1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 31
“Eddie, you keep mistaking what loving parents of your time consider wise actions, and what loving parents of my time consider wise actions. I am a king’s daughter, and so almost a princess in stature within my own country. But much less so elsewhere, because in marrying me, a foreign throne will not have gained any formal influence — or potential of inheritance — in the lands of my family.
“And so I was not to be married off to a crown prince of one of the other courts of Europe, but wedded to a Danish nobleman. And who among those men had enough wealth and influence to be a de facto dowry for my hand?” Her face hardened. “Old, ambitious men, most of whom spent their whole lives counting their money, counting their estates, counting the ways in which they might move one step higher in the nasty little games of social climbing that are their favorite sport.” Eddie thought she was going to spit over the side in disgust.
But instead she rounded on him, her eyes bright and unwavering. “So you see, my darling Eddie, it is you who saved me, not the other way around.” Her eyes searched his and he could almost feel heat coming out of them, and off of her. Her face and body was rigid with the intensity of passion that he loved to see, to feel, in her. When she got this way, she was just one moment away from grabbing and holding him fiercely, and what usually happened next — oh, what usually happened next! —
Didn’t happen this time. Anne Cathrine seemed to remember her surroundings, looked away, readjusted her kerchief — that damned kerchief! what the hell? — and stared out to sea. She pointed at the Courser, now nearly two miles ahead of the Intrepid and widening the gap rapidly. “That is the smaller of your steamships, yes?”
Huh? She knows perfectly well that it is. But all he said was, “Yes, Anne Cathrine. That’s our destroyer.”
“A fierce name,” she said with a tight, approving nod. “And that one gun in the middle of its deck, sitting in its own little castle, is the most dangerous of them all?”
He smiled. “That little castle is what we call a ‘tub mount’. The round, rib-high wall protects the gun crew from enemy fire, shrapnel, fragments. As does the sloped gun shield. The rifle can bear through two hundred seventy degrees and fire several different kinds of shells to very great ranges.”
“It is the same as these guns on your ship?” She pointed to the two naval rifles on the centerline of the Intrepid’s weather deck.
“Yes, but, umm…this isn’t my ship, sweetheart. It’s — “
“Yes, I know. It’s Gjeddes’. But he has let you run it, with the exception of the sail-handling, since we left the dock.”
Eddie shrugged. There was no arguing with the truth.
Anne Cathrine was pointing over the bow. “And that sail up ahead, that is the Dutch-built yacht?”
“Yes, the Crown of Waves. A good ship. She’s out ahead of us as a picket.”
“I thought you have provided us with balloons to look far ahead, so that pickets were no longer needed?”
He smiled. “Pickets are always needed, Anne Cathrine. Besides, we don’t want to use the balloons if we don’t need them, and if the winds get any stronger, an observer could get pretty roughed up, to say nothing of damage to the balloon itself.”
“I see. And the other ship like your Intrepid — the Resolve — that’s her, falling to the rear?”
She was silent for a long time. “Your ships are so big compared to ours. Even compared to the Patentia, the Resolve is easily half again as long and half again as high, except at the very rear. And still –“
“Eddie, should your warships have so few guns? I know up-time designed weapons are terribly powerful, but if they should fail to operate, or the enemy gets lucky shots into the gun-deck –” She stopped, seeing his small smile.
“Trust me, Anne Cathrine, we have enough guns. More than enough. It’s more important that our magazine is big enough to carry plenty of excellent ammunition to keep our excellent guns well supplied. Which is the case.”
She nodded, turned her eyes to the ship lumbering along beside the Patentia. “Not a very handsome ship, the Serendipity.”
Eddie let a little laugh slip out. “No, she’s not much to look at.” The Serendipity was a pot-bellied bulk hauler, with the lines of a bloated pink or fluyt. “But she’s steady in a storm, and seven hundred fifty tons burthen. And we need that cargo capacity. So ugly or not, we’re lucky to have her.”
“Not as lucky as to have the Tropic Surveyor,” countered Anne Cathrine with an appreciative smile and a chin raised in the direction of the last ship of the flotilla.
And Eddie had to admit that Tropic Surveyor was a handsome ship, her square-rigged fore- and mainmasts running with their sheets full. The large, three-masted bark had a fore-and-aft rigged mizzen and twelve almost uniform guns in each broadside battery. Her lines were unusually clean, reflecting the first influence of frigate-built designs upon traditional barks. Her master, a Swede by the name of Stiernsköld, was known to be a highly capable captain who, if he had any failing, tended toward quiet but determined boldness.
Anne Cathrine’s attention had drifted back to the Patentia, however. “What are all those men doing on deck, and who are they?”
Eddie glanced over, saw a growing number of men at the portside gunwales of the Patentia, many pointing at the island peaks to the south, some nodding, some shaking their heads. Eddie smiled. “Those are the Irish soldiers who came up from the Infanta Isabella of the Lowlands.”
Anne Cathrine frowned. “I still do not understand how mercenaries who have been in Spanish service for generations –“
Eddie shook his head. “I don’t understand it either. Not entirely.” And what little I do understand I can’t share, honey. Sorry.
“Do you at least know why they are on deck there — and look, more of them are gathering at the rail of the Serendipity! What are they looking at?”
The voice that answered was gravel-filtered and deep. “They think they are seeing their homeland.”
Eddie and Anne Cathrine turned. Ove Gjedde was behind them, his eyes invisible in the squinting-folds of his weathered face. Neither had heard him approach.
“Their homeland?” Anne Cathrine repeated.
“Yes, my Lady. Because the last week’s wind has been fair, there has been some loose talk that we might sight the north Irish coast late today.” He sucked at yellowed teeth. “That will not happen until tomorrow, sometime. But I am told that the Irish got word of these rumors. And as you may know, most of them have never seen Ireland, but were born in the Lowlands. Their eagerness is understandable.” Gjedde made to move off once again.
Eddie offered a smart salute. “Thank you, Captain.”
Gjedde returned a slight nod that was the down-time equivalent of a salute between officers of comparable rank, made a slightly deeper nod in Anne Cathrine’s direction, and began slowly pacing forward along the starboard railing, hands behind his back.
Anne Cathrine stared after him. “He did not return the new naval salute, as per your Admiral’s regulations.”
“But he does follow the rest of the regs. To the letter.”
Anne Cathrine watched the spare man move away. “Captain Gjedde seems to grow more somber every time I meet him.”
Eddie shifted his eyes sideways to his wife. “While we’re on the topic of ‘more somber’…”
Anne Cathrine glanced at him quickly, fiddled with her kerchief, tucking a stray strand of gold-red hair back under it. “I do not know what you mean.”
“Sure you don’t.” If they had been alone, he would have put an arm around her waist, pulled her closer. “C’mon, Anne Cathrine, what gives? You’re acting . . . oddly.”
“I am not.” At that particular moment she did not sound like her usual sixteen going on thirty-six. She just sounded like she was six.
Eddie smiled. “Uh, yes, you are. And what’s with the head covering?”
Her hands flew up to her kerchief and she stepped away from him quickly. “Why? Has it come undone?” Satisfied that it was still firmly in place, she raised her chin, looked away. “There is nothing wrong. Nothing.”
Huh. So there was a connection between his wife’s hinky behavior and the kerchief. “Anne Cathrine, honey, don’t worry. Tell me what’s going on. Let me help.”
She looked at him, her eyes suddenly glassy and bright, then glanced away quickly.
What? Has she lost most of her hair? Fallen victim to some strange depilatory disease particular to the high seas of the northern latitudes? “Anne Cathrine, whatever it is, it’s going to be all right. Just tell me and — “
“Oh, Eddie — ” She turned back to him and, oblivious to on-lookers, cast herself into his arms. “I’m sorry — so sorry.”
“Sorry? About what?” He tried to ignore the fact that even through his deck coat and her garments, he could still feel his wife’s very voluptuous and strong body along the length of his own. And in accordance with the orders given by the supreme authority of his ancient mammalian hindbrain, certain parts of him were taking notice and coming to general quarters. Well, more like standing at attention…
“Oh, Eddie, my hair! I should have seen to my packing, my preparations, myself. But in the rush to get everything aboard, and with all the last minute changes — “
“What? Have you lost your hair? That’s okay; we can — “
She pulled away from him. “Lost my hair?” She pulled herself erect. She might not have the title of a full princess, but she could sure put on a convincing show of being one. “Certainly not. But I — I neglected to oversee my servant’s preparations. And now I, I . . . ” She looked down at the deck, then reached up, and tugged her kerchief sharply.
Eddie was prepared for anything: baldness, scrofulous patches, running sores, dandruff the size of postage stamps, medusan snakes — anything. Except for what was revealed.
Anne Cathrine’s red hair came uncoiling from the bulky kerchief in a long, silk-shining wave that came down to the middle of her back. Eddie couldn’t help himself: he gasped.
Seeing his expression, Anne Cathrine pouted. Her lower lip even quivered slightly. “I knew it.”
“Knew what?” Eddie heard himself say. He was still busy staring at his wife’s hair and trying to tell his lower jaw to raise and lock in place.
“Knew that you would be aghast to see my hair like this, without the curls. Oh, I tried, Eddie, I did. My servant forgot to pack the heating combs, and neither I nor Leonora — nor Sophie — know how to do our hair any other way. Commoners can make curls with wet rags, I’m told, so we tried that, but none of us did our own hair often.” Or at all, Eddie added silently, now quite familiar with coiffuring dependencies of noble ladies. “I have been trying since we left to keep some curl in it, or at least a wave, but this morning, we all agreed there was nothing left to try.”
“It’s beautiful,” Eddie croaked.
Her smile looked broken. “You are a wonderful husband, to say that. But you can barely speak the words. I know the expectations of fashion, Eddie. And here you see the truth at last: I have straight, plain hair. No tumbling curls, not even a tiny ripple of a wave. Plain, straight hair.”
He reached out and touched it. “Hair like fire and gold spun into silk,” he breathed. “And in my time, that kind of hair was very much in fashion. Hell, I didn’t think hair like this was ever out of fashion.”
She blinked. “So — you like it? You like my hair this way?”
Eddie gulped. “Oh, yes. I like it. Very much. Very, very much.” He roused himself out of his pre-carnal stupor. “But know this, Anne Cathrine, the hair is not important to me. What’s under it is.” He touched her cheek. “As important as the wide world.”
Anne Cathrine’s smile — shockingly white teeth — was sudden and wide. She caught his hand on her cheek and held it there. “Truly,” she said, “I am the luckiest woman in the world.”
“And a princess, to boot,” Eddie added with a grin.
“A king’s daughter,” she corrected, and moved toward him again —
“Sail, sail on the port bow! Rounding the rocks, sirs. She’s running before the wind!”