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1636 The Atlantic Encounter: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 3, 2020 16:52 EDT

 


 

Paris, France

    If Étienne Servien had learned only one thing in the service of the crown, it was that men were subject to many perils, and that many of them ultimately proved fatal.

    It seemed trite to think of men’s lives that way, like playing cards discarded on a table, like coins spent in the market, like wooden soldiers in the hands of a child: but it was nothing if not apt. To the great gamblers, and the great generals, most men were exactly that: elements of a wager, resources to be put at risk, pieces on a battlefieldâ¦better that they not put a face on such things, placing their sentimentality or mercy in the path of their duty and desire.

    Far better not to think about it at all.

    Servien picked up the letter from his escritoire and walked to the window. There was a bench seat there, giving him a fine view across the broad avenue to the street below, where there were people he would never know, engaged in pursuits that some great gambler or great general — or, quite possibly, his proximate employer, the Great Cardinal — might even now be directing, obstructing or abetting. The sun rose, the sun set: and life went on.

    He unfolded the letter, and in the slanting light of the afternoon sun, reread the beginning of the text.

     Most esteemed Monsieur,

    In accordance with your direction and advice, I have been observing the ship under renovation in Hamburg Harbor. She is a former Baltic trading vessel, roughly one hundred fifty tons, under the command of a Dutch sailing master named Claes Maartens. The ship is to be named Challenger, which name seems to hold special significance for up-timers; Le Défi might be a suitable translation. There are two Americans associated with the vessel — one who has been on hand for some time named Gordon Chehab, and another who arrived just this week — his brother Peter. I am sure that they have been charged with some special mission, since they have discussed matters privately away from the ship — I regret that I was unable to overhear the import of their conversation.

    The younger brother is a soldier of some sort; the elder is not — though I am as yet unaware of his area of specialty, since he does not appear to have the habits and skills of a seaman. It is possible that he will command the expedition.

    Essentially knowing himself to be a pawn in someone else’s hand, Servien felt a sympathy for his agent, the Alsatian Stephane Hoff. He had been plucked from the streets of Paris, trained and refined from the raw material that Servien had found: the dross separated and discarded, the gold burnished.

    With an indication that there was some project underway in Hamburg, he had suggested to Cardinal Richelieu that it might be worth placing a set of eyes and ears to learn what it was about. His Eminence had given it scarcely a moment’s thought and waved his consent, as if it was of no consequence.

    As if it was indeed a chess piece or a wooden soldier. Which — to Richelieu, at least — it was.

    There had been a handful of letters. They were carefully written, as if Stephane believed that Servien could see through any dissembling, or that he would not be compensated if the information was insufficient. Falsehood, Servien would not tolerate: but the cardinal, and thus the cardinal’s servants, were generous when it came to intelligence — particularly when there might be danger involved. True, Stephane had not exactly volunteered to be an agent; true, the assignment to Hamburg might be less preferable than one in his adopted city of Paris, the center of the universe as far as Servien was concerned — but still, Stephane was useful, and capable, and might be suitable for greater and more responsible tasks.

    He set the letter aside. It had been three, almost four weeks since it had arrived, and there was no message since. He had perhaps been captured, or even killed. There were so many perilsâ¦and so many of them fatal.

    He knew what Père Joseph, Cardinal Tremblay, was likely to say: What can you expect? He has no loyalty except that which you buy.

    He thought he knew what His Eminence was likely to say: The man was of no consequence. A street-beggar converted into a spy? I have paid to teach him his letters, to educate him with skills that would serve me well — and now he has gone. Find another, and perhaps I shall open my purse again.

    No loyalty, Servien heard again in his mind. Of no consequence.

    Stephane was gone: no trace of him was left behind. The up-timer ship Challenger was gone as well, cleared from Hamburg Harbor a little after Stephane’s last letter, bound for God only knew what destination. The Baltic, perhaps, to aid somehow in the war effort. The Mediterranean, to interfere with the mess in Italy. Or Spain. Or England, or Scotland, orâ¦

    Two up-timers: a fine sailing-ship, a special mission, possibly some manner of Grantvillieur technology aboard.

    It was far short of the fount of information Servien had hoped to provide.

     


 

    When the summons did come, Servien anticipated his master’s disappointment at the best, and his anger at the worst: not over Stephane, he supposed, but at the lack of up-to-date information on this up-timer expedition. Cardinal Richelieu was unhappy with intelligence that was out of date or unimportant, and God help the messenger if it was wrong.

    As a good servant, however, and as an intendant who had kept his head — and his position — for some time, he was a keen observer. Thus, when he was bid to come to Richelieu’s reception room, he took note of every detail that might provide him with information as to the current circumstance, and to his master’s state of mind.

    To his surprise, in the grand — and as yet incomplete — hall that led to Richelieu’s public chambers, he noted the presence of a young, well-dressed nobleman, leaning against a pillar, clearly bored and somewhat out of sorts.

    “Ah,” he said at Servien’s approach. “If it is not our good Cardinal’s carrion bird.”

    Servien did not choose to respond, but wondered to himself why the man was there. The man was a dandy, and conducted the life of a bon vivant, a ladies’ man; his name was de la Marche — Phillippe de la Marche — a younger son of a wealthy blue blood, too youthful for politics and too undisciplined for the Church. He even had a nickname, perhaps one that he had arranged to be bestowed: Le crève-coeur — Heartbreaker.

    “Tell me,” de la Marche said, standing straight and ambling directly for him, “what is on your Master’s mind?”

    “I do not take your meaning, Monsieur.” Servien changed his pace and direction slightly, so that he could reach Richelieu’s chamber quickly and more directly.

    De la Marche was a step ahead, and positioned himself so that Servien would have to go right past him.

    “Of course you take my meaning,” he repeated. “You understand me very well, little man. Very well indeed.”

    Servien sighed. He looked up the hall and noted a red-tabarded member of the Cardinal’s Guard, the handpicked soldiers directly answerable to Richelieu; after a moment he caught the man’s eye. He made a gesture — passing his right hand over his right ear, and returned it to his side.

    De la Marche took no notice. “I wish to know why my friend and patron has been summoned to theâ¦Illustrious Presence.”

    “I am sure I do not know.”

 



 

    “I am sure you do. You know everything that goes on in that room.” He pointed behind him. “My patron may be his nephew, but he is not fond of being suddenly summoned by the red robe. I should like to know why.”

    Nephew, Servien thought. But the only nephew the cardinal might summonâ¦would be Jean: Jean Armand de Maillé-Brézé — whom he had appointed, at age seventeen, to be grand-maître de la navigation.

    The Admiral of France. The soi-disant Admiral of France.

    Servien caught the guardsman’s eye again, then returned his attention to the young nobleman before him. The guardsman began to walk slowly toward where they stood.

    “Whatever my master’s plans might be, Monsieur, and whatever I may know about them — I know that he does not like to be kept waiting.”

    “He shall have to wait until I am done with you.”

    “Are you threatening me, Monsieur?”

    “I do not threaten my inferiors,” he answered. “I command them to speak. So — speak, so that I may be better informed.”

    “And if I choose to remain silent?”

    De la Marche had apparently not even considered the possibility. Like all bullies, he did not know how to react when his intended victim was not intimidated.

    Servien was in the employ of Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duke de Richelieu, first minister of France. He understood intimidation very well — and understood that it did not emerge from the mouth of a young, arrogant fop, or from the point of his sword, should it come to that.

    “Then I shall extract my information by unpleasant means.”

    “The cardinal would not wish to be disturbed either by improper sound or unseemly violence, Monsieur. And while he would, of course, hold his nephew blameless, he would find some way to cause you to regret your precipitate action.”

    “Are you threatening me?”

    “No,” Servien said. “Not at all.” He looked past de la Marche at the cardinal’s guardsman standing a few feet away, his hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. “I do not threaten my inferiors.”

    Before the young man could frame a reply, Servien stepped past him and rapped at the door. From within he heard the word “Come,” and he opened it and closed it behind him.

     


 

    “Forgive my tardiness, Your Eminence,” he said; Richelieu stood bent over a large table, looking at a map that was held down with several knickknacks and items from the cardinal’s broad desk. “I was delayed by annoyances.”

    Richelieu looked at him. “Is that young fool still loitering about?”

    “I regret to say that he is, Monsieur.”

    “While I understand the sort of companion that my nephew attracts, I do not generally approve. Fortunately” — the cardinal permitted himself a small smile, which did not cause Servien to relax in the least — “he appears to suffer from mal de mer whenever he is aboard a sailing ship, so there is no chance for Jean to appoint him a captain by mistake.”

    “I am gratified to hear it.”

    Servien walked to where Richelieu stood, taking a brief glance at the map. It was a copy of the New World chart devised by the Englishman John Smith.

    “Eminence?” he said after a moment.

    “I hear that your young Alsatian has vanished,” Richelieu said without preamble. “A shame.”

    “I did not know that Your Eminence was so well informed.”

    “After all these years? Come now, Servien, my best and most faithful servant. That I am aware of something should be your default assumption.”

    “Of course. Forgive me.”

    “I absolve you of your ignorance. Now, to the matter at hand. I have reviewed the copies of your correspondence with your young spy. Quite informative; quite informative indeed. I would say that you made an excellent investment in him.”

    “Thank you, Monsieur.”

    “And, indeed⦔ Richelieu spread his hands across the map, then traced the long, sinuous coastline with his index finger. “If he has found a way to survive and return to us with further information, I would be prepared to reward him quite well. It seems that our up-timer friends are heavily invested in some scheme, and he was quite close to it.”

    “But weâ¦did not learn of its import.”

    “Actually,” the cardinal said, “we do have some idea of it. It was sighted on two occasions after it set sail from Hamburg; once from the south coast of England, and once from Normandy. It sailed west — and out to sea.”

    Servien looked at the map, then back at Richelieu.

    “To the New World, you believe.”

    “Yes, to the New World. The sparrow returns to its nest: the up-timers return to America.”

    “This is not the America they knew.”

    “No. Indeed it is not. This is a wild land of savages, an untamed wilderness. An inhospitable place⦔

    “Which largely belongs to the French crown now.”

    Richelieu turned and walked to the hearth, where there was a carefully banked fire. The day outside was pleasant, but Richelieu’s receiving chamber was chilly; there was a draft from somewhere, perhaps owing to the continuing construction of the Palais-Cardinal. He extended his long hands toward the fireplace, then settled himself into an armchair; he waved Servien to another nearby.

    “There is a peculiar class of plants, Servien; I have read of them — they apparently exist in profusion in the New World, in that untamed wilderness that His Christian Majesty now owns. They are called in Latin Dionaea muscipula; English governors a century up-time from this year of grace dubbed them ‘Venus flytrap.’ Do you know of them?”

    Servien shook his head. “I do not, Eminence.”

    “I shall have to arrange to have one or more of them in my garden, when time allows.” Richelieu placed his hands together in front of him, palms up, slightly cupped. “These remarkable plants have pairs of wide, stiff leaves with tiny hairs on them. They remain dormant and quiet until an insect lands on them and then walksâ¦ever so carefullyâ¦across the leaves and touches one and then another of the hairs. Then, and only then, the leaves snap shut –” he clapped his hands together so suddenly that Servien started in his seat.

    Richelieu smiled.

    “I beg your pardon, Eminence,” Servien said. “Please continue.”

    “Once the leaves are shut, Servien, the plant consumes the tiny insect. It is carnivorous, you see — a plant that eats tiny animals, such as insects.” He let his hands relax again, resting them on his knees.

    “Remarkable.”

    “Yes. I should like to have one of them to study — in any case, France is much like that singular growth. We have laid open and in wait for a few years; our title to the former English colonies is unchallenged, and our ownership of the lands shown on that map is unimpeded, except for a single Dutch colony. Along with our established domain to the north and west, it gives France a huge swath of territory to settle, to develop, to exploit. With the peace, we finally have an opportunity to undertake this venture.”

    “I see.”

    “Clearly the Americans see this as well. Just as we are the plant, they are the insect. The departure of this up-timer-crewed ship for the New World is the trigger that moves us to action. Your spy told us enough to convince me that this is the time.”

    “You intend to deploy our fleet to the New World?”

    “I would not say our entire fleet, Servien. That would be peremptory — and incautious. Even though we are at peace, we cannot assume that situation will prevail forever. But we have resources to deploy and someone to command them.”

    “Our grand-maître.”

    “Quite.” Richelieu placed his hands together again, palm up. “And this little expeditionâ¦which does not know that we knowâ¦might well be caught in the trap.”

    This time, when the cardinal clapped his hands together, Servien did not bat an eyelash.


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