The American Opus

Paul H. Belz's epic historical antebellum romantic-adventure novel chronicling America's industrial and social coming-of-age. The novel follows five characters, all of whom demonstrate life's reality that you can have joy or power but not both. Enjoy the free sample chapters below and purchase at the Amazon Kindle store.

Tag: Tom Winans

Racing Troikas to Tsarskoe Selo


Tom: Saturday, January 9, 1847

An energized crowd is assembling at the stag restaurant’s front window inside the rail terminal at Pavlovsk, just south of Tsarskoe Selo. Two sets of silver duga bells are audible across the silent winter landscape for over a mile, and Tom Winans’ coachman Wassily is confident their troika is in front.

“Your ears are skewered closed with bravado and vain hopes of Havanas,” says Bill Winans’ coachman Maksim. “Tom is the superior horseman, but the team Bill purchased from Prince Beloselsky-Belozersky has eleven years together. Tom would do as well to ask his six-year-old trotters to dance at the Stone Theater. Those are our bells you hear.”

Dozens of eager faces—eagerness proportionate to wagers—focus their squinting eyes on the road puncturing the distant tree-line, where the troikas will emerge from the forest into the English-style park surrounding the terminal. The crowd quiets; straining to distinguish the bells, each set tuned to identify its owner. Nearby locomotives venting steam make it impossible to discern which bells are closer, so the anticipation builds until released with the shout, “It’s the grays! It’s the grays!”

Scrambling outside to applaud his employer and blanket the horses is Maksim, and not until half a minute passes do three black stallions emerge from the woods with Tom standing in his sleigh like a defeated Roman charioteer.

“Now I know how Catherine the Second felt,” says Tom, as he congratulates his brother.

“Except you had the benefit of Orlovs,” Bill replies, alluding to the Russian legend that Catherine’s fancy European horses tired, stalling her coach as she dashed along this same road from Tsarskoe Selo to St. Petersburg to orchestrate a coup d’etat against her husband Peter III. Her trusted lieutenants, the Orlov brothers, quickly obtained new horses for her, and, after surviving the coup, resolved to develop a more durable breed. Orlov trotters are tall and powerful, with great endurance, good speed, and attractive Arabian-influenced faces.

“The American and French trotters are faster but could never have endured the snow or the fifteen and a half miles from St. Petersburg,” says Tom. “My blacks have good chemistry but need much more seasoning. Anyway, Billy, you have your year’s supply of Havanas. You should run your grays in the Neva races. One day you will break the five-minute mark for three versts.”

There is no winter sport eliciting more passion in Russia’s capital than troika racing. It’s a romantic, breathtaking spectacle that lures thousands to the Neva River ice in front of the Peter & Paul Fortress, where an ellipse is cleared of snow for the traditional three-verst races. An Orlov team can easily cover thirty versts (about twenty miles) over snow in an hour and ten minutes, if serving a traveler rather than a sportsman.

Troika drivers are the most skilled coachmen in Russia. Three powerful horses must be trained to move in delicate harmony with the center or duga horse trotting rapidly, while the outside horses canter or gallop with their heads bent outward. The driver must handle four reins, two for the duga horse—the biggest of the three—and one-each for the outside stallions. An elaborate harnessing mechanism connects the horses to each other and the sleigh, which is converted to a wheeled-carriage in summer. In racing venues, the duga horse is not allowed to break from its trot and great strength is required of the driver to hold back such powerful animals. Beards and peacock-feathered hats are de rigueur for the colorful coachmen. Troikas are equipped with untuned brass bells for the average owner, while the wealthy have tuned silver bells to announce their arrivals. In addition, these often ornately decorated symbols of Russian culture have a few practical attachments such as nets to catch the hoof-driven snow, which would otherwise pelt the driver.

Bill and Tom are happy to leave the thirteen degree air and shed their long, furry shubas, sealskin caps, and fur boots for the warm indoors. They plan to bathe, then lunch on a ritualistic post-race meal of fish soup, beef cutlets, cauliflower, pastry, and coffee before retiring to the billiard room for cigars, vodka, and a discussion of the future.

The Pavlovsk terminal serving Tsarskoe Selo nestles in a pine grove containing a number of Western-style buildings including a ballroom, concert hall, billiard rooms, fountains, restaurants, and rooms for travelers.

Tsarskoe Selo (Czar’s Village) was originally a Finnish farm. In 1708, Peter the Great acquired the land twenty-five kilometers south of St. Petersburg for the residence of his wife Empress Catherine I. It was during Empress Elizabeth’s reign from 1752-56 that an attempt was made to rival the Versailles in France. She built the Emperor Palace—a masterpiece of Russian baroque—as well as the Hermitage, the Grotto Pavilion, and the Upper and Lower Gardens.

Finally, during her reign from 1760-1790, Catherine II added the Cold Bath-house, the Agate Pavilion, the Hanging Gardens with its sloping platform, and the Cameron Gallery. The city became Russia’s dazzling jewel.

It was in 1835 that the Czech and Austrian nobleman Franz von Gerstner convinced Czar Nicholas I that he needed a railroad to facilitate troop movements and keep pace with England’s technological advancement. Recent conflicts with Persia, Turkey, and Poland made the argument for rapid movement of troops more persuasive. The Czar reflexively sent soldiers to any country where liberalism threatened a monarchy.

Against the advice of all his advisers—whose objections were economic—a hesitant Czar allowed the well-known mathematician and engineer to build a small experimental railroad from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo in 1837. Railroading had passionate opponents everywhere. The Vatican pronounced it sinful to travel at such unnatural speeds; German medical experts predicted people’s heads would explode in tunnels; English farmers feared frightened cows would stop giving milk; Belgians lamented the extinction of the horse; yet the Czar immediately loved his powder-blue imperial train. Gerstner was dispatched to study America’s railroads and canals but died there in 1840, creating the opportunity for someone else to build the historic St. Petersburg to Moscow line, for which the Czar was prepared to spend 34 million rubles.

If troika racing is the favorite outdoor sport of the Winanses, indoors it is billiards. When discussing death, Tom pledges to mimic Mary, Queen of Scots, who played billiards in her prison cell and left instructions that her headless body be wrapped and interred in the cloth from her table.

As the brothers enter the smoky billiards room, Tom says, “We’re in the most beautiful city in Russia and my mind can only think of Christmas pirogi, pelmini, and billiards. I must give up this game if I’m to avoid the fate of John Quincy Adams.”

Since billiards is your deepest addiction, tell me your fate,” says Bill.

“After Adams put his billiard room in the White House, Jackson used it in the 1828 election to paint him as a spoiled brat who had been given the presidency in return for the many favors owed his daddy. The strategy worked. I don’t want that image.”

“You are a spoiled brat, Tom. Our work-driven father created an opportunity that has made us rich, and our lives will be easier because of his labor. Unless you’re running for president against a vulgar but popular war hero, how can that damage you? Don’t the accomplishments of a man supersede his hobbies? Washington and Lafayette competed at billiards; Jefferson was a devotee in spite of Virginia’s ban; Napoleon had a table on Elba; and I understand even Pius IX put a table in the Vatican last year. So you’re a spoiled brat in good company,” says Bill, as he fails to pocket a targeted ball off a carom.

“Well said, if not well shot, Billy. But just as Father had a drive to distinguish himself and separate from the De Kay legacy, I need to hear people say, ‘There goes Tom Winans,’ rather than ‘There goes Ross Winans’ son.’ Yet I’m equally driven toward the unreserved family loyalty expected from the eldest.”

“You have, dear brother, a dilemma. Not being the eldest myself, I plan to escape Father’s shadow by remaining forever in Europe. Whistler and Eastwick are eager to leave when the original contracts expire. But as we’ve discussed, you and I shall continue seeking management and repair contracts along with Harrison. I’ll work in Russia and for the sake of my fragile lungs, spend winters in England. In addition to my London home, I plan to build a palace on the water in Brighton. Though Father has never ridden a horse in his life except to reach a destination, I plan to play hard as well as work hard, and his steely guilt-purveying eyes can’t touch me across the Atlantic. My associates will only know Bill Winans, not his father.”

“And what if we don’t get those Russian contracts, Billy?”

“It won’t matter because my public reason for staying abroad is not a lie. My body couldn’t survive another Atlantic crossing unless Father invents that ship he’s long dreamed of, which slices harmlessly through the waves. But I do believe we will get those contracts. The Czar is going to honor Whistler with the Order of St. Anne of the Second Degree in March, and I doubt that such an honor is a prelude to a contract with the French or English,” says Bill.

“But Whistler plans to leave Russia when the original contract expires.”

“Tom, you disappoint me. Just as it wasn’t necessary for Ross Winans to come to Russia, it is similarly unnecessary for Major Whistler to remain. His eldest son is a protégé of Father’s in the Mount Clare shops, and I have matchmakers there fanning the flames between Julia and George. If he marries our sister, we can make him a partner in Russia, keeping the Whistler name in the operation. I have word from a foreman that he is smitten with Julia,” says Bill.

“You will destroy Mother and poor, sweet Julia if you fail to return as scheduled,” says Tom. “Mother couldn’t survive a journey here, Father won’t leave her alone for extended travel, and they will never allow Julia to risk such a voyage unescorted by a family member.”

“And they will destroy your dreams if you do return to Baltimore, Tom. Father will move next door to your mansion, build a rooftop cupola from which to spy on you, and hound your poor wife to be a duplicate of Mother. You should build railroads in California,” says Bill.

“Loyalty and my sense of duty and gratitude make that impossible. I’ve made peace with returning to Baltimore. What I must devise is an ingenious formula for achieving independence for myself and acceptance for my bride,” says Tom.”

“Ah, your bride,” says Bill. “You fantasize that Father will bless a politically savvy Russian citizen who’s more attuned to Latrobe’s old Delphian Club than to your kitchen staff. For my part, life is complex enough. I’ll find a wife who’s submissive—content to be seen rather than heard.”

“I had hoped for your counsel, not your scorn,” says Tom.

“Within my scorn is my counsel. But I’ll reserve any judgment. If your fabled charm and negotiating skills can keep us in Russian contracts, perhaps Father is conquerable for you, but I believe Napoleon gave himself an easier task,” says Bill.

Tom finally misses a carom shot, then draws deeply on his Havana and gloats, “Your immediate task, little brother, is to answer my run of 132-points. It seems my Four Ball game may salvage a little of the pride those three black Orlovs cost me today.”

“And that’s where we differ,” says Bill. “I can effortlessly and endlessly replenish my lost pride, but I never risk something I don’t want to lose by betting on a long-shot—not Havanas, and certainly not my future.”


       Painting of Tom Winans as a passenger on a Russian troika


Dancing at the Whistlers’ St. Petersburg home


Tom: Saturday, November 14, 1846

The last ship has left the Neva, and the troika racers, ice skaters and fishermen have claimed it for their playground and larder until spring’s thaw. Leaving St. Petersburg by sea is impossible. The fifty-thousand non-slave railroad workers have returned to their homes in the western provinces of Smolensk, Vilno and Vitebsk. Mostly Belorussian and Lithuanian serfs, they are the American equivalent to the Irish, society’s lowest class. Hundreds of Izvozchiki or cabmen—notorious for getting lost—have arrived in the city for the winter with their sleigh taxis. Heavy snows are unusual here, but since warm melts never occur, the constant light dustings produce depths that quickly render wheeled vehicles useless. The cold is killing. In February 1844, thirty people were found frozen to death in Whistler’s neighborhood during a week of temperatures averaging thirty degrees below zero. The quiet is surreal.

Tom has never liked this city. St. Petersburg is the new northern, Russian capital of 500,000, built improbably on forty-two islands in the vast, marshy Neva delta. “Venice of the north” to some, “city built on bones” to others. Thirty-thousand forced laborers died during the first few years of construction. It was Peter the Great’s attempt to re-orient Russia from East to West and match the grandeur of Europe’s glamour capitals, especially Amsterdam, with its bridges and canals. The dreary weather, large population of bureaucrats, and straight boulevards contrast starkly with the warmer people and winding lanes of Moscow. Moscow’s tapestry of burnished blue and gold cupolas evokes Asia rather than St. Petersburg, where every structure’s plans must be personally examined by Czar Nicholas. Welcome and cozy are words that infiltrate conversations about Moscow; never those about the Czar’s Capital. Tom calls St. Petersburg the brain and Moscow the heart of Russia. Tonight, he is in his coupe traveling to visit the Whistlers in the English Quay. For much of the morning, daydreams about the future preoccupied him.

His twenty-fifth birthday looms on December 9. With wealth, good health, and a home being built in America, the instincts to find a wife during this last year abroad are wielding an insistence that’s annoyingly intrusive to his daily routines. Haunting him is Whistler’s counsel that his father Ross will never approve of a Russian bride. He must soon craft a letter explaining his feelings and seeking his father’s approval, but the reasoning skills of Socrates will be needed because Ross Winans legitimizes the legendary reputation of the Dutch for stubbornness and ingrained opinions on everything.

The life of his mother, though he loves her dearly, is not what he wants for his bride. Tom believes his mother Julia has stoically endured a life of abject servitude, sharing very little intimate time with his work-driven father. Tender moments have been few, and now infirmities assault her as though a single beast with many tentacles. A scion of the proud De Kay family, which once owned most of the northern end of Manhattan, she’s reduced to days of moaning and clamoring for the return of her eldest sons. Doctors give Ross a “change of life” diagnosis and opine that her problems will pass, which increases his avoidance of her and exacerbates her loneliness.

Tom wants a bride who’s more than child-bearing chattel. St. Petersburg women impress him as educated, opinionated, and curious about the world beyond their immediate households. To compensate for his lack of formal schooling, he craves a wife who can deepen by example his appreciation for history and the arts, especially music, and be a companion for him as well as a mother for his children.

Ross Winans would sooner sever his right hand than equivocate over expectations that his first-born focus on family enterprises, match his own work-ethic, and find a spouse who can bear children, raise them properly, and manage the household seamlessly. Tom shudders at the probable repercussions of the letter he must write but takes comfort that when his father receives it, an ocean will separate them. Internally, he rails at the unfairness of a society which prescribes the actions of men almost as rigidly as it does women. Is he selfish to crave the freedom to design a life which emerges from the gigantic shadow of Ross Winans? Is he guilty of disappointing his family and deserving of society’s scorn if he allows wealth to fashion a family paradigm in which work plays a lesser role than it has for his ancestors? Is he an ingrate for accepting the perquisites of being an eldest son while hoping to jettison some of the tethers? “Privileged ne’er-do-well” is not a legacy with appeal. As though answering his musings, the coupe bounces roughly through a rut, jarring Tom as a parent might shake a disrespectful child.

Do dreams of a comfortable life make him an unworthy descendant of Jan Wynants, who emigrated from Holland and settled in New Amsterdam in 1664, the year the British acquired the colony and renamed it New York? Jan quickly re-spelled the family name Winans to facilitate trade with his English neighbors. Later, Tom’s grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather fought side-by-side under George Washington during the American Revolution. His grandfather was only fifteen-years-old when he fought the British, and, before departing for Russia, Tom was given the musket William Winans used in the war. Much of the Winans’ wealth was contributed to that cause. Magnanimously, they bore no ill will when the post-war Congress declined to reimburse them. Tom admires his ancestors’ heroism and generosity, but there are no wars for him to fight or finance. A unique life, not an easier one, is his tantalizing wish.

He wonders whether other wealthy sons are as conflicted over life’s milestone decisions. Tom has a simmering, volatile conviction that having the wealth to design one’s own life without the freedom to do so is more stifling than being poor with unfettered initiative. His father did provide an enviable railroad engineering education at the Mount Clare yards along with the Russian opportunity that made him wealthy, but Tom worked extremely hard, earning the admiration of the Czar, Count Kleinmichel, and Major Whistler, along with the respect of the workers he trained and led. The vexing rub is that he will never know if he could have become rich on his own.

Beyond his mother’s plight, Tom thinks of his military hero Napoleon’s tempestuous relationship with Josephine, of the brute Kleinmichel’s hapless wife, of the Czar and his fecund mistress, and, more ominously, of Whistler’s overbearing second wife Anna. All powerful men; all unhappy men.

When Whistler’s beloved first wife Mary died, he was left with two children, George and Deborah (Debo). Their lives became gypsy-like because the Major was assigned to survey work along the U. S.-Canadian border. Anna’s brother, Captain William G. McNeill, was an 1817 West Point graduate who became friends with the younger Whistler at the Academy. McNeill headed one of the original three B&O Railroad survey teams in 1827. With no wars to fight, the army allowed its engineers to work on road-building and railroad projects because West Point was the nation’s only engineering school and it was in the national interest to build transportation infrastructure. In 1828, he became part of the B&O’s original senior management team—along with Lt. Col. Stephen H. Long and Jonathan Knight—and encouraged then Lieutenant Whistler to apply for a railroad assignment in order to provide a more stable life and a better education for his children. Whistler took that advice and soon became reacquainted with McNeill’s sister Anna, who had loved him during the West Point years and in her words, “set my cap for the man I loved at first sight.” They married in 1831. McNeill’s career subsequently deteriorated and he descended into alcoholism. Antithetically, the Russians were dazzled by the Major’s combined management and engineering skills, which culminated in the seven magnificent arched, stone bridges through the Berkshire Mountains, making rail passage possible between Boston and Albany.

The Czar had fired French and English engineers because they wanted to detour around obstacles such as the marshes of Novgorod, the hills of Valdai, and areas subject to river floods. Nicholas wanted his railroad built in a straight line, and Whistler was clearly someone who could conquer obstacles. As Whistler’s renown spread, he felt conflicted about his old friend McNeill’s plight. Last year, although McNeill campaigned for James Polk in his successful bid for the presidency, political opponents got him fired from his job as engineer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Though indebted to his brother-in-law, Whistler could find no role in Russia for the alcoholic McNeill, who castigates the Major as ungrateful to anyone who will listen. To pacify Anna, Whistler regularly but fruitlessly sends McNeill money to mollify him. Ironically, those payments are arranged by Captain William H. Swift, who is the American adviser to Baring Brothers Bank, the Major’s best friend and trusted adviser, the eldest sibling of his first wife Mary, and a man who despises both Anna and Bill McNeill.

Tom perceives Anna as a woman given excessive freedom by her husband. She is a religious zealot, an Anglican who foists her views on whomever is at hand. She self-righteously nags the Major and his daughter Debo to play only liturgical music rather than the corrupting new waltzes they love, and she has jeopardized the Russian project by secretly distributing pamphlets to the peasants in an attempt to convert them. Anna believes her mission in Russia dwarfs the railroad’s in significance, and she conscripts her two surviving young sons Willie and Jimmie to help distribute those pamphlets. Whistler fears they will all be expelled if the Czar discovers this proselytizing. While Anna is encouraged that many peasants seem eager for the pamphlets, the Major hasn’t enlightened her to the fortunate reality that the predominately illiterate peasants are eager only for the paper, in which they roll their tobacco.

The apple of Whistler’s eye is his nineteen-year-old daughter Debo, who despises her stepmother Anna. To pacify Debo, the Major goes to great expense to support her in England during the summer months. Ostensibly, it’s to protect her from the rampaging summer diseases, but, in reality, it’s to preserve his daughter’s happiness. Tom also knows that Anna squanders money on gifts and charity to the extent that the Major may go home from Russia no wealthier than when he arrived. Whistler has confided that at their current spending rate, he will be fortunate if the little he saves and invests earns him $1,000 a year after completing the railroad.

Tom thinks back to his September ride along the chausseé with the Major and Count Kleinmichel. The two are depressing contrasts in familial failure. Neither Whistler’s lack of control over the religiously officious Anna nor Kleinmichel’s tyrannical dominance of his wife makes an appealing role model. They add to a growing preponderance of scenarios in Tom’s life which nibble insidiously at his conviction that a life with power and joy in equilibrium is possible. His penultimate nightmare is an attractive, confident woman metamorphosing into an Anna-like wife, a fear eclipsed only by the specter of premature death in childbirth for his as yet undiscovered beloved.

The Whistlers have made it a point to have lots of company in their home since the October 14 death from dysentery of their one-year-old son John Bouttatz Whistler. They named him for Major Ivan Bouttatz, who was assigned by the Russian army to accompany the Major on his trip to Russia in 1842—before Whistler sent for his family—and became a good friend. Whistler knew no one in Russia when he embarked on this adventure and spoke neither the French of socialites nor the Russian of commoners. Bouttatz’s companionship kept him from quitting in despair. Little Johnny’s body was sent back to Stonington, Connecticut, where the Major had built a railroad connecting Providence, Rhode Island, and where the family burial plot perches on a high bluff overlooking the sea.

Tom finds it ironic that he, who has nothing to be sad about, is always cheered by visits to the Whistlers, even in their grief. They’ve now lost three sons to disease since the Major’s departure from America. Tom’s life seems buoyed whenever it’s immersed in family dynamics, however flawed.

At the Ritter Dom, there’s a festive atmosphere in the home. Debo and family friend Ellen Ropes are playing waltzes on the piano. Dancing alternately with twelve-year-old Jimmie and younger brother Willie is a friend of the Ropes, a twenty-three-year-old raven-haired beauty named Celeste Revillon. They’re dancing to a favorite of Debo’s, Johann Strauss’s Echoes of the Rhine Loreley. An international flavor enlivens the apartment with the Ropes’ French-born friend Celeste, Mary the Irish nurse, Johann the German footman, and Maria the Finnish cook all mingling with American, Russian, and English guests. Christina the laundress, Dunia the housemaid, and Monsieur Biber the tutor round out a very expensive staff which frees time for Anna to visit the sick and convert the peasants. Equating merriment with sin, Anna fades into the background tonight, wounded but silent. She has learned that tantrums and manipulation are futile with the Major and Debo, who chart their own courses, oblivious of protestations about her gloomy God’s disappointment in them.

After introductions, Tom settles in with Whistler—each lighting a German cigar—and inquires about the origins of his deep friendship with the Ropes. A quick pulse of incredulity, then insight, distracts Tom; that it has taken four years to ask this question is evidence that his work meets his father’s standard for intensity. Prior conversations with Whistler have focused on business.

“The Ropes were the first Americans to befriend me while I lived alone here. Bill had the only American business house in Russia, brokering and importing materials and machinery for shipbuilding. He originally contacted me in hopes of gaining a foothold in the railroad business, but Joe and I handle those duties. Ellen loves playing music when she visits, and their two young daughters dote on my sons. They’re from Boston, and Anna so loved living in Lowell that having a confidante from that area makes her overlook that they’re Catholic.”

Debo finishes a piece on her harp and looks at the Major. “Father, play the flute with Ellen so I can dance with Tom.”

“The dancer charming my sons is the daughter of George Revillon, one of Bill’s customers,” says Whistler. “He owns a family business which waterproofs ships at the Admiralty and the Cronstadt naval base. They live at Admiralty Square and are fellow parishioners of the Ropes at the Church of St. Catherine.”

Dancing is a Russian passion and the signature of a cultured person to Tom. It’s a skill he’s never acquired.

Tom confides to the Major that he will have an outing and a long chat in the near future with his brother Bill on how to craft the letter that will broach his marriage plans to their father. Before Whistler can respond, Debo grabs her father’s arm, yanking him to his feet.

As Ellen begins another waltz on the piano, Debo snatches Tom for her dance partner.

“Your Mr. Haden will be angry with me and you imperil your feet,” says Tom, as they awkwardly gain sync with the music.

“He’s in London and will never know,” says Debo. “And my feet are quite strong.”

As the Major returns to the room with his flute, he sees Celeste, now dancing playfully with one of the Ropes’ daughters, steal a quick glance at Debo and Tom.

Whistler, George Washington

Tom Winans and Major Whistler touring their Russian railroad project


Tom: Thursday, September 10, 1846

Once again, the feeling of imprisonment and its concomitant urge to flee is gripping Tom as the Neva River’s ice silently thickens and will inexorably lock the door to St. Petersburg. Nature won’t relinquish the key for five months. His fourth Russian winter is imminent, and the brutal experience always reduces his perspective on life to its most elemental, heightening the search for meaning. Like shipping, railroad work will cease from November’s freeze till April’s thaw. City fathers have estimated winter deaths, and graves are being dug in advance. Aside from accumulating snows and paralyzing ice, nothing changes about Tom’s living and work environment except the freedom to leave it. That alone is emotionally devastating, a deprivation wealth or power cannot assuage, and it’s as close as Tom ever gets to empathetic feelings for the enslaved.

Homesickness grows wolves’ fangs, but counterbalancing that emotion is stark fear when contemplating the perilous return trip to Baltimore, accompanied by ever-looming outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid, and scarlet fever. He endured the journey from that city in the spring of 1843. His father’s firm had been invited to join an American venture being assembled by Czar Nicholas I’s minions to build Russia’s first public railroad, the line from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It was a venture driven by the Czar’s dream of facilitating troop movements and conquests rather than any notion of commercial benefits to Russian citizens.

Tom’s memory assaults him with every leg of that Odyssey, which separated him from his family for the first time at age twenty-one: the twelve-day steamer trip through mountainous swells from New York to London; another steamer across the North Sea to Hamburg; the overland trip to Lubeck, Germany; the steamer up the Baltic Sea to the Russian naval base at Cronstadt; and, finally, the three-hour trip on a tiny, dirty steamboat up the Neva to St. Petersburg. Tom worked most of that year before the invitation became a contract. His younger brother Bill joined the group a year later but nearly succumbed to seasickness and vows never to return home unless someone invents a boat which conquers the rocking of the waves.

Once the Neva is solid, homesickness subsides, supplanted by desires fueled by the Romanoff capital’s winter diversions. During the inactive phase of the railroad project’s annual cycle, whores become repugnant to Tom, and the yearning to procure a wife grows incessant. His commitment-oriented romantic pursuits are sporadic and highly conflicted because the working season is a time tyrant, and the marital role models in his life are anathema to him.

For the wealthy, St. Petersburg’s long, dark winter days are brightened by extravagant parties, musical family gatherings, and the Nevsky Prospect, a boulevard of magnificent churches, fashionable shopping, and a multitude of cultural events, pre-eminently the ballet and opera. The poor have only their churches and seasonal festivals to alleviate their misery, and the luckless among them succumb to the lottery of contaminated water—white tanks bringing it from the Neva for drinking, green tanks from the Fontanka River for washing, and yellow tanks from the slow, dirty canals for scrubbing floors and carriages. The only certainty is that the water carts dispense random death to the poor at the rate of ten a day from dysentery.

Tom frequently hosts $40 a plate winter parties for twenty people. Greenhouse-grown delicacies such as oranges, pineapples, raspberries, strawberries, asparagus, radishes, lettuce, apples, and pears are served in the comfortable brick home he and Bill share on the edge of the Alexandrovsky Cast Iron Foundry, just beyond the city. In honor of this source of his wealth, Tom has named the grand estate under construction in Baltimore Alexandroffsky, changing the spelling in deference to his—and many Russians’—thirst for French culture.

Two partners from Philadelphia, Andrew M. Eastwick and Joseph Harrison, Jr., live in an identical home on the opposite side of the complex. Their powerful Atlas engine influenced the Czar’s scouts to choose them as the sole contractor for Russia’s rolling stock, but the project’s leader, Major George Washington Whistler, was impressed with Ross Winans’ work ethic and integrity, the quality of his engines, and his firstborn son Tom’s persona which exudes charm, leadership, and sales skills. As managing partner, Whistler spends most of his time traveling the rail line overseeing the work of forty to fifty-thousand serfs. Partners at the foundry must be trusted to work without supervision, and to that end he fended off hoards of sycophants offering imaginative bribes to join his lucrative enterprise. Even the alcoholic brother-in-law who introduced Whistler to railroading in 1828 was excluded and embittered. The Major negotiated for almost a year to convince the Russians that the Philadelphia firm was too small to handle the rolling stock production alone. In December 1843, Whistler’s influence prevailed. The Winanses were approved by the Czar’s Temporary Technical Commission of the Department of Railroads, and the partnership of Harrison, Winans & Eastwick was formed. It would be the first of four, each increasing the Winans’ control.

The Americans’ five-year rail construction contract specifies a line four-hundred and two miles long (607 versts) with seventy aqueducts and two-hundred bridges, many servicing St. Petersburg’s canals and rivers rather than the railroad. The project’s scope includes replacing the city’s temporary pontoon bridges with its first permanent stone structures. While Whistler shepherds the construction line, the four partners living at Alexandrovsky have hired and are managing thousands of their own workers to produce rolling stock and build bridges. They’ve trained the Russians to use and repair what’s built to date: two-hundred engines and seven-thousand cars, including tenders, passenger, baggage and post cars, as well as box and platform merchandise cars.

Tom is rich, decorated by the Czar, and anticipating his return to America next year. The five-million dollar rolling stock contract is ahead of schedule albeit two-million dollars over budget. When advisers ask what this railroad is ultimately going to cost Russia, the Czar replies, “Only God and Kleinmichel know.”

Today, Tom is accompanying the Major and Count Kleinmichel along the elevated, macadamized chausseé—which parallels the equally elevated rail line—as they inspect progress and gather data for the Count’s weekly report to the Czar. Whistler hopes to open the first short stretch of the line next May, from St. Petersburg to the town of Kolpino. The projection is for eighty-thousand passengers and two-million pounds of freight in the first year.

Tom is fantasizing about this winter’s search for a bride when the Count’s shout to the coachmen brings the powder blue and silver Court coach to a jarring halt. To their left is a horrific sight that etches Tom’s psyche indelibly.

As the Count steps onto the chausseé, Whistler whispers, “Now we’ll see the Czar’s Hound revel in brutality that would be the envy of any Georgia plantation overseer.”

As Kleinmichel walks along a silent line of workers, each in turn bends over, approaches in that position, kisses the hem of his bright raspberry uniform coat, and proclaims, “I kiss, your lordship.” Then the serf backs away, still bowing.

“Judging from the severity of this birching, I’m guessing these are runaways,” Major Whistler says.

Beyond the chausseé is a clearing containing what at first glance appears to be one large, bloody, writhing organism. Squinting through the carriage window, Tom discerns thirty-two prone, naked men, with guts clearly spilling from some. The wailing unfortunates are being lashed unrelentingly over their backs, buttocks, sex organs, and heads by Kleinmichel’s railroad policemen. Their powder-blue uniforms—the Empress’s color—are dotted red, almost symmetrically, as if the implement responsible were a priest’s aspergillum rather than the recoil of a split birch branch soaked in pickle brine.

“Kleinmichel’s police keep the serfs submissive with birchings whenever they complain about living conditions or desert their work crews. I’ve seen eighty birched at one time. But there’s a second facet to his cruelty. The tavern you see just ahead of us is part of a franchise given to Count Kankrin to minimize complaints and forestall organized revolts by keeping the workers drunk in their spare time.”

“But the Russians worship you; can’t you intervene to improve the men’s plight?” asks Tom.

“Welcome to the railroad you haven’t been seeing from the Alexandrovsky foundry. After three years, I’m surprised you’re not better informed, but you have your father’s extraordinary focus and drive, which explains why the foundry is so far ahead of its schedule. Since your work is largely done, I’ve brought you on this tour so you could glimpse the seamier side of how you’ve become wealthy. We Americans are well-paid, and the Czar allows Kleinmichel to openly steal public monies. But the serfs work fourteen hour days for their quit-rent, live in sod huts away from their families, sleep on the ground, fend off wolves, eat maggoty salt-meat, rotted potatoes, a few vegetables, and bread so hard they must cut it with an axe. Only the lucky ones avoid typhoid. As you see, they may neither complain nor leave. To police fifty-thousand such unfortunates on the wrong side of the wealth-sharing equation, the Count insists ‘one must rule like a beast,’ and logic is unable to contest the point. My conscience protests, but Anna and my family’s future speaks in a louder voice.”

“And what gave the Count such standing with the Czar?” asks Tom.

“Kleinmichel saved Grand Dukes Nicholas and Michael from capture by Napoleon in France in March 1814. When the Winter Palace burned to a shell in 1831, the Count got it rebuilt in a manner of months, and he also squashed the Polish rebellion for the Czar that same year. Those Poles were enslaved as road-builders until being switched to the railroad, and Kleinmichel takes particular glee in their birchings, which often result in death. A grateful Nicholas made him a Count, gave him a magnificent house in Chernigov, and appointed him minister of communication and public works. That house, by the way, which Kleinmichel calls Pochep, has a chapel the envy of many bishops. Young Alexander technically heads the Department of Railroads, but Kleinmichel answers only to the Czar, meeting with him regularly on Thursdays. The Czar’s ruthlessness, unpredictability, and imposing physical presence keeps Kleinmichel fearful, but Nicholas has been in good spirits since this past July’s celebration of his fiftieth birthday and the marriage of his daughter Olga to the Prince of Wurttemberg.”

“But what of your influence?” asks Tom.

“In addition to my salary, which Anna relentlessly spends and gives away to please her God, I made certain demands on the Russians before accepting their offer. After the unexpected death of the Czech Gerstner, the dismissal of the French and English as incompetent, and the rebuff of his offer by Moncure Robinson, the Czar needed me. His scouts Melnikov and Kraft liked my work in the Berkshires, so I had leverage. They quadrupled my Boston & Albany salary to $12 thousand a year and made an unprecedented concession by not requiring us to join the Russian military or wear their uniforms. I have never humbled myself in Russia by calling anyone ‘your majesty.’ The Czar and I address each other as ‘sir,’ and I grovel before none of his underlings. We have our summer dacha on the road to Peterof and the ten-room tenement in the Ritter Dom on the English Quay. You have admired its view overlooking the Neva facing Vasilievsky Island, which, of course, is where young Jimmie is privileged to study art at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Kleinmichel has repeatedly intervened on my behalf when corrupt Russian contractors have provided dangerously inadequate bridge hardware. He even fired the profligate old Prince Beloselsky-Belozersky, whose new scam is selling blood-lettings to ill railroad workers. My influence, however, stops with the serfs. The brutality you see here nearly sent me home on several occasions, but I decided to conquer my conscience. It is not brutality of my making. This land is brutal. I travel to England next week to bring Debo back to our family. With disease rampant, summers in St. Petersburg are unfit for young women. I will bless the last day of my existence in this cursed place.”

The Major is an enigma to Tom. The West Point graduate inspires his workers to Herculean production, and he was a fine enough soldier to have won the hand of Mary Swift, the daughter of West Point’s surgeon. Yet he looks more like an artist to Tom, with long curly hair, smooth white skin, a delicate mouth, and a very pleasant face. He romanced his now-deceased first wife by playing the flute under her bedroom window, and he draws well enough that he was sent to England in 1828-1829 to sketch for the B&O Railroad’s research team. No one doubts Whistler’s engineering skills, but Tom believes his real genius is in manipulatively using his effeminate appearance and irrepressible congeniality to lull opponents into underestimating his toughness. Congeniality is a sea-change from Tom’s own father Ross, an inveterate curmudgeon who thrives on raw confrontation.

As Tom restlessly moves to exit the coach, the Major reaches to stop him.

“We have a wait yet, so stay comfortable Tom. The good Count savors his alpha male role and lingers when blood is flowing and his hem is being fondled. Anna’s gossip circles have dredged up the intelligence that the son of Ross Winans wants to take home a Russian bride next year, and she has commanded me to enhance her stature by ferreting out salacious details. Your father will never approve, you know.”

“It is true I am attracted to the independent spirit of the Russian women. They are opinionated and politically astute.”

“As are many New England women of my acquaintance,” says the Major. “God makes clear decisions with men and women’s bodies but makes mischief with their souls. There are men with the soul of a woman, women with the soul of a man, and countless gradations in-between. The soul that is allowed to emerge is only what family and societal traditions allow. Were Alexandrovsky in Moscow rather than St. Petersburg, I’m confident you would have a different opinion of Russian women. The woman of Ross Winans’ could never be the woman of Henry Stanton’s. But would you really want a wife who demands the word ‘obey’ be dropped from her marriage vows? Women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton secretly abound in America. What’s not abundant are husbands who allow such independence and political divergence from their own views.”

Whistler adds, “Consider our traveling companion. The Czar’s Hound, as the serfs fondly call him when his hem is out of their view, requires his wife, a good St. Petersburg woman, to mimic the growth of the Czar’s mistress Barbara Nelidova, whenever she is with child. Nelidova, of course, is hidden away. After the bastard is born, Kleinmichel forces his wife to adopt and raise the child as her own. The Czar is quite grateful for this diabolically imaginative service.”

“So it’s like serfdom; slavery under the guise of an acceptable social institution—in this case marriage,” says Tom.

“Many women make pacts with the devil for comfortable lives,” says the Major. “But nature’s justice makes the indulgent self-absorption of the comfortable as stressful as the desperate self-absorption of the poor. The Count’s machinations make him a perpetually angry man, well aware that his sudden demise has so many potential origins that he can trust no one.”

“You make your point convincingly,” says Tom. “I suppose my true quandary is not over where the most desirable women are sired. When I look at the men I most admire in life—my father, yourself, Napoleon and the Czar—I see models for achieving great power. But with apologies, Major, I also see lives with very little joy and marriages that are either tempestuous or which, in my father’s case, have reduced the woman to the role of a slave at home and a decoration in the community. I want both power and joy.” The Major frowns at this arrogance and naivete.

“Achieving power can be meticulously planned. Joy and true love can’t be sketched like a new locomotive. You can only immerse yourself in possibilities, and one day it magically appears. Logic is not a player in the quest for romance. The men you admire all would have it if that were so. Had your father remained on his New Jersey farm to pursue joy instead of leaving his family for productive years spent alone in Baltimore and England, he would still be a poor farmer beholden to his wife’s inheritance, and you would not be a rich young man.”

As the tall, gray-eyed Kleinmichel steps into the coach, his four exquisite Russian Orlov grays resume their effortless, synchronized gait. Whistler goes silent. Tom returns to his reverie.

Alexandrovsky foundry

Alexandrovsky foundry just southeast of St. Petersburg. It is where the American partnership produced the rolling stock for Russia’s first public railroad. Insets: L-Czar Alexander II, R-Tom Winans

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