1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 28


July, 1635

What raging of the sea

Chapter 14

St. Kilda archipelago, North Atlantic

“Commander Cantrell, propellers are all-stop. Awaiting orders.”

Eddie Cantrell looked to his left. The ship’s nominal captain, Ove Gjedde, nodded faintly. It was his customary sign that his executive officer, Commander Cantrell, was free to give his orders autonomously. Eddie returned the nod, then aimed his voice back over his shoulder. “Secure propellers and prepare to lower the vent cover.”

“Securing propellers, aye. Ready to lower prop vent cover, aye.”

“And Mr. Svantner, send the word to cut steam. Let’s save that coal. “

“Aye, aye, sir. Cutting steam. Let free the reef bands, sir?”

Eddie looked at Gjedde again, who, by unspoken arrangement, reserved rigging and sail orders for himself. The sails had been reefed for the engine trials and with the engine no longer propelling the ship, it would soon begin to drift off course.

The weather-bitten Norwegian nodded once. Svantner saluted and went off briskly, shouting orders that were soon drowned out by the thundering rustle of the sails being freed and unfurled into the stiff wind blowing near the remote island of St. Kilda.

Well, technically speaking, they were just off the sheer and rocky north coast of the island of Hirta, largest and most populous islet of the St. Kilda archipelago. If you could call any landmass with less than two hundred people ‘populous.’ But even that small settlement was pretty impressive, given how far off St. Kilda was from — well, from everything. Over fifty miles from the northwesternmost island of the already-desolate Outer Hebrides, and almost 175 miles north of Ireland, Hirta and the rest of the islands of the group were, for all intents and purposes, as isolated as if they had been on the surface of another planet. And, since it was rumored that most of the inhabitants were still as influenced by druidic beliefs as by Christianity, it was not an exaggeration to say that, even though the natives of St. Kilda did dwell on the same planet, they certainly did inhabit a different world.

“Commander Cantrell, there you are! I’m sorry I’m late. I was detained below decks. Paying my respects to your lovely wife and her ladies.”

Eddie swiveled around on his false heel. Time at sea had taught him, even with his excellent prosthetic leg, not to lose contact with the deck. “And you are” — he tried to recall the face of the man, couldn’t, guessed from context — “Lieutenant Bjelke, I presume?”

The man approaching — tall, lithe, with a long nose and long hair that was several shades redder than Eddie’s own — offered a military bow, and tottered a bit as the ship rolled through a higher swell. “That is correct, sir. I tried to present myself to you immediately upon coming aboard, but I found myself embarrassingly, er, indisposed.”

Eddie smiled, noticed that Bjelke’s pallor was not just the result of pale Nordic skin, but a manful, ongoing struggle against sea-sickness. “Is that why you did not attempt transfer to this ship until today, Mr. Bjelke? Waiting for good weather?”

Bjelke, although only twenty, returned the smile with a courtier’s polish. Which was only logical: his father, Jens, had been the Norwegian Chancellor for more than twenty years and was certainly one of the nation’s wealthiest nobles. If one measured his stature in terms of influence rather than silver, he was arguably its most powerful lord, having been given the Hanseatic city of Bergen as his personal fief just last year. Henrik Bjelke had, therefore, grown up surrounded by wealth, influence, and ministers of etiquette.

Fortunately, his father was also a fair and industrious man, having studied widely abroad and now compiling the first dictionary of the Norwegian language. And Henrik, his second son, had apparently inherited his sire’s talents and tastes for scholarship. Originally bound for the University in Padova, the arrival of Grantville had caught both Henrik’s interest and imagination. Like many other adventurous sons (and no small number of daughters) of European noble houses, he had gone there to read in the up-time library, augmenting that education with classes and seminars at the nearby University of Jena. It was perhaps predictable that he was assigned as Eddie’s adjutant and staff officer, as much because of Christian’s keen interest in the young Norwegian as Bjelke’s own unfulfilled desires to pursue a military career. He had ultimately done so quite successfully in the up-time world of Eddie’s birth, also rising to become the head of the Danish Admiralty.

However, Bjelke’s familiarity with things nautical had been a later-life acquisition. For the moment, it was clearly a mighty struggle for him just to maintain the at-sea posture that was the down-time equivalent of ‘at ease’ in the presence of a superior officer with whom one had familiarity (and with whom the difference in rank was not too profound). Eddie discovered he was inordinately cheered by Rik’s unsteadiness. At last! someone with even less shipboard experience than me! He gestured to the rail.

Bjelke gratefully accompanied the young up-timer to the rail, but stared at it for a moment before putting his hand upon it. The ‘rail’ was actually comprised of two distinct parts, one of iron, one of wood. The iron part consisted of two chains that ran where the bulkhead should be, each given greater rigidity by passing tautly through separate eyelets in vertical iron stanchions. Those stanchion were form-cut to fit neatly into brass-cupped holes along the bulwark line, and thus could be removed at will.

However, mounted atop those stanchions, and stabilizing themselves by a single descending picket that snugged into a low wooden brace affixed to the deck, was a light wooden rail. Each section of the rail was affixed to its fore and aft neighbors by a sleeve that surrounded a tongue-in-groove mating of the two separate pieces, held tight by a brass pin that passed through them both at that juncture. Henrik tentatively leaned his weight upon it. It was quite firm. “Ingenious,” he murmured admiring the modular wooden rail sections and ignoring the chain-and-stanchion railing. “Your work, Commander?”

Eddie shrugged. “I had a hand in it.”

Bjelke smiled slowly. “Modesty is rare in young commanders, my elders tell me, but is a most promising sign. I am fortunate to have you as a mentor, Commander Cantrell.”

Eddie kept from raising an eyebrow. Well, Henrik Bjelke had certainly revealed more than a little about himself, and his role vis-a-vis Eddie, in those “innocent” comments. Firstly, the young Norwegian obviously knew the ship upon which this vessel had been heavily based — the USS Hartford of the American Civil War — since he was not surprised by the presence of what would otherwise have been the wholly novel chain-and-stanchion railing arrangement, which reduced dangers from gunwale splinters and, in the case of close targets, could be quickly removed to extend the lower range of the deck guns’ maximum arc of elevation. However, Bjelke had pointedly not been expecting the modular wooden rail inserts that Eddie had designed for greater deck safety when operating on the high seas. That bespoke a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the ship’s design origins, even for a clever young man who’d spent more than a year in the library at Grantville.

Secondly, Bjelke confidently identified the innovation as Eddie’s, which suggested that he’d been well-briefed about the technological gifts of the young American. Which went along with the implication that his elders considered Cantrell a most promising officer.

And that likely explained the third interesting bit of information: that Henrik Bjelke had not been encouraged to look at this assignment as merely a military posting, but as an apprenticeship of sorts.

And all those nuances, having a common emphasis on familiarization with up-timers and their knowledge, seemed to point in one direction: straight at His Royal Danish Majesty Christian IV.

Eddie had to hand it to his half-souse, half-genius regal father-in-law: USE emperor and Swedish sovereign Gustav Adolf might be running around physically conquering various tracts of Central Europe, but Christian had launched his own, highly successful campaign of collecting and captivating the hearts and minds of persons who were poised to become high-powered movers and shakers of the rising generation. His son Ulrik was betrothed to Gustav’s young daughter. His daughter Anne Cathrine was married to the most high-profile war-hero-techno wizard from now-legendary Grantville. And now, he had added sharp-witted Henrik Bjelke to the mix.

And that addition brought distinct value-added synergies to many of King Christian’s prior social machinations. Bjelke’s appointment no doubt bought the gratitude of various influential Norwegians, who had, so far, been the ‘forgotten poor cousin’ of the reconstituted Union of Kalmar between Sweden and Denmark. Bjelke’s appointment also provided Eddie with a gifted aide who was unusually familiar with up-time manners and technology, and who no doubt understood that this mentorship was an extraordinary opportunity to put himself on a political and military fast-track.

Of course, thus indebted to Christian, it was also to be expected that Henrik Bjelke, willing or not, would also serve as the Danish king’s — well, not spy, exactly, but certainly his dedicated observer. And lastly, the bold Bjelke might just be valiant enough to help save Eddie’s life at some point during the coming mission, thereby ensuring that Christian’s daughter did not become a widow and that the familial connection to the up-timers remained intact. Alternatively, Bjelke, learning up-time ways and now having first-hand access to up-time technology, might also make a reasonable replacement husband for a widowed Anne Cathrine. Yup, the old Danish souse-genius had sure gamed out all the angles on this appointment.

About which Eddie reasoned he had best learn everything he could. “So what do they call you at home, Lieutenant Bjelke?”

“At — at home, Commander?”

“Yes. You know, the place you live.” Although, Eddie realized a moment later, that the son of Jens Bjelke wouldn’t have just one home. More like one home for every month of the year…

But that didn’t impede the young Norwegian’s understanding of Eddie’s intent. “Ah, my familiar name! I’m Rik, sir. An amputated version of my proper name, so that I might not be confused with all the other Henriks in our family and social circles. Not very dignified, I’m afraid.”

Eddie smiled. “Well, I’m not very dignified myself, so that suits me just fine, Rik. You got attached to the flotilla pretty much at the last second, I seem to recall.”

Bjelke’s gaze wavered. “Yes, sir. There were impediments to overcome.”

“Impediments? Political?”

“Familial, I’m afraid. My father does not share in my enthusiasm for a military career.”

Hm. Given the scanty biographical sources from up-time, that might actually be the truth, rather than a clever way of explaining away what might have been a maneuver by Christian IV to get Bjelke added to the flotilla without Simpson or Eddie having enough time to conduct research on his possible ties to the Danish court. What Christian had either not planned upon, or simply couldn’t outflank, was the possibility that Simpson and Eddie had compiled dossiers on all possibly mission-relevant personnel without waiting for assignment rosters.

Which they had done. It had been time-consuming, but worth it. Although Eddie lacked any detailed information on many of the flotilla’s senior officers and leaders, he had a thumbnail sketch on most of them. In fact, Ove Gjedde was the only notable exception.

Eddie nodded understanding at Bjelke’s professed plight. “But your father finally listened to your appeals?”

Rik blushed profoundly, and Eddie could have hugged him: and he blushes faster and redder than I do, too! Damn, even if he is a spy, it’s almost worthwhile having him around so that another officer looks and acts even more like the boy next door than I do! But Eddie kept his expression somber as Bjelke explained. “My father remained deaf to my appeals for military experience — but not to King Christian’s.”