Council Of Fire – Snippet 16

Chapter 11

They sound more like demands


It took five days against adverse winds and with inferior charts for Namur to make its way to Bridgetown, the capital of His Majesty’s crown colony of Barbados. The tiny island was one of the richest bits of real estate in the British Empire. Its economy was based almost entirely on the production of sugar, for which there was an endless demand, and its location–south of most of the Leeward Islands and eastward of all of them–made it the first stopping-place for ships bound from Africa.

Except that Africa was no longer reachable, as it lay beyond what had been named the Place of Bone.

Most ships approaching Bridgetown along the southwestern coast of the island came from the north and west, using the highlands on the island’s north side as a means of navigation, or from the north and east, making the middle passage from the slave coasts. Namur, however, came upon Barbados from the south. If they had not located it, the next landfall would be more than a hundred miles further–a strain on the ship’s stores, unforeseen when it set sail for its original destination in the Mediterranean.

Bridgetown was a neat little town, showing evidence of the wealth of its inhabitants. Namur was unopposed and unchallenged as it entered the harbor. There were two large, armed merchantmen visible at dock–both in excess of three hundred tons, Boscawen guessed, as he surveyed the scene through his spyglass.

“The war hasn’t made too many stops here, I’d wager,” he said, lowering the glass and turning to Pascal. “I’ll have to go ashore and speak with the governor regarding victualing. You’ll prepare a list of what’s lacking so that I can present it to him.”

“Very good, My Lord. I don’t know if the purser will have enough funds, however.”

“The victualer will take a note of hand, then. I’ll not have Namur under provisioned; given what we’ve seen, it might be some time before we see England again.”

“If we ever do,” Pascal said.

“That, sir, is a conjecture you will keep to yourself. The men have seen . . .” a great deal, he added to himself. “The men have been through an ordeal, but they will not want to be told that they will never go home.”

“It will have to be discussed sometime, My Lord.”

“Yes.” Boscawen tilted his head slightly; his expression was stony. “But not at this time. Do you understand, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

“Good.” Boscawen walked toward the main deck. “Have my barge prepared, along with an escort. I’ll go ashore at once.”


“Forgive me, my Lord, but that is out of the question.”

Charles Pinfold, governor of the colony of Barbados, was a portly man of middle age–a placeman, Boscawen thought: the sort of bland political appointee who had found a comfortable place as a result of some powerful patron. He didn’t know to whom Pinfold might be answerable–and it might no longer matter.

“You will not provide me what Namur requires?”

“If you need to refill your water-casks, by all means. But provisions–I have a strict and particular allocation, my Lord. Our contractor provides us only what we require, and no more.”

“Only what you pay for.”

“Just so.”

“I will not eat into your profits, Pinfold. I am prepared to pay for the victualing–”

“I am certain you are willing to offer me a promissory, Admiral. But that will not be sufficient for those who arrange the supplying of other ships here in the Caribbean . . . which leads me to ask, if I might be so bold: why are you here at all? I did not think that Namur was assigned to this squadron. I had thought that you were based in home waters, or in the Maritimes . . .”

“There was a change in plans.”

“And are you in command here, my Lord? Have you been assigned command in this theater?”

“Whatever position our king has elected to assign me, Governor, let me assure you in terms that brook no disagreement or contradiction that I outrank you, sir, and that I expect compliance with my requests.”

Pinfold didn’t respond for several moments; he had been sitting at his ease while Boscawen stood at parade rest, his hat tucked under his arm. The governor stood and walked to a side-table; he removed the stopper from a cut-glass decanter and poured a small amount of liquid into a matching glass. He didn’t offer a drink to Boscawen.

“They sound more like demands,” Pinfold said, and swirled the drink in his glass. “And I am not accustomed to responding to demands, Admiral. I might even be inclined to say that I find such things offensive.” Boscawen opened his mouth to respond, but Pinfold held his hand up. “And I find it so even if it comes from the son of the Viscount of Falmouth and a Member of Parliament.

“Our provisioning and supplies are designed to account for the requirements of the squadron based here and elsewhere in the Leeward Islands. It is calculated based on the number of ships, the number of days at sea, and so forth. I am sure that you are familiar with the method and with the precision with which His Majesty’s contractor, Mr. Biggin, must determine our needs–down to the last ha’penny. It leaves no room–”

“I am extremely familiar with the–”

“It leaves no room for the addition of another ship, particularly one with the tonnage of Namur.” Pinfold tossed off the drink. “So . . . requests or demands, as they may be, will have no impact.”

“You are refusing me,” Boscawen said.

“By all means refill your water-casks, Admiral. But otherwise . . . yes, that is what I am saying.”

Pinfold set his glass carefully down. His face darkened. “If you elect to take what you are not given, My Lord, you should expect that there will be a letter directly sent to Rear-Admiral Cotes, and one to Mr. Biggin’s agent in Jamaica, and one to the Victualing Board in London–”

“You may do as you like with regards to Thomas Cotes and–this contractor, Biggin?–but as for the Victualing Board, I wish you luck, sir. I do not think there will be any ships sailing for London.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

Something about the way in which Pinfold asked the question struck Boscawen as odd. The man stood there, his drink within reach and yet left untouched, his attitude just as defiant. But the absurd idea that there would be no ships leaving Barbados for Europe did not seem to be coming as a surprise.

The man knew something. Boscawen was an excellent judge of the intentions and motivations of his fellow man–it was an integral part of command. He was no mind-reader, but he could tell when something was being held back.

“Why don’t you tell me what you are not telling me, Governor.”

The governor of Barbados held his gaze for another few seconds, then looked away.

“There are limits to what I can provide, Admiral . . . but if you will consent to solving a problem for me, I may be able to assist you.”

“Problem? What sort of problem?”

Pinfold sat down behind his wooden desk–in a rather undignified, unmilitary way, to Boscawen’s eye. He picked up a little bell and rang it. After a moment, a young clerk opened the door; some unspoken communication passed between them and the door closed.

Pinfold gestured to a seat; Boscawen considered the idea of continuing to stand, to hold the weather-gauge in the room, but wasn’t sure how long he might be forced to wait. He took the offered seat, placing his hat in his lap.

“I would inquire, but I assume that all of this will be made clear in due course.”

“Just so. May I offer you refreshment?”

“The sun has passed the yard-arm somewhere, Governor. But it certainly has not done so here.”

The governor shrugged and drank from his glass. It seemed to have a small salutary effect, as he sat a little straighter–unless that was in response to Boscawen’s own upright posture.

Within a matter of a few minutes a knock came at the door. “Come,” Pinfold said, and the clerk appeared once more, ushering a middle-aged man and a young woman into the office. The man held–clutched, really–a small wooden box in his hands.

Pinfold and Boscawen both rose at the lady’s appearance, and Boscawen offered her his chair, which she took with a silent acknowledgement of the courtesy.

“Admiral Boscawen, may I have the honor of presenting Monsieur Charles Messier, and his companion Mademoiselle Catherine LaGendière. Monsieur Messier is an astronomer and has . . . recently come here to Barbados.”

“I see,” Boscawen said, though he did not see at all. “Are the gentleman and lady your prisoners?”

“In a strict sense, yes,” Pinfold said. “But I would not characterize them thus. They have been my guests for the past several days.”

“We were shipwrecked here,” Messier said, in slightly accented English. “After we were hurled across the ocean.” He looked down at the box and then at Boscawen.

“I’m not sure, sir,” Boscawen said to Pinfold, “exactly what this has to do with me.”

“We have been waiting for you,” Messier said before Pinfold could answer.

“For me?”

The young woman looked up at Messier, then directly at Boscawen. “I am a great admirer of your lady wife,” she said. “And I have been eager to meet you in person.”

Boscawen answered with a slight bow. “I am honored, dear lady, to make your acquaintance. But I fail to understand why.”

“If I may,” Messier said. Pinfold nodded and moved a stack of parchments from the least-crowded part of his desk. Messier placed the box on the desk and unlatched the top; he lowered the two sides so that they lay flat, revealing a curious instrument of glass and wood. It was rather like an hourglass, braced at each corner by a brass fitting to hold it in place, with a finely marked measuring gauge at the front. The oblong glass formation in the middle held a dull gray liquid–quicksilver, Boscawen supposed–that seemed to undulate up and down.

“It is because of this instrument, Admiral,” Messier said. “It has led us to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“This is an . . . alchemetical compass. It has not been finely calibrated, but I had attuned it to measure certain aspects of the recent comet, which I had the honor to have discovered–independently of Herr Palitzch, I might note, and despite the reluctance of my employer to take note of it.”

“He is jealous of your brilliance, Monsieur,” the young lady said.

“Yes, yes, that is as may be,” Messier said. “Whatever the case, I had taken this instrument out to sea to be free of certain interference inherent to measurement on land. We had just begun our nightly observation when something began to happen.”

Pinfold leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “I will be interested to hear what you make of this, Admiral.”

Boscawen ignored the governor. Instead, he leaned down to examine the apparatus that Messier had placed on the desk. He reached his hand toward the glass vessel–and as he did, something curious happened: the liquid content seemed to move forward, as if it was attracted to the admiral’s fingers.

“What the devil?” Pinfold said, leaning forward and half-standing.

“As I said,” Messier said quietly. “It is attracted to you.”

“I . . . assumed you meant this metaphorically, Messier,” Pinfold said. “What is the meaning of–”

“Governor, if what you wish is for me to take Monsieur Messier aboard Namur, I accept. Monsieur, Mademoiselle, if you will make yourself known to my purser, we can prepare to accommodate you.”