Monday, 13 April 2009

Gathering at the river.

Hetzenberg gunboat Acheron, from a drawing
Lieutenant Mary Amadeus, circa 1750.
“Baron Tapfer was a good man, brave and competent,” Count Ostenberg said. “He had something of a reputation with the ladies, I believe; but as he was widowed some years ago no one minded his ways. It’s of a piece with his bravery that he should save the life of Despotissa Theofilia at the cost of his own.”

Grand Duke Karl nodded. “Yes, all credit to him for that. Does he have any surviving family?”

“Yes, there’s a son in the Foot Guards, and another studying in Paris I think.”

Karl turned to his secretary, who was taking the minutes of the meeting. “Please see that a suitable letter of condolence is drafted for them in my name, and I’ll append my signature and seal.”

The secretary nodded and made a note of the order. Karl turned back to the table. “Of course, we shall require clarification of the situation that led to his death before we can formulate a suitable response to the outrage.”

Ostenberg nodded. “Yes, Your Grace, although it will take time. Communications between here and Morea are slow at best. Judging from the Baron’s last report it’s all of a piece with the instability in the region. Messengers are waylaid and even quite strong bodies of troops attacked by bandits. Vessels sailing those waters are always at risk from piracy and roving letters of marque. Even so, it is still quite a shock to learn of a direct attack on the person of the Despotissa.” He grimaced. “Her arm wound is said to be severe. It may be that she has already passed away from the shock. If not, she will bear a grave injury, perhaps even lose the limb: A horrid thing for a woman to contemplate.”

“What do you suggest, Count?”

Ostenberg pursed his lips. “We shall have to replace Tapfer with a new representative who will report on the state of affairs in Morea. I confess I’ve been keeping a watching brief on the Mediterranean ever since the Letter from Vienna arrived. Any major eruption of hostilities in the theater will necessarily impinge upon us here in time. A set of eyes and ears in Morea will give us advance warning.”

“Quite so.” Karl thought. “At the moment we have too much close at hand to command our attention to spare much more thought for the situation there. Please select a number of names to put forward for the position of ambassador to the Principality of Morea and we shall discuss their capabilities at a later date. In the meantime I shall grant Baron Tapfer a posthumous award of the Order of High Distinction. Perhaps his son will accept it on his father’s behalf.”

Ostenberg nodded. “I’ll make arrangements, Your Grace.”

“Good. Now; to other matters…”
* * *
General Rauppen-Schlepper’s staff watched as he bent over the map showing the Eisenwasser Valley. The headquarters pavilion was silent as all present concentrated on their chief. Rauppen-Schlepper pursed his lips. “The Gravies may attempt a delaying action here.” He placed a finger on a point where the Wohl Hills came within two miles of the river. “The highway between Wohl and Wentwitz runs through there, and it’s an ideal spot for them to fight a delaying action. If the Gravies can gain that road within the next two days they’ll move faster and in better order than we can. By delaying us for long enough they can take Wentwitz and cross the river to safety.” He looked up at them from beneath beetling brows. “We cannot permit that to happen, gentlemen.”

“We have the advantage of the river, sir,” Captain Scharfe pointed out, peering down at the map. “It may be possible to convey troops by means of the riverine flotilla to that point before the Gravies can reach it. Even a regiment or two supported by the guns of the flotilla would disrupt any attempt they make to block our advance.”

“Can those boats carry enough men in time?”

“I confess I don’t know, sir. I’d suggest speaking to Captain Creighton about that.”

General Rauppen-Schlepper nodded. “Take a message. To Captain Creighton, commanding the gunboat flotilla. Sir, I would be most obliged if you would attend upon my headquarters at your earliest convenience to discuss a plan of co-operation between army and navy. Your humble servant, etc. etc.”

A staccato rattle of musketry sounded in the distance. General Rauppen-Schlepper looked up then glanced at his fob watch. “Ah, that’ll be the picket lines. Punctual as ever.” He gave his staff a wintry smile. “A new day begins, gentlemen! Let us be about our business.”
* * *
Ursula woke up to full morning in Horatio’s cot, feeling warm and drowsy and so very content. Rolling over she yawned, stretched then winced as a certain soreness made itself felt. What a night that was! She thought, lying there, gazing up at the deck overhead. Feet clumped around up there and the little gimbaled chronometer and compass mounted on the bulwark nearby told her it was nine of the clock and that they were sailing north-westward. She yawned again as she looked up at the stern-lights above her head and tried to judge whereabouts Acheron was on the river. She gave it up as a bad job just as Horatio appeared bearing a mug of coffee.

“Good morning, lover!” he said softly, coming to the cot side.

“Good morning yourself!” she purred, sitting up and wrapping her arms around his neck. Pulling him close she kissed him long and deep as he set aside the mug and began to caress her body. Horatio’s touch sparked new feelings and she pulled him down onto the cot and slid her arms under his coat. He allowed her to play for a few moments then groaned and drew away. “Oh, I wish I could stay in bed with you all day and night but duty calls.”

She gave him a sad smile. “I know. It was naughty of me to tempt you.”

“You can be as naughty as you like later,” he whispered, squashing the tip of her nose with his finger.

“Promise?” she said brightly, picking up the heavenly-scented mug of coffee.

“Oh yes!”

She sipped. “Mmm! What with this delightful bedside service and your promise, I think I’ll keep you around.”

Horatio chuckled. “Thank you for that!” He glanced out of the stern-lights. “We’re drawing nigh to Viehdorf, darling. The lookout sighted the barges tied up on the shore and taking on the wounded. We should reach the village in an hour.”

“And what shall we do then?” she asked, handing him the mug so he could take a sip.

He drank and handed it back. “I’m not sure. No doubt I’ll be in trouble with Captain Creighton for disobeying a direct order.”

“Only if he finds out, Horatio.”

“I suppose so.”

She reached up and stroked his cheek. “I won’t make trouble for you, my love. Maybe I can slip ashore and join Mary Amadeus without the good Captain seeing me. Just tell him you were delayed by someone updating you on the situation in Kimmelsbrücke. It won’t be far from the truth. If Creighton sees me around after that there’s no way he’ll be able to say how I arrived there.”

“Good idea.” A hail up on deck attracted his attention. “I’d better go.”

She grabbed his lapels. “One more kiss before you do!”

“Oh, very well…” he winked and kissed her.
* * *
Being at a loose end Mary Amadeus had turned her attention to the wounded in and around Viehdorf. It was an effort to bear the painful cries and groans that filled the air but she persevered all day and long into the night, tending to the wounded, comforting the dying and writing last letters full of heartbreak for a life cut short. When the barges from Kimmelsbrücke arrived at dawn she and Philip were up early to meet them. Their combined skills had fashioned a kind of bosun’s chair arrangement by which the stretchers bearing the more seriously wounded could be swayed aboard with the least pain and discomfort to the men.

They were working still when Acheron appeared upriver. Philip touched her arm. “Take a break, my dear,” he said softly. “You’ve earned it.”

She wiped her face with her hands. “Yes, I think I shall. I have a hunch Ursula will be aboard. It’ll be good to see her again.”

Acheron sailed toward Viehdorf, a lovely sight with her lateen rig swelling full in the morning breeze. Struck by the beauty of the moment Mary fetched a sheet of paper and a pen from her pack and sat on the bank, sketching Acheron as she drew into the roadstead. It was a complete change from her most recent activity and she could feel the tension leaving her mind. Mary’s keen eyes could pick out Horatio on Acheron’s quarterdeck but there was no sign of Ursula. She waved and Horatio waved back.

The gunboat swung into the bank and lost way, kissing up onto the muddy flat alongside her fellows with barely a shudder. Horatio walked forward to the foredeck as the brow was run out onto the shore, and Mary put her sketch away and went to meet him.

They embraced and kissed each other on the cheek. “It’s good to see you!” she said.

“And it’s good to see you.” He smiled at her fondly. “But you look tired. Have you been up all night?”

She glanced up at the village. “Yes. You look as tired as I feel. Have you been up all night too?”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said and coughed.

“Is Ursula aboard?” Mary asked, craning to peer up at the deck.

“She is, but she can’t come out if Captain Creighton’s around. Have you seen him?”

Mary looked at him askance. “Yes, he went up to the General’s headquarters half an hour ago.”

“Good!” Horatio turned and nodded to the tall Midshipman who was watching from the deck. He in turn nodded to the bosun who disappeared below. A few seconds later Ursula appeared, hurrying along the deck clad in the same clothes she’d worn when escaping the Margraf’s clutches. She bounced down the brow with a broad grin and swept Mary up in a fierce embrace. “It’s good to see you safe and sound, dear!” she cried.

“And you!” Mary said. “How’s Konrad?”

“Alive and getting better.”


“Indeed. I’d better go report to the Captain,” Horatio said. He saluted, gave Ursula a broad wink, and walked away up the levee.

Mary looked from Horatio to Ursula, who was watching him go with an expression of deep affection. “What have you been up to?” she demanded.

Ursula’s cheesy grin was answer enough.


Capt Bill said...

Great narrative as usual, but an excellent drawing of the Acheron...

Fitz-Badger said...

This one gave me a chuckle. :-)

Martin said...

Way to go A.J.! WOOF! Well now I've just been plain spoiled, and I wonder how I'll get along without my "Hetzenberg Fix", once you conclude the tale.

Is there any hope for a continuation of the adventure of characters that I have come to know and care about?

Konstantinos Travlos said...

Rest assured that the Baron will be post-posthumously awarded for his bravery, once Morea gets back to it's feet.

David said...

Yes, as Martin says, WE WANT MORE (and more and more and more - this is far too addictive. It should carry a health warning!) :-)