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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Nineteen

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



Oranjestad, St. Eustatia

     Cornelis Jol began stumping along rapidly on his peg leg when he caught sight of the three of them in the far shadows of the Fort Oranjestad’s seaward wall. He waved to two others behind him, who had become ensnared in the growing tumult of trade and acquaintance-making in the street.

    “Keep up, you malingerers!” he shouted over his shoulder. “I’ve a wooden leg and I move twice as fast as you do!” He grinned at van Walbeeck, clapped a hand down on Tromp’s shoulder, and exhaled a rum-scented greeting toward Eddie. “Of course,” he muttered conspiratorially, “I had to be sure to push off so that the striplings I have in tow would have a chance with all the young ladies back there. Wouldn’t do to have a fine, mature specimen of a man like myself attracting all the female attention and interest, now would it?” He smiled in amusement, thereby revealing that he retained approximately half his very stained teeth. The crow’s lines that extended far from his eyes blended with and helped hide the various scars that almost two decades of privateering had left on his well-weathered face. Houtebein, or “Peg-Leg,” Jol was at least as famous for his self-deprecating wit as his devilish skill at raiding.

    “And do you have any of your equally prepossessing piratical friends in tow?” asked Tromp, folding his hands like a mild-mannered school master.

    “Sadly, no,” Jol answered. “Moses went his own way again, right after he came to report what he’d encountered in the seas around Dominica just before you clipped Philip’s beard, there. He and Calabar are still raiding down along the Main, and they were eager to get back to it. The others?” Jol flipped a palm at the cloudless sky. “Reliability is not what freebooters are known for, as I’m sure you know.”

    “I’m sure I do,” Tromp said, “since I know you.”

    “Maarten Tromp, I’m a privateer. Why do you lump me in with those bandits?”

    “As I said, because I know you. And because if you weren’t halfway to living the life they do, they’d never meet with you except over crossed cutlasses.”

    Jol scratched his furry ear. “Well, I suppose there’s some truth to that.”

    A new voice: “Well, here’s a conspiratorial trio if I’ve ever laid eyes on one!”

    Eddie knew the source, was smiling before he turned, “Hugh O’Donnell, it’s good to see you again.”

    “You as well, Eddie.” The Irish earl nodded all around as his aide-de-camp Aodh O’Rourke slipped up behind him “Governor, Admiral. ‘Tis a fine show you’re putting on here, today.”

    Tromp looked meaningfully at van Walbeeck, who asked the Irish earl. “Is it truly that obvious, Lord O’Donnell?”

    Hugh squinted, assessing the ware-lined roads that ran away from the head of the dock. “Depends upon the eye of the beholder, I’m thinking. For the people who’ve not been working toward this end, either as confidencers or soldiers, it’s merely an overdue turn o’ the wheel. Fortune has been frowning, but now fortune smiles again: the seasons of fate, you might say. But for those of us who have been seizing islands for oil, making alliances with England’s abandoned colonies, or most recently, making off the entirety of this year’s Flota, . . . well, I’ve come to wonder: does anything look like happenstance to us anymore?”

    Walbeeck smiled. “I doubt it. A fair answer for a fair day.”

    “Aye, and it’s a fair all right,” added O’Rourke from over Hugh’s shoulder. “Maybe not as big as the May market in Brussels or Antwerp, but it’s none the less’t any other. It’ll bring fair coin to Montserrat, right enough.”

    Van Walbeeck glanced eagerly at Jol. “So, you ported there on your way up from Trinidad?”

    “We did. As luck had it, we saw that nasty squall that caught you as we were crossing the stretch between Carriacou and Union Island. We crowded sail and got into the lee of the southern bay there, just in time to watch the storm slow and move northward. If we’d gone on, we might have lost all the bitumen we’re carrying, and the oil itself. Although there’s much less of that.”

    “How much of each?” Eddie asked.

    Jol shook his head. “Your up-time friend, Miss Koudsi, will be able to tell you that when we are all…er, gathered. When we got under way again, we were low on water and decided that was a fine excuse to make port at Montserrat, which was what Lord O’Donnell had been angling for since the beginning.”

    “New recruits for the Wild Geese,” Hugh explained as eyes turned to him. “Also, some hands for the Eire, the French bark we took off Bloody Point. And the island needs the trade, so a few of them came along to sell their vegetables, fruit, chickens, and goats.”

    “More goats?” Eddie asked.

    Jol laughed. “These are the Caribbees, Commodore. There are always more goats.”

    O’Rourke, who had not moved forward into the conversational ring, muttered something about how long they’d been tarrying in the shadows and that others were waiting on them. Van Walbeeck spotted Joost Banckert making his way up the dock to the shore, suggested they all join the general movement in that direction: after all, he and Tromp had to put in at least a brief appearance in the thick of the activity.

    As the six of them began heading back along the narrow track while staying in the shadow of the fort’s wall, Eddie found himself distracted from the frenetic market activity by something that had changed in Aodh O’Rourke posture since last he’d seen him. The senior sergeant of the Wild Geese glimpsed his attention, nodded and flashed a smile. And he saw my attention because he’s always looking around, Eddie realized. 

    He hadn’t seen O’Rourke since late January, when the Irish veteran had preceded the still-recuperating Hugh back to Trinidad. “Just to mind the shop” as he put it with the other most senior of the Irish mercenaries, Kevin O’Bannon. When Hugh had returned there, he’d announced the need for more officers. There were more Wild Geese coming over aboard the first convoy — the one in port now — and coin-strapped men from Montserrat had been sending him entreaties that he consider their pleas to join the unit. O’Bannon was glad for the promotion to major, but O’Rourke staunchly and repeatedly refused to become an officer.

    The reason had never been made clear to Eddie; it was a private matter without appreciable operational consequences, so inquiries would have been essentially nosiness, not need-to-know. But whatever his reasons, O’Rourke showed neither animus nor resentment toward those who were promoted over him, several of whom were more than a decade his junior. Rather, as senior sergeant and aide-de-camp, he helped the other sergeants who could read and do sums to prepare for life as officers. At the same time, he cheerfully brutalized and buoyed up (in that order) new potential to ready them for the demands of that job. Rumor had it that he wanted nothing to do with the life and society of officers, preferring the gritty tasks and earthy pleasures of his long-held rank.

    But in becoming the Wild Geese’s de facto head of training, he also seemed to have slowly and subtly moved away from the day-to-day field operations of the Wild Geese. It was unclear to Eddie if he even remained in the unit’s table of organization, or if he’d been shifted sideways into something more akin to a staff assistant to O’Donnell.

    But even that didn’t quite explain the changes. The number of Irish who’d been educated at Leuven meant that Hugh also had a growing cluster of staff officers or “ensigns” who’d also proven themselves in the field. O’Rourke did not have their technical skills and so, was clearly not being retained for that purpose.

    Eddie frowned, watching the Irish veteran’s behavior as they passed the beach where the lighters were still coming and going so rapidly that near-collisions seemed to the rule rather than the exception. O’Rourke was looking everywhere and at everything except at his commander. It tweaked at a dim memory, at similar behavior that Eddie had noticed before but couldn’t remember where or when. But given the way that O’Rourke always had his “head on a swivel,” to use Larry Quinn’s expression, made Eddie feel that the bluff sergeant should have been wearing sunglasses and an earpiece.



    Eddie almost snapped his fingers: the Secret Service! That’s what O’Rourke’s attentive hover looked like. Eddie paused, reflected. Of course, maybe it looks like that because that’s exactly what it is.

    But that wasn’t the way bodyguards typically worked in this day and age. They came as a large group, often in formation, and with bright uniforms that sent a clear message to all who saw: “get too close, and you’ll get run through.” But maybe it was different with Hugh. After all, even though he was the last prince of Ireland — a quixotic concept if there had ever been one — he certainly didn’t act like it.

    Eddie felt his frown come back. Okay, so Hugh’s demeanor and interactions didn’t resemble those of an heir-apparent to a throne that the English would never let him have. That didn’t make it any less likely that any number of English — or other — leaders might want him dead. And maybe now more than ever.

    Hugh had grown up in the down-time equivalent of the English crown’s cross hairs, as had the only other Irish earl, the late John O’Neill. But now that there was only one left, it was probably more tempting than ever to reduce that number to zero, thereby eliminating the only figurehead around which a rebellion might readily coalesce. That was why Hugh had been subtly maneuvered into his New World sojourn by his aunt, the Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Lowlands: to put distance between her nephew and potential assassins. But that was at best a temporary expedient, which Aodh O’Rourke had apparently realized.

    As they reached the head of the dock, Hugh scanned the street leading into the center of Oranjestad. “And there are our new recruits, looking more like lost sheep than men-at-arms.” He turned, smiled. “Maarten, Eddie, I want to thank you for making good on the promise I made to Hyarima. I’d not have made it alone, but lives were in the balance.”

    The admiral inclined his head. “It was the right decision, morally and strategically.”  Eddie just grinned and nodded.

    Smiling, Hugh shook their hands and then made to step away. “After our new boyos have their heads on straight, I’ve a promise to keep: that this mortal wound shall be tended to one more time.” He held up and wiggled his left small finger. What was left of it was well-bandaged.

    Van Walbeeck leaned in, concern spiking in his tone. “Is it not healing?”

    Hugh laughed. “Quite the contrary; nary a problem, now. Why so concerned, Governor?”

    Van Walbeeck was frowning, staring at the mauled pinky as if it might leap free of the earl’s hand and begin attacking them. “My first employ was with the Dutch East India Company. In those jungles, an almost-mended wound may yet fester and take not just a limb, but a life.”

    Hugh nodded. “I appreciate your concern, but no open flesh remains. The scar tissue is complete and no longer tender.”

    Van Walbeeck’s frown changed to one of mere puzzlement. “Then I find it hard to understand why Dr. Brandão, would wish you to return.”

    Hugh chuckled. “Oh, it is not Dr. Brandão that I must see. It did not warrant his expertise. I am under the care of one of his volunteers.”

    Van Walbeeck’s frown was replaced by a round-mouthed, “Ohhh. Yes. I see now.” As the earl nodded his farewell and turned to leave, Jan sent an assurance after him: “I’m sure you are in excellent hands.” If Hugh heard van Walbeeck’s shift to a mischievous drawl, he gave no sign of it. After a moment, Van Walbeeck and Jol exchanged winks and grins. Tromp sighed but couldn’t hold back a small smile when Peg-Leg added, “I am told that Lady Sophie Rantzau was his dedicated nurse. Excellent hands, indeed!”

    Eddie stared at the three of them. For one bizarre moment, he felt like he was eight again, watching the old ladies who sat around after Sunday service, furtively inspecting the “young people” and scheming to make matches between their preferred pairings. Which they never did.

    And damn it if the three redoubtable Dutch sea captains weren’t standing at the intersection of the dock and the main street, staring about them with the same insufferably self-satisfied smiles on their faces. But maybe, Eddie relented, there was cause for that. Spirits were high and competition over merely speaking to a young woman no longer threatened to devolve into rutting combats that he mostly associated with National Geographic documentaries. Between the young ladies who’d come by boat from St. Christopher’s and the mass of colonists which had arrived with the convoy, the ratio was no longer dangerously lopsided.

    “Would you say that the timing of tomorrow night’s dance was also another stroke of extraordinary ‘luck?'” Van Walbeeck asked over Eddie’s shoulder. “Look at them, men and women alike, running their fingers over those fine fabrics. The best Seville had to offer. All ‘diverted’ here at the most propitious moment!” Eddie managed not to roll his eyes. “Why,” concluded van Walbeeck, “it’s as if someone had planned it all!”

    Tromp sighed. “Careful, Jan. You might break your arm, trying to pat yourself on the back.” Jol chuckled.

    Van Walbeeck effected umbrage. “Laugh if you must, but ask yourselves: why is this glorious bedlam occurring now? Ships have been off-loading for a week.” He shook his finger at them. “Because the colony’s government prohibited open sales until this day. To ensure a fair opportunity for all potential customers to inspect all the goods, all at once. And so, all the merchants would have equal access to the equally full purses of their clientele.” He had to pause his self-praise for a moment; musicians strolled past, lutes, recorders, and mandolas weaving melodies and harmonies together like closely stitched seams that parted again.

    “So, he resumed, “with buyers and sellers all champing at the bit, we have maximum bartering” — he gestured outward with both arms — “which drives up the amount of trade, which drive up tariffs on the sales. However, steps were taken to offset that bite from everyone’s purse.”

    Eddie nodded, frowning: he’d been too busy with strategic and technology matters to follow the market arrangements. “That’s why you waived customs and port taxes for this week: that way, anyone selling is only paying what we used to call sales tax. Which they must declare as such to their customers.”

    Jol frowned. “All very well, but then what keeps the vendors from increasing the sales tax and gouging the customers?”

    “Nothing,” replied van Walbeeck with a beatific smile.

    “But then how can these people afford those prices?”

    “Because we, the government of St. Eustatia are paying their sales taxes for them, this week.”

    Eddie felt like the lobes of his brain had just hit each other in a high-speed collision. “Wait. But that’s a loop. You would have received the taxes from the people. But now you’re paying it for them. To yourselves? So . . .  are you writing it off?”

    “Not at all, because it is not quite a loop, my innocent young friend. You see, we are repaying ourselves . . . from the most useful items taken from La Flota.”

    Jol sputtered before he could get out any words. “And you call me cunning and a pirate! So while you’ve used one hand to wave away the taxes and make everybody happy, you’ve used the other to dip into all the gold, silver, gems, and coin from La Flota to ‘repay’ the government for the taxes it agreed to pay for the purchases made this week.”

    Walbeeck grinned. “As I said, it is as if someone had been planning it all from the beginning.”

    “Planning what from the beginning?” The new voice from behind sounded suspicious. “When van Walbeeck is muttering about careful planning, I clap my hand over my purse.”

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