1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 08

Chapter 5

East of Dominica

Tromp involuntarily raised his left eyebrow in response to Sehested’s subtle prompt. “I see. Well, Master Stirke, I presume you come with news from leeward?

“Bless me if there’s any news worth sayin’, sahr. Nary a ship with uncertain intents. Hardly a ship at all.”

“Any hulls at all around Guadeloupe?”

“Excepting your own jachts, bow into the wind and waiting, nothing.”

“And did you meet as agreed with Admiral Jol?”

“I did, sahr. Not two days ago. He’d little more to report than I ‘ave. Says he sank a pair of piraguas five days back. Would have taken them as prizes but the Spanish were not about to give over without a scuffle.”

Simonszoon’s amusement was saturnine. “Piraguas? Against a Jol’s ship and the two yachts attached to him?”

“Aye. Though they were too tired to row and the wind against them.” Stirke’s head bobbed like that of a pecking bird. “Peg-Le — er, Admiral Jol says they turned about, full of fight and with naught but two petereroes between ’em. He was hoping to take them as prizes, but two touches of shot and they were in pieces. Men and boats, alike.” He shrugged. “So naught but open seas behind ye’re fleet, sahr.”

Simonszoon rolled his eyes; if Sehested hadn’t know to look for it, he wouldn’t have detected the faint hint of a grin. “Well, the news comes later than we hoped…but better late than never.”

Stirke looked stricken. “We crowded sail and tacked as sharp and quick as the wind allowed, sahr! Maybe too much so. Nearly went turtle twice. But by the time we rounded the Cachacrou headland — your captains call it Scott’s Pointe — the aftermost of yer ships were already on the horizon. And well ye know that there’s no free runnin’ from there to here: your bow’d be right in the eye of the wind if you tried. We came on as fast as we could but it was dreadful long tacks just to keep speed enough, if’t please yer.”

Simonszoon smiled, trying to show the Englishman — well, Bermudan, now, Sehested supposed — that he’d meant no harm by his comment.

But whether it was Dirck’s long somber face or looming height, the fellow turned toward Tromp in a desperate appeal. “You were powerful hard to catch, as God’s me witness, sahr. We didn’t lolly-gag, me word on it! S’blood, it was as if ye were trying to flee us!”

Tromp smiled faintly. “Not at all, but we could not tarry. Once our ship watching the eastern approaches signalled that she had spotted the Spanish, we had to weigh anchor immediately. Though we were beyond the windward mouth of the passage and had the wind in a broad reach, getting distance from Dominica meant beating and often tacking, too. And right across the current. Still, we made seven nautical miles by dawn.”

Stirke frowned, glanced at the oncoming galleons, seemed to do some mental math. “Sahr, forgive me asking, but how’s it that they’re still so far a-sea? Even if your picket ship saw their lights at four, that’s what? Twenty or twenty two miles, at best? But they’ve had six and a half hours with the wind abaft. Even ’twere they making a whisker under three knots, they’d ha’ been at broadsides with you half an hour ago! But there they are, still shaping for battle, as if they’ve had but half that time. Which makes even less sense, since it were full dawn by six. So how’d they fail to spot ye and adjust? Crow’s nest to crow’s nest on your great ships, ye’d sure see each other at eighteen miles, seventeen at the least.”  

Tromp shrugged. “We had Dominica behind us, and our topsails and gallants were reefed. At even fifteen miles, it’s work for an eagle’s eye to pick out thin, dark mastheads above a black horizon and against an island’s black outline.”

“Ah! So you were slowed, yourselves, then.”

“That was the price of remaining unseen,” Simonszoon drawled. “But until they saw us, they came on with both the wind and the sun behind them, so — with their sails as wide and white as a gull’s wings — we had the measure of them at fifteen miles.

“It was near unto 8:00 when the Spanish sent out a pair of pataches to check the waters and ways around Dominica. Slightly before 8:30, they must have caught sight of us. They heeled over, beating for all they were worth — and those pataches are right-rigged for that kind of work.”

“And since then?”

“Since then,” Tromp answered, “La Flota slowed considerably. Most of their fighting ships — we count eleven galleons specifically constructed for combat — swung ahead into the van from their original screening formation on the north. But that evolution slowed the fleet. The cargo ships — about forty galleons and naos — had to give their protectors enough time to get well out in front.”

Stirke nodded at all the explanations, but maintained a side-glancing skepticism throughout. There was still something off about the numbers and causes he’d been given.

“You still seem puzzled,” Tromp commented, looking over his shoulder at the approaching galleons.

Stirke’s gaze went there as well, then connected with his. “Well, just — just why here, Admiral?”

Tromp made sure his smile, if small, was kind. “You have a better location in mind?”

“Not as such, sir. I mean, one place on the globe is as good — or bad — as another fer men to make mince of their fellow men. But men usually ‘ave something to gain by fighting where they do, if you follow me. Such as yer own Piet Hein, sahr. Back in ’28, at the Battle of Manzantas Bay. Defeated La Flota, he did, just like you mean to do today.

“But Hein were there to take hold of a true treasure fleet, Admiral — so loaded with silver that the ships were near unto sinking without his help, as they tell it.” Stirke shifted his feet, sent his arm in a wide motion that took in the bright sky, sun, and sea. “Meanin’ no disrespect, sahr, but what’s the point o’ being here, where there’s no silver to be had at all?”

Tromp smiled. “And that is precisely what the Spanish have thought as well, every year before their ships weigh anchor for the New World. That they are not only invulnerable because of their strength and numbers, but because they carry nothing to stir interest, much less avarice. A habit of thought which has now worked to our advantage.”

Stirke scratched his head. “Well, I see how they’d be surprised. But –“

“But you think we are — what is that English word? — ‘daft’ for attacking a fleet without treasure. Yes?”

“Well…apologies, but yes, Admiral. Utterly daft, if I mus’ say.”

Tromp’s smile became a bit feral. “And what if I was to tell you that the Flota out there, racing towards us, is in fact filled with treasure? So loaded with valuables that even from here, you can see how low their nao’s ride in the water?”

“I’d say that’s not because they are loaded with silver, sahr, but because they’re freighting no end of goods from Spain — all heavy, too. Tools and nails and cannons and shot and every ‘tuther needful thing that Spaniards don’t make for themselves here in the New World.”

“Yes,” Tromp murmured. “All priceless treasure. Every bit of it.” He nodded as Stirke’s responding frown began to clear like clouds giving way to sunlight. “You see, now.”

“Aye, an’ it’s genius, it is!” He nodded as he unfolded the logic for himself. “For more’n two years, none of us have had ships from home. Us because King Charles forsook every one of his subjects here in the Caribbean, and you because the Spaniards sunk your great fleet off Dunkirk and then blockaded ever’ one of yer ports. And so we’ve made do with what we had on hand where we could and did without where we couldn’t. And it’s showed: in our ships, our shops, our houses. And everything so dear that nary a one of us could buy any of it.”

Tromp nodded once in return. “As it has been in Oranjestad, and all the other English and Dutch colonies. Merchants are almost without stock and yet have no use for coin. Barter for goods or services kept us all alive, but did not answer the crucial shortages for finished goods. Now: see those ships?” He pointed back at broad array of small dark blots upon the water, topped by cream-white wings. “They are the answer to those troubles. As you yourself said, Master Stirke, they are brim-full with needful things. And the men on those ships are confident — as only a century and a half of unexceptioned experience can make them — that we not only lack the capacity to stand in a full-blown battle, but haven’t the belly for it either. Because, after all, they have nothing that we would truly want, let alone need.” He stood straight.

“And they are so terribly wrong.” He looked out over Resolve and the ships to either side of her. “About both our need and our capacity to win this battle.”

He took a step closer to the small man, pointed behind at a small cluster of ships only a mile off Dominica’s eastern coast, the ones he had detailed to maintain observation during the coming battle. “You are welcome to remain with those ships, especially the one now lofting a balloon. For reasons I no longer have time to explain, that ship will come to no harm and cannot be caught. If, however, you still feel threatened, you will be able to leave at any time. Of this I assure you.”

Stirke turned his hat slowly in his hands; one full, fretful revolution. “With all respect, Admiral, it’s hard to put faith in so sweeping an oath as that. It’s the kind that only God Hisself could make.”

Tromp’s eyes were calm, almost detached. “Reason with me, Master Stirke. Why would I mislead you regarding your safety? For what possible reason, malign or malfeasant, would I want your destruction?”