Shmuel had assumed that the Kokab had some good reason for sending him first to Amsterdam. And on the externals it seemed like a good choice. It was an emerging merchant city of significant promise, the sort of place where, if subsidized by the wealthier merchants like himself, a community might actually take root. On the other hand, he had heard absolutely nothing about an actual Jewish presence there, and as he proceeded west across the Mediterranean he was unable to find anyone who had any significant intelligence regarding a Jewish community in the city. His sources, on the contrary, pointed him to Antwerp, which was close by and, with the silting up of the river Zwin, was beginning to take over much of the trade which had formerly gone through Bruges. It was reasonably tolerant, had a large banking establishment, and a very significant population of merchants from Venezia, Genova, and Ragusa. And so Shmuel decided to stop there first.
He was, in the end, profoundly disappointed at what he found. The place was, above all, a port for sugar imported from Spanish and Portuguese plantations, including those to which the enslaved Jews of Portugal he had been working to rescue had been transported. The leadership of the Jewish community understood the issue, but was confident that these Jews would soon be liberated and replaced by more economical and more tractable African slaves, an outlook which was hardly encouraging. Shmuel found no tzadikim there, and wondered that these men had been willing to risk their lives in order to practice their Judaism openly, when they clearly did not understand anything about the Law. Still, he established a small society dedicated to helping Jewish refugees, and with the help of some of the more idealistic children of the donors added to its charter a commitment to work for an end to slavery not just for Jews but for Africans as well.
In all, Shmuel spent about a year in Antwerp, including some brief voyages to Amsterdam in order to investigate conditions there, which turned out, however promising they might become, to be currently even less propitious than those in Antwerp. And he kept hearing about the Kingdom of Poland, where there was a very long history of toleration, and where the Ashkenazim had established a number of thriving communities. And so he prepared a report for the Kokab and made plans for a journey to the East.
This entailed a difficult journey as the more direct land routes through France and Germany led through increasingly hostile territory. Travel by sea was not too much better, as the principal port of entry, Gdansk, was an historic seat of the Teutonic Order and not a friendly place for Jews, though it was now part of the Kingdom of Poland and conditions were said to be improving.
Ultimately Shmuel decided to travel by sea, as it was faster. He loaded up as many spices and woolens as he could and set sail from Antwerp seven years to the day after Miriam’s execution.
The northern climate did not, however, suit him well. Had he not been carrying a truly vast quantity of woolen cloth, he would likely have died of exposure. It had never occurred to him that people would voluntarily live in a place so damp and so cold so much of time. Indeed, by the time he reached Gdansk, he was quite ill. He had, however, been given a letter of introduction to a secret Jew, who went by the Christian name Woytek, trading in salted fish. Weak, feverish, and coughing up blood he made his way to the man’s house.
The man took him in and saw to it that his goods were stored in a local warehouse until he could recover. The house was quite rich and, like the homes of most secret Jews, it was full of Christian religious artifacts. Indeed, when he awoke in the middle of his first night there, he found that he was sleeping under a giant crucifix which, in his feverish state, seemed to be quite literally dripping blood onto his sheets.
That morning the man’s daughter brought him strong tea and rye bread and salted and smoked fish, which he devoured and within a few hours he began to feel like he might be recovering his strength. But when his host came in he insisted on having Shmuel inspected by a physician who, he was told, was also a secret Jew. The physician told him that he had tuberculosis and was not fit to travel. But Shmuel insisted and the physician agreed to treat him noting, however, the medicine would likely make him feel even sicker at first.
This was something of an understatement. Within a few minutes of the first dose Shmuel was feeling dizzy and nauseous and he began to hallucinate again. This time the figure on the cross was not just dripping blood on him, but actually reach down and trying to strangle him.
He had resolved that, secret Jew or not, he could not trust his host with a full account of his mission, and when the man returned later in the day he tried to limit conversation to business concerns. But when the man began questioning him he found that he could not stop himself from explaining his plan to create a network of safe houses leading from Sicily and al-Andalus up to Krakow.
Another dose of the medicine followed, and Shmuel felt even worse. Indeed, he seemed to be losing sensation in his limbs and could just barely move.
Then everything went dark.