City by the Bay
In the North American territory granted to the Tsar by treaty, his servants and soldiers build a settlement, Saint Helena, that grows to be the great city by the Golden Gate Bay. Adventurers of all kinds pass through or take up residence, winning and losing fortunes against the backdrop of the Great Game between mighty empires.
Gregori Andreivich Gyazin is a distant relative of the Tsar of all the Russias. He is also the Governor-General of Novaya Rossiya, the Tsar’s huge colony stretching from the wind-swept Aleutian islands to the southern reaches of Alta California. From the colonial capital in Saint Helena, the city by the Golden Gate Bay, he must confront encroachments of the French and British empire in North America. To make things still worse, he also has to deal with the schemes and intrigues of the Tsar’s own agents and spies. With friends like this, who needs enemies?
City By The Bay tells the story of Saint Helena from the time of its founding in 1816 to its eventual fate after the disastrous 1906 earthquake – nearly a century, most of which Prince Gregori witnesses. Robber barons, soldiers of fortune, tale-spinners, prophets and native shamans—people of all kinds pass through Saint Helena or take up residence, winning and losing fortunes in a world where revolutions never took place.
With a sigh, Father Mikhail dropped onto the rudimentary bench set along the partially-built wall. He reached within his cassock and drew out a set of polished wooden rosary beads, examined them, and then let them fall into his lap. He wiped his brow with his sleeve and looked around, his gaze finally landing on Brother Gennady, who was engaged in a conversation with a workman in halting Spanish.
“You are working too hard, Brother,” he said, after a moment.
The young monk gave the workman a slight bow, and came toward Mikhail, his sandals kicking up dust.
“And you should take better care of yourself, Otyets Mikhail.” Gennady smiled, wiping his hands on the front of his cassock. “Are you feeling unwell?”
“No, not really.” Mikhail sighed again. “I am just tired.”
“Perhaps you should go back inside and rest.”
“And pass up the opportunity to see you work so hard? I would not miss it. What has the brodyaga Spaniard to say? More delays?”
Gennady sat next to the older man. “As you know, my Spanish is a work in progress, so I’m not sure I got the full meaning. But apparently they are having trouble with the mortar—it is too watery, I think.”
“I would not be surprised if they were watering it themselves.”
“That is most uncharitable of you, Otyets. These are good men. They take great pride in their work.”
“They do not work here for the glory of God, Brother Gennady. They work for roubles, just as they once worked for pesos. Even when this church is built, and God willing it will someday be finished, I hardly think we will ever see any of them come in to worship.”
“That is what Kapitan Donatiev said. ‘They are scarcely Catholic; they are unlikely to become Orthodox . . . but build your church anyway, Brother.’” His intonation was a perfect mimicry of the commander of the garrison here at the tsar’s newest outpost; it was enough to bring a smile to Father Mikhail’s face.
“Mocking is unbecoming a servant of God,” Mikhail said, but he couldn’t help but smile. “The archbishop sent us to build a church,” he continued, “and we will do as directed . . . whether anyone comes to visit or not.”
The terms of the treaty between the crowns of Great Britain and Russia had been agreed upon as early as 1809, but it had taken seven years for the details to be fully worked out. The Great Autocrat, the Tsar of all the Russias, had been granted—with British approval—a large swath of land that had formerly been the northern part of the province the Spanish called Alta California. This was not out of any great love that King George had for his cousin, Tsar Alexander: indeed, it was not even his decision, given his advanced state of madness—but the regent was also none too fond of the tsar. It was merely political expediency, a way to keep the rich boundary of the Pacific out of the hands of the French. Poaching territory from the crumbling Spanish Empire had been done in the face of an earnest embassy from First Minister Lafayette to the Court of Saint Petersburg, which was turned away when the treaty was announced.
The Court of Saint James might have wanted Alta California for itself—but they, like the Russians, might have found it difficult to defend. In any case, it was better to have an ally in Russia than to have the tsar find common cause with the Bourbon kings. Alta California—at least the northern portion—would be converted into Novaya Rossiya. The californios mostly met the change of authority with indifference, and even though the viceroy in San Diego recommended that they withdraw, the most devoted of the friars in the various missions up and down the coast remained, pursuing their evangelical mission despite the absence of Spanish troops from the abandoned presidios.
In the spring of 1816, after the establishment of Fort Ross in the north to manage the fur trade, Gyorgy Nikolaievich Donatiev, the eldest son of Baron Donatiev, was given command of an expedition to the south to plant the double-eagle flag of the Russian Empire on the site of the small village that the Spanish called Yerba Buena. In addition to soldiers, the expedition included carpenters and blacksmiths and other craftsmen—and an aged Russian Orthodox priest, Father Mikhail, and his young acolyte, Brother Gennady.
To himself, Donatiev wondered who Mikhail might have angered to be sent ten thousand miles to be buried so far from home.
The little settlement—still called Yerba Buena, since Donatiev had no particular desire to invent a name for it—slowly grew with the arrival of craftsmen, settlers, and farmers from the Pacific rim of the Empire. As spring turned to summer, it began to be a regular stop for trading vessels coming from the treaty port of Lahaina in the Sandwich Islands. Brother Gennady heard the sailors’ tales of the tropical paradise across the ocean, but still found great beauty in the paradise where Yerba Buena was located—but the comparison made Mikhail grumble.
In the meanwhile, the church began to come together, despite the work habits of the californios who had been hired to build it. It seemed that every day there was a shortage of something at the work site: bricks, wooden beams, even nails. Every time something was unavailable, the workmen would leave off to sleep or smoke or just disappear.
He had heard Captain Donatiev tell Father Mikhail in no uncertain terms that there was no spare capacity among the carpenters, brickmakers or blacksmiths to help build the church. He would have to make do with whatever he could find, and in the meanwhile the spiritual needs of the flock—such as they were—could be met in the ground floor of the custom house in the main settlement until the church was ready.
To Brother Gennady’s surprise, however, supplies often turned up after a few hours. The carpenters and brickmakers and blacksmiths would never say that they would disobey the direct orders of the commander of the settlement by bringing a few spare beams of wood or a few hundred bricks or a bucket of nails; nor would their casual advice as they stood with Father Mikhail, smoking pipes and looking up at the façade, be construed (at least by them) as assistance for what was considered a low-priority project. Yet the church slowly rose, simple and austere, but handsome all the same.
“God provides,” was all that Mikhail would say.
Somehow, the gruff old priest had ways of charming the skilled craftsmen of Yerba Buena, many of whom were regular communicants at the church services in the custom house.
Brother Gennady keenly felt Father Mikhail’s profound sadness at being so far from the rodina—but it warmed his heart to see the joy in his older colleague’s eyes and voice when he communicated the sacraments to the flock that attended the services in his makeshift church.
A few weeks before the end of June, Gennady took a break from the preparation for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the first opportunity to celebrate a major feast day with the congregation of Yerba Buena. Pascha had been quite a makeshift affair, and Mikhail had decided that Peter and Paul would be a good opportunity to emphasize the primacy of the Church and the heavenly blessing bestowed upon the expedition; but there was an afternoon where Gennady was able to get away from the settlement and walk up into the hills along the old Spanish road that led to the Presidio, the little fort that the former colonial power had left behind (and the current one had not seen fit to repair). He took a small skin of local wine, some bread and cheese and a few ripe peaches, and went off on his own.
The day was less hot than he would have expected, and the weather was very changeable. The sun would be high overhead, beating down, and then a cloud would pass in front making the day gloomy. And it was quiet: there were the sounds of birds and a few small animals but no axes or hammers or saws, no laughter or cursing or shouting or the drill of military arms.
“This must have been what it was like in the Garden,” he said to himself, as he sat on a rock and drew out his lunch.
“Only the first few days,” a voice said in badly accented Russian.
Gennady was on his guard at once, standing and grabbing his walking staff.
“Be at your ease, Brother,” the voice continued, and presently a man in a brown robe and stout boots emerged from the trees. He wore a trimmed beard but no tonsure; he carried a loose sack on a strap over his shoulder. “I’m not here to do you harm.”
“You surprised me.”
“Yes. Well. We don’t see too many strangers here. You are from the Russian settlement, sí?”
“Yes. If you would prefer speaking in Spanish—”
“Claro . . . it could not be worse than my Russian.” He shifted to the other language at once. “Welcome, Brother. I am Brother Gonzalo, of the Order of Saint Francis. May I sit?” he gestured to the flat, broad rock where Gennady had been sitting.
“Of course,” Gennady answered, and Brother Gonzalo settled onto the seat. “I am Brother Gennady, of—”
Before he could continue, the ground began to vibrate very slightly, as if being shaken by a mighty unseen hand.
After the tremor passed, Gonzalo crossed himself in the Catholic fashion and laughed. “You clearly have a better connection to the Almighty than I do.”
Gennady crossed himself in turn. “I don’t know about that . . . there have been several of those in the last few days, but that seemed very strong.”
“A fact of life here.” Gonzalo reached into his bag and drew out a small handful of nuts. He handed a few to Gennady, and began to work on the ones he retained. “A few tremors here and there … but from time to time there’s a strong one. A couple of years back there was a temblor strong enough to bring down our barn at the mission.”
“Yes, to be sure.” Gonzalo chewed on a nut meat, spitting out a stray shell. “You have to build strong here in Alta California.”
“Names.” He spat again. “Let the politicos decide them. But you and I—we are men of God, no? What do we care what the land is called.”
“So . . . you hold no allegiance to His Catholic Majesty?”
“He is far away,” Gonzalo said, “and has abandoned us. The viceroy has his mind on other things—and our order told us to move out.
“And you—do you care what your tsar thinks of your little settlement?”
“Of course. Well, a bit of advice, Brother—allegiance is earned. Let him show how much he cares for you first.”
“That is not how it works, Brother. Perhaps in Spain, but not in Russia.”
There was a very mild tremor just as Gennady finished speaking. Gonzalo, without replying, raised his right eyebrow slightly; then he picked up his sack and stood up, sweeping nutshells from his cassock.
“If you’d care to accompany me back to the mission,” he said, “perhaps we can discuss it over a glass or two of wine.”
“Yes, we’ve all felt the tremors,” Donatiev said. He stood up from behind his desk and walked to the large armoire on the side of his office. He opened it and pulled out a bottle and a small glass. He began to turn, then grabbed a second one and brought both to the desk. He uncorked the bottle and poured clear liquid into each glass.
Mikhail frowned, and was about to say something about how early in the day it was, but shrugged and took one of the glasses.
“Za zdorovje,” he said, and downed the glass.
Mikhail grunted and drank.
Donatiev sat on the corner of the desk. “What would you like me to do for you?”
“I would not say that I was here to ask you to do anything about them, Captain,” Mikhail said. “I just wanted to know whether they were . . . part of your calculations.”
“We are all building things, Captain. I erect a temple to the Most High: you build an entire colony. I worry that one good shaking will bring it all down.”
“You worry too much, Father.”
“And I would say to you, Gyorgy Nikolaievich, that you worry too little. My assistant Gennady has learned—”
“Learned? From who?”
“The Spanish monks in the hills. He has learned—”
“He has been talking to the Spanish monks? Why was I not told of this earlier?”
“They are our neighbors, Gyorgy. Captain. They mean us no harm.”
“That is not for you to decide, Father,” Donatiev said. He stood up and placed his glass on the desk. “It is your desire to express good will to all men—Spanish, Russian, British—Catholic, Orthodox, and—whatever faith the British profess. But you overlook the danger they present.”
“A few monks at a little monastery? How could they possibly pose a danger, Gyorgy Ni—”
“They are eyes and ears, Mikhail. They are spies.”
“San Diego is hundreds of miles to the south,” Mikhail said. He rolled the small glass between his palms, a nervous gesture. “How do you suppose they get messages? A fleet of fast ships? Or horses? Or do they just use their Catholic magic? They are abandoned monks, in a mission that their Viceroy has left behind. They pose no threat.”
“You are a very poor judge of that.”
Mikhail leaned forward and placed his glass next to Donatiev’s, then settled himself in his chair and scratched his beard. “I think you underestimate my judgment, as always. The threat is the shaking of the earth, Gyorgy Nikolaievich. Perhaps this place was not such a good choice after all.”
Donatiev went back behind his desk and sat down. “So now you question my judgment. I think you worry far too much about something over which we have little control. The tremors will stop; the giant under the earth merely shifts in his sleep.”
“Making it into a folk tale does not make it easier to deal with.”
“No,” Donatiev said. “Of course it does not. “But it makes it easier for the men to accept. You tell your folk tales, I tell mine.”
Mikhail appeared ready to respond, offended, when Donatiev began to laugh.
“Don’t worry, Father. If your little church is ready to celebrate the Feast of Peter and Paul, I can promise you that it will be filled.”
The californios worked no harder with the end of their task in sight; if anything, it seemed to Gennady that they moved even more slowly, despite his encouragement and the scowls and complaints from Father Mikhail. Once more, during the last week of June and immediately prior to the feast, there was a slight tremor in the ground; the workmen scattered, but it caused no more than the shaking loose of a few bricks and a single broken pane of glass—enough to make the glazier curse them for their carelessness in an accent from deep in the Steppes . . . until he too was cowed by Mikhail’s stern gaze.
Within the little church, Mikhail had arranged a side-chapel with a beautiful little ikon of Saint Helena, the mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, the first imperial to turn to Christianity. Helena’s hagiography was an interesting one: it was said that she found the True Cross, and then followed a vision that led her to the burial place of Christ in Jerusalem—the place where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been erected.
The night before the great feast—with the church mostly complete, but at least in readiness for the following day’s ceremonies—Gennady came upon Mikhail kneeling in the side-chapel. There was a small altar and a rough wooden rail, but no hassock for the old man’s bare knees on the rough stone floor.
Gennady stood respectfully waiting for Mikhail to complete his devotions, but when the old man did not rise or acknowledge his presence, Gennady stepped forward and gently touched Mikhail’s shoulder.
“We are not destined for great things,” Mikhail said without turning. “You know that, do you not, Gennady? We are destined to die here in obscurity, in this distant place for which we have not even chosen a name.”
“They call the great bay Zolotye Vorota—the name the Spaniards gave to it: Golden Gate. Perhaps that is a good name for the town as well.”
“A fine bit of blasphemy, don’t you think? As if this were a great shrine to the Mother Church.” He laughed, but it was a dry, pitiable thing, hardly a laugh at all. “No, this should be Bezmanya Zemlya—the Nameless Land. And this can be the nameless city. Though calling it a city is generous. Help me stand,” he added, and Gennady helped the old man to his feet. He made obeisance to Saint Helena, Gennady followed, and the two turned away to face the darkened nave of the church.
“Tomorrow will be a joyous celebration,” Gennady said. “Everyone will be here—you told me that Kapitan Donatiev had promised.”
“Yes, yes . . . their one and only visit to the church. Then they can go about their business, their duty done.”
“Some will attend.”
“Most will not,” Mikhail replied. “But no matter: I cannot make silk purses from sow’s ears. Perhaps they will come and pray when the ground trembles.
“What do you make of that, by the way?”
“I suspect that the land is unstable.”
“Brother Gonzalo said—”
“The Spanish monk is now an authority?”
“He has been here far longer than we have, Otyets. He said that such things come and go; a few shakes then nothing for months on end.”
“So, we’ve seen the last of it?”
“I don’t know. But he is not worried. So I am not worried.”
Mikhail looked over his shoulder at Saint Helena, the gilt of the ikon reflecting dimly from the votive light before it. “I have a feeling that we should be worried, Brother. But perhaps Saint Helena will intercede for us here in the Nameless Land.”
“I’m sure she is watching, Otyets.”
Mikhail looked owlishly at the younger man but did not respond, his face conveying all of his fears and doubts.
Morning came bright and sunny; the inhabitants of the town began to gather on the shore of the bay, where they found Brother Gennady and Father Mikhail already on hand at a small altar with the ikon of Saint Helena, a small ceramic bowl, and a large beeswax candle placed on it. The two religious men were clothed in their best vestments and were attended by several workers from the church, as well as two brown-robed Spaniards evidently visiting from their mission in the hills.
On the edge of the beach was a large Orthodox cross set in a footing from which it would be removed, so that it could be carried to the church.
When most of the town was assembled, Father Mikhail raised his hands above him and chanted, “Svjatyj Bozhe, Svjatyj Krepkij, Svjatyj Bezsmertnyj, Pomiluj nas—Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us;” he then proceeded to recite the Trisagion Prayers, with the congregation—at least those that knew the prayers—following along.
Glory to Thee, our God, Glory to Thee.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come, and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
As was customary, the celebrants repeated the phrase three times; with each repetition, Mikhail dipped his fingers in the bowl and gestured toward the water.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name’s sake.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
When all was again quiet, Mikhail turned away from the inhabitants of the settlement and raised his hands high. “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, I bless this land and this bay with the name . . .”
Gennady held his breath, wondering if Mikhail would truly call it the Nameless Land in the presence of all of his countrymen, and of the Holy Trinity itself; but he need not have worried.
“. . . Zolotye Vorota—the Golden Gate,” Mikhail finished. “May it grow and prosper, and may the great Father confer his grace upon it and upon all of us.”
From the bay, the people made their way along the wide, flat road into the settlement, led by Gennady carrying the cross. As they walked they recited the Lord’s Prayer—the two Spaniards in Latin, the rest in various dialects of Russian. The path was just over half a mile, winding past the workshops and homes of the Russian emigrants who were so far from home. It was more than a day off work that made them joyous: it was the ceremony, the song, the feeling of the presence of the Divine, the completion of the church—whether they planned to visit it or not—that made them smile and brought joy to their voices.
The procession reached the little church, and the congregation entered, looking around and exclaiming in little “oohs” and “aahs” how impressed they were with the work. Donatiev remained at the doorway with Gennady, who greeted each person as he or she came through the door.
When everyone was inside, the captain looked at the young monk. “You have done well, Brother,” he said, trying to sound gruff, but obviously moved by some emotion he refused to admit.
“It is a dream made whole by the workmen,” Gennady answered. “We have—”
But whatever he was about to say was interrupted by the shaking of the ground. Almost as quickly as they entered, people began streaming out of the church—some walking, some beginning to run.
The tremor did not immediately subside. Gennady could see Brother Gonzalo from his spot just inside the door, as Gonzalo kept people moving. In place of his usual sardonic expression, he looked fearful.
Gennady exchanged a glance with Donatiev and went inside, working his way forward against the press of people trying their best to get out. At the far end of the nave he could see Father Mikhail, his arms raised in invocation, his expression stunned—as if the shaking earth was a personal affront, a blow struck against his doubts the previous evening.
“Mikhail!” Gennady shouted. “Otyets! Come, you must leave!”
“Saint Helena!” Mikhail shouted back, and it wasn’t clear whether it was an invocation—but he suddenly lowered his hands and scurried toward the side-chapel.
Most of the congregants had made their way out of the church, and Brother Gonzalo tugged at Gennady’s sleeve.
Then, without warning, the roof began to collapse. Something struck Gennady and his world went black.
He awoke, choking on dust.
He was lying on a pallet that had been used to carry bricks to the building site; the bright blue sky above him was not marred by a single cloud, but the air was hazy with dust. Brother Gonzalo leaned toward him with a wineskin and helped him drink.
“Father Mikhail,” Gennady managed to say, but the Spaniard shook his head.
It took an effort of will to stand, but Gennady managed to do it at last, despite a throbbing head. The church was in ruins and the area was a hive of activity; a number of people were sitting or lying, also affected by some injury. Gennady touched his head and found that it had been roughly bandaged.
Those that could do so reached their hands out, wordlessly or with some whispered prayer; he touched each of them, unable to reply.
Donatiev was at the center of it all, his rich dress uniform covered in dust, his hat lost or discarded somewhere.
“Brother,” he said, turning his attention to Gennady. “Thank God. For a time we thought we’d lost both of you.”
“Both . . .”
“Mikhail . . .,” Donatiev looked down, and then reached within his vest and drew out the tiny ikon of Saint Helena. “He did not want to leave this behind. It was found with his body.”
Gennady took the ikon from the captain, and kissed it gently.
For this, Gennady thought. For you, blessed Helena, my dearest friend died . . .
“If there is anything I can do—”
“Da,” Gennady said. “Oh, yes, Kapitan. There is most certainly something you can do.”
He turned away and climbed up the short stairs that were all that remained of the flight leading to the belltower.
“Hear me!” he said, holding the ikon high. The modest height made him very slightly dizzy, but he ignored it. “My friends, my children, hear me.”
To his surprise, he commanded the attention of everyone below, working in the rubble, lying on pallets with their injuries—even Donatiev, who had a curious expression on his face.
“We have suffered a terrible loss, far from our homes, far from the rodina. My dearest friend, Father Mikhail, was struck down by a natural event—not a curse from God, not an indication that His face is turned away from us.
“I have in my hands the ikon of the blessed Saint Helena, who found the True Cross, and the place where our Precious Saviour was buried in Jerusalem. My friend—our friend—died when recovering it from its place of distinction within our church.
“There is only one way to honor his memory and his sacrifice. We must not abandon our plan to serve Holy Mother Church: we must rebuild our structure, make it grander and greater than this one. We must find a suitable place, closer to heaven—”
He paused and looked out, landward, toward the hills beyond the town. One in particular, a tall, conical hill where he knew Donatiev had talked of building a lookout tower, called to him.
“There,” he said, pointing to it. “There we will erect a new, greater church, one that honors the memory of Father Mikhail, and that honors Saint Helena.”
Not Bezmanya Zemlya, he thought. Not the Nameless Land. “It is the name we should give to our town beside the Golden Gate—Saint Helena. Do you not agree, Kapitan Gyorgy Nikolaievich?”
Before Donatiev could answer, a shout rose from the assembled people—they called out the name of the saint whose ikon Gennady held aloft, its gilt catching the sparkle of the morning sun.
It took six months for the letter to arrive from the Archbishop of Saint Petersburg, and the rite of consecration was irregular: the abbot of the mission of San Francisco and two of the monks participated—but God, whom they worshipped in different ways, smiled upon their work. But it was Father Gennady who laid his friend to rest in the crypt as soon as a place was prepared for him, even before the official title was proclaimed.
It took another eight months to bring the building materials up to the building site on the lookout hill, to construct the church—again with the help of the Franciscans, who had advice on how to set the foundations and reinforce the walls.
There was never any question whether the church would be built on the lookout hill, or that the town would take its name from the saint to which the church was dedicated; Kapitan Donatiev made no objection, and also said nothing about the effort given to the construction of the edifice, which could be seen from out at sea, the onion dome sometimes ringed with fog and clouds, at others sparkling in sunlight. It was a fitting symbol for Saint Helena, the city by the bay.
It was a sailor’s lament, Volkov thought: if only the weather had been different.
Strelka had been fighting off a wind that was coming from the northeast, making progress along the north coast difficult. It had put them at least three days behind their expected arrival in Saint Helena: and for Captain Leonid Volkov, as for any captain of a merchant ship, time was money. But there was nothing for it: wind was wind, and the sea was the sea.
The first Russian trading settlement had been established at Fort Ross in 1812, nearly twenty years ago; since then, five additional ones had been placed along the coast, one south of the original and four further north. Pelts, particularly of the sea otter, were still the most valuable commodity, and ships bearing the red-white-blue flag of the Russian-American Company delivered them to Saint Helena in exchange for durable goods and food, the pelts traveling onward across the Pacific mostly to China where traders from that ancient, crumbling Empire prized them above gold.
Strelka was a day out of Fort Ross but had been driven out to sea—preferable to being hurled against one of the many rocky promontories, to be sure, but hardly ideal.
Strelka was a sleek little ship, maneuverable and very seaworthy: it could pile on sail and make good speed, but the onset of fog headed toward the coast slowed their progress.
But for that, they might have been able to outrun the privateer.
Georgy Sharovsky had been at sea for most of his life; he had shipped aboard his uncle’s trawler in Alaska when he was nine. When he was a boy, he had been as nimble and agile as the boys who now served aboard Strelka. He was a junior officer now, free from some of the lowest of the tasks to which the lads were relegated—including climbing up to the topmast, unnerving in clear weather, and in its way even worse in dense fog. In the moment, Sharovsky decided that he wouldn’t send one of the youngsters up in this weather; instead he went up himself, spyglass secured to his belt, holding carefully to the ratlines as he climbed up and up, soon losing sight of the main deck. When he reached the lookout, which swayed in the wind (easily felt, but scarcely seen), he hallooed down to the officer on deck.
“What do you see up there, Georgy?”
“Near nothing. Can’t see the waves, can’t see heaven either.”
“Check every five minutes. Captain’s orders.”
“Five minutes aye,” Georgy said, and took out his spyglass to see if anything became visible.
Just after his second five-minute check, he was scanning to starboard—out into the horizon, out into the invisible Pacific—he sighted something almost ghostlike, cutting through the water. Barely audible, he caught the briefest snatch of conversation and recognized the language—Spanish, spoken harshly and rapidly.
It wasn’t clear whether the other ship had sighted Strelka: it was a certain thing that if he could hear them, they might be able to hear him . . . but there was nothing for it: down below would need to know.
As quickly as he had climbed up he descended, and found himself facing Pietrewski, a senior lieutenant, a scowling, intemperate Pole. Before the other could berate him for abandoning the top, Georgy said, “Buzzards starboard. Don’t know if they’ve seen us.”
“East by south.”
“They’ve seen us all right.”
“How can you be sure?”
“On this coast, in this weather, no one navigates toward the shore unless there’s something he wants to pin up there.” He nodded to Georgy. “I’ll tell the captain. Get all hands ready; this might not be friendly.” Without another word he turned and made for Strelka’s pilot-house.
A few moments later, it became clear just how unfriendly it was, when a cannon shot flew past Strelka’s bow, and a shout came out of the fog.
Pietrewski had been right, which was no surprise. Georgy didn’t particularly like him, but the Pole was clever and a keen sailor. Strelka was no war-ship: it was, in fact, scarcely armed, and was heavily-laden. There was nothing Volkov could do but heave to, and presently a half dozen Spaniards, all mustachios and swagger, had boarded the ship.
Volkov, a dignified man in middle age, kept his anger tightly leashed as the most elaborate mustachio and biggest swagger presented himself, looking around as if Strelka already belonged to him.
“Good day, Captain——”” the Spaniard began in heavily accented Russian.
“Volquez,” the man said. “I am—”
“Volkov,” the captain repeated, letting annoyance creep into his voice.
“Volkev,” the Spaniard repeated, and Volkov appeared to just let it go. “I am Don Domingo Alcantár y Rodriguez, captain of Reina Isabella, in the service of His Catholic Majesty, and of the Viceroy of New Spain—in whose territorial waters you are presently trespassing.”
“These are Russian waters, gospodin Don Domingo.”
The Spaniard spat on the deck, perhaps a foot from Volkov’s left boot. “Nonsense. There are no Russian waters, señor. All of this continent—all of Alta California, and its coasts—are a part of New Spain, granted by His Holiness more than three hundred years ago.”
“Our respective governments think otherwise.”
“Eh, sí, I suppose they do,” Don Domingo said. “But they are not here on this deck, are they? At the moment, I am here, and I am the government. And as the government, I claim your ship—and all that it carries—as my prize.”
“This is outrageous.”
“Outrageous.” The Spaniard ran a finger down his moustaches, and then let the hand rest on a pistol at his waist. “I suppose you might think so, Captain Volstan. But it really does not affect the matter, does it? Now if you behave, I will put you and your fellow trespassers ashore. You may even take a few minutes to gather your effects. If you think to resist, however, I cannot . . . be answerable for the conduct of my hotheaded young caballeros.” He looked over his shoulder at the closest “caballeros,” who had not seemed to be able to understand most of the verbal exchange, but they grinned, hooking their thumbs in their belts, seemingly understanding the intent.
“You offer me little choice.”
“Exáctamente,” Don Domingo said, smiling. “I did not come aboard to offer you a choice, Captain Volevo. Rather I am offering you terms. Now: what is your decision?”
To Georgy’s (and Captain Volkov’s) surprise, the Spanish captain was as good as his word. The men were given a few minutes to gather whatever they chose to carry, though the Spanish boarders didn’t let them anywhere near the hold: several thousand roubles worth of pelts, along with a few other goods, remained undisturbed in Strelka’s hold. Reina Isabella and Strelka put in at a sandy cove, shallow enough that the Russian crew was able to wade ashore. They watched as the Spanish ship, as well as their own, made sail and began to move out to sea.
It was a few miles walk in relative silence to the walls of Fort Ross, the southernmost and oldest Russian settlement along this fairly desolate stretch of coast.