Council Of Fire – Snippet 12
This might be a matter of our own survival
If there was any doubt regarding the changed circumstances of the expedition, it was resolved two days later when HMS Magnanime, a 74-gun warship, reached Halifax harbor. Even to an untrained eye, it looked as if it had been through hell: its sails were patched and it had a badly-damaged foremast; Wolfe and Saunders could see that the mainmast had been restepped as well.
Magnanime was in good enough order to pipe the admiral and general aboard in proper form, but the commander waiting for them at the top of the gangplank wore a first lieutenant’s uniform.
“Lieutenant George Baker, My Lord,” he said, offering a perfect salute.
“I was expecting Captain Howe.”
“It would have been his great honor to receive you, sir,” the young lieutenant said. “But it is a stroke of fortune that any of us have come safely to harbor.”
“I’m sure that your skill contributed to that effort, Lieutenant.”
“It is kind of you to say so, my Lord,” he answered. “If you and General Wolfe would care to review the honor guard?”
Once the formalities were accomplished, Baker accompanied Saunders and Wolfe ashore. They had established a temporary headquarters in the offices of Robert Grant, the Royal Navy’s contractor at Halifax; it was certainly comfortable enough but had an air of the civilian about it. Saunders sent word to Captain Hughes and Prince Edward to join them, and shortly they were gathered around a set of charts and bound books from Neptune.
“When we left England, we had three squadrons and almost forty sail,” Saunders said. “Now we have Neptune, Somerset and what is left of Magnanime. Durell has ships in this theater, though God knows whether something has happened to them. Very well, Captain Baker–give us your story.”
Baker did not respond for a moment to the title–he had been given a promotion on the spot, it seemed–but regained his composure. “We were about three weeks out from Spithead, My Lord, when we encountered calm seas and a thick fog the likes of which I have never seen. Captain Howe had been signaling the flagship, but the visibility became too poor, so he ordered us to sail close-hauled, hoping we would come out of the fog.”
“And did you?” Saunders asked.
Baker looked pale and did not respond for a moment. His face held an expression that suggested he was experiencing a painful memory.
“Something happened to Captain Howe,” Hughes said quietly, glancing at Saunders, who nodded.
“Out with it, man! We’ve all been through something singular, the likes of which we can’t quite understand.”
“We came out of the fog and were aimed bow on to a . . .”
Saunders began to speak, but Prince Edward raised his hand slightly, and for a second time in a matter of less than a minute Sir Charles Saunders yielded to a subordinate–though in the second instance, the subordinate was of royal blood.
“Take your time, Captain,” Mr. Prince said. “This is the fate of Captain Howe you are about to describe.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Commander or ‘sir’ will do, Captain. Please tell us what happened to Captain Howe.”
“It was a creature–something of legend. A sea-monster, a–a kraken, if the admiral pleases. A huge thing, as big as Magnanime, maybe even bigger. One moment we were in the fog, and the next . . . it was pulling men off the deck into the sea. There wasn’t time to prepare a broadside, though I managed to heave the ship to and get off a few shots with the stern chasers. We lost our foremast and the rigging was fouled on the other two–I don’t know how we managed it, but we drifted back into the fog and the thing lost sight of us.”
“One of the men pulled off the deck was Captain Howe,” Saunders said, his voice flat and emotionless. Howe was one of the most experienced and talented ship-captains in His Majesty’s Navy; Saunders had argued strenuously with Lord Anson to have him included.
“Aye, sir. One of the very first. Three other officers senior to me were also lost. I didn’t even realize I was senior man aboard for the better part of an hour. We drifted for two or three bells, staying in the fog bank in case the thing was still out there. I kept the men busy working on the rigging and sails, but they were terrified. I don’t mind admitting, my Lord, that I was as well.”
“And you finally cleared the fog, I take it. Did you see any of the other ships in your squadron?”
“No, sir. Not a one.”
“I was originally to have sailed with Magnanime,” the prince said. “Richard Howe was a good man, one of the best.” He smiled faintly. “It was decided that the . . . delicacy of the situation required that I be in the officers’ complement of an admiral.”
“General Wolfe,” Baker said. “I have the honor to have had Major Dunbar’s 40th aboard Magnanime, and the men acquitted themselves with great skill in assisting what remained of my crew. I promised myself that if we reached shore, I would commend them particularly to your attention.”
“I will include that in my dispatches,” Wolfe said. “Though it isn’t clear when they might ever be delivered.” He glanced at Hughes, who had sat silently through the entire interview.
“What are your orders, Admiral?” Baker asked.
“For the moment, Captain, see to your men and your vessel. Whatever you need to requisition from the contractor, you may do on my account.”
“Yes, sir.” He stood and saluted. “Thank you, sir. I will have a written report–”
“In due course. Attend to your duties, sir.”
He saluted again and took his leave.
“That is a very brave officer,” Wolfe said to Saunders.
“It seems to me that all of our officers will need to be brave. We have damn few of them.” He shifted in his seat; he had been sitting in proper military posture, and he saw no need to continue the practice. “If all we have is three ships and a few hundred troops, General, there is no possibility of an expedition against Québec. So let me ask you: what do you intend?”
“I’m not sure. I have been seriously considering the matter for the last few days. There is one thing that reassures me: if we are cut off from support from home, the French likely are as well. Our plans will have to be . . . less extensive, I daresay; but there is no reason that we should not undertake something.”
“You still want to attack New France.”
“You seem surprised, Admiral. Isn’t that why we’re in North America? They are still the enemy, are they not?”
“They are–unless mountains rising from the sea and great and terrible krakens are our enemy.”
“I’m not quite sure I take your meaning, My Lord.”
“I think I have some insight,” Prince Edward said. “If I may.”
“Please,” Wolfe said.
“Consider the ancient war of the Persians against the city-states of Greece, General Wolfe. When Xerxes, King of Kings, gathered together his army of a million men and built his bridge of boats across the Bosporus to invade the Greek lands, he would certainly have fared much better if those states continued to war with each other. Instead, though they had many differences, they put their feuds aside to face the common enemy.
“If we are now in a time when krakens erupt from the sea and mountains rise to cut us off from our home, perhaps we should reconsider whether it is the best time to prosecute a war. This might be a matter of our own survival. The French might well come to the same conclusion.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I would not presume to offer strategic advice, General. But if we are indeed facing . . . otherworldly forces, it might be time to take stock of the situation before planning any military campaigns. And in due course, it might be prudent to send an emissary to our French rivals to determine, under these circumstances, if they are indeed still our enemies.