Thursday, May 22, 2008

"A Busy Half-Century" - #7

Part Seven: Plague and Plebiscite

February 4, 1919:

A small block of ice, about the size of a fist, sat and melted in a bowl until it was about two-thirds its original size. When it was judged melted sufficiently, a paw reached out and turned a small spigot. A thin drip of chilled water came from the spigot and landed on a cube of sugar held suspended over a glass of a clear liquid. As the sugar-laced drops struck the surface of the liquid, it began to turn a cloudy light green.

The beaver sat and regarded the fabled Green Fairy as it grew within the absinthe. After several moments he turned off the water and removed the filigreed spoon that had held the sugar, then sat back and sipped at the liqueur.

A knock on the closed door.

“Gustav? Gustav, are you there?” The voice was a woman’s, sounding worried.

Worried? For him?


Gustav Biber relished the pungency of the absinthe, as well as its slightly bitter taste made dull by the sugar’s sweetness. Wormwood, after all, was part of the liqueur’s makeup.

The bitterness suited his present mood.

The doorknob rattled. “Gustav, please open this door.”

Realizing that she wasn’t going to go away and leave him alone with his grief and bitterness, the rodent stood and unlocked the door, then retreated to the sanctuary of his drink.

A pause, and the door opened to reveal a beaver femme, dressed in a black frock, her paws twisting a pawkerchief as she sniffed back her tears. “I know you’re sad, and angry, Gustav, but you shouldn’t shut yourself away.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked in a sulky tone. “Don’t I deserve a moment of private mourning?” A sip of absinthe, bitter yet sweet, like the promise of the grave. “Shouldn’t a man who just buried his entire family be allowed a moment to himself?” he asked again, this time his voice rising in anger and his broad flat tail slapping at his chair.

His sister Beatrice stood and looked at him. He was her older brother by a year and a half. “Not your entire family,” she corrected gently. “I’m still here.”

“Yes. Thank you. But where are Anna and George? Max? Where are Vati and Mutti? I’ll tell you where they are! Dead, dead and buried in that graveyard, dead of that Gottverdammt Spanish Flu!” The dam broke and he began to cry, slumping over to hold his head in his paws as he wept unashamedly.

Beatrice stepped over to him, gentle paws stroking his shoulders before helping him to his feet and leading him out of the room, past the office of the Clarion (of which he was now the owner and editor, two more physical blows – Max had taken over after Father’s retirement) and up the stairs to his room. Once there she took his black broadcloth suit jacket and shoes off and helped him to bed, drawing a blanket over him.

She sat by him, holding his paw, until he fell asleep.

Many families were bereft after the insidious disease had swept westward from its ports of entry on the Atlantic to strike furs down in the streets or in their homes. But the thing had seemingly run its course, and it was only by a gracious Providence that she, her husband and their two children had survived unscathed.

Well, almost unscathed. Jerry had lost his mother, who hadn’t been a well woman to start with, and she had lost everyone but her brother. Poor Gustav had had aspirations of becoming a novelist.

Now he’d have to grow up quickly.


April 1:

“Thankfully, Rain Coast didn’t have much to do in the War – at least the one in Europe,” Elsu Halvorsen said equably. The short wolf paused reflectively to take a sip of his sherry and licked his lips. He had just finished voting in the Assembly elections and had accepted a lunch invitation from a member of the diplomatic corps. “And with the number of contracts we had for war materiel, we managed to finish up with a positive balance in the ledgers. Still, now that the Grand Duchess and her court have conceded the war to the Communists – well, for the moment - and skedaddled to Vostok Island, Rain Coast will most likely be affected by the economic downturn the rest of the world’s starting to feel.”

The Counselor of New Haven’s diplomatic delegation, a lean rat with patrician features named Edgar Newcastle, nodded and regarded the remaining sherry in his glass with a gloomy air. “I find myself agreeing with you, Elsu,” he said. “At least you lot made money – New Haven was treated like dirt at the Paris Conference by the Big Four. It’s making quite a few furs back home wonder why we even got involved in the first place.” He sighed and held up an admonitory paw. “And don’t remind me of your analysis all those years ago. We knew the Civic Union was going to goad the General Assembly into declaring for the Allies, but we went ahead and let them do it anyway.”

The wolf, who was a rising star in the Republic’s Foreign Ministry, merely gave a wintry smile and sipped at his sherry before saying, “I won’t say ‘I told you so,’ Edgar.”

“Thank you. Now what do you make of the news from America?” Edgar asked. “All these radicals that Wilson’s trying to drive out.”

Halvorsen thought for a moment. “I expect some of them will try to seek asylum in Rain Coast, and in New Haven.”

“And that has me worried, confound it. The Socialists in our country are bad enough – no offense – but this new ‘Party of the People’s Will’ might end up becoming quite radical. The anarchist bug might be catching.”

At this point the Ambassador, who had been sitting engrossed in the newspaper, suddenly perked up. Emmanuel DiCaprino was a nice enough sort, and as disinterested as any previous envoy from New Haven. Moreover, he was quite hard of hearing, which led to the derisive nickname ‘DeefCaprino.’

It also sometimes led to awkward social moments.

“Catching?” the goat said, pencil poised over the acrostic. “Sorry, can’t catch anything, m’boy – I have diplomatic immunity.” He laughed at his own joke and returned to his puzzle as if nothing had happened.

Halvorsen and Newcastle looked at each other, and both rolled their eyes.


The whistle sounded for the end of the work shift at the railway yard in Norwood, a town just outside Seathl. The workers, grimy and sweat-stained after the long shift, were eager to get home despite the fact that some of them had to stop by the market on the way. There was some good-natured grumbling and jokes as the shift dispersed.

Among the workers walking out of the front gate was a tall and solidly-built badger with a shopping list in his trouser pocket. His wife had put the list in his pocket along with an admonition to please not forget that he had it. The admonition had been reinforced by a kiss on the cheek and the promise of a good supper when he got home.

The badger whistled a jaunty tune he’d heard a few days earlier as he walked down the road. Soon, though, his whistling stopped as he saw a small crowd gathered on the street corner. Some of his mates from work were in the group, so he paused to see what was going on, his curiosity getting the better of him.

The man on the corner was a slim raccoon in bib overalls and a none-too-clean white shirt. Stains showed where he’d been sweating, and the cuffs and collar looked a bit frayed. A small suitcase sat open on a folding stand, revealing a variety of pamphlets and flyers.

“And I’m telling you,” the raccoon was saying in what sounded like an American accent, “you workers are oppressed by the almighty dollar and by the rapacity of the bosses! Only through the solidarity of the Socialist Party can the laboring masses throughout the world prevent another war!” he declaimed as the badger picked up one of the flyers.

Crudely written and hastily printed, the single sheet of paper proclaimed the inevitable triumph of Socialism and the death of capitalism. The badger was still reading it when the raccoon cried, “You there, Comrade!”

The badger looked up and around at the crowd. “You mean me?”

“Yes, I mean you, Comrade. Tell me, do you know you’re oppressed?”

The badger chuckled. “If I don’t get to the market soon, I’ll be oppressed by my wife,” he said, drawing laughter from the others in the crowd.

The raccoon didn’t smile, but struck a dramatic pose with all the verve of a traveling preacher and said, “This poor working man doesn’t realize his bosses are oppressing him! They make him work for long hours – “

“No they don’t.”

This interjection jarred the raccoon’s soliloquy. “What?”

“I only work eight hours a day, five days a week,” the badger said to a few nods from other railway workers.

“For little pay – “ the raccoon resumed.

“Pay’s pretty good, actually,” another worker opined.

“Yeah, even with the slump we’re going through,” said another, “from what I read in the papers.”

Trying to regain the crowd’s attention the raccoon said loudly, “But your bosses make more than you, growing fat on your labor and stealing food from your children’s mouths!”

“No he ain’t.”


“Our boss ain’t fat,” a feline said. “Can’t get too fat when you’re switchin’ points in the yard.” This statement drew some approving remarks.

The raccoon decided to change the subject. “But what does your boss do for you? What do the owners of the railroad do for you, my Comrades?”

The badger paused to think. “Passes.”


Another round of nods as the badger replied, “Any worker gets a free pass each week. Say I want to take Dora – that’s my wife, Dora – and the kids to Seathl for the day. It’s free.”

The raccoon was clearly looking frustrated by now. “Well, what about your government? What about that nest of greedy politicians in Seathl? What are they doing for the masses?”

“If Ned Whitman’s getting greedy, we’ll just vote him out next year.”

“Who?” was asked, in a peevish tone.

“Ned Whitman,” the feline offered, “the Assemblyman for our district. Lives up the street from me.”

“But what has the government done for you?”

There was a pause and the raccoon grinned triumphantly. He opened his mouth to declaim on the evils of government when the badger said, “The clinic.”


“Well, when my youngest got sick last year, I just took him ‘round to the clinic.”

“Our taxes pay for it,” another in the crowd said.

The raccoon stood there and sputtered, uttering phrases like “The workers control the means of production” and “The inevitable triumph of Socialism” as the crowd slowly dispersed.

Finally, the party organizer looked up to see that he now had an audience of only one. A kitten stood looking at him as he solemnly licked at a lollipop.

The kitten took a few more fastidious licks at his sweet, said “Get a job,” and ran off down the road.


August 27, 1919:

The Assembly members arrived at their building early that morning to be met by a large and surly crowd. As the furs made their way in, they found their way barred by people who gave way grudgingly or taunted them with cries of “Do-nothing!” Once a member was struck in the back of the head by a thrown egg, and it was noted that the two policefurs present ominously did nothing to stop the attack, or try to hunt down the individual.

The Assembly building itself looked as if it, too, had been the target of the peoples’ anger. Several windows were boarded up after bricks or rocks had broken out the glass.

The session began, as always, with prayer, and as the Assembly sat a voice from the gallery cried, “Don’t just sit there! DO something!” This sentiment was echoed by others, and the noise subsided as the Moderator stood.

Rich Cable regarded the gallery and said, “They’re right. It’s been almost four months since the recession hit us. Prices are up and wages have not compensated for the rise. Outlays by the government for medical care and defense are outstripping our ability to pay, and we don’t dare raise taxes. Since the Dockworker’s Union went on strike in mid-June, other organizations have followed them. People are hot, tired and angry.” The bear lowered his gaze to regard the Assembly. “The question is what do we do about it?”

“Can’t the police restore and maintain order?” one member asked.

“Simple,” growled another. “Their hearts are with the strikers. I heard that one unit up in Shaw Island’s already walked out.” This news caused a minor stir, quieted only by the Moderator’s gavel.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s worse than that,” the Moderator said. “Ushers, will you please clear the gallery.” There was grumbling at the almost unprecedented move, and all eyes were on Cable as the gallery was emptied. When the doors were closed the ursine said, “Word was received last night that the Rain Island Naval Militia has suspended all sea and air operations. The other militias have followed them.”

Gasps were heard as the news sank in. “They’re our only defense!”

“Canada – or the Yankees – could just walk right in.”

“Or the militias could take over the government,” Cable said.

Deathly silence.

“There, I said it. Do we want our country going the same way as Russia? Or worse? So far no one’s been hurt; do we want blood in the streets?” Cable asked. Silence met his questions, and he turned and bowed slightly in the direction of the President’s desk. “Mr. President,” he said.

Jaan Harper was in his second term in office as the Rain Coast Republic’s leader, and the otter’s headfur was already streaked with gray from the stresses of the past few months. “The founders of our country,” he said slowly, “knew over thirty years ago that if they failed, they would all hang as traitors. I will not see that bravery wasted. Does the Assembly agree?”

Cable turned to see the members nodding mutely. “They agree.”

The otter stood up from his desk. “I’ll await the decision of the Assembly,” and he retreated to his office.

Over an hour later Cable knocked on the door, got no answer, and eased the door open. “Jaan?”

He found the otter in prayer, kneeling before a small icon of St. Vladimir that he’d had put in the office when his first term started. The bear waited until the President finished his devotions before saying, “We’ve come to a decision.”


“You need to come out here and hear it, for the record.”

The two stepped out of the office and Harper took his seat as Cable went to his desk and picked up a piece of paper. The Assembly members, some of whom looked distressed while others looked ready to commit mayhem, quieted and turned to face the Moderator as he cleared his throat.

“The resolution before the Assembly was as follows: Should the government of this Republic be reorganized so that it can better meet the needs of the people it serves? The resolution passed, 54 to 32 with one abstention.

“A second resolution was put forward: Shall the Assembly declare an emergency under Rule Fifty of the Constitution? The resolution passed unanimously.” He turned to Harper in time to see the stricken look on the otter’s face.

Rule Fifty was a clause in the Rain Coast’s Constitution that allowed the Assembly to declare a temporary state of emergency and give sole power to the country’s President. The fur who had headed the drafting committee in 1885, an amateur historian, had read of such a thing from the old Roman Republic. How long the emergency was to last was at the Assembly’s discretion, in order to ensure that the President didn’t usurp power completely.

Finally, Harper found his voice.

“Have you all gone crazy? What the hell are you people thinking?” he rasped, his voice rising to a shout.

“We’re not deserting you, Jaan,” the member from Little Wolf Lake said.

“But we need a steady paw on the tiller right now,” another member said.

Cable took the hint and added, “The Assembly right now has a lot of strong personalities in it, Jaan, and you know it. Besides, it’s high time we actually did something, rather than just sat here and jawboned our way into a revolution.”

Harper nodded as he jammed his paws into his trouser pockets. “Okay. But I don’t like it. How long?”

The member from Barnes Island piped up and said, “We figgered it’d be only till New Year’s, Jaan – mebbe up until the new Assembly elections come April, dependin’.”

“That long?” the otter asked incredulously. He shook his head and said, “I think we need to let the rest of the country know what’s going on. God knows they have a right to know they’re living in a dictatorship now.”


August 28, 1919:

Jaan Harper stepped up to the microphone in Seathl Square as the loudspeaker was readied, and ears went flat against skulls at the ear-splitting feedback howl when the power was switched on. When it quieted, Harper joked, “I guess that’s not the only thing in the country that doesn’t work right.”

The audience, a few thousand furs along with members of the press, laughed. “The reason I’ve taken the step of calling for a public meeting is to let you know what’s going on,” the otter said. He then outlined Rule Fifty and what it meant, and told them the results of the Assembly’s voting the previous day.

When he finished, a pin dropping would have been as deafeningly loud as the feedback had been.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Harper said, “I will be meeting with the strike leaders and with members of the unions. We need to shake this off and get back to work. Also, I’m sure you’ve heard the same news I have – that the only defense we have against foreign attack is also on strike. We have fought in two wars, and I do not wish to see us going to war against each other.

“The Assembly saw this as well, and gave me the power to hopefully set things right.

“I spent the night talking with some experts, in finance, government and military affairs, and the only conclusion I can draw is that things need to be changed. I will meet with these experts again to hammer out what must be done, and when the time comes – I’m hoping not later than Christmas – the entire country will vote on the changes.

“I swear to you, before God, that I did not want this, and will give power back to the Assembly the instant they demand it. I ask you to pray for me.” He lowered the paper in his paws. “Thank you.”



“Well, we’ll go along with it, Mr. President. Country’s mostly socialist anyway, although they don’t realize it.” A chuckle.

“Just so long as your people get back to work, sir.”

“They will. I’ve explained things to them, and they voted on it. They go back to the docks tomorrow.”

“And the other unions and syndicates?”

“Them too, Mr. President. The Education Syndicate resisted at first – teacher’s pay, y’know – but they’ll go along.”



“Admiral? Admiral? Good Lord, Jaan, if you call him an Admiral he’ll want to call himself a Duke next!”

“Then what do you suggest?”



“It’s the entrenched interests again,” one fur said. “There are people who stand to profit by things as they are. They’re afraid of any change.”

“There isn’t much choice,” Harper said, his voice sounding brittle. “We all have to change, not just them.”



“Dammit! One more time, Rich – I want the Foreign Ministry to please, please, for God’s sake make sure that both Canada and the United States know that we’re not going to be a Communist country! If we did they’d be at our throats in a second!”


January 2, 1920:

There were plans to start a radio service, but that was still many months off; until then, the papers and telegraph would have to do.

This time President Harper stood on the steps of the Assembly building, with the members arrayed behind him. The symbolism linking this government with the one that seceded from Canada was not lost on anyone in the swelling crowd. It looked like half of Seathl was present, with more from other districts and islands.

The otter hoped that the loudspeakers were working properly.

Several in the audience gasped as he moved to the microphone. His headfur had gone bone-white over the past months, and there was a rasp to his voice as he began to speak.

“Ladies and gentlemen, last August I announced that the Rain Coast Assembly, in accordance with Rule Fifty of the Constitution, had suspended itself until the state of emergency was over. Yesterday, the Assembly’s Moderator informed me that that day has come, and the Assembly will be taking up its usual duties.

“However, there will be some changes that are considered necessary for our nation’s ability to grow and meet the challenges that await us down the years. Some of these changes are cosmetic, merely putting a new name and face on established customs and organizations. Others are a radical departure from what we used to know.

“Will this be easy? No, it won’t. But we wanted practical solutions to our problems, and now they’re ready to be voted on. Every citizen of this nation who is twenty-one or older is eligible to vote, and I strongly encourage all of you to do so.

“The vote will be in the form of a referendum with several parts. The first changes the name of our country, our flag and the design of our currency. The dollar will still have its value. These changes will more accurately reflect our country’s philosophy.

“We believe, as a nation, that we should look out for each other while still seeking opportunities for advancement, and that the workers – every one of us – have not only a say how things are run, but are the real bosses. Well, there’s a word for that, a brand-new word.
“That word is anarcho-syndicalism, and it describes the way we do things much better than ‘socialist.’
“The first part of the referendum changes the name of the country to the Rain Island Anarchcracy. There are many reasons for this change, particularly that Rain Coast is a holdover from our past, and ‘Rain Coast’ still reminds some furs of piracy and war.” He paused to sip at a glass of water while the crowd muttered.
“The second part of the referendum is a new Constitution, making changes to the old one that will reflect the changes we’re making to our nation. Voting on this will start next week, by the way, and continue until mid-March. The new Assembly elections will be held on April first, as usual.
“The third part is what we call the Military Collective Act. We are a modern nation, and a modern nation needs a modern military to defend it from foreign foes. The militias were useful and necessary in their time, but the time has come to create a more formal organization.” A few sailors in the crowd gathered together and started discussing the idea, a few waving their paws to emphasize their words.
The gathering quieted again as Harper said, “Finally, my friends, ladies and gentlemen, I have tried to do my best for you. I appreciate your patience with me these pats months, and the years preceding them. I look forward to April so I can go back to teaching school. God bless you, and God bless our nation.”
The applause started slowly but grew to a tidal wave of approval as Harper stepped back from the microphone.


“We value our friendship with your country, Ambassador DiCaprino. We trust you’ll send a full report back to New Haven.”
"Oh, never fear, I have a saucy retort for whenever that twit Prescott Stagg gets uppity, have no fear . . . say, who's that pleasant looking lass over there, the one handing out the flags?"
“Never mind.”


“Uniforms? What the hell do we need uniforms for?”
“Looking pretty for the girls, that’s what.”
“Besides, Zack, whoever we fight needs to know who’s beating their tails.”
“I suppose you’re right, at that. But where does Rain Island get off - ”
“Easy. They’re the biggest gang in the country. More people, more ships, better equipment – “
“Higher pay – “
“And they brew the best beer.”


“So, what’s the President’s new title again? Chief Cynic?” A chuckle. “We could really use a title like that in New Haven.”
“No, Mr. Ambassador, the title’s Chief Syndic – oh, never mind.”


“You sure you’re not going Red on us? A lot of stuff in this new constitution looks mighty suspicious.”
“I assure you again, Mr. Prime Minister, all we’re doing is acknowledging what’s already established. Name changes, nothing more.”


March 20, 1920:
If anything there were more people in Seathl Square than there had been back in January, waiting patiently as President Harper finished talking to the Assembly’s Moderator and stepped up to the microphone. He cleared his throat softly and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, fellow citizens.
“By a clear majority, eighty-one percent to nineteen percent with all districts reporting, the referendum has passed.” He paused and looked down as the crowd started to cheer and applaud. The applause went on for several minutes before he motioned for quiet.
“Therefore, with the approval of the Assembly – er, I mean the Governing Syndicate, sorry – I announce today that our nation’s new name is the Rain Island Anarchcracy, and may God bless it and all who live here.” He stepped back as a new flag ascended the flagpole to replace the old blue and silver.
The flag was a rectangle, with the upper part red and the lower black, divided diagonally. The silver Raven was still there, taking up the broadest half of the red section near the hoist. This was the new, ‘formal’ flag of the nation, to be flown from government buildings and on special occasions; a simpler version dispensed with the silver bird effigy.
The crowd cheered, and cheered again after Harper announced that new elections would be held on April Fool’s Day, right on schedule.


April 20, 1920:
Following tradition the ninety members of the newly-elected Governing Syndicate met as soon as they were sworn in to select a President. Jaan Harper steadfastly refused to stand for a third term, pleading that he hadn’t wanted the job and asking that he be let off for good behavior.
The members voted on it and agreed. With great relief, the Tlingit otter could resume his teaching post in his home district.
The Moderator finished reading the voting results for the second ballot and finally said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new Chief Syndic. Mrs. Van Hook?”
Startled, the former Ambassador to the United States stood. “By a majority vote the Governing Syndicate has nominated Abigail Van Hook, Member for Carlin, to be Chief Syndic. Madam,” and the Moderator gave a slight bow and motioned the mare to her new seat.
To applause and raucous cheers from the floor and from the gallery the woman walked forward and stood behind her new desk. She paused to gather her thoughts as the crowd died down, then asked, “Is this an April Fools joke?”
Laughter rocked the chamber. “I didn’t think so. Well, ladies and gentlemen, a new era opens for our country. Rain Coast – er, Rain Island has shown that it can change to meet the needs of its people, and it has shown today that it can lead the world by freely electing the first woman as head of state.” She paused to let the cheers die down again before adding, “I ask for your support and your prayers. May God bless our nation.”


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