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YO-HO!
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A THICKET OF MASTS stood clear against the fiery horizon. Ships lay at anchor in the bay, their gilded carving and bright paintwork gleaming in the setting sun, their sails hanging loose, the glow from poop lanterns casting their dull beams on deserted decks. The swift barks delighted Sly with their grace. The large square riggers thrilled him to his toes. “Which one is ours?” he asked eagerly.

The old cat grinned. “None of these, son. The Santa Clara’s set down beyond the Custom House. We’ve no need to snuggle up to the warehouses. We’re here to provision, but not out of the markets. We’re short crew. Fair enough, on the face of it. But, you ask me, something stinks.”

Sly shrugged. “When do we sail, sir?” he asked respectfully.

“That’s a bit up in the air. We roped our dopes two days back. We’re set to fly, but our fearless leader is off on some sight-see. Hush-hush, I ain’t been able to dig up squat on it. The wind’s agin us. We’re pinned down. Hell, it ain’t all that bad. Us nobby-nabbers, we got run of the port, but we’re on notice to get our behinds back when a flag’s run up. So we plant ourselves in sightline of the old lady, eye on the main mast, and nurse our refreshment of choice. New hires too. Their sea chests are took on. But they don’t eat on our pistoles ‘til we’re underway, so they’re extra annoyed. What goes on here is what I’d like to know.” The Santa Clara was awash with the same speculation. The sea-dogs, to a man, were dumbfounded by the capriciousness of a commander who, to their knowledge, had never made an imprudent move.

With the sky threatening to clear, the shore party was roisted out of the taverns. Every man-jack of them accounted for, the ship was ready to make sail, but for the absence of Captain Moreno. The cats siddled into the longboat for the slosh to the galleon. The elder animal was recognized as a comrade and gladly accommodated. The newcomer was accepted with inebriated effusiveness. Ship cats were beloved, both for the companionship they offered and for the service they rendered in dealing with vermin. They settled themselves amidst big brown fellows, toughs, hard as nails, but kind, when it occurred to them to be.

“Here’s our Feo,” cried one thug. “He’s got himself a dolly. Pretty little thing too! Your boyfriend’s our pal Feo, m’darling, cause he’s an ugly coot. You, you’re cute as can be. We’ll call you Bella. How’s that?” Everyone roared at this, Feo included.

“Won’t do!” announced another sailor. “Look!” He grabbed Sly and spun him around, so that the rest had a view of his hindquarters. The jack-sauced merriment doubled. How humiliating! Sly longed to rake a few cheeks, to teach manners, but he dared not make a bad first impression and be hurled into the chop before his voyage had even begun. While the cats were on friendly terms, Feo made scant reference to the incident. Once they were at loggerheads, he peppered his conversation with ‘Mi amor’ or ‘Corazon’ or “Querida’ and numerous other needles.

The mother vessel attained, the animals were hauled up the rope ladder and released into the waist. Sly had shoved his bundle under a bench of the water taxi. He would claim it later, after it had been winched up and made fast. Feo led Sly away, to acquaint him with the layout of the ship.

Next day, near sunset, Captain Moreno reappeared with a boy in tow. The Santa Clara was ready to depart. In Lisbon, a troubling item of mail had awaited the first officer. Agitated, he made mention to his aide – let’s give the slob a name: Del Gado – of a personal emergency. Del Gado, having collected the bundled correspondence from the ship chandler, a man employed in larger ports to service a ship’s needs, to acquire, dispose of, or warehouse cargos, arrange for provisions and so on, had taken note of a letter addressed in a feminine swirl of script.

The captain had perused the material, chair cocked so that nothing was to be gained from it by anyone but himself. He’d penned a brief reply, and dispatched his flunkey to discover what swift craft was next to depart for Andalusian coast.

A frisky caravelle was set to fly. Its commander agreed to accept a mail pouch and to personally convey it to a lawyer in Bilbao, in Galicia, northern Spain. He was paid a generous retainer and assured that he would be similarly compensated upon its arrival, with a premium for speed.

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What do you do when you’ve received an urgent appeal to get yourself, with all speed and in strict secrecy, to the assistance of your dearest cousin, lady-in-waiting to A Personage, concerning a matter of life and death? It’s you and you alone she dares to trust. A substantial shareholder in both the vessel and the venture, and headstrong–you’re master of the ship, devil take the partners–you speed to her assistance, hold empty. You’ve unloaded your cloth. You’d contracted to take on ________s for the final leg to Cadiz, your turn-around. There’s no time for that now. Riding high for lack of cargo, you hack your way up contrary winds, extracting a pitiful momentum of arduous tack and toil from confused and disgruntled seamen.

The ordinary routine of any voyage, rigging kept taut, equipment repaired or replaced, good order maintained, was supplemented by work which ought to have been unnecessary, the shifting of goods in a half naked hold, to keep the trim of the vessel. The cargo they carried was that which had been meant for Cadiz, which would bring no profit returned to the ports of origin. Ugly discontent among the men provoked severity from the captain, and severity spurred increased resentment. Unaccommodating weather did not help to sweeten moods, not on the quarterdeck, and not in the forecastle. What had been a few days flutter from here to there with good winds on your beams took a week to undo.

The ordeal had taken a toll: one man was laid low from a nasty fall, another was dead, bludgeoned. His killer was in irons below. A malcontent had jumped ship in Lisbon. And a sturdy veteran, long plagued by rheumatism, suddenly unable to mount rigging, had to be reassigned work on deck. The Santa Clara was short crew. And a storm was brewing – a nasty wallop, too. There’d been ample reason for an unscheduled layover.

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Let’s take a closer look at that aide. He was not an officer, but a common seaman who saw to the captain’s comfort, ran his errands, fetched his meals, cleaned his cabin, did up his laundry, and kept an eye on things in his absence. Knowing nothing of the mysteries of chart and compass, much less sextant, or the bob weight and plumb line that passed for one at the time, having no familiarity with tides and reefs, he had no hand in navigation, nor should he have. It was not his place. He was at the captain’s beck and call, and was an informal liaison to the crew. Fore and aft, the weasel had run of the ship. He could turn up anywhere and not give cause for comment.

The captain of a vessel is lord paramount, accountable to no one. He stands no watch, comes and goes as he pleases, and must be obeyed in everything, no exceptions. The active and superintending officer is the first mate. He is first lieutenant, boatswain, sailing-master, and quartermaster. He also keeps the log-book, which a captain is by law required to maintain, and which is open to the perusal of every hand, and he has charge of the stowage, safekeeping, and delivery of cargo.

The second mate is neither here nor there, neither officer nor common seaman. He is obliged to reef and furl and slush with the men, and to attend to their requirements, to furnish the materials they need in the course of their work, and at the same time to maintain his dignity, no easy assignment, for he’s summoned as a waiter might be, by busy men. Spun-yarn here! Quick! He eats and sleeps in the cabin, the knife and fork and monogramed china dominion, but he chows at the second table, making a meal out of what the captain and chief mate leave.

The steward, in this case, Hernando Del Gado, is the captain’s personal servant. This is his only duty. He has charge of the captain’s pantry, from which everyone, including the mate, is barred. This makes him the enemy of the man, who does not like anyone not under his control. To attend the captain with alacrity was his function. Long at his post, he anticipated wants and rushed to satisfy them before the man opened his mouth. A wonderful talker, he smoothed ruffled feathers and sweetened sour moods. He presented himself as a straight-forward fellow, not the most crafty man in the world is how he put it, but many thought otherwise. He was capable of ingenious blasphemies, far beyond the well-worn obscenities, and because of this skill he was welcome in the forecastle or, indeed, anywhere he chose to bestow himself.

Under a pleasant veneer, he had a meanness to him, and a black rebellion born of hardship, sordid conditions and brutal incidents, and nursed by envy. His spite fed on itself, growing ranker every year. He had an immense, but quiet, insolence but he hid it well, a smile ever on his lips denoting a superficial readiness to be agreeable. He made a show of amiable compliance to any and every demand. He had an appetite to flourish at any cost. Behind his back he was called El Gato, the cat, for he walked on cat feet, soundlessly, apt to slink up behind you at any time.

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Captain Moreno was preoccupied with the intricate galliard of international concerns, but mainly in so far as they afflicted his finances. His loyalties were fluid. He had a sort of mania for taking things down. If his aide caught him scribbling notes at the taffrail, he quickly folded the material and shoved it out of sight. At night he organized his observations in a private log, in code.

The Santa Clara was a coastal trader, large enough to take advantage of opportunity in the eastern Mediterranean, to haul silk and spices from Istanbul and beyond to western markets, but generally exploiting the north-south run: taking on sweet wine in Oporto, better wine from Bordeaux, salt from Bourgneuf Bay in France and Sentu in Portugal, and other cargos likely to turn a nice profit. Merino from Spain was transported to Leiden, the big Dutch cloth center.

The bulk of the southern consumables went to Antwerp or to London to augment and enhance dreary winter fare. For months on end fresh vegetables and fruits were next to impossible to come by, other than cold-stored root crops. Overcooked, under seasoned beef (the English style of preparation), game (if you were prosperous, or daring, a poacher), and fish, particularly that north country staple, the salted herring, are all rendered vastly more palatable by a decent wine to wash them down.

The captain did a tidy trade beyond the transfer of merchandise. He monitored coastal activity from the Narrow Seas to Gibralter, with military preparedness his focus. If his fondness for his spy-glass was remarked upon, he cited a life-long fascination with all things nautical. He had an open-handed buyer for figures on tonnage and deployment and armament in Rotterdam. His contact was one of Walshingham’s creatures, a cog in an intelligence-gathering operation which was the envy of Europe.

He investigated the arrivals and routes of treasure ships from Spanish America. He had sources, in Cadiz, in Lisbon, and in the shipbuilding centers of the northern coast. London was eager to have details on schedules and cargos. Actions were costly. The whole business was a source of great anxiety to the Queen, but she threw her pence into the pot in case there should be an astounding kill. A raider might be sunk and the investment lost. Or it might repay a hundredfold.

He has a fine name and pedigree, but little cash advantage from it. He does, however, have family and friends willing to confide in one of their own. A behest in his father’s will had set him up in business. Aside from that, he was entirely on his own. Such is the lot of a younger son of a younger son. His cousins at court rake in the dough on the strength of their connections. Why shouldn’t he exploit similar opportunities?

He was giving aid and comfort to an undeclared enemy. Was he a traitor, then? Not to his way of thinking. He excelled at a moral sleight-of-hand. What damage could tiny England do to the mightiest sea power of the day? So, why not make money off it? Imperial Spain enjoyed the special favor of Divine Providence. Vast stretches of Europe and the New World were in Hapsburg hands. God was clearly on the Spanish side. This had been his justification at the start. Later, sunk deep into the business, having proven his value, he was so well imbursed he couldn’t afford scruples.

He worked the racket both ways. In northern waters, he surveilled English doings on behalf of Madrid. But the information funneled south was neither the latest nor the best. Phillip, facing another bankruptcy, paid out as little as possible. Moreno’s activity on behalf of His Most Catholic Majesty was on the order of an insurance policy. His ship and his cargos had twin guardian angels, a Protestant English one, and a Catholic Spaniard.

Elizabeth was also tight-fisted. But Francis Walsingham, her devoted friend, determined to do for her what she would not do for herself, paid many of the expenses of his office out of his own pocket. He was a revenue-stream which could be depended on, if good information were forthcoming on a regular basis. Tomas Moreno had been a lucky catch. He was a true insider. He cultivated his well-placed cousins, even lending them money, for many of them were in the same boat as he, of excellent stock, trusted to conduct sensitive business, and forced to live large, on little. A presence at court was the ruination of many a man. A show of prosperity inspired confidence, which might result in the appointment to a position in which fat bribes were the de facto form of compensation.

The young bloods who were not yet in a position of influence but who promised to one day perform for him, he courted. One never paid a tab when Uncle To-To was at your table. The man loved nothing better than to pose as a self-made renegade, beholden to no one. He relished being envied for it. Morons! Little did they know!

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The aide had never failed to be an admirable factotum. He performed his duties with dispatch. He ate with the crew, and heard things that an officer did not. He prevented trouble, settling petty quarrels, and reporting major misbehaviors, but always in such a way that the leak could not be traced to him. He was careful to denounce the captain as a devil of a taskmaster and wish him to hell ten times a day. Was he a snitch, then? Not to his way of thinking. The way he saw it, he was the ballast that kept the ship on an even keel, protecting the investment of his employers.

He could not match his captain’s gloss of breeding, but he aspired to it. He wore clothes well, and he could patter pleasantly, sufficient to pass as a gentleman when it suited him to do so. He looked to the future, to the end of a sea-going career, delivered from the hardship, monotony and danger which are a seaman’s lot. He envisioned a prosperous retirement as a minor official, respected in his community, rendering judgements with befitting earnestness and dignity, and consulting with local nobs in a fine black suit which enhanced an air of quiet competence.

In an area outside Valdovino he had a wife and six children. He might settle there. Or in Saint-Xandre, in France, where he should escape the brutally hot summers of the Iberian Peninsula, and enjoy the charming landscapes. Say what you will of a Frenchman – the climate, the country, and the women, who does not worship them? He’d acquired a wife there also. He hoped to be able to present himself as a former junior officer, well-heeled after a lucrative stint afloat.

He’d owned naked candor to be his guiding principle so often that the fallacy was accepted as God’s own truth. His soft step uneased many, but no one could pin a treason on him. He was convivial; he mingled easily and entered with enjoyment into common forms of dissipation, but always kept his head. He was judged one fair and flexible, and a fixer, covering up minor infractions, negotiating misunderstandings of words or looks, bad tempers, any lapse of the good will vital to a crowded co-habitation. He never took sides. He had no favorites. He was a good egg. And he was clever. Why not, when you have a new boot made up, have one heel built with a hollow compartment? You might lay hands on something you had best sock away. Not that he contemplated larceny, or anything of the sort. Certainly not. He was only being prudent. All my creatures work an angle. Haven’t you got that by now?.

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