1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 24


“So, you’d send us traipsing off to Rome, then?”

“Those are your orders.”

“It’s a fool’s errand — and I’m no fool.”

Owen Roe O’Neill suppressed a gasp at John O’Neill’s truculent retort to the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of the Spanish Low Countries. Owen had known Isabella — his nominal employer and the aunt of King Philip IV of Spain — for thirty years, so he was fairly sure that he knew what was coming. The infanta would tell John O’Neill that if a journey to Rome was indeed a fool’s errand, then she had found the perfect man for the job. She would then probably unleash a stream of even less oblique, yet still elegantly vitriolic, barbs at John, third earl of Tyrone. Who would probably understand about one half of them, but would certainly tweak to the fact that he was being insulted. Again.

Owen was wondering if the time had come to risk John’s resentment and intercede, but Pieter Rubens did it for him. “Come now, I know what you fear, Conde O’Neill. You fear that with you and Owen gone from your camps, and the earl of Tyrconnell unavailable –”

“– more like deserted –”

“– that Thomas Preston will be the sole acting colonel for the archduchess’s four Irish tercios.”

“Aye, that’s the heart of it, Pieter.”

Isabella, still flushed by walking from her nearby chambers to the wood-paneled library in which they were meeting, threw her cherished up-time fountain pen down in impatience. “Oh, not this again. When will you Wild Geese stop your sectarian honkings?”

Irishmen who fled English oppression to serve on the continent as mercenary soldiers were often dubbed “Wild Geese.” From most mouths, and at most times, the term enjoyed a cachet of grudging admiration. At other times and from English mouths, not so much.

“We’ll keep making noise as long as that sassenach Thomas Preston is in regular correspondence with his masters in London, Your Grace.” John O’Neill’s response was a mutter.

The room’s tall double doors opened. King Fernando entered with a dense retinue of guards, his increasingly lovely and curvaceous wife (or so it seemed to Owen) on his arm. All but Isabella rose; being Fernando’s aunt, and infirm besides, relieved her of that obligation. Fernando motioned them back into their chairs and seated his wife, but remained standing next to his aunt. “The doors are not as thick as you might believe,” he said to no one in particular. “So let me assure you, Conde O’Neill, that Colonel Preston is not an enemy agent. And his cross-Channel contacts do serve a useful purpose.”

“Which is?”

Rubens took up the thread smoothly. “There is the minor matter of his being a known correspondent with various moderate parties in London. As a result, he is often tentatively approached by the less-schooled Anglo-Irish spies working for King Charles. This allows us to keep tabs on this lower tier of confidential agents. But more importantly, Colonel Preston is an emergency communications conduit.”

“A what?”

John O’Neill did not have his late father’s keen mind and rapid wit. Bold, brave, competent, John was a steady enough colonel for his own tercio — but that was, Owen had to admit, the ceiling of the third earl of Tyrone’s abilities. Which he made painfully obvious when he repeated, “What do you mean, an emergency communications conduit?”

Rubens’ tone was patient, and Owen thought he heard a measure of pity behind it, as well. “Given his part-English heritage, Colonel Preston serves as an unofficial back-channel through which we maintain contact with various persons in London, including high-placed members of the court.”

“Which persons?” John asked.

“That varies with the political climate across the Channel,” Fernando said calmly, “and is not a suitable topic of conversation in this chamber, at this time.”

Even John O’Neill seemed to get that hint.

“At any rate,” finished Fernando, “Colonel Preston is to remain here in overall command of the tercios while you travel to Rome.”

Owen cleared his throat; the king looked at him. “Please, continue your discussion as before. I am not here to hold court.”

Owen nodded and turned his eyes back toward Isabella. “Your Grace, it seems that our party to Rome is rather, well, top-heavy in senior officers — including one of the last two estranged heirs to the royal titles of Ireland. This struck us as…well, strange.”

Isabella sent a small, encouraging smile down at Owen; he felt as though he’d been patted on the head. “Of late, I have had much complaint from the senior officers of my Irish tercios that they are in want of vigorous action. Being an old woman who hopes to die peacefully in her bed — and until two years ago, thought that end imminent — I profess no understanding of this ardor for war. It seems a blight upon the males of our species and particularly strong in those who come from the island of your birth, Colonel. So, since you and your young cousin the Conde O’Neill have chafed at the bit of the peace that now reigns in the Low Countries, this was the first assignment which promised to sate your appetite for risk and adventure. I except you from these characterizations, of course, Doctor,” she concluded, sending a broader, warmer smile farther down the table.

Sean Connal, surgeon in the Tyrconnell tercio and the third representative of the Wild Geese, nodded in gratitude and smiled back. “Thank you, Your Grace. However, I too must ask — Rome? Now? When it is in chaos?”

“My dear Dr. Connal, that chaos is precisely why you must go to Rome, and go now. We cannot send a large mission without drawing undue attention, even if, as Spain’s nominal vassal, our personnel would arouse no suspicion. And since you may have need of giving orders when there — of commanding Spanish troops to let you pass, to stand aside, or even to release possible prisoners to you — we cannot send men of lesser rank. And the conde — the earl, in your styling — holds the title of a lineage well-regarded in all Hapsburg territories. That high authority may be much needed where you travel.”

Owen wondered if that summary wasn’t a bit optimistic. The Spanish respected the Irish of equal rank in most professional regards, but not in social or bureaucratic matters. Equals on a battlefield or in a tavern, perhaps, but not in a ballroom or an audience chamber. But on the other hand, the fame of John’s late father, Hugh O’Neill, was particularly conspicuous in Rome, where he was buried along with various family and followers. He, his kinsman Rory O’Donnell, the prior earl of Tyrconnell, and their lieutenants, had journeyed as political supplicants to the Eternal City after fleeing Ireland in 1607. Most never found the means to leave again. Instead, they found the miasmic fevers of Rome and died, almost to a man. Hugh O’Neill outlived them all — but even his facile, ever-plotting mind had ultimately been thwarted by age, infirmity, and exclusion from the chambers of the powerful. He died all but forgotten, living on the charity of his patrons in Rome.

Owen looked over at Johnnie O’Neill: he’d been forgotten, too, most notoriously by his father. That lack of attention had not merely been a sign of his sire’s disinterest, but the man’s legendarily cold shrewdness: even in childhood, it was obvious that John had not inherited the most illustrious O’Neill’s intellect. Just as clearly, however, Johnnie had received a full measure of the man’s restlessness and spleen, so as both a youngster and a young man he had wanted action and little else. Now, it was pretty much the only thing at which John excelled; he had not been a patient child and had become a decidedly impatient man.

“There is, of course, another reason we are sending the two of you,” continued Isabella.

“Yes, Your Grace?”

“Do not be coy, Owen Roe. Your and the conde’s skill with weapons is peerless, and that could become an important factor in the success of your mission.”

“I thought Rome was in the hands of our Spanish comrades.” This time John’s tone was slow and assessing.

“It is.”

John thought that over. “I see.”

And Owen was glad he said no more; anything else would have been akin to poking a stick into a beehive. Technically, brothers Philip IV of Spain, and Fernando, the former cardinal-infante of the Low Countries, were indissolubly linked as part of the greater Hapsburg hegemony that straddled Europe like a colossus.