A secret treaty will determine whether England can survive against Napoleon, and Captain Grey races across the Atlantic to intercept a treasure fleet.
Vienna—June 1804. At the glittering debut of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, a Spanish diplomat meets with Captain Thomas Grey, agent of His Majesty’s Secret Service. In exchange for a gigantic bribe, the Spaniard discloses Spain’s darkest secret the actual terms of the Treaty of San Ildefonso with France.
Spain’s neutrality in Napoleon’s war on Britain is only a ruse to keep the British navy from attacking the great treasure-armada now gathering in South America. Spanish warships will depart Montevideo, Uruguay, carrying 2,000 tons of gold; when the gold is safely in Madrid, Spain will declare war on Britain and ally with France to divide the British Empire between them. Britain’s only hope is to sink or capture the treasure fleet, and the responsibility of delivering that blow falls to Grey. As Jack Aubrey would have said in such a crisis, "There is not a moment to be lost!"
Release date: August 1, 2023
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Print pages: 231
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The Montevideo Brief: A Thomas Grey Novel
J. H. Gelernter
June 9th, 1804
The Grand Festival Hall—so called—of the Palais Lobkowitz had been filled with about two hundred chairs, all facing the east end of the room, where an orchestra were tuning their instruments. Thomas Grey was seated in the last row, watching a tempestuous conductor walking among his musicians, stopping here and there to make some remark to one of them, once grabbing an oboe from a frightened-looking member of the woodwinds and proceeding to tune it himself before handing it back with undisguised contempt.
He looked to be about Grey’s age; actually he was a decade older. Though Grey had never before seen him in the flesh, he knew the man well by reputation. He was shorter than Grey had imagined—quite short, if he’d been an Englishman, still somewhat short for a European, at about five foot three. His close-cropped, forward-combed hair made him look something like a Roman consul who’d accidentally been dressed in a high-collared coat, over an even higher-collared shirt, brown breeches, and high black jackboots.
The conductor’s height notwithstanding, there exuded from him an aura of command that put Grey in mind of Grey’s chief, the head of the British secret service, Sir Edward Banks. Though perhaps that had something to do with both men wearing their own hair. Even Grey, who preferred to follow Sir Edward’s example in eschewing wigs, was wearing one this evening, so as not to stand out among a crowd of Vienna’s elite.
These particular elite were friends and friends-of-friends of the seventh Prince Lobkowitz, Joseph Franz Maximilian. Grey’s invitation had been obtained by—or, it would be more accurate to say, purloined from—Vienna’s British consul, who parted with it reluctantly and with considerable irritation. Prince Lobkowitz was Europe’s most famous patron of music, and the evening was to be the private debut of the newest composition of his most famous protégé, Ludwig van Beethoven. Apparently, the symphony—Beethoven’s third—had been named, by Beethoven himself, the Sinfonia Bonaparte. In a city where Napoleon was, as a rule, either disliked or hated, it was a bold statement. But Beethoven had the stature to do as he liked. And Grey assumed he didn’t know Napoleon’s work the way Grey did.
This thought brought Grey back to his purpose in attending the concert. He was here to take possession of an extremely expensive article, purchased—half in advance, half on delivery—from the Spanish ambassador to the Kingdom of Prussia, who—well known in German circles for his love of modern music—was a frequent guest at the private concerts of Prince Lobkowitz. Prior to his elevation to ambassador, he had been one of the secretaries of the “Prince of Peace,” Manuel Godoy. From serving as a trusted adviser of Spanish king Charles IV, Godoy had effectively taken complete control of Spain and its government. His title “Prince of Peace” came from his frequent involvement in the negotiations of peace treaties among the European powers; in 1802, he had negotiated the Treaty of Amiens, a brief peace between France and Britain. After the negotiations concluded, Napoleon sent a disgusted letter to Charles IV calling Godoy the true king of Spain and informing the oblivious Charles that his wife, Queen María Luisa, was Godoy’s mistress. So strong was Godoy’s grip on Spain that, when his bodyguard intercepted the letter in the king’s mail, Godoy not only allowed it to be delivered, but allowed it to become an article of court gossip.
Shortly after Amiens, Godoy had negotiated a secret treaty between Spain and France. At the time, the two countries had an outstanding peace agreement under which Spain agreed to remain neutral in exchange for an assurance from Napoleon that he would not cross the Pyrenees. In the two years since Amiens, it had taken British intelligence enormous effort to confirm that there was a secret treaty, to learn then the names of the small group of Spaniards and Frenchmen who were privy to its contents, and then to identify one of these who would be amenable to unveiling the treaty in exchange for a great deal of money.
One of Grey’s colleagues in Spain had, at great length, identified as the best candidate Fernandino María Basco y Anda. Among his other duties as one of Godoy’s private secretaries, Basco had been a courier of drafts between the negotiating parties when they met, in early 1803, in San Ildefonso. And he had been chosen to write fair a copy of the final document. Tonight, Basco y Anda—who, like most Spaniards, found the almost fantastic arrogance of Godoy highly objectionable—would accept the second half of his bribe, and disclose the secret compact. At the ambassador’s unwavering insistence that nothing be put in writing, Grey would receive the information by word of mouth.
Grey felt mild guilt at having been chosen for this most pleasant of assignments. Colleagues of his in Iberia and the Holy Roman Empire had spent years working towards the elucidation of the secret treaty, but here Grey was, the man at the command performance, where the maestro of the orchestra was the maestro himself. Grey had been chosen for the job for no more complex a reason than his facility with language; he spoke German better than his colleagues in Spain, and Spanish better than his colleagues in Germany.
“There’s an extra horn,” said an elderly, ill-looking man now seated beside Grey.
He’d been escorted into the hall by several attendants, one of whom supported him while the rest cleared the way for him to process to the front of the room. The man, conducting them with his cane, made it clear he would go no farther than the last row, where Grey rose and helped the unfamiliar man into a seat. The attendants, some of whom must have been in the man’s employ, and others of whom wore the livery of the House of Lobkowitz, had hovered momentarily, like hummingbirds at a hyacinth, looking anxious. With a gracious smile and a polite but expressly firm tone, the man had said to them, “Raus, bitter,” and then to their hurt faces, “Danke schön, meine Kinder.”
“There’s an extra horn,” he’d said, in English.
Grey wondered what anglicism had given him away. Though, with the British consul’s invitation in hand, he was not incognito.
“I’m afraid I don’t know enough of music to see it,” said Grey, in German.
The man answered again in English.
“Do you mind if we speak in English? I haven’t in some while, and I like to stretch the old muscles.”
“Of course, sir.”
“But I am prevented; they are beginning, see.”
The man pointed with an uncomfortable, swollen finger towards the front of the room. Beethoven was centered before the orchestra, facing the audience. At English concerts, Grey had seen modern orchestras conducted in the new style of Haydn, using a baton rather than a staff. Here in Haydn’s city it was unsurprising to see Beethoven doing the same; facing the audience with the long baton in his hand, he looked like an assassin holding a long dagger, prepared to cut, without passion, someone’s throat. With a slightly slow stroke left to right, he silenced the audience. His voice was deep, particularly for a man of his height, and it commanded the complete attention of everyone in the room. He spoke in German.
“No doubt over the course of the evening, you have had, or will have, a chance to thank His Serene Highness, the Prince Lobkowitz, for his grace in creating this evening.”
Grey could see the prince, seated at the center of the first, hemi-circular row, in a throne of modest extravagance.
“I must add my own deep thanks; to you he is prince; to me he is something even greater, a patron. He does me great honor in his patronage; I hope it will prove some honor in return that I dedicate to him my Sinfonia Bonaparte.”
Dedicating a piece to one man while naming it after another struck Grey as mildly absurd, but he wasn’t familiar with the professional conventions of music. In any case, the audience—Grey included—stood to applaud the prince for having won this dedication. This went on for about a quarter minute before the prince waved for everyone to resume his seat, and extended an open hand towards Beethoven, telling him he might begin.
Beethoven nodded and turned to face the orchestra. He raised his baton over his head—it was pointed directly upward—then brought it down violently, and the orchestra struck the first chord. From the first instant, the music threw everyone in the room off-balance. After a very short pause, the same giant chord was struck again—the audience waited for the second repetition, the natural feeling (Grey’s, in any case) was for a natural set of three. But instead, the theme began. An exceptionally simple theme, so simple that Grey—as he was, no student of music—recognized it as a seesaw back and forth through a simple major triad. It sounded almost pastoral, but as it ended, the theme crashed into a C-sharp. In his chest, Grey felt the building of a sense of unease . . . as if the entire emotion built up by an opera, by a Don Giovanni—the tension of the statue of the commendatore dragging Giovanni to hell—had been squeezed into a dozen notes. And then the music was back to its harmless, pastoral major triad. Grey cocked his head to one side, an unconscious movement of confusion that bordered on concern. He felt the tension of the audience around him. The theme built up, from the almost-thin sound of a horn to the whole orchestra, and exploded again. And now the theme was broken up, and strung over individual blasts of music, with concussive pauses between them. And then the flutes, harmlessly playing the pastoral again—only to be beaten back by the angry horns asserting a furious rushing recapitulation, sliding through a second theme into a third, this one soft and smooth and comforting. The music danced from deep bass to high treble, was quiet and then built up again to the booming reworking of the original theme mixed with the new ones—and more stabs of the orchestra with abrupt pauses. And then another new theme? Or just the descent back towards the original. Now the stabs had no pauses between them, and a repetition of the theme was played by the full orchestra—with the jarring sharp note now omitted. This time it was triumphant, as if Haydn or Mozart had written it. Fiery and energetic, but familiar. The tension in Grey’s chest eased somewhat. The music pulled him along like an eight-in-hand team of wild horses, but now they were running over ground he recognized. The strings danced to the forefront of the music, playfully, then building to another giant but natural restating of the theme.
The tempo began to slow dramatically, like a boat coasting slowly up to a pier. And then the original theme burst back in, in a low register . . . not overfast, but full of some powder waiting to detonate. And now the playful strings sounded less playful, dancing on top of the deep theme . . . the trivial but very deep original theme, now passing through different chords, different triads. Colors flashed through Grey’s head with each variation. Stabs now, again, fragments of the alternate themes, dueling with the principal.
And then, from nowhere, a key change—or so Grey thought—and a new wandering, scale-ish theme. Grey didn’t know; couldn’t find the correct words with which to describe it to himself. The deep strings and the high horns were fighting, not with each other, but beside each other, like two men shoulder to shoulder on a barricade.
The horns pulled back, and strings began to play a sort of vamp, and very quietly.
A horn player entered too early, playing the original theme—a mistake? And then a moment later the whole orchestra was playing the theme again.
Was there another key change? Grey couldn’t follow it. The music bombarded the room like a broadside from HMS Victory. A rolling broadside, actually. And with Victoryfighting both sides, as she had at St. Vincent.
Then peace. ...
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