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“We do indeed. Two birds in the hand. I imagine that diplomatic complaints and discussions will proceed at their usual snail-like pace. Protests carried across the Atlantic by ship, responses sent back by even slower ones. Diplomacy always takes time. Perhaps if enough time passes with questions and answers and replies, why the matter might soon be forgotten.”

“I pray that you are correct, Mr. President. But as you are well aware there is already much agitation among the British about the present conflict. They side with the rebellious states and bitterly resent the disruption in cotton shipments caused by our blockade. There are reports that some Lancashire mills are closing. I am afraid that this country of ours is not very popular at this time, in Britain, or even elsewhere on the continent.”

“There are a lot worse things on the earth than not being popular. Like the story about the rabbit who got angry at the old hounddog and he went and got all the other rabbits to get together with him and give the hounddog a good hiding. Not that the hounddog minded — he hadn’t et that well in years.”

“The English are not rabbits, Mr. Lincoln.”

“Indeed they are not. But this particular old hounddog is going to worry about trouble only when it comes. Meanwhile two very painful thorns have been removed from our hide. We must now find a secure container to put them in, lock them away out of sight and then, hopefully, forget all about them. Perhaps this entire matter might blow over and be forgotten as well.”

“God blast and damn every one of those poxy Yankees!”

Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister of Britain, stamped the length of his office, then back again. The dispatch from Southampton was lying on his desk. He seized it up and read it again; his large nostrils flared with rage, big as cannon muzzles. His lordship’s temper was not very good at the best of times; now it was fully on the boil. Lord John Russell just sat quietly and waited, preferring not to be noticed. Alas, this was not to be.

Lord Palmerston crumpled the sheet, hurled it from him, turned on Russell and stabbed out a finger that trembled with rage. “You are the Foreign Minister, which means that this matter is your responsibility. Now, sir — what do you intend to do about it?”

“Protest, of course. My secretary is already preparing a draft. I will then consult with you — ”

“Not bloody good enough. Give those rebellious Yankees an inch and they’ll want an ell. What we must do is get them by the scruff and give them a sound shaking. Like a terrier with a rat. This has been an infamous deed that must be answered instantly — and with great firmness. I shall remove you of the responsibility and shall take care of this matter myself. It is my firm intention to get off a dispatch that will blow the Yankees right out of the water.”

“I am sure that there are precedents, sir. And then we must consult with the Queen…”

“Damn the precedents and — of course, yes, we surely must bring this matter to the attention of the Queen. Though I dread the thought of another meeting with her so soon. The last time I was at Buckingham Palace she was in the middle of one of those screaming fits, flying through the corridors. At least this nasty bit of news will draw her attention. But I am sure that she will be even more than outraged about this than we are, doesn’t like those Americans at all.”

“There would be no need to meet with the Queen if we were more circumspect. Perhaps it would not be so wise as to fire all of our batteries at once at the Yankees? There is a case to be made that we first go through the correct channels. Begin with a protest, then a reply. Then if they don’t accede to our polite requests we forget all kindness and sweet reason. We stop asking them. We tell them what they must do.”

“Perhaps, perhaps,” Palmerston muttered. “I will take that under consideration when the cabinet convenes. It has become imperative that we have a cabinet meeting at once.”

The secretary knocked lightly, then came in.

“Admiral Milne, sir. He would like to know if he could see you.”

“Of course, show him in.”

Lord Palmerston stood and took the admiral’s hand when he entered. “I imagine that this is no courtesy call, Admiral?”

“Hardly, sir. May I sit?”

“Of course. The wound — ?”

“Well healed, but I’m still not as strong as I should be.” He sat and came straight to the point. “I have been too long on the shore, gentlemen. This sudden development has forcefully reminded me of that fact.”

“The Trent !” Russell said.

“The Trent indeed! A ship flying British colors — stopped at sea by an alien warship… words do fail me.”

“Not I sir, not I!” Palmerston’s anger surged again. “I see this action through your eyes and understand your passion. You have fought honorably for your country, have been wounded in her service in China. You are an Admiral of the Fleet in the most powerful navy the world has ever seen. And this matter, I know how you must feel…”

Milne had found his words now, shook with anger as they tumbled out. “Humiliation, Your Lordship. Humiliation and rage. Those raggle-taggle colonists must be taught a lesson. They cannot fire on a British ship, a Royal Mail packet by God, and not face the consequences of this despicable act.”

“What do you think the consequences should be?” Palmerston asked.

“That is not for me to say. It is for you gentlemen to decide the proper course to take in these matters. But I want you to know that every manjack in the Royal Navy is behind you, every foot of the way.”

“You feel they share your outrage?”

“Not feel — know! From the lowest matelot on the gun deck to the highest rank in the admiralty there will be disgust and anger. And the keen desire to follow where you lead.”

Palmerston nodded slowly. “Thank you, Admiral for your frankness. You have given new fiber to our determination. The Cabinet will meet at once. Be assured that action will be taken this very day. And I am sure that your return to active service will be appreciated and your offer accepted.”

“There is an officer from the Trent here, sir,” the secretary said as soon as the admiral had been ushered out. “He is seeking instruction as to the dispersal of certain documents he is holding.”

“What documents?”

“It seems that he took under his care all of the papers and documents that Messrs Mason and Slidell wished to conceal from the American government. They were safely concealed and now he wishes instruction as to their disposal.”

“Capital! Have them in and we shall see just why the Yankees were in such a hurry to nobble these two men.”

As the San Jacinto steamed north toward New York City the weather deteriorated. Captain Wilkes stood on the weather deck, rain lashing against his oilskins. The sea was getting up and there was snow now mixed in with the rain. He turned as Lieutenant Fairfax came out on deck.

“Engineer reports that we are taking in some water, sir. Seams working in this cross sea.”

“Pumps holding?”

“Very well, Captain. But he wants to reduce the revolutions to ease the strain on the hull. This ship has seen a lot of service.”

“Indeed she has. All right, 80 revolutions — but no less than that. Our orders are quite explicit.”

At the slower speed the leaking abated so much that the pumping could be stopped for a few minutes so that the water level could be sounded in the well. There proved to have been a great improvement. Nevertheless the wind was getting up and the San Jacinto rolled heavily. It was not a comfortable voyage. By the time she arrived in New York visibility was almost zero in the blinding snowstorm, now mixed with lashing hail. Her arrival had been expected and she was met by a tugboat in the Narrows.