1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 41



They pulled beyond the ramshackle piers and neglected sidings of Porto before the captain of the Savoyard barque-longue brought his long, low ship over to the right bank of the Tiber where barges were clustered. His mixed crew of French, Corsicans, and Savoyards jumped over to the makeshift wharf when they were within four feet, counter-pushed with poles, and dropped hawsers into the narrowing gap between the hull and the siding.

The final payment for passage had been handled when Ostia came into view, with John O’Neill counting out the silvers with the regretful intensity of a miser. So now, gear and pack in hand, Owen Roe O’Neill and his fellow Wild Geese departed the boat with a few halfhearted waves; they got few enough in return. The crew hadn’t been unfriendly, but the language overlap had been sketchy. Owen knew enough French to get by, as did Sean Connal. The doctor had quickly become the ship’s favorite, mostly because of his craft and his willingness to tend to the small crews’ minor ailments.

The crew’s standoffishness had no doubt been reinforced by John O’Neill’s loud and resentful commentary upon the doctor’s plying of his art: not in terms of his efficacy, but generosity. Specifically, the earl of Tyrone made it known that Connal’s services should rightly have been offered in trade, to offset the cost of their passage. In fact, that was a fairly customary exchange, but the doctor had provided his services without striking such a bargain. He maintained that it was better to earn a little genuine good will than the price of half a fare. For his part, Owen agreed with the young doctor, but Johnnie O’Neill had made some sharp comments about Connal’s undue presumptions of independence, and that the group’s current circumstances did not allow them “the largesse of such gestures of noblesse d’oblige.” That imperious pronouncement also seemed to exhaust the earl’s supply of French phrases.

Connal had merely remained silent, as had the watching crew, who thereafter kept their affairs well separate from those of their Irish passengers. They weren’t unfriendly, but distant. Particularly when interacting with John.

Owen hefted his pack higher; well, that was the nature of the man. Certainly not the easiest to serve under, but by no means the worst, either. And now they had to set about finding a barge to take them the rest of the way upriver to Rome.

There was a fair amount of Spanish soldiery about, but their loose ranks were already loading on the gathered barges. Seeing the gear and pennant of the Wild Geese, a few of the Spaniards hailed the Irish, curious as to their land of origin. The answers got a few cheers, a few strange looks, one or two shrugs, but nothing negative, since the Irish mercenaries of the Spanish Low Countries were a well-known military fixture. And after all, they had returned the hails in Spanish. Had the answers been in English, or had their names been of the Anglo-Irish variety, Owen wondered what their reception would have been. Cool, at best, he conjectured.

As the barges carrying the Spaniards pulled slowly away from the wharf, Turlough Eubank returned from the cluster of Italian barges.

“What luck?” asked John.

“None, m’lord. Seems the barge master I spoke to is already waiting on a shipment of grain.”

“They could have a long wait.”

“No, sir. It’s a Tuscan ship, due here any hour.”

“And this barge master won’t take a few extra coin from us to change his plans?”

“He’s under Spanish contract, sir. Provisions for Rome, y’see.”

“Hell and be damned, is every bloody ship here under Spanish contract?”

Owen toed a bit of stray oakum with his boot. “Could well be, Johnnie. And if the rumors on our ship had even a passing acquaintance with the truth, Florence is sending down as much grain as the Spanish will buy. At regular rates.”

“So now Tuscany is Spain’s lap-dog, as well?”

“Maybe. Or maybe cheap Tuscan millet is the price the Spanish are demanding in exchange for another de Medici redcap.”

“So Borja’s selling cardinalships, now?”

“Ah, Johnnie, it would be strange if he didn’t. That’s how the game is played down here.”

“Well, the game stinks like a steaming melder, it does. Eubank, go check with the last barge. Maybe the Good Lord will smile on some honest Catholics, for a change.”

“As you say, m’lord. Oh, and Dr. Connal sent word: now that we’re on land again, he’ll be demonstrating the new pepperbox revolver while we wait.”

“Oh, he will, will he?” muttered John, who rose and stalked inland, where half of the men had gathered near a vacant farmhouse set back from the banks of the river. Suppressing a sigh, Owen followed along.


Five red roof tiles were propped up on a chest-high wall that paralleled the derelict farmhouse. Sean leveled the nose-heavy pistol and started firing. The reports were sharp and barely a second between each one. On all but the fourth shot, one of the tiles exploded into a shower of dust and fragments.

Although the range was only ten paces, Owen silently conceded that this was some pretty fair marksmanship. Particularly for a physician.

Apparently, John was not disposed to make the same concession. “I think you missed one, Doctor.” John had probably intended his tone to be droll, but it had verged over into smug.

Connal did not turn. Instead, his hands moved quickly, unseating the currently loaded cylinder, swapping in a fresh one from a leather chest-pouch of sorts. He locked it in place with a quick twist of a frontal knob, and expertly popped five percussion caps onto the cylinder’s five ignition ports (which, Owen had learned, the up-timers rather provocatively called “nipples”). The doctor thumbed back the hammer even as he raised the weapon, aimed, and fired.

The last tile vanished in a spray of pieces.

“My apologies about that straggler,” he said as he turned to face the earl of Tyrone. “I’ll be tidier next time.”

One or two grunts of amusement from the watching Wild Geese faded quickly enough when John sent an annoyed glance in their direction. “Not so fast reloading as you made it sound, Doctor.”

Connal nodded. “You can cut the time down by two-thirds if the percussion caps are already seated on the fresh cylinder. But carrying it that way can result in some misfires; the jostling can unseat or even ruin a cap. Not likely, but possible. Logically, it also creates a small chance of an accidental discharge while you’re carrying the cylinder on your person, but that would be quite a fluke.”

“And when did you learn to shoot like that, Doctor? Not while you were rehearsing the Hippocratic oath, I’ll wager. Indeed, if you shot much better, I’d have to suspect it was the hypocritic oath.”

There was a single, half-hearted snicker; the tone of the jest had been a bit more accusatory than it was jocular.

But Connal merely smiled. “Well, contrary to common belief, I was not destined to the medical arts from the crib onwards. Couldn’t figure what trade to follow for the longest time — not until I was, oh, at least two years old.” Smiles sprang up, as well as one stifled giggle. “Sad to say, but I was a late bloomer.” His concluding confession got a few outright laughs — and a darker look from John.

“So you thought you’d be soldiering, then?”

“As I said, I didn’t know. But when I was first at university in Leuven, Hugh — er, Lord O’Donnell, came to visit occasionally. Visiting the old alma mater, as it were. Taught me to shoot.”

“Why, of course he did. No doubt paid your way at the university, too, I’ll wager.”

“For the space of one semester, yes, he did.”

Which only made O’Neill’s face darken again, this time with a scowl. Johnnie didn’t like anyone allied with, or in service to O’Donnell much better than he did the “sassenach” Irish such as Preston. But his distaste for all things O’Donnell was in many ways the more embarrassing of his two prejudices: antipathy toward the “Old English” Irish had long, nationalistic roots. But his dislike of the O’Donnells stemmed from a much less noble trait: jealousy, plain and simple.

But John’s focus on the gun had apparently distracted him from his resentment. “So how does this eye-gouging piece of rubbish work, Doctor? I’ve seen one or two of these up-time revolvers. They’re all pretty complicated pieces of machinery.”

“This is much less so,” Connal explained. “The weapons to which you refer require exceptionally fine tolerances, since the cylinder holding the charge, or ‘cartridge,’ must align precisely with the weapon’s single barrel.”

O’Neill scowled. “But that thing has five barrels. All as one piece.”