrate on getting Hans and herself to Russia. That is what Herr Binz would have wanted. Marta set her jaw. Nothing would stop her.
Gradually, new noises invaded the silence. Vendors returned, rolling their wheeled carts down the bumpy streets. Voices called. Merchants answered questions. Even the blackbirds and sparrows overhead chirped and trilled. Marta was thankful that the blacksmith and others ignored the trash heap where the barrel stood, especially when Hans began to move. He was waking up.
She covered his mouth and said, “Lie still. We’re still hiding in the barrel.” She felt him relax. No sound escaped his lips.
The rest of the day passed slowly. Marta could no longer feel her legs. She was not even certain that she would be able to move her body from the confines of the barrel when the time came. She wondered whether the stranger would really come back for them and listened for his approaching footsteps. Her mouth tightened. She was ashamed of herself. Whether he returned for them or not, she must depend only on her own resources. Whatever was to be accomplished would be up to her.
At dusk, Marta heard the first sounds of thunder. She readied herself. The storm rumbled closer, and the darkness outside grew deeper. Through the knothole, she saw heavy raindrops splattering on the cobblestones. It was time.
“Hans, I shall stand now.” She forced her legs to work. She stood up with Hans in her arms, scattering ropes over the junk heap. People running for cover in the growing darkness paid them no heed. Marta leaned over the top edge of the barrel and held Hans until he was able to set his feet down on a neighboring crate. Marta pointed, and Hans scampered down the crate to the cobblestones below. He gulped at the rain.
She looked around her at the raindrops skittering and sliding across the indifferent city as feeling gradually returned to her legs and feet. She hoisted herself up to the barrel’s edge and then threw a leg over it, causing the barrel to tilt farther. Not wanting to knock the barrel completely over, she quickly threw her other leg and skirt over the opening and hopped out. Only when her feet were firmly on the street did she brush the hay and rope fragments from their hair and clothing, and let the water slide into her mouth.
“We shall seek shelter.” Marta ducked her head to shield her eyes from the rain. The steady patter turned into a downpour. The water was cold, but it felt good after their long stay in the barrel. Before long, though, it had soaked their clothes. Fortunately, it also hid them from evening onlookers. The rain would also wash away the barrel’s smell, Marta thought.
She took Hans’s hand and said to herself as much as to him, “We shall be safe if we can find shelter in a Reformed church tonight.”
Hans nodded. “I see one.” He pointed to a majestic spire towering over the buildings around them.
Marta did not mention the many other ornate churches silhouetted against the angry sky. By their spires alone, Marta could not tell which belonged to the Reformed Church of Martin Luther and which housed the Catholic Papists. She supposed that Hans’s guess was as good as any.
“We must depart with haste.” As they ran toward the church he had spotted, Marta whispered, “Please, may this building be for Reformers.” With dread filling her heart, she prayed as if their lives depended on the outcome of Hans’s choice. Deep inside, she knew they did.