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12.

A DREAM COME TRUE
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THAT DOES IT, thought Sly. A half hour was all he’d needed. He’d had the letter worked out in advance. Nor did the code require overmuch time. When you throw together a hodge-podge of letters and numerals, no message embedded, minutes does you. The map he drew with care, that took longer. A map there must be, of the one area with which he was well familiar, of the environs of La Rochelle. He couldn’t hazard the possibility that an Englishman, affiliated with the region, might recognize a fraud.

. . . . . He reached up, pried open the door of the pie-keep over the fire chamber of the stove, and was gratified to find the sleeve where he’d left it. Having inserted his handiwork, he slipped it into the pile of paper on the desk, crawled under a wingchair, jumped into Pedro’s bed – the boy was still asleep – and fell to dreaming himself. He dreamed of La Rochelle.

. . . . . He’d had a female there once, a stunner: a glorious mass of calico fur, a bewitching pink nose, bright, intelligent eyes. Had the years been kind to her? My young girl does not exist any longer, he told himself, regretfully. Endless pregnancies age a female, and he’d put her through hell on that account.

. . . . . She’d adored him, of course. He’d broken many a heart in his time. Footloose was he born, footloose would he expire, and no amount of entreaty held him when an inner voice insisted, time to move on. It’s a wide, wonderful world, he would scold himself. You’ve not seen near enough of it. Go, while you can, before you become too fond of a made bed.

. . . . . She was a pampered daughter of wealth, a real lady. He’d first spied her curled on a balcony of a grand townhouse. Initially, he’d not impressed her. But he’d always been a winner with the ladies, him with his rakish charm. He’d enticed her from her perch, and rolled her in the dirt. The delights of a rugged male, not to be met with in the stable of exotics from which she was expected to choose, won her heart. After the first litter, poor Juliette had been locked up, not allowed out, but he’d found ways to get in: through a cracked kitchen door, from a neighboring roof, in at an open window in a maid’s fourth floor garret, down back stairs to the lady’s boudoir. The servants, not inclined to gratify a skin-flint employer, enjoying her fits over each successive pregnancy, ushered him in and out, placing bets on how soon the female would show. They set up a love nest in the linen closet off the kitchen, a bower, topped by a lace curtain canopy to give the sweethearts their privacy, bits of whatever was being prepared for the mistress’s dinner, and a bowl of fresh cream, all the ingredients of a romantic evening.

. . . . . He’d been the agent of her debasement. She’d been thrown into the street by her disgusted mistress. That’s when she really went to town. He’d not been so special to her after all. Every Pierre or Jean-Claude had his go. Highly insulted, he’d evicted her also, from his heart. Where was she now? He might look her up. No, best not demolish a delectable fantasy. Not everyone aged as gracefully as he had.

. . . . . He caught himself, aghast at his callousness. She might be down and out, begging in a back alley. Dismal hand-outs did for him. For a grand lady to be offered gristle when she once had consumed nothing but beef fillet was a tragedy. She likely was in sore need of a friend. He’d been a cad to abandon her, no matter how she’d wounded him. He’d been younger then, and full of himself. Wisdom comes with age. Too soon old, too late smart, know that one? It’s true.

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. . . . . Pedro finally roused at his convenience, an unheard of luxury aboard ship. He was immediately made aware, by the cat, that the folio was located. Meredith had been leafing through material on a desktop. Sly, had ventured forth, lured by a glorious aroma, the smell of fried bacon. The captain was in the midst of consuming his favorite breakfast, bacon and biscuit with a dab of marmalade on the side. Sly had leapt atop the tile stove, inches from the platter. The man hoisted the goodie to his lips, resting an elbow on the desk, biscuit in mid air. As he paused to peruse an item, Sly had reached out a claw, snagged the pork, and run, slab of meat clenched between his teeth. Meredith jumped up, knocking the plate to the floor. Paperwork tumbled also. Under the mess was a red folder.

. . . . . Moreno was called to identify the article. It was the sleeve, all right, but the contents were not the encryption of information he’d prepared. His heart fell. Gato had the material, as he’d feared. He glared at his aide, who’d also been summoned, and hissed meaningfully, “That’s it, all right.”

. . . . . Gato concurred. The cat had produced an excellent approximation, in terms of style. He’d bent corners and rubbed dirt into the fiber. The paper, having been tightly coiled for months, had the look of harsh use. He’d folded it to produce a leaflet about the size of a hand, small, tight entries and a scrawl of map. Inserted in a red leather casing, viewed by one who’d had a ten seconds encounter in low light, it looked right.

. . . . . Meredith smelled a rat. Why hadn’t they spied the thing the evening before? Who could miss that burst of color? Was it planted during the night? Pedro had been watched. Moreno and his aide had been locked up. There was one precaution which might be taken: Peter must affirm the authenticity of the document. He could probably recite parts of it word for word. He did so, verbatim. Meredith uttered the sixteenth century equivalent of I’m outta here! Pedro and Gato were instructed to ready themselves to depart. The boy, with his cat, reported to the waist.

. . . . . “Over here, son,” Meredith indicated a group waiting to clamber down the rope ladder into a transport. It was already overloaded with six sailors, an extraordinary chest, and a wingchair he’d admired. Moreno’s swinging bed was in the process of being loaded. He’d tried it out. It was damn comfortable.

. . . . . Pedro and Sly sat on a crate waiting for instruction. Feo appeared, toting a fine-tooth comb, his prized possession, between crooked, discolored teeth. “Am I late?” he mumbled, unwilling to let go of it, even for a minute.

. . . . . “What makes you think you’re going?” Sly spat.

. . . . . “Gato’s going, ain’t he?”

. . . . . “So?”

. . . . . “Where he goes, I go. He promised. I told you last night.”

. . . . . “That was rum talk, you dingle-berry! He’s ain’t taking you! Trot your comb back where it belongs before anyone notices you brought it up. You think you’re a joke now, wait till word gets out you think your sweetheart means to salvage a beat-up old _______.”

. . . . . Feo looked at his toes. Shame engulfed him like a fog rolled in, converting a gladsome morn into a dismal one. Of course he wasn’t to be carried along. How could he have been so silly? Who wants a smelly old codger of a cat, no wit, no manners, arthritis so bad he can hardy move some days. Idiosyncrasies aplenty, none of them endearing. A tendency, at his advanced age, to diarrhea. Regurgitation at the most inconvenient moments, held on a lap, for instance. Hairballs expelled, revolting masses of fur and what-not, the bane of a long-hair. Nor was he a treat for the eyes: a chewed-off ear, patches of fur missing, a skin disease, open wounds which the man smeared with a salve. He was insulted by everyone. But not by Gato, who brushed dried vomit from his fur, and tidied up his other end, restoring his dignity. He’d thought himself thick-skinned until Sly came along. Up yours, was his response to detractors. Gato liked him. He needed no other approval.

. . . . . Sly got his goat. He was so damn superior, always pushing his book-learning in your face, rubbing your nose in it. He’d been jealous, yes, but mostly sick-to-death of the jabber, for the animal could go on an on and on. The windbag declared himself dedicated to the improvement of minds and took for granted that they should be extravagantly grateful for his interest in them.

. . . . . That wasn’t quite it, as Feo came to understand. Sly was not simply fond of the sound of his own voice, though he was; he had a passion for knowledge and a need to communicate his fervor, to infect others with his fever for the wisdom of the ages. He could not believe that, properly coached, anyone in the world would not be as enchanted with algorithims as he. How could you take offense at that?

. . . . . It was an a charming peccadillo, it almost made you want to tackle equations yourself. He made it seem fun. Not for long, though. Very soon, you could not escape the reality that you couldn’t multiply, and never would. The enthusiastic tutor would not give up on you. You were subjected to lesson after lesson, until you put your foot down. Was he to be congratulated for such a commitment, or excoriated?

. . . . . “Let a know-nothing be,” Feo had implored. “I’m not up to long division. I don’t understand it, never will. I’m a lost cause. Sly would insist the fault was all his, that he had not explained properly. He’d pooh-pooh his student’s negativity and prepare another lesson. Feo had made the mistake, at the outset, of showing an interest in self-improvement. Sly, thrilled at the possibility of molding a tabula rasa, a blank slate, pure potentiality, into a superb instrument of intellectual accomplishment, exulted that he’d finally found a willing victim. He’d given up on Pedro.

. . . . . Feo, after his initial blowup over a coercive instruction, had moderated his antagonistic attitude. This was a matter to chuckle, not to rage, over. He’d borrowed pen and paper, without permission, as a surprise, to try to make progress on his own.1 Sly had thrown a fit, accusing him of thievery. He’d been subjected to such a stomping and a yowling and a shaking of the fist, back up, tail vibrating, such a tantrum, that he’d vowed to steer clear of the crack-pot from that instant. He’d stick to rodents, the traditional purlieu of a cat. He was no intellect, and he had no trouble admitting it. Huh! What did the lug have worth stealing, anyway?

. . . . . Feo and Gato had both led difficult lives and had come to yearn for tranquility. When Gato confided his dreams for a new life, a quiet hearth, a patch of green, a garden plot, it had sounded damn desirable to him as well. He had never considered leaving the sea, it was all he knew – he had no family to return to, he’d cut ties long since. He’d never made friends easily, he was not the convivial sort. With Gato at his side, the thought of starting over no longer frightened him. It was dawning on him that a human caress could be a lovely thing, and that some men were kind, and scratched you under the chin. Even a butt-ugly grouch might find a protector, and it was a relationship to be treasured. He’d never been a lap-cat. He was not a cuddlesome bundle of fur, as seemed to be the taste in feline companionship. He’d been taught to be wary of close human contact, thus, he’d never attracted admirers.

. . . . . How did two losers, who’d shipped together for years, come to bond? They’d become tight only in the previous months. If there’s anything that Gato values, it’s loyalty. Life on the street is tough. You need your back-up. The man, though he’d have sworn up and down that he’d abandoned his sticky-fingered ways, had moments of weakness. One night, snookered, his impulse control was impaired.

. . . . . He and Feo were not bosom buddies, the relationship had not yet blossomed. But he looked after the cat. He saw that the animal was supplied with fresh water and nibbles. Feo, in return, awarded the man dead rats, and the fellow seemed to appreciate it. Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, they’d lived like that for a good long while.

. . . . . His shipmates were willing to believe the worst of him. When a gold ring went missing, he in the vicinity, he was immediately suspected. It had been set down on a table while the cook mixed dough, up to his elbows in a sticky mess. Six men were in the galley, nursing their rum. The ring rolled off the table as the ship pitched. Where had it gone?

. . . . . Gato had palmed the trinket. He’d reacted automatically. It was something akin to a reflex with him, to snatch up a loose item and pocket it. He’d meant to round the corner and shove it in his heel, but he’d not been allowed to duck away. He pretended to stumble into the table, reached into his pants, withdrew the hot chestnut, and let it drop.

. . . . . Feo, under the table, praying for a treat to slide over the edge, as often happened, especially in rough water (once a whole herring had jumped smack into his arms), ready to catch whatever might get away from a frequently tipsy cook, caught it in his mouth and ran. He immediately spat it out, howling disappointment. One of the seamen turned to see him bat the thing into the corridor in disgust.

. . . . . “Here’s your thief!” He yelled. The tension broke. Everyone laughed, Gato, louder and longer than any of them. He had a confederate, such as he’d had on the mean streets of London-town. The animal had saved his sorry ass from a screw-up. He wouldn’t forget it. “I’ll be as good a friend to you,” he promised the cat, “as you’ve been to me.”

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. . . . . Feo, demoralized, dropped his comb into a coil of rope. He wouldn’t need it now. No one but Gato had ever shown an interest in grooming his snarled fur or eviscerating fleas. Unable to hide his dismay, he collapsed, his features registering despair so profound that Sly shuddered to see it.

. . . . . “Where’s m’boy?” a voice called. “Where are you, you old fart? Come to Papa!” Feo looked up. “We’re going, you horror! Get your sorry butt over here!” Gato scooped up the animal and joined the queue waiting to depart.

. . . . . “What the hell d’you think you’re doing?” snapped Giles Goodwin, in charge of the evacuation.

. . . . . “He goes with me!” Gato snapped back.

. . . . . “In a pig’s ear,” snarled Goodwin.

. . . . . Gato stood his ground. “Let’s just see what your captain has to say. He wants me to do a job for him, which I’m more than willing to do. But I must have my friend along.” The others on line grinned, enjoying the engagement.

. . . . . Meredith, catching wind of a quarrel, hurried over. A simple assignment, and the second mate could not handle it. “Trouble, Mister Goodwin?” He rumbled. “I give you an easy task. I ask you to superintend a smooth retreat. What’s the beef here, eh?”

. . . . . “Another loon, sir, has got to drag his cat with him.” He glowered at Del Gado, and at the cat, shivering with apprehension in his arms.

. . . . . “He don’t go, I don’t go,” insisted Gato. He appealed to Meredith. “Humor me. I’ll be the more disposed to please you.”

. . . . . “Settle these two into the skiff, Mister Goodwin,” growled the captain, annoyed at all three of them.

. . . . . “Get in!” muttered Goodwin, his voice flat, his eyes slits.

. . . . . “My eternal thanks, Captain,” called Gato, for the man had rushed away. To Goodwin, he gave a frozen fish eye.

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. . . . . The aide was allergic to Sly, highly allergic. Why would he so attached to Feo, who surely produced the same result? You Cat-People, you folks understand completely. Non-Cat People, you’ll never get it.

. . . . . I’ve lived with cats all my life. I was told thirty years ago by my doctor, 1. Cover your furniture with plastic, 2. Banish all rugs and drapes and, 3. Get rid of your cat. Forget it, I told him. It ain’t gonna happen. Gato was a cat-person, though he’d never realized it. He despised Sly, who returned the favor. But he adored Feo, runny nose be damned.

. . . . . The four of them were seated in the taxi. He sat cradling his animal. Feo, his face buried in the crook of an arm, shook and gasped and gurgled, comforted by the man who supposed him terrified of the heaving of the boat. “Easy, there,” Gato crooned. “You’re safe, old man. You’re my brave boy and don’t you let anyone tell you different. It’s you and me against the world, you so-and-so. No one – no one!” – he’d been murmuring into Feo’s ear. He raised his voice so Pedro would hear – no one has an animal sweeter, or smarter, or braver than you, m’darling.” Feo raised his disheveled brow, spied Sly sitting opposite, flared his nostrils, stuck out his tongue, poked his nose back into the fabric of Gato’s coat, and continued to bawl, but from joy. Sly said nothing. In the presence of such pain, what was he to say? Any solace which he might offer would be woefully inadequate. At that moment, he loathed himself.

. . . . . Pedro, he’s sniveling also. His guardian, Moreno, has been abandoned to his fate. Captain Meredith and I concur on this point. Neither of us sees a reason to drag him along. What is his fate? Well, his ship won’t be scuttled. Meredith, satisfied he’s got everything worth getting, leaves her to sink or swim, as she will. She’s minus two masts. She’ll be a long time making land. By that time, he’ll be halfway home, a wealthy man, never to put to sea again. He has no fear of reprisals from the incident.

. . . . . Moreno, on the other hand, is very concerned over the possibility of being arrested and hanged, his treason exposed. He won’t risk a return to Spain. If and when he makes land, he’ll be London-bound. He has a bank account there in his name, deposits made on his behalf. Short term, he may struggle; in the long run, he’ll be just fine.

 

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  1. Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.