Colonel Rochefort did not particularly enjoy dinners with Cardinal-Elector. Firstly, while Rochefort could not be described as a gourmand, he did enjoy his food. His palate was not complicated; a good garbure with a decent vin rouge ordinaire would bring him as much pleasure as a state meal with such delicacies as Turbot saute à Maitre-d’hotel, Poulet Vol au vent avec Béchamel sauce, and Grand Imperial Tokay. The Cardinal-Elector, however, regarded meals as irritating interruptions in his work day, and would rapidly consume whatever was in front of him, without much bothering as to what it was. So the fare at the Electoral table tended to the erratic, at best.
Secondly, an invitation to dine with the Cardinal-Elector tended to create a certain degree of stress in the invitee, for while Bonplace was indifferent to food, he certainly was a connoisseur of grief, pain, and traditional knife-in-the-back diplomacy. The stress of wondering exactly how unpleasant the after dinner conversation was going to be (or indeed, how painful the results of that conversation might be) did not do much for the appetite or the digestion, even for as trusted a henchman as Rochefort.
This evening, however, had passed better than usual. Though the chef had managed to do something fairly terrible to the fish (or Rochefort thought it probably was fish lurking under that blanket of over salted sauce, but he did not care to bet on it) a gentler hand had managed the vegetables, making them simple, but fairly appetizing. The Cardinal-elector himself was in a reasonably buoyant mood, as his forces’s victory over the Landgrave Simon (a figure much despised and ridiculed in Western Germany) at Heimburg had provoked something almost akin to acceptance of the new régime in Trèves (not enthusiasm, though, certainly not enthusiasm).
“So, Rochefort, what news from the army’s camp?” asked the Cardinal, warming himself before the fire, in a humor of great benevolence (for anyone else, it would have been a humor of restrained bitterness and deep sarcasm, but Cardinals do not operate on the same plane as the rest of us. Or at least this one didn’t).
Rochefort was fairly sure not a flint was struck in Toulouse-Laurtrec’s camp without the Cardinal being aware of it, but honestly nothing of interest (other than the usual depraved activities of idle soldiery; you could not even say it kept them out of trouble and off the streets at night, because it did the opposite) seemed to be going on there.
Rochefort offered the only worthwhile piece of news he had :
“Le duc de Clarkeshire has been joined by some old retainer of his, a Sir Theodore Creasy.” He knew he mangled the man’s name, but it did not overly concern him.
“A professional soldier of some repute, liked by his men. Does not appear to have any ‘interesting’ habits, other than a fondness for the bottle and the playing card, and for a man in his career, those are almost required, never mind expected. My sources disclosed no political or social connections on the continent.”
Rochefort had to be careful with the last part; if there had been some embarrassing omission, he certainly wanted to point the finger of responsibility elsewhere, on the grounds that an omission of a matter of any importance would certainly lead to broken fingers for the responsible party, at best.
Even with this precaution, he relaxed slightly as the Cardinal said “I have heard not different of him either…” and then broke off as a servant came to the fireplace holding a gilt box and discreetly coughing to attract attention.
The Cardinal reached for it with an upraised eyebrow, as Rochefort once more tensed, an reached for one of the sharp objects concealed around his person. A lifetime spent doing unpleasant things in dark places had caused him to be very cautious of the unknown. He sat back as the gold proved to be some sort of paper, covering a small box, from which the Cardinal extracted a small note.
While looking at it, he tipped the box toward Rochefort, muttering, “Chocolate, Rochefort?”
Rochefort was still enjoying his sweet when the Cardinal finished the note and looked up.
“Apparently, the army of Groß-Holsten is wending their way north through the Swiss passes, having returned to Genoa, disconsolate at having their oriental adventure terminated by some rowdy Mohammedans.” The Cardinal grinned sardonically before continuing “If memory serves, they are on the other side in this little brou-ha-ha. Does your military experience indicate a preferred course of action, Rochefort?”
Rochefort chewed absently. “As your Eminence knows, my military experience is about the same as yours.. none at all”
The Cardinal shrugged in agreement, while regarding Rochefort’s much hated and gaudy hussar uniform with humour, and waved for him to continue.
“A lifetime’s experience, your Eminence, would indicate that now would be a perfect time to rob their houses, while they are no-where near them. Mind you, that does not seem to get us any foradder.”
The Cardinal nodded in agreement.
“Also, then,” continued Rochefort “sometimes the best time to assault a man is not in the dark alley, but when he leaves it and catches sight of his house.”
The Cardinal raised both eyebrows, nodded, and called a servant to bring his gazetteer, and to send his regards to Marshal Count de Toulouse-Laurtrec and ask for the pleasure of his and his staff’s company at the Cardinal’s chambers in the chancery in Trève at nine of the clock in the morning.
Rochefort looked out the chancery window. It really was a marvelous view of the river and the wharves. And it precluded looking at the beribboned and be-laced noblemen who were greeting the Cardinal’s information with glances at a map, then at each other, then producing the General officer’s equivalent of the horse coper’s teeth sucking noise, the one that preceded you being told that “It was a big job, guv” and “Might be better to get annovver horse, and he knew where you could find…..”. Le Duc had gone into some sort of noble’s fugue, engrossed with the lace protruding from his cuffs. The French officers, more aware of the Cardinal’s reputation, were trying to put a decent face on their denial, at least. The only one who seemed to be making an effort to get the plan to work was Creasy, the new man, and even he looked like an accountant who’s abacus this not go up that high.
The Cardinal-Elector was pale (not a good sign, Rochefort knew. He decided to rapidly acquire business elsewhere for the rest of the day) as he spoke.
“So, it appears that we cannot take advantage of our enemy’s difficulties?”
Everyone looked at his feet, and shuffled. Except le Duc, who looked at his cuffs and yawned (catching this in the reflection in the window, Rochefort mentally lowered the man’s life expectancy, thinking it might be as much as by decades). Only Creasy spoke up, his french rather thickly accented, but clear enough.
“Yes, your Eminence. It is just too far. No way we can get the army up there ‘fore they are out of the passes, out of the forests, and half way ‘ome. And that would leave us a long way from here, thin on supply, and them close to supply and re-enforcement. I’d like to do it, ye see, but I cannot make it come out.”
The Cardinal nodded in pleasure at an explanation that made sense to him.
“Thank you, Sir Theodore. Colonel Rochefort, do you have anything to add before we adjourn?”
Rochefort could see the faces turning toward him in the window, with various degrees of sneer visibile. One young staff officer at the back of the room caught Rochefort’s attention with an ill concealed snigger. “Right,” thought Rochefort to himself “that lads going to have a nasty accident before the week is out. If only to keep my hand in”. Then he sighed.
“Your Eminence, Gentlemen. I have little to add. I have just been listening, and watching the river, and the docks………..”
He saw Creasy stiffen and the man lumbered to the window.
“Lot of barges out there, Colonel” grinned Creasy, joining Rochefort at the window. “How fast are they moving?”
Rochefort smiled at Creasy “Even the ones going upriver seem to be going at a fair old clip, Sir Theodore.”
He turned around to see Cardinal-Elector re-opening the maps, gather the reluctant generals with his eyes, and announce “I suspect you are going boating, gentlemen”.
The trip up the Rhine was not particularly comfortable, everyone being cramped on the commandeered barges. However the troops appeared to enjoy the novelty of not having to march, and it all went fairly painlessly. No incidents were reported, save for one unfortunate young staff officer who somehow contrived to get himself caught between a loaded barge and a pier (So sad, thought Rochefort).
For Rochefort, the real discomfort was that the Cardinal-Elector had not joined them, claiming important political obligations in Trève, leaving Rochefort as his representative. This sat well with neither Rochefort or the army officers, but there was little either party felt they could safely do about it. The staff treated Rochefort with distant courtesy, and he responded with blank faced monosyllables.
The march to the area where the Groß-Holsten forces were to be found proceeded without incident, but the disappointment of the staff was clear when the enemy was found to be well formed up in a defensive position in the midst of quite rough ground.
Rochefort wondered absently who had let news of their approach out, and how to find him, while the staff conferred.
Toulouse-Laurtrec shook off his disappointment, briskly ordered an approach march on the right flank of the enemy with the infantry, while the cavalry was to be held on the Trève right to counter any movement by the enemy horse, which sat rather somnolently behind a stream.
In the hope of being told what was going on without any social idiocy getting in the way, Rochefort attached himself to Sir Theodore Creasy, who he was actually starting to like as a fellow professional.
As the infantry columns moved forward, under desultory artillery fire, Creasy kept up a commentary, remarking himself “Theres not bloody much for me to do here”.
“That bloke over there has picked a good spot” Sir Theodore spoke loudly over the guns.
“Its going to end up rushin’ them from the front, looks like.” His face, much as Rochefort’s, showed distaste at such a rash proposition “No stoppin’ these noble blokes once battle is started.” Creasy’s distaste for amatuerism endeared him to Rochefort even more. No point at all in giving the opposition the slightest chance seemed to be a motto that applied to all endeavors equally.
“Mind you, some of those lads” Sir Theodore gestured with his spyglass to the Groß-Holstenians and continued “look none to steady to me. Might be the best idea is to show a strong face and chase ‘em off.”
On this queue, the columns of French .. errr.. Trèvian infantry formed line, and moved forward, the two elite units on the left suffering steadily under galling artillery fire. The Groß-Holsten line wheeled toward the advancing Francophones (there, thought Rochefort, found an unexceptional term) bringing more and muskets to bear; However the german fire seemed very desultory, while the engaged francophone units seemed to be giving better then they got, even though outnumbered.
The gunners had been driven away from the Groß-Holsten guns, and the Francophones were pushing forward again when a disturbance from the middle of the line indicated that an unexpected marsh had slowed two battalions.
“That’s put the cat among the pigeons” muttered Creasy. Apparently coming to the same conclusion, the colonel of the leftmost battalion had a rush of blood to the head and threw them into a charge against two enemies, against all odds falling back in good order while the enemy struggled in confusion.
“I dunno what happened to this lot in the east” said Creasy “But they got no heart in ‘em”. He pointed to where individual enemy soldiers, and indeed little clumps, were falling back from the firing line.
“One sharp push now ‘ll see them gone”. Creasy stood in his stirrups and yelled for an
advance. Three battalions followed him, smashing into the enemy and driving two hostile battalions into flight.
As the Creasy rallied his men for another advance, a staff officer came galloping up from Toulouse-Laurtrec.
“Monsieurs” he called, giving Rochefort a look that was a warming compound of fear and loathing “The Groß-Holstens have asked for the honors of war, and they have been granted. Victory is ours.” Waving his hat over his head he galloped away.
“Idiot” Rochefort and Creasy said simultaneously, and then looked at each other in surprise.
“We had ‘em cold” Creasy grumbled “Could ‘ave smashed ‘em for the year.”
A victory still, thought Rochefort. At this rate there was some small risk of the citizens of Trève actually liking the new régime… nah, that was never going to happen.