Apart from being well-liked and help on the farm, she’d also been helping my mother and myself with our numbers and letters.
Now she was gone—gone because I had not been content with my lot. Gone because I wanted adventure. Because the drink was no longer doing anything to stave off boredom.
Why couldn’t I be happy with her? she’d asked. I was happy with her. Why couldn’t I be happy with my life? she’d asked. No, I wasn’t happy with my life.
I went to see her, to try and persuade her to change her mind. As far as I was concerned she was still my wife, I was still her husband, and what I was doing was for the good of the marriage, for the good of both of us, not just me.
(I think I kidded myself that that was true. Maybe to some small degree it was true. But I knew, and probably she knew too, that while I wanted to provide for her, I also wanted to see the world outside of Bristol.)
It did no good. She told me she was worried about my being hurt. I replied that I would be careful; that I would return with coin or send for her. I told her I needed her faith but my appeals fell on deaf ears.
It was the day I was due to leave, and I went home and packed my bags, slung them over my horse and left, with those very same recriminatory looks boring into my back, stabbing at me like arrows. As evening fell I rode to the dock with a heavy heart, and there found the Emperor. But instead of the expected industry, I found it near deserted. The only people present were a group of six men who I took to be deck-hands, who sat gambling with leather flasks of rum close at hand, casks for chairs, a crate for a dice table.
I looked from them to the Emperor. A refitted merchant ship, she was riding high in the water. The decks were empty, none of the lamps were lit, and the railings shone in the moonlight. A sleeping giant, she was, and despite feeling perplexed at the lack of activity I was still in awe of her size and stature. On those decks I would serve. On hammocks in quarters below decks I would sleep. The masts I would climb. I was looking at my new home.
One of the men eyed me carefully.
“Now, what can I do for you?” he said.
I swallowed, suddenly feeling very young and inexperienced and suddenly, tragically wondering if everything they said about me—Caroline’s father, the drinkers in the taverns, even Caroline herself—might be true. That, actually, I might not be cut out for life at sea.
“I’m here to join up,” I said, “sent here by Dylan Wallace.”
A snicker ran through the group of four and each of them looked at me with an even greater interest. “Dylan Wallace, the recruitment man, eh?” said the first. “He’s sent one or two to us before. What is it you can do, boy?”
“Mr. Wallace thought I would be material enough to serve,” I said, hoping I sounded more confident and able than I felt.
“How’s your eyesight?” said one.
“My eyesight is fine.”
“Do you have a head for heights?”
I finally knew what they meant, as they pointed up to the highest point of the Emperor’s rigging, the crow’s nest, home to the lookout.
“Mr. Wallace had me more in mind as deck-hand, I think.”
Officer material was what he’d actually said, but I wasn’t about to tell this lot. I was young and nervous. Not stupid.
“Well, can you sew, lad?” came the reply.
They were mocking me, surely. “What does sewing have to do with privateering, then?” I asked, feeling a little impudent despite the circumstances.
“The deck-hand needs to be able to sew, boy,” said one of the other men. Like all the others he had a tarred pigtail and tattoos that crept from the sleeves and neck of his shirt. “Needs to be good with knots too. Are you good with knots, boy?”
“These are things I can learn,” I replied.
I stared at the ship with its furled sails, rigging hanging in tidy loops from the masts and the hull studded with brass barrels peeking from its gun-deck. I saw myself like the men who sat on the casks before me, their faces leathery and tanned from their time at sea, eyes that gleamed with menace and adventure. Custodians of the ship.
“You have to get used to a lot else as well besides,” said one man, “scraping barnacles off the hull, caulking the boat with tar.”
“You got your sea legs, son?” asked another. They were laughing at me by then. “Can you keep your stomach when she’s lashed with waves and hurricane winds?”
“I reckon I can,” I replied, adding with a surge of impetuous anger, “Either way, that’s not why Mr. Wallace thought I might make a good crewmate.”
A look passed between them. The atmosphere changed a little.
“Oh yes?” said one of them, swinging his legs round. He wore dirty canvas trousers. “Why is it that the recruiting officer thought you might make a good crewmate, then?”
“Having seen me in action, he thought I might be useful in a battle.”
He stood. “A fighter, eh?”
“Well, you have ample opportunity to prove your abilities in that area, boy, starting tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll put myself down for a bout, shall I?”
“What do you mean, ‘tomorrow’?” I asked.
He had sat down, returning his attention to the game. “Tomorrow, when we sail.”
“I was told we sailed tonight.”
“Sail tomorrow, lad. Captain isn’t even here yet. We sail first thing.”
I left them, knowing I might well have made my first enemies on ship; still, I had some time—time to put things right. I retrieved my horse and headed for home.
I galloped towards Hatherton, towards home. Why was I going back? Perhaps to tell them I was sorry. Perhaps to explain what was going through my mind. After all, I was their son. Maybe Father would recognize in me some vestige of himself and maybe if he did, he would forgive me.
As I travelled back along the highway, what I realized more than anything was that I wanted him to forgive me. Both of them.
Is it any wonder that I was distracted and my guard was down?
I was near to home, where the trees formed a narrow avenue, when I sensed a movement in the hedgerow. I drew to a halt and listened. When you live in the countryside you sense the changes and something was different. From above came a sharp whistle that could only have been a warning whistle and at the same time I saw more movement ahead of me, except this was in the yard of our farmhouse.
My heart hammered as I spurred my horse and galloped towards the yard. At the same time I saw the unmistakable flare of a torch. Not a lamp, but a torch. The kind of torch you might use if you were intending to set something ablaze. At the same time I saw running figures and in the glare of torchlight saw that they wore hoods.