Journey to Krakow
Within a few days after Sukkoth the final preparations for the journey to Krakow were complete. One of the richer merchants of Pulichev put his personal coach at their disposal for the long journey. A local peasant named Wladislaw was hired to be the driver and porter. Wladislaw often did minor repairs on Reb Mendel’s house, as well as the house of the many other Jewish families in Pulichev. Mendel knew Wladislaw well and trusted him.
Wladislaw was kept busy outfitting the comfortable coach with the furnishings and provisions that a family of three, including a child, would need for such a long journey. He also secured some weapons to protect them from the bandits that infested the roads; the elegant coach would make them an inviting target. To save the bother of unloading all the luggage every night it was arranged that Wladislaw would sleep on top of the coach.
The day before they were to set out on their journey Zbigniew Mzlateslavski paid them a visit.
“I hear you are going to Krakow,” he said. “I wish you a pleasant and speedy journey.”
“Thank you,” said Reb Mendel.
“Krakow is a beautiful city,” said the priest. “I have been there many times. It is particularly beautiful in the autumn. You will enjoy it.”
“I am sure we will,” said Reb Mendel. “We too, have been there before.”
“I wonder if you could do me a favor,” said the priest.
“Of course. How can I be of help?”
“Well, it’s really quite a small thing. I have a packet that must go to Cardinal Szmerka in Krakow. If you will just bring it to Krakow to an address I will give you it will be delivered to the Cardinal. It would save me a great deal of bother. You don’t even have to deliver it right away. Just send it around with your driver when you’ve settled yourselves in.”
“That will be no problem,” said Reb Mendel. “We’ll be leaving tomorrow soon after dawn. You can bring it by anytime today, and we’ll just pack it in.”
“That’s another thing,” said the priest. “Will you be unloading the coach every night?”
“No,” said Reb Mendel. “Wladislaw, the driver, is going to be sleeping on the coach.”
“Could I possibly trouble you to take the packet into your lodgings with you every night? It is very valuable, and my mind would be much more at ease if I knew it was receiving the utmost protection. It is not heavy at all. It really wouldn’t be that much bother, and it would mean so much to me.”
“You can rest assured,” Reb Mendel said. “I’ll take it inside every night myself. It will get there safely.”
“Thank you very much. I am most grateful to you. I shall bring the packet over just as soon as I can stop by the church and pick it up.”
A short while later, Mzlateslavski returned with a packet in hand. It was, in fact, quite a small packet, not much bigger than a large book. It was made of a heavy fabric and had no emblems. It was fastened by a simple piece of cord tied in an ordinary knot. But it had one very distinctive feature. It was a dazzling red color with alternating stripes of royal blue and gold. Mzlateslavski handed the packet to Reb Mendel.
“This certainly is an unusual looking packet,” said Reb Mendel as he took it from the priest. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Where did you get it?”
“Oh, I’ve had it for years and years,” replied Mzlateslavski as he settled into a chair. “A friend of mine once brought it to me from France.”
“It must be very precious to you.”
“Yes, it means quite a lot to me.”
“Then why don’t you sent whatever it is you’re sending to the Cardinal in something else?”
Mzlateslavski seemed momentarily confused, but he regained his composure quickly.
“You don’t understand how it is with the Cardinal, rabbi. I am just a humble priest in a faraway city. The packet will make him remember me.”
“Well, I suppose that is all.”
“Aren’t you going to give me the address in Krakow to which I am to deliver this packet?”
“Certainly, certainly. Thank you for reminding me. I had almost forgotten.”
He pulled a neatly folded piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Reb Mendel. Reb Mendel unfolded the paper and looked at the address.
“Where exactly is this place?” he asked.
“It is in Old Krakow,” replied Mzlateslavski. “Your driver will have no problem finding it. You yourself will not be able to go there, of course.”
“Of course,” said Reb Mendel with an ironic smile. “I shall send Wladislaw.”
“Please do not be resentful, rabbi,” said Mzlateslavski. “The eviction of the Jews from Old Krakow was not my doing, you know.”
“It is no matter,” said Reb Mendel and shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
Mzlateslavski got up to go. Reb Mendel walked out with him into the warm autumn afternoon.
“Once again, please accept my sincere thanks,” said the priest without looking Reb Mendel directly in the eye. Then with a slight bow, he turned and walked away.
The following morning was one of those glorious mornings that come only in autumn. The sun’s warmth filtered through the cool breezes of light, fresh air. The trees were clothed in gold and russet leaves. The birds were just beginning to embark on their own journey to warmer climates. It was the kind of morning that was relaxing without making one lazy, the perfect morning for setting out on an exciting journey.
Wladislaw arrived long before the crack of dawn and began loading the coach. Reb Mendel rose soon after and went to the synagogue to pray. By the time he returned the Rebbetzin was already bustling about the house preparing a hot breakfast. Who knew if they would have another hot meal before stopping for Shabbath in Kolbitz? They let Shloimele sleep as long as possible.
The sun had barely climbed above the treetops when they were off. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin thought back to the last time they had made this journey almost four years before. They reminded each other of the mud-choked and overcrowded roads and of the rickety carriage in which they traveled. This time, however, the roads were clear and in good condition, and they were traveling in a comfortable coach. But there was an even greater difference. Last time they had been brokenhearted; it had been a journey of desperation. This time they were supremely happy. They had been blessed with everything they could possibly want. They were traveling to celebrate their good fortune together with the holy sage and ask his blessing for their son. It was a journey of hope and joy.
The first week of the journey passed uneventfully. Wladislaw sat high up on the coach bristling with weapons, but nothing unusual happened. The weather was very favorable. They stopped frequently to rest and to care for the horses. They exchanged greetings with other travelers and farmers carting their produce to the market towns. They arrived in Kolbitz before noon on Friday and spent a thoroughly enjoyable Shabbath there. However, although Reb Mendel was rapidly becoming a very well-known Rabbi, the people were more interested in meeting the famous Shloimele.
On Sunday morning, they set out on the road once again. Much to their chagrin, conditions had deteriorated. There were reports of marauding bandits from returning travelers. There had also been a storm some distance ahead, and traffic had been disrupted. Here and there, trees had fallen across the road and stopped traffic altogether. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin decided to stop early that day. Maybe things would be better tomorrow.
They found a clean looking inn and rented a room for the night. They brought in their overnight luggage and left the rest of their luggage in the coach with Wladislaw. They also brought in the priest’s scarlet packet, as they had done every night before. Reb Mendel left the packet on one of the beds.
After they had prayed and eaten, Reb Mendel took out some of the sefarim he had taken along and was soon deeply immersed in a difficult piece of Talmud. The Rebbetzin sat near the window humming quietly to herself as she knitted a sweater for Shloimele. The little boy was busy exploring his new surroundings.
All of a sudden, the Rebbetzin looked up and saw Shloimele sitting on the floor with the priest’s packet in his lap. He had undone the knot and removed the cord. It was open, and he was reaching inside it.
“Shloimele!” the Rebbetzin exclaimed. “That’s not yours. What are you doing? Stop that right now!”
The Rebbetzin got up and ran over to Shloimele, but it was too late. He had already emptied the contents of the packet all over the floor. The Rebbetzin stared at the contents in total perplexity.
“Mendel!” she called out. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but you must come look at this.”
Reb Mendel came over to take a look.
“Why, it’s just a bunch of blank paper!” he said. “Why in the world would Mzlateslavski send a stack of blank sheets to the Cardinal of Krakow?”
“That’s what I would like to know. Mendel, I am very worried about this.”
“So am I. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Wait, Mendel. Is it possible that Mzlateslavski was afraid someone might open the packet and sent his messages in some kind of code?”
“Let’s take a look.”
They put Shloimele to sleep. Then they examined each sheet of paper very closely for the better part of an hour, but they found nothing at all. They turned the packet inside out and examined the lining. Still, they found nothing. They searched for secret compartments. There were none. After they finished their scrutiny they were more baffled than ever.
“I can’t begin to imagine what Mzlateslavski’s motive could have been in sending something of this sort,” said Reb Mendel, a note of deep anxiety creeping into his voice. “I am afraid.”
He returned to his Talmud, but he could no longer concentrate. Instead, he took out a Book of Psalms and started murmuring softly. Every few minutes a tremor went through his body. Finally, he put down the Psalms and without a word returned to his Talmud. The Rebbetzin picked up the Psalms and, clutching it tightly, retreated to a far corner of the room. That night neither of them slept well.
In the morning, the reports from returning travelers were not much better than those of the day before. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin decided that they might as well push on. There was no telling how long it would take for the roads to clear up. It might even take weeks. They would just have to make the best of a bad situation.
Considering the chaos on the roads, they made fairly good progress that morning. In the early afternoon, however, they came to a complete standstill not far from Fabiansk. The roadway was crowded with all kinds of stranded vehicles, from the most lavish coaches to the roughest carts. People were getting out and strolling about, stretching their travel weary limbs. No one knew how long it would take before they could continue on. There was a rumor that a span of a small bridge had come loose, and it was being repaired.
After a while, Shloimele began to get impatient. At first, his mother was able to distract him with food and toys, but he soon lost interest. Wladislaw suggested that Shloimele climb up and sit with him on top of the coach. The Rebbetzin let him go, and he found it quite interesting. Soon he became bored with this too. What he really needs, the Rebbetzin thought, is a good, comfortable bed.
Halfway up a hill overlooking the road some very colorful autumn flowers were in bloom. Wladislaw suggested that he and Shloimele climb up to pick some of the flowers while Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin kept an eye on the coach. This seemed a very good idea. Shloimele was very excited as he and Wladislaw went off to pick the flowers.
A quiet hour passed as they waited for the flower pickers to return. Reb Mendel chatted with the other travelers, hoping to pick up some useful information. The Rebbetzin dozed inside the coach.
Then the vehicles slowly began to move. The obstacle up ahead had apparently been removed. Reb Mendel woke the Rebbetzin; they would soon be able to continue on their journey. But Wladislaw and Shloimele had not yet returned. Wladislaw probably has no idea that the road has been reopened, Reb Mendel thought, but I can’t leave my wife alone on the road and go look for them. Another quarter of an hour passed and still they did not return. Traffic was beginning to flow on the road all around them. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin were beside themselves with worry.
“Mendel, where can they be? What has that Wladislaw done to my child?”
“Wladislaw has done nothing,” he reassured her. “I know Wladislaw, and he is completely trustworthy. He adores Shloimele. He would never harm him.”
“Mendel, please go look for them.”
“I’m sure they’ll be back soon. I’d really rather not leave you here alone.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I can’t take not knowing where they are. Please go.”
Reb Mendel started up the hill. After a short climb he came to the wildflower beds, but there was no sign of Shloimele or Wladislaw. He looked again at the flowers and saw that some of them had been trampled by what appeared to be a group of people. With rising alarm, he started to explore the surrounding hillside, but he found nothing. Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of a flash of light near the hilltop. It looked like the reflection of the rays of the setting sun off a piece of metal.
Reb Mendel was filled with dread as he climbed to the top of the hill. He was about to give up his search when he again saw the flash of light from among a clump of bushes. There among the bushes lay the body of Wladislaw, a drawn dagger in each hand and blood congealing around the stab wounds in his chest. There was no telling how long he had been dead. Shloimele was nowhere to be found.
Reb Mendel felt as if he had been struck a blow with the clenched fist of a giant. His world was suddenly devoid of light and joy and laughter. Reb Mendel had climbed the hill as a vigorous young man. He came down an old man. The Rebbetzin was waiting anxiously for him by the side of the road. When she saw his face she collapsed.
Other travelers stopped to assist the distressed couple. They organized search parties to scour the surrounding countryside before dark. Presently, the soldiers of the Count of Fabiansk arrived and took charge of the search. They asked some questions, but the answers they received were altogether unsatisfactory. Some people had seen a suspicious group of men watching the road but could not give them specific descriptions of the men. Others had seen some men loitering the day before at the bridge whose span had come loose.
Apparently, this was the work of a band of kidnappers. They had sabotaged the bridge to stop the traffic. Then they had waited patiently for the opportunity to abduct one of the children. Wladislaw had tried to prevent the abduction and had been killed for his efforts.
Who were these men? Where did they go? How could they be found?
No one had even the faintest idea. Shloimele had vanished without a trace.
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