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“Hey, Linus! Where is the sergeant?”
Becker sighed. The party had gone on until around two in the morning, and somewhere in that time, Hartmann had vanished. “Josef, does it look like I have been assigned to keep track of him?” He picked up the stack of plates, carrying them over to the tray that had held snacks, and was now filling up with dirty dishes. “If he felt the need for company, he could ask. Now take this tray to the women before I thump you.”
"Jawohl, Herr Wachtmeister!"
Becker looked toward the door. He didn't even have to think about where his sergeant had gone. He knew. Poor bastard.
Snow had begun to fall, the graveyard becoming a white expanse in the early morning. One set of feet were walking through it, and they paused at the gravestone. Hartmann knelt, then sat, leaning on the stone, only it and death separated him from the people he loved the most. He set down the rifle, drew out his new pipe, and filled it. Then before he took out his lighter, he drew a flask from another inner pocket, pouring schnapps into a small glass he had dug into the soil in front of the stone.
"I love the present. I wish Alexander were still alive; I would have liked to thank him." He sighed, looking up into the clouds. "I miss you." He opened the flask, tapped the glass with it. "To us forever."
Hartmann looked at the sign; Die graue Katze. He snorted. Because all cats are gray in the dark. Maybe there was a more stupid name for a whorehouse, but he couldn't think of one. What in the hell was Hamner of all people doing here?
He pushed open the door. The inside was all warm wood, tapestries, and the smell of furniture polish. One man, built like an ox and looking about as bright, watched him. If he had begun chewing a cud, Hartmann would have turned and walked right back out.
"Welcome, Sergeant!" The woman who came into the hall was full-fleshed, with a wide open face and brilliant smile. "You I have not seen. Are you new to Magdeburg?"
"I have been here almost a year," Hartmann replied. "I am looking for someone."
“Everyone who graces our establishment is looking for someone, Sergeant. It is the nature of the business.”
He sighed. “Madam, I am looking for a man.” Even as he said, it, he knew he had stated it wrong.
The smile slipped. “Sergeant, we do not serve your kind here. However—”
She stopped as Hartmann raised his hand. "No. I am looking for a particular man. Wachtmeister Hamner, who told his friends he would be here."
At the name, the woman's smile returned. "Ah! Michel! I am sorry, Sergeant, we get all kinds of people coming here. I am Sophia, the proprietor." She hooked her arm through his, and like a tugboat began to drag him. They passed into another room.
There were six women in the next room, all under-dressed to show off the wares. The women watched him with the same predatory air he had seen from wolves in winter, wondering how he might taste. The madam pulled him through, and the instant they reached the halfway point, the women ignored him as if he didn't exist.
Down a hall, then to a door that led into a dining room. Instead of men and women enjoying a meal before their sport, a dozen boys and girls from around eleven to seventeen were seated heads down, writing. The woman motioned for silence. At the other end of the table, Hamner sat in uniform, glancing up, then at an hourglass before him. He stood, walking quietly to where his sergeant stood. “Just another few minutes please, Sergeant.”
Hamner returned to the end of the table, and as the last sand fell he spoke. "Pencils down. Pass the papers to this end, please." Obediently the children did as instructed. "Now, go to your work. I will grade these tonight." He motioned, and they stood, the lines of silent, attentive students suddenly becoming a swarm of giggling children as they fled.
“When I heard you were in a whorehouse this early in the evening, I imagined something else.”
Hamner blushed. “I am affianced, Sergeant, and she lives less than three blocks away. I will allow you to imagine what she would do.”
“So what you have been doing?”
“I made my living as a tutor before I joined the Army, Sergeant. Madam Schreiber had spoken to the CoC here in the capital, hoping to find someone who could help the older children who had no chance of an education so they would not fall too far behind. They are paying me a stipend per student."
"Which he spends here on tea and snacks for the children," the madam commented. "And once a week he teaches my girls how to speak and read other languages."
"I don't know how your new commanding officer will feel about that," Hartmann said softly.
"Sergeant?" Hamner looked stunned. "You are going to kick me out of the company?"
"Nothing so harsh." Hartmann pulled a folder from his tunic and passed it over. "You have been transferred to the Third Division."
"Some of their regiments are still being organized. All of us from officers down to sergeants have been asked to recommend men to transfer."
Hartmann smiled, but it was that gentle smile those who had known him for a while rarely saw. "As a sergeant, Michel. They may call it something else, but the top enlisted man in the company."
Hamner clutched the folder to his chest. "I will try to follow your example."
"Oh, I am not done with you yet." Hartmann commented, hands behind his back, rocking heel to toe in what his noncoms had begun calling the sergeant's training pose. "Since you are leaving, who would you suggest for a replacement?"
"Kohlner." Hamner said instantly.
"Explain your choice."
"Sometimes he is adamant that he is right, and it took time to teach him otherwise. However, he pays attention when he is instructed and asks good questions. If others are too slow to understand, he is willing to explain until the last trump, though after four or five times, he does get a bit upset."
"Will he grow out of it?" Hartmann's eyes bored into the younger man.
"In time," Hamner grinned. "I did."
"I agree." Hartmann stuck out his hand. "Do me proud, Sergeant." Hamner shook his hand. "Now I have to tell Becker he is going to Third Company. I wonder if he is as observant as you."
"But first, we must celebrate!" The madam bustled out, then returned with a dusty bottle. She pulled the cork and poured. "Madeira wine, Sergeants." She handed them the glasses, then lifted her own. "Would you decide the toast, Sergeant? Or shall I?"
Hartmann looked at the earnest face. "Absent friends." He drained the glass, set it down, and left.
"Such a self-controlled man. He walked through the antechamber without leering even once! His wife must be proud."
"She was." At her look, he added, "She died days before Ahrensbök."
The woman looked at the closed door. "There must be something we can do about that."
Suddenly, it seemed, Hartmann was a prize catch for a dinner partner.
He'd had dinner with his lieutenant and of course Colonel Ludendorf, both with family. But considering his relationship with them, it would have been a surprise only because of his rank. But suddenly he was inundated with invitations even from civilians who would come up to him on the streets! He had gone to three before he saw the pattern.
All had an unmarried woman younger than him as his table partner. If asked from that point on, he merely said he was busy—which was true. The personal invitations stopped, but that wasn't the end of it. Instead, there came letters.
Frankly, it was beginning to irritate him. He had one of the feldwebel from his company going through them and told him that if any of them mentioned “perhaps you would like to meet my sister-cousin-niece-good friend Frau Whatever-the-hell-her-name-was,” they would be set aside to use to start the fire in the orderly room after he dashed off a quick note saying he was busy. If someone slipped one in without the mentioned woman, he would arrive, stay a polite amount of time, make his apologies, and leave.
Worse yet, both the company and the training company had found out, and there was a lot of whispering that stopped when he was seen.
He was lucky about Christmas at least. One of the letters had been from Bobby Hollering to invite him to Grantville. By then almost all of the training for his present unit would be done.
Hartmann climbed down from the train. It was a wonder. A seven-day trip in less than two. He swung the scabbard of his rifle aside to allow those boarding for the return trip to Magdeburg to pass. Ahead was one of the horse-drawn carriages, and he whistled.
He stopped the cab at the bottom of the hill. While one of the cars the up-timers used could have taken the hill, a horse-drawn one would have struggled. He climbed it on foot with few problems.
The shack was still there, and he noticed the smoke rising from the small metal chimney. Had Kirsten and the others stayed this long? He was about to knock when he heard a plaintive meow. Kočka stood there, her paws on his boot, looking up at him.