Council Of Fire – Snippet 02

Part I: Transit

March, 1759

Dr. Halley observed . . . how much greater irregularities must not a comet be liable to, which at its remotest distance gets near four times farther from the Sun than Saturn, and whose velocity in drawing near the sun needs but a very small increase to change its elliptic into a parabolic curve.

–Charles Messier,

A Memoir, containing the History of the Return of the famous Comet of 1682, Phil. Trans., Jan. 1765

Chapter 1

The sea giveth and the sea taketh away

Aboard HMS Neptune

North Atlantic

A few minutes after three bells Sir Charles Saunders, Admiral of the Blue, set his quill aside and rubbed his eyes, unsure how he should continue writing the account of Neptune‘s current situation. It was all for posterity, of course; it would be transcribed into an Admiralty book and placed upon some dusty shelf somewhere, to be reviewed sometime by someone.

Lord Anson had told him years ago when they were circumnavigating the Earth in Centurion that, as much as every captain–or, for that matter, every admiral–dwelt on the exact words he might use to convey the account of his travels, in the long run they were largely ignored. But it doesn’t mean you don’t write them nonetheless, Anson had told him.

He wondered whether now that Anson himself was First Lord, he took the time to read what was written in ship’s logs that found their way back to London–as opposed to the ones that were lost, destroyed or neglected.

Saunders took his hat from its hook and left the cabin to go abovedecks, hoping that there might be some inspiration there.

Middle watch belonged to his executive officer. Mr. Prince they called him in public: Prince Edward Augustus, third child of the late Prince Frederick and younger brother of the Prince of Wales, was certainly the socially highest-ranking officer in His Majesty’s Navy. It had taken some negotiation and discussion between Whitehall and the Admiralty to settle the delicate point of address–but the Prince: Mr. Prince–was junior on board to the Master-before-God Commander of Neptune.

Saunders walked up onto the quarterdeck, offering only the slightest of nods to each salute. He reached into his sleeve and withdrew his glass, turned to face east and focused on the horizon. There was light all along it; it looked a great deal like sunrise–but the new day was hours away.

“Mr. Prince. Tell me what you make of that.”

He snapped his glass shut and gestured toward the eastern horizon.

His executive officer stepped forward to stand beside him and took out his own glass and raised it to his eye.

“I have no idea, My Lord. Maybe it’s the comet.”

“The comet? That should be over there.” Saunders gestured toward the northern sky, which was muddied with low clouds. “But that–I don’t know what that is.”

Commander Prince closed his own glass and tucked it away. “Perhaps we should ask the general.”

Saunders snorted. “I do not think the general has anything much to say.”

“Still hasn’t managed to get his sea legs,” Prince said.

“He doesn’t have sea-guts,” Saunders replied. “Apparently he has always had this . . . weakness. I expect he goes queasy when he strolls across London Bridge.”

“He is quite capable on land, My Lord Admiral. His bravery at Louisbourg several months ago led to the capture of that fortress. I trust that you are not questioning His Highness’ choice of commanders.”

Saunders cocked his head and smiled. “I don’t usually tolerate that sort of insolence from my officers. But, of course, only one of my officers is a Prince of the Blood. So let me assure you that I mean no disrespect to His Highness by my remarks.”

“And I mean no disrespect to you, My Lord Admiral. Indeed . . . I am somewhat disheartened that General Wolfe has never accustomed himself to travel by sea, since he seems to have done so much of it.”

James Wolfe was only recently elevated to the rank of general as a part of this expedition. As a colonel the previous summer, he had seized an important post on his own initiative during the British assault on the French fortress of Louisbourg–their present destination, a few weeks away. He would be in command of the next step in the war against the French; this time, instead of seizing some jumped-up fortress in Godforsaken Acadia, there would be an expedition along the Saint Lawrence to drive the French from North America once and for all.

“We each have our assigned roles, Mr. Prince,” Saunders said. “When we reach Louisbourg I am certain he will . . . rise to the occasion.”

Prince Edward nodded. “He is a very brave man.”

“He–” Saunders began, but stopped. He looked up at the masts. The sails were rippling with a sudden and strong change in the wind.

He shouted orders; Commander Prince touched his cap and headed for the main deck. Saunders opened his glass and looked east.


In the pilothouse Saunders studied the barometer. He had been at sea for all his adult life and a few years beforehand, and he had never seen it drop so fast. A storm was coming–not just the stiff wind that had already led Neptune to haul its sails tightly before it, but a stronger, fiercer one; and it was blowing from the east.

The horizon was aglow with a yellow-gray haze that he could not adequately describe. What he and Prince Edward had noticed on deck early in the watch had become a–what had the young royal called it?–a phenomenon. The sea was rough now. It had been nearly an hour since Neptune had been able to make out any sort of flag from the other ships in his squadron, and Saunders was worried.

The sea giveth and the sea taketh away, he thought. Mastery of the oceans had made his country great, but the roiling Atlantic was still greater, and easily capable of swallowing them all up. Spithead was far behind, and Nova Scotia far ahead–it was as if they were alone, with the hostile sea all around them.

“There is something unnatural about this.”

Saunders looked up from his barometer to see the pale face of James Wolfe. It was a far stretch from handsome–angular, with close-set eyes, a prominent nose and a receding chin that always seemed to be jutting upward. He looked drawn, as if merely standing erect was an effort–which, under the circumstances, it likely was.