1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 35

*     *     *

Hugh watched McCarthy snug Tearlach into the heavy flight harness. It was fundamentally just an extension of the gondola, which was itself little more than a tall apple basket. McCarthy, Mulryan, and the ground crew went through all the “preflight checks” that Hugh himself had memorized, having now watched the process a dozen times. But just as he expected to see the final, confirmatory thumbs-up, Michael tugged an old back-pack out of the port quarter tackle locker. From that bag, he produced a heavily modified and retrofitted metal contraption that might have started out as some species of up-timer lantern or field stove, now capped by a home-built nozzle-and-cone fixture. The only identifying mark was no help in discerning the purpose of the device. Near the base of the dark green metal tube, a legend was stamped in bold white block letters: “Coleman.”

O’Rourke drew alongside Hugh and jutted his chin at the odd machine. “First time I’ve seen that tinker’s nightmare.”

“Me, too.”

“And I’ve been on hand for almost all the development of the balloon, y’ know.”

“I know.”

“And I don’t think McCarthy shared this little toy with the French, m’Lord.”

“I think you’re right,” Hugh said slowly, watching as McCarthy tutored Mulryan in the simple operation of this new “toy,” which, from McCarthy’s overheard explanation, seemed to be an up-time auxiliary burner which could be used to extend flight time or gain further altitude.

McCarthy backed away from Mulryan, gave his customary benediction, which was, he had explained, a tradition among balloonists from his century: “Soft winds and gentle landings.” And then he continued in a surprisingly fatherly tone. “Now don’t be in too much of a rush. First, make a full three-hundred-sixty degree observation just to detect ships and other objects of interest. Then, conduct a close inspection of each before you signal its bearing, approximate range, and heading if she’s under way. Then on to the next.”

Tearlach was smiling indulgently at McCarthy’s unaccustomed loquacity. “Yes, Don Michael, just the way you’ve told me. Twenty times, now.”

“You ready, then?”

Hugh had the impression that Mulryan might have done anything to get away from stoic Michael McCarthy’s unforeseen and unprecedented transmogrification into a nervous biddy. The former Louvain student nodded and smiled wider. The ground crew held tight the guidelines and then released their mooring locks with a sharp clack. Tearlach Mulryan started up gently, and then, with a whoop, surged aloft as the crew played out the lines.

Hugh stepped closer, craned his neck, and watched. “Well, Michael, in your parlance, the balloon is no longer in trials, but ‘fully operational.’  According to your history books, this is a historic first flight, is it not?”

Michael nodded. “First flight for an expressly military balloon, to my knowledge. Up-time or down-time.” Then he looked almost sternly at Hugh. “And while we’re on the topic of historic events, here’s another: this journey to Trinidad will be your last ‘flight’ as an exile — the last flight that any Irish earl will ever have to undertake.”

Hugh smiled at the optimistic resolve, but was a bit perplexed at the borderline ferocity with which Michael had uttered it. “From your lips to God’s ear, my friend.”

But Michael was looking at the balloon again. “First flight. And last flight. My word on it.” He must have felt Hugh’s curious stare, but he did not look over.

*     *     *

Hugh stood, arms folded, intentionally radiating avuncular pleasure and approval, as Tearlach Mulryan finished delivering his ground report. The details conformed to what he had relayed from his floating perch in the dit-dah-dit agglomeration of dots and dashes that the up-timers called Morse Code. The channel between St. Eustatia and St. Christopher was all but empty. One vessel, probably a Dutch fluyt, was in the straits but while Mulryan watched, she had weighed anchor and was now hugging the coast westward. She would soon have sailed around, and tucked safely behind, the leeward headland, probably on her way to the relatively new Dutch settlement of Oranjestad. This meant Morraine could begin his approach, and with a strong wind over the starboard quarter, make the windward mouth of the channel before sundown. If the breeze held, Morraine declared he’d stay close to the north side of the channel, running dark along the southern headland of sparsely-populated St. Eustatia in order to make an unseen night passage. Barring unforeseen encounters or tricks of the wind, he surmised that, by the middle watch, he’d be raising a glass of cognac to toast the dwindling lights of Basseterre as he looked out his stern-facing cabin windows. Pleased with the prospect of so undetected a passage and such an enjoyable celebration of it, Morraine nodded appreciatively to McCarthy, and disappeared down the companionway into the bowels of the quarterdeck, calling for the navigator and pilot to join him at the chart-table in the ward-room.

Mulryan watched the captain and his all-French entourage depart, and then sidled over toward Hugh and Michael. “My Lords,” he said with a quick look over his shoulder, “I may have broken our hosts’ trust.”

Hugh carefully kept his posture unchanged, casual. “In what way, Mulryan?”

“M’Lord, I, um, edited my report.”

“Did you, now?”

“Yes, m’Lord. There’s one ship I did not mention. She’s directly astern, maybe forty miles, due east. Not much smaller than us, judging from what little I could make of her masts.”

“Saw them against the brightening sky?”

“Aye, but not well. I checked her again when the sun came up.” He looked at the overcast skies. “So to speak.”

“And tell me, Tearlach, why did you choose to ‘forget’ this piece of information that I’m sure would have been of considerable interest to Captain Morraine?”

“Because sir, unless I am very much mistaken, she was putting up a balloon, too. A white one. Like ours used to be.”

Hugh kept himself from starting. “Was it the same design as ours?”

Mulryan grimaced. “M’Lord, that new spyglass is a wonder, and my eyes are as good as any in County Mayo, but forty miles is a long way by any measure.”

Hugh smiled. “True enough, Tearlach.”

“But — another ship with a balloon? What do you think it is, Lord O’Donnell?”

Hugh was considering how best to tactfully phrase his speculations when Michael shared his own — bluntly. “That, young Mulryan, is our master’s eye.”

“Lord Turenne? He sent a ship after us?”

“He, or Richelieu, almost certainly,” Hugh confirmed.

“It only makes sense that he’d want to keep an eye on what we do,” Michael conceded. Then, with a smile, “If he can, that is.”

Tearlach cocked his head. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that ship can’t have seen us today. She was easy for us to spot, silhouetted against the dawn while putting up a white balloon. But, from her perspective, we were against the western pre-dawn darkness, putting up a blue-grey balloon. She didn’t see us.”

Hugh rubbed his chin. “So that’s why you had our balloon painted only after we left Dunkirk. You didn’t want Turenne to know you’d camouflaged it.”

“Right, and that’s why we were four days out before I started running test ascents over three hundred feet. As far as Turenne knows, one hundred yards is as high as we’re rated to go. He’ll have tried pushing that limit a bit himself, but not as aggressively as we have.”

“And he won’t have that little toy you gave Tearlach right before he went up.”

McCarthy nodded. “Yeah, the boost from the natural gas burner doesn’t last long, but it does give you a little extra height. Or time. Which are the edges we need. And by tonight, we’ll be so far off, that he won’t have any chance to catch sight of us again. Now, ‘scuse me. I’m gonna show Mulryan here how to take care of my ‘toy’.” And he took the natural gas burner from Tearlach’s hands and led the young aeronaut back to the poop deck.

As they left, O’Rourke sauntered over from the rail.

“Heard all that?” asked Hugh.

O’Rourke nodded. “Every word.”

“And what do you think?”

“I think McCarthy is shrewd. Maybe too shrewd.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know that look, Hugh O’Donnell. You’ve misgivings of your own.”

“But I’ll hear yours first, O’Rourke.”

“As you wish. So, the ship on our tail couldn’t see us today. Bravo. But hardly luck, eh?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that McCarthy has had every step of this game sussed out from the start. From before we left France, it seems.”

“And that’s bad?”

“Not in itself, no. But why didn’t he bring us into his confidence on all this earlier? Because rest assured, he’s been playing this game of chess five moves ahead of the opposition, he has.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that he obviously foresaw that Turenne would send a ship after us. And so he saves some special tricks for our balloon, to make it more than a match for the one Turenne has. But in order to have those tricks at hand, he must have anticipated needing them much earlier. So, from the time he started working in Amiens, he must have been expecting that Turenne would be crafting a secret duplicate balloon off-site, even as he and Haas were constructing the original model.”

“Strange, O’Rourke: having an ally with that kind of foresight sounds like a great advantage to me, not a source of worry.”

“Aye, but that ally is an advantage only if he shares what he’s seen from the peak of his lofty foresight, m’Lord. And Don Michael, whatever his reasons might be, did not do so.”

“So what are you saying? That he’s not to be trusted?”

O’Rourke rubbed his thick nose with a flat, meaty thumb. “I wouldn’t be saying so black a thing as that, m’Lord. But if Don McCarthy is clever enough to keep important secrets from someone like General Turenne, then isn’t it a possibility that he could be keeping important secrets from us, too?”

Hugh nodded, turned his gaze slowly to where Michael McCarthy was tutoring Mulryan, back at the taffrail. “Yes, O’Rourke, there is that possibility. There is definitely that possibility.”