1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 09

“None. Unless you fear you’ll lose this battle. Then ye might want to keep me from spreading word of such a defeat.”

Tromp’s eyebrow raised. “I had not considered that.” He smiled. “I am doubly glad to have you here, then.”

“But . . . why, M’lord?”

“I am not your lord. I hold a rank I earned, not a title I was born to. It should be thus with all men, I think. But, to resolve this matter: I am especially glad for your presence because you think quickly and accurately. And I will want that quality in one who makes report to Bermuda and the Bahamas.”

“What is it you wish me to report, then, sir?”

“Everything you shall presently observe in the coming battle, so that you may relate it to your people, your community, your leaders.”

“With all due respect, we’ve heard tell of the fine qualities of these ships of yours, Admiral.”

“Yes. You’ve heard about outcomes. Fine outcomes. Improbable outcomes, actually….unless you see these ships in action. Then you will be not only be able to tell the story of this battle, but it will become clear, in hindsight, just how all the others were won so decisively.

“You must see this so that your people understand. In the New World, we are not and never will be so numerous as the Spanish. They hold much territory and we hold little. They have many ships; we have few.

“But their size has made them both complacent and reluctant to change, whereas we are bold and innovative. Today, you shall have a chance to observe Spain’s quantities confronted by our qualities. Knowing not just the outcome, but how it was attained, assures that your leaders will be better able to decide if it is truly in their best interests to remain evasive when it comes to making firm agreements and even alliances with us here in the Leeward Islands.”

Stirke crumpled his hat in his hands. “Admiral, I’m a mastern of a ship, ‘at’s true enough. But it’s a little ship and, as captain’s go, I’m littler still. As even a blind man can see.” He cracked a smile. “But little or no, I’ve a wife and children to feed. So if I fail to leave this place now, and so, never do, it’s them that would be suffering not me. And it’s that suffering which is on me mind, what with a great battle looming before me eyes.”

Tromps softened his tone. “I’m sorry not to have asked after your circumstances, captain. You must do as you think right. However, I must also point out that, by staying safe in the shadows of greater ships, quite distant from where the guns will thunder, you may also discover the means to accrue great wealth this day. Wealth so great that you and your family will never know want again.”

The man’s eyes lit as if kindled. Tromp was glad to see the fear in them replaced by eagerness, but that did not make Stirke’s suddenly predatory expression pleasant to see. “I beg your pardon, Admiral?”

Tromp gestured toward the east. “Today’s battle will have more ships in it than any since Dunkirk, three and a half years ago. I was the loser that day. If I am right, we shall not lose today. Indeed, I suspect there will be so many spoils that my forces shall not be able to secure them all.” He regarded the man levelly. “And there is no reason to abandon to the deep that which men might salvage for their benefit.”

“And we’d have yer leave to take what you haven’t the time or burthen to carry off?”

“To know I made my allies that much stronger would be a comfort to me and a blessing to our common cause. I bid you, ‘fare well’ — whatever you choose to do in the coming hours.” He glanced over the Bermudan’s shoulder and his eyes twinkled. “Oh, and by the way, that’s how we knew the Spanish were coming so many hours before they arrived.” He pointed back over the stern. Stirke turned to look.

The great ball of an observation balloon rose slowly up from the deck of a large ship, well abaft Resolve and the other warships waiting in two groups: one large and to the north, the other small and to the south. Stirke’s mouth was as round as the sphere, but reshaped into a half-toothed grin as he turned back toward Tromp. “So it’s true! Ye’ve flying machines! Ye smite them from the air like God’s own angels!”

Simonszoon rolled his eyes, but before the captain’s trademark sardonicism could rattle the Bermudan again, Sehested leaned forward. “Master Stirke, this balloon serves as an eye, not a weapon. The observer in it can tell us, almost instantly, the location of all our enemies, their respective courses, and their current conditions.”

Stirke nodded, turned haltingly back toward Tromp. “I can’t say until I speak to me lads, but, if ‘t still please yeh, sahr, I think we might tarry to witness your great battle.”

Tromp nodded, allowed a faint smile to bend his lips before turning back to the binnacle. 

Once he heard Stirke heading down the stairs, the admiral leaned toward Evertsen. “Send word back to Tower: the observer is to use the gas burner to reach two hundred feet with all speed.”

“Tower?” Sehested repeated uncertainly, frowning.

Tromp, still facing the plot instead of the Dane, indulged in a brief rueful smile. On the one hand, it was an annoyance having a civilian official — and a diplomat, no less! — on his bridge. On the other hand, Sehested was the direct conduit back to King Christian IV, who followed their progress in the New World with unusual avidity. So keeping Sehested well-informed — and impressed — was worth the minor nuisance of explaining the occasional operational detail to him. Although it didn’t particularly feel that way right now, with the Spanish ships so close.

Tromp gestured behind at the balloon and then to the western edge of the tactical plot. “We have designated the balloon and the ships dedicated to its operation ‘Tower.’ For obvious reasons, I trust.”

Sehested nodded, pointed at the two groups of blue marks that were arrayed between it and the oncoming red icons of the Spanish. “And they are?”

“The larger, northern squadron is ‘Anvil.’ We are in this much smaller southern group ‘Hammer.’ Again, I presume those labels are also self-defining.”

“Within certain broad margins of meaning, yes. I see that Hammer’s complement — this ship, Amelia, Salamander, Prince Hendrik, and Crown of Waves — is comprised of unusually fine sailers. Although I do not recognize this craft: SP One?”

“One of our steam pinnaces,” Kees explained. “For towing. There to ensure that Prince Hendrik keeps up with the others.”

“And now, Lord Sehested,” said Tromp, turning to face the Dane, “I must turn my full attention to the matter at hand. You are welcome, however, to stay and observe.”

Sehested inclined his head, took a step back, did not make for the stairs.

He is brave, curious, or both, Tromp decided as he compared the plot with the unfolding scene upon the sea.

Before he could even ask for the latest range estimate to the closest war galleon, Bjelke delivered it as he lowered his telescope. “The Spanish vanguard is nearing fourteen hundred yards.”

When Tromp did not speak immediately, Simonszoon glanced at him. “Maarten, are we still following plan Alpha?”

Tromp, studying the sea, hardly heard the question. “We are.”

Simonszoon turned toward Bjelke and nodded.

Rik leaned toward his speaking tubes. ” Engineering, raise steam. Master Gunner, prepare to acquire targets and — “

“Belay those orders,” Tromp instructed quietly.

“Sir?” Bjelke asked, confused.

“New orders, Rik.”

“Maarten — ” began Simonszoon.

“Yes, Dirck, I know the clock. The war galleons will be at fair range for ten minutes, alongside in eleven.”

“Not a lot of time to shift to a different plan.”

“We’re not doing so. I’m making just one adjustment: we shall no longer commence firing at 1,350 yards.”

“What’s the new range, then?”

“One thousand yards. Lieutenant Bielke, raise steam.”

Simonszoon sidled closer. His voice had none of its usual dark jocularity. “Maarten, reducing the range to one thousand yards means we’ll have them under our guns for only seven and a half minutes, not eleven. We won’t even put two thirds of the rounds we planned on into the Spanish.”

“Actually, barely half, since I am no longer presuming forty seconds between each pull of the lanyard but forty-five.” Seeing that Simonszoon was about to object yet again, he cut to the heart of the matter: “Captain, the sea is slightly choppy and we shall be firing into the wind. In these conditions, we will be fortunate to hit the enemy ten percent of the time at 1,350 yards. At one thousand, we will surely miss, too, but we shall correct more quickly and with less wasted ammunition. And if you have been counting the rounds left in your magazine, you will surely understand why that concerns me. Particularly now.”

He pointed at the Spanish. “We know there are at least fifty galleons and naos in this treasure fleet. Probably more, given reports from some of our other ships. That means we will be relying on these two naval rifles more than we planned. More than we ever imagined.”

“We needn’t take them all, sir,” Bjelke murmured.

“Probably not, but we are going to try, Lieutenant. That is how we’re going to send the Spanish a message that they cannot fail to understand.”

“And that is?” Simonszoon asked through a sigh.

“That their dominance in the New World is at an end.”

Dirck’s smile was part dark mirth and part rue. “And maybe that Maarten Tromp is returning the favor for Dunkirk?”

Tromp looked past his old friend and straight at Bjelke. “Send to the Master Gunner; commence acquiring targets. Prepare to open fire at one thousand yards. Mr. Evertsen, pass the word to the fleet: follow orders for engagement plan Alpha at the sound of our guns. And God be with us all.”