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1636 The Atlantic Encounter: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, June 12, 2020 08:45 EDT

 


 

PART II

May 1636

The grinding waters and the gasping wind

Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

Thomasville, Newfoundland

    Gordon wasn’t sure what he expected to see when Challenger came in sight of land. He had a notion that the New World would look like an untamed wilderness, with settlements clinging to the coasts — the slightest breeze capable of dropping them into the sea, palisades facing inland against attacks from hostile Indians. Movie stuff, or what boys read in their adventure books.

    But the sight that greeted him from the foredeck of Challenger was nothing like that. The hills were bare, stripped of trees and vegetation; inland of a fortified settlement, he could see smokestacks. It was a scene from Dickens — the Industrial Revolution come to roost on Newfoundland.

    Pete came up to stand beside him. “Wow. Doesn’t look like 1636 to me.”

    “It’s 1636, all right. According to what I’ve been told, they started with a map of mineral deposits. They’re taking coal and iron ore out of the ground and making pig iron. It looks like Cavriani’s cousins made a smart investment.”

    “Why haven’t the French grabbed this place?”

    “They tried, last year. But the Danes drove them off. Rumor is the Danes used a submarine to do it.”

    “Submarine?” Pete shook his head. “That sounds like bullshit got loose from the pen.”

    Gorgon shrugged. “I’m not vouching for it. I’m just telling you what I heard. But whether the submarine part is accurate or not, what does seem clearly established is that the French found this place a tough nut to crack. Which means they’ll probably be probing somewhere else next.”

    Pete gestured toward the harbor, now coming into view. There were two ships anchored there — one of which was clearly well armed.

    “I’d guess that’s true. But those ships can’t just rot in the harbor. Sooner or later they’ll be somewhere else, and⦔

    “And they’re going to need friends. And that, bro, is why we’re here.”

    “Oh, is it?”

    The two brothers turned to face Ingrid, who had come up to stand beside them.

    “I understood that our purpose in the New World was to gather intelligence, Gordon,” she said. She looked across the bay at the settlement and frowned. “And we have the first of it, don’t we? What sort of place is this, in the New World?”

    “It’s a colony,” Pete said. He gestured toward the hills and smokestacks. “It’s freakin’ Pittsburgh.” When Ingrid frowned, he continued, “It’s amazing, really, how much they’ve built in just a few years. It took them decades to screw up the Alleghenies, but they’re well on their way to do it to Newfoundland already.”

    “I would have thought that you would find this a pleasing sight,” she said. “This is what the future looks like, doesn’t it?”

    “Not all of it.” Pete looked at her. “Do you think we like industrial wasteland? We left that behind. West Virginia was full of stuff like this — coal mines that stripped the tops off mountains and poisoned rivers.”

    “And here we go again,” Gordon said, “except it’s in Newfoundland.”

    “I wonder who it is that is apparently so fond of your sort of technology. I’m sure they revel in this display — of modernity.” She turned on her heel and walked away.

     


 

    “Sail ho!”

    Maartens snapped his spyglass shut and turned from the taffrail to where Gordon and Paul stood. He looked aloft. “What flag does she fly?”

    “Danish Hudson Company’s house flag,” came the answer.

    Maartens said, “How’s your Danish, Chehab?”

    “Not great. But since Ingrid — Doctor Skoglund — is Swedish, she could probably translate. Well enough, anyway.”

    Maartens looked at the sky as if he were imploring Heaven — the idea of consulting a female doctor to speak for his ship had clearly never even crossed his mind.

    “Perfect. Could not be better: may be a hostile ship, and no one speaks the cursed language.” He opened the glass again. “She’s got the wind at her back — she’s reaching on us.”

    “So — is she hostile?”

    Maartens grunted. “She hasn’t fired on us yet, if that’s any indication. She’s a cattle ship, so she won’t have many guns anyway. But given the wind, she’s got to have come out of the port there. Our courses will cross within a half hour unless I change our point of sail.”

    “Maybe we should see what she wants.”

    Challenger’s sailing master let the rudder drift so that the ship made no headway. The Danish ship continued to approach, hailed Challenger and came alongside.

    An officer and three soldiers climbed over the rail of the Danish vessel and Challenger’s rail and onto her main deck. They looked as all soldiers do: self-important and fearless, anxious to exert their authority.

    “Captain,” the officer said in good German, touching the rim of his helmet. “What ship is this, and why are you in our waters?”

    Maartens shrugged. “I’m the sailing master, not the captain. You have boarded the USS Challenger. We are on a trading mission for the State of Thuringia-Franconia. I had not realized that I was in anyone’s waters.” He looked up at the mainmast of the Danish ship. “What is more, I hadn’t realized that Denmark had any claims here: doesn’t all of the New World belong to the French?”

    The officer scowled. “Not all. That is Thomasville,” he said, waving toward the distant shore. “It is granted to the Danish Hudson’s Bay Company.”

    “Ah. I see.”

    “USS. That stands for –?”

    “United States Ship.”

    “Ah. From the United States of Europe. You are, thenâ¦Swedes?”

    “Americans,” Gordon volunteered, stepping forward. Maartens looked annoyed at the interruption, but shrugged.

    “Amerikaner?” the officer said. He turned slightly and shouted something toward the Danish ship. “Our captain will want to talk to you, I think.”

    “Who is your captain?”

    “Lars Johanssen,” the man said. “This is the ship Kristina, a vessel of the Danish Hudson’s Bay Company.”

    “Never heard of him,” Maartens said.

    The officer was clearly unhappy with the comment, but shrugged. “You will come with me, American.”

    Gordon glanced at Maartens, then at Pete. “Let’s go, bro.”

    “Just you,” the officer said, putting his hand out as Pete took a step forward.

    “A custom of my country,” Gordon said. “We use the buddy system. Wherever I go, he goes.”

    “I don’t –“

    “Your Captain Johanssen wants to talk to me, does he? Well, we make it a habit of only boarding foreign vessels in pairs.”

    The officer looked from Maartens to Gordon and back — then he nodded. “All right. Come with me.”

     


 

    Kristina was a smaller vessel than Challenger, ninety or a hundred tons compared to a hundred and fifty. It looked like cramped quarters and smelled faintly of cattle. The captain of Kristina met them on the quarterdeck, where he stood surveying his ship and his new guests.

    “Captain Johanssen,” Gordon said.

    “Yes. And you are?”

    “Gordon Chehab,” Gordon said.

    “Peter Chehab.”

    “Brothers, eh? Yes,” Johanssen continued. “You look like it. Well. What brings you to Thomasville?”

    “That takes some explaining,” Gordon said. “And I don’t want to tell the story more than once. Do youâ¦speak for your settlement?”

    Johanssen seemed surprised by the question. He tensed and looked as if he were framing an angry reply. He looked from Gordon to Pete, who appeared relaxed and ready, like a boxer looking for the right opening.

    “I am asking the questions here.”

    Gordon didn’t respond at once, which made Johanssen seem even more angry.

    “I could simply impound your ship for violation of our coastal waters.”

    “You’re welcome to try,” Gordon said.

    Johanssen swept his gaze across Challenger. To most observers — up-time or down-time — it looked pretty much like any other ship of the era; but an experienced sailor would see the subtle changes that were evidence of up-time modification.

    A superstitious — or cautious — down-timer wouldn’t want to be caught by any up-time surprises.

    “I’ll take you ashore to talk with Sir Thomas Roe. Your timing is very good, Amerikaner. A few weeks from now he’d have cleared out for Hudson’s Bay.”

 



 

     


 

    Dockside, Gordon expected to hear mostly Danish, but there was quite a mix of languages: English, German, even some French. The town, which was called Thomasville, had been here less than two years; the buildings were all new, with none of the weather-beaten look of every harbor in Europe.

    Feels like a movie set, he thought.

    Captain Johanssen and his men escorted Gordon and Peter along the dock, directing them toward a building with a clock tower, set back from the wharf.

    “Sir Thomas should be at the RÃ¥dhus,” Johanssen told them. “He will be less patient with you if you are not forthcoming with answers.”

    Pete leaned close to Gordon. “So, how’s your Danish?”

    “I know enough to get slapped,” Gordon answered quietly. “But Roe is an Englishman. I’ll try to let him do the talking. From what I understand, a couple of Dutch frigates got away from the battle that destroyed the fleet, and a couple of years ago they were raiding all along the coast.”

    “Is that still happening?”

    “I don’t know. Or, rather, neither did Estuban Miro nor Leopold Cavriani, my contacts in the President’s office. Even if they’re gone, I’d be just as happy if Roe didn’t find out we have a Dutch sailing master. Admiral van Tromp has supposedly gathered all of the Dutch fleet he could find in Caribbean waters. if these two ships’ captains have any sense, they’d have obeyed the order to join him. But ships’ captains don’t always show sense.”

    Gordon said the last sentence just loud enough for Captain Johanssen to give him another angry scowl. It made Gordon smile.

     


 

    At the RÃ¥dhus, there was plenty of bustle. Cavriani’s intel on Thomasville was that it had originally been intended as merely a stopover point for an expedition to Hudson’s Bay — the Danes had been primarily interested in mining and extraction. But it seemed to Gordon as he stood at the top step and looked out across the town that the people there were intending to stay — and prosper.

    The idea of a mining town was nothing new for a West Virginia boy, but the notion that it might be prosperous was a little unusual. But these down-timers had something that the West Virginians never had: advance knowledge of what to look for, and where to look for it. And it would be theirs to keep — unless the French came and took it all away.

     


 

    In a spartan receiving room inside the RÃ¥dhus, they were at last presented to Captain Thomas Roe. After Johanssen had escorted them into the room, he departed, leaving the two Americans with Roe. He directed them to seats, taking the most comfortable one for himself.

    “Lars tells me you weren’t very eager to talk to him,” Roe said. “He’s a good man, but takes offense easily — you must be very sure of yourselves.”

    “I don’t know what you mean,” Gordon said.

    “Aye, of course you don’t. So tell me — what brings Americans to Newfoundland? You’re not here for the fishing, I assume. Are you looking for work?”

    “No,” Gordon said. “We have steady work. We’re here to get the lay of the land.”

    “Why?”

    “Knowledge is power, Sir Thomas,” Gordon said. “Our employer wants to know how things stand for the various settlements in the New World. We’re on aâ¦trading expedition.”

    “Trading, is it. And what have you learned so far?”

    “This is our first landfall. We knew you were here — but you’ve progressed quite a bit.”

    “Thank you, I suppose. The miners and the smelters are kept busy. May I ask — who is your employer?”

    Gordon looked at Pete for a moment, then back at Roe. “It’s a trading expedition, sir. We work for ourselves.”

    “A fine answer, but it falls short of the truth.”

    “I don’t think we like being called liars,” Pete said quietly.

    “I’m sure you don’t. I would not consider doing so. But you should be aware that some of the costs of undertaking the Danish Hudson’s Bay Company have been underwritten by Saul and Ruben Abrabanel.”

    “I am aware of that,” said Gordon.

    “They are relatives ofâ¦the USE’s gray eminence, Don Francisco Nasi. I’m sure they’d not want their gentle cousin to interfere in a legitimate business venture.”

    “He is in retirement.”

    “That surprises me.”

    “We are a republic, sir,” Gordon said. “Governments come and go. Mike Stearns is no longer Prime Minister, and Don Francisco is no longer — “

    “Do not insult me by suggesting that he no longer has influence. But I take your meaning: this expeditionâ¦has no official sanction by the USE, then.”

    “We are a trading expedition for the State of Thuringia-Franconia. We have no intention of interfering with your business or other ventures here. In fact, there’s only one group whose possible interference should be of concern.”

    “The French.”

    “Sure enough. This settlement would be an attractive target for France, I should think. It’s a good thing that we’re not at war with them. And neither are you.”

    “That’s trueâ¦for the moment. But they claim all of North America because of the transaction between their king and your king.”

    Roe frowned when Gordon said your king, but didn’t say anything. It was clear that he knew that Gordon was talking about Charles of England, not Christian of Denmark.

    “They haven’t troubled themselves with it thus far.”

    “Their eyes have been elsewhere, Sir Thomas. But sooner or later that will change and Thomasville will become a target.”

    “We can defend ourselves,” Roe said. “Let them try.”

    “Be careful what you wish for,” Pete said.

    Roe looked from Gordon to his brother. “Why do you say that?”

    “Because you’re vulnerable,” Pete said. “Even if you think you aren’t. This isn’t the easiest place to take, but it can be taken — or destroyed. You’re isolated and you don’t have many friends.”

    “Are you threatening me? Or this settlement?”

    “No,” Gordon said. “Certainly not.” He looked at Pete, who was looking at Roe as if he was sighting down the barrel of a rifle. “We’re not threatening you. The king of France is threatening you.”

    Roe leaned back in his chair, as if considering the matter for a moment, then stood up and walked to a heavy escritoire at the side of the room. He reached into his vest and withdrew a key, with which he unlocked the drawer; opening it, he took out a packet and brought it back to where he had been sitting.

    “I received this letter from Saul Abrabanel two months ago, Mr. Chehab. He informed me⦔ Roe sat in his chair once more, holding the envelope in his hands. “He informed me that he had heard from his cousin that an expedition was being equipped toâ¦tradeâ¦in the New World, and it would likely make an appearance here at Thomasville. I have delayed my departure for Hudson’s Bay so that I might be present when you arrived.”

    “I repeat,” Gordon said, “we are not your enemy.”

    “I do not think you are. I merely wanted to see for myself what sort of men would be involved in this venture. You apparently have drawn the interest of the cardinal.”

    “Richelieu?” Pete asked.

    Roe gave Pete a look that seemed to mean, do you know any other Cardinal worth mentioning?

    Gordon said, “I was not aware that Monsieur le Cardinal knew anything of our project.”

    “Of course he does,” Roe said, slapping the packet against his thigh. “If there is one rule you should always observe, min Herrer, it is that Monsieur le Cardinal knows a great deal about everything. He does not presently have the resources to intercept and sink your fine ship, but he might place obstacles in your way. Where are you bound next?”

    Gordon looked at Pete, then back at the captain. “Massachusetts Bay.”

    “I wish you good luck with them. They are an unpleasant sort, easily taking offense. But they hate the French, particularly because of their view of the Catholic faith.”

    “And you, Captain. Do you hate the French as well?”

    “I don’t hate anybody. But I do pick my battles. What about you?”

    “We’re new here,” Pete interjected. “Ask us in a few years.”

     


 

    Outside in the hall, Lars Johanssen, who had been doing his best to listen without being noticed, wondered quizzically what all the laughter was about.


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