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OFF AND AWAY
AS DUSK DESCENDED, two figures, deep in conversation, strolled the perimeter of the palace grounds. The cat and his monarch were saying their farewells. The king, having vowed not to mar his friend’s departure with a gloomy countenance, joked and softly spoke of good times past and of good times to come. Sly supported the charade with a relentless cheer. Neither dared to frankly voice his thoughts. Each feared to magnify the other’s distress. That final conversation did not veer from the mundane: from exhortations to keep warm, to eat well, to see to one matter or another. They refused to acknowledge the liklihood that they would not meet again.
They had completed one circuit of the labyrinthine gardens and were well into the second when the cat intoned, “Majesty! The time has come!” They stood at the west wall of a brick parapet which functioned less as a barrier to trespassers than as a frame for, as the king termed it, horticlean embellishment. The maze of winding paths and sculpted hedges – under Jakome’s directions pruned and trained to resemble all manner of fanciful structures – was the masterwork of a select group of groundskeepers.
The cat, perched atop the wall, nuzzled the king’s outstretched palm and received a thorough scratching behind the ears and an affectionate pull on the tail. He solemnly bowed and sadly looked away. He tossed his satchel down the slope and leaped after it, bounding with uncontainable enthusiasm. He disappeared beneath a tangle of bushes, but his ecstatic cries continued to reverberate, growing fainter and fainter until they were masked by the rustle of a forgiving breeze.
Some reckless demon of adventure possessed him; some fatalistic courage was upon him. He could not bear to stop, not for a minute. He traveled at a steady jog-trot until dawn. At sun-up he chanced upon a peaceful pond, and watched a magical sight, scores of slumbering frogs, without the slightest inclination to disaccommodate their charming repose. He had neither the energy nor the heart to terrify them for the sake of a shabby thrill.
He trampled down a patch of fern, fashioning a nest every bit as cozy as the fine featherbed he’d left behind. He dozed, off and on, until three. Until three! How long since he had slept as late? Without missing a meeting? Without being required to account for an absence at a luncheon? Without being prodded to alertness during a minister’s self-serving speech? Restored to raw life, he reveled in the freedom, sunning, napping, hunting at will, dispensing altogether with nice table manners, lapsing from the courtly southern tongue into the broad vowels and blunt idioms of the northland. He cherished every unregulated minute.
Uppermost in his mind was, of course, to choose a route north. A coastal itinerary? Pleasant, but lengthy. Across the mountains? A punishing hike. The romance of the wild might tempt him; the hardships did not. A voyage, then. The sea lay west, and a major port which welcomed the merchantmen of every land. Salt-sea air: good for the digestion! Salty-tongued seamen: the best of company! He’d been one himself in his youth and he retained fond memories of the experience.
He’d been three grueling weeks on the tramp. His gait was not as lively as it had been. His eyes were not as bright. The last time he’d tried this ‘into the wild’ stuff, he’d been a young rake-hell, an eager little savage determined to experience the world in all it’s glory, damned glad to to have dodged the tedium of a farming hamlet at the edge of the Pennine Fells. The predictable routines of hard-worked, hard-headed farming folk – that sucker’s grind – suited some fine. Not him. He’d had a healthy desire to make something of himself. He’d been mad to suck enjoyment from life like he sucked the liver from an unlucky mouse.
In the eyes of his home-folks, it had all been a bit unspeakable. A sojourn abroad? If a country lad must have novelty, let him try London, as fine a place as any, and easier to quit when he’s had enough of wicked women and fancy eats. He’d had one supporter, his uncle Declan. Unk Dec was a bitter animal, never having had the gumption to pull free of comfortable domesticity and follow his primitive urges. He dreamt of dangerous drumbeats under fiery volcanos, but had never been farther from home than the alehouse in the near hamlet.
“Don’t neglect your opportunities to live!”1 he would lecture his nephew. “You have only one life, work it to the full. Don’t let yourself be shamed into giving up your right to roam, consoling yourself by consuming some exotic gooney-bird poached from some Lordship’s pleasure park at your monthly eating club, trading lies about your exploits, and insisting to yourself it’s as good as downing a brilliantly plumed what-not in a distant somewhere-land and sharing it with cats more bloodthirsty than you will ever be. It’s not!”
“A taste of the raw, wild life is what feeds the soul! Jolly daring is what life’s meant for, not this ‘hoe your row, a dutiful subject of the Queen’, and you can tell her I said so! Them’s my thoughts, though I’m pilloried for it!”
The tipping point for him had been when his big brother Bertie found religion. The reformed faith was a fairly dismal affair, especially the severe Scots strain. The loon still sang of a night, but not serenades to a lady-love, instead, endless renditions of dour Protestant hymns. If you’ve never heard ‘My Trust in Thee Can Never Shake’ yowled to the high heavens, with all the heart and soul which formerly had been invested in courting dames, a god-awful racket shattering the sublime serenity of a rural summer night, you’ve missed something, I can tell you.
According to Bertram, long walks were forbidden. They made the blood flow more rapidly and heightened the passions. Athletic pursuits of any kind promoted pride in the body, the body being the prime portal of sin, where wickedness kept its kingdom. Dancing was out of the question. Every innocent exuberance was frowned upon. One by one his not so very brilliant siblings were beguiled over to the abominable creed. His free-spirited ways were increasingly condemned. It was proposed to him that he take to wife a pious little mince-mouth who would set him on the right track. Yes, to wife. The traditional fluid corsorting would no longer do. It must be a union of the ‘till death do us part’ variety. The bad boy bolted, and never looked back.
Sly was bushed. The leather strap circling his waist and caressing one shoulder didn’t help. A number of items were hooked to this harness, housed in individual sheaths, dangling like charms on a bracelet. What could he ditch to lighten the load? Not the coins. Not his journal. Surely not the slender book of sonnets. To jettison the sonnets, which renewed his spirit, gained little by losing much. He’d longed to pack a volume of mathematics, also a fascination, but finally had accepted it was impractical.
When d’Ollot had exploded over the purchase of Luca Pacioli’s Summa Mathematica, it had made his blood boil. That knat-brained, niggling nincompoop, whose soul was full of sums and sour grapes, he . . . he . . . the cat was temporarily unable to wrap his wits around a sufficiently scurrilous slur. Hard to believe, but true.
Then, in an instant, his black mood dissipated. He took a deep breath, and recognized the distinctive tang of the sea. He looked up, spied a gull, and exulted. He collapsed into a swath of vegetation and rolled with the unselfconscious joy of a kitten, in a paroxysm of rediscovered vitality. He fell upon a southward-slipping rill and followed it down. Presently the cut emerged from the overhanging pines and rambled through small tilled parcels bound by steep meadow. In the distance he could make out a bay. Below him sat a fishing village of white walled buildings, peaceful and perfect.
Solitary peasants’ huts began to assemble into convivial twos and threes, then into collections of very miscellaneous structures, many in emphatic revolt against all that is inviting in the shape and arrangement of a dwelling. But there was a charm to the place. Windows were set off with snowy curtains. Aproned women gossiped in brightly painted doorways, through which could be seen clean brick floors strewn with sand. Interesting industries were carried on in the open air. Each street, beside being a public way, was also a laundry and a fowl run. Bushes were draped with drying garments and with intriguing implements of the fishing trade. This cozy environment spoke to him of hearth and home, spare on comfort, but furnished with a mother’s embrace and unconditional love.
Above his head a bird of nautical character glided with a careless ease that he longed to duplicate. But a considerable anxiety over King Jakome’s unsteady state of mind would not be set aside as easily as the pack he stashed within a hedge so as to explore the coast unfettered by a conspicuous rig. He started off but rapidly returned when he realized that the maneuver had been observed by a group of sharp-eyed crows. He retrieved his goods and walked on. Eventually he wrapped the thing in vines and deposited it behind a woodpile.
He stopped at a public fountain to drink. The cobbled plaza was deserted; it was the hour of siesta. He joined a solitary figure dozing on a shaded bench. The fellow snored. His own stomach growled with discontent. They played a curious duet.
A pigeon, preoccupied with a bug, beckoned unintentionally. The cat responded with a vigor which was not equal to the bird’s rush of adrenalin: the quarry did not oblige him. Hugely annoyed, he spat: “Great Harry’s harlots! I’d suck on that beetle at this point!”
“No need for that,” grunted his startled companion. “At this hour most every kitchen is unguarded. Scraps are to be had with little risk. Follow your nose to that cuisine which most appeals. If an overzealous housewife lingers at her clean-up, look her in the eye and beg. These people are kind. They don’t begrudge a wanderer a meal. An easier feed I’ve never found and I’ve sailed half the world. To Java, once.”
Sly was excited by this declaration. “A sailor, you say! In what capacity?”
“Ratter, first class,” was the proud reply.
“Ratter, eh? An honorable employ. Are you treated well?”
“I am, lad! I have my fill of dried beef. The cook stews it up special for me. He’s a sweetheart. He’d share me out the salt cod, if I could choke it down. Vile! Just vile! There’s no shortage of rat, of course. Nor of thrills! Amigo! Mayhem from Zanzibar to Davao, cock-a-doodle to curl your ear hairs. It’s a grand game!”
Sly answered thoughtfully. “I am northbound. Turbulent times do not, I pray, render such a progress impossible.”
“They do not, son. The merchants rove despite the troubles. We’re headed up the coast this very moment. My captain would sail to hell for the right sum. Drake, that Satan, be damned!” Drake, of course, was Francis Drake, the English privateer-patriot, harassing enemy shipping with his monarch’s Letter of Marque, a signed permission. Satan, indeed! Sly let this remark pass. He could not afford to offend, for he sought a favor.
“Might I join your ranks and work my way? Or will your captain refuse to sponsor the train-up of a past-his prime-landsman, as I look to be, though I fancy I still have a smack of the sea about me, even after all these years.” He’d spent stretches afloat. He considered himself to be as salt as Neptune himself. It would not fail to come back to him, the rolling gait, claws half out, ready to grasp a rope for stability.
The other cat perked up. “My captain? Blast the sea-slug! It’s my call! I rate a stooge! I’m too old to police a big brute by myself. It’s settled. You sail with us. We board tonight. You’ll need time to find your sea legs and better here in port than on the open sea. Go! Fill your stomach, but don’t overdo. If you’re ill a swollen gut will only add to your misery. You’ll be no good to me sick as a . . . pardon the expression . . . as a dog!” He slapped his side and snorted at what he clearly took for an exceptional witticism.
Sly enjoyed a bit of chicken wing and also the flavorful discards of a savory fish stew. He retrieved his parcel and returned to the square carrying an item encased in vines which he took pains to handle lightly but did not let out of easy reach. The older cat, despite a lackadaisical air, missed very little. This strained nonchalance did not escape his notice.
- This line is straight out of Henry James. I couldn’t resist.