The Castle (5)
Along the wharf of the ever-expanding Rotterdam harbour, Dan Arent, a broad, bearded man of fifty, was anxiously checking a number of barrels against a written note in his hand. Along with members of his crew he was instructing the day labourers who were loading his ship, the Adventurer, with its cargo and supplies. It had been a slow process, testing Arent's patience. The river Meuse had been particularly busy throughout the morning with many ships lying in wait. There had been congestion - crowds of men, lines of pack carts, and angry ship owners marching up and down, all waiting to set sail to different corners of the world. It was midday before the barrels of beef and salted hogs had been safely stored in the Adventurer’s hold. The cider had eventually arrived in the afternoon and was only now being unloaded, although Arent had already noted the consignment was five barrels short. The cart drivers, of course, knew nothing about missing barrels. Normally Arent would crack heads to discover the truth. But he had more important things to worry about. The most important part of his cargo, fifty drums of gunpowder, was nowhere to be seen.
'How much longer before we sail, Captain ?'
Arent looked to the ship’s deck. Cadwaller Jones, his friend and deputy, had emerged from below and was standing against the portside gunwale looking down over the wharf. Short, balding and stripped to the waist, his torso and brow glistening with sweat, Jones and Arent had been friends since their army days, when they fought together in the long war to end the Spanish yoke. He was nearly as old as Arent but in sprightlier shape. The hold was a hot place to work for a man in his late-forties, especially dragging barrels. Cadwaller, always eager, and as tough as oiled leather, still managed to do it effortlessly.
'We won’t be sailing at all if the damned powder doesn't arrive' shouted Arent. 'And there's our money to consider. If the English renege on the deal, then we'll take what we've loaded as payment for our time.'
Jones shimmied down a thick mooring rope. 'I don't trust the bastards' he said in a forceful tone, wiping his head with a rag. 'It wouldn't be the first time they've changed their plans.'
'Their king is on a losing streak' said Arent. 'Which is good for us – we can drive a high price from his loyal exiles. But his support won't last. What fool will gamble on a weak king hiding in a corner of Oxford ?'
Cadwaller laughed. 'If the powder hasn't arrived in an hour we'll sink a few barrels of cider and have a hearty night in the town. What do you say ?'
Arent knew the options were few if the powder was late. They needed to cross the channel to England in day light, then drift easy until dark. Another few wasted hours and it would be too late. A night in town was the last thing Arent wanted. His crew would set themselves to drinking and whoring; he might never see half of them again.
He turned and walked the short distance from the harbour into town, glad to escape from the bustle of loading the ship. In years gone-by he spent every waking hour attending to his ship’s minutest detail. Not so now. The Adventurer, a three masted fluyt, was no longer the all-consuming passion of his life. Only his friend Cadwaller Jones had saved him from a life of dissolution – had convinced him to continue doing what he did best. That was two years ago, when Arent was spending more time in the tavern than on the wharf – a time when he was thrown out of his house and had to bed down in the captain’s quarters. Cadwaller had taken him in; and it was Cadwaller’s young wife who fed him and tended to his distemper. Arent was thankful to them both for steering him away from the gutter and worse. But now, as he walked through Rotterdam’s narrow streets, he decided that a new life was calling – a life he had once planned together with the woman he’d loved. After the English trip, unbeknown to Cadwaller, he was going to sell the Adventurer and, with the profit, settle permanently on foreign shores.
He stopped and purchased a small bunch of flowers from an old woman in the street; then he made his way along a narrow rising pathway that led to the city cemetery. Once through the gate he settled before a grave near the far fence, a grave sheltered by a drooping elm. Its headstone – weathered by the years - carried three names. Arent wiped each name with his handkerchief, cleaning the stone as best as he was able of any impediment that might cause the lettering to fade.
The grave was the resting place of his wife and two children. Three years had passed since he lost them, three long years during which he had fought, drunk and snarled against the world and everything in it. The fruits of his hard work, his own trading fleet, had disappeared. Contracts had been lost. Money had been frittered away. Two of his three ships had been sold to pay his debts. No longer was he the temperate church-going master of trade he had been when his family was alive, a man of good standing whose word was his bond. Now he was known as a hard drinking miscreant – Dan Arent, the once godly man who had fallen from faith. And if he were to stand in court to answer for his dissolute life he would tell those who were prepared to listen that grief was the root of it all – grief and a burning anger at his loss.
He laid the flowers at the base of the grave’s simple stone. It was his first visit in several months, a guilty secret that gnawed at his guts. He whispered an apology to his wife, then confessed to her that new thoughts had urged him to recast his life anew. No longer, he said, could he remain in the country of his birth. Grief was the driver, as well as the memories of their time together. Those memories haunted him, appearing on every corner; the voices of his wife and children whistled in familiar places, their spirits swirled in the streets. It was this haunting that had done for him, was the reason why moneylenders had reclaimed his house; why his ships had been sold and his livelihood gone under. He asked her to understand, asked his children to forgive him. Then he wiped his eyes with the sodden handkerchief, feeling himself foolish as he did so.
He walked slowly back towards the harbour. There was a time when prayer would have provided him with comfort, perhaps even answers. Not anymore. His faith in God had left him the moment they were lowered into the ground. That the creator was callously able to take from him the people he most loved was beyond all comprehension. He knew that his wife would have had an answer to it all - ‘It is God’s way of testing you’ she would have said, and his fists clenched in sorrow and anger as, for a fleeting moment, her voice came to him once again. Perhaps, long ago, he might have believed such a thing. Now, her imaginary words struck him as mere platitudes, knitted together in order to comfort a soul in torment. God had struck him a harsh blow and he refused to be cowed. From now on Dan Arent would shape his own destiny and to hell with those who would stand in his way.