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Days of the Discoverers Part 21

White fog, the thick mist of windless marshes, masked the Kentish coast.

The Medway at flood-tide from Sheerness to Gillingham Reach was one maze of creeks and bends and inlets and tiny bays. Nothing was visible an oar's length overside but shifting cloudy shapes that bulked obscurely in the fog. But although this was Francis Drake's first voyage as master of his own ship, he knew these waters as he knew the palm of his hand.

His old captain, dying a bachelor, had left him the weather-beaten cargo-ship as reward for his "diligence and fidelity", and at sixteen he was captain where six years before he had been ship's-boy.

Scores of daring projects went Catherine-wheeling through his mind as he steered seaward through the white enchanted world. In 1561 Spain was the bogy of English seaports, most of whose folk were Protestants. There was no knowing how long the coast-wise trade would be allowed to go on.

Out of the white mist flashed a whiter face, etched with black brows and lashes and a pointed silky beard--the face of a man all in black, whose body rose and dipped with the waves among the marsh grass of an eyot. So lightly was it held that it might have slipped off in the wake of the boat had not Tom Moone the carpenter caught it with a boat-hook. But when they had the man on board they found that he was not dead.

Ten minutes before, the young captain would have said that every dead Spaniard was so much to the good, but he had the life-saving instinct of a Newfoundland dog. He set about reviving the rescued man without thinking twice on the subject.

"'T is unlucky," grumbled Will Harvest under his breath. "Take a drownded man from the sea and she get one of us--some time."

"Like enough," agreed his master blithely. "But this one's not drownded--knocked on the head and robbed, I guess. D'you think we might take him to Granny Toothacre's, Tom?"

"I reckon so," returned Tom with a wide grin, "seein' 't is you. If I was the one to ask her I'd as lief do it with a brass kittle on my head.

She don't like furriners."

Drake laughed and brought his craft alongside an old wharf near which an ancient farm-house stood, half-hidden by a huge pollard willow. Here, when he had seen his guest bestowed in a chamber whose one window looked out over the marshes, he stayed to watch with him that night, sending the ship on to Chatham in charge of the mate.

"Now what's the lad up to?" queried Will as they caught the ebbing tide.

"D'ye think he'll find out anything, tending that there Spanisher?"

"Not him. He don't worm secrets out o' nobody. But he's got his reasons, I make no doubt. You go teach a duck to swim--and leave Frankie alone,"

said Moone.

The youth did not analyze the impulse that kept him at the bedside of the injured man, but he felt that he desired to know more of him. The stranger was gaunt, gray and without jewel, gold chain or signet ring to show who he was, but it was the same man who had spoken to him at Gravesend five years ago.

A barge-load of London folk had come down to see the launching of the _Serchthrift_, the new pinnace of the Muscovy Company, and among them was the venerable Sebastian Cabot. Alms were freely distributed that the spectators might pray for a fortunate voyage, but Frankie Drake was gazing with all his eyes at the veteran navigator. A hand was laid on his shoulder, and a friendly voice inquired,

"Did you get your share of the plunder, my son?"

The lad shook his head a trifle impatiently. "I be no beggar," he answered. "I be a ship's boy."

"Ay," said the man, "and you seek not the Golden Fleece?"

His eyes laughed, and his long fingers played with a strange jewel that glowed like Mars in the midnight of his breast. It was of gold enamel, with a splendid ruby in the center, and hanging from it a tiny golden ram. Could he mean that? But the crowd surged between them and left the boy wondering. He had never spoken to a Spaniard before.

As the fluttering pulse grew stronger and the man roused from his stupor, disjointed phrases of sinister meaning fell from his lips. No names were used, and much of his talk was in Spanish, but it suggested a foul undercurrent of bribery, falsehood and conspiracy hidden by the bright magnificence of the young Queen's court. The queer fact seemed to be that the speaker appeared himself to be the victim of some Spanish plot. Now why should that be, and he a Spaniard?

The young captain turned from the window, into which through the clearing air the moon was shining, to find the stranger looking at him with sane though troubled eyes.

"The _Golden Fleece_?" he asked in English. Drake shook his head.

"You've had a bad hurt, sir," he said, and briefly explained the circumstances.

"Ah," said the man frowning, and was silent.

"If you would wish to send any word to your friends,--" Drake began, and hesitated.

"I have no friends here, save my servant Sancho. The _Golden Fleece_ will sail on Saint James's Eve for Coruna, and he was to meet me at Dover and return with me to our own country. In Alcala they know what to expect of a Saavedra."

The last words were spoken with a proud assurance that gave the listener a tingling sense of something high and indomitable. Saavedra's dark eyes were searching his face.

"I fear I trespass on your kindness," he added courteously, "and that I have talked some nonsense before I came to myself."

"Nothing of any account, sir," answered the lad quickly. "Mostly it was Spanish--and I don't know much o' that. You'll miss your ship if she sails so soon, but you're welcome here so long as you like to stay."

"I thank you," said the Spaniard in a relieved tone, adding half to himself, "No friends--but one cannot break faith--even with an enemy."

He dropped asleep almost at once after swallowing the cordial which Drake held to his lips. The moon came up over the flooded meadows that were all silvery lights and black shadow like a fairy realm. The lad had never spent a night like this, even when he had seen his master die.

When the pearl and rose of a July morning overspread the sky he descended, to splash and spatter and souse his rough brown head in a bucket of fresh-drawn water, and wheedle the old dame into a good humor.

"What ye hate and fear's bound to come to ye, sooner or later," Granny Toothacre grumbled as she stirred her savory broth, "My old man said so and I never beleft it--here be I at my time o' life harborin' a Spanisher."

"Ah, now, mother,"--Drake laid a brown hand coaxingly on her old withered one,--"you'll take good care of him for me, and we'll share the ransom."

"Ransom," the old woman muttered, looking after the straight, sturdy young figure as it strode down to the wharf, "not much hope o' that. Not but what he's a grand gentleman," she admitted, turning the contents of her saucepan into her best porringer. "He don't give me a rough word no more than if I was a lady."

Drake spent all his leisure during the next fortnight with the Spaniard, whose recovery was slow but steady. It was tacitly understood that the less said of the incident which had left him stunned and half-drowned the better. If those who had sought to kill him knew him to be alive, they might try again.

The young seaman had never known a man like this before. In his guest's casual talk of his young days one could see as in a mirror the Spain of a half-century since, with its audacious daring, its extravagant chivalry and its bulldog ferocity.

"They have outgrown us altogether, these young fellows," he said once with his quaint half-melancholy smile. "When the King and Queen rode in armor at the head of their troops in Granada, our cavaliers dreamed of conquering the world--now it has all been conquered."

"Not England," Drake put in quickly.

"Not England--I beg your pardon, my friend. But we have grown heavy with gold in these days--and gold makes cowards."

"It never made a coward o' me," laughed the lad. "Belike it'll never have the chance."

Through the shadows the old ship's-lantern cast in the rude half-timbered room seemed to move the wild figures of that marvellous pageant of conquest which began in 1492. Saavedra spoke little of himself but much of others--Ojeda, Nicuesa, Balboa, Cortes, Alvarado, Pizarro. In his soft slow speech they lived again, while by the stars outside, unknown uncharted realms revealed themselves. This man used words as a master mariner would use compass and astrolabe.

"Those days when we followed Balboa in his quest for the South Sea," he ended, "were worth it all. Gold is nothing if it blinds a man to the heavens. You too, my son, may seek the Golden Fleece in good time. May the high planets fortify you!"

What room was left for a knight-errant in the Spain of to-day, ruling by steel and shot and flame and gold? It must be rather awful, the listener reflected, to see your own country go rotten like that in a generation.

Yet there was no bitterness in the old hidalgo's tranquil eyes. "I have been a fool," he said smiling, "but somehow I do not regret it. The wound from a poisoned arrow can be seared with red-hot iron, but for the creeping poison of the soul--the loss of honor--there is no cure."

When the seamen came to get orders from their young captain, Saavedra observed with surprise the lad's clear knowledge of his own trade.

Francis Drake's old master had seen King Henry's shipwrights discarding time-honored models to build for speed, speed and more speed. He had seen Fletcher of Rye, in 1539, prove to all the Channel that a ship could sail against the wind. All that he knew he had taught his young apprentice, and now the boy was free to use it for his own work--whatever that should be. Unlike the gilded and perfumed courtiers, these men of the sea showed little respect toward the tall ships of Spain. Saavedra, pleased that they spoke without reserve in his presence, watched the rugged straightforward faces, and wondered.

The time came when they took him and his stocky, silent old servant to board a Vizcayan boat. As they caught his last quick smile and farewell gesture Will Harvest heaved a rueful sigh. "I never thought to be sorrowful at parting with a Don," he said reflectively, "but I be."

"God made men afore the Devil made Dons," growled Tom Moone. "Yon's a man."

Drake had gone down the wharf with John Hawkins of Plymouth, a town that was warmly defiant of Spain's armed monopoly of sea-trade. Privateers were dodging about the trade-routes where Spanish and Portuguese galleons, laden with ingots of gold and silver, dyewoods, pearls, spices, silks and priceless merchandise, moved as menacing sea-castles.

Huger and huger galleasses were built, masted and timbered with mighty trunks from the virgin forests of the Old World, four and five feet thick. The military discipline of the Continent made a warship a floating barrack; the decks of a Spanish man-of-war were packed with drilled troops like marching engines of destruction, dealing leaden death from arquebus and musquetoun. The little ships of Cabot, Willoughby and William Hawkins had not exceeded fifty, sixty, at most a hundred tons; Philip's leviathans outweighed them more than ten to one.

What could England do against the landing of such an army? An English Admiral would be Jack the Giant-Killer with no magic at his command. Yet in the face of all this, under the very noses of the Spanish patrol, Protestant craftsmen were escaping from the Inquisition in the Netherlands to England, where Elizabeth had contrived to let it be known that they were quite welcome.

Chapter end

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