Baltic Amber

29 Jun

Commander Ulrich knew that he was taking a monumental risk in talking with Ensel Pregolya, a man with native roots on the Sambian peninsula. This was a local peasant who had distinguished himself as a shrewd, successful trader.

Officials of the Teutonic Knights were under orders never to have personal ties with conquered individuals such as Andreas, regardless of their accumulated wealth or widespread reputations. As governor of Konigsberg and the entire peninsula of Sambia, sticking out into the whitish-blue Baltic, Ulrich von Retbeck had the responsibility of enforcing the supremacy of the Order, with particular emphasis on the Teutonic Knights’ strict monopoly over the collection and sale of the amber so abundantly found on the nearby coastal shores.

A towering giant with fiery brown eyes and bushy auburn hair, Ulrich was a terrifying symbol of power. Yet the man was capable of surprising warmth with the few he took a liking to, such as Ensel, the local merchant of Sambian background. They had succeeded in transcending the rigid ethnic line between conqueror and conquered.

The two friends met often at the trader’s dilapidated stone cottage on the outskirts of the fortress of Konigsberg.
Small and unimpressive, Ensel was one who spoke extremely slowly, as if weighing and calculating the value of every single word he uttered.

“In my journeys to the south,” said Ensel on evening as they sat resting and talking, “I find everywhere an unquenchable hunger for amber in all forms. But there is never an adequate supply of it, people tell me. It is as if here on Samland we were ignoring all the abundance that washes up out of the sea. They are mystified, but I tell them that the Order of the Teutonic Knights has supreme control over these shores, and that they set strict, rigid limits on how much of it can be retrieved.”

“Is it rosaries that the pious folk wish to make out of amber? Are these people so devout and dedicated?” inquired the traveling businessman.

Ensel smiled knowingly. “There is much pagan superstition surviving everywhere. It is believed that amber has the power to heal and ailments of human beings. That it can even protect persons from the effects of the evil eye. There exist traditions of pounding amber into a fine powder and inhaling it. The substance is often worn directly on the skin, for it can ease and sooth all sorts of pain. Amber can be placed on rings and given to small children to chew to make their teething endurable.

“Men often use it to increase their fertility,” said the trader with a chuckle.

“I have been told that priests and monks are known to burn amber as an incense,” added the knight. “And that if one holds a ball of it in one’s palm it has magnificent ability to bring about conquest in matters of love.” He smiled with inner delight.

“There is an ever-expanding market for amber,” sighed Ensel. “I can dream of satisfying it, but there is the enormous barrier and obstacle of the monopoly that rules the Amber Coast we live on. For instance, in my travels southward I have come across traders from a land called Armenia. They are Christians, but they do a great deal of business with neighbors who are of the Moslem faith. They claim that they could sell an unlimited quantity of amber to these heretical heathens if I could provide much more to them. But I have to tell them that nothing more is at present available to me because of the strict regulation we live under here on Sambia.

“It is very disappointing, but there is nothing that I can do for them unless..” He stopped, staring into the brown eyes of the Teutonic knight. It was the latter who finished the uncompleted sentence.

“…unless there arises some method of avoiding the obstacles created by my Order’s monopoly over the collection of Baltic amber. That is what you mean to say, isn’t it?”

Ulrich made a cynical grimace as he waited for a reply to his challenging question.

“I would, of course, share my gains in trade with you,” said the merchant at last. “And I promise you that I would try to be generous because of the risks we were assuming together.”

Ensel provided his partner with a team of native Prussian workers who were sworn to absolute secrecy. These master artisans went to the beaches at night to gather amber pieces in large wicker baskets. The men, with names such as Gerge, Mertin, Ansas, and Bladis found mostly the common yellow-orange colored variety of amber. But they also found smaller quantities of white, red, green, and even blue hues. The last had the greatest market value.

Ensel departed Konigsberg on his sturdy nag, carrying a heavy load of polished amber beads in the saddlebags. He informed Ulrich that his plan was to attempt disposal of their illegal treasure in Hungary or Transylvania, always good markets for the lucky beads from the Baltic Sea. It was only a few furlongs from the peninsula of Sambia that a pair of armed men on horses rode up to the traveling trader from behind and ordered him to halt.

“What do you have in those large sacks?” inquired the senior Teutonic Knight, his voice sharp and rough.

Ensel stopped his forward progress and turned his face toward the intruders. “I am a well-known, legitimate itinerant merchant, and I am transporting a small supply of amber rosary chains to customers in distant places who have ordered these items from me when last I saw them.”

“Do you have some document that proves that you came upon them by purchase from the sole legal source, the Order of the Teutonic Knights? If you do, then show your receipts to me,” angrily barked the officer dressed in black, a silver-colored cross over his chest.

Humbly smiling, Ensel reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled out a crumbled piece of paper with writing on it. He leaned to the side and handed it to the knight. The latter gave it a rapid look-over, pretending he was able to read and comprehend it. Making a face, he then returned it to Ensel.

Without a further word, he motioned to his companion and the two started to ride away, back toward Konigsberg.

The trader gave a sigh of relief, then started his horse back on the journey that had been interrupted.

The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Konrad von Feuchtwangen, left his castellum in Marienburg on a special tour of inspection centered on Konigsberg and the peninsula of Sambia. Disturbing reports of uncontrolled supplies of amber came from Poland, Hungary, and lands to the east and south. Why was this evident smuggling from the Baltic coast not being stopped and those responsible for it caught and punished?

The Hochmeister rode into Konigsberg with his personal guard of half a dozen horsemen. He was a tall, heavy man of late middle age who experienced all the demands of high offices in the Order, and now held the top position of power and authority. Everyone who had contact with him recognized how thoroughly he had dedicated himself to the goals and values of the Teutonic Knights, now responsible for ruling so much of the Baltic region.

The district governor, Ulrich von Retbeck, stood waiting to greet him at the gate to the town. After greetings were exchanged, the pair of leaders entered the official residence to have a meal together and discuss the matter that had brought the Grand Master to the Sambia peninsula.

Only after a servant served a full, heavy meal did the two members of the Teutonic elite get down to practical business. It was the Hochmeister who spoke first, presenting the charges being made against Elsin of enforcement laxity and ineffectiveness.

“There are serious accusations I hear against what goes on here on the peninsula. At the beginning, I ignored and minimized them, but now there is a general attitude in Marienburg that is sharply critical of how you fail in the enforcement of our Order’s monopoly over all commerce in amber. That is the reason I have traveled here: to investigate the situation and find out for myself whether there is any ground for blaming you for anything. I promise that I will be honest and objective in reaching any conclusion. My main concern will be the preservation of the honor and good name of the Teutonic Knights and our reputation for a system of just rule.

“So, it is your duty, my dear Elsin, to tell me the truth about what you know. Is there some kind of illegal business that is kept secret, but that floods the southern lands with Baltic amber from Samland?”

Ulrich von Retbeck realized that there was no way he could avoid lying to the Grand Master. All that was possible for him was to limit his falsehoods to a minimum.

“It is natural that we judge and describe circumstances by the outward appearances that we see every day and become very used to,” said the amber merchant in a tone of impersonal abstraction. “I am no different than anyone else in our Order, sir. My vision begins with what is clearly and obviously visible to the eye. That is the reason I have to confess that I am ignorant of any breaking of the law of monotony within the district that I govern.

“If I, in my high and central position, have no personal knowledge of anything amiss with our trade in amber, than I am justified in doubting that anyone else has had direct experience involving any such criminal activity. My conclusion therefore has to be that outsiders are merely speculating, imagining, and guessing about the matter. It might be that this alarm that you speak of, sir, is the result of idle talk and malicious gossip by persons who wish to do harm to our beloved Order of Teutonic Knights. Have you thought of that possibility, Hochmeister?”

Ulrich grinned with self-satisfaction, studying the grim face of his superior to catch a sign whether his words were having an effect on the big man.

Distress and discomfort seemed to flow out of the visitor. “I must have a look of my own about your peninsula and find out what is going on here. In circumstances such as these, one can only depend upon one’s own eyes and ears, not those of others.” Konrad fell silent and turned his face away.

Does the Grand Master distrust the reports that brought him here, or is it me he suspects of something evil? wondered the local governor.

Konrad began his probe by summoning each local laborer involved with the gathering of amber and the formation of polished beads. Individual interrogations occurred at the room he commandeered at the official residence of the district governor, Ulrich von Retbeck.

The latter, afraid that there being some inadvertent disclosure or hint of the truth, attempted to be present at all times when the Hochmeister was dealing with individuals who knew some portions of what had been going on.

“I need to talk with this amber trader called Ensel Pregolya,” announced Konrad on the third day of his investigation. “His name has come up frequently in my questioning of all these workers with the amber.”

“I know him well,” said Ulrich, “and I myself will go and fetch this man for you.”

This willingness to be of service gave the governor a chance to warn the trader to be very careful in all his statements to the Grand Master. The two men walked back to the official residence together. “Do not give forth too much information about your buying and selling of amber products,” advised the regional official.

“I will reveal nothing of importance when he asks me questions,” muttered Ensel.

Neither said anything more as they approached their destination.

The Grand Master had an instruction to give to Ulrich when he returned to the residence with Ensel.

“This would be an opportune time to make a search of this man’s cottage,” said Konrad in a near whisper. “While I question the amber merchant, I wish you to look through the building he lives in. Find out whether there is any kind of evidence of illegal actions in the commerce that he is engaged with.”

Ulrich gave a single affirmative nod and withdrew quickly from the house in which he lived.

The Hochmeister entered the living room where Ensil Presolya sat in a plain chair of pine.

Konrad gave a loud cough, then sat down in a throne-like seat opposite the trader.

“You have been in the business of selling amber in foreign lands for a number of years, I understand. Are you satisfied in operating under the limits set by the Order of Teutonic Knights, the sovereign power over Konigsberg and the peninsula of Sambia?” The questioner looked sternly at the smaller man.

“Indeed, sir. That is the only profession I have ever made my living in. And I swear that I have always respected and adhered to the regulations set by the holy Order that you are head of. My foremost ambition is to be recognized by the Teutonic Knights as a trader of the highest honor and integrity. That is my goal, whatever the circumstances I find myself in.”

Konrad looked away to the side for a brief moment, then concentrated his piercing gaze on the other.

“What do you think about the character of Albrecht von Retbeck?” he asked, his face cold and emotionless.

“I do not understand what you mean, sir. In what way do you wish me to answer what you ask?” He look at the Master with desperation and confusion on his face.

Konrad replied softly, assuming a warm tone of voice. “I may admit to you that my visit to Konigsberg centers upon certain suspicions that have risen in my mind concerning the district governor. If there is anything illegal going on here, how could it exist without his knowledge or participation? There is reason to believe that he has not been absolutely truthful about what he knows. There have been hints of unseen actions by him, away from the light of the day.

“Is there anything that you know about him that could help me in uncovering the truth behind the mask that he wears during the day?”

Ensel looked down at the hard plank floor, searching inside himself for how to answer the question.

“Forgive me, sir, but I must ask you why you inquire of me about a man far above me in rank and position, a person with whom I hold the role of a subordinate and inferior. Why should you believe that I can report anything damaging to his reputation as our governor?”

The Grand Master suddenly flushed red with anger. “Do not pretend that you are some kind of stranger to him, for I have been told by certain unnamed sources that you and he have frequently been seen in each other’s company, both outdoors and indoors. What kind of business are you carrying out for him? I demand that you reveal that to me this very moment.” His voice turned loud and threatening as he came to an end. He glared with fury at Ensel, forcing the latter to start to squirm.

The amber trader, thinking rapidly, came to the conclusion that he would have to make a bold, risky leap into the realm of the unforeseeable.

“What if your worst fears and suspicions were the truth, sir? I believe that there is a way to make you incredibly wealthy, to allow you to have personal control of a flood of amber beside and beyond what may be considered the traditional limits that were set long ago when the monopoly rules over the amber supply were created.”

Konrad seemed struck by lightning. “What are you talking about? How can what you say be realized, do you imagine?”

Ensel forced himself to smile at the Grand Master. “Why can’t you arrest and punish my partner and protector, but then replace him? With that, you would come to dominate an ever larger flow of profit, mainly to yourself?”

Would the leader of all the Teutonic Knights accept such a lucrative proposition? nervously wondered the little man being interrogated.

A hopeful sign occurred within a few seconds.

“Tell me how you think what you just described could be successfully fulfilled by us, my good man,” said Konrad in a gently purring voice that had a catlike quality to it.

Immediate arrest and summary judgment by the highest official of the Order occurred before the day ended.

The guards who accompanied the Hochmeister dragged Ulrich von Retbeck away from Konigsberg for a speedy execution of the sentence pronounced upon him.

No sign or trace of the regional governor was ever found. In fact, none was looked for or sought by anyone.

Because the Order of the Teutonic Knights was a strictly monastic organization, Konrad had no heirs to whom he could leave the vast fortune that Ensel Pregolya helped accumulate for him.

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