The Castle (14)
The Adventurer’s path through the narrow channel of the Meuse tributary was made slow due to the number of ships entering Rotterdam harbour. Dan Arent had witnessed numerous collisions over the years and was not about to take any chances. From the ship’s bridge he bellowed orders to keep the vessel on course and sail within a slow, even speed. Cadwaller stood on the prow shouting and waving at smaller vessels to keep their distance. Leaving port, with 58 barrels of gun powder on board, Arent cut a nervous figure, eager for the Adventurer to taste the open sea.
Once the ship had finally navigated Rotterdam’s approaches and was at full sail he retired to his quarters. He reached into his leather knapsack and took out Pindar’s map which he unfurled across the captain’s table – the map of Cornwall, that rugged county situated at the south westerly tip of England, and which, more specifically for Arent, showed Falmouth town nestling on the more temperate side of the Channel coastline.
Arent studied the inlets and approaches of this rocky outpost. The English Parliamentary forces were, according to Pindar’s most recent intelligence, still three days away from Falmouth. There would be no need to sail into the small town’s harbour, Pindar had told him. The Adventurer would be able to drop anchor and allow the cargo to be ferried to shore by skiff. It was easy money and Arent had no doubt that the king’s foppish emissary would require further crossings. ‘A prolonged war in the south-west could make you a wealthy man Mr Arent’ Pindar had said. ‘Further sailings might require the transportation of mercenaries as well as powder.’
Arent turned and gazed out of the porthole, admired the great expanse of blue green water. The light was beginning to fade and the sea remained calm; the Adventurer was making good time. Their arrival in Cornish waters was scheduled for dawn. Once unloading was complete they would follow the same course home. By tomorrow evening Arent’s crew would be celebrating with pork and beer in one of Rotterdam’s back street taverns.
He opened a small cabinet, set flush in the ship’s timbers, poured himself a glass of dark rum, drinking it down in one. His eyes settled for a moment on his own image, reflected in the small mirror that hung above the washbasin. It was the image of a lonely middle-aged man - a man who had tasted success, who had lost everything he held dear; who had descended into the gutter and who, against the odds, had risen once again. He slumped in his chair. What was it the Scriptures said ? Whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished. Arent had been punished once and he wasn’t interested in being punished again. Pindar’s offer of wealth no longer seduced his ears. After all, recouping the fortune he had lost seemed a trivial undertaking. What would he do with it ? Spend it on long boisterous nights ? More ships ? Find himself a substitute wife who would bear his substitute children ? Arent had no wish to return to domestic life, in the same way that he had no desire to become a lackey of the English king. He knew how war could bend a man – how hatred and violence distilled a foulness of temper that never left, even when war was done.
He refilled his glass. His life had come to a crossroads. The silent prayer that he uttered on his last visit to the graveyard was a prayer asking for forgiveness. In hushed tones, he had spoken to his wife – explained to her that he had lost the faith she had instilled in him and that, because of it, he felt ashamed. Then he whispered to her his plans, how he had decided that, on completion of the Adventurer’s trip to Cornwall, he would end his association with the sea, using whatever profit came his way to seek out a new life, far from war-ravaged Europe, far from the heartache he had endured for so long. He whispered that he had thought long about such an adventure, reminded her that it was a dream once shared by her too – to sail to the Caribbean and live in a white stone mansion, colonnaded, with a vast tropical garden. There, she once told him, she would build a church and their children would help her do the work of the Lord. Now, even though he was faithless, Arent saw the Caribbean as a place where he could atone for the past, a place where he might build a church that would stand as an everlasting memorial to the only woman he had loved.
A knock at the door disrupted Arent’s thoughts. Cadwaller entered, eager to give his report. The night watch was in place, he said. Visibility was good; conditions were favourable; a clear sky, a low moon, a fair wind. Few ships had been spotted.
He stopped and stared at his friend. ‘You look pale, captain. Are you ill ?’
Arent smiled, reached for a second glass. ‘No. I’m not ill. Pour yourself a drink and sit down. I want to talk with you.’
Cadwaller did as he was asked. In the three years he’d known Dan Arent he’d witnessed the man’s grief, as well as his descent into dissolution and eventual re-engagement with everyday life. Now he suspected another twist in the captain’s ever-changing mood. ‘What is it. Tell it straight’ he said. ‘You know you’ll get a fair hearing from me.’
Arent nodded. Cadwaller, he knew, would speak his mind, would give honest opinions when honest questions were asked. And yet it was with difficulty that Arent began to explain the reasons behind his decision to give up his life as a sea trader. The West Indies offered bright new beginnings, he said, a chance to live in peace without the stain of war and its inevitable misery. And he wanted to honour his wife in the only way he knew.
He drank his rum and said these things with the same broad smile and easy manner that had once seduced merchants and investors to put money into his ships. But the look on Cadwaller’s face suggested that Arent’s new beginnings were tainted with treachery and deceit, all at the expense of a friend.
‘And what’s left for the likes of me when you’ve gone ?’ said Cadwaller.
‘The Adventurer, that’s what’s left for you’ said Arent.
‘You’re offering a sale ?’
‘Why not ? You know the ship as well as any man. You know the trade. It’s an opportunity.’
‘We act as a team’ said Cadwaller. ‘Each assigned to his place. You’re the one who deals with merchants. My job is on deck and below.’
Arent’s enthusiasm began to diminish as he took in Cadwaller’s growing anger. He continued: ‘Ownership’s not for me. Perhaps you think I’m a rich man, sitting on a pretty fortune that I keep to myself - is that it ?’
‘No’ said Arent. ‘There are ways and means…there will be some kind of an arrangement hammered out.’
‘What ? A loan ? With interest ? I have a young wife and three children. It is all I can do to keep a roof above our heads.’
‘Pindar speaks of many trips – lucrative trips, ferrying troops to the south-west of England.’
‘And you believe him ? That measly peacock ? Today there is trade to be had. Then tomorrow – what will there be ? Wars can turn in an instant. Next month the English king might be rotting in an English gaol. What will become of Cadwaller Jones, vice-captain of the Adventurer, then ? Out on the street with his starving wife and children, that’s what.’
‘So that’s it’ said Arent ‘I am the only one permitted to carry such a burden upon my shoulders. Is that what you say ?’
‘You are a man who is naturally at ease setting a price with traders, who sits easy in the captain’s chair.’
‘That was in the past’ Arent snapped. ‘I do not yearn to fill those roles. I’m no longer a young man. Now I wish to exchange cold icy storms for sun and simple living. I have decided, Cadwaller – I will turn away from it all.’
Cadwaller stood. ‘I have no interest in it. There’ll be no arrangement. I’m a sailor with children to feed. An honest day’s work and an honest wage is all I ask.’
Arent thumped the table. ‘Wait’ he said as Cadwaller made for the door. ‘Hear me out.’
‘There’s nothing to hear’ said Cadwaller. ‘You’ve a short memory, Dan Arent. Perhaps the months spent in my home meant nothing to you.’
The two men locked eyes. Arent, knowing his temper was high, hesitated before he answered. During his darkest period, that time after his wife and children were so cruelly taken, Cadwaller had supported him in his time of grief, clearing a room for him in his narrow, rented three-storey house, situated in one of Rotterdam’s less prosperous streets.
‘You well know there is no truth in what you say’ said Arent. ‘It pains me to hear such words.’
He recalled those desperate days, lying drunk in his room, sweeping away the offer of food from Cadwaller’s wife. His own home had been sold, the proceeds frittered away. Two of his ships had been impounded in order to pay his debts. ‘I will forever be thankful, my friend. But I have made my decision. If you will not purchase the Adventurer there are others who will.’
‘Then go and find these others’ said Cadwaller ‘and turn aside those who look to you for their sustenance.’
He slammed the door behind him. Arent took a deep breath. He stared for a while at Pindar’s map, in an effort to regain his composure, tracing the Adventurer’s course with a shaking hand. Then he poured a third cup of rum, drank it down, and then a fourth. Finally, he swept the map and run glass onto the floor and prepared himself for sleep.
It proved an uncomfortable sleep, plagued once again by dreams that lapped the shoreline of memory - dreams that turned into bitter ugly swells, each crashing wave a reminder of his guilt.
It was a ship that put an end to Arent’s wife and children – a frigate that mistook the vessel his family were sailing aboard for Irish rebels or royalist plotters. Arent’s wife, a pretty, fair skinned woman, devout in her faith and devoted to her children, had boarded a ketch bound for France. That fateful day she was sailing to Brest to spend the summer with her family – well-to-do protestant merchants. Arent had cited work, in order to defer joining them on the voyage. It was no secret he found her parents glum and judgemental – easy with their damning attitude towards folk whose faith they questioned.
Now, with rum on his breath and sorrow in his brain, they came to him in a dream. His children stood before him, his daughter pretty like her mother, his son a stern-looking captain-to-be. Behind them, her face a white mask of death, stood his wife.
‘These are your children’ she said ‘the children you allowed to sail without you. I pray God you remember them, my husband. I pray God you remember me.’
Arent cried out, snatching at breath, his brow beaded with sweat, the ship’s timbers groaning as the Adventurer ploughed through the night seas. He gripped the side of his bed, heaved himself towards the wash basin where he cupped his hands, splashed water on his face, desperate to assuage himself of such terrors. He had endured the same dream for the past three years, since the day he stood in the cemetery and watched his family lowered into the ground. Drink had once numbed the worst of it, until drink had begun to terrorise him in a wholly different way.
He gathered himself, took a number of deep breaths, stared through the porthole at a clear, moonlit sea. Soon he began to feel certainty again in his decision to seek a new life. After all, how else could he repay them after so many years of pain ?