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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



East of Dominica

    Hannibal Sehested scrambled up Resolve‘s almost vertical “stairs” from his berth beneath the quarterdeck. As his head cleared the top of the companionway, a gust from the bow sped past his nose, pulling his forelock after it.

    Cornelis Evertsen was smiling at him from the rail. “Not a morning for wigs, eh, Lord Sehested?”

    “Evidently not,” the Norwegian replied as he came on deck, unsure whether Evertsen’s jocular tone was simply an extension of his general good spirits or a veiled snicker at the noble’s incongruous presence aboard the warship. “You summoned me to meet a representative of the English? Here?”

    “Nothing quite so grand as that, sir,” Evertsen said with the same smile. “Merely the master of a Bermudan sloop. But Admiral Tromp thought it prudent to summon you.”

    Sehested nodded, resisting the urge to bat away the locks now flying about his face like angry, diaphanous birds. “Thank you, lieutenant. Please lead on.”

    Evertsen made a small bow and led aft.

    Sehested trailed behind, reflecting that, possibly for the first time since arriving in the New World, he might look every bit as ridiculous as he felt. Particularly when people addressed him as “Lord” Sehested.

    Oh, he had always aspired to that. Certainly that had been the point of all his expensive schooling and travel in Denmark, France, Germany, and Holland: to enable him to make the leap from aristocrat to bona fide nobility. But then the up-timers had arrived in their mysterious Ring of Fire and within a year, he was being summoned to the court of King Christian IV in Copenhagen. Why? Because of the attainments and abilities of his older self in that other history.

    He soon noted a similar predilection growing among the rulers of his era. A surprising number of even the most enlightened monarchs had rushed to consult the histories of that world which would now never be as a means of identifying promising young assistants and proteges based on the exploits of their other selves. The logical and philosophical bases of such a course of action seemed dubious at best, to young Hannibal, but as their beneficiary, he was not disposed to make those opinions public.

    So Christian IV had made him a noble a full five years before he had been so elevated in the “other” world, an act that was, to Sehested’s mind, a rather stunning display of his sovereign’s tendency toward both blind egoism and uncritical teleology. Ever since then, Hannibal had operated under a self-imposed pressure that few other humans had ever known: the need to meet the expectations spawned by the deeds of an alter ego who had never existed.

    He watched Evertsen reach the stern of Resolve, extend a hand over the side to assist someone coming up the Jacob’s ladder that was hanging down over the transom. The Dutchman was probably just a good-natured fellow, the kind who greeted others with a smile as a matter of habit, but Hannibal could no longer see such things clearly. His unwonted ascendance had spawned enough veiled dismay and amusement in Christian’s court, and in other places of prestige and power, that he no longer trusted those instincts.

    Evertsen was surprisingly strong for his long, lean build; he practically hauled a diminutive individual over the stern of Resolve with a single hand. The masthead of a Bermuda-rigged sloop bobbed into and out of sight beyond the taffrail.

    The small man — his skin weathered and tanned to the texture and color of a walnut — stared from Kees to Hannibal. “Ye’re neither of ye Tromp hisself, I wager?”

    Kees smiled broadly. “You would win that bet, Captain–?”

    “Stirke. Master Timothy Stirke. I’ve got news for yer admiral.” He grimaced apologetically. “Only fer him, I’m afraid.”

    “I understand,” Evertsen said calmly. “But before we join the admiral, may I present Lord Hannibal Sehested from the court of His Majesty King Christian IV of Denmark?”

    Stirke considered Hannibal. “Denmark, it is? That’s news to these ears. What’s yer interest in these waters, then?”



    Sehested was oddly relieved by the small man’s absolute lack of social courtesies. “As part of the Union of Kalmar, Denmark is pleased to assist King Gustav of Sweden and the nations of the United States of Europe over which he presides, in clearing these waters of Spanish influence and righting the many wrongs they have wrought.”

    Stirke squinted at Sehested. “You’ve rehearsed that? Fer me?” He shook his head. “A turr’ble waste of time, that. I’m naught but a ship’s master who freights from the Indies what I can sell in Somers Isles and the Bahames.”

    Sehested smiled. “You are right; I practiced it. And had it memorized long before I came to the Lesser Antilles, now almost a year ago.”

    Stirke’s smile was easier, amused. “‘ad much use fer it, have ye?”

    “Only a little. But that is still too much.”

    Stirke’s laughter was like a barking cough. “Ah, ‘an ye ain’t so much as dandy as I took ‘e for. Ye’re alright, Hannibal Sehested. Now, since I’ve no cannon nor belly for a fight this day, I’d as soon deliver me messages and be off.”

    As they made their way to the pilot-house, the little Bermudan stared around at the unfamiliar cannons and gear that was being worked and tended on Resolve‘s weather deck. “‘an sure that it’s a New Age in the New World. I’ve no idea what half this ironmongery might be, but I ken it set those Spanish dogs back on their haunches last year, hey?”

    “There’s probably some truth to that,” Evertsen admitted as a German soldier indicated that they had to wait a moment before proceeding up the stairs to the flying bridge.

    Timothy took no note of the delay. “Hsst,” he sneered at Cornelis’ understatement. “This winter past, there was little talk of aught else. At least on the islands I sail ‘tween. For near on two years, there wasn’t a ship from Europe that didn’t fly the yellow and red. But now, others be showin’ up again. And the food we freight from Kitts and your home port on Statia? Might’ve saved us all, I wager. As I hear it, your lot weren’t much better off.”

    In the space of two seconds, Cornelis Evertsen went from being the marginally laconic executive officer of the Resolve to an animated story-teller. Sehested chided himself for having missed the subtle signs that such a transformation might be possible — very probably because he himself had been too preoccupied attempting to discern if the young officer’s demeanor had been genuine or carefully veiled mockery. But as his story of the Dutch travails of the past two years unfolded, the source of his sudden garrulousness was clear: an enthusiastic and outgoing person by nature, Evertsen had learned to keep that in check. Certainly, part of that was due to the reserve expected of leaders in combat. But it was also a likely adaptation to being the right hand of an admiral who was not only an introvert but who would otherwise have been routinely outshined by his staff officer’s brighter and more engaging personality. 

    But now, warming to his topic and freed of all those constraints, Evertsen commenced to unfold his tale with energy and conviction. And detail. Lots and lots of detail. Indeed, Hannibal had the distinct impression that his re-telling of the events was as every bit as therapeutic for him as it was informative for Stirke.

    A rising tide of anxiety had surged into Dutch-held Recife along with Tromp’s badly damaged ships in 1633. That Christmas had been a dismal one: not only did the colonists learn that the majority of their nation’s fleet was now resting in pieces on the sea-bed off Dunkirk, but word arrived on a jacht from newly settled St. Eustatia that the Dutch colony on St. Martin had fallen to the Spanish in June.

    After considerable initial debate, most of Recife’s councilors conceded that their position was untenable. What Dutch ships remained were either trapped in Amsterdam, or out of touch in the East Indies. It was only a matter of time before Spanish and Portuguese forces pressed their advantage, knowing that no further succor was coming to the New Holland colony in Brazil.

    So, after first setting the Portuguese back on their heels with a sharp offensive that had them suing for a truce, Tromp immediately set in motion subtle plans that put the colony in a position to evacuate swiftly. Which they had done in May of 1634, to the utter amazement of the Portuguese.

    But safe distance from their Iberian antagonists had been purchased at the expense of a year of extreme privation. Over ten times the number of colonists already on St. Eustatia, the refugees from Recife hadn’t the tools, skills, or time to raise an adequate crop before their supplies ran out. Rationing was adopted. Fresh water was scarce. Life in tents invited illnesses that thrice threatened to become epidemics. And with men outnumbering women almost ten to one, tensions remained perpetually poised to explode into violence.

    A year later, the first rays of hope arrived along with the first crop from leased lands on St. Kitts. But it was not quite three months later that full, bright deliverance arrived in the form of the USE and Danish flotilla known as Task Force X-Ray.

    As Cornelis related that happy ending, gestured toward Hannibal. Who was glad that neither the storyteller nor his listener could see what was in his own mind: the squalid tent city that had been Oranjestad; the stick-thin colonists with sunken and desperate eyes; the stink of more wastes than could be readily removed from those dusty streets; and the perpetual moaning of the old who were sick and the children who were hungry. And he, Hannibal Sehested, was ashamed to remember and relive his reaction: horror, revulsion, and a genuine desire to turn immediately about and return to Europe.

    His mind’s eye shut, and he was abruptly back in the present, Stirke staring at him intently. Had the little sunbaked Englishman seen him re-experiencing that disgust, that vile failure of courage, morality, and empathy which had been his first reaction to the plight of the Dutch?

    Stirke squinted. “Not often a man knows he’s able to do so much for so many of his fellow men, eh, Hannibal Sehested?”

    “Sadly,” Hannibal forced out of a dry throat, “that epiphany is even rarer than you think.”

    “So you must share it widely, then!”

    Hannibal swallowed a sudden spurt of bile. “I am not worthy to do so. Of that I solemnly I assure you. But I can testify to this: you are right when you aver that Lieutenant Evertsen, and his comrades — both Dutch and those of our other nations — have put the Spanish back on their heels. And that is why it is important that we have met.” Sehested lowered his voice to a murmur. “For only by combining efforts, will we be able to prevent Spain from reasserting her stranglehold upon all our communities.”

    Stirke glanced sideways at him as the German guard stepped aside and Evertsen motioned him toward the steps. “Ah, now I see why your king has a man here, Hannibal Sehested. To gather us ’round a flag.” He started up. “Well, we might be willing, but Bermuda and her boats are but so much flotsam and jetsam in the currents of great nations and kings.”

    “Wars are not always won by the heaviest broadside alone, Timothy. Sometimes, the keenest eyes and the fastest ships are just as important.”

    Stirke stopped with one foot on the flying bridge, looked back at Sehested. “Aye, ‘an that’s true enough. True enough that it bears more speech, I’m thinking.” He smiled and mounted the last step — and stopped as if he’d been clapped in irons.



    Sehested, hurrying to join Stirke, discovered what had stopped the small Bermudan in his tracks: his surprise encounter with a spectacle from another world: 

    A telegrapher hammering away at a device that was all levers and wires. Instructions being shouted down speaking tubes. An auxiliary binnacle with down-time copies of up-time barometric instruments. A tactical plot table with a glass — or was that ‘plastic’? — weather cover, grease pencil markings showing the positions and headings of both allied and enemy ships. A compass-like instrument showing the firing arc of the Resolve’s two naval rifles. Runners scribbling furiously, emerging from and disappearing down the stairs affixed to the other side of the pilot-house. German guards with long rifles that had percussion nipples in place of frizzens and pans.

    For a master of an inter-island sloop barely half the dimensions of the smallest Dutch jacht, it hardly looked like a conn at all. Nor did it sound or feel like it. Despite the constant chatter and activity, most of the exchanges sounded like chanted rituals, with subordinates often repeating their superiors’ instructions even as they began to act upon them.

    Sehested set Stirke back into motion with a gentle palm that guided his elbow. “I know,” the Norwegian murmured. “I felt it too, at first. It’s not like any vessel I have travelled upon before.”

    Stirke rounded on him with wide eyes, crow’s feet momentarily vanishing. “‘sooth, but it’s not like a ship at all.” He struggled for words as Evertsen joined them. “It — it’s as if a man be standing in the guts of both a windmill and a . . . a orrery, is it? . . . with naught but gears and wheels turning about ‘is head. Doing work, aye — but to what end?”

    As Evertsen neared the group at the tactical plot, he was beset by runners eager to make report. He motioned for the boys to follow just as Bjelke leaned over the map-backed transparency to study the close intervals between the marks that charted the progress of the enemy ships. He looked up at the mast-mounted anenometer and then the tell-tales on the sails. “Given that they’ve a brisk wind astern and following seas, the Flota should be approaching more swiftly. Yet, the war galleons have reefed their topsails and topgallants.” He frowned. “Might they be more concerned with maintaining formation than maximum speed?”

    When the two older men glanced at him without a word, he shrugged and explained his reasoning. “The intelligence indicates that when Spain’s two treasure fleets make the Atlantic crossing together, they take great pains to arrive off Dominica in good order so they may rapidly divide into the respective parts: la Flota de Nueva España, and la Flota de Tierra Firme.”

    Simonszoon shook his head. “Look through your glass again, Bjelke. And not at those sea-going fortresses leading the van, but the ships further back, the ones the war galleons cut in front of when they spotted us.”

    Bjelke brought up his binoculars; Stirke squinted quizzically at the device. After a moment, the XO muttered. “The freeboard of the cargo ships is… surprisingly low.”

    Simonszoon nodded. “Now look at their aft draft.”

    Bjelke did. “They’re out of trim, sitting back on their rudders.”

    Simonszoon’s brief look of approval vanished before it had finished settling upon his face. “That’s a sure sign they’re all overloaded. Not a surprise; prior to first landfall, the cargo galleons usually are. So they’ll not sail well under full canvas. They’re too heavy to respond to a strong following wind. That’s why the Spaniards are letting their sails luff so. If they were rigged to catch all of this breeze, they’d be torn to strips and streamers.” 

    “So: although the Spanish have the weather gauge, they dare not take full advantage of it.”

    Simonszoon made a sour face. “Not all of them, at any rate. But mind, the less laden hulls can make more use than the others. So we’d best assume that when the war galleons come within half a league, they’ll crowd sail for the last rush to close with us. Their canvas will hold that long. Of course, when they do that, they’ll pull further away from their cargo ships.” He grinned darkly in Tromp’s direction. “Which is all part of the greater plan, if memory serves.”

    The admiral nodded. “Yes, but the weather is not optimal for us, either, Dirck. This seaway is livelier than is typical for this time of year, more than we would like for our 8″ rifles.” He nodded toward the two long guns, both pointing toward the Spanish, their crews loose-limbed but at their action stations. “All things being equal, I’d rather their ships had more speed and that we had more calm.” He half-turned toward Cornelis Evertsen. “Conditions, Kees?”

    “No change, Admiral. Fast, low wavelets, mostly, but there are occasional swells large enough to force our gunners to reacquire their targets. Once we’re under way, Resolve will cut a more level track; there should be no surges large enough to affect our aim.”

     Tromp tilted his head upward, as if he meant to catch the sun more fully upon his face, but his eyes were closed and his features were taut, as if he was contemplating, or sensing. “We’d lessen the surges if we turn a point off the in-running current. We’ve no reason to keep the galleons dead ahead.”

    Dirck leaned his elbows on the plot. “No, but the more we swing away from the current, the more roll we’ll have.”

    “We’ll also be bearing away from the wind,” Rik added.

    Simonszoon nodded. “Our fellows aloft will have a lively dance, trying to keep the canvas in the right trim. None of which is the best conditions for our gunnery.”

    Tromp opened his eyes and nodded. “Yes, but I will take the roll from a current on our port bow, rather than the pitch when our bowsprit is set dead into its surgest. The roll is more constant but less marked. And less sudden. And the more we stand athwart the current, the better our gunners can read the swells, time their discharges.”

    Bjelke canted his head forward. “Admiral, these conditions are less conducive to accuracy than when we met the Spanish galleons head on in the Grenada Passage, last year. There, at least, we had two cruisers — Resolve and Intrepid — to take them under fire. And we had the weather gauge.”

    Tromp nodded. “Worthy points, Rik, but I am decided: we shall swing two points to starboard. If we are to be sure of making full use of the guns we have, we must be sure that neither the forward mount nor the funnel blocks the aft, and by turning away from the current, we give the gunners the best possible view of swells. It also puts our bow directly on our next course heading, and so we shall come to flank speed without unnecessary delay.”

    He glanced at the young Norwegian. “However, your counsel makes me wonder if we should reconsider the range at which we will commence the engagement.”

    At the words “commence the engagement,” Stirke began shuffling his feet anxiously. The group around the plot turned in his direction.

    Sehested smiled, inclined his head. “Admiral, I have the honor of presenting Master Stirke of the Somers Islands. He comes with news for you. He also reports that his colony has had much word of your actions against the Spanish last year.” Sehested paused to give his last words subtle emphasis. “That may be a subject worth touching upon — if only for a minute, under these hurried conditions.”

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