by Eric P. Kelly
Interests: medieval history, Poland, Krakow, adventure, action, religion, science
MacMillan Publishing Co.: 1928
208 pp. – 16 chapters
A fictional tale of medieval Poland and Krakow’s great fire of 1461.
After Cossack-Tartars burn their farm the Charnetski family flees to Krakow so that father (Andrew) can turn over to the king the precious crystal that the Tartar Bogdan the Terrible seeks. Unfortunately the King is not in the city and Bogdan is hot on their heels. The family hides, making friends with an alchemist and his daughter Elzbietka, whom young Joseph falls for immediately. Andrew gets a job as trumpeter at the church of Our Lady St. Mary, and tells Joseph the legend of the young trumpeter who was killed while sounding the Heynal from the church tower. In the two hundred years since, a trumpeter has played this song every hour, always breaking off the melody at the point where the youth was killed.
While Bogdan (aka Button-Face Peter) plots to steal the crystal, the alchemist upstairs is going dangerously mad – one explosive experiment starts a great fire and much of the city is destroyed. Only Joseph’s quick-thinking can keep the crystal safe.
A careening action-packed plot depicts medieval life with great detail along the way. The cast of characters is a colourful assortment of thieves, princes, actors, scholars, alchemists, criminals and priests. Many real-life characters are also scattered throughout – mention is made of Kopernik (Copernicus), Dante and Petrarch, and the medieval saint Jan Kanty plays a direct role as an ally of the Charnetski family.
It is a tremendous accomplishment to craft such a fast-paced, complex plot and at the same time pay such loving attention to historical details along the way: medieval dress and manner, superstitions, law and punishment, crime, education, religion and civic organization. It is a vivid and convincing portrait of Krakow society in 1462, seething with vice, virtue, poverty, wealth and intrigue. This book is testament to the author’s great love for Poland, and in the tumultuous years after World War I Kelly spoke out to promote Polish history and culture. This fervor leads him to flowery overstatement at times, which does not age very well. Here’s a taste, from the opening chapter about that unfortunate trumpeter of 1241:
And then it came to him, young as he was, that he was part of the glorious company of Polish men that was fighting for all Christendom against brutal and savage invaders. He had not seen much of death before that minute – he had heard of it only as something vague. And now, he himself was perhaps going out to meet it, because of his oath, because of his love for the Church, because of his love for Poland.
I shall keep my word, he mused. If I die it shall be for that. My word is as good as my life.
Had a painter caught his expression then, he would have caught only the expression of a very great peace – an expression that signified somehow that God was very close. There was no moment of weakness, no faltering, no suffering even – for he did not think of what might come after his duty was performed. The sand in the hourglass already marked the hour for the trumpet to sound.
…Softly he blew at first – then, thrilled with a sense of triumph, he felt in his heart a joy that was almost ecstatic. He seemed to see in a vision that though he might now die alone and for naught save what perhaps some scoffing ones might call a foolish honor, still that bravery was to descend as a heritage to the people to whom he belonged, and was to become a part of their spirit, their courage, their power of everlasting – all this that moment brought….
Phew! The main character Joseph is similarly noble and pure, a bit of a cardboard cutout, but that’s a small criticism in such a teeming, busy book. All in all this is a ripping yarn, full of colourful characters, intrigue, danger and action.