Martin Meurer was hanging by his fingers from the eaves, with his feet braced over the shuttered window below, when the shutters crashed open. Martin had a good view—too good a view—of the bald spot on the head of the man who leaned out of the window. Martin silently wished . . . Don’t look up. Look at the church. Look at the street. Look at the house across the street, but don’t look up . . .
Martin’s wish was granted as the man’s head withdrew into the room below and the shutters were pulled closed. But he waited. Sure enough, four long heartbeats later, the shutters crashed open again. “Watchmen, call the watch I’ve been robbed.” The man’s voice echoed in the empty street.
Martin waited until the head withdrew a second time and he could hear the clatter of steps through the still open shutters. Only then did he pull himself onto the roof and make his escape. Three roofs and an alley away, he was finally able to stop. Braced against a chimney, he examined his new possession.
Who would have expected a table in the middle of a dark room? Who would have expected the owner to awaken so fast? He had grabbed the first thing that came to hand, stuffed it in his pouch and bolted for the window. Now he had time to see what he had. A cup, too small to be called a goblet. It was a metal cup. Silver, he hoped. Silver would buy food for a week, and a new jacket. With winter coming on he could use a new jacket. Not bad for his first try at house creeping. Not bad at all.
Martin’s breath froze when a voice came out of the chimney’s shadow. “Young Meurer, you’ll make a fair creeper, if you survive. You take too many chances.”
Martin braced himself to run, but where? The owner of the voice blocked his escape route. Still the man was just talking, and on the roof at night, he had to be a thief. Another thief, he reminded himself. “Well, I got a nice silver cup. Not bad for an hour’s work.”
“It’s pewter. Where would a tanner get a silver cup? And even if it is silver, which I doubt, was it worth your life?”
Martin moved a bit to the right to try to get a look at the voice’s face. “Who are you to ask that question? You’re a creeper like me.”
The owner of the voice moved his face into the moonlight. “Not quite like you, Young Meurer, and I am not a creeper.” Martin recognized Jorg Hennel, spokesman for the Committee of Correspondence in Suhl. “What would happen if you were caught by Watchman Meusser? As easy as I caught you, even an oaf could manage to find you.”
With no place to go, Martin answered. “Meusser would break through any roof he tried to walk, but if he caught me it would mean the cells.”
Hennel chuckled. “The cells at night and working for the city collecting offal during the day. After you were branded. You do remember they brand thieves on the forehead? No one likes thieves. Now, here’s the real question. What will my fellow Committee members do when they catch you? You know that you made your escape over Gary Reardon’s roof? He is protected by the Committee of Correspondence.”
Martin was surprised. He hadn’t known Reardon lived in this part of town. “Turn me over to the watch?” he asked hopefully. He knew he was caught. Hennel hadn’t touched him, but he was caught.
Hennel laughed. “Yes, they would turn you over to the watch . . . after they dropped you off the roof.” Hennel made a whistling sound followed with a slap to his knee. “Splat. Two broken legs, you’d have to crawl the rest of your life.”
Hennel got to his feet. “It’s cold. Follow me, or leave town. Your choice, but your nights creeping roofs in Suhl are done. Only one warning is given, this is yours.”
Hennel moved off, over the peak of the roof away from Martin’s planned route. Martin took a moment to think. If an old man like Hennel has caught me, I must be past it. Maybe I should look for another line of work. He moved to follow the Committee man.
Two roofs to the west he caught up to Hennel. “Where are we going?”
“To church. Careful here,” was the brief answer as Hennel swung down to catch the edge of a protruding window. Then, using the exposed wooden corner beams, he climbed down to the street where he waited for Martin. He has to be joking. Church? Where are the handholds?
When Martin finally succeeded in joining him in the dark street, Hennel led the way to the side door of a small church. “In you go, Young Meurer. Drop your cup in the poor box. If it’s silver, it will feed the poor for a week.”
Martin was stunned. The man was serious. A church? Putting the cup in the poor box?
Hennel marked his hesitation. “You’re not a good enough thief to put it back. And you can’t start a new life with stolen property. Of course, you could go out the front door and head for the city gate. It will be open in an hour.”
Martin shook his head. Hennel was crazy. But he walked into the church and found the poor box. He thought about running but ended up leaving the cup. His curiosity was aroused. What was Hennel going to do?
When he exited through the side door, he found Hennel sitting on the steps. The man nodded. “Martin, join me in a late supper, my treat. We’ll talk about your future.”
After a quick meal in a nearby tavern, Martin was even more curious. Hennel had refused to talk about anything besides the food.
Finally they were standing outside and Hennel appeared lost in watching the sun rise over the city gate in the distance. “Herr Hennel?” It never hurt to be polite. “What do I do now?”
Hennel pointed as he answered. “There is the north gate. You could be out and on your way to some other city. Not many opportunities for creepers in villages. Or you could ask yourself why you want to become a thief?”
“Because I’m poor and the rich have what I want. And I’m too healthy to be a successful beggar,” Marin answered.
“Yet I found you stealing from a poor man. That tanner was just a journeyman; I would bet that cup was his prize possession. So you were making his life worse. And a pewter cup wouldn’t bring enough to pay for the meal you just ate.”
Martin thought. “The rich have better latches on their shutters, Herr Hennel. They’re harder to steal from.” He couldn’t tell Hennel that the tanner was his third try tonight.
Hennel laughed. “And better locks on their doors, and bars on their windows and dogs! Don’t forget the dogs.”
Martin realized that Hennel knew what he was talking about. The man had to have been a thief some time in his life; from his clothing a successful thief. Was he a man to watch and copy?
“Herr Hennel . . . ”
The older man waved his hand. “Jorg, call me Jorg. I’m not a gentleman you can impress and trick with your manners.”
“Jorg, what did you mean when you said my future? I am not going to leave Suhl; I was born here and have never gone out of the city. If you won’t let me be a thief, what is this future? This new life?”
Jorg smiled, the first real smile Martin had seen on his face. “Ah, Martin, that is the question.”
Jorg reached into his belt pouch. When his hand emerged it held two coins and a pamphlet. “Here is something I want you to read, and enough to live on for two days. I expect to see you here on Friday morning and we’ll talk.” He walked off and Martin looked at the title of the pamphlet. Common Sense by Thomas Paine.
Sunrise Friday morning found Martin pacing in front of the tavern. Where was Jorg? Had he forgotten? Was it all an elaborate joke? Martin was tempted by the unattended handcart resting in the street across from the tavern. Its owner had just gone in the tavern carrying two hams. There had to be more hams in the cart. A quick snatch and he would have breakfast. Jorg had been clear, no more stealing from the poor. Does a butcher count as poor? Besides, there were too many people in the street. No, I am no longer a thief.
Reading Jorg’s pamphlet hadn’t answered his question about his future. In fact it had raised more questions. What was this “Natural Liberty”? The man who wrote it had to be mad? All Englishmen were mad. But the descriptions of kings and nobles rang true. Why had Jorg given it to him?
He was lost in contemplation when Jorg tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re early. Come with me.”
When he turned, Jorg was already walking down the street. Walking and waving his arm. Soon three young men came out of the shadows. When the three greeted Jorg, Martin was glad he had not indulged himself by lifting a ham.
Jorg was soon passing out strips of paper and stacks of pamphlets.
“Here you go. Five Common Sense and ten of the new ones from Jena. You’re working the landing, unloading barges.
“Friedrich, head over to the bolt factory. They’re looking for a sweeper, full time. Tell Herr Reardon I sent you. Here are twenty of the new pamphlets; get them to the machinists.
“Günter, I found you an all day one, loading hides for Josef Boyer, the butcher and unloading the hides at Schwengfeld’s tannery. Take twenty of the new pamphlets to pass out in the street. I’m sorry I couldn’t find you anything cleaner.”
Martin realized that Jorg had found work for these men and was sending them out to spread Committee of Correspondence pamphlets. And taking their reports.
“Casper Amberger raised the wages of his journeymen. Do you think the other gun makers will follow?”
“Your friend Hatfield is hiring more Jaegers, and is looking for two more men for driver training. Think you could put in a good word for Henrich Bohl?”
“Bauer, the printer, has printed thirty-five copies of that book; the one written by the Frenchman, Arouet. The one you had us read.”
Soon the three men were gone, only to be replaced by four more. The same scene was repeated five more times as men came and went.
Finally the men stopped coming. Jorg waved Martin over. “That’s a good start to the morning. Let’s go have breakfast. We have a busy day ahead of us.”
“Jorg, I read that pamphlet and I have some questions.”
“No more politics until after we eat; definitely none at our meal.”
Martin was curious. What did Hennel have in mind? Why did he need a skilled thief? No. A skilled almost thief. “What are we going to be doing? I hope it involves getting some money. My pouch is empty.”
“Well, first we’ll eat. Then we’ll see about making some money,” Jorg answered as they walked down the street.
They were soon in the more prosperous part of the city. The buildings weren’t as run down and the taverns had brightly painted signs. Jorg pointed to a busy tavern. “How about the Laughing Boar for breakfast? Since it’s next to a bakery, they should have fresh bread.”
Martin was taken aback. “Jorg, it’s also next to the city watch headquarters. There are always watchmen stopping in.”
“So? Have you forgotten that you’re no longer a would-be thief? The watch has better things to do than to chase honest men.”
Martin was unsure. The watchman might not know I am not a thief. Besides they do chase beggars. But he followed Jorg into the tavern.
Jorg surprised him by walking directly to the table where a watchman was seated. And not just any watchman. Martin recognized Captain Johan Frey, the commander of the watch.
Jorg seated himself on an unoccupied bench and waved for Martin to take a seat beside him. “Good morning, Captain Frey. I hope you are enjoying your well-earned breakfast. I’d like to introduce Meurer, my new associate.”
Martin could see that Captain Frey was studying his face. Was the man memorizing his looks, or just thinking? Finally he responded. “Hello, Martin. You look better than when I last saw you in the market. I see you lost your limp. Given up begging, have you?”
Before Martin could stumble through an answer, Jorg commented. “Martin has decided that there was no future in being a beggar and is too honest to be a thief.”
The captain smiled. “So now he is another of your projects, Jorg?”
Jorg shrugged. “He shows promise. What I wanted to ask you was if you were done with that book I loaned you? I want Martin to read it.”
Martin could feel the captain’s eyes still studying him. Then the watch commander nodded, “Certainly I’m finished with it. It’s over in the watch office. I think Watchman Weiss is reading it, though.”
Jorg said, “No, let him finish it. I’ll get another copy. Tell Weiss to pass that copy on. Now breakfast. How is the porridge this morning?”
Breakfast with the commander of the watch! Martin couldn’t believe it, but it happened. The man even paid for Jorg and Martin!
Jorg’s rule about no politics while eating held through out the meal. The only conversation was about Martin’s life. What was there to tell? His mother had been a prostitute. She died and left him an orphan who never knew his father. Passed from relative to relative and some who weren’t relatives. Small for his age, so there was no hope for work as a day laborer. Money for an apprenticeship hadn’t even been a dream. His one try at being a cut-purse had failed. The roofs had been his way out of boredom. Then they had looked like his future. Now he was a failed thief.
But Jorg kept asking questions. It was a long meal; Martin wondered if he should go find Captain Frey and confess so he could be arrested.
Finally it was over. Jorg shoved his bowl away and nibbled a last crust of bread. “Now, Martin, ask your questions.”
Martin laid the pamphlet on the table. “What does it mean? What are you working for?”
Jorg looked at him directly. “I am working for a dream; a dream of a perfect world. A world I don’t expect to see, but one I see coming.”
He touched Martin’s shoulder. “I see a world where a poor man has the same standing before the law as a king. But in our world, the poor man is in chains of laws made by kings and nobles. I am working to make my dream become real; a world where all men are equal.”
Martin picked up the pamphlet, “Is that what Paine meant by ‘Natural Liberty’?”
“Of course. You notice that Paine said one honest man is worth more to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived. He could have been talking about our German nobles.”
Martin thought for a moment. “You want to replace the nobles?”
“Not the good ones. Some nobles are even members of the committees. Not many, true. Most are more interested in their privileges than the lives of the people.”
“So that is why you don’t want me to steal from the poor?”
“Martin, I don’t want you to steal from anyone, rich or poor. If you could steal from anyone’s house in Suhl, who would it be?”
Martin thought. Who was the richest man in the city? “Rudolph Amberger. He’s a councilman and rich.”
Jorg smiled. “But he employs twenty-five apprentices and journeymen, not counting the teamsters and carters in his trade caravans. So, you would still be stealing from the poor. Besides, Amberger is working to improve conditions. He did favor allowing all residents, not just citizens, to vote in city elections. He lost, but he was in favor.”
Jorg stood up. “Come on. We can talk while we walk. We’re going to see Anton Bauer, the printer, and we can’t be late.”
“For more pamphlets?”
“That too, but mostly we need to earn some eating money. Anton’s journeyman has left to open his own shop and the apprentices are too small to work the press. So you are going to help unload paper for the shop and I am going to apply some muscle to the press handle. Three days of meals if we get there on time.”
The work wasn’t the hardest thing Martin had ever done. Try hand-walking a house’s eaves three stories above the street! But it did stretch muscles he didn’t know he had. The pay wasn’t the three days’ meals that Jorg had promised either, only two, but the printer had given him his first real book. Jorg had said it was worth reading.
Besides, he had seen the inside of a print shop for the first time. He wondered if fourteen was too old to become an apprentice printer. Who would take him? How would he pay the fee?
Martin stopped and studied the title of the book again. The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, written by some Frenchman named Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Maybe there were some answers in it.
Two weeks later
Martin sat on the roof peak over the attic room where Jorg was meeting with his fellow committee members. The sun was just setting behind the house across the street. He was no longer running the roofs as a thief, but he still did his best thinking high above the stink and noise of the street. The ideas from the books and pamphlets he had been given to read were going round and round in his head. The Rousseau book had pride of place in his collection, but it was hard reading; someday he would finish it.
The idea that all men are by nature equally free and have certain inherent rights was easy to understand. All the writers said that. Of course, putting it into practice would be a problem. No noble or wealthy burger was going to give up their privileges or even believe that the poor were equal to them in the courts. And the concept that all power comes from the people was foreign to those same nobles. They thought God had given them their place in society. The very idea that the common people, even people like him, could have a voice in choosing a government would give them fits.
The voices from the room below caught Martin’s attention. Jorg’s meeting was breaking up. Martin’s thoughts were pulled away from politics and back to his condition. Soon he and Jorg would go to dinner. Martin was hungry; he had spent the day in the hard physical labor of unloading charcoal at Johann Will’s gun works. Working at a gun shop had been interesting, despite the labor involved. Between trips to the wagon for charcoal, Will had shown him how a master shaped metal and how to hammer rough parts into a finished weapon. Martin thought maybe he might like to become a gun maker instead of a printer.
As he swung down from the roof peak to the window of Jorg’s room, all the political ideas were brought crashing back by a comment by one of the departing committee members and Jorg’s answer. The member asked, “But do we have right to change the government? Not can we? We know we have the power, but do we have the right?”
Jorg’s answer was straight and to the point. “Heinrich, we are agreed that government is instituted for the common benefit and security of the people. If the acts of the government are contrary to that purpose, the people have the right to reform, alter or abolish it. So, yes, I think we have the right.”
Heinrich seemed satisfied as he left, but Martin’s head was suddenly full of all the political arguments he had overheard in the past weeks. All the ideas from the books and pamphlets were there and Martin decided they were worth working for. But were they worth fighting for? He knew it would come to fighting, the news from other parts of Germany were full of the events of Operation Krystalnacht. No, the so-called leaders of society wouldn’t give up their privileges without a fight.
Jorg turned toward him and asked, “Martin, ready for dinner?”
Martin was more than ready, but this was more important. “Jorg, what does it take to join the Committee of Correspondence? Not just follow you around as a hanger-on, but to be a real member? I think I want to join.”
Jorg smiled an odd smile and stated, “Nothing and everything. No amount of money can buy your way into our trust and fellowship, but you will give everything to our cause if you become a member. Some Americans in a future that never will be said it best. Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. You know we can still lose and if we do we will be hunted down like all people in a city hunt rats. Think hard, Martin, before you ask to join.”
“But . . . ”
” Plus, you are younger than most of our members like for a recruit. So, no, I will not suggest you as a full member.”
Martin was not too disappointed; he had never expected to be accepted as a full member. But there had to be a way. He spoke formally. “Herr Hennel, I wish to apply for the position as your apprentice. I have been your shadow for the past month and I am ready for more duties.”