English engineer William Perry, generously rewarded by the Russian Tsar Peter for diligence in arranging locks on the Voronezh River, with a letter calling his brother Bertrand to Russia for the execution of a new tsar’s plan – the creation of a continuous navigable passage between Don and Oko. There are big sluice and channel works, for the projecting of which, and promised William to the king to call his brother, because “he himself was tired, and the heart dried up and the mind goes dead.”
In the spring of 1709, Bertrand Perry sailed to St. Petersburg. He is in his thirty-fourth year, but his sullen, sorrowful face and gray whiskey make him forty-five. In the port of Bertrand meet the Ambassador of the Russian Tsar and the Consul of the English King. Resting after a long journey in the allotted rest near the marine hay store, under the alarming howl of the storm outside the window, Bertrand remembers his native New Castle and his twenty-year-old bride, Mary. Before parting, Mary told Bertrand that she needed a husband “like a stranger Iskander, like a rushing Tamerlane or indomitable Atilla.” To be worthy of such a wife, Bertrand came to this harsh land. But can Mary wait for him for many years? With these thoughts Bertrand falls asleep in a stiff rest.
A week Bertrand gets acquainted with the survey documents compiled by knowledgeable people: the French engineer Truzson and the Polish technician Tsitskevsky. On the basis
Bertrand, along with five German engineers and ten scribes, travels to the city of Epifan, to the very middle of future work. Departure marred by a letter from Newcastle. Mary reproaches him for cruelty – for the sake of gold he swam to the far land and ruined her love. And she preferred another – Thomas, and already the child is worried about her heart. Unable to remember the mind, Bertrand Perry reads the letter three times in succession and clenches his pipe with teeth so that blood flows from the gums. “It’s over, friends… The blood is over, and the gums are over. Let’s go to Epifan!” – mastering himself, he says fellow travelers.
They travel for a long time along the Ambassadorial road – through Moscow, through the booming spaces with rich and restrained nature, and the head wind blows the grief from Bertrand’s chest. Work begins immediately, only in it Bertrand emanates the energy of his soul – and the handy call him a convict commander. In autumn he comes to Epifan Peter and remains dissatisfied with the fact that the work is slow. Indeed, no matter how hardened Perry, the peasants sheltered from the duty, and the local evil bosses made profit on the fines and offsets from the treasury. Peter conducts an inquiry, the governor is beaten with a whip and sent to Moscow for an additional investigation, where he dies.
After Peter’s departure, another misfortune finds Epiphany’s work. Not only the Baltic masters and technicians-Germans are sick and dying, but also they flee on secret roads to their homeland, and without them the peasants do not go out on duty in whole settlements. Under the threat of death, Bertrand Perry orders not to let foreigners go on the opposite road, but this also does not succeed in truncating the alleged evil.
Bertrand understands that he began in vain such a storm of work. It was necessary to give the people to get used to work, but now people fear “unbearable” … The new governor intercepts petitions to the king and explains to Bertrand that the local people are a swindler and a disobedient and strives only to denounce writing, not work. Bertrand feels that the new governor is no better than the former one. He sends Peter a report describing the entire history of the work. The Tsar declares the Epiphany voivodship on a martial law, sends a new voivode, but also threatens Bertrand Perry with reprisal for negligent work: “That you are a British – you will not be happy.”
Bertrand also receives a letter from Mary. She writes that her first-born died, that her husband had become a stranger and that she remembered Bertrand, understanding the courage and modesty of his nature. Bertrand does not answer Mary.
Spring is issued unfriendly, and the riverbeds are not filled with water to the required level. It turns out that the year when the survey was conducted was unusually abundant on water, and for the normal year the calculations are wrong. To pump water into the canals Bertrand orders to expand the discovered underwater well on Ivan-lake. But the works destroy the water-bearing clayey bed, and the water decreases even more.
Bertrand’s heart is hardened. He lost his homeland, Mary, hoping to find comfort in his work, but here he is overtaken by the ruthless blow of fate. He knows that he will not get out alive from these expanses and will not see any more of his own Newcastle. But the work continues.
A year later, a commission headed by Truzson arrived at the testing of locks and canals, which, according to his research, was the work project. Channeled water rises so insignificantly that in other places and the raft can not pass, not that the ship. “That water will not be enough, about all the women in Epifani a year ago knew, that’s why all the residents and work looked like at the royal game and foreign venture…” The commission concludes: the costs and the works are considered in vain.
Perry does not try to prove his innocence. He wanders in the steppe, and in the evenings he reads English novels about love. The Germans-engineers escape, fleeing from the king’s punishment. Two months later, Peter sends a courier with the message: Bertrand Perry, as a state criminal, to drive a pedestrian to Moscow with the guards. The road is so far away that Perry forgets where he’s being led, and he wants to be quickly brought and killed.
Bertrand sits in the Kremlin’s prison prison and watches through a narrow window as the stars burn in their heights and lawlessness in the sky. He wakes up from the people standing over him. This is the clerk who reads the verdict, and a huge butcher-sadist without an ax. For more than an hour, grinding and snorting, the executioner is fierce over the dying life of Bertrand Perry. A scent-smelling letter from England, which comes to Epifan in the name of a dead man, voivode Saltykov puts from sin for the goddess – for an eternal settlement to spiders.