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3.

PEDRO
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RUMORS OF A SHOCKING SCANDAL entertained the rapturously idle in the water-front dives of Bilbao. The story dominated conversation in most any spot you entered, to the exclusion even of talk of war.

. . . . . All Europe was obsessed with poisons. Popular opinion held that medical technology had advanced to the point of developing compounds with no taste or odor, producing symptoms that aped those of many a natural disease. A mysterious death, especially that of a highborn, brought these concerns to the forefront.

. . . . . The sudden demise of a Dowager Duchess and the disappearance of her young son in a region not so far from Bilbao excited speculation. True, death was a common occurrence, the state of diagnosis and treatment being what it was. Still, what does one make of a healthy young woman struck down suddenly, her lady-companion also afflicted but thankfully recovered, the boy immediately sequestered?

. . . . . An Italian secretary was accused – was he a scorned paramour? Italians were much disposed to the employ of poisons, and were regarded as experts at it. Eventually, as more and more alarming information leaked out, suspicion settled on the man who stood to inherit a fiefdom and the highly remumerative offices attached to it, the uncle.

. . . . . The boy had disappeared. The sporting money laid odds that the poppet would be spirited north to a French grandfather. Along the coast from San Sebastian to Gijon folks kept a look-out for hook-nosed boys and squiffy doings.

. . . . . Another captain, this one off an English vessel waiting for a cargo to be claimed, pleased to pass time in this or that public house, having overheard, here, mutterings of men convinced that they were hard on the heels of a runaway, and there, the rumblings of sailors off the Santa Clara, debating the meaning of a skipper’s unusual truancy, paid scrupulous attention. John Meredith, like his Spanish counterpart, was inclined to improve his balance sheet through creative entrepreneurship.

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. . . . . Captain Moreno was returned from his galavant, but wind and tide were against him. A two-knot, mealy-mouthed breeze was just enough to give him bare steerage way with all his canvas set. He might have taken a chance and clawed his way free, hoping for the best, just to get out, for the delay of an hour could mean the delay of days, but he had hesitated too long, the tide ran high against him.

. . . . . The Santa Clara, a lumbering, clumsy thing, was not inclined to thrash gloriously along under a pretense of a wind. The Clara was a three masted, square-rigged carrier, 280 ton, 80 foot, flat bottomed, broad beamed, the favored model of a cargo ship. She was stable, with good control, but was a ponderous sailor. He paced the deck up and down, up and down, and arrived at the inevitable decision of a merchant, a cautious man. He would sit tight until first light, hoping for a efficacious puff which would more than make up for lost time.

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. . . . . Del Gado pushed for his chance at a frolic. His duty did not include readying a ship for dawn departure. Moreno saw no reason to deny him a few hours diversion. He was a dependable man. He did not drink to excess. He would be no jack-ashore who had to be hunted down and carried back incoherent, nor a skip-spittle. Let him go. Why not?

. . . . . Seated in a booth at the ______ ___, surrounded by a bevy of near beauties, he amused himself charming the females with urbane patter, for he had ranged widely, and impressing them with an account of his vital importance to a captain who lacked, at times, good sense. Hadn’t the fool just popped up with a strutting bantam, declaring him to have the makings of a fine seaman? That brat? The snotty little beetle-browed maharajah looked down his magnificent nose at everyone, captain included! On top of his other chores, the aide was now saddled with burping a newborn and wiping his butt!

. . . . . Meredith stiffened. Elbow on the table, his chin settled into a cupped palm hiding a trace of a smile, his head began a slow rotation, until he faced an iron cross set into the wall. Any glint of excitement in his eye was certainly the result of a burst of piety. He maintained a devout attitude until, having heard enough, he beckoned for a final slurp of brandy. A soft-eyed girl, a blithe little thing, fetched it. He grabbed her soft hand and gave it a good squeeze, enjoying her confusion. A woman sailed out from behind the counter. No black sky dead ahead was more forbidding.

. . . . . He jumped up, clicked his heels, toasted the grim-faced mamacita, drained his elevated glass, and made at her. He grabbed her round the waist, or the area where a waist might have been, reeled her snug in and blew in her ear. “Tut, lass,“ he clucked. “Callate! Calm yourself! You’re more to my taste than that lamb of yours. I want meat on my chop.” Her scowl dissolved into a dimpled simper. He added, “Have the moppet go through her pocket.” He’d slipped a silver ring into it. He was in a generous mood.

. . . . . He bowed extravagantly to a work-worn matron thrilled by a compliment – she received few, she would treasure it until the day she died – and hastened away to prepare to weigh anchor. He would force his way out of the harbor and sit in wait beyond the point, tail the prize, overtake it and seize it out in the sea lane. His craft was sleeker than the clumsy Spanish brig. Its fine underwater lines were designed to facilitate speed and ease of handing. The English fore-and-aft rig, a great step forward in shipbuilding, was more amenable to catching every wisp of breeze. Smaller and lighter, altogether swifter and more maneuverable, she was as fit as she could be for a game of cat and mouse.

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. . . . . Sea sovereignty belonged to Spain. Elizabeth’s Navy consisted of little more than merchant vessels pressed into service when the need arose. Bloody Mary had let her father’s fine fleet rot in the harbors, and the current Queen could not spare the money to reconstruct it. Pirates were the armed force of the country: wild hawks patrolling the seas, brave, reckless and devoted.

. . . . . Gentlemen adventurers, minor aristocrats and younger sons, were licensed as privateers, assaulting and plundering the Spanish ships, ostensibly in retaliation for Spanish barbarity against Protestant heretics. The English sea towns were heavily Protestant, stocked with hardy men bred for the sea, and their seamanship was of the highest order.

. . . . . The distressingly capable English merchantmen took their revenge where they might. Ferocity was answered by ferocity. Phillip’s seamen were not safe in the Channel; Elizabeth’s not at ease in southern waters. What on earth was an English ship doing in Bilbao at this harrowing time?

. . . . . The fact is that the harvests had failed in Galicia, the population was starving. Under a promise that the crews should not be molested, a fleet of English corn-traders traveled to Coruia, Bilbao, and Santander, with English surplus, to relieve the distress. But the treacherous King of Spain issued a sudden order to seize the vessels, confiscate the cargo, and imprison the men.

. . . . . In Bilbao the mayor, for whatever reason, took his sweet time assembling a force to carry out the action. One captain, who had decided to postpone the disposal of his cargo to pursue a better profit, was set to fly when the mayor and two boatloads of soldiers reached him and announced that he was their prisoner.

. . . . . Not quite! The Englishmen snatched up pike and cutlass, pistol and battleaxe, killed seven or eight boarders, threw the rest overboard, and flung stones on them as they scrambled into their boats. The cable was cut, the sails loosed, the yards braced, and in a few minutes the noise of the water thrown up from the bows was heard, they were underway, beating up the bay. There could be no sitting outside the harbor now. The Turbulent must disappear into the vast Atlantic.

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. . . . . Back to the cats. They’ve been hauled up in a basket and released into the waist. Sly, to Feo’s disapproval, is briefly transfixed, savoring smells and recalling with pleasure the sea-going exploits of his younger years. The relationship is off to a bad start. Feo led him to his quarters, an uninviting crate near his own dismal abode, then took him on a tour of the vessel.

. . . . . He was shown the sleeping arrangements of the crew – a pestilential den in the forecastle – a chaotic galley, the multipurpose mess, a storeroom smelling of salt fish and ripe cheese, of bad wine and worse health. His tour took in the well appointed stateroom of the captain, the less magnificent accommodation of the junior officers, and endless nooks and crannies which begged to be explored.

. . . . . Just from port, there was a great deal to be done on board. The men were kept at work all day putting the Clara into sea order. Feo, pleased to have an underling to abuse, gave him the usual welcoming speech, pacing in front of him importantly, as if the fate of the voyage depended on them alone. “We face a long voyage,” he lectured with severe quarterdeck dignity. “If we get along well together, we shall have a comfortable time. If we don’t, we shall have hell afloat. Do your duty and you will fare well enough, and I shall be a pleasant fellow. If you don’t, you shall fare hard enough, and I shall impress you as a damn rascal. Go below, the second watch!” he barked. Sly was dismissed.

. . . . . The work was not onerous and the men were courteous to him in their gruff way. He was cordial to every sailor but made, out of the entire company, only one close friend, the cabin boy often paused to pat his head. When his rounds were done he would crawl into the boy’s bed and the two would swap stories until they fell asleep. They communicated with only a tad of difficulty and with an occasional hilarious misunderstanding.

. . . . . The boy rubbed the men the wrong way. He made no effort to fit in. He spoke with great correctness and his reticent manner really set them off. He was unfit to be attached to a watch, not even as the lowest of the low, a jump-fetch. Ask him to provide you with a marling spike and you’d be handed a phid. His knowledge of gear was nonexistent, and he seemed unwilling to learn, an unforgivable slap in the face of proud sea-dogs. Nothing could recommend him to the forecastle once they’d got his bearing. Being under the captain’s doting care did him no good either. He slept on a blanket in a cabinet off the cabin.

. . . . . The cat and the boy, Pedro, Pedrito, grew close. The majority of their free time was spent together. Pedrito held his new friend in high esteem. The animal was literate. He wrote eloquently, in an elegant hand. He quoted poetry as easily as he tore apart a mouse. And he was wise. He hunted as nature had ordained, for sport, sure, or to fill his belly, but without greed or malice. ‘Live and let live’ was the creed that he lived by. This was a concept to which the child had not been exposed.

. . . . . The youngster also possessed laudable traits. He was generous. He shared with the cat such treats as he was able to pilfer from the mess. He took to heart the animal’s multitudinous pronouncements and raptly heard every recitation. Sly fancied himself a spellbinding orator and was gratified, but not surprised, by the warm response.

. . . . . He was never happier than with a book in his grasp. On a quiet afternoon – Pedro was not to be found – he invaded the captain’s cabin in search of reading material. He perused the man’s meager library and selected a volume in translation, a thing which he generally avoided. He thumbed through the pages. He was familiar with the edition and, in his opinion, it was a decidedly inferior piece of scholarship. But beggars can’t be choosers. Suddenly, footsteps! He concealed himself beneath the massive mahogany desk. He recognized the captain’s cold rant barely held in check.

. . . . . “I’ve had enough of your guff! It’s time you took your situation seriously. Your life is at stake, son,” he rumbled, struggling to keep his voice down. “Your uncle understands that you seek the protection of your grandfather. You err in underestimating the intelligence of this sorry-looking crew. They are by and large stupendous imbeciles but there are those who will manage to add two and two together. His maggots have taken wing and are swarming just behind us, I assure you. I am paid to ferry you. Well paid! But I risk my life nonetheless. Do you help me out? Not you! You are haughty, you are lazy, you are indecently fastidious. Take some pains to hide your contempt for us, eh? You have to do here with some rather excellent ruffians, not the nursemaids you’re used to.

. . . . . “I have put out that you are my godson. I am the stern guardian bent on making a man of you. You’ll do your duty and take orders without complaint, duke or no, for these beauties know me too well to think that I’d tolerate a slacker. While you’re polishing silver and rinsing out shirts, reflect upon the respect you owe to your mother’s memory, and to others, not the least of whom am I.” The man retreated, followed by a small pair of shoes. The cat had no doubt about who the shoes belonged to, nor should you.

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Eight bells sounded. The watch was swapped. Sly went in search of his friend, and found him huddled behind the roundhouse in a sulk. “You’ve been dusted, good. I heard it. I was under the desk.” He suppressed a cackle. “I am afraid, my friend, that I was remiss in encouraging your native exuberance. There was no need to knot the captain’s hose. Nor should we have put that eel in the cask of wine. Lesson learned. No more nonsense, hear? Grow up!” Odd advice from an animal who had egged the boy on to every sort of delinquency.

You and I, faced with a pontificating cat, would have misgivings: Am I dreaming? Am I mad? Do you wonder what Pedro thought? It was a credulous time. Stories circulated of wonders encountered in far places by intrepid adventurers, creatures half-man, half-beast, of huge one-horned monsters, of blood-thirsty savages and tribes of fierce female warriors, an amalgam of the actual and the improbable. A talking cat? The boy’s tutor had been gifted with a giant blue and yellow bird from the other side of the world that, loquacious in the extreme, had spouted a marvelously malicious stream of observations. A parrot talked. Why not a cat?

 

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

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