The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The Prospect of Whitby
It was low tide. The Thames foreshore glistened in the Spring sunshine. The river was crowded with shipping, as it always was so close to the port of London. Most of the craft sat on the mud with their hulls, masts and rigging groaning and creaking and whispering to each other in the light breeze.
The strangely misnamed tavern The Prospect of Whitby rose directly above the foreshore with its own jetty. The sun deck was crowded with drinkers, enjoying the rare warmth and heedless of the smells from the mud flats. At the far end of the deck three men sat around a table. One was older than the others, with a weathered face and white fringes to his grey beard. The younger men were more neatly dressed with better trimmed beards. One was fair haired and the other dark, with a darker complexion than was usual for an Englishman Amidst the clutter of pewter flagons and jugs and puddles of spilt ale, the table was spread with a satchel, sheets of paper, quill pens, a penknife, an ink bottle and a sprinkler of dry sand.
A serving girl set down another jug of ale on the crowded table, adding to the slops. The dark haired man leaned forward and filled the older man’s tankard.
‘Thank ‘ee kindly, Sir.’
‘It is we who should be thanking you, Mister Ingram’, said the fair haired man. ‘You have a wondrous story to tell, nay marvellous, incredible and we are obliged to you for sharing it with us. You and your two companions have travelled through so many lands never before seen by Christian men.’
‘And I thank ‘ee for your fancy praises, Mister Summers. But all this ‘appened more than ten years ago and I’ve told my story many, many times, both in this tavern and in others and Sir Francis Walsingham never sent any of ‘is intelligencers to write it down before now. So why’s it so interesting just now and is there more in it for me than another jug of ale?’
‘You’re a sharp man, Mister Ingram, and had you been sharper you might have noticed Mister Da Silva here among your listeners in this tavern. It is he who told Sir Francis, who sent us here to write down your story and ask you some questions about the country through which you passed.
‘I should explain that a group of very illustrious and noble men, including one who is greatly favoured by the Queen, have come together to put their money into a venture to plant an English colony on the coast along which you travelled. Their plan is still a secret and they have not decided where the colony might be planted, but it will be somewhere along the Atlantic shore, between Florida and New France. The English, French and Spaniards have all seen this shore from the sea, but only you and your companions have walked its full length. If our patrons are to attract investors and colonists they need a description of the land, its climate, its natural products and its native peoples, a description by somebody who has been there and met the savages.’
‘Ah yes, I thought I recognised him, replied David Ingram, ‘though we get a lot of dagoes in here. And I ‘ave met those savages, as you call ’em.’ He smiled to himself at a distant memory. ‘You should have seen some of those Indian girls! I could tell you something about them.’
‘We are not interested in your encounters with the womenfolk among the savages’, said John Summers primly. ‘We only wish to know if the savages are friendly.’
‘You could say they were friendly’, said David. ‘But this is my story and I’ll tell you how it was and if you don’t like it you needn’t write it down.
‘And I’ll have you know that although only three us reached New France there was over seventy of us when we started out from New Spain, where we were stranded on the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the others dropped out on the way – decided not to come back to England, and I don’t know if I blame ’em.’ He wafted his hand in front of his face to indicate the smell rising from the mud drying out below them.
Rodrigo Da Silva who had said little until now, suddenly brightened at this remark. ‘Tell me, Mister Ingram, if you have such fond memories of these lands, how would you like to go back? Go back to the sunshine, to the Indian girls?’
‘Go back? I’m past going back to sea. I was already old when I was marooned in the Indies and I’m even older now. I’m just a washed up old mariner eking out the rest of his days yarning about the past.’
‘I mean join our colony’, said Rodrigo. ‘With a position that suits your age and experience. A comfortable position.’
‘Is that a promise?’
Rodrigo glanced at his companion who nodded.
‘Yes, it’s a promise.’
‘Then write down your promise and I’ll tell you my story.’
Rodrigo began writing, but when he looked up he saw that David was staring into the depths of his tankard and there were tears in his eyes.