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A Baltic Affair

A Baltic Affair

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A Baltic Affair

338 pagine
5 ore
Mar 4, 2013


Captain Petroc Gray, commander of the ship-rigged sloop of war, HMS
Kestrel, is drawn into diplomacy, intrigue, and espionage when he
rescues the Freiherr von Dieffenbach and his family off the island of
Rügen in the Baltic. The Freiherr is an important and valuable
connection in the struggle to beat the Napoleonic Continental blockade
of British trade, and his daughter, Silke, is a delightful young woman
with a quick wit, brilliant intelligence, and a keen eye for observing
the events unfolding around them. The ever-changing political alliances
of the Northern European and Scandinavian states-war, sea battles,
storms, death, and Napoleon's "hundred days" leading to the defeat at
Waterloo--all conspire to frustrate Petroc's intention to seek Silke's
hand in marriage, right to the last. But Petroc isn't one to be easily
defeated, whether he is navigating the open seas or matters of the
heart, and Silke stands bright and strong in his life like a beacon in a
safe harbour.

Mar 4, 2013

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A Baltic Affair - Patrick G. Cox


Chapter 1


Lieutenant and Commander Petroc Gray drew his cloak closer and glanced about the deck of his ship. After almost two years together, the crew worked with practiced familiarity and assurance in every task.Yet, my officers apart, there is hardly an English sailor among them, he reflected as a large blond man responded to some joke from the Master’s Mate supervising a group about the foremast with a loud guffaw and a thick accent. The man in question claimed to be a Swede, but his language when ashore in the islands of the Swedish archipelago seemed to confuse the native speakers, who clearly seemed barely able to understand him. He glanced across to where the First had the watch, keeping carefully to the leeside while his commander was on deck, and clearly not in a mood for conversation.

Benjamin Curran was a good officer, though sometimes given to strange ideas on the nature of the Divine and scripture. It led to some lively debates over a glass or a meal shared in the tiny cabin that was Petroc Gray’s private space.

Standing next to the lieutenant, Midshipman Trewellyn tried to stifle a yawn; the watch seemed to be dragging, the sea devoid of anything other than fishing smacks at present – and these, at this late season, were few enough as well.

HMS Kestrel, twenty-two guns, a ship-rigged sloop, was Petroc’s second command; the first, a brig of almost the same size, had been an elderly ship, but a useful one in the watching of the shallow harbours of the Dutch Coast and the Heligoland Bight (Helgoland to its inhabitants). But a winter gale three years earlier had all but sunk her beneath them.

When the ship was declared unsound on their return under jury rig to the Medway, he had been lucky enough to be given the Kestrel, the construction of which had just completed, and orders to join Admiral Saumarez in the Baltic. She was a good ship, modern, a good sailor and well armed for her task.

Napoleon’s Continental Blockade was hurting the British economy, though it had been in place only a year. Ships like the little Kestrel were vital to the effort to protect the Baltic trade, and they had more than proved their worth thus far.

Petroc lifted his spyglass and focused it on the hazy outline of the island of Rügen away to starboard.

Mister Curran, he called across to the Lieutenant. I wish to stand a little closer to the sound between the island and the shore, please. A closer look at the shipping there may be informative.

Aye, aye, sir. Hands to braces, lively now! When the crew were ready, Curran gave the order: Bear up, steer south-south-east and a half south.

Petroc Gray watched as the ship responded, and, satisfied the course would take them to a position from which the masthead would see the anchorage, he said, We shall see what is afoot there. The admiral will wish to know when we meet him tomorrow. He sniffed the air. The winter cannot be far behind us now; there is a chill in the wind.

Aye, sir. Ben joined his friend and commander. The French seem to be causing a great stirring ashore – the fishing boat we spoke to yesterday talked of an increase in their troops in Pomerania and the states of Mecklenburg and Prussia. Do you think they will be mad enough to attempt a campaign here in the winter?

Unlikely, Petroc replied with a glimmer of merriment in his eyes.But if they do we could be in for some interesting times. The Danes are building gunboats, and their successes against our convoys in the Belt and the Sound are worrying. Our merchants must leave the northern Gulfs before the sea here freezes and the winter storms make the North Sea too dangerous. A few years ago, a ship was taken by soldiers in the Gulf of Finland – cavalry I believe – as she lay frozen into her anchorage. Petroc laughed. I’d not wish to have to explain that to our Admiral!

Ben smiled. Nor I, sir. He knew the story. A small Danish frigate had been trapped by ice near the Russian border. Mindful of Danish claims to Sweden and the Province of Finland, the Russians had not hesitated. Riding out onto the ice, they had stormed the ship and taken it before the Danes could clear her to defend themselves. In the end, it had been an academic victory, since the ship was subsequently destroyed by fire resulting from the assault.

Ben frowned. Do you think the admiral will withdraw completely for the winter?

I should think it likely he will withdraw as far as the Skagerrak, at least. There are some anchorages there that do not freeze, and which we can use by treaty. I doubt we will all be sent back to England, Ben; there is too much at stake at present.

Deck there! Boat signalling, sir. There looks to be ladies aboard.

Where away, called Petroc, raising his glass. A small coasting barge more suited to the inshore leads sprang into focus. He could just make out a figure standing at its stern, waving a hat. Close with him and let’s see what he wants, Petroc ordered, adding to no one in particular, He does have ladies aboard. What the devil is he about?

Half an hour later, Kestrel hove-to and waited while the fishing smack drew alongside. A stocky man in a black uniform coat trimmed with red cuffs and facings and gold lace and buttons stood and doffed his hat to Petroc, who was now in his own uniform coat and hat.

He returned the salute and asked, How may we assist you, sir? The short, stocky man carried himself well, though Petroc suspected he’d be more at home on horseback than on the deck of the small inshore trader he now travelled on. Four ladies were huddled at the transom, staying clear of the sailors bringing their craft alongside the sloop. One was apparently the man’s wife, and the others, Petroc assumed by their ages, were probably daughters and a governess.

The newcomer indicated the ladies and replied in German, a language that Petroc had not managed to fully grasp as yet. He had caught a title,Freiherr, and a name, Rheinhard von Dieffenbach, but not much more. Though he had a passable command of German as spoken in these parts, he preferred to use an interpreter until he’d determined whether he understood a new acquaintance’s dialect. He looked about and spotted the big Swede near the mainchains. Jorgenson, attend me here.

The big man moved quickly, a broad grin on his face as he touched his knuckles to his forehead, "Ja, Herr Kapitän?"

Ask the gentleman to repeat his request, please.

The seaman acknowledged the order and engaged in a rapid-fire exchange with the gentleman in the boat. Then he turned again to Petroc and said, "He ask, mein Kapitän, if we can take his familie with us to Svenska. He says the French have taken his Schloss and left zem with nottink."

Petroc nodded. That was what he thought had been said. Very well, have them come aboard, Mister Curran. You never know; we may learn something of Bonaparte’s intentions for the coming months.

He watched as the Master’s Mate and the seamen prepared a suitable hoist and means of bringing the ladies aboard, noting that the younger ladies seemed to be enjoying the excitement of their sea voyage, though their mother seemed more resigned than eager for it.

One by one, beginning with the older woman, the ladies were swung aboard, decorum maintained by the use of guidelines, a canvas sling seat and careful control of the hoisting and lowering inboard. Petroc could now greet his guests with a courteous bow and raised hat, noting that the older lady, who presumably was the Feifrau von Dieffenbach, was quite dignified and of obvious breeding. Her daughters, he noted, were evidently some years apart in age, the older being near marriageable age and the younger clearly still in the schoolroom.

Petroc raised his hat as the Freiherr clambered through the entry port unaided and looking smart despite the spray now soaking into his coat. In his halting German he said, Welcome aboard my ship, Graf von Dieffenbach. I hope you will forgive my poor command of your language. Please address your wishes to my man, Jorgensen.

Jorgensen smiled broadly at the mention of his name. He was proud to serve as Petroc’s interpreter if the need arose.

The Freiherr’s face lit in pleasure and relief, but he addressed Petroc directly, beginning in his native language sprinkled with a smattering of heavily accented English. "Danke schön, Kapitän; permit I introduce meine Frau, die Freifrau, Grafin Hannelore von Dieffenbach, and meine Tochters…uh, daughters, I think you say, Silke and Wiebke, and Jungfer Carrington-Carr aus London. We are in your Schuld."

Petroc bowed, acknowledging the introductions and thinking fast. My pleasure, sir. Now I shall ask Midshipman Trewellyn to escort your wife and daughters to my quarters while we resume our course. He glanced at where several trunks and bags had been deposited on the deck and asked, Is this all your baggage, sir?

The Freiherr nodded, Das ist alles, Kapitän. Turning to his wife, he spoke quickly in German and she responded briefly, and then she smiled at the anxiously hovering Midshipman and ushered her daughters toward the companionway that the youth indicated.

Get the ship underway if you please, Mister Curran. You know my intentions, I think? Good, see what you may discover. Turning to his guest, Petroc said, Let us join your ladies, sir. He signalled the large Swede. I will send for you if we have need of your translation, Jorgenson.

The Freiherr seemed reluctant to leave the deck, watching in fascination as the crew reset the sails to get the ship underway; the main topsails and topgallants were drawn around to fill once more from their ‘backed’ position. The ship heeled further as the sails filled and gathered way; she responded like the thoroughbred she was.

Turning to Petroc, he declared, "Your Schiff, it is very gut sailing.."

They are, sir, Petroc agreed. And she is a fine little ship, ideal for working these waters. Shall we join your ladies? He indicated the companionway leading below. I shall arrange some refreshment for them and for us while we discuss your situation.

Chapter 2

Trade Disrupted

The Baronet, as Petroc had determined him to be, was a charming guest, and so too were his family. The enigmatic Miss Carrington-Carr proved to be the daughter of a London Merchant who had come to Saxony to take a post as governess and companion, though the Freiherr and his Lady treated her as one of the family. Her services as an interpreter made the conversation easy for all concerned.

As Petroc rapidly discovered, the Freiherr was an astute man, and his knowledge extended from ships and their uses to matters of trade between nations and the management of his professedly modest estates.

We have family in Svenska, a cousin who is the – how do you say – the steward of our business in that land. The older man beamed, his eyes twinkling. "Also in Lübeck and in Hamburg. Die Hansestädte will not be too much troubled by the Franszosen – but eure blockade – that is a very big problem."

Indeed, sir, I can see that, but did I not understand that the French have driven you and your family out of your estate?

"Ja, that is korrekt. But, we will return. This Napoleon, he will not always triumph. Der König von Preußen gathers allies, and der Tsar, he changes sides when it suits – and they did not find what they looked for. He laughed. They look in the wrong place."

Petroc smiled, his eye catching that of the eldest daughter as she rested with her sister beneath the stern windows. Her intelligent face and the attention with which she listened struck him as attractive; though, he felt certain she must be at least ten years his junior. Something in the smile and in her eyes also suggested that she was following their conversation rather more easily than her father was managing to do. This was confirmed when she turned her attention to the orders being given on deck, audible through the open skylight.

Petroc gave his attention to the Freiherr again as he explained the reason for their taking the risk of venturing to sea in the small trading barge.

"We had come to Greifswald to see Miss Carrington-Carr aboard one of her father’sschiffs. Then the Fransmänner seized the schiff."

Yes…but, sir, surely venturing out to sea in a coastal vessel was a great risk. Did you hope to reach another port and perhaps take ship from there?

The Freiherr laughed. "Nein. We knew your schiff was approaching. The Pride of Ebbsfleet was at anchor off Gager, waiting for another schiff to join them. I brought meine familyand meine Frau’s maid Elisabet across the Insel…er, island…to the Schaproder Boddenund then to the boat. He shrugged for emphasis. And, there was a little unpleasantness with a French officer. Peasant! He wished to arrest Miss Carr and made remarks most improper. The older man’s eyebrows snapped into a frown. He will not make such mistake again."

Petroc decided not to press for more details. He could see from the expressions of the ladies that whatever the French officer had intended had provoked the Freiherr beyond civility, so he left it at that. In due time, he would discover what had transpired. He stood, taking care to position himself between the deck beams, though even here, he had to duck his head slightly. Speaking to the Freiherr, he said, If you will excuse me, sir, I must attend to matters on deck. My servant will clear away my belongings from these quarters. He smiled as he again caught the daughter’s eye, feeling a stirring of interest he felt might be mutual. I’m afraid we are a very small vessel and the company is large, so there is not much room aboard for passengers – especially ladies. I shall do my utmost to make you comfortable, though I fear it will be several days before I may transfer you to a larger vessel or bring you to a port where you may be safe.

The Freiherr obviously did not follow quite all of what Petroc had said, but his daughter said something briefly to her father and he nodded. Thank you. We are very grateful. He stood as Petroc took his hat and cloak and bowed. We must not detain you, Kapitän.

On deck, Petroc listened as Ben Curran, now joined by the second lieutenant, John Hunt, gave a brief description of the shipping huddled in the anchorage between Rügen and the port of Stralsund beyond it. No sign of anything that looks like a gunboat or even a Frenchman. There are upwards of twenty small vessels though – mostly fishing vessels and inshore trading craft, sir. Two larger Snows or Brigs, none with their yards crossed and all look as if they’re in ballast.

Anything visible of fortifications or improved defences?

There looks to be a boom across the Hiddensee entrance to the sound between the island and the peninsula, sir. And what looks like a battery of horse artillery at the shoreward end; nothing else I could see from this angle, though, replied Ben.

Petroc nodded, saying, Good, well done. It appears the French have left this area lightly defended while they deal with matters further south. He cast a glance at the cabin skylight and signalled Ben to follow him further forward. Lowering his voice, he continued, I have learned that our guest is unpopular with the French commanders in his native Province. Apparently, he fought a duel with one of their senior people, and they evicted him from his land and house, perhaps in reprisal. I shall have to find out.

A matter of honour, then, Ben said with a thoughtful look. Has he said anything of their intentions or of their forces?

A little. By the way, I should warn you: I think the daughters may well have a greater command of English than their father has. I have no evidence of it yet, but I have the strongest feeling that the elder understands everything we say.

Ben grinned. I shall warn the others, sir. I wonder where she gained that skill?

I think through their governess. Petroc stared upward as the second lieutenant sent some men aloft to set the royals. I have had my belongings moved to the chartroom. I’ll berth there until our guests can depart.

Where are we to meet with the admiral, sir?

That’s just it. He is presently in the Gulf of Finland. We are to continue a sweep of this coast to the Gulf of Riga and meet him off the entrance, but our guests need to be taken to Sweden, for which I shall have to seek the admiral’s permission, since Marshall Bernadotte is rumoured to become heir to the king of the Swedes soon. He grinned suddenly. That will make an interesting diplomatic problem for London and others – it is said that he has a ‘turbulent’ relationship with the Emperor, so it remains to be seen who he favours once he is king.

The Sailing Master approached and touched his hat in salute to Petroc. Cap Arkona is abeam, sir. We should alter course to the East in another half hour if you wish to examine the Greifswald Bay.

Very good, Mister Isaacs, make it so. Plot a course to take us close to the island they call the ‘Eye’ – I wish to see if there is a lookout or battery there.

The Master acknowledged this and left to attend to his duties.

Ben said, We have little chance of any prize money at this time – unless we find a Frenchman. He grinned. Or a Dane. The Admiral’s strictures not to molest our potential allies are a trifle restrictive.

So they are, Petroc agreed, but at this time we need every friend we can get. Napoleon’s Continental System has hurt our Baltic trade far more severely than I had realized until I spoke to the merchant we met off Wismar. Only Sweden still trades openly, and now that the Tzar has allied himself to Bonaparte, it can only get worse. He glanced aft. I shall join our guests to see what else I may learn. Call me when we reach the Eye; I wish to see the bay myself.

Petroc tapped at the door of his cabin and then entered. He was greeted warmly by the Freiherr.

Kapitän, you make us very comfortable. Will you take some refreshment with us?

Petroc smiled. Despite his earlier suspicions, he was forming a liking for this bluff man. Thank you, I shall. I do not often get such pleasant company aboard. He accepted a cup of coffee from his servant, and speaking of him to the Freiherr, he said, I trust that Ceran here has provided everything you need?

"Danke, ja, alles in Ordnung! He has been most helpful. The Freiherr glanced at his eldest daughter, who was evidently trying to attract his attention; his eyebrows rose slightly, and then he said, Silke, du musst Schon selbst fragen."

Petroc looked across at the young lady and said, Please feel free to ask me in your own language. If I do not understand, I am certain your governess may translate for me.

Silke laughed, the sound sending an unaccustomed pang through Petroc. Unnecessary, Captain. Our governess has taught us English. My father does not think you will approve, but I would like to go on deck and see how the ship is sailed. Do I have your permission?

Petroc smiled. I have no objection, Miss Silke, but I must ask that you stay right aft unless I or one of my officers can accompany you to another part of the ship. A small ship such as this has many hazards, and we are cramped for space. If you will pardon my telling you this, the men have not had much opportunity to enjoy the company of ladies for many months, and I would not wish them provoked into unseemly behaviour in your presence.

She nodded, a smile teasing her mouth as she replied, Of course, Captain. I know the situation with my father’s trading partners and their ships.

He returned the smile. Then perhaps you will accompany me when I must go on deck again in a little while? I may then show you the ship myself.

At her acknowledgement, the Freiherr drew Petroc’s attention and the conversation turned once again to the restrictions on trade imposed by Napoleon. It is rumoured that the emperor and the tsar are to meet to make a Treaty that will shut all our coasts to your trade.

So we believe, but that, sir, is why our Fleet remains in these waters. This trade is important to us and must be maintained. He leaned back in his seat. There are privateers at work as well, and you must know that they can be as dangerous to your own trade as to ours.

The older man nodded. That is so, he said pensively, and then he frowned. Der French Emperor – bah, a peasant, and those around him, no better. They will fail eventually, but they do much damage now.

The conversation continued a mixture of German and English, as the two men struggled with each other’s native tongues. In the process, Petroc learned that the family had its seat in Saxonia near Dresden. Besides their landholdings, the Freiherr was also linked to several of the Trading Houses in Lübeck, Stralsund and Danzig. He also learned that the French had attempted to encourage several merchants to equip some of their ships for the work of privateering, but almost all of them had refused.

Well, I’m glad of that, said Petroc.

Captain, I am curious; forgive me for asking, but your name is unusual. Where does it come from?

The question surprised Petroc. He turned to the eldest daughter to reply. It is Cornish, Miss Silke. My family has a small estate on the north shore there. He smiled. It is a common name in those parts; the English would call me Patrick. At that moment, Petroc heard the tap at the door that announced the arrival of a messenger from the deck. He stood slowly, careful not to graze his head on the low deckhead or the beams supporting it, and said, I am called on deck, I think. Would you care to accompany me? You will need a cloak, though it is not wet at present.

Chapter 3

Stirring the Pot

The wind had freshened slightly and the ship was a little livelier when she stood into the bay. Leaving Miss Silke at the windward shrouds, Petroc consulted the lieutenants and the Sailing Master.

The Eye has some nasty shoals on the landward side, sir. If we stand into the bay, we shall have to go deep to avoid them.

Thank you, Mister Isaacs, there is a small harbour at its southern tip for the folk who live there mainly, but it might also serve some of their accursed gunboats. We will need to stand into the bay and then leave on through the eastern channel, I think. Lay our course accordingly, please.

I’ve sent Midshipman Trewellyn to the Fore crosstrees, sir. He has the signal glass with him; that should be enough to make out the details of anything present there, said Ben Curran. Doing his best to keep out of his captain’s way, Peter Poole, the ship’s youngest midshipman, a likely lad from Devon, trained a spyglass across the nettings toward the distant shore.

Good. I have learned they have seized several of our trading brigs in recent days. I wish to see what they have here and if there is perhaps an opportunity to take them back! He glanced at the young woman watching the activity on deck with keen interest. I rather think our guests might not be that distressed if we did. His glance fell on the young Midshipman trying to focus the spyglass he held on the shore. Mister Poole, you’ll have a better view from aloft. Take yourself up to the mizzen crosstrees – see if you can spot a collier type brig in the bay just behind the second headland we will pass to starboard.

Aye, aye, sir!

Wait a moment. Come with me. Petroc stepped to where Silke von Dieffenbach was still watching the activity. Miss von Dieffenbach, can you describe the brig belonging to your governess’ father? It will be helpful to Master Poole here if he knows what to look for.

Certainly, Captain. She hesitated briefly, gathering her thoughts, a small frown creasing her brow. The ship was anchored just inside the bay near the village of Gager. Ships often wait there for others sailing in the same direction. The French may have taken the captain ashore, but the guards are soldiers, not seamen. It is not a large ship. It is painted black and has white decoration on the bow and the stern. Two masts, but with not as many sails as you have on yours.

Thank you, miss. Well, Mister Poole, do you think you can spot her? The land there is quite low lying so you may be able to make out her masts at least.

Miss von Dieffenbach interjected before Poole could respond. One more thing, Captain; on the outside of her hull, the ship had heavy…you might call them frames. My father says they are used when the ship must be loaded from a beach.

Ah, that is useful information, Petroc said to Silke. He then shouted to Poole, "Aloft with you, youngster. See what you can make

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