Authors: John Masefield
The Duke's Messenger
This 2011 edition published by Barnes & Noble, Inc.
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I LEAVE HOME
born at Oulton, in Suffolk, in the year 1672. I know not the day of my birth, but it was in March, a day or two after the Dutch war began. I know this, because my father, who was the clergyman at Oulton, once told me that in the night of my birth a horseman called upon him, at the rectory, to ask the way to Lowestoft. He was riding from London with letters for the Admiral, he said; but had missed his way somewhere beyond Beccles. He was mud from head to foot (it had been a wet March) but he would not stay to dry himself. He reined in at the door, just as I was born, as though he were some ghost, bringing my life in his saddle bags. Then he shook up his horse, through the mud, towards Lowestoft, so that the splashing of the horse's hoofs must have been the first sound heard by me. The Admiral was gone when he reached Lowestoft, poor man, so all his trouble was wasted. War wastes more energy, I suppose, than any other form of folly.
I know that on the East Coast, during all the years of my childhood, this Dutch war wasted the energies of thousands. The villages had to drill men, each village according to its size, to make an army in case the Dutch should land. Long after the war was over, they drilled thus. I remember them on the field outside the church, drilling after Sunday service, firing at a stump of a tree. Once some wag rang the alarm-bell at night, to fetch them out of their beds. Then there were the smugglers; they, too, were caused by the war. After the fighting there was a bitter feeling against the Dutch. Dutch goods were taxed heavily (spice, I remember, was made very dear thus) to pay for the war. The smugglers began then to land their goods secretly, all along the coast, so that they might avoid the payment of the duty. The farmers were their friends; for they liked to have their gin cheap. Indeed, they used to say that in an agueish place like the fens, gin was a necessity, if one would avoid fever. Often, at night, in the winter, when I was walking home from Lowestoft school, I would see the farmers riding to the rendezvous in the dark, with their horses' hoofs all wrapped up in sacks, to make no noise.
I lived for twelve years at Oulton. I learned how to handle a boat there, how to swim, how to skate, how to find the eggs of the many wild fowl in the reeds. In those days the Broad country was a very wild land, half of it swamp. My father gave me a coracle on my tenth
birthday. In this little boat I used to explore the country for many miles, pushing up creeks among the reeds, then watching, in the pools (far out of the world it seemed) for ruffs or wild duck. I was a hardy boy, much older than my years, like so many only children. I used to go away, sometimes, for two or three days together, with my friend John Halmer, Captain Halmer's son, taking some bread, with a blanket or two, as my ship's stores. We used to paddle far up the Waveney to an island hidden in reeds. We were the only persons who knew of that island. We were like little kings there. We built a rough sort of tent-hut there every summer. Then we would pass the time there deliciously, now bathing, now fishing, but always living on what we caught. John, who was a wild lad, much older than I, used to go among the gipsies in their great winter camp at Oulton. He learned many strange tricks from them. He was a good camp-companion. I think that the last two years of my life at Oulton were the happiest years of my life. I have never cared for dry or hilly countries since. Wherever I have been in the world, I have always longed for the Broads, where the rivers wander among reeds for miles, losing themselves in thickets of reeds. I have always thought tenderly of the flat land, where windmills or churches are the only landmarks, standing up above the mist, in the loneliness of the fens. But when I was nearly thirteen years old (just after the death of Charles
the Second) my father died, leaving me an orphan. My uncle, Gabriel Hyde, a man about town, was my only relative. The vicar of Lowestoft wrote to him, on my behalf. A fortnight later (the ways were always very foul in the winter) my uncle's man came to fetch me to London. There was a sale of my father's furniture. His books were sent off to his college at Cambridge by the Lowestoft carrier. Then the valet took me by wherry to Norwich, where we caught a weekly coach to town. That was the last time I ever sailed on the Waveney as a boy, that journey to Norwich. When I next saw the Broads, I was a man of thirty-five. I remember how strangely small the country seemed to me when I saw it after my wanderings. But this is away from my tale. All that I remember of the coach-ride was my arrival late at night at the London inn, a dark house full of smells, from which the valet led me to my uncle's house.
I lay awake, that first night, much puzzled by the noise, fearing that London would be all streets, a dismal place. When I fell asleep, I was waked continually by chiming bells. In the morning, early, I was roused by the musical calling made by milkmen on their rounds, with that morning's milk for sale. At breakfast my uncle told me not to go into the street without Ephraim, his man; for without a guide, he said, I should get lost. He warned me that there were people in London who made a living by seizing children ("kidnapping" or "trepanning" them, as it was called) to sell to merchant-captains bound for the plantations. "So be very careful, Martin," he said. "Do not talk to strangers." He went for his morning walk after this, telling me that I might run out to play in the garden.
I went out of doors feeling that London must be a very terrible place, if the folk there went about counting all who met them as possible enemies. I was homesick for the Broads, where everybody, even bad men, like the worst of the smugglers, was friendly to me. I hated all this noisy city, so full of dirty jumbled houses. I longed to be in my coracle on the Waveney, paddling along among the reeds, chucking pebbles at the water-rats. But when I went out into the garden I found that even London held something for me, not so good as the Broads, perhaps, but pleasant in its way.
Now before I go further, I must tell you that my uncle's house was one of the old houses in Billingsgate. It stood in a narrow, crowded lane, at the western end of Thames Street, close to the river. Few of the houses thereabouts were old; for the fire of London had nearly destroyed that part of the city, but my uncle's house, with a few more in the same lane; being built of brick, had escaped. The bricks of some of the houses were scorched black. I remember, also, at the corner house, three doors from my uncle's house, the melted end of a water pipe, hanging from the roof
like a long leaden icicle, just as it had run from the heat eighteen years before. I used to long for that icicle: it would have made such fine bullets for my sling. I have said that Fish Lane, where my uncle lived, was narrow. It was very narrow. The upper stories of the houses opposite could be touched from my bed-room window with an eight-foot fishing rod. If one leaned well out, one could see right into their upper rooms. You could even hear the people talking in them.
At the back of the house there was a garden of potherbs. It sloped down to the river-bank, where there were stairs to the water. The stairs were covered in, so as to form a boat-house, in which (as I learned afterwards) my uncle's skiffs were kept. You may be sure that I lost no time in getting down to the water, after I had breakfasted with my uncle, on the morning after my arrival.
A low stone parapet, topped by iron rails, shut off the garden from the beach. Just beyond the parapet, within slingshot, as I soon proved, was the famous Pool of London, full of ships of all sorts, some with flags flying. The mild spring sun (it was early in April) made the sight glorious. There must have been a hundred ships there, all marshalled in ranks, at double-moorings, head to flood. Boats full of merchandise were pulling to the wharves by the Custom House. Men were working aloft on the yards, bending or unbending sails. In some ships the sails hung loose,
drying in the sun. In others, the men were singing out as they walked round the capstan, hoisting goods from the hold. One of the ships close to me was a beautiful little Spanish schooner, with her name
in big gold letters on her transom. She was evidently one of those very fast fruit boats, from the Canary Islands, of which I had heard the seamen at Oulton speak. She was discharging oranges into a lighter, when I first saw her. The sweet, heavy smell of the bruised peels scented the river for many yards.
I was looking at this schooner, wishing that I could pass an hour in her hold, among those delicious boxes, when a bearded man came on deck from her cabin. He looked at the shore, straight at myself as I thought, raising his hand swiftly as though to beckon me to him. A boat pushed out instantly, in answer to the hand, from the garden next to the one in which I stood. The waterman, pulling to the schooner, talked with the man for a moment, evidently settling the amount of his fare. After the haggling, my gentleman climbed into the boat by a little rope-ladder at the stern. Then the boatman pulled away upstream, going on the last of the flood, within twenty yards of where I stood.
I had watched them idly, attracted, in the beginning, by that sudden raising of the hand. But as they passed me, there came a sudden puff of wind, strong enough to flurry the water into wrinkles. It lifted the gentleman's hat, so that he saved it only by a violent snatch
which made the boat rock. As he jammed the hat down he broke or displaced some string or clip near his ears. At any rate his beard came adrift on the side nearest to me. The man was wearing a false beard. He remedied the matter at once, very cleverly, so that I may have been the only witness; but I saw that the boatman was in the man's secret, whatever it was. He pulled hard on his starboard oar, bringing the boat partly across the current, thus screening him from everybody except the workers in the ships. It must have seemed to all who saw him that he was merely pulling to another arch of London Bridge.