Tuesday, March 4, 2014

SAILING ON THE SEA (from work in progress, book 2 of the Julian Plectrum Series)

As the coast of Cornwall faded to small dots and less behind us, the captain of the Barcelona, Albertus, hastened all of us below into his cabins. The main one held his own bed, and a table full of charts. And beside it another chamber he used solely for his dining, and had one or two bunks for guests. He bid us to sit round the table. Chairs with rope seats were all about it, and he called to his cook, Catso,  who began bringing in large plates of food for us.
“I have brought you here just to welcome you again, Stephen, Roger, and you, the two newly wedded ones. We are headed for Harfleur, it is true, but I mean to let you know about some of the things we have been worrying over. The Prince of Wales— the Welsh one, that is— is rumored to be dealing with the French, and possibly treating with them. What I know is, while we sail there, and we have had good relations with them, it is entirely possible that they will make ways to keep us in port more than we might choose to. I have supplied all my crew with a little more victuals than they would have called for, in the event they do not allow us to offboard ourselves, to enjoy the pleasures of their port. For while I am English I yet feel drawn to your cause. The fate of Cheshire is in the balance.”
He continued.
“Like I have told you, Stephen, your father’s death sounds like something I shall carry as a scar all my life. It’s my wish that you take that pendant which I gave to you, and leave it at his grave, when you return, for in my heart I never had such a fine and wonderful friend.”
We could see the tears welling up in his eyes. The meal sat untouched before us- there was good new bread, and bowls of good chowder, and even plates of boiled carrot, but we touched nothing while Albertus laid bare his heart. Stephen felt the sorrow. We all did, which was nothing remarkable at all.
“Albertus, we know little of the designs of Wales. We only hope to bring our goods to Amiens, and return with more. I do feel the pain you speak of and aye, consider all my father’s friends to have been friends of mine. And that we might help to be yet your customers for many more years- I understand you would have us tread warily in France. And so we shall. But for now, let us put aside those other things. Tell us of the journey. How long? What say you of the conditions under sail?”
“Ah, conditions. Well we leave at perhaps a good time, although I wonder about the return. We shall have good sailing to Harfleur. It is the coming back to consider. The current is fair, and the seas are not turbulent, at least, they are for the moment. We should be at Harfleur night after tomorrow, if not sooner. The wind carries us at a fine pace, and I have seen no sign of storm. Like I say though, our trip back could be more frighted. The storms will begin to blow through here mid October. The current will be against us on our return. The rains due to come will doubtless delay you, at some point, however you hope to make it. I know you have made the trip before, Stephen, but Richard had done it a dozen times, and each one, he took care to cover up the wagon for the torrents could easily ruin all those fine cloths you plan on returning with.”
“Aye. I shall consider that, Albertus. Meanwhile, perhaps, we might partake your fine table? Let us have Julian tell the grace, and we eat, lest this good chowder go cold!”
And so it came to me to speak the table grace. Mary nodded to me, and I began, quite simply.
“Lord who has given us all good things and the grace of living, grant us continued blessings, and we thank thee for this blessed meal, and our good host. May we sail with good fortune, and his little ship be borne with joy, upon the great sea of thy continuities. Amen.”
“Amen!” agreed Albertus most heartily, and he dug into his chowder with a gusto.
“I feel we will have quite a journey,” said Mary. “I have heard much of France, but never left Cheshire, really, until I married Julian and we came to Penzance. Lest I fall homesick too quickly, I hope we might discover more things to give us conversations with our friends and families. Surely Stephen is a good and generous fortunate merchant, even though he be young. And he has Roger to help him, of course!”
Roger, sitting across the table, looked up with a wet-puppy expression.
“Madame, I helped Richard for each of those journeys, I can help to make ease the path for you and Julian, of course, by what I do know of France, and of this road we shall need take to Amiens. There are few things in France that surprise me now, although I am sure you and Julian will discover your own. Rest assured, I will do all I can to ensure the safety of us all.”
Stephen and I had finished our bowls, and we each shared one of the small round loaves  Catso the cook had brought in. Albertus went to a cabinet on his wall and took down two bottles. One was a glass gallon jug of red wine, the other, a smaller blue glass full of some sort of brandy, of which I had never known.
“My friends, as you are on your way to Normandy, I should give you a taste of their finest.”
He poured liquid from the blue bottle into each of our cups.
“This is an apple brandy, the august spirit of the apple of that land. It is famed far across Normandy! Would that there were more of this! But they guard it highly and part with it dear. The thing is, once you have had some, you are likely to want more! But this is all I have until we land, and I can restock my stores.”
We sipped the drink. It was pure apple essence! Such like my strong cider, but more like Porcull’s distilled spirit than that! Strong, too. One cup of it, and I felt more relaxed, and set to the lute.
“Will  you have a song, Albertus? Call the tune, if you would.”
“What may you play that will ease my sorrow on Richard?”
“Ah. Perhaps I shall give you a meditation in melody. I have no words— Richard was my protector, too, and I owe him dearly for what I have become. So very well. I shall make for all of you now a tune for Richard.”
And I played them in a minor mode of D something that had been gathering thought in my mind. Richard the noble, the D minor- F- b flat and C major mode in grand flourishes at each change of chord. When I though of Richard, my fingers on the bass strings pulled earnestly, the strum of my pinky and ring fingers was just. Albertus took an ear, sat silently, and smiled. When I had set the lute back down again, my wife took my hand.
“Julian,” she said, “I want for your sake that you remember these days. We are young and in love  and who knows if we should have the chance again to make such a journey. I will remember everyone at this table in my thoughts and prayers tonight. And I will welcome the ship’s captain at our own table, e’er he return to Penzance port, that he might have a safe place to stay, and celebrate anew.”
“Very good of you to offer, Mrs. Plectrum,” replied Albertus. “Long have I tired of some of the taverners of Penzance- I will name you no names! Julian, you probably know who some of them are. If I should impose on you at all at any time...”
“Imposition is not the question sire, only what you might reasonably require. I merely mention it because I feel your hospitality and help shall someday find repay. And we are new to Penzance as well. We can use having an elder who can help us make sense of the ways of the people there.”
“And from a Cheshire man to the daughter of a Cheshire gentleman, I thank you, dear lady.”
We finished off all the food laid before us, drank our fill of the brandy, and began again with the wine. Roger had to be looked to, of course, lest he take too many cups and make himself a monster again, but such was not the trouble now. The sun had begun to set, seen off through the windows of Albertus’ cabins, and the sky was rushing on a darker purple by the moment. Sea lapped against the hull, as we sailed on into the gathering dark.
“I will give you three beds, such as there are here in this chamber, and in the antechamber beside. Usually that is reserved for my fist mate and bosun, but I have them working all night on a special task, and then, they are to keep the watch till sunrise. So when the weariness overcomes you all feel you free to bed down. There are blankets stored beneath the bunks, you will find. I return to my cabin. Stephen, and Roger, you will accompany me.”
Mary and I took to the beds, and listened while Roger began going over the journey in more detail, as we could hear through the open door.
“We have yet many sea-leagues to go. We head far below the Isle of Wight and continue full on over the French coast to Harfleur. I see no troubles in the next day’s travel- there are no ominous cloud forms, and it seems even the petrels and gulls remain on the open waters- that is always a good sign. The thing is, gents, as I told you, I wonder about our return. For each October at mid month the winds seem to reverse, take on chill, and the storms out of the great sea begin to blow against both England and France. These will bring rain to Normandy, and Picardy where you go. They can blow with severely strong rains- rains that cause us to furl the masts and take our lumps as we track back against the Channel flow. How be you set for cover?”
“To be true, Albertus, it was not something I considered.”
“Well then, I see you still have much to learn. Here I shall help you again. I have a small spare sail, which I shall give to you to make a cover to the wagon. You just cannot be coming back on the roads with those fine silks, tapestries, and everything else you find Amiens, in need of a drying! For they surely may spoil with mold and rot, if they soak long enough. And wherewith would you lie them aside to sun them? There will be few farmers in all Normandy willing to grant that comfort to an English merchant.”
“Graciously, Albertus, I will accept that. And what payment shall I make you?”
“Again, Stephen, no payment do I ask- today. But remember the debt if I should need a like favor! Well met were your father’s plans with mine, but he always kept me fairsquare on the level, whatever favors we gave each other. It is only common sense, of course.”
“Of course.”
Roger spoke up. The wine had settled well inside him, and yet not turned his brain to folly, as it must have the evening last in Penzance.
“Good captain Albertus, I welcome this offer. We will need to perhaps trim this sail to our purpose. While we cannot do so yet, it shall be our first task once we are docked and unloading all the goods with the wagon. Mind you what can we do for you when we arrive at Harfleur? For I am familiar with the docks and taverns there. And with the shops. Once we have found ourselves a billeting and a place for the horses, I shall return to Barcelona and bring you to our stations.”
“Ah, Roger, lad, I can very well sleep here on Barcelona while you have off to your sights. As I said, I worry some over how we will be perceived and received there. If things are not copacetic with the harbor master, it could be that I spend the entire stay cooped up in these spaces! No mind! For I have books and charts to look over, and of course there are always a myriad of chores to keep Barcelona fit and trim.”
Stephen and Roger continued on talking in this manner for some time, in which, Mary and I relaxed in each other’s arms, and fell to sleep in but one of the beds, together.
Deep in the night, I awoke, to strange sounds from the hull and the hold below us. Banging, yelling, cries of “there one be!” and “mash ‘em!” and pounding. I was so startled, I took from the bed, and peered into Albertus own cabin.
He had not yet gone abed himself, and sat by light of a candle, with pen and compass.
“What is troubling you, minstrel?”
“Good Captain, what are these noises? What goes on down there?”
“Ah, Julian, that’s only my crew. They have been set to their task.”
“What the devil may that be! They woke me!”
“They are just firing out the bilge rats. We can’t stand them, and we do not need them to spoil our stores, nor do we need them nesting in Stephen’s wool sacks. So the men take torches and cudgels and drive them out, through a hatchway, and off into the sea. We must do this on every journey, Julian.”
“Oh well, I guess I see that. But can they be a little more quiet about it?”
“They’ll be done within the hour, Julian. Have a good rest.”
And with that, I was sure I was dismissed. I lay back down. Mary slept on, completely undisturbed by it, which was good, since I felt little desire to explain it all to her.
When morning broke, as it must do upon all dreaming sleepers, I was hard put to rouse myself, for my dream had been a wonderful thing to find myself in, and the prospect of this earth again before my weary eyes was less the wonder, and more the burden. But I had not long to wait, before I heard Catso hustling and clanking about in his galley, firing the coals and setting pans out to boil up frumenty and eggs with cheese, which were set onto trenchers of a mild brown bread, that themselves were quite good, for while others may have flung them off, I found chewing on them added a lot to the relief of my own hunger.
Mary and Albertus and Stephen were all already roused and fidgeting about having had a full fifteen minutes time on me. For I was indeed, a little angry at the gods for waking me. How rare it is, we dream a dream which is so pleasing to us, that we should rather forsake this world, for the one we find on the other side of sleep! But so it was. And even as I forgot the details, and even anything with which I might best describe it so to my wife, this dream was such that I only wanted to crash my head back down on the pillow again, and find my way back to Morpheus’ cave.
But, of course, that was just not to be. As soon as Mary noticed me stirring, she was by my side, soliciting her good mornings from me, and offering me her hand, with which she smoothed the rumpled hair on my head, and stroked the growing beard of my face.
“Julian, this day’s journey will find us in France. The captain assures me that we shall make port by nightfall.”
Ah, the captain assures her. That was a good sounding phrase, it was, and I could only but trust this captain. Seeing as it was but my first time ever put out to sea, and that the Channel shores were each on the sides of the ship, and yet, only with a dunk in the water and a hearty swim could a man reach either, lest he remain onboard, I sighed, and tried to resign myself again to waking in this life.
The captain himself, being full of his breakfast, had set to his own toilet, and now was up on the deck, making food for the fish with it. Stephen offered me the rest of his own breakfast, but I demurred, and the cook handed me over a trencher of my own, and this, as I said, I made my meal with, as Mary sat by me and both of us watched out the captain’s windows the green sea, with morning’s light shining full upon it, a thing both of wonder and of dread.
“”Tis for sure, Julian, we shall be at Harfleur ere the dining hour. And there we shall bring you to the place we are fond of, in the town, where you and Mary might sleep this night. I take it that the hard sea gave you no fits?”
“No, Stephen, the sea was neither hard, nor had I fits, but a wondrous dream most fond, that I should wake to see only this world again, ach, that is the curse! But what more. Perhaps I shall find that place of last night’s dream someday far-off, but for now, ach, here I am, and at least I’ve no headache!”
And at this Mary laughed, for we would have many days ahead in our lives where a headache might be the least of our troubles.
“You two must make yourselves easy as we ride Neptune’s chariot. For while we are used to the rocking rolling and the pitch and yaw of the cog, once we return to shore, you’ll see, the wobbles will come on as we gain land legs again!” Stephen was cleaning his teeth with his knife and flinging bits of crumb off onto the captain’s floor.
The captain returned from his ordures and bade me a good morning.
“Minstrel Plectrum! I should have a song, I should, to make my morning fine and merry! Have you a song in your bag that you can offer us?”
Not affronted by his request, after my meal had been drawn away by Catso, I pulled forth the lute, and began to sing:
The Barcelona sails upon the dark enchanted sea
With herring gulls and pelicans she is a sight to see
The shore of France is starboard-wise, and England lies to port
But not for a moment would I leave this bed of my comfort
This bed of my comfort.

Our captain is a gentleman from Cheshire brave and sure
And this crew of his they heave away- their hearts are strong and pure
We head this day for Harfleur town, the sight we’s like to see
But not for a moment can I stop this anxious urge to pee
This anxious urge to pee...”
I stopped. I had found myself headed someplace I was not sure Mary would be too keen on having me go. Indeed, I was heading into the realm of John the Farter, whom I will ever disparage, but being so close to the sea and the turning, churning of the stomach (as it might do) I knew not what had struck me.
Albertus guffawed, and held up his hand. “Fine, fine, alright, you win. But I must hear your lute again, ‘ere the day is done! I know that I shall. Rest then, good Julian, for the cog shall get to Harfleur quite on our schedule. I recommend you and your wife take a seat up on the deck, where there will be other entertainments soon, offered by my crew.”
What they might be, I had not a clue, and it seemed that Stephen might have an idea, but it seemed agreeable, so Mary and I went topside to the poop, where there were seats that looked both fore and aft, and chose the ones looking aft.
When the crew had finished their morning miseries, they all assembled in the small space which set between the goods, the cart, and all the other stores which Albertus had outfit Barcelona with, and the bosun, Chelmswadd, was the first to begin.
They sang a sailor’s song, so blue I cannot repeat it, and so ribald that Mary blushed.
“They have a million of them,” assured Albertus.
The Barcelona  was a fair sixty feet in length with a draw of about twenty five across. As a cog she had been to Spain and back some six times, to Bruges at least twelve, and to Harfleur, of course, someplace much upward than twenty. Albertus has friends everywhere, so Richard told us on the trip to London. I was also not surprised to learn Albertus knew where to go for the best spirits, because he had helped Richard to stock the cellars of the manor with wines from Spain and Central France. Those wines were delicious, and Albertus was a man getting up in the world.
           His crew had been gathered from men from Chester, Bristol and Falmouth, mostly. They were perhaps crude in speech and manner, but they got the job done and they did not dicker about complaining, when the time came to heave off, they would be there on board, or knew they would be left behind. I considered the little boat and its role to be an absolute item of real enterprise. Albertus made a little money off of us, not only because we paid him for the passage, but he made money from ferrying the goods here and there, and he did have his port costs, but he was in business because he liked to sail and he enjoyed the open sea. Perhaps as much as I enjoyed a warm and cosy hearth with a fire!
Onward we sailed, into the brightness of day or such as might be allowed by some scudding clouds which came and went and came again. Dolphins came past us, and played within the wake, and sometimes swam up ahead of us, their own paths twisting and threading among each other. I spent some time with the horses, calming them, talking with Magdalene, assuring her that we would be putting to land ere the night came, and there would be water and hay aplenty for her, and nuzzling her, patting her on the head, and doing my best to help what must have been a rather intolerable situation for all the horses. after all, where could they go? They relieved themselves where they stood, and it would be the crew to clean it up.
After I had spent a good hour or more just making the horses less skittish, I came back to Mary, and we talked of what we should do with our home, when we returned. We had been gone but one night, but it were long enough that we should feel the loss, for having held something assuredly, and yet, not being there yet to enjoy.
“We will make a garden there, when we return, Julian. You will make the fields for planting, and we shall have barley, rye, and wheat of our own, to match the bakers. I will use much for our ale, which it will be best if I made, as why should we pay a dear penny for what I might do myself? And we shall make a vegetable garden, with roots, and with herbs, all about the sunny end. I am hoping that we can make enough that can last through our second winter, as we must wait for spring to o much. But much we can still do as winter comes! And we can plan it all out...”
I agreed with her, that we should have our own ale, and grow food that could keep us from the need of going often into the town. So she also mentioned we should have other animals there. Perhaps a pig, perhaps our own cow, perhaps some chickens, or doves...
This all sounded fine to me. When we were at a place the conversation felt done, she embraced me, and we sat together watching the sea, rocking to and fro by the waters, Barcelona riding surely eastward, and then, with a cry and a heaving of sail, now turning southward. The cliffs and the strand of the French shore were now approaching. It was not so different from the English, only it be reversed, such as a mirror. The Devon coast and Cornwall looked much like this, but there were less towns upon them, and Albertus cried out from the wheel when he spotted from afar our destination. “Harfleur! Harfleur!” and the crew began to make ready for landfall.

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