The English Channel was brisker than usual, even for September. Despite the bright sunlight, the temperature hovered around no more than fifty degrees, and the wind blowing out of the northeast had teeth to it. It put a lively chop on the Channel's blue water and whined in the rigging, and Maarten Harpentzoon van Tromp, lieutenant-admiral of Holland, drew its freshness deep into his lungs as he stood on the quarterdeck of his flagship and gazed astern at the other ships of his fleet.
"They make a goodly sight," the man standing beside him said, and Tromp glanced at him. At thirty-four, Vice-Admiral Cornelisz Witte de With was two years younger than Tromp, which made both of them very young indeed for the posts they held. But there seemed to be a lot of that going around lately, Tromp told himself with a small, crooked smile.
"That they do," he agreed, turning his eyes back to the weather-stained canvas of the ships forging along in Amelia's wake. Their formation keeping was indifferent, to say the very least. But that was typical of a Dutch fleet, and even from here he could almost taste the confidence, born of forty years of victory at sea, which filled their crews. "I'd like it better if more of them were regular Navy ships," he added after a moment, and de With chuckled.
"Wouldn't any of us?" he responded. "But the States General is doing well to keep forty ships in commission. There's not much left, even with the French subsidy, after they pay for the Army and the border fortresses' upkeep. And it isn't as if we're not used to it!"
"No. No, it isn't." Tromp shook his head and thought about the purloined pages he'd been shown by Constantjin Huygens, Prince Frederik Hendrik's secretary. They'd been frustratingly vague, not to mention fragmentary and incomplete, but they'd also been fascinating, especially with their hints of how countries of the future would maintain their fleets. Still, he wasn't sure he approved of the notion of a nation which maintained hundreds of state-owned naval vessels. The expense must be staggering, if nothing else. Besides, the long-standing practice of hiring and impressing armed merchant ships in time of war favored a nation like the United Provinces. The Dutch bred the finest seamen in the world, which turned the Republic's enormous merchant marine into one vast naval reserve. His present command boasted only twenty-seven regular warships, but they were supported by eleven more vessels of the East India Company's fleet and another thirty-six well-armed, well-found merchantmen.
Most of them were smaller than his own Amelia's fifty-six guns, and all of them were built for the shallow waters of the North Sea and the Baltic. Other countries—like Spain—might build larger, more heavily armed ships. There were rumors that Charles Stuart had recently decided to lay down a ship which would mount over a hundred guns, although the current restiveness in England might disorder his plans. But no one built handier ones than the Dutch. Or put finer crews aboard them. And the Dutch Navy had the first officer corps of professional seamen in European history, as well.
Seventy-four ships. Cornelisz was right; they did make a goodly sight, and he allowed himself a moment of unalloyed pleasure as he surveyed it. But the moment was brief, and he turned back to de With with a frown.
"Tell me honestly, Cornelisz," he said, his voice half-buried in the sound of wind and wave. "What do you think?"
"You know perfectly well what," he growled, and waved a hand at the ships trailing along behind Amelia, including de With's own flagship, the Brederode. "This—all of this. You and I, Richelieu and Oquendo. And these 'Americans'!"
"I think we live in wondrous times," de With replied after a moment. "Beyond that, I don't begin to understand . . . and God hasn't gotten around to explaining it to me yet."
Tromp barked a laugh and reached out to slap de With on the biceps.
"Perhaps He's decided explaining doesn't do much good, given the way the lot of us have been squabbling over the things He specifically told us about in Holy Scripture," he suggested. "Maybe He thinks he can distract us from killing one another in His name if He gives us something so obscure we spend all our time puzzling about it instead of fighting about doctrine!"
De With considered the proposition, then shook his head.
"You could be right. And if that's what He's thinking, I suppose we have no choice but to accept it. For myself, I could wish He'd chosen to be just a bit less mysterious. Or confusing, at any rate."
"I can't argue with you there," Tromp murmured, and scratched the tip of his own equally proud but sharper nose while he frowned pensively. "Still, I suppose He expects us to do the best we can. So tell me what you think about the 'Americans.' "
"I think they're dangerous," de With said quietly, and there was no more humor in his voice. "I think they're probably the most dangerous thing to be introduced into the world since Jan Huss first twisted the pope's nose. The only thing I haven't been able to decide is who they're most dangerous to."
"You don't think the fact that they're a republic makes them our natural allies?" Tromp asked, and de With snorted.
"I don't believe in 'natural allies,' " he said. "If there were any such thing, Catholic France wouldn't have to bribe Protestant England into siding with us against Catholic Spain!"
"And Protestant Holland wouldn't be worried over the threat posed by its 'natural ally' Protestant Sweden, either," Tromp agreed. "Even so, wouldn't you say two republics have a certain . . . commonality of interest with one another? Especially when they're both surrounded by monarchies?"
"Not when the other one seems to be a true republic," de With said bluntly. Tromp looked around quickly, but no one else was in earshot, and de With smiled thinly at him. "From all I've been able to discover—which isn't much, granted—these 'Americans' seem to have very little use for jonkers. Or for princes. And this 'Congress' of theirs seems to be far more accountable to their citizens. Not to mention their bizarre notion of a 'universal franchise' and enough religious toleration to make a Remonstrant dizzy!" He shook his head. "I have a feeling our own government would find notions like that far more threatening than any monarchy."
"That sort of blunt spokenness can be risky," Tromp cautioned.
"Of course it can. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong, does it?" de With chuckled harshly. "Or was there another reason you were about to resign before they offered you this command?"
Tromp grimaced, but he didn't disagree. He couldn't. He and De With had known one another too long, and de With knew all about his own long-standing feud with Filips van Dorp.
Dorp was an imbecile. He was also more venal than most, and inept to the point of total ineffectualness. He'd demonstrated that convincingly enough to be dismissed from his post as lieutenant-admiral of Zeeland, but he was also the son of jonker Frederik van Dorp, one of the Sea-Beggar captains who'd won his own barony serving William the Silent. Which meant that even though Zeeland had gotten rid of Filips, the States of Holland had seen fit to make him Holland's lieutenant-admiral. It was a decision which had inevitably brought him and Tromp into bitter conflict. The Navy was too important to allow an idiot to ruin it through mismanagement, and the man's total inability to deal with the Dunkirker privateers only underscored his basic incompetence. Unfortunately, the States—and Prince Frederik Hendrik—had believed a nobleman would somehow exercise more natural authority than a man of humbler origins . . . like Maarten Tromp.
To be honest, things had always been that way. Personal alliances and patronage were the way of the world everywhere, Tromp supposed. Even in the Dutch republic, those noble families known collectively as the ridderschap dominated the top military and naval posts. And the situation had become even worse in the fifteen years since Prince Mauritz organized the downfall of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt to break the primacy of the States of Holland and reassert the House of Orange's control of the Republic.
"I still hadn't actually made up my mind to resign," he said after a moment, and de With snorted in splendid derision. "All right—all right!" Tromp admitted. "I was going to. There. Are you satisfied?"
"That you didn't? Of course I am. But, you know, it's all the Americans' fault that you changed your mind. Or, rather, that the stadtholder changed his mind about Dorp."
"It wasn't just the Americans," Tromp said a bit somberly. "Richelieu had a little something to do with it, too."
"I know. And that does tend to make one wonder where the advantage lies for him in getting rid of Dorp, doesn't it?"
Tromp made a wordless sound of agreement and folded his hands behind himself. He rocked up and down on the balls of his feet, eyes distant as he gazed once again—this time unseeingly—at the sails of his fleet. The fact that Richelieu had intervened so directly was, as Cornelisz had just intimated, enough to make anyone nervous. The only thing more certain about Richelieu than his brilliance was his deviousness. He always had at least three different motives for anything he did, and Tromp was far from happy knowing that it was he who had delivered the pages, stolen from one of the Americans' history books, that had prompted Frederik Hendrik to summarily demand Dorp's dismissal and Tromp's own appointment in his place.
The mere fact that those pages had described a "history" which hadn't happened yet—and which never would, now—was enough to make any good Calvinist uneasy. In his own thinking, Tromp was much closer to Arminianism's toleration of individual conscience than he ever allowed most people to realize. He found Simon Episcopius' argument that different perspectives on Scripture could only enhance the fullness and richness of Man's understanding of the Almighty convincing. Just as, privately, he thought the unyielding insistence on the doctrine of predestination of the strict Calvinists seemed to devalue and deny human freedom of will. But despite any secret religious liberalness he might entertain, this tinkering with the life he'd been "destined" to live before the Americans arrived to turn the entire world topsy-turvy still smacked of the supernatural . . . or something worse.
Yet what worried him more at the moment than theological questions was the fact that the American embassy to Amsterdam and the one from Richelieu carried such different warnings. Left to his own devices, his natural instinct would have been to pay close heed to anyone who disagreed with Richelieu. Unfortunately, he knew enough of this so-called "United States' " situation to recognize its desperation. Powerful as the protection of a king like Gustavus Adolphus might be, the new republic was surrounded by implacable, unyielding enemies. The threats it faced were at least as great as those the United Provinces had faced in their long war with Spain, but without the natural frontiers which had been Holland's salvation. For all of the reputed wonders of their craftsmen, all the deadliness of their weapons and their other marvelous devices, the odds against the Americans' survival were high, even with Gustavus' protection.
Under those circumstances, anything they said must be considered as carefully as if it had come from Richelieu himself. Tromp had never personally met any of the Americans, but he'd spoken to those who had, and even the most jaded of them had spoken glowingly of the beauty and brilliance of the Jewess who represented them. Even the most intolerant of Counter-Remonstrants had been impressed by her, although, of course, as a Jew, anything she said was automatically suspect in their eyes.
Tromp himself was unconcerned by her origins or religious beliefs, but his awareness of how the multitude of threats her new country faced must shape her message was something else. And yet . . .
He shook his head impatiently. If only they had more information! The pages Richelieu had sent with his ambassador offered a frustratingly incomplete glimpse of the future which would have been. The paper on which they were printed, and the printing itself, not to mention the breathtakingly lifelike illustrations, had been proof enough of their authenticity. No printer of this time and place could possibly have produced them, or the strange English in which they were written. No doubt that was the exact reason Richelieu had sent them rather than a transcript. But there were less than a dozen sheets of paper, which seemed all too frail a basis upon which to decide the course of a nation's foreign policy, even if they had come from three and a half centuries in the future.
"It wasn't just the Americans' 'history,' you know," he muttered to de With. "Oh—" he looked up at the taller man "—that was what caused the stadtholder and the States General to sack Dorp and give me the command. And I'm none too happy, just between us, to know I've been given my job on the basis of how well I would have performed in battles that will never be fought now! But the decision to accept Richelieu's new anti-Habsburg alliance wasn't made solely on that basis."
"Of course it wasn't," de With acknowledged. "But I can't quite free myself of the suspicion that the pages he chose to send us served his purposes damnably well."
"Oh, come now, Cornelisz!" Tromp chuckled. "It would be expecting a bit much of any man—much less Richelieu—for him to have sent us anything that wouldn't have served his purposes!"
"I know. I know. I'm just . . . uneasy. Especially with the Americans, who obviously had the entire book he sent us pages from, telling us not to trust him."
"We hardly needed them to warn us about that," Tromp said dryly. "And according to Frederik Hendrik, nothing in the books they showed his representatives disagreed with the pages Richelieu had sent."
"The prince saw their complete history books?" De With's bold eyebrows rose in surprise.
"Not their 'complete' history. From all accounts, they could fill a couple of galleons with their books, without half trying. But they did allow us to examine a short history of the Republic." De With was staring at him, and Tromp shrugged irritably. "I don't know what it said. No one told me. And, frankly, I'd sooner not know. But the key point is that nothing in it contradicted the information from Richelieu."
"Did they realize we had anything to check it against, I wonder?" de With murmured thoughtfully, and Tromp shrugged again.
"I can assure you that we didn't tell them," he said even more dryly. "On the other hand, I'd be very surprised if they were such fools as not to suspect the possibility, at least."
"So both sides are busy giving us glimpses of the future—or, at least, a future—to convince us that they're right." De With laughed with very little humor. "Life was so much simpler when no one was trying to be quite so helpful to us!"
"I know what you mean." Tromp bounced on his toes a few more times, then shook his head. "Only a fool would believe that Richelieu would help anyone simply out of the kindness of his heart. In some ways, I actually prefer someone who thinks like that. At least we know he'll do whatever he decides is in his own best interests. And he was clever enough to make that very point to us, you know."
"Oh, he most certainly was!" Tromp chuckled. "And he pointed out that the Americans will do the same—that they have no choice but to do the same, any more than our own Republic, if they intend to survive."
"Are you in favor of their surviving?" de With asked quietly.
"I don't know," Tromp admitted, and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "There's much about them which I find admirable, even on the basis of the limited information I've been given. But Richelieu is right. Terrible as the war in Germany has already been, or as our own wars with Spain have been, the conflict this new United States will provoke will dwarf all of them. Unless it's crushed immediately, of course, and somehow I don't think that will be as easy as its enemies believe."
"Do they really believe that? Or is it simply that they need to believe it?" De With's expression was troubled. "If the reports about what the Americans managed to do at the Wartburg and the Alte Veste are accurate, then coupled with Gustavus' Swedes . . ."
His voice trailed off, and Tromp frowned.
"From all reports, the Habsburgs—both branches of them—are terrified of exactly that combination. But I think Richelieu's estimate is probably more accurate."
"Oh, he hasn't shared it with us in so many words," Tromp admitted. "But if he weren't convinced that the Americans can be dealt with, then I feel certain he'd be looking for some way to enmesh them in his coils, not urging us to reflect upon the danger they represent to us. He sees them as a threat, yes. As a very serious threat, in fact. But if he thought they were impossible to defeat, he would be seeking some sort of accommodation with them rather than looking to conclude alliances against them."
"So he is shoring up his defenses against them? And, of course, urging us to follow his example?"
"He is. And I wish I knew whether or not we should take his advice. One thing I'm certain of, though; the Swedes and the Americans won't go easily. What's already happened in Germany is nothing compared to what it will cost the emperor yet to crush this threat. And a war on that scale has a nasty habit of spilling over onto other people's territory. That's where the real danger to us lies, I think. We're not that far from Thuringia and Franconia, Cornelisz, and in the end, it's not just the Habsburgs who will be lining up to crush the Americans. Denmark, Spain, the Empire, even France. I won't be surprised to see the Poles and Russians getting involved! None of their 'neighbors' can stand the threat of all of their knowledge and marvels in the service of a new Swedish empire. And if they're truly as serious as they seem to be about building their style of republic, then they're a greater danger to Europe as a whole than even a Sweden which entirely dominates the Baltic and Northern Germany.
"So, much as I may distrust Richelieu, I understand his logic. Best to go ahead and deal with the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs while we can. Remove at least one threat and protect our backs before we find ourselves forced to deal with the multitude of new threats these Americans and their 'Ring of Fire' are going to bring to us all. Besides—" he shrugged with a chuckle, "—according to the history books, you and I 'already' smashed Oquendo's fleet at The Downs in 1639. As a matter of fact, Richelieu seems quite put out with Philip IV for moving early this way. I don't know if Olivares' spies have been as good as Richelieu's, but it seems apparent that something's gotten Philip moving faster than he did in the future the Americans came from. From what Huygens told me, it sounds as if Richelieu tried approaching the Spaniards with the notion of an anti-American alliance only to discover that Philip prefers to seek a military victory and impose terms on both us and the French in order to free his own hands to deal with the Americans directly.
"So all we're really doing is moving The Downs up by five or six years. And at least this time, as you say, Richelieu has managed to bribe the English into being on our side instead of standing to one side and cheering for the papists!"
"Which papists?" de With asked. "Our noble French papist allies? Or our mortal enemies, the servants of Satan Spanish papists?"
"I think we'd best settle for dealing with one set of enemies at a time," Tromp told him. "And—"
De With never learned what Tromp had been about to say, for a lookout's shout interrupted the lieutenant-admiral. Both men looked up, listening to the report, and then, as one, stepped to the rail and peered to the west. Landsmen's eyes might have mistaken the slivers of white on the horizon for more of the Channel's whitecaps, but Tromp and de With had spent too many years at sea to make that mistake.
"And so it begins," de With said, so softly Tromp felt certain he was speaking to himself.
"So it does," he responded anyway. "And whatever else, I'm glad to see them."
"True enough," de With agreed.
The combined French and English squadrons numbered little more than half as many ships as the Dutch fleet by itself, but if their spies' reports were as accurate as usual, Oquendo was headed to meet them with over a hundred Spanish and Portuguese vessels. It was a smaller fleet than the one Medina Sidonia had led against England half a century before, but not by very much . . . and Oquendo was no Medina Sidonia. He'd demonstrated that in 1621, at the end of the Twelve Years Truce with Holland, when he broke the Dutch blockade of the Channel ports. Even with the assistance of his allies, Tromp's combined force would have only the thinnest margin of superiority, and many of the Spanish vessels were larger and better armed than anything in his own fleet.
"I only hope they can carry their own weight when it comes down to the melee," de With murmured, still gazing at their allies' topsails.
"Well, I suppose we'll find out soon enough," Tromp replied. "One way or the other."