1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 27

“Yes,” said Ruben, twirling his moustache, “we have heard the same thing. Largely, because we spread those rumors ourselves.”

Preston gaped. “You what?”

Maria Anna leaned forward; Preston tried to ignore the way it compressed her bosom. “Colonel, the privations of your people have never been intentional, but in the last two months, we discovered that they leant credence to the belief in Paris that our grasp upon your continued loyalty was weak, and that certain members of the Wild Geese were indeed finding it necessary to seek employment elsewhere. To be more specific, to seek employment with the French themselves.”

Preston felt heat rise in his face. “Your Highness, one of us did. The very best of us, some might say. Hugh Albert O’Donnell may have fed us, but he did it by agreeing to serve Turenne. Turenne! He’s Richelieu’s hand-picked military favorite. If the Earl of Tyrconnell will take service with the French, then why shouldn’t they think more of us will follow? And sixty of us did, the ones who went with O’Donnell.”

“And whose service there fed you,” Isabella observed from behind gnarled knuckles folded before her on the table.

“Yes, Your Grace, but at what cost? Where was Hugh when the Pope was threatened? Where does he tarry, now that he is the last earl of Ireland, the last hope of his people? Where has he been since late in April?”

“Evidently working for his employer,” Rubens observed smoothly.

“Yes, evidently. Abandoning us to work for the French. Which makes him, for all intents and purposes, a traitor!”

Isabella was on her feet in a single motion, cane brandished in one hand, the other pointing in quavering fury at Preston — or maybe at the word “traitor,” which seemed to hover invisible in the air. “You call Hugh Albert O’Donnell a traitor?” she cried.

Preston stood his ground. “Your Grace, if he serves your traditional enemy, that makes him — “

With a swiftness that belied her age, her infirmity, her arthritis and the grey habit of her order, she dashed her cane down upon the table: the heavy oak rod splintered with a crash. “A traitor?!” she shrieked, livid. “How dare you say — how dare you think — such a thing!”

The room was not merely silent, but frozen, all eyes on the trembling, imperial, terrible old woman who had risen up like a wrathful god from an elder age to silence them all with her fury and undiminished, magnificent passion.

Preston swallowed, but did not avert his eyes. “Your Grace, I mean no disrespect, but how are Lord O’Donnell’s actions not those of a traitor? Before Philip set Borja upon Rome, before the Pope was threatened and John O’Neill was slain, he turned back all his honors and Spanish titles and went to work for France. For France, Your Grace. Your enemy, Spain’s enemy — and now, his employer. How is that not traitorous?”

“Colonel Preston, do you truly not see any other way to interpret Lord O’Donnell’s actions?” When Preston shook his head, Isabella continued. “Hugh was the only one of you Wild Geese except Lord O’Neill who was made a naturalized Spanish citizen by the Crown, who became a knight, and a fellow of the court at Madrid. But then, when he saw that the same Crown never intended to make good its promises and debts to you and your countrymen, I understand that he came to your camp incognito, and explained his dilemma. Specifically, what response could he make if Philip had asked him, as an intimate of the court and loyal gentleman of Spain, to function as Madrid’s special factotum and commander here? Which, given the current situation, could mean leading either his, or Spanish, tercios against those loyal to me, if Philip’s displeasure with the Lowlands were to become so great. Was Lord O’Donnell to obey orders to attack me, or to attack you and his fellow countrymen, if that is how the loyalties of such a moment played out?”

Preston felt as though the chair he was seated in had been turned upside down. Or the world had. Or both.

“Think it through, Colonel. Lord O’Donnell had to step down from his post. And in doing so, it was incumbent upon him to return the beneficences he had received, and remove himself from Spanish territory. But not before he visited his men and yours, and enjoined you to think carefully to whom your allegiance would lie if faced with the eventualities that now seem to be hastening upon us. Philip is already attempting to compromise our non-Spanish tercios.”

“Your Grace, all this I see plainly. But — France? Why not some other power? Why our old foe?”

Isabella reseated herself slowly. It was an almost leonine action, despite her age. “Because, it is through our old foe that he will orchestrate a solution to both your problem and our problem: money. Enough money for the Lowlands to survive without recourse to Madrid’s coffers. Enough money for your families to eat, and your men to have ample coin in their pockets.”

Preston knew the room wasn’t spinning, but at the moment, it felt as though it was. “And how will Hugh’s service to France make possible this solution? And why has he not communicated this to us, as well as to you? My Grace, I mean no offense, but we are his countrymen: why has he not reassured us with the particulars of his plan?”

Isabella closed her eyes. “Because it is not his plan. It is ours. And I,” — she opened eyes suddenly bright and liquid, but from which she refused to let tears run down — “and I could not tell him of it.”

“But why? If he doesn’t know how serving the French will more profoundly serve us, then by what inducement has he left us to — ?”

Maria Anna silenced him with a small, sly smile. “My good Colonel Preston, I counsel you not to let these unexplained — and apparently inexplicable — events perturb you. You will note they do not perturb us. Indeed, our plans are well set. But it is often necessary that a cog spinning in one part of a complex machine has no knowledge of how its peers are turning elsewhere in the same device.”

Preston frowned at her words, heard two of Isabella’s sentences once again in his head: It is not his plan, it is ours. And I dare not tell him of it. Implying that the truly ignorant cog in Maria Anna’s machination was not Preston, but O’Donnell himself.

And he felt the oblique implication strike him so hard and so suddenly that the room seemed to tilt momentarily. Had O’Donnell’s apparent defection been planned? Had he been maneuvered into it so that he was then a properly situated, yet unknowing, piece of some larger stratagem?

He looked quickly at Isabella, who was looking intently at him. He did not see canniness; he saw —

Love. Maternal love. Intense, irrational, desperate. But why would she do such a thing to O’Donnell, unless it was — ?

To save him. Of course. Now it made sense. And suddenly Preston saw how, since the arrival of the up-timers and their library’s revelation of the duplicity of the Spanish in regard to their Irish servitors, that the grand dame of European statecraft had realized that in order for her cherished god-child to survive — and thrive — she would have to shift the game board so that he could weather the change in fortunes.

Yes, there was no doubt about it. It was clear enough that, in the days before the up-timers, she had, every step of the way, protected him, groomed him, got him a knighthood. Of course, then Father Florence Conry had almost ruined it all with his hare-brained proposal to invade Ireland. But whereas the priest had envisioned a force jointly led by the Earls O’Donnell and O’Neill and the predictable codominium that would arise in its wake, Madrid had embraced a different solution. Philip was no fool, and he had the benefit of the Count-Duke of Olivares’ advice, to boot. So Philip had summoned young O’Donnell, knighted him in an order more prestigious than O’Neill’s (which had been Isabella’s intent), but then chose him to lead the Irish expedition alone. It was a politically prudent choice, one which Isabella had not expected, probably due to the O’Donnell’s youth, and his clan’s less storied name. But the king and his counselor had seen the qualities, and restraint, in the younger man that would make him both a more capable general of armies and a more capable revolutionary orator than his mercurial peer, O’Neill.

But, since the invasion never came off (largely derailed by Isabella herself, as Preston recalled), the only lasting effect of all this maneuvering was that it ensured that the already difficult relation between O’Donnell and O’Neill became as bad and bitter as it could be. It hadn’t helped that, in addition to simply choosing the younger over the older, Philip and Olivares had made their assessment of Hugh’s superior qualities well known at court, and thereby, throughout Europe.

So Isabella had saved her godson from the disastrous invasion, just as she had taken pains to ensure that he was college-educated, naturalized, knighted, and furnished with a tremendously advantageous marriage. All done to both ensure his success, and ensure his survival. A target of English assassins since birth, the higher Hugh O’Donnell’s station became, the more pause it gave to those who sent murderers across the Channel: were they plotting the death of a renegade member of the Irish royalty, or an immigrated Spanish gentleman? The former was an affair of no account, but the latter could easily become an international incident, and was therefore best avoided.

And having thus protected and provided for her charge, Isabella of the up-time history had died in 1633, presumably satisfied that she had seen him safely married with a title and land. But within the year, those plans had come undone, here as there. His wife having died without producing surviving issue, he lost more than his love; he lost the land and titles that were to have been his. In that world, with his godmother dead, he had had little choice but to do what he might as the colonel of his own tercio. That he had recruited and commanded well there no less than here, that much was clear. But there, Fernando had evidently inherited Philip’s utilitarian attitudes toward the Irish, and had spent them like water. Which was sadly prudent, Preston had to admit. After all, as the opportunity to reclaim Ireland became an ever-thinner tissue of lies, the Spanish masters of the Wild Geese feared that they would be increasingly susceptible to subornation by other, rival powers. And so the last of them were sent to Spain, and then to their destruction in putting down the Catalan revolt that began in 1640.

But what about in this altered world, where Hugh had no future with Spain and none in the Lowlands either unless it officially broke with Madrid? What place for O’Donnell? Indeed, Preston realized with a sudden chill up his back, what place for the Wild Geese, for Ireland? And evidently, the old girl Isabella had hatched a scheme to correct some, maybe all, of these problems. But it was a scheme so deep, and probably so devious, that it had to be kept from one of its primary executors: Hugh Albert O’Donnell.

Isabella had obviously seen the understanding in Preston’s eyes. “So you see, now.”

The Irish colonel swallowed, nodded. “I believe I do, Your Grace. Just one question. Is there something my people, my Wild Geese, can do to help?”

“You already have.”

Preston started. “I have?”

“Specifically, four hundred of the men of Lord O’Donnell’s tercio have. They were not sent to garrison in Antwerp as you, and they, were originally told. They were sent there to board ships and have now joined a task force in order to fulfill their part in our plan.”

Preston was too stunned to feel stunned. “And if they succeed?”

Fernando leaned forward. “If they succeed, our futures are secure. Both yours and ours. For many, many years to come.”

“And if they fail?”

Isabella sat erect. “Colonel Preston, I am surprised at that question. Tell me, as the most senior officer of my Irish Wild Geese, how often have they ever failed me?”

“Only a very few times, Your Grace. But their determination in your service has a dark price, too.”

“Which is?”

“That, rather than retreat, they die trying.”

Isabella sat back heavily, looking every year of her age. She responded to Preston — “I know, Colonel, I know” — but her eyes were far away and seamed with worry.