1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 05

Chapter 3

Stephane Hoff lifted his pen, dipped it into the inkwell and poised it over the paper; but before he could even write the customary polite salutation, he leaned his head back on the chair and set it aside with a sigh.

Working for Monsieur Servien was never easy. He was demanding, precise and — as Hoff had learned quickly — astute enough to see through the words and determine if anything of consequence was actually being said.

Other than false information, the provision of which was out of the question if one wanted to continue living (let alone be paid), there was nothing that the intendant despised more than information free of content.

The up-timers had an expression for that — as they had for everything else, Hoff mused to himself. Monsieur Servien had a very accurate “bullshit detector.” Therefore, rhetorical flourishes aside, it was critically necessary that reports be thorough, factual and — most important — actually contain useful intelligence.

Otherwise, Hoff thought, I don’t get paid.

He sat up straight, wiped the excess ink off his quill and dipped it again, and began to write, tucking his left hand under the table by old habit.

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 —

He paused for a moment, trying to come up with a solid French equivalent.

 — 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.

Hoff paused again, scratching his ear with his quill. What could he say about the older brother? What was he doing there? Up-timers, other than a few who remained in Grantville, didn’t usually involve themselves with any sort of project without deliberate purpose.

 He dipped the pen in ink again and continued to write.

I do note, however, that the sailing master is on cordial terms with shipfitters and chandlers and has little trouble obtaining supplies and assistance in port. Not only is his patron’s credit good, but his ready access suggests that this project is important to someone of wealth or influence or both.

 That really said very little, and upon reflection sounded like a thinly concealed justification for continuing to keep him here in Hamburg; but Hoff let it go. Either this was important to Servien — and thus Monsieur le Cardinal — or it was not. There wasn’t much that Hoff could do about it.

Something was going on with this Challenger; but he was at a loss just yet to determine what it was.

 The refitting operation is still several weeks from completion, but what little I have been able to learn suggests that the vessel will be prepared to clear out of port sometime in early November. Its destination is unknown, but I will bend all of my effort to obtain that information as soon as possible.

I believe that this matter is of continuing interest, and request additional time to supplement your knowledge on the subject and accordingly remain

Your obedient servant,

S. Hoff

It proved more and more difficult to see what was actually going on aboard the ship as it came closer to being seaworthy. Stephane realized that in order to further inform Servien it would be necessary to get aboard: and that meant only one thing.

There wasn’t much opportunity to learn to sail at home in his native Alsace, but there was one thing he had learned there as well as in Paris, where he’d spent time — and that was to climb. He was agile and…compact, which was a polite way of saying short, and heights didn’t bother him at all.

There was a certain amount of risk in the venture. He’d been shadowing the two Americans — he’d even followed them to a place in the Altstadt where they’d gone for a private meeting — and if they recognized him, things might go badly.

But he needed to get closer.

So, on a brisk, windy afternoon, he positioned himself out in the open on the dock and looked up at the topmast, where one of the riggers was fighting the breeze. It didn’t take long to be noticed.

“Hey, short stuff,” said a voice from the deck.

Stephane feigned indifference, looking up only after a few moments. “Are you talking to me?”

“Shortest thing dockside,” the man said. It was the Dutch sailing master, Maartens. “Long way up,” he said, gesturing upward.

“Doesn’t look too far to me,” Stephane said.

“Aye, you’d know how far it was if you fell from that height, niet waar?” The sailing master laughed along with a few of the other sailors nearby.

“Guess I don’t have to worry about that. I never fall.”

“Eh? That’s a pretty brave statement for a little man. I think maybe” — he looked at his companions — “I think maybe you’ll have to put your money where your mouth is.”

“You want to make a bet?”

“Sure, sure. What’s it worth to you?”

Stephane put his hands on his hips and craned his neck to look at the mast, as if he was trying to estimate its height. “If I make it to the top without missing a step, you take me on for your crew.”

“And if you don’t?”

“Then you fish me out of the water and you have a good laugh.”

“Or mop what’s left of you off the deck.”

“Not so funny, I’ll guess,” Stephane said.

“No. Not so funny. All right, little man, you’re on. Let’s see you climb this mast without putting a foot false.”

“And if I make it, you’ll sign me on?”

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Maartens said.

It wasn’t quite the endorsement he wanted, but it was a start. Stephane nodded and came up the gangplank to the deck. He could already hear the other sailors sniggering; the younger American, who had been bent over a sawhorse working, stood up straight, curious; Stephane avoided making eye contact.

Compared to the sort of climbing he’d been doing since he was small, the mast was a breeze. There were places to put his feet all the way up, though he would have been able to make it even without — it just made it easier and faster.

Ten minutes later he was standing next to the topman, with as good a view of Hamburg Harbor as anyone could want.

Half an hour after that he was signed on as a junior member of Challenger’s crew, and was put immediately to work — fifteen feet away from the Americans he was trying to watch.

* * *

Gordon and Pete were on deck watching boats in the harbor when an argument began amidships. One party was Maartens; the other was a pair of crewmen, who were speaking in rapid Dutch in a voice full of snarl but short of shout. One of the men was pointing overboard toward the dock at a collection of boxes and two large trunks.