I remember being alone. In a crowd. Surrounded by dissonant voices, competing to be heard. Horses walked past in a four-beat gait, their hooves clopping on damp cobblestones. A few pulled aging wooden carts creaking and straining under their loads. Children laughed, chasing each other. Two shabbily dressed men stumbled by, singing a bawdy shanty; off-key. It seemed everyone was in motion. Everyone except me. I drew my hand slowly across my forehead, wiping away the dampness. Droplets of heavy mist settled on my coat—unflowing—much like the tears welling up in my eyes, I thought.
An animal-skin ball rolled up to my feet, with pace. I trapped it. It was damp; heavy. Boys yelled for its return. I passed it back. ‘Thank you then’, they shouted. For that one brief moment, I had become part of the bustling throng. And then I was alone again. Memories of playing ball at Ritchfield Academy crossed my mind. I felt a longing to be back there. But that could never be. I had been expelled. My classmates, my only friends, were no longer accessible to me. Having just turned twelve, the life I had known was now slipping away with the drizzle. I was leaving behind those I loved and cherished most—my father and older sister. Images of them coursed through my mind, tugging at my heart. Imminent departure threatened to turn my once-bright future into a gloominess as dull as the air enveloping me. I took a deep breath, fighting back the sob lurking inside.
“Out the way, child,” a rugged-looking sailor shouted. I stepped aside as he and a handful of others brushed by, carrying provisions for their vessel. My eyes followed them. In the distance, tall-masted ships, their sails mostly furled, swayed with the rhythm of the water in Plymouth Harbor. They drew my attention, sharpening the edge of my uncertainty. Longboats were shuttling back and forth among the ships, serenaded by the persistent clamor of hammers and saws deployed by carpenters.
Life on the ocean was something I had never envisioned. Yet there I was, about to join the esteemed Captain Drake and his crew, as a midshipman. There were only three such highly coveted openings. My father had paid dearly for mine—certainly not for the cramped quarters we mids would share, but rather for Drake’s mentoring. His ship, the Pelican, was of the latest design—tailored for speed and engineered to withstand a long, treacherous voyage. Though largely dark, its bright trim made it stand out against the blended grayness of harbor, sky and ocean-weary vessels. Almost stationary in the undulating water, it would soon become my new home. I knew none of its crew. What possible good could come of this, I wondered. Should I turn and run? But then, where would I go?
The coachman patted me on the back. “Good luck to you, Master Connachan.” He had just unloaded a small seaman’s chest, placing it near my feet. It contained the only familiar things I would have in this new world—clothing, books and a few personal items. He turned and mounted the coach that had delivered me to this lonely, crowded harbor. My father’s last words came back to me: “Remember Garret, be most careful. You must not let anyone know your truth.”
The crack of the coachman’s whip interrupted my thoughts. The horses’ hooves clopped loudly on the cobblestones as they whisked away the coach. The quickly dissipating sound forced an involuntary sob. They had left me here. Alone. Suspended precariously between the past and the rest of my life.
A large, rough hand unexpectedly grasped my shoulder from behind.
Eight years earlier…
The unusually tall, slender man with graying hair and tightly trimmed beard slid the small boat calmly into the lake. It rippled the clear, cool water. A child sat in the boat, quietly watching as he waded into the water and jumped in, effortlessly. The boat rocked and glided forward. He untied the square-rigged sail from the mast, securing it to the spar to catch the modest breeze. He loved the sound of the water lapping softly against the boat. It brought him peace of mind—solace from the normally hectic pace of his days. The morning sun burned through a light, rising fog, glistening the water and offering a little warmth.
“Alright, Garret, now put your foot against the larboard side and push the tiller for me,” Daniel Connachan instructed. “And remember. Keep your head low, to avoid the boom.” The four-year-old did as told. The sail flapped while the two waited a moment for it to fully grasp the wind. Garret beamed as the boat pulled forward, skating along the water.
“Well done.” Daniel nodded, smiling proudly. He was a man of means. Irish-born but English-raised, his parents had left him extensive properties throughout the two countries and up into southern Scotland. A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, he’d put his law degree to good use. Over the years, his meticulous work and reputation had earned him the right to counsel many of England’s wealthy merchants involved in maritime trade. He’d also been appointed to chair the board of Briscoe Bank and found his days filled with unlimited opportunities to accumulate wealth. His earnings enabled him to acquire even more property, including land bordering this fair-sized lake. It was his favorite place to spend cherished leisure time. The serenity helped clear his mind from the stress of business, the recent death of his wife, and the troubles brought on by his mentally challenged daughter, Gwendolyn.
At the age of fifteen, Gwendolyn had been captivated by the charms of a tall, handsome, uniformed soldier. His own interest being solely prurient, he took full advantage of her fascination for him and her mental incapacity. Daniel believed his daughter’s resulting pregnancy would embarrass the family, blemish his reputation and potentially disrupt his business endeavors. Seeking to avoid these outcomes, he had Gwendolyn secluded on one of his estates, where she would deliver the child. In order to cover the tracks and preserve his reputation, he had paid the local priest handsomely to have the church records show, among other things, that the child was his, and that his wife’s very recent death was a result of the delivery.
“Look, Father,” Garret said, pointing to a school of silvery fish wriggling happily alongside the boat, reflecting the sunlight. “Might we catch one?”
“Not just yet. We shall stop later and let down the lines. Hopefully, we shall catch something more substantial. Now, let us tack to starboard.”
Though disappointed, Garret liked the way Daniel spoke—calmly, confidently, reassuringly. He was in charge but not demanding. They would fish at some point; Garret was certain of that. Daniel never promised anything he didn’t deliver. He was a man to emulate.
Garret moved the tiller into position. Daniel smiled, “You shall make a fine sailor one day, son. Mark my words.”
The smallest of six ships rolled gently in the coral blue water just inside the Caribbean harbor. Viewed from afar, the Judith bore an air of tranquility. That was deceiving. It was about to launch an historic beginning for the daring young captain standing on its deck. His long, sandy-blond locks, sun-bleached from months at sea, flowed like a soft wave in the calm breeze. His rugged, tanned face was outlined by a tight, scruffy beard that edged along his sharp jaw, coming to a point below his chin. The stern look on his face communicated he was in charge. Not a particularly tall man, he was chiseled for strength. He wore a dark-brown, leather doublet. It felt calming against his broad chest. His silver breastplate-armor and helmet lay close by, in the event the action became heated. A dark-brown bandolier ran across his right shoulder to his left hip, securing the scabbard that sheathed a razor-sharp cutlass.
Next to the captain’s side was his seasoned master’s mate, Charles Prouten. A man of similar size, he too had the broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, muscular shape that reflected years of strenuous work onboard ocean-going vessels. Specks of gray peppered the curly dark hair on his sideburns and beard, surrounding his leathered face. Known for his still-sharp eyes, he offered an observation, “The building is just to the right of the town’s center.” He pointed that way.
“Thank you, Mr. Prouten,” Drake replied. “I see it now.”
With his ship double-anchored to minimize its movement, the freshly appointed captain focused in on the main square of Rio de la Hacha, Spanish for ‘River of the Axe’. His eyes scanned up and down the building, home to the town’s Treasurer, Miguel de Castellanos. Two years earlier, Castellanos had led this town in battle, humiliating an English sea captain. Prouten was one of the survivors. Here, now, was the duo’s opportunity to exact revenge.
Fleet Commander John Hawkins looked on from his flagship, the Minion. He had selected Drake to take the lead, judging his small ship would present the hardest target for shore-based cannons to hit. He took pride in how smoothly the new captain had maneuvered his ship into the forward position, turned broadside and hauled anchor. This was Drake’s opportunity to prove himself. To support him, Hawkins had assigned his best gunnery team.
Drake smiled at Prouten, confident they were ready. He turned to the fleet’s interpreter, Robert Langton, to hail the shore in Spanish on his behalf. Langton was a Lincolnshire man, educated at Cambridge. His powerful voice was a must-have for any seafaring interpreter. On Drake’s order, he called out, “Hail residents of Rio de la Hacha! We are a merchant fleet, in need of fresh water and provisions. We are anxious to trade and have various goods on board for exchange. We request your approval and blessing.” Drake smiled as Langton shouted the words. It was all a ruse, of course, intended to give Commander Hawkins the ability to claim high ground if things went as anticipated.
Castellanos was on shore, watching the English fleet. He heard Langton’s request but wasn’t buying it. Spain was not on friendly terms with England. The two nations were in a virtual undeclared war. The town’s residents considered the English their enemy. They were rightfully nervous about this fleet’s appearance. It had drawn a small crowd from the moment it assembled near the edge of the harbor, and caused others to gather valuables in preparation to evacuate. At Castellanos’ order, the town answered Langton’s call with a thunderous volley from two of the shore-based cannons. Warning shots. They splashed threateningly close to the Judith. Drake smiled, welcoming the opportunity to reply. While the cannonballs’ wake passed beneath his ship, he conferred with Prouten on the distance and angles they had earlier given the gunners. Prouten nodded agreement. Drake gave the order, “Cannons at the ready, if you please.”
“Cannons at the ready,” Prouten echoed loudly. Gun ports slammed opened. The noses of the Judith’s black, cast-iron weaponry rolled through.
“Cannons ready,” relayed the master-at-arms, George Lee.
“Ready captain,” said Prouten.
Drake’s eyes locked in on Castellanos’ home—a weathered, aqua-colored building with a second story balcony wrapped in peeling, white fencing. A charming-looking house, it was about to turn ugly.
The rolling out of cannons had shifted the ship’s weight, slightly. Drake had Prouten shout to the gunners, modifying his earlier estimate of the angle. He waited a moment for them to adjust. As the Judith settled nicely between two mild undulations, he gave the order, calmly, “Fire at will, Mr. Prouten”.
“FIRE!” Prouten shouted.
“FIRE!” echoed Lee.
Four six-pounders roared almost simultaneously. The guns flamed and recoiled as iron balls screamed toward their target, leaving a trailing cloud of dark smoke. One shot ripped through the far-right side of the upper balcony, shattering the edge of the wall behind it. Another followed closely, hitting within feet of Castellanos’ front door.
“Knock, knock,” shouted Drake, drawing his cutlass and thrusting it high in the air. His men laughed and cheered, anxious to disembark for a beachfront assault.
The front right wall of Castellanos’ house had shattered, sending wooden shards spearing through the air in several directions. The balcony began peeling away. On the street below, residents scattered, seeking shelter to avoid fragments of the disintegrating residence. English sailors on the remaining five ships cheered in unison at the boisterous opening volley on the otherwise calm summer day.
The roar of battle heightened as Hawkins’ entire fleet joined the assault. Streaking orange flames lit billowing clouds of black and gray cannon-smoke. Several of the larger buildings were hit, damaged to varying degrees. The Spanish shore battery returning fire was mounted on a six-foot fortress wall. Eight cannons, each manned by a handful of gunners. It, too, was targeted by Hawkins’ fleet, with the kind of precision he demanded. Still, the Spanish gunners scored damage, hitting two ships—one below the water line. Hordes of sailors descended the sides of their ships, jumping into longboats they had already lowered into the water. Armed with finely honed swords, pikes and axes, they thirsted to take the village.
The residents of Rio de la Hacha fled, cherished belongings slung over their backs, loaded on donkeys or thrown hastily in wooden carts. Viewed from the approaching longboats, they appeared as a fast-flowing, churning river of humanity. Animals, too, raced helter-skelter—goats, dogs, hogs, chickens—barking and squawking in panic, though not fully understanding why. The Spaniards manning the shore battery began fearing for their own lives. Some left to join the villagers in the frantic run for survival. A few remained bravely in position, reloading and firing their cannons as best they could. But as the wave of longboats neared the shoreline, even the most courageous cannoneers left their positions. They had no desire to engage in hand-to-hand combat with this flotilla of ferocious, well-armed warriors.
As their boats ground onto the beach, the sailors scrambled out, sprinting toward the town like dark, wind-blown sand, undeterred by stray rifle shots—though two men breathed their last. By the time they reached the edge of the smoking village, they were shocked to find no opposition. Rio de la Hacha had become a stilled axe.
The glowing, pulsating orange in the blackened remains of the wood dying in the fireplace saddened Garret. It meant the day was ending. Daniel finished reading sections of Marcus Aurelius’ book, ‘Meditations’. Reading was something they did almost every evening. Seated on his lap, Garret liked watching the expressions change on his face as he read, seldom understanding everything he was saying. The softness of his voice was soothing. He often pointed out when he had replaced the actual words with ones summarizing the essence of the text. He said the books all shared a common theme—great men, doing great things; doing what they thought was right and striving to learn from their experiences. Garret hoped to one day be like these men Daniel so admired.
Daniel closed the book. “Time for bed.”
Garret sild off his lap, grabbing his large hand as he rose from the chair. “Did you know Marcus, Father?”
Daniel laughed. The Emperor-cum-philosopher had lived in the second century. “I feel as though I know him. But he died long before I was born.”
“Was he an Englishman?”
“He was a Roman. An Emperor.”
“What is an Emperor?”
“An Emperor is like our Queen.”
“But the Queen is a woman.”
“Yes she is. A great woman at that. One to be admired.”
“Did the Queen write a book?”
Daniel laughed again. “Not yet. Her story is still being written.” He stopped and knelt down. “Your story, too, is now being written, Garret. By you. You can make your story whatever you want it to be. I have no doubt you shall write a truly remarkable one. That greatness is within you.”
“But I am not writing a story.”
“You are, Garret. Just not the way you imagine it being written. You are writing it with your actions, your decisions, your observations, your passions. You shall write it with your heart.”
“Okay,” Garret replied, not fully understanding.
Daniel smiled, picking up and carrying Garret to bed.
Over several days, Hawkins’ men occupied and pillaged the buildings in Rio de la Hacha, searching for valuables. They even scoured through the dusty rubble of buildings that had borne the brunt of his fleet’s hellfire. He’d set up headquarters in the chapel, where his captains came to report the results of their search. Much of the news was disappointing. The residents had removed their most precious belongings.
Near the outskirts of the village, a lone messenger arrived, carrying a white flag. Castellanos had sent him to request terms of settlement. He was met by Hawkins’ men and taken to the chapel. They entered while Hawkins was seated at a table, reviewing the latest report. He was an older commander with a receding hairline, a well-cropped goatee and oddly pale skin. Dressed more like a gentleman in a Bristol tea shop than an ocean sailor, he was a cerebral man who prided himself on being England’s foremost sea captain. He handed the inventory list back to an officer as the messenger approached. The man was younger than Hawkins had anticipated. His facial hair wanted to be a beard but was more a series of light, stray clumps on his rosy cheeks. His clothes were in good order and he had a pleasant demeanor. He showed no obvious signs of nervousness—surprising, given his youth.
“Good day, sir,” the messenger said. “I am here on behalf of Señor Castellanos, Treasurer of our village.”
“My compliments to Señor Castellanos. What is it he wishes to tell me?”
“The Treasurer wishes to discuss the return of the village in exchange for a gratuity from our residents.”
“Please inform the Treasurer that we shall be happy to return the village.” He glanced through a window at the nearby devastation. “In its recently modified condition, of course.”