"And so, while the final reports have yet to come in, I have no doubt what they will tell us." Armand Demerville, comte de Martignac, smiled thinly at Don Antonio Oquendo. "So far, over sixty of the enemy have been definitely accounted for."
"I see." Oquendo sat on Santiago's poop deck in the only one of his chairs to have survived the action intact. Well, not entirely intact, he reminded himself, his face taut with pain. Its cushioned leather back was split in three places, and one arm had been entirely removed. Which made it an appropriate seat for him at the moment, since the surgeons seemed so eager to amputate his own left leg at the knee.
Of course, that decision would be his.
It was hard to believe, even now, that they had truly gotten away with it, he thought. The trap had required that the Hollanders suspect nothing until the moment it actually sprang, and that had been impossible on the face of it. Even assuming that none of the French or English officers had been in the pay of the Dutch—or Swedes—there were the crews to consider. However bloodthirsty the threats intended to keep them from letting the secret slip, they would have failed. No navy could keep its men from drunkenness once they went ashore, and all it would have required was a single drink-addled seaman—or a sober one, boasting to a whore—to alert the Dutch beforehand.
But Richelieu had had an answer for that, as well. "Sealed orders," he'd called them—another notion borrowed from the future. No one in the Franco-English force, except for the fleet commanders themselves and one or two of their most senior, most trusted captains, had known a thing about the true plan. All the others had discovered what was going to happen only when Oquendo's ships actually came into sight and they opened their sealed orders as they had been instructed to do when that moment came.
And so it had worked, he told himself grimly . . . however much it had cost.
"And your own losses?" he asked Martignac after a moment.
"None," the Frenchman assured him, then made a small throwing-away gesture with one hand. "Oh, we've lost a few dozen men, but nothing of significance."
"Would that we could say the same," Oquendo said flatly, and even Martignac had the grace to look briefly abashed.
All of Oquendo's ships had survived the battle, but five of them were so savagely damaged that he had already ordered them abandoned and burned, and he would be extremely surprised to discover that even a dozen of the others remained fit for further action. When the Dutch had realized what was happening, many had been too damaged—or too enraged—to even attempt to disengage. Instead, they'd set their teeth in their foes' throats like wounded wolves and continued to hammer their enemies until they were literally overwhelmed. Their casualties had been horrendous . . . and Oquendo's were little better.
The Hollanders and we have paid a bitter price for your master's plans, my friend, he told Martignac silently from behind his expressionless mask. The Frenchman's ship had taken no more than a half dozen hits as he and his English allies crushed the Dutch from behind, and his clean clothing and perfect grooming stood out against the wreckage and bodies littering Santiago's battered decks like some alien creature from an undamaged world. I hope it was worth it.
Maarten van Tromp slumped in the chair at the head of the table. Darkness pressed close and hard on the shattered glass of the cabin windows, but the lamplight was more than sufficient to show the smoke stains on the overhead deck beams . . . and the wide, dried bloodstain under his chair.
Five other men sat with him, their faces gray and stunned, overwhelmed by the disaster which had engulfed them. They were the captains of every ship he knew—so far, at least—to have escaped Richelieu's trap. Mastenbroek wasn't one of them; Amelia's captain had been turned into so much mangled meat by an eighteen-pound shot as Tromp's flagship clawed her way free of the crippled Spaniards, and Tromp had taken command in Mastenbroek's place with something very like gratitude. Desperate as Amelia's predicament had been, grappling with cutting her way out of it had been almost a relief from thinking about the catastrophe which had devastated his fleet.
Now he could no longer avoid those thoughts, and his jaw clenched as his memory replayed Brederode's apocalyptic end.
He lifted his head to survey the other five men at the table. Five ships—six, counting Amelia—out of seventy-four. It was possible, even probable, that there were at least a few other escapees, but there couldn't have been many of them. He supposed it would be called the Battle of Dunkirk, if it mattered. By any name, it was the most crushing defeat Holland had ever suffered at sea—and with the destruction of the fleet, the United Provinces' coasts lay naked before the threat of Spain. The ring of fortresses guarding the southern border could be outflanked any time the Spanish wished. And . . .
With the treachery of England and France—especially France—there would be nothing to stand in Philip IV's path. For decades, whenever the Spanish army had pressed the Dutch too hard, the intervention of the French forces perched on the borders of the Spanish Netherlands had relieved the pressure. Even when the French had not intervened, the simple threat of intervention had been enough to tie down a large portion of the Spaniards' forces.
"Why?" he heard one of his officers croak softly. "Why did they do it? Insane."
Tromp did not answer aloud, because he was still chewing on the problem in his own mind.
The motives of the English seemed clear enough, in retrospect. King Charles' desperate need for money to keep control over England with mercenary troops was probably enough in itself to explain it. Money which, Tromp was quite certain, had been quietly emptied out of French and Spanish coffers. But there was more, now that he thought about it. In fact, in many ways the English king's treachery would probably increase his popularity with his own subjects.
Certainly with English seamen and merchants! The Dutch had often been their greatest commercial rivals. And Tromp was well aware that Englishmen, especially seamen and merchants, were still bitterly angry over the Amboina Massacre of 1623, when the Dutch East India Company had tortured and murdered thirteen English merchants in the Spice Islands.
It was the French role in the betrayal which was so puzzling. Religious affinity be damned. For decades, Catholic France had opposed the ambitions of Catholic Spain and Austria—supporting Protestants against them, more often than not—because the Bourbon dynasty which had ruled France since 1589 was far more concerned about the threat posed by the Habsburg dynasty than they were over problems of Christian doctrine. As had been the Valois dynasty before them.
Now . . .
"What was Richelieu's thinking?" muttered the same officer. "It's crazy!"
On the surface, the man was quite correct. If the Spanish could reconquer the United Provinces . . .
Then France—already faced with a Habsburg threat from Spain itself, not to mention the threat which the Spanish possessions in Italy posed to French interests there—would be faced as well with a Spanish Netherlands on their northeastern frontier which had grown far mightier. The population and resources of the entire Low Countries, reunited under the Spanish crown, would truly be something for the French to fear.
Tromp reviewed in his mind the secondhand reports he'd gotten of the warnings the American delegation in The Hague had tried to pass on to Dutch officialdom. With hindsight, he now realized that the reports he'd been given had undoubtedly been distorted by the prejudices and preconceptions of the officials who had received them directly. And he felt a moment's anguish that Frederik Hendrik had chosen not to listen to those warnings in person. The prince himself, for all his canniness, would have been misled by those same self-satisfied official distortions.
Damn all fat burghers, anyway! And damn—twice over!—all religious fanatics. Where is your "Predestination" now, O ye sectarians?
Despite the distortions and the fragmentary nature of what he had been told, Tromp was now almost sure he could see the French cardinal's strategy. Enough of it, at least.
"We were not Richelieu's true target," he said grimly to the officers assembled around the table. "We were just in the way—a sacrifice to obtain the free hand he wanted elsewhere."
His mental chuckle was harsh. You were right, Cornelisz. The Americans were dangerous. We simply didn't recognize how. And we should have. If anyone should have remembered how twisty Richelieu's scheming mind truly is, it should have been us.
The same officer who had muttered about Richelieu's sanity stared at him. Tromp tried to remember his name, but couldn't. One of the newer and younger officers of his fleet, recently promoted and in command of a ship for the first time.
But Tromp had seen the condition of the man's ship for himself. He was satisfied that whatever the officer might lack in the way of strategic acumen, he did not lack courage. So, despite the effort not to snarl, he forced himself to provide a calm explanation.
"It's those cursed American history books everyone's been grabbing, Captain . . . ah . . ."
"Cuyp, sir. Emanuel Cuyp."
"Captain Cuyp." Tromp drew a deep breath, which, exhaled, became something like a laugh. Or, maybe, a crow's caw. "History! Now everyone thinks they can determine the future—except, of course, they immediately try to change that history to their own satisfaction. And, in the doing, transform cause into effect and effect into cause. 'Insane,' as you say—but on a much deeper level than mere statecraft."
From the blank look on his face, Cuyp obviously still did not understand. Tromp tried again.
"I'm quite certain that Richelieu is thinking two steps ahead of everyone else, Captain. He will set everyone to war here in Europe, accepting whatever short-term losses he must, in order to free his hands to seize the rest of the world. As much of it, at least, as he can. North America for a certainty."
One of the other captains grimaced. Hans Gerritsz, that was, older and more experienced than Cuyp. "That's quite a gamble, sir. It won't do the French much good to have their hands on a few overseas settlements if they lose half of France itself. Or all of it."
Tromp shook his head. "There's no real chance of that, Hans. Not for many years, at least. Think about it. Does a fresh-fed lion attack the keeper of the menagerie? Or does he go into a corner of his cage to sleep and digest his meal? Especially if it was a big meal."
Gerritsz considered those words for a moment. Then, nodded. "I see your point. Richelieu is counting on the Spanish being pre-occupied in the Low Countries." He grunted, scowling. "And not a bad guess! It's not as if we had our fleet when we began our rebellion against Spain. Who is to say we can't resume it?"
A little growl went around the table. Despite the darkness of the moment, Tromp felt his spirits lifting at the sound.
"True enough. The English, of course, will be preoccupied with their own affairs for the next few years. And by handing the Habsburgs such a triumph—not to mention removing from the board of play the one fleet which might have come to Gustavus' aid in the Baltic—Richelieu has almost guaranteed the eruption of a new major war between the Habsburgs and Gustavus Adolphus. A war, mind you, which will be fought on Habsburg or Swedish soil—not French."
Not unless that foul churchman has misgauged Gustavus Adolphus. Or—which might be even worse for him—the Swede's American allies. But Tromp left the words unspoken. In his heart, he could hope that the same Americans whose warnings had been unheeded could bloody the cardinal. But, for the moment, that was simply a hope grounded on not much of anything. He, Tromp, had immediate responsibilities—and pressing decisions of his own to make. Now.
He drew a deep breath and forced himself to consider the grim implications of his position. There was no point even contemplating a return to Holland, not with Oquendo, Tobias, and Martignac between him and Amsterdam. He might sneak past them, but it was . . . unlikely, to say the very least. All of his ships were damaged, three of them severely indeed. If he was sighted and intercepted at all, he would lose at least those three, and probably all six.
No. Returning home was out of the question. He could only hope that there had indeed been other escapees and that one of them might manage to reach The Hague or Amsterdam in time to give Frederik Hendrik and the States General at least a little warning before the Spanish tempest burst upon them. For himself . . .
"We'll make for Recife," he said. One of the other captains flinched. The others only looked at him.
"We'll make for Recife," he repeated. "It's the closest base we can hope to reach, and the West India Company will have at least a few ships to reinforce us. And we have to warn them before the Spaniards launch a fresh attack on them, too."
"What about Batavia?" Hjalmar van Holst asked.
He had been the officer who flinched, and Tromp snorted softly in understanding. Holst's family had immigrated to Zeeland from Denmark three generations ago. He looked the part—tall, thick-shouldered and powerful, like some shaggy, blond bear—and he, his father, and all three of his brothers held large blocks of stock in the East India Company.
But the fact that the captain of the Wappen van Rotterdam had a huge financial stake in what happened to Holland's Far East empire didn't rob his question of its legitimate point.
"Batavia? In the condition our ships are in?" All the officers at the table grimaced, van Holst no less than the others. Tromp shook his head firmly. "We need somewhere to make repairs. I see no real hope that our ships, as badly damaged as they all are, could circumnavigate half the globe. We'll have no easy time of it just getting across the Atlantic—especially with the hurricane season upon us."
Having made his point, Tromp decided to relent a bit. "We have to make certain Governor-General Brouwer is warned, as well," Tromp acknowledged. "I think it's almost certain that at least a few of our merchantmen will get through with the news, though. And in the meantime—I need your ship, Hjalmar. We're going to be hard pressed enough to hold on in Brazil and the Caribbean as it is."
Holst looked for a moment as if he wanted to object. But then he subsided in his chair, and if the bear's nod was angry and exhausted, it also carried true agreement.
"We'll send someone from Recife, just to be sure," Tromp reassured him. "But to be perfectly honest, Hjalmar, I think they'll be too busy closer to home to worry about Batavia or the Indies anytime soon."
Fresh gloom seemed to descend upon the cabin as his words reminded every man in the cabin once again of Holland's nakedness before the Spanish scourge.
"In the meantime," Tromp told them levelly, meeting their eyes unflinchingly across the table, "it is our duty to rally what we can. It may not be much, but at the very least we must hold the empire. As long as we do, neither Philip nor that bastard Richelieu can afford to simply ignore us."
"Perhaps not," Klaus Oversteegen, captain of the Utrecht, agreed with gallows humor. "But I suspect we're going to spend more time losing sleep over them than they are over us!"
"You may be right," Tromp agreed, and smiled thinly. "But if they do ignore us, I intend to make them regret it. We'll send out the word for every ship which can to rally to Recife. We ought to have at least the strength to hold the Spanish at bay while we gather our strength."
"The Spanish, perhaps," Holst agreed. "But what of the English and French?"
"Unless I'm much mistaken," Tromp replied, "Charles of England is going to be too busy concentrating on his arrests and executions of men who haven't yet done anything to spend much time concerning himself about us. And as for Richelieu . . ."
He smiled thinly. "All of his spiderweb plans depend on one other assumption: that his Spanish and English allies—Danish too, be sure of it—can fend off Gustavus Adolphus for him. The Swede, and his American mechanical wizards. But what if they can't?"
Tromp shrugged. "We will do what we must. For the rest, I suspect everyone in the world is about to discover that predestination is a province restricted to God Himself alone. History may record that we were not the only ones who failed to listen to warnings."